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Eric frowned as he watched the last horses being walked from the course. Somehow, he’d missed catching ‘Mouthpiece.’ The dapple gray thoroughbred had stood out among the darker horses in the paddock, and he tried and failed to get good photos there and during the race. Damn. He’d run all the way over here to get a good photo position before the stewards opened up the crossing gates. How the Hell had they managed to get over to the stabling area?
After making sure that his intended subject wasn’t just a very late straggler, Eric sighed and put the Nikon away. This photo shoot was strictly for his own pleasure, so there was no reason he had to have a picture of the horse. Well, no reason outside of sheer stubbornness. Most people wouldn’t have cared that their photos of an animal with such lackluster performance were a little blurred. However, Eric had a soft spot for grays and a low tolerance for personal failure. So his current mission in life was getting a nice, clear photo of Mouthpiece.
The light would start fading soon. If he wanted a photo, he’d have to try to find the horse in the stabling area – which was off limits to the general public. He’d had previous run-ins with track security over his professional-caliber equipment. While it was still mostly a hobby for him, they had given him grief over restrictions against commercial photography without special, and expensive, permits.
He could always make the trek back to spectator parking and swap out his Nikon bags for the Panasonic pocket camera he kept in the Subaru’s glove box. Nah. Besides being a considerable walk, he’d still be missing the clearance to get into the stabling area. And just because there was an official entrance didn’t mean he had to use it. While the track and permanent facilities were fenced off, temporary areas were little more than clearings cut out of the property’s dense forest. It wasn’t his fault if nobody had put ‘No Trespassing’ signs up on far side.
The perimeter of trees was just thick enough to completely mask off the large open area where horse trailers had been parked, but he had a good idea of where to push through. About thirty feet into the heavy brush, he started to make out long rectangular shapes, then the familiar silhouettes of moving horses. Eric grinned, feeling a little nervous and silly at the same time. Sneaking up on a bunch of race horses like a Paparazzi stalking a pop star. In truth, the worst that could happen would be some embarrassment of being escorted off the property. That didn’t keep him from approaching as quietly as he could.
For once, luck was with him. The branches opened enough to allow a clear view of the stabling area, and he quickly spotted the dapple gray being walked by its jockey. From the angle, it looked like they had cut across from the track instead of using the crossing gate. Eric had the Nikon out in a moment and snapped a couple of quick shots that he was sure he’d be happy with. His subjects continued to a far corner and vanished behind an unmarked, but very-expensive-looking rig that combined spacious quarters for both equines and humans, complete with matching semi. Someone had a lot of money invested in whatever stables Mouthpiece came from.
Eric turned to leave, taking a quick look at the LCD panel on the back of the camera to check out the photos – and stopped abruptly. What the Hell? He zoomed the digital playback to verify what was only hinted at in the smaller image. The dapple gray’s head was blurred. It was the same distortion he’d seen in the race photos. In those, he’d put it off to the rapid pace. There was no reason for it now.
Bewilderment lost out to annoyance and an implied challenge. He narrowed his eyes, looking back at the trailer. The owners had parked it across the closed end of the clearing, effectively blocking the entire area from view. Or at least from the view of anyone in the stabling area. The same strip of woods that he was in now extended behind the rig. All he had to do was make his way around behind it.
Rather than risk being spotted by track security, Eric stayed in the relative center of the trees and moved as stealthily as he could manage. The distant PA speakers blared out a call to the paddock for the last race, and he could hear the crowd in the main spectator area as a dull murmur. However, there was no sound at all from the area behind the rig, which was barely visible through the branches. Had they gone back out into the main clearing? He took a few steps closer, ducking under a low branch.
“…carry your fat arse AND try to keep from getting dirt and crap up my nose!” Eric blinked at the coarse and strongly accented male voice. It was as if someone had changed a television channel to some sort of British comedy.
“Well, maybe if you tried running ahead of the pack instead of behind so many of them, you wouldn’t have that problem.” The second voice sounded younger, more Irish than British, but also male.
There was a break in the leaves a few steps closer that afforded him a good view of the grey and the jockey. The small man was digging through the contents of a large cooler – he couldn’t see whoever the other speaker was.
“I want one of the Murphey’s this time.” The first voice sounded petulant. “Not another miserable Yank Guinnesses.” Whoever it was must be just the other side of the gray.
“Winners get to pick their brew.” The jockey stood up with a familiar-looking green bottle. “YOU’RE lucky I’m not serving up a Bud Light!”
The horse chose that moment to shake its head violently. “Phaw! Don’t even joke! Here take off this rig so I can at least get a decent taste.”
Huh? Eric stared, his mind spinning up like an engine after a gear change was missed. It had almost sounded like…
The jockey glanced over towards the opposite end of the rig and then reached up and grabbed the thoroughbred’s halter with one hand and slipped it off with practiced ease. As he did, the gray’s muzzle collapsed suddenly into a huge, homely, but very human-looking man’s face that grimaced in obvious distaste and spat on the ground a couple of times.
The screaming impulse to run away got sidetracked long enough for Eric to bring his camera up for one quick photograph. Normally, the shutter was so quiet you couldn’t hear it over normal background noise. Unfortunately, this particular British comedy had no background noise, and the click might as well have been a gunshot. Both the jockey and the… horse?... jerked their heads in his direction. This time, urges to flee got first priority and Eric spun around to make an escape. He heard the jockey shout out “Chodladh!”. And then there was nothing. *** “Bloody ‘ell, Robin!” The loud oath startled Eric awake to the smell of straw and horses, and the definite sensation of movement. There was a hard bounce cushioned by what felt like a heavy blanket over bedding, followed by the loud clop of a hoof against something sold very close to his head. “Are you trying to find every bleedin’ pot hole and speed bump in the country?” He recognized the voice – coarse, loud and British.
Opening his eyes confirmed it – he was lying on what must be the trailer floor in an open-framed stall next to the dapple gray… what? Not a horse, at least not the kind he was used to. Well formed thoroughbred for the most part, and quite obviously a stallion from this point of view. However, where a horse’s neck would have continued into slender equine muzzle, this creature had an enlarged skull that ended abruptly in a broad, flat human face.
The jockey’s voice came out of a speaker set in the wall. “You think it’s easy driving a monster like this? On the wrong side of the road, to boot! Next chance I get, we’re switching back to the two-horse and a lorry!”
Eric’ trailer-mate snorted in apparent derision. “You’re the one who wanted cable TV and a Jacuzzi. And we’d still have a driver if…” The creature stopped suddenly and turned his head to look down at Eric. “Hey, Robin! Our guest is awake. Looks like you mucked up the sleep spell along with everything else.”
A string of profanity only vaguely recognizable as Gaelic exploded from the speaker, which then buzzed loudly and went silent.
The creature chuckled and then dropped his head to peer at Eric. “Got a name, hew-man?” He exaggerated the last word’s syllables.
Eric stared up at the broad face. The nose was wide and flat over a large mouth with prominent teeth and a heavy jaw. However, the eyes were what grabbed his attention. Wide-set and huge under jutting brows, they looked both equine and human without being either. A thick forelock of pale gray covered the center of his unnaturally-flat forehead, which was framed by very normal-looking equine ears. All in all, this was one of his more interesting dreams.
“What are you?” Eric’s throat was tight and dry, and the words barely made it out.
“Pretty odd name.” The creature grinned. “OK if I just call you ‘What’?
Eric blinked in confusion. “What?”
“That’s your first name, right?
“Huh? Oh!” He flushed and shook his head. “Uh, it’s Eric. Eric Schneider.”
“Barnaby.” The creature frowned. “There used to be a last name, I think, but I don’t remember it. Bloody ‘ell. Just don’t call me ‘Mouthpiece’. That’s Robin’s idea of a joke, the skanky little bastard.”
“Robin?” Eric gestured towards the dead speaker.
“Yeah, the ugly little guy playing ‘hit the potholes’ up front. My jockey and owner.” Barnaby snorted “I guess he’s our owner, now.”
“Owner?” Eric frowned and sat up. “Nobody owns me.” He felt his head for lumps and found none. Not that he expected to find injuries in a dream. Then he sighed and shook his head, muttering mostly to himself. “I hope I can remember this one when I wake up.”
Barnaby dropped his head down suddenly and nipped at Eric’s shoulder. The pain startled Eric and he jerked back, slamming against the side wall. “Shit!” He twisted his head to examine the wound. Burnaby’s teeth had pinched hard enough to draw blood, and the skin was already bruising. “What did you do that for?”
The odd creature flicked an ear. “Pain? Dream? You know the old adage, right?” Then he grinned. “Then again, you may be ‘aving that dream where you ‘re in the nuddy.”
Huh? It occurred to Eric that he shouldn’t have been able to see the skin on his shoulder, and he looked down. Note to self – Next time he woke up in a strange place, make sure he had clothes on. Damn! He was filthy, a reddish-brown film of dirt over his skin. And his hands looked swollen and felt stiff. Had he run into some poison oak in the woods? He felt a prickling down the back of his neck.
The trailer lurched and he felt it slow down. Barnaby snorted. “Coming back for a look-see, I’ll w ager. ’E ‘as a bit of a temper, Robin does. So be on your best behavior.”
From a series of lurches, leans and bumps, Eric guessed they had pulled somewhere off the road, probably a parking lot. The rig finally came to a stop with a loud hiss of air and the rumbling diesel shut down. However, an assortment of creaks and groans began to emerge from every corner of the trailer, and the wall felt like it was moving behind Eric’s back. He jerked away, then gasped and cringed as the floor twisted and the roof pressed suddenly closer.
The movement stopped just a abruptly as it had begun. Eric sat back up and stared. There had been at least six open-framed stalls set at angles – now he and the gray were side-by side in what was quite obviously a standard two-horse trailer. Barnaby blew out through his lips. “Bugger. Could at least ‘ave gone for the one with the feeder.”
Eric clenched his eyes shut, trying to beat down rising panic. This was a nightmare, some kind of weird hallucination. Any moment now he was gonna wake up in a nice safe hospital bed. There was a creak and thump from outside, and then the back door swung down. A small, slender figure hopped up onto the ramp, silhouetted against the reddish glow of sunset. The first impression was of a young girl dressed up as a cowboy, but as Eric’s eyes adjusted he realized it was the jockey.
Robin had white-blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail that, combined with the slight build, helped the effeminate look. However, his features were sharp, mature and definitely masculine. The man’s age was hard to gauge –he might be in his twenties, but there was something about his pale green eyes that suggested a much greater figure.
Remembering his current nakedness, Eric flushed and grabbed for the blanket under him. Clothing hadn’t seemed all that important with the mostly-equine Barnaby. The effort of modesty turned to more confusion - he couldn’t get his hands to grip the coarse wool.
“Don’t fret, bucko.” Robin leaned a shoulder against the door frame and regarded him coolly. “You’ve a sight more to worry about than showin’ off yer yockers.” The small man’s brogue would have been comical in other circumstances. “ What was you doin’ skulking around our rig? You workin’ for the High Court?” His eyes narrowed in a dark scowl. “You’ve been snared rapid, bucko. Be straight with me and you might not be totally bolloxed.”
Conversation with a normal-looking person was at least something he could focus on. “I’m not working for anyone else! I just wanted a picture of Mouthpiece.”
The odd creature beside him chuckled. “A man of good taste.”
Robin scowled. “Dry up, Barnaby. A picture, eh? We was ‘round the track twice, plus the paddock parade. Plenty of chances to snag your photo then.”
“They all came out blurred!” Eric’s frustration and fear made the words come out louder than he intended. . He forced himself to calm down. “Just his head. I thought it was because of the motion. I like grays, and, well, it bugged me not to get the shot.”
“Shite!” The jockey’s exclamation was muttered rather than accusatory. “Ye can see the pictures right away? Fuckin’ progress.” He gave a deep sigh. “That shot cost you dear, me bucko. You won’t be snap…” The sound of a loud diesel engine interrupted whatever Robin was going to say and he looked around towards the front of the trailer. “Oh, double shite!”
The motor rattled off and there was the creak of a heavy door. A cheerful man’s voice said “Having trouble? I saw the flashers, and there isn’t much open around here.”
Robin pasted on a smile and stepped out, facing the newcomer. “Why, that’s most kind of you, bucko. No trouble here. Just checking on my passengers.” He gestured towards the inside of the trailer, and to Eric’s shocked surprise, stepped back in what looked like invitation.
“Ah, good.” The voice moved towards the open ramp. “I always check – had a trailer tire go flat once with a bad spare and I swore I’d never pass another horse person who might be in trouble.” A pleasant –looking man about Eric’s age stepped around beside Robin and looked in. Barnaby faced forward and dropped his head. “Nice! I recognize the thoroughbred, but what’s the big fella?”
Eric stared up at the man incredulously. His eyes were fixed on a point of empty space about six feet too high. “Are you kidding me? Hey! Down here!”
“Suffolk Punch.” Robin’s eyes were locked on Eric’s, cold and hard as green ice. “Original bloodline. One of the rarest horse breeds in the world.” He smiled slightly. “But a bit young and nervous. Best to stay back. I wouldn’t want you to get… hurt.”
Eric felt the cold gaze as a prickling down his back, and he fell silent at the implied threat. This may be a dream or hallucination, but just in case, he didn’t want to risk someone else being harmed on his account.
“I sure wouldn’t want to take a kick from that one. Chestnut?” The good Samaritan’s admiring gaze wandered around the empty space over Eric’s head, only occasionally drifting down to where he actually lay on the trailer floor. “Good size to him. Looks like he’s still growing.”
“Aye. He’ll end up over a ton ‘o horseflesh in another y’ar or two.” Robin reached down and grabbed the side of the ramp, preparing to close the back of the trailer. “Or maybe so much dog food, if he don’t behave his self.” That last was said in a joking manner, but the words were not lost on Eric.
The other man laughed and helped him shut the back. “I know what you mean. Well, have a safe trip wherever you are heading.” There were footsteps, a door creak and slam, and then the diesel clattered back to life and Eric heard the truck pull away.
Barnaby gave a low whistle. “That could have been ugly. Be a shame to have a nice bloke like get buggered.” Then he grinned. “Anyway, gonna be crowded enough in here.”
“He couldn’t see me!” Eric was even more bewildered, if that was possible. “That wasn’t an act – he really saw a horse. Was it some kind of illusion?”
“Truth be told, it’s a bit of a mix. He saw you, all right. Just not as you are right now.” His companion grinned down at him. “Suffolk stallion, huh? All green pastures and mares for you. And not a worry in your head. ”
They were both startled by a loud slap against the trailer’s side. “That’s enough outa you, Barnaby.” Robin’s voice sounded angry to Eric, but his companion just snorted.
“Oh, bugger off! Not like he won’t be able to tell soon enou…” A halter suddenly appeared on Barnaby’s head and his face thrust forward into a normal animal muzzle. The horse stomped a hoof and gave an indignant squeal, then hung his head with an annoyed snort.
A much quieter engine started up and the trailer gave a slight lurch as they began rolling forward. Eric couldn’t see out of either side window from his position on the floor, so he struggled to stand. Damn, he must have been lying wrong. His hands and feet had almost no feeling in them and his arms were a bit stiff, but he managed by bracing himself against the outside wall. His hair brushed the trailer roof, and he leaned forward a little to stop the annoying sensation. It took a moment for the wrongness to hit him. He twisted his head to confirm that the ceiling was indeed as low as it felt. The trailer couldn’t be that small! Barnaby was no pony, and he had plenty of clearance. Except… Eric was towering over the thoroughbred. Unless Barnaby had shrunk, Eric would have to be close to 7 feet tall. Tall enough for him to be hitting his head on the roof of a standard two-horse trailer.
Eric took a shaky breath. This would be a good time to get really, really drunk. Maybe he already was. Drunk out of his mind. Dreaming. Hallucinating. Dammit, he couldn’t think! He stood there, mind caught between gears, struggling to make some sense out of things. His thoughts seemed to be slogging through thick mud, yet awareness of his surroundings was sharper than he could ever recall. A strong, oddly complex sweat-urine odor of horse mixed with a tang of metal and the pleasanter smell of wood and hay. Though he still hadn’t gotten feeling back into his extremities, he could sense the vibration of movement and the slight give of the floor. And sounds were cranked up, the rumble of tires joined by squeaks and groans from the trailer, the rush of air and passing cars, even muffled, soft thudding that he realized must be the pounding of hearts – his and Barnaby’s.
As the trailer swayed, he had to stoop over more to avoid bumping the roof, and his back got a little stiff from the awkward posture. He tried to straighten up for a quick stretch, only to have his shoulders hit the painted metal. The shock cleared his mind, allowing a fresh assault of fear and bewilderment. In the short time he’d been standing, he’d apparently grown taller. A lot taller. What else was happening? It was hard to see much in the dim twilight and occasional flashes of oncoming headlights that came through the window. Still, by shifting around he was able to make out some details. The first was that he was obviously gaining mass to go with his new height. His chest was much broader and barreled out, skin oddly dark. His limbs felt heavier, and from what he could see, his thighs had deepened.
Barnaby snorted. His companion was watching him, equine features somehow conveying a slightly sad, knowing expression. Had the creature undergone the same process? It seemed likely. He seemed happy enough. Now that initial shock was wearing off, the situation didn’t seem so terrifying. OK, Eric was still terrified, but growing curiosity couldn’t be denied. He still wasn’t quite convinced this was really happening, but what if it was?
To be something else. Lots of people dreamed of walking away from their lives and starting over fresh. Changing species certainly qualified as a ‘do over.’ And the prospect of being a horse had been something he’d given thought to, if only in what he had considered idle fantasies. Be careful what you wish for, right? No hands, no voice, being someone else’s property. Not to mention losing a lot of life expectancy.
Still, a draft horse had a lot of advantages – certainly less danger than a race horse like Barnaby faced. And not just any draft horse – a rare, probably very valuable stallion. Pastures and mares. Then he frowned as something flickered in the back of his mind, something else his companion had said about being a Suffolk Punch. Not a worry in his head.
His eyes widened suddenly and he looked at Barnaby in sudden realization. “I’m really gonna be a horse. Even…” He swallowed hard. “How I think?”
The thoroughbred blew through his lips and then nodded. He regarded Eric one large brown eye, then shifted around and dropped his chin to the dividing rail. It only took a minute or so before he found a protrusion that caught the straps of his halter. He pulled back slowly, twisting his head until the halter slipped off. As soon as the straps cleared, his muzzle collapsed back into Barnaby’s coarse human features.
The creature worked his mouth in obvious distaste, then twisted his head around to look at Eric. “You got off easy. The driver we ‘ired for the big rig turned out to be something of an ugly drunk. Made the mistake of pulling a knife on Robin. Next thing ya knows, there’s about 14 stone of manure to clean up.”
Eric frowned slightly, then shivered in sudden comprehension. His companion nodded gravely. “Aye, lad. Robin’s got a temper. And no matter what ‘e might look like, ‘e ain’t ‘uman. Not a bad sort, really. Impulsive, ‘e is, like a young lad. Mischievous, too. Combine that with magic, and you can end up beast or a pile of horse shit.”
The trailer lurched slightly, throwing Eric’s balance off. He straightened without thinking, only to slam the back of his head into the roof and pitching forward to the floor. Throwing his arms out in reflex, he felt the jolt of impact along with a loud thud. A powerful muscle spasm, the first real sensation of discomfort he had experienced so far, rippled out from his body. Arms and legs buckled and he swayed sideways to slam heavily against the side wall. Instinct took over, and he managed to regain his footing with a panicked shifting of limbs.
He stood there, heart pounding, swaying slightly with the movement of the trailer. After a long silence, Barnaby spoke softly. “That’s the worst of it, lad. The big change from two legs to four. I ‘ardly noticed anything else before or after.”
Eric drew in a deep breath, acutely aware how much deeper that breath was. The first thing he noticed was his relative size to the thoroughbred. Even on what were now four legs, he was only a little smaller than his companion. His body was also level, not angled down the way uneven human arms and legs would support him. This position was actually a lot more comfortable than the awkward crouch he’d been forced into. He clenched his jaw, feeling his eyes water. Dammit, he didn’t want to be comfortable like this!
His companion’s words rang true, though. Right up until he’d fallen, the transformation had been a silent and stealthy thief. Eric stretched out, finding that he could get his head around a little further than before. Muscles pulled oddly in his rump – so that’s what a tail felt like. Coarse, thick hair brushed over his buttocks, and as he twitched the new appendage back and forth, it dropped lower until the heavy mass caught loosely against the backs of his legs. The thief was back at work. How much was there left to steal?
Eric swallowed, afraid to try speaking. However, he made an effort. “How… how much is left?” His lips were thick and forming the sounds took more effort, but he managed to get the words out.
Barnaby twisted his head around and squinted towards the back of the trailer. “Neck down, I’d wager you’re mostly done. A bit lean and leggy, but from what Robin said you ain’t full grown.“ Then he peered at Eric’s face. “Looks like the rest is following.” He forced a smile. “On the bright side, you won’t need a bloody ‘alter on all the time. Always end up with an itch somewhere under it.”
“And you think I’d rather be an animal?” It was hard not to be bitter, even though Barnaby was obviously trying to be friendly. Eric worked his jaw, using his tongue to explore teeth and lips. There was more there than before, both in the sense of muscles pulling and the expanding cavern. A choked sob broke from his throat, coming out more like an equine grunt. He blinked away tears that clouded vision, and found that some of the distortion did not go away. It wasn’t the loss of form that terrified him – it was the loss of self. Eric Schneider the Suffolk Punch could be exciting, different, a whole life of new experiences. But that Suffolk Punch wouldn’t be him. Eric Schneider would fade away, leaving a normal beast with normal stallion’s thoughts.
“Can’t I fight it?” It was harder to speak now. His nose and mouth protruded now, their dark mass spreading slowly forward and forcing his eyes apart. He twisted his head to look Barnaby. “Do I have to be an animal?”
His companion cocked his head slightly in what looked like a shrug. “I’ve been with Robin for a long time, lad. Maybe a dozen times I’ve seen him transform ‘uman to beast, and the few that didn’t end up elsewhere woke up never knowin’ they’d ever been anything but the beast.”
“Elsewhere?” Eric felt his ears lay back against his skull. It was a totally animal response that sent a spear of ice through his gut.
“Aye, lad.” Barnaby sighed. “Robin usually works the change directly – goes way faster that way. When ‘e’s done, the bloke or bird usually fades out. Last one was a nosy parker he turned into a stag. You could see the forest around ‘im, just before.”
“What happened with me?”
“Officials came by for a paperwork check right after he dragged you up in the trailer. By then we ‘ad to clear out. He probably figured he’d ‘ave time to finish before the sleep spell wore off. It woulda been kinder.”
“To wake up as a horse?” Eric’s words were almost unintelligible now, his lips and teeth no longer suited for speech. Not that it mattered – his voice was little more than a wheeze from equine vocal chords. He could feel gaps in his teeth now, the future home of a bit.
“Better than this long fright. Sorry, lad. ” The now-smaller creature squinted at him.“Won’t be much longer now. Your eyes are startin’ to go.”
Eric blinked, suddenly aware that he had turned his head forward to look at Barnaby with his right eye while the left provided a view of the trailer wall. There was a definite split between the two pictures, made less noticeable by the darkness. He squealed in fear and anger, lashing out suddenly with his hind hooves. The door shuddered and gave slightly, and he kicked again in frustration and rage, emphasizing each blow with a hard thought. No! He. Would. Not. Be. An. Animal! On that last, the hinges ripped free and the entire door dropped at an angle, dragging the road with a shower of sparks until the last latch finally gave and the whole panel went spinning off.
“Bugger!” Barnaby’s exclamation came just as the trailer swerved violently and then slid to a sudden stop that threw them both against the front bars of their enclosures with bruising force. “Bloody ‘ell, lad! You’ve knobbed it up this time! You’d rather be a pile ‘o shit than a horse?”
From the violence of unintelligible profanity moving quickly back from the truck, Eric had little doubt that he was about to end up as a ton or so of horse manure. But there might be a way to escape before that happened. He angled quickly, listening to Robin’s furious shouts, and let go with a devastating kick just as the small man stormed around the open back of the trailer. His hoof caught Robin square in the chest and sent him flying backwards a good thirty feet.
“God help us.” Barnaby pressed against the front of his enclosure, eyes wide and terrified. He was shaking hard enough to make the trailer rattle, and sprayed the floor and his forelegs with urine.
Eric backed out of the trailer, having to struggle against instinct to make himself step down. It was awkward and dangerous, but he had little to lose. As soon as he was clear, he spun around to defend himself, but Robin had landed on the pavement and lay in a motionless heap. Where were they? The two-lane road curved left behind them, disappearing behind thick forest. No lights were visible up the straight stretch ahead. They had obviously turned off the main highway, probably a very good thing for the unconscious Robin. Not to mention any passing motorist who might have stopped to assist.
He tried to call out to Barnaby, but could only manage a rough whinny. The thoroughbred did not respond, locked in fear. Eric’s mind raced. His physical change had to be almost completed – how long did he have before intelligence faded to match? That was a moot point if Robin made him so much fertilizer. Still, what could he do? Dammit! What was the point of escaping? There was no reason to doubt he’d soon be a beast in all ways.
A distant glimmer caught his eye, and he turned his head to see the telltale glow of lights from the curve. As soon as the car came around the curve, the driver would see him and the damaged trailer… but not the still form in the road until they ran over it. Reacting on instinct, Eric leaped forward as the lights swept around the curve less than a hundred feet away. Even as he positioned himself over Robin he realized the car was coming too fast.
Eric’s mind flashed IDIOT in hot neon letters and he had to agree. If he’d taken time to think, he might have left the bastard to get run over. Hell, he’d just kicked the man 30 feet. And yet he remained stubbornly braced as headlights blinded him. If he had to die, he’d rather go out trying to save a life. It beat fading away into mindless animal existence or instant oblivion as a pile of shit. He clenched his eyes shut and screamed defiance with an equine squeal that was joined by the sudden screech of skidding tires.
The world went suddenly dark and silent. It took a moment for that to register. He looked around in bewilderment. Where was the car? For that matter, where was the road? They were in a rolling meadow surrounded by trees. The truck and two-horse were behind him, in the same relative position they had been before. He could hear the truck’s engine idling, insects chirping, and the whisper of a faint breeze. And the pounding of his own heart. Eric dropped his head and took a deep, shuddery breath. Only to realize a hand was gripping his left hind leg.
He froze, then twisted his head down to look at Robin. The man had reached out from where he lay in the grass, cold green eyes focused on him. “Nasty kick. I haven’t been caught like that in a very long time.”
Eric didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and realized that he could do neither. He’d just leaped in front of a speeding car to save this bastard, and Robin only remembered being kicked in the chest. In a moment he’d be so much horse shit – the only good thing is that a lot of him would fall on Robin. Eric sagged, defeated.
“That’s gonna leave a mark.” Robin pulled himself up to a sitting position using Eric’s leg as a brace and took a wheezing breath, rubbing his chest gingerly. “Ye have me flummoxed. Getting hit by that much cold iron woulda done us both in.” Then he reached up and placed a cool hand against Eric’s nose. “Fair play, boyo. We need to talk.” He pushed, and Eric’s muzzle folded in on itself with a painful stinging sensation.
Eric jerked back, shaking his head. “Ow! What did you do that..?” He stopped at the sound of his own voice. Coarser, somewhat nasal, but still his voice.
“It’s a wee bit difficult to have a conversation when only one of us can talk. And conversation’s what I’d be wanting.” Robin stood up with a grunt.” “So, boyo. Ye’ still want to kill me?”
Eric flattened his ears and dropped his head without thinking, a very equine posture of aggression. “I could ask you the same question.”
The small man rolled his eyes. “Ye be thick as a ditch, mortal. If I wanted you dead, there’d be another pile of shite in the woods. So why did ye try to snuff me?”
“I wasn’t trying to kill you.” Eric felt he aggression drain out of him. “I was trying to escape, to save myself.”
“From what?” Robin looked puzzled. “It’s not like I was takin’ ye to the knackers.”
“From losing everything that makes me who I am. From turning into some mindless beast. That’s as good as dead, as far as I’m concerned.”
Robin cocked his head at Eric. “Have you ever seen an animal with no personality? One of the so-called ‘mindless beasts’ you think you are becoming?”
That brought Eric up short. “Well, uh, no.”
“Nor are ye likely to.” Robin folded his arms. “That includes an ill-tempered young Suffolk Punch.”
“But it’s not the same!” Eric protested. “When you finish it won’t be me!”
“Bollocks!” Robin made an impatient gesture with one hand. “You are Craikhow Hall Jensen, stable name Crackers, a 2 year-old Suffolk Punch stallion out of Breckland Beauty by Robeck Classic the First. The Suffolk Horse Society has all the records, even if they don’t know it yet. There’s even a new Stallion License, issued today.”
Eric was suddenly bombarded by images and sensations that threatened to carry his consciousness away. Impressions of nursing from a huge mare, running on gangly legs, scents and sounds tied to other herd mates and humans who brushed him, fed him, trained him to pull, to carry. Rolling fields and old stalls smelling of hay and wood and piss. The equine identity settled into place as if it had always been there, absolutely solid and real. He shook his head violently, wide-eyed with fear.
“Now then, boyo.” The small man raised an eyebrow. ”Tell me you are not a horse.”
“I...” He stopped, feeling confused. The whole of his human experience conflicted with the comparatively short life of Crackers. It should have been no contest, but the equine identity had become his core rather than the intruder. Memories of his job, his family and friends, school, all buzzed around the Suffolk Punch like so many flies. “I’m… Crackers.”
Robin nodded slightly. “And do ye’ find Crackers’ life so desperate? Go on. You ‘ave it all.”
Cautiously, as if testing water of unknown depth, Eric stepped into the equine identity. Crackers was friendly and curious, a bit stubborn at times, but generally good-natured. There was no hint of fear or worry, just a strong sense of contentment.
“Not so bad, is it?”
There was no denying he was a horse. It was a basic truth, something Eric knew and accepted without question. And yet… his human past was still there. Not as rich or solid as Crackers’, but undeniably part of him. And a little painful. ”My family and friends. My job, the house… “
“All part of a life that never was.” Robin’s expression turned grim. “When Crackers’ history was created, yours was erased.”
“Erased?” The concept was chilling – everything he had done in his life gone in an instant. In many ways, it was a display of power far more terrifying than being transformed.
“It can’t be helped. But your loved ones suffer no grief, no loss, and neither will you. Unless you choose to.”
Eric frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Ye can stay the path you’re on now.” Robin shrugged. “Be Crackers. No regrets, no frustrations over being unable to do what you could before. Without the human reference, the way you think would be simpler. Still you, but you as a horse. And I promise you’ll be content with your lot, healthy and as happy as a beast can be.”
“What’s the alternative?”
Robin gestured towards the trailer. “Join Barnaby. Keep the face, the voice you have now. It’s a fecking mess. Can’t let him be seen without his halter when we’re in the mortal world, same would go for you. But you can talk. Share ideas, tell jokes. Or enjoy a cold Guinness. The human part of you needs such things to be happy.” Robin gestured at the land around them. “Plus open pasture and all the needy mares you desire.”
Eric frowned. “What about changing me back like I was?”
The little man shook his head. “Jam on yer eggs, boyo. I can only change a body once. That’s why I have to use the bloody halter for Barnaby. And the gate’s swinging shut for you, as well. Ina few minutes, all this will be gone. You’ll be Crackers, standing stud at Gateridge Farm in Northamptonshire.” He squinted up at Eric’s face. “It’s startin’ to show already. I pushed back the tide for you, boyo, but it’s comin’ back in. And what you lose now is gone forever.”
There was one last question. “Why are you giving me the choice?”
Robin pursed his lips. “You risked your own life to save me. There’s a blood debt to be paid. And you’re a horse sort. I think you’d be happy once you got used to things.” Then his mouth twisted into a wry smile. “But mostly for Barnaby. The wuss needs someone to talk to when I’m off on other things.”
It was harder to make a decision than Eric expected. The benefits of a face and voice came at the cost of being a freak that had to be hidden away or disguised. And the impact of having no hands, of losing all of his loved ones was only now being felt – it would get worse. If he ended up as Crackers, all of that would be gone. And he would experience a totally new life, simpler, easier, nothing abstract or complicated.
As he thought that, the ghost of a country farm with stone fences and thatched-roof buildings began to fade in around him. There were large horses nearby, shadowy figures that still elicited interest. He raised his head and drew in a faint fragrance, his upper lip curling instinctively. The shadows thickened, gaining texture and color. His loins stirred, responding quickly to the promise of pleasure, satiation of primal need that began to crowd out concerns and doubts.
He scented again, the female perfume stronger in nostrils that now flared above a thicker, more pliable lip. Crackers might be young, but he was not a virgin. He began moving towards the mare, ears perked and tail flagged. The scenario was familiar, need building to a powerful and violent act of pure animal lust, explosive release, and then…
Eric stopped suddenly, his forehooves digging into the soft dirt. The farm rippled around him like a scene reflected on the surface of a still pond, Robin and the two-horse trailer more ghostlike than the mare who winked her sex at him. Her need called and he was ready to answer. And then what? Grazing in a field, resting in a stall, travelling to shows for humans to admire. Then back to the pasture until another mare was ready for his attentions.
A simple life – no complications, pleasant existence punctuated by moments of primal ecstasy. It would be enough for many people, but not for Eric. He snorted and backed away from the female, each step an effort of will. He more than a stallion. Eric Schneider may have been erased from the word, but everything he was still existed. The farm rippled again, and the mare’s attraction became a physical pull.
Clenching his eyes shut, Eric dragged a single hoof back, then another. It was as if he were trying to drag a bulldozer. He trembled with the effort, managing one more step. Then the mare’s invitation flared and he stumbled even closer before catching himself.
Dammit! He’d gone too far, allowed the stallion to take control. The mare’s rich scent was strengthening Crackers’ single-minded resolve while it distracted Eric, and the horse was winning. He couldn’t even manage a single step away now –every ounce of will was focused just to remain where he was. It was a fool’s battle – there was no hope of winning, but he refused to give in. He was trembled with effort, and felt sick despair as the stallion began to raise a forehoof.
Pain exploded between his hind legs, scattering any thoughts of stallion’s lust and need. Eric squealed in shock and pain and whirled around to see Robin running for the truck. The bastard had kicked him in the balls! He launched himself after the fleeing figure, intent on revenge. But Robin had a head start and proved to be a fast runner. And when he reached the truck he actually leaped over it with room to spare and landed on his feet.
Eric stopped as he reached the vehicle and stared at the little man in amazement. “How the Hell did you…?” His voice was rough and words were badly pronounced. Oh, shit. Shuffling over to the driver’s door, he dropped his head and nosed the oversized mirror out until he could catch his reflection.
If Barnaby’s features were coarse, Eric’s face was an equine caricature sculpted in human flesh. He had a partial muzzle with wide, flaring nostrils, a far-too-wide mouth with thick, pliable lips, and huge dark eyes sitting under heavy brows. If the rest of him had been human, the features would have looked horribly deformed. However, stuck on the end of a Suffolk Punch stallion’s neck, it… OK, it looked like a horribly deformed horse.
But the mind behind that ugly kisser was Eric’s. He looked back to where the mare had been and saw only empty field. The farm was gone, along with its temptations. He’d won! Then the dull ache in his nether parts reminded him that he’d had help. Right. That was the kind of help he expected. Sighing, he shook himself and then plodded forward enough to look over the trucks’ hood at Robin.
The man was leaning against the opposite fender, a smug expression on his face. “Took ye long enough. Had given you up for goners when your plonker took over.” Robin grinned. “Ye gotta be a real hardass to fight the cock and win.”
“I almost didn’t.” Eric hated what had to come next. “Thank you.”
That prompted a chuckle. “My pleasure, boyo.” Robin rubbed his chest. “Combined payback and life saving all in one. Consider us square.”
Eric looked around. “So, what now?”
Robin slapped the hood of the truck – and it vanished along with the trailer. Barnaby gave startled squeal as the floor disappeared, dropping him a couple of feet to the pasture. T “Come on, ye sorry chickenshit. All’s said and done, and we’re home.”
The thoroughbred looked puzzled. “Already? I thought we was gonna ‘it the track a few months.” He blinked and peered at Eric with obvious surprise. “You’re still here?” Then he wrinkled his nose. “Bloody ‘ell!”
Eric snorted. “Nice to see you, too.”
A sudden flash of green light startled Eric and he jerked around to look where Robin had been standing. The small man was still there – sort of. His cowboy garb had been replaced with a simple tunic of silver-white that shimmered in the moonlight. He also seemed to have dropped a decade, looking much more the boy that Barnaby had described. His features had lost their sharpness without becoming feminine, though there was still an aura of power and age about him. The pointed ears and pale green skin helped. Elf? Fairy? Leprechaun? More likely the real inspiration for all those mythical beings.
“Been donkey’s years since we tried the mortal world.” Robin stretched out, then sighed. “I have to make sure we don’t run into any more surprises. Like his camera.”
Barnaby snorted. “And get some drivin’ lessons.” He shook himself. “Bother, just wait ‘til the bloody cars drive themselves. Won’t be long.”
“You’re just anxious to get back to the mares, ya bouzzie!” Robin gestured towards the open fields. “Stop foosterin’ and be off with ye’. An I’ll be expectin’ a score of additions by the time I get back.” He raised an eyebrow at Eric. “An’ that goes for you, too, me bucko. Put those great black bollocks to work. There’s more than a couple of Suffolk mares about.” Then he flickered and vanished.
“Game on!” The thoroughbred grinned at Eric as he started to trot briskly off. “ Come on, lad! Time to get your leg over!”
Thoroughly confused, Eric stared at Barnaby and then back to where the fae had been standing. “Twenty foals? How long is he planning to be gone?”
The thoroughbred stopped and looked back at him. “Don’t fret, lad. You’ll have plenty of time to meet your quota. Last time he took off I didn’t see him for years. Might be as much as a decade before ‘e comes back.”
“What!?” Eric felt a touch of panic. “But… “
“There’s creature here to take care of us. Good food, grooming, whatever we need. You might not know what’s doin’ it for you, but there’s none that will cause us harm.”
“But ten years!”
“It’ll pass faster than you think, lad. And you’ll still have growin’ to do.” Barnaby grinned. “I told you I’d been with Robin a long time. Last I was human, Victoria was sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.“
Eric’s jaw dropped as realization dawned. A century or three like this? The gray chuckled and suddenly bolted for the distant fields. After a moment, Eric followed, powerful legs carrying him across the grass with power that was its own thrill. There was a whole new life, a new world to explore. But for now, he was going to focus on catching Mouthpiece.