The monster arrived at dead of night, as was only appropriate. A lorry pulled up in front of a pair of houses, hauling a large horse trailer. The houses shared a yard, now snowy, with a garage and driveway between them. Behind stood a patch of forest. Farm fields lay on the other side of the road. It was a fair way to the next house, and further to the village, an ordinary unSundered place.
A young woman got out of the lorry and listened. The nearest highway was far off and there was no other sound of traffic—no other sound at all except for the lorry engine and a light wind sighing in the trees. Nor was there much to see: the sky was overcast and there were no lights in the houses. All the illumination came from the lorry's lights.
The young woman walked back to the doors of the horse trailer and knocked. The doors opened and a large young man leaned out. Like her, he was wearing a jacket of military cut and a stetson hat. He smiled down at her through a full beard.
"This the place?" she asked. The GPS and the maps all said so, but she'd hate to abandon anyone here, in the cold and dark, and it would not do to strand this passenger.
The young man stepped out, revealing himself to be, from the waist down, a large dark bay horse. He glanced at the snowy yard, lit by the headlights, and said, "Yes, this is it."
"Thought they'd have lights on," she said, then immediately wished she'd not spoken.
"Yes, me too," he answered. He wasn't smiling now. He leaned back in the trailer and pulled out several bulky pieces of luggage. "Well, I shall roust them out."
"Want me to wait until you're sure– until they come?"
The young man-horse, Charles Darneley, "Charliehorse," gazed down at her, giving the offer serious consideration. "Until you're sure they're home," she had been about to say. And if not? If asked right now, would she take him back to the cavalry base at Ufham? Almost certainly. Kindness aside, you did not leave evidence of magic like himself lying carelessly about; that was ingrained into both of them. But:
"No, but thank you. They know I'm coming." After all, he had sent to them clearly enough, a week ago and again yesterday. "They just didn't know when to expect me." Still, they could have left lights on over the doors.
She nodded, putting her hands in her pockets and shifting her feet. The wind was light but cold. "Want help with the luggage?"
Charliehorse was not sure where to put it. "No, but thank you again. I'm sorry you've got such a long drive back to Ufham." Should he go with her?
" 'S okay. Got audio stuff to listen to." She headed back to the cab of the lorry. "Happy Christmas!"
"Happy Christmas to you, too. Lift a glass for me."
She got in, smiled and waved—last chance, Charliehorse—pulled the lorry into the driveway, adroitly backed lorry and trailer out again, and headed back the way she had come, to the sparsely trafficked highway.
And it was dark.
He was the last delivery. Just as—it occurred to him—he had been the last of the class shot. Last June, on a brilliantly clear day, he had stood naked and human at the end of a line of six men, on a green field. He had watched the other five get shot in the chest with magical arrows, fall over, warp and swell and change, growing legs and tails and fur. And then it had been his turn.
Three of them had been his fellow passengers in the horse trailer: Weldon, Wardley, and Brice, dropped off one by one at their homes for Christmas leave. Met by their families, in the cases of Wardley and Brice.
Danny Brice had been dropped off a couple of hours ago, at his family farm. It had been a merry meeting, full of light and sound. There in the big floodlit farmyard had been Danny's parents and other relatives, at least two on four legs. Danny had five siblings: two sisters and three brothers. One brother, Ed, was well-known to Charliehorse by report. Danny idolized big brother Ed thoroughly enough to follow him into the Dedicated Cavalry and, like him, like Charliehorse, be permanently transformed.
A cheer went up when Danny emerged from the trailer and Ed had charged him, grinning, arms outspread. Danny had seemed to know what to expect: he had charged back. The brothers reared as they met and performed a kind of double hug, chest to chest and chest to chest, embracing with arms and, as well as they could, with forelegs. They pounded backs and laughed.
When they disengaged and landed, Ed had given Danny's sweeping new beard a tug and boomed, "Look at you! Look at you!" Charliehorse looked. Danny had been the shortest member of the class, right after transformation, but now, after a growth spurt that had seemed itself almost magical, he was an inch or so taller than Ed and, like his brother, a ruddy chestnut, but more rangy.
While Mrs. Brice shoved one half-ton son aside to kiss the other, Mr. Brice came over to shake hands with Charliehorse. "You've been a fine friend to Danny," he said. Danny called home often. "He pined here, a bit, when no big brothers were left around, but I think he's got five good ones now, from what he tells us."
"That's very kind of him to say so, sir." Danny was only sixteen, the minimum age for recruits to the Dedicated Cavalry and the youngest of the class by several years.
Mr. Brice and his sons shared a strong resemblance, from the waist up at least, and Charliehorse briefly entertained an image of all three up on hooves. The father was cavalry too, like his wife and daughter, though he and the wife were long mustered out, and of course it had been the Standard Cavalry, not the Dedicated. Danny's family had been supplying horses and soldiers to both cavalries for generations.
To linger in the bright, happy throng, Charliehorse had helped carry Danny's luggage to what his mother called "the garçonnière," the boys' quarters. It was a wing of the stables. A cousin, a young uncle, and Ed already had rooms there, and now Danny did too. "Used to be a tack room," Mrs. Brice explained to Charliehorse, "but we moved that all into a spare stall. Well, Danny, what do you think?"
Charliehorse suspected that, from the wainscotting up, it was as near a copy of Danny's old room as practical. The walls were covered with posters for bands, horse shows, and soccer and polo teams. There were shelves of plastic model horses, strings of show ribbons (Charliehorse recalled Danny had his own horse, Farthing), and a shelf for a laptop equipped for gaming. The floor was bare except for a clothes chest and a sleeping mat, double thick by Cavalry spec.
"What do you think?" Mrs. Brice asked again over the rising noise of invading family. Rather than shout, Danny leaned over and kissed his mother on the cheek. She hugged him around his waist, that being at a convenient height.
A few minutes after the recruits' transformations, Captain Fletcher had let their families onto the field to see the results and say their goodbyes until the Christmas leave that was now in progress. Danny's mother had smiled then, and wept, to see her youngest "all grown up." Charliehorse remembered his aunt and uncle, standing solemnly before him, trying not to look him up and down (Why not? This change was spectacular!), each taking a hand and gravely hoping he would be happy in the new career, the new form. The note of farewell could hardly have been louder. Or more final?
Charliehorse had started making his way back toward the horse trailer, issuing happy Christmas wishes. It would be sweet to stay longer, but the driver would be on the road long enough, and there were people waiting for him at the end of the journey.
Or so he had thought.
Could they really have left for a Christmas holiday without him knowing? He pulled out his phone and checked email again. Nothing. There never had been, not from home. Was it as bad as it could be? Had they read that he was coming and fled?
He fanned his phone's light up to the roof of one house to check for smoke at the chimney, but the little beam did not reach. Leaving his luggage in the road, he paced slowly into the yard. Without the light, there was only the faintest glow, scattering from snow to snow to snow, from the village down the road. You could barely tell the houses were there. With the phone light on the snow, slight though it was, he could see and recognize the front yard of his home.
He could recognize it, but it was dreamingly strange. He had last seen it in June, by daylight, as he left to be changed. Now it was dark and snowy, but also further down. He had never seen it from this angle. He had left a bit under six feet tall; now he was seven feet, four inches—"seven feet and a hand," he liked to say when people asked him his height, as they sometimes did, since he was tall even for what he was now.
He walked slowly round the house, peering through the windows for a hint of light. He considered how monstrous that could look from inside—a huge thing prowling in the dark, dark itself and strangely formed, looking for a way in, all too familiar with the grounds.
"Serve 'em right," he growled. He nursed the ill temper because he could feel the upset building inside himself, and grumpiness seemed a better channel for it than bereft sorrow. He would readily trade it in for laughter at the silly mistake that he hoped was there.
Here was the well for the basement window. He leaned over, then knelt, then lay, horse belly down in the snow, and peered in. A little red light. The phone beam showed it was an indicator on the furnace. Running furnace. People home. Right.
He rose and trotted back to the driveway.
His large family occupied both houses on the lot—the "Darneley house" and the "Arlingway house" sometimes, but more usually "this house" and "that house." He had been examining the Darneley house. Both houses had front doors facing the road, but these were formal, seldom used. Mostly people used the side doors facing the common drive and garage. Charliehorse went to the side door and leaned on the doorbell, then trotted past the garage to the other house and leaned on the other doorbell. Then back again, trot, ring, trot, ring, trot, ring.
By the fourth round, lights were coming on in both houses. So it was not as bad as possible: they had not run away from him.
The door of the Darneley house, his parents' house, opened. There was Uncle Nathan with Aunt Constance and others behind him. The door light came on. They stared.
"Charles?" Nathan asked. He sounded sincerely unsure.
"Yes!" Charliehorse exclaimed. "You have seen me before! I mean, like this." Just the once. And the beard and the duty jacket were new, but still– And he had sent a few pictures. "Didn't you get my email?"
"What the futtled hell?" came Uncle Marc's voice from the other house. Charliehorse felt an old, old cringe start up in his human belly, echoed in the new horse belly. His tail started to tuck.
He wheeled. There was Uncle Marc, slogging out into the snowy driveway in boots, tying his bathrobe. More people appeared in the door. "Happy Christmas!" Charliehorse called, then gave a determined smile and waited.
Behind Marc came Aunt Eleanor, looking amazed, then Lily. Someone turned on the garage light and people began to pour out of the houses. Soon, they were gathered around him, staring. It would have made an interesting tableau, had anyone driven by to see it, but the Sundering would make quite sure that no one did.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Marc demanded.
"I'm home for Christmas. As I said in my letter." Charliehorse scanned the faces. Except for wrathful Marc, everyone stared at him with astonishment. (Horror? Dismay? Wonder was too much to hope for. Let's go with astonishment.) "Didn't anyone read the letter?"
"What letter?" asked Aunt Constance.
"One yesterday, one a week ago." He scanned the crowd. It looked like everyone was there. Nearly. Not his parents. He looked up to the top floor of the Darneley house. His father was outlined against a lit window, looking down.
Uncle Marc was getting red in the face. "Didn't you notice," he demanded, "that you got no replies?"
Oh, yes, he'd noticed. "Yes," Charliehorse answered, "but both of mine were headed 'Coming home for Christmas.' I did give you a chance." If you wanted to tell me to stay away.
Marc turned redder. "I blocked them."
"What?" exclaimed his wife, Aunt Eleanor. "How? When?"
"Put his address in the spam filters. After his first letter."
The family had a joint email, in addition to their individual accounts. After the silence answering his first message to the family account, Charliehorse had not tried reaching any of them individually. He had barely wanted to send at all. But he had made excuses for them—they were at a loss for what to say, they were many of them bad at answering letters, and of course some wanted nothing to do with him—and he had still sent a few more messages to the family account.
"What letter?" asked Lily.
"Filterzz?" said Eleanor, buzzing the plural ominously. "All our filters?" Her husband glared at her and she returned fire: "You meddling old domestic tyrant!" And they were at it again.
Marc retreated toward the door; Eleanor pursued. The rest of the family flowed away from them and around Charliehorse. But not too close.
He took in their stunned gazes. "So you never saw any of the pictures?" Shaken heads; a few no's. "So this is the first time you've seen me like this." Some nods. Since they were giving him plenty of room, he turned in place, his arms out. "Well, this is it! This is me from now on, unless something equally drastic happens off in the out-zones."
He saw cousins Julia and Yvette, daughters of Marc and Eleanor, slip away toward the Arlingway house. Talk of the transformation had repelled them in the months before he left, and he probably repelled them now. That left quite a crowd. Even minus the two girls, their arguing parents, and his own parents up in their suite, there were still Uncle Nathan, Aunt Constance, and a dozen assorted siblings and cousins gathered around him. Twenty people, grand total. Down from twenty-two.
"And there's no place ready for me to stay."
Uncle Nathan glanced up at the Arlingway house. Charliehorse's old room was up two flights of stairs and would now fit him more like a wood and plaster garment than a chamber.
"That's okay." He went back to the road and, in two trips, fetched his luggage to one of the garage doors. He then lifted the door. "May I have a key?" he asked the onlookers. Aunt Constance made a move toward the Darneley house but paused, puzzled. "Why...?" she began.
"I can move the car out and set up in the garage."
"How can you drive it?" asked cousin Alex.
"I'll just put it in neutral and push it out."
"Here!" yelled Marc, returning with Eleanor. "What are you doing?"
"I'm going to move the car out so I can set up in the garage, for tonight at least."
"You can't do that! You'll be seen."
"I'll close the door," Charliehorse replied in an explaining-to-morons voice. Behind him, Constance gave a small "huh." All the senior family members and several of the junior ones used this tone with Marc sometimes, but this was the first time for Charles.
"It's not that!" snapped Eleanor, who was apparently siding with Marc in this. "You'll be seen if you stay here at all."
"And we're not having it," Marc declared. "We're having guests over the holidays, and we're not having you on display!"
"I live here!" Charliehorse insisted and realized he had stamped when the onlookers jumped slightly.
"You live in a stable! A barnyard! I had no idea you'd take it into your head to come back here. You don't even fit through the doors!"
"You're an idiot," Marc's wife told him. "If you hadn't blocked his mail, we'd have known he intended to come and could have told him to stay away." But then she rounded on Charliehorse. "You're not staying in the garage. What are you doing here? How'd you even get here?"
Charliehorse folded his arms across his chest, then spread and locked his legs. "I came here in a horse carrier—very nice, heated, mats, TV, the works—with three of my mates, all of us going home for Christmas. No one else seemed to have an issue with accommodation."
"Well, we're not accommodating you! We don't want you here at all!"
Charliehorse sat his hindquarters down in the snow and looked immovable while still staring down at Eleanor from seven feet up. "I'm not leaving. I live here," he repeated. "What do you propose to do about me? Call the dog catcher?"
"We'll call the Cavalry!" Marc declared. (They really were such a perfect match, Charliehorse reflected. Aunt Lu had often said so, during or after one of their squabbles.) "We'll have them send that horse trailer back and haul you away!"
Charliehorse had been in the military only half a year, but he had a pretty good idea how such a move would go down. If Marc managed to get through at all, the Cavalry, probably in the person of poor Lieutenant Sanders, would inquire what the emergency was. On learning that the "emergency" was Marc's distaste for Charliehorse, he would make a few sharp or soothing noises, according to mood, and hang up. "Go ahead," Charliehorse told Marc. "I'll wait here."
Marc and Eleanor fumed their way back into the Arlingway house.
"You don't seem worried," Aunt Constance remarked.
"I'm not. May I have that car key? Or does he win for having the biggest tantrum?"
She looked in the opened garage. "If you really want..." she said.
"Where else can you put me?" But then Charliehorse looked in the garage too—at the stained concrete floor, at the ultra-wintry fluorescent light, at his proposed "roommates," two other cars and some bicycles. Even the barracks back at Ufham were more of a human habitation, and the inhabitants weren't altogether human. "Never mind." He picked up a couple of duffle bags and started moving. Relatives scattered.
Uncle Nathan, Aunt Constance, and his sister Lily followed. "Where are you going?" Nathan asked.
"I'm going to camp in the back yard tonight."
"Where beasts live—in the woods. At the edge, at least."
"Did you bring a tent?"
"Don't need one."
The back yard was lit well enough, now, by house lights on snow. Charliehorse headed for the family plot and dropped his luggage next to the graves, at the edge of the forest.
"There?" Lily asked, incredulous.
"There. Doubt it'll please Marc. Just as obvious to guests as the garage, and maybe more eccentric, but I can't say I care." Constance snorted. She and the others followed him back to the garage. The rest of the family had retreated indoors, though he could see silhouettes moving against windows and hear excited voices.
"But the cold–" Nathan started.
"I think that concrete floor would actually be colder than the snow. And I know I can camp in snow; I've done it." And the view was better.
"But the wind–" Constance objected in turn.
"There's not much. The trees will shield a lot. And I have a blanket—a horse blanket, a good one—and my winter coat's come in."
"Winter coat?" Lily asked.
He looked down at her and ruffled the fur behind his foreleg in demonstration. "Winter coat. Lots of fun come shedding season, I'm told." Lily stared. He suspected she was experiencing all over the shock of realizing that brother was horse and horse was brother. Sorry, sweets. "And I have the square-cube law going for me."
"I hold heat well because of being so big."
Constance cleared her throat. "You said this was for tonight. And after?"
They were back at the garage. He picked up the second load of luggage. "What would you suggest?" he asked her, then turned to Nathan to share the question with him.
"Well. Well." Constance gathered her house coat around her and looked uncomfortable, but it wasn't the cold. "I hate to take a page from Marc's book, and I don't mean to order you out, but might it be best if you called Ufham and had them pick you up tomorrow? Or the day after?"
Charliehorse glowered at her. This had happened, though not often, when he was a lumpish teenager, and came with teenager territory, she knew; she had had four of her own. It was different coming from ... this. Old Charles, human Charles, boy Charles had had a lot of anxiety in his rare glowers. Not this Charles. "They are coming to pick me up after the New Year," he told her. "A change of plan would require an emergency. I would not like to think we have an emergency."
Constance looked away. "No, certainly not." And she appeared about as happy as most people suddenly cumbered with a large and unwanted piece of livestock.
"We just aren't ready, Charles!" Nathan apologized. "A few minutes ago, we were all asleep. We had no notion you were coming, thanks to Marc. We've had no time to think. What, uh, what did you expect, in the way of accommodation?" he asked, looking for guidance.
Charliehorse dropped the second set of luggage next to the first and contemplated his aunt and uncle. After Aunt Lu had died, they had taken him in, in a loose-coupled way. After all, he had been a college student; how much fostering was he supposed to need? Informally, he had "belonged" to the Arlingways—Aunt Lu had been an Arlingway and his room was in the Arlingway house. But, unofficially, unspoken, Constance and Nathan (his father's brother) had become the "adults in charge" of Charles, insofar as he needed any, since clearly neither his parents nor Marc and Eleanor were going to do it.
Constance and Nathan had been astonished and upset when he announced that he had signed up for the Dedicated Cavalry, but aside from repeated "Are you sure?" questions, they had not opposed him. They had taken him to Ufham to be transformed.
They had said goodbye there.
Their attitude had, of course, been sunshine and roses compared to Marc and Eleanor's, who had denounced him as unnatural, perverse, grotesque in spirit and all too ready to become grotesque in body, a disgusting disgrace to the family. And his mother had had the vapors, and his father had been silent.
Constance and Nathan had not opposed him and so, in that weak sense, had been "for" him. But they had not said or suggested that this surprise reappearance was a happy surprise.
He had left home, as young people do, but in a shocking and upsetting way. They had seen him through it. Now they did not know what to do with him.
What had he expected? Fair question. He started unpacking and sighed. (He saw they were surprised at the sound. His sighs were now longer and windier than human.) "I expected to stay in the garage, really. Though I hadn't realized how grim it was." Okay, he'd been fair. Back to being nettled: "Although I will say I was hoping someone would offer to let me stay in the house."
More surprise. "How?" Nathan asked. "I mean, you can't even fit in there."
"Oh yes I can. I took classes. I'd wipe my hooves nicely before entering, be slow and careful, not switch my tail–" Lily winced slightly. "–and take extra care not to rear. It'd be like having a piano moved into the room, but it could be done. I've done it. I was hoping for the study. I could shove the furniture over to the bookcases and put a mat on the floor. But I have just put the mat on the snow instead, and that will be fine." He tried to speak the last bit lightly but it came out tight.
He opened another bag and took out his horse blanket. He flung it over his back and started working on the buckles.
"Will that be enough?" asked Constance, unbelieving.
"Yes," he answered shortly. He did a few buckles, then thawed slightly: "The blanket, the mat, my fur, my size, my jacket, even the snow—as I said, they're all insulation. I'll be fine. Go back to bed. I'll be here in the morning, for good or ill. We'll figure out something then." He settled onto the mat, pulled the bag over, and took out scarf and gloves. He put them on, then made gentle shooing motions and repeated, "I'll be fine."
Lily hugged him. Nathan shook his hand and Constance kissed his cheek. He was surprised and pleased; he had not been at all sure they would want to touch him. Then they wished him good night and retreated.
While they were still in sight, Charliehorse realized he was hungry. He also realized they were no more prepared to feed him than they had been to house him. He shrugged the issue away.
He looked to the right. There, against the edge of the woods, lay the family grave plot, no more than four yards on a side. The Darneleys and Arlingways had had this double household just three generations: the burial ground held only three of Charliehorse's grandparents, a stillborn infant of Constance's, and Aunt Lu. Little headstones, no bigger than loaves of bread, were hidden under the snow. No matter; Charliehorse knew Lu's epitaph by heart:
Lucille Mildred Arlingway
1927 – 2016
Lux perpetua luceat ei, Domine.
"Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine," he recited, memory spurred, "et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen." He let himself miss her for a few seconds, then said, "Well, Aunt Lu, if you approve of the change, you're the only one."
He addressed the remark to the sky, not the grave. This place was merely appropriate for "meeting." If her soul had lingered here, which would have been horrible, he would have seen; like most Grand Normans, he was ghost-sensitive. After her death, he had kept watch with a guilty hope of seeing her, but only felt the hole she left in the world slowly closing.
"Everyone else's reactions are unchanged. Maybe Marc is right, though I hate to say it, and the email silence should have made me realize I was unwelcome. I certainly worried I was. I just ... hoped. May I should have tried phone or text or hardcopy mail when I got the silent treatment by email. But I didn't know to try, of course. And it's hard to challenge the silent treatment; you start out feeling it's no use. And they didn't try either. Nobody tried."
He gave another windy, horsey sigh. "What a family! So good at avoiding unpleasant topics. At letting sleeping dogs lie. I've sometimes wondered if it was an adaptation to having so many people in just these two houses. Big houses, but still just two."
His phone chimed. It had done so four times on the trip out here, always for little holiday-related news bulletins from the cavalry base at Ufham, like Sleigh practice 14:00 tomorrow, track or Chapel decorating tonight. He had checked each time in case it had been from home. He ignored it now.
"Well, I hope you approve. Or at least understand." He had poured out his reasons to her more than once, though necessarily post mortem, since that was when the idea and the resolve for transformation came to him. She could or would make no comment.
Another horsey sigh. "Heavenly Father, bless her. Holy St. Christopher, pray for her with me." Christopher, patron of children, had been his childless aunt's favorite saint. Suddenly, he grinned in the dark. He asked his aunt, "Did you know St. Christopher was a wolf-headed giant? (Well. Maybe you do know now.) My friend Max told me." Max was a werewolf, a benandante. "I think that'd make the kiddies feel particularly safe. Shows us monsters can't be all bad.
"So, what to do? Strategy! What's the goal here? I wanted to come home for Christmas, as anyone might. Hm. So that I could...? I admit I wanted to show people that I succeeded, did the right thing. Well, I think we can write off that one. Not happening. Not right now, anyway. Maybe someday.
"So another goal is to visit with people I miss. And here I am, sitting by your grave. No, don't be like that. But we can write off Constance and Marc, and Julia and Yvette. And I give Mother the grues even more. Might see Father. But no point thrusting yourself on people you repel. For the others... Well, I don't think I repel them..." He trailed off. No, in different ways and degrees, he did repel them, all of them.
Charliehorse had been hoping for some happy reunions among his family, while knowing that would not happen in all cases. That was the long and short of it. Implicitly, he had been betting that some of them would be happy to see him. It looked like he had lost that bet. Even the ones who wished him well, like Lily and Constance and Nathan, did not actually want to see him. What they wanted of him was to hear that he was having a good Christmas somewhere else.
His throat hurt.
The door light on the Darneley house came on (he had not noticed it go out) and two people came out: Lily and Nathan's son Alex. Both now wore hats and coats, and both were laden. They slogged through the snow toward him. He looked at the houses and saw all the lights were still on. He had kicked the ant nest properly, clearly, but this delegation looked more promising than he had just now been expecting. His throat still hurt but the pain changed meaning: he was touched.
Alex was bearing a pile of blankets topped with a knit cap, a pair of high-insulation glove liners, and a box of the heating inserts hunters use. "Mum doesn't believe you about being warm enough," he told Charliehorse. "I don't either."
Charliehorse smiled and accepted the bundle. "There's warm enough and there's cozy. Thank you. Thank your mum for me."
Lily presented him with a thermos. "Hot chocolate. And this." She handed him a grocery bag. "Did you have a chance to eat on the trip?" He shook his head. "I thought not. Can you eat, uh, regular human food?"
He smiled even wider. "I eat everything I did before. More of it. And any amount of oatmeal. And mulch, which is grass stew, but I can skip that, no problem."
"Good. We threw together a bunch of sandwiches for you and some apples. That's, uh, just because you liked– like apples, not because, uh–"
"Thank you. And the apples are fine. Horses like apples and I'm a horse and I like apples." Aghast looks crossed both their faces. He picked a blanket off Alex's stack and tossed it on the snow. "Can you sit a while and talk?"
They looked grave but they sat. They did wish him well. The food and the blankets were making him feel warm already, before they were used. But he was still screwing up their Christmas.
"You looked upset when I said I was a horse. But I am. I deliberately became a horse, but I didn't leave off being a man. Both at once. It's very odd, I know. But that's what I am now, and we can talk about it when the subject comes up. You don't have to tip-toe around it." You do not have to add to the list of tip-toe subjects.
"Okaaaay," said Alex thoughtfully. "Thanks." And he gave Charliehorse a good thorough looking over. "How big are you now?"
"Thirteen hundred pounds," Charliehorse answered promptly. "Seven feet, four inches tall. And I'm not the biggest guy in my class. I am second biggest, though."
Alex nodded. "Cool hat," he said. "And the beard looks good. Very..."
"Thank you! Sometimes I'm afraid it looks brigandly. But we all wear them. It's the fashion. And convenient. Our hair grows three times faster than before."
"The formula for us is horse plus man. We are as strong as both together, as nimble as both together, as tough as both together. And a big part of the toughness is how fast we heal, and fast growth of hair and nails and hooves seems to go along with that."
Lily cocked her head and gave him the first smile of the night from his family. "That sounds like reciting a lesson."
He laughed. His throat didn't hurt at all now. "Right. From Captain Fletcher. He's our teacher. He's very good."
"And are you as smart as both together?" she asked, teasing.
"Maybe! My memory is better. But your turn now. What's been happening? But first, may I suggest it's past time for everyone to get around to putting passwords on their accounts? They don't have to be fancy, just long. Something like UncleMarcIsAFuttlingJerk would do, camel-case, no spaces, personal expression a plus."
They both laughed. "Well," said Lily, "I started at Barfield and I like it; I'm going back after the holidays. Oliver's wedding is this June; they finally set the date and are looking for an apartment in Durham. Ruth is coming over the holidays; I suppose she's one of the guests Marc wants to hide you from." Oliver was the oldest of their three brothers; Ruth was his fiancée.
Charliehorse grunted. "I'm not a secret. Ruth knows. Marc must think I'm indecent to display. I wonder what Ruth thinks."
"I'm sure I don't know. Or what Marc thinks, really beyond what you heard. He doesn't talk about you."
"Do Mother and Father ever talk about me?"
The cheer that had been blossoming faded out of her face. "No."
"What happens if I come up in conversation?"
Lily sighed. Alex said, "Gotta say you don't come up much. When you do, your dad smiles and drops out of the conversation. Your mom changes the subject or leaves the room. Sorry."
Charliehorse nodded. "Well, five out of six isn't bad."
"Five out of six what?"
"Children. If you have several, the odds grow that one of them will disgrace you."
"I'm sure they don't think–" Lily began.
"Whatever they call it, if they call it anything, they've written me off."
"Why did you do it?" Alex asked. The question came out abruptly. It was the kind of bluntness rare in the family.
Charliehorse nodded again. "I wasn't very clear last summer. Mostly just dug in my heels and insisted. Well, let's see..." He scanned their faces and thought. If he said "I hated myself and wanted to be someone else," which was the clearest, truest way of putting it, Lily would cry and Alex would feel about as wretched, just drier. Do no more to screw up their Christmas. "I needed more moxie."
"Old slang. American. But I like the word. Confidence. Audacity."
"And did it work?" Alex asked.
"Yes," he said confidently, if not audaciously. "It took a while, but it worked."
"But did you have to do that to get it?" Alex asked, gesturing at Charliehorse's equine body. Lily looked away, then made herself look back.
"Some problems require drastic solutions."
There was a little silence.
"Well," said Lily. "Well. I'm glad you came back. We've missed you."
"Thank you. I really wanted to hear that. But you look like you're still missing me. I'm here. Really. This is me, now. But it doesn't seem like it to you, does it?"
"Are you Receptant now?"
"That would be great, but I don't think so. Just observant and analytical. Like always. Because I'm still me."
"He still talks like himself," Alex told Lily. "You have to admit that. Just not as timid."
"More moxie," Lily said, smiling a little.
Being observant, Charliehorse noticed her shift position for the third time in the last minute. "You two must be freezing. Shoo. Go to bed. And thank you very, very much. I'll see you in the morning."
They both hugged him and went inside.
He polished off the sandwiches, apples, and hot chocolate, then began arranging the blankets. The phone chimed again. More email from the base.
Then it occurred to him that the chime before that had been different, text, not email. Who was texting? It was Penelope Argyris:
No seeing tonight but I can prep. Lugging Newtonian to hilltop. Tomorrow should be good. Alpha Persei cluster high in west after dusk. Take a look if you can.
Penelope was a star-mage, sometimes called an "astronurgist" or "stellarist." She had come to the base some months back to examine Charliehorse's class for magical aptitude. Danny proved to have a magical knack for archery, which he was developing. Charliehorse had shown no such thing, but he and Penelope had struck up a pen-pal friendship over their common interest in natural and preternatural history.
Charliehorse glanced at the blank black sky. Not a night for astronomy, true, and it must be the same where Penelope was. Which was ... not that far, was it? He brought up maps on the phone. He checked the time. He decided.
I'm nearby. May I come over?
Now wait. There were fewer lights on in the houses. He coccooned himself in the blankets and leaned back to the maximum. As long as too much cold didn't seep up through the mat, he was as comfortable as a man in an armchair. He turned over recent events in his mind and tried to drift off into a doze. Like a horse, he only needed a couple of hours of sleep, padded out with some dozing. After a while, he noticed that all the ground floor lights were out. He wondered how many people had really got back to sleep.
The phone chimed:
!! Sure. From my house, go up the trail through the woods to the hilltop. Pleasant surprise.
On my way. ETA 1 or 2 hours. Thank you.
He stood, shedding the blankets. He then turned at the waist a surprising number of degrees (the fruit of deliberate stretching exercises; "A strong and flexible waist is a tremendous asset," Lt. Sanders always said), and pulled a kerchief out of a saddlebag. He tied it around his neck and waited.
In a few seconds, he wavered in the dim light, then appeared to be a man on a horse, a man such as himself on a horse such as himself.
"Right. Nothing to see here, folks. Just a guy riding around at night. Two exits down the highway, then a lot of little back roads. GPS, don't fail me!" He trotted out past the garage and turned left.
There were still lights on in the houses. He wondered if anyone would look into the back yard and notice he was gone. Would that raise hopes? Some, at least, would worry. He would text them before he hit the highway.
Galloping is different. When you gallop, your guts slosh back and forth in your body cavity and drive your horse lungs like a piston. Your human lungs pump along perforce, driven by the rocking of your human trunk. You keep your mouth open wide, your throat hardened to the drying. After a while, it gets oddly more comfortable as your horse liver starts doing special things.
When you gallop, it's easy to forget your human body. You just hold your arms up, comfortably flexed, rocking back and forth at the waist, as the horse head would rock if you were a horse. You feel most like a horse now. You go. You just go.
His friend, classmate, brother in transformation, Julien Carlin loved galloping. Had it in him to be a marathon runner, was excellent at pacing himself, alternating gallop and trot. No one knew much about Carlin. Charliehorse had wondered if he loved galloping because he was fleeing something. Maybe he was, but maybe the galloping itself was the escape. You just go.
But don't miss your exit. He almost did. He had passed only a handful of cars on the highway. Glamoured, he did not present a supernatural sight, but he certainly presented an extraordiary one. He wondered how many of the handful noticed. At least one deliberately slowed so they could watch as he galloped by. He waved but kept going.
You just go.
Penelope usually felt bad about cursing in Greek because it offended her father. But she had run through Chenelaise, English, French, and Latin, and needed more. Poppa need never know, since he was asleep in his house, not, for instance, waist deep in a snow bank off a forest trail, in the middle of the night, trying to shovel out an ATV. While a Newtonian telescope, carefully wrapped in a tarp, and a good thing too, kept rolling off the path, back down into the snow bank.
At a pause in the shoveling, she heard something large moving on the path down the hill. Hope, not apprehension, sprang in her breast.
Yes! She waved the snow shovel. "Thank Heaven! It sends Sagittarius himself to help me! You're early. Not that I'm complaining."
Charliehorse grinned and broke into the "Fugue for Tinhorns" from Guys and Dolls:
"I got the horse right here.
The name is Paul Revere,
And there's a guy that says
If the weather's clear,
Can do! Can do!
This guy says the horse can do!"
"Well, the weather's far from clear, but I hope and expect you can do, whether Paul Revere can or not. Nice resonance."
Charliehorse reached back and thumped his horse ribs, over the giant lungs. "The horse right here. What happened?"
"Half an hour or so after you texted, I was trundling the 'scope up this trail when I managed to steer it down into the snow. I got the 'scope off the buggy, but I'm not strong enough to haul the buggy out of the snow or haul the 'scope up the trail without the buggy. So I've been thinking many things:
"I've been thinking I ought to try digging the buggy out and resuming, which is what I was actually doing, as you see.
"I've been thinking of leaving the buggy, and fetching a tarp and some ropes, and dragging the 'scope up the trail, but I'm not sure I can and I'm not sure what snow will do to the buggy works if I leave the buggy in it.
"And I've been thinking I have a big, strong friend coming over, and maybe he will show up soon and fix everything."
"We aim to please," said Charliehorse. "What do I do?"
"First, help me out of here. I will drag the 'scope far enough away so it will stop rolling down into the snow, and then you, if you will be so kind, will wrestle the buggy back to the path."
Charliehorse waded into the snowbank.
A few minutes later, all was done. Penelope sat on the path, next to the telescope, and watched, catching her breath. If there had been any basis for comparison, it would have been mortifying to watch how easily Charliehorse hoisted the ATV up and onto level ground.
"This is Algol?" he asked.
"Yes. I wondered that I felt moved to name it after the demon star, but I begin to see why. Contrariwise, maybe it resents the name and is showing it." She stood and found she needed to pant a couple of more times. "It occurs to me you must have run all the way. Galloped. And then flung Algol around. And you aren't even breathing hard."
"For how long? The most inhuman things about you are the superhuman ones. I am grateful."
"You're welcome. You want to resume?"
"I want to say to hell with it and go home and, I dunno, watch Guys and Dolls on DVD while we sing along. But that's not how progress is made. Yes, we resume."
Charliehorse helped re-bungee the Newtonian to the ATV and dusted snow out of the "buggy works." Penelope started it up again, put it in bottom gear again, and started up the trail again. She went on foot, steering from the side, since the telescope occupied the seat as well sticking out a fair distance fore and aft.
Charliehorse reached over—not up, over—and took the LED lantern off the tree branch where she had hooked it. Then he took the other side of the handlebars and helped steer. He had to lean over a long way, but the steering was much easier with two, and Algol tried no more tricks.
The two friends had phoned and written much more than they had seen each other, so they stole glances at each other as they made their way, refreshing memories.
He was bigger than she remembered. She had known his teacher, Captain Fletcher, for a long time, and Fletcher was certainly big enough, but Charlie was three or four inches taller, and blocky, almost a draft horse. The cowboy hat was fetching, she always thought. The jacket didn't look nearly warm enough, but he didn't look cold either. Square-cube law, of course, and he looked, she thought, distinctly shaggy too.
A huge, dark, shagginess. The word "monster" circled through her head but departed unsaid. He would refer to himself as a monster, usage learned from Fletcher, in self-deprecating humor, just as he cheerfully referred to himself as a horse. "Horse" he was proud of, but "monster" she carefully never used except in the most light-hearted moments. There were people who used it in earnest.
"Your feet aren't cold?" she asked.
He tilted his head back and forth in a doesn't-matter gesture. "I can feel the cold, but it's not distressing. If it gets really cold, I put on boots, just like you. Only twice as many. Are you warm enough?"
"Oh, yes. Remember, I've been exercising." She waved back along the path, to where the snow shovel lay and could rot for all she cared.
She was smaller than he remembered. Maybe a little shorter than the average woman, but then any human-simple looked short now. Most of a generation older than him; he had always gotten along with older people. A figure solid but not chubby, now invisible under a thick blue anorak. Short dark hair, round face, and a complexion that would tan readily if she got much sun, but of course a star-mage didn't get much sun. She took vitamin D supplements, he knew.
She was one of two or three mages that Fletcher had come around each year to inspect each class for magical talent. Charliehorse was working on feeling magic and discriminating the types, but had got no further yet. No matter. The correspondence that had grown up between them was a treat for him. He had suggested a few times, and would suggest again, that she go on an expedition as a civilian consultant. But she wanted to be sure she would find her stars out there, which he could understand.
They came to a tree trunk across the path, not thick but branchy. "That's new since last week," Penelope observed.
Charliehorse lifted it off the path. Several buried branches sprang out of the snow and assaulted him and Algol. "What's special about Alpha Persei?" he asked, after this difficulty had been sorted.
"Well, it's in a pretty cluster."
She caught the implication and laughed. "Not pretty enough to be worth this by itself. It's just one of the opening numbers. I'll leave the 'scope up there while the weather's clear. It should be good tomorrow."
"I hope that's accurate. Oh, you checked, didn't you?" As mere side-effect of being a star-mage, Penelope could cast much more accurate and detailed weather forecasts than were available to the unSundered world. She knew tomorrow's weather, hour by hour, for this particular hill. "So what will you do tomorrow night?"
"Stoke up on vis of the aspects available. Hang some spells. Take notes for some elections and horary questions. Sight-seeing, certainly. Alpha Persei. Triangulum. Kemble's Cascade. Would you like to come?"
"I was hoping you would ask."
They came out on a treeless hill top. Four wooden uprights stood in a square, poking up through the snow, next to a large lump covered with tarpaulin and snow. "An observatory?" Charliehorse asked.
"Technically, I suppose, but I think that's too grand a name. I'd have told you about a real observatory. This is just a shelter for the 'scope, so I don't have to make these treks so often. I meant to have it up before the snow came. But you know how it is. First, they were late delivering it, then I had to go away to a conference, and when I got back there was this backlog of horoscopes to get through, and, well, then I was tired."
Charliehorse nodded. He had entered the cavalry naïvely expecting tight, quick, military efficiency. Instead, he had discovered military-grade delays. "It's the same everywhere, I guess. I bet the universe should have started several billion years sooner but there were unforeseeable delays. Demiurges putting in overtime and sweating bullets as God comes in every morning and looks pointedly at the calendar."
Penelope laughed. "We're probably long overdue for Judgment Day. That would explain a lot."
The base for the telescope was already there, under its own shroud of tarps. Soon, they had the telescope mounted and shrouded again. "That's it until tomorrow night," Penelope declared. "Come back down to my house and have something to eat. I heard your stomach rumbling—in fact, I think I heard both rumble—and I know how much provender you lads take."
Penelope's house was a cottage between the woods and a road. On the opposite side of the road, as with Charliehorse's home, lay farm fields, giving good skies, though only western ones. Inside, kitchen and living room were one area. There, Penelope fed Charliehorse two microwave dinners and all her oatmeal. He declined more, not on the grounds of being full, but because he didn't want any more in his bellies when he galloped back home.
Penelope then found her DVD of Guys and Dolls and, skipping through, they sang "Fugue for Tinhorns," "Oldest Established," "Luck Be a Lady," and "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat." She sang sitting on her sofa; he sang tucked up before it like a very large dog. She had offered him the sofa: it was large enough, but he was not sure it was sturdy enough.
"How do they have you set up at home?" she asked.
Charliehorse had never been good at lying. He had formerly been good at evading, muttering irrelevancies, and falling silent, but he had been practicing hard against that for the last several months and was worse than ever at lying. "They didn't know I was coming." She looked her puzzlement. "My uncle Marc set everyone's email to route my messages to spam, after my first message home, and I think he must have deleted that one unread. Everyone was very surprised that I showed up."
Penelope knew as well as any Grand Norman that the Dedicated Cavalry was not viewed with universal approval, and she had heard stories from Captain Fletcher. "What is your uncle's objection?"
"'Grotesque,' 'perverse,' and 'disgusting' are the words that stick in my mind. Everyone seems to be in exactly the same positions they were when I left. They were upset then and they're upset now. I trust they were able to calm down for a while in between."
"And your parents?" Charliehorse had never mentioned his family, and she now saw why.
"I haven't seen them tonight. In the weeks before I left, my mother didn't want to be in the same room with me and my father was polite and smiling when he spoke to me, but he hardly ever did. That's not as bad as it sounds. We were never very close. I was raised by my Aunt Lu, really. My mother's aunt."
"How did she take it?"
"She died the year before I decided to join."
Penelope was silent for a bit, then said, "I'm sorry. If you would, please tell me something about your family, so I can understand the situation better. I admit to being nosy."
"It's just two big families that intermarried some and set up a joint household in two neighboring houses." And he enumerated the three couples and their children. Penelope came from a large family herself—they were common among Grand Normans—but it sounded to her as if Charlie had become rather lost in this one.
"So where are you sleeping tonight?" she asked, getting back to the original point.
"I'm camping in the back yard. I thought about using the garage, but it's pretty bleak–"
"You can stay here," she said before he had quite closed the sentence. Christ! she thought. You'd stable an ordinary horse better than that!
He blinked at her. "No, no. Thank you, but no. It's just for tonight, and the night will be over soon. (I should give them a chance)," he muttered. Penelope affected not to hear.
"Well." She paused. "Please come back tomorrow night. You should see the fruit of your labor. And... if it's more... convenient, please stay here." She almost started to apologize for it being cramped, but did not want to underscore comparison with being outdoors in the snow.
This was no way to end a visit, she decided, so she pressed two rounds of hot chocolate on him and turned the conversation to her work, his classes, and cavalry base gossip. Then it was time to go home, Charlie insisted.
"Well, at least you don't need to gallop all the way."
"Galloping's fun, really. But I pace myself and trot half the time. All part of the training. Good night, and thank you."
And out into the snow. But once he was out of range of the porch light, Charliehorse circled around and went back up the path to the hill top.
The late winter morning was a twilight when Charliehorse came home, neither galloping nor trotting but walking. Lights were still on in both houses, or on again, and his eldest brother Oliver was shoveling the walk in front of the Darneley house. He stared at what looked like his youngest brother on horseback.
"That's a good glamour," Oliver said. "What's it cast on?"
"This bandana." He fingered it. "The cavalry subsidizes them."
Oliver nodded. "And seemings?" Seemings fooled space and touch as well as light and sound, and were exponentially more expensive. They were also useless here:
"Seemings that revert the transformation don't work or break down," Charliehorse told his brother. "Something out there seems to take exception, even when the transformation spell is over and the magic is done. Otherwise, you can be sure I'd have put a downpayment on one. Is everyone up?"
Oliver nodded again. "Lily's in a dither."
"Afraid you'd run off."
"I texted her. I said I was seeing a friend. She could have called. Or texted. Or has Uncle Marc buggered those up, too?"
"Don't think so." And Oliver started shoveling again.
"Is there anything for breakfast?"
Oliver stopped to look up at him curiously. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I know I'm late for breakfast, but I'm hoping there's some leftovers. Otherwise, I'll make my own."
Oliver leaned on the shovel and looked Charliehorse up and down. "How?" He looked skeptical, which was understandable. This was actually an improvement. Charliehorse's three older brothers had not argued with him much about joining the Cavalry, but that was because they had written him off as some combination of ridiculous and unfathomable, well before he signed up and more so after. At least they had not regarded him as a contamination or a disgrace to the family.
"Like this," he answered. He trotted toward the side door of the Darneley house. He removed the kerchief as he went, melting into his stranger, truer appearance. He opened the door and entered, removing his hat, ducking and, as promised, knocking the snow off his hooves as he came in.
He then sat, though with forelegs up, thus reducing his footprint on the kitchen floor. There was a hanging lamp in the middle, which was a nuisance, but you put up with it. Ducking, reaching, twisting, sometimes sliding a bit without getting up, he proceeded to make himself a large quantity of toast and eggs.
Oliver stood in the door, watching. "You look like a cat trying to get comfortable in a shoebox," he said.
Charliehorse met his gaze with raised eyebrows, but merely held up a box and asked, "Is this all the oatmeal there is? I go through a lot of oatmeal. Come in and close the door. I won't trample you."
Oliver obeyed, retreating to a corner to watch. "You're getting your rump dirty," he observed. His expression said he found his transformed brother ridiculous but interesting.
"Is it my fault if people track mud into the kitchen? Coffee? Tea? I'm having milk." It was more filling.
"Good lord!" Cousin Beverly, daughter to Nathan and Constance, had just entered, or tried to.
"Hello, Bev." Charliehorse had just picked up a fork and a plate of scrambled eggs, but paused to observe her reaction. She had been among those who found the idea of his transformation repellant, disgusting. Nothing appeared to have changed in that regard. She looked as if he were eight and had brought a particularly large toad into the kitchen. "Did you want something? I can hand it to you. Don't worry; my hands are clean."
Bev was still speechless. "Don't worry," Oliver echoed from the other side of the kitchen. "He's tame." This was the most supportive thing Charliehorse had known him to say. The irony in his tone indicated Oliver found Bev's reaction silly.
Bev was still reacting. Apparently, she had not got a good look at him last night. Probably she had not wanted one. But now, her gaze helplessly traveled up and down the length of him, trying to sort out man and horse.
This was, Charliehorse knew, a fairly common reaction in people seeing the likes of him for the first time, but it had a special meaning coming from Bev. Holding the plate in one hand, he hiked up the hem of his T-shirt with the other (he had removed his jacket in the warm kitchen) and displayed the hairline between man and beast. "See? No stitches. No scars. I told you."
During the furor before he left for Ufham and transformation, Bev had voiced an old rumor: that the transformation was done by magically assisted surgery, cobbling together a man and a horse. Charliehorse had known little of horses at that point, but even then the idea of being permanently incorporated into such a sacrifice had horrified him. Anyway, the story was just an old piece of Ahnenerbe propaganda left over from World War II. He felt she was deliberately looking for the worst light to cast on things.
"You're impossible!" she exclaimed, retreating.
"No, just mythological," he said to the closing door. To Oliver: "I wonder what she wanted."
"Out, I expect. You rather bottle up the house, sitting there."
"Give me a minute. I'm leaving after I shovel this in."
Ten minutes later, he had donned jacket, hat, and glamour and was back outside, heading for the village, Dimble Abbots. That had been no way to win Bev over, he reflected. On the other hand, a glare of loathing was no greeting for a cousin just come home on Christmas leave.
Of course, finding fault with him was a long-standing hobby of Bev's. But, as a good Christian monster, it was up to him to offer peace. He sighed. Bev loved flowers, kept the yard blooming when it wasn't cold, and when it was cold, made her room into something of a greenhouse. He knew she spent winter gloating and plotting over flower catalogs. He would find out from Lily which ones she got and get her a subscription to a new one, for Christmas. Maybe something featuring hybrids. Or grafting.
He thought how many thousands of time he had walked this road to the village. Now, as in the yard at home and of course in the kitchen, the perspective was different, higher. No doubt the footing felt different, but he couldn't really remember what human feet felt like. He was going to the grocer's to stock up on oatmeal and replace the bread, eggs, and butter he had consumed. How he would do this was an interesting question he had not yet answered.
The village of Dimble Abbots was very tiny. Decorated for Christmas and generously layered in snow, it was as charming as could be asked. Charliehorse looked about and entertained a sort of sideways nostalgia about it: if or when he mustered out of the Cavalry, it would be nice to settle, not here, but in a place like this, but Sundered or somewhere off-zone.
People noticed what looked like a man on horseback, of course. Several waved. He smiled and waved back. That was pleasant, even if it was false pretenses. If he took off the kerchief and dropped the glamour, the onlookers would certainly be shocked, but would they register wonder rather than dismay? Of course, it was not a good idea, and if he tried it, the Sundering would probably see to it that the kerchief knotted.
Here was the grocer's. Now what? He was concocting a plan to phone the store and ask for the groceries to be brought out to him, under some excuse still to be supplied, when a young female voice said, "Charles Darneley?"
He turned. It was Janet Burton, a young woman about his own age. She lived along the road to his home, and it was the sight of her horse that had started the line of thought that led him here. He smiled gamely. After all, he had expected this sort of thing, though not this very thing. "Hello, Janet. Yes, it's me."
"I haven't seen you since last spring, when you said you were going to join ... the cavalry?" She looked him over, or rather she looked over the edited image the glamour provided: a bipedal version of himself, seated on his own back, in the clothes he now wore and a copy of Standard Cavalry trousers and boots. The image focused its eyes on her and his voice seemed to come from its mouth. It was a good glamour.
She looked puzzled. The glamour deleted the Grand Norman military insignia from the image, but the result certainly didn't look like any uniform worn by a cavalryman of the British military. She would have to assume that, at home on leave, he was wearing civvies. At least, that's what he would say if asked.
She approached and stood about a yard away. He had to turn further to keep facing her as she faced his edited image.
"Well, welcome back," she said. "Home for Christmas?"
"And they let you bring your horse?" she asked rhetorically, envy and appreciation in her voice.
"Oh, yes. Uh, part of the training program. We're ... bonding."
"And he's a stallion," she noted. "I didn't know they really used those in cavalry."
Charliehorse wanted to tuck his tail in but refrained, since a horse-simple wouldn't. "Yes. But he's a good boy. Or he tries to be."
"Can't ask for more. Some days, Cavalier just wants to be a brat."
"How is Cavalier?"
"Fine. We took a first and a couple of seconds in dressage at an event last month. He'd look very dainty to you, now, if you're used to this fellow." Charliehorse blinked. Cavalier had seemed huge when he, still human, had encountered the gelding last spring. "What's his name?"
"Uh, Charliehorse." He should have expected that question.
"Really! Did they let you name him, then?"
"Nnnno. Someone else ... named him for me."
"May I pet him?"
"Not the head," Charliehorse said hastily, since that, like his own imaged rider, was artistically colored air and no more. "He's head-shy. The shoulder's fine." He gestured toward his equine shoulder and saw his image do the same, angles intelligently adjusted. He got petted. This could have been a cheap thrill if he had not been worrying about glamour failure.
"May I ask you a favor?" he said as she withdrew
"I don't see any place to tie up." This was fortunately true. "Could I ask you to go in there and get a couple of big cartons of oatmeal and a loaf of bread, while I wait here?" He fished a ten pound note out of his jacket pocket. The eggs and butter, he now felt, would be pushing it.
"Oh. Sure." She took the note and re-entered the grocer's.
Charliehorse looked around. He tried to appreciate Dimble Abbots without missing it. Would people think it odd if he came back every once in a while, but always on horseback? Odd did not matter to the Sundering, though. Odd would be fine.
His phone chimed.
Did you go *straight* home from my place last night?
He smiled and texted back:
After a bit came the reply:
I was never one of those little girls who asked for a pony for Christmas. I now see this was an oversight. THANK you! PLEASE come tonight.
I certainly shall, he texted back. He looked at the sky. Last night's heavy overcast was thinning out, giving way to blue in the west. Alpha Persei, here we come.
Janet duly came out of the grocer's and handed him a bag and his change. This required him to twist at the waist in a way that would have earned a sound "Well done, Mr. Darneley" from Lt. Sanders, so he could fit his right hand into that of his apparent self. He tucked the bag into the crook of his arm and mimed holding the reins in his left hand, and the glamour apparently did the rest.
"You should get some saddlebags," Janet opined.
Oh, sure, and be asked why he didn't dismount to pack them. "Right," was all he said.
"Thanks for introducing me to Charliehorse. He's a nice-looking fellow. Big, burly bloke but has a kind eye."
The real Charliehorse felt himself blush with irrational pleasure. "Thank you!" So he got a cheap thrill after all.
On leaving Penelope's cottage, Charliehorse had trotted up the path to the hilltop and examined the tarped-up bundle of materials for the shelter. It was, as he had hoped and suspected, a kit, complete with instructions. They looked simple, as if one person could put up the shelter unassisted. The kit even included a screwdriver and a wrench. He set to work.
The kit did not include a lantern. At first, he used the light on his phone, strapping the phone to one of the uprights with a spare(ish) bungee cord. But the battery could only last so long. When it went, the dark would be nearly as deep as when the lorry left him at home.
He looked around. At the edge of the trees, watching, were a large rabbit and a thing like a knee-high scarecrow made of sticks and weeds. He had noticed them before, but it was often polite to ignore such folk. Now, he looked over their heads and said to the air, "Return and we return."
After a bit of stir, the rabbit answered, "Keep faith and so do we," in a fairly human voice. The stick figure piped along.
"I would be grateful for a bit of help," Charliehorse remarked.
"What kind of help?" the rabbit asked. "Grateful how?" asked the stick-figure in a voice like creaking wood.
"You know Penelope Argyris, the star-mage?" Both nodded. "I'm building this for her. I could use a lantern and a snow shovel. She has both on her porch. If other folk fetched them for me, I could keep working and it would go faster. And I could sing for them."
"Let's hear a bit of singing," demanded the stick figure. Charliehorse gave them "Good King Wenceslas." All folk like tales of generosity, but especially these folk.
"Different kind of voice," remarked the rabbit, then traded looks with the stick figure (or one supposed so; the stick figure had no obvious face) and said, "Deal." The two faded into the shadows and returned two minutes later with the LED lantern and the previously maligned snow shovel.
As he worked, he sang "The Twelve Days of Christmas," "The Holly and the Ivy," "Gabriel's Message," "Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant," "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," "Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella," and on through all the other carols he could recall. Eventually, he had to circle back to "Wenceslas," but fortunately folk who had seen the seasons circle since before Britain was an island did not mind repetition. In fact, they joined in, first in the singing, then in the work. This was the very thing Charliehorse had been hoping for; with such help, the job went very quickly.
When the shelter was up and shoveled out, he bowed to both of them, saying how grateful he was and how much he had enjoyed singing with them. Then he remarked that he had been invited back for tomorrow night, gathered up shovel and lantern, and went down the path singing the Soul Cake song, leaving his co-workers to guess there might be soul cakes in the near future:
A soul cake, a soul cake,
Please, Saint Alice, a soul cake.
Milk and oats 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.
Charliehorse had spent the last thirty-eight hours being driven across England in a horse trailer, going camping in the snow, galloping to Penelope's house and back, putting up a shed between runs, making breakfast, and going shopping. He now retreated to the mat and blankets in the back yard and slept.
Five hours later, he woke. All was very still. For a moment, he wondered if they had now all run away, but reconsidered. His parents would be at their work in their top-floor suite, reviewing and assaying magical books and art works. The other elders and several juniors would be at the other ends of their commutes, working. The remainder might well be out on holiday visits to friends. Of course it was quiet.
He considered his evening plans and inserted himself in the breakfast kitchen in the Darneley house. Other meals were made in a second kitchen in the Arlingway house, so this one would be free. He made three dozen soul cakes, according to a simple recipe taught by Captain Fletcher; in a military such as the Dedicated Cavalry, treats for fairies were considered useful provisions. Chopped walnuts, chocolate chips, and icing stars added a festive touch.
While they were baking, Charliehorse squeezed through the kitchen door and explored the house. This was partly with an eye to finding a room where he could stay the night, but mainly just to look at home again.
The time gap, the change in height, the care required in moving—all combined to make the place feel foreign. It was the same feeling given by looking at old pictures of places known long ago. Ah, well. There was a time for sentiment. Yes, the study would do, with a little re-arranging. He made no attempt to go up to his parents' suite.
He went back and took out the soul cakes. Leaving them in a plastic box with a label reading DO NOT EAT, he crossed to the Arlingway house. Equally quiet, maybe even more deserted. He congratulated himself on his agility; anyone who met him in a hallway would certainly have to back up (or he would—very unwelcome thought), and there was some jostling of furniture and bric-a-brac, but there were no breakages and all jostled things were replaced.
With much creaking but no accidents, he went up the stairs. Here his room and Aunt Lu's had been. He remembered being very little and delightedly planning games signaling his parents across the yard in the other house, with flags or sign language or a tin-can telephone. These had never happened. Sometimes, they had waved.
Here was Aunt Lu's room. He opened the door and looked in. It looked exactly as it had last summer, just before he left. One of his post mortem conversations with her had happened in here, as had some great fraction of his childhood. Now, it was neatly tidied. Bed made. All the books back on shelves. All the arts-and-crafts materials put away. But her stuff still here. The family still hesitated. Someday, they would need the room for something else and someone would bite the bullet, but until then, there was this seemly hesitation. Charliehorse sighed, nodded, and closed the door.
What about the next room, his old one? Not his any longer. He had volunteered that before leaving. It had even been in one of the cooler, more rational conversations about his decision. He certainly didn't want to squeeze up and down two flights of stairs while staying here now. What had they done with it?
He opened, looked, thought a moment, and smiled. Whatever they had done or would do, right now they were using it as a Christmas gift-wrapping center. Not in strange, museum-like stasis; not a lumber room for things cast off. Very good. Useful, too. He had his own presents to wrap.
He made the two-flight squeeze down and up again, bringing the gifts, then entered and, with a little care and shoving, sat in front of the work table that stood where his bed had been. Paper, labels, ribbon, stick-on bows. He was agreeably busy.
But even a hoofed giant makes little noise at such an activity, so he heard his relatives coming while they had no idea he was here. Well, they would be surprised.
They were. The door opened and there were Alex, Bev, and his other sister Iris. They all stared. Bev exclaimed, "Oh!"
"Hello," he said, carefully calibrating his tone to mild cheerfulness. "I think we can all fit in, with some work. Or I can leave in a couple of minutes." He watched them watching him. Well, Iris was watching him, taking in all the strange details the way people did on first sight. (Last night wouldn't count for much.) Alex was looking the situation over, apparently willing to consider shoving in with him. Bev had turned her face away.
Yes, Bev. Charliehorse summoned his humility and said, "I'm sorry, Bev, that I snapped at you in the kitchen. That was wrong. It's just that the look you gave me..." He trailed off and shrugged. "You just looked so revolted. I know I look very odd now, but I didn't think I looked disgusting."
Bev met his eyes in one glance, looked him over again in another, then looked away but spoke to him: "Oh, Charles!" and it was a wail. "It's not how you look. It's what you did!"
"You look fine," Iris said encouragingly. Maybe. "Very..." She groped.
"Big? Horsey? Peculiar?"
"Impressive. It's just that... If it were a stranger..." She traded looks with Bev, and Charliehorse realized that, even if his family hadn't discussed him much, Iris and Bev and discussed him some, and each was thinking back on it now.
Bev took over, forcibly turning to face him. "It's– It's like one of those people who aren't satisfied until they chop off a hand or a foot." Charliehorse felt himself go white. He couldn't foretell her next exact words, but he saw what their substance would be. "It's just sick! You've mutilated yourself! You got rid of your legs, your whole– You destroyed your perfectly good human body!" She looked away again, crying.
"I didn't know it was valued," he answered softly. He began picking up boxes and gifts, stuffing them in a plastic bag. How damnable that there was no possibility of a quick exit. Bev was, clearly, grieving, not angry as she had been before he left. No, the damage was done and there was nothing left to do but regret.
He revolted her. Not in the rhetorical way that was an excuse to express contempt. She sincerely found his actions sickening. And Iris? Alex? Lily? Aunt Constance and Uncle Nathan? Did they feel the same, just less intensely?
He felt shame descend on him like a familiar trap. Once again, he was a gross, awkward thing. He remembered his worst moments after the change, feeling that, despite new strength and limbs and sensations and instincts, he was still himself and therefore unsatisfactory, deficient, wrong.
He pushed the feeling away. He was able to, now. He had peeled away layers of the old identity and put down new ones. Time to use them. "I see your point," he said quietly and truthfully. "But I don't feel I've thrown anything away, lost anything. I've grown. This new shape is strong, fit, able. I'm skilled, now, and tough. I'm proud of this form." Bev did not move. She stared down the hall, weeping. Alex and Iris looked on, clearly wishing themselves worlds away.
"But you feel as you do," he went on. "I can't argue you into feeling otherwise. I didn't come here to terrorize you or gross you out, to punish you for not approving. I just came home for Christmas. Because I thought we'd like to see each other. Some of us. I hoped to show you I was ... flourishing. I am. But– Well, you came to use this room. Just a moment and I'll get out of your way."
He popped the last items in the bag and rose, aware of what an upheaval this was. With a muttered "Excuse me," he ducked through the door, past his relatives. Alex and Iris both squeezed his free hand as he passed.
"Goodbye, Charles," Bev said behind him. With a little effort, he could have turned far enough to look at her. He didn't. He just answered, "Goodbye, Bev."
I would like to accept your kind offer to come stay. When may I arrive?
Now he had to wait. A star-mage was probably asleep at this time of day. He returned to the mat in the snow by Aunt Lu's grave, sat, and tried to order his thoughts. Failing that, he stewed.
He kept running Bev's goodbye though his memory. You didn't say goodbye to people just leaving the room. She wanted or expected him to leave the house. And here he was, out of the house. Did she expect to never see him again? That might not be so bad. It's not like their relationship had ever been warm; that breakdown was as close and open as they'd ever been.
At least he no longer felt ashamed. He felt nettled again. Uncle Marc had not got rid of him with a tantrum, and Bev was not going to get rid of him with tears. Well, but, once again, what was the victory condition here? What was he after? To prove he could stay here whether or not anyone wanted him? To make Bev miserable? The tears were real. No, the victory condition was still to spend Christmas with someone happy to see him.
Well, he had just texted her.
In anticipation of Penelope's welcome, he began packing a couple of saddle bags. He didn't want to plod over there with all his luggage, but he would make a start with brushes and fresh T-shirts, showing he meant to stay presentable. And the soul cakes, of course, fetched from the kitchen. Maybe the rest could be arranged for later.
He thought while he packed and determined not to make a complete retreat, a rout. When he was done with the saddlebags, he texted a selection of his family:
If people don't mind
No, someone was sure to mind. He started over.
If anyone likes, I could come back for New Year's Eve.
He would wait until he heard from Penelope before sending. He did not have to wait long:
Come over as soon as you like.
He rose, hit Send, and trotted to the road.
Poppa, may I invite a friend to come over Christmas Eve?
Of course! I have cleared it with Momma. Who is it? That Fletcher fellow or one of his kind?
Now, how did he know–? Well, how did Poppa ever know such things? Everyone knew which side of the family she got her magery from.
Not Fletcher, but you will get to meet one of his kind. It's my young pen-pal Charliehorse.
There is probably a farming supply store where you can rent a horse trailer.
If Poppa said so, there probably was.
He did not gallop down the highway this time. It was afternoon, so there was more traffic and he was more visible. A man on horseback thundering down the road would raise questions, possibly alarms. So he kept himself to trotting and cantering, and was conspicuous enough.
Once on the back roads, where he had picked his way carefully in the dark, he now galloped. So he presented a fine, dramatic sight, coming full tilt around the bend of the road that ran past Penelope's cottage. And there she was to see it. He decided to improve the show: he pulled off the kerchief.
Penelope watched horse and rider melt together, then come skidding to a stop in front of her, grinning. She applauded. "Bravo! You must do that again when I have a camera handy, so you can see how it looks. I'm a mage, with fays for neighbors, and that still looked uncanny, even to me."
Charliehorse could not speak yet for catching his breath—his panting sounded wholly equine—but he smiled again and bowed briefly.
She pointed across the road, where the sun was already westering at the end of the short winter daytime. A crescent hung a few degrees above it. "Something about that waxing moon told me there would be a sight worth seeing out here, so I waited."
"My second ... opportune ... arrival," Charliehorse said, now panting more lightly.
"Come on in, son of Zephyros, and have tea."
He clopped in after her. "Zephyros? Me?" he said as he ducked through the door. "I'm the second slowest in class. You should see Carlin. You remember him?"
"The paint? Oh, yes."
"And Fletcher himself! He was ahead of us all on endurance runs, until mid-autumn."
"Hnh," she grunted sourly. "Stubborn old cayuse. He'll do himself a mischief."
"Oh no, ma'am! He's just in really great shape."
"He is that. But he's also very good at hiding pain."
Smiling and panting died out of Charliehorse together. "Ah. Well. That's a valuable skill too." Penelope gave him a sharp look, but he did not see it; he was busy surveying the room.
The small table that acted as desk and held her laptop had been removed to another room. In the kitchen area, the breakfast table had been pushed up against the china cabinet. A pile of pillows and folded blankets lay at the end of the sofa. A second throw rug lay on top of the first, between sofa and television. "You've dislocated your whole house for me! I'm– I didn't–"
"Don't say you're sorry. Of course I did. You are an invited guest, so I wanted to do this. Who wills the end, wills the means. Anyway, there's not much here to move. I put my worldly chattels into skies and hilltops!" She waved a hand at the back wall and, by implication, up the forest path. "Where someone built me a shelter for my 'scope last night." She smiled at him and got a flicker of smile back, but only a flicker.
Penelope decided she had spent enough time on the reticent English side of Grand Normandy for the moment. Time to get Greek and inquisitive. First, you feed them, get them relaxed and deeper into the clutches of your hospitality. She moved to the stove, where her largest pot was full of oatmeal. "So. Tea. A substantial one, fit for a charger. How do you like your oatmeal? I have cream, brown sugar, cinnamon, raisins, apple bits. Then there's shepherd's pie. Or did you already have lunch? Everything will keep."
"Uh, no, I didn't."
"You did have breakfast?" she asked/demanded.
"Oh, yes. A good one."
"But nothing since. Time, then. Come over here and get started." She pointed at the throw rug next to the breakfast table, opposite the chair.
Charliehorse meekly came and sat. He was still taller than she. "I had breakfast right after coming home, then did some shopping and went to bed. So I slept though lunch," he explained.
"Where did you sleep?"
Charliehorse regarded Penelope cautiously. Somewhere in the last few seconds, she had gone into aunt mode. She did not act much like any of his aunts, but he had seen several and could generalize. "In the back yard."
She spooned oatmeal into a china casserole dish. "I thought they were going to find you a place. How do you like your oatmeal?"
"Cream and apple bits, please. They hadn't got around to it." Which, now that he thought about it, was noteworthy.
Penelope noted it with a "Mm," giving the single phoneme all the weight of disapproval possible. She served the oatmeal then opened the oven and pulled out a store-bought shepherd's pie for a family of four. She slipped this onto a china plate and put it and a silver fork before him. "Tea, coffee, or beer?"
"Uh, beer. I hadn't stopped to think about provisioning. Can I make it up to you for all this?"
"Nonsense. Don't bring it up again or I will get cross. I knew what to expect. I read the Narnia story, including the bit about how both stomachs want breakfast." She sat down on the opposite side of the table and contemplated him for a few seconds. "From our correspondence, I know you like candor. So I hope you don't mind my saying I think your family is treating you very shabbily. Not even letting you in?"
"Well, it's awkward. I am awkward to have around. And I do eat like a horse. They didn't ask me to come, nor did I ask permission. I just told them I was showing up, and then thanks to Uncle Marc, they didn't even get my message. I didn't think–"
"Of course you didn't. You shouldn't have to. You were going home. A young soldier on Christmas leave can expect to go home, and home should expect him."
Charliehorse thought while he downed a few spoons of oatmeal. "How about a young soldier who comes home on leave having also become a young horse?"
"I don't care if you became a blue whale. Well, all right, there are feasibilities there. But you simply came home. Did they tell you to go away?"
"No. Not all of them. Uncle Marc and Aunt Eleanor did. I said no."
"Good. You have a legitimate presumption of being welcome there." She paused, then said:
"'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.'
"and the next line is:
'I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve.'
"You should be able to assume your welcome there."
"What's that from?" he asked.
"'The Death of the Hired Man.' Robert Frost, American poet."
"They don't seem to feel they have to take me in, but then again, maybe I don't have to go there."
"Right. You don't. You are of an age to start your own home. And there are many other places you are welcome."
"But not there. I repel all of them, one way or another, and I revolt some of them. Not just miffed and disapproving. Really revolt. Sicken. Creep out. As if I'd come home inside out."
"Thank you for that image!"
He blurted, "My cousin Bev says I'm as sick as someone who cuts off his own legs. She can barely stand to look at me." From the way this tumbled out of him, Penelope guessed he had been brooding on it. He brooded through several more spoonfuls of oatmeal. "Excuse me. I meant to thank you for what you said about welcome."
"Certainly. And don't think I'm just taking in a big stray puppy. Had I known you were going to be in the neighborhood, you'd have received an invitation to visit long before you left Ufham. Another place you are welcome is my parents' house. You are invited for Christmas Eve."
The spoon paused. "Oh! Thank you! Uh, how do we get there? How far is it?"
"Too far to ride. I'm renting a horse trailer."
"Oh." Charliehorse thought of offering to pay for the rental, then wisely didn't.
"Change of subject," Penelope announced. "You gave me an early present so I will give you one. I will give it to you tonight. You gave me the pleasure of surprise; I give you the pleasure of anticipation."
"Then thank you in anticipation!"
She looked at the saddlebags Charliehorse still wore. "That's not all your luggage, surely?"
"Uh, no, I couldn't bring it all in one go."
She nodded. "Exactly how did you leave? I want the dramatic details."
"There wasn't a lot of drama. Not after I ... left Bev crying in the hallway..."
"Because of something you said? Or because she can't stand the sight of you?"
"The latter. I ... tried to be conciliatory, but it didn't help. So I left the house and fumed for a little, then texted you."
"No other interactions?"
Charliehorse shook his head. "I texted some of my relatives, offering to come back for New Year's. If they wanted."
Penelope stared over his shoulder, contemplating, and bristled briefly at a private reflection on Bev, but then said, "Okay. Not a stormy exit, but a decisive one. It would be awkward for you to walk back in to pick up your bags. So I will. Where do you live?"
"Don't worry, I will be civil, if I happen to meet anyone. I can't even identify good guys and bad guys, so I will be diplomatic to any and all. Did you bring your saddle?"
"Yes. I hoped–"
"You hoped right. I think all my assorted nieces and nephews will want at least one ride. For that matter, I do too." She smiled at him. "We'll see how you compare to Fletcher."
"You've ridden Captain Fletcher?" asked Charliehorse, shocked.
"Several times. I'm no equestrian, but at least he no longer nags me to use my knees. Where are your bags? Still in the back yard?"
"Soonest is best, and I want this all done by sundown," she said briskly. "You eat up. I'll clear out my car. Make yourself comfortable while I'm away. Maybe Lynx will come out and open diplomatic relations." Lynx was the cat.
Penelope found the Darneley-Arlingway houses without difficulty and met no one as she loaded Charliehorse's luggage. She came home to find him out, though tracks in the snow showed he was poking about in the woods, and she heard his footsteps crunching nearby.
There was a squeak from the table. It was Charliehorse's phone. Hm. When a young modern leaves his phone behind, it Means Something. Probably that it's time for more brooding.
Caller ID read Darneley, his family. Should she call to him or let it go to recording? She did neither. On impulse, she picked up the phone and answered. "Charlie's not right here. May I take a message?"
"Oh!" exclaimed a voice, young, female. "Who's this?" Not impertinent or challenging, just bewildered.
"This is Penelope Argyris." Then, since it would most likely make for a quiet life all around, she added, "I'm Sundered, Grand Norman. I lecture on magic at Ufham sometimes, and your brother and I struck up a correspondence."
"The cavalry base." This girl, Charlie's sister or cousin, did not even know or remember the name of the town where he was based. Penelope's irritation at this ignorance brought back the impulse that had made her pick up the phone in the first place—not, she had to admit, a charitable impulse. "I'm the friend he came to visit, since–" She had been about to say "since you didn't want him," but bit it off. After all, the girl had bothered to call. "–I was nearby," she said instead.
"Oh. Good," said the girl. "This is his sister Lily. I wanted to be sure he was all right."
"He's fine now." Oops.
"'Now'? Was he–"
"He won't be lonely at Christmas. I'll see to that. My family will be delighted to have him as a guest." Poppa had said so, and Momma had given her okay and was probably more than okay. The kids would love him. Her siblings and in-laws would roll with the punches; they knew Poppa. "Anyway, can I take a message?"
"Oh. Um... No, I'm just glad he's okay. I saw his stuff was gone."
And she had worried. Good. "Do you want him to call back?"
"He doesn't have to." Lily sounded a little sad. Maybe she thought her brother was angry with her. "But please tell him I want him to come home for New Year's, and I think Alex and Iris will too, maybe others. And– and bugger Uncle Marc!"
Penelope laughed. "I don't think we need go that far. But I will certainly tell him. I swear by my name and my star."
"Oh! Thank you!"
"I'll do it right now."
Penelope was right: Charliehorse was indeed out back, brooding. There had been several topics. After Penelope left, while he ate, he had brooded about coming here. Was he being cowardly? Was he letting Bev and Uncle Marc win? But his old analysis held: it wasn't a fight, shouldn't be a fight, and if it was, being the center of a family quarrel wasn't "winning." Anyway, to go back now would simply look crazy.
While he unpacked the soul cakes (military grade, thus a bit chewy so they didn't break in shipment), he thought about how he would describe his holidays when he got back to Ufham. Being candid was important to him; it was what he had escaped into, from a life of being carefully mum. But didn't he want to hold onto some loyalty to his family, not just rant about them? (Of course, if there was nothing else to report, whose fault was that?) Well, the holiday had barely started. He would have all his time with Penelope to tell of.
And what would the others think of that? Fletcher would, he thought, be fascinated and want details. Most of his classmates would regard it as a curious choice for a holiday. Danny might regard it as a form of torture, spending Christmas with, in effect, a teacher. Carlin would rib him about "shacking up with a lady-friend" in one form of words or another–
His anxiety, already revved up, went spinning off in a new direction. After all, he really was shack– uh, staying with... a friend, who was... a lady. He, of course, had no designs... Had she? She had invited him here. But she had given no indication... Had she? He had been told all his life that boys were clueless about that sort of thing, and himself particularly clueless about anything not academic. Did she intend anything romantic? The idea was frightening.
At this point, he did not quite bolt as he left Penelope's cottage to pace about in the woods on the pretext of gathering kindling.
Charliehorse knew, certainly, that the myths about his kind were far from sexless, but here and now in the Cavalry, they were sworn to refrain from sex, not that the direct act was even practical. Of course, he also knew that many of his fellows worked assiduously to get around this limit, often with great success, but he had supposed such efforts were optional and he was now ... excused from a sector of life he felt utter unprepared for.
Contradictorily, he had also hoped that, by joining a band of creatures once thought of as fertility spirits, he would get some preparation in this area. So far, it wasn't happening. Fells and Weldon seemed resolutely uninterested in romance, Wardley was preoccupied with simply being healthy and strong for the first time, and Carlin seemed to be working it hard but was not interested in discussing it. And Danny was a beginner like himself. He should probably emulate Danny. So what would Danny do? Probably emulate Charliehorse and have no clue.
Well, but wasn't it vain to suppose he was attractive to Penelope? Why should he be? To do himself justice, he hadn't supposed he was. He had just been happy to find a friend with whom to talk about natural and preternatural science. He told himself there was no reason to see more here than friendship and hospitality.
Still, spending the holidays with her meant this relationship was changing, enlarging, growing. He wasn't sure what the new shape would be. Ah, well, he knew something about new shapes.
"Chaar-liee!" It was Penelope, calling to him as she waded through the snowy woods. She puzzled at the guilty start he gave, but never mind that now. "Two things. One: Please come unpack, and Two: Your sister Lily called and wants you to come for New Year's." He grinned. Good. Good on Lily. "Are those soul cakes? Did you make them?"
"Yes. Cavalry recipe."
"Interesting to know the Cavalry goes in for little pink sugar stars. Good. We can take them up to the 'scope tonight."
Penelope could see that Charliehorse was uneasy—naturally enough—so she kept the conversation casual and let him rattle on about his classmates. She heard the innocent envy in his descriptions of Danny Brice and wondered if that youngster realized how lucky he was.
To prepare Charliehorse for Christmas Eve, she told him about her own family. Her father was an Orthodox priest, with a mixed congregation of Grand Normans, other Sundered, and unSundered. He navigated this tricky position using a penetrating gift of Receptance; to Charliehorse, it sounded like her father was about in the same league as Fletcher.
"A Receptant father," Charliehorse wondered. "Did you get away with anything?"
"Not a lot." She looked at the wisps of sunlight coming through her front windows, then checked her phone, which defaulted to the local ephemeris. "It's about time. Shall we saddle up, peti frer?"
"Little brother" in Chenelaise. There was a bit of calculated daring in the address. She had never called him so before, but he was a young friend in need of comfort, so she risked it. She was rewarded by a smile and something subtler, a relaxation.
Charliehorse warmed from heart to heart. Honorary kid brother. That was the shape of their friendship. Yes, gladly and gratefully. "Ey, gret se'r," he answered. Okay, big sister.
"So do you do all twelve days of Christmas?" he asked her.
They were headed up the trail to the telescope, Penelope riding Charliehorse. His saddle bags were carefully packed with soul cakes and he carried three silver serving platters under one arm. Penelope was keeping a good seat. She was, Charliehorse couldn't help noticing, heavier than his friend Max. He felt a bit disloyal about noticing this; Max was short and skinny and a bit sensitive about it.
"Oh, certainly! Right after the Twelve Days comes Epiphany; that celebrates when the Magi visited the Christ child."
"Your patron saints."
"For all star-mages. At least for those who have patron saints. Like St. Martin and St. Eloi for the Cavalry. But my guy is Balthazar. I toyed with taking 'Balthazara' as a confirmation name but my parents talked me out of it. So I settled for 'Étoile.' Not a saint, but more original than 'Stella.'"
"Presumptuous! But you can see I was already into stars and astronomy. What about yours?"
"St. Albert the Great. Thomas Aquinas's mentor."
"The one with the talking brass head."
"Very suitable for a good Christian Chiron. Did you take 'Albert' as a confirmation name?"
Charliehorse smiled, saluted the air before him, and said, "Cavalryman Charles Hadriel Albert Darneley at your service, ma'am."
"The angel of art. My parents are artistic."
"Ah. What do they make?"
"Actually, they do evaluations and research provenance on magical works. My father does books, my mother does painting and sculpture. But I didn't turn out art-oriented."
"You sing very nicely, though."
"Thank you." And he broke into "Angels We Have Heard On High."
At the top of the hill, Charliehorse removed the shelter roof and all the walls except the eastern one, leaving them a bit of a wind break. Penelope spread out tarp and blanket for themselves, loaded the soul cakes onto the platters, and placed one on either side of the shelter, keeping one for themselves.
Charliehorse lay on the blanket and Penelope snuggled in against his flank. She sighed contentedly. "Big, warm, solid, friendly objects. That's what's great about guys. When they get the friendly part right. Fletcher turns out a high-quality article, peti frer."
"Thank you. I'm sure we get the big part right." After a moment of reflection, he asked, "So you're saying I'm a sort of teddy-taur?"
"A teddy-taur is a fine thing to be."
She felt a silent laugh pump his horse ribs. "Thank you." He tucked a foreleg around her a little snugger.
"So. Enough anticipation. You know about lucky stars?"
"I know that star-mages have their favorite stars to work with, and those are called their 'lucky stars.'"
Penelope nodded. "Almost all star-mages get one, after a certain point. You can be given one, master to apprentice, or you may find it just creeps up on you—there's one you just like working with. People wonder if you don't have one. They'll suppose you're too fussy or not really trying. Or no good. Some get whole constellations or asterisms, like the Big Dipper or the Pleiades, but that can rather dilute the effect."
"What is your star? I don't think you ever said."
"It's just set." She pointed westward, behind them, to the horizon. "Kaus Australis, the brightest star in Sagittarius, at the south end of the bow."
He laughed. "That has to connect with you showing up to check us for magic last summer."
"Of course. I met Philip—Captain Fletcher—at a cosmography lecture a few years ago and he homed in on me with his Receptance. Well, when Sagittarius himself asks you for a favor, of course you agree. And it's been fun. You're a very interesting lot and your captain is a... mm." She stopped.
Is a what? Demon poker player? Fellow political partizan? Good kisser? "Entertaining host" with all the right quotation marks? Charliehorse decided to accept the closing of the topic; big sisters don't confide everything to kid brothers. "So he is Receptant."
"Surely you knew?"
"Everyone supposes it, but he won't say."
"A lot of them don't like to. Philip says people make assumptions and have inflated expectations and things. Receptants vary so much."
"Besides, it's to one's advantage to keep people uncertain about one's talents."
She laughed. "Often. Though I think you can be certain that his talent is very well developed. But back to the subject." She pulled a folded piece of paper out of her anorak. Charliehorse had felt it all the way up the hill; there was a spell hung on it. He now felt it was something both potent and subtle. "I would like to give you a lucky star."
"Keep calm. We will try this. Understand that I don't have wholly free choice over what to give you. It has to fit." She pointed. "That's it, the lower left corner of Pegasus Square. Gamma Pegasi, Algenib, not the brightest, but it's on the wingtip of the flying horse. Not bad for you, I think, since you mean to go galloping off behind the sky.
"It's 390 light-years away, a blue sub-giant, a type of variable with a period of about three and a half hours. Quick. And it has a partner, Alpheratz, Alpha Andromedae, at the other corner of the Square, who brings honor and riches, they say. Together, they form one of the houses of the Moon, in Hindu and Chinese astrology, a house ruled by Saturn, the star of wisdom here in the west. 'The Wall' they call that house. Favorable for building things. Their house is one of the three meridians of the sky, in the oriental system, mapping the sky.
"It even has a kind of second partner, since 'Algenib' was also the name of Mirfak, Alpha Persei that brought you here—brightest of Perseus, who was favored by Athena and Hermes, who slew Medusa, rescued Andromeda from a sea monster, and was founder of Persia, where the Magi came from. Alpha Persei dominates an open cluster called Melotte 20, the pretty cluster I mentioned last night."
"Al-jen-ib," he said, tasting the name. "It's a wonderful Christmas present. Thank you, gret se'r."
"What do you think of it? I'm not looking for more thank-you's; it's to find out how it 'fits.'"
"I don't know what to think. I never expected to be 'given' a star. Um..." He deliberately let himself ramble, thinking that might be best. "The wing of Pegasus! Wow! Yes, spot on! Guiding me? Giving me luck in my travels? And wisdom and construction and mapping. Perfect for an explorer. And partnered with a princess, almost a fairy godmother. And name-linked to a hero."
She looked him over, glanced at the star and back several times, then nodded. "Yes, I think it fits. Now you need to know how to use it."
"I was wondering, since I'm no star-mage. I'm not any kind of mage."
"Not yet. But I think you will be and I mean this to be a learning tool."
"You haven't done horary questions on me, have you?" Charliehorse asked, a bit worried.
"Nonsense! What's the rule about foretellings?"
"The more surely you know the future, the more surely you can do nothing about it."
"And who taught you that rule?"
"You did, gret se'r," he said, relishing the address and putting a touch of the childish into his tone.
She gave him a sideways smile. "Right. So don't worry. But you can detect and savor different aspects of vis, and I have toyed with some elections on your behalf. You can learn magic if you try. Some kind. I don't know what. Maybe Algenib would guide you into star magic, which would certainly please me. But it will please me to see you excel, period. Maybe nymic magic, or Pythagoreanism—both of those are close to star magic. Maybe a fist-full of tricks expressing the breadth of your interests. Maybe something else.
"But here are a few things to watch for, once you take Algenib: You'll be able to tell which way it is. At first you'll guess, then with practice you'll know, even if it's set, even if you're in a windowless basement. You'll be able to swear by it. Later, you may be able to bind others with oaths by it. You'll be able to recognize star magic specifically, and magic using Algenib, and, by the way, my magic. That will exercise your magic perceptions generally. And that can lead into being able to push and pull vis in and out of yourself and other people and their spells. From there, you could go many different directions."
"But always under the light of Algenib."
"You say that fondly, and thank you, but it can become something of a preoccupation. You want to think about that beforehand. Don't let it prey on your mind. I've had to learn that with Kaus Australis. And mages who get too focused on their pet stars are both more limited and just look dottier. People already think most mages are pretty eccentric."
"As contrasted to what people think of those who turn into mythological beasts? It's far too late for me to worry about being eccentric. This is a formidable gift, Penelope!"
"Thank you. But it is and it isn't. It's like giving an intelligent, inquisitive boy a telescope. It could launch him into astronomy, bird-watching, geography, surveying, navigation, espionage—many things, but only if he uses it, works hard with it."
"I understand. I certainly will not waste such a gift. It is ... ludicrous overpayment for putting up this shed for you. I am amazed, abashed at this."
She smiled and said, "It wasn't that hard in your case. Kindred spirits, peti frer."
"Thank you for that as much as for Algenib. What do we do now?"
She flourished the paper, unfolding it. It was, of course, too dark to read, but before Charliehorse could pull out his phone for the light, Penelope raised her other hand and pointed upward. On the tip of her finger appeared a dim globe of blue-white light, fist-sized. It was not so bright as to spoil dark vision and Charliehorse guessed it was the exact color of Kaus Australis.
"Hold out your hand," she said, and Charliehorse obeyed, with palm up. She studied the paper for a few seconds, by lucky-starlight. It was strewn with math-like non-math symbols, some of which Charliehorse recognized as astronomical. She seemed to be refreshing her memory. Then she gazed at the sky, at Algenib, and held her own hand over Charlie's. For a few seconds, another dim blue-white sphere blossomed there, the same color as Algenib. Charliehorse felt/smelled/glimpsed/kenned magic, thin and clear and precise. Then the light shrank and faded into his palm.
There was a little "ah!" sound. Looking up from their business, the two mortals saw they had an audience, figures of various sizes and shapes, standing or sitting in the snow next to the two plates of soul cakes. A lady in Victorian garb applauded softly. The rabbit from last night clasped paws over his head in a victory gesture.
"They approve," Charliehorse noted.
"Yes. Good. Now, let's have a couple of soul cakes and unwrap the 'scope—get to some actual star-gazing. I think it only appropriate we start with Algenib."
"Right. And then Alpha Persei." They took a cake each, then rose and started to work.
After some time acting as an obedient pair of spare hands, Charliehorse remarked, "It's very easy to keep track of which one is Algenib. That's how it starts, isn't it?"
"That's right. Nothing dramatic. Tell me if it becomes intrusive. We can fix that."
"It occurs to me that, whatever zone I go to, I'll be able to tell if its sky holds Algenib."
"And if you do learn star magic, or nymic, we can leave messages for each other on it."
"Until then, there'll be the courier service."
"True. Write to me from behind the sky, when you get there."
"I surely will."
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.
Fletcher examined the group shot. "So you got to meet Poppa Simon and Momma Ioanna."
"Yessir. You have, sir?"
"A few times. And that's everybody around the tree. With two of her nieces and a nephew sitting on you."
"Yessir. They seemed to think it was a treat, and it saved floor space."
"And this one?" It showed Charliehorse looming behind Penelope, outdoors on a snowy hill. The colors were muted and flat, but stars hung behind them.
"That took a lot of posing. Of course, she's good with camera angles. And we used a special night camera. That star–" He touched one over his right shoulder in the image. "–is Algenib, on the wing of Pegasus. She gave it to me. You know about giving stars, sir?"
Fletcher nodded. "Very nice. Congratulations. You've made quite a conquest. Or perhaps she has."
"Let's just say we're good friends, sir."
"That is undoubtedly the best way to put it."
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2019