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The Blind Man
Arlan crouched down behind thick brush and watched the approaching caravan. An older man in a garishly painted cart led the way, trailing at least twenty mules and donkeys on a long lead. His clothing was obviously new and cheap, despite the attempt to emulate upper-class styles. Probably some small-town stable owner who'd found a good market in the distant city. It was a perfect setup.
He stayed hidden as the cart rumbled past, stepping out cautiously as the last beast of burden plodded past. Again, he was in luck. It was a healthy young jack, easily sold for a good price, yet common enough not to get any unwanted attention. With the skill of much practice, he moved up next to the animal, stroking its dark brown hide soothingly to keep it from making any noise. Looping his own rope around its neck, he deftly removed the bridle and guided it smoothly off the road and into a small, hidden clearing.
Moving quickly, he tied the beast to a tree and ran along a side path to catch up. The old fool was completely ignorant of the theft, probably asleep at the reins. While Arlan could probably slip away with the man's entire herd, that would cause too many questions. Plus, the man would report the theft. Although Arlan's noble birth protected him from any serious penalties, it would put an end to the scams that paid his gambling and drinking debts.
And the only things that made dreary University life worthwhile was drinking and gambling. All those withered old men spouting Ancient Greek. Who cared what happened two hundred years ago? It might as well be two thousand. He endured classes because it made his father happy, and it was a good way to look busy while he waited for the man to die. Not that he wanted the Duke dead. As long as his father lived, Arlan had all the benefits of noble birth and no real responsibilities. That suited him just fine.
He reached the stream ahead of the caravan, this time hiding behind a huge boulder. The old man stirred as his cart splashed and rocked through the creek, but didn't even turn around. Arlan watched him carefully. Timing was everything, now. Selling the donkey would keep him in ale and cards for a week. However, he'd invented a new twist that had usually doubled or tripled his take, while ensuring no investigation of the theft.
Making sure to stay in the creek bed, Arlan stepped out as the last animal splashed through and picked up the dragging last harness before it got wet. Falling into step, he slipped the bit into his mouth and tightened the straps as much as possible. The iron was gritty with dirt and spit, and the leather straps chaffed his smooth cheeks. He endured the discomfort, knowing that it would last just a few minutes.
As soon as his feet touched the other side, he dropped his arms to his sides and gave a horrible scream. "Whoa!" cried the muleteer as he pulled back on the reins, slowing the train to a halt. "Who's causing all the trouble back there?" He tilted his head out, listening intently, but did not look back.
The jostling and braying of the donkeys must have masked the sound Arlan's cry. Waiting for a moment of relative silence, the young man moaned again, twisting his head and shoulders for effect. This time, the muleteer swung down from his cart and fumbled about. After a moment, he pulled out a long stick and tapped the side of the cart with it. Then he poked the ground, and started walking slowly towards the animals, swinging the stick ahead of him.
Arlan stared incredulously as the muleteer worked his way back to the string of donkeys. The old man was blind! How could he travel alone? Alarmed, Arlan turned to search the road stretching out behind him. No sign of anyone else. This would be even easier than he thought! All he had to do was untie the harness, perhaps break one of the straps. It would be assumed that the jack had simply pulled free and run off. Then again, this old man's blindness would make the original scam even easier to pull off.
The muleteer worked his way slowly along the string, one hand following the traces that connected the animals together, the other clutched tightly around the stick.. He cooed to each donkey in turn as he ran his hands along equine legs, probably feeling for cuts or swelling. "Ah, Maxwell. You're just fine. Nothing in your hooves. How about you Annette?" The old man followed the traces that connected the animals together.
The jack in front of him was getting a thorough check now. "You're fine, Michael." Arlan stifled a laugh as he felt the old man's trembling hand on his lead. Then the bony fingers brushed his face. The old man snatched his hand back as if burned, and then reached out cautiously again, feeling along the boy's jaw and up over his thin cheek and hawkish nose. "And what is this? You're not Pierre." The man ran one callused finger across the top of Arlan's ear, as if searching for its missing length. "Who are you?" Arlan hesitated as his eyes met the old man's blank, unseeing orbs. Only for a moment, though. Then he fell into his act, contorting posture and face even though his audience could not see.
He stared at his palms and flexed his fingers. "Hands," he rasped through the bit. "I have hands again..."
"What deviltry is this?" The muleteer grabbed the harness and ran his stick lightly up the side of Arlan's body. "You are a man, not a donkey! Where is my Pierre?" Keeping his voice hoarse and weak, Arlan wheezed a couple of times before replying. "I’a… I am your Pierre."
"That is impossible!" The old man's mouth dropped open, and he stepped back in obvious horror. "Sorcery!"
Oh, this was just too perfect. Arlan maintained his act, struggling with words as if speech was unfamiliar. "Yu-esss. I was chan-ged by an evil sorc-sorce.. wizard. Some-thing broke the spu-ell."
"This is horrible! I thought there was something odd about the man I bought you from. He was new to the market, and he included that fine bridle in the purchase. He must have been an evil mage, or working for one.” The old man moaned. “I have heard of such curses, but never truly believed them! Why would anyone do such a terrible thing to you?"
It was hard not to laugh as the man’s ignorance filled the gaps in Arlan’s story. "My fa-thur is a pow-er-ful noble." True enough. "This was re-veng-uh against him." Even that was true, in a way. Arlan's scams would be a terrible embarrassment to his parents if discovered - proper payback for their failure to provide adequate entertainment expenses.
The muleteer dropped his head. "Oh, and I have been treating you like a common animal. Forgive me, my lord!"
"You ha-uve treated me well, old man." Arlan spoke more clearly now as he 'adjusted' to a human throat. However, the bit still made talking awkward. He reached up for the buckles, feigning stiffness in his arms and fingers. "Can you help me remove this bridle?"
"No!" The old man leaped forward, groping for Arlan's hands. "You must not! The bridle is probably cursed. That is the way of wizards. Some of the stories tell of victims becoming an animal forever when they removed the harness themselves! Besides, whatever changed you back might not last. If you become Pierre again, you might wander off and I would not be able to help you!"
This complicated matters. Arlan thought fast. "I do not wish others to see my shame. Strapped in a line of animals. Besides, I am sure that something about the creek ended the spell. I became human as soon as my hooves passed through it."
"Running water." The old man nodded. "I have heard that evil cannot cross running water. Perhaps the same is true about evil magic. Still, I think it is best to keep you in the bridle until we reach my farm."
"But…" Arlan started to protest, only to be silenced by the old man's raised hand.
"It is but a half-day further, young noble. And I live alone, so no one else will see. We can try removing the bridle when you are safely in a stall. That way, if the curse turns you back into a beast, I can take care of you." He lowered his head. "Please forgive me, my lord. I did not know. Once we reach my home, I will provide you with anything you need to return home. I have some meager savings, and a horse."
Greed overcame discomfort, and Arlan was not able to keep from grinning as he nodded his head. "Your wisdom and generosity will be repaid , old man. My father will heap riches upon you beyond your wildest dreams." At least the wildest dreams part was right. "I am Dorlan, son of Lord Lathrum." Both names were fictitious, but close enough to those of some distant rulers to sound familiar.
"I am Stephen, Sire." The old man bowed as deeply as he could, clutching his stick for support. "Breeder and merchant of fine mules and donkeys."
Arlan twisted his head, trying to get used to the metal in his mouth. "Could we start towards your home, then, Stephen? I wish to remove these straps as soon as possible. My family must be terribly worried."
"Certainly, my lord!" Stephen looked flustered. "I should not disturb the magic in any way until we are home. Can you stand to remain harnessed with the animals until tonight? There is no room in my cart for a passenger, anyway."
The young man felt a touch of annoyance. Walk behind a line of donkeys and mules for hours? He was certainly fit enough, but such physical exertion was not something he enjoyed. However, Stephen's savings might go a long way towards paying off some large gambling debts. "These beasts have been my brothers and sisters, and the harness part of my life so long. Another few hours will not matter."
Annoyance soon turned to exasperation as the morning's ruse stretched on to the afternoon. Though the day was hot and the sun beat down mercilessly, the road was still muddy from the previous night's thunderstorm. Worse, the long line of donkeys ahead of him provided a steady supply of fresh manure that he did not always manage to avoid. This was almost enough to convince one to give up drinking and gambling.
Arlan snorted as he pulled his bare foot from the muck and took another plodding step. The muleteer had better make good on his promises. The mud that coated his lower legs and spattered his trousers were a reminder of the storm that passed through the mountains the previous night. It had left the road barely passable, a state that wasn't helped by the churning hooves of the donkeys harnessed ahead of him. The mud had already claimed his shoes several miles back, sucking the fine footwear from his feet with a horrid slurping. An attempt to retrieve them was brought up short by the painful tug of his harness as the mule train continued onward.
His plaintive cry went unheeded. Perhaps the muleteer was deaf as well as blind. Still, he trudged onward. The weight of the wood and leather collar pressed heavily on his aching shoulders and the thick breeching rubbed holes in his linen shirt. By the time the mule train reached the farm, Arlan had had quite enough of the pulling and tugging of the harness. Still, plodding along with the rest of the donkeys and mules had become natural and he hardly looked farther than the rump of the animal in front of him. Thus it was a surprise when they arrived at the farm.
Clearing one last rocky rise, Stephen’s holding came into view. Turning his blindered head, Arlan glimpsed a small, slate-roofed cottage with a deep wooded porch that extended into a garden thick with vegetables and herbs. There were even ripe grapes hanging down from rough woven trellises. Wagon wheels creaked as Stephen eased the cart down the slope. The animals behind felt its weight pull against their harnesses. Despite the distraction, Arlan managed to catch a glimpse of something odd. Tied and tethered to a string, an eye hung like a dried raisin from a fence post. It was an animal eye, clearly. And it was staring at him. He shuddered as he noticed more of the withered yellowed orbs hanging from almost every conceivable location. They seemed to follow his progress as they dangled unblinking from the trees and the porch rails, even within the bunches of grapes ripening on the vines.
The mule train halted. Arlan nearly ran into the beast before him, distracted as he was by the staring eyes. As he caught his breath, he could not help but notice his disheveled appearance. This scam had better work out. He had ruined his outfit, the fine velvet matted with mud and worse. Some of the ‘worse’ clung to his feet and ankles, a hazard of being last in line. The indignity only served to fuel his greed. This old man would pay dearly for the suffering Arlan was going through.
Stephen climbed down from the wagon easily, and strode back towards him with confident steps. Arlan felt a stab of fear. The man had no cane in his hand this time. The blindness was an act! Dropping his eyes, Arlan thought back frantically. Had he done anything to give himself away? Damn the man! He must have known all along, allowing Arlan to suffer the indignity of plodding along like a beast. Anger smoldered, and he glared angrily as Stephen came up to him.
“Ah! You are as handsome a human as you were a donkey.” The old man was smiling as he walked up, but the expression faltered and changed to one of concern. “What is it, young Lord? I know my home is poor and shabby compared to what you must be accustomed to, but I offer all I have to aid you in your time of distress.”
“Why did you lie to me?”
“Lie to you?” Stephen looked genuinely confused. “I have not knowingly lied to anyone. What is it that you think I have misspoken?”
“You feigned blindness all this time, when you can obviously see me quite clearly.” Arlan fumbled with the harness, fingers clumsy with fatigue.
The old man grabbed his hands. “No! Please, my lord! You must not remove that until I have made sure it is safe!” Then, realizing he had just touched a noble without permission, Stephen backed away with his head down. “Forgive me. I only wish to help you. As for my blindness, it is real enough. However, I have learned some small spells that allow me to see through other eyes.”
He gestured at one of the dried orbs. “The animals I kill for food also give me their vision. Their eyes are too delicate to use when travelling, but when I am home I can function as a normal man."
Arlan felt a slight prickling of fear. Magic! Real magic, not the slight-of-hand stuff practiced by court jesters and carnival fakes. Then he shook off his concerns. This was but an extension of the healing powers that he often sought out after tavern brawls. Granted, the elimination of cuts and bruises wasn’t as impressive as this, but then, he’d heard of nobles having limbs regenerated by the more powerful healers. Obviously, this man could not afford the services of a true mage, and had come up with an effective backwoods alternative.
Anger faded, already dulled by exhaustion. In truth, he was too tired to do more than stand there. “I am sorry, Stephen. Your kindness is appreciated. It is just that I have been through so much.” He looked towards the small cabin. “Perhaps I could rest?”
“Certainly!” The muleteer quickly removed the collar, but left Arlan’s harness in place. “Come, my lord. I will make sure you have clean bedding.” The old man took hold of the reins and led him, not for the cabin, but towards a barn beyond the garden.
Arlan was so exhausted that he didn’t resist. Besides, this whole transformation farce had been his creation. Just his luck that the old fool had some small experience with magic. What was the old line? A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Stephen probably thought his young guest might change back to a jack at any time and damage the tiny hovel he called a home.
As soon as they were inside the building, the muleteer dropped the reins and rushed to prepare a stall. Although the stink of manure and urine was present, it was far cleaner than most of the city stables where he quartered his own mount. Noting the ease with which Stephen maneuvered, Arlan looked around the building. Sure enough, animal eyes dangled from the roof and walls. He’d have to be careful to maintain his act.
In less than five minutes, Stephen ushered him into a corner stall. It was larger than most of the others, and had a pile of fresh hay covered with a tattered blanket. Not the most comfortable sleeping arrangements he’d ever had, but probably cleaner than some of the taverns he stayed at. The old man looked down. “I apologize for the crudeness of my hospitality. However, if you transformed back to a mule inside the house, you would be trapped inside. The doorway is too small.”
Arlan nodded wearily. At this point, he could sleep on rocks. Plopping down on the makeshift bed, he forced a smile. “Thank you for your kindness, Stephen. If you will loan me your horse and some funds to get me home, I will make sure you are suitably rewarded.” Well, his professors always said knowledge was priceless – Arlan would repay the old man with an education on his own stupidity.
“Of course, my lord.” Stephen gave him a worried look. “Perhaps I should travel with you? Your face seems darker, your face less handsome. The curse may be returning. If you were to transform before you reached home…”
“We can see tomorrow.” Arlan cut the old man off, vanity bristling a bit at being called ‘less handsome.’ This superstitious fool’s imagination was turning road grime into signs of magic. “I am very tired now.”
Stephen nodded and left, closing the stall gate behind him. As soon as he was out of sight, Arlan reached for the harness straps, only to stop when he remembered the dangling eyes. Sighing, he left the blinders in place and flopped back on the bedding. He’d been wearing them so long that they really didn’t bother him, anyway. He closed his eyes, and was almost instantly asleep.
A loud braying startled Arlan awake, and it took him a minute to remember where he was. It was dark outside, almost pitch black. Even if Stephen was awake, the scores of eyes hanging about would do him little good.
He reached up to brush straw from his hair, hitting the blinder with his hand. Gods, he was stiff and sore. The long walk had taken more out of him than he thought. And hunger was gnawing at him. Standing, he stretched and looked around. A quick check of the stall turned up a bucket of water and a bin of grain. He used cupped hands to drink from the bucket, trying not to think about the previous users. However, eating unhulled oats was out of the question.
His first impulse was to roust the old man out of bed and demand some suitable food. Then he had second thoughts. Opening the gate, he checked the other stalls. Most held the donkeys he’d followed here. Opposite him was a large plow horse. The animal snuffled him curiously, and nibbled gently on his shoulder. Excellent. A friendly animal was much easier to sell. The best thing for Arlan to do was take the horse and anything of value he could find out here, and head back home. With luck, he would be miles away before Stephen woke.
The donkeys eyed him quietly, happily not making the noise he’d have expected in response to an intruder. Perhaps they recognized his scent from the long walk. He took advantage of the calm acceptance to search all of the stalls. Other than the saddle that he’d already put on the horse, the only items of value were three harnesses and some old, but well-made grooming equipment. He hung the harnesses on the saddle and then remembered the blinders on his own head.
It was hard to believe that he’d gotten so use to them. The obstructed vision and straps seemed almost normal. He chuckled to himself as he undid the straps. Good thing no one he knew had seen him. His drinking buddies back at the tavern would have never let him live this down. Slipping his fingers under the leather, he pulled the blinders off.
Pain. Burning. Arlan screamed as fire seared his body from all directions, staggering back. Panicked, the horse reared up with a cry, setting off all the donkeys and mules. The young man fell backwards and writhed on the ground, certain he was going to die. And just as suddenly as it started, the agony stopped.
Panting, Arlan quivered in the straw, wide eyed with terror. The noise around him was almost deafening, animals kicking and screaming in the darkness. He looked around in confusion, and scrambled up. Just then, he heard a shout from the barn door. Stephen was standing in the opening.
“My lord! The bridle! What have you done?” The old man frowned, somehow able to see even in the dark. “Why are you leaving in the middle of the night? With my best harnesses?”
Still bewildered and confused from the invisible fire, Arlan lost his temper. “Spying on me, old man? What did you do? Use your magic to burn me when you saw me stealing your horse?”
“Stealing?” Stephen blinked, still not understanding what he saw. “I already told you I would loan you my horse, and any money you need. But the harness! You removed the harness!”
The man’s stupidity was too much to bear. Incredulous, Arlan gave a harsh laugh. “That harness is nothing but common leather and metal, you old fool. I stole your jackass and took his place.”
“You – you tricked me?” The muleteer’s hurt was almost comical. “I offered you my hospitality, my help, and you tried to steal from me!"
Arlan cursed himself silently for giving the ploy away. What was he thinking? Well, there was another way to play this game. “Hospitality? You made me plod with your animals, then stuck me in a stall and used magic to spy on me and hurt me. I’m a noble’s son! What do you think the authorities will do to a peasant who uses magic to kidnap a Duke’s heir?”
“Kidnap?” Stephen backed away, eyebrows raised in panic over his blind eyes. “I only tried to help you! I have no magical powers other than the simple spell I use to see with. Please, my lord. Such a charge would bring torture and death. You cannot do this to me!”
“Simple spells? I suppose you call that blast of pain simple?” Arlan glared at the old man and snatched up the blinders from the ground. “Or maybe you want me to believe this really has some magical curse? What kind of fool do you…?” Arlans’ voice trailed off. A soft, blue-green light flickered around the leather straps clenched in his hand. "Magic! It really _is_ magic! I've been cursed and it's all _your_ fault!"
"My fault lord? I do not understand."
"That bridle. _Your_ bridle! It's cursed. It's really cursed. It must be what burned mee-haw. Hee-HAW!
"My lord!" The muleteer stumbled back, staring at the young man.
"Steee-haw...Stee-phan, you must help me!"
Arlan felt a terrible itch and wrenching at the base of his spine. A strangled "Oh!" escaped his lips as the nub of a tail tented the seat of his pants. "Stephen, it's starting. I'm changing!"
"It would seem so, my lord."
"How can you just stand there? Hee...heee...help me!" Arlan clapped his hands to his buttocks as a tail splits the seams, flicking a dark tuft of hair across his hands. "Augh! Pleeeaase Stephen, use you magic to help me. Make it stop!"
Stephen raised an eyebrow and glared at the young nobleman. "After you have abused my hospitality, stolen from me, threatened me with false charges of kidnapping?"
"Plea-haw...Please! I'll do anything. My father, hee..hee'd hee-haw pay. He' pay!"
"But my lord, I'm no wizard, just a poor muleteer with a small talent. I can't be responsible..."
"Hee-HAW!" Arlan squealed and clasped his ears as they grew hot and reddened precipitously. No longer supported by his shaking hands, the sundered breeches dropped about his ankles. Still, Arlan was too distracted to worry about his naked nether regions. The ears he pressed tightly to his scalp were stretching out taller and hairier. Growing unmistakably into donkey ears. "Do something, Stephen! Do something."
"You say you can pay me, my lord? Well, perhaps there is something I can do..." Stephen looked about the barn then he started towards the harnesses that had been scattered when the plow horse reared. Picking up one of the fancier rigs, he dusted it off and grinned. "Horse brasses! Proof against the evil eye. It should at least slow an evil enchantment like this."
Arlan stared as Stephen approached, harness in hand. Unlike the set that he lifted from the donkey, this one had several tiny metal horse heads sewn into the harness leather with a runic threading. "Let's get this one you, my lord. 'Tis your only hope to slow the spell."
Stephen slipped the bit into his mouth as he tightened the headstall and adjusted the blinders to his eye level. Quickly, the collar was slipped over Arlan's head and settled onto his shoulders. He tried to help Stephen fasten it to the surcincle he was now wrapping about his chest, but a cold numbness was spreading across his fingers and he was unable to work the buckles. Stephen batted his hand away with a guttural "T'shk!" and did up the strap himself.
The final indignity was having the muleteer hook the rune marked crupper around his tail, yanking at it painfully as he tightened the strapping. Stephen stepped back, his blind eyes crinkled in amusement. "That seems to suit you just fine."
"Curse you, old man!" Arlan seethed with rage at the liberties this peasant farmer was taking with him, yet his fingers reported no further growth from his ears. Trembling hands slid down a face somewhat longer and a good bit hairier than he remembered it to be. "What have you done to me?"
"I, my lord?" The muleteer smiled coldly. "I have taken you into my home, offered you my help, my only horse, and my meager savings. You ignored my help, stole my horse, and ridiculed me for trusting you. Then you removed the bridle despite my warnings. I would say that you have done this to yourself!”
Stephen –had- told him to keep the harness on. The young man’s mind raced, trying to find the easy out, some way to duck responsibility for his actions. And for the first time in his life, he could find none. That was almost as much of a shock as the actual transformations to his body.
“So, ‘my lord.’” The muleteer managed to put every possible nuance of disgust into the two-word title. “What do you plan to do now? If you still want to ride off, go ahead. Of course, the further you get from this farm, the less power my charms will have to slow the change. By the time you get to the nearest town, you probably won’t be able to speak. Assuming anyone would allow you close enough to listen.”
“What… can I do?” Arlan’s voice cracked, and he felt his eyes burn with tears of hopelessness. “I cannot return home like this. My face is ugly, my body deformed. I am a freak!”
“Freak?” There was bitterness in Stephen’s voice. “With a hat and breeches of a fuller cut, you would pass for a normal, if somewhat homely, youth. Your old face is still there for those who know you. Try living as a true freak, a blind man in a sighted world. I cannot see away from my charms, but I can feel the reactions of people around me. They pull back when I pass, as if my blindness was contagious. Even those I deal with regularly cannot keep the relief from their voices when I finish and leave.” He sighed. “And those who show any kindness or respect are usually trying to take advantage of me. Like you.”
The man was insane, thought Arlan. He thought that blindness was worse than turning into an animal! A small scrap of wisdom stilled an angry retort before it left his lips. He needed this old peasant. It seemed that Stephen’s strange powers had stopped the horrible transformation for now. Until he knew more, or could find a way to keep the charms fueled by magic, the best thing to do was try to recover some of the muleteer’s pity.
Dropping to his knees, Arlan hung his head and trembled. “I am not deserving of your forgiveness, sir. It is true that I have wronged you, and for that I am filled with shame. I meant no harm. This was a stupid drunken prank, something I was put up to by classmates who call themselves my friends.”
Stephan snorted, but did not say anything.
“That is no excuse, I know. It is made worse by the knowledge that I cannot handle hard drinking. My life was protected, perhaps too much so, before I came to the university. The sudden freedom went to my head, and I forgot the basic values in which I was raised.” No reaction. The old man was a hard audience. “My father is a good man, my mother a fine lady. They would be hurt beyond words at my foolishness, my failure. I beg you to allow me the chance to restore my good name, to let me earn your forgiveness.” The last word cracked, and he slumped in despair.
“Bravo, my lord. Just the right amount of groveling, without sobbing or pleas for mercy. And that bit about earning my forgiveness was a fine touch.” The muleteer chuckled mirthlessly. “I’m sure that act has worked with many outraged fathers and creditors. In this case, they are the blind ones, for I can tell there is no shame or regret in your heart.”
There was no point in protesting his sincerity. Arlan was surprised that his well-practiced lines had failed to move the old man, but accepted that failure. If he could not charm his way out of this predicament, he could try trickery, theft, or violence. For now, however, he remained cautiously respectful. “I am sorry you feel that way, sir. What will you do with me now?”
“Leave.” Stephan grabbed a sack and started to fill it with grain. “It seems that I have a long ride ahead of me this night.”
“What? You would leave me trapped here alone? What if the transformation starts up again? What if I need your help?”
The old man’s voice hardened, though he did not turn from his work. “Always concerned about yourself, aren’t you, my lord? What about Pierre, the jackass you tied up out in the woods? I would guess that you made no provision for food or water. And he is unlikely to be found by others. That road is lightly traveled. He is very thirsty, hungry, and scared now.”
Arlan blinked. He hadn’t thought about the animal, and still didn’t see how a mule’s discomfort could compare to his own. Still, he was smart enough to know that Stephan valued the donkey over him at this moment. “Of course.” He brightened and stood up. “You could take me with you! Bring whatever magic source you use for your charms to keep the curse at bay. I can show you exactly where I tied him up.”
“That would make things easier for me, but it is not possible. Removing the, uh, magic from my farm would end the spells that allow me to see, spells that have taken years to cast.” Stephan sighed. “As far as the curse goes, I recommend that you remain in this stall and touch nothing until I return. The transformation seems to have stopped for now, but such magic is unpredictable. Now, tell me where you left Pierre.”
Arlan gave the old man directions to his mule, trying to think of any potential hazards on the trail. If anything happened to the old man, he could be stuck like this for life. “Why don’t you wait until morning? Then it would be easier to…” His voice trailed off.
“See?” Stephan shook his head. “Night and day are the same to me. And Pierre only gets more hungry and scared with each passing hour. I should be back by mid-day. There is grain here, and a bucket of water. Before you consider leaving this stall, remember that you are already part donkey. Curses can be rather unpredictable, especially if you start mingling with the animals wandering outside.”
The old man pulled the stall gate closed behind him, testing the latch to make sure it caught. After a few minutes, Arlan heard him harnessing one of the donkeys to his cart. Looking out the small opening that served as a stall window, he watched the cart roll off down the winding path until it disappeared from view.
Finally! The young man opened the gate and started to leave, only to stop short when he remembered the eyes hanging all about. How far away did Stephen have to be before he lost his magical sight? Frustrated, he plopped down on the makeshift bedding and stared up at the ceiling. Better to wait. Besides, the old man might function well in darkness but Arlan needed light to see. Better to wait until daybreak. Then he’d be rested and ready to search for the old man’s source of magic.
The woman reeked of sweat and filth, but Arlan found her odor oddly compelling. She laughed and swayed seductively in front of him, an expert in her craft. Although he had plenty of women willing to bed him for free, it was worth paying for a whore’s experience every now and then. She brought her face close to his, blowing warm air over his nostrils. And brayed.
Arlan opened his eyes to see monstrous bristled lips inches from his head, and jerked back with a cry. It took a moment to realize that he was still in Stephan’s stable. The brothel had been a dream, and his enticing whore was a curious donkey that had wandered in through the open gate. His shout had startled her enough to make her step back a few feet.
Sunlight streamed in the stall window, and he blinked to clear his eyes. Late morning, judging from the angle. Thankfully, there was no headache joining the familiar thick head and blurry vision of a hangover. Except that he didn’t remember drinking anything but water last night..
The donkey shuffled closer, ears up and nostrils quivering. From his vantage point, he could see it was a female. Mature, healthy, approaching her time for breeding. Her scent told him all that, and he curled his upper lip as he drank in the rich fragrances again. Another scent was mixed with hers, faint, but getting stronger. Maleness. A healthy young Jack. He frowned in puzzlement, feeling a flicker of possessive jealousy. There was no other donkey in the stall, just the female and…
Arlan’s gut clenched. “Nooooo.” His denial emerged as a coarse wail that sent the amorous donkey fleeing back to the main stable. Leaping up, Arlan slammed the gate shut and made sure it latched. Then he examined himself. Gods! His face was enormous, forming a wide protrusion that limited downward vision. The outer edges rose slightly with each breath. Nostrils, impossibly huge.
Trembling fingers traced the swollen contours of his mouth and nose. His lips were both stronger and far more pliable, with a smattering of bristles that continued on his chin. The structure of his nostrils had changed, all velvet skin and muscle. Tears of despair filled his too-large eyes and ran down furred cheeks as he touched his forehead. Lower, flatter, with jutting brows.
The horse brasses were not working! Curse Stephan! Rage boiled in Arlan’s belly as he glared at the dangling eyes. If the old man wasn’t wasting precious magic to spy on him, the Jenny might not have affected him so much. A momentary thought that he was the one who had left the gate open was immediately brushed aside. Stephan should have stayed with him, not gone running off to search for some useless, worthless jackass!
Pierre. A strange name for a donkey. But not so odd for a man. Arlan’s eyes widened as he remembered the glowing harness, and a harsh laugh of bitter irony escaped his lips. The Fates must be rolling on the floor with laughter. The jackass had actually been a cursed human, and by taking the bridle himself, Arlan had turned his often-used act into reality. It wasn’t fair! He had tried to pull a simple prank, with no real harm to anyone. And now he was a freak on the way to becoming an animal.
Overcome with frustration and anger, Arlan grabbed the bucket and smashed it against the wall with a spray of wood chunks and water. Kicking at the walls, he knocked lose planks and scattered bedding, venting his rage by trashing everything he could get his hands on. Such tantrums had been common when he was a child, usually resulting in him getting his way. This time, however, it ended with him still alone and transforming into a beast of burden.
Panting from the exertion, Arlan pulled at his too-tight tunic with numb fingers. It occurred to him that his head was not the only part changing. He had to twist his head sideways to examine his body, noting that his neck felt a lot longer and more flexible. A low moan started when he saw the ruin of his once-handsome body. Swollen and deformed, he had patches of fur on darker, coarser skin. His chest was far too deep, and his arms were looking rounder and thicker.
He might have actually appreciated the dark, sheathed equipment between his legs if those legs had not already flattened and deepened into equine thighs. Instead, the enlarged maleness was further proof that he was rapidly losing his humanity. He could feel the prickling of coarse hair, the pull of muscles under thickening hide. The transformation was continuing, no matter what Stephan had said.
It was too late for Pierre. He was probably an animal now, locked forever the moment Arlan removed the bridle. Stephan had said as much when he warned against Arlan removing it. Why bother with him, when Arlan was the one who needed help?
Because Stephan didn’t want to help him. Of course! Arlan stiffened suddenly in realization. This had all been a trick, an elaborate scheme to trap him. The old man had left him to finish changing, expecting to find yet another common beast when he returned. Perhaps the old man hadn’t even really left – he could have doubled back and might even now be watching from those accursed eyes. One was pointing directly at him now, hung with care from the rafter just over his head.
Rage boiled up again, and he reached up suddenly and grabbed the withered orb in his dark, hard fingers. There was a flash of blue-purple light, and then it crumbled into powder. “Haw!” His laugh came out more like a bray, but he paid no attention. Let Stephan try to watch him now! There. He grinned madly as a flicker of light signaled the destruction of another spying eye.
An idea popped into his mind. Stephan had mentioned something about having limited magic. Of course! Most of his meager power must be used up by the hundreds of magical eyes. If they were all destroyed, what power was here would be focused only on Arlan’s horse brasses. The old man would be totally blind again, but it would serve him right.
Opening the gate, he paused for a moment. Donkeys were wandering around the stable and the property outside. Some of the scents threatened his sense of dominance, others carried the same inviting perfume as the Jenny who was already snuffling at him from across the stable. Stephan had warned him to stay in the stall, to avoid the other donkeys.
Of course he would have said that! The old man couldn’t really lock him up anywhere. Arlan was certain he could feel the change continuing anyway. It was clever, really, creating the prison in Arlan’s own mind by telling him the danger was outside the stall. Arlan was too smart to fall for his lies.
Being taller, Arlan had no trouble finding and crushing the fragile orbs. Most crumbled apart with the crackle of onionskin, others were newer and popped with a sticky dampness. All of them yielded flickers of blue-purple light. He moved among the donkeys, pushing aside the more stubborn ones to reach his targets. The transformation surged, fusing toes into hooves that actually made walking easier for a short time. Still he bashed at the eyes, sure that the added magic for the horse brasses would protect him.
As soon as he had cleared the stable, he began working outside. Each shattered eye was another triumph over the old fool, punishment for the gross indignity Arlan was suffering, and fueling his hatred and outrage. It became another destructive tantrum, this time rewarded with vindictive pleasure. The old man wanted to play at being blind? Now he would be!
He was bashing at the eyes with hardening fists now, no longer able to close fingers. Moving inside the small house, he knocked awkwardly into furniture and sent wall hangings and other decorations flying. The added damage was a bonus, and he continued at it until only one remained. Arlan struggled to bat at the dangling orb and found that he couldn’t quite reach it. It took a moment to sink in that he was reaching up with a donkey’s foreleg.
His wail of horror emerged as a coarse bray. Staggering backwards, he tripped over a fallen table and landed heavily on the dirt floor. Limbs wouldn’t coordinate, and his disorientation increased as vision began to get blurred and distorted. Stephan’s hovel seemed to close in around him, and panic took over. Rolling up to all fours, he charged out the shrinking doorway, scraping his sides painfully against the rough wooden frame.
Once outside, he managed to fight back the fear and stood shaking and sweating. His body seemed to be almost fully formed, only his head still obviously part human. The work of the brasses, perhaps, though they were losing the battle. How much time did he have? Hours? Minutes? If he galloped all the way to town he might still have enough intelligence left to let someone know who he really was. Writing with a hoof, maybe. Then his sensitive ears picked up a distant cry of anguish. Stephan!
Twisting his head around, he could make out the blurred shape of the old man’s cart and horse, with a smaller form behind. Pierre, no doubt. There was great pain in the old man’s cries, and behind that, great anger.
Arlan suddenly realized he had put himself in great danger. The road leading to Arlan’s was narrow – he would never get past the approaching horse and cart. Besides, the old man was still sighted there, as well as this area close to the house. The only safe place to hide was back in the stable. With the other donkeys. He hesitated, afraid of the consequences. Then he heard Stephan screaming and urging his horse to move faster.
Moving was easier than he expected, and he pushed past a couple of animals to find a more private spot behind the stable. A few muzzles snuffled in his direction, but once he was determined to be no threat the curious beasts returned to lipping at clumps of grass. He positioned himself so he could see the house. Stephan pulled up and jumped out of the cart with surprising agility. It was obvious he had some vision available, for he stopped short in his doorway and moaned.
After a moment, the old man turned and began stalking towards the stable. He stopped after only a few feet, his face a tragic mask. “Oh, Gods! No! What have you done to me, Arlan?” Then he collapsed suddenly in a heap and began sobbing.
Arlan stared at the broken old man as the enormity of his actions hit him. For the first time in his life, he felt the glimmerings of pity and even remorse. Stephan must have worked for years, decades perhaps, to create the surrogate eyes. As old as he was, Arlan may have stripped him of almost all his vision for good.
So what? He squashed the sentiment as brutally as he had smashed the magic orbs. Stephan was old, and he was used to being blind. And it the old man’s trickery and neglect that had doomed Arlan to life as a beast. He watched the old man rise slowly and go back to his cart for the stick. A plan was forming in his head, thick as it was. It appeared that Stephan was heading for the stable. As the he went inside, Arlan could escape down the road.
The other donkeys fell into line behind the old man, either trained somehow or used to a routine. Except that most of these animals were new. How could... Arlan moved forward without thinking, pushing into the column between a Jenny and a Jack. The Jenny’s scent was heavy, reaching deep into his nostrils and pulling them closer. His head was finishing up now, jaw thickening and teeth shifting. Arlan was aware of the change, but found he had no control over his actions at all.
“Where are you, boy?” Stephan’s voice was grim. Bony fingers reached out and began to trace the muzzles around him. “Speak up and save us both time. You cannot leave. I will find you eventually.”
It was true. Arlan had merged with the herd against his will and his legs now refused to respond at all. He remained silent, trying to think of some way out.
“Why, Arlan? Even after you tricked me and tried to steal form me, I promised I would help you. Did you think I lied? The wizard who cursed that bridle wanted revenge on Pierre, or some relative. You have seen how I live. Of what importance would one more donkey be? I would have helped you, as much as I could.”
Arlan felt a slight chill as he caught the past tense of that statement. Yet he could not move even when Stephan’s hands groped for and found the harness. “Ah. There you are.”
He expected to be beaten, to be whipped bloody. Instead, the old man tugged gently on his harness and began walking back towards the house with his cane waving in front of him. Arlan fell into step in enforced obedience. Some sort of animal control spell, perhaps. That explained how he managed to handle the animals so well on the road.
When they were back in Stephan’s field of vision, he dropped his cane and turned towards Arlan. His face was sad, the blank eyes filled with tears. “The eyes you destroyed were more than a convenience. I need them to take care of my animals. I can make them all come to me, even follow me. But I need sight to function in the stable, to take care of them. To take care of you.”
The old man seemed to age another decade, sagging into himself. “As much pain as you have caused me, the worst is that you force me to this.” Stephan reached out and began unbuckling the harness on Arlans’ muzzle. “Even now, the brasses have kept the last aspects of the curse at bay, preserving a spark of your humanity. I had planned to take you to town, where that spark would have been enough to restore your human form.”
Gnarled fingers slipped around the leather straps. Stephan shook his head. “You could not see the blessing of your life - youth, privilege, education, even good looks. Yet you found it necessary to steal from those less fortunate than yourself. For what? Your family obviously made sure you were well provided for. So the money that should have gone to feed hungry children and pay taxes was no doubt wasted instead on drink and gambling.”
Faced with the imminent loss of his mind, Arlan found himself looking back at a life squandered. Position, wealth, a future that would have been the dream of any other man. Now that reality was a fading dream in the mind of a jackass. He felt the harness begin to slip, and cried out mentally for his lost soul as it came free.
Nothing changed. Arlan waited for the rush of bestial thought, the crushing onslaught of animal instinct that would wash away his identity and awareness. When none came, he might have collapsed in relief if Stephan’s magic did not still hold him in place.
“It is done.” The old man traced the horse brasses with one finger. “Just as you cursed Pierre to being a donkey when you removed his bridle, so have I cursed you by removing mine. The punishment is fitting, and you might even have learned to enjoy it.” Then he turned and walked into the house, leaving Arlan still stuck in place.
Enjoy being a donkey? He thought about that, remembering the enticing scent of the females, and the ponderous stirrings of his loins. In truth, he felt wonderful. Healthy, strong. Given a few Jennys here and there… Arlan’s thoughts froze. Might have learned to enjoy it?
Stephan emerged holding a small knife with a slender, curved blade. Cold fear gripped Arlan’s heart and he screamed at legs to run, teeth to bite. He had seen that sort of knife before in stables, and knew what it was used for. The bastard was going to take even the pleasure of being male from him!
Stopping directly in front of him, the old man held the knife up with trembling fingers. “I would never believe that I could do what I am about to do. This is not a matter of revenge, or even of justice. You have forced me to this point, made the unthinkable a matter of survival. If it is any comfort, I will provide for you for the rest of my life, and ensure that your end is quick and painless when I am gone.”
The control spell clamped down even harder, and Arlan was unable to even blink. He seethed mentally at Stephan’s lie. How would gelding him make any difference to the old man’s survival? It was cruelty, pure and simple! Why couldn’t he simple be sold to another farmer if the old man died? He cringed mentally as Stephan finally took a deep breath and raised the knife. And then his mind screamed in renewed horror when he realized the blade was not heading for his hind legs.
“You should put this poor beast down, Stephan.”
Arlan flicked his ears at the comment, but had heard it too many times to be bothered. He smelled a chunk of carrot and the familiar odor he had come to know as Martin, a local farmer. Questing lips found the treat and pulled it into his mouth as another hand patted his sun-warmed hide.
“With you spoiling him all the time? He eats better than I do.” Stephan chuckled. “Besides, he gets along quite well with his nose and ears. Certainly has no trouble finding the Jennies that are ready. And I certainly owe him whatever life I can.”
Martin offered another carrot chunk, then rubbed Arlan’s bristled chin. “I don’t understand why you didn’t do this long ago. I’ll admit it looks odd, but seeing with a donkey’s eyes is far better than total darkness.”
“The magic required living eyes, and I never thought I would be able to take another creature’s vision.” There was a pause as Stephan’s fingers found the special spot just behind Arlan’s left ear. “As it turned out, I found one that was already blind.”
- end -