Sandy watched the man stroll down the road and anxiously reckoned the best time to make his approach. It was hard reckoning because the man was so eccentric. He was dressed for riding but had no horse. He was dressed richly—brilliant blue cutaway coat, deep green breeches, shiny black top hat and boots, walkingstick with a big brass knob on the end—but he walked alone except for a dog. The dog worried Sandy: it was a great, skinny, shaggy thing that he would have called a wolfhound, solid black.
Sandy decided the best thing was to sit at the side of the road in plain sight. There were no trees or boulders behind which confederates could hide, and certainly he himself did not look threatening—hatless, shoeless, barely clad in rags, unshorn and unshaven. He had a knife in his waistband, but it was at his back and his hands were nowhere near it. The last thing he wanted was a fight.
The man whistled as he strolled, sometimes broke off to sing, sometimes talked (to the dog, Sandy supposed). Sandy had heard him before he saw him. Now the man and his dog had seen him in return. The man stopped talking and singing but went on whistling. When they were in talking distance, Sandy rose and bowed as politely as he could. Humbly. He felt humble.
"Good day, sir!" the man called, grinning. "A beautiful day, is she not?" Sandy blinked. He spoke with an Irish accent; "sir" (to the likes of Sandy, moreover) had come out like "sair." He then stunned Sandy by raising his hat to him.
"Yes, m'lord," Sandy answered, picking a likely title. "And I'm very glad of it." It was a cloudless summer day on the rolling lowlands of Scotland. It was much the best weather to be out in, when all you had were your rags. If only you could eat it.
"And what might I do for you?" the man– gentleman– lord asked. He had bright blue eyes and curly black hair, and was still smiling. The dog also gave him a bit of a doggy smile. Better and better.
"I'd beg a farthing of you, m'lord, if I might." He ducked his head again. It had become second nature.
The lord looked him up and down, and the smile dimmed. Bad. But he extended a hand and there was a farthing in it. When had he reached into a pocket for it? "Is that all you need?" he asked, the voice softer.
Sandy recognized pity and flushed. But there were far worse things than pity, and you could eat that, sometimes. He would take a venture. After he had taken the farthing and bobbed his thanks, he said, "I need a job, m'lord. If– If you want, I'd be happy to fetch and carry for you, sir. M'lord. I know I don't look respectable now, sir, and you've, uh, no luggage at the moment. But you may later. And I'll run any errands you like. And clean up as soon as I may." The lord blinked thoughtfully and said nothing. "But if it's just the farthing, I'm still quite grateful, sir."
"Is work hard to find, then?" he asked.
It was Sandy's turn to blink. Was he fresh from Ireland, and had they not heard there? "Indeed it is, sir. Have you heard of the enclosures, sir?"
"No. What enclosures?"
"Rich men buy up little farms or whole towns, and claim the commons for their sheep. That's making an enclosure, sir. And the farmers must turn shepherd if they can, and if they can't, they must go tramping the roads, looking for work, along with the men who were their farmhands."
"And is that your case, son?"
Son? Shaggy-bearded and weather-stained, Sandy looked older than the lord, if anything. But he was far from taking issue, and it was a friendly address at least. "Yessir. Farmhand, sir. As was. More than a year back." He bit his lips to stop the whole story and complaint from tumbling out.
The blue eyes studied him some more. Sandy cast down his eyes and saw the dog glancing back and forth between his master and him. He looked up again and saw the smile blossom.
"You need a farthing and you need a job, but right now I think you need a hot meal." What? The lord stepped forward, took him by the elbow, and led him a few paces off the road. The next surprise was that the lord sat down cross-legged in the grass and gestured for Sandy to do the same. He obeyed.
The lord started unscrewing the big brass knob on his walking-stick. "You can repay me by telling me what you know of Calpergate Fair."
A note of chill entered Sandy's confusion. No one likes to bring bad news. "There's no fair at Calpergate this year, I'm sorry to tell you, sir. I've just come from there, hoping to find work. But Calpergate has been bought up by three rich gentlemen, and they don't choose to have the fair any more." He tried to keep the anger out of his voice. Don't sound angry at rich gentlemen when you're begging of one.
But the lord sounded angry enough himself. "Damme! I was going there to buy horses! Now I must think again."
"Yessir," said Sandy, trying to sound agreeable. "They had fine horses at Calpergate Fair."
"You know horses, son?"
"Yessir. I was as much hostler as farmhand, sir." He brightened. "Uh, sir, if you have any horses–"
"I mean to have," the lord replied firmly. As they talked, he had stopped unscrewing the brass ball. He resumed and soon had it off. He place the knob between them, hole up. "But first let's eat."
The brass knob expanded, the hole opened up, and there was a bronze cauldron at least two feet wide. Even in the warm air, a faint steam breathed out of it. The smell of it set Sandy's stomach rumbling.
"You've no objection to pork stew?" the lord asked.
"Nnn–nn–no– none, sir!"
He plucked two long grass stems, which unfolded into long-handled wooden spoons. He passed one to Sandy. A dock leaf became a wooden bowl. He dipped it in the cauldron, then set it before the dog. The dog blew on it, like a silent howl, then apparently waited for it to cool.
"Whhhh–who are you?" Sandy half-wailed.
"I am the Dagda," said the lord. "The king of the Irish fairies." He grinned.
Sandy stared at the spoon in his hand, then at the cauldron. He was prepared to believe him.
The Dagda took a spoonful from the cauldron. "Dig in!" he invited.
Wonder, perhaps, had distracted hunger, at least enough for Sandy to remember and hesitate. The Dagda saw it. "Right!" he said. "Eating with fairies. Chancy." He laid the spoon in the grass, put his right hand over his heart (at least, Sandy hoped there was a heart there), raised his left, and said, "I solemnly promise before Heaven that I will not use this food to claim you, and, in fact, I will not claim you at all without your leave. Good?" Sandy nodded mutely. The Dagda stared up at the blank blue zenith. "Y'see?" he told it. "I'm bein' a good boy." Then to Sandy he repeated, "Dig in, son."
Sandy had not eaten since the day before yesterday. He dug in. The dog lapped. The Dagda ate, but with less urgency, looking thoughtful.
"Why, uh, why are you…? What brings…?" Sandy groped for a question large enough for the situation.
"Why is the king of the Irish fairies in Scotland to buy horses?" Sandy nodded. "I'm in Scotland to be out of Ireland. It's a very busy place in fairy society just now. And I'm here to buy horses because we need horses. We need a lot of things. We've just concluded a war lasting– What year is it?"
"Uh, 1763, sir. Uh, Your Majesty."
"'Sir' is fine. Or 'Dagda.' It's the name I'm proudest of. Anyway, a war of nine years. And we must build up stocks of many things. Including horses."
"Who were you fighting, sir?"
"Giants. Jotuns out of Norway. They make their own horses out of thunderstorms. Terrible strong and fast, but as witless as mist and they go to pieces quickly. Their chiefs ride real horses—trollbreds, great black things from the ice time, like huge plow horses with three hooves to a foot. Canny as they come, too. But they had only a few. We had the advantage in cavalry, so they went after our horses hard."
"Your horses aren't immortal, sir?"
"Not all. Not most. But they must be canny. Able to feel and stand magic. You could get canny horses at Calpergate Fair. Now I must cast about, looking for them elsewhere." He took another spoonful, looking grumpy.
Sandy ate hard, trying not to look as greedy as he felt. Here was a benefactor not to offend! When you are that hungry, food seems a miracle. This food was a miracle. He thought hard over everything he had seen since the man, the Dagda, came in sight. There were good fairies as surely as bad ones, and this man must be a good one. When he could stop eating for a bit, he straightened where he sat and said, "Sir, I know I'm only a tramping beggar, but I'll help you if I can. I know the country hereabouts pretty well."
The Dagda met his eyes and smiled. "Still job-hunting, after knowing who I am?"
"Well. You're willing; that's a lot. You know horses; that's much." He cocked his head as if an idea had just entered it. "But what I need most is a horse of my own, right now, to go scouting about on."
Sandy looked down, feeling luck slip away. "Sorry, sir."
"Not at all. Would you be willing to be my horse?"
Sandy stared. Then, slowly, "You would turn me into a horse?"
The Dagda laughed. "Oh, the look on your face! Yes, and back when we're done. Done with my errand. I promise."
"So you would be claiming me."
"Only with your leave. Let us say for a year. Then we think again and see how we suit. This is St. Alice's Day, did you know? So, on St. Alice's Day next year, you'll be a man, whatever shape you were the day before, and we'll decide how we go on. If you agree. I promise."
Sandy stared at him, stared and stared. After a bit, the Dagda resumed eating stew, apparently quite content to wait.
Sandy tried to think it through. Spend most or all of the next year as the horse of a fairy master. He looked at the dog. The Dagda was dishing it another bowl of stew. A good master.
"Yessir," he said firmly. "I agree. Thank you, sir."
"All right, then." The fairy king extended a hand and they shook on it. "Eat up, now. I'll have work for you soon enough." Sandy ate, trying to guess into a blank wall.
At length, his stomach stopped paying attention to the stew and began clenching because it was about to become a horse stomach and did not know how it felt about that, any more than the rest of Sandy did.
He put down the spoon. "What shall I do now, sir?"
The Dagda smiled. "Go take off your clothes. I have a use for them and we don't want them to get ripped." More ripped. Sandy obeyed while the Dagda turned the cauldron back into a brass knob and put it back on the walking-stick.
The Dagda came and stood at his shoulder. "Now, son, tell me your name."
The fairy king nodded. "Good, but I meant your true name. Your full baptismal name."
"Alexander James, sir. Uh, why?"
"It makes for a smoother beginning if you freely give it to me to use." He placed his hand on the back of Sandy's neck. "Alexander James, thou art my good horse." And he pushed.
All together, the warm hand on his neck became hot, the heat flooded his body, and he fell forward. He caught himself on his hands and found himself poised on fingertips and toe tips. Only...
His vision was different. His eyes were pointing in the wrong directions. But after a few seconds (and it struck him later than this was an amazingly short time), he had it sorted and was looking around, from about the same height, standing where he had been, only still on all fours.
It had happened. He turned his head and saw the horse body, the coat the color of his own hair. Well, it was his own hair. He looked down and saw the forehooves. "I'm– I'm a..."
"Indeed you are!" the Dagda agreed, looking and sounding a little winded. "Feel all right, son?"
"Yessir! And I can talk!"
"Of course you can. I've hired you to be guide, horse, and hostler all in one. We need to be able to talk. Just not in public, mind."
"Of course not, sir."
"Now, let's get you some tack." The Dagda picked up Sandy's old rags and draped them over his back. Suddenly there was a weight on his back and something tight around his lower chest. He was saddled. Some grass plucked from the roadside became bridle and reins.
"No bit?" Sandy asked.
"It looks like there's a bit," said the Dagda. "Did you want a bit?"
"No sir." The Dagda stepped to his side and suddenly was on his back. Sandy could feel this was a big man, but he could also feel his own new strength, making him fit to bear the weight. "Where to, sir?"
"To Calpergate, son. I want to hunt up those lines of canny horses they used to have at the fair and that's the only place I know to start. You can tell me who to ask."
"Yessir." He took his first steps on hooves.
"And on the way, you can work out how trotting and cantering go from the underside of the saddle."
"And galloping, sir?"
"Let's save that for another day."
Sandy stepped out on the road and began to feel his way into a walk.
"You won't regret this," the dog told him. "He's a good master."
"Thank you, son," said the Dagda.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2018