"Excuse me, sir. You must be with the Dedicated Cavalry, right?"
Sanders turned with a quizzical smile. When you are seven feet tall, dressed in a cavalry duty jacket and a cowboy hat, and are a palomino horse from the waist down, it is generally considered obvious that you are in the DC.
"Yessir." He continued the smile and saluted. "Lieutenant Liam Sanders are your service. And you are–?"
They stood in the high street of Ufham, home to the English training center of the DC. The day was clear and sunny, early summer. Sanders had been about to trot into the base car park, thence to his office.
"William Corliss," the man answered. He was tallish (for a man-simple), rangy, and dressed in outdoorsy tweeds. "And this is–" He looked around. A short figure stepped out from behind Corliss. He should not have been able to hide behind Corliss, not normally, but it was clear that normality did not apply here. "This is Derrullew."
Sanders tipped his hat politely and inclined his head. "Return, and we return," he said to the fay.
"Keep faith," Derrullew replied, kicking Corliss soundly on the ankle as he spoke, "and so do we." Corliss did not wince, but maintained a bright, brittle smile aimed at Sanders.
Derrullew stood a little under five feet tall and was so solidly built that, had he worn a full beard, Sanders would have instantly pegged him as a dwarf. However, he was beardless and, rather than wearing work clothes, tool belt, and heavy boots, he wore jeans, T-shirt, and a denim jacket. So far, so human, but his face had a decided Neanderthal cast, except for his eyes, which were larger than human and almond-shaped, not by virtue of an epicanthic fold, but from the shape of the sockets. And there were the ears.
A low fay of some kind. Sanders tried not to think the word "goblin" at all loudly. Some of them took pride in the designation, some took umbrage, some took it the way that would give them most advantage.
Hospitality, thought Sanders, that was the ticket. But not at the base, perhaps. It could open up complications, and the stable brownie could get touchy about a perceived intrusion. "May I offer you gentlemen some refreshment?" he said, wheeling back down the street and aiming for the Bow and Sabre. The pub would only be serving breakfast at this hour, but one glance at Derrullew and Mr. Irwin would produce brandy and a sirloin steak if necessary.
Five minutes later, the three were seated outside the Bow and Sabre, equipped with beers. Corliss and Derrullew sat on (opposite ends of) a bench and Sanders reclined on the ground before them with his own mug. It was dustier than he liked to get, but he remembered some quote about turning tragedies into comedies by sitting down and hoped it would work.
"William Corliss," he said. "Your name rings a bell, but–"
"I've enlisted in the cavalry," Corliss said.
"Of course. But you're early, Mr. Corliss. Induction and transformation isn't for two weeks."
"I know, but you see Derrullew and I have a– a deal, and we're anxious to go through with it as soon as possible." The fixed smile froze tighter and Corliss glanced sideways at Derrullew, who favored him with a brief glare.
Sanders was not anxious to have a single raw recruit stumbling around the base for two weeks before classes began, nor would Fletcher be any happier. But there were only five recruits this year, so you had to treasure each one, and not annoying Derrullew was probably worth a lot. "Suppose you tell me about it?" he suggested.
Corliss sighed, took a fortifying swig, and said, "My family has an ... arrangement with Derrullew. We can hunt in his forest as long as he doesn't catch us. Uh..." He seemed to need more fortifying.
"Isn't that the arrangement always and everywhere?" Sanders asked. "If you want to call it an arrangement?"
"Well, no, the arrangement is that, if he catches us, he just transforms us."
"Instead o' killin'," Derrullew explained, "the way I used to."
"Oh. Well, that's certainly an advance." Sanders took a fortifying swig of his own.
Derrullew nodded. "Very persuasive woman, she were. 'You want Adam's mark, you lay off the killin'.' So I Promised." Sanders could hear the capital letter. Derrullew grinned genially and jerked a thumb at Corliss. "His dad only spent the one year as a bear, and his uncle only three as a stag." Showing what an easy-going fellow he was. " 'Course, his great-grand'ther's still an oak tree, but it's not like he notices, and he were a nasty piece of work anyway."
Sanders concealed a shudder. "You are a shapecaster, then?"
Derrullew shrugged. "Trade favors with one."
Sanders relaxed slightly. "So the kind and length of transformation is according to the degree of the offense?"
" 'Course! Only fair! She wouldn't like it any other way. But then this one–" Another thumb-jab toward Corliss. "–has to go an' poach three salmon off me! From the hazelwood pool! Ohhh, yes! I had somethin' special in mind account o' that!"
Sanders took a deep breath into both rib cages and reminded himself he was a soldier. "Mr. Corliss," he asked, "what is the attraction?"
Corliss, who was shuddering but still smiling glassily, opened his mouth to speak, but Derrullew answered for him: "Sell 'em on for big favors, to those as want to raise up wizards. Big-time wizards. Cause no end o' trouble. Want big gains? Take big risks. Sometimes lose. Oh, yes! I had somethin' special in mind..."
Corliss nodded. "But we were able to reach our agreement."
"And what was this agreement?"
Corliss looked at Derrullew, but the fay only grunted and nodded back. "I get paid for my ... hunting mostly in favors. Some of them are transferrable. I gave all the transferrable ones to Derrullew, and in return he allowed me to pick the transformation, subject to his approval."
"Ah. And you picked us."
Sanders wondered if this enthusiasm was altogether flattering, this being preferred to Derrullew's "something special."
The fay smiled benignly. "Soft, I am, lettin' him keep the whole top half of his shape. On the other hand, it's a good, stiff 'un, no time limit, and it were a pretty pile of favors he swore over." He winked at Sanders and pointed at him. "You watch him, soldier! He got a silver tongue, and your arrow won't change that!"
An hour later, Sanders was in the parade field. With him were Corliss and Derrullew, Captain Fletcher and Dr. Blackholt. Corliss stood the regulation three yards away from the other four, naked, waiting for the sagitta. Derrullew had insisted on shooting the arrow himself, holding it was required by "the arrangement." Fletcher, after some careful thought, had handed it over, along with the bow.
Derrullew stared at the enchanted arrow, ran a finger over it several times, sniffed it, licked it, and finally nodded. He fitted it to the bow and Blackholt started the camera in his phone.
Thunk. Without a cry, Corliss fell over. Derrullew watched with interest as the man flailed, stretched, expanded, grew legs, horsehair, tail, then lay panting from four lungs.
He was now a dark, lean, dapple bay.
Corliss gathered his new legs under himself and stood in his new form. "Are we quits?" he asked Derrullew. Then he put his hand to his throat; his voice had sounded different.
"We're quits," the fay answered.
Corliss nodded and looked to Sanders and Fletcher. "Welcome, lad," Fletcher said. He and Sanders moved in to shake hands.
"Mr. Derrullew," said Blackholt, "might I ask you for your observations on Mr. Corliss's transformation? I have a scholarly interest."
"Sure, as long as you don't take too long about it." Derrullew moved off with the doctor, but turned back to Corliss for a moment. "Like to see you sneak about my woods in that shape! But good fortune to you, boy." He smiled. "Return, and we return."
"Keep faith, and so do we," Corliss answered and gave Derrullew his first salute.
Fifteen minutes later, Corliss had enough practice with his new legs to stagger into Fletcher's office, there to complete the paper work that would normally have been done before the transformation.
"Thank you," he said for the dozenth time, "for letting me in early. I don't want to think what it would have been like, waiting two more weeks with that old– With him hanging about, gloating and threatening."
Fletcher nodded. "You are quite welcome. I'm not going to start you on real training until the others get here, but you should keep busy and start picking things up. We'll figure something out. When the others do arrive, you'll find you're one of the older ones. Most are twenty, plus or minus a bit. In return for your early entrance, I'm going to ask you to give them the benefit of your experience, both from the two weeks' head start and from life." He traded glances with Sanders. They reckoned Corliss had quite a sum of experience.
"Teacher's aide? Yessir. Happy to, sir."
"Good. Now: 'Return, and we return.' Was that just good manners, or do you intend to return to your old haunts?"
"Oh, I'll return, sir. My family and Derrullew have been entertaining each other for generations. Fourteen years will be no time at all to Derrullew, and I know him. He'll just loaf through it. But I'll spend them sharpening my skills. I'm willing to bet I can sneak through his forest in this shape!"
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2017