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Aaron heard the screams and pounding when he was still a half-mile from the castle. Dammit! He’d only been gone for an hour, and Seamus was throwing another tantrum. Breaking into a run, Aaron shoved his way through the ground’s outer hedge wall to save time, and nearly knocked the housekeeper down when he burst into the garden on the other side.
“Sorry. Mrs. O’Malley!” He stopped to make sure she was OK, only to get waved off.
“Up the yard!” The matronly woman gestured towards the ancient stone building that the shrill cries were coming from. “Before he hurts himself, or the gasur!”
Aaron nodded and took off again, reaching the entrance in time to hear the sound of splintering wood and a flood of profanity. Danny, a local boy hired to help out, was exercising a colorful and extensive vocabulary that belied his tender years. The target of his verbal abuse screamed back, and let fly with another board-cracking kick before Aaron could make his presence known.
“Seamus! I’m here.” Aaron ignored the boy’s angry glare, moving directly to the gate. The outside window was closed. No wonder Seamus had gotten upset. “It’s OK, fellah. Calm down.”
A short, high-pitched whinny came from inside, and a moment later a dark bay muzzle was thrust over the top of the stall. Aaron’s annoyance evaporated as the velvet nostrils and bristled lips explored his face, and he reached up to rub the horse’s neck with a grin. “It’s OK, boy. Calm down.” He looked back at Danny. “Could you please go open the outside shutter? And make sure it stays open.”
The lanky dark-haired boy nodded, making a face at Seamus. “Aye, sir. It blew shut while I was muckin’. I’d ‘ave got it fixed from inside but he nearly gave me a steever. Then he started his ruckers.”
“The bang must have scared him. He’s still scared of being closed in.” Aaron sighed as Seamus lipped his face and hair. “You are such a spoiled brat.”
“A real muzzy, sir.” Danny shook his head, then chuckled. “Jaysus, look at ‘im now. Wearin’ your face off.” He headed outside to fix the shutter.
Aaron sighed as the young stallion pulled him into a neck hug. The long flight over from Logan had put Seamus in a bad state. Even sedated, the big Irish Draught was trembling and lathered like he’d run ten miles by the time they finally got him offloaded at Cork. It had taken an hour to get Seamus loaded into the transport – which was accomplished only when Aaron led him in and remained with the horse for the thirty-mile trip to Mallow Castle.
“Guess all I get to see of Ireland is the pasture and the track, huh?” Seamus seemed to nod in agreement, rubbing his chin against Aaron’s back. “How about we go outside then?” He grabbed the halter from the peg by the gate. Some turnout would do them both good, and Danny could muck out the stall in safety.
Happily, the ‘pasture’ at Mallow Castle was actually a lush field that stretched for nearly two miles along the Blackwater River. There was even a twenty-acre deer park whose occupants were tame enough not to bolt when they saw a lone human walking nearby. It probably helped that said human had a 16.2 hand stallion practically grafted to his right shoulder. Most people would be concerned about such a large animal being so close, but after three months Aaron had gotten used to his equine shadow.
Three months. He shook his head and grinned to himself. Twelve weeks since he’d traded a career as a well-respected and highly paid programmer to become an even more-highly paid babysitter for the half-ton of horsemeat shuffling behind him. And all because he’d been taking pictures of a hunter-jumper show at the just the wrong time. Or the right time, depending on how you looked at it. His first view of Seamus had been through the viewfinder of his camera, galloping riderless off the course. If he’d stuck to snapping pictures, that would have been the end of it. But the big Bay was running in his general direction and he’d felt bound to try catching him.
It should have been an exercise in futility. With the horse obviously panicked and people running and shouting everywhere, one person standing off to the side with arms up shouldn’t have made a difference. However, Seamus had veered towards him with alarming suddenness, ears perked and pace dropping to a slow amble. Then the horse had given a peculiar high-pitched whinny that Aaron later found out was unique to greeting him, and pulled him into a neck hug. They were still like that when Seamus’ owner came running up to claim her prized stallion.
Just how prized wasn’t evident until after he’d spent the rest of the afternoon being nuzzled and lipped by an animal that he’d never seen before in his life. Seamus Coille Mor had championship bloodlines, including a sire that had won both the International Heineken Open and the Volvo Open. But he was also very high-strung and had never demonstrated real affection for any human. Except for Aaron.
Owner Nichole Parker had a soft spot for her horse and enough money to do whatever she pleased. He sighed and kicked idly at a small stone in the ground. So here he was three months later, getting paid half again his salary as a programmer to be Seamus’ companion. Nichole’s offer had sounded like a dream job – all expenses paid, full benefits, and full-time contact with a beautiful horse that adored him. However, the reality was starting to weigh down on Aaron more and more each day. As pleasant as the being with Seamus could be, life as a glorified stable hand was getting tedious. He’d already started putting out feelers – his old job was still…
A flicker of movement caught his attention. Something was running toward the woods. They must have startled a rabbit, or maybe a fox. He wasn’t concerned, as there were no dangerous animals around here, and it was heading away from them anyway. Then he nearly jumped out of his skin as the stallion suddenly screamed out and gave chase.
“Seamus!” Aaron yelled and charged after him, bewildered by the animal’s actions. What the Hell was Seamus doing? He’d never gone after anyone or anything like that before, at least that Aaron knew of. And to Aaron’s dismay, despite some frantic zig-zagging by the fleeing creature, Seamus snatched it up. “No! Put it down! Dammit!” Naturally, the horse took off back towards the castle with his prize screaming and struggling in his teeth.
What was it? He hadn’t seen anything, but it had to be big for the horse to carry it like that. What kind of animals lived around here? Seamus easily left him behind, and vanished behind a stand of trees near the castle. Unfortunately, they had wandered almost to the outer perimeter of the castle grounds, and running back two miles was more than Aaron could manage. He was flushed and puffing hard when he finally made it around the trees and found Seamus calmly grazing.
Aaron stopped and looked around. It seemed unlikely that whatever the creature was could have survived those powerful jaws, but he didn’t see a carcass anywhere. The big question was if Seamus had been injured. The stallion whinnied his special greeting and trotted over to meet him as if nothing had happened. After some careful checking, Aaron was relieved to find no trace of scratches, bites or other injuries. And no blood, either. Maybe whatever it was had survived after all.
“What got into you, fella?” He rubbed Seamus’ chin worriedly.
“So this is the one?”
Aaron spun around at a thin reedy voice that came from directly behind him. “Huh? Who’s there?”
“Aye, miscast he is. But pretty set in his ways, and a touch long in the tooth as well. T’won’t be easy, you know.”
As Aaron tried to locate the speaker in the seemingly empty pasture, Seamus gave him a hard nudge in the back that sent him stumbling forward a few steps.
“All right. You caught me fair and square. He might not be too thrilled, but that isn’t my problem.”
What the Hell was going on? Aaron looked around, wide-eyed, backing up slowly until he was pressing against the stallion’s chest. Someone had to be playing some kind of silly joke or…
Seamus was lipping at his face again. Aaron opened his eyes to find the horse’s muzzle hanging over him. He was lying on his back in the thick grass, and from the color of the sky, it was getting to be evening. Blinking, he sat up and looked around. They were in the pasture close by the castle. How had he gotten here? The last thing he remembered was walking down at the other end. No, wait. Seamus had started running, and he’d given chase for some reason. Damn. Aaron shook his head, but couldn’t quite get his thoughts cleared. He didn’t remember lying down.
Scrambling up, he stretched out and took hold of Seamus’ halter. “Come on, fella. Time for dinner.” As they headed back towards the stables, he was surprised at how much better he felt physically. Maybe he’d still been suffering from jet lag. Whatever the reason, it was nice not to feel the familiar ache of joints and muscles at the end of the day. Maybe he’d start napping more often.
Aaron woke to the first glimmer of early dawn. Though it was a lot earlier than he usually rose, he sat up fully alert and ready to go. Padding into the bathroom, he glanced in the mirror as he drained last night’s beer, then did a double take. Aaron wasn’t one to pay a lot of attention to appearances, but he was rather pleased by his reflection.
Though Aaron had never been really overweight, age and a fondness for M&Ms had rounded him out in recent years. Obviously, the change of employment had done him good. He looked trimmer than he had in ages, and the worry lines and bloodshot eyes of too many late nights at the office had cleared up almost completely. He grinned at himself. Not bad for forty. Hell, he didn’t look bad for thirty!
It was still too early to expect the housekeeper to be up and about. He poked at the stack of magazines on his bedside table and frowned. Where were his copies of Time and Newsweek? Mrs. O’Malley must have borrowed them. Aaron was the only actual guest here until Mark Jungherr, the trainer, arrived in two days. He’d been sent ahead with Seamus to give the horse plenty of time to settle down prior to the big hunter-jumper event at Cork. And the Parkers were visiting friends in Europe until the day before the race.
Aaron picked up one of the car magazines, then dropped it back. Reading didn’t appeal to him right now. Instead, he decided to head outside and catch what was left of the dawn. He was surprised to hear someone banging around in the kitchen, and stuck his head in to find Mrs. O’Malley already working on breakfast.
She waved cheerily to him. “I’ll have a fry ready for you when you’re done. And make sure not to track anything back in!”
Aaron was a little puzzled by the comments, but nodded and smiled before continuing outside. The scene that greeted him was stunning. A heavy mist shrouded the river and the castle grounds, catching the reddish glow of sunrise. It was tempting to run back inside for his camera, but the moment would be gone before he could unpack it and get set up. He’d make a point of waking up early again tomorrow.
As the mist started burning off, Aaron heard a familiar banging from the barn. Seamus wanted something. Breakfast, no doubt. He wandered inside and saw the stallion peering at him expectantly. “What are you on about?” Aaron grinned as he gave Seamus a rub on the chin. “Room service not fast enough for you?”
The horse snorted and snuffled him, then nosed his grain bucket rather pointedly. Aaron held off for a few more minutes, but finally sighed and provided the demanded food. As Seamus stuck his nose in the bucket, Aaron walked to the door and checked the road. There was no sign of Danny. He needed to let the boy know the horse had already been fed. Not that Seamus would mind, but his diet was pretty strictly controlled, especially during a race week.
He’d wandered back and forth several times before he heard Mrs. O’Malley shouting at him from the kitchen door. “What’s taking you so long, lad? Your fry is getting’ cold! Isn’t that animal fed yet?”
“Uh, yeah!” Aaron called back. “I gave him his grain. But I wanted to make sure he doesn’t get fed again.”
“What?” She frowned and shook her head. “Danny knows better than that. Come on then! I’ve a household to take care of.”
Despite the housekeeper’s admonishment, breakfast was piping hot when he sat down at the table. Her pointed look at his boots made him glad he’d taken care to brush them off before he came in. Still, considering it cost more than twenty thousand dollars a week to hire out Mallow Castle, he was surprised the woman was concerned about her only guest tracking in some loose straw and dirt.
He hurried through the meal, keeping an eye out for any sign of the stable hand. It was a good thing he’d gone ahead and given Seamus his grain – the horse would have been kicking the walls down by now. After clearing off the table and giving a quick thanks to Mrs. O’Malley, he went back to the barn.
“Jaysus, Aaron. ’Bout time you finished stuffin’ your gob.” The boy was sitting on a bale of hay across from the stall. Instead of offering an apology or even an excuse, Danny grinned and chucked a handful of straw at him. “Take this fekkin’ can ‘o piss out so I can get the stall mucked.”
Aaron was startled by the boy’s sudden familiarity. Up to now, he’d always been ‘sir’ or ‘Mr. Porter.’ “Uh, yeah. I’ll take him back out to the pasture. I fed him this morning.”
“Too much as usual, I’ll wager.” Danny stood up and punched Aaron lightly on the shoulder. “If you ‘ad to take care of the arse end, you’d be stuffin’ less in the front.” Then he headed back to where the tools were kept. “Get on with it, then. Maybe he’ll use the pasture as a shitter instead of his stall.”
Although he’d spent a lot of the previous afternoon in the field, Aaron quite enjoyed wandering around the pasture again with his equine shadow. Seamus was totally at ease, something of a rarity, and his contentment seemed contagious. They saw more deer, including a doe who actually came within reach of Aaron before bolting suddenly back to the woods.
Seamus found a spot by the river to roll, twisting on his back and looking pretty silly. Grinning, Aaron sprawled out on the grass close by and stared up at the clouds. His thoughts drifted back to the exchange with Danny this morning. It was like the boy had expected Aaron to do the feeding. Come to think of it, Mrs. O’Malley seemed to have the same idea. That would explain her having breakfast ready so much earlier. Maybe they’d set things up for Danny to do the feeding just for the first few days and forgotten to tell him.
He didn’t really mind, though such an arrangement would surprise him. The Parkers had made a point of treating him with the same level of respect as Seamus’ trainer. Not that he or Mark were above mucking or feeding, it was more professional expectations for age and experience. Still, it would explain Danny’s abrupt change of attitude – as of this morning, they were equals in his eyes. A couple of stable hands. Aaron chuckled. At least he’d gotten responsibility for the front end.
The sun was warm and very pleasant, and he found himself dozing off. Such a waste of time would normally bother him, but most of the morning passed by before he finally roused himself up. Seamus had wandered to the far side of the pasture, close to the woods. His ears were perked forward, and he seemed to be looking intently at something on the ground in front of him. Squinting, Aaron saw movement in the grass scrambled up in alarm. Had there been something with an animal yesterday?
He approached cautiously, not wanting to spook the horse or whatever the intruder was. As he got closer, he could hear Seamus whickering low in his throat. That was encouraging, as a threat would usually warrant high-pitch squeals. Then he frowned, picking up something else. A voice? He moved closer, head cocked. There was something familiar about this teasing at the back of his mind.
“…work careful so he don’t get lost. It’s him ye be wanting, right? Anyway, truth be told, this mucking with what is takes a lot out o’ me.”
Aaron stopped dead, squinting at the spot that held Seamus’ attention. There was something there, but what? All he could make out was what looked like a brownish clump of twigs. He looked all around the area to be sure he wasn’t hearing conversation from somewhere else.
The horse snorted and shook his head, then looked up and whinnied to Aaron.
“Aye, I saw ‘im.” The words were definitely coming from the clump. “Ready for another dose?”
“Another dose of what?” Aaron started to move closer, trying to figure out what kind of trick was being used here. “Who’s there?” There was a bright flash of light from the clump, like sunlight reflected in a mirror. Momentarily blinded, Aaron blinked and rubbed his eyes. Before vision cleared, Seamus suddenly nosed his chest with enough force to knock him back on his rump. “Hey!”
The impact, combined with blotched eyesight, left him disoriented for about a half-minute. When the sensation passed, he started to get up and then found himself staring at the new, if very dirty, high-top sneakers on his feet. Where had they come from? And what had happened to his pants? He stood up and pulled at black denim jeans, also new and dirty. They were slung low on his hips, nearly falling off.
He must have not been as awake as he thought when he got dressed this morning. How could he have missed the difference between lacing up high-tops and his normal footwear? Or these silly low-rider pants? About the only person he’d seen around here with this kind of wardrobe was Danny. Not that he’d ever been this dirty – it looked like Aaron had been living in his clothes for days! Smelled like it to. No wonder Mrs. O’Malley had been worried about her household. He flushed, hoping she wouldn’t say anything to the Parkers.
Brushing himself off as best he could, Aaron endured renewed snuffling by Seamus. Looking for treats, no doubt. It was time for lunch anyway. He was uneasy about leaving the animal out with something unknown running about, and decided to take him back to his stall for now. Seamus was completely relaxed. Maybe Aaron could sneak off for some local sightseeing and picture taking after lunch.
The stall gate was still hanging open when he led the horse back to the barn, but he stopped halfway in. What the Hell? Danny hadn’t mucked, and the water bucket was still dirty and almost empty. Muttering to himself, Aaron decided to move the horse to the next stall. He still had to fill the water bucket, but the horse wouldn’t have to stand in soiled straw. Seamus didn’t mind the change, and more importantly, didn’t make a fuss when Aaron headed for the castle. .
Mrs. O’Malley’s battered old Vauxhall was missing – a note on the table explained she’d run off to do some errands while there weren’t any guests around. Aaron felt vaguely insulted, but forgave her after the note also directed him to a still-warm loaf of fresh-baked bread with a large chunk of local cheese stuffed in the center.
After finishing off the entire loaf and a couple of glasses of cold water, Aaron headed upstairs to change. Although the ripe clothing didn’t really bother him as much as he thought it might, the idea of wearing somebody else’s ripe clothing didn’t sit too well. It had to be some sort of mix-up on the housekeeper’s part. He just hoped that whoever owned what he was wearing hadn’t gotten his stuff in exchange.
He was surprised to find the bed made. Mrs. O’Malley had been busy this morning. A little too busy. All of his magazines were missing. So were his clothes. And his camera bag. Annoyance turned to concern as he opened drawers and the closet and found literally nothing. Where were all his things? He went back into the hallway to make sure he hadn’t somehow gone into the wrong bedroom and even checked the ones one either side just to be sure.
Oh shit. Had he been robbed? Aaron felt a stab of panic. Bad enough that his Nikons were worth several thousand dollars, but his wallet and passport had been on the bedside table. Anyway, who would have been in here? Danny, perhaps? He hated to think that the boy would be a thief, but it seemed more likely than Mrs. O’Malley. He headed downstairs, trying to remember if there was a local phone book anywhere. Dammit! He didn’t even know who to call.
He heard the housekeeper pull up outside, and ran to meet her before she had even gotten out of the car. “All my things are gone! My clothes, my camera. My passport and wallet!”
“Away with ye!” Mrs. O’Malley gaped at him. “Who’d do such a thing? Did you see anyone?” She strode for the house with Aaron following close behind. “If they got the silver..”
“It didn’t look like anything else was missing. I mean, the bed was made and the whole room looked like it had just been cleaned. Just my stuff is missing.”
The housekeeper stopped in the main hall and glanced around, then frowned and turned to look at him. “The bed was made? You mean, your bed? It was a right mess this morning when I went by.” She turned and headed back towards the back half of the house, turning into a small hallway next to the kitchen. This was the staff area, where her quarters were. However, instead of checking her own bedroom, Mrs. O’Malley stuck her head in an open door closer to the kitchen. “What are you on about, lad?”
Aaron stepped around her and looked. This was a very small bedroom with an unmade twin bed and dirty clothes piled in a corner of the floor. The shirt on top looked familiar, and as he scanned the room he spotted his wallet and passport sitting on the battered chest of drawers. Some of his car magazines scattered on the floor by the bed, and a small digital camera hung from the bedpost.
“You had me in ruckers! What kind of trick-acting are you playin’ at, cub?” Mrs. O’Malley scowled. “Small wonder you couldn’t find anything in that mess, though. I’d have ye out in the barn.” She shook her head and headed back into the kitchen.
“But…” He stared at room dumbfounded, then went over and checked his wallet. There was still money in it, but not as much as there should be. And his charge cards were gone. What the Hell was going on here? Some sort of practical joke? The housekeeper would have to be in on it, and she didn’t seem the type. At least his passport was…
Aaron stared at the dark blue booklet a moment, then picked it up. His passport was well worn from years of use. This one appeared brand new. Flipping open the cover, he stared at the picture inside. It was him – more than twenty years ago, complete with a new date of birth that made him eighteen. But he hadn’t even had a passport when he was a kid! Anyway, this passport was supposedly issued less than a month ago, and had only one official-looking stamp for his arrival in Ireland a few days ago.
Aaron felt a prickling in the back of his neck and pulled out his driver’s license for a closer look. The information on it matched the passport, including the youthful face in his official RMV photo. His knees felt weak and he sat down on the bed. God, what was happening here? Was this how a person lost his mind?
This couldn’t be a hallucination. It was too detailed, too complete. The mattress was lumpy, and he could smell the dirty laundry piled in the corner. But he was sure this was no trick, either. Nothing made sense. He stood up, gut clenching nervously, and walked across the hall to the small toilet. The small mirror confirmed what he half-expected. His reflection matched the ID. He explored the dimly-remembered teen’s face with trembling fingers. Did seeing himself as a boy make him less crazy or more?
“Aaron!” Mrs. O’Malley called from the kitchen. “Mr. Jungherr is shoutin’ for you from the barn. And he doesn’t sound happy. Best get out there!”
The trainer? Aaron’s mind struggled to find anything it could focus on. When had Mark gotten here? Moving like a sleepwalker, he made his way through the kitchen and looked out the back door. Sure enough, the man he wasn’t expecting to arrive for two days had Seamus out in the cross-ties, checking the animal’s hooves.
The housekeeper came up beside him. “What’s set him off, lad? Nothin’ wrong with the horse is there?”
Aaron was happy to find at least one answer in the jumble of his thoughts. “Oh! Danny didn’t muck the stall today.”
“Danny? What are you on about? The only person supposed to be shovelin’ out there is you.” She frowned. “Lettin’ yourself go is your business, but puttin’ proper care of that animal on the long finger is just wrong. You’ve got a good thing going, especially for a lad your age. Don’t bollox it up. Go on, get your bum out there.” She ushered him out the door.
Either Aaron or the world around him had gone crazy, and at this point he didn’t know which prospect scared him more. In either case, everything he thought he knew about his life was crumbling away. Terror welled up, nearly overwhelming him with a blind panic. Then Seamus perked his ears and gave his special whinny when he saw Aaron. Whatever else was changing, his relationship with the horse remained and he focused on that. Taking a shuddery breath, he walked over to the barn.
The trainer didn’t seem as angry now that he had finished checking Seamus over, but he still frowned as he gestured to the barn. “I thought I taught you better than this, Aaron. We don’t just move horses around and muck when we feel like it. You’re taking good care of Seamus, but you know what Mrs. Parker will say if she comes in and sees a messy stall. Get it all cleaned up while I lunge him.”
“Mark, something weird is....” Aaron’s half-hearted attempt to explain things was cut off abruptly by a sharp glare from the trainer, and he automatically corrected himself. “Uh, I mean, Mr. Jungherr.” He flushed, then felt stupid. The man obviously saw him the way everyone else did – a dumb stable boy who was shirking his duties. And who certainly should not be addressing him by his first name. “Never mind, sir. I’ll get it cleaned up right away. I’m sorry.”
Having watched Danny work, he knew where the tools were and had the soiled bedding replaced in short order. He was careful to empty out the water bucket and clean it thoroughly. Seamus liked to dunk his hay, creating a sodden mess that looked awful. The work was simple, and with only the one stall to do, quick. He caught himself wondering why he hadn’t done it when he was supposed to, and gripped the fork handle so tightly the wood cracked.
Danny was the one who was supposed to be doing this, dammit! Yet this twisted reality was rapidly luring him into a sense of complacency, even acceptance. He was still fully aware that all of this was wrong, but the fear that had threatened to overwhelm him was already fading. Part of it was morbid curiosity. Just how crazy had he or the world become? And why become a kid with obvious hygiene issues?
“It’s all part of the Adjustment.”
He jerked around as an oddly familiar voice spoke from behind. No one was there, but there was an odd-shaped bundle of twigs on the ledge of the outside window that he hadn’t noticed before. Danny must have put them there to keep the shutter from swinging closed again, but they wouldn’t do any good there. But… Aaron frowned. The local boy had never been here, at least in this new version of events.
“Don’t concern yourself, lad. This will all work out.”
This time Aaron not only heard the voice come directly from the bundle, he saw it move. He stumbled back, eyes wide, brandishing the muck fork as a makeshift weapon as the bundle stood up and leaned against the window frame. It looked like a crude doll made of sticks and straw, oddly translucent as if it wasn’t quite solid. “Who are you? What are you?”
The lump that appeared to be the ‘head’ cocked slightly. “If it’s introductions ye be wanting, I suppose I am best known as the Púca Uladh. In truth, that be the answer to both questions.” One of the ‘arms’ pointed at the muck fork. “And I’d be grateful if ye’d stop wavin’ that thing at me.”
“What?” Aaron blinked and lowered the tool, flustered by the unexpected response. “Oh, uh, sorry.” He clenched his eyes shut. As if things weren’t bad enough, now he was having a conversation with some garden rubbish.
“ ‘Garden rubbish,’ is it?” Although the voice seemed to be amused, it was colored with something a bit darker. “I’ll allow that ye are ignorant of things. Once.”
The weight of the muck fork suddenly vanished, accompanied by a soft plopping sound. At the same time, Aaron’s hand was suddenly full of something warm and soft. He opened his eyes and looked down. Horse manure was scattered on the fresh bedding, and covered the palm and fingers of his right hand. There was no sign of the muck rake.
“Makin’ ye a larger pile of the same takes but a thought. A sight easier than the current shenanigans I am bound to. Curse that beast for catchin’ me.” The figure gave a sigh. “Getting’ slow in me old age. Not like I was sprout of a thousand.”
Aaron was still staring at his soiled hand, but looked up at that last. “A thousand? That’s imposs..” He caught himself and almost laughed. As far as he could tell, he was now a teenager mucking stalls and talking to a…to something that had turned wood and plastic into horse shit. Oh, and mentioned doing the same to him. What was impossible? “I don’t have a clue what’s going on here. This could be some really intense nightmare. But I sure didn’t mean to insult you. I didn’t even say anything.”
There was a short silence, and Aaron felt his gut tighten. Dream or not, he had no desire to end up as part of a manure pile. However, after a moment the figure chuckled. “True, lad. Ye didn’t. My mistake. I hear everything in your head, not just what ye give voice to. It is much easier to deal with the beasts – there’s no complications.”
“You’re the one doing this to me?”
“Aye. Told ‘im it wouldn’t be to your liking, but ‘e can’t see it.”
There was a flicker of memory – being out in the pasture with Seamus, and hearing almost the same words and the same voice there. Púca Uladh. Both what and who he was? Aaron started suddenly. “A phooka? You’re a phooka?”
“Púca Uladh, to be proper. But as ye don’t seem the proper sort, ‘Ully’ will do.”
“Umm, nice to meet you Ully. I’m Aaron.” He extended his hand automatically, then remembered the manure and wiped it nervously on his pants. Shit! Flustered, he jerked his hand away, too late to avoid adding more stains to the garment. What was wrong with him? It was hard to focus his thoughts, but one burning question stood out in his mind.
Ully managed to convey a shrug despite the lack of shoulders, and then waves an arm-stalk towards the distant field. Mark was working the stallion, shouting commands as Seamus galloped around him. “Not my doin’ really. The beast that caught me had one wish. Ye.”
Aaron frowned in confusion. There was no logic he could see to this, no reasoning that would justify the upheaval of his very existence. “How does messing up my life change anything?”
“Mess up your life? No, Human, that would have been much more fun.” Ully shook his head. “No, the animal wants ye as ye are to him. Animals see more than the physical body, they see the soul inside. Even though ye be miscast, the beast knew your true self as soon as he saw you. You are his chosen companion.”
It took longer to process this chunk of information, but some parts began to fall into place. There was no real surprise about being a chosen companion – that much was obvious from the start. But the part about Aaron’s ‘true self’ only added to his confusion. Finally, his mind snagged on something unfamiliar. “Miscast?”
“Aye, Miscast. Sometimes a soul gets caught up in the wrong form. Happens all too often these days, with so many humans and the animal population shrinking. Yon beast saw through ye flesh and picked ye as a companion. T’is high praise indeed, lad. Worthy of the extra effort to make sure ye’ remains complete.”
Aaron looked down at himself. “Complete? It looks like you’ve taken away everything I worked for. What about all my friends and family? How can I be 18 and still know them?”
There was no answer. Looking up, he saw that the opening was empty. More craziness? Perhaps not – the manure remained and the muck fork was missing. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath, shivering slightly despite the warm day. Like things weren’t strange enough. What little explanation he had gotten from the phooka made no sense for the most part. How did any of this benefit Seamus?
His own unanswered question sat heavier as he thought about his relationships. He was younger than some of his own nieces and nephews – far too young to be a child of his real mother. Unless she had changed too? The twists in reality had left him his name and the basic relationship with Seamus. Who would answer if he called home? Even that couldn’t be the same – he owned his own house, or had as an adult. At least he was single. Would the phooka’s magics have erased any children he had sired?
Best not to dwell on things for now. He still clung to the faint hope that this was all part of a dream or delusion. He might wake up any time in his own bed, or perhaps in a hospital room. That triggered a short, bitter laugh – even some of his hopes were pretty dismal.
“Aaron, are you still in there?” The trainer must have finished with Seamus. Aaron heard the horse whinny just outside. “Your big brother wants you.”
“Uh, yes sir! Just a second.” He hurriedly gathered the remains of the rake with his hands and carried it out. It wasn’t until he had tossed the mess on the manure pile out back that he even thought about what he had done. Or realized how naturally Mark had become ‘Sir.’ He wiped his hands off on some straw and hurried outside.
Mr. Jungherr was standing just outside the main door, holding the stallion’s halter. As soon as Seamus saw Aaron, he whinnied his greeting and pranced impatiently, prompting a chuckle from the trainer. “Go ahead and take him back to the pasture for the rest of the afternoon. Ms. Parker will be here tomorrow and we’ll start putting him through his paces for real.”
Nodding, Aaron took the other side of the halter. “Yes, sir. I’ll stay out there with him. It’s pretty out there.”
The man wrinkled his nose. “You make sure to clean up tomorrow, OK? As long as Seamus is happy with you, I don’t really care what you look like. But Ms. Parker may have guests with her.”
Flushing slightly, Aaron nodded. “Uh, yes sir.” He started leading the stallion towards the pasture. What part of being a companion for Seamus was served by a lack of hygiene? It was obvious that he was moderately offensive to human company, though Aaron didn’t really feel uncomfortable or even find his own odor unpleasant
Seamus just as obviously did not mind his smell, taking even greater interest in snuffling and nuzzling him after they had entered the pasture. “You don’t care if I change clothes or not, do you?” Aaron rubbed the animal’s chin, then started wandering towards the river bank. Seamus snorted, and then whinnied, prompting a look back. The horse had stopped at a patch of grass that apparently stood out from the rest, but didn’t want to be left behind.
“OK, go ahead and eat.” Aaron grinned and sat down. They had the rest of the afternoon to explore. There was no rush to do anything else. Including worrying that he might be losing his mind. For right now, the sun was warm, the grass was soft and fragrant, and just being with Seamus gave him a sense of stability that he really needed.
The rest of the day passed much like the previous one, except that Aaron couldn’t work up enough interest in the countryside to explore further. It was pleasant just staying with the horse, moving occasionally as Seamus shifted his grazing to a new location. The sun jumped across the sky in fits and starts as he dozed off a few ties, rousing only when Mr. Jungherr shouted for them from the main gate. He scrambled up, noting that it was already getting dark.
Walking back to the barn with Seamus, Aaron was distracted by the feel of grass between his toes and looked down curiously. When had he taken off his shoes and socks? Apparently pretty early in the day, as his feet were filthy. He glanced back at the huge field, but knew he’d never be able to backtrack the aimless wandering of the afternoon. He’d have to look for them tomorrow.
The trainer opened the gate as they approached and pulled it open, smiling and giving Seamus a pat on the neck. Then he gave Aaron a similar pat on the head that was surprising. “Hope you boys had a good day out there today. We’ll be starting the workouts tomorrow.”
“Good day. Yeah. We had good day.” Aaron blinked, performing a mental replay of the words he’d just spoken. The lazy afternoon had left him slightly drowsy, and he followed Mr. Jungherr back to the barn mostly on autopilot. Perhaps his lack of concentration was showing, for the trainer watched as Aaron cleaned Seamus’ hooves and gave him a quick brush down. Although nothing was said, Aaron had the distinct feeling he was being supervised.
As he put away the grooming tools, Aaron realized he’d have to do some serious cleaning up before he went to his room. His feet were as caked with mud and filth as Seamus’ hooves – that would go over well with the housekeeper. It wasn’t until he came out of the tack room that he realized Mr. Jungherr was still observing him.
“Very good, Aaron. You did that all just right.” The man smiled, his tone slightly condescending, as if speaking to a small child. A flicker of resentment gave way to puzzlement as Aaron realized that there was no sarcasm behind the words. “Ms. O’Malley brought your dinner out already.” He gestured towards the empty stall across from Seamus. “I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early.” Then he headed for the castle.
What? Aaron followed a few steps, bewildered. Then he stopped and went back to the indicated stall. Pushing the gate open, he stared inside. A very rumpled, dirty cot had been set up against the far wall, with a small crate serving as a bedside table. There was also a folding chair and table, with what looked like another ploughman’s lunch waiting for him.
However, it wasn’t the sudden demotion of accommodations that bothered him as much as seeing some of the same clothing and a couple of familiar magazines strewn on the floor. As if he’d been living here all along. In the stable. With Seamus.
Aaron felt weak in the knees and stumbled over to sit on the edge of the cot. Not even being a common stable hand was enough. The dammed phooka had brought him down to.. what? A simple-minded boy who was expected to live little better than the animal he cared for? It made sense, in the same twisted way that all of this made sense. He was now suited for nothing else but taking care of Seamus – barely even that, given the trainer’s careful supervision.
He glanced down at one of the magazines by his feet, his brow furrowing as he scanned the cover. The markings made no sense to him. Leaning over, he picked it up and traced some of the shapes with his fingers, struggling to identify them. Letters. Letters made words. He threw the magazine against the wall as realization struck hard. God, no! he couldn’t read! Despair settled deeper as he tried to come up with numbers, words, anything that remained of his education. There was nothing.
Tears ran down Aaron’s face unheeded. Eighteen and he could not do first-grade math. No wonder the trainer had been watching him. He was a low-grade moron now, someone who to be pitied, to be taken care for the rest of his life. He hung his head and started sobbing. Damn the phooka! This was the greatest cruelty of all, for while he could not work even basic sums in his head, he remembered writing complex programming code. Knowledge was gone, with only the empty memory of its existence remaining.
Seamus neighed plaintively from across the barn, and Aaron looked out to see the horse looking at him with obvious concern. Although the animal was the source of his troubles, Aaron needed a shoulder to cry on. Shuffling across to the other stall, he let himself in and buried his face in Seamus’ mane.
Aaron woke slowly, dimly aware of equine lips pulls at his ear and the sensation of lying on straw. Thoughts were sluggish, but it seemed he must have fallen asleep in Seamus’ stall. Someone was moving around outside, and the stallion gave his ‘feed me’ whinny. Jungherr, probably. Here to make sure the retard did his job right? He sighed in bitter resignation, stubbornly keeping his eyes shut, refusing to wake to whatever new indignities the phooka might heap on him.
“Jaysus, what a lazy arse!” Danny’s voice startled Aaron fully awake, and he lifted his head just as the boy opened the gate and dumped grain in Seamus’ bucket. “Serve you right if this bucket o’ piss eats your breakfast, too.”
What was wrong with his eyes? Aaron blinked, confused by vision that was, well, wrong. Something was blocking part of the view forward, and both focus and color were muddy. He reached up to rub them with his hands. Only to find that his arms would not move that way.
Danny dumped more grain in a second bucket hat shouldn’t be in the stall, then turned and nudged Aaron’s side with his foot. “Come on! Stop actin’ the maggot and get up!” He grabbed the water bucket and left the stall.
What was the boy doing here? Aaron shook his head in bewilderment, then froze at a flood of unfamiliar sensations that resulted. He swung his head up and around, rolling up to his belly at the same time. One eye reported Seamus already nose down in his feed bucket. The other showed most of a medium-sized gray donkey. Just right amount, say, if that donkey that was looking at himself.
Realization cleared his mind instantly, and he lurched up to all fours before quite realizing what he was doing. He was a jackass! More than eyesight provided that information – his identity was clear in large, flaring nostrils. A young, healthy male who slept on straw and shared close quarters with a horse. Specifically, Seamus, though the stallion’s scent was also filling in details of sex, health, age, diet. That last bit centered his attention suddenly on the second grain bucket. It smelled wonderful, and he had a sudden compulsion to explore what was inside. Seamus almost beat him to it, jerking his muzzle out of the higher bucket and thrusting it towards Aaron’s. A loud and indignant bray short-circuited the theft, though Aaron was actually more startled by the sound emerging from his muzzle than the horse.
There was too much new information bombarding Aaron’s mind – his whole body felt and moved differently, and scent and sound were magnified tremendously. Piled on top of that was the not insignificant fact that he had become a four-legged animal during the night. He was fully justified to go into a screaming, kicking fit of rage and/or blind panic. Remarkably, he was able to direct thoughts to the sweet bread odor and let hunger take over, at least until he had lipped up the last kernels.
Seamus hung over him and immediately did a thorough and futile examination of Aaron’s bucket as soon as he backed away. There was a curious sense of familiar routine that made all of this far easier to accept than he would have believed possible. Sucking water that was also conveniently placed for a donkey was second nature, and he slaked his thirst before the novelty struck home.
“All right, boys. Let’s get you outside so Danny can finish up in here.” The trainer came in with Seamus’ halter and started leading him out as soon as it was in place. Aaron stared after them, wondering what to do, and gave a plaintive bray.
Jungherr stopped and looked back at him with a puzzled expression. “Well, come on, Aaron. Since when do you need a special invitation?” He waited until Aaron took the hint and followed the man and horse out to the pasture. The man let Seamus loose and then shut the gate behind Aaron as soon as he was inside. Then he turned and headed back to the castle, no doubt to get his own breakfast from Mrs. O’Malley.
As Aaron stared after the man, he felt Seamus chewing on his rump. The stallion had come back to stand and groom him with teeth that would have bruised and possibly broken human flesh. To Aaron’s new hide, it was incredibly pleasant, and he found himself responding by lipping at the stallion’s shoulder.
“I trust he meets with your approval?” Aaron’s ears instantly located the phooka sitting up on Seamus’ back. However, before he could respond, the stallion snorted and rubbed his chin across Aaron’s back. Of course. The question had been to the maker of the wish. He hoped this meant that the phooka was through screwing up his life.
“Screwing up your life?”
Aaron winced mentally. Damn the creature’s mind reading.
“”I take no offense. Before ye damn me, though, consider what has been gifted to ye.” There was a rustling sound as the phooka leapt off Seamus’ back and landed with a dull thud in front of Aaron. He could almost make out a face in the mass of twigs and vines, though no expression could be determined.
Gifted? Aaron snorted, but did his best to guard his thoughts. There was no point in making things any worse. In any case, he had no voice to respond with.
The head shook slowly from side to side. “Yes, gifted. And thoughts are as good as words to me. Better, really, for they are based in truth.”
Aaron stared at the creature a while, and then gave a deep sigh. He was an animal now. Some of the changes made sense now – a donkey had no need of spelling or math, and being unwashed was the normal state of things. But why not just change him and be done with it? Why the slow torture?
“Because the beast wanted –you- as a companion. I can turn the lad mucking your stall right now into a donkey that is identical in every way to the Jack ye are now. But the mind within that animal would be that of a born donkey. The experiences, the life that shaped his soul would be erased, and while his awareness would remain, everything that really was that boy would be gone.” The phooka shrugged. “Actually, I would normally consider that the best approach.”
Aaron shivered. If what this creature was describing wasn’t death, it was close enough to be avoided. So why the special treatment?
“I have a special fondness for the Miscast.” The phooka chuckled. “And in this case, the wish and soul were well meshed. Ye were meant to be a donkey.”
That should have been a surprise, but Aaron realized he’d known all along. Perhaps that was why he had accepted this new shape so easily this morning. Though he suspected at least some mental meddling by the phooka.
“Aye, ye have a touch of the beast in your thoughts. Not enough to change who ye be, but what was needed to make this life acceptable.”
Acceptable? Aaron laid his ears back, feeling anger build. He’d been robbed of his past and his future, all to suit the idle wish of a dumb animal!
“Feh!” The phooka sounded disgusted. “After everything done for ye, naught but ingratitude?”
What did he expect? Thanks? Aaron stomped the ground with a hoof and brayed loudly in frustration.
“T’would be a start. Thy human form was no longer young, and not fully sound. Now ye are the equine equivalent of the boy I made you last night. Ye will enjoy a long life with good health, losing little or nothing from the span of human years ye might have lingered. Is that not worth thanks?”
Did this creature not see the difference? Aaron’s ears drooped. As a human, he accomplished things, he could have relationships, family…
A snort from the phooka interrupted his thoughts. “Accomplishments? I have seen what ye consider accomplishments in thy head. These tasks that ye found so important, what do they do that makes a real difference in the world? In any case, I did not take anything that had not already been cast aside.”
Aaron felt a flare of resentment that faded quickly. It was true. He’d already given up his profession to be with Seamus. Why? Because he was happier with the horse?
“What is shared with others is all that truly matters. And lad, the bond shard with this beast is stronger than any ye have had with friends and family. That is not of my doing.”
But… This time Aaron found himself at a loss. He wanted to deny the phooka’s assessment, yet every argument that came to mind paled in comparison to the truth. Being with Seamus was more than just satisfying a love of equines, or even finding contentment in the peace and quiet. When he was with the horse, Aaron felt complete. And as he realized that, Aaron finally understood.
The phooka nodded. “Aye. Ye have it now. That’s why ye was worth the trouble. I only changed thy shape for convenience. Ye were already companions.”