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by Bob Stein

The mare was waiting for Matthew as he came up the road, watching and whickering happily as he got close. He’d been coming to visit every day after school for the past two weeks, and even though he didn’t ever bring food, she had proven to be very friendly.

“Hello, girl!” He grinned and stepped up close to the fence so she could snuffle his hair and face. In some ways, it was like being with a huge dog – she would lip and lick at his nose and mouth, ‘kissing’ him and pulling at his ears and face. Some people might be grossed out, but he loved the show of affection.

He returned the attention by reaching up and scratching her cheeks and neck as best he could. Only average height for his 15 years, the huge draft animal had to drop her head over the split-rail fence to get to him. It would be nice to get on the other side, but he was okay with what he had. Matthew pressed his face into the warm cream-colored hide, breathing in her scent. It was an odd mix of sweat and straw and dirt, yet he found it to be very comforting.

“So! You’re the one!”

Matthew spun around at a harsh voice behind. An old woman was standing there, staring at him with a scowl. “Uh, what?!”

The old woman peered at him, her steel blue eyes bright in a face that looked like a bleached prune. “You! You’re her two-legged foal! She wants to adopt you. Hasn’t given me a moment’s peace for the past week.”

He flushed slightly, not knowing if he had done something he shouldn’t. The mare was busy nuzzling and lipping at his hair, but he didn’t move away. “I never fed her or anything! And I’d never hurt her! I mean, I didn’t know it was trespassing or anything.”

“Oh, I was never worried about that.” She gave an unpleasant smile. “I’ve had a few kids who liked to tease my animals, or throw rocks at them. Not for long, though.”

Matthew felt a prickling of fear. There was something about the way she talked that seemed dangerous. “Um, I guess I need to head home. Can I still visit?”

“Oh, no need to rush off, boy.” The woman gestured at the mare, who had turned the back of Matthew’s head to a damp tangle of blonde hair. “Why don’t you climb over to the other side of the fence. She’d love to get you close.” She raised an eyebrow. “You aren’t scared of her are you?”

Flushing a little, he shook his head. “No ma’m. I think she’s terrific! I just…” Matthew was not sure what to do or say. He really did want to get closer to the mare, but the woman was more than a little weird. Maybe he needed to get out of here.

“Oh, go on.” She gave him an annoyed look. “You certainly can’t be afraid of a harmless old woman like me? Which makes me wonder. If you won’t get in there with me around, what do you plan to do with me gone? Maybe you shouldn’t come back.”

“No! I mean…” Matthew felt frustrated. These visits to the mare were important to him – even though he couldn’t really explain why. He had a nice family, some friends, and wasn’t doing too bad in school. Yet when he was standing here with the mare slobbering on him and flies buzzing around, he felt happier than any other time he could remember. Well, maybe not happier. But in a weird way, it was like he was where he was supposed to be. “If you really don’t mind, I’d love to go in with her.”

“Go on then. The gate is clear around the other side, so you’ll have to climb.”

Once the decision was made, he had no trouble scaling the old split-rail fence. The mare backed away to give him room, but immediately crowded close when he was inside the pasture. Despite her immense size, he didn’t feel at all threatened. She dropped her head over his shoulder and pulled him close with her chin in a sort of hug.

“Yep. You’re her foal, all right.” The Old Woman moved close to the fence and lifted one hand. There was a soft-looking thick white rope held there.

Matthew blinked. Where had that come from? It was way too bulky for her to have in a pocket. Curious, he took a step closer, thinking she wanted to give it to him.

There was a flicker of movement, and then he felt the rope hit his shoulders. She had flicked it like a whip, causing the free end to wrap expertly around his neck. It didn’t hurt, but he jerked back instinctively. “Hey! What is th.huunhnn.” The words caught in his throat, coming out as an odd wheeze. He swallowed and tried again, but this time all that came out was a high-pitched whinny.

Spinning, he saw the old woman grinning wide as she held onto the end of the rope which had impossibly knotted to form a loop around his throat. She chuckled. “Oh, yes. On that side of the fence, you are definitely her foal.”

Matthew reached up to yank the rope off, only to go rigid as intense heat and pressure hit him from all directions. Another whinny, this one an equine squeal of fear, burst from his throat and he doubled over, his bones on fire and his flesh turning molten. A giant hand grabbed his face and yanked it forward, while another pushed his back hard enough to force him down to his hands. He could feel the ground pushing against his palms, his feet, even as fingers and toes went numb.

The mare pulled him close again, and he leaned into her, terrified and shaking as his body convulsed and reshaped. He was dimly aware of his clothes crumbling away, though being naked didn’t seem important now. Instead, he focused on the mare and her warm scent, the pressure of her muzzle against his neck, the sense of belonging and protection that displaced even his fear.

And then it was over. The heat and pressure simply were no longer there. Matthew shivered a few moments longer, then found that despite all the bad sensations, he felt fine. In fact, he felt wonderful! Full of energy, ready to gallop across the pasture…

Gallop? Twisting his head around on a neck that was way too long and flexible, Matthew looked back at himself. The fact he could see most of his body without turning his head much was the first clue something was very different. The second was seeing the pale cream hide and four stick-like legs that were obviously his. There was no denying what his eyes, nose, and every cell of his body was telling him. He had become a horse! A very young colt, maybe only a few weeks old. His coloring was almost identical to the mare’s – he really was her foal!

The old woman chuckled and flicked the rope again. It untied itself and slipped off his now animal neck. “This is a very special lead. I use halters to make mature animals, but Missy there had chosen you as her own offspring. Guess she wanted the patter of little hooves around her again.”

Now that the reality of his change was sinking in, Matthew gave a squeal of indignation. He didn’t want to be… The mare nosed him again, pushing him towards her hindquarters. Guiding him towards her belly. Now he felt confused.

“Getting hard to fight, isn’t it?” The old woman was coiling the rope now. “You might as well give in. You’re a horse for life now – maybe a colt for life, depending on how long Missy wants to keep you like that. She’s got almost as much power as I do – just can’t get things started without my help. Makes a terrific familiar. A hundred times the power of a cat. And way more comfortable to ride than a broom.”

Cat? Familiar? Brooms? Matthew swung his head around to stare at the woman. She was a…

“Witch” She smiled and leaned against the fence. “We don’t all have warts on our noses and wear pointy hats. I’ve been here for nigh on a hundred years. Takes some magic to make people forget just how old I should be, but for the most part, no one bothers me. And them that do, well, they save me from having to buy beef and bacon.”

He backed away from her, hitting the tree-like leg of his mother and pressing against her for protection.

“Oh, don’t worry. You’re Missy’s now. Besides, you never bothered me. I just saw you looking over that fence and figured you really wanted to be on the other side. Well, now you are. The grass isn’t any greener, but then, you won’t be eating grass for quite a while.”

Matthew stared at the human, wondering what the sounds she was making meant. Then he snorted and turned back to his mother. This time he needed no help from her to find the swollen black teats on her belly. As he nursed, the foal gave only the slightest thought to curious memories of walking on two legs, and living with humans. That life belonged on the other side of the fence, and he had climbed over to leave it behind forever.

The End