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Pulling His Own Weight
“Come on, ‘Sampson’! At this rate we won’t get to town before dark.” It was Ge’nael, of course. While none of Thomas’ new companions were exactly friendly, the dark-haired elf fighter rarely missed the opportunity to toss a barb.
He bit back a protest and struggled to pick up his pace. The saddlebags and sacks on his back represented a fraction of what most of the others carried – to his shame, even the frail-looking elf taunting him was managing twice the load. If he fell too far behind, the group was likely to distribute his payload amongst themselves and give him the boot. Actually, considering the foul moods and dubious personalities of this battered collection of adventurers, he might just as easily end up buried in an ant hill for their amusement.
Not that the boy was complaining. If he hadn’t stumbled on the group’s campfire three days ago, he might still be lost in the forest. Or in the process of being digested by something large and unpleasant. Of course, he’d narrowly escaped ending his short life as a pincushion when he came blundering out of the trees. Tyrell claimed he had intended his arrow to miss, but Thomas credited survival more to the lanky human’s empty wine flask.
“Sampson?” There was a snort of derisive laughter. “I think he’d make a better Delilah.” Jurgen, a badly scarred dwarf who barely came up to Thomas’ chest, leered back at him. “What do you say, boy? If you can’t pull your own weight doing work, maybe we should see how well you can provide pleasure.”
“He’s better looking than that bristled pig you call a wife, Jurgen.” One of the biggest humans Thomas had ever seen strode back towards them. Seth was the leader and the closest thing to a friend Thomas had in this group. He had a wild mane of red hair streaked with gray, and wore only a loincloth and sandals despite cool temperatures. “Anyway, ‘Sampson’ is supposed to be working for me right now, so shut up and leave him alone. You can proposition him once we get to town.”
Thomas gave the man a grateful look, and received a scowl in return. “What are you smiling at, you miserable little whelp? I’ve seen goats carry more than you, and I didn’t promise to pay them my last coppers, either. Get a move on!” Seth spat in disgust and then went back to the front where Tyrell was leading their one remaining horse. The animal was limping, and had some ugly cuts on its flanks from an Orc attack that had not only claimed the lives of all the other mounts, but two party members as well.
Gritting his teeth against bitter complaints from his back and legs, the boy trudged a little faster and actually caught up with Jurgen at the tail end of the procession. Determined not to lose what little of Seth’s regard he might still retain, Thomas put all of his concentration into getting each foot to take that next step. As the afternoon sun began arching down towards the horizon, he saw other travelers - people on horseback, some peasants carrying bags and bales on their backs, and an ox-drawn cart laden with barrels. They were getting close to town, and none too soon. He was stooped like an old man now, his legs threatening to buckle under his burdens.
His hopes rose as they entered the main business district. There were inns and taverns all along the rutted, muddy street, full of noisy patrons. Yet the party passed by the brightly painted signs, turning off the main road into a section of much shabbier, smaller buildings. The air reeked of human and animal excrement, rotting food, and unwashed bodies. Although Thomas expected to collapse at any moment, he was relieved when they continued past the slums into a cleaner, more open section near the outskirts of the town. Unfortunately, he did not notice when the party finally stopped, and almost fell over Jurgen. The dwarf swore and shoved Thomas away, sending the boy sprawling backwards onto the muddy road.
“Idiot!” Seth grabbed Jurgen by his greasy hair and jerked him backwards so hard the dwarf’s feet actually left the ground. In other moment, the human had pulled Thomas up with his free hand. “That’s my stuff on his back, you pile of minotaur dung!”
“Come on, you two!” Tyrell shouted from the door of ‘Ba’el’s Bowels,’ a dark and somewhat foreboding Inn that nonetheless rang with laughter and loud voices mixed with grunts and an occasional animal snarl. He grinned and gestured inside. “We’ve got food, ale, and real beds waiting! Kill each other tomorrow.”
The dwarf grumbled, but stomped off after Ge’nael, who had already started inside. Seth undid the straps securing the bags on Thomas’ back and hefted them easily. He looked down at the exhausted boy with a faint smile. “”You made it, ‘Sampson.’ I was beginning to have my doubts.” He inclined his head to the injured horse. “Take her to the stable at the end of the street. Ask for Liam. Tell him that Seth of Aramath wants her healed and ready to go in the morning. And that I will be in need of a new mount.”
Too tired and sore to move, Thomas stared blankly at the horse. The barbarian set down his sacks and removed a drawstring bag from the waist of his loincloth. “Oh, that’s right. I promised you 9 coppers.” He fingered through what appeared to be a sizeable collection of coins, plucking a few out. After a moment’s consideration, he added a couple more and tossed the handful on the ground at Thomas’ feet. “There’s 12. Some extra for saving me the trouble of going to the stable. Don’t spend it all in one place.” He chuckled and picked up his belongings.
“Uh, Seth?” Thomas looked towards the Inn. “What about me? I mean, how much is a room?”
The barbarian snorted. “One silver for some dirty bedding in the common room, and five for a private room the size of an ox cart. Unless you want to see if Jurgen is still interested?”
“No!” Flushing, Thomas stooped painfully to recover the coins from the mud. How stupid could he have been to actually think he was anything more than a temporary tag-along? “I’ll find something.”
“Yes. I think you will.” Seth smiled faintly, then picked up his belongings. “Good luck, ‘Sampson’.” Then he strode inside, leaving the boy alone with the injured mare.
Thomas felt a surge of resentment. Even this broken, bleeding nag rated more concern and care than he’d ever gotten from anyone. He snatched the dangling reins a little harder than he intended, jerking the mare’s head. The animal whickered low in her throat, and looked at him with almost human misery. Guilt washed over him and he rubbed her nose gently. “Sorry, old girl. It’s not your fault.” Besides, he thought glumly as he headed for the stable, this horse had probably been far more useful than a scrawny peasant boy could ever hope to be.
The doors were shut and locked from the inside, and he had to double-check the location to make sure he was in the right spot. No sign marked the stable as a public business, but it was also the only such structure on the whole street. It was tempting to just leave the nag and look for someplace to sleep, but the few people walking this part of town didn’t look like they’d pass up the chance for free horsemeat. A couple might even have a taste for roast Thomas.
He pounded on the door and yelled a couple of times before a muffled voice shouted “Go away! We’re closed!”
“I’ve got a horse that’s hurt. I was supposed to bring it here.”
There was a short pause, and then a small window opened up in the left door. A young man peered out at him and scowled. “We don’t handle charity cases.” He slammed the peephole shut again.
“Hey!” Thomas pounded on the door again. “She’s not a charity case! Seth sent me! Seth of Ara… Ari..” He stopped, struggling to remember the Barbarian’s place of origin.
The window opened again. “Seth of Aramath?”
“Yes! He wants her healed and ready to go in the morning. And said to tell you he needs a new mount. Are you Liam?”
“Short, ugly troll-like guy, right?”
Thomas was flustered for a moment. “Uh, no. He’s huge, great big human. Red hair.”
“And he sent you here?” The young man stared down at him intently.
“Well, yes. He asked me to bring the mare here and give you those messages. That he wants her fixed up and he needs a new mount.” Thomas swayed slightly, fatigue starting to win out. “Look, I’ll just leave her out here and you can take her inside, OK? I gotta find a place to sleep.” He had already started trudging away when the stable doors creaked open.
“Hey, kid! Hold up a minute.” The young man stepped out and took the horse’s reins, then looked at the boy curiously. He was maybe 4 or 5 years older than Thomas, with a tangle of brown hair and the wispy beginnings of a mustache and beard. “I’m Liam. Seth still hanging around with that nasty little dwarf?”
Thomas nodded wearily. “Jurgen.”
“Yeah, that’s him. A piece of work, that one. How did you meet Seth? It’s not like him to trust a stranger.”
“I’ve been traveling with them.” Thomas started to embellish his role, then realized it was stupid to even try. “I stumbled onto their camp, and they let me tag along.”
Liam snorted. “You’re lucky they didn’t use you for target practice.” He looked over the mare. “Gods. What did they run into? And where are the other horses?”
“They got attacked by Orcs – a whole tribe, I think. They lost a couple of party members and all of the other horses.” Thomas indicated the mare. “They walked her all the way back. I’m surprised they didn’t leave her. Isn’t it a lot cheaper to buy a new horse than try healing one in that bad a shape?”
“Depends on the horse. Too bad about Seth’s.” He sighed, and then gave a dismissive shrug. “How come you aren’t staying at the Inn? Seth usually takes care of party members.”
Thomas flushed. “I guess I’m not really a party member. He paid me to carry stuff for them.”
“They must have been desperate.” The young man looked him over and smirked faintly, making Thomas’ blush deepen. Then he shook his head and started in to the stable. “Well, come on in, then. You probably haven’t got enough coppers to sleep in a doghouse.”
It took a moment for the invitation to register on Thomas’ exhausted brain. Then he stumbled after the mare, just barely making it inside before the young man shut and bolted the heavy door. It was dark in the stable, with a strong ammonia stench of old excrement. Once his eyes adjusted, he saw that there were small stalls along both sides. Most were occupied, some with animals that barely fit in the cramped quarters.
He followed as Liam took the horse all the way to the back, stopping in front of a stall that appeared to be at least three times the size of any other. The heavy wooden door had a rusty padlock, which the stable hand opened with a key from around his neck. After leading the mare in, he closed and latched the door, then turned. “OK. Here’s the deal. You want to sleep here, it will cost you ten copper.” He raised an eyebrow at Thomas’ pained expression. “I’m cutting you a break – we don’t usually let people stay here at all, and it’s two silver a night to board a horse. I’ll throw in some bread and cheese, and you can get water from the bucket. Or you can try your luck out on the street.”
Thomas supposed this was as close to kindness he could expect in the city – that didn’t make it easier for him to turn over most of his short-lived wealth. He’d probably regret this in the morning, but right now all he wanted was a safe place to sleep. Not that he’d mind something to eat.
The young man counted his coins, then nodded to the small stall next to where the mare was quartered. “Take that one. You might want to muck it out first. There’s a manure pile just outside the back door. I’ll be back in a minute with the food.”
A larger stall might have had a clean corner he could curl up in, but it was easy to see he’d either have to clear the bedding or sleep on horse shit. Actually, that didn’t bother him as much as he thought it would, but mucking the space would keep him awake until his dinner arrived.
He’d just staggered back from depositing the last of the soiled bedding when Liam brought the bread and cheese. They looked like leftovers from a couple of other people’s meals, but the two partial loaves of bread weren’t too stale, and he was able to brush the mold off the cheese. Sinking down into the back corner, Thomas nibbled at the food carefully, making sure he didn’t get any surprises – the kind with legs.
His host was obviously busy working on the mare, for he could hear muttering and an occasional oath next door. Thomas was drifting into slumber despite the noise when a sudden yell startled him awake again. Oaths exploded, followed by the bang of something hitting the stall wall. Thomas scrambled up and went around to the other stall.
Liam was balanced on one leg, glaring at the mare furiously as he rubbed his other foot. However, it was the mare that caught Thomas’ attention. The animal looked like its front half had been joined to the back end of a different horse. From mid-chest back, her coat was a glistening, unmarked chestnut brown with no sign of injuries or scars. Her front half still looked battered and dirty, though her wounds were covered with some sort of thick yellowish paste.
“Stupid beast stomped on my foot.” The young man wiggled his toes, and then tried standing. He winced a bit, but was able to walk over and pick up the brush he had obviously thrown against the wall. “You’d think she’d be grateful.”
“How did you…?” Thomas frowned a moment, then gasped. “Magic! You’re healing her with magic!”
“You know any other way to cure cuts like that overnight?” Liam looked at him in amazement. “Don’t tell me you’ve never seen healing before.”
“I’ve never seen any kind of magic before.” Thomas stared as the young man started working the mare’s shoulder, his brow furrowed in concentration. Her matted fur cleaned up with a few strokes, and the long streak of salve that marked one of the worst gashes brushed out completely to reveal hide as perfect as a foal’s. He watched the grooming in awe, his fatigue forgotten. It was more than just healing going on – the animal had been unable to graze properly, and become gaunt and bony. Now she was the picture of health, sleek as a noble’s steed. Actually, the mare looked even larger than before, taller and more thickly muscled.
“Does that…” He hesitated, not wanting to sound stupid. “I mean, the magic. Does it work on people?”
“This?” Liam held up his brush. A faint blue glow was visible in the dim light. “Not really. It’s animal magic, a special enchantment that only works in this stall. Take the brush outa here and it’s just a bunch of bristles and wood.”
“But in the stall?” Thomas couldn’t take his eyes off the soft shimmering light. “Would it make a human bigger and stronger?”
“Forget about it, kid.” The young man shook his head. “Even if it would work, which it won’t, there’s a nasty penalty for unauthorized use of enchanted items on another person. Especially animal magic – go too far and even a Master Wizard can’t undo the changes. That’s why the stall gets locked up every night.” Then he frowned. “Which is what I am about to do. Go on back to sleep. Or if you got so much energy, maybe you could muck a few more stalls out for me?”
Thomas sighed and returned to his corner next door. After a few minutes, he saw the top of the mare’s head go past as Liam took her down to one of the regular stalls. Getting up quietly, he peered through the cracked stall door. They went into an empty spot a few spaces up. Liam emerged and secured the gate, then peered back down towards the back of the stable. Then he went into the large tack and feed room where he apparently had his own sleeping spot, and shut the door.
After waiting a few minutes, Thomas eased the gate open and checked out the enchanted stall. It was securely padlocked. He felt a pang of disappointment, even though Liam had already told him the magic wasn’t set up for humans. That would have been too easy. Besides, the very thought of trying something so unpredictable and dangerous was foolhardy at best, and potentially fatal. Sighing, he lay back down and tried to put the brush out of his mind.
It was still dark out when he woke, not sure why. Then he realized his bladder was complaining. Sighing, he got up and shuffled to the opposite corner to relieve himself. It wasn’t as if the usual occupants didn’t do the same thing. As he drained off the pressure, his eyes were drawn to dim light from the night sky filtering through the high barred windows over the stalls. Most stables had much larger openings to allow for circulation – this place obviously prized security above odor control.
His thoughts drifted back to the miraculous transformation of the injured mare. The animal must have gained a couple hundred pounds in minutes. If he could get just a fraction of that muscle, a few inches in height. But it only worked on animals, and besides, it was locked away where no one could get at it. Then he frowned. Why? Liam had said something about penalties for using magic against other people. If the brush only worked on animals, how could there be a risk of that? Unless…
Finishing up in the corner, he slipped back outside and stared at the locked door. It was heavy wood, with iron hinges and a hasp that would take an axe to break. The wall itself went all the way to the ceiling, and there wasn’t as much as an inch gap anywhere. Oh, well. It was a stupid idea anyway.
Thomas went back and lay down again, staring at the shadowed roof above him. Why did it always come down to size and strength? Everyone had said he was the cleverest boy in the village, and he was by far the fastest runner and swimmer. The problem was that working the fields didn’t require speed or brains. Which was why his older, dumber, and much larger brother would always have a home, while Thomas had been ‘encouraged’ to seek his fortune elsewhere.
He was almost asleep again when something about the shadows made his eyes pop open. The dark shape on the wall didn’t match up to anything - the bottom was straight, and parallel to the floor. Getting up, he picked up a clump of dried horse manure and tossed it at the black area. It continued over the wall, landing with a muffled thud in the next stall. The enchanted stall.
Heart pounding, he reached up as high as he could. The edge was a good five feet above him. There was a rub rail about shoulder height. Thomas upended the bucket and used it as a step to get up on the rail. From there, he was just able to hook his fingers over the top. If he hadn’t had a little sleep and some food, he’d never have managed to pull himself over. As it was, he ended up falling to the ground with a grunt of pain.
Now what? He looked around and had a moment of panic. It was almost pitch black in here – he couldn’t make out his own hand as anything more than a vague shape. How could he find the brush – if it was even in the stall? He hadn’t actually seen where Liam got it. But the stable hand didn’t have it when he took the mare to her stall. Moving slowly, he felt the walls, and when nothing turned up, the bedding around the edge.
He never would have found the hidden compartment if Liam had shut it completely. However, as he searched the back corner he made out the barely discernable blue outline of a small door. The panel swung open easily, revealing the glowing brush inside. Thomas stared at it a few moments, afraid to touch it. Then he reached out, half expecting some protective spell to sear his flesh, and picked it up gingerly by the leather strap.
Nothing happened. He let out a shaky breath that he hadn’t even realized he was holding and examined his prize. Dimmer than a small candle, the bristles’ pale shimmering was just enough to make out worn carvings of horses and donkeys around the outer edge. In comparison, the hand strap was plain and almost new-looking – obviously a replacement. Whatever power the tool had, it was not immune to the ravages of use and time. He wondered how old it was. Where had it come from?
As if any of that mattered. Thomas knew the real question here was whether or not he would actually try it. A hundred reasons against this foolishness popped into his mind – not the least of which was that this could kill him. Yet he also realized that if he didn’t take this chance he would regret it for the rest of his life. Odds were good that it wouldn’t work anyway. Putting the brush down, he quickly stripped and threw his loincloth and tunic aside. Then he slipped his hand under the strap and hefted the tool. After a moment of consideration, he touched it to his belly.
The bristles prickled his skin, causing a faint itching sensation, but nothing else. He watched nervously, chin pressed against his chest. “Come on. Do something.” Muttering under his breath didn’t seem to help. How did it work? He thought furiously, trying to remember anything about the way Liam had used it on the mare. As far as he could tell, the young man had groomed her normally. He tried sliding the brush across his stomach, leaving faint white scratches on the still-human skin. All he felt was more itching. Feeling frustration build, he closed his eyes and concentrated hard, imagining glistening chestnut hair like the mare’s.
He stopped suddenly – there had been a sensation of something – not quite heat, or pressure, or pulling. But his belly looked the same when he examined it, and he decided it must have been wishful thinking. Then his fingers absently scratched the still-itchy area and encountered a slight roughness that hadn’t been there before. Stubble?
Thomas ran the brush over the spot again, half afraid that it wouldn’t work, and half afraid that it would. There– that faint feeling that he couldn’t quite identify. He watched this time, willing the change to happen. And though the change was painfully slow, he saw dark hairs thicken around his navel. The bristles began to meet resistance, but he continued until his entire belly was covered by glossy black horse hide.
Running fingers over the furry patch, he was amazed to find that the depression of his navel had smoothed out. Didn’t horses have navels? Perhaps not the same place as humans. Why black fur, though? He’d been picturing the mare’s chestnut hair. Then he gave a short laugh. As if he cared about color! The brush worked!
The question now was just what he would do with it. Judging from the slight rounding of his belly and his lost navel, gaining the muscles and size he craved was definitely possible. But at what price? It was obvious he’d end up covered in horse hide. That would get him a lot of stares by itself – he’d look like a victim of some weird curse. However, the changes would have to be a lot more than skin deep to make any real improvements.
He began running the brush over his right thigh. Hair seemed to appear faster this time, catching at the bristles after only a couple of strokes. This time he continued after the skin was fully transformed, sending the magic deeper. Muscles tightened and shifted under the thick hide as he worked the change down and around, like shaving in reverse. The sensation was so fascinating that he didn’t stop until he realized he was leaning to the left.
Gods! It felt like he had one foot in a hole. Blinking, he squinted in the darkness trying to make out the results. Holding the brush close enough to make use of its glow also caused the odd sensation to start up again, so he had chose to check out the changes with his free hand instead.
Starting just below the waist, his right thigh was fully furred all the way down to the knee, and was quite a bit larger. He could feel blood vessels snaking under surprisingly soft fur, and taut muscles that quivered slightly with the promise of great power. Feeling a bit giddy with success, he started working on the left.
When he was level again, Thomas took a couple of tentative steps. His hips and knees felt a little stiff, forcing him into a slight forward lean. Nothing he couldn’t adjust to, he thought, especially as he savored the unfamiliar sense of strength. A standing jump of at least four feet nearly made him shout in joy. Landing, however, twisted one of his still-human ankles.
Sitting, he tried to work the pain out first, then remembered how the mare’s injures and bruises had been healed. Experimenting with the brush cured the throbbing, but his now-hairy ankle wouldn’t rotate properly when he tried flexing his foot. Exploring fingers confirmed that the joint felt quite a bit thicker, with almost no rounding of the joint at all. That puzzled him. Horses could swivel their hooves. But that was more like moving toes. The equine equivalent of an ankle must be different. .
Sighing, Thomas considered his options. The only way to get what he wanted was to become a lot more horse-like than he had thought would be necessary. Not that half-animal beings were all that unusual. He had seen a few – centaurs and satyrs sometimes passed through his home village, even the occasional minotaur. Some people were scared of them, but nobody thought of them as freaks or monsters. Well, maybe the minotaurs. But none of the horse-based creatures were ever looked down on.
There were several part equine forms: regular and horse-headed centaurs, hippogriffs, even satyrs that were part horse instead of goat. That last seemed to be his most likely course, given the limitations of the brush. Satyrs had full animal legs and tail, maybe a little bestial around the face, with pointed ears and horns. An equine version wouldn’t have the horns of course. But all the changes required involved changing human parts to horse – no added bits, like extra limbs or wings.
So he’d try for a horse satyr, part pony instead of goat. The mental image he conjured up was interesting – his body would have to be fully furred if he wanted to build up his chest and arms. That would leave his boy’s head looking a bit stuck on, unless he used the brush on it as well. Thomas the human would no longer exist. Sadly, he realized that no one, not even his family, would know or care.
Apprehensive now, he forced himself to run the brush over his knees and shins. Skin turned to hide at the first touch, kneecaps smoothing out as the back of his thighs dropped behind them. The shift of joints made it harder to sit upright. His calves stretched out and thickened under the glow, making his feet difficult to reach.
Thomas paused a moment to wiggle his toes one last time, then closed his eyes and groomed them into numb lumps that rapidly formed into heavy hooves. He was surprised by the amount of hair that sprouted over them – He could barely feel the hooves themselves through the thick, shaggy growth.
Some of the big plow horses back home had the same kind of feathering, but the implications did not hit him until he stood back up. It took some effort, for equine legs did not move the same way as human limbs. He had to roll onto all fours and push himself up. And up. Thomas swayed slightly, feeling a little hunched over and off balance. Then he blinked as he realized the top of the wall was now within easy reach.
While the added height pleased him, it was obvious his new legs were way oversized for his human body. By the time he adjusted the rest to fit, he’d be more an equine minotaur than any kind of satyr. Attempting such extensive changes made him nervous, but he’d known the risks when he started. Besides, it was easy to accept himself as a hoofed giant, the barbarian fighter Seth sculpted in equine flesh.
Bolstered by that impressive image, Thomas continued to work up his body. Changes to his buttocks seemed to reach deeper than anything previous, especially when the bristles tickled his anus. The odd sensation flowed into his gut, tugging at his insides, while new muscles appeared to work the full, thick tail that emerged from the base of his spine.
Which brought him to his crotch. Ironically, he could remember quite a few boys idly wishing that they could make just the change he now faced after a centaur passed through. How many of them would go through with it if they actually had the chance? It was one thing to make crude speculations, and quite another to give up the most basic human function. Not that anyone would ever see him as human again. However, closer examination revealed that the decision had already been made for him. The magic had snuck in from his thighs, swelling his testicles into heavy orbs that would never produce human seed again.
Sighing, Thomas completed the transformation of his nether regions. Even relaxed in its sheath, the stallion’s thick penis provided some interesting sensations. However, any pleasure he got from the impressive maleness was offset by intense internal shifting that pushed his belly outward even further. These changes to his insides actually scared him more than anything else - the very core of his body was becoming animal.
Maybe scared was too strong a word. He should frightened by all of this, but curiously, he was calmer now than when he started. Despite the unexpected size and intensity of the changes, he couldn’t work up anything stronger than vague concern. Perhaps this easy acceptance was an indication of how little he valued his human life. Or worse, how little anyone cared about his life at all, human or not.
At least this bitter thought made it easier to continue. Still working in the dark, Thomas spread the transformation up his chest and back. He tried not to linger in any one area long enough to cause deep changes, moving on as soon as hide and muscle seemed complete. Even so, his chest and shoulders pulled more than he wanted, and his neck stretch out a couple of inches. Using extreme caution, he managed keep his arms mostly human except for animal hide and fingers that were a little stiffer. Even so, they did feel a good bit stronger.
All that was left now was Thomas’ head. The magic was working very fast now - one light touch was all it took to make each ear into fully equine. The bristles caught in a thick tangle of hair when he started on the back of his head, and his skull started to sink inward. He yanked the brush free and felt the area anxiously. The effects didn’t seem too drastic – a fleshy ridge had formed and sprouted a creditable mane that continued down an even longer neck. That was OK. It even fit the equine minotaur image.
He felt the familiar contours of his face, the last remnant of Thomas the human. Why wasn’t he terrified? It was pointless to stop now, but that didn’t mean he should accept the loss of his identity so readily. He was almost afraid. Almost excited. Both emotions and a hundred others seemed to be boiling in the back of his mind, yet none could work past the contentment that lay heavily over his thoughts like a winter blanket. In fact, what he most wanted to do now was finish up so he could get some sleep. His oppressive fatigue was returning, no longer kept at bay by the thrill of danger.
Despite efforts to be careful, his forehead dropped a good inch as he completed his mane. However, when none of the changes seemed to affect his mind, Thomas felt safe going for more drastic alteration of his features. Instead of stopping when his cheeks were covered with hide, he allowed the jaw itself to swell out in a more equine configuration. Then, after staring at the glowing bristles for a moment, he grinned nervously and began brushing his nose and mouth.
This final alteration provided the most sensory feedback of all. Scents increased as nostrils softened and flared outward, the taste of his elongating mouth changed, and vision seemed to brighten even as it split and blurred. Fascinated, he continued recklessly even when tendrils of magic began to pull at his head and throat, jerking the brush away only when his ears twitched in new positions near the top of his head.
Ignoring the faint inner voice that was accusing him of stupidity, Thomas explored his new muzzle with curiosity. Although his forehead had sunk almost below the level of the jutting equine eye sockets, his skull actually felt larger than before. There was a beardlike growth of hair under his chin, and long whiskers like a cat’s around his lips and mouth. It appeared that his head was as fully transformed as his hindquarters, and that thought stilled even the feeble protest from the back of his mind. This was his reality now - concerns and regrets were pointless.
The brush glowed invitingly against the dark shadow of his enlarged hand. He wished he could see himself. Improved night vision still only gave him vague representations of shape. His body reported back a confusing mix of signals – in some ways, he felt better than he could ever remember, yet there was also a nagging sense of being incomplete. In the end, he decided that he had tempted fate enough for one night, and put the brush back into its hidden compartment.
With even the faint glow of magic gone, he had trouble locating the top of the wall. It turned out he was looking way too high – the edge was now level with his eyes. He worked his jaw absently as he stared. There was no way his new bulk would fit through what was now a comparatively narrow opening between stall and roof. So much for sneaking out unobserved.
He had no doubt that he could kick the door open easily, but that would wake Liam. The thought of damaging the stable made him uneasy – he would be in enough trouble already. Better to let the young man at least get a good night’s sleep. Which, he decided, was the best course of action for himself as well. Lying down in the stall, he stretched out once, and was dead to the world in minutes.
Thomas was startled out of deep sleep by Liam’s shout and a foot connecting solidly with his backside. The young man’s annoyed tone actually had more impact than the physical blow, which felt more like a friendly pat on the butt. Thomas was confused by sensations that should have faded with the rest of the strange dream etched vividly in his mind. And why was the stable hand so anxious to roust him out of the stall so early, anyway? It was obviously still dark out, early dawn at best.
“Come on, kid!” The foot thudded dully against his rump again. “We have to get you sorted out quick! If anyone else sees you like this…”
What was he talking about? Thomas blinked, but his vision refused to clear. Odder still, he was getting two distinct images. One was a panoramic view of the entire stall showing the first pale light of morning across the roof, and the other was much darker blur that appeared to be a close-up view of the stall floor. Even then, it took another moment before he realized that he hadn’t been dreaming at all.
After two unsuccessful attempts to rise, he fell back with his heart pounding and eyes wide in bewilderment. Panic boiled up, but couldn’t quite push through the blanket of calm that seemed to have thickened as he slept. His nostrils flared, sucking in air rich with scents. Two distinct odors stood out from the general stable stink – a musky sweat and urine smell that had to belong to this equine body, and a much less intense variation of the same that must be Liam. He tried to speak, but the words caught in his throat and emerged as a low rumbling. What had he done to himself?
“Just take it slow.” Liam sighed, his indistinct outline moving back to the open stall door. “Roll up to your side and then push up. Come on. We don’t have a lot of time.”
Although he didn’t really understand the haste, Thomas was anxious to prove he hadn’t been crippled by the night’s foolishness. Following Liam’s instructions, he was able to rise to all fours, and then straighten to an almost upright position. What had happened? Why was he so much worse this morning? Another attempt to talk produced a definite animal whicker.
“Climbed over the wall, didn’t you?” Liam shook his head, though he actually sounded more amused than annoyed now. “I tried to warn you. But you couldn’t leave it alone. Well, let’s see how badly you’ve messed yourself up.” The young man walked around him slowly.
Thomas stood nervously, grunting in surprise but not resisting when Liam’s inspection included physical probes of his mouth and genitals. Being treated like a beast at market was embarrassing, but the stable hand’s businesslike manner made the experience easier to tolerate. The rising sun was sending more light into the stall now, and he twisted his head to get a better view of himself.
In truth, he had come very close to the horse-minotaur form. As he suspected last night, everything below the waist was fully equine, and very large equine at that. Liam, who was muttering to himself as he squatted to check out a hind hoof, looked like a small child in comparison.
Above his waist, however, the transformation appeared spotty. His belly had swollen noticeably under a mostly human chest, creating the look of a grown man who spent too much time in taverns. And though he had managed to completely change skin to hide, his coat had a ragged, uneven texture. This was especially evident on his arms, which were far too small in proportion to his legs – the overall effect was more giant horsy squirrel than minotaur.
Liam leaned casually against the back wall, arms crossed. “I can only guess you were trying for some sort of two-legged horse shape. If you had been listening last night, you’d have known the brush only makes horses. Animal magic. Not minotaur, or satyr, or centaur. They aren’t really animals, even though animal stuff works a lot better on them than on humans.”
“Still, you did a pretty good job. If you’d stopped sooner, you might have even pulled it off.” The young man shook his head ruefully. “Problem is, magic works sorta like fire. It takes a while to get wood to start burning, and when you try to put it out, there are always embers glowing for a while. That’s why you woke up more changed than I think you wanted to be.”
Thomas snorted and nodded his head in agreement.
“From the looks of things, you’re more than halfway changed into a big Clydesdale or Shire stallion. You can’t talk any more, and I bet those thick fingers are pretty much useless.”
It hadn’t even occurred to Thomas that his hands felt somewhat numb this morning, and a quick experiment revealed that the stable hand was right. Although the dark, swollen digits still flexed slightly, he had lost the ability to grip anything.
“You have two choices. Leave now and try finding someone willing to care for a freak.” Liam gestured towards the secret compartment. “Or you can let me finish you up. If we’re lucky, you can still be a pretty impressive horse. If not, well, pulling plows still beats being laughed at. Or worse.”
Thomas was a little disturbed by the stable hand’s casual attitude - he might as well have been talking about whether or not to wash out a tunic. However, there really was no choice at all. Stripped of his voice and hands, barely able to even stand upright, Thomas was even more useless than he had been as a scrawny human. At least he might make a good horse. He moved a step closer to Liam as an answer.
“That’s the first smart choice you’ve made since you got here.” The young man looked back at Thomas as he retrieved the brush. “I’m going to be working pretty fast. So here is the deal. Pretty much everybody ends up no different from a born animal. And I mean that in every way possible. The original person doesn’t exist anymore.”
Cold fear surged up, actually slipping past the barrier in his mind – what was the point of anything if his identity wasn’t going to survive? He backed away from Liam, ears back and eyes showing whites. Better to live even a few months as a freak than lose everything that made him who he was forever.
The young man smiled grimly. “Good. You’re scared shitless. Hang onto that. Remember, I said -most- people. Not everybody. Somebody who doesn’t waste all their time screaming and moaning about turning into an animal, who maybe appreciates being big and strong and beautiful?” He took a step closer but kept his brush hand dangling at his side. “Somebody who has already taken himself most of the way? That’s the kind of person who gets to find out what it’s like to run like the wind. You could be one of the best, kid. A mount fit for a king.”
Staring at the glowing bristles, Thomas felt even the fear of losing himself being pushed back under the mental blanket. Yet it was more than that - despair was dragging him down as well. What was the point of fighting? Did it matter if he ended up a plow mule?
Yes! The small voice inside that had been chiding him all along suddenly changed its tune. Liam said he could be one of the best. Big and strong, a horse ‘fit for a king.’ This was his chance to be special, to have the size and power he had dreamed of. OK, he’d always imagined himself on two legs, but this beat life as a freak. In fact, it probably would be an improvement over anything he might have found as a human. Doing his best to ignore the cold lump in his gut, Thomas held his arms up.
“Smart kid.” Liam grinned, but began the grooming immediately, perhaps afraid Thomas would lose his nerve again. A couple of strokes closed his fingers forever, fusing them into broad, heavy hooves that matched those on his legs. His hind legs - the brush stretched out both arms round and thick as tree trunks. Thomas found himself teetering forward, and struggled to stay upright.
“Give it up.” The young man stood back. “You need to focus hard on who you are. The horse mind will try to take over, push all of your human thoughts out. It’ll be hard to fight, because the animal instincts belong in your head now. Come on - we’re almost there.”
Dropping to all fours was at the same time the easiest and hardest thing Thomas had ever done. Easy because gravity and his reshaped body were working to pull him down, and hard because he knew it was the last surrender to animal form. Yet the real battle didn’t start until Liam was finishing up the massive equine back and chest . With physical transformation almost done, the magic seized on the one remaining vestige of Thomas’ humanity - his mind.
The attack was so sudden and brutal that he almost lost despite being prepared for it. Senses exploded in his mind, every square inch of muscled hide trying to make itself known at once. Hazy images of pastures, stalls, and other horses poured in, nameless people grooming him, training him, riding him. The magic was weaving a complete identity to match his equine body, instilling knowledge and experience along with natural instincts. And most disturbingly, that identity had memories of more love and better treatment than Thomas had ever enjoyed.
Perhaps it was that sense of belonging that caused him to falter. The acceptance and contentment that had escaped him as a human was being offered freely by this swirl of enchantment. All he had to do was let it in. Resistance began to crumble, and the magic surged in anticipation. He felt the impact, knew some small part of himself had been swallowed up and lost forever. The promise was a lie! He retreated a bit, sacrificing more memories, but giving himself a chance to erect a stronger barrier.
Liam was still grooming him, running the brush down his neck and back. “Hold on, kid. Fight it. You can make it all the way. It’s almost over. Hold on.” The constant drone of encouragement gave Thomas an anchor - not just the young man’s words, but the confidence behind them.
That extra fortification gave him just enough strength to stand firm against the barrage of equine thought. It shook the very foundations of his soul, but just as he thought his resolve was going to finally crumble the pressure eased. Afraid this was a trick, he continued his fierce concentration until Liam’s voice finally broke through.
“It’s over, kid. You still in there?”
Thomas took a deep, shuddering breath. They had won. Or had they? As he explored his mind he found most of the equine identity in place. It was a curious experience - every memory, every sensation installed by the magic was completely real - he was a stallion trained for years to be a warrior’s mount, right down to impressions of nursing from a mare’s teat. Much of his human past had been reduced to blurred and sometimes confusing impressions - but he remained aware of the transformation itself.
“Come on - you had to make it. Show me you’re still with me, kid!” The stable hand was standing in front of him now, concern evident in his voice.
Thomas snorted, then tossed his head. Realizing that this probably wasn’t enough to indicate anything, he pawed the ground with one hoof, then whickered and lowered his head to Liam’s shoulder.
“I hope this means you survived, kid.” The stable hand patted his neck affectionate. “I don’t suppose you could count to five with a hoof for me?”
Stepping back, he raised his right forehoof and stomped firmly on the ground five times.
A broad grin fixed itself on Liam’s face. “Gods! You even understand what I’m saying! Count to three with your left hoof, then one with your right. When Thomas complied, the young man let out a shout of excitement that was cut short as a figure suddenly filled the doorway.
“I’d guess you have my new horse ready?” It was Seth! The red-haired barbarian no longer looked huge to Thomas, though he still towered over the stable hand as he came into the stall with an appreciative smile. “Did I hear right? Can he understand spoken commands?”
“Not just commands!” Liam beamed proudly. “He made it all the way! Even better than that last boy. I swear I don’t know how you can pick ‘em like that.”
Pick? Thomas pricked up his ears, confused. What did the stable hand mean, picked?
“You didn’t see him struggling under the saddlebags. More than twenty miles, with Ge’nael and Jurgen harassing him the whole way.” Seth reached up and patted Thomas’ neck. “Two tons of willpower and determination trapped in a skinny kid’s body. I knew he was the one I wanted - I just wasn’t sure he’d go for the brush.”
A sick feeling began to form in the pit of Thomas’ stomach. It had all been a setup - a test to see if he would make a good horse! He wanted to jerk his head back from the barbarian’s hand, but couldn’t quite pull away.
Liam snorted. “Are you kidding? Once he saw the magic he was hooked. Probably would have let me change him right then, even knowing he was going to end up a horse. But I knew you wanted a stallion like the last one, and I had to adjust the spell.”
“He’s perfect.” Seth grabbed Thomas’ head with both hands and stared up into his eyes. “You are perfect. Maybe you think you’ve been tricked, or badly used. But nobody held you down and changed you against your will. All we did was give you an opportunity. You made all the choices here. And it looked like you made the right ones.”
Thomas snorted incredulously, then found that he could not contradict a single thing the barbarian was saying.
“You wanted to adventure, to explore the world?” Seth cocked his head slightly. “As a human, you wouldn’t have lasted two weeks on your own. As my warhorse, you will travel the world, see places most men only dream of. Peasants and nobles will pay to have you mount their mares, and you will be admired by all who see you. One of my mounts ended up in a royal stable - the offer was too great, and he was agreeable. The same could happen to you.”
“Or he could end up hacked to pieces and eaten by a tribe of angry orcs.” Liam looked at the barbarian with a wry smile. “You don’t want a stupid horse, right? He’s got to be wondering about that.”
It was true - Thomas had been thinking about all the horses that hadn’t come back from Seth’s last adventure.
“There is always danger. I lost Daryl, my last mount. We also lost an elf and a human. If you want safety, you can plow fields. Does it really matter which end of the plow you are on?” Seth sighed. “I want a willing mount, a horse that can listen and act on his own. Not just a horse - a partner. I will protect you as I would any other member of the party. If you are injured, I’ll spend my last gold piece to have you healed. And if you are killed? Well, your death will come as part of doing something exciting, something different. What do you say, Thomas?”
Liam wrinkled his nose. “Thomas? He never did tell me his name. Not exactly what I would choose for an earth-shaking warhorse stallion.”
“Oh, he has another name, if he chooses to join me.”
Thomas stared down at the barbarian, working his jaw absently. Seth was no Paladin - but he also had no reason to lie about this. In fact, everything the man had said was true, even the part about Thomas making all the choices. There was only one more to make. He looked down at the red-haired giant, wondering what would happen if he decided to be a plow horse. Yet he knew that there really was only one choice to make. Whether by Seth’s plan or his own desires, this course of action had been fixed from the start.
Although he had made no outward sign of his decision, Seth grinned and pointed to the stall door. “OK, Sampson. Let’s go on out and get you tacked up.”
Sampson. As Thomas plodded out into the brightly lit main stable, the blanket over his emotions faded away. The stall must have some sort of spell to calm animals while they were being worked on. That explained his reactions to the transformation. However, the contentment he had felt remained - was it a lingering effect of the animal wards? No. The control spell only limited emotions - it couldn’t create them.
The barbarian had piled his things near the supply room, and picked up a black and silver bridle and a set of saddlebags that looked awfully familiar. “The others will be here in a few minutes. Oh, and feel free to piss on Jurgen. He bet you’d lose yourself to the horse.”
So, the dwarf had been in on it too. Sampson, former peasant boy and now warhorse to Seth of Aramath, felt the beginnings of an equine grin as the barbarian started fitting his tack. There was no longer any doubt that he could pull his own weight now - maybe he could find out how much pleasure he could get out of tormenting Jurgen.