|Part I||Part II|
The white stallion was held fast by a half dozen strong men, even as the animal tried to pull the strong leather harness out of the eyehook attached deeply into the thick wooden column. The air was an acrid mix of white hot metal, coal smoke, human and animal sweat. The ringing of a hammer on hot iron clattered in his flattened ears; the volcanic heat of the forge beating against his hide. Mouth flecked with foam, champing on the foul-tasting bit in his mouth, Mallory used every ounce of strength he had to escape.
But the men were used to terrified horses. They held fast as he felt each hoof wrenched into a position where the farrier could pound in a red hot iron shoe. And the men were hardly gentle. The reek of burning hoof mixed with the already odorous space.
When it was over he was rewarded with a pat on the nose and a gentle tug on the halter. He walked with head held low, conscious only of the smell of sheer terror that came off his hide and the leaden weights on his thankfully numb feet. The other horses in the stable were picking it up. They nickered nervously in their stalls. But the calming presence and gentle touch of the young stablehand was having an effect. By the time the stall door was closed behind him, Mallory was more collected, and starving.
But there was no food in the tough, or water in the bucket. He snorted in frustration. Then came another smell - one that made him want to kick. Damn these eyes! I can't see far beyond this confounded nose of mine! he thought. But he knew who it was. He recognized the aroma instantly.
"You can hunger for a while longer," came the slick voice. Sir Arthur Baron was his name, a thickset man only five years his senior. Mallory smelled of velvet and expensive, but unlit tobacco in his ivory pipe. The wealthy man knew better than to smoke in the stables. "Consider yourself fortunate. After today I will no longer consider you a man, and you'll be treated as well as any one of my horses." He reached up and gave Mallory an almost friendly pat on the neck. The horse's skin quivered in disgust at the touch.
Mallory snapped at the hand of his formerly close friend, but stopped short of biting. He then tried to get his equine eyes to focus on the man, nodding his head. But even then Arthur's face was a blur in shades of gray and strange smears of color no human had ever seen. It was as if the world had become a moving lithograph, with sight a poor companion to his other senses. Yet the mind he now possessed could grasp them all easily.
"You still have a lot of spirit in you," Arthur observed dryly. He continued with a contemptuous edge to his voice. "But I'll give you motivation to change. If you become docile enough I'll allow you to be Isold's mount. Then you both can be together until the end of your days, just as you wished." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "And if you don't, I shall make your short animal life a living Hell. Do think about it." The man chuckled, then turned his back, ordering the stablehand not to give the new horse his first meal until morning. But Mallory was at least allowed water. He slaked his thirst and tried to find a place to stand and think - to reflect on the past few hours while whipping flies from the air with his tail.
There was little else he could do.
Isold watched in horror as the polo ball hit her lover's mount on the rump, startling the poor gelding into a violent buck that sent Mallory sailing several feet into the air. He was dressed all in white, and to her eyes looked magnificent. But the polo field was muddy, and when he landed with a resounding splat, his fine suit of clothes was spattered in mud. Arthur had done that intentionally! She cast a furtive glance at her husband. Indeed, the last few days had become steadily worse for both herself and for Mallory.
If only she could tell him that Arthur knew. But her husband had forbidden her from doing so. He had also told her not to spurn Mallory's advances - which worried her far more than anything else. Arthur was a powerful man, both in Valley politics and in magic. Unless she did what her husband wanted, it would be much the worse for Mallory.
Which left Mallory Greene to figure out the danger to himself on his own. Unfortunately, he was still in such a state that the evidence of discovery had been missed. Losing his wife while off in the Crimea, to a sickness not even magic could cure, had affected the man very deeply. In the months since his return, Isold had taken pity on him. And as sometimes happens, what started as innocent friendship had escalated into an affair that Arthur had recently discovered.
"So sorry, Mallory," said the older man smoothly, "I was simply warming up and wasn't looking where I was aiming."
Mallory showed no sign of either injury or offense. He sprang back to his feet within seconds and put his white hat back atop his platinum blonde head. Although still a moderately young man, his face had been strongly weathered by war, and aged by grief. "No need to apologize, Arthur," he replied. They were on a first name basis, an amazing thing considering their difference in status. Isold wondered just how much longer that would last.
"Pity about your breeches, old boy," Arthur continued in an amiable tone. "I'll have the servants fetch a clean pair. I believe I even have one in that eye-blinding white you always wear." He chuckled. "I'll have the servants fetch them."
He gestured at the men hovering at the edge of the polo field. One of them rushed off to the manor. You know the ones, my dear, he said into her mind, startling her. Your 'White Knight' will make you a fine mount, don't you think? Deliciously ironic.
She barely contained her tears. But Arthur's thoughts still caressed hers lovingly. Come, come, my dear. You needn't choose between us. I could do far worse to him. Perhaps you'd prefer him made into one of your ladies-in-waiting? Then you could spend all your time together doing embroidery or some other damned feminine thing. No, I assure you this will be best for him. His choice of mares, and a daily ride with you on his back. You both win.
He looked at Mallory, who was still working to calm his startled horse. Still, it was a nice shot, wasn't it? Arthur swung his hammer back and forth and smiled. Perhaps not as good as your young man’s vaunted talents as a marksman, but still quite accurate.
The manservant returned five minutes later with a pair of white leather breeches. They looked like they would just fit the muscular Mallory, and he took them with a bow of thanks towards Arthur. He then retreated to a changing tent alongside the polo field. Isold wrung her hands in dismay, knowing what they would do to him.
The interior of the tent was dim and crowded with polo equipment. Mallory and Arthur had decided to practice while awaiting the others to assemble for the fox hunt. Even now he could hear the baying of the approaching hunting hounds and the thumping of dozens of hooves on the turf. Everyone would be on the hunt – except Isold.
She was a rare combination of stunning beauty, intelligence, and a kind and loving soul. Just the soft reflection of sunlight on her golden-spun hair was enough to stir his blood. Such an opportunity. Although Mallory had suffered only a bruised rump, no one would be surprised or suspicious if he said he was unable to ride after the fall. He felt guilt at betraying his host, but it was overpowered by desire to be with his hostess.
The breeches were new buff leather. He removed his dirty pair, mindful not to get mud on the equipment, then pulled on the borrowed pair. They fit almost uncomfortably snug, but he'd worn far less comfortable in the horrid war. Besides, he needed to wear them only long enough to carry out his charade.
Then fate decreed that he didn't have to lie. The faint ache in his buttocks began to spread, and walking became uncomfortable. The pain appeared to be due to the tightness of the breeches, but he wasn't about to loosen them. Exaggerating the discomfort just a little, he limped out of the tent and headed for his horse in a show of sportsmanship.
Arthur had already dismounted and was changing into his more proper red hunting suit. "You appear to be injured more seriously than you thought, old friend," he said, a slight edge to his voice.
The tone did not escape Mallory's notice. Perhaps this was not a good time for games. Ironically, the pain chose that moment to stab hotly into his backside, and he was unable to keep from wincing. "I can still ride," he choked out.
"No, I don't believe that would be wise," the older man said levelly. "I suggest you convalesce in the parlor, Mallory. It wouldn't do to injure yourself further.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but Arthur silenced him with a raised finger. "I'll hear none of it. There will be many more hunts, my friend." His voice hardened incrementally. "Besides, I trust you with my wife."
Distracted by the pain, Mallory acquiesced with a simple nod and followed Isold into the manor, assisted by one of the servants. As soon as the hunt left, he would find an excuse to slip out of the breeches. His eyes lingered on the golden hair and lithe figure of his hostess as she walked ahead of him. Perhaps she would offer that excuse.
She led them into Arthur's parlor, a room filled with ordinary books that smelled of moldering pages and old leather. Clerestory windows in the ceiling provided light. After helping Mallory into one of the overstuffed leather chairs, the servant bowed and left, closing the double-doors discretely behind him.
"Would you like a brandy?" Isold asked neutrally. A nervous shadow hovered in her eyes.
He was puzzled by her sudden formality in private. Did she think someone might be listening? Best to maintain the charade a bit longer. "If you would be so kind."
The beeches had become, if it was possible, tighter. However, the discomfort began to ease a little. He tugged futilely at the taught leather, then forced himself to ignore the pressure and concentrate on his hostess. She remained oddly distant, handing him the snifter of brandy with that same proper neutrality.
“Thank you.” He took the liquor and gave her a puzzled smile. “Are you quite all right?”
Isold’s eyes flickered away from his, glancing momentarily at his ears before dropping suddenly to her folded hands. “Quite fine, thank you. I am just a bit distressed by your… injury.”
Was there something in his hair? Mallory brushed absently at his temples, feeling something that was not quite right. “Just a bruise.” He smiled. “I think the larger problem lies in these breeches – they are more than a bit tight.” Thoughts of a playful suggestion that she help him out of them was stilled by the look of pain in her eyes. “Really, I am sure it is nothing.”
“Mallory, I am so sorry for this.”
Puzzled, he decided to throw propriety to the winds. “You have no cause to be sorry.” Mallory stood and reached out to touch her cheek gently. “In fact, I’ll have to reward that horse with a bunch of carrots for giving me some time alone with you.”
Instead of smiling, Isold actually winced slightly. Mallory realized his fingers looked dirty, and dropped his hand abruptly. “I’m sorry. Must have happened when I fell.” He brushed them against his breeches, but the dark stains wouldn’t come off. “Perhaps I should freshen up.” Just then a renewed burst of pain from his hips shot down both legs, causing a sharp intake of breath. “Actually, I had better change clothing. These are becoming quite uncomfortable.”
Isold suddenly broke into tears, then embraced him. "I'm so sorry! I knew he was going to do this, but if I said anything..."
Although bewildered by her action, Mallory drew her close, burying his nose in her hair. She smelled strongly of lavender, more than before. “Do what? Leave us alone together? Do you think he knows…” He suddenly recalled Arthur’s parting words and felt a stab of panic. What a fool he had been. Of course the man knew! No wonder Isold was afraid! It still wasn’t too late, however. He could leave now, go home and do his best to stay away…
Just as that thought popped into his head, the study doors opened to reveal Isold's husband and all the hunters behind him. Arthur’s ivory pipe was alight, the oddly acrid smoke stinging Mallory's nose.
Arthur glared at his former friend grimly. "I was happy to let Isold console you in your grief, Mallory, even understood your early flirtations. But you took it too far. I'm normally a forgiving man, but this I cannot." He turned his back, his voice changing to a lecture tone. "Gentlemen, observe the transformation carefully. I have based this version of the spell on Mr. Darwin's new book. It should be relatively painless, unlike most transformation magic. And take note of each physiological change as it happens. He is 'devolving' from man to a form more appropriate to his behavior.” Arthur smiled. “The process should be enlightening at the very least."
Transformation? Horrified, Mallory looked askance at the flaxen-haired Isold, and hoped she would not suffer for his indiscretions. Then he struggled to remove the breeches, knowing it was already too late. Buttons dissolved in his numbing fingers, the leather underneath becoming pale gray-pink skin that sprouted bright white, wiry hair that prickled as it spread up his torso. His exposed manhood darkened and enlarged dramatically between massive, swelling thighs, causing a few sniggers from the men gathered in the doorway.
Blushing furiously despite other physical distractions, he tried to cover himself. Unfortunately, even that modesty was denied him. His fingers no longer worked how they should, and the spell was making the rest of his clothing dissolve away as if it was only tissue paper, revealing the last patches of human skin on his barreling chest.
“Please....” Mallory’s voice cracked, his throat tight with fear even as it altered. There was no limit to what a mage of Arthur’s power could do – he could only hope that the man would show him some mercy. “Not like this.”
“Not like what?” The man raised an eyebrow and gestured to the group standing behind him. “Not out in the open, among those who accepted you as an equal, who offered you friendship and companionship?
Mallory dropped his head in shame, only to gasp at the speed of his transformation. His feet were now club-like and useless for walking, the toes having fused into shapeless lumps tipped by growing masses of dark hoof. White hair crept up his arms, and a tail was erupting from his exposed backside. It was like he was some kind of equine satyr, an irony not lost on him. Anger, guilt, grief, and lust, all wrapped up into a single whirlwind of emotions.
“Most interesting.” Herbert Smythe, an unpleasant gnome-like man who was known to use his magical abilities on underlings, moved into the room for a better view. “Do you plan to geld him or keep him as a breeder?”
“Oh, breed him, of course.” Arthur answered without taking his eyes off of his victim. “He will be quite a handsome stallion, possibly the finest I have ever owned. I will be more than happy to offer his services to any of you gentlemen, for an appropriate stud fee.”
Mallory felt hot shame as a few of his former companions chuckled again. So that was his fate – spending the rest of his life as Arthur’s property, a rutting stallion to be used for profit. The man’s twisted sense of humor pervaded even his revenge.
Muscles pulled in his back and legs, forcing him forward until he fell onto the dull lumps that had been his hands. The jolt seemed to trigger a burst of growth, arms and legs stretching out as his body gained mass with each heartbeat. His head was moving further out, and he could actually feel his skull start to collapse.
He turned for a last clear look at Isold. Her hands fluttered helplessly at her sides, and she finally turned away from him and sobbed into them. Although Mallory longed to offer some comfort, some assurance, his voice was already gone. A foal-like squeal emerged from his thickening lips as his nose and mouth were yanked outward, and color faded suddenly from distorted vision.
The final stages of transformation wrenched his very soul, and he lost control of his bodily functions. And as Mallory sank into the depths of despair, his ears were filled with the laughter of men he had once called friends, and who would forever more be Masters.
The humiliation still left a bitter taste in Mallory's mouth. He found himself absently biting the exposed wood around the stall. I'm cribbing, he thought with a sigh. Arthur's last words remained with him. Perhaps this form was appropriate – a stallion, a rutting beast who gave no thought to who it mounted, only seeking to satisfy lust. He had betrayed a friendship, and endangered Isold with his improper desires. Now he was paying the price.
Mallory was a little shocked to realize it was evening already. He had spent most of the afternoon lost in recriminations, and wondered if it was because of his increasingly equine mental state. The transformation wasn't finished. It was like his mind was a loaf of bread being gnawed upon by dozens of mice.
He knew he was starting to lose things, so subtly he only noticed them missing if he concentrated very hard. But there was one thing, like a canary in a coal mine, that allowed him to gauge how far gone he was. Occasionally, and with growing frequency, the idle chatter of the stable's servants would become mere gibberish. Meaningless, ape-like sounds. And the gist of other horses' body-language and noises came into clearer focus.
However, as the spell completed its work, something else returned. His eyesight was improving, not quite to human sharpness, but there were more colors. Enough so he could see faces at a longer distance. My talent's coming back, Mallory thought.
Most people with magic seemed to be in the upper classes, perhaps due to earlier generations with similar powers. However, there were much lesser gifts than Arthur’s. Despite his middle-class origins, Mallory had been born with eagle-like vision combined with an innate ability to instantly locate weaknesses in anything. For instance, a glance around his stallion-box had immediately identified a minute crack in one of the support beams. The combination made him a natural marksman with any weapon, who only needed to see his target once.
Quite naturally, he had decided to join a regiment of Her Majesty's Army when the war started. He had purchased an officer's commission, and been put in charge of training sharpshooters. Then came two long, empty years fighting the enemy at the Crimea, followed by a return home to yet more death. Catherine had hidden her illness from him, bravely maintaining a cheerful façade in her letters. Cruelly, the illness took her just days before Mallory might have at least said goodbye.
Why had he started thinking about the loss of his wife again? He felt all tangled inside, thoughts jumbled. It was as if he stood on a knife edge, precariously balancing. All the bad decisions he had made since his return were laid before him, and towering above them all was guilt.
The relationship with Isold had started out innocently enough. Mallory’s status as a war hero had opened up new social circles. Invitations to parties were ignored at first, then he threw himself into this heady world of aristocracy in hopes of drowning his sorrow. Then he met Arthur.
Like so many who had never actually been in battle, the mage and his wealthy friends were fascinated by War. They spent hours discussing tactics and expounding on their own much-vaunted, but untested abilities. Mallory was always at the center, yet he was little more than a doll who spilled out a tale of combat whenever his string was pulled.
However, Arthur showed interest in him beyond the party chatter. The man had drawn him out of his shell, turning casual acquaintance into an unlikely friendship. Yet the emptiness that had been Caroline remained. And then Arthur introduced him to Isold.
To Mallory’s credit, that first encounter was formal and proper, and all he took away from it was an impression of physical beauty that did little to stir his interest. However, Arthur began inviting him to their home, often leaving the two of them together while he left to attend to business. Given Mallory’s emptiness and Isold’s loving nature, it took little to form a friendship. Falling in love with Isold had not been a choice, but allowing the relationship to go beyond...
He was startled out of his self recrimination by a loud banging from the front of his stall. A stable hand was standing outside his stall, hammering at something next to the gate. The young man stepped back and grinned, then wiped whatever he was working on with a cloth and walked off.
Curious, Mallory put his large head over the lower door of his stall, and found a newly-etched brass plaque that read ‘White Knight.’ God damn the man! It had only been a few hours, and Arthur was already making a joke of his fate. He flattened his ears and whinnied defiantly, startling the stable hands.
"Hey!" came an irritated voice of sorts from one of the other stalls. "Some of us are trying to sleep in here!" Not English; not even in words per se; but still a language... of sorts.
Before he could properly consider who or what the speaker might be, there was a faint aroma of lavender.
Isold! He watched as she approached quietly in the darkened stable. Grumbling, he retreated to the very back of his rather spacious stall. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Isold standing in front of the open part of the wall next to the door, low enough so stablehands could fill the wooden feed trough and water bucket. They were cleverly built so they could be removed for cleaning and dumping out. In other circumstances Mallory would have admired such ingenuity. But now they were meant for him, and the empty trough only made the cavernous sensation in his stomach even worse.
Then the lavender smell was joined by a scent of something that teased his nostrils and tongue. He turned his head, sniffing. The human woman with the familiar smell had extended her hand over the gate. There was something on her flattened palm, something that gave off the enticing smell.
She mumbled some calming sounds, making him turn fully, hunger drawing the horse forwards. He snuffled the offering, then lipped the carrot up and crunched it before snuffling her palm hopefully for more. Her mouth muttered soothing, but meaningless noises that suddenly snapped into place. "...for you," she said. "Can you understand me, Mallory? Nod your head if so."
Mallory snorted and jerked his head back, realizing he had drifted into the animal mentality again. There was worry and a touch of despair in Isold’s eyes. It pained him to see her suffering. Perhaps he should feign being fully lost. He was halfway there already, and it might make things easier on her. But no. She at least deserved honesty. He nodded, despite the reluctance he felt, his nostrils full of lavender perfume.
Isold took a small crystal bottle out of her petticoat, uncapped it, then poured it into his full water bucket. It smelled foul. She grabbed his nose and looked him right in the eye. "Drink it, Mallory."
Every instinct he had told him not to. Every equine instinct. This was a test of his remaining humanity. After snorting into her petticoat, he forcefully dipped his muzzle in and drank. As expected, the taste made him gag, but he choked it down. The horse wavered; consciousness threatened to slip away.
Isold was wiping her petticoat clean, and looked up at him. "Mallory? Did it work? Please nod if you can...me."
Despite missing a word, he did. He nickered and nuzzled her sorrowfully. She was taking a terrible risk if Arthur found out about her visit, yet he was grateful for her presence.
"Arthur told me to … down and see you," she said, as if answering his thought. "Part of whatever game he … playing.” Her eyes hardened. “Well, I am changing the rules. He is not the only one in the family with ability.”
Isold sighed then. “I’m sorry, my love. Not even Arthur could make you … again, but the potion should protect … mind, or at least what is left of it.” She reached up and caressed his muzzle. “Perhaps it …. kinder to let you go, but I can’t bear to lose … completely.”
Even as a stallion, her presence filled Mallory with pleasure. He nosed her bodice, then rubbed his face against the side of her head. Arthur had offered to make him Isold’s mount. As tormenting as that relationship might be, Mallory no longer found the prospect so terrible.
Isold hugged his soft nose to her equally soft bosom. "I must go. Sleep well, my 'White Knight.'" She slipped away.
By now the hour was late, but few inside the stable on four legs actually slept. Since his arrival he had paid little attention to other horses, but now he had a bit of a shock. "Get a whiff of the Lady's new stallion," came a very strange female voice.
"I am. Believe me, I am," replied another. It sounded older, matronly. "And he's one of us, if I'm any judge. Poor man."
"Poor?" snorted the first. "Really, Mother! You're always pining for two legs. Aren't I a good reason not to?"
There was a heavy, and quite equine, sigh. "Save it for the pasture, filly. No more lip! You're only a yearling. Besides, I doubt the poor, confused stallion even knows he can speak yet."
"Indeed, madam?" Mallory nickered. They were making familiar equine sounds, but the noises were somehow being recognized as words. And from the conversations, he was not the only victim in the stable. That explained much of the prosperity that Arthur’s horse breeding operation enjoyed. Human intellect, even filtered through a horse's comprehension of the world, made for a superior equine.
"Oh, good," the older mare replied. "Already listening and understanding. Then I don't have to be tiresome and explain the magic this ..."
Her voice faded into nickers and quiet whinnies as the voices of the stable hands became intelligible. "They always do that when a new one arrives," an experienced voice observed. Mallory craned his neck to see. His vision was sharp enough now that he could easily make out their faces. The older of the two was a long-time employee named Michal. The other was much younger and clearly a new servant.
"You think they're talking to each other, sir?" the young man asked, setting down a bucket of water.
Michal smiled. "They might be, lad. They might. Mind yourself that you don't do anything so you find out firsthand."
The new servant looked confused and nervous. He had probably already seen some things here he could not explain but wasn't quite ready to admit were magical in origin. "What do you mean by that, sir?"
The older stable hand put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "As I said, lad, pray you don't find out."
“I heard..” The youth glanced towards Mallory. “Is it true? I mean, did he get changed by magic?”
“And if he was?” A new and familiar voice made Mallory lay his ears back and the older stable hand pale. Arthur had come in behind the talking servants, and now smiled at the youth.
“Oh, we was just talking, sir!” The older man licked his lips nervously. “Didn’t mean nothing by it, did you, Josh?”
The boy could hardly miss the obvious prompt, and dropped his eyes to the floor. “No, sir. Like he said, we was just talking.”
“Can I help you with something, sir?” Michal seemed anxious to change the subject.
“Actually, yes.” Arthur barely glanced in his direction, focusing on the youth. “I’d like you to go check the far paddock. The gate latch seemed to hang up today. Make sure it is working properly. I’m sure that this young man is quite capable of finishing up here by himself.”
For a moment, Mallory thought the older servant was going to protest, but Michel sighed and nodded, and after giving the boy a sad smile, left.
“So, Josh!” Arthur leaned up against the stall across from Mallory. “Are you interested in magic?”
The young man flushed, but nodded his head. “Uh, yes sir. I mean, I never saw it for real, at least not before now. If that horse is.. well, was..” He seemed to run out of words.
“That horse was my best friend.” The man’s eyes hardened. “However, he took advantage of my hospitality and seduced my wife into an affair under my own roof.”
Mallory gave an angry snort. It wasn’t like that!
Arthur’s eyes shifted to stare directly at him, and a note of warning crept into his voice. “I could have turned him into a toad, or even a lump of stone. Do you think I was cruel in giving him that form? Or unjust?”
“No, sir!” Josh looked flustered, then stared at the floor again. “It’s not my place to say, sir!”
“I try to be kind even to those who disappoint me. Perhaps you can imagine the things I can do for people who serve me well.”
It seemed to take moment for that last to sink in, but the boy’s eyes widened a bit. “I am sure you are most generous, sir.”
Arthur looked thoughtful, then glanced down at the ivory pipe in his hands. “Let’s go to my study. I feel like a smoke, and it’s rather pleasant chatting like this. Tell me about yourself.”
Mallory strained to follow the conversation as the two humans left the stable, but their speech lost comprehensibility again as Josh began recounting his childhood. Only then did he hear an angry hoof stamping on the floor a few stalls down. A mare with ears flattened against her head, snapping her teeth. "Are you listening to me, stallion?" the old mare said. Her head and mane were solid black, except for white lips. "Would you be so kind as to respond when addressed?"
Mallory lowered his head as far as he could and not choke himself against the edge of the lower stall door. "My apologies, madam. We have not been properly introduced, and I was listening to the stablehands..."
There was an incredulous pause, and the mare stared at him. "You can still understand human speech?"
"It appears to come and go," Mallory explained, flicking his ears.
"At any rate, we have been introduced," the old mare nickered. "We're horses. Our minds recognize our different odors. As for my name..."
"A human conceit," the filly injected. "Really, mother." She blew through her nostrils, exasperated.
"Who was that I heard calling herself 'Windstorm' to her herd-sisters, then?" There was a sullen adolescent silence, then the old mare continued. "They are rather more argumentative than human children. Call me Beth." She nodded, then tossed her coal-black mane.
"Charmed," the white stallion replied, curling his upper lip. The bay mare's scent tickled his mind in strange ways that defied words. He couldn't help but linger over it before he replied. And she had a wonderful mane... Mallory nickered and pulled his head back inside his stall, ears folded back. Her scent followed him inside. "Madam, please."
"Forgive me," she replied. "My time is close. I suspect this is why you've been placed in here with us. Master Arthur always brings out our animal natures as quickly as he can." There was a thoughtful pause. "May I ask what your name is?"
"Mallory Greene," the white stallion informed, after a little hesitation. "Captain in Her Majesty's..."
The mare interrupted. "Not... Master Arthur's friend? What in God's name did you do to incur his wrath?"
Mallory remained silent, hanging his head in shame, and retreated further into his stall. Perhaps Arthur’s version was not so far from the truth. Why such interest in a common stable hand, though? Was he recruiting the boy to spy on Isold when she came to visit?
It was hard to judge time with no other references, but Mallory guessed an hour had passed before he heard Arthur and Josh returning. Their words were still apelike grunts, though it sounded like the boy was much more talkative now. Encouraged, no doubt, by the brandy that Mallory could smell even from the back of his stall.
Arthur would never socialize with his own servants under normal conditions. What was he up to? The undecipherable conversation ended, and after a moment, the man looked into his stall. “…with us, old friend? I certainly hope … entertainment for the night is not wasted.”
Pricking his ears up, Mallory whuffled in concern. The kind of things that Arthur considered entertainment seemed to bode ill for someone else.
“Ah, excellent!” His former friend smiled warmly. “It is somewhat obvious that you do not appreciate what I have done for you. So I thought I might enlighten you as to the amount of effort that went into giving you your present shape.”
“I decided to make a beast of you the moment I discovered your treachery with Isold. However, in light of our long and close friendship, I chose to find a way to make the experience as pleasant as possible for you. So I did quite a bit of research.”
Mallory laid his ears back, torn between guilt and anger. Was the bastard trying to say he’d done him a favor?
“There are dozens of different spells for transformations, most of them painful and some rather unpredictable.” Arthur paused to look back at something, then resumed his pontification. “I devoted myself to the effort. It took eight tries to come up with the particular enchantment that made you what you are now. More to the point, eight young men.”
Jerking his head up, Mallory retreated a step in sudden horror. So many innocent lives ruined in order to extract revenge on him?
Arthur nodded slightly, his eyes narrowing. “I thought you might be impressed. Sadly, the first one did not survive. However, I was able to correct my errors, and each of the successive experiments produced healthy and increasingly definable…”
“They’re a little big, sir.” Josh’s voice interrupted the discourse.
Arthur turned and nodded. “Not to worry, lad. You look fine. Come over here and show your finery to White Knight.”
The boy giggled, obviously intoxicated. His flushed face appeared next to Arthur’s. “Hellooo, White Knight. Wanna see my new duds?”
No! Mallory felt a wrenching in his gut, but shuffled to the gate despite growing dread. As he approached, both humans stepped back. Josh stumbled slightly, the odor of brandy strong on his breath. Even before the boy turned to show off his new wardrobe, it was obvious to Mallory what Arthur wanted him to see.
Josh was wearing grey-brown jodhpurs, darker and coarser-looking than the white breeches that had turned him into a stallion. Any hope that these were normal clothing vanished when the boy frowned and rubbed his legs. “Uh, they feel sorta tight now.”
“Before I hit upon the idea of making you Isold’s mount, I’m afraid my initial plan for you was somewhat crude.” Arthur was addressing Mallory, ignoring the boy’s comment. “I wanted to show you as a total ass. So I created some jodhpurs to do just that.”
A shrill whinny of protest emerged from Mallory’s throat, and a whiff of the young man’s scent filled him with despair. There was already an underlying odor that teased the stallion’s mind with a new equine identity.
“Uh, sir?” Josh looked confused now, wincing occasionally in pain that Mallory could identify with. “Something’s wrong. It hurts! And I can’t find the buttons!” The boy was digging at his thighs, not yet aware that the smooth hide was now his own.
Although he had actually experienced the transformation, Mallory was unable to tear his gaze away from the unfortunate youth. Watching someone else undergo the same process was far more dramatic than the sensations alone.
“Auugh!” The boy gasped and hunched over, unfettered by the pride that had kept Mallory stoically silent. “I can’t get them off! Help me!”
“The pain will go away in just a moment.” Arthur shook his head in apparent distaste. “You did ask to see some magic. I rather hoped you would be a bit more of a man about it.”
“Magic?” Fear began to cut through the young stable hand’s intoxication, and he twisted his head suddenly to look towards the stall. “You mean… No! I don’t want to be a horse!”
“No, not a horse.” Arthur turned back to Mallory. “I put quite a lot of effort into those breeches, and I hated to waste them. Then tonight, faced with your lack of gratitude, I realized that I could demonstrate all the sacrifices made on your account. Those that came before are faceless and nameless to you, but this one?” His smile became cold and hard. “Joshua Leon Parker, age 19, two brothers and one sister. He wanted to be a horse trainer, and he liked hiking in the woods. And in a few minutes, he will be a mature jackass with nothing on his mind but grazing and the occasional jenny. All thanks to you.”
The boy looked stricken, mouth open and tears starting to run down his cheeks. “Please! Don’t do this to me! I don’t want to…” He gasped and looked down. His thighs were already deeper and flatter, with enlarged, dark genitals becoming exposed as the ensorcelled garment finished turning to hide.
Gray-brown hair swept down his legs like a shadow that thickened rapidly to a shaggy coat of fur. The muscle and bone underneath was reshaped to create limbs more appropriate to an animal, throwing the young man off balance so that he had to catch himself with his hands. His feet stretched out incredibly long, toes fusing into a solid mass that turned pinkish-tan as they assumed a recognizable hoof-like shape.
Where Mallory had briefly appeared to be some sort of equine satyr in mid-transformation, the boy looked more like a comical representation of a young Dionysius. As his smooth, flat stomach sagged down into what looked like a hairy beer gut, Josh seemed to realize that his fate was sealed. He watched the shaggy fur spread up his sides, and gasped as lungs expanded inside his barreling ribcage.
“I’m scared. Please, sir. What will happen to me?” The transformation had reached Josh’s shoulders, and he shivered as they twisted down.
Arthur shrugged. “You will be a jackass. Healthy, perhaps ten years old. Your thoughts and desires will be those of a donkey, and in ten or twenty years, depending on the nature of your owner, you will die as a donkey. In fact, I rather suspect that even if there is an afterlife, you will end up in whatever part of it that is reserved for animals.”
Though he had little belief in gods and heaven, such callous disregard stung even Mallory. In effect, the bastard was telling the boy he was doomed to eternity as a beast, and the despair in Josh’s eyes was proof he believed it. He wished he could shout out some reassurance, but until the change was complete the boy wouldn’t understand him anyway.
Panting now, Josh’s shaggy sides quivered as his arms began to lengthen. He was gaining weight rapidly, sides rounding out over thickening bones. Then an invisible hand grabbed his head and pulled, stretching his neck out. The gray-brown fur raced to cover the expanded flesh, merging with the boy’s dirty blonde hair. He looked back to Arthur and worked his mouth, but the time for any last requests or pleas was past. All that emerged was a wheezing haw.
The unfortunate youth’s hands were swelling now, and he twisted his head to watch fingers merge and harden into hooves to match those on his hind legs. Mallory saw his head start to sink into the fully equine neck, rotating back as the spell collapsed his skull.
For a moment, the boy’s face was untouched on a body that was otherwise fully animal. Blue eyes, a spatter of freckles across the nose, and the faint wisps of a first moustache on his upper lip. Then his mouth and nostrils thrust outward, eyes becoming large and dark as they were pushed to the sides. His ears shifted up and stretched out on either side of the fleshy ridge that continued up his neck and sank into the furred flesh of his now-flat forehead.
The transformation appeared complete now, with no trace of the former stable hand visible in the sturdy animal that stood in his place. Yet Mallory sensed more going on behind the liquid brown eyes. This was no pack of mice nibbling at bread. Josh’s enchantment was attacking his mind like a pack of ravenous wolves on a fallen doe.
Mallory called out to the boy, trying to offer some word of encouragement or hope. “Fight it, Josh! Concentrate! You can keep part of yourself if you work at it!” Perhaps the new donkey understood some small part of the equine noises, for he flicked his ears forward and turned to look towards the stall with another wheezing haw.
“…Scared. Bad place. Bad man. Scared.” Josh’s thoughts were fractured, and harder to understand than the mare’s. Part of it was due to a slightly different cast to the boy’s mind, like trying to pick up a different dialect of the same language.
Arthur said something, but his words were gibberish again. Mallory made no attempt to understand them - all he wished to do was trample the man to death. The bastard actually grinned and made a sweeping gesture towards the jackass. Then he walked out, pulling the stable door shut behind him.
“Donkey? Male. Hungry. Food?” Growing confusion began to replace the donkey’s fear, and he shook himself and snuffled the air. “Female!” He curled his upper lip and turned towards the mare’s stall.
“No! You can’t let go!” Mallory whinnied and pawed at the ground, feeling sorrow and pity and - anger? Beth’s scent was calling him too, but the new jack had started dropping in response and was at least able to reach her stall.
“Female. Need male.” Josh banged up against Beth’s gate, focused completely on her intoxicating odor. The big black mare shifted to the back of her stall, ears back, but remaining silent.
Mallory screamed a challenge. “No! She’s Mine!” The donkey jumped and trotted away a few steps before seeming to realize that his competition was still locked in a stall. Competition? Mallory shook himself, forcing back the lust that threaten to burn away all that was left of Mallory Greene, Captain in Her Majesty's Service.
He looked back at the jackass that had resumed pushing against the mare’s stall. It was no longer Josh - the transformation had been complete in every way. The former stable boy probably lacked the intelligence to think of anything beyond basic needs. Why such a total change? The black mare was evidence that other victims retained memory.
Someone entered the stable. It was Michal. The man had aged a dozen years since the last time Mallory had seen him. He regarded the donkey sadly, then shuffled to the tack room. After a few moments, he emerged with a small halter and lead. Clucking his tongue and speaking in gibberish, he approached the former boy cautiously and expertly slipped the bridle on. After a few adjustments, he attached the lead and tugged firmly to get the lovesick jackass away from Beth’s stall.
It took some effort and patience, but Josh finally relented. His ears were back and his nostrils still quivered as they sought the mare’s perfume, but he plodded out of the stable behind his former co-worker without any further struggle.
What would happen to him? The new donkey was obviously not welcome in Arthur’s stable. Hopefully, Michal had simply been instructed to dispose of him in any way he saw fit. The man would find a good home for him if he could. Not that Josh would care. His life had been distilled to the basics. Hungry. Thirsty. Tired.
Arthur had intended that fate for him. Mental oblivion, all traces of his wife’s lover erased within the mind of a common beast of burden. However, the man had chosen to send him down a different path. Why? Was the boy’s destruction deemed too harsh to use against a former friend?
Or perhaps Josh had been granted a more merciful end. Mallory was still tormented by guilt and fear, and the knowledge of what he had lost. Who was the lucky one? Though he pondered that question long into the night, the answer never presented itself.
"Magnificent, isn't he?" Isold's husband had an expression of fierce pride on his face, as he always did when he considered a job well done. He watched the new white stallion. "A perfect addition to the herd. I shall have to put him out to stud in a fortnight, after he has found his place among his fellows." Arthur smiled, obviously thinking he had was doing Mallory a favor.
The stallion was clearly agitated, galloping back and forth across the fence line. When he wasn't galloping, he was bucking and squealing. Then came long periods of no movement at all, just a drooping of his head. And sometimes he would just stare at them, both ears forwards, listening as if he understood. A fact Isold knew wasn't lost on Arthur. The gleam in the stallion's eyes flicked visibly between human and horse. She had nearly been too late.
Arthur was planning something. She recognized that insufferably smug look on his face, and knew he had more in mind for Mallory than simple punishment. Some of her husband’s curious activities over the past few years were starting to tie together. Most notably, his sudden interest in transformation spells.
Once common, the punishment had not been used by anyone in the valley for nearly a century. Arthur's own grandfather had considered the practice barbaric, unbefitting an enlightened gentleman. Then a stable hand had been caught stealing tack. Instead of having the lad arrested, Arthur had invoked the old rules and changed him into a goat.
There was brief uproar, but the valley was still a feudal system. A servant was essentially property, and one who stole or otherwise disobeyed was subject to whatever punishment their employer saw fit to mete out. Understandably, local peasants became reluctant to work for them. So Arthur began bringing in help from Blackpool and Southhampton, and other large cities outside the Valley.
These newcomers were invariably single males, young and apparently uniformly lazy or dishonest. The first outsider only lasted a week before Arthur announced he had found the youth drunk on the job and turned him into a sheep. Such punishments suddenly became almost commonplace, with no more than a month passing before another hapless new servant did something that put him on four legs. And in at least one case, Isold had caught Arthur goading a groundsman’s assistant into disobedience.
Isold looked out at her former lover, finding some solace in his beautiful appearance. Horses were a fairly recent and rather profitable avenue of punishment. Although the practice of transformation had begun to be adopted by some of Arthur’s cronies, no other mage had been able to create forms that increased mass, especially to the level that an equine required.
As a result, Arthur was the sole source for those who wished to indulge the dark thrill of owning one of these magically-created animals. A few of the new horses had been sold off at inflated prices, but most still resided in their stables. There was a waiting list for the foals, to be sure, yet they really had no need of the money.
So what was Arthur's purpose? Not revenge. The transformations had begun long before Mallory came into their lives. Yet the horse was in many ways a culmination of all her husband’s efforts – White Knight was a superior animal in every respect, even without the addition of his surviving intelligence. Ironically, the unfortunate circumstances of her tryst had resulted in a stallion far more unique than Arthur could have ever hoped for.
They both turned to see the eldest butler, a genteel man ten years Arthur's senior, standing stiffly behind them. He bowed his head slightly. “You have a visitor waiting in your study."
Arthur frowned, his gloating interrupted. "I’m not expecting anyone, Stanley. Who is it?"
"He says he is Master Roderick However, I cannot be sure." The butler maintained his formal composure, but Isold noticed that his eyes had a frightened look, and his gloved hands shook slightly. "He said that it regards the quarry."
The portly man's eyes lit up. "At last! I shall not delay." He turned to Isold. "Please excuse me. I have been awaiting this visit for quite some time.” His eyes flickered to White Knight and he smiled. “This time I do believe I can safely leave the two of you together.”
The Study was paneled in mahogany and usually smelled of tobacco smoke. As Arthur entered, however, he noticed an overpowering odor of animal musk. At first he thought it was simply left over from Mallory's transformation, but he soon realized this was not the case. A deerskin belt lay on the floor at the foot of one of the large red leather chairs. Something felt amiss. He located his guest in one of the corner chairs, almost totally hidden in shadow. "Roderick? Do you have good news for me?” "
"I found it.” The man’s voice was almost unrecognizable, nasal and hoarse. “A Unicorn stallion. After months of a glimpse here and there, I finally managed to track him to a glade about twenty miles south, in the Wildwood. It seems to be his home territory. There is a wellspring there that he sometimes drinks from, and good foraging. I stayed there a few days to make sure.”
“You were able to actually spend time near a Unicorn?” The mage sounded envious.
“Your belt worked quite well. Even up close, he never suspected I was anything but another forest creature."
“And the markers?”
Roderick gave a deep sigh. “I could not risk leaving them too close, in case he could detect them. But they will bring you within five miles. Head due west from the last marker and you will walk directly into the glade.”
"Splendid!" Arthur replied. "That is exactly the information I needed. Consider your debts repaid."
There was a sharp, bitter laugh, and Roderick then leaned forward into the light. What Arthur saw made him go pale and step back. A wide, black nose, patchy reddish fur, and a pair of stunted antlers graced a distorted head that still retained half a muzzle and large pointed ears. One eye looked human, the other was as yet animal. A patch of the younger man's hair had erupted around the base of one antler. One of his hands was still a useless hoof. He wore no clothing but one of Arthur's velvet robes.
"My God, man!" Arthur stammered, "You said the belt worked!"
"And it did.” Roderick stared down at himself. “I was able to blend in perfectly with the other deer in the Valley. Your magic made me one of them.” Then he jerked his head up, mismatched eyes blazing and the cloven hoof pointing at Arthur. “But now it won't let go of me! Paying my debts means nothing if I have to live like this!"
"Calm down, old man. The spell has been in force for months. I’m sure it just needs some time to bleed away fully.” Arthur smiled confidently. “It’s best not to mix magic if we can avoid it. Wait a few days. If your problem persists beyond that, I’ll find a way to make you normal again."
The half-deer dropped his forehoof and gave a shuddering sigh, then leaned back in the chair again. “Very well. I suppose you're not quite finished with me yet."
Arthur shook his head. "Your debts are paid in full. I only needed to know where to begin the chase."
Roderick raised his human eyebrow. "Only a beast or a maiden can perceive a Unicorn. And even as a deer I couldn’t actually follow him. How do you plan to hunt him? Certainly you don’t expect your wife to pull the trigger?"
"Ah... not as such." The mage’s mouth twitched slightly, and his eyes twinkled. "However, plans are coming together rather well.”
Out in the rocky pasture, White Knight was thinking like a human again. Despite Isold’s potion, he had spent much of the morning drifting in and out of equine perception. A large part of the problem, he decided, was a mare in estrus in the next paddock. It had only made matters worse to have the humans watching him, for he was unable to hide his physical reaction to the female scent. Arthur had most likely arranged this to further humiliate him, or perhaps to hasten his descent into bestial existence.
Isold remained for a while after her husband went into the house, but made no gesture or sound to entice him closer. Perhaps she could sense his shame. As she left, he saw her speak to one of the grooms. The young man nodded, and in a few minutes, came out to the paddocks to lead the mare back to her stall.
Even with the female gone, White Knight’s thoughts would not clear completely. Her need lingered in the back of his mind even now. He found himself wondering, and then brutally squashed the thought with a blast of revulsion and guilt. Yet the desire lingered. How long would it be before the odor of mare’s estrus replaced the scent of lavender?
Searching for a distraction, he began angrily kicking stones, ears flat. Even in this form, his gift was in full force. It took only a few tries to perfect using his hoof like a golf club, sending the rocks thirty feet or more, hitting fence posts, cross beams, never once missing. One after another after another, the stallion methodically cleared an area of stones.
The focused activity worked to bring Mallory back to full control again, but he knew relief was only temporary. Arthur would tease him continually, eroding Mallory’s resolve bit by bit. Mounting mares had been presented as some sort of great boon. Mallory equated it with the death of his humanity, a death that seemed inevitable. At least as long as he remained here.
It was curious that he had not thought of escape before now. Mallory wondered if there was something within the mental alterations that worked to block such ideas. His talent easily located a fence post with an old, deep crack that had been painted over by some lazy groundsman. Beyond lay a maze of gardens and roads, but he knew the estate well enough to navigate them blindfolded.
That took care of method and route, but not a destination. The Baron estate was huge, encompassing nearly a third of the Valley, but the main house and stables were located close to the edge. There were farms and smaller estates a scant five miles north. However, with no ability to speak, Mallory would be seen by peasants only as a valuable animal to be returned for a reward. And as for those nobles he had once considered to be friends? Their mocking laughter and bids for his stud services were burned deep into his soul. There was no help to be found in the Valley.
That left only the forests that still covered much of the estate. If Mallory could work his way through the wilderness to the border undetected, he might find someone outside the Valley who did not fear Arthur. He snorted. More likely he would find some –thing- in the woods with a taste for horseflesh, but at least that fate would deny Arthur the satisfaction of seeing White Knight blindly humping a mare.
The next question was, could he evade capture? As a man, Mallory could have easily lost any pursuit. However, a thousand pounds of horse did not hide so easily. Besides, hunting was a favorite sport of the nobles. A creature his size could not hope to escape a pack of well-trained dogs combined with men who knew the forest as well as he did.
Except for the Wildwood. Mallory felt his ears flatten at just the thought. Only one area in the entire Valley was inviolate and had been for thousands of years. Consisting of maybe ten square miles of ancient forest, the Wildwood lay far to the south. Within it resided the half-legendary wellspring of magic.
There used to be many more of them scattered throughout England, long ago, but for some unknown reason they had dried up or dwindled to insignificant amounts. Which meant that those Valley dwellers with the ability, especially Arthur, had a monopoly on magic spells. The punishments for trespassing in the Wildwood were severe, but no one known to have entered had ever emerged again. No human, anyway. But then he wasn’t human anymore.
Mallory considered his options. In itself, the Wildwood was no solution. He did not want to spend whatever life he had remaining as a horse in a dangerous wilderness. However, thirty miles on the far side of the Wildwood lay the Southern border, and the chance for freedom. Any pursuers would have to go around, which would put them hours behind him.
The choice was easy. He looked around the paddocks. They were never completely empty, but only one stable hand was visible at the moment. Besides, there was no telling when Arthur might return, or the groom would come to take White Knight back to his stallion box. Backing up to the fence, Mallory let fly with a well-placed kick that shattered the faulty post and opened a gaping hole in the barrier. Leaping through, he aimed for the distant trees and galloped for freedom.
Sudden pounding on the study door startled Arthur from his spellcasting, and the purplish globe of light he had created dissipated with a flash of heat that scorched the top of the table. Furious, he spun around just as a flustered-looking young man burst into the room. “Idiot!”
The youth paled when he realized his transgression. Stanley, the senior butler, came up behind him, visibly shaken. “I’m very sorry, sir. The young man would not listen when I told him you were not to be disturbed. He pushed past me.”
This had to be one of the newer grooms. Arthur looked him over coldly, trying to decide if he would make a better hound or horse. He gestured at the burned table. “What is so important that you endangered my life? Not to mention your own?”
“I’m sorry, Sir!” The young man backed up a step, eyes wide in fear. “Michal said to tell you right away. White Knight! He broke out of the paddock, Sir! He’s run off!”
Arthur forgot about the interrupted spell. “How long ago? And which direction did he head?”
“For the woods, Sir! Michal had the front gates closed anyway, just in case he turns back. Most of the staff is giving chase.”
The escape had come a little sooner than expected, but Arthur could compensate. He smiled slightly and nodded to himself. It seemed that White Knight was just as predictable as a horse as he had been as a man. “Very well. Tell Michal to prepare for a hunt. Immediately.”
The boy nodded in apparent relief, mistaking the mage’s expression as an indication of forgiveness. “Yes, Sir! Right away, Sir!” He bowed and turned to leave, only to find himself facing doors Stanley had already pulled shut.
“I was speaking to the Butler.” Arthur threw a well-practiced spell as the groom lunged for the handle, then smiled as the young man stiffened and cried out in pain. “But I am talking to you now.” He crouched down and patted his leg. “Here, boy.”
White Knight jerked his head around at the sound of shouting. The grooms and stable hands were giving chase, still far enough behind that he could only glimpse them occasionally in the distance. While they posed no real threat, it would not take Arthur long to organize a more serious pursuit. He needed to get deep into the woods long before then.
So far, he had stayed within the familiar parts of the estate. This stretch of zigzagging fields was often used for fox hunts, and arched a good dozen miles deeper into Arthur’s lands. White Knight had intentionally passed the closest point to the Wildwood, hoping to disguise his actual goal. However, it was time to make his break.
As soon as he came around the next bend, White Knight used his talent to locate a deer path south. Veering into the forest, he was forced to slow down to a moderate canter in order to weave between the trees. Even so, he managed to get well out of sight before the first of his pursuers would have reached the area. Hopefully, they would assume he was running wild like a normal horse and continue all the way to the end of the open land.
Even so, he took as much care as he could not to leave a trail a novice could follow. The longer it took for them to figure out where he entered the forest, the better lead he would have. Unfortunately, the trees and brush got even thicker as he pushed further south. Despite his strength and growing familiarity with four legs, centuries of tangled undergrowth proved nearly as exhausting as any of his sorties in the Crimea.
By late afternoon, White Knight was barely able to put one hoof in front of the other. He had to constantly search for openings large enough to fit his barrel through. How could anything larger than a badger live in here? The only consolation he had was that anyone following on horseback faced the same problem. If anyone was following.
No, Arthur was not the kind of man to give up his revenge so easily. Every servant who could be spared was looking for him, and Arthur would know where he was heading as soon as they found where he left the pasture. There might already be a party of hunters charging for the border now, trying to cut him off. The only hope for escape was to make it out of the Valley first.
Mallory pushed onwards, sides heaving, lathered in sweat. Conditions were far worse than he had expected, and his lead was rapidly diminishing. If this obstacle course did not ease up soon, he could easily end up dying out here. Thirst had swelled his tongue and hunger clawed in his belly. At least it couldn’t get any worse.
Or could it? A near-solid barrier of brush and brambles loomed ahead. His nostrils flared, picking up the scent of sweet water just beyond the natural wall. However, even his talent could find no opening here. There might be a break somewhere to the sides, but he was too exhausted and dehydrated to search any further.
Lowering his head and closing his eyes tight, Mallory pushed into the dense bushes. Thorns cut into his hide, leaving long tracks that stung and bled, and he had to fight with his own equine nature to keep going. When his head finally broke through, he nickered in surprise.
A pristine, if small, glade lay before him, carpeted in grass and wildflowers and bordered on the far side by the water he had smelled. Paradise for a tired and aching stallion. Until he regained his strength and could move on, this place would do nicely.
The sun was dropping below the steep hills that enclosed the Valley, sending long shadows across the forest. He had been on the run for at least six hours, by his estimation. While it was not yet sunset, night came quickly here. It would hamper the search for him, even if they used hounds.
Mallory let White Knight come to the fore, and dropped his head to graze on the succulent grass like the horse he was. He drank from the stream, letting the soreness of fatigue slowly seep out of his muscles, while allowing his ears to detect any sign of danger.
A flicker of white in the trees. White Knight instantly lifted his head, sniffing the air, ears a-twitch. Another flash, this time closer. Muscles instantly tensed, and for a moment he nearly broke into a gallop. To where? Night had fallen as he grazed, adding darkness as an additional danger to the unfamiliar territory. That indecision brought Mallory to the forefront again. He must have been thinking as a horse – or was he still? Without the presence of human voices he simply could not tell.
Mallory caught movement again, and this time tried to follow it. His talent caught hold, but the target slid out of his grasp like so much silk. Failure came as a shock. Was he losing his ability? He snorted and pawed at the turf, ears pinned back in frustration.
The fourth time it appeared behind him, glowing softly in the moonlight. Grateful for the equine’s expanded field of view, he turned his head just enough to fix an eye on it. The creature was large, only a little smaller than he was, yet it moved effortlessly among the trees. There was no sound, even to his equine ears. Was it a ghost? No matter. His talent had locked on it. And then he felt a feather touch in his mind and knew it had locked on him.
White Knight was afraid. Every muscle was tensed, ready for flight. He felt strangely naked, standing all alone in the glade. There should be others around him. An ache deep inside yearned for other horses. Others of his kind. He wondered in an inarticulate manner why he had fled the place where the mares were.
Struggling against the nearly overwhelming equine thoughts, Mallory warred with instincts to keep his legs rooted to the spot. Reason was only marginally stronger now, and the longer he remained a beast the less important that part of him that was still human became. The two identities fought for control, tearing him in two.
Even this battle could not distract him completely from his target, and he felt more than saw it move around in front of him. Then it stepped out of the trees, allowing him to see it clearly for the first time. Both horse and man froze, momentarily united by common awe. A Unicorn.
They trembled, unable to flee the terrible power or approach the great beauty. Instead, the creature moved towards them, ice-blue eyes fixed and cold like deep glaciers. The apparition appeared to float over the uneven ground in a way that would make the most graceful deer appear clumsy. As handsome an animal as White Knight was, he felt drab and ugly in the Unicorn’s presence. From the shimmering silver-white mane and tail to hooves that might have been carved from giant pearls, the beast radiated an aura of deadly perfection. Even in the shadow of night, its spiraled horn glinted like a delicate and deadly dagger.
The feather touch probed deeper, magnifying horse and human as well as the rift between them. Memories of both were being sorted, and though Mallory’s actual past was the focus, the magically created personae of White Knight seemed equally valid. They screamed.
With a quick, precise jab, the Unicorn lunged forward and pierced them between their eyes. There was a bare pinprick of pain - and then a flowering of relief as the horn withdrew. The burning sensation in their head vanished, barriers came down, mixing together what had previously been separate into a new whole.
White Knight reeled on his feet, nearly falling sideways. The absence of conflict came almost as a physical blow, and he was unable to do more than whicker softly. Yet he also felt an inner strength that had been missing ever since he donned the white jodhpurs. Recovering quickly, he stared at the Unicorn.
Blue eyes pulsed dimly, then the images and smells that emanated from the Unicorn coalesced into something resembling words.
I have a proposal I believe will benefit us both, if you care to listen. In fact, I insist that you do.
By the time Arthur emerged from the house, Herbert Smythe and Rupert Hudson were already waiting, and Carter Lyons was just galloping up the road. The dogs were barking excitedly, even the new hound looking eager for the chase.
Michal had saddled Juniper, a lean thoroughbred gelding who was a bit smaller than his normal mount. The stable master handed the reins off and stepped back with his head slightly bowed. “You’ll need agility in the trees.”
Nodding in approval, Arthur swung up into the saddle and then looked at his companions. “Your assistance is appreciated. However, understand this clearly. Under no circumstances is White Knight to be harmed. I want him brought back here.”
“Why is that, Arthur?” They all turned to see Isold walking towards them, her eyes blazing. “Have you not humiliated him enough?”
“How could I possibly humiliate him, my dear?” Arthur smiled coldly down at her. “He is just a horse now, isn’t he? A stallion with no sense of decency or morals. Not so much different than he was as a man, I suppose.” The other men grinned at this.
“You find Captain Greene’s fate amusing, gentlemen?” Isold turned on them, her anger quickly wiping the smiles from their faces. “Remember that he was once Arthur’s closest friend. It could just as easily be one of you running through the woods on four legs.”
Arthur snorted. “Closest friend? Hardly. Your stud may have some interesting talents, my dear, but he was little more than an interesting diversion. A peasant with aspirations and a few good stories to amuse us with. I tolerated his familiarity out of pity. Besides, he made quite a pleasant diversion for you, didn’t he?”
She stiffened, color draining from her face. “You… planned it.”
“Gentlemen!” Her husband turned to his companions, ignoring her accusation. “Let’s go reclaim my property!” Then he spurred his horse and galloped off for the distant woods, closely followed by his cronies and the baying hounds.
Isold watched until the last dog had vanished around the bend, then slowly unclenched her fists. She felt sick and angry and betrayed. So much of Arthur’s odd behavior made sense now. But why had he done it? To test her? That seemed pointless, as both of them occasionally dallied with servants. The only reason her relationship with Mallory had caused a stir was his supposed acceptance within their social ranks. An acceptance she now realized had been staged from the very beginning.
No, this was all about Mallory. And, she realized with a start, White Knight. The white stallion had been her husband’s goal all along. Yet that made no sense. Any common stable hand or yard boy would have become the same animal. For some reason, Arthur had gone to a great deal of trouble to justify turning Mallory into a beast. And used her to do it.
Her eyes narrowed, and she strode purposefully towards the stables. If anyone had answers, it was Michal. And unless he wanted to join his charges in a stall, he would provide them quickly. Lord Baron was not the only one with power here.
White Knight rolled in the soft grass, flailing his legs like a foal. It was amazing how much difference a full belly made on his mood. Not to mention having his scratched and bleeding hide healed by the Unicorn’s touch. He could not remember having felt this good in his entire life, full of energy and happy to be where and what he was.
The spiral horn had renewed his mind and body in many ways. Physically he was in perfect health, perhaps even made younger. Thoughts were crystal clear, and he was a little surprised that his talent remained intact. However, his emotional state had undergone an even more drastic change than his physical body. The grief that had plagued him since his wife’s death was gone, replaced by gratitude for their time together.
Are you rested now? His host was lying on his belly, watching White Knight with an expression that came across as amusement. After their rather startling instruction, he had insisted that the stallion be fully recovered before they continued.
White Knight rolled back to his belly and pushed up to all fours again, shaking himself. “Yes. Thank you for your kindness.” He dropped his head, giving the equine gesture of respect without thought. “I am in your debt.”
Good. The Unicorn rose gracefully and regarded him a moment. I need your help.
“My help?” White Knight was puzzled. “Anything I can do for you, of course.” He looked back towards the brambles. “I should still have time.”
Ice blue eyes glittered. Ah, yes. Your escape plan. Beat your pursuers to the border, cross the mountains into the outlands, and find help from people who do not fear the man who did this to you.
The horse nodded.
The way out of the Wildwood is equally difficult as the way in. By the time you reach the border, anyone who went around will have had time to set up camps.
“But…” White Knight blew through his nose. “I suppose I did not expect the journey to be so difficult. I can still find a way through. It is part of my talents.”
Yes, your talents. I am curious about them, but that can wait. We will assume you can get across the border through whatever forces your Arthur can muster. How do you expect to get to the other side?
“I’m sure there are trails. And I did a lot of climbing in the service.”
Yes. With hands and considerably less mass. Your new form is strong and powerful. It is not, however, designed for climbing mountains. The Unicorn sighed. And there is something else you have not considered. Once you get beyond the mountains, the sentience you enjoy now will fade. Even if you made it down the other side alive, you would be a confused, homeless animal.
White Knight stared blankly at the creature a moment as he thought things through. A sick feeling swirled in his belly. “Arthur knew I’d try to escape, and he knew I couldn’t. He set me up, didn’t he?”
More than you know, I suspect. The Unicorn regarded him a moment. I believe your being here is part of his plan.
“Plan? What plan? Why would he want me to come into the Wildwood?”
Your friend Arthur wishes to kill me and take my horn.
The sheer audacity implied in that statement, even for Arthur, made it very difficult for White Knight to believe it. Despite coming from a half-legendary creature who was supposed to personify truth and virtue. "Er... what?"
He is a mage. Unfortunately, a prime ingredient for some of the oldest and most powerful spells is powdered Unicorn horn. My species has been hunted to near extinction. I am the last of my kind, yet your Arthur will take my life to fulfill ambition that will ultimately end everything he seeks to control.
“I’ve never heard him mention anything about a Unicorn, and he has maintained the ban on entering the Wildwood. Why do you think he is after you?”
You are not the first transformed human to enter this glade. I discovered a strange buck wandering the Wildwood more than six months ago. He looked and acted like a normal deer, but there was an aura of power about him that did not fit. At first, I thought he might be suffering some curse or punishment. Then I realized he was showing up in different places. Looking for something. Looking for me.
“Why a deer? Why not send a hunter? Or come himself?”
The Unicorn shook his head. I can only be perceived by animals and females. And even they can only find me when I allow it. There was a pause. At least, until now.
“My talent? But Arthur only found out about that five months ago.” White Knight jerked his head back as realization dawned. “The bastard! He needed me to find you, but I had to be an animal to do it. The affair was a set up so he could make me like this!” His ears flattened again. “As if I would help him.”
I expect he plans to make a deal with you, just as he did with the deer. Crystal blue orbs glittered. I touched the spy’s mind as well. He was working off a very large debt. Unfortunately for him, the enchanted belt that made him a deer was quite simple to foul up. At best, he will be a half-cervine freak when he tries to return to human form. If I did it right, your Arthur will get little of use from him.
What kind of deal could he offer me?” White Knight was trembling with rage, wanting nothing more than to trample Arthur’s head to pulp. “Money and power mean nothing to a horse.”
But they are quite useful to a man. He wove the spell that made you a horse - he has ways to reverse it. The Unicorn took a step closer. I am sure he has somehow found a way to kill me. All he needs now is a guide.
The stallion felt a sudden chill. “So now you are going to eliminate the guide?”
Quite the contrary. The Unicorn regarded him for a moment. I want you to lead him directly to me.
The trees were heavier than Arthur had ever encountered before, but Juniper proved an excellent choice for a mount. They made good time through the woods, probably much better than the larger White Knight could manage. Once they had located where he entered the forest, the stallion’s trail was almost childishly simple to follow. Oh, he had done a creditable job of minimizing his tracks, but a half-ton of horse flesh left marks no matter how lightly he tried to tread.
Mallory was still in control. That much was obvious, both from the attempts to hide his path and his determination to get to the border. No animal would willingly force itself through brush and brambles. Even Juniper had to be urged along, his ears flicking back occasionally at cracks and rustling around them.
Some cursing came from behind. Smythe had remained with him, while Hudson and Lyons had each taken half the dogs and beaters to make an end run. The small man should have had an easier time with the close quarters, but he had insisted on riding his barrel-chested draft mare. He looked like a child on a big pony.
“This is absurd, Arthur!” Smythe scowled from the back of his lathered mount. “No horse would come this way! Why are you punishing yourself?”
“White Knight is more than an animal, Herbert. Isold gave him a potion to preserve his mind.” The mage smiled grimly. “Though I was afraid she might decide it was better to let him go all the way. My wife has her faults, but she is also a quite practical woman. Fortunately, her sense of pity overcame her desire to reduce complications.”
“Fortunately?” The gnome-like man looked puzzled. “You wanted a stallion that thought like a man?”
“Not just any man. I needed Mallory. It would have been ironic if I had gone to so much trouble orchestrating their affair only to end up with a dumb beast.”
Smythe’s eyes lit up. "Ah! Such intrigue. Your secret is safe with me, of course. Bravo, Arthur. Though I still cannot imagine what use that pretentious soldier might be in any form.”
“Even a pretentious soldier has value. Especially one with Major Greene’s gifts.” Arthur turned his horse back towards the Wildwood. “It might have been more appropriate to make him a hound, but there was far more challenge in dealing with him as a stallion. Not to mention a good deal more profit later.”
This brought a snort of laughter from his companion. “Indeed! If his intelligence carries over, his offspring will be formidable animals! I hope to be first in line for his services when you put him up for stud.”
Resuming his push through the trees, Arthur couldn’t help grin. “Don’t worry about that, Herbert. I already have you number one on my list.”
White Knight did not need his gift to locate Arthur. Less than an hour into his journey back, he heard the crunch of brush ahead. Even allowing for the time he had spent resting in the glade, he was mildly surprised that the mage was so close. Of course, Arthur had a clear trail to follow.
Stopping, he used his nostrils to sort a mix of scents. There were two humans. Arthur’s scent was familiar, as was that of the gelding he was riding. The other horse was a mare, though not in estrus. He couldn’t quite place the other man, but it was likely to be Lyons or Smythe.
There was no point in pushing any further – he was back-tracking the very trail they were following. So he simply stood and waited until the hated face of his enemy emerged from the brush ahead of him. Arthur pulled up short, signaling to a smaller figure behind that White Knight instantly recognized as Smythe.
“Giving up, Mallory?” The mage sounded disappointed. “Was the Wildwood too much for you? Or did you not want to damage that pretty white hide of yours?”
Laying his ears flat, White Knight snorted and pawed at the mossy ground.
“I’m sure you are wishing you had your voice back, if only to thank me for my generosity.” Arthur grinned at what he obviously thought was humor. Then his smile hardened a little. “How would you like it all back, Mallory? Not just your voice, but your human body?”
The stallion allowed his ears to flick up in a show of curiosity. So this was the bait. He’d known the mage would offer something, though restoration was not an option he thought was possible. Of course, just because Arthur offered it didn’t mean he could or would follow through afterwards.
“You have done me a great disservice, Mallory. I took you in as a friend, and you betrayed me.” Arthur watched him intently. “However, I am willing to forgive, if not forget. I made you what you are, and I can return you to what you were. All I ask is that you help me find something. Not much of a price for doubling your current life expectancy.”
That element took White Knight by surprise. He had accepted equine form so completely that his old shape held little interest. There was much promise in the strength and mass of this proud stallion. But the mage was right. In twenty years, he would still have been a strong and able man. However, those same two decades would take even a young horse to the end of its days.
Arthur motioned towards the Wildwood. “I am hunting something very special, Mallory. Something only a woman or a beast can see - and even then it will take your talent to follow long enough for the kill.”
“The Unicorn!?” Smythe sounded shocked. “You can’t be serious!”
Twisting around in his saddle, the mage looked back at his companion. “I am deadly serious, Herbert. The power of a Unicorn’s horn is unique in all the world. Our most powerful spells derive their potency from the merest scraping. With an entire horn at my disposal, I can accomplish anything!”
“But…” Smythe looked flustered. “Arthur, this may be the last one! You have seen what happened to magic outside the valley! You can’t…”
“I can’t what?” Arthur cut him off with a cold glare. “This is my land. My forest. My Unicorn. I can do whatever I damn well please, Herbert.”
“Of c-course.” Stammering nervously, the weasel-like man suddenly stank of fear.
“Good.” The mage turned back to White Knight, looking grim. “As our friend Herbert blurted out, I am after a Unicorn. I know he is in the Wildwood. If you help me find and kill it, I will restore you. Refuse or fail, and you will spend the rest of your equine life as a gelding. It is a simple choice, really.”
Simpler than Arthur knew, since the Unicorn wanted to be found. However, White Knight could not simply give in – this was a fool’s bargain, with the promise of payment only after his usefulness was over. His former friend would be suspicious if he accepted such one-sided terms. The problem was, how could he communicate terms with no voice or hands? Looking directly at Arthur, he deliberately swung his head from side to side.
“No?” The mage’s eyes darkened. “You are refusing me?”
White Knight repeated the negative gesture, then pawed at the ground with a forehoof.
“Not refusing, then. Something else?” The man raised an eyebrow and a slight smile formed on his lips. “A show of faith, perhaps? You want partial payment now?”
Nodding this time, the stallion could only wait for Arthur to come up with something suitable.
“I can’t restore you now, because you need to be an animal to see the Unicorn. Perhaps a partial restoration would work, though.” Arthur pursed his lips thoughtfully. “I can bring you back almost halfway, something like an equine minotaur. As long as you are still mostly horse you should still be able to see the Unicorn.”
The man raised one eyebrow. “But you will be a freak, Mallory. Remember that. If anything happens to me you will spend life as an object of ridicule. Fail, and you will become a horse again, this time permanently and without the intellect Isold saved. Succeed, and you will be restored fully to your former self, perhaps even find yourself in my good graces again. The Unicorn horn will make me the most powerful mage on the planet. Those who support me now will be greatly rewarded.”
“I have always supported you, Arthur!” Smythe broke his long silence, stepping forward eagerly like a schoolboy trying to please the teacher. “You know I will do anything to help.” If he had seen the expression that crossed Arthur’s face, he might not have looked so pleased with himself.
“I’m very glad to hear that, Herbert.” The mage pasted on a smile as he turned to face Smythe. “You can help me out now, as a matter of fact.”
“Certainly! What do you want me to do?”
Arthur looked back at White Knight. “Do we have an agreement?” When the stallion nodded his head, the mage turned back to his human companion. “Transformation is easy when the existing and target shapes are relatively close, like a man and a large dog. The problem I had in working out the equine transformation spells was the huge difference in mass. It takes far more fae energy to create flesh and bone then to alter it.”
Smythe looked a little uncertain. “Naturally. That’s why you are the only one in the Valley who can perform such feats.”
“There is a similar problem going the other way, especially when you want to control the transformation. If I wanted to restore Mallory all the way, I could just let that extra energy go free. However, a halfway form will require a focal point.”
“A focal point?” The smaller man’s look of confusion changed to obvious fear as he realized what the mage was planning. “No! You can’t! I’m not some common peasant! I’m your friend!”
Arthur nodded, grinning suddenly. “Of course you are, Herbert. Which is why I am honoring your desire to be first in line for White Knight’s services.” His hand shot up suddenly, pointing at the other man.
To his credit, Smythe actually got an attack off before he was enveloped by Arthur’s spell. The blast of energy was enough to make Arthur stagger back despite what had to be powerful shields, but the mage did not lose his concentration. Before White Knight could react, the other hand was pointing at him, and his muscles locked in exquisite agony.
Intense heat enveloped the stallion, blistering fires of Hell that melted his flesh away like wax. At the same time, Smythe’s small body began to swell up and out, his clothing absorbed by the swirl of fae energy that linked the two of them.
White Knight screamed, a sound echoed by the grotesque blob of writhing flesh that was Smythe. The wails started out distinct in his ears, but began to blend as their transformations progressed. Arthur was focused completely on him, the man’s face a grim mask of determination.
Balance shifted as White Knight’s forelegs shrank, throwing him forward at an awkward angle. Sounds and smells closed in, and his body weakened as muscle was burned away. He was dimly aware of a cooling below the waist, as if he had been partly submerged in a lukewarm pool. Then the remaining heat seemed to drain out through his forehooves and head, leaving him shaking and dazed.
An equine squeal drew his attention to Smythe – or at least, the thing that had been Smythe. Mostly animal from the waist up, the former mage had a distorted equine head and forelegs ending in hooves. Yet his bottom half was still recognizably human, just greatly enlarged to be in proportion.
“All done, Mallory.” Arthur had dropped his arms, and smiled at him like a benevolent father. “Do try to stand up.”
It took White Knight a moment to remember how to rise in human fashion. However, once he pushed up with his restored arms, he found himself adopting a slight squat that made balance easier. His legs still looked mostly equine, but his hind hooves had become considerably wider. Even squatting, he was still more than a head taller than the remaining human.
It took a moment to realize that the three digits on his thick, dark hands were rigid – more like elongated hooflets than fingers. They would spread and close slightly, allowing only minimal grasping ability.
“Excellent.” Arthur looked pleased with the results, then frowned as Smythe gave a piteous squeal. White Knight could almost feel sorry for the misshapen creature.
“You are quite useless to anyone like that, Herbert. Lucky for you that finishing things up takes very little effort.” The mage sent another bolt of magic that struck Smythe like a physical blow, knocking him backwards on the ground. The deformed creature thrashed wildly, gaining mass rapidly as the remaining human parts adopted fully equine shape. When the fae finally dissipated, Smythe was a medium-sized roan horse. White Knight’s blunted muzzle quivered, dulled nostrils still able to detect the warm scent of estrus. Smythe’s change of species had included a gender swap as well.
The new mare lay on her side, eyes wide and ears back as her chest heaved. After a minute or so, however, her obvious terror seemed to fade. Rolling up on her belly, she stood up quite naturally in the manner of a horse, shook her head, and snuffled curiously at them before dropping her head to lip at the sparse ground cover.
“You killed him.” White Knight was startled by the sound of his own voice, having spoken without really thinking about it. It was deeper than before, with a nasal quality that was unpleasant to his ears. Pronunciation was also off, hampered by the odd construction of his hybrid mouth. Arthur seemed to understand him anyway.
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic, Mallory. Herbert isn’t dead, he’s just different. Rather an improvement, actually. Never liked him much as a human, but he turned into a rather lovely mare. Though I suppose you’d appreciate that more if you were still all horse yourself.” The mage gave him a cold smile. “Something that is still a distinct possibility.”
If he was expecting some show of fear, Arthur was disappointed. White Knight had no fear of becoming a stallion again, though he realized that a return trip to the equine state would be total. He was balanced on a fine edge between the man he had been and the animal he might become. Either outcome was acceptable. All that really mattered to him was taking care of Arthur. He regarded the mage calmly. “Regardless of whether or not you get your Unicorn.”
“I’m a man of my word, Mallory!” Despite Arthur’s protest, there was a tinge of cold fury in his eyes that confirmed White Knight’s suspicions. “You of all people should not have the gall to question my honor!”
That was so humorous considering the source that White Knight felt his lips twitch in a smile. “I suppose I will have to rely on that honor. Very well, Arthur. I will lead you to your Unicorn. Little good that it will do you. You can’t shoot what you can’t see, even with my talent to help you.”
The mage nodded slightly, his cold smile returning. “You underestimate me again, Mallory.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a small silver flask. “Do you really think that someone of my power can’t solve so simple a problem?” Pulling out the cork, Arthur took a long drink from the flask and recorked it.
The change was so gradual that White Knight didn’t pick up on it at first. Lines began to fade from the man’s face and the faint stubble on his cheeks vanished. Years dropped away, then decades. Arthur’s clothing settled around his dwindling frame as he lost height and weight. When the transformation stopped, the man had become a rosy-cheeked youth with delicate features. White Knight blinked, and looked again. No, not a youth. A maiden.
The girl grinned at him. “Don’t be shocked, Mallory.” Her voice was soft and slightly breathy. “This is actually a fairly common potion devised for entertainment. There are quite a few variations, and I can assure you that even your precious Isold has sampled more than one herself. The effects are temporary, only a half-day or so. Still, that should be quite long enough to find my Unicorn.” She walked back to her horse and pulled a small crossbow from the saddlebag. “And kill it.”
The protective spells on the door to Arthur’s study might have been enough to deter curious servants, but they were child’s play for Isold. Of course, most of their curious servants were already in the stables or kennels. Her husband had been rather busy lately, according to Michal.
Isold had been mildly curious about Arthur’s sudden fascination with equine magic, but had been distracted herself by the affair with Mallory. Now, going through the papers and books scattered over the desk, the reasons for her husband’s curious activities, and more importantly, his callous toying with her emotions, were coming clear.
The man was insane.
With the reluctant help of the stable master and butler, she had grasped the extent of Arthur’s obsession. Now, looking over spells and incantations he had been working the past months, the target was clear. He was planning to capture and kill a Unicorn. Perhaps the last of its kind.
Rare even when Isold was a child, the magnificent creatures had faded from the world one by one. And magic had faded with them. The Valley was the last island of Fae energy surrounded by a vast ocean of dull technology. There were outlanders who no longer believed in magic at all, even among those who lived just outside the Valley. The situation was already undermining the authority and power of the Valley’s ruling class.
Isold would not have believed her husband to be such a fool. Even a blind man could see that killing the Unicorn would bring an end to centuries of magic. However, Arthur was blinded by greed. The sorcery that he needed the Unicorn horn for would grant him extended life and tremendous power. He would become the sole receptacle of magic, stripping all others, including her, of mage abilities. In essence, Arthur would become a god among slaves. And Isold did not like the idea of being a slave, though being the wife of a god did have some merit.
She searched through his papers, keenly aware that every moment counted. There was no time to tell anyone else, even if she wanted to. If anything was going to be done, she would have to do it alone.
Arthur’s delicate voice muttered curses as she slogged along behind White Knight in boots crafted for much larger feet. She was leading Smythe, having turned the two actual horses loose. There had been no conversation between them since they started back towards the Glade.
White Knight understood the mage’s plan now, even though he did not appreciate it. If legend held true, the Unicorn would find this false virgin irresistible. Having the newly-created mare along would only increase the attraction, for even White Knight was finding her scent distracting. Once he got Arthur close enough, the Unicorn would be hers for the taking.
If he got Arthur close enough. The alternatives were limited. Refusing to help would protect the Unicorn for now, but Arthur would almost certainly try again later. After reducing White Knight to a mindless gelding, or worse. Actually allowing the mage to kill the Unicorn was not an option he was willing to consider. The only practical choice was stopping Arthur permanently – by killing him. And that was a problem.
Not because of any ethical issues, of course. Arthur had destroyed many lives to satisfy his lust for power. He was just the sort of person White Knight had imagined enemies at the Crimea to be. Yet even those men he had fought against were following a cause. Joshua Leon Parker, age 19, two brothers and one sister, had essentially been murdered to provide a bit of cruel entertainment. No, White Knight would not hesitate to kill Arthur if he got a chance.
Getting that chance was the issue. For all of Smythe’s faults, he had been a powerful mage. Yet Arthur had been able to destroy him almost effortlessly. She was physically more fragile as a girl, but her powers more than cancelled out any advantage he might have. Not to mention the crossbow, which she had cocked and loaded in her right hand.
Which brought him back to the Unicorn. What did the creature plan to do? It had great power, but so did Arthur. And though it knew the mage had some method in mind, would it expect this trickery? Even a moment’s hesitation might be enough, for Arthur was an excellent shot.
The glade’s protective wall loomed in front of them far sooner than he would have liked. As before, White Knight’s talent could not locate a passage through dense brush and he was forced to stop.
“Step aside, but don’t come any closer to me.” Arthur had the crossbow aimed at his chest, and kept it there as she inspected the ground and the foliage. “I wondered why you came back.”
“There was no point in going on, anyway.” White Knight frowned and poked idly at the thorns with his hooflets. “Once I was out of the Valley and cut off from the magic, I’d have ended up a normal horse anyway.”
“I rather hoped you would figure that out.” The mage smiled. “There are enough men watching the border that you wouldn’t have made it past the forest edge. I didn’t put all this effort into you just to have you kill yourself trying to scale a mountain.”
“What about Isold? What happens if she finds out how you used her?”
Arthur laughed. “You are truly priceless, Mallory! She knew what the breeches would do to you even before you put them on. Why do you think she didn’t warn you?”
“Because you would have done something worse to me!” White Knight’s muzzle wrinkled in rage, and his hooflets clumped together tightly. “She did everything she could to save me!”
“She did everything I wanted her to do.” The girl’s eyes twinkled in amusement. “Come now, Mallory. I give you credit for more intelligence than that. Isold is a mage of the second order herself. If she had really felt so strongly about you, she could have kept you a man. But Mallory Greene was a serious complication in her life, perhaps even an embarrassment. How much better to have you as White Knight, a handsome and devoted stallion that will be admired and envied.”
“It wasn’t like that! Isold wouldn’t do that to me!”
“Ah, but she did do this to you.” Arthur shook his head. “I knew about the two of you months ago, long before your advances became brazen enough for me to notice on my own. How? Because she told me! Our distractions are usually with servants who can be removed discretely. But you were different. A friend.”
White Knight snorted angrily. “A friend you maneuvered into the affair. You have already admitted that you needed my talent in an animal form. Our whole friendship was a sham.”
Instead of denying this, Arthur shrugged. “You represent the key to great power for both myself and Isold. It took very little to convince her that you were disposable.”
“No! It was you! You tricked us both!” A plaintive note had crept into White Knight’s voice. Isold truly loved him, he was sure of it.
“You were tricked quite easily, weren’t you? Perhaps that is to be expected. But do you think Isold could have been so blind?” The mage sighed. “As if I would marry someone so dim.”
“This is all another trick.”
Arthur regarded him calmly for a moment, then smiled. “Very well. Prove me wrong. Help me get the Unicorn horn. Then, if you are so certain of my wife’s feelings, I will allow you to pursue her without opposition. I give you my word.”
White Knight snorted. “Your word? I suppose Smythe believed in the integrity of your honor?”
“I never promised Smythe anything except first shot at your stud services. Here he is, ready to breed. I can’t help it if you are not interested.”
In truth, White Knight was still stallion enough that the mare’s scent was quite interesting. Only his anger at Arthur kept instincts and desire at bay. And he had no illusions about the offer – if the mage let him return to the Manor at all, it would be as a dumb beast. Still, agreeing might help convince Arthur that White Knight was under control. “Very well. I am not in a position to barter, am I?”
“No.” She smiled grimly. “Remember that, Mallory. I can obliterate you with a thought.” Turning slightly, Arthur gestured at the brush. There was a dark flicker, and leaves and branches suddenly turned black and crumbled away like old ashes. In moments, there was a hole large enough for them to pass. “After you.”
As soon as White Knight was through the barrier, he saw the Unicorn by the pool. He stopped suddenly, his bulk blocking Arthur’s view.
“Keep moving, Mallory.” The mage sounded irritated, still inside the thick hedge.
“There is something here. Close. I need to focus on it.” As he spoke, White Knight made frantic gestures with his hands, trying to shoo the beast away. Run! He strained to project the thought. Run and hide! Then he staggered forward as a burning force slammed into his back.
“Don’t play games with me.” Arthur stepped out quickly and looked past, her eyes sweeping the glade. “And when I give you an order, you will follow it.”
Gritting his teeth against the pain, White Knight was relieved to see that the Unicorn had vanished. He rotated his shoulders and neck, trying to work out the remaining aches. “I thought you wanted me to use my talent. It does take concentration.”
“Fine. Then concentrate.” The girl had her crossbow up and ready, a look of cold determination on her face. “And make it quick.”
What to do now? He could lead Arthur off on a wild goose chase, following imaginary leads. But that was only a delaying tactic, one that could prove very dangerous if the mage caught on. Besides, the Unicorn had told him to bring Arthur here. It must have a plan, though it had not confided in White Knight.
He started for the pool. Any trail would start there, since the Unicorn had just bolted. As they got close, he caught a distant flash of white and pointed. “There!”
There was a sharp intake of breath to indicate Arthur had seen it as well, but then the Unicorn disappeared. No matter – White Knight’s talent was tracking it now. The creature had run to the left. He followed, eyes alert for movement. Another jog left, then back to the right. The Unicorn seemed to be running in a panic, yet White Knight could tell it was holding back.
Both he and Arthur began to falter as the hunt continued. This hybrid form combined the worst features of human and horse, and the shape that Arthur had adopted was designed for pleasure, not cross-country pursuit. Even so, the flashes of white became more frequent and closer, occasionally offering clear views of the magnificent creature.
White Knight was so focused on the hunt that he didn’t realize they were heading back to the pool until the blackened hole in the hedge barrier came into view again. For a moment, he thought the Unicorn was going to make an escape through to the broader expanse of forest outside the Wildwood. Instead, it turned back towards the glade, perhaps feeling safer in familiar territory.
Smythe had been abandoned for the chase, and was drinking from the pool when their quarry burst into the clearing ahead of them. The Unicorn stopped short, apparently startled by the mare, then started to lunge back towards the trees. That moment of seeming confusion was all that Arthur needed. White Knight felt the crackle of energy as it shot past him and struck the Unicorn squarely. It screamed and sprawled sideways on the damp grass, sending Smythe into a panic.
The mare bolted towards them, and as she ran past and out through the charred opening, White Knight was knocked forward by an explosion of pain in his back. There was no magic involved this time, however. Stunned, he looked down and saw a red stain spreading from the tip of a crossbow bolt that jutted out from his chest. He twisted halfway around as his legs gave out, mouth working but unable to speak. Arthur strode past, a satisfied smirk on her face.
He made a feeble attempt to grab at her, but his entire body seemed to be shutting down. She sidestepped him easily and continued towards the Unicorn without even a backwards glance. Dropping to hands and knees, he coughed up blood, the convulsion creating a fresh wave of agony. No! It couldn’t end like this! He struggled for breath, the punctured left lung gurgling.
As Arthur approached, the Unicorn flailed its legs in apparent distress. Its delicate head lifted a few inches from the ground and one crystal orb fixed on him. Despite his own mortal wound, White Knight felt even greater despair for having failed to protect the Unicorn.
The mage stopped about twenty feet from the stricken creature, and reloaded her crossbow. Its eyes sought her out, pleading wordlessly. Aiming the weapon, Arthur met that gaze with a cold smile. Yet she did not fire. A frown flickered across her face, and the crossbow wavered.
Ever so slowly, the Unicorn rolled up to its belly, never breaking the eye contact. It showed no sign of fear or injury now as it rose gracefully to all fours, still focused on the girl.
Your mage was clever, but not quite clever enough.
White Knight ‘heard’ the words in his head, and felt a surge of relief. Strength was draining quickly, but he managed to keep his head up. Arthur looked puzzled, then reached out hesitantly with her free hand. There was a look of wonder on her face, as if she were seeing the fabulous creature for the first time.
He was counting on our weakness for maidens. The Unicorn took a step closer to Arthur, lowering its head so that the tip of its horn was directed at her heart. The attraction works both ways. The same trick that he wanted to use against me will be his undoing. It moved another step closer to the mage, who seemed to be in a trance.
A sudden crashing sound came from the far side of the barrier. White Knight started to look back towards the hole, only to catch a flurry of movement from the glade. The distraction must have broken the Unicorn’s hold over Arthur, for she jumped back and fired the crossbow just as the beast lunged at her.
The Unicorn squealed in pain and went down in a heap. This was no act - the bolt was lodged deep into the upper part of its right foreleg. Arthur looked flushed and angry, but then sneered as she deliberately reloaded. “Almost, Unicorn. You almost had me. But almost is never good enough, is it?”
Faint whickers drifted from the opening behind White Knight, identifying Smythe as the source of the disturbance. But then he picked up a different sound, something much smaller than a horse coming through the blackened passageway. One of the predators that had been warily stalking him in the woods, perhaps. Too weak to move now, he could only hope that whatever form of death approached, it might also do harm to Arthur. His nostrils quivered. The air smelled of lavender.
Even with the familiar scent, White Knight was almost as surprised as Arthur was to hear Isold’s voice. The mage looked past him, mouth falling open, then managed a slight smile. “So you were the source of the distraction! Rather fortuitous, my dear.” She gestured at the fallen Unicorn. “I came close to losing everything we have worked for.”
“I assume the mare was Herbert? An improvement in every respect.” Isold moved into the outermost fringe of White Knight’s blurring vision. “Was it necessary to shoot Mallory? You did promise him to me, you know.”
His former lover’s casually-spoken words struck deeper and harder than Arthur’s bolt. Had she truly known all along?
Arthur shrugged. “I could not spare the energy to disable him magically, and I certainly don’t trust him. It was the expedient option.” She hefted the crossbow. “He is of no consequence. Once we have the horn, you can have any horse in the world you want.”
“I suppose.” Isold folded her arms and looked down at him. “Still, you did put so much work into crafting a fine stallion. It would be a shame to waste it. I can muster up a spell to make him an animal again – that should cure the injury, as well as eliminate any worries about trust.”
A look of surprise flickered over the girl’s face, quickly replaced by a grin. “I should have known you would delve into my workshop. Very well. If you are so set on having Mallory as your steed, do what you can. But best hurry. Magic will not raise the dead.”
Isold knelt next to White Knight, mumbling odd sounds he recognized to be part of a spell. Vision was closing in now, and by a cruel trick of fate, his last view of the world would be Arthur killing the Unicorn. He saw the crossbow raise up as Isold leaned close to his ear and whispered “Forgive me, my love.”
There was a crackle of energy, and Arthur suddenly went rigid. Her mouth worked in a silent scream of pain and she convulsed like a rag doll being shaken like a child. Jerking around to face them, she aimed the crossbow at Isold, only to have it fall from the dark, swollen lump that had been her hand. She was obviously going to be joining the likes of Joshua Leon Parker and all the other hapless servants who now graced his stables.
White Knight savored that moment as darkness closed in. He could feel Isold’s embrace and the touch of her cheek against his. Death came as a friend now, easing his pain and filling his nostrils with the scent of lavender.
“Incredible shot, Arthur!” Rupert Hudson shook his head in amazement as his host stepped back from the line. “Two bull’s-eyes in a row! Are you sure you aren’t cheating? I thought those eyes of yours were supposed to distort vision, not improve it.”
“It’s very rude to accuse the Master of the House of cheating, Rupert.” Isold’s eyes twinkled as she came up behind her husband and looped her arm through his. “Even if it is true. Shame on you, darling.” Then she stood up on tiptoe to whisper into his pear-shaped ear. “Turn off that damned talent of yours.”
White Knight grinned and then bowed his head slightly to the other man. “Sorry, old sport. Perhaps I am overcompensating. Let’s cancel that last shot.” He raised his pistol again and fired, this time clipping the side of the target. “It seems that you win this round after all. Thank you for keeping me honest, my dear.”
“A full time job.” She smiled at Rupert. “May I borrow my husband for a few minutes? Michal has a mare acting oddly, and wants Arthur to find out what the problem is.”
The man nodded, hiding his amusement fairly well. “I don’t suppose you could have a talk with my gelding? He has been quite impossible the past two days.”
White Knight wrinkled his nostrils. “It might be that revolting aftershave you have on. Makes you smell like a diseased wolverine.”
“It was a gift from my wife.” Rupert sniffed at his hand. “I’ll make sure to ‘accidentally’ drop the bottle. Please don’t let her know, Isold.”
The woman smiled and leaned her head against White Knight’s furred shoulder. “Never fear. I happen to be very good at keeping secrets.”
Trying hard not to laugh, White Knight headed for the stables. “Is it Marigold again?”
“Yes. I think she is just trying to get your attention.”
“Jealous, my dear?” He snuffled her hair as they walked. Although he still retained a very equine appearance and much of his mindset, White Knight was impersonating the Lord of the manor these days, not one of its stallions.
“Just remember, I can still do magic.” Isold raised an eyebrow. “If I find you cheating with that filly, you’re likely to wake up gelded.”
“I can’t help it if I am irresistible to more than one species.” He chuckled. “Anyway, I’ve talked her into accepting Joshua. I have a customer for mules.”
“That’s another thing. You’ve been awfully chatty with the animals. I think Michal suspects who you really are.”
“He knows.” White Knight grinned at his lover’s surprised expression. “Asked me point blank the day after the hunt. It seems that he recognized my hooves.” That was not really surprising, as White Knight had not changed all that much from the humanoid equine the real Arthur had created six months ago.
Isold sighed. “I did try to restore you. If that damned Unicorn hadn’t screwed with your mind you’d be my Mallory again.”
“That ‘damned Unicorn’ saved my life, remember? And you managed to give me working hands and a more manageable size.” He smiled. “Besides, this way we were able to convince everyone I am Arthur.”
She grinned suddenly. “I saw them in the back pasture yesterday. Just a quick glimpse before they vanished, but both mares are starting to show. If Arthur and Herbert breed true, it looks like we’ll have a whole herd of Unicorns in the Wildwood very soon.”
“That should assure the continuation of magic.” He stopped and turned to face Isold, nuzzling her forehead. “When I’m done with Marigold, why don’t we work on a new mage to make use of it?”