The morning was fine, the parade ground was green and neatly cropped, all things perfect for an induction. The induction being done, now was the time to let in the families. Captain Fletcher clasped his hands behind his back and rested them on his withers, looking over the Class of 'Sixteen, all freshly shot and transformed.
Well, not all. Corliss there had shown up two weeks early, begging to be transformed to pay off an oath to a goblin, the sooner, the better. Now and forever, he was a tall, rangy, dark brown dapple bay, far steadier on his hooves than the new-shot lads. He had not been required to come, but had anyway, and was now smiling and chatting with the families gathered around Darcy and Donovan. The two young Irishmen had their arms thrown around each other's shoulders, helping each other balance on their new legs.
A little reluctantly Fletcher approached the Vimonts. Some families, he reflected, seemed to produce distinct types or models of children. Baron Vimont was blocky and fair; his wife was slender and dark-haired. One of her daughters looked like her, while the other was fair and a bit zaftig. Their brother, come over from the Standard Cavalry side of the base, was lean and dark, his mother's son, in red jacket, blue pants and stetson, the man-simple version of the dress uniform Fletcher himself was wearing.
Their elder brother, burly and sandy-haired, was his father's son, or he had been. Now, he was a blocky, light brown bay, staggering on his new legs, laughing and showing off to his sisters by trying to buck. He fell down. They giggled nervously, their eyes sweeping back and forth over the new-wrought horse body.
The parents and brother stood a little apart, trying to keep a layer of blankness over expressions of dismay. Fletcher nodded down to them from his seven-foot height and returned the brother's salute. "Is he– is he all right?" the baroness asked, gazing at Roland Vimont, who had struggled back up and was now turning in a tight, tottery circle, trying to see his own new tail.
"Perfectly all right, Lady Vimont," Fletcher answered, smiling reassuringly. "He's just feeling his oats, as we say," he added with a thin layer of malicious humor. Lady Vimont grimaced and Fletcher felt a little bad. He had no idea what her part was, either in raising this son or in urging him into the Cavalry and out of humanity proper.
The father, on the other hand, had confessed in a letter to using the Cavalry to take this unsuitable heir out of the succession and off his hands. "Thank you for taking him, Captain," the baron said, gazing up at Fletcher apologetically.
"Naturally, Lord Vimont." He had had no choice and they both knew it. So few volunteered for the Dedicated Cavalry, you almost never turned them away, and besides it was not Fletcher's decision. Therefore Fletcher's smile shifted from reassuring to ironic. "What else was I to do, sir?"
Baron Vimont colored slighted and said, "Still, you've been very decent about it all."
"Thank you, sir." What point in being otherwise? He started to turn away.
"I hope," the baron burst out, "he will be happy. And useful. In the end. Do you– Do you think– What kind of career do you see for him?"
Belated compassion? Fletcher reminded himself to be gentle toward the fellow. If his description of his son was accurate, Roland Vimont was indeed better up on hooves than in a baron's seat. Better for the barony, better therefore for the nation, and even better for Roland. More honest and permanent than pushing him into a monastery. The only other alternative equally effective would have been turning him merman and shoving him off the pier.
"I'm no seer," he answered. Not much. "But there's every hope, sir. You were very candid in your letter. May we speak candidly now?" He glanced at the wife and the younger son, Richard. Her lips were compressed. He guessed that she had read the letter. And he guessed she wished it had not been written, but not because it was untrue. Richard looked slightly baffled.
Baron Vimont gazed at his younger son. "Richard, it's not right for you to hear us dissecting Roland. We'll tell you about it later. Now, please go ... congratulate him."
Looking more relieved than otherwise, Richard Vimont nodded and walked over to his brother, clapped him on a bare shoulder, and started dissuading him from taking his sisters for a ride on such unsure legs.
The baron looked back to Fletcher, who said, "Sir, you told me he's an undisciplined womanizer." Baron Vimont looked grim and nodded. The baroness tighten her mouth again and colored. Fletcher turned to her. "Ma'am? Accurate?"
"Unfortunately, yes," she sighed.
"So you have put him in a situation where women and marriage are forbidden him, bastards are impossible, and discipline will be imposed from without. Maybe some will soak in. That is your hope?"
They both nodded.
"You also said he was cheerful, brave, and loyal. Was that also true, sir?"
They nodded again, and the baroness started to tear up.
"Then he has the makings of a good soldier. Is he at all a bully?"
Fletcher was thinking of the future women in Roland's life. For they would be there. He had said Roland was "forbidden women" but that was a euphemism for not coupling with them. Roland might not be imaginative, but he would hear of alternatives if he didn't know them already.
The parents looked at their children. Whenever his siblings weren't facing Roland directly, pity crept into their expressions. "Oh, no," his mother said. "He was the big brother, and always rough-and-tumble, but no bully. Inconsiderate, at worst."
"He can be stubborn," the baron warned. "On the other hand, if you can sell him on an idea, he stays sold." So, Fletcher considered, you could not sell him on being responsible, but once you persuaded him that transforming would be fun—"adventure and magic," the letter had said—he stuck with it. Stuck to a decision many other men had dithered over.
"So neither a bully nor to be bullied?"
"Oh, no," said the father anxious to not think he had bullied his son into becoming the capering creature a few feet away. "No, if bullying worked, I'd have used it for girls Four and Five. And the debts. And the sot friends. Not to be bullied."
"Good. Those can be problems in any military. Mister Vimont!" Fletcher called. Vimont was trying to rear. His brother and sisters had retreated. "Don't wave your hooves around that way. They're hard and sharp, and the people next to you are not."
Vimont smiled sheepishly, dropped down, and managed not to fall. After a moment's thought, he gave Fletcher an inexact salute. Fletcher nodded. "Good. You're embarked on a life of looking out for mere humans. Mustn't tread on 'em." Vimont grinned and nodded back. His siblings closed in again, cautiously.
"That's a good approach, I think," the baroness murmured.
"Happy and useful?" Fletcher repeated. Rich, titled, easily out-thought, loyal, stays the course? Certainly useful to anyone in a position to steer him. And, to be fair, he really did have the makings of a decent soldier, augmented with all the speed, strength, and above all toughness of his new form. "I'm sure he'll be useful. Happiness is a subtler question, but, well, many of us are happy—as many as men-simple. He's off to a good start."
He gazed at the siblings. Roland was now seated on the ground with Richard on his back and everyone was laughing. Richard was scientifically applying the heels of his cavalry boots and Roland, though he laughed, looked startled. He had not had those flanks half an hour ago, and they were delivering novel and urgent sensations. Richard still looked as if he could cry if he chose, and the girls' laughter had a hysterical tinge to it, but everyone was holding it together.
The baroness gestured toward the scene. "When they ride your– your men, they don't dig like that, do they?"
"Not more than once, ma'am."
She chirped a laugh, then sighed, "It is a pity he can't have a family."
"He will. He does. He has you. He'll be away, but that's like any soldier. He'll have great fun being a 'cool uncle'"—Fletcher pronounced it with quotes; it was a foreign phrase for him—"giving rides and being big and strong and special. I just hope it won't make difficulties if the nephew decides he wants to follow Uncle Roland's path."
Both parents smiled, but the baron looked confused and the baroness said, "You mean someday?"
"Someday?" Fletcher echoed.
"I mean, there are no nephews or nieces yet. None of our children are even married."
"Oh. Yes, ma'am. I spoke imaginatively." He had, he realized, been running off a memory of Vimont, in a duty jacket he had yet to wear, with a curly brown beard he had yet to grow, prancing in a rather posh garden with four small children, two little girls on his back, a slightly older boy and girl marching on either side of him. Everyone was singing, he thought. Only now did Fletcher realized the "memory" could not be real. Yet.
The baron gave Fletcher a long look. "Something to look forward to."
"Mm," Fletcher agreed inarticulately. Internally, he was scouting about for any other anachronistic assumptions, to no effect.
The baroness looked askance at him too, then looked back at her children. Roland was still sitting on the grass. His dark-haired sister was clasping his hand while the other two looked on. Fletcher could read the exchange without hearing it: We're proud of you. Thank you. Stay in touch. I will. Come home safe. Don't worry. A farewell that was utterly ordinary, even if one party no longer was.
The baroness burst into tears and turned away.
"He has made a good start, ma'am," Fletcher repeated, and then, when that had no effect, the all-purpose "I'm sorry."
She wiped her eyes with a ready handkerchief. "It's seeing him like that, and knowing he'll be like that forever. I'm sorry, I don't mean to insult you, Captain. You and your men look magnificent. But when it's your own boy– I'm sorry to be stupid."
"Not at all, ma'am. The mothers usually cry. Often, the fathers do too. Even if they approve wholeheartedly. It's a massive change. We live in time." Even if we sometimes lose our place. "It's something to cry over."
"I heard you were a philosophical lot." She sniffed her way back to composure.
"We're all kinds."
The baron looked bleakly at his son. "I doubt you'll turn him into a philosopher."
Fletcher smiled gently. "I've turned him into stranger things, sir, just this morning."
The baroness sighed once more, said, "Thank you so much, Captain," then turned toward her children. "The captain says your transformation went splendidly, dear!" she called, and started toward them. That's right, talk it up, Mum. Positive spin.
The baron reached up and shook Fletcher's hand. "Again, I apologize. But it seemed the best choice."
"I expect it was, sir. And it was his choice, too, you know."
Baron Vimont gave a curt nod, managed to raise his expression to somber satisfaction, and strode after his wife.
Fletcher gave a long sigh from his human lungs, interrupted by a more cynical snort from his equine lungs. He looked around and saw Lieutenant Sanders trotting his way. "Ordeal over, sir?" his assistant asked.
Fletcher nodded. "Nothing new from the situation as described in the letter. Except that his siblings like him, which is a good sign. And his father doesn't talk the way he writes."
Fletcher surveyed the parade ground. "What is going on with the Littlejohns?"
A few minutes ago, Alistair Littlejohn had taken an arrow in the chest and become a dark gray dapple. He had risen smoothly on his new legs and surveyed his new form with delighted wonder, but with none of the usual coltish stumbling. Then, when the families had come in, his wife had rushed to him—and wives were not usual for recruits either. A minute later, he had swung her up on his back and ridden off with her.
Sanders shook his head. "He seems to have learned a thing or two in their adventure." Mr. and Mrs. Littlejohn were survivors of an encounter in the Canadian wilderness, with an illusion-wielding monster. Apparently, the experience had inured them to strangeness.
Sanders checked the time on his phone, nodded to his commander, and headed for the Vimonts. They had done their venting with Fletcher, so he would probably get off easily. Fletcher, reciprocally, headed for the largest group, around Darcy and Donovan.
Here, the color-coding was simpler. Darcy was black and slender; his friend Donovan brawnier and chestnut. The crowd around them were mostly children, either black-haired or red-headed, clearly younger siblings.
The smaller children were busy stroking sides and legs, and examining their brothers' new tails, fascinated by the transformation directly. One analytical little girl was fingering the hairline at her brother's waist, between human and equine sections; she seemed to find it odd that there was no seam.
"Jenny, you've no idea how weird that feels," said the brother, the big chestnut. His hand came down on hers, not to push it away, but to hold it still against his new shoulder. "It's all me, but I'm not used to it yet."
The younger children were doubtless providing a lot of distraction as the two fresh-made centaurs tried to respond to the rest of their families. Clearly, the two families knew each other. Not only did the recruits still have their arms around each other's shoulders, the kids examined them both impartially, and the older children and adults conversed freely with each other when they weren't at the recruits.
"Sir!" A woman stepped out of the crowd and stood before him. Her red hair proclaimed her the mother of about half the children, and she wore a navy dress uniform with a "retired" badge in among the other medals. "Are you Captain Fletcher? Was it you that shot him?"
Did she believe he had done it wrong? Her expression was hard to read. She was smiling and weeping and trying to look brave and military, all at once. "Yes, ma'am," he answered her. "I'm Captain Fletcher, and I'm your bowman."
Her smile widened. She reached into the crowd and pulled out a big, sandy-haired man her own age, also in navy dress uniform, though his was noticeably tight; this was where the new-minted chestnut got his brawn. He was one of the fathers who cried. "Dennis," she told him, "it is Fletcher. Captain, this is my husband, Dennis Donovan." Her Chenelaise had an Irish flow to it.
So had his. "Fletcher! Happy I am to hear it." He reached up and shook hands. "You had the training of my brother, and he always speaks well of you."
"Honored." Fletcher bowed a little over their clasped hands. He had trained a number of Donovans in his time, and was now leafing through his memory, trying to guess which one was brother to Dennis Donovan. He hoped he didn't "remember" a toddler nephew or that six-year-old hugging Darcy's foreleg. He was still unnerved by the slip with the Vimonts.
He glanced at the chestnut's face, hoping to spot some family resemblance. The mother followed his gaze. "D'you think he's big enough?"
Fletcher was about to reply soberly that the transformation usually gave them bodies comparable to Arabians or mustangs, not bigger breeds, but then he saw that she was joking. Through tears. He smiled back. "A strapping stallion, ma'am. A bit taller than me, I think."
"Ben Darcy looks grand too," said the father, looking at the black. "He used to fret about being scrawny, but he's not that now."
"Good of you to say so, Dennis," said a new voice. Fletcher turned to see a dark, slender man reaching up to shake hands. "Martin Darcy," he said. "Ben's father. Pleased to meet you, Captain." He was not weeping but he looked at his son and sighed. "All grown up now, just not into a man-simple." He looked back at Fletcher. "We're a cavalry family too, so we know the lingo. Ben and Bill would have taught us, if we hadn't, they were that keen to join."
Martin Darcy signed his letters "Martin, Baron Darcy," Fletcher knew, but seemed on a level with the Donovans. Did he know any noble Donovans? "I look forward to training them," Fletcher said to Darcy. So enormously better when they were happy to be here.
He glanced at Corliss, who had only come here as the best of a bad deal. But he was smiling, fielding questions from the children. He had, after all, picked this shape over whatever the goblin had had in store. So that was all right.
Fletcher looked around for the Littlejohns. They were off by themselves. She was still on his back, but he stood still. She was hugging him, he had his hands over hers, and both had their eyes closed. It would be criminal to interrupt them with socializing.
"Holy Hubert!" That was Corliss, invoking the patron saint of hunters, including, presumably, those who poached in goblin woods. He was staring at the entrance to the parade ground. Fletcher followed his gaze.
Three figures strode through the gate, already aiming for Corliss. He excused himself to the Darcies and Donovans, and went forward to greet them. Fletcher followed, justifying his curiosity with the thought that Corliss's family deserved his attention as much as anyone else's, even if Corliss had been changed a fortnight ago.
For this was clearly Corliss's family. Two were the right age to be his parents, a tall, rangy man and a solidly built woman too athletic to be fat. They wore Sunday best, but a slight air of constraint and their long, springy strides made Fletcher sure they were used to outdoor clothes. And how could this be?– Something in the man's gait was the same as Corliss's, despite the new species barrier, an easy pendulum-swing to the legs of whatever kind.
The third figure was a young woman. Her Sunday best was in bright autumn and gypsy colors. Her hair was back in a long pony-tail, and there was a snap in her eyes showing anger along with the sorrow. She didn't look like a sister. St. Martin! Was this a wife, conveniently left unmentioned? Did he have two married recruits in this class?
Corliss did not leave him in doubt long. "Captain Fletcher, these are my parents, Patricia and Alan Corliss, and this is Margot Gerrold, an old friend." The last phrase was spoken with something of a sigh.
They shook his hand and completed introductions politely, but their attentions were riveted on Corliss. Fletcher might as well have been invisible, which suited him. As generally happened, their eyes roved the new body, but there was less of wonder, more of indignation in their faces.
'When were you going to tell us about all this?" the mother demanded, waving at Corliss's new dark-dappled form.
"After I got my feet under me, so to speak," Corliss replied, with a quick smile that was not returned. "How did you hear?"
"The old devil himself came and told us," his mother replied, "gloating."
"Don't speak of him so," said Corliss Sr., who, Fletcher recalled, had spent a year as a bear after running afoul of Derrullew, their goblin adversary.
"Speak how you like," Corliss countered. "He said we were quits. Speaking of which–" He leaned over, threw his arms around the three of them, and took them into a huddle. "Speak how you like" or not, he evidently wanted some privacy. Fletcher also noted no slightest hesitation from the family and girlfriend: Corliss's transformation might anger them, but it did not repel them.
Fletcher did not exactly mean to foil Corliss's privacy, but he was standing quite near, his ears were still good, Corliss's voice had a new and carrying resonance, and Fletcher was nosy. "The salmon are in the freezer in the basement, with a horseshoe on top of them. Nice touch, eh? I've paid for them, Hubert knows, so make good use of them."
"What do you want us to do with them?" the father asked.
"Use your judgment. And give a good cut to Margot." His arms were already around her shoulders; he pulled her in and gave her a quick kiss.
"I've done nothing to deserve a cut," she answered.
"You came. I thought I'd never see you again. Take it as a gift. A thank-you gift."
"But not a farewell gift." She had not responded to his kiss, but she hugged him now and kissed his cheek. As he opened the huddle and withdrew, she grabbed his beard and smiled for the first time, a sharp smile. "You come back. And tell us when you do." She pulled his face down and now kissed him on the mouth. "I like the beard. It'll be handy when it's a bit longer."
"Good. It's hard to keep down. My whiskers grow three times as fast as before."
Fletcher admitted to being nosy, but he had limits. He quietly backed a bit and turned to stare off into the middle distance, waiting for them to finish. Mrs. Corliss didn't wait: "Why did you need to come out two weeks early?" she demanded.
Corliss blew out a sigh, and Fletcher saw the first slight surprise from his people: the sigh was louder and longer than human, a rumbling wheeze coming up from the equine chest. "He wouldn't go away! After we struck the deal, he hung about, haunting me. Whenever I walked through a door or into a room, it was fifty-fifty he'd be there, glaring at me. He said he suspected me of trickery. I suspected him of trickery. He'd agreed to the deal, but there was no guarantee he wouldn't throw some other devilry on top of it. And I was hardly in a position to order him away. Did he tell you about the deal? And what my alternative was to this?" He glanced down at his new body.
All three nodded solemnly.
"So I was very grateful when Captain Fletcher let me 'get up on hooves' two weeks early."
"Well," said his father in a clear change of subject, "let's look at you." He took a pace back. So did his son, spreading his arms in display. "Nice coat. In good flesh and well-muscled. But you walk on eggshells. Are your feet sore?"
"He's just new to them," Fletcher assured Mr. Corliss. "Watch the other lads. They were changed within the half-hour, and they're wobbly as new-born foals. Your son's made the most of his head start—moves as if he'd been at it for a couple of months. He'll end up agile as a goat, I suspect. Or a fox."
Mr. Corliss smiled. "Good, good." To his son: "If you were a complete horse, you'd be a fine one."
"Horse-simple," said Corliss. "That's our lingo. There's man-simple, horse-simple, and us. Thank you, Dad."
The father's smile faltered. "But what a thing to come to! Being a bear only lasted a year! This... no going back."
Corliss sat down, the easier to hug his parents. "Nothing against your shape, captain," said his mother, looking up from the embrace, "but I suppose you chose it freely."
Fletcher nodded. "I understand. I certainly wouldn't want to be coerced into changing back, were that possible. Your son's taken it quite gracefully. To put it very mildly, he's a good sport." He glanced around the parade ground. There were the Darcies and Donovans, celebrating even if some wept. There was Vimont, presently roaring with laughter about something, whatever his family was thinking. There were the Littlejohns, riding around again, chattering and smiling. And then there was Corliss.
He had followed Fletcher's gaze. "Are you wondering if I should have come, sir? That I'd find it painful to see them happy at the change?"
"Something of the sort."
"Don't worry. I'm a gambler. We all are." He nodded to the other three. "Sometimes, you lose. The first rule of gambling is not to wager more than you can afford. I kept to that, though just barely." He got back on his feet. "Don't mourn," he told them. "Well, not much. Maybe I'll never be able to look wholly human again, but there's always seemings. And think of the hunting grounds opening up to me, out there. And I'll be traveling with caravans and guarding trading posts. If I can't find opportunities there, I'm not your son!" He glanced at Fletcher. "Not that I don't mean to be a good soldier, too, sir."
Fletcher nodded. "You're making the best of it. You took the oath and that's what matters. Everyone here had a different motive for taking it. Well–" He nodded toward Darcy and Donovan. "–their motives are probably the same. You'd hardly be the first soldier to keep an eye out for business opportunities, nor the first good soldier. A lot of them have gone on to run those caravans. Then again, maybe you'll find the work with us interesting enough, even after your stint. You could..."
Corliss treading softly down the night streets of some stony city, his hooves muffled, wearing stetson, duty jacket, and a gray-seasoned beard. On his back sat a slender, robed figure with the face of a young woman, dimly glowing indigo. At the sound of distant voices, she turned and abruptly had the face of a leopard. She put her now-taloned hand on his shoulder anxiously and he patted it in reassurance.
Fletcher had forgotten what he was going to say. "You can see how it works out," he finished lamely. "Plenty of time."
Corliss's habitual smile took on a quizzical edge. Some people could feel when minor gifts got used. "Thank you, sir," he said politely. He lay down again and took Margot onto the bony lap of his forelegs. She didn't appear to mind. "How many times did we break up?"
"Four. Perhaps five."
"Maybe it's as well this happened while we were apart. Hell of a way to meet again, though, since now I'm sworn not to marry."
She snorted. "Was marriage ever in your mind? I'll still be happy to see your face whenever you bring it back, and any husband I take will have to be happy about it, too."
"Tell him he gets a kicking from me if he's not good to you."
Corliss might be comfortable talking to Margot this way before his parents, but Fletcher was not comfortable in the audience. He backed again, tipped his hat to the preoccupied group, and looked around the field. All much as before. He pulled out his phone to check the... Time.
The figure led a multi-species line of folk through grasslands that curved up on either side, to meet and form a green tunnel with lakes of night sky, lit by flocks of fire-things overhead. There was only a touch of gray in his beard. A rifle was slung across his human back. His rider wore a Standard Cavalry uniform and peered at the landscape through binoculars or something higher-tech.
There was actually a little wave of dizziness, that time. Who the devil–? He had been dark, so not Vimont or Donovan. Littlejohn with his wife on his back? Corliss? Darcy? Someone he had yet to meet, or met last year, or would never meet? Just a fancy, bred from the sight of the Littlejohns and talk of far wandering? Gaaahhh!
"Are you all right, sir?" It was Sanders. He hadn't even seen the tall palomino approach.
"What? Oh, fine. Why?"
"It's just that you've been standing stock still for a couple of minutes."
"Have I?" He sighed. "I've just set off four potent spells in close timing and proximity. That sometimes ... gets me going."
"Receptance, sir?" Fletcher shrugged. "Visions?"
"Little ones. Nothing useful. Well, some of them, at least, are scheduled for long lives, by the look of it, so that's good. Give them all... Give me a few minutes, then we'll wrap up. I'll tell you all about it later."
His subordinate gave him a worried glare that conveyed, "Damned right you will," and set off for the Littlejohns, who looked as if they might actually be ready to talk to other people. Fletcher wandered back to the Irish party, making himself politely available, hoping no one would take him up on it. They didn't, not above chit-chat.
When he felt able, he returned to the Vimonts and was relieved to find everyone's social masks firmly in place. After answering a few general questions, he gently told them it was time for them to go.
He and Sanders made the rounds of the other, with the same polite orders. Time for them to really start. You'll see them at Christmas. Meantime, we'll remind them to phone and write. A splendid start. Thank you all for coming. Goodbye.
He drew a deep breath of relief. He and Sanders were alone with the new set of pips. He continued the breath, filled both chests, then spoke in the voice he had cultivated: not a bark, not a roar, just conversational and very loud. "Gentlemen, form a line. Stand to attention. Like this." He and Sanders modeled the pose. "Now..." The familiar first-day lecture started rolling.
Tonight, when he got home, he would read some history. Something that happened in the past.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2018