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|I think, on balance, this might be the story I'm proudest of. I read a short story by Brian Coe in which an evil young man was taking advantage of an ancient family curse. The curse meant that any young woman who agreed to marry into the family would be transformed -permanently- into a mare as soon as she put on the engagement ring. The young man tricks his latest victim into believing he loves her and that he thought the curse an old wives' tale. In actuality, he had done this many times before, and sold the transformed women at a good price. I loved the idea, but thought the women should have a chance for justice. This story occurs a little over a year later...|
Do you know what differentiates a curse from any other work of magic? Probably not: curses aren't much in vogue anymore: too high a price to pay. For the caster I mean. I've never used the things myself. Never hated anyone enough to bother, I guess. Seems kind of a waste of time, don't you think? My style is usually to just outlive an enemy. A lot less effort.
I didn't hurry into it the next morning. There are few things urgent enough that one can't delay the daily rituals for: chopping wood for my ancient stove; opening the post; binning the same; tidying this and cleaning that; reading the morning paper. It's an easy sort of magic to learn: better than meditation and mantras for soothing the mind. Unhurriedly I went out into the garden, there to be greeted by Shine: his curious muzzle whuffling at my hands and pockets until he had assured himself I had nothing he really wanted. Then he was off chasing butterflies.
Beth was lying down, though she tiredly heaved herself to her feet as I approached. Graceful though, I thought. Horses are often clumsy getting up or lying down. She rose without fuss: no sudden exertion or loss of balance.
"Ssh, ssh," I told her. "Take it easy there. This isn't going to be particularly pleasant for either of us, so let's take our ease where we can, hmm?"
I touched her mind, probing it gently, searching for the hidden core I knew lay deep within. Compulsions and false memories wrapped it so thoroughly it was hard to find. Clearly whoever had laid this spell had wanted its victim to seem completely equine, right from the start. Although thought has a tendency to follow form, a false behaviour had been brutally imposed over the real mind just as the physical change had been forced on the body.
The mare shivered as I cautiously explored her thoughts, aware of what I was doing. It is not a comfortable thing to have someone going through your mind, even when, as I was doing, they take great care. But she held still, and this gave me some hope: a true animal - or a lost soul - would have resisted and run away or attacked. At some level, she knew I was trying to help.
And at last I found what I was looking for: like a star at the heart of a dark nebula, or a pearl lost in river mud, I found her innermost core, and as I had suspected, she was human. I was greatly moved by what I found there: a strength of will like few others, endlessly repeating a litany of identity: I'm me, I'm me, I'm me!
It was little enough, but it had served to preserve her ultimate self against the depredations of the spell. A losing battle, for the dichotomy of mare and human soul warring against each other had caused this self-destructive depression she had mired herself in, but perhaps she had fought long enough to save herself. I was not without some skill, and I thought I could help her. I turned my attention to the spell that bound her.
The curse was dark and old and ugly. And it held an equally ugly surprise: "Beth" was a completely innocent victim, for this curse struck not at the blood-line that bore it, but at that line's most intimate associates: the first son in direct male descent had born this curse for fifteen generations, and struck only when he chose a bride, and she accepted his token of faith: a ring. Within hours of accepting an engagement ring from her cursed lover, she would quite unwittingly be transmogrified into this animal form.
I'm not against shape-shifting: hell, I've even taken the form of a pony myself a few times in my life, but the imposition of an animal form on an unwilling victim is one of the cruellest things that magic can do. Sometimes it makes an admirable punishment. More often it makes a truly evil curse.
It intrigued me that a ring was needed to trigger the curse. With that knowledge I turned my attention to the odd ring of black about her left fore-foot, and sure enough found the curse's nexus there. The nexus is the anchor-point: the locus in which the curse's requirements or triggers are met. A curse must fulfil certain requirements: there is always a trigger, and always an escape, although in some cases, the escape is simply to evade the trigger. I was disappointed but unsurprised to learn that was the case in this instance. Had the young man proposing to this poor woman simply asked her to marry him and offered no token, or some other token than a ring, she would have taken no harm.
I wondered about this. Had this man not known of the curse? Possible, or maybe he hadn't believed it: most folks these days choose not to believe in magic. Ha. Might as well disbelieve the sun: it will still shine on you.
But what had happened then? Had he abandoned her in terror? Had she run away before the transformation was complete? How had she come to this pass? In foal and passed from owner to owner?
Well, maybe she could tell me. Undoing the curse would not be an easy thing. I wasn't even sure I had the skill: old curses wrought in times of high magic are notoriously difficult to shift. The casters are dead and buried, so you can't call upon them to take back their own work. Some curses have a fulfilment condition that must be met, where upon they revoke themselves, but this wasn't that sort of curse. In fact, given its potency, I guessed that the original caster had probably laid a death curse: spent his own life-force in anger against this family. I wondered what they had done to merit that.
I decided after several futile tries to lift the curse, that I would have to use the Coiled Spring Analogy. No true cure, it would constitute a temporary alleviation, vulnerable to the slightest magical vibration. It would allow this woman to assume her true form for a time, and perhaps she might hold the key to her own salvation: it was the best solution I could come up with.
I bent my will to it, persuading the dark pattern that it was a spring; a wire; a thing compressible under force. That force was my will and I poured it in to my work, building an irresistible pressure, so that the lines of dark light bent and distorted, compressing into a tight nimbus of black that reluctantly allowed itself to be crushed back into a toroidal form, and finally, into a thin band about her foreleg.
There I tied it as best I could, knowing it was pitifully inadequate: a strand of cotton to bind a steel spring. It would hold for a while, but not forever, and it was an imperfect thing at best. I rocked back, exhauseted.
The mare whinnied uneasily, rocking back on her hind legs and half-rearing. She began to tremble; powerful spasms that shook her body and limbs, and then she began to change. It was a gradual, laborious process, and the animal within her was terrified by the strange sensations assailing her body. She didn't panic though, as I stood by her and whispered what comfort I could. Her coat darkened with sweat and her nostrils flared with quick, explosive breaths.
Long minutes passed, and the mare's body grew shorter and less bulky. Her neck drew in on itself and her muzzle grew blunter, the nostrils smaller. Her proportions changed: this joint becoming longer: that becoming shorter. Like a trick of perspective, a horse with increasingly human characteristics was suddenly an equine-looking human.
Finally, exhausted, the figure beside me lapsed into a deep sleep, bordering on coma. I watched her for several hours, feeling much the same way after my exertion. As I had feared, my paltry skills could only take things so far. The curse was held in abeyance, and only barely at that. She was almost human, but her pale skin was still dusted with fine white fur. Her hair was still white as new-fallen snow which I doubted was her usual colour, and her ears were still very pointed. And when I carefully gathered her up to carry her inside, I saw she still had a small horse's tail too. And on her left hand, she bore a ring: a smooth band of gold, shot through with roiling veins of ebony black. A diamond glinted evilly: to my Sight, it glowed with a near-sapient darkness.
None of these were good signs. The curse was still affecting her strongly through the restraints of my own magic. I hoped I had worked well enough to give her at least some sort of reprieve. When a person is cursed, no one is in a better position to lift the curse than the victim herself.
Shine whickered curiously as I hefted his drastically altered mother in my arms. Probably she still smelt like his mother. "Wait here," I ordered.
He wasn't very happy about it, and kicked the back door when it closed behind me. I muttered a quick charm and he quieted quickly, folding his long legs beneath him and yawning widely.
His mother I carried to the spare room and laid her upon the bed. I leant against the door for a moment to catch my breath and surveyed the room doubtfully. There was no way of telling how fast or how completely she would return to human thinking. An animal mind in a human body creates numerous problems, and after some thought I stripped the rug from the floor and removed everything but the bed from the room. Then I dragged a bale of potting compost in and used it to bed the floor. Clean and pleasant-smelling, it instantly rendered the room half bedroom, half stable. Now we could play it either way. I picked up a book and settled down to wait.
It was late afternoon when she awoke. I had laid her on her back, and she automatically rocked herself over onto her belly, then raised herself up on her arms before her mouth suddenly made an 'o' of surprise and she looked down at herself in shock and disbelief. She made a sound, a hushed mumble, and looked round wildly. She saw me watching and froze, staring at me.
"Easy," I murmured softly. "You're safe. Take your time. You're safe. Easy now."
She started at the sound of my voice and made another inarticulate sound in her throat. Her jaw worked and she coughed. Encouragingly, she didn't sound like she was trying to utter any equine sound.
"Can you understand me?" I asked gently.
She stared at me, and I knew she hadn't - then came a quick, furtive nod, as if she were terrified that any show of intelligence would snap this fragile miracle and make her a dumb animal once more, And so tenuous was my hold over the curse that it might just be so.
"I'm Margaret," I offered, not sure how much was going in at this point: she was bound to be suffering from shock. "Margaret Tate."
She frowned slightly - again so quickly one could easily have missed it, then said something almost intelligible.
"What was that?" I asked, startled.
"L-l-l," she stuttered. "Liz... beth."
"Elizabeth? That's your name?"
She nodded again, feeling her throat wonderingly as if astounded that it should produce a word.
I let out a long breath, not having realised I'd been holding it. "Good girl! Oh, good girl! You still remember!" I moved to sit next to her on the bed, and this simple offering of companionship was enough to bring her right back. Suddenly her arms were around me and she was crying with great, gulping sobs. Crying like a child, but a very human child.
Elizabeth, I later learned, had been a horse for a little over three years. That she had retained her identity through that was little short of miraculous. I make a point of never transforming anyone - especially myself - for longer than a month or two, unless I want them to stay that way. Our bodies shape our thoughts and behaviour: it just isn't possible to stay human in an animal’s body indefinitely.
It was a couple of days before she could talk confidently, and she still stumbled over long words. I had given her some of my clothes to wear, though her ordeal had left her so unconscious of nudity that it was me who had to gently prompt her to dress at first.
I let her heal for three days, offering comfort when it was needed, making no attempt to prise her story from her. She gave quiet gratitude, asking little about me, and asking very little in general apart from the date and where she was. She spent much of her time with Shine who evidently still recognised her as his mother. The little colt was a bit of a problem, for he could no longer nurse.
After a little thought, I called a neighbour who owed me a favour. I make a point of not recalling debts unless the one who owes me genuinely wants to repay me. Unwilling repayment is no repayment. I had done Gareth Tharby a small service some months ago (turned aside an unscrupulous developer's attention from his small farm on the edge of town) and now he was just the person I needed. He was only too happy to help and loaned me a nanny-goat. "Tisn't ideal," he admitted, "But it'll keep him going and you can get a vet to give you some supplements or sommat."
I milked the goat and Elizabeth fed Shine from a baby bottle. Shine took to the new arrangement immediately, and with the infant catered for, at least temporarily, we could concentrate on Elizabeth herself.
On the morning of the fourth day, I rose to find her sitting in the garden, as she had taken to doing, watching Shine, who was chasing butterflies again. Her expression was hard to read. Her mouth kept quirking into a smile, but the smile would twist as if whatever she was thinking caused her pain as well as pleasure.
"Penny for them?" I asked.
She was startled. "Oh! Good morning. I was just watching Shine. It's a good name for him."
"What do you see?" I asked, sitting beside her.
"He's my son," she said. "I gave birth to him. I remember it. And yet, he's an animal. And I... I don't really know what I am anymore."
"Human, at the moment," I supplied.
"Am I?" She gave me a wan look. "Looking like I do? These ears, and this tail. And you say it isn't a permanent solution."
"I'm sorry," I murmured. "Your curse is just too strong for me."
"No!" she blurted. "Please! I meant no criticism! You worked a miracle and you can't know how grateful I am to you. Even to be mostly human for a few weeks or just a few days: you don't know what a precious gift that is! It's just... I don't know quite what to do: which direction to turn. I don't know what to make of myself. I've spent three years as an animal: thinking and behaving like an animal. I've been owned and traded. I've had every last shred of dignity ripped from me. They put me to a stallion and I stood there and took what he did to me. How can I ever call myself a human-being again after that?"
There were tears then and I took her against my shoulder. "The line between humans and other animals is not so thick as you think. You can only be what you are at any given moment. When you were a mare, you behaved as such. It does not reflect on what you are now. You’ve brought a beautiful new life into the world: do you think any the less of him because he’s a foal and not a human child?"
"No," she shook her head. "No, I don't. And I didn't really resent his sire at the time either. As you say, I was a mare then, and I behaved like one. It's just that now..."
"Now you are confused," I told her. "Now the future is filled with uncertainty and nothing is what you thought life could ever be."
"I didn't believe in magic," she confessed. "What happened to me: I never would have believed such a thing could happen for a moment. I didn't even believe him at first. Not until I began to change. Oh, that bastard."
I raised an eyebrow as her unhappiness suddenly found a focus: I watched her emotions crystallise into a chilling hate: outrage and betrayal. I suddenly realised what it was that had helped her preserve herself in the mare's heart. "Tell me," I asked, softly.
"His name was John," she said, and her voice was edged and cold like a steel sword. "John Willowby. We met at a party and I fell in love with him." Her words dripped with self-disgust. "He said he loved me: told me he wanted to marry him. I said yes. So he gave me this ring." She held up her left hand to show the black and gold ring with its winking stone. She could not remove it: we both had tried. It was as if it were part of her. I believed it was.
"I let him put it on me, and there was this sudden flash, and a strange tingling within me. He looked surprised and shocked and told me he was truly sorry: that he never believed all that rubbish about the family curse. Then he told me I would turn into a horse for a month. Just a month! Then I would turn back to a woman and we would be married. And even when my body began to grow and my hands turned into hooves before my eyes, I lapped it up!"
"What happened then?" I asked.
"He sold me! He watched me turn into a mare and then the bastard sold me to a dealer: a friend of his. I heard them talking. I could do nothing about it then, but I heard him gloating. This is what he does, for kicks and profit. I'm not the first woman he's done this to! They mentioned three or four others."
Four women who were almost certainly horses for good now: entirely equine in every respect. Few individuals had Elizabeth's will, even with provocation. And he had probably struck again, I realised. Not just once but several times: God knows, young folks these days don't exactly hang around. If this monster had the looks and the gift of the gab - and Elizabeth assured me had Mr Nice Guy down to a tee - he might have seduced and transformed half a dozen more since her.
I told Elizabeth this, and watched her lips compress in cold determination. Good, I thought. A rare woman, this one, with a formidable strength of mind. Yes, she was traumatised by her ordeal, but this one was not going to pine away moping until she gradually succumbed to the curse once more. Of such strength of will are witches made.
"He will take no more," Elizabeth said. "I may spend the rest of my life in a stable, but I'll take that bastard down first."
Her first idea was elegantly simple and practically fool-proof. She would take a gun and shoot him, then evade the police by becoming a mare once more. I had to admire the selfless elegance of it. "All I ask," Elizabeth told me, "All I beg, is that you will take care of Shine and I. Sell us if you have to, but find us a good owner."
It was a poignant plea. I smiled though and took her hands in mine, stroking the dark ring on her hand. "Daughter of my heart, I would gladly keep your son and yourself if there were no other course, but would you consider an alternative?"
It took valuable time. The curse was strong, and even with me augmenting my binding every day, Elizabeth was losing ground. Her tail was becoming fuller, and her fingers and toes less dexterous. There was something about the way she walked that betrayed a subtle change of proportion in her legs.
It was time well spent though. I was not mistaken in my evaluation of her. If it would stop her treacherous fiancé and extract some measure of revenge in the process, her will would cut through steel. And she believed in magic: believed implicitly beyond doubt, which in today's magical climate was a gift beyond price.
"You see, magic is empowered by your belief and your will," I told her. "I'm betting you have enough of both to give you no small power over Mr Willowby."
"Through the curse?" she asked.
"Through the individual that cast that curse, yes."
"I kind of assumed he was dead."
"I was kind of hoping so," I admitted.
"Run that by me again?"
"In the good old days, when magic was common-place, if someone pissed you off you cursed them. If they really pissed you off, you might put a death-curse on them."
"It kills the victim?" she guessed, puzzled.
"Often, but no, specifically, it kills the caster."
"Ouch. What sort of revenge is that?"
"A particularly potent one. Granted they weren't common place, but a curse into which someone has poured their entire life-force is a very potent one indeed, and probably the reason this one has survived into modern times when most old magic has fizzled out."
"I can't see myself ever hating anyone that much," she commented without thinking.
"Can't you? You declared before me that you were willing to shoot Willowby because you had nothing to lose."
"A point," she conceded with sober eyes. "So I'm suffering from a death curse, you think?"
"Which I thought was bad, because it's so powerful I can't do more than slow it down a little," I agreed. "But I had an idea we might make it work for us."
"The life-force that empowers the curse could be thought of as the caster's ghost. I'm thinking we could summon that ghost and maybe reason with it."
"Convince it to let bygones be bygones?" she said dubiously.
I snorted. "Some chance! But we might talk it into a slight modification."
"Can you summon ghosts?" she asked, awed.
"Not me. You."
She was a good student - very good: attentive and careful, never jumping into assumptions but making clever deductions when invited to. She was also grimly determined to succeed, even if this was a task entirely alien to her modern upbringing. But as she herself pointed out, when you've spent the last three years of your life as a horse, summoning a ghost doesn't seem such big potatoes.
I don't hold much with magic circles and incense and sacred daggers and all the other paraphernalia that modern witches seem to need. A certain formalism helps guide the spell and hone the concentration: likewise a dim room to minimise distraction, but otherwise I put my faith in word and gesture: things that aren't likely to be taken away from you.
Seated opposite me, Elizabeth closed her eyes and began to chant.
"I who am your victim, summon you. I who am innocent, summon you. I who stand wrongfully punished for the misdeeds of another, summon you. By sun and moon, I summon you. By ice and fire, I summon you. By dark and light, I summon you. By plant and beast, I summon you. By sword and rod, I summon you. By gods old and gods new, I summon you. To me you will appear, bound by these four walls."
As she spoke, there was a stirring in the air. Nothing appeared physically, but there was a presence in the room: a psychic pressure. Cautiously I touched it and found a roiling agglomeration of outrage and grief and malicious intent. Elizabeth's summoning had worked.
Summoned, I come. What would you? The voice echoed in our minds; a dry thing, cold and impatient.
As we had agreed, Elizabeth spoke to it. I had proven how little power I had over it. "I stand under your power, falsely prosecuted. Why?"
Not falsely! the spirit voice cried. Not falsely. The son of Willowby cruelly used my only daughter and drove her to take her own life!
"Presence," Elizabeth said. "I beg of you: tell me the way of this. I stand under your power, but I do not understand how I have offended you. Tell me."
The young son of Willowby, hissed the voice, was a well-born fool, arrogant and cruel. Though we were poor, my daughter was comely and she caught his bestial fancy. He wooed her and seduced her. He used her for his own pleasure, and when she told him she carried his child, he laughed and threw her out, telling her his love for her had been but a game to him, and that he would soon be married to a high-born lady. My daughter was so distraught that she threw herself from a cliff. I vowed then with every shred of my substance, and every drop of my heart's blood, that he and his would pay. He used my daughter like a beast: like a stallion uses a mare. So he was and so he was to be: let every woman the sons of Willowby seek to wed turn into mares before their very eyes.
"I hear your tragic story, and I share your grief for your daughter," Elizabeth said. I nodded approval: good. There was nothing to be gained from aggravating the spirit, but I could appreciate the control Elizabeth needed: this was the entity responsible for her plight. "I beg for mercy though. I have done nothing. I abhor the actions that brought about the loss of your daughter. I am blameless in this matter."
My daughter was blameless! the spirit stormed. Did this save her?
"I hear you," murmured Elizabeth, "And bow before your justice." Justice indeed! The mad ravings of a soul driven to despair. "There is something you should know though."
And what is that? demanded the voice.
"The current son of Willowby cares nothing for the curse. He is using you to transform innocents into lowly beasts, and selling them for great profit. He robs you of your rightful vengeance and lines his pockets comfortably, while the innocents he transforms add to your daughter's tragedy. You are the instrument by which he perpetuates his ancestor’s crime."
There was a silence then: a quiet gulf in which you could feel anger growing like a storm cloud. Show me.
Elizabeth gasped and clutched her head in sudden pain. I half-rose, concerned, but held myself from interfering, knowing it was likely to do more harm than good. She clenched her teeth and waved me back. I could guess what the spirit of the curse was doing: raiding her memory for evidence to support her claim, and it was not being gentle. Tools of vengeance rarely are.
Finally she sighed and her shoulders slumped. She took a deep breath. At my questioning look she nodded reassurance.
You speak the truth, the spirit said. You have been wrongly persecuted, while the son of Willowby uses me to further his line's atrocities. This will not be tolerated. You will take me to where this creature may be found?
"I think I can do that," Elizabeth said.
Then I will undo what damage I can for you. and with that Elizabeth changed. Fingers became long and graceful. The white fur vanished to leave an almond complexion, while long auburn hair replaced her white mane, and her ears shrank and lost their points. Suddenly an entirely human woman sat opposite me.
I nodded to her and she made the gesture that broke the summoning. The sense of presence abated and we were alone once more. Elizabeth looked down at herself: felt her ears; felt behind her where a tail no longer was. There were tears in her eyes. "Did I..? Have I..?"
"The curse has released you," I confirmed. "You are human again, and will remain so."
"And... John? What of him?" A cold edge entered her voice.
"Ah," I said. "Well, John now... John is a different matter."
"Will the curse punish him now?" she asked.
"Well," I considered. "It will, but it will require some action on your part. You carry a facet of the curse, even though young Master Willowby is the one who inflicts the curse, and still can. After your little conversation, your facet has had its aim altered somewhat. It is still centred on you, but not aimed at you. It is for you to carry it to dear John."
"And what will happen then?" she demanded.
"I'm not entirely sure," I admitted. "You and the curse have a shared enmity now. You and the curse share a magical sympathy: you are both dedicated to vengeance and justice against John Willowby."
"I think you ought to confront Mr Willowby. It's time he paid the piper."
Finding him wasn't difficult. He lived at the same fancy address as when he had seduced Elizabeth. Why move? It wasn't as if any of his transformed victims had enough wit to seek him out. Or so he thought.
I was pleased to discover he lived alone, and his expensive two storey house was set back from the road in beautifully landscaped gardens, silver in moonlight shadow when we came to visit. A stand of poplars screened the garden from outside view, while a stream meandered gently through the manicured lawns and under a wooden bridge.
I wasn't entirely sure of my own motives in accompanying Elizabeth here. Partly because she did want some moral support, and partly to ensure that if she and the curse between them left him in any condition to perpetuate his foul crimes, I would not. But mostly it was because I'm an old woman and just can't resist sticking my nose into other people's business. I wanted to see what happened.
I cast a mild glamour upon myself. I wasn't exactly invisible, but people would tend to ignore me or overlook me.
Elizabeth rang the doorbell and stood there. In the shadow of the house, I could not see her expression, but I could feel her nervousness. I could also feel her determination though.
The door opened and there he was, wearing a silk dressing gown and slippers. "Hi," he greeted Elizabeth pleasantly. "What can I do for you?" He was certainly a charmer. His face was open, and wide-eyed, like a child's. One curl of his dark hair strayed fetchingly over one eye.
"I've come back," Elizabeth said, softly.
"Come back?" he asked, frowning.
She stepped forward into the light and raised her head. Quite clearly he remembered her. "Beth!" he blurted, his face breaking into a welter of emotions: confusion, fear, guilt.
"I've survived your family's curse, John," she told him as he gaped like a fish. "I turned into a horse just like you said I would, and now I've turned back and we can be married. Isn't that so, John?"
"Ah... Yeah, yeah," he floundered. "Oh, I've missed you so much! I've looked everywhere..."
"It won't work, John," Elizabeth said. "I remember. I remember everything."
"I don't know what you mean..."
"I remember you taking me to your friend, Jackson, wasn’t it? And that nice large cheque he gave you for me," Elizabeth said. "I remember you gloating about how clever you were to use an old family curse like this. How many, John? How many innocent women have you destroyed now?"
His face was ashen. I saw that he was no professional in this business. He had never contemplated getting caught, and he had no glib explanations or defences. "J-just you, Beth..."
"No, John. I heard you boasting to your friend. Three before me, wasn't it? And I doubt you stopped then."
"I did, I did," he babbled, beginning to back away.
I read his lie, and softly supplied Elizabeth with the real figure. "No, you didn't, John," she said, making a litany of his name so that he visibly winced with every repetition. "How many? Eight? Ah, nine." as I read it from his open face. "You gained the trust and love of nine women, then you utterly betrayed us, You reduced us to a subhuman existence as beasts of burden to finance a faster car and a better stereo system."
John Willowby tried to close the door in her face but I had anticipated that and the door may as well have been cast in place, for it didn't even vibrate to his touch. Instead he broke a fingernail and staggered back several paces in confusion. Elizabeth crossed the threshold, regarding him with an expression that bordered on sympathy, but was not.
"Do you know what your curse does, John?" she asked him, still in that quiet voice. "It robs its victims of their intellect but not their memories. You still know who you are: what you were. You're still a human, trapped in an animal body."
"Get out of here!" John cried, voice cracking. He made as if to forcibly eject her. Inches from contact, he seemed to collide with a solid barrier. Elizabeth didn't flinch, but I heard the breath leave John's body. He fell back, winded, staring at her with wide, frightened eyes.
"Do you know what it's like to be a human in a mare's body, John?" Elizabeth asked. "It's one humiliation after another. Naked, you are entirely at the mercy of your owner. There's no privacy or dignity. Your excrement falls at your feet. In the winter the mud coats your legs and in the summer the flies collect round your face and tail. Your owner beats you with a whip if you don't run fast enough or don't respond quickly enough."
John, having failed in his effort to attack Elizabeth, tried to escape in the opposite direction, into the back of the house. Doors refused to open for him, just as the front door had refused to close: it as if they had suddenly become part of the wall. When he tried to escape upstairs, it was as if the air thickened into molasses. He struggled against it briefly and then something unseen shoved him roughly back to the floor. "Leave me alone!" he screamed, although whether at Elizabeth or forces unseen, I couldn't tell.
"But that isn't the worst of it, John. Shall I tell you the worst of it? You sold us as breeding stock, John. Untrained, of value only because you made us perfect horses, what else could we have been used for? Shall I tell you about it, John?" Elizabeth's tone hardened. Something ugly entered it: a shadowy taint; this woman had been driven within an inch of madness, and now she was releasing it like a psychic poison into the air.
"They take you to a small paddock where the stallion waits for you, John. He's big and he's strong, and cares for nothing except the need in his loins. And when you see him and you scent him, you know exactly what he wants of you, and you try to deny it. You're big and you're strong too: he can't take you if you don't want him to. But your body betrays you, John. You can't deny him, because it's your time. Your mind screams while your body offers itself to him. You stand with your hind legs apart and your tail raised, inviting him to take you. When he does, it isn't anything like making love, John. It's brutal. It's two animals mating because instinct says they must. He locks his body over yours and holds the nape of your neck in his teeth, while his member violates you again and again. You don't fight him: it's what your body wants, John. And every thrust he makes erodes your tenuous hold on your fragile humanity, for mustn't you be an animal to be doing this?
"Do you know why I'm telling you this, John?" Elizabeth persisted.
John stared at her, a terrified rabbit held in a cobra's gaze.
"Your curse has caught up with you, John. There's a reckoning to be had. Time to experience the misery you inflicted on us firsthand."
He started at that, cowering before her with his arms wrapped about his body. "What are you talking about? Leave me alone!"
Elizabeth raised her left hand, and the gold band of the curse blazed with a livid light. Captive lightning lanced out from that extended finger, and John yelled as his dressing gown exploded from him in tatters, as if a hundred unseen demons had each grabbed a handful and yanked. Naked, he shrank back from her, futilely attempting to cover his manhood with his hands. His body was surprisingly well built, only a slight pot-belly marring an otherwise quite athletic physique.
Elizabeth raised her hand again and he yelled hoarsely, "Wait! Wait, I can help you!"
"How?" asked Elizabeth pointedly. She didn't lower her hand, and the glowing ring held him mesmerised,
"The other girls," he blurted. "I can help you locate them! You can change them back..."
I thought the bastard might have found an edge for a moment, but Elizabeth shook her head. "I'm sorry, John. In the first place, half of those women can't ever be changed back by now. They've been horses for too long. And in the second case, well, it's your friend I need to talk to. You weren't the one who sold us. And I think he'll be very helpful after I show him what's become of you."
"What are you going to do to me?"
"I did consider killing you," she told him dispassionately. He blanched, seeing the simple truth of it in her face. "But that was too easy. You've got to pay, John. Pay for what you've done in a manner which will have meaning. Nine lives you destroyed, John, and so you're going to bring nine new lives into the world as compensation."
His incomprehension showed clearly on his face. "Foals, John. Nine of them. From you. I'm going to do to you what you did to me, to all of us. I'm going to turn you into a horse, John."
"But I'm a man," he protested desperately.
Elizabeth's mild expression dissolved to release the fury she had so carefully contained. "Guess again, you bastard." She flung her left hand high and the curse flamed brightly from it, arcing to John's naked form. Bands of black flame fastened around his wrists and ankles and yanked him into a forced, saw-horse position. He yelled in alarm, then belched loudly, and then again. It's a little documented phenomena, but many imposed shape-changes result in chronic indigestion as the subject's innards are forcibly rearranged. John's face was a picture of discomfort, fear, and humiliation as he belched and farted for several seconds. Then his face began to distend in a different fashion as Elizabeth gestured at it with her glowing hand. His nose and jaw began to expand and project outwards into an equine snout.
He cried out then: an odd, whinnying cry: "Ple-e-e-e-ese!"
"My pleasure," grated Elizabeth, and John's head became fully equine in an instant. His eyes rolled widely in panic but he could not move from the spot, and when he tried to plead again, he found his human tongue torn from him forever.
Elizabeth made a series of quick stabbing movements with her left hand then, with a sweep here and a sweep there. With each gesture, that sinister fire flared from her hand to the unfortunate John Willowby. With each stroke, it redrew him, bit by bit, piece by piece. First his hands and his feet became hooves of black horn, then his arms grew into equine forelegs. His neck extended into a graceful, muscular arc, then his legs - his original human legs - grew and altered their proportions too.
A quite peculiar creature struggled in place now, for John's torso was still entirely human, right to the hips and the top of his thighs. His equine head and neck sprouted from human shoulders. His exposed manhood flopped pathetically between equine legs.
"Now, John," Elizabeth whispered, and three years of despair and anguish hissed vengeance through her teeth, "This is it: this is where you pay. This is where you say goodbye to dignity; goodbye to free will; goodbye to your abused status as a reasoning person. But most especially, John, this is where you say goodbye to being a man, in any sense of the word."
A vicious, wrenching writhe of her fingers, and John flinched, uttering a piercing squeal, though I doubt he felt any physical pain. His body began to swell, assuming a more rounded cross section, and his spine simultaneously put out a new extension; a luxuriant tail of glossy black hair. At the same time, John began to grow rapidly, from a human-sized creature to something much more massive. During this process, I could not see his nether regions, nor did I wish to, but by the time John had completed his convulsive transformation, his aura had slid from male to female.
The dark fire vanished, and the horse staggered. Jet black but for a band of silver-grey about her near-fore coronet, she was delicately formed, with a long, sweeping mane and tail. Small and dainty, her appearance was completely at odds with the creature she had formerly been.
Her eyes were wild and rimmed with white, and her nostrils, flaring widely with quick, frightened breaths, gleamed red with distended blood vessels. Her ears lay back, and her tail was clamped down over her rump.
"You can't fight it, John," Elizabeth said. She sounded tired and not at all triumphant. A justice had been done, in my opinion: a justice John richly deserved, but whatever emotions Elizabeth felt now, it wasn't victory, or gloating. She sounded almost sad. "This is what did to us. You know you're really human, don't you? But you can't show it. You can't handle speech anymore. Reading and writing; what's that? You can't fathom how those strange marks on a flat surface can mean anything anymore, can you? It's hard to think. You're frightened and you want to run, but you'll obey me, won't you, John? The curse requires it of you, but even if it didn't, you know your only real chance of survival is to submit to my mercy. You know that if I chose I could have you put down, or sell you to a variety of unpleasant concerns. In France a quality animal like you has a substantial meat value: the higher the quality of the horse, the higher the meat value. Or there are those places where a horse is just a tool: a power source, treated with as much respect as an old second-hand car or a disposable battery."
Idly, she bent to where the tatters of his dressing gown littered the floor and picked up the silk cord, still intact. Deftly, she formed a crude halter and slipped it over the mare's unresisting head.
"We can do better than that though. Your friend Jackson knows dozens of breeding concerns who would treasure a pretty little thing like you. With your looks and your quiet temperament, you're prime stock, John. And unless he wants to become your twin sister, he's going to finance your keep at the best stud farm he can afford."
And so it came to pass. John's friend wasn't inclined to believe that the beautiful pure-blood Arabian mare was who we said it was. Not until the ring on Elizabeth's hand blazed with dark fire and he suddenly found himself standing on four hoofed legs. Only for an instant, but it made a very graphic point. From then on he obeyed us as if we held a gun at his head. I guess we kind of did: a very peculiar and powerful gun.
John was sent to a large ranch on the outskirts of Phoenix. I didn't think that such an arid area was a great place for horses, but apparently the region is crawling with stud farms and the most expensive horse auctions in the world - which look more like Hollywood award presentations than horse sales - take place there.
We didn't visit him, though we heard progress reports, along with the occasional photo. John's fifth foal was born recently, and his first colt, American Pride, recently sold for an impressive five-figure sum. "Willowby's Dainty Princess" is now being courted by some of the most expensive studs in the country.
Elizabeth confided in me that sometimes what she did to John scares her. It wasn't all her volition: the curse used her as a conduit, but it gathered a lot of impetus from her own desire for revenge. John wasn't quite like the others, you see. The curse wasn't going to see John forget his humanity and quietly except his role as a mare after a few months or a year. Every full moon, when no one is around to see, and the security cameras inexplicably record a few minutes of static, the curse undoes some of John's transformation. Not a lot: just his head, but it's enough. Enough so that he knows what he is and what was done to him. When he's dropped his ninth foal, as Elizabeth prescribed, the curse will finally leave him alone, and eventually he'll be just another mare, ambling along beneath those rotary exercise things they use in Arizona because there are no paddocks. Of course, that won't end Dainty Princess's career as a brood mare.
With the proceeds from John's foals, which his friend very carefully sends on to my house, we built proper accommodation for Shine. Elizabeth has adopted the very practical acceptance that, "He may be a horse, but he's still my son." He's spoilt rotten of course, but he has turned out to be a perfect gentleman and very good under saddle. Elizabeth was reluctant to ride him at first, but I think all children should support their parents sooner or later.
We saved two of John's victims. We located seven of them, but four had completely lost their humanity by then. The fifth woman found her human life in tatters: declared legally dead, and her family accusing her of being an impostor to embezzle the inheritance. Aren't some folk nice? Anyway, she was having serious problems acclimatising to human life again even without the stress of all that, and she finally broke down and begged us to turn her into a mare again. We eventually agreed, Elizabeth taking a long time to concede this might be the best thing, and she's still with us. Rachel seems very happy as a mare. I hope so, as she's expecting Elizabeth's first grandson any time now. A couple of months after she returned to mare's form, we found she'd slipped the latches on both her stall and Shine's and the two appeared very happily engaged. Elizabeth is of the opinion that while instinct and seasonal urges might have played some part in the matter, Rachel should still have retained enough humanity at that point to have had a choice.
As for Elizabeth herself, well, she's become the daughter I never had. The curse touched her: touched her and changed her far more profoundly than just turning her into a horse for three years. She's learning the Art from me, and although she's a quiet, modest sort, and hides it from me in case she hurts my feelings, she bids fair to become ten times the witch I ever was.
She still strikes me as a little lonely though: there are some needs that an old woman and two randy horses can't satisfy. It'll take a little time for her to build the trust again, but I hope some day she'll find some young man to treat her right.
He'd better. A woman scorned is dangerous enough even without magic.