Another damned rooster. Kevin stirred groggily as the bird crowed again, loud and fairly close by. Where was he? Yesterday was Wednesday – this was supposed to be a four-star Bed and Breakfast. Given the unwelcome wakeup call, what felt like a pretty crude mattress, and - he sniffed and wrinkled his nose - a definite lack of attention on the part of the maid, they were over-rated by about 3 stars.
Happily, the rooster didn’t find it necessary to make a running commentary, falling silent after one final announcement. Even without opening his eyes, Kevin could tell it was still mostly dark out. He’d seen enough Irish sunrises over the past two weeks to trade one for some extra shut-eye.
It should have been easy to drop off again, but something kept nagging at the back of his mind. A couple of somethings, actually. There were sounds of movement close by and unmuffled by walls. Someone else in his room? He struggled to concentrate. Had he changed plans? This could be another youth hostel. Dragging his eyes open didn’t help much – the light was dim and eyes weren’t focusing well.
After a few moments, vision adjusted to the faint reddish glow of early dawn. Damn. The ceiling looked to be twenty feet high. This had to be one of the historic buildings, all open beams and thatched roofs. Weird walls, though. Dark, unfinished planks with obvious gaps. Still not quite awake, he reached up to rub his eyes – and got clubbed by something hard and heavy.
“Shit!” Kevin jerked upright with his arms crossed protectively over his face. Only to get slammed again. The pain helped clear his head enough to realize that something was very wrong with his hands. Bewildered, he held them out and stared. Both arms were encased in dull white casts that started just below his elbows and extended down to bulbous masses that completely covered his fingers. And if that wasn’t enough to wake up to, his roommate suddenly brayed.
It took a few moments for Kevin to calm down enough for rationale thought, and further observations didn’t help the process. For one, he was stark naked. And while it appeared that the donkey wasn’t actually a roommate, it was in the next stall. Which meant Kevin had spent the night in a barn, stripped bare, with his arms in casts.
What the Hell had happened? He searched memory for any clues, but the last thing he remembered was pedaling the bike along an interesting-looking dirt road. Some sort of accident, maybe. Had he been knocked out? His head was fuzzy, but didn’t actually hurt. But if he’d been injured, apparently pretty badly, why was he in a barn?
A stifled giggle came from the stall door, and he looked up in time to glimpse a mass of auburn hair surrounding a young and very freckled face. “Conan! Dhúisíteá!” It was a girl’s voice. “Inseoidh mé tréidlia Gray.” Other than what might be two names, Kevin didn’t understand a word.
“Huu…” The first attempt to speak caught in his throat. “Hello? Please, come back!”
Another freckled face, this one topped by shorter tangle of copper red, peered over the fence. A boy, maybe 14 or so, with bright blue eyes and a wide grin. “Cad é ag déanamh buartha duit? Tu slán sábháilte.
Kevin stared blankly up at the kid, then shook his head. “I don’t understand anything you are saying. Do you speak English?”
“Ná bí eagla.” There was something slightly condescending by the boy’s tone. “Tú is dathúil stail An dleacht feithiclí ainmhí-tharraingthe a úsáidtear sa talmhaíocht..” His grin broadened. “Is pórú capall.”
“Conan!” An older male voice startled both of them. “Rud a fhágáil mar atá. Nil tuig.”
The boy wrinkled his nose, then stuck his head over the top of the door and made a whinnying sound that he apparently thought was very funny.
“Ar mhaith rud a fhágáil mar atá?” Whatever the newcomer said wiped the grin from the kid’s face, and he jerked away from the gate.
A pleasant-looking man, perhaps a few year’s older than Kevin’s 32, appeared and made a gesture that sent the boy running outside. He ran a hand through his sandy brown hair and sighed, then leaned over the gate. “I am sorry for that. Conan does not yet understand the - complications – of life.”
Kevin felt a surge of relief. “You speak English!”
“Yes. I am Ross Gray. A doctor.” He opened the gate and stepped in. “Please forgive the accommodations. We don’t have a hospital here, and it seemed practical.”
“OK. Could you please answer a few questions?” Kevin raised his plastered forearms. “What the Hell happened to me, and where am I?”
Gray plopped down easily in the straw across from him and smiled slightly. “I don’t really know what happened, exactly. One of the local farmers found you beside the road – he said it looked like you had been in some sort of biking accident.”
That made sense, at least. Kevin swallowed nervously. “How bad am I hurt?”
“Both of your wrists and a few fingers are broken, and you had some abrasions to your palms. You must have tried to catch yourself.”
“Oh, no.” Kevin’s heart sank. Both wrists broken? Besides losing the last two weeks of his dream vacation, he’d be out of work for months! “Oh, shit!”
“It’s really not as bad as you think. Or at least, it might not be.” Gray leaned back against the wall. “Have you ever had broken bones before?”
“Yeah. I broke my foot in a bike race years ago.”
“Did it hurt?”
Kevin winced at the memory. “Oh, yeah. I was on some major pain pills.”
“Well, you are not on any pain pills now.” Gray raised an eyebrow. “And it’s only been a half day or so since you had your accident. How do you feel?”
That brought Kevin up short. He stared at the casts, amazed that he hadn’t noticed before. Except for where he had clobbered himself on the nose, nothing hurt at all. There were no sore spots or aches, even when he gave one arm an experimental twist. He looked at Gray in puzzlement. “How come it doesn’t hurt?”
The doctor regarded him a moment. “While you were sleeping, your injuries healed about the amount you would normally expect in a week.”
“In twelve hours?” It was hard not to sound skeptical, despite the apparent proof.
“Mr. Lundstom – I took the liberty of checking your passport – may I call you Kevin?”
Kevin nodded automatically, but looked around the stall in sudden alarm. “Say, where is all of my stuff? My passport, my bike, my clothes?”
“Your bicycle was badly damaged. The Blacksmith is looking at it. All the rest are in my office for safekeeping – I did have to cut your shirt off. Your travel ticket, wallet, and camera are all there, too.”
“That’s a relief. Though I could always have called home collect.”
Gray shook his head. “Not from here. As I was about to tell you, this area is quite a bit more, ah, ‘traditional’ than most places in Ireland.” He pointed up at the roof. “No lights at night because we have no electricity. Water comes from wells, not faucets. And no phones.”
“You gotta be kidding!” Kevin flushed as soon as the words were out of his mouth. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it quite the way it came out.”
“No offense taken.” The doctor chuckled. “A bit ironic, isn’t it? Most tourists come to Ireland looking for the old country. You aren’t the first one to be surprised because he actually found it.”
He thought about the implications. No electricity meant no computers, no TV or radios. Then he blinked and stared at his arms. No X-ray machines. “How did you know…?”
“Doctors were diagnosing and setting broken bones long before electricity came along. And modern is not always better.” Gray leaned forward. “You wanted to know how such fast healing is possible. I could provide a dozen different explanations ranging from secret herbs and potions to ancient Pagan magic. All you really have to know is that it works. In one week, maybe less, I promise that you will be in perfect health.”
As wonderful as that sounded, Kevin was more than a little uneasy. What if the bones were set wrong? That much damage to his hands could cripple him for life! “Look, I really appreciate everything, but I’m a new-fashioned kind of guy. I’d really rather go someplace where they can use technology.”
Gray shrugged. “Well, the only way to move you is by cart or wagon, and I’d rather you didn’t jostle those breaks around for at least another day. How about you stick with us until tomorrow, and we’ll see how you feel. Anyway, it’s harvest time, and I doubt anyone will be freed up to take you anywhere before then.”
One day shouldn’t be a problem. Kevin sighed and nodded, then frowned slightly. “Uh, what do you want to do about payment? I mean, I have an insurance card and all, but not a lot of cash.”
“Don’t worry, my boy.” The doctor stood up and brushed off his breeches. “You can enjoy our hospitality, such as it is, free of charge. We don’t have accommodations for guests, especially someone with your current problems. That’s why I put you out here. Regardless of what you might think, it’s better for you in this stall than a bed. Your balance is going to be off, and the straw will cushion any falls.”
“Uh, what about some clothes?” Kevin reddened again, remembering the young girl.
To his surprise, Gray shook his head. “Sorry. You can’t manage clothes on your own, and I don’t have time to play nursemaid. Like this, you can relieve yourself in a corner when you need to. Unless you want me to ask one of the children…?”
“No!” As bad as being naked was, the thought of being dressed and undressed by either one of the freckle-faced kids was far worse. “I mean, I can deal with this, I guess.”
“Good.” The doctor opened the gate. “I’ll have Conan keep checking on you. There’s water in the bucket, and we’ll work up a way for you to eat.”
A hundred questions clamored for attention in Kevin’s mind, but as Gray started out only one managed to work its way out of his mouth. Holding up the heavy casts, he tapped the huge ends against each other. “Why are they built up like that around my hands?”
“I had to use the supplies I had. Those are supposed to be used on horses.” Gray grinned. “You see, we don’t have a regular doctor. I’m what you would call the veterinarian.”
Kevin watched the man leave with mixed feelings. A vet? That certainly explained a lot, though it didn’t bolster confidence. Sighing, he held up his arms to look at the ends more closely and gave a short laugh. The lumps encasing his hands actually looked like hooves. Maybe there was a basic shape to the splints underneath, but Gray had obviously spent some time sculpting the outer plaster.
Great. He was an invalid thousands of miles from home, stuck in a barn with a comedian vet for a doctor. Not quite what he had envisioned for his once-in-a-lifetime vacation. An old wooden bucket hung on the opposite wall – the water Gray had mentioned. A coiled rope hung from a wooden peg by the gate, and there were a couple of other pegs spaced around the walls. Places to hang food buckets? And his mattress was just a blanket spread out over a thicker pile of straw. All the comforts of home – if you had four legs.
Disgusted, Kevin flopped back on the makeshift bed. What could have happened to cause this? The bike was almost new, specially set up for the trip. And he certainly knew how to handle something like a blowout or bump. Some sort of big pothole? Anything big enough to flip him off the bike should have been big enough to see and avoid.
The last thing he remembered was riding down a long dirt road that wasn’t on his map. It had looked prettier than the only slightly larger paved road that he’d been following, and looked to be a more direct route to Donegal, the town he’d been planning to stay in. It wasn’t like he was in a hurry to be someplace. The whole point of this vacation had been to relax and get away from the frantic stupidity of work.
That prompted another short laugh. Be careful what you wish for, right? Kevin stared up at the thatch. The donkey brayed again, this time triggering responses from some of the other inhabitants. A cow or two, at least one horse, and a sheep or goat. There was also some banging, and what sounded like whispered conversations between the kids. Stable hands? Hopefully, they’d leave this one alone. He briefly considered using the lone blanket to cover himself, then deiced to give up on dignity. They’d both seen him already, and it was a bit too warm for a cover. Anyway, that would mean lying directly on the straw, which had most likely served other patients.
Kevin was a little surprised to realize he was getting drowsy again. While the circumstances weren’t the best, it was sorta nice not to be rushing off somewhere. For all his intentions to take it easy, he’d maintained a pretty busy itinerary. Granted, there were a lot better things to do in Ireland than sleep, but it seemed that he didn’t have anything else to do. Sighing, he closed his eyes and tried to ignore the unfamiliar noises and smells.
The road was badly rutted with deep, narrow tracks. He stuck to the side, maneuvering the bike around occasional rocks and old branches, still fuming. Where was the main road? He’d turned back as soon as the pretty country lane devolved into this jarring, rough mess, and found only more of the same behind him. How could he have gotten lost? He couldn’t recall making a single turn.
At least he could see some buildings now. One of the old style farms, picturesque buildings with stone walls and straw roofs. He’d get some nice pictures anyway, and maybe some directions to Donegal. As he turned up the glorified cow path that served as a driveway, he heard voices in the barn. A man and a woman having a good-natured argument from the tone, but he couldn’t understand a word.
As the banter sounded friendly enough, he decided it was safe to interrupt. He got off the bike and rolled it to the main door. The woman had her back to him, still spouting off at the man, who was apparently in one of the stalls. Neither heard him clear his throat, so he moved a little sideways hoping to catch the man’s eye. A rather large, brown ox was facing out, and its ears pricked up when it saw him. Then he heard the man interrupt the woman abruptly – except that the voice was coming from the animal’s mouth.
Kevin came awake suddenly, feeling a bit disoriented. From the amount of sunlight streaming in, he must have dozed off for most of the morning. Snatches of a strange dream lingered, something about being lost and talking cows. Well, when your reality is being naked in public, dreams apparently turned to even odder things.
Stretching as best he could, Kevin saw a large bowl of bread and cheese had been left on a short stool next to him. Both had been thoughtfully cut up into manageable pieces. He stared at the food, hungry, but not quite sure how he could get the food to his mouth. Oh. It would have to be the other way around. Resentment flared for a moment – did they expect him to eat like a dog? Then logic kicked in. Well, yes.
Feeling very self conscious, he rolled up to hands and knees. After a quick check to make sure neither of the kids were watching, he dropped his face to the bowl and lipped up a hunk of cheese. It had strong flavor, like very sharp cheddar, but crumbly. The bread smelled wonderful and tasted good, if a bit dry on the outside. It looked like a lot of food, but he ended up licking the last crumbs in surprisingly short order.
Standing, he shuffled over to the bucket. At least the water looked clean and fresh. He stuck his face into it and sucked up a mouthful. Not bad. He ended up drinking down almost half before he was satisfied, shaking the water from his face afterwards.
“Tráthnóna maith duit, bromach!”
Kevin turned to see the boy opening the gate and came perilously close to castrating himself with the heavy casts when he swung his arms instinctively to cover his exposed nether regions. Flushing, he decided to try communicating again. “Uh, hello. Your name is Conan, right?”
The kid squatted down to pick up the empty bowl, looking up at the sound of his name. “Conan.” He nodded and pointed to himself. “Fuilim Conan.” Then the boy pointed at Kevin and grinned. “Tà tù bromach!”
He pointed to himself. “Ke-vin. My name is Kevin.”
“Bromach.” Conan stood up, still grinning.
Frowning, Kevin tried again. He pointed at the boy. “Conan.” Then back at himself. “Ke-vin.”
Was the kid retarded? Or maybe he was having more ‘fun’ at Kevin’s expense. ‘Bromach’ was probably some sort of Gaelis insult. Giving up, Kevin went back to the blanket and plopped down. The boy checked the bucket and glanced around the stall as if looking for something, and then shut the gate behind him as he left.
Kevin stared glumly at the wooden planks surrounding him on all sides. His stall certainly had the rustic atmosphere he had been looking for. The wall boards were actually pegged, not nailed, though they didn’t really look all that old. One appeared to be a recent replacement, much brighter than the rest, but also pegged. Some of the buildings maintained for tourists had similar construction, but he was a little surprised that anyone would go to so much effort for a working stable.
The window was actually just a finished opening – they probably had shutters for winter, but right now a pleasant breeze was wafting in. At least he’d picked a good time of year to be stuck in a barn. He lurched up and made his way to the back wall so he could look out. The sweep of rolling fields and forests was amazing, brilliant greens against a clear blue sky. His first thought was to grab his Nikon – then he remembered that even if the digital camera was here, he wouldn’t be able to use it anyway.
Well, that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy the view. Small farms and cottages dotted the landscape, all traditional stone and thatch like this barn. A couple of fields were being worked by animal teams, and the one section of road visible had only pedestrian or horse-drawn traffic. Amazingly, there was nothing to spoil the atmosphere. Granted, his field of view was limited, but no trace of modern technology intruded anywhere. No power lines, no cell phone towers, not even a jet contrail in the sky.
As he admired the scenery, Kevin shifted uncomfortably, then felt a touch of dismay as he realized the cause. He had to pee, and soon. What had happened to the bladder that could go all day with no problem? Oh, damn. It actually had been a day, maybe longer, since he’d relieved himself. The gate rattled when he pushed against it with his chest, but the latch was closed. He looked up and down the aisle, but neither of the kids were visible. A thought to call for help was dismissed as his body took over. There was barely time to turn into the corner before a hard stream of urine began to flow.
Unfortunately, just as that particular embarrassment came to an end, his bowels proved to be just as traitorous. Mortified, he squatted instinctively and hoped fervently that no one would come in. It was easier to understand Gray’s point about clothing now. However, Kevin hadn’t thought through other aspects. Like being unable to clean up afterwards. He ended up dragging his rump over the straw, then kicking some loose bedding over the small pile of feces.
There was no way he would spend a whole week like this! Better to take longer healing than suffer the humiliation. Kevin kicked at some straw in disgust. God, if anyone he knew saw him… OK, that was pretty unlikely. Still, he needed to maintain some level of dignity. That thought actually made him laugh, though there was no humor in the sound. What dignity?
“I’m glad to see you are maintaining your sense of humor.” Gray was standing at the gate. “How are you feeling?”
Kevin exploded. “Like a damned animal! I want out of here! There’s got to be a hospital around somewhere! Someplace where I get treated like a person, not a sick cow! I’ll pay somebody to take me – I don’t care what it costs.”
The veterinarian sighed. “I can certainly understand your feelings. I’ve already got the word out. It looks like the earliest we can move you is late tomorrow. There’s a General Practitioner with a small clinic in Shannon, about twenty miles away. And a small private cab service, so getting to a hospital or train station, won’t be a problem.”
“I can’t believe that there’s no way to do something today! What do you people do if there is an emergency? A big accident, somebody having a heart attack? There’s got to be some kind of real doctor here!” Kevin regretted that last as soon as he said it. “I mean, you’re a real doctor for animals. A people doctor.”
”While I don’t expect it to be of much comfort to you, I have been the only doctor around here for… quite a while.” He smiled. “And I’ve only had to put down one patient.”
The unexpected humor threw Kevin off, and he suddenly felt embarrassed. “Look, I’m sorry. This is so hard to deal with. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what…”
Gray raised a hand to interrupt him. “You don’t have to explain. Actually, it might make things a little easier on you if I showed you around. Not to mention get you out of that stall. Even the horses get turnout every day.”
“I can’t go out like this!” Being naked in front of a doctor was one thing, venturing out in public was something else entirely.
“Just me here right now. The children went home to do chores. Won’t be back until dark.” The man opened the latch and swung the gate out. “Or I can wrap the blanket around you and tie it with a rope.”
Kevin nodded. “Please. At least as long as I am outside the stall. Anyway, I already, uh, well.” He flushed and pointed towards the corner, where his waste was still visible.
“Good.” Gray came in and grabbed the blanket and the coiled rope. “Not a worry. Conan will muck you out tonight.” He folded the blanket and wrapped it around Kevin’s waist to form a basic skirt, and used the rope to secure it. It was a little awkward being eye-to-eye with another man like this, but it helped to remember this was a doctor. “Not the latest fashion, but it should serve modesty. Come on then. I’ll give you the woodcock tour.”
“Woodcock?” Kevin followed him out, holding his arms out slightly to the heavy casts didn’t bang against his hips.
“Oh, sorry. Local expression.” The man looked into each of the stalls as they passed, but didn’t stop. “There’s a woodcock on the Irish farthing – sort of like your American penny. I’m afraid there isn’t a lot to see.”
Farthing? All Kevin had was Irish Euros – if this area hadn’t converted yet, he’d have to use traveler’s checks or his credit card. Then they were outside, and all such concerns were forgotten. “Oh, wow!”
The doctor’s place was built on a hill, with a panoramic view that took his breath away. There were more farms visible on this side, and a quaint-looking town next to a sparkling blue lake about two miles away. In a week of touring the Irish countryside, he’d never seen anything that came close. And as before, there was nothing to spoil the landscape. It was amazing how much difference it made not to have cars and wires and other signs of technology intruding on the rustic charm.
The rest of Gray’s property was as traditional as the barn, with a tiny stone cottage and some low storage sheds built partially into the ground. Chickens and ducks were scattered about the property, with a mix of goats and sheep sharing a hillside pasture with two large horses and a medium-sized brown cow. Some pigs were sleeping in a pen attached to the barn.
“This is my home.” Gray opened the door to the cottage and motioned him to go in. The door was built low and they both had to duck as they entered. It became immediately clear why patients had to stay in the barn. Every open spot in the single-room structure was stuffed with books. They were stacked on the floor, piled in chairs, and stuffed into sagging bookshelves. One corner, little bigger than Kevin’s bathroom back home, appeared to be a crude kitchen. The only other open area was for a twin bed. “I read a lot.”
Kevin chuckled, any irritation at his current living conditions gone. “I can see that.” He was nervous about moving through the tight quarters, intensely aware of his ungainly casts. “I should stay outside. I’m likely to cause an avalanche with these.”
“Well, I’m not used to having patients I’d invite to tea.” The doctor grinned and led the way around to the other side of the cottage, where a stone bench provided seating for both men. “There’s really not enough room here to expand the house, and I don’t want to move. So I make do.”
“I can understand.” Kevin closed his eyes and breathed in deep. The air was crisp, scented with grass and flowers and even some of the stable smell. That last probably came from him, but it all mixed nicely in his nostrils. “This is the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my life.”
“So, tell me a little about yourself. Are you married? Any children?”
Kevin shrugged. “Not much to tell. Married once when I was younger, divorced a couple of years later. No kids, thank God. I’m a branch manager for a furniture store in Ohio. Long hours, and a lot of weekends. I’m counting the days until I retire – which probably won’t be until I’m 80.” He sighed and shook his head ruefully. “This was my one big fling. A month away from everything, no ringing phones, screaming customers, or complaining employees.”
“No phones here.” Gray smiled. “Though I get some noise from a few of my customers, and Conan can be a little annoying. He and his sister are only here for another couple of weeks, though, so I can stand it.”
“You firing them?” Kevin frowned slightly. “I hope it wasn’t anything to do with me.”
“No. It’s a rotating duty. Another family will provide help next month.” The doctor stretched his legs out. “We are pretty much self-sufficient here, trading off services and goods with each other. That’s one reason getting you moved is taking a while. Money isn’t all that useful.”
“What about taxes, and stuff like maintaining roads?”
“The whole community pitches in for big projects – we just redid the old meeting hall. And we have an unusual situation here – the government really doesn’t know we are here. So they don’t ask for taxes, and we don’t ask for help that requires them. It’s worked for the past century or so.”
Kevin blinked, and then grinned. “A hundred years? The back taxes could be pretty hefty if a government official stumbles onto you.”
“Oh, we always find a way to make them happy.”
Bribery and corruption? It seemed out of place, but then, the arrangement seemed to work for all parties concerned.
“So, how are you feeling this afternoon? Health-wise, I mean.”
Kevin hadn’t given his injuries a thought since he woke up. “Really good, actually.” It was true. For the first time in ages, he felt really rested and relaxed. Even the casts seemed lighter than they had before, awkward, but not pulling so heavily on his shoulders. “Nothing hurts at all.”
“Good.” The doctor stood suddenly. “Well, I have to walk over to check on an expectant sow, and I would rather have you moving around over straw bedding than hard ground. A fall could end up breaking something else.”
Back to the stall, then. Kevin sighed as he lurched up. “Guess I can take another nap. I came here to relax, now I can’t do anything else.”
“Not to worry.” Gray walked with him back to the barn. “There’s plenty of time for work later.”
The sun was on its way down when Kevin woke to young voices in whispered conversations. He jerked up suddenly and caught at least five kids staring over the top of the gate before they scrambled away with shouts and laughter. Pushing himself up with an effort, he threw himself against the gate. “Ggh.. “ The words caught in his throat, and he had to swallow and try again. “Ghet out of here! I’m not a freak show!” His shouting set off the rest of the patients, creating a cacophony of braying, moose, bleats, and whinnies.
Gray came striding into the barn in less than a minute. He still had a cloth napkin tucked into his shirt, and looked quite annoyed. “Kevin! What are you up to in here? There’s no need to set everyone off like this!”
“Didn’t you see the kids? They just ran out!”
“Yes. Some of the local boys.” He suddenly looked concerned. “They didn’t hurt you, did they?”
“They were staring at me! Over the ghrg… gate!”
The doctor blinked, then nodded slowly. “Ta, they would, wouldn’t they? I’m afraid that in a village this small, anything different is a source of great interest. To be truthful, some of the adults are just as curious about you, but have more self-control.” He pulled the napkin from his shirt. “I’m sorry that the children upset you. But please try not to upset the rest of the barn. The others are all ill or injured as well.”
“But…” Kevin was a little flustered by the man’s attitude. “Look, I’m sorry I shouted. It’s jrruss…” He cleared his throat again. “Oh, never mind.” Maybe he was overreacting a little. It was just a bunch of kids. Probably led by Conan. “No harm done, I grh…” Frowning, Kevin twisted his head around and swallowed. His throat felt odd. Not sore, but certain sounds didn’t seem to work right.
“Having a little trouble?” Gray opened the gate and came in, peering up into Kevin’s eyes. “Sounds like you might have a summer cold.” He ran fingers along the sides of Kevin’s neck and up near the jaw. “Anything hurt?”
Kevin shook his head. “No. But some words catch. Mostly grhh… guh.. “ he ahd to stop and swallow. “’Gee’ sounds. Like that.”
“Might be some sort of allergy. I don’t imagine you normally sleep on straw, or around a lot of animals.” Gray stretched up and slid his fingers higher, pressing on Kevin’s temples and the back of his neck and skull. From the man’s expression, he approved of what he found. “You are doing fine, but let’s try to catch that throat before it gets any worse. I have a tonic that should help.”
He went back outside and opened a cabinet up near the main entrance, returning with a dark brown glass bottle with a cork stopper. Kevin’s dubious expression prompted a smile. “All natural ingredients. Nothing that will harm you in the least. A lot of common medicines are the same for people and animals. I just don’t bother with separate containers.” He pulled the cork, and then held the bottle up to Kevin’s lips. “Go ahead. Take a good swig.”
Kevin had intended to take an experimental sip, but the doctor upended the bottle. It was either swallow a mouthful or spit it all out, and that didn’t seem appropriate. Fortunately, the liquid had a pleasant taste, obviously vegetable-based. Gray finally pulled the bottle away after a couple of good gulps went down. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“Pretty ghrg… gura…” He stopped and swallowed again. “Uh, no. I liked it.” One arm started up to wipe his mouth, but he caught himself and dropped it again. The ends of the casts bumped annoyingly against his knees.
“Good. Mostly carrot and beet juice, with some local herbs.” The doctor grinned as he put the cork back in. “And of course, you have to chant the right spell under the new moon as you mix it up. You know us backwoods Pagans.”
Kevin flushed. “I’m sure it’s guh.. gra.. great stuff. The natural medicines are popular back home.”
There was movement from the far end of the barn, and Gray stuck his head out. “Ah. Looks like my help decided to come back after all. I’ll make sure they get some supper out to you – it will be pretty simple fare, mostly stuff from the garden tonight. I need to make a trip to the village tomorrow.”
Kevin nodded as the doctor stepped out and pulled the gate closed. “Thanks.” He moved to watch as Gray spoke to Conan and Mary. Though he couldn’t understand the words, it was apparent that the kids were getting a stern lecture. Hopefully on allowing human patients their privacy.
Losing interest, he moved to the window to admire a glorious sunset. Red and gold filled the sky with color, painting clouds and the horizon with a soft glow. It was hard to believe he’d only been here a day or so. The road he’d come in on should be somewhere along the edge of trees just over there. He followed the one visible section of road, but couldn’t make out anything beyond.
Conan came in with the stool and another bowl of food while he was standing there. The boy didn’t speak this time, and Kevin was just as happy to ignore him. After refilling the water bucket, Conan grabbed a wooden rake and flipped some of the bedding from the corner by the gate. Oh, right. He was mucking. While Kevin was a little embarrassed, there was no helping the situation. At least Conan didn’t seem to poke fun – other than some curious looks as he worked, the boy might as well have been cleaning up one of the other stalls.
Dinner was not quite what he expected – there was some coarse bread, mixed in with lots of cut-up raw vegetables and fruit. It didn’t look all that tempting, but he was hungry and the food did smell pretty good. Given the need to be mucked up after, he decided there was no reason to be ashamed of his eating. Kneeling over the bowl, lipped up some of the bread first, and then tried a chunk of raw potato.
Not great, but also not terrible. Some salt would have helped, but he didn’t know how to ask for it. Eating became almost automatic as he got used to the flavors, and he actually finished the entire bowl off before he even thought about getting a drink. It was easier getting his head into the bucket tonight – Conan must have actually been thoughtful enough to use a lower peg. Kevin sucked down almost three-quarters of the water.
The combination of a full belly and the increased darkness had him sleepy again. Looking around, he realized that the blanket was missing. That damned kid must have taken it when he was cleaning the stall! Annoyed, Kevin sat down cautiously on the straw. The bedding was softer than he expected, so he lay back on the pile that formed his mattress. It didn’t feel all that different than before. He had a passing concern about fleas and other such critters left by previous occupants, but realized that the blanket hadn’t really been ay protection anyway. Giving a deep sigh, he closed his eyes and surrendered to fatigue.
Racing on the bike. He was pedaling as fast as he could, but the track was so rough it was hard to keep the handlebars straight. The crowd was cheering him on, and he broke concentration long enough to smile at them. Only to see a flock of sheep standing on hind legs, waving black forelegs as they shouted encouragement.
More whispers. Kevin could hear the voices clearly when he woke, but lay still in hopes his audience would go away. Form the amount of light in the stall, it was early morning, but well past dawn. Maybe the rooster had become someone’s dinner.
When the kids didn’t leave, he sighed and looked up at the gate in annoyance. So much for Gray’s lecture. If anything, there were more kids gathered there, staring at him with obvious curiosity. A couple backed away a step when they realized he was awake, but none actually left. After a few minutes, the gate opened and Conan came in with a fresh bowl of vegetables, followed by a slender, dark-haired boy who carried the stool. Justifying his presence, Kevin supposed.
He struggled to sit up, then rolled over to his side so he could make better use of his arms. Pushing up on hands and knees, he spat out a piece of straw and then stood groggily and stretched as best he could. The other boy’s eyes widened, and he backed against the wall as he stared up at Kevin. Despite being pretty small, he actually looked a bit older than Conan. For that matter, Conan was even shorter.
Kevin debated causing another fuss, then decided the best course was to ignore the attention. Breakfast looked good, and he didn’t care if they watched him eat or not. He knelt down, bracing himself easily with the casts, and stuck his face in the bowl. It was all raw vegetables this morning, in larger chunks. He had no trouble, however, and found both the taste and texture more enjoyable than before.
As he chewed and swallowed, more of the watchers crept in. Although he would have preferred being left alone, the intrusion was easy to ignore. It helped a lot to remind himself that he’d never see any of these kids again. The whispering got louder and more frequent, and finally became open conversations and giggles. Most had gathered in front of him. When he finally finished the last chunk of carrot and looked up, they all gasped and stared at something being held by a chunky red-haired boy in the middle. Only Conan wasn’t in the group, watching from the stall gate with a knowing smile.
“Conan!” Gray’s voice prompted a startled and frantic scurrying of small bodies out the gate, and he heard the man scolding them as they ran off. However, Conan simply picked up the empty food bowl and stool and sauntered out as if nothing at all was wrong. The act obviously didn’t work, for he heard the veterinarian launch into an angry tirade.
Kevin started to stand up, then spotted something on the straw near the gate. One of the kids must have dropped it. Probably whatever they had been looking at. It was brightly colored and oddly familiar. Curious, he crawled over awkwardly and squinted at the small, plastic rectangle, eyes widening when he recognized his own picture. The fat kid had been holding Kevin’s driver’s license. He wasn’t aware of Gray coming into the stall until the man squatted down and picked up the license. Shaking his head, the doctor put it in a pocket. “I thought I saw Paddy in with that group. He’s the Magistrate’s son. His father is supposed to have all your belongings secured.”
Bewilderment turned to anger. Kevin twisted his head to look up at the man, planning to launch into a tirade of his own. Only to find that he could only produce grunts and wheezes. Alarmed, he swallowed and tried clearing his throat, all to no avail.
“Can’t talk this morning?” Gray showed no surprise or concern. “Nothing to worry about. We just didn’t catch the cold in time. Don’t try forcing it, it will just take longer to clear up.”
Conan came in behind the doctor, and took the bucket down. Gray said something in Gaelic to him, which prompted a nod and a smile, and then the boy left. Gray stood up. “I made sure none of the children will come into your stall again. Your patience is very much appreciated. It could have been quite dangerous with someone who was less even-tempered.”
Even tempered? Kevin seethed, angry and confused, and unable to express anything. The kids had his license. What about his passport? His money? Was some Irish brat cruising through town on his bicycle? Spinning, he slammed the cast on his right arm against the wall with jarring force and managed a wheezing scream.
“Stop!” It was a command, not a plea, and Kevin froze without thinking. Gray scowled at him. “Don’t be an idiot. What are you upset about? The children? They won’t come into the stall again. And I assure you that despite appearances, all of your belongings are safe.” Then his tone softened. “The trouble with your voice is a passing thing. Surely you have had laryngitis before in your life?”
Not like this! Kevin started to shake his head, then realized he wasn’t so sure. Memory was a little fuzzy. There had been times with a sore throat, and he remembered having trouble talking. Finally, he nodded reluctantly.
“I thought so.” Gray smiled and then reached out to rub the top of Kevin’s head. “See? Everything is just fine. You are healing up tremendously well. I’d be surprised if you aren’t all done in a few days. All you have to do is relax and enjoy the time off while you can.”
The doctor’s voice and the gentle scalp massage were very soothing. And Kevin did feel remarkably good. Not just healthy, but strong and powerful, like he used to when he was racing. He was still a little concerned about his belongings, but if they’d intended to steal anything they wouldn’t have brought the license here. Actually, why had they been so curious? Could this place be so backwards they hadn’t even seen a photograph before? That seemed improbable, but it would explain the kids’ reactions.
“I have to go into town to check on your things. We aren’t thieves, Kevin. At least, not of material goods. Every farthing will be accounted for, I promise.” He stepped forward to allow the boy room to enter with the freshly-filled bucket. “I’ll have to make a day of it in the village, I’m afraid. Shopping, and some house calls. And I have some business to take care of. I’ll try to check in on you tonight, but it will probably be the morning.”
That sounded reasonable enough, though Kevin was troubled by a thought that nagged in the back of his mind but wouldn’t come clear. Gray started out of the stall, then turned back and spoke to Conan in Gaelic. He smiled at Kevin and swung the gate fully open. “No need to keep you cooped up in here. It’s a beautiful day outside. You can sit on the bench, or explore the farm if you like. Please stay close, though. You’re a lot steadier now, but a fall could still do damage.”
The prospect of spending the day sightseeing, even locally, overpowered whatever was signaling trouble. Kevin nodded enthusiastically, his mood considerably brighter. The forced rest had done him a world of good, but now he was so full of energy he felt like he could run for miles. Or at least walk. He pushed up from the floor, but the heavy casts overbalanced him and he fell back onto the plaster lumps. A second effort succeed in getting him back on two legs. He felt like he was crouched over, but was still eye-level with the other man, so it couldn’t be too bad.
Gray walked beside him as they exited the barn, praising his effort with words and literal pats on the back. Although the encouragement was a little condescending, Kevin couldn’t help feeling pleased by the sense of accomplishment the doctor was providing. He also seemed to sense Kevin’s need to move around – they ended up at the pasture gate, which Gray opened.
“You can walk around most of the hill in here. There’s fresh water, and Conan will bring you something to eat at midday, and again tonight. I’ve no doubt you will have more visitors, but they shouldn’t be a bother.”
A couple of the animals started ambling towards them. The doctor pulled the gate closed as soon as Kevin was inside. “Sorry. I can’t let the others wander loose. Conan or one of the other children will let you out later if you want to go back to your stall.”
Gray leaned on the top rail and stared intently at him. “This is what you were looking for. Peace and quiet, beautiful scenery, clean air. No stress, no pressure.” Kevin found himself nodding in vague agreement, almost mesmerized by the man’s words. “Life is simple and easy. You are strong, healthy, and happy. No cares or worries. Relax and enjoy it.”
Yes. Kevin smiled and nodded again, feeling truly content. The sun was warm, the air was perfumed by all the sweetness of nature, and he was strong, healthy, and happy. Thoughts were fuzzy again, but in a pleasant way. It was a little like having a happy buzz after a few drinks.
Warm breath ruffled the hair on the back of Kevin’s head, and he turned to see one of the horses. Two goats and a sheep stared at him curiously from either side of the larger animal. They waited as the mare – he somehow knew it was a she – snuffled his face and snorted, then curled her upper lip up in front of her nostrils. She shook her head, then snuffled him again, lipping at his hair.
Unable to pat the friendly beast, Kevin rubbed his head against her neck, feeling his cheek pulling through her glossy brown coat. Part of him remembered that he had not shaved or bathed in days, but the animals wouldn’t care. He breathed in her rich scent of sweat, grass, straw, and urine. The mix teased his nostrils, not unlike his own unwashed odor, yet he found it comforting.
The mare whuffled deep in her throat and used her chin to pull him against her. The sound and gesture clearly translated in his head as a personal claim, almost as if she had said ‘Mine!’ She turned slowly, pushing at him gently with her muzzle. It took a moment for him to realize the animal was herding him out towards the pasture. Feeling a little silly, he looked to Gray and saw the man nod in apparent satisfaction. Kevin grinned, then followed the horse’s obvious prompts into the field.
They ended up on the far side of the pasture, where the animal dropped her head and began to graze. He looked out over the small valley spread out below, but found the view a little disappointing. There was some sort of haze or mist in the air, muting colors and blurring the distant hills. Kevin found himself hanging close to the big brown horse. Not that she let him get far anyway – the few times he had wandered more than twenty feet or so, she ambled back to his side. He ended up sitting in the thick, soft grass and letting the sun warm him.
Gray’s voice came faintly from somewhere below – the doctor must be on his way to the village now. Looking back towards the farm, Kevin saw a few children watching him from the fence. They talked back and forth, pointing in his direction occasionally, and seemed to have a lot of questions for Conan when the boy joined them a short time later. He was relieved that none of them entered the pasture – perhaps he had some limited privacy after all.
Despite his previous energy, the combination of warm sun and the relaxing presence of the mare pulled at his eyelids. He was almost asleep when an angry squeal from the mare startled him fully awake. She was facing away from him, head lowered and ears back. There was no doubting her claim on him now, for she was obviously telling the other horse to stay away.
The bigger animal was having none of it. He whinnied and snorted, then squealed back with his own ears pinned. Kevin found the exchange slightly amusing – he could almost hear an old married couple bickering back and forth as they continued the exchange. However, he got a little nervous when the male finally got angry enough to lunge and snap at his protector, sending her skittering a short distance away.
He watched the dominant horse plod towards him with growing concern. It still looked agitated, ears flicking back and head low. Conan and the rest of his audience must have had left, for there was no one at the fence. Rolling to his side and pushing up, Kevin started backing away. Fear washed away both fatigue and the happy euphoria, leaving him feeling confused. There was no time to sort out thoughts, for the male reared up again, then snaked his head down to Kevin’s level and squealed angrily.
Kevin jerked around, looking for the speaker who had shouted in his ears. There was no one there. No one but.. the horse? Blinking, he looked up at the animal. From this vantage point, he could see the horse was a gelding. He could also see that the horse had very large hooves and powerful legs that could trample him to death in a few seconds. Swallowing, he tried edging back slowly, only to freeze when the horse stomped a forehoof.
After a moment, the animal’s ears flicked forward, and it took a step forward to snuffle at his face. Afraid to move, Kevin heard the mare whicker and whinny plaintively from the side. “Leave us alone, Chalmers! He’s mine!” A woman’s voice sounded in his head, somehow bypassing his ears.
The gelding whuffled and snorted, pawing at the ground. “He still has a chance, woman! Just because you are happy pulling up grass doesn’t mean he wants to give up his life.” A different voice in his head, male, with a distinct British accent. Kevin blinked, mouth falling open. God, was he going crazy?
“Look at him! It’s too late and you know it! Anyway, he’ll be happy with me.”
“Harlot! It will be like bedding your own son!” The gelding gave an angry snort and rumbled, his ears back. “Maybe even your own infant! He looks like he’ll be unweaned to me!”
Kevin looked back and forth between the two horses, dazed and bewildered. Was this some sort of hallucination? He had vague memories of talking cattle and cheering sheep, snatches of dreams. But these weren’t really talking animals. Not exactly. The actual sounds and movements were pure animal, but their conversation was clear.
“And what if he is? He did not come from my womb, and he certainly couldn’t come from your loins! It’s been too long since I had an intact lad to call my own in any capacity!”
As the bickering continued, Kevin became less concerned about who was speaking and more aware of what was being said. Bedding her son? Unweaned? He was reasonably certain the improbable argument was over him, but they weren’t making any sense. Not that anything about the situation did. However, he did know it was tie to get away from this pasture. The stall was suddenly very inviting.
“Slut! Drop your tail long enough to think about the young man! Perhaps he would like to do something with his life besides help you punch out another foal!”
Kevin started to edge away, hoping the animals would be too busy in their verbal fight to notice. Besides, the conversation was definitely taking a turn that he found disturbing.
“And just what else can he do now? Look at him! In another couple of days..” The mare jerked her head up, apparently seeing Kevin trying to slip away. “Oh, feck! I think he understands us!”
The gelding lunged forward and caught the cast on Kevin’s left arm in his powerful teeth. Falling back with a gurgling scream, Kevin heard the plaster crack as he twisted around. Before he could stop himself, his momentum yanked the broken limb free of the cast and he fell heavily on his side.
Oh, shit! Kevin’s heart was pounding – what had he done to his wrist? Yanking it out of the cast like that must have pulled everything back apart. It was bent under him, the sensations all wrong. He was afraid to look, but then realized that the abused limb was not hurting at all. Rolling cautiously on his back, he lifted his arm. At first, it appeared that the cast was still in place. Then he realized that he was looking at off-white fur, not plaster. And given the larger examples surrounding him, the sculptured lump at the end was easy to recognize as a very equine gray-brown hoof.
“Bloody hell.” The gelding snorted. “Did you hear the sound he made? They already took his voice.”
The mare huffed and shuffled forward a few steps. “See? There was no point in upsetting him. He can’t talk, and he doesn’t have hands to write with. Jealous old bastard! You just can’t stand the thought of him getting to be a stallion.”
Flicking his ears back, the gelding swung his head around to glare at her. “Oh, and you have his best interests at heart? Treacherous witch! Remember the Swiss boy? What about that Tax Collector from Berkshire? Nice and easy they went, just the way this lad was heading. All the way to dull-eyed cattle without a thought in their heads!”
“You don’t know that, Chalmers!” The mare pawed the ground. “We can’t talk to the others. Maybe they just like being cows.”
Chalmers, if that was the animal’s name, chuffed and then swung his head back to stare at Kevin. “Oh, bugger. Maybe she’s right. I didn’t know about your voice, lad. The good doctor wasn’t taking any chances, though I can’t see why he would…” He lifted his head suddenly, looking back to the west. “The road! I bet it’s still open! They wouldn’t have bothered unless they were afraid he would escape!”
Kevin stared at the two animals, teetering on the edge of sanity. In truth, he was afraid he’d already leaped over that particular cliff and was plummeting into a complete mental breakdown. There was too much detail of sight, sound, and touch for this to be a dream, and bizarre as it was, there seemed to be more continuity than hallucination would allow.
He realized the horses had stopped talking and were looking at him with their ears perked up and nostrils quivering. The postures translated in his head into expressions of concern. The mare dropped her head and touched him gently with her nose. “I’m sorry, dear. This must all be terrible for you. Sometimes we forget what the transition was like.”
Chalmers wuffled and nodded his head. “Katherine’s right. Time is very short, but it won’t help to rush if it becomes too much for you to handle. Buck up, lad. Even at the worst of it, things are not so bad as they might seem.”
Having a couple of draft animal offering words of comfort did not provide quite the level of reassurance they probably intended. Madness still beckoned, its promise of mental oblivion almost, but not quite tempting enough. Kevin closed his eyes, gathering willpower. Logically, allowing himself to believe that he was still sane and all of this was really happening was the real madness. Yet giving in to the dark terror was abandoning all hope. He took a deep, shuddering breath and then opened his eyes again.
“You still with us, lad?” Chalmers took a step forward and rubbed his lips against the side of Kevin’s face. “If you can be strong, there’s a chance you might get out of here before the spell runs its course.”
“And then what?” Katherine snorted. “He makes it out of the boundary and back into the real world, stuck like that?”
The real world? Kevin wheezed, trying to speak. These horses could talk, why couldn’t he?
“Give it up, lad.” The gelding flicked his ears back. “They took your human voice, and you aren’t far enough along to speak horse.” He turned towards the mare suddenly. “Bloody, hell, Katherine! We don’t really know if he understands a word! He might just be responding to noises.”
“Oh, bugger.” The mare looked at Kevin. “I know! If you understand what I am saying, stomp your left hoof three times.”
Hoof? Kevin blinked, then realized that she was referring to what he still thought of as a hand. Lifting the numb lump, he hit the ground with it as directed.
Chalmers snorted. “He can still nod and shake his head, I would think. Are you hearing normal words from us? Does it sound like, well, human talk?”
Kevin nodded. The communications was helping him focus, no matter how ridiculous the situation.
“Very good.” The gelding pawed the ground and shook his head. “There’s much to tell you and no time to tell it.So I’ll give you the important stuff now. If you don’t make it out, there will be plenty of time to fill in details later. OK?”
That didn’t sound promising, but Kevin nodded his head.
Katherine jumped in. “You are in the village of Cahirciveen. It’s not a place you would have been coming to, because it hasn’t been on a map of Ireland for at least 80 years.”
“That’s not important.” Chalmers snorted. “Look, lad. You are becoming an Irish Draught colt. Magic, of course. Don’t bother to question it, just accept the truth of what is happening for now. There’s a chance that the transformation will stop, perhaps even reverse itself, if you can get beyond the boundary.”
Everything they were saying was consistent with what seemed to be the facts. Except what was the boundary, and how could he get past it?
“Our demon-loving doctor invoked a terrible curse…” The mare started in again, only to get cut off by Chalmers.
“Stuff it, woman! It’s Wiccan magic, not Christian demonology. And it’s not important right now! Lad, the entire village and surrounding areas exists in a kind of nether space. Once every five or ten years, the town opens a gateway back to the real world to get news, supplies, and an occasional visitor. Like you.”
“Right!” Katherine flicked her ears. “They need visitors so the doctor doesn’t have to use locals for animals. Whatever he did stopped time for people, but animals age just like normal.”
“Natural-born animals.” Chalmers whuffled. “That’s the good news for you, at worst case. I was forty-two when they changed me, and that was at least thirty years ago. So those transformed into beasts don’t age like one.”
The mare stomped her hoof. “But we still age! You’re out to pasture now, old man! Not like that devil Conan – I doubt he’s grown a whisker in those same thirty years!”
Kevin blinked at that. The red-haired boy was over thirty? What about the other children? Was their curiosity and behavior just an act? It didn’t seem possible, or even reasonable. What would be the point?
“Be that as it may, what’s important is that the road can only be opened by the town council of elders. It’s likely that Gray is on his way into the real world on a shopping trip, and they have to keep it open until he gets back.”
The doctor has said that he had business in the village, and would be gone all day. Kevin nodded slightly. A trip to the next town would take all day, especially by cart and wagon. Or, he thought suddenly, by bicycle.
Katherine nosed him. “It’s very dangerous, dear. If they catch you trying to escape, they might do something bad. Like they did to Chalmers.”
“The alternative is staying here – another day, maybe less, and it will be too late even if the road stays open. You have a choice to make, lad, and quickly. Make your way out of this village and hope to regain your humanity, or remain here and accept the life of a beast of burden. For the only real difference between us and any poor nag in the real world is that we spend longer pulled plow and wagons for humans.”
“Don’t paint such a bleak picture, Chalmers! We have time off, just like the humans, and there’s still breeding and foals.”
The gelding shook his head. “An hour of distraction for him, every what? Year? No, lad. We can talk to each other, and to the doctor when he is in the mood for conversation, but the truth of it is we are horses to them that made us this way. No more, no less.”
There was really no decision to make – Kevin knew he had to try escape. Part of him still clung to the notion this was all some sort of waking dream. Perhaps getting out of the village would be the trigger to end this seeming madness. He looked out over the valley, and then down at the ground. It was difficult coordinating the altered forearm, but he was able to scratch a crude arrow pointing west using his hoof.
The two horses looked down at the mark, and Mary snuffled at it. Then Chalmers snorted. “That’s a… letter? No. Not a number, either. I still remember some numbers. Oh! An arrow!” He turned his head in the indicated direction. “Yes, lad! That’s the way out! The road you must have come in on. But you’ll have to skirt the village, and hope none of the farmers see you. And whatever you do, don’t let any of them get a rope on you.”
“I suppose there is no stopping it.” Katherine dropped her head and then nuzzled him. “Be careful, lad. And if they bring you back, I promise you’ll be happy with me.”
“Come on, then. The boy is off to home, and the doctor is gone.” Chalmers trotted to the fence. “You can still work your way between the rails. Follow the trees as best you can, and avoid any people. Once you find the road, move as fast as you can and pray you don’t meet the doctor coming back. And if you do, trample the bloody bastard.”
Getting through the crossbars proved more difficult than expected. Kevin found that while his legs still appeared mostly human, hips had lost a lot of outward swing. He ended up rearing back and slipping his hoof over the bottom rail and then doing a kind of forward roll that sent him tumbling over onto the uncropped grass on the outside of the fence.
Getting back up was harder than expected – the ground was uneven and sloped down sharply. After several near falls, he ended up using his arms for support as well. They had lengthened enough to keep his body almost level. It was strange getting used to the equine joints of the free limb, but after a few steps he found that the remaining cast was even more of a hindrance.
By now it was obvious Kevin had never had any breaks at all. The casts had been a disguise to hide what was really happening to his - forelegs. Hallucination or not, there was no point in denying what his senses reported as real. He stretched the limb out and tilted his head slightly to get a better look. The plaster was already cracked apart on the outside edge, probably from where he had slammed it against the wall in his stall. In fact, it appeared almost eggshell thin – apparently the cast had lost mass as his bones and flesh rounded out. Well, it was magic, right?
Banging his right hoof against a rock knocked most of the lower cast off. It was a little unnerving to see the equine forelimb appear, but he knew what to expect this time. The upper portion proved more difficult, at least until he concluded that his teeth would be as effective as Chalmers’. The ease in which he chewed the remaining cast off prompted concerns about how much his mouth might have already changed, but there was little time to worry.
He started down the hill cautiously, spitting out bits of plaster as he went. It looked like he could avoid the village entirely by making a wide arc along some thick woods, but that meant traveling a good five miles, maybe ten. Worse, he discovered that the four-legged posture he’d adopted to make his way down the steep slope had become the only way he could move. His center of balance had shifted enough to make a two-legged stance impossible.
“Don’t stop!” Chalmers’ voice drifted down from the pasture. “Keep going! You can make it, lad!”
Kevin twisted around and looked up the hill, but was unable to make out more than a vague blur. Color was even more faded than before, and he knew now this was no effect of mist or haze. Oh, God. He took a deep breath, fighting panic. Thinking about what was happening would overwhelm him. He had to focus on working his way back to the real world.
There was a field directly ahead, planted with some sort of tall green grain. Wheat perhaps, though he didn’t know much about farming. Something that might change soon. He forced that thought from his mind and began working towards the tree line on the other side. The crop should have been tall enough to hide him, but the top of his head and back was just above the tops. More evidence of changes, as if the growing ease of walking on four legs wasn’t enough.
It seemed to take forever to reach the forest, but once there he was not as afraid of being seen. However, the going was actually slower. Heavy brush filled the spaces between trees, forcing him to high-step through some patches and occasionally go around others. His body kept trying to distract him with strange sensations, odd pulling of muscle and skin, and deeper shifts in his gut and bones. Trying to maintain the belief this was all in his head was getting harder, especially as he navigated over larger bushes.
The physical effort began to wear him down after a couple of miles. Thirst was nagging, though not a serious problem yet. It might have been better to wait until after the promised mid-day meal, but the two horses had seemed to think he had to leave right away. Where could he get water? Certainly not any of the farms or in the village. He tried to remember the view from the hill. There was the lake next to the village. If he approached on the other side, he might not be noticed. Still, if there was a lake, there might also be smaller ponds or streams in the woods.
As he concentrated on the problem of something to drink, he became aware of a faint scent in the air. The smell of rain before a storm, though the sky was clear. Water, but not in the air. There were many other odors in his nostrils, now that he was thinking about them. His own warm sweat-salt aroma was joined by a mix of trees and flowers, clover and sweet grass, and rich soil. Sounds were more intense as well, from the soft rustlings of leaves above, to the crunch and crackle of sticks and other forest debris under his hooves.
The water smell got stronger as he continued, and he found himself angling towards the source. A break in the tree line was visible up to the right, which should be the lake. His pace picked up, and he worked his mouth in anticipation of a cool drink. Unfortunately, the lake was not all that big, and there was activity on the far side. He squinted, trying to make out the scene. From the general shapes, he guessed a large number of women were all gathered along the far bank, dunking things in the water. Clothing? That made sense. There wouldn’t be a Laundromat available.
There was no way to drink from the lake without being seen. Kevin stayed within the trees, picking his way around, until he finally located a feeder stream and a couple of small ponds. Having already used buckets, he had no issues with sticking his face in the water and sucking up what he wanted. However, as he dropped his head down, he caught sight of his own reflection and jerked back with a shrill cry that was all too much like a whinny.
Facing that nightmare image took all his willpower, but he forced himself back to the water’s edge. Once he fought past the initial panic, the changes didn’t seem quite so drastic. He could recognize himself, even if few others would. It was almost like looking in a funhouse mirror. His lower face was protruding unnaturally, while his skull deflated behind jutting brows. Passably human, if very ugly. All except for the eyes. They were huge and liquid brown, and had migrated outward to the sides.
Kevin thrust his face into the water suddenly and drank, closing his eyes in desperate denial. Yet he felt despair beginning to build. What if the magic simply stopped once he got out of this cursed place? He was already too far gone to be anything but a deformed freak in the real world. Unless restoration was immediate, he wouldn’t even know if the transformation was reversing for a while.
It came down to a choice – either he gave up now and went back to Gray’s pasture, or he continued towards the hope of regaining his life, with the risk attached. He lifted his face up and stared as the surface stilled. That reflection was not Kevin Lundstrom. The man didn’t exist in this strange and terrifying land – he was waiting at the end of a badly rutted dirt road.
Kevin twisted around and took a good look at himself. As expected, his body was more equine than human, with a thin coat of hair that didn’t quite cover coarser skin. Some of the unusual feelings came from a short tail that he could flick back and forth. His legs – hind legs – had much deeper thighs that had dropped nearly to his knees. Both feet were elongated and ended in thick lumps that bore only indentations to indicate the toes that had once been there. Not quite hooves yet, but changed enough that he could move almost as well as a horse. And that suited him just fine.
It was time to make this transformation work for him. Turning back towards the tree line, Kevin began walking with greater confidence. He let instinct take over, and found that his body worked far more smoothly. Time was his biggest enemy, and the fastest way to get out of here was taking the main road – at a gallop.
The lake was a little behind him – and that meant the village was, too. It looked like the farms spread out to the sides and behind the Doctor’s farm. So there would be little traffic, assuming that Gray was the only person out on ‘errands.’ He could see the break now. How far was it to the boundary? A mile? Two? Five? The road was visible now through the thinning trees, and he began to falter. What if someone saw him? What if they had some sort of gate or road block? Worse, what if the gateway was already closed and he was trapped here?
Oh, Hell! He lunged forward suddenly, exploding out of the brush and nearly trampling a woman carrying a large basket of wet clothing. She shrieked and jumped back, then shouted in Gaelis as he worked up a stumbling run away from town. He didn’t know if she was raising an alarm or cursing him for knocking her laundry in the dirt, but in either case, they’d know he was making a break.
Coordinating four limbs didn’t come quite as naturally as he’d hoped, and he nearly did more than one face plant. However, the stumbling lessened and his speed increased. So far, there was no sound or sign of pursuit. Hope blossomed, and with it, a certain amount of pleasure at the sensation of motion. His gait was strong and steady, four hooves pounding into the dirt with increasing power.
Then he heard another woman ahead, screaming something at the top of her lungs. How could they have raised an alarm already? The woman with the laundry must have had some sort of signaling device. They might not have electricity, but they sure had magic. He slowed, not sure of what to do. The road curved to the left, passing by a small farm. This was probably the outermost part of the village, with freedom just beyond. What could be used to stop him? At best they would have had little more than a minute’s warning to head him off.
As he came around the bend, he was surprised to one older woman facing away from him, shouting frantically at something moving even further down the road. Kevin veered around her and picked up his pace again. Someone was running for the boundary ahead of him! Cold fear gripped his stomach. There was no telling how this boundary worked. Maybe they could switch it on and off, or lock it somehow. He threw himself forward, desperate to beat whoever it was to the border.
There was no real contest. Although the runner had a good head start, Kevin easily caught up and was about to pass, when he recognized Conan. The boy had his head down, charging blindly as if the hounds of Hell were on his heels. However, as Kevin drew abreast, he glanced over, then slowed and looked back with a mix of confusion, and what might have been relief.
There was more shouting from down the road, male voices joining in, and Conan took off at full speed again. He was gasping from the effort, possibly having run all the way from the village. But for what reason? Not to stop Kevin. Then it hit him. The boy was trying to leave, too.
Kevin slowed to pace the young man, who shouted angrily and waved him away. Then he both heard and felt other hoofbeats join his own. A man on horseback was galloping in pursuit. Conan cried out as soon as he looked back, but his steps were faltering. Kevin pulled ahead, and was about to go back into a full gallop when he caught the look of utter despair on the boy’s face.
There was no conscious thought involved – Kevin came to an abrupt stop just ahead of the fleeing boy. It was instinct, but born of human compassion rather than animal nature. Conan did not hesitate, probably knowing his only chance lay in joining Kevin. He leaped up on Kevin’s back, the weight something of a shock, but not unmanageable. It did slow him down, however, and combined with the delay from stopping, gave the man chasing them time to catch up. He was yelling in Gaelic, in tones that ranged from pleading to threatening. Conan seemed to ignore everything, pressed close with his arms around Kevin’s neck.
There was a sign ahead. The boundary, obviously, for the man got desperate. He tried grabbing at the boy, nearly losing his own balance, then suddenly pulled back on his reins and stopped just short of the post.
Conan let out a yell of triumph and shouted something back as Kevin slowed to a walk. The wild gallop had exhausted him, and his muscles were throbbing. He felt the boy pat his shoulder. “Stad, bromach. Ke-vin. Thoil, stad.” At least part of it sounded like his name. He stopped and Conan slid off. They both back at the man, who shook his head and turned his horse back towards the village. After a moment, Conan dropped his head and said “Go raibh. Bail ó Dhia ort.” The tone conveyed his message clearly – thank you.
Now what? Kevin looked ahead, trying to remember what lay back down the road he had been biking over just a few days earlier. His passport, money, everything he needed to get home was back in the village. Well, everything Kevin Lundstrom need. Would he change back now? It was hard to tell which of the odd feelings were fatigue and what might be more transformation. In any case, there was no point in staying here. He started walking towards the main road, where the blurred shapes of cars and trucks were already evident. Conan fell in beside him, one hand resting on his shoulder.
Kevin shook his head, trying to work out new kinks. The run had taken more out of him than he thought, for each step felt heavier than the last. Curiously, he didn’t feel tired, just heavier. As if… Kevin stopped suddenly, realizing more than just fatigue was at work.
“Tú is dathúil stail.”
The voice was Conan’s but shifted down in pitch. Looking back, Kevin gave an involuntary grunt of fear. The startled young man next to him appeared to be in his late teens, perhaps even starting into his twenties. As he watched, the first wisps of a mustache thickened into full growth, joined rapidly by a scruffy beard. Conan’s eyes widened in fear as he felt his face, and then reached up to touch Kevin’s cheek.
Up? Kevin twisted around, already knowing what he would see. Crossing the boundary had not stopped his transformation – it had sent it into high gear. He could actually see his own coat thicken, forming smooth, glossy horse hide over a broad equine back. And his face was thrusting even further forward, a true muzzle now.
“It’s not too late to go back.”
They both looked to the familiar voice. Gray was approaching from the main road, carrying a huge backpack. He shook his head. “Deargamadán, Conan.” Then he looked up at Kevin. “And you? I don’t understand how or why the two of you got together, but know that you have probably killed him.” He gestured towards Conan. “Can’t you see?”
Now a man approaching thirty, Conan had a full beard and shoulder-length hair. His clothing was pulled tight and starting to split as he continued to bulk up.
“Conan was born in the year 1907. We separated the village in 1921, when he was 14. He is now outside the magic that protected him from the ravages of time. In minutes, he will be nearly a hundred years old.” Gray sighed and spoke in Gaelic, probably repeating the same words to Conan, who already had gray hairs mixing with the red at his temples.
Already older than the doctor, Conan gave Kevin a pleading look, and then cried as he hung his head and spoke with obvious despair. Gray listened and nodded, then looked back at Kevin.
“I ask you to come back for your sake. If you stay here, you will finish out the change, and more. Your thoughts will become those of the beast, and the man you were will be dead. Return and enjoy life as fine stallion. There will be work, and you will eventually age and die, but nowhere near as quickly as you will age and die here.”
‘What about Conan?’ Kevin was thinking the question, but was startled to ‘hear’ it in his mind. The transformation had given him back a ‘voice’ of sorts.
“We must get him back before age takes him. He will have to join you as an animal, I fear, for that is the only way the magic will work. It is the price he pays for leaving.”
Conan was at least forty now, his face starting to wrinkle. Gray took him by the arm and started guiding him back towards the boundary.
From the shift in his vantage point, Kevin realized he had continued to grow and mature as well. He looked back at the traffic passing by, blithely unaware of the bizarre happenings just a few hundred feet away. What did they see, if they bothered to look at all? A big dapple gray horse and two men walking down a road - nothing unusual in Ireland.
He started shuffling after them, aware that his thoughts did not seem quite as clear. “Why did he leave?”
Gray sighed, continuing to prompt his aging companion along. “Conan has been 14 for 85 years. Not just in age. He cannot learn anything beyond what he knew at 14 – no matter how hard he tries, how long he studies, new things slip away from him by the next day. It is true for all the children, including the infants. But most of them don’t really seem to be aware of it. Only those who are nearly adults, those who can sense the potential, but never achieve it.”
That took a moment to sink in – Kevin snorted in dismay. What might sound like paradise to many was starting to resemble a form of damnation. No wonder Conan had tried to leave.
The former boy was limping now, his hair completely white. Gray supported him as they walked beyond the sign, back into the magic. Even though he knew what to expect, Kevin was still shocked when they turned and he saw the seventy-something scarecrow of a man. “You can take Conan back to my place. Or you can stay there. Someone will find you eventually.” Gray pulled an amulet from under his shirt. “I am going to close the portal now.”
Kevin looked back down the road. There was nothing left for him in this world. Blowing through his lips, he plodded across the invisible line between worlds. And when he looked back, everything beyond the sign had been swallowed up by thick forest.
Gray clucked his tongue. "Siúil leat, stail. Come on, stallion.” He helped the now-feeble Conan back up on Kevin. “Tà tù bromach, Conan. And Conan will end up the colt. Able to learn and grow at last, even if it is as a horse.”
As they headed back towards the village, Kevin wondered at his own calm acceptance. Perhaps he had waited too long outside the barrier – something had changed in his head. Human memories remained, but seemed distant and unimportant.
Nothing was important any more. There would be heavy labor, but no thought required. He was a beast of burden, no longer responsible for anything except following the guidance of human masters. In a way, it was exactly what he had come to Ireland looking for. No pressure, no stress, no worries. The scent of sweet grass teased his nostrils and he worked his mouth in anticipation of the pasture. It seemed he still had a taste for the Irish landscape.