Danny trotted out of the barracks and pushed his gait up to a canter. He felt several kinds of happy at once.
Earlier this morning, with the rest of the expedition, he had marched out of the passage in Ufham Wood, back into the cavalry base. There, he had unpacked Nuck, Frou, Verdi, and Bisou, the four horses in his charge, watered them, rubbed them down, and turned them loose in the corral. They had gone with grateful sighs, Nuck and Bisou pausing to nuzzle him in the chest.
He had turned to stow the gear they and he had been carrying, and was pleased to find that Eowyck, or more likely one of the under-brownies, had whisked it all away. A treat that you couldn't count on. Nice to know someone or something was glad to see him back. He said a thank-you to the air, adding, "It's good to be home." And it did feel like home, just as much as his parents' farm.
Then to barracks and his first shower in months. Towel dry, then straight out the door, into the sun and into town. Still naked, but this made no difference on a hot day, when you were a horse from the waist down. He wouldn't be the only naked pony-boy at the pub, or the first to get there. He would, however, smell better than them, thanks to the shower.
Several kinds of happy at once: he was happy to be home, happy to be clean and cool, happy to have leave time ahead. More importantly, he was happy to have completed his first expedition. At long last, he was past being a trainee. He was, without argument, a fully qualified member of the Grand Norman Dedicated Cavalry, the King's man-horse, ready to charge off into the alter-zones on the King's errands. He was seventeen and bursting with the desire to be grown up. He was beginning to believe he was.
He wondered if he liked beer yet. He hadn't last time he had tried, but that had been months ago. He'd try it and, if not, pass the mug into the first willing hand and order a cola. Then start looking for his family.
He came cantering into the car park and checked. There was Captain Fletcher. But–
Danny had last seen Captain Fletcher two or three hours ago, trotting off to his own destination, Danny knew not where, with a cheery, "See you later, lads!" and a wave. He, like Danny, had been clad in nothing but harness and sweat, his hair gathered back in a ponytail, as Danny's was (though Fletcher's was white, not ruddy brown), his beard clipped with scissors a week ago in camp and looking it, his dun equine body dark with perspiration.
Now Fletcher stood before him, in a patch of shade at the edge of the car park, neatly clad in a sports shirt and slacks, fanning himself with a floppy hat that was not a cavalry stetson. The white hair was neatly clipped and the snowy bush of beard reduced to a goatee and mustache.
But the main thing, which blinded Danny to all these details, was that Fletcher stood there on two legs, a man-simple under six feet high.
"Hello, m'boy," said Fletcher, grinning at Danny's expression. "Spell wore off after all this time. Don't worry. I'm just on my way to Blackwood for a booster shot."
Danny had embraced his transformation enthusiastically. He had laughed as he first tried to rise on four legs. He had spent this year running ever deeper into the life he had chosen. He had once had a nightmare in which the transformation had worn off, leaving him tiny and tippy, dodging about the barracks under the hooves of his mates. And here–
Danny was young but not stupid. Several details came fighting through the wave of panicky horror that tried to choke both sets of lungs: Never mind transformation, the barbering was mighty quick work. And "my boy" rather than "lad"? And "Blackwood" rather than "Blackholt"? And were voice and face quite...?
"Don't tease the lad, Tom," said a blessedly familiar voice, and Captain Fletcher, on his own proper set of horse legs, came clopping into the car park. He was damply clean like Danny, and wore a light sports shirt like the other, merely human Fletcher. (Danny had seen his captain naked, harnessed, soaked, dusty, in all kinds of uniform, but never before, he reflected, in civilian clothes.) However, his hair was still in a ponytail and his beard was freshly laundered but no shorter.
"Tom, this is Cavalryman Daniel Brice of the class of 'Seventeen and their best archer. One of the best I've seen." Danny felt the blood rush back into his face and mount into a pleased blush. He grinned and saluted the man. "Danny, this is my brother, Tom Fletcher. Who teases."
"Pleased to meet you, sir," said Danny.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Brice," said the other Fletcher, reaching up to shake hands. "My word, you did turn pale. I'm sorry. I saw your confusion and couldn't resist playing along a bit."
"We're not twins," Fletcher added. "Just a strong family resemblance."
"Yes," said Tom Fletcher. "I'm the older. You can tell by the more responsible behavior." His brother snorted.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2018