New Account Registration re-enabled - apparently the extension we use for ReCaptcha service had a configuration change and to utilize the more secure form it needed different parameters. We did not notice this when it occurred. Sorry folks!
“Look, it’s Sir Dungheap! All hail the valiant Knight on his noble steed.” The gate guards laughed and made exaggerated bows as Peren plodded out of the castle on his shaggy, plodding Percheron who had the unlikely name of Thunder. While the stable boy ignored the oft repeated insults, the mottled gray stallion lifted his tail and dropped some fragrant replies without breaking his shuffling gait. Fortunately, the guards were used to such events, and did nothing more than grumble as ‘Sir Dungheap’ continued down the road into town.
As soon as they were out of view, the animal’s posture and bearing underwent a dramatic change. His distended belly sucked back in, the drooping head came up, and his shuffling gait turned into the prancing of a noble’s steed. Thunder whickered with such obvious amusement that Peren chuckled. “If they knew you did that on purpose, they’d have probably cut your balls off.”
Thunder snorted and shook his head.
“You don’t think so?” Peren patted the thickly-muscled neck. “Well, you don’t know those guys as well as I do. And then what would you do? A gelded plow horse isn’t a big deal, but it might be hard to explain when the time came for you to take a Queen.”
This time, the horse squealed and shook his head violently, causing Peren to pale slightly. “I’m sorry, sire. I meant no offense.”
Thunder, or more accurately, Prince Baylor, heir to the crown, snorted and picked up his pace. As much as he enjoyed this equine disguise, he was much more interested in getting into town and changing back so he could meet Gwynn. And spend several pleasurable hours making use of the very body parts Peren had been joking about.
He wondered how his father might react to this charade. While the land was at peace and the peasants were mostly happy with the King’s rule, there were always enemies for those in power. Enemies who would love to seize the heir to the throne for blackmail, ransom, or worse. As a result, Baylor was forbidden to leave the castle without a formal escort. The gate guards actually had standing orders to detain him forcibly if necessary.
OK, he didn’t have to wonder. His father would have a royal purple-faced conniption. Not so much for defying orders, though that was certainly bad enough. No, it was his disguise that would send his father into an apoplectic rage. Baylor was playing with forces that many brave knights would run from. And not without good reason. The halter that turned him from Prince to plow horse might have been cursed to be permanent.
Baylor slowed suddenly, realizing they were on a different road than the one Peren usually took into town. He’d slipped into the equine personality that came with this form and followed signals from his rider’s legs without thinking.
The stable boy patted his neck reassuringly. “The town is going to be crammed with people today – it’s Festival, remember? This old path is too narrow for wagons further in, so almost nobody uses it any more. Probably save us an hour getting to the Lamb’s Eye.”
Where Gwynn would be waiting. Although the serving girl wasn’t as pretty as some of the pampered ladies he was normally surrounded with, she was quite shapely, and more importantly, willing to romp. He picked up his pace again, eager to get to the Tavern. It had been almost a week since he could slip away long enough for a tryst, and not a single girl in the castle would dally with him since a chambermaid’s bragging had reached his father’s ears.
The resulting tirade had left him a social untouchable –. Baylor was expected to ‘save’ himself for the Princess Alexia – the barely-pubescent daughter of a long-time ally. She was a gawky-looking kid who would probably be passably attractive by the time they were married. Two years from now.
Forced celibacy was frustrating to say the very least. He had tried sneaking out, only to be caught by the guards. Rather ironically, the resulting punishment had been the key to his eventual success. His father had ordered him to spend time in the stable, learning the proper care of horses. Common labor, ill befitting a noble! Granted, he wasn’t expected to muck stalls, but why should he have to pick hooves, or brush and curry some dumb animal’s coat?
Sudden movement made him jerk his head around. Cursed squirrels. Even though he knew it was safe, Baylor couldn’t quite suppress animal instincts. This path was unfamiliar territory, and the equine personality was nervous. It was a good thing he had Peren to guide him.
The stable boy was uncharacteristically silent today. Perhaps he was picking up Baylor’s nervousness. While Peren wasn’t the brightest candle in the stable, he did have a good rapport with his charges. That included Baylor when he was in equine form – something about the youth instilled a sense of trust and comfort. Which was one reason why he tolerated Peren’s occasional lapses of propriety.
In any other circumstances, they would have never spoken to each other. Even disregarding the enormous gulf between social standings, the two were as opposite as they could get. Baylor was classically handsome, with white-blonde hair and deep blue eyes. Quick witted and somewhat rebellious, the Prince was always testing his limits, as well as the patience of others.
Peren had coarse features and a tangle of nearly black hair that looked as if it had never seen a brush. His heavily freckled skin bore scars and bruises from equine teeth, and his nose had been reshaped by more than one hoof. Given Peren’s dirty and somewhat dim appearance, it was just as well that he seemed to have no ambitions beyond his mucking fork.
The impression of slow-wittedness was reinforced by the boy’s cheerful enthusiasm for menial labor and an almost puppy-like eagerness to please. Baylor had been quick to seize on that trait when the boy showed up during his second week of enforced stable training. Feigned ignorance and intentional mistakes quickly lured Peren into helping the Prince with his duties, to the point that all Baylor had to do was sit back and maintain an illusion of friendship.
He could smell the Festival now, a mix of sweat, burning coals, and filth. On the bright side, his equine nostrils found the odors interesting rather than offensive. That would change when Peren removed the halter and he reverted to human form. After the Castle’s perfumed elegance, the stench of the Lamb’s Eye was enough to make his eyes water. Hopefully, Gwynn would be able to slip away quickly.
A faint babble of sounds drifted through the trees. Baylor was almost sorry they hadn’t gone through the Festival. Entertainment at court tended to be wailing bards or traveling acting groups. He rather fancied watching a good bear-baiting, or some of the other activities that his father deemed too undignified for the Castle. Perhaps there would be time after his tryst with Gwynn… but no, he couldn’t risk being seen.
Not that any of his subjects would recognize him in the wretched clothing Peren provided as a disguise. Most had never seen him up close, and none would expect the Prince of the Realm to be dressed as a stable hand. However, he still stood out in any crowd like a pearl among pebbles. Admiring eyes followed him wherever he went. It was no wonder that he had become such a magnificent horse.
He wondered what the halter would have made of Peren. A common mule, perhaps. He wasn’t likely to find out. The stable boy was terrified of magic – it was lucky that Baylor had been close by when Peren discovered the artifact in the old section.
There was no telling how long the magic tack had been buried in old straw – that part of the stable hadn’t been used in years. It had most likely been used by someone who needed a disguise to get into the castle, rather than out of it. Peren had recognized the halter’s nature only because of the perfect condition of the leather. Any normal harness would have been ruined by the musty old fodder.
For once, Baylor had been thankful for the tedious studies his father insisted on. With help from a few tomes pilfered from the Court Wizard’s library, he had deciphered the magic runes embossed into the straps. Using the harness was simple – put it on and you turned into a horse – take it off and you changed back. Still, he might never have actually tried it if the King had not forced him to apologize for being rude to a visiting Count. Furious at the public humiliation, Baylor had decided he would get revenge by sneaking out of the castle. Using the harness.
Funny to think how terrified he had been just a few weeks ago. Still, he had been determined to punish his father – in the back of his mind, he had even thought how anguished the King would be if the transformation had been permanent. That first time had been painful due to an error on his part – the magic affected the body, not anything on it – and he had not stripped first. Other than that, however, turning into an animal had turned out to be no more dangerous and far easier than changing a suit of clothing.
The road branched off ahead, and he responded to Peren’s guidance towards the left. Unless Baylor concentrated on maintaining control, his equine personality tended to come to the forefront whenever he was Thunder. The sudden and drastic changes in perception had been scary at first. Not just the animal senses, or even the mass and size of being a draft horse. He found himself reacting to strange noises and movements, the most trivial nonsense creating a momentary flash of fear. And there was an underlying sense of subservience that he found quite distasteful.
However, once he got used to it, Thunder’s mindset wasn’t all bad. The closest comparison he had come up with was being pleasantly drunk. Aside from the occasional squirrel or other small distraction, he tended to find the world a very relaxing, comfortable place. Like now. Plodding along the road with Peren on his back, it was easy to enjoy warm sun and rich scents.
Speaking of which – his nostrils quivered, sorting out the mix of odors drifting with the breeze. Several humans and a horse were ahead, either stopped or moving slowly towards them. Baylor was fascinated by the amount of information his nostrils provided. Both humans were male, one an older man with an underlying smell of expensive tobacco, the other much younger and wearing some of the perfume popular with the nobles. However, it was the equine scent that proved most interesting. A mare, obviously, but her odor was different from any he had encountered before. There was warmth to it that touched his thoughts and sent tendrils of heat into his loins.
The source appeared on the trail ahead of them in a few minutes. A wagon loaded down with casks and barrels blocked the path ahead. It was facing away from them – the driver must have tried squeezing between the oaks and gotten the rear wheels wedged. A mousey-looking young man in a traveling cloak was shoving at the back as they approached, and turned to wave with a relieved smile.
“Oh, am I glad to see you!” The traveler looked up as they approached. “We were heading into town and took a wrong turn. Now we’re jammed between the trees. Can you give us a hand?”
A balding, slightly pudgy fellow with the rumpled brown robes of a friar had stood up from the driver’s seat. “We’ll pay, of course. Poor Buttercup just can’t get enough leverage by herself. I’m sure that handsome fellow of yours can pluck us out without breaking a sweat.”
Baylor snorted, indignation making him forget the still-unseen mare for the time being. As if . . .
“We’d be glad to help!”
He jerked his head around to stare at Peren, who flushed suddenly and then looked flustered. After a moment, the boy leaned close and whispered in his ear. “I’m sorry, Sire. I wasn’t thinking. But he is a man of the cloth, and it would only take a moment. Anyway, aren’t you curious about your strength?”
“I’ll pay you a silver.” The Friar held up a coin purse and shook it, jingling what he obviously thought was an impressive amount of wealth.
“Oh, I couldn’t take money from the Church, sir!” Peren’s refusal was surprising – while a silver was less than nothing to a member of the royal family, it was a week’s wages for the stable boy.
Baylor flicked his ears back and forth. By all rights he should snatch the impudent servant from his back with his teeth and trample him on the spot for even suggesting that the heir to the crown demean himself with common labor. On the other hand, the Friar had called him handsome, and it might be fun to see just how powerful this stallion’s form was. He whuffled, and tossed his head in a nodding gesture.
Judging from his bemused expression, the Friar found the exchange curious, but motioned to the right without commenting. “There is a gap in the trees over here. If you will work your way around front, I’ll lay out the harness.”
By the time they eased through the close-set trunks, the rotund man had hefted a roll of leather straps from under his seat and jumped down to the ground. “We usually have a team pull the wagon when it is loaded down, but Buttercup’s sister wasn’t feeling well this morning.”
The mare in question was almost as big as Baylor, though the heavy feathering around her hooves marked her as a Clydesdale. She was most likely golden brown and white to human eyes. As they approached, she twisted her head to look at Baylor and whickered, her ears perked forward in curiosity. He arched his neck and pranced slightly, pleased by her open admiration. It seemed that he was quite the rake in any form.
Intent on showing off, Baylor stepped smartly into position without any guidance from his rider. Peren patted his neck and slid off so the heavy tack could be draped in position. The two travelers buckled up the straps with the ease of long practice, and even Baylor found the routine oddly familiar. Part of Thunder’s personality, he supposed, though his attention was focused more on Buttercup than the humans.
The mare found him equally interesting, and they snuffled and lipped each other’s muzzles until the mousey youth moved in front of them and took hold of their halters. He clucked his tongue and pulled forward gently. “Come on Buttercup, Thunder. Just a nice, easy pull.”
All business now, the Clyde leaned into her straps. Baylor followed suit, and after a barely perceptible resistance, the wagon immediately rolled forward. The sensation of power was intoxicating. Up to now, the most he had done was carry the stable boy on his back. In contrast, the wagon was fully loaded with casks, the wooden wheels creaking under their weight. He could sense the mass, and was surprised they were using a lone mare to pull.
When they didn’t stop after clearing the obstruction, he realized the Friar was hoping to extend the extra pulling power a bit. Unfortunately, the royal heir to the throne had never been instructed in pulling a wagon, and after clipping Buttercup a couple of times with his hooves, the mare snapped at him. Baylor was annoyed and also a little flustered – a future King should be able to master something so simple.
The answer came unexpectedly – as he groused to himself about his failure, his rhythm smoothed out and his legs began working in concert with his teammate. As long as he didn’t actively think about what he was doing, Thunder’s personality took over.
Though he would never admit it, Baylor found the exercise satisfying in a way he couldn’t quite identify. It was easy to settle into a dull contentment that was enhanced by the warm scent of the mare beside him. The equine identity had never felt so complete before, but then, this was what a horse like Thunder was bred to do.
As expected, they had to make a number of turns and detours around rough or narrow portions of the old path. Curiously, he began to anticipate each change of direction, nostrils following a trace of something familiar. Buttercup. No wonder the mare could lead them so easily – they were backtracking the way she had come. Something about that was mildly puzzling, but Baylor couldn’t quite work up enough interest to follow the thought through.
They finally emerged on the main road, moving against a steady flow of travelers, animals, and wagons. However, he and Buttercup presented a formidable presence and the congestion parted before them. Baylor caught many admiring looks and brought his head up proudly. Although Buttercup was leading the team, she picked up his posture and bearing as they continued.
Traffic began to thin after a while, until they were almost alone on the road again. Buttercup’s scent had been lost amid the mass of odors earlier, but he caught it again as they turned off onto another side road. The Clydesdale’s ears perked, and she increased the pace. Obviously, the mare was eager to reach their destination.
Anticipation built within him as well, especially when the new path opened up to an expanse of rolling fields. The Friar guided them towards a cluster of buildings, stopping next to a large pasture. Peren came up to hold his halter while the mousey fellow undid the straps of the wagon harness. By this time, Buttercup was practically prancing in place, and Baylor couldn’t help pick up her excitement. He nearly pulled loose from Peren when she bolted through the open gate, charging after her as soon as he was released.
While pulling the wagon has been satisfying, it was wonderful to be free of the harness’s confinement. He galloped across the grass, stopping occasionally to kick up his heels like a foal. A small, clear pool slaked his thirst, and he found that the lush grass was quite tasty. As he pulled up a mouthful, he saw Buttercup flop down on her side, and then twist on her back with all four legs flailing in the air. Curious, he watched as she rolled back to her side, then repeated the action a few times, finally pushing back up to her hooves and shaking herself.
The mare’s scent had been teasing him all day, and now that they were able to move freely, he found himself drifting closer to her. She watched him warily as she grazed, snorting and trotting a bit further away, then shuffling a step or two closer. While the exact circumstances were new, he had no trouble recognizing his own reaction.
Baylor had urinated as a horse several times in the past, and had experienced the odd sense of his maleness dropping into public view. He was a little surprised to discover that Buttercup was the only audience this time, for all three humans had gone into one of the buildings. Although he did feel a little annoyed that Peren would leave him out in the pasture, it did present him with an opportunity to try out the one part of being a stallion that he had thus far been denied.
The mare proved to be considerably more difficult to entice than Gwynn – he was increasingly frustrated by Buttercup’s unpredictable responses to his advances. She laid her ears back and snapped at him the first time he nudged her rump, and seemingly presented herself to him a few minutes later only to kick at his approach. This went on quite a while, his stubborn persistence fueled by Thunder’s lust and Baylor’s determination not to be bested by an animal.
Acceptance came abruptly. She dropped her head and twisted her tail out of the way, front legs stretched out slightly. Baylor’s equine personality needed no further prompting, taking control with such force that human perception was obliterated. He mounted her as a stallion, driven by Thunder’s needs and instincts.
Gwynn was nibbling at his ear. Baylor came awake, but didn’t respond at first. He wanted to hang onto the afterglow of incredible sex, but the girl habit of babbling on about herself as soon as she had his attention. It was his fault, he supposed, but feigning interest in her was what kept her legs spread. Happily, she did not seem to be in a talkative mood for once. Her lips drifted down to pull gently at his brow, then slid back down his neck to tug on his… mane?
Jerking his head up, Baylor realized he was lying on his side in the fenced pasture, not the dark and dirty confines of the Lamb’s Eye. More importantly, the amorous attentions were coming from Buttercup. Rolling to his belly, he pushed up to al fours and shook himself. The mare snuffled at him, her breath warm and sweet with clover. He stared at her, trying to resolve ingrained revulsion at coupling with an animal with an almost primal sense of satisfaction.
Even though Thunder had been in control, memories of the afternoon’s activities were vivid. He found himself feeling curiously pleased with his conquest. Buttercup had been infinitively more difficult to bed than any human female he had been with, which might explain his sense of accomplishment. However, that line of thought also reminded him of Gwynn. The sun was already on its way down now - there would be no time to tryst with her now. He snorted indignantly. Peren had left him out in the pasture all afternoon!
Trotting to the gate, Baylor whinnied loudly and pawed at the ground impatiently. Where were they, anyway? He tried to focus equine eyes on the buildings. This did not look like any kind of monastery. The structures he could make out were more in keeping with a small estate or working farm, solid and new-looking, but lacking the size and ornamentation common to a noble’s manor. The home of a merchant?
What had that fool Peren gotten them into? He neighed and trotted back and forth along the fence anxiously. There were no signs of life. Even the wagon had been left by the gate, still loaded down with casks and barrels. Shouldn’t there be servants around? He struggled to remember the trip here. Most of the journey was a blur – literally and figuratively. Detail was lost at any distance, and while he wasn’t quite totally color-blind, most everything appeared to be tinted over brown canvas.
They had left the castle mid-morning. Even allowing for a short delay to free the wagon, they must have been on the road for hours! Damn! It would take just as long to get back, and time was running out. Baylor had told various lies to parents, instructors, and servants in order to cover his absence today – as long as he was back in the castle by breakfast, no one would be the wiser. However, his absence would trigger a panicked search. And discovery. He stomped his hoof angrily. It was all Peren’s fault! They should never have. . ..
Baylor was startled by teeth closing on his side, and he jerked around to see Buttercup standing next to him. The mare rubbed her muzzle across his back, and then swung her rump around and bumped against him in obvious invitation. His upper lip curled, trapping her delicious scent in his nostrils. No conversation, no demands, no complications. Buttercup definitely had some advantages over her human counterpart.
And so did Thunder. His loins stirred in response to the Clydesdale’s overtures, though instinct was not so overpowering this time. He could resist if he wanted to, but why? Sure, she was a horse. But so was he, at least for the rest of the afternoon. If he had to miss out on Gwynn, why not make the most of what he had here? As he turned to position himself, Buttercup whickered and bolted suddenly, running across the pasture with her tail flagging. He gave chase with a squeal of protest, encouraged by the promise of pleasures to come.
The sun was a dim glow on the horizon when Baylor finally shook off the pleasant stupor of sated lust. He almost hated to leave – life as Thunder was certainly relaxed, and for all her teasing, the mare made a pleasant companion. Well, at least for now. Her interest in sex would fade pretty quickly now that she had been covered. Would there be a foal? He snorted. Yet another advantage over Gwynn – he had no worries of some bastard brat causing trouble later. Such problems were not all that hard to have removed, but it was nice to avoid the complications.
It was time to go. Traveling at night would take longer, and was considerably riskier. However, Peren was most likely safe from highwaymen. Not that Baylor was concerned for the boy, but getting into the castle without a rider might be difficult. At the very least, it would draw unwelcome attention. He returned to the gate and whinnied loudly.
“What’s the matter, fellah?” A familiar voice came from the shadows where the fence butted up to a large barn. The mousey-looking young man stepped out of the darkness and leaned against the top rail. He must have been watching them for a while, or Baylor would have seen him approaching. “Only two times? I’d think you were good for more than that.”
Snorting, Baylor pointedly turned away from the impudent peasant and whinnied again. Where was Peren? He would have the stable boy whipped for this negligence. Stretching his head over the fence, he neighed another demand for his keeper. If the boy didn’t come soon…
“I’m the only one here.” The young man shook his head. “The others left while you were making use of the royal jewels. Relax and enjoy yourself. This is your home now.”
His home? Baylor stared at the human, not wanting to believe what his mind suddenly knew was the truth. The stable hand had abandoned him here! Even worse, sold him as common livestock. Peren would be flayed alive when he was caught! When the King found out. . . Baylor’s thoughts did an abrupt about-face as something the young man had said suddenly registered. ‘Royal jewels’?
As if reading his thoughts, the mousey fellow gave him a sad smile. “That’s right, your highness. Your disguise worked so well we’ve decided to let you keep wearing it. Say, twenty or so years.” It took a moment for Baylor to recover, but then he reared back in fury and charged the fence, intent on smashing through.
The frail-looking wooden rails should have snapped like twigs. Instead, it was as if he had slammed into the stone wall of a castle. Baylor staggered back, his chest burning. The pain was so intense that he couldn’t breathe at first, his massive body shuddering.
“Peren said you were stubborn.” The young man had jerked back at his approach, but leaned back on the rail. “Still, I hate to see an animal suffer needlessly. The entire fence is spelled against breakage. You can lean on it, or even stick your head over for a scritch. But if you try to break through anywhere, it will bite back. Hard.”
Baylor did not need a second lesson. It took several minutes to recover from the stunning force, and even then his chest ached dully. However, even the pain was forgotten as the young man’s words sank in. He had been kidnapped! Tricked and betrayed by a common stable hand. But why? If the scoundrel here was to be believed, they were going to keep him a horse for the rest of his life!
Ransom. That was the only answer. No political threat or favor would hold if he wasn’t returned unharmed and human. Curse Peren! The boy had pretended to be his friend, and played the fool to earn Baylor’s trust. How could he have been so blind? An item of power like the bridle would have been like a fiery beacon to the court wizards. There was no way it could have remained undiscovered for any length of time. Peren must have snuck it in somehow, and then ‘found’ it at just the right moment.
However, there was a problem with their plan. Baylor spun and galloped to the far side of the pasture, wanting to put as much distance between him and the young man as possible. All he had to do was get the halter off and he would change back. Granted, he’d be naked, but even without a weapon he was more than a match for the scrawny kidnapper. Then he could get back to the castle and take care of the traitorous Peren and his conspirators
The mousey fellow obviously didn’t have a clue, for he was stroking Buttercup. All the better. Baylor found a post end that jutted above the railings and hooked the chin strap on it. Then he tugged backwards to yank the enchanted straps off. Except that they didn’t budge. Bracing his forelegs, he jerked back harder this time – and was almost knocked senseless by the resulting jolt from the fence.
Baylor struggled to remain on his hooves, shaking his head to clear a haze of pain. Lines of fire seared his head and muzzle where the halter had cut into his hide. Bewildered, he realized that he had actually snapped the top of the post off, yet the seemingly loose straps were still in place.
“Only the person who put the halter on you can take it off.” The young man had come around the pasture while Baylor was recovering, and stood just beyond the fence with his arms folded. “At least, until the change is completed.” He sighed. “By this time tomorrow, you’ll be Thunder.”
This last was stated with such certainty that Baylor knew it was the truth. Cold fear clutched his gut. Once the magic had run its course, even a mage wouldn’t be able to tell him from a normal animal. The kidnappers would get a huge ransom, and use him as a beast of burden for the rest of his life.
He cried out in despair, the sound emerging as an equine squeal. There had to be a way to fight this! Searching his mind provided little encouragement. What little he had retained from his forced study of magic was fuzzy. But then, so was his knowledge of history, a favorite subject. Alarmed, he began casting about for bits of knowledge and skills.
It wasn’t so much what was missing that frightened him as much as the memories he found that didn’t belong: a fleeting image of a mare’s teat and the lingering sweetness of apples tasted by an equine tongue. His ability to work in harness, and God help him, his eager mounting of the mare, had all been Thunder.
The young man approached the fence slowly, apparently mistaking Baylor’s confusion as acceptance. “You’ll have a good life. They made sure that you became the very best animal possible. You are young and healthy, and a prime stud. And there will be a lot more mares, not just Buttercup.”
Sensations from the mating were still fresh enough to make that promise almost enticing. Except that he also remembered falling into the equine identity when he was pulling in harness. Content to drag a wagon, plodding along with no thoughts in his head. Even sex, as intense as it had been, was more a blind response to need than any intentional desire for pleasure.
No! He would not give in! Baylor backed up shaking his head violently. There was hope as long as he remained aware of the changes. Perhaps he could not remove the halter. But there were master wizards at court who could unravel any curse! All he had to do was get to the castle, let them see him. First, however, he had to escape this pasture.
He lunged forward and began galloping around the pasture, looking for any possible weakness in the barrier. The gate latch, perhaps? No, that was sure to have protection. Buttercup whickered as he passed her, trotting after as he started a second pass around. It was good to run like this, to feel the solid impact of hoof against soil, his mane and tail streaming like banners.
For a moment, Baylor forgot why he was running around the pasture. Only seeing the concerned look on the young kidnapper’s face reminded him of his intent, and at that moment the solution presented itself. Baylor put every bit of strength he had into a hard gallop directly at the fence, grunting with each powerful thrust of his legs. At the last moment before impact, he let Thunder take over. He heard the young man shout and his own triumphant whinny as he launched himself up and over the top rail of the fence.
Hitting the ground with enough force to make buildings shake, both Baylor and Thunder felt the rush of adrenaline and a sense of freedom. It was easy to work with the stallion part of his mind now, for they both wanted to keep running. For now, Baylor simply had to get as far from the farm as possible. Then he could figure out the best way home.
Darkness proved to be both a blessing and a curse. While the roads were free of travelers, the few landmarks he might have recognized were lost in shadows. At first, he was able to follow Buttercup’s scent, which was disturbingly imprinted in his mind. However, even that ended up lost among the fading odors of the day’s traffic.
He had to stop at the next intersection. There were three branches to follow, each looking equally valid. Damn! He was hours away from the castle, and had no idea where the farm was in relation. They had gone past the town, but in which direction? Frustrated, he chewed absently on a wooden board that sticking up from the ground.
A board? Something clicked in Baylor’s head and he backed up for a better look. There were obvious arrows pointing in each direction – a road sign! Elated, he shifted around to focus one eye on the crude letters that spelled out town names. That one was an ‘A’. An ‘M’ there, and what might be an ‘F’. He felt increasing frustration – who had written this out? Almost half the shapes were unidentifiable, but he realized the trouble wasn’t the sign painter. He was losing the ability to read.
Sick dread filled him – what if the loss was permanent? Forcing back despair, he concentrated on the symbols that did register. The Lamb’s Eye was in Calio. Kahahleeoohh.. Short, with an ‘ah’ sound. Two of the names were short, but only one had an ‘A’. There was no time for indecision. He made his best guess and started down the indicated path. A few hours would tell if he had foiled the kidnappers, or simply denied them a free work animal.
Nothing looked familiar, and as he trotted along, he began to fear he had made the wrong choice. But then a faint odor tickled his nostrils. The source was old dung mashed into the road by passing wheels and hooves. Not Buttercup’s, but still familiar. Male. Baylor jerked his nose away from the excrement with a snort. It was his own manure, dropped without thought as he plodded along next to the mare. He felt a touch of embarrassment, but then realized he was on the right path after all!
Without the sun as a guide, he had no idea what time it was, or even how long he had been on the road. Fatigue was starting to wear him down, and his belly was rumbling in protest despite his earlier grazing. The day had started early and been more active than usual, with a lot of unexpected excitement thrown into the mix. It was tempting to find a nice grassy field and graze for a while, but every moment he delayed allowed Thunder that much more control.
How long had the change been going? He had worn the halter five times before, though never more than an hour at a time. Though he hadn’t considered it before, Baylor realized that his fear of magic had evaporated after the first transformation. In truth, becoming Thunder had become a welcome escape from the increasingly frustrating pressure of endless classes and demeaning social responsibilities.
Baylor had never understood his father’s familiarity with the lower classes. Grandfather had been known as The Iron Hand, a man who had a personality as hard and cold as the metal he was named for. No one questioned his authority, and he certainly never apologized to some upstart noble for an offhand comment. It had given Baylor great pleasure to the traitorous servant responsible for poisoning him slowly tortured to death, for the old man had doted on his grandson.
The current King was a different matter. Instead of scourging the land in reprisal, he started a series of open councils with the various Lords. In effect, he was usurping his own power, giving underlings a voice in ruling the land. And it didn’t stop with nobility – his father treated servants with the respect that Grandfather would have reserved for a visiting Count!
True, there was prosperity and peace these days, but at what cost? Dukes and Earls seemed to regard themselves as social equals, and common stable boys actually thought they could be friends with the crown prince. Baylor snorted. It was a good thing Mother had died before Grandfather. She would have been mortified to see the shame his father had brought to the throne. All that would change when Baylor assumed the crown.
If he assumed the crown. That thought brought him up short. Of course! Some of his father’s advisors had openly criticized Baylor’s attitudes. And the King had not only allowed such gross disrespect, but attempted to council him in social responsibilities! Everyone had grown used to the permissive atmosphere and were justifiably afraid of being forced back into the proper social structure of a monarchy. Grandfather had always said that fear was the only real tool a monarch had. His father had ignored that advice, and now Baylor was paying the price.
He picked up his pace again, anger helping him forget his weariness. This was all beginning to make sense now. Treachery and treason within the castle. At least one of the royal wizards had to be in on the plot – perhaps all of them. That not only explained where Peren might have gotten the halter, but why its presence had been ignored. How many others were involved? Some of the power-mad Dukes, no doubt. And the stable master – how else would Peren have been positioned so conveniently?
Why bother with this transformation? Considering the magnitude of such a plot, it would have been far easier to simply kill him. No, that would have certainly set his father off. Though they rarely saw eye-to-eye on anything, the King would move heaven and earth for Baylor. Not that a disappearance would be much better. However, his absence could be covered for a while if enough people cooperated. Given the strained relationship with his father, they often didn’t see each other for days. As much as a week might go by before the King started asking questions. But what could the traitors accomplish in a week?
Nothing. At least, if he could get to the castle in time. All Baylor had to do was find his father. And then what? He wasn’t exactly going to be able to request an audience with the King. Besides, anyone who could actually tell his father the stallion was really his own son was likely to be in on the plot. This wasn’t going to be easy, but he still had a few hours to work things out.
Unfortunately, the energy gained from anger faded rather quickly and Baylor’s brisk trot slowed to a canter, and then finally to a plodding shuffle. His muscles were sore, his stomach was empty, and fatigue dragged at his eyelids. As desperately as he needed to reach the castle, it was becoming obvious that he would need to rest and eat first.
With no points of reference available, he had no idea how far Calio was. Ten miles? Twenty? Although he could remember the sensations of pulling the wagon clearly, the actual length of the journey was a blur. Had there been any farms or pastures along the way? This section of road appeared to be cut through dense forest, hardly a good place to stop and graze. His ears twitched, picking up sounds of movement. Predators? Nostrils quivered, unable to identify a specific threat within the mix of odors. It could be another squirrel. But then again, a pack of wolves might be stalking him. Perhaps even a dragon, though they were usually found in remote mountains.
Baylor came to an abrupt stop, his heart pounding and ears back. It was all he could do to resist the urge to turn and run back the way he came. There was food there, companionship and a sense of safety. Not all that different from what he had back at the Castle. If anything, this equine life offered more of what he had craved as a human – escape from the pressures of court, no social responsibilities or political intrigues. Why was he so anxious to give all that up?
Because he was more than a horse. Or should be, at least. That line of thought was suddenly uncomfortable as he reviewed the situations that had brought him to this point. Yes, he had been tricked, but his own disobedience and stupidity had allowed the kidnappers the opportunity. What was even more irksome was that his foolishness could be so predictable.
Baylor began moving again, continuing towards the castle. Assuming he could reach his father, there would be some serious reckoning to deal with. Defying a direct royal order was considered treason even for a Prince of the realm – the King’s word was law. It didn’t help that his disobedience came on the heels of a verbal reprimand for insulting behavior in front of the entire court. And he had thought that humiliating? Wait until the wagging tongues heard of his adventures as an equine. The plow horse prince.
Water. He picked up the scent even before the clearing appeared. There were ruins off to the side, probably a Tavern too far out to attract customers. Little was left except the foundation, the wood and stone long scavenged for other structures. However, the open land extended back a fair distance, possibly old pasture or even garden space. He followed his nose to a brackish pond nearly chocked with vegetation. Still, the water was cool and slaked his thirst, and enough grass and clover could be found amid the encroaching brush to fill his belly.
Although he still felt a little pressured, Baylor knew he needed rest. Finding a relatively clear area, he eased down on the ground, and after a moment, tried rolling like Buttercup. It did feel good – like have a giant hand scratching his back. Instead of getting back up, he lay in the grass for a while. Just a little while…
Baylor came fully awake without really knowing why – he had been almost sleeping, yet still aware of things around him. After a moment, he realized that it was something he felt, not heard. Vibration, steady and getting more noticeable. Then his ears picked up a dull pounding that was approaching rapidly. He started to roll up, then fought the instinct to stand and run. Better to stay hidden in the grass and ruins.
In less than a minute, a dark shape thundered by on the road, a single figure galloping past on a large horse. They were swallowed up by darkness before he caught the too-familiar scent of the animal. Buttercup! Baylor lurched up quickly, cursing himself. What had he been thinking? Of course the mousey kidnapper would be coming after him!
He took off after the already-vanished pair, following the mare’s odor. There was a heavy saltiness mixed in – she must be lathered from being ridden hard and fast. Damn! He was going to have to push even harder to either get to the castle first or find a way to stop them. It seemed impossible. He was still tired and they were moving so fast.
Baylor felt a sudden flush of shame. The mare had done more work than him today and was now being pushed far harder with the added weight of a rider. Yet he was bigger, younger, and stronger. Why had he faltered so soon? Several combat skills instructors had expressed concern about his lack of stamina. Then there was Count Tindel, who thought his rank allowed him to call the heir to the throne lazy! Baylor’s outraged response had perhaps been a little overboard, but he still resented being forced to apologize.
As much as he hated to admit even to himself, a good part of his anger had been caused by the sting of truth. Baylor hated to exert himself – it made him flushed and sweaty, messed his hair, and he ached for hours afterwards. Besides, he was going to be King, not some common soldier. It was his job to think, not fight. Ironically, his peace-loving father still spent hours every day in combat practice. Baylor had always thought it to be a waste of time. Still, his father was in remarkable shape – in fact, some wags at the court had commented that Baylor would be plucking gray hairs before he ascended the throne.
Well, that much might be true. He was covered in gray hair now, though probably four or five years old instead of sixteen. Had the kidnappers planned this result? If so, he supposed he should be grateful that he wasn’t an old, tired mule. Actually, it would have made more sense for them to turn him into a more common animal rather than such a magnificent draft horse.
Buttercup’s scent had an added tang now that his nostrils identified as blood. Damn! Was that bastard using the whip on her? Or the hard gallop causing some injury to her hooves? Anger surged, followed by confusion. What did he care about some dumb animal? She was nothing more than source of quick pleasure, right? So why couldn’t he shake a feeling of responsibility for the mare? It was Thunder! His alter ego saw the big Clyde as the first member of his herd. After bedding dozens of girls from chambermaids to ladies-in-waiting, his first sense of a commitment was to a horse. So much for sex without responsibility.
That troubled him more than it should. After all, the transformation was affecting his mind – why shouldn’t he be feeling attraction and even affection for Buttercup? Thinking on it, he realized it wasn’t so much what he felt for the horse as much as what he did not feel for any of the humans in his life. Because they were all flattering fools who were only after his favor as a way to power. Grandfather had taught him that lesson early on – trust no one who is not blood – and even then, the old man had been betrayed by his son.
The odor trail was stronger – he was catching up. That surprised him a little. Of course, he had the benefit of food, drink, and rest. Although the sense of fatigue was still present, he did not actually feel any worse. Perhaps he should have pushed harder in his combat classes. After his exertions the past day, a few hours waving a staff or sword around might be pure recreation. He hoped he would have the opportunity to find out.
Baylor was running so fast he almost missed his quarry’s change of direction. The mare’s scent vanished suddenly, and he had to backtrack to a turnoff he had missed. This was the path around town! He was able to pick up traces of his own scent now, though it was overlaid by Buttercup’s fresh trail. He had to slow as the path became rough and narrower, but knew that the kidnapper would have an even rougher time.
Just beyond the point where they had first encountered the ‘stuck’ wagon, Baylor heard a squeal that cut to his bones. He stopped dead, ears back and eyes wide, trembling as the horrible screaming continued. It was a sound of agony and terror, and the breeze suddenly carried a stronger metal stink of fresh blood. Thunder was afraid, ready to bolt back the way he had come. But Baylor forced himself forward, picking his way carefully through the trees.
Buttercup was on her side, thrashing and whinnying. Even before he got close enough to see clearly, it was obvious she had gone down hard. It was worse close up. Ragged bone jutted through the hide of her right foreleg, already soaked with blood. At least the bastard who had brought this on her had fared little better. He was dragging himself towards her, one leg twisted and his face badly cut. There was something in his hand. A knife? He was going to kill Buttercup!
Enraged, Baylor charged forward, rearing up over the fallen kidnapper. The murdering traitor screamed and threw his arms over his head in a futile gesture as massive equine hooves came down with enough force to make ground shake - but the young man’s head ended up between them, not underneath. Baylor had spread his legs at the last moment, sparing the kidnapper’s life. He stood over the youth, trembling, frustrated and angry.
His intended victim had slowly raised his head and stared first at the hooves on either side, then up at Baylor. The young man’s eyes were wide and frightened, face pale and taught with pain. He remained motionless, justifiably afraid to move or speak.
A groan from Buttercup distracted Baylor from his fury, and he shuffled over to the fallen mare and nosed her gently. His presence seemed to calm her somewhat, and though she was obviously in great pain, she lifted her head up to touch her muzzle to his. Baylor’s gut clenched, her distress filling him with helpless despair. Part of him was confused by his reaction – even Grandfather’s death had not touched him this deeply.
“Prince Baylor?” The kidnapper stared up at him, a puzzled look on his face. “Can you still understand me?”
Baylor flicked his ears back and snorted, then nodded his head up and down.
“I can help her. If you will allow me close.”
Although he did not trust this fellow, there seemed little choice. Baylor shifted to clear the way, remaining close enough to nuzzle the Clyde. She was trembling, and her scent was clouded with bad smells. He knew he should leave, forget this animal and make best speed for the castle. Yet his being there was making a difference to her, and there was time. Perhaps it was Thunder who felt this compassion, but Baylor could not find it in his heart to override the emotion.
The kidnapper dragged himself to the mare, and unbuckled the girth. Then he tried to pull the saddle towards him, but the strap was pinned under Buttercup’s weight. Panting from the effort, the young man looked back at Baylor. “I have to get to the saddlebag. And I need to blanket. Please.”
Grabbing the edge of the seat with his teeth, Baylor tugged as gently as he could to get the saddle clear, and then dragged it around to the kidnapper. The blanket was soaked with sweat and tasted terrible, but he delivered that as well. The young man pulled out some small leather pouches, looking in several before finding what he wanted. Then he grabbed the blanket and pulled himself to the shattered leg. “If sorry, girl. This is gonna hurt.”
Buttercup jerked once as dark powder was poured over her gaping wound. Feeling helpless, Baylor nuzzled her again, lipping at her cheek. The young man used his knife to gut strips from the blanket and used them to cover the area. “If we were in town or at the castle, I could do more. It’s a medicinal herb that will stop the bleeding and keep the wound from getting infected.” He shifted, wincing as he worked up to a sitting position. “But she’ll die without better treatment. We both will.”
What did the bastard expect him to do about it? Not that Baylor cared all that much about the kidnapper’s life. He was one of those responsible for Baylor’s inability to communicate. Still, he had cared for Buttercup’s wounds.
The youth fumbled with the bag, and pulled out a roll of parchment and unrolled it to revel some sort of official document. He chuckled once, then coughed and spit blood. Although the symbols were unreadable, the wax seal at the bottom was immediately recognizable. Someone high up in court was definitely involved.
Searching around the ground, the kidnapper picked up a stick and flipped the parchment over. Then he scraped his hand across the mare’s leg just below the wound, gathering a palm full of blood. Dipping the twig in, he began writing out something in crude letters, having to refresh his gruesome ink supply with every stroke. When he was done, he sprinkled a handful off dirt over the page and blew it off, then rolled it up and retied it with the original document facing out.
He stared at the parchment a moment with a twisted smile, then held it out. “Let me slip this between your halter straps. Show it to the gate guard. It will get you inside. If you can, make sure he looks at the back.” When Baylor hesitated, the young man sighed and smiled sadly. “I guess you don’t have any reason to trust me, do you? If it means anything, I wish I hadn’t been part of this. They said you were a total bastard, but here you are helping a hurt animal. And you could have killed me, but you didn’t.”
There was sincerity behind those words that convinced Baylor to drop his head so the document could be slipped under the strap on his left cheek. More to the point, he wondered is he –had- been a total bastard. The life of a peasant would have meant nothing to him, much less that of a farm animal. In any case, whatever the document was, any guard would be so befuddled to have it delivered by a horse that getting inside should be easier.
“I hope to see you again, Prince Baylor.” It was the first time the kidnapper had spoken his name. “Whatever happens, know that your life and happiness were never in danger. And… I think you might have been a good King after all.”
Such reassurance was puzzling, but there was no time to ponder. Baylor nuzzled the disturbingly still mare one more time, then turned and headed for the castle.
A reddish glow was just creeping over the tops of the mountains when he reached the main road. Despite the early hour, there were wagons and animals already moving along it. Most were heading the other direction into town, and Baylor got more than a few stares from bleary-eyed peasants as he galloped past. He almost trampled one adventurous boy who must have thought he could garner a reward for catching a runaway horse. However, his size and speed prompted everyone else to clear the way.
Although his muscles burned with real pain now, Baylor did not ease his pace until the tops of the castle towers came into view. He had been so focused on reaching this point that it took the discomfort of parchment rubbing under his eye to remind him why he was here. Cold fear accompanied that rush of memory – how much more of his mind had been lost to Thunder? He didn’t really feel any different – and he remembered being human. It was strange to think that he had lost that frail, nearly-hairless shape not even a day ago.
There were wagons and peasants on foot clustered at the main gate, delivering wares or perhaps petitioning the King for some favor. Security was usually tighter there, and the crowd would make it harder to bolt through. He and Peren normally went out the side gate, which was closer to the stables. The guards would probably recognize ‘Sir Dungheap’s horse – though his missing rider could spark concerns.
If he got in, he was pretty sure he could make his way to the central palace, perhaps into the throne room. He’d have to be fast and bold – size was against him in a lot of ways, but surprise was on his side. It helped that his father was normally in closed court session this time of the morning – dealing with visiting nobles before he opened the chambers to petitioners. There would be fewer people, and not as many guards.
Trotting around the moat, Baylor made his way to the side and stopped just out of sight of the guards. After making sure the road was clear of other traffic, he took a deep breath and then assumed the sagging posture they were used to. It was much easier this time, given his fatigue. Shuffling towards the opening, he was dismayed to see the heavy iron grate closed. This was normally done only when there was an expected threat of some kind – had his enemies thought to bar access to strange horses?
Although access was barred, guards were still at their post. One of them moved to the grate and peered through as Baylor approached. “Hey! Isn’t that the stable kid’s nag? What’s he doing out there by himself?”
The other guard joined his partner. “Yeah, where’s Sir Dungheap? Damn! Lookit him! What’s happened to you, fella?” He started to swing the grate open. “And what’s that you got stuck in your halter?”
“We’re not supposed to let anyone in here!” The first guard scowled, but didn’t actually interfere. “All entry through the front gate until tonight.”
“He’s a horse, stupid. And it looks like he is in bad shape. Wonder if something happened to the kid? That might be a note of some kind.”
“Could be.” A sly smile flickered over the second guard’s face. “Well, if he got waylaid by highwaymen, then this horse wouldn’t belong to anyone any more, right?”
“Except us.” The first guard swung the barrier wide open and clucked his tongue. “Come on, fella. Let’s get you into the stable before anyone… hey!”
Baylor bolted past the first guard and through the gate before his startled partner could try closing it up. Shouts and curses rang out behind him, and he knew it would not take long before the alarm was raised. As a human, Baylor could have lost them easily in the maze of hallways he had grown up in. However, as a ton of horse he was limited to direct, open passages.
He was in luck – the kitchen staff was offloading the day’s food supplies, and the main doors were wide open. Cooks and kitchen boys dove out of the way and he crashed through the baskets of vegetables and grain. The doors to the great dining hall were shut, but he burst through them without slowing. His hooves slipped on the stone floor as he turned to avoid slamming into the heavy table, and he almost went down when his hind legs splayed out. Recovering quickly, he bolted for the opening to the main hall.
His luck ran out there. A half-dozen guards were scrambling into position in front of the throne room doors, alerted by the shouts of the kitchen staff and Baylor’s own noisy arrival. Their swords were drawn and ready, and even though they looked confused, he knew they would not let him pass. Could he make it through so many blades? Grim resolve filled him, and he charged the doors with his ears back and tail streaming. Only to see a pair of archers step out and ready their bows.
The voice that echoed down the hall had such authority that every guard turned towards the now-opened throne room doors, and even Baylor skidded to a stop. He had heard that voice before, speaking in anger. Count Tindel. The swordsman stared at Baylor, then approached cautiously. “What’s that stuck in his halter?” Reaching up, he pulled the parchment free and glanced at the official wording. When the man started to roll it back up, Baylor nudged his hand and grabbed the document with his teeth to reveal the plea for help.
Tindel frowned as he read the message, then stared back at Baylor a moment before nodding. “Send a healer and a squad of soldiers to the old Calio road. There is a fallen rider and horse. Do what you can for them and bring them back here.”
Although Baylor felt a surge of relief for Buttercup, his primary goal lay directly ahead. Weapons were being sheathed, and the archers had already returned arrows to quivers. It was now or never. Bunching his leg muscles, he launched himself through the opening as Tindel yelled again, knowing that he was likely to be sliced by at least a few blades. Amazingly, none struck his hide, though he saw the weapons flash.
The chamber was unusually empty, but the only person he cared to see was his father. The King stood up, raising a hand to stay the guards Baylor had forgotten would be just inside. Mind racing, he forced himself to stop and then bowed as low as he could on four legs. He had to show he was more than a panicked animal, find a way to let ...
“Baylor.” His father’s voice was tight and sad, the word a statement not a question. A momentary flash of joy turned to confusion. How could he know? Then a figure stepped up beside the throne, a figure that he knew all too well from a lifetime of looking in mirrors.
“Yes, father?” The imposter was wearing Baylor’s favorite outfit.
“This is a most unusual animal. Tend to it.” The King remained standing, still staring at him. “Please clear the room. Yes, even the guards. I wish to consult privately with my... son. And send for Mage Warrel.”
Too stunned to react, Baylor raised his head and stared as the false Prince approached. This was the plan! To replace him with an imposter! Perhaps even to murder his father and assume the throne. He laid his ears back, but held steady. A mage was coming, one who would be able to see more than a horse. His father must suspect something.
Baylor’s nostril’s quivered as his double came close. Although the face and clothing were his, the imposter’s scent belonged to someone else. Someone he knew very well. Peren!
“It’s OK, fella. Take it easy. No one is going to hurt you.” The former stable boy reached for the halter cautiously, his expression both curious and sad. “You are stronger than we thought.” Who was he really? Some noble’s son who had play-acted his way into Baylor’s trust?
“He is full of surprises.” Tindel spoke from the door. “There was a note stuck in his halter. Warrel’s apprentice and horse were badly injured. I would assume giving chase.”
“A note? But how?” Peren reached up and took hold of a side strap, using his free hand to stroke Baylor’s chin.
Although he intended to snap at the traitorous stable boy, Baylor found himself unable to attack. His mind was sluggish, flickers of anger turning to bewilderment.
“Written in blood on the back of Thunder’s official registry.” The Count moved to stand next to Peren. “I might have missed it, but he flipped it over with his teeth.”
“He made sure you got the note?” This time, it was the King speaking. “That is not the action of a horse. Or…” His father’s voice trailed off.
Baylor felt a chill of fear behind his confusion. It was taking too much time for him to pull things together. Tindel had identified the fallen kidnapper as Warrel’s apprentice. And his father had sent for Mage Warrel.
Chamber doors opened and he knew who it was even before his nose picked up another familiar scent. Other than changing his plain robe for one slightly more ornate, the Friar looked the same as he had yesterday.
The King gestured at Baylor. “Tell me what has happened with him.”
No! This mage was part of plot! He needed someone else, someone who would tell his father what had really happened!
“His transformation is almost complete.” Warrel walked around him slowly, eyes flicking about as he traced out patterns of magic only a mage could see. “A few hours at most, and he will be as a born animal. His essence is already that of a stallion – yet his mind retains a strong sense of identity.”
Hearing the truth was a surprise, though the mage had not actually said who the strong identity belonged to. Baylor trembled as his father walked towards him. Peren released the halter and stepped back, but there seemed no way to communicate. They were in the midst of treacherous dogs obviously bent on seizing power. Even if he could speak, what could he say that would not trigger an attack on his father? Why had the guards been sent away?
“Can you understand me?” The King stared up at him, eyes red and brimming.
Although his father was always a compassionate man, Baylor had rarely seen him so emotional. Since Warrel had already specified a changed human, there was no harm in nodding his head.
“I’m sorry.” The King’s voice cracked, and tears began to trickle down his cheeks.
Why would his father say that? Unless – Baylor shuddered as the real truth finally dawned. Of course. Everything fell into place for him, and surprisingly, he felt far more sadness than anger. The King would not surround himself with traitors.
“I could not bear to have you killed.” His father reached up to brush his fingers across Baylor’s furred cheek. “I tried to teach you the value of our people, the need for alliances instead of enemies. But you are too much like your grandfather. You would have destroyed everything in a blind pursuit of power. The blame is largely mine, for I allowed him to influence you far too much. And now you must pay the price”
The mage spoke softly. “Sire, I saw for myself how easily he adjusted to harness, and the joy with which he mounted a mare. His mind is troubled now, but I swear he will find contentment and even happiness in this form. And while his span may be foreshortened, those years will all be healthy and full.”
“Is it true, Baylor?” The king whispered softly. “I cannot be forgiven for this, but it would ease my pain to know you are not suffering.”
How to answer? Some small part of Baylor still seethed with bitter resentment, yet he realized his father had done what was best for everyone. For once, and maybe the last time, it was his turn to do what was right for the kingdom. He turned his head to stare into the King’s eyes, and lipped gently at his cheek before stepping back and bowing again.
“Let him choose.” Peren spoke now, his voice firm. “If I take off the halter now, he’ll keep what he has. Or we can leave it on and he will end the day with only the thoughts and memories of a stallion. He deserves the right to decide.”
A firm hand lifted Baylor’s chin, and he raised his head to find an expression in his father’s eyes that was unfamiliar. Pride? The King stepped back. “Very well. What shall it be?”
He stared at his father, then swung his head around to focus on each of the people around him. Finally, he shifted to face the new Prince Baylor. However, when the youth reached for the straps, he pulled his head back. There was only room for one heir to the throne. And if Peren was to be Baylor, then Baylor would be Thunder. A weight seemed to lift from his chest with that decision, all fear and uncertainty falling away from his thoughts.
Count Tindel smiled and bowed towards him, then approached to slip his fingers around a side strap. “I would be honored to take him to the stables. I expect he will want food and grooming before his companion arrives.”
The King took a long last look, then nodded. “Very good. Tell the guards to resume their posts. It is time the Prince and I received petitions.”
Tindel led him out into the main hall, which was already filling with those seeking royal audience. No small number stared as they pushed past, and he overheard more than a few speculating on the presence of shaggy, plodding Percheron in the throne room. Though his companion ignored the somewhat insulting comments, Thunder lifted his tail and dropped some fragrant replies without breaking his shuffling gait.