"I don't get it." called Elaine from behind the trailer. "He's usually not like this."
Jeff grumbled and gripped the halter a little tighter. He swore that the horse was grinning at him. "You have no idea." He mumbled. "Obstinate idiot..."
Jeff shook his head. "Nothing. Let me try to back him out. Com'on Major." He tugged at the halter, but Major snorted and took another mouthful from the hay net. Jeff tugged harder, straining against the weight of the much bigger creature. The horses head suddenly turned and connected with Jeff's nose solidly. "Ack! Damn it!" he shouted as he stumbled out of the trailer. Major whinnied in annoyance.
"What's wrong?" asked Elaine as she came around the back of the trailer. "What happened?"
Jeff checked his nose a couple times for blood, but none flowed. "Nothing. Major just smacked me in the head."
She chuckled. "Let me try. He's always responded better to me than you, anyway."
Jeff held lightly onto her arm. "He's not in a good mood. Let me get him."
"Oh, you worry too much. I've been around horses longer than you have." She said as she stepped into the trailer.
Jeff raised a hand to his upper lip again, checking for blood. "Never one like this one." He muttered. Almost the next moment, to no surprise of Jeff, Major was stepping lightly out of the trailer.
The gray thoroughbred, now solidly on the ground, nuzzled at her jacket looking for a treat. She reached into a pocket, broke off a chunk of carrot, and gave it to him. "See? He likes me." She grinned. "I'll put him in his stall. Why don't you unload the trailer?"
Jeff sighed in defeat and grabbed his saddle. It hadn't been the best afternoon. Major hadn't been nearly as cooperative as he should have been. It was obvious to anyone watching that he had to fight the horse to run the course. That hadn't been so bad, Major was like that sometimes, but the gray had faltered at the last jump, then managed to knock it over when Jeff finally did coax him over. They didn't place at all. Even if it was just a local amateur contest, it bugged him.
He set the saddle on the rack inside and went back out to the trailer. Elaine was still at the other end of the barn, grooming Major. The horse always fussed when Jeff did that, but obviously enjoyed the treatment from the young woman. He was playfully nipping at her when he got the chance, though his teeth never actually met flesh. She admonished him lightly, and he even managed a reproached look at her scolding.
Jeff grabbed the box of miscellaneous items from the trailer and headed back in. After dropping it into the tack room, he met the horse and woman at the end of the barn. "Looks like he's decided to be good." He said as he rubbed the horses neck. Major took that moment to shift a hoof and stepped solidly on Jeff's foot. "Yeow! Major! Off the foot!"
The stallion just looked at the screaming man blankly.
Elaine tugged hard once on the lead rope, pulling Major into his stall while Jeff leapt around the barn. "I swear, that animal..." he muttered loudly.
"Oh, stop!" she laughed. "He's a sweet pony. Aren't you, Major?" she cooed as he nuzzled her pockets again. She handed him the last bit of carrot. "There you go. I don't think that the bad man's going to give you any treats today." She said as she shot a bemused look at Jeff, who was still favoring his crushed foot.
"Only treat he's getting from me today is a branding." He muttered. "Thanks for the loan of the trailer, though. It was a big help."
She patted the horse one more time and checked her watch. "No problem. Don't know why you don't have one yourself. But I do have to be running. You mind if I stop by next weekend to do a little riding with him?" she asked.
Jeff thought a second. "Uh, let me get back to you on that. I, uh, might already have him committed next week." He replied as they walked back to the truck. They bid their good-byes, and she hopped into her truck and took off.
Jeff returned to the stall and watched Major digging into the feed in the stall for a couple minutes. Eventually, the horse seemed to notice and looked at him curiously. Jeff sighed. "One of these days, friend, if anyone ever finds out what you are, her boyfriends gonna geld you." Major looked back and forth down the length of the barn and back at Jeff. He nodded in response. "We're alone."
Major sighed wistfully. "I'm willing to risk it." He looked at Jeff again. "Well?"
Jeff stared back for a second before the thought connected. "Oh! Sorry. Be right back." Jeff jogged down the barn and into the tack room and grabbed the small duffel back from its hidden corner. He jogged back and tossed it into the stall. "There you are."
The gray stallion was already getting smaller. "Nice day for a ride, at least."
Jeff grumbled. "Yeah, except I was riding you. What was with you today, anyway?"
The horse, who was looking more like a man every second, rolled his eyes. "I can't be perfect all the time, now can I?" He rubbed his ribs a little. "Besides, you didn't have to kick me like that."
Jeff sighed. "I'm sorry about that, but it's force of habit when the horse won't go forward." He watched his friend begin to form, still rubbing tenderly at his ribs. "Oh, give it a rest, Trent. I didn't kick you that hard."
"Let me kick you in the ribs with a boot and lets see how you like it." He said as he opened the gym bag. He glanced up at Jeff. "Do you mind?"
Jeff chuckled and turned around. "I really don't understand you sometimes. How many days a month do I see you au natural? Ten? Fifteen?"
Trent grumbled as he slipped on his jeans. "That's different. Besides, is it my fault I'm a horse half the time?" He paused and sighed. "Look, I'm sorry about today, but my mind just wasn't on things. It's getting to be hell to explain where I am so often. Damn curse..."
Jeff turned around as he heard the stall door open, watching his very human friend step out. "I could have told you not to fool around like that. Hell, if I recall, I did. I think you got off lucky. At least you've managed to get more control of this since then." Jeff, still a bit upset at his friends behavior, grumbled, "And if it wasn't for me, you'd still be stuck in that stall..."
"I know, I know. I said I was sorry." The former horse spat on the floor. "Got a breath mint? I've got the worst taste of grass in my mouth."
Jeff tossed him a red and white peppermint as they walked out to the house. "You're always welcome to live out here if it gets to be too much."
He laughed. "Considering I helped pay for the place, you're damn right." Trent seemed to consider it as he slipped behind the wheel of his car. "Frankly, it's getting to be more tempting." He grinned. "If Elaine keeps coming out here to ride, I just may do it."
"Trent, she's involved." Jeff said warningly.
He smiled sadly. "Ah well, in a different time, place and species things could have been different."
"You're incorrigible, you know that?" laughed his friend. "When you coming out next?"
Jeff glanced at his watch, checking the date. "I'm supposed to be out of town on Tuesday, won't be back until Thursday night. I think you probably won't see me until Friday afternoon, at the earliest." He thrummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "Unless you've got plans, tell Elaine that I-- rather Major-- will be around next week."
Trent pulled away from the small farmhouse and onto the old country road. He tried to take his mind off the last four days that he'd been Major, but it was increasingly all he could think about.
Only a couple of years ago, this hadn't been even a thought. He and Jeff had gone on a long delayed trip through Europe, something that they'd talked about since their high school days. With college graduation behind them, they'd grabbed a couple of backpacks and Eurorail passes and flown to England with the intention of seeing as much of Europe as possible in two months.
They never made it beyond France.
They didn't even know the name of the town. The train had stopped sometime just before lunch. Not interested in eating another meal in the small, overpriced dining car, they'd gotten off to look for a café. The town was in a shallow valley, the hills barely visible in the distance. The old buildings and unspoiled scenery was perfect for pictures.
Trent dragged his friend through most of the town over the next few hours. Photography had long been his hobby, and he'd even managed to sell photos to calendars and magazines from time to time. Finally having burned through four rolls of film, the pair started back to the train station only to see the last train of the day pull away without them.
For them, it had been a momentary problem. "You want to that hostel by the station?" asked Jeff.
Trent thought a moment. "Naw. There were a couple abandoned farms just outside of town. We can make it there before dark, and we do have the sleeping bags." Jeff hadn't really needed much convincing. Anyone can sleep in a hostel, but camping in the French countryside was different.
They walked from the town center and over a slight hill. As the sun came closer to setting in the distance, they found the old farm house and barn. It was obviously abandoned, the roof of the house was collapsed and the barn was a ruin that neither of the two young men would risk sleeping in. The fields were slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding forest. What had once been fenced pastureland was overgrown. Another field seemed to have been plowed at some point, the weeds grew heavily over the worn furrows.
They found a sheltered spot next to a stone wall and laid down their backpacks. "I hope it doesn't rain." Said Jeff.
Trent shrugged. "I doubt it will." He looked around the old farm. "This place hasn't been used in a while. Let's check it out before we lose the light." He walked off toward the house with Jeff in tow.
In the dim light, they walked around the outside of the two story stone house. To their great surprise, the windows on the first level were virtually all intact. Jeff reached out and tapped the glass with a finger. It seemed so thin that his finger might have gone right through it. "Nobody's vandalized this place." He said in amazement.
Trent picked up a rock as if to throw it. "Want to introduce a little American culture."
"Trent, don't." sighed Jeff. "I don't want to spend a night in jail."
"Who's going to know?" he asked, annoyed at his friends reluctance.
Jeff gave up. "Whatever. I'm going to check out that barn." He'd only walked a few feet when he heard the shattering of glass behind him. Shaking his head, he stepped carefully through the rotted doors. The barn, like the house, had a large quantity of stone used in it's construction. What wood inside, mostly holding up the worn roof, was rickety. Jeff held up his cheap camera and snapped a photo of the inside, the flash briefly filling the room with bright light. He took a few steps in, but he was suddenly uneasy. Something didn't feel right. Something in one of the stalls caught his eye. "What the hell?" he muttered.
"What?" asked Trent from behind him.
Jeff jumped and turned angrily on his friend. "Don't do that. You scared the hell out of me."
Trent just shrugged. "What's wrong?"
He motioned into the stall. "There's a skeleton in there."
Trent frowned and peered in. "It's a horse." He looked around the stall. "Looks like he was locked in and left."
Jeff frowned and started looking into the half dozen other stalls in the barn. Each one contained a long rotted skeleton. Four were horses, two looked like cows. "What the hell? Who would abandon a farm and leave the animals to die?" When he didn't hear an answer, he glanced up and looked for his friend. "Trent?" He walked back to the first stall and saw Trent inside examining the skeleton. Jeff felt a shudder. "Let's get out of here. Something isn't right."
Trent laughed and started tugging at the skull. "Oh come on. These animals don't care anymore. Farmers probably died or something."
Jeff started to respond, but a sudden chill filled him. This time, it was clear that Trent felt it, too. He started to stand, his mouth hanging open. For a moment, their eyes locked, both in fear. Trent's eyes slammed shut as he let out a scream of pain that melded into a horses whinny and his body bulged outward, ripping his clothes apart. Jeff screamed himself and stumbled out of the barn in a panic, the wholly equine screams of his friend ringing in his ears.
Jeff didn't stop running until he was back in the town. He felt numb, totally numb. His body trembled. He couldn't imagine what he'd just seen, and what might have happened to his friend. He found himself in front of the darkened train station and collapsed on a wooden bench.
He might have stayed there all night, but a middle aged woman touched him on the arm. He looked at her slowly. She gazed at him with some concern, "You're American?" she asked in a heavily accented voice. Jeff nodded numbly. "What is wrong? Are you ill?" she asked. Jeff looked at her for a long time, trying to work his jaw. No matter what he tried, he couldn't speak. He felt paralyzed. She looked at him with more worry. When he didn't respond, she gently helped him to his feet. "Come, I'll take you for help."
Jeff didn't protest. She guided him down one of the cobblestone streets to a large house. Light poured through the window in the front door. As they stepped up the walk, a silhouetted figure opened the door. An older man appeared in the doorframe, talking in worried tones to the woman. After a brief exchange in French, he turned to Jeff. "What is wrong?" He looked at Jeff more carefully. "I saw you today, in the square. You were with another American boy?" He said it as a question.
Jeff still couldn't speak, but he was finding his voice. After a couple of minutes of poking from the doctor, Jeff managed to choke out, "Farm."
At first, the two didn't react, save to express surprise that he spoke. Then the old doctor seemed to connect something. "Farm?" he asked slowly. "Old farm, over the hill?" he searched a moment for the word. "Abandoned?"
Jeff nodded slowly.
The old doctor and Jeff stared at each other for a few moments. Finally, the man asked. "Your friend?"
Jeff just nodded again.
He closed his eyes and sighed, turning to the woman and speaking in French again. A shocked look crossed her face and she stifled a cry by biting on her hand. After stealing a quick look at Jeff, she turned and hustled out of the doctors office. The old doctor sighed and turned back to Jeff. "You and your friend have been cursed." He said simply. "Once I insure you are not physically hurt, you will go. Do not return."
Jeff felt his mouth hang open, stunned. "My friend?" he asked, his voice becoming easier to use.
"Forget him." The old doctor said. "He is a beast now, and as that he will die." The doctor used a small mallet to check his reflexes and then stood. "Now go."
Confused and scared in a way he could never have expected, Jeff tried to talk to the doctor. The old man was hearing none of that and demanded that he leave immediately. He walked out of the doctors office and into the night, unsure of where he would go. He'd wandered for several minutes before he realized that something was wrong. He stopped and looked around, unsure of what it was. Then it hit him.
Every window in the town was dark.
It was like they had all already heard of what happened, and worse, knew about it. No one was willing to help. He dared not knock on a random door, out of fear of what might be done to him. He knew that he couldn't leave, though, without trying to help Trent.
The farm was quiet now.
Darkness had descended upon the valley and plunged the old farm into near pitch blackness. Only the light from a half moon lit the farm. Jeff could pick out the shapes of the farmhouse and barn, but little else. With a bit of stumbling around, he managed to find Trent's backpack, still laying next to the wall where he'd dropped it. Fishing around, he found the small pocket flashlight and clicked it on. Slowly he walked toward the barn, stopping about a hundred yards away. "Trent?" he called shakily. "You okay?"
He was answered by the piercing cry of a trapped stallion, punctuated by the sound of hooves beating at the sides of a wooden stall. The cries continued unabated for several minutes until the horse got tired and stopped. Jeff never moved closer. For all his fear, and the reaction of the old doctor, he couldn't have believed that this had really happened.
Unsure what else to do, he started walking toward the barn. The least he could do was get his friend out of...
"I wouldn't do that if I were you." Came a voice from the darkness.
Jeff spun to the source and found himself face to face with a shadow in the night. He could only make out a vague outline of the woman in the darkness. "Who...?"
"Not important." Came the curt reply. "But we must get you and your friend out of here before dawn. They fear the curse here, and rightfully so. It is only because you didn't know that they gave you the chance to leave."
"Then why are you...?"
"Because," she said, cutting him off again, "I lost someone to this curse so long ago." She said wistfully, then shook her head. "It's not important. First, don't go near the barn or the house. The curse had gone dormant, but you two..." she shook her head again. "Call your friend. Tell him that if he can't get out of the stall himself, then that's it."
Trent looked at the woman for a moment and then turned toward the barn. He didn't know if she could be trusted, but at this point had little choice in the matter. "Trent! You'll have to get yourself out of there! We can't go in!"
There was a frustrated whinny in response, then several seconds of silence before a blistering crack as rotted wood was shattered. Jeff shone his light toward the barn door in time to see the gray stallion burst from the barn. It slowed to a trot then a walk, finally stopping in a field a few yards away. The horse stood for several minutes, lifting it's hooves, swishing it's tail, as if confirming that they truly existed.
"Trent?" asked Jeff quietly. "Is that really you?"
The horse turned its head, the light from the flashlight glinting off it's eyes. Slowly, it nodded. For a moment, it's lower lip trembled, then it screamed again in fear.
The old woman walked up to the frightened animal as if she'd known it all it's life, laying a hand on its neck. The gray horse simply stood, looking alternately at her and at Jeff, confusion clearly plain on his equine features. She simply ran her hand over its neck and muttered softly. Suddenly, she turned back to Jeff. "The curse is not as strong as it once was. I might be able to help him."
Jeff still didn't know what to make of all this. He looked at the horse again, and suddenly a thought raced through his mind. That could have been me. He felt his stomach drop out from under him and his knees got weak. He fell forward, his mind churning with fear. It was all he could do to keep from pissing in his pants.
He felt a hand grip his hair and pull his head back, forcing him to look straight into the eyes of the old woman. "Look, you sniveling American. When this curse stole my husband from me, I didn't fall apart like you are doing now. And then he was trapped in the body of a bull with no hope of being human again." She gripped harder. "He ended up as a stew in that damn village, and unless you want your friend to be the same, then you will pull yourself together and come with me!"
Jeff stared at her blankly for a moment. When he didn't respond instantly, she pulled his head back even farther. "I can assure you that the villagers will toss you into that barn if they find you here in the morning. If that appeals to you, then sit there!"
Slowly, Jeff managed to stand shakily on his feet. Trent just stood and waited, trembling. The woman walked back to him and gently tugged on his mane until he got the hint and followed her over to the low stone wall. She stopped there and climbed atop it, beckoning for Jeff to follow. "We will ride to my farm. It is only a few miles from here."
"What then?" asked Jeff quietly.
She didn't bother to look at him as she climbed onto Trent. "You leave France."
They traveled through the night in silence. Jeff was more than a little worried about Trent, who for all the world seemed to be acting like a normal horse. It wasn't that he had ever considered it before, but he knew Trent. This was not a man that would have allowed anyone to ride on his back, horse or not.
As the sun started to rise over the horizon, the old woman guided Trent off the main road and up a small dirt path to a cottage nestled in a clearing. The cottage looked much like the houses around here did, ancient but sturdy. In the dim morning light, it looked like it had been copied from a fairy tale illustration. Jeff had images of fairy tale witches cooking children in pots.
He looked again at the old woman. After what he'd seen last night, he wasn't so sure those were fairy tales anymore.
She slid off the horse and walked to the front door. She pushed it open and turned back to the horse and man. "There is a bucket and water pump behind the cottage." She looked sternly at the horse. "You can graze all you want, but if you touch my flowers you'll wish I'd left you for the villagers." She walked through the door and slammed it behind her.
Jeff and Trent looked long and hard at each other for a long, silent moment. "I'm still not sure I believe this." Muttered Jeff. "This isn't possible." The ears on the stallion suddenly went flat back and it took a quick step at Jeff, who stumbled backwards and fell on his rump. "Okay! I'm sorry! It's a little hard to take." The horse calmed a little, but still was breathing heavy. When Jeff didn't stand right away, Trent took a step forward and lowered his head down. Jeff reached up and grasped the horses neck, pulling himself to his feet. He chuckled a little, "You must be scared. I've never seen you do anything helpful before."
The horse just snorted and started around the side of the cottage. Jeff followed him to the water pump and started filling the old tin bucket. He'd barely set it on the ground when the horse started drinking. Jeff took a step back and took a good, long look at his friend for the first time. He was a very good looking animal, that was for sure: Well built, well proportioned and nicely colored.
"You know, you could sell him and make a good sum." Jeff jumped at the sound of the old woman. "The one nice thing about that curse, it always makes a champion."
Jeff looked at the woman again. "You're not serious."
She shrugged impassively. "There isn't a reason why not. He is already as comfortable as that animal as he was as a human, or did you not notice that?"
Jeff looked at his friend, still so intent on getting a drink that he hadn't seemed to notice the conversation. His tail was slowly flipping back and forth at flies. If he hadn't seen Trent change with his own eyes, then he would never have guess that this was anything else but a stallion. "Is he completely a horse?"
"No. He never will be. He will always remember, never be wholly a slave to the body that he has. At least, any more than a human is a slave to his own."
Jeff sighed. "What happens now? How the hell do I explain this to his parents? God, how do I get a horse into the States?"
For the first time, the stern woman laughed. "That's why I love Americans. So melodramatic." Her face fell again. "Have you thought about why I knew to find you?" Trent picked his head out of the bucket and looked with interest at the woman. Clearly he had been listening all along. She looked at Jeff. "I have a few things to discuss with your friend. There is hot water on the stove and tea in the cupboard."
Jeff realized he was being told to make himself scarce, so found his way into the cottage. The inside of the place looked much like the outside, with little seeming to date from this century. True to her word, there was a copper kettle of water boiling on the old wood stove. He moved slowly through the kitchen, almost in a dreamlike state. As he made the tea, he started to convince himself that it was all a dream. It had to be! Just a really bad dream...
A vent of steam from the kettle scorched his hand as he lifted it off the stove and he dropped it to the stone floor. Scalding water splattered all over his pants, scorching the skin below. As he hopped around the room, he felt pretty sure that this wasn't a dream.
The woman entered the kitchen again. She gave Jeff a withering look, but seemed to ignore the spilled kettle. "There is a phone in the next room. You will be leaving France in two days, no more than three. Home or somewhere else, it doesn't matter."
Jeff felt shocked. "I can't leave..."
She cut him off. "Your friend will be go with you. As a human. I can arrange that much."
"You cured him?" he asked with hope.
She shook his head. "There is no cure. None. I have searched for one for longer than you can imagine. But the curse was not yet set, and it has weakened with time. I have explained the rest to him, and I don't wish to repeat myself." She looked scornfully at the kettle on the floor. "If you didn't like my tea, you could simply have said so."
A figure in the door stopped Jeff from stuttering an answer. His friend, now very much human, stood in the doorway covered in a rough blanket. Trent look ashen, his breathing shallow. He looked at Jeff and the woman in silence for a few seconds. "It wasn't a dream, was it?"
The woman just muttered something in French and walked to the back room. Jeff walked to his friend. "It wasn't. What did she tell you?"
Trent let out a long, slow breath. "You used to ride, didn't you?"
Jeff blinked. "Huh? Uh, yeah. When I was a kid. Why?"
Trent smiled. "Looks like you've got yourself a part time pony..."
The next few weeks rolled past like a blur. Jeff and Trent made their way up to Paris, stopping first at the embassy to replace their lost passports and then taking the first flight out of Orly back to Boston, then the long drive north to central New Hampshire. Their early return was explained by claiming all of their equipment had been stolen off the train. Neither of them told anyone the real reason.
They quickly looked for, and found, a small farm a few miles outside of Concord. It was nicely isolated behind a grove of trees, and with a little pooling of resources within the reach of the pairs finances. They came to an agreement, that Jeff would live at the property, which would be in his name, and Trent would come out as often as he needed, spending the time he needed to as a horse.
When Jeff pushed for the obvious best choice, that Trent live at the farm himself, he was soundly put down. "Not a chance." He had said, "I am not going to let this damn thing rule me! I have a life! A job! I am not going to give it all up!" The matter, Trent stated firmly, was closed.
So a routine was settled into. Trent spent almost all his spare time grazing at the farm, and after a few weeks of coaxing, allowed Jeff to start riding. To both of their surprise, it was a good experience. For Jeff it was a chance to do something he hadn't done for years. As for Trent, who wouldn't explain why he allowed it in the first place, it felt right.
And so it went, for almost two years...
Trent squirmed uncomfortably in the cramped airline seat. He always hated flying, and now more than ever. In the back of his mind, he was afraid, deeply afraid, that he would lose control.
He shuddered a little. More and more, this human form didn't feel like his true one. His life was beginning to focus more and more on his equine side, and less and less on his human one. His weekends were all spent at the farm now, no matter what he wanted to do. He couldn't keep a steady girlfriend, simply not having the time to devote to making it work. He even found himself buying things that he never would have considered otherwise, like carrots in bulk. He'd even gone to a tack shop and bought a new bridle because he thought that it would go better with his equine coloring. It was a strangely surreal experience.
"You okay, Trent?"
Trent snapped out of his thoughts and focused on his traveling companion, the man who owned the metal working plant where he worked as an materials engineer. "Sure, Mr. Ladd. I'm fine. Just thinking."
Ladd smiled. "That's what I like about you, son. You're a thinker. Now just try and think about what you're going to do once we hit Chicago." Trent felt the man appraising him. "Are you sure you're okay, son? You look a little pale."
Trent nodded, "I'm fine..." His voice trailed off as a familiar feeling started to tug at him.
"Well, you don't look fine." Said Ladd in a worried tone. "Are you sure that you're not getting sick?"
Trent felt his stomach churn. Bolting from his seat, he ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind him. The dim light clicked on as he pulled shut the lock and he took a good, long look at his reflection. He could see the traces of the horse underneath beginning to fight it's way though, the buttons on his shirt starting to strain ever so slightly at the added mass. Closing his eyes, he forced it down. If he changed on this plane, then he could never hide again.
Slowly, he felt the control return and he felt more at ease, but his hands still struggled to tremble where they gripped the edge of the sink. What the hell is happening? he thought. I should be ahead! I spent half the last two months as a horse! He took a few deep breaths. He didn't like this at all. If he was losing control...
Trent slammed his fist into the counter, "Damn it!" He wasn't going to give in to this! He had a life and a job!
There was a gentle rap on the door. "Sir? Are you okay?"
Trent looked at his reflection, making sure that it was him and not Major staring back. "I'm fine." He said quietly.
Trent paced in his hotel room for hours. Once they'd hit Chicago, Ladd had ordered him to his room to get some rest. He wanted him fresh for the meeting the following morning.
But Trent couldn't have slept if he wanted to. It wasn't the first time that he'd felt what had happened on the plane, not the first time that he'd almost fallen into his equine form. It had happened before, back in the first couple of months, before he gained more control and worked out the timing. He had to spent about a third of his time as the horse back then, and could go a full ten days without changing if he was willing to spend at least three as a horse. But it was getting harder.
He knew that at some point he wouldn't be able to manage human at all.
He considered for the thousandth time going back to France and finding the old woman again, but he couldn't get up the nerve. She had never told him her name, and had explicitly warned him that, where he to return, he would regret it. She hadn't explained what that meant, and he didn't want to know.
He walked to the window and leaned against the air conditioner, looking out over the skyline of the city. How was he supposed to find help if he couldn't even tell someone what the problem was? What bothered Trent most of all was that he probably could find help if he went public. If curses and magic were real, then it had to exist elsewhere, and there had to be someone out there who knew how to use it.
He thrummed his fingers on the glass a good five minutes before he saw it, off in the distance. A sign. The sign he'd been waiting for. A sign in the form of bright red neon in the shape of a palm, but a sign nonetheless. He ran over to the phonebook and flipped it open, frantically turning the pages. Finding what he needed, he tore them out, grabbed his map, and set off into the night.
"You have a problem, a deep problem."
Trent leaned forward a little more. The first time he'd heard that he'd almost fallen off his chair. This being the fifth, he wasn't so impressed. "That much is true."
The dark skinned woman looked intently into the dusty crystal ball. "It is a problem with the ponies." Trent was stunned. That was getting pretty close to the mark! He almost responded enthusiastically when she shattered his faith. "You must stop gambling before it destroys you."
Trent sighed. "Thank you, Madame." He said politely. "I guess I must be going now." He rose from the cushion and walked through the curtain, ignoring her pleas for him to sit back down, that she wasn't finished.
Briefly, Trent pulled the wad of yellow pages out of his pocket and examined them again. Fortune tellers. Hundreds of them in the Chicago area alone. He had been so sure this was the right way to go. He knew that most fortune tellers and the like were frauds, at best a bit of entertainment for believers, but he had hoped that at least one in a city this size would be legitimate. Out of the five he'd seen tonight, not a one had come close to realizing what he was.
With a heavy heart, he started back to his hotel. It was almost 1am, and he still had to be on his toes in just a few hours...
Turning the last corner to his hotel, he walked straight into her. She cried out lightly as they both tumbled to the sidewalk. "I'm sorry!" Said Trent quickly as he crawled to his feet. "I didn't see you!" He offered her his hand.
The young woman shook her head as she took it. "That's okay, I didn't see you either..." her voice trailed off as she took a good, long look at him. She stared a moment at his face, then looked slowly down at the hand that gripped hers. "You're cursed!" she said loudly, then immediately she covered her mouth with her other hand, as if she had said something that she shouldn't have.
Trent felt the world slow for a moment as it registered what she had said. He pulled her into the doorway of a closed candy store. "What did you say?"
She seemed suddenly uncomfortable. "I didn't say anything..." she said shakily.
Trent gripped her harder, harder than he intended. "No, you said I was cursed. I want to know what you meant by that!"
She looked into his eyes, seeming to sense his desperation, then steeled herself. "You're a horse, a large gray horse."
The silence that followed was long, neither person moving, neither even seeming to breath. Trent suddenly reached out and pulled the woman closer into a hug, screaming for joy.
"That's why I'm so happy to have found you." Trent said as he finished his story.
Liz leaned forward, looking closely at his hands. "That explains a lot." She said quietly. "I can see a hoof here. Well, more like an image of one. I can tell that it's there. That's usually a sign of someone's true form who is in disguise. This is the first time that I've ever seen one like this. To me, it looks like an animal who is pretending to be human."
Trent smiled. "You sound like my friend Jeff. He tells me that all the time."
She smiled a little, but got back to concentrating. "The curse was powerful, that much is for sure. It utterly changed your true form." She sighed. "I'm not sure that I can help much. I have never even heard of a curse like that."
Trent felt his heart skip a beat. "But you can talk to others..."
She interrupted him. "I didn't say that I couldn't help, but I wouldn't want to try anything right now anyway. I would need to study this in detail, see all the nuances. Just sitting here, I can see that the curse is riddled with traps and tricks. The old woman who helped you must have studied for decades to get as far as she did."
She nodded. "Look, I won't lie to you. It's a highly complex curse, very unusual. If I try this, even after taking a good, long look at it, it may not help. I have already made note of a dozen traps, and I can sense others. Some would kill you, some would kill me, I've spotted one that would alter my form and the others would leave you no better or worse off."
He chuckled. "How could it be worse?"
Liz didn't even smile. "If I trip one of these, you'll be a mare, another you'll lose your human mind, and another would drop you down to being a foal. All three would nullify what control you do have." She rapped her fingers on the table a few times and leaned back, smiling. "That's just for starters."
He sighed. "I see. I was hoping for a quick fix. That's why I went out tonight, looking for fortune tellers from the phone book." He said, pulling the crumpled sheets from his pocket and dropping them on the table. "Fat lot of good it did me."
She laughed and picked up the pages, idly looking at them. "Tell me about it. A lot of these people wouldn't know magic if it..." she stopped and looked up. "You didn't go to see Madame Zooz, the one right here, did you?" she asked.
Trent thought a moment. "I don't think so. I went to the five closest ones I could find. Why?"
She looked very serious. "I think this is fate, in a way, that I met you tonight. I was taught that little happens by accident. Madame Zooz is not far from here, in fact closer than a couple of the ones you marked off. She, like me, would have found your curse instantly. It is a good thing you didn't go there."
She sighed. "Every profession has a few people who are just greedy. I suspect she would have either led you on, or triggered one of the traps and sold you."
That gave Trent pause. Without thinking, he asked, "How can I be sure I can trust you?"
She smiled and stood up. "Because if I wanted to do something like that, I would have. I have to go, there are some arrangements that must be made. You say that you live near Concord in New Hampshire?" He nodded. "Okay, I'll make arrangement to relocate there a while. It'll take a couple of weeks, but that shouldn't be a problem. How long are you in Chicago?"
"A few days."
"Good." She paused. "I think I need to see your horse form now, too, if that's okay."
"Here? In the hotel room?" he asked, surprised.
She nodded. "Sure. You still have control of the horse, right?" He nodded again. "Then you won't tear the place up. It's only for a couple minutes and hopefully I'll see a few things that will get me thinking."
Trent just let out a long breath. "Okay, but turn your back a second, I need to undress." She did as he asked and he quickly pulled off his clothes. Without hesitating, he let loose his controls and felt the equine form spill out. It was only a few seconds, but where Trent had been now a horse stood.
Liz turned and smiled. "I guess this is proof, huh?" She ran her hands over he head and neck, then down his back. "Nice bit of horseflesh." She said quietly, getting a nicker out of Trent. "Stay quiet." She ran her hands down a hind leg then walked back to his head. "Okay, I've got all I can for tonight. I'll call you tomorrow and let you know how the arrangements are going." She kissed him on the nose. "Good night."
She left him in the same flurry that they had met in. Trent simply stood and stared at the door a long, long time, feeling as though a huge weight had been lifted from his back.
Jeff stared at him a long, long time before responding. "You told someone?" he asked. "Are you insane?"
Trent smiled and shook his head. "No, I didn't say anything. I tried to tell you before that she already knew, knew it the moment she looked at me. She just blurted it out!"
Jeff shook his head. "I still don't believe this. She's a powerful witch, but she works for a department store in acquisitions? Does that make any sense to you?"
He just shrugged. "No more than a horse working at a materials engineer." He held his friend by the shoulder. "Look, I know it's a risk, but I need to take it."
Jeff sighed. "I don't have to like it, but its your life. You're the one who'll end up in a lab somewhere if this all hits the fan. But what's in it for her?"
The question caught Trent off guard. "Huh?"
"She never asked for money, did she?" Trent shook his head. "She didn't make you promise anything? Anything at all?" Trent shook his head again. "You talked with her for - what? - a couple hours in a hotel room and she suddenly uproots her life to come to this backwater state and help you? Doesn't that seem a little odd to you?"
Trent shrugged. "I honestly didn't think about it at the time. I mean, she was right. If she is as powerful as she implied, she could have turned me into a horse for good right there and sold me to a dog food factory or something. Here, you've got ownership of Major. If she tried something like that, she couldn't get away with it. And even if that was the plan, it wouldn't make sense. It'll cost her as much to move here as she could make selling me."
Jeff just sighed and walked in a small circle, kicking a stone away. "I still don't like it. I wish you'd have told me about this before." Trent didn't answer, leaving it hanging. Finally, Jeff looked up at him. "Look, lets talk about this later. I told Elaine that you'd be ready for her to ride in about an hour, and that means I've got to get you groomed."
Trent smiled a little. "Why not just let her do it?" he asked. "You know how much Major likes it."
Jeff rolled his eyes as he started for the barn. "No, I know how much you like her. Have you considered that she barely knows that you exist as a human? The way you fawn over her..."
Trent laughed, "What can I say? If I see a chance, I'll take it." He started unbuttoning his shirt. "Maybe I'll give her a call Monday..."
Jeff shook his head. "You'll have to talk to her boyfriend first. I think he'd have something to say about that."
Trent stripped off his shirt and stuffed it into a duffel bag just inside the barn door and started kicking off his shoes. He looked up at Jeff. "Do you mind?"
His friend chuckled and turned around. "I swear, I'm going to see you in the buff in about a minute."
"I keep telling you, that's different." He sniggered lightly. "You think I could make an impression on her if I changed back to human while we're out?"
"Oh yeah, that's what you want to do." Jeff sighed. "Look, if you keep talking like this I'm going to tell Elaine not to come out anymore. I swear to God. You're determined to screw all this up. If you revealed this to Elaine..."
"If you don't trust her," interrupted Trent, "then why do you let her come out here in the first place?"
Jeff let out a long breath. "It's not that I don't trust her. It's a risk. She might talk to people trying to find you help. Besides, like I keep telling you, she only knows Major. You two have only met a few times! Why do you want to burden her with this secret?"
There was a long pause, then a sudden thump. Jeff just shook his head as he heard the horse behind him whicker. Trent was about the most stubborn person he knew, and once he had an idea into his head it wouldn't fall out. Now any argument was going to be one sided for at least the next few days. He turned around and looked at the horse, now just standing and staring intently at him. It didn't take a genius to see that Major was pissed. "Fine. Look, if you want to tell Elaine about this, then bully for you. But don't blame me if it blows up in your face." Major just stared at him, and Jeff didn't have the energy to keep it up. "Let's just get you groomed."
He heard the car long before he saw it. Jeff turned from the fence to see the dark gray Caviler come from around the trees and pull up beside his pickup. The driver got out and looked at Jeff, waving quickly before she reached into the backseat and grabbed a camera bag.
Jeff felt his heart skip a beat. She was gorgeous, long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail and body to kill for. She shouldered the bag and walked straight over toward Jeff. "How're you doing?" she yelled out as she got closer. "You must be Jeff."
Jeff resisted the urge to look surprised, hoping beyond hope that this was the blind date that his mother kept trying to set up for him. "You've got it. Have we met?" He reached his hand out to shake as she got close enough.
She smiled. "Not that I know of, but Trent described you well." She looked out at the field where Elaine was riding Major. "He does make a good looking animal, doesn't he?" She dug out her camera. "I thought this might be handy. Oh, I'm Elizabeth, by the way. Elizabeth Gaultier. Call me Liz."
Jeff frowned, resisting the urge to look her over one more time. Trent hadn't described the woman at all to him, but this didn't seem right. It wasn't like the horse-headed idiot to miss a beauty like this. "Nice to meet you." He said cautiously. "Jeff Moore."
She nodded, looking him over a little more. "You don't trust me." She said simply, without a trace of accusation in her voice.
Jeff paused a moment, then decided to be honest. "You're right, I don't. I don't have any reason too, really." He shrugged. "You don't have any reason to trust me, for that matter."
She laughed and raised her camera, snapping a picture of Major in midstride. "Oh, but I do. You've protected him for two years. Trent didn't say, but I'll guess you've never even hinted to anyone about this? Right?"
"Nope." He said quickly. "Never."
She nodded. "I'm curious." She said casually as she snapped another picture. "Ever had the temptation?" An image popped into Jeff's head, from only a few months after they returned from France. Major had been a royal pain in the ass, tossing him off during a ride for no particular reason. He'd toyed with exposing Trent as revenge before he realized that the punishment wouldn't fit the crime. He hemmed and hawed a bit before Elizabeth stopped him. "You didn't. That's the important thing."
He looked at her a little suspiciously. "Are you reading my thoughts, or something?"
She smiled. "Not really, just your body language. But before you ask, I can read them. As a rule, I don't, but I can."
They stood in silence for a few minutes while she snapped pictures. At some point, both horse and rider noticed the newcomer, but Elaine was too busy riding and Major would never do anything she wouldn't want. Finally, Liz let out a long breath. "Does the rider know?"
Jeff shook his head. "No. She just thinks that I own a good riding horse."
She put down the camera and grabbed a small notebook and started jotting notes down. "It's not important now, but at some point we're going to have to get her to stop riding. She's a natural, and with a curse this complex, that's dangerous."
Jeff looked at Elaine and then back at Elizabeth. "A natural?"
She didn't get a chance to answer the question. The thumping of hooves against the soft earth got louder as he galloped to the fence. "Hey there!" shouted Elaine as she reigned in the horse. "Who's your friend, Jeff?"
Liz held out her hand. "Liz Gaultier." They shook hands. "I'm impressed with your riding. Hope you don't mind that I took some pictures."
Elaine smiled as she dismounted, patting Major on the neck. "No, not at all, but this is not a hard horse to ride. I've never been on one that is so responsive."
Liz reached out and patted the horse on the neck, who responded by slobbering on her shoulder. Liz just smiled thinly. "Oh, thanks Major. Just what I wanted." She lightly pushed his head away, and he went back to fawning over Elaine.
Elaine started walking the horse to the barn to remove the tack. Jeff and Liz just leaned against the fence in silence. She seemed distant for a bit, then she looked at Jeff. "Is he always like that?" she asked.
Jeff shrugged. "Depends on what you mean."
She paused a moment. "I exchanged a few words with him, mentally, when they were standing here. I got the impression that I was interrupting something important."
Jeff didn't like to hear that. "He's got a thing for Elaine. She doesn't have any idea. She's been riding him pretty regularly for a little more than a year now."
She frowned. "How long do you think that she'll be in there with him?"
Jeff shrugged. "She's meeting her boyfriend in a couple hours, so not long. Why?"
She smiled thinly. "I need to have a long chat with him tonight. Very long." She nodded over toward the house. "You mind buying a lady a drink?"
The air inside the barn was still warm and moist, despite the cold outside. The two humans sat relaxed on hay bales while the horse chewed a mouthful. Jeff kept looking at Liz with a wary eye. He simply didn't trust her. He couldn't put his finger on why, but he didn't. She had spent most of the last fifteen minutes with small talk, seeming to try and engage Trent in a mental conversation. She finally stopped talking about the weather and her preparation to move to the area and pushed herself to her feet.
Liz paced a little bit in front of the horse, who finally pulled his head out of the feed bin and looked at her. "Trent, we have to get right down to it. I've been doing a little research over the last couple days, talking with some others who have a little more experience with these things. You have, frankly, been hit with about the most complex curse that anyone has ever seen."
Jeff and Major exchanged a look. "Is that bad?" asked Jeff.
She sighed. "It can be, but it doesn't make a lot of sense, really." She paused for a second then looked at Jeff. "If I wanted to, I could make you go through what your friend is going through. The time as a horse, the ability to control it a bit, everything. I could even make you an absolute identical twin to the smallest detail. And I could do it without a curse. I could make it just as hard to undo, just as permanent, and it would take a great deal less effort."
Jeff didn't say anything, half expecting her to demonstrate her statement. Instead, she paced around again, gesturing to the rafters. "It doesn't make any sense, though. A curse is invariably something done in an act of anger, even if the anger is something long term and seething. The source of the manipulations is impure, and so are the results. Curses never last. Never. But this!" she shouted suddenly, gesturing at Major, "This is absolutely bizarre!"
She started ticking off things one by one. "It's too damn complex, too damn convoluted, has way too damn many traps and most important it is too damn old." She looked at Jeff. "The old woman told you she'd lost her husband years before?"
Jeff nodded. "I think so. The farm looked like it had been abandoned for decades."
Liz nodded and turned to Major. "Let me tell you straight out, what the woman did for you is absolutely incredible. She somehow managed to nullify the curse partially without consequence, and even gave you a geas for control. She is either an extremely talented one, or the one who designed it in the first place. But for whatever reason, she couldn't nullify it, and because it's so damn powerful, it's reasserting itself." She paused, suddenly taking a solemn look. "If nothing is done, I figure in about three years, you'll have to spend half your time in this form, and once you hit that point, it takes only a few weeks, perhaps months, before you're never going to be human again."
Major, silent up to this point, didn't take the news well. He let out a loud, mournful whinny that echoed off the walls. Liz quickly stepped up and wrapped her arms partly around his neck. "It's okay. It'll be okay." She kept repeating it, quietly and calmly for several minutes. Finally, Major lifted his head, nuzzling her warmly. She smiled. "I know." She said quietly, apparently to something she read from his mind.
Jeff walked over and patted the horses neck. "What can we do for him?" he asked.
She rubbed Major more on the cheek. "I need to study the curse, in detail. I could try and remove it now, but I think that would be a disaster." Major leaned his head over toward Liz, and she moved where she was rubbing onto his neck. "Ideally, I'd like to find the person who designed this and ask, but I don't think it's a good idea. Whoever did this had a lot of anger, and I suspect they aren't over it. But you should both consider yourselves lucky."
Jeff and Major both looked at her oddly. She nodded toward Jeff. "You escaped just before the curse could take effect. I can see it's traces. Another few seconds and you'd have been turned into a cow."
Jeff blinked. "A cow? Not a horse? And you mean a bull, right?"
She shook her head. "No, I meant a cow. It's one of the oddities of this thing. I didn't realize it fully when I saw Trent the first time, but seeing the dominate haze around you confirms it. It was designed to turn humans into one of about a dozen different type of animal, and sex didn't matter. I can't tell, but specific animals may have been the template, and all are farm animals."
Jeff shuddered at the thought. A few more seconds and he'd have been burgers. "I had no idea." Then he looked at the horse. "Why's he so lucky, then?"
She smiled. "Because of all the possibilities, he turned into about the only one that isn't used first for food." She massaged the horses nose a bit. "Besides, he turned out rather handsome, don't you think?"
"Sweet mother off..." Liz's voice trailed off a second. "Will you stand still?"
Major shifted his legs one more time for good measure then decided to get still. He whickered once, for all the world sounding like a laugh, but didn't move again.
Liz turned to Jeff. "Is he usually like this?"
Jeff laughed. "This is one of his good days, at least around me."
She sighed and pressed her hands against the horses cheek. He made a move to lip her on the face, but didn't get the chance. Instead Liz grabbed the halter and came close to slapping him. "One more move like that and I'm outta here." She said, bristling. "I didn't move all this way to clean up someone else's mess and to deal with this!" She tugged the halter once more. "Got it?"
Major looked a appropriately cowed. It was his behavior that surprised Jeff to no end. His friend could be a royal pain in the ass, but he usually had a better grasp of self preservation than this. This woman could royally screw him just by walking out the door, and the jackass knew it.
With his head again steady, Liz started looking intently at him, almost seeming to look through him. The horse stood almost shock still, the woman was intent, and Jeff was bored as a post. He stood up and stretched, and opened his mouth to speak.
Liz shot a hand out from Majors face and pointed straight at him. He felt his throat feel strange for a second, and when the words started to come out of his mouth was a quiet 'moo'. He took a deep breath in, half expecting to fall to all fours, but the other shoe never dropped. He stood there staring at the horse and woman for what seemed like forever, too scared to move.
Finally, Liz pulled her hands away from Majors face, patting it lightly. "Okay, Major. Go get a drink." She turned and looked at Jeff, who still didn't move. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that to you." She walked over and took him by the hand, guiding him over to a bench. "It was only an illusion, though. I didn't activate the curse."
He looked at her darkly. "Truth?" he said, half surprised that his voice was human.
She smiled a bit. "Still don't trust me, do you?"
He just stared at her. "You were going to turn me into a cow for interrupting you! What am I supposed to think?"
She just clucked her tongue. "If I was going to do that, you'd be chewing cud right now. Com'on. I'm here to help. If I had something sinister in mind, don't you think I could have done it already?"
Jeff turned his head to look over at the gray stallion, now grazing quietly in the pasture. "Then why are you here? What's in this for you?"
She didn't answer for a long time, instead she looked out toward Major. Finally, she said wistfully, "For him."
Jeff wasn't slow on the uptake, but he first assumed she meant that altruistically, that she saw a man in trouble and wanted to help. Then he took a look at the way she was staring at the horse. "Oh, no. You don't mean what I think you mean, do you?"
She didn't take her eyes off the horse. "Why not?" she asked. "If I rescue him, he'll probably come to love me."
Jeff felt a pit in his stomach. "Liz, you don't even know him! Right now, he's only got eyes for..."
"Elaine." She spat. "I know." Her expression softened. "But I'm not worried. He'll come around. He will." She jumped up and walked out to the pasture to run her fingers through his mane.
Jeff just stared at her, now more afraid of her than ever.
Jeff opened the side door of the trailer and took a look at Major. The horse blinked at the sudden beam of sunlight, a rumble sounding from his throat, but otherwise he didn't react. He reached out and scratched the horse behind the ears. "Enjoy the ride?" Major snorted a little, but seemed to ignore the question.
Elaine stepped up behind him. "Why don't you let me back him out. You remember what happened the last time?" she said with a smile.
Jeff stepped out of the trailer and bowed to her. "After you." When she stepped in, he walked to the back and opened it up. Without a moments fuss, the horse was out the door.
More for show than any actual necessity, Jeff took hold of the lead line while Elaine undid the wraps around Majors legs. As she tossed one of them aside, she looked up and around. "I thought your photographer friend was coming out."
Jeff felt a chill despite the muggy morning. "She'll be here." He said a little more darkly than he intended. "She was right behind us when we left."
Elaine nodded. "I hope she makes it. She seemed so interested in watching."
Jeff bit his tongue. He didn't want to start bad mouthing Liz around Elaine. He had the impression that her life would be much easier later if she didn't do something to personally offend Liz. The fact of the matter was that she was right, Liz had been very interested in watching this, even if it was just amateur show jumping. She'd been very excited right up until the point that she found out that they'd arranged to borrow Elaine's trailer.
Liz walked around the front of the truck. "There you all are!" She said with a sugary sweet voice. "I've been looking all over for you."
Elaine pulled the last wrap off and glanced up. "We just got here about five minutes ago. Did we lose you on the drive over?"
Jeff was sure he was the only one that saw the cloud that wavered over Liz's face. He'd been looking for it. "For a bit. I guess that wasn't what you meant to do."
Neither Elaine or Major seemed to pick up her mood. Elaine reached over and took the lead line from Jeff's hands. "I'll go lunge him a bit, why don't you get the tack together. We'll be back in a few."
The moment that they were out of earshot, Liz looked angrily at Jeff. "How many times do I have to keep telling you two that it's dangerous for her to be around?"
Jeff sighed as he pulled the saddle from the bed of the truck. "Look, Liz, it wasn't something we could avoid. We've been signed up for this for over a month, since before you even knew about him. If we'd cancelled, then she would have come over to make sure he wasn't hurt or something."
Liz glowered at him, opening her mouth to say something a couple of times, but finally stopped and shrugged. "Fine, but tonight I'm having another talk with him." She walked over and sat on the trailers running board. "If he won't listen to me, then..." her voice trailed off, and she stared straight into the grass.
Jeff put a hand on her shoulder. "Liz, it's been a month now. He's not falling for you. Whether you help him or not, you've got to let that go." She didn't respond at all. "He doesn't love you."
Slowly, she raised her head, her eyes brimming with tears. "He'd better."
"This is a really bad idea. A really bad idea."
Trent shot Jeff an angry look. "Shut up and hand me my shoes." He gave his dark socks another tug. "What Liz doesn't know won't hurt her." He muttered as he tugged his shoes on. He jumped to his feet. "How do I look?"
Jeff sighed in defeat. "Fine, but I wasn't really thinking about Liz this time. I'm more worried about Tyler."
Trent walked out of the barn, letting Jeff trail behind. "He had to go to Phoenix on business. It's my one shot at Elaine. I heard that they've been having trouble."
Jeff just muttered something unintelligible and stalked off back to the barn. He had known this day was coming for a couple of weeks, ever since that second long talk. She'd spent half the night detailing what she'd been doing to try and cure him, telling him how much time and effort she had been expending, and then ended by telling the over-hormoned, undersexed young man turned over-hormoned, undersexed stallion that he should avoid Elaine Maher. She used the excuse that she was some kind of "natural", that she manipulated the forces that trapped Trent without realizing it. With an accidental thought, she insisted, Elaine could reactivate the curse.
Jeff suspected now that Liz was lying, but either way Trent didn't give a damn. She might as well have told a five year old to put down a candy bar because it was bad for him.
After a couple of weeks, Liz had flown back in Chicago for a couple of days to gather the last of her belongings. Trent took it as an open invitation to ignore her. No sooner was he human again than he was heading out the door, and Jeff didn't have the energy or the will to stop him. He heard the car start up and pull out down the gravel driveway. Trent wouldn't be back for a while.
He went back to the barn and sat on a hay bale. Trent thought that he came out here so many evenings to keep him company, but the truth was that it was usually a relaxing place to think. Even when Major was in a stall, there wasn't much said. He gazed out the open door into the clear, cold night sky, his mind churning.
He idly heard a car coming up the driveway, but figured that it must have just been Trent coming back early. It wasn't until he saw the gray sedan that he realized that it was Liz. She got out and first started toward the house, but then turned toward the barn, looking directly at Jeff. Even in the dark, he could see that there was a fire in her eyes.
"Hi Liz." He said pleasantly. "Aren't you supposed to be..."
"He couldn't listen, could he?" she yelled as she walked up. "That damn idiot and his raging hormones."
He held up a hand. "Liz, calm down..."
Her gaze bored into him. "I will not calm down! I've been working my ass off for two months to save his sorry hide and this is the respect that he shows me?" She seethed for a few seconds. "Where the hell is he?"
Jeff held up his hands. "He didn't tell me where he was meeting--Gagh!" His throat tightened and twisted, and a wave of unease flowed over him.
She reached out and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, twisting tightly. "I'll ask this again, and if I don't like the answer, you're going to be the latest addition to the dairy farm! Where the hell is he?"
For about a split second, he was torn between protecting his friend and his life. In that split second, Trent lost in a big way. "Lighthouse Tavern, in Concord!" he croaked out.
"You're not lying to me, are you?" she shouted into his face.
Jeff started to feel funny, and he somehow knew that she was starting to transform him. "No! God no!" he managed to squeeze out.
She shoved him to the ground, then took a few steps toward her car. Then she stopped and spun around on her heels, looking squarely at Jeff. Her expression was suddenly softer, almost like a completely different person. "I'm sorry. You've been nice to me, even though I know you didn't trust me." She paused, then said apologetically, "But I can't let you warn Trent." She waved a hand in the air.
Jeff's clothes suddenly felt tight, then he heard the tearing of fabric as his form grew out of them. He let out a scream of terror, but to his ears all that he heard was the cry of a panicked horse. He leapt to his hooves, eyes wide and nostrils flaring in fear.
Liz looked downright upset, but managed a slight smile. "Don't worry, I didn't curse you like Trent. Whether you ever see me again or not, you'll turn human at dawn. For now, you're a copy of Major." She walked quickly over to her car and jumped in. Jeff jumped slightly at the sound as the engine started up, then shot out of the yard, spreading gravel behind it.
Jeff stood in the yard for a long time, trying to calm his breathing down. He closed his eyes, praying to anyone that would listen that Liz hadn't lied to him. With a final, slow breath, he turned and walked back to the barn to wait for dawn. It was going to be a long night.
The funny thing about people is that they have no ability to tell time without a clock. Jeff pondered that more than once as he chewed a mouthful of grass, trying to quell his growing panic by eating. Giving up on the weeds, he wandered back into the barn to look for something a little more tasty.
His watch, an old digital, was still wrapped around his left front leg, but there wasn't nearly enough light to see it. So left to his own thoughts, all that the gray stallion could do was eat and watch the stars thought the barn door. He figured a couple of hours had passed since Liz had torn down the driveway, leaving him like this. There was no telling what she'd done by now, and it worried the hell out of him. The odd part was, he wasn't so worried about Trent, it was Elaine.
The part that he hated was that all he could do was wait.
He figured it was almost midnight before he heard a car coming down the driveway. He recognized instantly the humming of Trent's sports car as is practically slid to a stop outside the barn. Jeff suddenly felt sick, not sure what he was about to see.
Even before the barn light clicked on, Jeff recognized Trent and Elaine's voices. At first, he couldn't make out what they were saying, but as they stepped into the open door, Elaine asked, "What is it that you wanted to show me?" Jeff picked that moment to let out a loud whinny.
The lights suddenly clicked on, revealing the horse standing in the middle of the barn. Trent looked suddenly very, very sick. "Oh my God." He stammered.
Elaine stepped slowly over to the wall where a rope was hung. "How'd he get out?" she asked quietly. She pulled the rope off the peg and started toward the horse she thought was Major.
Trent took a sudden step forward and grabbed her by the shoulder. She turned to question him, but he held a finger to his lips, never taking his eyes off the horse. "Jeff?" he asked quietly.
Jeff nodded vigorously, punctuating it with another whinny.
Trent looked scared to death. He started pulling Elaine out the door. "Forget it, we've got to get out of here!" He looked at the horse. "I'm sorry, but..."
"You bet your ass you're sorry." Interrupted a loud voice from the doorway. They all turned to find Liz standing there, her face flushed. She took a couple more steps in, and almost stumbled. From across the room, Jeff could smell the liquor on her breath. "I can't believe that you love her over me!" she said angrily. "After all I've done for you."
Trent didn't seem to know what to say, or was at the least looking more for an exit than an argument. Finally, he spoke his carefully picked words. "What exactly have you done for me?"
Jeff wanted to kick him. Hard.
Liz boiled over. "You bastard!" she shouted. "I'm the only one who could love you as an equal! As a human and animal!" She looked at Elaine and spat, "If you want her so badly, then why don't we make you two a matched set!" She quickly raised an arm and pointed it at Elaine.
Perhaps instinctively, the young woman who still had no idea what was going on, raised her own arms to protect herself. That's when Jeff realized that Liz hadn't lied about everything. Elaine was indeed a natural.
The air seemed to ripple and fold around her, taking on a life of its own, but Elaine didn't change in the slightest. Instead, the swirl of air and dust slowly started to move away from her, and then found the next most convenient target.
He barely had time to take a step backward before he tore out of his clothes, falling backward to the floor, his four legs dangling in the air.
That's when Liz screamed. Her spell had touched a trap on the curse.
The beautiful young woman squealed, looking pleadingly at Jeff as her human features vanished, absorbed into the gray features of the horse she had become. Her new legs seemed to buckled under her the moment that her forehooves hit the floor, and she fell hard.
Then the room became deathly quiet.
Trent still lay on his back, peering straight up at the ceiling, stunned. Liz had passed out and Elaine was close to hyperventilating. Jeff didn't know what else to do, so he stepped forward and nuzzled the terrified young woman. Instinctively, she reached up and rubbed him on the nose, then looked around the room again, and back at him. "Y-You really are Jeff, aren't you?"
He nodded slightly, not wanting to move his head away from the feeling of the rubbing on his nose.
Jeff heard the doorbell and jogged down the stairs. He swung the door open, already knowing who he'd find. "Elaine! Tyler! How was the honeymoon?"
"Just great." She replied. "Madrid is perfect this time of year."
Tyler hugged her tighter. "It's all the better with you around." She giggled and kissed him.
Jeff resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "I take it you wanted to see the new foal?"
Tyler sighed. "She does, not me. You mind if I grab a drink while you two go play with the horses?"
Jeff beckoned him into the house. "There's soda and juice in kitchen, help yourself." They stepped around each other, and Jeff headed down the steps with Elaine. "Never thought you would marry someone who wasn't a horse person."
She stifled a laugh. "Came pretty close, wouldn't you say?" She sighed. "He's okay, though. I'll turn him around." She looked out at the pasture, seeing one of the horses grazing at the far end. "Which one is that?"
He squinted. "Major, I'm sure. The foal is always with the mother right now. They're probably behind the barn, in the shade."
She nodded. "How old is she? A week?"
"Ten days, I think. Maybe eleven. Very pretty."
She sighed. "How are they taking it?"
Jeff sighed. "What'd you expect, I guess. I don't think that any part of Liz is left anymore. Either she's been erased or she's pushing away her humanity."
"What about Trent?"
Jeff chuckled. "Surprisingly well, considering."
"He's still there, right?"
Jeff nodded. "Oh yeah, Trent is in there, but I don't think that the human side is as important as it was to him anymore. The instincts are pretty strong, though. Otherwise this wouldn't have happened in the first place." Jeff stopped and put his hand on Elaine's shoulder. "I think that he's made it thorough this because he convinced himself that he's a hero. He remembers that he threw himself between you and Liz, and took the spell meant for you."
She chuckled. "I won't tell him different, trust me." She nodded over to the barn. "Let's go. I haven't seen him for a couple months."
Jeff started walking again. "Trent can't wait to see you either." They passed through the barn and out the back door, finding the mare and foal laying side by side in the shade. The mare turned her head quickly at the newcomers, then whickered quietly when she recognized them. She didn't make a move, though, lest she disturb the foal. Jeff shook his head a bit. "Who would have thought?" he asked quietly.
"Thought what?" asked Elaine as they edged closer to the pair.
He chuckled and ran a hand over the mares neck. "That such an arrogant S.O.B. would make a good mother-Yow!" Jeff clutched his bitten hand to his chest. "Damn it, Trent!"
Elaine chuckled and rubbed the mare behind the ears. "Some things never change. You still like me, right?" Trent whickered lightly and bent in to her scratching.
Jeff just took a few steps back. At least he knew that Trent wouldn't hurt Elaine. He glanced into the pasture to where Major was still grazing.
In the end, Liz had gotten what she wanted.