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Josh was not having a good day as it was, and scarcely needed the unwarranted attention of Proctor Mitchell, or Merchantmen Strass and Katrall.
"Taking your flock to market?" sneered Mitchell. "Sure you can manage it all at once?"
Josh bit down deliberately on his tongue as Strass sniggered and Katrall gave a superior smile. It took all his self-restraint not to react to the barb as he brushed field-mud from the straggly fleece of his one remaining ewe. He had had a disastrous year, with wool-rot fever being followed by the worst winter in recent records, followed by ruinous taxes (largely set by the trio now accosting him). He was heavily in debt to the "farming guild" (owned by Strass and Katrall), and he knew as well as they that the sale of one not-particularly inspiring animal would make little impact on his account.
"We'll see you at market," Mitchell said, obviously mildly disappointed not have gotten a rise from the helpless farmer. "Come, gentlemen." The three of them continued leisurely down the road toward Aconbury.
Josh gave them a good long head-start before following with the ewe on a tether. He was trying not to think about the state of his affairs too much, but it was inevitable, and he soon became entirely oblivious to his surroundings as he tried to work out a way to keep a hold of his small farm and somehow return to solvency.
He was wondering what Katrall would offer him for the largest of his three fields when he was brought up short by an amiable voice hailing him.
"Hey now! Watch where you're about, lad!"
Josh looked up in surprise to see a short young man dressed entirely in green (unusual, for green was usually regarded as a fey colour and a poor omen).
But Josh almost failed to notice the man for he was accompanied by the four most beautiful horses Josh had ever seen. Three mares tall and graceful depended on tethers held lightly in the little man's hand. One was a deep blood bay, the second a beautiful liver chestnut, and the third a blue roan. All of them gleamed as if oiled and their manes and tails were long and free and glossy as silk. Yet these three beauties were eclipsed by the horse that stood aloof and unfettered to one side. A hand taller than the mares, he was so black that one would swear he was a fragment of night caught out in the sun, yet where the light caught him, his coat shone with highlights like lightning that shimmered across his perfect hide. There was not a white hair on his body and his eyes were a curious emerald colour, almost like a cat's.
"Fine horses, sir," Josh said, wide eyed.
"Oh, indeed!" the little man agreed. "Steeds fit for royalty, in this land or the next. And unless I mistake me, you know a little about horse-flesh. Or am I wrong?"
"I worked at Lord Aconbury's stables for five years," Josh admitted, "Looking after his fine hunters and the palfreys that belonged to the ladies of his house."
The little man nodded and then frowned at Josh's scraggly ewe.
"And how have you fallen from that high estate to this?" he asked, "Or am I mistaken in my impression?"
"No mistake, sir" Josh sighed, and told the little man how he had planned to set up on his own with a little land and a few animals, and what had become of that dream in the last twelve months.
The little green man nodded sympathetically. "Aye, lad. There's many in such a state and little solace to offer most of them. But hey! I perceive a way in which we might do each other a favour, and possibly raise your fortunes a little. What say you?"
"I'm listening," Josh said warily.
"Well done!" said the little man with enthusiasm. "I have business in this area that will occupy me for some considerable time - mayhap a year or even two. In that time I shall have nowhere to pasture my lovely beauties here. If you will undertake to look after my ladies here, and this cocky fellow to keep them company, I shall pay you, shall we say, ten gold pieces now, and another ten upon collection."
Josh gaped. Ten gold! Two years ago, following an exceptional year where the lambs were healthy, and every fleece fetched its full value in market, he had made a whole five pieces in a year. Ten was a fortune, and enough to repay his debts to the guild!
"And to sweeten so stingy a deal," the man added, "I'll toss in any young'uns these ladies may drop between now and then, for to judge by his sporting of the last few minutes, you'll find these three to be all with foal to that black lord over there."
The green-eyed stallion ducked his head and snorted, rubbing his muzzle against a slender foreleg.
"You can't offer all that for mere pasturage!" Josh gasped, honesty getting the better of him.
"Sure I can!" the little man laughed. "Do I look short of a penny or two? And a foal is a coin that needs no earning!"
And so the deal was struck, and a bemused but delighted Josh made his way back home with a pocket full of gold and a string of fine horses.
His luck, as if turned right about face, continued to improve, for that very day, Proctor Mitchell and the two merchantmen vanished without a trace. It transpired that they had never reached Aconbury. Some torn clothing was found on the road, and a suspicious glance or two was even turned in Josh's direction, but not for very long. Though his debt to the vanished men was well known, it seemed scarcely plausible that he could have murdered all three. Proctor Mitchell alone was no lightweight and a skilled man-at-arms.
And it is entirely possible that Josh might have made a full economic recovery and turned his loss into prosperity had it not been for a couple of things that aroused both his and other parties' suspicions.
It began with the three mares.
They were in every regard, thoroughly gorgeous animals. They were healthy, robust, well-rounded, and their coats sleek and glossy. In a few weeks, Josh was able to confirm the little green man's guess that they were all with foal. They were everything a mare could ever be.
But every time he entered the paddock where he kept them, or even passed nearby it, the three new mares would gallop to him, or as near to him as they could reach, whinnying loudly and urgently. Likely as not, the magnificent green-eyed stallion would follow, but without the mares' urgency. And yet they never touched Josh: always they would stop short. It seemed to Josh that this was something different from normal equine curiosity, or an interest in any food or titbits he might have to offer.
And their eyes! Oddly round of pupil, instead of a conventional equine oval, they were always ringed with white: scared eyes, beseeching eyes. Nothing else in the mares' body language conveyed stress or fear, or anything but well-contented animals, but those eyes! It unnerved Josh at times, and it unnerved him too how they could look so… so human, if he was honest to himself.
Mind you, the stallion was possessed of a good pair of eyes too. No appeal or panic there though. There was nothing but calm assurance; a knowing confidence that was far too self-possessed for Josh's comfort. Sometimes he thought he felt the animal's emerald eyes on him, measuring him, and the feeling was not a comfortable one. Especially when it happened that the horse was nowhere in sight.
But these were, all of them, mere fancies, and a farmer in Josh's position had more than enough to cope with getting by from day to day at the best of times, without paying heed to childish imaginings.
And so he taught himself to remain blissfully ignorant until the new mare appeared.
Josh rose at dawn, as he always did, and went to check on the animals. Much to his dismay, the gate to the field was standing wide open, and he feared the worse for a second or two, until he saw the familiar slender forms grazing off to one side. Dragging the gate closed, he went to check upon them.
There was the black stallion, and one, two, three… four mares. Who immediately made for him as soon as they saw him, the fourth animal lagging behind as if not entirely sure, but whinnying just as desperately as the others and just as anxious of face. They surrounded him as they always did, something pleading in their eyes, but again not quite touching him, as if a thin barrier surrounded him.
The new animal was a beautiful dark iron grey, with pale dapplings upon her flanks and two-toned mane and tail what were white at the roots, but shaded to almost black at the tips.
Josh was perplexed by the new arrival but not especially worried, even when a shop-keeper from Insby went missing on the road to Aconbury, and nothing but his shredded clothing could be found. Such was the state of the clothing that there was conjecture of him having fallen prey to some vicious wild animal, but there was no sign of blood, and no trace of a body having been dragged off the road (although the road itself was too hard to leave prints).
The next occurrence was a different matter though. Scarcely a fortnight later, on a warm summer morning, Josh rose with the sun and went to check his charges. It had been a hot night and a full moon, and the faerie folk were known to delight in mischief on such nights.
And mischief there had been indeed. Josh stared and counted his guests three times, to be sure. There were now no less than six fine mares gracing his field. The two new-comers were just as the others: fine, big healthy animals, beautiful coats, and wild, panicky eyes. Mirror-twins, the new two; pale greys with darker dappling that was identical on both save that where one had a fleck on the right, the other had a fleck on the left. Josh had never seen such a striking pair, and tried to imagine what colouring like that would do for their market value. More than double it, he guessed.
Now, if the sudden appearance of two new animals in his herd was not strange enough, his next discovery filled him with awed dread. As he crossed the field to examine the new animals, he stumbled over what he at first thought was a bundle of rags. Then, on closer inspection, it turned out to be a set of clothing. And another, close by.
Josh began to tremble, The first set of clothing was a fine tunic and leggings, and a good pair of stout leather shoes. The second set, neatly folded, obviously belonged to a young lady: a pretty summer dress and some light sandals.
Josh was sometimes a little slow, but he was not stupid. Three men vanish, and three mares were given to him for safe-keeping. Another man vanishes and another mare appears. Two more horses appear, and two sets of empty clothing. Probably, he surmised, his mind wandering along an irrelevant tangent, two young lovers taking advantage of a beautiful night. They duck into a secluded field, intending to take full enjoyment in each other's company, undress (since this clothing was all still intact), and then... what? Some malevolent agent turns both boy and girl into two more mares for the emerald-eyed black stallion.
He learnt the following day that his new animals had until recently been young Thomas Moore and his fiancé Janet Croft, both from quite wealthy families. Josh burnt the clothes, well knowing what conclusion would be drawn if anyone were to connect his acquisitions with the disappearances.
But what should he do? He had no idea how such a transformation could be worked: clearly the little green man was from the faerie world, and doubtless this was faerie magic, probably wrought from no other motive than that the Faerie did not like the encroachment of Christianity across the land. Six more horses in the world and six less potential worshippers of The One God would be all to the good.
Probably the priest might be able to do something, but Josh could not quite bring himself to approach him. For one thing, the priest of Aconbury Parish was not what you would call a sympathetic man, and advanced the Word of the Lord by denouncing Evil In All Its Forms rather than by advocating Good Works – a subtle distinction but a very pertinent one. It was entirely possible he might cry Witch against Josh.
For another thing, and Josh felt wretched about it, though he sincerely regretted the transformation of the young couple and the shopkeeper from Insby, he could not bring himself to wish Proctor Mitchell, or Merchantmen Strass and Katrall, back to humanity. They had made his life a misery, and if the priest did not cry Witch, they almost certainly would for the pure, malicious hell of it. No, that three he much preferred as fine mares. "Time," he said to himself, "They brought a little beauty into the world." But of the other three mares, he wrestled with his conscience endlessly, and ultimately did nothing.
Little surprise, but the folk of Aconbury and Insby took action themselves. Six disappearances now, and all of them prominent folk with influential families. And when young Mary Farlane, only three years happily married to George Farlane, vanished while picking wild flowers one August evening (and Josh was dismayed to find himself now the keeper of a beautiful white mare with tragic dark eyes), the townsfolk and villagers went to the Priest and the Priest applied to the Magistrate, and less than a week later, riding in a black coach drawn by black horses, Judge Horby, Witch Hunter High, drew into Aconbury to begin an official inquisition. And Judge Horby knew exactly what to look for: it took him all of three days to pay Josh a visit.
Josh was in his house when the judge arrived, and knew it augured no good when his stout oak door shook to three measured knocks, heavy with authority. His stomach roiling with nervousness, he went and opened it.
"Josh of Aconbury?" enquired the man standing without. He was a large man with long lank hair, and wore a long black cloak embroidered with silver.
"I am, Sir," Josh quavered. "May I serve you?"
"I hope so," the judge answered. "I have here a warrant to search your home and land."
Josh felt his heart lurch. "What for, Sir? Have I done something wrong?"
"That remains to be seen. I understand that until recently, you were in more than a little difficulty with your affairs, but are now the owner of several horses of exceptional quality. How did this come about?"
"I… I… I met a gentleman on the road and complimented him on his animals," stammered Josh. "He took pity on my plight and offered me good money to look after his horses. I agreed."
"You knew this gentleman?"
"No, Sir," Josh admitted.
"And yet you entered into an agreement with him?"
"I was broke, Sir, and he offered good coin. I couldn't see the harm in it."
"Were you not suspicious of anything? Describe the man."
Josh did, to the best of his memory.
"He wore green? Nothing but green?" the judge asked. "That didn't cause you to hesitate?"
"No, Sir," Josh answered miserably.
"How many horses did he entrust to you?"
Josh had known this question would come, and he knew the judge would know the answers ahead of time. "Uh, four, at the start. A stallion and three mares, all in foal."
"Three mares," the judge repeated. "And I understand that three prominent men of the town went missing that very day. Did you not suspect some connection?"
"No, Sir!" Josh replied. "What connection could there be?"
"What indeed? I believe you were well acquainted with the men who vanished."
"Aye, Sir," Josh admitted.
"In fact, you owed them a considerable sum of money."
"I did, Sir, it's true."
"How did you react to the news of their disappearance?" the judge asked, steel eyes looking straight into Josh's own. The farmer felt that gaze like a grip around his throat.
"I, uh, I confess I was not sorry to hear it," he stammered.
"I see," the judge said coldly. "Well, then. So you are now the responsible keeper for four horses are you?"
Since the judge could hardly have failed to notice the growing band in the paddock, Josh answered cautiously, "Um, no, the gentleman returned at several intervals and brought me four more mares."
"Four more mares." The judge repeated this with heavy emphasis. "At what intervals precisely? Might they just possibly have coincided with certain other disappearances in this parish?"
Josh tried hard to feign ignorance. "I don't know, Sir. I know there have been other disappearances, but I don't spend much time in Aconbury or Insby. When did they vanish?"
The judge gave him a long, measuring look. "Let us say that the timing is not auspicious for you. I think I had better have a look at these horses of yours."
"Sir, surely you do not think that a poor farmer such as I…" Josh began.
"Silence! No, I perceive no scent of witchcraft around you," the judge declared scornfully. Then, when Josh's relief was rather too obvious, he added, "But you may well be called to account for your actions of the past three months. I can hardly bring myself to believe anyone could fail to be suspicious of the coincidence of your acquisitions with the disappearances. You do not strike me as a stupid man. Remain here, while I examine these animals for any taint of transformation."
"Don't you want me to come with you?" Josh asked.
"Remain in your house," the judge repeated. With that he departed toward the paddock, and Josh had little choice but to obey. He did not close the door though. His mind felt dazed and he thought this might be how a frightened rabbit felt, knowing there is a fox between it and its burrow. He lent against the doorframe feeling sick, and awaited the judge's return.
Several minutes passed, and then something curious happened. Josh could not describe it, except that it put him in mind of the ripples spreading out from the splash of a stone thrown into a pond; a brief stirring in the air; a momentary impression of colour and light passing him in a wave; a sudden breeze that ruffled his hair and then was gone in an instant. And distantly, from the direction of the paddock, a peculiar cry – one that began as a shout and rapidly ascended in pitch until it was an animal scream.
Josh forgot the judge's admonition to remain where he was and was outside in an instant, around the side of his house and running toward the paddock, where he skidded to a halt in dismay.
He had seen animals mating before, many, many times. As a sheep farmer, it had aroused no reaction in him other than a quiet satisfaction that there would soon be another lamb to swell his flock. He had seen horses mating when he worked for Lord Aconbury. But he choked in horror at the sight of the black stallion vigorously mounting an equally black mare who stood braced beneath it with neck tautly arched and ears flattened. Her eyes were white-rimmed and as Josh stumbled to a halt, they found him and gave him a look of mingled horror and fury. And draped across her back was a torn black cloak that she wore like a saddle blanket, silver embroidered along its borders.
Josh leant weakly against the fence as the stallion finished and dropped back to all fours. The mare shuddered and dropped her head, sides heaving, and coat lathered with sweat. Supremely indifferent, the stallion began to graze, his extended member retracting lazily back into its sheath.
"Holy Lord," whispered Josh, shaking. "Oh, Holy Lord, this cannot have happened!" He stared at the stallion. "It's you, isn't it! All this time! And I knew! I just couldn't believe it." He'd tried to believe that some outside agency had been doing this, but now, faced with the truth, he knew he'd suspected the green-eyed stallion all along.
The stallion raised his magnificent head, and fixed Josh with those strange eyes. The young farmer could probably have evaded his fate with a little more presence of mind, but he met that gaze full on, and instantly knew himself for a fool.
A strange feeling enveloped him – a feeling that put him strangely in mind of having once drunk some strong brandy; the warm, fiery glow that had then filled his belly now suffused his entire body. He jerked erect, his muscles spasming, then staggered forward a step and fell to all fours, marionette-like. His clothing felt like it was shrinking: he felt it stretching and popping all about him, and was slow to realise the truth that he was growing: every part of his body swelling and stretching. The strong stitches of his work clothes gave a heroic effort, but could not prevail against the irresistible forces working against them, any more than Josh himself could. A short volley of tearing sounds and he felt the cool breeze brushing naked flesh. He cried out in terror and his voice was not his own, but the high-pitched whinnying scream of the animal he was rapidly becoming. His shoulders and hips rotated. The proportions of his limbs changed. Fingers and toes did a rapid exchange, most of them shrinking and vanishing while a single digit on each limb expanded and strengthened and became hard virgin hoof. His neck arched and lengthened, sending his stretching head far from his swelling body, while the opposite end of his spine, as if to compensate, was extending in the opposite direction.
And then it was over: Josh stood there on all fours, shivering violently, horribly aware of his drastically transformed body. There was no awareness of what he had become yet: shock still numbed his mind, but he could feel the difference in himself: feel every cell and nerve in his body: feel the length of his face; the wide quivering nostrils; the independently mobile ears; the long, heavy length of his tail; the new strength in his limbs and the odd feel of the earth through his hooves; the sudden shock of a gust of warm breath against his quarters and a deep rumbling whinny from behind him…
"Ah, lad," the little man sighed. "Did none ever tell you never to look a gift horse in the mouth? Or the eye, for that matter." He shook his head. "Ah, well. There's no undoing it now. I should have known better than to pasture this one in your realm. I'd best take you all with me before this mischief spreads."
He waved a hand vaguely, and without anything actually seeming to change at all, there was suddenly an opening in the hill behind Josh's farm: a golden pathway into an emerald light that matched the black stallion's eyes. The stallion led the way into the light, his nine mares following docile behind with the weeping palomino stumbling at the rear on her newly discovered hooves.
The little man followed beside her and gave her a sympathetic pat as he closed the way behind them. "It won't be so bad, lad. A few mouthfuls of our sweet emerald grass and you'll never remember you were anything else. And you'll find life here sweeter by far than anything you'll have known in the mortal realm."
And so they passed beyond human accounting. Though searches were made, nothing could be found at Josh's farm but some torn clothing. The people of Aconbury and Insby made signs to ward off evil and henceforth avoided the place, until it fell into ruin. The history of the place faded into time and in a few hundred years, it was just another roofless farm ruin in a country replete with such ruins…