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Many thanks to Justin for rediscovering this one for me!|
I thought I'd lost it long ago!
Thanks to his flexible neck and three-twenty-degree vision, Daniel was able to get quite a good look at his new body, despite the lack of a mirror. The fixed focus of his eyes made for an odd distortion, but he could tell the spell had worked: from being a completely normal human male of twenty three years, he was now a thirteen-hand Welsh stallion of an attractive strawberry-roan colouration. The very image, in fact, of the young gelding from which he had plucked a few hairs of mane from five minutes ago.
The shock of transformation was slowly fading, to be replaced by a growing sense of exultation. He had done it! Alone and unaided! That would show Magdalene when she got back. All her cautions and her insistence that he wasn't ready for such major-league magic!
He had picked his site well. Brockton Hill Horse Sanctuary, home to some two hundred retired horses and rescued abuse cases, was a sprawling complex of barns, paddocks, yards and exercise areas. The appearance of one more horse was hardly going to cause a major stir. He could play around for a day, maybe two, then speak the cantrip that would return him to his human form. Pronunciation wasn't critical, as long as the intonation and cadence were correct, and he had no doubts that an equine mouth and larynx could handle at least that much.
He had chosen one of the outlying barns for the transformation. The thick spiders' webs and the deep layer of dust over everything suggested it was private enough for his needs. Now he regarded his neatly folded pile of clothing with awe at what he had done.
This was amazing! There was too much to take in at once! A feeling of being huge, heavy, but offset by the immense strength flowing through his limbs; the feel of his tail, and his newly mobile ears, both steered by complex sets of muscles he had never known before; the curious feel of his hooves, so much more sensitive than he would have guessed; the sheer sense of difference.
He had timed things carefully, arriving in the last half hour when the stables were open to the public. With a little luck, he could remain in here until it got dark, then make his way out to the fields. Now that he had actually changed though, he was not too bothered about being caught - the notion added a little more excitement to the game. He would simply prefer to have a little run-about time first and accustom himself to this incredible new body.
In actual fact though, little acclimatisation seemed necessary. Standing on all fours already felt normal. He could angle his ears and tail as he wished and had already noted them moving automatically - his ears pricking to a sound outside; his tail flicking to deter an over-curious fly. He flexed his legs, lifting each in turn. He arched his neck and flared his wide nostrils. Everything as if he had been born to this form.
That was no doubt, he guessed shrewdly, why the spell was accompanied by a warning against staying in this form too long. He knew the cautionary saying: Thought Follows Form. But the warning had advised against staying in equine form for more than ten days, and he scarcely intended to be a horse for that long. It wasn't as if he particularly liked horses - this was simply the first - and only - shape shifting spell he had been able to find.
When darkness fell, and the sounds of activity had diminished to nothing but the lazy sounds of horses idly stirring in nearby stables, he gently slid the barn door open with his muzzle. His unshod hooves made practically no sound as he moved out into the open air, and quietly slid the door closed again. A cool night breeze stirred the fur on his back and flanks and he felt a quiver of excitement, The realisation of what he was and what he was doing washed over him anew. The added vulnerability of wandering in a strange place without so much as a stitch upon his body leant an extra thrill to it all. Not that his nudity bothered him as much as he had expected it to. It was another of those things that felt natural.
The night sky was overcast and except for a few floodlit areas, the stable complex was completely dark, but he found himself able to see where he was going with ease. The fixed focus of his eyes no longer bothered him, and he valued his wide field of vision: it wasn't necessary to keep turning his head this way and that to see things. His ears, alertly pricked, swivelled to follow every sound as he made his way cautiously to where the buildings ended and the paddocks and meadows began. The large aluminium gate was fitted with a drop latch that presented him with no difficulties, though he would not be able to open it from the other side. No matter. He moved through the gateway, and the gate swung shut and latched itself behind him.
He woke from a light doze with the sun on his back and began to graze automatically. It was several moments before his head rose with a start and he realised what he was doing. He was slightly disturbed by how natural it felt, and began to realise the importance of the time-limit warning.
During the night he had immensely enjoyed himself, trying out this new body: testing its strength and speed; generally playing at being a horse and seeing how it felt to rear and buck, to trot and canter. There were other horses in the field: five geldings and three mares, but although they had all shown an interest in him when he entered the field, all of them had kept their distance. He was entranced by the way he could identify each animal by its scent, and know beyond a doubt whether it was male or female.
He had thought mares might be a problem, but they had actually lost interest in him faster than the geldings. He guessed they were not in season. Two of them looked quite old. Did mares have a menopause? To his surprise, he wasn't especially interested in them either - he had been a little worried that if circumstances arose, he wouldn't have much choice.
There were sounds of activity from the direction of the buildings, and around Daniel heads rose, ears pricked. His field-mates began walking and trotting toward the gate expectantly.
Feeding time, thought Daniel. The field was a well used one and the grazing inadequate for a number of horses to live on for very long. Well, he was feeling peckish himself. He broke into a trot, following the other horses. He was wary of getting too close to them, knowing just enough about horses to know that newcomers, until they proved themselves, tended to be excluded from the herd, so he stayed well on the outside of the jostling bunch of equine bodies pushing against the gate. Thus it was that the girl pushing the barrow of hay bales noticed him almost instantly. She frowned, and turned to a companion lugging a large water bowser.
"I thought Alfie was in the stables?" she said, puzzled.
"He is," her companion puffed. "I just did his water."
"Then who's that?" the first girl asked, pointing at Daniel.
The second girl stared. "How the hell did he get here?"
Daniel gave a whicker of amusement. "Alfie" must be the gelding he had 'copied' yesterday. He grimaced: what a name for a horse!
He was not a bit bothered at being discovered. He figured he could have a little fun today, play along while it amused him to do so, then tonight he would resume his own form once more, dress, and leave. Then wait until Magdalene came back from holiday! He'd show her who wasn't ready for major magic!
The two girls distributed hay to the animals in the field, and refilled the water troughs, then came over to him. He was snacking on the edge of the group, wondering how such a bland-seeming food could taste so good. He raised his head as they approached and watched them.
"Hey, Alfie, what'cha doing here, hey?" called the first girl. At her side was a halter and lead rope, and Daniel noted how her left hand hovered near it.
The second girl, approaching from a different angle, suddenly made a surprised sound. She bent down, stared, and then straightened slowly. "He's a stallion!" she said. "This isn't Alfie."
"Of course it is! How many other strawberry roans of his breed do we have?"
"Where's his freeze mark then? I'm telling you: this is a stallion."
The first girl ducked and looked for herself. Daniel felt somewhat embarrassed at all the attention his nether regions were receiving and fought the impulse to cross his hind legs. "Yikes. He is, isn't he? Well where the hell did he come from? We don't take stallions, and we sure as hell wouldn't turn them out with the other horses like this."
"We'd better take him in and tell Mr Johnston."
"I guess so." The girl approached him slowly, and took the head collar from her waist. Daniel decided to let her put it on him. He was rather enjoying this. She came right up to him and slid the straps around his head, drawing them securely and buckling them, then attaching the lead rope to a ring beneath his chin. She relaxed visibly when this was done. "He seems to be quite well trained anyway. Good boy." She patted his neck. "Come on."
Daniel couldn't deny the sense of illicit pleasure he got from being led on a rope by a rather pretty girl. He also got a kick from knowing they had no idea there was a human mind in the horse they were leading. That much was manifest in their frank conversation which turned to the subject of boyfriends. After a couple of minutes, Daniel almost wished he didn't understand them.
They stopped outside a small shed done up as an office. "You hold him while I get Mr Johnston." The first girl vanished briefly into the office, and then came out leading a middle-aged man Daniel vaguely recognised from a publicity shot as the manager of Brockton Hill. "What are you talking about?" he demanded. "This is Alfie, isn't it?"
The girl holding Daniel turned him about and her friend lifted his tail. "So what are these? Oranges?" Daniel felt himself blushing furiously.
"Where did you say you found him?" Johnston asked in a more tolerant voice. Evidently he'd thought his leg was being pulled.
"He's not ours," said Johnston.
"That's what we thought."
"Is he freeze marked?"
"Not that we can see."
Johnston rubbed his head with the heel of his hand. "Great, as if we aren't overloaded already. Someone has to sneak by in the night and dump a stallion on us. Goodness knows why: he looks healthy. Jane, run him up and down a bit, will you?"
Daniel passively followed the lead, inwardly grinning. He loved this! If only they knew! Dare he say something? A laconic comment, something like, "Are we going to muck around like this all day? I'm busy" or "I just love a little jog in the mornings, don't you?" Very tempting. And then tonight he would say the return cantrip and resume human form, vanishing from this place without a trace...
"I'd better tell the police," Johnston was saying. "As if they'll be interested. We can probably assume he'll be staying."
"A stallion?" asked Jane bringing Daniel to a stand again.
"That is a problem," Johnston admitted. "Well, we'll see what he's like. He looks to be quite a good quality Welsh Section B. If we can confirm that, maybe we can sell him. He looks young, and doesn't look mistreated. No reason why he shouldn't work for a living. We might have to have him gelded though."
It was as good a cue as any. "Woah there! You might ask MY opinion on that!" Daniel said.
At least, that was what he intended to say. Instead a spirited neighing left his lips.
The second girl laughed. "I don't think he likes that idea!"
Daniel tried again. "I'm not a real horse!" The result was the same as before. The words left his mind, but the speech that left his throat was pure equine. With growing panic, he made another attempt, and another, but could only neigh. What the hell was going on here? He flexed his muzzle and lips, ran his tongue around his teeth, and cleared his throat. No problem, but when he tried to make a sound, it was as if something took control of his larynx and he couldn't force it to do as he asked. Not remotely.
"What's wrong with him?" Johnston asked.
"I don't know, He was fine until a moment ago," Jane said. The pony's ears had flattened and his eyes were rolling, and he let forth frantic neigh after frantic neigh. There was something odd about him: he kept flexing his jaws and swallowing loudly between cries.
Johnston shook his head. "Maybe this is why he was dumped on us. I don't like the look of it. I'd better call a vet. Put him in one of the isolation blocks for now."
"Come on," Jane chirruped.
Daniel had no intention of cooperating any more: this was a frightening development and he wanted no part of it. He gathered himself to break free and make a run for it, but as soon as the lead rein pulled at his collar, he froze. He tried again, but his muscles refused to cooperate.
Jane pursed her lips. "Kate, could you get me a schooling whip. I think he might be turning difficult on us." She returned her attention to Daniel. "Come ON!" She gave a firm pull on the rein, and he found himself yielding. Every shred of will he possessed fought the pull of the rope, but though he could offer a token resistance, he couldn't employ his full strength, or even a significant fraction of it. Enough to convey reluctance: insufficient to effect resistance.
"Here," Kate said, offering a long, flexible whip.
"Thanks. All right now, walk on, now!" Jane flicked the whip against his side. It didn't hurt: she was only using it as a promise of what she could do if he continued to resist, but the sudden realisation that he was actually being disciplined like a disobedient animal shocked him into submission.
"That's better. Walk on." Daniel couldn't see that he had a lot of choice in the matter, and followed Jane on the end of the lead rope, head hanging.
"I can't understand the difference in him," Kate said to Johnston as they watched the mystery stallion go. "He was good as gold until now, and perky as anything. Then all of a sudden, click! Total mood swing."
"I don't like it," Johnston said. "I thought it was odd that someone should dump a good-looking stallion like that on us. But we'll see what the vet says."
Daniel found himself in an isolated loose box. The floor was bedded with woodshavings, and there was cystern-fed drinking receptacle on one wall. He could see out over the stable door, but the view was uninspiring. Designed for quarantining new or sick horses, the box was situated behind some sheds and offered a few of a bare concrete aisle between the back of two stable blocks.
As soon as Jane had left him, he tried to force the door, only to find his strength denied to him again. He found he could kick it, and did so. That brought Jane back and a stinging slap to his neck. "Stop that!" He tried picking the bolt, but it had a metal cover that meant it could only be got at from underneath, with fingers.
What had gone wrong? Everything had been going so well until he tried to speak! Or had it? He'd been doing what they wanted since they'd found him in the field. If he did what they wanted, everything was fine. In fact, it was only when he tried to express himself as a human that he had any problem.
Well, it shouldn't be too bad. Surely nothing too drastic could happen in a day, and when night fell he would say...
Say the release cantrip...
A horrible thought struck him. No longer caring about the embarrassing consequences of being found naked in broad daylight, he tried to say the words that would restore him to human form.
His fear was confirmed. He couldn't say it. He couldn't even match the cadence of the syllables by whinnying. He sounded like any distressed horse.
Dear God! What was he going to do now? He was stuck! Unless...
No. He couldn't write the cantrip down. Apart from the fact that coarse wood shavings did not make for a great writing material, he could tell from the dead feeling when he tried to use a fore-hoof to write with that it wasn't working.
He swore to himself. It emerged as a furious snorting. Why hadn't he listened to Magdalene's cautions? Obviously there was something in the spell that forbade him from behaving in a human fashion, in any way. Why? What possible reason could there be for that? And how could he get out of it?
Simple. He couldn't. Not alone. There was only one way to become human again: by someone speaking the release cantrip.
Wait a minute! Someone speaking the cantrip: not necessarily him. Then his spirits fell again. He couldn't convey the words to anyone. He thought about that book he had once read: Devil's Donkey. The guy in that had kicked the counter-spell word into the wall with a hind hoof. He snorted. Hadn't his name been Daniel too?
The one faint hope was that Magdalene would return and figure it out. He had left a note saying he intended to try the magic out - more to show off than because he thought it would be necessary. And while he hadn't said where he was going, he had mentioned the idea to her recently. She was a smart girl - smarter than he, he admitted bitterly. She would work it out.
Just two problems. In the first place, she wouldn't know what he looked like: he had come in and picked the first animal he found attractive. And in the second place, Magdalene would not return from her holiday for two weeks.
'It is inadvisable for the subject to remain in equine form in excess of ten days, if a successful return to his own form is required.'
No problem, he told himself, forcing his mind to remain calm. I just have to concentrate, and remember what I really am. I'll manage. It just says "inadvisable": it isn't definite. It's probably over-cautious: like a sell-by date in a supermarket. Human. I'm human. Keep saying that to yourself. Human...
Magdalene found Daniel's note pinned to the cupboard where she kept her magical supplies. One of the growing number of modern witches who had been astonished by just how real magic actually was, she was nevertheless cautious, and her tutor, a witch styling herself MoonSong, had warned her of the perils of using old spells without a full understanding. Something she had been unable to impress upon Daniel. She cursed and phoned his house immediately, thoughts of a nice rest and leisurely unpacking forgotten.
Daniel's mother answered, and sounded quite distraught. There was a search on. Daniel had gone camping, so he had said, but had not returned when he said he would. Then they had found his camping gear still in his room. The police thought he had run away...
Two weeks, thought Magdalene, running her hands through her long hair. The fool's been a horse for two weeks! And he could be anywhere! God, he might be dead! Supposing he wound up in a knackers yard, a lost, unclaimed horse? She tried not to think of that, but it was difficult not to. She'd read the warnings Daniel had not: this was no benign spell for self-change: this was meant to be imposed on an unwilling victim and bind him to equine form and behaviour for as long as the witch decided.
Wait a minute. Stop. Think. Daniel had boasted of his plans hadn't he? Brockton Hill, that was it!
Half an hour later, she was in Mr Johnston's office.
"You've lost a horse?" he asked, frowning. Goddess, she thought. Why do animal welfare people always assume no one else can be trusted with an animal?
"Uh, sort of," she said, blushing slightly. This sounded dumb and she knew it. She didn't know what he looked like. If he was male then he'd be a stallion, she knew: the spell would copy a real horse but omit imposed factors such as scars, gelding, brand-marks. But if he'd picked a mare to copy... She seriously doubted Daniel knew enough about horses to tell one from the other without standing underneath one, so he could as easily be either sex. "Have you had any unexpected new arrivals in the last fortnight? That turned up out of the blue?"
"There was one," he admitted. "But how did he turn up here? What sort of game..."
"A stallion..?" she hinted.
"A Welsh Section B," he nodded.
Her fingers tightened on the plastic bag she carried. In it were a pair of jeans and a teeshirt she thought would fit Daniel if she could turn him back. "What colour is he?" she asked as if for confirmation. It had to be him, didn't it?
She went for broke. "That's him. Oh, thank god for that. I haven't had him marked yet."
She invented some story of a cousin who had persuaded some student friends to play a stupid prank and steal her horse. Mr Johnston who had encountered such pranks before, was only too ready to believe this. He led her through the maze of barns and stables to a solitary loose box.
Daniel was clinging to his humanity by a thread. He had taken to restlessly circling the box. He dreaded sleep, for each time he awoke from it, it took him longer and longer to remember what he was: who he was. Walking kept him awake, but it was taking its toll. He was exhausted, and his sagging posture, glassy eyes and staring coat said it all.
Human, I'm human, I'm human...
His ears twitched at the sound of approaching people: footsteps and voices.
"I'm sorry." Johnston sounded defensive. "We've cared for him as well as we can, but he just won't settle. We thought there might be something wrong with him, but the vet says if there is, it's purely psychological. We've put him in the field a few times but his behaviour doesn't change. We're too worried about him to put him with company: you know how these vices spread."
Magdalene nodded absently, shocked at the appearance of the roan pony she believed was her friend. "Could you... do you think I might have ten minutes alone with him? To see if I can calm him down a bit. He never has got on well with strangers."
Johnston hesitated, then nodded. "Sure. I'll be back at the office when you're done."
When he had left, muttering about hanging being too good for irresponsible students with so much time on their hands that they could pull this sort of stunt, Magdalene let herself into the loose box. "Daniel, is it you? Can you hear me?"
The pony stopped circling and looked at her, but gave no sign of overt intelligence. But then again, the spell would prevent that anyway.
She removed the head collar he wore, and took his long equine head in both hands. Staring intently into his eyes, she spoke the return cantrip.
She was afraid for a moment that it wouldn't work, then she saw him shiver, and then the tell-tale signs of retracting hair.
Human, I'm human, I'm human....
Daniel felt the strange, arrowing sensations of change shooting through his limbs. He knew that was good for some reason. He couldn't think exactly why. Human, human, human....
Magdalene watched in awe as the pony suddenly reared, shrinking in on itself with bewildering speed so that her eyes were shocked to find themselves suddenly staring at a slender, pale-skinned human form. It staggered, lost balance, and fell to hands and knees. The eyes, round- pupiled and blue instead of oval and brown, looked wide and scared.
"It's okay, Daniel. You're okay now. Can you understand me?"
A pause, painfully long, and then he nodded. He was shivering, and not with cold. He moved his lips but no sound came out.
"Shh, don't try to talk. Here, put these on and we'll get you out of here." She emptied the carrier bag on the floor. The bedding was clean, she noted. Probably recently replaced, but she noted it was only soiled in one far corner: a good sign - such neatness suggested his human sensibilities had not totally eroded. She hoped.
His movements were stiff and clumsy, and it seemed to take an age to get the clothing onto him. He held his hands with the fingers stiffly together. Unless she actively pulled his arms to the side, he held them in front of himself.
He looked at her.
"Do you understand me? Nod twice if you do."
Another pained pause, then two definite nods.
"Good. You're going to be fine: you've just played things rather close is all. Can you wriggle your fingers for me?"
He looked at her, then down at his hands. The fingers moved, stiffly, then with increasing flexibility. Magdalene gave a sigh of relief. He smiled at that, and she found that to be the best sign of all. She'd reached him in time.
It was not too difficult to get him to her home - the stables were in walking distance. His steps were clumsy and faltering at first, but soon he regained fluency. It wasn't difficult to escape the stables without Mr Johnston noticing, and as soon as she got home, she rung him to feed him a story about having calmed her horse down and having decided to take no chances and leave immediately. He wasn't happy about her sudden vanishing act, but at least it allayed suspicion.
Daniel hadn't said a word all the way back, and he kept shivering. She guessed it was some form of shock. Once indoors she sat him down and wrapped a blanket about him, then she put the kettle on, and phoned his parents to tell them he was safe.
Only just though, she knew. Another day might have seen his wits permanently equine. No wonder he was in shock. It was a sort of mental bruising. Well, maybe this would teach him some respect for magic.
She made tea, adding plenty of sugar to Daniel's, and a cap-full of brandy. Taking both mugs, she went back into the living room where Daniel sat. She was startled to see tears running down his cheeks.
"Daniel? Daniel, what's wrong?"
Daniel turned toward her, and his eyes were wide with fright. His mouth opened and he tried to speak, but the only sound to pass his lips was a wholly equine neigh...