The village of Limstow was decked for Christmas. The trees along the high street bore white lights, a two-story Christmas tree glowed in the center of the green and, opposite it, the face of the church was floodlit to show off the garlands of evergreen and holly. But just now, the residents focused their attention on the horse trailer drawn up at the edge of the green.
Arguing voices came from within. "If we had got on in the order we were getting out–" "She wanted the weight forward." "Watch the bow! Don't step on it!" "I am watching it. I'm just pushing it aside with my foot." "Your foot is–"
A young woman climbed out of the lorry hauling the trailer. She was wearing jodhpurs, a jacket of military cut, and a cowboy hat, which she raised politely to the cluster gathered around the trailer door. She then rapped firmly on the door and demanded, "Hey, pony-boys! What's the problem?"
One of the double doors opened from inside. A dark-bearded young man, in similar uniform, thrust out his head and shoulders, smiled at the people, and tipped his own hat. "We are experiencing technical difficulties," he explained cheerfully. "In just–"
The other door swung open and another young man stepped out. Only the "young man" was a chestnut horse from the waist down. He held an unstrung bow protectively in one hand. As he tipped his hat, the first soldier stepped after him, revealing himself to be compounded of a large bay horse. The onlookers watched with interest but no shock. They were Sundered folk: there was a fairy in the church and a mage down the street.
"Now?" asked a voice from inside the trailer.
"Now," said the bay soldier as the chestnut pulled the door open wider and proclaimed, "Ta-da!"
"Oh, give over!" grumbled the third voice, and out stepped a third soldier. He was, simultaneously, a husky young man with a curly black beard and a large black draft horse. Large. The chestnut and the bay were a little under and over seven feet tall, but even the bay only came up to this soldier's shoulder. He peered about the crowd.
The giant dropped a couple of duffle bags, skipped over to a young couple, and whirled them into a very unevenly balanced ring-around-the-rosy. Even the other soldiers stepped back. There were a couple of unseasonal exclamations.
Renny stopped after a couple of rotations. "Show me the ring," he demanded of the girl, Jenny. She pulled off a mitten and exhibited a diamond ring. Renny kissed her on the cheek and gave the boy, Claude, a one-armed hug. Both operations involved bending down, and the two humans reached up in returning hugs.
"I didn't think you could turn in place," said Claude, still sounding a bit winded. The ring-dance had been more like a quadrupedal pirouette.
"Agility III," Renny answered proudly. "Just finished, and good marks."
"Renny?" Mr. and Mrs. Wardley stepped up. Renny knelt, bringing him down to a good height to hug his parents.
The other two soliders came over and dropped Renny's duffles beside him. "You must be," started his mother, paused to consult her memory, and continued, "Dan Brice and Charles Darneley."
They smiled at her. "Correct, ma'am," said Darneley, the big bay. He tipped his hat to her again.
"Trickshot and Charliehorse," said Renny's father.
"Also correct, sir. I assume you know your son is 'Horsepower'?" The parents laughed and nodded.
The driver walked up. "Excuse me, people. I have to deliver these two to their families."
"And then drive herself back to Ufham," Dan Brice added. "Long night. So hello and goodbye, then. Happy Christmas!" He tipped his hat and headed back into the trailer. Charles Darneley saluted and followed.
They eased their way through some onlookers who had been staring into the trailer curiously. The interior did not look much like a horse trailer, having mats on the floor (the soldiers stood much higher than horses and had to sit when traveling) and an intercom and TV screen on the forward wall.
Brice and Darneley ducked and climbed in, then acrobatically twisted around, tipped hats once more, and pulled the doors shut behind themselves, pre-empting an attempt by the driver. She checked about for stray luggage, tipped her own hat to the observers, wished everyone happy Christmas, and was soon off.
Renny surveyed the remaining onlookers. All were familiar to him, but it was clear he was no longer familiar to all of them. This was only natural, he had to admit. "Hello, Renny," someone ventured. He picked out Mr. FitzHugh, his old teacher and the squire's cousin. "Welcome home. You look well." With just the slightest hesitation before "well."
"Hi, Mr. FitzHugh." He gave back a determined smile. "Yes, I am well, thanks. I've never felt better! Hi, everybody! I do know how I look, and I know it's a shock. But I'm still glad to see you all. Happy Christmas! You'll be seeing me around!"
He turned with deliberation to picking up his duffles and moving off with his friends and family.
"You'll be hard to miss," murmured someone, followed by some scattered laughter. Renny tried to decide if he heard any meanness in it. You couldn't deny the truth of it.
Claude helped him strap the duffles to the harness along his flanks. "Was that last bit prepared?" asked his father.
"A little. Did it sound okay?"
"Yes. Laid a good groundwork. But Renny–!" He stopped and craned his neck up at his son. "I'd forgotten– I mean, pictures in emails just don't convey..."
"How big you are!" Jenny concluded, laughing.
Renny spread his arms and shrugged. He smiled a little wistfully. "I hope nobody minds."
"Minds?!" exclaimed his mother. "Do you mind?"
His smile lost the wistful tang. "No. No, I like it. Sure, it's awkward sometimes, but I really like this shape." No one said it was better than being dead. They did not have to go over it again.
"Well, then!" said his mother, and, reaching up, hooked her arm through his elbow. His father did the same on the other side and they continued toward home. Jenny and Claude walked to one side, holding hands.
"Aren't you cold?" Jenny asked after a few paces. She, like the other humans, was in a heavy anorak.
"Nope. I've got my saddle blanket, my leggings, my hat, my winter coat..."
"It doesn't look like a very warm coat," Jenny objected, regarding the brown military jacket.
Renny followed her glance. "Oh, not that. That's just my duty jacket. This is my winter coat." And he reached down to where his thigh had once been and ruffled the fur on his equine shoulder.
"You guys get a lot of fun out of those hats," Claude remarked while Jenny thought over the last remark.
"Yeah, we do. You can hardly tip them too often, and people like it. Captain Fletcher's very big on etiquette. Reputation issues and all. The one for my dress uniform is deep blue."
"You brought your dress uniform?" his mother asked.
"Of course! For Christmas service, if nothing else. That reminds me: where's Father Quentin? I was hoping to see him."
"Busy at the church, I'm sure, so close to Christmas."
Renny turned and looked back at the church. "Right. Can I invite him over to the house this evening, and Grim?"
"Certainly," said his mother. "Why?"
"I just want to talk to you all at once. Um, orientation, you could call it." They all looked their worry at him. "Nothing bad! I just think ... I need explaining." Jenny and Claude laughed.
"How do we look to you?" Claude asked. "Besides short."
Renny barked a laugh. "Well, 'short' covers a lot of it. You know how, if you get up on a step stool, you see the whole room from a different angle? It's like that for me all the time."
"And fragile?" asked his father. "You were so careful when you hugged your mum and me."
"Yes, that too." He supposed it was as odd for his parents to see him towering over them as it was for him to see them down there. And were they looking tired? Maybe they were finally relaxed.
They reached home.
"Are you sure," Renny asked his mother, "that you want to put me in my old room?" He had ducked to get through the door and was now stooping slightly under the ceiling. "Like I said, I could camp out in the garage, if you'll move the car."
"Nonsense!" said his mother, though she had a dubious eye on the narrow gap between his head and the ceiling. "I've got it all prepared for you. G– go see what you think!"
The stutter was because, although she had given thought to the arrangement of the room, she had only now come to consider the stairway and the hall.
The stairs creaked alarmingly under Renny's hooves, but he mounted more smoothly than he had on days of bad lung infections. Then he had staggered everywhere when he had moved at all.
"Didn't he say he now weighed a ton?" Claude murmured to Mr. Wardley, who nodded.
"What if he gets stuck?" asked Jenny as he disappeared into the hallway.
"He's like a hamster in one of those exercise tubes," muttered Claude.
"I heard that!" came back down the stairs. "I won't get stuck. Agility class. This sort of thing is what it was all about. The hamster got good scores. We have this house we practice in, with stairs and all. Hey, Mum, thanks, this looks great."
Besides tidying, she had removed the bed and chair, and left a pair of mattresses in place of the bed. It was like the gym matting back in the barracks, only thicker and softer. He resolved to not let his hooves tear up the sheets, and to make it look like he used the blankets.
He eyed his bookcase and wondered how many books he could bring back to Ufham. The step-stool effect came on again: Had he ever looked at his room from this height?
"Can we come up?" called Jenny.
Renny looked around and had to admit a certain resemblance between himself and a pimento in a olive. "No, I'll be right back down. To show you I can do it."
He dropped the duffles, unbound another pair of packs from his harness, executed an Agility III rotation in place, and went back to the stairs. He would go down forwards, he decided, to look as normal as possible, even though backwards was actually easier. When he got to the top of the stairs, Conker was staring up from the bottom.
Conker was their Labrador retriever. She was nine, now, her gleaming brown coat accented with a gray muzzle. Last Christmas, Renny had expected her to outlive him, possibly within the year. But here they all were. She cocked her head and whined faintly.
"Hi, Conker!" Renny said. He had wondered how this meeting would go, among all the others. Conker stopped whining and wagged slightly, but the head stayed cocked. "It's me, Renny." Either she believed him or the additional voice sample gave her confidence; she wagged more.
Renny started down the stairs and Conker backed off, looking thoroughly confused. Why, she clearly wondered, was Renny riding a horse in here?
By the time he had clattered and creaked to the bottom, she had somehow realized there was no horse. Renny wondered how. Did his body language make it clear he was a single animal? But she still looked worried. At the bottom, he crouched on the floor, lowered himself down on elbows, and called softly. He did not have to: she came up immediately and licked his face.
"I pass," he said, and his parents registered relief.
"I never thought about how Conker would take it," Claude remarked.
Illustrating how she took it, Conker worked her nose down Renny's body, sniffing now north, now south, of his waist. Jenny laughed. "She's trying to figure you out."
"I wish her luck." Renny rose slowly and made his way into the living room, Conker weaving unhandily among his legs. She seemed to be ignoring them as much as possible, nose upraised, intent on getting back to the familiar part of him.
The furniture of the living room had been rearranged. Now, the couch faced the bay window, which had a big braided rug just beneath it. "I thought it would be nice to sit and look out the window," his mother explained, a little stiffly.
"She thought it would be nice," her husband corrected, "if you had a place to sit."
"Thank you, Mum," Renny said, reclining. Conker came up, sniffed his forelegs for a bit, then settled down between them and resumed comparing Renny fore and aft. "That was a fair-sized crowd to greet me," he remarked. "I didn't think they knew I was coming."
"They didn't," Claude said. "Village grapevine. 'There's a big horse trailer here. You know what that means.' And curiosity does the rest."
"I didn't see Mr. Halbronn there. Not that I looked." Halbronn, according to emails from home, had expressed disgust at Renny's transformation. Loudly, to Mr. Wardley, in the pub. On the other hand, before the transformation, he had markedly avoided Renny, never seeming to believe that cystic fibrosis wasn't catching. "I'm sure it'll be easy to avoid him."
"No," his father countered, "it'll be easy for him to avoid you, if he chooses. I'm sure it's sensible to not approach him, but don't you go out of your way on his account."
Renny raised his eyebrows, but answered, "Yessir."
"We didn't do that kind of thing when you were sick and we won't do it now."
His father laughed. "That sounds like you were answering your Captain Fletcher."
Renny laughed back. "I guess so, sir. Da. Cavalry training. Hey!" Conker had shoved her nose under the hem of his jacket. She now scrabbled with her paws and seemed to be trying to burrow in.
Jenny studied the dog's actions. "She's trying to dig you out."
"What, out of my horse-pants? Well, there aren't any, girl." He pushed her gently away. "Look, let me get Father Quentin and Grim. I want to have that talk."
A few moments later, he was back on the high street. He gratefully breathed the winter air—the house had seemed very hot—and tried to piece his world together. The step-stool perspective lay strong on him. He had never viewed his town and home, his friends and family, from so high up for so long.
He headed back toward the church. The crowd at the green was gone, but there were still a few people about. He passed two on the way to the church, both known to him slightly. He raised his hat and smiled to both. One smiled back nervously and hurried by. The other said, "Welcome back," before doing the same. He supposed those were wins.
Renny knew Father Quentin and the churchgrim well, from spending so much time peering over edge of the grave. Four times, Father Quentin had given him extreme unction, when lung infections had stubbornly failed to shift, and he and the grim had brought honesty and kindness to the heart-freezing task of preparing a teenage boy to face early death. They were friends, though of very different kinds from Jenny and Claude.
Respectfully, Renny took off his hat, then entered. It was not a large church, but high and shadowy, even when full of Christmas candles, and all his life it has seemed vast on the inside. His being taller had not changed that.
He tooks a few clopping paces down the aisle, looking around. Just as he drew breath to call out, something landed on his shoulder.
He reared. Abruptly, he was fourteen feet tall. Dizzy with his own height, he pawed the air with his forefeet, his arms wheeling, a sagittary rampant sprung from the coats of arms picked out in the floodlit stained glass above.
But while part of him was a startled horse, another part knew exactly what had happened and had half expected it, even before the creaking voice in his ear shrilled, "Hi-ho, Silver!"
Before his hooves hit the stones of the floor, the weight pushed off his shoulder and landed before him: it was, or looked like, a small dog, with pointed ears and muzzle and a short coat the color of the stone. It gave him a grin made of teeth and chirped, "Return, and we return."
"Keep faith and so do we," Renny answered. The creature nodded, stood on its hind legs, and was abruptly a knee-high monk in a habit spun of shadow, with a face that was still canine though a tad more human. The ears stuck out through holes in the hood.
The churchgrim made a show of looking Renny up and down. "Haven't had a horse in here since 1139—no, I tell a lie, 1136. Always getting 9s and 6s muddled since we stopped using proper numerals.
"So, René Ágúst–" His baptismal name. "–how was your first transformation? Good?"
"Good? Yes! I'm alive! I can breathe! I'm even strong! But it was confusing. Like nothing else. I even have a hard time remembering it, though I try not to forget."
Grim nodded. "That's the way it is, the first few dozen times. Then it's just part of life." In illustration, apparently, he dropped to all fours, dog again, turned black, and expanded until he was even larger than Renny and had to place one forepaw and one rear carefully between pews. He voice deepened as he grew, the creak becoming a modulated growl. His eyes shone moonlight.
Renny wondered if this observation was a prophecy, and if he dared ask. In the pause of his hesitation, he heard footsteps. Father Quentin entered. Seeing the giant apparition, he called, "Grim? Is there trouble?"
"Just a little shop talk between us transformatives." Grim shrank back down to monkling, revealing Renny.
"Renny!" Father Quentin beamed and strode down the aisle to seize Renny by the shoulders. "Renny! You..."
Renny smiled. "Yeah, I know. Phone pictures just don't convey it."
"When did you get in?"
"Just a few minutes ago. Listen, Father, Grim, could you two come to our house for a bit. I wanted to talk to all of you."
Priest and fay traded glances. "Very well," said Father Quentin. "Is anything wrong?"
"No, no! I just ... wanted to talk about my transformation and where I seem to stand now. Nothing bad. Just a little strange." Quentin lifted his eyebrows and swept his gaze up and down Renny's new frame. Grim went off into a series of yips that Renny recognized as mocking laughter. "Okay, but that's my point: it's only a little more strangeness on top of what's already happened."
"Well, now you have me interested. Certainly I'll come. Grim?"
"To be sure."
Soon, the three of them were walking back down the street. Quite a size range they presented, Renny thought, looking down (step stool again) on Father Quentin in a bright red anorak, with Grim, weatherproof, perched on his shoulder.
"Father, you'd be in a good position to know. How does the village feel about me?"
"Ah. I have rather been tracking that. I'd say most think the Dedicated Cavalry is, well, strange but a fairly happy ending to what was otherwise a sad story. They're glad for you, as much as people who don't know you well are likely to be. 'All for the best, I suppose,' might sum it up.
"All the FitzHughs and Mrs. Atherton and Mr. Dupuis think it's a mark of distinction to have a local boy in that cavalry. Mr. Halbronn you know about, I think."
"Uh-huh. I decided years back that he thinks I should have died at birth." Renny glanced down to see if he was shocking Quentin, but the priest did not change his thoughtful expression. "I don't mean anything murderous. He just thought it was a shame I lived, I suspect. Now I've gone off and justified his beliefs."
Quentin sighed. "He is a prickly and disagreeable man, and like most such people, he has troubles of his own, rather a lot." He moved the topic on: "Several young people have expressed intrigue and interest in your transformation. That might make you unpopular with their parents. At least one girl is very annoyed that the cavalry only transforms boys."
"She can't be half as annoyed as us boys are." Quentin laughed and Grim yipped. "I did find out that, if you're suddenly transformed from a near basket case, like I was, into a completely healthy male, a whole patch of temptations suddenly get a lot more ... vivid.
"You can tell that girl, if you like, that Dr. Blackholt has a niece as one of his apprentices, and I bet she's working to expand the scope of that spell." Quentin grunted noncommittally.
A few minutes later, Renny was back on the braid rug and everyone was provided with tea or coffee or, in Grim's case, hot cocoa. Conker, for reasons best known to herself, accepted his reappearance quite calmly and cuddled down against his belly, between front and back legs.
Renny, wondering how to begin, set his coffee mug down on a table and felt his T-shirt ride up yet again. He pulled it down yet again. It was one of the rusty red ones, with the cavalry logo over the left breast, that served as fatigues.
He caught Jenny staring at his middle. "Sorry about the shirt," he said. "This is the largest size."
She waved dismissively. "That's not it. I have to admit, I was wondering about the, uh, join."
"There isn't one. No seam, no stitches. It's just a hairline. I'm a unit. Ask Conker. Well, Dr. Blackholt says it's human tissue above the line and horse tissue below, on the whole, but it's all interlocked." So of course everyone stared at the vast horse torso laid out before them. His mother in particular looked sad. "Mum, is something wrong?" He immediately wished he'd kept still.
"No, no. I was just remembering your sweet little baby feet."
Renny glanced at his hooves, then at Jenny and Claude, whose grins said, "She's gotcha." Mothers. "Well, Mum, they went long ago. I had big bony feet the morning I was changed. I remember specifically looking at them just before they... Well."
"Oh, I know. All mothers get this way. And they're very impressive hooves, and quite clean. Do– do you shoe yourself?" she asked, clearly making a desperate search for whatever the new normal was to be.
"Just started. That's why the back ones are a little crooked, I think."
"How do you reach the back ones at all?" asked Claude. "In fact, how do you get to your hindquarters, period?"
"Like this," Renny answered. He edged away from Conker and rolled up into a crouch, pulling his hindquarters under him so that his equine body curled up like a cat poised over a mouse-hole. "Then I can reach my back feet." He demonstrated by grabbing a rear hoof. Then he looked up. His friends and relations were looking at him with smiles suppressed to one degree or another, except for Grim, who was laughing silently, tongue lolling. Renny shrugged. "Everyone has to get in silly positions sometimes."
"I think I shall use that in a sermon," said Father Quentin.
"It does look like a hard position for shoeing a horse," Claude acknowledged.
"Right now, this horse is proud to be able to shoe himself at all."
He straightened out and cleared his throat. "This horse. That's why I got you together as soon as I got home. I wanted to tell you– I wanted to talk about– There's another side to my transformation." He gestured along his body, human and equine. "You can see the physical change. But besides that– Do I seem changed to you? In personality?" He watched their reactions.
"Of course not!" his mother exclaimed. But the others stared back silently and his mother did not go on.
"I don't think so," Jenny said.
"Renny, we can't tell," his father told him. "Not yet. For the last few months, it's been just emails and phone calls. You certainly seemed yourself then. Everything was going splendidly. Wasn't it? Now, you've only been back an hour or so. Isn't everything going splendidly?"
A pang of worry crossed his father's face. He saw it on all of them (except Grim, who merely studied him), and suddenly realized how much they cared for him and the responsibility that put on him.
"No, no! Everything is fine. I just didn't want any of you to be surprised." Grim rolled his eyes. "I don't think it's much, or bad."
"Renny," said Father Quentin calmly, "you are twenty-two and you have just joined the military. Even without miraculous cures and transformations, your personality would be changing now. We all change. What do you think has happened?"
Grim, who was sitting on the couch between Mrs. Wardley and Jenny, took a long pull on his mug of cocoa, then leaned back and crossed his ankles (the feet looked like a rat's as much as anything else), in the manner of one ready to watch the show.
"Well, just little things, mostly. Like, I can't remember what it's like to have two legs or, uh, toes. And the insomnia."
"You wrote about that," his mother said, nodding. "And your appetite. I've laid in plenty of oatmeal."
"And smells and things," said Claude. Renny locked eyes with him briefly, but his face gave away nothing. Claude was the only one Renny had written to about his first experience smelling a mare in heat.
"Oh, do you have a horse's sense of smell now?" asked Father Quentin, interested.
"Not, uh, entirely."
"That all sounds pretty harmless," said Jenny.
"Oh, yeah. I don't want to make a big deal of this. But there are some changes deeper down than– than insomnia and oatmeal."
"Your mood," his mother broke in. "Renny, you seemed so happy! Aren't you?" Now the pang of worry crossed her face, as it had his father's, and he realized how familiar it was. They had spent his whole life worrying about him.
"No, Mum, I am happy! Happier and for longer than I ever was before."
"Well, of course," said Jenny. "You're not under sentence of death any longer. That's change of circumstance, not personality."
"I think you're right. What I was going to say was that you might see some changes in my personality. But now you say you were expecting changes anyway, so I don't know what to do." He sighed.
"Please go back to my question," said Father Quentin. "What do you think has happened? Or may have happened? That your personality has become more horselike?"
"But horses have all sorts of personalities," Jenny said.
"He's a draft horse," said Grim. "They're steady and patient."
Jenny stared at Renny analytically. "There's circumstance again. I don't know that you were notably patient before, Renny, but now you've got time."
Claude had been sitting next to Jenny, his arm around her shoulder. Now he rose, glared at Renny with mock ferocity, and demanded, "Were you afraid we'd be upset to find you had acquired a few horsey reflexes and–" He adopted a melodramatic tone. "–had sunk to the level of a beast because you had become more cheerful and patient?" Claude looked to Grim. "Is there a spell to instill common sense?"
"Never in a hundred thousand worlds," the creature muttered back. "People have looked." He swigged cocoa.
"Renny," said Father Quentin, "if I were suddenly transformed from a middle-aged man into a healthy young giant, my personality would by-Heaven change, and I'd give thanks for every bit of it, and expect every one around me to do the same. Do you still love us?"
"What? Of course!"
"And do you still judge good and evil as you did before?"
"Well, I..." Renny sputtered, "I think so. It hasn't come up a lot lately." Grim snorted.
"Then," said Quentin, "you're the Renny we know. And we're glad you're happy."
Jenny turned to Mrs. Wardley. "Do you think he's much more patient?"
"I've seen exactly as much of him tonight as you have, dear."
"He's borne with you lot pretty well," Grim observed. "Fevering and mocking at him when he just tries to warn you things might be a bit odder than you knew."
"No, Grim," Renny said, "it's okay."
"See? Patient. Mind you," the fay went on, turning to him, "you set yourself up pretty well, going on about this announcement." Renny nodded.
His father had been regarding him steadily. He now asked, "So, it's just that you're a little more equine than we might have thought? (And, son, I've got to tell you, we were thinking of you as pretty equine. Appearances and all...)"
"Yessir. Didn't mean to upset people, sir."
Mr. Wardley waved this away and seemed more disconcerted by the unaccustomed "sirs" than anything else. "And you are well and happy?"
"Yes, Da!" Let's skip over the "sir." "I've never been happy for so long, ever."
A spasm passed over his father's face, but the man rose too fast for Renny to get a good look. "Great! That's all ... we could ask. Let me get a fresh pot of coffee." He vanished into the kitchen.
Grim hopped up and trotted along the back of the couch, passed behind Jenny and Claude, pausing to speak briefly into Father Quentin's ear, then hopped onto Renny's shoulder.
Father Quentin blinked, then said to the others, "As long as I'm here, I want to mention we're going caroling tomorrow night. The choir, but anyone else who wants to come, too."
Renny didn't catch the rest because Grim was speaking into his ear: "He does not want anyone to see his face."
"Da? Is he crying?"
"That, but also anger."
"I hear it in his breath, and I know why. You have been happy for half a year, almost without interruption. Do you know how few people, mortal or immortal, can say that? Certainly not your parents. Your father is eaten with envy, just this moment, and does not want others to see. He needs a little to beat it down. There. He has won."
His father re-entered with a coffee pot in one hand and a tray of biscuits in the other. "Here we go!" The cheer sounded a little forced to Renny, but that might have been because he knew too much. Mr. Wardley put the pot and tray down on the coffee table, then sat back down next to his wife.
Renny looked at his mother, who gave her husband's hand an absent-minded squeeze and continued listening to Father Quentin talk about Christmas plans. Then he looked from his mother to Grim.
"She, too, sometimes. Passions pass over a soul like storm flurries long after a life has taken a shock. Another time, it might be her fighting the devils bred from her wounds. But both your parents are seasoned warriors."
"How do you know all this?"
"Because I have haunted this village since before it was Sundered, and before your William sent a knight to claim it, and I have listened under windows and at keyholes for all that time. Most grown-ups here know it or guess it, my boy, and I remain unexorcized because they also know I am at least as discreet as any priest that ever heard their confessions—which I also heard. But I think you should know that, just as you have fourteen years of risk ahead of you, and a body transformed, to pay for your health, so your parents are still paying and will pay, inly, in wracked hearts and lost chances. You three wept together, the hour you were transformed. You should do that again from time to time, though not outwardly perhaps."
"... Thank you, Grim."
"There's my wise boy." And he clapped a prickly hand on Renny's neck like a carter petting his horse.
"What did you say to Father Quentin?"
" 'Cover for me.' " He hopped from shoulder to floor, then grew into a tall Anubis figure long enough to pour himself more cocoa.
Next, Conker woke and decided to settle this horse business once and for all. She drove her nose in under Renny's upper ribcage, full force, for a good sniff. Renny made a noise neither horse nor man can make, because you need to be punched between your upper and lower lungs to make it. This completed the process of diversion and the evening moved on.
Everyone agreed to take part in the caroling next night. Father Quentin said the choir mistress would be delighted with Renny's new resonance and left with Grim soon thereafter. Jenny and Claude visited for a couple of hours, then went off to supper. Renny had supper at home for the first time since his transformation: a pleasant and normal one preceded by a large helping of oatmeal.
As was now normal for him, Renny was not at all sleepy when his parents went to bed. New problem: Until now, Renny had spent his insomniac nights with the other recruits. Some chatted in undertones or read or did schoolwork, as others dozed off and woke. This time, he was alone.
He read books he hadn't seen in months. He watched a snowfall start up. He managed two hours of sleep. He woke up and watched the snowfall end. He snuck downstairs (a one-ton animal can sneak if he moves very slowly) and watched TV at low volume. He wandered the house, studying his home from his new height. The house was hot. He put on his jacket and saddle blanket, then went outside to find something to do.
It was still dark when Mrs. Faber looked out her window and remarked, "Frank, there's a centaur shoveling our front walk."
"What? Renny Wardley?"
"How many centaurs do we know?"
They had not been in the crowd around the horse trailer yesterday evening, so this was the first time they had seen him as a centaur, but they had known him all his life. Mrs. Faber opened the kitchen door and called, "Thank you, Renny, that's very sweet of you. Come in and have some cocoa."
Renny had looked up, smiled, and tipped his cowboy hat to her when the door opened. He now approached. As he loomed up in perspective, Mrs. Faber wondered if inviting him in had been wise. But he ducked through the door with practiced ease, neatly knocking the snow off his hooves on the doorstep as he did so. Soon, he was curled up on the kitchen floor, still taller than Mr. Faber, sipping cocoa from the double-sized mug and telling them about cavalry training.
"They certainly seem to keep you busy," said Mrs. Faber, after hearing about agility class, horse-care, health and first aid, packing and camping, wilderness survival, endurance runs, strength training, archery and marksmanship, and riding classes as seen from the underside of the saddle, all skills to make one a useful monster to take on an expedition to the out-zones.
Renny nodded. "Then there are the lectures, in things like history and cosmography, and the individual study projects. 'Scholars on hooves' is what Captain Fletcher says we're to be. I'm studying to be a medic."
Mrs. Faber nodded. That would be very natural, given Renny's background.
"Strength training, did you say?" asked Mr. Faber. "Good Lord! Are your mates all as big as you?"
"No sir, I'm the biggest." He grinned shyly. "I'm a draft horse. The others are mustangs or Arabians or something. Well, Darneley's a little big for that. The transformation works along the lines of your original form. So, for instance, one guy was blond and he came out palomino. I already had black hair and was tall, so I have a black coat and I'm big."
"But you were tall and thin, dear," said Mrs. Faber.
"That must have been the CF, ma'am. I guess the skinny went away with the CF."
"Well, what a blessing it did!" Mrs. Faber looked over the beast in her kitchen for traces of the Renny she had known. (It was desirable to remind herself that this was Renny. Otherwise, it was a very large, very strange creature.) The face had filled out but was still recognizable under the beard. The hands no longer had the blunted fingers of a CF victim, but now looked like his father's. The voice was not much changed, though there was an added ring to it.
"I think they need to keep us busy, ma'am" he reflected. "I found out why last night. For the first time since I changed, I didn't have anything to do. Old me would just have rested. Now, I can't stand it! I went out around three and walked around the village."
Mr. and Mrs. Faber compared notes later and found they had both wondered if anyone had waked to the clopping of hooves and looked out the window.
"It all looked very odd," Renny reflected.
"Do you have enhanced night-vision now?" Mr. Faber asked.
"No, I was just seeing everything from two feet further up. I went to all my old hangouts. They look really strange in the middle of the night. I'll have to try again with Jenny and Claude. In daylight."
Mrs. Faber surprised herself by laying her hand on Renny's. "I did something like that the first time I came back from college. Those places look strange even in daylight and from your usual height."
Renny smiled at her. "I see. Well, I went round the village again and looked around again, and then I thought I'd find something useful to do."
"Is that when you started shoveling walks?" asked Mr. Faber, peering out the window, where dawn was starting.
Mr. Faber looked over the neighborhood. "Let's see. You did yours and ours..."
"Two on each side of our house, including yours, and the five across the road."
"Do you ever get tired, now, Renny?"
"Oh, yessir. You should see me puff after an endurance run. Being big's no help then."
Mr. Faber glanced out the window again. "Here come Claude and Jenny, bright and early."
"They must be coming to see you," Mrs. Faber said, but Renny was already rising.
"You have plans with them?" asked Mr. Faber.
"Yes, but they don't know yet. I'm going to make them breakfast. Them and my parents."
Mrs. Faber looked at the fraction of her kitchen Renny was not filling. She knew the Wardleys' kitchen was no bigger. "Oh? That's nice. Ah, why?"
"To prove a point! My mates back at the base said I could only use a kitchen by leaning through the window. That was before I laid down the scores I did in Agility! Do you want to come, too? The more people there are, the more it's like cooking for the cavalry."
After a hearty breakfast for seven of cheese omelettes, sausages, and toast, with plenty of oatmeal any way you liked it, the Wardleys and the Fabers chatted in the living room while the young people cleaned up. "He seems to be flourishing," Mrs. Faber said.
"Yes, I think so," said Mrs. Wardley. "You know, he got us quite worked up last night, trying to warn us about some changes in him that he was afraid would upset us. It amounted to the fact that he felt unexpectedly peaceful! He thought we'd find it strange. Then I heard him rambling around the house all night. (He was trying to be quiet, of course.) It never entered his head to warn us that he'd now be so hard to keep up with."
In the kitchen, Jenny and Claude had just agreed to re-visit old haunts with Renny, though the nostalgia exercise was really just a way to visit with Renny, so far as they were concerned.
"And you shoveled walks in the middle of the night just for something to do?" Claude asked.
"Partly. I admit, I'm also trying to make a good impression. I know some people look on the transformation as this twisted thing the gentry does with spare sons, to show off or score points with the Crown. Thought I'd throw some weight the other way."
Claude eyed his friend. "Didn't you wrack up your back? I mean, I know you're strong and tough and so on, but you have to lean over a lot further than a human. A man-simple, I mean." That being the polite way to continue including Renny as "human."
"I bow a little at the forelegs with each pitch."
"It's still got to work the hell out of that big tendon," said Jenny.
"The one on your spine, where the horse neck turns into your waist. I can see it running out from under your shirt."
Actually, the tendon was not very visible at the moment. Renny had moved the table aside and was sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, rump down, forelegs up. This straightened his back and brought the tendon down. Experimentally, he stood and admitted to some stiffness in the small of his human back.
Jenny, who with Claude was wedged between Renny and the counter, reached over and began shifting, pummeling, and generally massaging the tendon. "For old times' sake," she remarked. She and Claude had spent considerable time drumming and massaging Renny's back to loosen the mucus clogging his lungs.
Renny had not thought his new body had any surprises left for him, but the contented grunt he now gave came out like the rumble of a diesel engine, given with his horse chest much more than with his human one.
"I didn't know centaurs purred," said Jenny.
"Mhh. This one does."
"Help me, Claude. It's like massaging a sapling." Claude joined in, with greater force, though somehow this wasn't as much fun. Jenny worked up the tendon, under his T-shirt and over the hairline, to where he was still human. Her hands were warm and both soft and strong, and– Renny's legs buckled and he sat down. "Thanks," said Jenny, and "That's better," said Claude. They attacked his spine at the new angle. Renny replied with a nod and another diesel grunt, but his mind was far away and racing further.
So this was what desire was like. Not mere arousal as from a whiff of mare, not playful imagining—he had been strong enough for that when he was ill and human—but he had been too exhausted by the illness for much more. Now he was alive to the attraction of a particular person, wanted to embrace and kiss this particular person. Who was Jenny, his childhood friend, engaged to Claude, also his childhood friend. And the same change that gave him the strength to desire also frustrated it, but that hardly mattered, since her love—that kind of love—was already given elsewhere. Never in the cards.
Back up. Back up. This should be way easier than all those nights you thought you were five seconds away from the dark, and backed away to look at your life and reckon up a final tally.
Now you know you can feel this. You are one step less crippled. But who could you feel this for? Well, now you have time to find out, as much time as anyone and more than most.
He felt his friends' hands slacken, then renew their efforts. They were tiring. "Thanks, guys," he said, rising and ending the back-rub. "That felt great."
"You are one solid beast, my man," said Claude, flapping his hands to restore circulation.
Renny grinned. This was comfortable territory. "I love it. I used to feel like I could wink out any moment."
"If you winked out now, there would be a lot of displaced air."
They decided to turn their nostalgia tour into Christmas shopping, so Renny added his harness and empty packs to his hat and jacket. "You don't mind being a beast of burden?" Jenny asked.
"Nope. It's part of what I signed on for. Here's one very expensive spell to fix your health. Now make yourself useful. It's a fair deal."
Last night's snowfall had left Limstow decoratively iced. Renny paced down the street, taking in the new angle again, and found Jenny and Claude flanking him, each with a hand resting companionably on his withers.
"That's nice," he said after a bit of thought, nodding to right and left. "We couldn't have done that before, arms around each other's shoulders. We'd have looked like we were starting a number from a musical. But it seems to work this way."
He saw Claude and Jenny exchange glances over his bow, so to speak. "It's deliberate," Jenny said. "When you danced with us last night, fresh off the trailer... It was fun but it was also very startling. Claude and I talked about it, and decided we should make a deliberate effort to get used to your new shape."
Renny cocked his head. "To touch me? Were you looking for a chance to give me that back rub?"
Jenny laughed. Claude said, "Not the back rub specifically, but we were looking for chances like that."
"Well." Renny silently congratulated himself on keeping his recent thoughts to himself. "Thank you. A great deal." They felt an otherwise private chuckle pass under their hands. "If you like, I can give everyone rides on Christmas morning. That ought to fit in with your program."
"Really?" exclaimed Jenny.
"Of course really. Remember the emails I sent about working with the Standard Cavalry? The jockeys and the pony-boys working together. Making ourselves useful."
"You're on," said Claude.
The way to the stores took them past the green. They saw the snow had brought the star down off the village Christmas tree. "Well, that'll be a nuisance to get up again," Jenny remarked. "They'll have to get the big ladder from the church again and whip up the scaffolding. You can't prop it against the tree."
Renny cast his eye over the tree, then said, "Nah, we got this. Claude, you were kind of a daredevil in your youth, weren't you?"
"I'm still in my youth."
"Exactly." He led them over to the tree and, guiding her by the shoulders, placed Jenny almost nose to branches, with the star at her feet. It was shiny plastic and seemed undamaged. "Jenny, stand here."
"If I told you, you wouldn't do it. Claude, get on my back."
"How–?" he started.
"Grab the straps in my harness and on the back of my jacket. Now step up on my shoulders. Don't worry, I'll hold onto your legs."
"Okay... I start to see." Willingly enough, Claude scrambled up Renny, who grabbed his legs just under the knees.
"Jenny, hand me the star." She plucked it from the snow, brushed the residue off, and passed it to Renny, who passed it up to Claude.
"Jenny, face the tree again." Full of uneasy surmise, she obeyed.
"I'm still way too low," Claude said.
Renny stood on his hind legs. Jenny heard Claude's yelp vanishing into the sky and looked up in time to see Renny's forelegs waving above her. "Stay put," he ordered. Two hooves, each the size of her head, touched down on her shoulders. "Don't worry. I just need you for balance. How's it going, Claude?"
Through clenched teeth, Claude answered, "You're squeezing my knees! Hard!"
"You want me to ease my grip?"
The star hung from a loop of light chain. Claude flailed but could not get the chain over the tree top. Renny tried tilting forward slightly.
"Renny!" yelled Jenny, "You're leaning on me! Lean back! I can't–"
"DON'T lean back!" Claude insisted.
"Hang the star now," Renny ordered. "Carefully. Or we'll have to do this all over again. Look okay?"
"Mph. Okay, get ready for the dismount. Stand perfectly straight."
"Which one?" Jenny asked.
"Both of you." With just a slightly terrible force, he pushed off from Jenny's shoulders. Eight feet up, he tossed Claude off his own shoulders and caught him around the chest as he fell past. This muffled the gasp of fear. He sat down in the snow as slowly as he could, taking heed to keep his forehooves away from Jenny as she collapsed, after her knees buckled from his push-off. He ended up lying on the snow, Claude in the lap of his forelegs, Jenny in Claude's lap.
He looked up at the tree top. "We did it!"
"How could– What if–" Jenny sputtered.
"I knew you could hold me. And I knew I could catch him. Jenny, your fiancé is a very brave man. Claude, your fiancée is a very strong woman."
"I am going to turn you into dog food," Claude growled.
"Now, is that a nice thing to say? Anyway, I told you I got good agility scores."
"Did we say that we did? You were showing off!"
"So were you," Renny answered calmly. "And you knew I was going to do something like that when you got on my back."
Jenny grumbled something about "horseplay" but she gave Renny a peck on the cheek as she scrambled up.
"So has my personality changed a lot?" he asked as he rose.
"Not nearly enough!" she said. "And why did I have to be the one to get squashed?"
"Claude has longer arms."
Renny rose, found his hat, and shook the snow off. Looking up, he saw their stunt had been witnessed by a couple and a father with two kids. The kids started clapping. The couple joined in, but the father looked gob-smacked. Perhaps he worried his kids would want to try something similar.
Renny and his friends waved and smiled, a little nervously, and hurried on to their shopping.
Limstow was a very small village. To go Christmas shopping necessarily meant going to The Jeans' Store. Mrs. Jean was the mage down the street. She found lost items, fine-tuned the public weather forecasts, interpreted dreams (usually as "It's just a dream, dearie"), and produced a line of modest and reliable health potions when she wasn't running the store with her husband. The two did ghost-busting on the side, calling in Father Quentin on the tough ones. (Not Grim. "You don't want to call me in on a ghost you care anything about," the churchgrim reminded the town about once a generation.)
Mrs. Jean spotted Renny easily, of course, as he waded carefully through the crowd, and smiled at him in the satisfaction of a job well done. She it was who found the seers who had told the Wardleys that transformation could cure Renny. He waved and started toward her.
Renny was used to moving among humans-simple from living among the civilians and Standard Cavalry in Ufham, but this holiday crowd was a new proposition. ("Cavalry etiquette: Never switch your tail in a crowd," he reminded himself. "Above all, never kick.") He moved slowly, tipping his hat and saying "excuse me" both when he bumped into someone and when someone bumped into him. It was usually impossible to say which. In between collisions, he fielded questions:
"Renny, is that really you?" ("Yes, ma'am. Still really me.")
"How are you?" ("Never better.")
"Ren, how does it feel?" ("I feel great, Kev.")
"They let you out?" ("I'm on Christmas leave, sir." Not, for instance, escaped.)
"Renny?!" ("Yessir. Hello, sir.")
Claude grabbed a red Santa hat off a rack and perched it on Renny's head, taking custody of the cowboy hat. "He's Santaur Claus," he announced to the nearest targets. Renny sighed but left the hat on.
"How are you?" ("Just great, Lou.")
"How long does it last?" ("Permanent.")
From a small child: "What do you eat?" ("What? Um, what I did before. And a lot of oatmeal.")
"He's Santaur Claus." "A good sport is what he is." ("Thank you.")
"Aren't you cold?" (In here? "Too big and furry now, ma'am.")
It was a little startling, the number of people who patted or stroked his back and flanks. Curiosity? Daring? Affection? Bravado?
Everyone seemed welcoming or curious. He looked around for other reactions. A few faces gazed at him sadly, in pity perhaps. A few looked aghast. A few looked disapproving.
Mr. Halbronn. Renny turned from his survey and found the man almost at his left shoulders. He did not want to be there. Apparently he had been washed there by the tide of the crowd. Now he was edging away from Renny, staring at him.
But the pinched, gray face bore a new expression. Before, he had looked on Renny with revulsion, sometimes with some pity. Now he was afraid.
The Halbronn file opened in Renny's mind. He remembered all the times Mr. Halbronn had glared at him, or drawn away from him, or crossed the road to avoid him. He remembered crossing the road himself, until his father told him not to. He remembered being shooed off the road—the public road—before the Halbronn house for not passing quickly enough, as if he had had the energy to hurry. He remembered hearing "away" in the phrase "get away" or "put away" or something, never quite audible, muttered when he passed near.
He recalled being thirteen or so and taking his own turn, "deviling" his mother had called it: coughing with theatrical juiciness for Mr. Halbronn's benefit, or deliberately lingering before his house with Claude or Jenny. He arrived for Trick or Treat one Hallowe'en, on the Halbronn doorstep, wrapped in a ragged sheet and holding a scythe from Jenny's garden shed. He made remarks in Halbronn's hearing like, "They say it's nothing the embalming won't fix."
He had stopped joking about his illness after the first round of extreme unction, but he had picked up a bent for dark humor. He suddenly realized it was gone now.
Poor Mr. Halbronn. The skinny monster of sickness had come back as a burly monster of health. There was no pleasing some people. What an opportunity for deviling now...
Renny wondered if the thought showed in his eyes, because Mr. Halbronn glanced in his face and flinched.
Renny flinched back. He wondered if he shied from horsiness or would have done it anyway. In either case, the little temptation was over and he deliberately embraced his inner draft horse, steady and mild. He gave Mr. Holbronn a flicker of smile and saluted with a gentle wave. Then he turned away and closed the file in his mind.
As Renny reached the counter and was about to speak to Mrs. Jean, something landed on his back. It ran up his spine like a squirrel and jumped on his head, snatching the Santa hat off in flight. He jumped a few inches. ("Cavalry etiquette: Never rear in a crowd. If you start to, stop and apologize." But no one had noticed his little hop.)
Grim, as the little dog-monk, stood on the counter, regarding the hat he held. Mrs. Jean had been about to speak to Renny, but, mage or no mage, she was now giving Grim the careful look people usually did when he appeared suddenly.
"Well, now, what shall I be in the Christmas pageant this year?" Grim asked the crowd. "Father Christmas?" He put on the hat. "Or one of his elves?"
"Technically," Renny began, "you are–"
"Or the Krampus." He snapped down on the Santa hat with a muzzle that had gone very long and toothy.
"Your sheepdog is fine," Renny assured him. "I was looking forward to it. Just don't bring in real sheep again."
"Sheepdog it is, then." Grim became the small gray dog, jumped back on Renny's head, retraced his route down the back, then leapt off, down among the ankles of the crowd. People held noticeably still for a few seconds, then began moving and talking normally. The hat was back on Renny's head.
"What was that about?" wondered Claude.
Renny met Mrs. Jean's eyes. She answered Claude in a low voice: "Grim's just reminded everyone that he's Renny's friend."
Renny remembered the unwelcoming faces in the crowd behind him, the question about being let out, and Mr. Halbronn. He thought about Darneley and Weldon, Charliehorse and Buckjack, spending Christmas, he knew, with no such protectors as Grim, Father Quentin, Jenny, and Claude. Nor did they have his good excuse of "change or die." How were they faring?
He reached up and tugged the Santa hat more firmly into position. Look silly, not dangerous. He put on a determined smile and said, loudly enough to be heard above the chatter, "Mrs. Jean, your good idea saved my life. Thank you." She reached up to grab his neck for a hug, so he leaned down into it and kissed her cheek. The chatter lulled for a couple of seconds, then resumed, spiced with some laughter. Kindly, not snickering. Good enough.
Mrs. Jean extracted a promise from him to come back when it was quiet and they could have a nice long talk. Then he drifted off into the crowd, like any other shopper, only more conspicuous.
The Jeans' Store was deliberately miscellaneous, designed to save people trips to distant unSundered towns. At Christmas, it was prime for supplying stocking-stuffers and other minor presents, and Renny so used it. Claude and Jenny did the same, with a certain amount of conspiring among the three of them, two keeping small Christmas secrets from the third. This made loading Renny's backpacks at the checkout a little tricky, but they managed it.
As they sauntered down the street to give Renny a look at the old schoolhouse, they were overtaken by Grim, looking like a solid grey Alsatian, padding along on a mission elsewhere.
"Thank you, Grim," Renny called.
The dog looked up. "You're welcome. For what?"
"Showing up at the Jeans'. Mrs. Jean explained what you did."
"Ah, that girl can see through more fog than most."
"Where are you bound?" asked Jenny.
"To the burial plot at the Enfield farm. I'll spread some Yuletide admonitions. More cheerful to do it by daylight. Who knows? Maybe this year some of them will move on. Pray for it."
"Yes, godfather," Jenny answered. "Are you their godfather too?"
"Why, girl, of course. I've been fairy godfather to the whole town for over a thousand years. Hundreds of times I've stood at that font–" He nodded back toward the church. "–and renounced Satan with the mortal godparents."
"And yet you won't go to–"
"Yes, there's the rub of being immortal. I shall just have to wait for Kingdom Come."
He had slackened his pace to talk with them. Now, he stopped and sat. They stopped, too, and faced him respectfully. The road was empty for the moment, and hushed with snow.
"René Ágúst," the churchgrim said, "I know nothing about the death of centaurs. Most likely, after your last day, you'll gallop into Paradise on four fine, resurrected legs. But if there is some delay, if it turns out you are no longer as mortal as before, come to me and we will see what can be done."
Renny extended one foreleg and knelt on the other in his best bow. "Thank you, godfather."
"Most likely, there'll be no difficulties. I speak out of my own ignorance. As for you, Jennifer Marie and Claude Michael, just keep your noses clean and keep on as you're going. The cavalry folk call the likes of you 'human-simple' for cause, and you can be grateful."
"Yes, godfather." "Yes, godfather."
He padded on and soon turned the corner that led to a country track.
The schoolhouse was shut for the holidays, but they could peer through the windows and see the decorations. "That was my desk," said Jenny, pointing out a piece of miniature furniture in the infants' room. "I wouldn't fit in it now any more than you would, Renny."
Renny shaded his eyes to peer through the reflections. "There's mine. And there's the cot in the back, where I'd go lay down when I had to. Or a cot. I hope they've changed it."
As they started back toward the village center, he said, "Thank you for making a place where I could fit. Thank you for making me welcome."
"Well, sure!" Claude sputtered.
"Renny, we couldn't have done anything else!" Jenny exclaimed.
"Yes, you could. You didn't have to meet me last night. You didn't have to resolve to get used to me all over again. And my parents didn't have to rearrange furniture and lay in oatmeal. (She's got twenty-kilo sacks of it in the garage! Just like in the mess at Ufham!) And Grim and Father Quentin, and the Fabers... All of you could have said, 'He's all better now. Job done,' and just waved goodbye. Someone could sum up my life by saying I was born with a fatal disease and my only out was to be dehumanized. But I know I'm lucky, fortunate, blessed, any or all of those."
"Renny, we really couldn't have done otherwise," Jenny insisted.
"You could. But you didn't. Thank you."
Renny dressed his best for the caroling: the red dress jacket with its white piping, the matching leggings, the blue cowboy hat, and the blue saddle blanket with the royal coat of arms. Along with his friends and family, he reported to the church for rehearsal with the other carolers.
Mrs. Delacey, the choirmistress, was delighted with his transformation: the horse lungs gave him resonance, volume, and duration. She asked him to come back some time during his stay, so she could teach him to lift his soft palate. Before he could ask where this was, it was time to run through the carols. Renny knew better than to show off his volume, especially since he couldn't do harmony.
After rehearsal, they assembled in front of the church to work out their staging. When they were done, Father Quentin stepped in front to deliver a blessing. But before he addressed God, he addressed the carolers: "You might well be thinking of transformation, this Christmas." Several people glanced at Renny, then politely away. Claude and Jenny met his eyes and smiled. So did Father Claude. His father, standing next to him, hugged him across the back. "And that's fitting. Christmas is about transformations, though we don't often put it that way: God into Man, sinners into saints, the kingdom of the world into the Kingdom of Heaven. Let Renny's physical transformation, sickness into health, remind you of the profounder ones." Then he looked up and prayed that their music bring joy to the town.
Something you could have taken for a small gargoyle launched out of the carvings over the door and landed on Renny's shoulder. This time, he didn't quite rear. "You like jumping on me now, don't you?"
"I get such a grand view from up here. Eight feet, did you say?"
Mr. FitzHugh stepped out in front of the group and held up his phone. "Everybody smile!"
Ufham Wood lay in the night of a January freeze. Eight soldiers of the Dedicated Cavalry and twelve of the Standard Cavalry, out on a wilderness survival exercise, were huddled around a fire, spending their brief downtime in passing phones around, looking at holiday pictures.
"That's a bunch of us singing carols in front of the church. There's me in back."
"Yes, Horsepower, you're easy to spot. And what's that on your head?"
"Looks like he's using your hat as an umbrella."
"Yeah," he chuckled. "He's just clowning around. Those are my folks and the couple next to them are my friends Jenny and Claude. They're engaged."
"Well! That's a merry Christmas!"
"Yeah, it was. I'll visit again next year, if I can."
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2017