John stepped out of the horse trailer and looked around. Still no cars. Beyond the edge of the road was a patch of scrub forest. Past that lay the outermost edge of Sterk, then the rest of Sterk, and then the sea. It was winter; the leaves were down, and you could see a long way into the wood. Level rays from the early sunset drove almost all the way to the houses.
His friends handed duffles out to him. He started hitching them to his harness. The driver came out and helped, which was polite but unnecessary. After all, he'd taken classes in exactly this sort of thing. "All set, pony-boy?" she asked. He wasn't sure she knew his name.
"Happy Christmas, then!" She turned back to the lorry.
"Happy Christmas, jockey-girl!" He did not know her name either.
"Happy Christmas, Buckjack!" called his mates, shutting the horse trailer door on themselves. "See you next year!"
"Next stop, Limstow," the driver called. The lorry roared away.
To business. John pulled out the special camo T-shirt, then stripped off his jacket and undershirt and stuffed them in the remaining backpack. He paused for a moment, bare under a bright winter overcast, and wondered what would happen if he neglected to put on the camo and a car drove by. Perhaps it would kick up a spray of snow at just the right moment. Perhaps everyone in the car would be arguing about where to stop for supper, distracted. But it might be something more drastic, like "What the bloody hell is that!?" followed by a car crash with no survivors. Best not to find out. He slipped on the camo shirt.
A buckskin horse, under a saddle blanket and a load of packs, stepped into the forest. It was an odd sight, certainly, but in no way supernatural, paranormal, or magical. And the horse seemed to know what it was about. Anyway, there was no one to see.
The bit of forest was called "the Oakwood" by the people on Oakwood Street just beyond, but to John it was just "the woods" and a feature of his life, since he had grown up on Oakwood Street—a more constant feature than almost any other, he reflected. Certainly more constant than himself.
There was a skittering noise in the branches, as of a squirrel, but it was not a squirrel. It dropped straight out of the trees, landing in the snow at his forefeet, and looked up at him. It looked like a skinny woman, middle-aged in appearance, about the size of a small cat. She wore dark furs, probably mole, and a festive winter cape of red squirrel, with a train of tails. He had seen her occasionally all his life, but never knew her name. A lot of them were chary of giving out even use-names.
"Return and we return," he said politely.
"Keep faith and so do we," she rattled back quickly. "Returned, but not unchanged," she added. He wondered what she saw, the horse or him? Or both? "Thought you lot wore cowboy hats," she said, surveying him with solid black eyes that were too large for human proportion but quite typical of an animal that size.
"Yes, ma'am, we do," he replied. It was hanging on his backpack. He reached back, fished around, found it, and put it on. "Here."
She laughed like branches creaking. "Now it's got holes for the horse's ears." It did not really. "Good shirt. Happy Christmas." And she was up a tree.
"Happy Christmas," he returned in roughly the right direction, and walked on.
A few minutes later, Valerie Weldon looked out her kitchen window and saw a horse in the back yard, just emerged from the woods as shown by the tracks in the snow. It was a buckskin, creamy brown with brown-black legs, mane, and tail, bearing bags and packs. It wore a stetson with neat holes cut for the ears. She shivered, braced herself, and stepped out the door.
"John?" she asked of the horse.
"Hello, Mum," it replied in John's voice—almost John's voice. There was that new tone to it, a deep ringing note under the familiar voice. "Just a minute."
The "horse" tossed its head to one side, flipping off the hat, which it caught in its mouth and lay down on the snow. Then it twisted its neck and a backpack fell off, apparently out of its mane. Finally, it seemed to be trying to bite its own neck. There was a rippling like hot air over a summer road, and there was John. He stood bare to the waist, holding a T-shirt in his hands. Below the waist, he was still, and would forever be, a buckskin horse.
" 'Scuse me," he said, bending over the backpack in the snow. What was that dark stripe down his spine? He pulled an undershirt out of the pack and put it on. He then donned a red-brown jacket but seemed in no hurry with it. He must no longer feel the cold the way a– a human would.
Valerie Weldon felt her stomach knot. She wanted reinforcements and remembered she had them. "Dominic!" she called into the house. "Dom! John's here."
Outside, John saw an upstairs window open and his father lean out. He blinked. John's dad had been slowly balding as long as John could remember. He had been wondering how far it would have progressed. (His interest was not merely academic. If he had inherited these genes from his father, not even his transformation would save him, though hair restorer might.) But the actual degree of balding could not be observed now, because his father had shaved his head. He had also grown a heavy mustache. "Dad! Your hair!"
"John! Your legs!" his father returned. "Just a minute. I'll be right down."
John picked up hat and pack, and moved to the kitchen door. His parents came out to him, in boots. "Feet not cold?" his father asked, looking down at his hooves.
John smiled. "Not really. Ever see a horse in galoshes?"
"No, come to think of it. Leg-warmers, yes." John's father was a trader, doing import/export in both le monde-majeur and le monde-mineur, often taking his family with him when he judged it safe. He had a thorough, unhurried way of looking goods over, his "assessing eye" John privately called it. He was running it over John now. His mother had been present the day he was transformed, but his father had been away on a trip, so this was the first time he had seen his son in the new shape, in person.
John took the opportunity to look his dad over. He was by no means short, a little under six feet, but now John towered over him, being near seven. Somehow, he had not expected that. He remembered, though, looking down at his mother from his new height, minutes after the transformation. He remembered her tears, with something like horror behind them.
Now, months later, her eyes still registered some sadness. His father's gave away no mood, another trader's talent. "Phone pictures just don't convey it," he said finally. "By St. Nick, don't you look like Jeff, though!" St. Nicholas was his father's favorite saint, being patron of sailors, merchants, and children, all three areas that touched on his life.
"They both look so much like you, now, Dom!" his mother proclaimed, with a brightness that was a touch artificial, and of course ignoring the thousand pounds of horseflesh each brother now incorporated.
His father chuckled and ran that assessing eye along John's barrel and over his legs. "Is that good or bad?" he asked her. In answer, she kissed him on the side of his shaven head. John relaxed slightly. He realized a bit of tension had left the muscles where man's back became horse's neck, as if he were no longer holding himself together quite as anxiously.
"I like your new look, Dad," he offered, hoping to hear "I like your new look, too,"
A quick smile. "Got tired of always restocking restorer."
Oh, well. "Is Jeff here yet?"
"Not till tomorrow morning," his father answered. "But Chloe and her family are here." Chloe was John's sister. They must be out shopping or visiting, or he'd have heard the children. "Peter comes tomorrow evening." Peter was his younger brother, away at St. Ambrose, a boarding school for the Sundered.
"Oh, John," said his mother, "show your dad the shirt."
John held up the camo T-shirt. It was white, with a few almost calligraphic lines and a fawn wash on the front, making the semi-abstract portrait of a horse head, a buckskin.
Dom Weldon took the shirt, ran the assessing eye over it, felt of it, and even seemed to listen to it. "Good materials. Hand drawn, not printed. Heavy enchantment, complicated. What's it do, glamour?"
"Yessir." A paternal eyebrow raised at the trained reflex "sir." "I wore it through the woods. You can see a long way in from the highway, in winter, and anyway I wanted to try it out."
"Show him," his mother urged. That meant disrobing again. As he obeyed, he reflected how being naked meant nothing at all to him back at the base, but made him feel distinctly uncomfortable in front of his own parents. Odd, when you considered he was, in literal terms, always naked from the waist down, now.
Still, it was, perhaps, nice that they were taking an interest in his life in the Cavalry. He donned the shirt, then picked up his hat and put it on. They laughed at the way the horse appeared to flip the hat onto its head, where the brim developed holes for the ears. He then put the pack back on, so that the horse appeared to pick it up with its teeth and tuck it invisibly into its mane like an equine stage magician. Then off with the pack and the hat and the T-shirt, and on with the undershirt again.
While he changed, John told his father the price, which included repair service and insurance. His father nodded. "Very good value," he said. Much of the trade he ran was in enchanted items.
"The Cavalry subsidizes it."
"Yessir." A smaller eyebrow lift. "There are a couple of glamourists in Ufham that do camo and disguise work for the Cavalry."
"Anyone there do seemings?" Seemings fooled touch and space as well as sight and sound. You could fit an elephant in a briefcase with the right seeming. But such were orders of magnitude rarer and more expensive; more often, they were got by trading big favors.
"No sir, not that I've heard." Such things might well be kept secret.
"Could you save up and get a belt or pants that let you seem human?"
The tension returned to his gut. He found his feet were dancing in place and stilled them deliberately. "No sir, it wouldn't work. People have tried, but the spell doesn't cast or fails easily."
"There are belts for mermen," his father persisted, "that let them look human and walk land. And Scandinavian mermaids have skirts they wear to go ashore."
"I know, sir. No one knows why this is such a stubborn transformation."
"Yes, blindly copied from enemy mages back in World War Two." Which was a deed of dubious merit, the tone implied. Or was John being too sensitive?
"If we find them again," John offered, "maybe we'll learn how to control the transformation better." Meantime, I'd still rather be half horse. He felt the sentence floated visibly above his head, like a cartoon balloon.
His father gave an exasperated sigh that John had learned to dread before he could talk and said, "Yes, we'll hope." So much for liking the new look.
"Where shall I put my bags?" he asked.
"We've got the garage set up for you and Jeff," his mother said, "like last year." Though last year only Jeff had stayed in the garage.
It looked much as it had last year, only with two gym mats instead of one, both provided with pillows and unnecessary quilts and blankets. There was a floor lamp, a small TV, and a pair of desk lamps on the counter of the shop area, made more study-like by the addition of a tablecloth. Personal effects such as books and DVDs had been brought down from his old room and Jeff's. He resolved to squeeze up there and see his former bedroom while he was here. There was, of course, no reason why it should still be a bedroom, unless it was a guest room.
"And there's a pair of space heaters," his mother pointed out, "if you need them."
"We should be fine, Mum, unless there's a bad cold snap," John assured her. "We hold more heat now." That line of argument had not worked for Jeff, and John did not expect it to work for him. As on the previous Christmas, there would be a silent battle, his mother turning the space heaters on every time she came into the garage, Jeff, and now him, turning them off later. "Thanks. It has everything our stalls have." He began unloading himself.
His father stepped forward to help, then stopped. Not wanting to interfere, or not wanting to touch his transformed son? Instead, he conversed. "They can't seem to decide. They put you in stalls, like horses, but the stalls are in barracks, for soldiers."
John dropped a duffle on the bed mat and spread his arms, indicating his new body. "Ambiguity is the name of the game, Dad. We're men and horses both at once, Captain Fletcher says. Jeff tells me, Captain Alain says we have two natures now, we've 'grown horsehood,' grandi en chevalité, and can't leave it behind anymore than our ... legs." According to Jeff, Captain Alain actually used a variety of anatomical comparisons.
"It is your legs," his father said.
"Exactly. But the 'stalls' are really more like dorm rooms."
His mother sighed. "I'll get some tea on," she said. As she left, she turned on the space heaters.
His father stayed and made a pretense of helping unpack. But clearly he was there to talk. "You're happy with your choice? I know! I know! It's too late anyway. But I need to know how it is with you."
John felt his eyes prick. He blinked it away. Big fierce warrior-stallions shouldn't cry in front of their fathers. "I am happy, Dad, yes. No regrets." But then he sighed and sat on the bed mat, rump down but forelegs still up and braced. He leaned over and braced his arms on his foreleg knees. He had barely thought about this shift of posture, but half his mind noticed that his father seemed disconcerted. "It's a little complicated," he admitted.
His father stared at his equine body, as if thinking his pose was where the complication lay, but nodded for him to go ahead.
"I was very un-happy, of course, when Donna turned me down." It sounded like a lie; he should have said "desperately," not just "very." But that would sound like a lie, too. He knew: he had tried saying it in private. Nothing from so far inside could come out and still sound true. "I'm still–" I'm still unhappy? That felt like a lie as he formed the words, but this time because he wasn't sure it was true. "I'm still not happy about it." There. "But I felt better for joining the Cavalry." Not felt good, but better, less bad.
His father said nothing, but nodded again for him to go on. His face was a stony blank, as it was whenever Donna came up, ever since her refusal. That new mustache made it even harder to read.
"It was so simple at first!" John went on. "I wanted what you and Mum have: to marry and go traveling with my wife, later with my kids. But Donna ended that." His father started to say something, but stopped. "So I concentrated on the travel part.
"Dad! The places they go! They're still mapping out the Road to the Sun! They think the Brendan Reach and the Yggdrasil Reach might connect! Have you read about the Traveling Gate? The Halflands? The Genesis Partition? There are dozens of places they haven't even named yet, just numbers on passage maps! This Earth is like a grain of sand in an oyster, and there's pearl all around it!"
His father nodded and a gleam of wanderlust passed through his eyes, but he said, "But the Standard Cavalry, the Infantry, the Navy—they go there too, all of you together. Why transform?"
Unconsciously, John stood and stared out the window in the garage door. He did not know he loomed, or see his father take a small step back. "Because I have a taste for the strange, Dad. Inherited it." He was still staring out the window and did not see the flicker of answering hunger in his father's eyes. But he cast his own eyes down to the floor now and added, "And because it closed the book on a story with a sad ending." He glanced at his father's face and saw it stony again.
But his words, after a pause, were said gently: "Jeff changed. His personality, I mean. He isn't easygoing, the way he was. There's a new sharpness. Energy, too, which is good, I guess. But I have to wonder. Have you changed? We can't really tell from phone calls and emails."
And, John knew guiltily, there had not been many of those. "Oh, yes," he admitted. "But I don't know how much is from the spell and how much would have happened if I'd joined Standard or the Infantry." His father waited, wanting more details.
John remembered his eyes pricking. I cry easily now, he thought. I jump at surprises. I blush. I pop off when I'm mad, if I'm not careful. Darneley, Charliehorse, says it's the same for him. But he says he feels things more now. And I know he means he feels more alive. Good for him. But– I don't feel things more, as far as I can tell, I just can't keep them in as easily. Do I tell Dad that?
"It's different for everyone," he said. "You know Horsepower, Renny Wardley?"
"The big one?" his father asked.
"Yes. He's a draft horse. The change made him calmer. Draft horses are like that. For me..."
"For you?" said his father, after a bit.
"Well, I can't be objective, can I? Probably a lot like Jeff. Energy. But I'm not moping." His father nodded, pensively. "Everybody changes as they grow up, Dad," he offered.
His father glared at him. "Grow up? You grew ... sideways! Grew a horse! Grew away! Why'd you have to stop being human?"
"Because I was no good at it!"
The stony face was back, but it looked ... eroded. And there were pinpricks of wet in his father's eyes. Maybe, John thought, he was less transformed than he thought. Maybe Renny was calmer because he wasn't worried about dying now. Maybe he himself was more emotional because of what had happened before the transformation. Maybe he had inherited more character traits from his father than a taste for the strange.
"That's not true," his father said, gentle voice from the stone face again. "We never thought that. Maybe other people thought that. Not us."
After a little silence, John said, like one making an offer, "I still am human. I'm just a horse, too."
His father nodded. "Of course human. What other creatures would fret and argue like this?" And for the first time since the transformation, his father touched him, reached out and hugged him.
His father then held him by the shoulders at arm's length and looked him up and down. "Strong, brave man." Then he reached down and clapped John on an equine shoulder. "And a fine horse, if I'm any judge." He was not. Dominic Weldon traded in many things, but not horses. Not that this was the point. "So that's what we go on with."
"Thank you, Dad. Um. Why do you say I'm brave?"
"Because you went to the Cavalry and said, 'Shoot me in the chest and change me forever, then send me to work for you out on the edge of creation for fourteen years.' We can argue about whether that was sensible or not, but it certainly took nerve!"
John felt himself blushing. "Thank you."
The exasperated sigh came back. "Why did you think you were a failure as a human being just because–"
In the nick of time (or had she been listening?) his mother opened the door to the house and announced, "Tea!"
John sat squeezed between the wall and the dining table, which had been shoved against the opposite wall. This was just as it had been when Jeff came home after his transformation; as horses, they were only of mustang or Arabian calibre, but still out of dining room scale. When Jeff arrived, should they volunteer to get out of the way and sit in the living room? Before they were asked? Or maybe one in the living room, taking it in turns.
"Uncle Jeff!" Something small and active scrambled onto his back and bounced down hard where back met waist. He got hugged.
"No, Val, it's Uncle Jack." It was his sister, Chloe. There was a breathless note to her voice. She was seeing him thus for the first time, as were Valerian and Lucie, his nephew and niece, and Axel, Chloe's husband. He turned to smile at her. She smiled back. Mischievously? He continued the turn until he was facing, as well as he could, his rider and nephew, Val.
"Uncle Jack! You grew a beard!" John thought this a bit of an understatement, but Val, who was five, seemed more surprised by this than by the horse back he sat astride.
"I grew more than that," he answered Val, nodding along his own length.
Val nodded too. "Mummy told us."
Now Lucie, who was six but quieter (a low bar), clambered onto him, behind her brother. Maybe seating would not be a major issue, if he and Jeff were willing to act as couches. "Hi, Lucie."
"You're beautiful, Uncle Jack," she told him, stroking the stretch of fawn flank between her and Val. It twitched involuntarily under her light touch and he felt himself blushing around a silly grin. There was a flash. Chloe had taken their picture.
"So we have two, now, right?" Lucie asked. "Uncle Jeff didn't change back?"
"That's right." No conservation of horses here.
Val looked to Dominic Weldon at the end of the table. "Are you going to change, Pépé?" He seemed to think it might be a good idea.
John's father's eyes popped. "Ah, no. No plans to."
"You, Daddy?" Val asked Axel, who had been been gazing silently at John with a slightly quizzical smile.
"No, thank you," Axel replied. "How are you doing, John?" He reached over to shake hands. John said he was fine. Axel continued the quizzical gaze. "I want to ask you what it's like, but I don't suppose you can tell me."
"That's right. I can't even properly remember what my old shape felt like." His mother made a tiny distressed noise and he wished he hadn't spoken.
"Can I change?" Val asked.
"No!" John's mother nearly yelped.
"You have to be grown up," Chloe told him smoothly. "Like with driving a car."
"That would be an interesting combination to see," Axel murmured. He took the seat by John's tail. "How did you get here?"
"Customized horse trailer," John answered. "They dropped me off on the highway, on the other side of the woods. I was the first. They've got three other guys they're dropping off."
"Busy night. But aren't there six in your class?"
"Yes, but the other two are staying in Ufham." Feeling a little like steward and airliner combined, he passed the sandwich plate down his back to his passengers, snagging one for himself first.
"Is that enough?" his mother asked. "That can't be enough."
Nor was it. "I'll get myself some oatmeal later," John said.
"I thought you ate grass stew," said Lucie.
"Hay stew, in winter. We call it mulch. And not on vacation I don't."
"And you eat sandwiches," Val noted. "It's like in that Narnia story. Each stomach wants breakfast. Or tea."
"Right. But I can't chew like a horse, so we stew the grass. Or eat oatmeal."
"How do you pass it around inside you?"
"It takes care of itself." Niece and nephew both stared down at his sides, clearly thinking about plumbing.
Val leaned over to the left and pressed his hand against the flank. "Is that the horse heart?" he asked, feeling the beat.
"Yes. I have two, now."
"Does it love us, too?" This was asked with the same factual curiosity as the question about stomachs. Axel and Chloe chuckled. John heard nothing from his parents' side of the table. His eyes were on the kids, head and torso twisted back, and he did not glance over.
Instead, he smiled, which required only a little force, and slowly rolled on his side, keeping his human torso upright and taking care to keep his legs from getting tangled in the legs of the dining table. With one arm, he gently pushed the children down the side of his horse belly, into the space between front and rear legs, and he curled around them like a cat around her kittens. They giggled and looked up at him.
It was now possible, barely, for him to lean down and around to hug them with the one arm. Awkward, but possible, and worth it. "I always love you with all the hearts I've got." They giggled again and hugged back.
"I'll start the oatmeal!" his mother declared, rising and leaving quickly.
"I can do that, Mum," he called into the kitchen.
"That's all right," she called back, and he realized she was escaping.
"You did not get your taste for the strange from your mother," his father said quietly. A double-natured cuddling and talk of two hearts. Too weird.
This passed over the heads of the children, almost literally, since they had launched from their new position to crawl under the dining table. "Get outta there!" Axel roared with mock ferocity, getting down on hands and knees and pushing in himself. John carefully pulled his legs back under him and resumed his upright crouch.
"Well," said Chloe briskly, "the strange becomes familiar with time."
Mr. Weldon glanced down at the dining table. Squeals, giggles, and daddy-roars issued forth, making good acoustic cover. "She feels like she's running out of sons. Sometimes I feel that way, too."
John alarmed himself by rearing a bit, though seated. "I'm still your son!" he protested. He had not meant to snap, not exactly, but he had. "So is Jeff," he added more quietly, but the hubbub under the table had stilled. How much had who heard? He watched anger flare over his father's face, then ebb as he bottled it up, the way he usually did. Usually. If not, you were in trouble. So he wasn't, but he still muttered, "Sorry."
"It's just what it feels like," his father said. "But we go on from here." It sounded more grim, less positive, than it had in the garage.
There was a mutter under the table, and a squeal and a giggle. Axel was successfully distracting. He'd probably be good at explaining, too, when distraction wore off.
Chloe rose. "Tea was what I needed. Now it's back to shopping. John, are you willing to play beast of burden and come with me?"
John rose too. "No playing about it. Part of the job description. I need to shop too."
"Love you," called Chloe from the door, cheerful, airy. It was a farewell the family often used.
John started to worm his way through the human-scale furniture after her. He looked back at his father, whose expression was midway between sadness and that trader's assessing gaze. Reckoning up losses? "Love you," he said, more soberly.
His father nodded, still looking sad. "With both hearts. Love you too."
The early winter night had fallen. Chloe looked John over by streetlight. "I know you're a big furry beast, now, that holds the heat and all, but don't you want your jacket?" She had donned hat and coat as she left, but he was still in his T-shirt. He nodded and wheeled, heading for the side door to the garage. She trailed after.
"Is it okay," she asked, "to joke around that way and call you 'big furry beast' and 'beast of burden'? Jeff just jokes back."
"It's okay. I just don't feel jokey at the moment. We talk that way all the time at the base. I am a beast and a man and your younger brother. So, you seem to have it all together, big sister: should I have not come home?"
"No! Then they really would be losing you. And so would I, and Axel and the sprats. You're in the military. In the expeditionary forces. We're going to see little enough of you."
John plucked his jacket off the mat, shrugged into it, and put on his stetson. "Love the hat," Chloe said. "I'd like to get everyone cowboy hats for Christmas, but I think Mum might pitch a fit." John smiled wanly, picked harness up, and began stepping into and buckling it. "What're you doing?" Chloe asked.
"Beast of burden. This is how we do it."
"Let me help with that." She reached toward a distant buckle.
"We're supposed to be able to do it all ourselves."
"And you can, I'm sure, and that'll be great when you're in some howling wilderness in the out-zones But we're just going shopping, so let me." He let her.
They stepped out into the street and she squared her shoulders. He realized he had, too. "Forward," she proclaimed.
Oakwood Street curved around the edge of Sterk, from the actual oak wood down to the shore and some of the docks, sprouting little courts and side-streets along the way. Between the residential section where they now stood and the docks lay a stretch of stores and restaurants, all part of the secret Grand Norman enclave. John and Chloe walked toward it and toward the scores of neighbors John had last seen from aboard two legs.
"Is there talk about me on the street?" he asked. "Any different from the talk about Jeff?" Chloe and Axel lived in Durham, not Sterk, but she had certainly been on Oakwood Street more than John had in the past half year.
"A lot of it the same talk stirred up again." John remembered it. He and Peter had heard some of it said directly to their faces, the rest repeated to them by friends, with or without sources being cited.
On the good side, there was "Very patriotic! What a sacrifice!" "It's like a knighthood, isn't it? A lot of 'em are knights!" "Good pay." "It's like becoming a super-hero."
On the bad side, there was "It's unnatural!" "Couldn't pay me enough." "Must have had some terrible disease." "Why would anyone do that if they didn't have to?" followed by speculation about why one might have to: "He must have had a terrible falling out with his family and they never want to see him again" or "he never wants to see them again." "It's a kind of exile." And the favorite: "Blackmailed into it. Someone wants to make sure he fathers no children in their family. I mean, they can't, can they? Not children."
And the stereotypes and misapprehensions: "They're monks, aren't they? Their own order? I mean, they have vows." "They're a kind of fay, I heard." "They all become mages." "Terrible tempers, especially drunk." "Randy as hell. Don't let 'em near the girls."
And the jokes: "Good thing no one on the street keeps horses!" "Is Dom Weldon going into horse trading, do you think? Wants a family expert?" "Or breeding stock?"
The jokes and negative comments got back to John and the rest of the family through friends (or "friends") anxious to report how they had stood up for Jeff and the Weldons, or to report the enormities of common enemies, or to observe entertaining anger from a safe moral position.
John, living at home at the time, participated in several heated arguments on his brother's behalf. Peter got into an inconclusive fist-fight with another boy. And Dominic Weldon challenged Raymond Beaman to a duel, in the street in front of the Driftwood pub. Beaman had proposed that Dominic had, in effect, thrown Jeff away for being lazy. Arrangements, made at shouting volume, specified bare fists to first fall—right here, right now, bucko!—when Beaman reckoned up relative adrenalin levels, "realized" that Dominic was not joking, and backed off with apologies about "misunderstanding." No one had circulated the idea again. Such a challenge was technically illegal, but Dame Sarah would never have deigned to notice one so minor—and, John thought, one so excusable.
Then, last Christmas, Jeff came home on hooves, a fantastic figure even to people living next to a fay-wood. Not a fay himself, not a mage, not raging, clearly not exiled. But not just the old Jeff Weldon on four legs, either. Old Jeff had been witty, affable, and laid back; new Jeff was witty and cheery, but had sharp comebacks and was busy. He had made himself very visible, putting up outside decorations, first at the Weldons' house, then at their neighbors', rearing to upper windows when necessary and sometimes acting as mobile and intelligent step ladder. He organized snowman-building, snowball fights, and rides for the kids, starting with Peter, often while wearing a life-sized pair of toy antlers. He took part in the street caroling despite not being asked to join—but then, no one asked the thousand-pound bass at the rear with three singing siblings on his back to leave, either. John had seen it all up close, helping with the decorating as well as the singing, joining in the family conferences on waging the "charm campaign."
After New Year's, when Jeff had gone back to St. Eloi in Normandy, the family reckoned the campaign a success: the good comments were louder, the bad ones fewer. And Chloe pointed out to John that the campaign had worked on them, too. The whole family felt better about Jeff's transformation, now. John remembered thinking about Jeff, still missing him but regarding his new life with benign interest. Then Donna dumped him.
"As for new talk," Chloe said, "I think you heard it all after you left."
John nodded. He and his family had kept his decision to enlist private until after the fact. All the yelling had happened inside the house. Afterward, the news had to come out. Some people had thought Dominic Weldon was spending sons recklessly, to look posh or to gain some business advantage with the military. ("And what does Valerie think, I'd like to know?")
Many more wondered what was up with the Weldon boys, transforming one after another. Some began asking Peter whether or when he was going to enlist and change.
And most had immediately blamed John's action on Donna's rejection.
"What did Mum and Dad say?"
"They defended you, just as they did Jeff. They said, 'It's his choice, it worked well for Jeff so he's following his example, he's doing well, he feels great.'" John could not see Chloe's face, but her voice started picking up strain. "But they wonder if there's something wrong with the Weldon boys, too, and if they're doing something wrong, and they worry about Peter, because they don't want him to change."
"They don't want to 'lose' him, too," John muttered.
"Yes, well, you could mitigate that feeling with more phone calls and email." She had gone from strained to sharp.
"You're right," he admitted, surrendering quickly. "I'm just being cowardly. New Year's resolution: more contact."
"Stick to it."
A figure, short and solid, came rolling their way in the approved sailory gait. Even before it passed under a street lamp, they knew it for Captain Lovell. He had served in the Grand Norman navy, then on merchant ships, and then, in retirement, bought his own little boat, to fish from and run errands with, and so earned the title "Captain," which his neighbors were careful to use. He had been doing his own holiday shopping, as shown by the bags he carried.
"Chloe! Jeff! Welcome back!"
"Happy Christmas, sir!" Jack replied.
"Happy Christmas, sir!" Chloe echoed. "Only this is Jack." John admired the way she popped that strain into some metaphorical box, out of the way, at Lovell's greeting.
"Jack! Of course. Well!" He shifted all the bags to his left arm and offered John an unhesitating handshake. That done, and as if it were the natural next move, he clapped John on the withers. His gaze registered nothing but pleasant interest. Captain Lovell might not be any Odysseus, but he had seen enough to be hard to startle. "Don't you look grand! Feeling fit?"
"Never better, sir."
"Two of you, now! Is Jeff coming too?"
"Tomorrow morning, sir. And then Peter comes tomorrow afternoon."
"Peter! I had no idea they took them so young."
"Oh! No, sir, Peter's just coming home from school. They don't take them younger than sixteen."
"Ah, well, a little time yet."
"You staying through New Years'?"
"Good, good. I'll tell Marie I saw you. Good night!" He walked past, giving John a couple of pats on the flank as he went.
He and Chloe walked on in silence for a few seconds. Then, "How would you feel about Peter changing?" she asked.
Surprisingly bad. Why? All of them changed together—wouldn't that be some kind of grand brotherly alliance? There were losses here, though, somewhere. "Well, I wouldn't want him to be driven to it. I'd want him to do it because it would make him really happy. Not just less sad." Chloe gave him a sharp glance. He caught it but pretended not to and stared forward. "But even beyond that..." He fumbled into silence.
"Well, I've been thinking about it a lot. Not only about Peter but about Val, too. You just heard him ask if he could change, and that wasn't the first time. The prospect makes me feel ... bad. Hollowed out. I didn't feel that way when Jeff said he would enlist, nor when he changed, nor when you did. So I chewed it over, and I think it's this: You put a hell of a lot into a kid, body as well as soul. I've just started with Lucie and Val. Think how much further along Mum and Dad are. All that time, all that food and clothes and bandages and medicine and energy and care and worry, not just about our minds and souls, but to give us healthy, normal bodies. It's a wrench to see it get thrown away. A big wrench."
("Why'd you have to stop being human?")
John struggled with mixed emotions. Chloe had, he realized, put her finger on one thing that bothered him about the idea of Peter changing. Peter was enough younger than himself that his brotherly emotions were a bit paternal, and he had a (probably exaggerated) feeling that he'd had a part in raising his little brother. Amplify that, and he could see the way—yet another way—his transformation and Jeff's had upset his parents. But he also felt unfairly accused.
"I didn't throw it away!" he protested. He turned toward her and swept his hands from waist to head. "This is still the same. And this–" He swept his hands the other way, gesturing down his equine chest and forelegs. "–even this is based on my old anatomy."
They had stopped walking. Chloe cocked her head and looked him up and down. "What do you mean?"
"I was a bit tall and kind of skinny before, right? I'm still tall and skinny, compared to the others. My points and tail are the same color as my hair. And like that. Blackholt, our doctor, says even the genes in the horse tissue are changed only just enough to be horse genes; they're as like my human genes as possible."
"Ah. Like the lieutenant you told me about, who's a blond man and a palomino horse."
"Well, then, make sure you let Dad and Mum know that. Tell him 'Dad, I'm good at the gallop now because I'm your son and you and I are good at track, even if it's horse racing for me now.' That kind of thing. You are still a good runner, aren't you?"
"Uh, second best in the class. Carlin is best."
"In a field of six. Oh, well."
"And I think Brice might be faster than me when he gets his full growth. And," he felt compelled to add, "not counting the teachers."
"A guy in his forties and another in his seventies? Jack!"
"Hey, I'm only half way through training! They get us on endurance. And they're training all the time."
"But a seventy-year-old?!" ("Seventy-five or something.") "I guess they have been turned into super-heroes. Well, anyway, that's the advice you didn't ask for: Tell Mum and Dad that even your horsey side is still their kid. Talk to them! Email!"
"Okay. You're right. You're right."
They resumed walking. "But your top half," Chloe remarked, "sure isn't the same. Shoulders! Chest! Arms! I had to deliberately stop talking about them, when Jeff first came back; I was making Axel feel bad. And it's the same with you. Strong as a horse?"
"Uh, that's the idea."
She grinned at him and flourished a long list. "Good. Then we can do plenty of shopping. C'mon, pack-brother." And she squared her shoulders again and marched forward.
"Follow the lead mare, that's what I do," he muttered to himself.
They were now leaving the residential stretch of Oakwood Street for the stores, where people bustled about their Christmas shopping. Until they saw John. He remembered how self-conscious he had been, the first time he walked down the street in Ufham, his first public appearance after transformation. The feeling had passed off almost immediately; there, he was no novel sight and no one stared. Here...
At first, he just registered extra tumult and staring faces. Then he began to sort out different reactions. Most just stared, simply because he was an unusual sight. Many of these even smiled a bit: he was not just unusual, but a wonder. Some others wound up on the far side of the street from him, either in a casual drift or a deliberate stride. He knew all of them, of course, at least slightly, whether they welcomed or shunned. Many welcomers called greetings, not always accurately: "John!" "Jeff!" "Jeff?" "Jack!" He gamely smiled, waved back, and greeted.
Chloe, who might as well have been invisible, led him all the way to the far end of the stores, where they gave way to the docks and boat sheds. At the boundary was Talbot & Massie's, a small department store. They both entered.
The place was full of Christmas shoppers, of course, virtually all turning to stare at them. John got an excellent view from his seven-foot height. Besides people, the place was full of shelving and clothing racks and displays and bins. Ordinary people had trouble moving. And then there was John.
This, like his parents' house, was exactly what Agility class had been for. He had once seen a television show testing the adage about a "bull in a china shop," letting a bull wander freely through a studio full of shelves and tables stacked with dishes. The bull, not knowing what was wanted, not equipped with a humanesque nervous system to grant agility, nevertheless did no damage. How much safer was John in Talbot & Massie's?
But Agility class was just practice, the public places in Ufham were scaled to his size, and his family, whatever else they thought, did not think he was Bad For Business. John suddenly realized he was now practicing his agility skills For Real.
"What's the matter with you?" Chloe asked from behind a cheerful-but-stiff smile directed at the crowd.
"Stage fright," he murmured back, trying to smile himself. "I don't want to knock into anything."
"Then stop tap-dancing."
He realized he was rocking back and forth on shifting hooves. Prancing in place. He stilled himself and, remembering those selfsame Agility lessons, took a deep, calming breath. This went on for a bit, and he noticed Chloe blink as the flank next to her started to expand, but her smile softened and she nodded. She squared her shoulders again, he did too, and Team Weldon, infantry and cavalry, advanced.
"What are we here for?" he asked.
"Just pine garlands. Garden section." In back. It would be.
John noticed that, naturally enough, people got out of his way faster than out of Chloe's. So it was only chivalrous, he thought, that he draw slightly ahead of her to clear her path. Not that he charged in, scattering the foe before him. He shuffled down the aisle slowly, smiling constantly, tipping his hat and saying "Excuse me" whenever he bumped anyone or, as was really commoner, anyone bumped him.
He got all the same reactions as on the street. In addition, the close proximity made people—the friendly ones—more conversational:
"John! How– how are you feeling?" "I'm fine. You?"
"Welcome home!" "Thank you!" That was sweet to hear. He felt his smile soften.
"John! Jeff coming too?" "Tomorrow." "Want to see both of you." His eyes pricked. So sentimental now.
"Well, well! Stallion Jack! I thought Donna made a gelding of you years ago." Futtle you, Frank, John thought, groped for a retort using the word "trample," then changed his mind and simply turned away.
"John! All three of you? What do your parents think?" Mrs. Pauli or Pollis or something. He didn't know her very well, nor she them, if she thought Peter was already changed.
Other negative encounters were limited to an aghast stare or an anxious shuffling away.
But, up close, he noticed another reaction: playing it cool with a casual smile and no wide eyes. It was a nonchalance more studied than the genuine thing from Ufham, meant to say, "I'm Sundered and proud of it, I live in le monde-majeur, and I'm not going to freak out over this. If a Chinese dragon wants to come shop Talbot & Massie's, it won't bother me." That worked for John.
The garden section was outside, on a wide platform. At this point, where the docks started, Oakwood Street ran along the tops of modest cliffs, two or three yards high. The garden section platform thrust out from these, providing a bit of shelter for some heavy-duty maritime goods on the beach below it.
Christmas was distinctly maritime in Grand Normandy, even more so on Oakwood Street, running along the shore of a costal town. The garden section featured Christmas trees pre-decorated with shells, toy fish, and ships, and larger Santa-ship displays for lawn and roof. St. Nicholas, patron of sailors and children, rode a ship through the sky, not a sleigh, as far as Grand Norman kids were concerned.
And, John reflected happily as he turned about in the more open space of the platform, if you were Sundered, you need never feel it had to be untrue. He cast a speculative eye at the night sky over the sea, as he knew most Grand Normans did at this time of year, adult or not.
He knew that in-land, at Ufham, they added a local variation: a team from the Dedicated Cavalry pulled St. Nick's representative around the town in a sleigh as he tossed candy to the kids. He knew his barracks-mate, Paul Fells, was on the team this year, for the sake of his four-year-old daughter.
The sales clerk, Joe Massie, had never had to pack pine garland for harness before, but he was game. John coached him through it. It wasn't very heavy, but would have been bulky for a human-simple to carry around. Its main drawback was how it prickled. Joe noticed his hide twitching and thoughtfully slid sheets of wrapping paper under the garland bundles. Joe was of the never-bat-an-eye school.
John bought a string of hand-sized paper ships for the mantle at home, then they turned to plow back through the store to the street.
"We want a salmon for supper tomorrow," Chloe said, looking down Oakwood to the fish market. It was on the docks, just past a bend in the road, "The Bend" in fact. Oakwood Street continued for some distance beyond it, and Grand Norman folk dominated the docks there, but they began to give way to prosaic folk.
The Bend was not, in itself, enchanted, but it was the boundary at which the Grand Normans began taking pains to discourage interest from prosaic Sterk. Police patrols never got routed past the Bend. Postal delivery didn't come; the Grand Normans fetched their mail themselves from boxes at the post office. And so forth. All done by careful, sometimes magical, tampering with records and schedules. It worked. They were lucky with their tampering, with the luck that was the Sundering.
The flip side was that one did not show anything paranormal or magical, anything of the monde-major, past the Bend. Anything like John, in fact. Chloe looked up at him.
"I'll wait here," he said.
"I'll just be a few minutes." She strode toward the fish market.
John spread his legs, locked his knees, folded his arms across his chest, and leaned back. He could stay this way as comfortably as he had once sat in armchairs. He could even doze this way, as a horse could, not that he intended to. For one thing, he had company.
While shopping adults hurried by—staring at him, smiling and nodding, crossing the street, or playing it cool—three children came up and just looked at him. They were two boys of ten or eleven and a girl somewhat younger, but still older than Lucie. "Hi," said John.
They said hi back. The boys wore St. Ambrose uniforms. That was the school that Peter attended, though these were a couple of years younger. John thought he recognized one of the boys and the girl. "Are you a Castaner?" he asked the familiar boy.
"Yessir." John twitched a smile. He was much more used to giving out "sirs" than to getting them. "Robert Castaner. This is my friend Andy Strosser. That's my sister Charlotte."
The boy spoke English, not Chenelaise, probably for the benefit of his friend Andy, so John switched too. "How do you do? I'm John Weldon." He leaned over and shook hands, which they seemed to enjoy. During the second handshake, a tingling stroke down the ribs he hadn't had last year made him shy out of his resting stance. He looked back and down, and met the eyes of Charlotte, her hand still upraised. "That tickles," he said, smiling.
"That's okay." He shook hands with Charlotte, then crouched down on the sidewalk to bring his head nearer the children's level.
"Were you giving rides last year?" asked Robert.
"No, that was my brother. We'll be giving rides this year, too, I expect."
"Where were you last year?"
"Here. But last year I was human-simple."
"'Human-simple'?" asked Andy, speaking for the first time.
"Just human and nothing more."
Andy nodded and quoted to himself in a murmur, "'Last year I was human.'" He looked very thoughtful. Then, in something of the tone of a journalist interviewing a source, he said, "I heard that all Grand Norman men had to do fourteen years of service as– in that– in your shape. Is that right?"
So Andy was indeed not Grand Norman, though evidently Sundered. Before his own transformation, John had traveled a lot with his family and heard various misconceptions about the Dedicated Cavalry in different corners of the monde-major, but this was a new one. "No, not everyone. We're a special group of volunteer soldiers. There really aren't many of us. Our tour of duty lasts fourteen years, but the shape is permanent."
"Told you," said Robert sotto voce. Andy nodded, still absorbing John's information.
"Why permanent?" Andy asked.
"The transformation was a kind called a transubstantiation. Do you know what that means?" Andy shrugged. Basically, no. "It means this is my true shape now. There's no disenchanting me back to man-simple."
"But," Andy objected, "if you used to have one true shape and now you have another, why can't you go on to have another? And why couldn't it be the same as the first one?"
It was John's turn to shrug. "It's possible. But transubstantiations are hard to come by. We don't know where to get one like that."
"Do you have to stop here at the Bend?" Charlotte asked.
John nodded. "It seems like a good idea. I'm waiting for my sister. She went to the fish market." He stared along the road. Going to the fish market was not exactly a treat, but it was bright and bustling, with the chance of meeting folk from anywhere. And there were stores in ordinary, monde-minor Sterk that he had liked visiting, and a park that always had a nice Christmas display. And, basically, there was the whole monde-minor. Ah, well.
"Could you go in disguise?" asked Andy, who thus rose in John's estimation. He would have to ask Peter if he knew him.
"Yes. I do have a disguise, a T-shirt that glamours me to look like a horse. But it would look odd for my sister to bring a horse with her to the fish market." The kids laughed.
"Is it true about the arrow?" Andy asked.
"We do get transformed by being shot with an enchanted arrow, yes."
"Did it hurt?" asked Charlotte.
"No, I just felt confused." Very.
"But didn't you know they were going to do it?" asked Charlotte.
"Not that kind of confusion. Uh..." He needed a comparison. It seemed unlikely that all three kids had been knocked on the head at some time.
"One time," Robert offered, "Barbara forgot to water our wine, and we got dizzy and stupid. That kind of confused?"
"More like that," John agreed. He forbore to ask who Barbara was but noted Andy's wide eyes. Children probably did not get wine at his house. "But it didn't hurt. No time! One moment you're standing there waiting for it, then you get shot, there's the confusion, and the next moment you're lying on the ground, with four legs."
"And a tail," Charlotte pointed out.
"Yes, indeed." He grinned and switched it for her.
"What's it feel like?" Andy asked, venturing the question Axel had not.
John cocked his head and looked helpless. "I can't say. What's it feel like to have toes and two legs?"
"But you remember!"
"Actually, no, I don't. Can you tell me?" He smiled at Andy's bafflement.
"But are you okay?" Charlotte asked, apparently concerned for him. "It doesn't feel bad, does it?"
"Oh, not at all! I feel–" Except for a few bumps and scrapes from rough exercise, and some periods of fatigue ditto, he had felt, without interruption, physically excellent. He had been about to say that, but suddenly thought it might not be wise to seem to be "recruiting." "–quite comfortable," he concluded firmly.
"Why did you do it?" asked Andy.
"The better to go exploring," John answered, and launched into a jumbled but enthusiastic description of his family's trips out of zone, his glimpses of Yesod-Khonsu and the Chaos Marches, what he had heard of the Road to the Sun and Brendan's Reach, and on and on.
Chloe came back a few minutes later to find him standing, facing the sea, flanked by the boys, with Charlotte on his man-shoulders, all engaged in keeping lookout for St. Nick's ship and speculating on the odds of finding its home port out there somewhere. All were oblivious to the stares of the shoppers passing behind them. Some smiled, some just stared, none frowned. She paused to consider whether he looked fatherly or just like the biggest kid by a large size margin.
"Who are your friends, Jack?" she asked. She was quickly introduced to Charlotte, Robert, and Andy.
"Andy's mother is a mage and his father runs a museum with Sundered bits in Yorkshire. He's been bitten twice, but it didn't take either time."
"Good! I got the fish. Can I tuck it in the harness somewhere?" They tucked, then parted from the kids with promises of rides on Christmas. "I see the charm campaign is going strong," Chloe said.
"Never mind. Do you think you can fit into David's? He's made it all boutiquey and crowded."
An hour and three shops later, they began wandering home. There was the Driftwood. Maybe they could stop in there for a coffee or a beer. How would Mr. Riccard greet him?
Then a man came out—big, stocky, in a dark work jacket and knit cap, blunt and familiar face—pulled a list out of his pocket, looked up and saw him. The man flinched and sagged against the doorframe as if shot.
Walter Cosser was just stepping out of the Driftwood, Christmas shopping list in his hand. He always put off the shopping awkwardly late; it was a chore he didn't know how to do right. That was reason, he knew, to get started on it early, but he never did. He envied his wife, who enjoyed it and did it bit at a time, around the year. Then his peripheral vision caught something big in the wrong place. A glance up. At first he thought it was a cowboy on horseback, which made no sense. Then he saw the reality, which was worse. It was Jeff—no, John—Dominic Weldon's son. That's right, he'd lost two, now.
A shy boy John had been, always tagging around after Donna Whatshername. Then Cosser heard she'd thrown him over, and he'd run off to join the army. Only not to be a soldier, he'd then heard, but to transform, like his older brother. And here he was, more than a head taller than the crowd, and he might have looked dashing with his cowboy hat and army jacket, but half of him was gone, replaced by a great prancing horse body.
Cosser experienced the kind of shock one got from realizing the man you were looking at was a double amputee. And the shock of finding a large animal where you expected none. And then he tumbled into a full-on flashback.
Cosser was a longshoreman down at the Sterk docks. Being Grand Norman and Sundered, he had free access to the people and places the mondain-minors could never get around to finding, and so the traders, Grand Norman and other mondain-majors, made use of him and his mates, doing their bit to move goods around the monde-major.
Four years ago, three other carriers had vanished, all on the same night: Harry Morley, Rollo Petri, and Rufus Curran. It was a big loss to a little neighborhood like Oakwood Street, and of course Cosser had known them well. Dame Sarah had done everything she could; you couldn't say otherwise.
Oakwood Street being such a small enclave, Dame Sarah Faber was squire-lady and constable both in one. She had investigated as best she could, questioned everyone, even brought in a bishop to collect testimonies under oath, even humbled herself to ask help of Arthur Studdock, supposed visionary for the daft Logres folk over at St. Anne's.
She had cleared the neighborhood of suspicion but found no answers. A sickening mixture of grief and uncertainty was left behind, weighing heaviest on the families of the missing men.
Then, a year and a half later, and so in summer, two and a half years ago, Cosser had finished a night shift at the Sterk docks and, early in the morning, was walking home by way of the beach to stretch out his muscles.
"Walt!" a hoarse voice called behind him. He turned to see a man crawling out of the sea. Something was wrong; he didn't move right. He looked at Cosser and called "Walt!" louder, clearer. The voice was familiar. Then he hoisted himself clear of the water. "It's me, Harry!"
It was Harry Morley, naked, white, face hidden behind two feet of beard, three feet of hair streaming down his back. But he stopped at the waist, and beyond that was a fish tail, six feet long, smoke gray and scaly, with dark brown fins here and there, the same color as Harry's hair.
"Walt! Don't run! Please!" he'd called, hoarse again, and Cosser had seen the gills, flapping and panting just where flesh gave way to scales, in time with Harry's gasping. A second later, he realized he had taken a step back. Several steps. In fact, he must have skipped back two or three yards.
Harry did not look dangerous—quite the reverse—but he looked very, very strange, and it took Cosser some effort to approach his old friend. He was sorry that he flinched when Harry reached out a hand, cold and pale, and grabbed his own hand. "Walt, please, go fetch Tilly." Tilly was Harry's wife. The hand clenching his still wore a wedding ring. Cosser nodded, but Harry held on. "You're so warm. Hot. Ahhh. Please, fetch Tilly." He let go. Cosser nodded again and ran up to the street.
He had run back to Oakwood Street, to Tilly's house. After her astonished shriek and demand of "Where? Where?" he had run to Dame Sarah's house. She had been out but her husband had started dialing the phone. He had then headed back to the beach, but remembering Harry's icy hands, had stopped to buy—nearly steal, in his haste—a styrofoam cup of coffee. No hot drinks in the sea, any more than barber shops.
The beach had seemed empty when he first returned. "C'mon, c'mon, it's not like I'm monde-minor," he growled aloud, peering about. Then Harry had surfaced again and come crawling and thrashing out of the water. "She'll be right along," he told Harry, and this time it did not take effort to put an arm around the wet, white shoulder and pass the hot cup into his hand.
"Thank you, Walt," said Harry. This time, his voice was clear, and Cosser noticed he had clamped down his gills and taken a deep breath before speaking. He hung his head over the cup for a while, not drinking yet. Sobs shook his shoulders and huffed out his gills. "My eyes hurt," he remarked. "Can't cry properly now." Cosser's heart took another sting.
"Harry!" It was Tilly, running down the beach. She hesitated not at all, but ran into his arms. Cosser stepped back and gave the two of them their own Sundering to hide in, for a bit. He could still hear the weeping.
After a while, he heard footsteps behind him on the sand. He turned to face Dame Sarah. Her son Gil, Guillaume Faber, was with her. He was tall, bony, and fair, like her, ostensibly a trader but really, if unofficially, the assistant constable, someday to take over from his mother.
"It's Morley?" she asked. "You're sure?"
"Yes'm. And she's sure." He gestured at Tilly, still in the merman's embrace. Slightly surprising Cosser, Dame Sarah and Gil waited patiently with him, giving the couple time. When, apparently, they had said all they could to each other, Dame Sarah approached, followed by Gil. Cosser trailed after, feeling unsure of his welcome but intensely curious.
The Fabers, mother and son, quizzed Harry thoroughly for clues about his fate. He, Rufus, and Rollo had been sent to a dock with loads for a nonexistent boat, then had been seized from behind. Strong, expert hands had pried their jaws open and stuffed something in, like wet leaves, then had pushed them in the water. A strange desperation had come over him: he could not wait an instant to breathe the water. There was a time of gasping and floundering, and when he had come to himself, his pants and boots had fallen off and he found himself as he was now.
"But shorter. At first, my tail was no longer than my legs had been." A pair of fins below his waist flapped, the last of his legs. "Now look at it! What if I become a sea serpent?"
Tilly squeaked a sob. Dame Sarah said stoutly, "Then you'll be better equipped to tackle whoever did this to you. What about Petri and Curran? What's become of them?"
Harry did not know. They had surfaced some distance from the wharf, gasping out of habit, already suspecting what had become of them and soon verifying it by touch. Then something huge had brushed them in the dark water. There was nothing for it but to flee. The presence, whatever it was, had chased them, herded them, felt behind them as a looming pressure. For hours, it had seemed, the three new mermen had expected sharp teeth and an end. But it never came. The thing departed around dawn, and they were left far out at sea.
Rollo had become scaly and finny like Harry, but Rufus—poor, gentle, slightly tubby Rufus—found he now had a shark's tail and back fin.
They had started back, of course, keeping together, keeping spirits up, even planning new careers as fishermen or undersea crewmen on (or with) trade ships. And of course wondering why this had been done to them. But when they sighted land, it was weeks later and somewhere in Africa, as best they could judge from the signage at the docks. They must have been thrown off course by currents, and, they reckoned, by some magic of confusion like pixie-leading.
Doggedly, they had started working north, toward home, but they had been slow because they had had to learn to live in the sea—what to hunt, what to eat, what to flee. He had lost Rollo and Rufus in a storm. They had not drowned, obviously, but they had simply lost track of each other. After a week of looking around, Harry had given up and continued north. His best chance of seeing them again, he figured, was to meet them here, at Sterk.
Dame Sarah questioned him closely about the customers and cargos, docks and ships, and all other details of his work in the days before his transformation, but it had been a year and a half ago. He did not remember a great deal. He pleaded, instead, to know what was going on.
"I believe you and your mates knew something," said Dame Sarah. "Certainly without realizing the importance of it. And someone wanted you and your information out of the way. But not dead. Maybe they're under a no-kill geas. Maybe they don't want your ghosts available for questioning. The other possibility is it was some kind of sacrifice. But we have you, anyway, alive and well!"
Well? Legless—Cosser looked again at the helplessly waving leg-fins—and writhing like a hooked fish? Could he even control that? He looked at Harry's face, dry now but still looking white and drowned and lost, lost, lost. He followed Harry's gaze, now at Tilly's face, now over her shoulder to the row of buildings above the beach.
At that point, Dame Sarah turned to Cosser, thanked him, then politely but firmly shooed him away, and told him to keep the affair quiet until he heard from her or Gil or Tilly.
Cosser kept silent for a while. But Rufus and Rollo's families had to be told, and between them and Tilly it became known on Oakwood Street what had happened to Harry. And Tilly knew that he knew, so she came around to have someone to talk to, which really meant Cosser's wife.
By sitting at the table and listening while the two women talked, Cosser learned that Harry's return had been no happy ending, nor an ending at all. Tilly was, of course, happy to have him back, downright delirious the first few days. But she had him back maimed, mutilated, legless, as surely as the wife of any luckless soldier. He had no occupation on land anymore, and could find no occupation in water except to swim. This drove Tilly frantic, because if he swam too far out, or more to the point too deep, he started to lose track of time and place, and sometimes did not come back for days.
Soon enough, Tilly and their kids moved away, with Dame Sarah's help, to Côte d'Ys in Brequelle, the near-zone. Harry was to follow them. There were other merfolk in Côte d'Ys, and something could be made of that. Cosser had not seen Harry since.
Instead, he had nightmares. He dreamt of drowning. He dreamt of a stormy sea at night, and hearing Harry, Rollo, or Rufus screaming. Worst was the dream where he floundered in the water as a great fish loomed out of the depth and swallowed him up to the waist, then sank in its teeth and started growing into him.
"Where are you going?" Chloe demanded.
"I just want to say hello to Walt Cosser over there. He looks upset. I thought I'd let him know ... things are all right."
Chloe grabbed a handful of jacket and, as it were, reined him in. "Think twice. Remember how he lost his mate Harry."
"Oh. Right." But Cosser was looking at him face to face now. All he could do was smile.
The creature—Jack Weldon he used to be—locked eyes with him. The sister had grabbed its jacket, like she was holding it back. But it—he—just smiled at Cosser, sadly. Cosser flashed back to Harry again, face sad and pale. He glanced at the restless horse legs and thought of the twisting fish tail. He felt the remaining blood leave his own face. He nodded back to Jack and turned back quickly. Though he scarcely knew the Weldons, he felt bad about it later, as if he'd snubbed a friend. But it was too much like Harry, half destroyed.
Walter Cosser vanished back into the Driftwood. So they did not stop there. John reflected that small children regarded him with nothing but lively interest and a desire to pet him or ride him, but grown men blanched at the sight of him. Chloe pointed at the Wind Rose Tea Shop. "We could stop there, if you like. Scene of the famous battle."
"Didn't you know? Mum challenged Theresa Sendell to a duel in there. Over you."
"Me? Mum? With what?" He suddenly remembered that, when he was a kid, she had gone to karate classes for exercise. The person challenged got to pick the weapons. Had Theresa taken karate? Or marksmanship?
"Theresa said poisons. You know, guess-the-cup? Don't worry, just laxatives. Anyway, Mum said yes and Theresa backed down immediately."
"But she hates that I've changed."
"Yes, but she wasn't going to have Theresa saying Donna's family threatened you into the Dedicated Cavalry to keep you permanently away from Donna."
"Mum's been protecting my honor..." Donna's honor, too, incidentally.
"Yes. She was awfully bucked about it. She's never liked Theresa, you know."
"I'm glad she enjoyed it..."
"She never told you? Well, maybe she thought it would be boastful. And you're not the only one feeling all conflicted about this."
"I don't feel conflicted about transforming," he insisted.
"Good, but you feel conflicted, or uncertain, or just plain like hell, about facing the folks. Though you're doing it. Brave lad."
"Well, at least now I know to say thank you to Mum."
"Good boy. Have a sugar lump." He snorted and deliberately made it sound horsey. She chuckled.
"Do you feel conflicted about Jeff and me?"
"Oh, yes," she said matter-of-factly. "On the one hand, I'm losing the two of you to a weird and dangerous life that makes you strangers to me, or I fear that. And you've hurt Mum and Dad. And, to be frank, I worry about Val and Peter following you.
"On the other hand, Jeff seems to enjoy his new ... species no end, and I know you're pursuing a life-long dream. And you were always going to hurt Mum and Dad some whenever you moved out, just as I did. And the two of you are damned impressive critters."
"Very balanced. Thank you for explaining."
"Maybe too balanced. There is the elephant in the living room. Or the horse in the dining room. None of us has ever understood why you had such an extreme reaction to Donna's rejection. I won't ask you why again. I've seen Dad start to ask again, then think better of it. But if you find a new way to explain it, I very much want to hear it."
John sighed. "You will. I very much want to let you understand." He stopped in front of the Wind Rose. "Right now, let's have a cuppa. I think I can fit behind a table."
The evening went fairly well. John found two gallons of hot oatmeal waiting on the stove and made a good dent in it. Following Jeff's example again, he busied himself with Christmas decorating. After supper, he gave Val and Lucie short rides around the back yard and in front of the house, showed them the saddle he had brought, and promised longer rides later. The children went to bed. The grown-ups decorated some more. Mr. Weldon distributed drinks: beer for John, wine for the others, which showed his father had been paying attention. Conversation was light and polite and only occasionally brittle. He saw them all off to bed. As was now normal for him, he was not at all sleepy.
In the garage, he found the space heaters on, turned them off, finished unpacking, and did some Christmas wrapping. The night still lay before him. He did not feel like reading. Back at the base, he would have studied or chatted with the others. Studies were over, the other guys were absent, and the one fellow soldier he wanted to talk to most didn't arrive until tomorrow morning.
He thought about his talk with Chloe. More talk than they had had in years—which he could fix by phoning more often, she would doubtless tell him.
Thinking of the children he met at the Bend, and feeling both nostalgic and guilty, he re-entered the house as quietly as he could and poured himself half a glass of watered wine. On Christmas Eves, he remembered, it had been full-strength wine. Ostensibly, this was a Christmas treat; it only now occurred to him that it would ensure excited children stayed in bed.
The taste of watered wine brought back, as intended, a flood of childhood memories. But a great many of them included Donna and so were now sad. Context is everything. He did not finish the half glass.
He saw it had begun to snow. On impulse, he started to rummage through his packs for his boots. As he had said to his father, he did not need galoshes to keep his feet dry, but he did have boots. They had been meant to preserve a nice hoof-shine, but they also reduced the ringing, clopping noise of shod hooves on pavement. John was of a mind to go for a walk in the snow, and he did not want to attract unnecessary attention. He put on hat and jacket, thought a moment, tucked the glamour T-shirt into the jacket, and stepped out.
Outside, it snowed abundantly, enough to light the sky with reflected streetlights and hush the slight traffic noises from downtown Sterk. He strolled to the end of the street, where it petered out in dirt road, branching into trails leading into the dark oak wood. He paused for a bit, but saw no one, heard no hail. To be on the safe side, he bowed in the direction of the woods and tipped his hat.
It was great thinking weather. John so used it, pacing meditatively down Oakwood. Everything looked different from his new height; he had been too busy with people to notice this earlier. Had he ever seen it so before, empty and snowy?
Yes, and even from this height. Because he had been riding Jeff last Christmas. They had taken a break from a brotherly bull-session in the garage (stallion-session?) and Jeff had invited him up for a quick ride, sans saddle, just so they could talk while they got the blood stirring again. That was how he had known how noisy his own hooves would now be, in an empty street.
All through that session, he had wanted to ask Jeff why he had taken the transformation, just as the rest of the family wanted to ask him, now. He had not asked, not wanting to end a fragile and final-seeming good time. He had expected their lives to part, Jeff's into the Cavalry, his into marriage to Donna.
As he approached the Bend, he saw one pedestrian, a man in a long coat and broad-brimmed hat. It was Gil Faber, striding straight toward him. Deciding it would be polite, John altered course slightly to meet him, but then noticed Faber slow down. It struck him that Faber was one who, given the choice, would have crossed the street to avoid him. He stopped, standing patiently with arms folded by hind his back, over his withers.
"Mr. Weldon," Faber greeted or stated, stopping in front of him.
"Mr. Faber," John replied, tipping his hat.
"What brings you out?" It did not quite sound chatty.
"I don't sleep much, sir." The "sir" had slipped out. John wasn't sure he was happy with it. But Faber was a generation older, after all, and good manners cost nothing, as Fletcher liked to say. "And the snow is beautiful."
"I hope you weren't thinking of going past the Bend." No one said "going round the Bend"; the joke had staled two generations back.
"I was going down onto the beach, sir," John said. He was careful of his tone: it was respectful, but an announcement, not asking for permission. He did not, he mentally contended, need permission. This guy was no constable, just the constable's son (though he was certainly out patrolling for her), and anyway John was breaking no law.
"Is that wise?" Faber asked. The Sundering was the luck that hid magic from the un-Sundered world. Try to hide magic—or its unmistakable products, like John—and luck was with you. But every move you made to break cover was met with worse and worse luck until you quit. And the Sundering didn't care if the rest of Oakwood Street got caught in the consequences.
"I think I've made it fairly easy for the Sundering," John answered. "It's the middle of the night, in a snowstorm, I'm getting off the road soon, I've muffled my hooves–" He lifted a foreleg to show the boot. Faber drew back a bit. "–and there's this." He pulled the T-shirt out of his jacket and displayed it to Faber.
"Glamour?" asked Faber, either able to feel the magic or making a reasonable guess.
"Yessir. As a horse. Unusual, but not unnatural."
Faber gave a reluctant nod, but gazed fixedly at the shirt. John felt sure he could sense the spell, maybe read it—a useful skill for many people, including a constable-in-waiting. In the few seconds of silence that followed, it seemed to John that Faber thawed, stopped worrying about the bad luck John might provoke from the Sundering, and became focused on the shirt. "Would you mind demonstrating it for me?" he asked, and it really sounded like a request, not a polite order.
So, "Not at all, sir," John answered. Faber even volunteered to hold John's clothes as he stripped, so they needn't be balanced awkwardly on his back or laid in the snow. It was easier to stand naked under this man's academic interest than under his parents' uneasy concern. He popped the glamour shirt on.
"Very good," Faber said, admiringly. "Perfect image. Can you speak with it on?"
"Yessir. To me, it just seems like I'm wearing a T-shirt. Watch." He reached out and took his jacket, undershirt, and hat from Faber, to whom it seemed that the horse had gathered up the garments with its mouth, with bizarre facility. He chuckled as John popped the hat on his head. "Unusual, but not unnatural," John repeated. "Except for the talking."
"Mm." Faber looked concerned again. "But if a mondain-minor became curious about a horse loose on the street in the middle of the night..."
"Then the luck of the Sundering would help me hide or evade them," John answered in a tone of conscious patience, as one might say, "And if I jumped in the ocean, I'd get wet. We both know this."
"Mm," Faber grunted again. "Most likely." The Sundering, after all, leaked a bit, or myths and legends would not circulate in the monde-minor. But it was still a concession. "Well, wear your shirt in good health. You won't be cold?"
"No sir." He brushed his equine shoulder. The horse appeared to nuzzle it. "Winter coat."
"When you were changing, I saw a stripe down your back. Is that a mane? Do you have to keep it shaven?"
"It's a bit of mane sir, but I don't need to shave it. It's just short. Vestigial."
"Left over from when we all had manes?" Faber asked sardonically.
"Well, good glamour or not, it seems to me that you push the Sundering by visiting here, but I won't second-guess the Cavalry, and you are taking precautions. Enjoy the night, then."
"Thank you. You too, sir." Good manners cost nothing. And look how pleasantly they let Faber say he wished John had not come home.
He watched Faber out of sight, then reveled in his recovered privacy. He reared on his hind legs and spread his arms. All this space. No cramped human-scale house. No pressing, staring crowd.
He trotted to a wooden stairway that led from the sidewalk to the beach, then clattered down to the sand. Only after he was there did he recall the difficulty stairs had given him when he was newly transformed, agility classes just begun. Now, this body simply did his will. It fit him. It was him.
He frisked on the sand. "Dance like nobody is looking." Nobody was looking. An onlooker would have seen a horse, a very silly horse, bouncing about with clothes in its mouth.
Bouncing done, he sat on the sand, forelegs up, and gazed out to the sea that led everywhere. He thought about the gates on the sea that led really everywhere, and what he might see beyond them. He wondered where on this beach Harry Morley had dragged himself ashore. He thought of the seemings for merfolk his father had mentioned, and wondered if Harry had found one in Brequelle and if it had helped.
Harry would give anything, John supposed, to not have been transformed and have his old life back. And here he was, just as adamantly galloping into a transformed life and leaving the old one behind. How to leave an old life behind and not leave the people in that life, whom you loved? No wonder they were confused. Some you did leave, though. One. She was in New York, he had heard, or he would have been much more on edge, moving about Oakwood Street. But the rest deserved an explanation.
It was excellent thinking weather.
Eventually, his rump got cold. For that matter, his arms were cold and he was tired of holding his jacket. He put it back on, over the glamour shirt, with his regular T-shirt tucked inside. Now an onlooker, had there been one, would see a horse in a jacket and stetson. Comedy, not mythology. He galloped down the beach to warm up, then cantered back. The wet sand was firm and a pleasure to run on. Then up the stairs and home to bed.
He got up early, as was now natural, and cunningly got coffee, tea, and sausages ready for the family, but "didn't get around to" the big pot of oatmeal, leaving it for his mother. This gave her something to do to escape, if she needed, or to do for him, if she wanted. It seemed to work, and she went so far as to congratulate him on the kitchen skills he'd learned.
Then it was harness up and head down the street again with Chloe for more shopping. There was no deep conversation because it was even busier than last evening. At least fewer people mistook him for Jeff, either because of the better light or because word had got around.
"Jack! Wow! Look at you!" Roger was obviously confused, but trying to be happy and welcoming. John gave him a big smile and a salute.
"Oh, John! So it's true!" What to say? He gave Mrs. Drew a sharper smile and tipped his hat.
"Ah, futtle, Jack! You okay?" Even worse. "Fine, Matt, I'm fine."
"John! Glad to see you. Come visit while you're home." That was more like it. "Thanks, Mrs. Miles."
Diversion arrived as a duck, fluttering under his feet. He jigged, startled. He might even have started to bring a hoof down on the bird by accident, but the new parts of him really, really didn't like stepping on bad footing and saved both of them.
John crouched and caught the thing. It was, of course, Elsie, the Dawson's pet.
"That bird!" exclaimed Mrs. Miles. "Thinks she owns the street. It's a good thing cars don't come along here much."
Mr. Dawson hurried up with apologies and a leash. His eyes, like Mrs. Miles's, kept sweeping over John, but both were determined to be of the unflappable school.
They were soon well into the shopping stretch. Young voices hailed him from across the street: Charlotte, Robert, and Andy. He waved back, smiling. He had the glamour shirt tucked into his jacket; he had been hoping to see them again and show it to them. But not this moment.
They waded on, Chloe again as good as invisible. He made a note to ask her if it bothered her. Should he offer her a ride, get her up out of the press? She'd probably decline, but should he still offer? He started to lean down to her ear.
Thwap. A cold sting on his haunch.
"Jack! What's wrong?" Chloe reached for his arm. In that moment, his love for her grew. However accepting she might be, he was still a big strange creature now, still new to her. But she reached for him.
He had jumped a few inches. It might have been much more, but he had already had his guard up from working through the crowd. "Someone threw a snowball at me," he told her, looking back at his rump.
"Oh?" Her eyes flashed as she scanned the street. Here was more kin ready to fight a duel for the honor of the Weldon Light Cavalry.
This time, he reached for her arm. "Just ... horseplay," he muttered. "No harm done."
"An anonymous insult," she replied, deliberately loud. "Shameful." They plowed on in silence, then made a point of making several hellos.
John pondered. Was someone simply venting mischief, and would have chosen some other target if he hadn't been there? Or did someone want to make him feel unwelcome? Or (no better) make Jeff feel unwelcome? Had they wanted him to rear or bolt or trample, disgracing himself? No knowing.
A cluster of stalls had been set out on the sidewalk. They entered the crowd there. Faces turned toward them.
"Hello, Jeff. Jack!"
About a month ago, they had started training in mixed martial arts. "We're nothing if not brawlers," Captain Fletcher had said, showing genial teeth and cracking his knuckles. "Read the myths."
"But sir, in the myths, we always lose," Charliehorse pointed out.
"We're here to fix that."
John had been paired with Renny, a.k.a. Horsepower, who was, like any draft horse, massive but mild. He dutifully swung at John, and if he grappled, his strength was amazing, but John and Fletcher and the others all knew his heart wasn't in it. Amid shouts of goading and encouragement like "Ya big marshmallow!" "C'mon, lad! Give us the heavy artillery!" "Horse! Power! Horse! Power!" John tried a deliberately annoying series of light punches to the face.
It worked. Horsepower scowled, pivoted on his forelegs, and drove a rear hoof into John's chest.
John doubled up over the point of impact, crumpled, and lay face down on the frosty grass. It was some time before the pain began. During that time, he noted the curious sensation of breathing only with his horse lungs. His human lungs were quite stunned. He thought later that his human heart might have been, too.
Dr. Blackholt X-rayed him and found nothing broken. It was a tribute, he said, to young bones, and cheerfully told John he'd have been killed had he still been a man-simple. Horsepower had been enormously (of course) apologetic.
This was like that. John-the-man stood stunned, breathless. John-the-horse was panting a series of shallow, panicky breaths and would bolt in a moment. John, the John, pulled himself together. She wasn't in New York after all.
"Hello, Donna." Delivery cool and even. Very good. He could think of nothing else to say. And, like the other time, the pain would start soon.
He stared. She looked ... good. Very smartly dressed. Unfamiliar. About as gob-smacked as he felt.
This is the point in the fairy tale when the princess or the clever maiden or whoever realizes that the bear or swan or frog is the transformed male lead. But this time there's no reprieve from the bearskin, no disenchanting shirt of nettles, no rescuing kiss. This fairy tale broke.
Her eyes roved over him, face to hooves and back, man body to horse body and back. She stuttered. Finally, she just asked, "Why?"
He stared back. What to say? Anything? Had she not known he had done it? Now, she did not know why. He could tell her. After last night's long thinking on the beach, he had figured out how to say it. But here? In the street? With– Yes, there were her brothers and sister, and some of the rest of them, the friends that had been more hers than his. In front of them? No. Speak privately later? Holy St. Martin, no.
He had nothing more to say to her.
Chloe was speaking: "Well, he was always interested in the idea, ever since Jeff changed and was so happy with it. Exploratory trade expeditions were really a compromise position, to meet you half way. So when that ... no longer applied, he went back to Plan A. It's just logical. Horse sense, you might say." She smiled brightly and put her hand on John's back. "Right, Jack?"
How weird was it to stand silently by while your sister defended your new shape to your old girl friend? Probably not as weird as taking the new shape, but it had to be close.
"Right. Excuse me."
Lieutenant Sanders would have been proud to see the smartly executed Agility III rotation in place, slightly zig-zagged to avoid two pedestrians, followed by a brisk but calm business-like trot back down Oakwood Street.
For the next few minutes, John was oblivious of his environment. Technically, he saw and heard and felt, walked and maybe even spoke, but he lived almost entirely in his head, thinking over this encounter with Donna and the one before that, when he had been human.
On the previous occasion, he had shown up at her house with flowers, a ring in his pocket, and prepared phrases in mind. She was surprised and a bit puzzled about the flowers. The phrases... She had been about as stunned as she had been just now, there in the street. He did not recall all her words exactly—he had tried to forget them—but he was sure they included the deadly "don't be silly" and the almost equally bad "it's very sweet of you but." Somewhere, he saw that she had never in the slightest conceived of their relationship as he had. She had never been in love with him or supposed him in love with her.
And he had left at a near run, down the route he had (he realized) just now retraced, and ended up in the Oakwood, as he was now. Mortification and despair had competed for his attention. It had been winter then, too, though long after Christmas.
And he was mortified again. Maybe. He wasn't sure. But not despairing. He had nothing to despair of. What he was, was at a loss.
What to do next? He needed to do something he would not be ashamed of. What? Nothing came to mind.
He shifted to another subject. How could she not have known? Yes, she had left for New York a few days later. No, they had not communicated again. Yes, his family had kept pretty quiet about his enlistment in the Dedicated Cavalry. But it hadn't been a dead secret. Her friends and family had known, he was sure. But none had told her. Had they thought it too trivial to mention? Or too painful? Had Donna told them he had proposed? (Of course they knew about the breakup.) He hadn't spoken to them, either, so he had no data.
He heard a car go by. Looking around, he could see the highway through a thin veil of trees. Anyone looking for an odd sight in the woods could certainly find one. With mechanical haste, he changed jacket and undershirt for the glamour shirt.
Had he been retracing his steps? He couldn't remember. Had he been planning to walk all the way back to the base at Ufham? Ridiculous. "Hey, Bob, there's a horse here, asking for directions to a place called Ufham in Berkshire."
Anyway, he had been trying to think of a course of action that he would not be ashamed of. Nothing like confronting Donna. Nothing like running away, either.
And again, he was back where he had been. Once his general turmoil and fretting had died down, once Donna was off to America, he had been looking for something to do with himself.
Well, he couldn't enlist in the Cavalry again. He should, he realized, have simply gone on shopping with Chloe. Instead, he had run away. How to retrieve the situation? He began working his way back home through the trees, turning over actions and excuses and apologies in his mind.
Again, he had been deep in his own head. Again, a noise pulled him out. Another set of crunching footsteps. He looked up and saw Jeff riding down a trail toward him. He felt warmth sweep from heart to heart. But– Riding.
John studied the sight. Jeff sat, two-legged, on a buckskin horse, wearing a Cavalry stetson, a neatly trimmed beard, standard duty jacket, and the pants and boots of the Standard Cavalry. The horse regarded him with the same lively interest as Jeff. The very same.
"Well, here's a thing," said his brother. "A pack-horse wandering in the woods, talking to itself. I'd ask if you were a pooka or a hedleykow, except you sound just like my brother. Doesn't the talking spoil the point of the disguise? Take off that glamour and let me see you."
"Right. You too."
John took off the glamour shirt and saw, when it cleared his eyes, Jeff united, on his own hooves, holding a neckerchief in his hand. He looked John over. "Another blasted buckskin. Wonder if Dad would come out buckskin if he were turned?"
"Wouldn't that put Mum in a state?"
Jeff laughed. "You and Donna have already done that. I think she wanted grandchildren from you—you know, human ones."
"Or from you," John returned.
Jeff nodded, then locked his knees and leaned back comfortably, looking at John. "We don't look that much alike," he remarked while John got dressed again.
"I know, but I guess people see a buckskin centaur and just assume it's you."
He nodded again. "What are you doing out here? Or rather, I know what you're doing out here. When are you coming back home?"
"As soon as I can think of how to do it without looking more of a coward. Or maybe as soon as I can work up the nerve."
Jeff raised his eyebrows. "I just spoke with Chloe. She said you ended an awkward situation like a perfect gentleman."
"I should have just walked on and continued shopping."
"Only if Chloe wanted to. Looked to me like she wanted to come home and fizz with Mum about Donna." He pulled a phone out of his pocket. "They are a little worried about you." Soft beeping. "Found him. Out in the woods. ... Yes, fine. ... Stewing, of course. We'll be back in a bit." Click.
"But before we go back," said Jeff, meeting John's eyes, "I want some explanation." He settled deeper into his resting stance and folded his arms across his chest, clearly not going anywhere until he got it.
"So," he said, "early last spring, we're out mapping the Hathor Marches—at least, we think it was spring and the Hathor Marches—living like mountain goats in a place that's like the Alps with knotted up gravity. Then the mail bag comes in and I get three letters from Mum, from three different months: first, that Donna dumped you and you're in a funk; then, that you've enlisted in the DC and the family is in an uproar; finally, that you're up on hooves.
"Only five letters do I get from you over the year, three of them emails to the whole family, and all of them pretty terse. None of them answers to my letters, none with a picture. I'd be wondering if you'd turned out half zebra or something, if Mum hadn't remarked how much you looked like me."
John sighed. "Okay, okay. I should write home more. But– The uproar– Writing home just seemed like it would continue the uproar."
"Writing to me wouldn't."
John stared at his brother's forehooves. "You don't mind me imitating you?"
"Do I mind you endorsing the choice I made that got the family in an uproar the first time? No. We're brothers; we're allowed to be alike. There's a guy I can compare notes with better than anyone else in the world and I want to do that. St. Martin! Are you crying?"
"No, not– Why did you change?"
"Ah, good. Comparing notes on the very subject of the hour. A double win. Well, everything I said before I left, about wanting a good career and proving myself a good King's man and not caring about marriage—all that was true enough. But I want a little soul-baring from you, so it's only fair I bare mine some. I wanted to change myself. My personality. Ha! You should see your face! I succeeded, didn't I?"
John nodded. "Yesterday, Dad was lamenting how you used to be easy-going and now you're not."
Jeff rolled his eyes. "Easy-going! I was lazy! The year before I enlisted, I realized it. Dad lined up three good jobs for me and I didn't pursue any of them. Two pairs of friends got married and I realized I didn't want to make the effort to have a romance. I had to change me, or drift through life.
"And I noticed something: There are lazy horses, sure, but there are no lazy centaurs. Whoever designed that transformation included some high octane. They wanted workhorses. So I got up on hooves. Maybe I won't be a military hero or a great explorer, but maybe I will, and by God I won't embarrass whoever writes my epitaph. 'Jeff Weldon: He was no trouble.' No sir!" He stamped. "And maybe this Christmas I'll even be brave enough to explain that to Dad and Mum." He met John's eyes with something like a glare. "There. How about you? Maybe I couldn't be bothered with romance, but you sure could. Why'd you let Donna chase you into a vow of bachelorhood?"
John was silent for a few seconds, collecting the thoughts he had hammered out last night on the beach. Then: "It's interesting, you talking about having to be brave. About two months in, Fletcher said it was time to have a talk about being bachelors and had each of us in for a chat."
Jeff nodded. "Alain picks an opportune moment and surprises you with it, but it's the same idea. And?"
"This is how I was feeling about sex at the time: I told Fletcher I had noticed the geldings in our stables had no problem with bachelorhood, so maybe it would be simplest if I, too, uh... I got half-way through voicing the idea and he pinned my ears back." He recalled Fletcher's expression of outraged shock and noted the similarity to Jeff's face now.
Shock turned to scowl. "Quite right, too. My brother the gelding is not an introduction I want to make." He broke out of his resting stance and walked very deliberately around John, surveying. When he was directly behind, John glared over his shoulder at him and whisked his tail aside to give a clear view. "And did you think you were being brave by making that offer?"
"No. He told me the brave thing to do was to live with your frustrations and disappointments, and the Cavalry wanted 'a strong man welded to a war-horse.' Not a eunuch."
Jeff faced John again and planted himself in the resting stance, but now an arm's length away. "So you bravely kept your balls. Good."
John ignored this. "So that's how bad I felt. And I knew that I wanted nothing whatever to do with romance, ever again. Ever. Nothing. And I mean romance, not sex. I didn't figure out how to say it, how to explain it, until last night. But I felt it. Do you know about Dante and Beatrice?"
Jeff blinked and cocked his head. "Italian poet and the woman he loved. What–?"
"Do you know how old he was when he fell in love with this 'woman'? Nine. I'm pretty sure I was eight when I fell in love with Donna, maybe seven."
"That couldn't have been–"
"'Real love'? 'Mature love?' No, of course not, any more than it could have been erotic. But it was there. It existed. And it stayed there for at least ten years, growing up with me. So–" He stopped for a moment, to check his momentum. He was not going to sob in front of Jeff.
Jeff, he was happy to see, was simply looking thoughtful. "We always thought she was just, uh, a favorite playmate. Of course, I was only a couple years older..."
"Of course. What else could anyone think? And when I started treating her like a girlfriend, I bet everyone thought, 'Ah, he's growing up and made the great discovery.' Well, not the one everyone thought. I had discovered sex, sexual attraction, but I was already in love. Had been for years.
"Here's a big thing I realized since I transformed: Donna didn't treat me badly. I have to tell the whole family that, especially Mum, which I guess means I have to tell them all of this. Donna just thought the same as everyone else: that I was a favorite playmate, a pal, a friend. Who had hit his teens and started flirting."
"You must not have been very demonstrative."
"I thought I was was demonstrative. Well, maybe she was a little dense about it. Or maybe I was too much like a brother, since I hung around all through childhood—that's kind of anti-romantic. Or maybe she noticed and hoped I would just stop. I wonder what Beatrice thought of Dante. No one knows.
"Anyway, that's romance for me. You only get one childhood, and I had only one childhood sweetheart. I grew the romantic side of my heart around her, but it turned out she wasn't my sweetheart at all. And there was only the one shot. I was supposed to– The fairy tale was that I grew up and married by childhood sweetheart. That's what romance was, for my heart. And it isn't happening. Trying again will only remind me of that mistake. That part of me is ... over. So I know everyone thinks, 'Why doesn't he just look for another girl?' but no. I don't want to be reminded how I wasted half my hope. And how could I trust my own judgment?"
"Because you're not eight any more?"
"I wasn't eight when I proposed to Donna. I don't want anything more to do with it. What I do want– A few weeks after my little talk with Fletcher, the third or fourth time I had free time in town, I went to the church and got down on all the knees I still wasn't sure of, and thanked God that Dad never took Donna on any of our family excursions. I remember wanting that so hard, when I was a kid, and begging for it, but it never happened.
"Because that's the other great love of my life. The surviving one. Travel. New places. Exploration. And thank God—I did thank God—it isn't at all tangled up with Donna." He sighed. "So there it is. Bachelor explorer. Hey, look at Jeff in the Cavalry. They send you exploring. You get to be big and strong and tough, and maybe you don't fit in, but that goes without saying now. Close the door on being human."
Jeff took one step forward and was in his face. "You follow me, you're still human," he growled. "Don't you tell Mum and Dad you're not human any more. Don't you do that to them."
John felt muscles bunch to rear. "That's what he said to me," he growled back. "I'm the one who insisted I'm still human enough to be his son. He was happy enough to admit it. But look at us, war-horse. Human? We never faced off like this before. Not like this, wanting to kick and bite."
Jeff gave a quick, fierce smile and stepped back. "Maybe you remember our boyhood differently. But you're right, not just human. You'd better tell me what Dad said about being human and being his son."
John repeated the conversations in the garage and dining room. "I hope Peter doesn't want to change," he sighed.
Jeff grunted satisfaction. "Good. You're not trying to ditch them."
"Would I have come home if I were?"
Jeff shrugged. "Maybe, at a direct order from Mum or Dad. Or Fletcher. But you came freely."
John nodded. "But I'm not sure me being here is making them happy."
"They'd be more unhappy if you stayed away. Much more."
"But, stay away or come home, I make them unhappy, a lot or a little."
Jeff sighed impatiently, a perfect reproduction of their father's exasperated sigh. "Yep, just like me. Let's get on home." He wheeled around John and headed down the path. John followed. "The tale's not done," Jeff went on. "It's not a happy ending or an unhappy ending, because we're not at the ending yet."
"That's like what Fletcher said," John remarked. "When he was done pinning my ears back, I asked if taking the sagitta was a mistake. He said it was too soon to tell, it depended on what I did."
"Yeah, well, I was quoting Alain just now. I once asked him the same thing. He also said that a good way of cheering them up was to show them we were happy and successful."
"Again: they'd be more unhappy to see us fail. There's no neat separation of interests when people love each other. There, I said it. Don't make me talk sentimental again. It doesn't go with the new personality." From behind, John couldn't see his brother's face, but thought Jeff sounded tight. "But showing them your success means staying in touch, writing home and stuff."
"Yes. Right. Point taken. Again."
Jeff glanced back at him, then slowed so they trotted side by side. "We still owe them those happy endings, as much as mortals can deliver," he said. "We'll have to come up with new ones. Dad really wanted me to follow his path, and Mum really wanted a fairytale romance for you." He gave John another glance. "She's not going to get it now."
"I hope not," John said. "Not to be mean to Mum. But I just explained–"
Jeff looked at his brother again, and John realized he was studying his ear. He flushed.
"Has Mum noticed your new hairy ears?" Jeff asked.
"Not that she's said."
"Well, it doesn't show much; it's that fawn buckskin color. And it's only on the backs. Has she seen your mane?"
"I suppose. She saw me change out of the glamour shirt when I first got here."
"Don't tell her what it means. Here." Jeff took John's elbow and stopped them both, then peered into his brother's eyes. "Mm. I'm not sure your pupils are oval at all. Good. That might freak her out."
"Okay, yes, I'm kind of chevalin, extra horsey. I certainly won't point that out to Mum. What brought this up?"
"You haven't heard about this? You will when you start training with more senior cavalry or go on expeditions. It's just scuttlebutt, as far as I know, but the idea is that the horsier you are in appearance, the horsier you are in character, too."
John tried to do an instant inventory of his personality and, as before, was unsure which changes were in character and which in circumstance. "And?"
"And if that's true, then Mum's not likely to see you in any kind of romance in the future, because stallions aren't monogamous."
"I'm already a sworn bachelor." He started them down the path again.
"Right, but that doesn't mean you need have nothing to do with women."
"Fletcher did talk about the rules for flirting," John said, and was unsettled to hear a wistful note in his own voice. Against that, he asked, in tones of mock accusation, "So are you saying I'll never fall in love again because I have hairy ears?"
Jeff snorted, humanly. "Well, they won't do much to attract girls. Though there's always trimming them. And I know of one guy who points his with mustache wax... But, yeah." Softly, looking away: "(Especially if you don't want to.) But," he continued normally, "there's liking and friendships and what your Fletcher genteelly calls flirting. I think Alain gives a more thorough education, there."
John was silent. He could not decide how he felt about Jeff's one-horse prophecy. On the one hand, the limb would never grow back to give you pain. On the other, you were an amputee. But he put that metaphor resolutely away and thought, not for the first time, of priests and monks and nuns who did as much as he had, with no magical assistance and for generally nobler motives. And there were those simply not interested. And all the societies for which romance was just not a topic.
This is what we go on with.
"Where'd you hear about Dante and Beatrice?" Jeff asked, probably just to end the silence.
"So who's Charliehorse?"
"Charles Darneley, a guy in my class. We all have nicknames."
"You don't sound like you like it much."
"Why? It's strong and peppy. No meanness to it. Was it given to aggravate you?"
"No, the guy nicknamed all of us. Didn't mind when he got nicknamed back. He's 'Mr. Paint' or 'Style.'"
"Well, then, be Buckjack. New body, new face—" Jeff scrubbed his own beard in illustration. "—new voice—" Deliberately pitching down to make his horse lungs resonate. "—new name. You wanted a fresh start, didn't you? Hey, my nickname is Cremeux, Creamy. They don't use it much, for which I'm grateful. I'd love to be 'Buckjeff.'"
And now we go on. Buckjack grinned. "Okay, I'll be Buckjack, you be Buckjeff. Tell 'em your kid brother gave you the name."
Buckjeff laughed. "The Weldon Buckskins!" Their trot geared up to a canter. They would be home in a minute or two.
We go on. "We need," said Buckjack, "to start some new Christmas customs."
Buckjeff did not need to ask why. "There's giving rides," he said.
"That's good. I've already promised some. And Lucie and Val won't give us much rest. But how about sleigh rides?"
"Where would we get a sleigh?"
"That's Dad's problem! What's the use of having a trader in the family if he can't acquire things? It could be an old one. We have some time to fix it up, if need be. And then–"
"Brazen it out!" said Buckjeff, catching fire. "Tow the family up and down Oakwood, and anyone else who wants!"
"The charm campaign! And we don't even need to stay on Oakwood. You can put on your glamour bandana, I'll use my T-shirt—maybe have Axel ride me so we look symmetrical—We can tour Sterk if we want!"
"Sounds like work," Buckjeff commented.
"Do you tire easily, war-horse?"
"No more than you, little brother."
"You know, I think I came out an inch or so taller..."
They were still chattering as they entered the back yard at a trot. "No reins," declared Buckjeff.
" 'Course not! You brought your dress jacket?"
"Oh, yeah. And hat and saddle blanket. The whole kit."
"Good," said Buckjack. "I have a saddle, too. You?"
" 'Course! Oh, and trim your beard to match mine. The matched pair theme."
"Mm. I like it full."
"Hell, it'll grow back in a week. If people are going to go confusing us, we might as well help them."
Their parents came out the kitchen door. There was relief in their smiles, but, Buckjack realized, people naturally smile seeing their kids happy.
"C'mon, girl, use your knees. I don't feel any contact."
Chloe obediently squeezed Buckjack's barrel as tightly as she could. "What's the next one up?"
"Canter. Want to try it?"
"Go for it." Buckjack felt her take firmer hold of the straps on his jacket as he upped his gait. It was the first time he had carried her. Just ahead, where Chloe could keep a maternal eye on them, Lucie and Val were riding Buckjeff. At a canter, they would soon pass the kids, though.
Except that his brother heard the rising gait and accelerated to match. The children shrieked their excitement. A few pedestrians scattered. Others cheered.
It was early evening again. Windows and lamp posts blazed with colored lights. The whole street smelled of baking as residents got soul cakes ready for the Good Neighbors. A group of people—mortals—was gathering in front of the Driftwood, preparing for wassailing, and others in front of Ste. Marie-de-la-Mer for caroling. This would go on every evening until Christmas itself. The fays were already at it:
A soul cake, a soul cake,
Please St. Alice, a soul cake.
Oats and milk and a bit of leaven,
Anything to see a soul to Heaven.
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him Who made us all.
They moved up and down the street in variegated groups: little figures like the lady of the squirrel cloak who had greeted him yesterday, things like miniature scarecrows, translucent human-looking folk in clothes from the 1920s, ravens wearing garland and singing as well as you'd expect, three foxes and two badgers. Was anyone left in the Oakwood? Buckjack almost felt inconspicuous.
"Right." She renewed her squeeze. "Your ears are furry."
"And he doesn't have that stripe down his neck."
"Mane. A short one, but a mane. I'm horsier than thou. Well, clearly I'm horsier than thou, but I'm horsier than Jeff, too. A bit."
Buckjack shrugged. "Seems to be random. Don't point it out to Mum."
"Right. She might cry again."
She interrupted him with a hug. "But now she understands. That's good. I think she understands better than any of the rest of us. You two are the family romantics. I'm not saying she approves your choice—frankly, I'm not sure I do either—but at least you make some kind of sense to us now."
"I think Dad understands Jeff's reasons the best of us. I think he's actually proud of him now."
"He's proud of you, too."
"Mm. I think he now hopes to be proud of me someday. But that's okay. He will be. I'll see to it. I've got my vocation. A vocation to explore. He'll like that."
She hugged him again. "Just have a vocation to come home, too."
"Absolutely. Gotta have someone to tell the traveler's tales to. Knees."
"Knees yourself. I never claimed to be a horsewoman."
"Just as well. Hang on!" They had reached the Bend. Gil Faber stood sentinel there, watching wide-eyed as Buckjeff wheeled and headed back down Oakwood. Buckjack followed, giving Faber a grin and snapping a salute as he turned.
"Peter next?" asked Chloe.
"I'd better or he'll explode. Oh, hi!" He waved to Charlotte, Robert, and Andy as he cantered past. "Better work them in, too. I promised. And Mum. I can't believe Mum asked for a ride."
"Me either. But won't you be a rag by the end of the night?"
"From you lot? You're the ones will feel it, because I can tell you're not used to gripping with your knees. This is just a warm-up for a riding class."
"Boasting, are we?"
"I am showing off."
Ufham Wood lay in the night of a January freeze. Eight soldiers of the Dedicated Cavalry and twelve of the Standard Cavalry, out on a wilderness survival exercise, were huddled around a fire, spending their brief downtime in passing phones around, looking at holiday pictures.
"That's quite a sleigh, Mr. Weldon."
"It's a disgrace, sir, but thank you. We had fun with it. We'll do better next year, or whenever we can next get home for Christmas."
"And this is Christmas dinner?"
"Where's the rest of you?"
"Under my niece and nephew, sir. And that's my younger brother Peter on Buckjeff—my older brother Jeff. We have a whole new career as seating, it seems, sir."
"He admired Carlin's work, sir. And here's the whole family, in front of the house. The kids are still on our backs, as you see. A little posed, but it has everyone in it. I think I'll get it enlarged and framed."
"The smiles don't look posed."
"That's true, sir."
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2017