Scene: The mess hall of the training center for the Grand Norman Dedicated Cavalry, in Ufham, Berkshire. The mess doubles as a lecture hall and presently contains six young centaurs listening to Captain Philip Fletcher. Behind him on the wall hangs a modern TV screen, flanked by a photo of the royal family on one side and a print of a centaur in full military dress uniform on the other.
"We'll start with just an outline of the Cavalry's history. It begins in the winter of 1943, in the Italian Alps. World War Two was going on in the monde-minor, and giving the lie to 'minor' for cryptic nations and the Sundered world generally—major troubles from the 'minor' world. The tide of the war had turned, but there was still a long slog ahead and plenty of chances for reversals.
"The Alps were a busy place for the monde-major. Der Ahnenerbe and its allies and satellites were active there, so its enemies were as well: Grand Normandy, along with several other cryptics, the Men of Sherwood, les Chevaliers de Charlemagne, and Geroldseck. Probably more, but those are the ones we know about.
"King Geoffrey led an expedition to the Alps, with his two eldest sons, Princes Hugh and Oliver. It was a big force, by cryptic standards, of several hundred, given flit from Dymchurch to Kastler-Alpe by a ljósálfar troop. He was hoping to meet and make alliance with Dessalon.
"This was an out-zone nation. We hadn't even heard of them until 1941. Apparently, the turbulence of war had reached even them. They had heard about it and were offering their services as mercenaries. This included their own centaur cavalry.
"That was interesting, because it had been centuries since any Grand Norman had seen a centaur, and all we had were others' reports. At the time, the assumption was that centaurs were a variety of fay with a strong animal theme.
"So we managed to rendezvous, up in the Alps, and negotiations were proceeding, when, without warning, the centaur cavalry attacked. They began laying into our people with guns and swords, but also with sagittae. In those moments, we learned the hard way that centaurs are not fays but transformed men.
"Wardley, you never saw a transformation from the outside, did you? You were the first I shot, in this class. Darneley, you were the last: you saw the other five change before you. Describe it, please, for Wardley and anyone else who was, shall we say, understandably preoccupied."
Darneley: "Well, sir, it was ... dramatic. The, ah, subject falls over, like anyone shot in the chest with an arrow, then he squirms and flops. Not like he was trying to. More like something was pushing him around from inside—looked painful but of course it wasn't. And his torso stretches and swells and– I have to admit, the idea of bursting rather preyed on my mind. But nobody did, not even Wardley." (Laughter.) "As he starts to stretch, his arms ... split. A lower arm with just one finger stays put with the swelling lower body while an arm like the original stays with the shoulders. I remember seeing the second ribcage form on Brice. Somewhere in there a tail shows up. And he's been accumulating a coat all the while, on the swelling lower body. Around the fourth or fifth shot—I think it was you, Carlin—I remember, I watched the feet stretch out, the heels turning into hocks, the toes dwindle away, except for the one that swelled out into a hoof. Something similar must have happened to the arms in the middle, becoming forelegs, but it was hard to follow, because it went very fast. And then– And then you shot me, sir." (He gestures down at his own equine legs.)
"Very good. And it so happens that Dr. Blackholt recorded it. He does all of them, for study and research. Here, lads, are your first moments as centaurs."
The TV lights up and plays. There is some nervous laughter and some exclamations of an aghast nature.
Wardley: "I see what you mean about bursting, Charliehorse."
Brice: "I see why you don't have the families in to see us until after, sir."
"Indeed. I show you this to try to convey the shock it must have been. But not an astonishment. Many of us knew pookas and hedleykows and other shapeshifters, and all of us knew about them. Many had experience with seemings. There were benandanti among the troops. (None got shot. We have to be happy for them, but it would have been an interesting experiment, to see what a sagitta did to a werewolf.)
"And we were, after all, in the midst of a military encounter, even if we were negotiating for alliance. So we were quick to defend ourselves. After that surprise attack, Dessalon quickly withdrew. I don't know how they'd tell the tale, but we say we routed them. We chased them through the Alps for a bit until they vanished into a sudden snow squall that must have hidden their passage out of zone.
"One of the survivors wrote a poem about it. I'll send it around if you like. Quite the imagery, men pursuing the enemy on foot and horse. Men throwing their souls after the enemy in wolf form. Men staggering after, not knowing their own shape yet, only knowing they were still king's men.
"...I must admit, I suspect poetic license about the fellows giving chase when fresh-changed. We all remember how wobbly we were at first. But adrenalin is wonderful stuff, and the poet doesn't say they were at all fast. There are sober reports of men lying in the snow, new-changed, kicking with new legs, fighting off enemy with sabres, rifles, and bayonets. Very rousing stuff.
"But then came the shock of the butcher bill. King Geoffrey dead by bullet. The elder prince, Oliver, the heir elect, changed, then dead by spear, found with his sabre in his hand. That left Prince Hugh, the younger one.
"Well, that was the end of the expedition, of course. Now, it was a matter of limping back to Kastler-Alpe. We did, but we took along as many sagittae as we could find. And as we limped, we learned about our transformed brothers, and Grand Normandy's first centaurs learned about themselves. They learned, on the whole, what you've learned, so the men who were now also horses and the men who were still simple could trust one another.
"And as we limped, we had to start coping with a succession crisis, right there in the Alps. The king and the heir elect were dead. Now we have to get into some of the politics of the period. As is often the case, there were liberal and conservative forces contending.
"The liberals were led by the Baudry family—same as the Prime Minister; it was his grandfather at the head of the family then:
"They wanted to end the requirement for a waiver from the Lords when a noble house wanted to depart from strict male primogeniture.
"They wanted to relax the religious requirements for appointive offices from 'some recognized form of Catholic' to 'some recognized form of Christian,' and some added Jews in, too.
"They wanted to move some local offices from appointive to elective.
"The most famous point was that they wanted to form a parliament.
"The conservatives were led by the Aubriot family. Basically, they opposed those changes. The most conservative, though not Aubriot, wanted to roll back religious requirements to 'Roman, Avignese, or Orthodox Catholics only,' and leave out the Western and Celtic, but I don't think they ever seriously expected to win that one.
"Now, in his day, His Late Majesty had been what we would now call a moderate liberal. But that was in his day. In fact, he got the religion list expanded to 'any Catholic' and made the waivers for primogeniture easier, especially for female heirs. But that was as far as he wanted to go, or perhaps as far as he felt he could go.
"Oliver, the heir elect, was a moderate liberal for his day, and backed the liberal agenda, or most of it. But he was also a good diplomat and negotiator, and made the Aubriots and other conservatives comfortable, or comfortable enough: they felt he wouldn't go too fast or too far, and would be glad of imaginative compromises to make everyone happy, as far as possible.
"But now they were both dead. The heir presumptive (but not elect) was Prince Hugh. He was rather young to be much of a political factor, but such as he was, he supported his father—maybe out of filial loyalty more than considered opinion, but we'll get to that later.
"So there they are, trudging through the winter Alps, with the body of their king and the bizarrely mutated body of their prince, trying to keep the succession going and the kingdom alive, worrying about meeting Dessalon in their weakened state, while they fight the winter and their wounds and, often, their own new shapes. It's at times like this that nations die, you know, especially little ones like us cryptics. Valkyrstein went that way, by succession crisis, around 1900. And you're all old enough to remember how it almost happened to Micklemont.
"And the trouble would still be waiting for them at home. The captains sent benandante runners ahead in dream, to alert Grand Normandy, to gather the lords for an election as soon as possible. And to see if anyone could find fays or something that would get them home faster than a trek to Kastler-Alpe.
"They did. Les Fées de la Manche, the Channel Fays, raised a rade and came for us, took us to Kastler-Alpe. They nearly ran afoul of the Erlking's hunt on the way in, with an even closer thing on the way out, with us in tow. And there was almost a lethal misunderstanding when they descended on a surprised Kastler-Alpe. But they returned for us. They returned."
He pauses. The pause extends microscopically until the class picks up their cue and replies in a slightly mumbly chorus, "And we return."
"They kept faith." ("And so do we." Clearer this time.)
"Soon, the surviving Family and the Nobles were all met at Le Vignoble and the politicking really started.
"Baudry and the liberals wanted Queen Ruth, while Aubriot and the conservatives backed Prince Hugh. The negotiating was all very rushed and confused, by all accounts. It was, of course, very urgent to pick a monarch, but there was another issue arguably more urgent: we had just lost king and heir to Dessalon, a new enemy, largely unknown. This enemy had to be investigated, defended against, and, if possible, punished as soon as possible.
"Hugh proposed a joint monarchy of him and his mother 'until after we settle the centaur issue,' and the Queen agreed. But the nobles did not. They refused the joint monarchy. They refused Princess Helene, the eldest child of Ruth and Geoffrey, who took a compromise position. The Queen and Prince kept summoning the nobles to meetings, but nothing got settled.
"Abruptly, Prince Hugh settled it."
The TV lights up again, showing a black-and-white image of the front of Le Vignoble de Guillaume, which has a large terrace, suitable for making public announcements. Before the terrace are gathered a crowd of men and women in formal clothes of the 1940s. It is winter; snow lies on the roofs and trees; the people are in heavy coats.
Standing at attention in front of the terrace are four centaurs. Three wear military dress jackets, gray in the image, but the viewers know they must be bright red like the ones they sometimes wear. Of the three, two wear peaked caps, the round, flat-topped, short-billed hats worn in many militaries. They are infantry. The third wears a cowboy-style stetson—cavalry. These hats would have been bright blue. The fourth centaur wears a plain jacket that the audience knows would have been gray, a close-fitting cowl, and half a cape thrown over the left shoulder, marking him as a soldier monk of the Order of St. Martin. The barrels of their equine bodies wear horse blankets bearing the Grand Norman coat of arms.
The terrace itself has flags and bunting draped over the railing, so that the people behind are visible only from the waist up. They are the royal family and their close court. At the center are Queen Ruth and Prince Hugh. The prince stands almost two feet taller than his mother, as if on a soap box. He wears dress military jacket and hat. Everyone on the terrace looks serious—or taxidermied.
In the muffled acoustics of 1940s newsreels, the prince says, "As you see, there are now centaurs in Grand Normandy. These men are casualties of Dessalon's trecherous attack on our negotiating party, which took the lives of my father and brother. These casualties, in cooperation with the realm's best mages and scientists, have shown us the power of centaurs such as those who attacked them—their speed, strength, and sureness.
"We are still ignorant of the origin and fuller motives of these enemies. We do not yet know how to find them. We do not even know if Dessalon attacked for reasons of its own or on behalf of der Ahnenherbe. We only know they assaulted us in a new way, which we must meet. We are meeting this threat with a new branch of our military, the Dedicated Cavalry of Grand Normandy. This project has our full support, and we join in it wholeheartedly, as you will see."
Prince Hugh then comes off the terrace and shows himself in full. He is now a centaur, the original of the print portrait hanging to the side of the TV. He comes around to stand before the row of four other centaurs. With military precision, the five salute the crowd. The image freezes, then goes out.
"The prince had disappeared from the scene for two days. The whole royal family and court became very hard to find and tight-lipped. The arguments about succession stormed on even more chaotically, but the royals and the court didn't even seem interested. Then Prince Hugh did this—shows up on hooves and announces the creation of the Dedicated Cavalry. Then he announces that he fully supports his mother as successor to his father. She announces that she accepts his support.
"And in two more days, Queen Ruth is no longer just the widowed consort but crowned the queen regnant, and Grand Normandy is ready to re-enter the monde-major and the war again. The Aubriots and the conservatives were furious at first, but the queen was anxious to prosecute the war, not interested in pursuing the liberal agenda. The Baudrys and other liberal leaders themselves dropped politics for the war effort, especially the Dedicated Cavalry. Three younger Baudry sons volunteered for transformation, and all the males of the FitzMichael family, even though it ended their male line.
"There was a problem, though, if we wanted to continue growing the Cavalry: we were doing our transformations using sagittae we took from the battlefield. We had no idea how to make our own. So one Dr. Blackholt, great-uncle to our Dr. Blackholt, took on the project of reverse-engineering the sagittae, figuring out how they were made. In the end, he transformed himself—stabbed himself in the shoulder with a sagitta—and analyzed the spell for all he was worth in the few seconds of transformation, but he did it. Making a sagitta is a slow process, and expensive in terms of magical energy, which all has to come from one person, our Blackholt tells me, so that's why we only have a handful of sagittae every year. That's with Blackholt and his niece and nephew working on it. However, the rate of volunteers is rather low, after that initial burst at the founding, so we usually have some in store.
"The Alps attack and the fruitless search for Dessalon rather took the luster off our war effort, but Grand Normandy did its part, and there were a few times when the new Dedicated Cavalry also played a part, though we had to spend a lot of time figuring out what we were good for, and more time looking for those Dessalon centaurs.
"Prince Hugh was already married when he was transformed—to Princess Eleanor—and had a son, Robert, who was elected when Queen Ruth came to abdicate and retire. This Robert is, of course, King Stephen's father, His Majesty Emeritus. So our king is the grandson of a centaur, in a manner of speaking, though of course his grandfather was transformed after his father was born.
"And that's our beginning in short outline. Questions? Yes, Fells."
Fells: "Why did we risk both the king and the heir in one military expedition, sir? And why wasn't there an elect-in-waiting?"
"Good questions. I've given this talk many times, of course, so I might even say they're classic questions. The answer is that, most of the time, they were not on the same expedition. We had only a general idea of where to meet Dessalon. At Kastler-Alpe, the party split into three groups, one led by the king, one by Prince Oliver, one by General Lord FitzSimmons, accompanied by Prince Hugh. Each was to inform the others by dream courier when they found Dessalon. FitzSimmons, by the way, was transformed in the attack and eventually became the first Marshal General of Dedicated Cavalry.
"As for the elect-in-waiting, first, it's not usually necessary to have an elect-in-waiting. It's rare to lose both king and heir at a stroke. But that's surprise attacks for you.
"Second, politics again. It had been hard enough to pick an heir elect. They hadn't been able to settle on an elect-in-waiting and it hadn't seemed urgent.
Carlin: "Do we know they were planning to attack all along? If they weren't, what made them attack?"
"Another good one. No, we do not know that. It may all have been a tragic misunderstanding. You may be sure they started debriefing everyone as soon as possible. (Someone quoted FitzSimmons as saying, "I want to know why I'm marching back on twice as many legs as I set out with.")
"It may be that it was the Dessalon centaurs that started the attack, against the will of their human-simple comrades. There are several reports of Dessalon soldiers urging centaurs back, or trying to hinder them, and yelling, "Oshi!" which would be close to "No!" in Greek, and the Dessalonians seem to have spoken a Greek-like language. But then too many blows were exchanged and battle was joined."
Fletcher displays on the TV a black-and-white picture of a small bay centaur in an old-fashion duty jacket and hat, standing next to a rather larger bay pack-horse. He holds a rifle at attention, a determined look on his face.
"This is Cavalryman David Arens, standing by Jojo, whom he had been accustomed to ride before that became impractical. He may well be the first Grand Norman to be transformed. He reported that, at the request of his officers, he was showing a group of Dessalonians, mixed centaurs and humans-simple, around the horse pickets, trying to convey by gestures the way we took care of our horses. Suddenly, one of the centaurs burst forth in impassioned speech, had a short argument with his fellows, then appeared to win over the two other centaurs in the group. The first centaur then drew a crossbow, quickly loaded it, and shot Arens. That's the last he remembered, of course, until he awoke lying in the snow, a great deal more confused than any of us were at that point in our lives.
"So you see, it may be the Dessalonian centaurs were gravely offended. We don't know by what. You can be sure Arens was grilled on the subject extensively. Or maybe the Dessalonians were arguing over whether it was time to launch the surprise attack. Or something else we haven't guessed.
Darneley: "Sir, if it was a surprise attack, why would they use sagittae? Wouldn't it be much cheaper to use ordinary arrows?"
"A good point against the surprise attack theory, yes. Some people have proposed that, for the Dessalonians, the transformation spell was so simple and cheap, they could as well enchant their arrows as not. Mages don't find that believable. In any case, why gift your enemies with centaur warriors? An answer to that is that a new centaur is equivalent to a wounded soldier, unsteady and confused as he is. But there's the day after the battle, and the day after that.
"No, there was something going on besides a straight attack. The best guess is that they were taking slaves. There were reports of Dessalonians trying to goad and drag our folk, including new-made centaurs, along with them. But it's all still very odd and unexplained. If we ever encounter the Dessalonians again, we will certainly make inquiries.
"Any more? ... Well, if you think of any, I'll be happy to answer to the best of my ability. I'll go into more detail in later lectures, and I certainly encourage you to research our history privately or as a study project. "Next up, a field run, then agility class. This is the first day of Agility II! Yes, Wardley?"
Wardley: "Are we starting on that climbing net today, sir?"
"Yes, we are. Rosin up your hooves, lads, it's Pegasus time. Don't look so nervous, Wardley. We've graduated fellows as big as you before. Well, about as big. Intact. There's a safety net. Before that, a warm-up for next week's endurance run. Dismissed."
Scene: The Bow and Sabre public house, in Ufham. It's a comfortable, countrified establishment, notably roomy, with a couple of tables oddly tall, attended by mats on the floor, no chairs. The reason for this is clear when you see the six young centaurs in rusty red T-shirts, seated (rumps on mats, forelegs standing) around one of these tables, chatting when they can stop panting. Their double respiratory systems make a heavy, complicated noise.
Robert Irwin, proprietor, comes over with a tray of six pitchers of beer and as many mugs. The pitchers are icy, because Grand Normandy is only sort of English. Six pitchers is a heavy load for a man simply human, but Irwin is sturdy.
"Here you are, gentlemen."
"Thanks, Mr. Irwin. You're a lifesaver."
"Endurance run today?"
"Ha! A warm-up, he called it. The endurance run is next week. After two more 'warm-ups'! And at one o'clock it's back to agility training. They've brought out this climbing net, you know."
"Know it well. You'll do fine."
"I hope so. Climbing! Look at us! We're half horse, not half goat!"
"You're all Cavalry now, lad. The Captain'll have you rescuing stranded kitties from tree tops, you mark my words. He set you a good pace today?"
"I guess! 'Keep up with me, lads!' he yells over his shoulder, back at us. 'If an old plug like me can do it, you can!' Where he gets the breath for yelling, I don't know. He must have six lungs, not four."
Brice, a slim chestnut and the youngest of the six as visible by his fresh face and new-looking beard, sips cautiously at his beer. If he hadn't been up on hooves, he wouldn't have been served. "Horsepower, you sound like a steam train. You okay?"
The biggest centaur nods.
"Still think breathing is fun?" asks Darneley, a big bay who is still only shoulder-high to the panting giant.
"Hlot... hmore fun... hthan not!" the giant answers, with double-stroke inhales in the pauses.
"He's just getting you in condition, like," Irwin assures them.
"What kind of condition is he in?" asks Darneley.
"Grand, isn't it? And here he is!"
Captain Fletcher enters, a dun centaur of medium height (for his kind) and solid build, with white hair and beard, wearing the same red, sweat-soaked T-shirt as his pupils. He smiles, returns their salutes, and waves them back down as they start to rise. He goes over to the bar, where he allows himself a little private wheezing. Irwin meets him.
"Whiskey if you love me, Rob, and aspirin."
"How many aspirin, Captain?"
"Just give me the bottle."
"We're talking serious pain management?"
"We're talking anesthesia. I've been using that 'keep up with me' line on the pips for years, but I'm going to have to find a new line soon."
"Never say it, Captain! It works a treat—I hear them going on about it—and the humility is good for them. You stayed ahead of 'em, by their account."
"Well, yes. Thanks, Rob. I suppose I'm good for a while yet."
He pops a moderate (considering his size) six aspirins, lets the wheezing run down, drinks his whiskey, and takes a second one over to the table.
"May I join you, gentlemen?"
"Of course, sir."
"Wardley, are you all right?" he asks the biggest centaur.
"Don't pass out on me."
"You're in good wind, Carlin," he tells the paint, who is breathing easily.
"Means a lot, coming from you, sir."
"This is your free time, I know that, but I thought that, if you liked, I might amplify on this morning's history lecture, if you have any more questions."
"I think we'd all appreciate a nice sit-down lecture, sir," answers Weldon, a buckskin, "as long as you care to make it." His mates and Fletcher grin. "And I do have a question. Thought of it on our run.
"This is an odd question to pose in this company, sir, but what was the prince thinking? I mean, irreversible transformation? For people like you and Brice, sir, with family already in the cavalry, I'm sure it seems normal. I have an older brother in it myself. But I know it doesn't seem normal to other people, especially outside Grand Normandy. My family travels a lot, because of my dad's job, and I got to meet people all over le monde-majeur. If I brought up my brother, well, I got several different reactions. Sometimes it was even fascination. But other times it was 'Omigod, why would you do that?' It was never 'Can I sign up?' People think it's one of the stranger things about Grand Normandy.
"So I was thinking, it must have seemed very strange at the time. I mean, I watched the reaction of the crowd on that old newsreel, and there was quite a stir. And mustn't it have seemed strange to the prince himself? It was the form of an enemy, after all."
Darneley cocks his head curiously at Fletcher. "Surely someone's asked the prince, sir? He's still alive, isn't he?"
"Yes, in his late nineties, but still going. Retired, of course. And reticent. Yes, Darneley, people have asked, but he's never answered, not in any detail. But remember that, while the nobles were focusing on the succession and hunting for a royal to back their agenda, the prince and the queen were focusing on the attack and the need for retaliation, or at the very least for deterrence.
"And the prince, who had been there, was deeply impressed by the centaur warriors, from reports of the things he said just before his transformation. Fast and strong as horses, agile as men, tough as both together. When Julius Caesar saw the Gauls use mastiff war-dogs against his troops, his thought was 'I have to get some of those.' Prince Hugh seems to have felt the same.
"And the prince knew royals have great influence as trend setters. So he set the trend. At least, that's the received wisdom. The prince won't talk about it. I sometimes wonder if he has second thoughts. I hope not. But we each have our own thoughts, eh? And no regrets, I think." He locks eyes with Weldon briefly. The buckskin shakes his head and a murmur of "No, sir" rises from the group.
Carlin, the paint, swirls beer in his mug thoughtfully and says, "Sounded like lots of nobles joined up, in your lecture, sir. And I always heard the DC was kind of a gentlemen's club. But none of us are gentry. What happened?"
"That's just a statistical fluctuation, Carlin. With small class sizes like ours, some types often don't show up in a given class. For instance, this time around we didn't get anyone who came primarily for the money. But some do. Often enough, our classes have gentry in them, men who aren't in their lines of succession, or don't want to be."
"Or whose families don't want them to be?" suggests Carlin with a sideways smile. "Like being pressured into becoming a monk?"
"That happens, though you won't hear many fellows admit to it. But yes, the gentry tend to have lots of spare sons they need to place. Lots of noblemen joined in the first years. The prince set the trend for them, and they and the prince together set the trend for us commons.
"You want to show loyal in wartime. And how do you show loyal? The royal family has invested one of its sons. What, or who, are you going to invest, lords and ladies?
"Also, all the houses wanted to get their own men in the Dedicated Cavalry, or at least not be shut out by the others. That's how the liberals got the loose religious requirement and the conservatives got the rule that we don't inherit titles.
"So volunteering to transform might be odd, but it was also, ah, classy. Made going up on hooves acceptable. Well, sometimes acceptable." Fletcher finishes his whisky and looks around the table at his students, his eyebrows raised in query.
Wardley is breathing normally now. "My friends and family knew I had to change or die, sir."
Brice shrugs. "My family's been cavalry, like, forever, sir, both kinds. I don't suppose we know anyone who'd object."
Fells smiles and shakes his head. Carlin shrugs.
Darneley and Weldon trade glances. "There was some flak," Weldon admits. "Christmas break will be interesting."
Fells stirs. "Sir, how did his family take it? The prince's? Princess Eleanor, and the queen, and Prince Robert as he was then."
"Well, the royals treasure their privacy, of course. Publicly, the queen and princess were solidly behind the prince. The queen showered advantages on the Dedicated Cavalry. If anybody dared ask the princess about the effect on her marriage, they got, well, royally snubbed. As for Prince Robert, he was a small child then. They must have introduced the idea to him carefully, because, like your own daughter, Fells, he thought the transformation was a tremendous lark. There are any number of pictures of him riding his da." Fells smiles to himself. "After he was grown, he did tell people that, when he first realized his father was never changing back, he thought it 'a great nuisance.'"
"On the other hand," Fells murmurs, "the rides could continue."
"Changing back," muses Darneley. "That reminds me of a question I have, sir. Our transformation is a real transubstantiation: this is our true form now. And beyond that, it resists further shapeshifts, or even seemings if they make an appearance of reverting us. But the sagittae are made by Dr. Blackholt, and I thought human magic couldn't reach to real shapeshifting. Is Dr. Blackholt a fay or jinni or something, sir?"
Fletcher smiles. "Well, I've known the man for years, and if he's not human, he's making an extremely thorough pretense, even to catching colds, getting his ribs broken a couple of times by panicky recruits, and letting some gray start up in his beard.
"I presume the recipe for sagittae includes some factor he gets from jinn or fays or something. He certainly wouldn't tell me. Trade secrets and all, though of course the recipe is in some secret file in the Earl Marshal's office."
"Why's it secret, sir?" Darneley asks.
"It's a royal patent. The family's reward for the first Blackholt figuring out the spell. So they protect their intellectual property."
"Are the Blackholts cursed, sir?" Brice blurts.
Fletcher gives him a stern glance, then checks the level of the beer pitcher at his elbow. But even a whole pitcher shouldn't do more than mellow out a creature the size that Brice now is, and the vessel barely looks touched.
Fletcher looks back at Brice, who is now blushing, and asks, "What have you heard?"
"Nothing bad about them, sir," Brice hastily assures his captain. "The story is, once upon a time, a Blackholt's girl was stolen by a fay, and he got a shapeskin, an otter I think, and used it to sneak in and rescue her. And the fay put a curse on him, something like, 'Since you like transformations so much, there will be transformations in every generation of your family from now on.' Permanent ones, he meant. And the story says that, ever since, Blackholts have been fascinated by transformations, and every generation a few give in and... and do it. And the Blackholt family is supposed to be full of people who turned merfolk, or satyr, or got changed by fays, and like that. But they're not the bad guys in the story, sir, they're the victims."
"Yes, I see that. Where did you hear this?"
"My sister's in the Standard Cavalry, sir. She says the story circulates over there."
"Mm-hmm. Well, I can't answer for Dr. Blackholt, Brice. You could always ask him yourself. If you think good manners would allow it."
Brice's blush refreshes itself. "Yessir."
Wardley cleares his throat loudly and moves the conversation on from his friend's gaffe by asking, "Sir, why would all the FitzMichael men enlist?"
"Not just the men." Fletcher reaches into a belt pouch and pulls out a phone. "I load all the audio-visual stuff for the lecture onto this. You must realize I'm old enough to be very proud of mastering a gadget like this. But I didn't get around to this picture this morning. Here we are."
He passes the phone to Wardley, whose eyes pop. After a few seconds, he passes it to Brice, who whispers an obscenity then passes it to Fells. The palomino pales, mutters, "Holy St. Martin!" and passes it on. Darneley and Weldon make no comment, but look gob-smacked. Carlin takes the phone, studies it, and cheerfully remarks, "Hey, he's a paint, like me!"
The phone screen shows a black and white photo of a young boy, in the eight to ten range, playing on a grassy lawn. Or he had been a young boy. He is now a centaur colt, bucking and grinning, arms spread. On his chest can be seen the fading bruise of a sagitta strike.
"At least he looks happy," Carlin remarks.
"The Honorable Gerald Oliver Gaspard Leo FitzMichael," Fletcher tells them. "Last son of the FitzMichaels."
"They can't have enlisted him," Fells says.
"No, they did," Fletcher replies. "As a cadet. As a child, he was never sent into battle or on expeditions to anywhere unknown. He trained and learned the trade, ran errands, was a mascot. At sixteen, he enlisted as a full-fledged cavalryman, like you, Brice."
"Despite there being so many other careers for centaurs," Darneley says flatly.
"I believe you were all told about your prospects before you enlisted," Fletcher answers with deliberate mildness.
"Yessir, I have no complaints. But honorable little Gerald didn't get much chance to consider career choices. He looks like he's at the age where he wants to be a pirate this afternoon and a pilot tomorrow."
Fletcher nods. "I'm not defending what was done. I don't know what possessed the family. They've never said, so they're probably embarrassed about it. People have suggested there was an accident with a sagitta. 'Don't touch that. It's sharp. And enchanted. Oops.' But they'd probably admit to that. Anyway, you can see the mark on his chest: he was shot."
"What became of him?" Fells asks.
Fletcher smiles. "Glad you asked. He's still alive, a few years older than me. I met him once, at a Cavalry function. He stayed in the Cavalry for twenty-eight years, on expeditions whenever he got the chance. When he mustered out, he kept on doing expeditions, sometimes in cooperation with the military, sometimes on his own. And still does. Here's before." He holds up the picture of the dancing colt.
"And here's after." He clicks to a new picture and passes it around. It shows a lean old centaur, bald, bushy-bearded in white, basically as naked as the colt. He wears only harness, hung about with packs. He is a paint, and you can match the patches on his flanks to those on the colt. The smile gleaming through the whiskers and in the eyes is also recognizable.
Gerald FitzMichael has a lot of company. He stands before a background of forest, and with him stand two young centaurs, similarly loaded, two young men, three middle-aged women, a young woman, an elf, two goblins, and a scattering of petty-fays, mostly perched on people's shoulders. Three pack horses, all paints, stand in the background. The humanoids wear khaki and pith helmets. Everyone is smiling in a formal way, except the petty-fays who of course smile like they are scheming, and Gerald, who is beaming.
"That was taken two years ago," Fletcher tells the recruits, "coming back from a very successful expedition. If all of you didn't have your military obligations, I'd recommend you apply for his next."
"Well," says Darneley, "I'm glad he's had a happy life. It's one I'd emulate, actually. But he shouldn't have been changed as a kid."
Fletcher nods. "He's the fortunate exception. Here are the other FitzMichael males." He clicks to another picture, black and white again. It shows a row of eight adult centaurs, with the slicked-back hair and occasional mustaches of 1940s men. All look solemn and some glower. Legs spread a little wide or held stiffly suggest they are newly transformed. This is confirmed by the dark spot of a fresh sagitta strike each has on his chest.
Fletcher puts the phone down on the table and begins pointing out figures:
"The father: died in the Schwarzwald, fighting der Ahnenerbe.
"The older brother: died at sea when his transport was attacked.
"An uncle: mustered out, then went to live as a hermit in a forest.
"Another uncle, the baron: died on an expedition in a fight with locals.
"Cousin, the heir: went on an expedition that never came back.
"Cousin: committed suicide.
"Cousin: the expedition came back without him, fate unknown.
"Maternal grandfather: went mad, then just stopped living."
"I see," says Fells softly. "He's smiling in the recent picture because it's been a long time since anyone in his family died."
Fletcher sighs. "Perhaps."
"You've researched them thoroughly, sir," Darneley says.
"As I said, I met him. It made me curious."
"Hm. I have a question, Captain," says Carlin. "Weren't the FitzMichaels always bucking for the crown, back in the day? Didn't they claim they should be considered a branch of the royal family, so a FitzMichael should be eligible to be elected king?"
"Quite true," Fletcher answers in the "feed me the next line" tone that shows he knows what's coming.
"So why'd they throw it all away? I mean, why would any house end itself that way, but especially one with top-level ambitions? Why join the Crown's pet project when you're their rivals? It just makes it harder to explain why they'd all take the change."
"Can you think of an answer? Take some time, if you need it."
But the paint doesn't need any. "Blackmail," he answers promptly. "Some family enemy had something on them. They saw all these noblemen rushing to get transformed and decided it was their opportunity to cash in. 'All of you change, or we publish.'"
Brice and Wardley give him dark looks, but Fletcher only smiles and nods. "That is the leading theory. Of course, no one, certainly no FitzMichael, has ever commented. But then, that's what you'd expect if it was blackmail. If you read our news for that time, the FitzMichaels are the number three story, right after the war itself and the succession. But then the FitzMichaels exit the stage, time moves on, and third-rank stories become obscure."
"But still..." says Fells. "Ending their line... What threat...?" He trails off.
Fletcher shrugs. "We can only speculate. But here are a couple of things to consider:
"It was early days yet. We knew this was a transubstantiation, so a change back would be tough, but we didn't yet know how resistant this transformation was. Prince Hugh, the casualties, the FitzMichaels—all hoped to get changed back some day. Our enlistment rate dropped sharply when that never happened, and it's stayed low.
"Second, it ended the male line, but the house continued through the female line, at the special request of Queen Ruth, and now we have the Dalton-FitzMichaels. The FitzMichael succession wasn't ended, but its direction was changed. Maybe that change was the object of the blackmail, if it was blackmail."
Brice takes his fifth sip of beer ever and comes to the grim conclusion that he really is too young for it because he'd much rather have a cola. "And we still don't know why the Dessalonians attacked us in the Alps, sir?"
"No, but looking for them started our current age of exploration. We rediscovered the Road to the Sun by looking for them in Thessaly. We started the mapping of the Brendan Reach by chasing a rumor in Ireland. (The Irish centaur turned out to be one of our own veterans, by the way, and very surprised we all were, not to mention mortified. He had a good laugh.) We first tangled with the Platinum Circle while exploring in the American southwest. Even investigated London Below. By now, of course, the exploration has its own momentum and the attack in the Alps is just background. After all, how much detail did any of you know before this morning's lecture?"
They nod their heads in acknowledged ignorance, except for Darneley, who says, "Well, sir, I did read a Kerdean survey of Alpine elf-roads when I–"
"One in six. I think my point holds."
"What do we do if we find them, sir?" Brice asked.
"That depends entirely on what they're like. All we know of them is that one encounter. They move across zones. They make sagittae. They hire out as mercenaries, or claim to. They attack without obvious reason, or their centaurs do. They may do slave raids. Or they did. It's been three generations or more since then. Who knows what's happened to them? We wait and see, and then play it by ear. That's all we can do.
"Time to go, lads. We're stinking up Rob's place with two kinds of sweat, and the lunchtime crowd will be coming soon. Back to the agility course."
"After all that beer, sir?"
"Well, there's another lesson for you. Next time, limit yourself to a shot or two of whiskey. Less ballast. Now, the climbing net awaits!"
There are questions Fletcher can't answer. They are meant to be answered in an upcoming novel, but if you want to know now and don't mind SPOILERS, see Secret History.
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