message had been waiting for him beneath the loose flagstone on the stairwell leading up from the castle walls to his apartments. The stairs were musty with disuse, though of late the dust settled uneasily, his frequent passage leaving much of it clumped against the dark tight walls, cowering like a cornered animal. Secret from all but those closest to the Duke, and kept in place by Kyia, they made a perfect place for the knight of the steppes, Dame Bryonoth.
Bryonoth was now a woman of course, the curse’s unfeeling cruelty taking away her much prized masculinity. While she was still a man, she had used a halter imbued with strange sorceries to force Duke Thomas Hassan to be an obedient horse. The memories of that time had preyed upon his mind, the pressure of the attack, and of the terrible decisions and events that had come in its aftermath, had taken their toll upon him, and so the life of the simple horse began to appeal to him.
Only a month ago he’d begun meeting with Bryonoth in secret. He would bring the halter from one of the magical vaults, and she would place it over him for an evening. While he would stand in a stall, hooves touching fresh hay, she would brush him, comb his tangled mane, and sometimes feed him. After their second meeting, they’d arranged a few places where Bryonoth could leave notes for him, informing him of their next night together. It seemed only natural to leave that decision up to her he had far too much to think about as it was.
And so, standing as he was upon a promenade overlooking the city stretching northward from the castle, his mind replayed the words he’d read not an hour before, his hoof-like fingers trembling as they spread the thin, yellowed parchment before the flickering torch light.
The note had not been signed. It hardly needed to be. Only Bryonoth ever called him Toumoth. It was his horse name, as she said. The name she would have given him were he truly a horse of the Steppe. Even as he leaned against the balustrade, hands crossed at the wrists, he could not help but feel a timid shudder run through his flesh, like a million insects dancing a tarantella. Whenever she called him that name, he was Toumoth, a complete horse. There were no worries, no decisions, no weighty matters of state for him to attend to. There was just being, no thought given to becoming.
Even as he dwelt on that, he remembered the faint scents from that letter, each one bringing to him another panoply of images. Images of her face, her hands pressing against his flanks and sides. Gently fingers as they stroked over his lips, bringing a bit of apple to his muzzle. It was a thick scent, feminine, but roughly so, muted by equine overtones, and the faint traces of the elk and oryx she lived with. Even the ink bore a cast he knew to be Flatlandish, as if the hyssop and indigo were crushed beneath horse’s hooves and moulded by their supple lips.
The day was cool, though a hint of warmth surrounded everything. He could feel the southern air bringing the first hints of Spring upon its shoulders, pressing between the mountain pass like a brawler fighting his way into a crowd. Far above him, thin strands of cloud laced together like the weave of a tailor knitting an ornate tapestry, lines moving in every possible direction. As they receded to the north, Thomas could not distinguish between the tendrils of cloud.
Below him, the streets of Metamor were mostly swept clean of the winter’s snow. Many roofs still sported their white hoods, belching out long trails of dark smoke from chimneys. The road from the out gate up through town was cleared as well, though the Killing Fields on either side were still hidden by the winter snow. The melt had already begun, many of the cisterns already filled with cold water. Muddy wagons tracks dragged through the streets, while icicles melted from the high eaves, some falling to shatter on the terrazzo of the gardens. In a few more weeks, the soil of the gardens would be tilled, and the plants brought back from the Greenhouses to blossom once more as Spring came fully upon Metamor.
Thomas stood silently and alone upon the high promenade. Guards stood at either door of course, preventing him from being disturbed. His afternoon had been free already, matters with both Thalberg and his daughter Malisa having been attended to that morning. He’d also met with Andwyn, the head of his intelligence the evening before, so there was little change that he would be disturbed. Tonight he would not be needed as the Duke. But apparently Bryonoth had need of him as Toumoth.
A subtle shudder passed through his flesh once more. There were two nuances to the note that Bryonoth had left him that gave him pause. The first was that they were to meet before the fall of dusk. Never had she asked to meet him before night. Always, they met in darkness, crept about the city of Metamor until they had reached the sables that she preferred under the shadow of night, and enjoyed their moments together while most were asleep. Now she was asking him to do the same while daylight still streamed over the western mountains. What if he was recognized? What if others found out? What would he do then, he wondered. Would he ever be able to wear the halter again?
Simply thinking about wearing the halter made him lift one hand to trace over the long features of his equine face. He could feel his thick lips, wide nostrils like cornets, long angular cheeks, and soft ears curling upwards like an opening blossom. It felt strangely naked though. As his fingers ran along his skin, he twitched every time he did not find the leather straps of the halter where he expected them to. Thomas had often felt the notion crazy, one that could never have been thought but for the curses, but he did not wish to imagine his life without that halter having a part in it.
The other aspect of the note that was new to him was the part about her having work for him. What sort of work? Thomas breathed heavily, and let his mind wander back over their previous meetings. They managed to meet almost twice a week, though on occasion they would go for nearly that much time without having met at all. But in the last few rendezvous, she had lain blankets over his back, even a saddle one time. He could well remember when he’d been ridden, and did not yet know if he was ready for that again yet.
“Pardon me, milord,” a small voice said at his side. Thomas’s ear turned first, and then like a marionette, the rest of him followed. Before him was a young wolf morph, only recently transformed by the curse, spear in one paw. His eyes appeared as if they had just been brought back from some distant country, as if he’d been daydreaming.
“What is it...” Thomas blinked once, searching for the lad’s name, “Powell?”
The wolf smiled, dark bands of black fur lifting along the jowls. “The ambassador Yonson is waiting at the door, and would like a moment to speak with you, milord.”
Thomas let out a gust of breath. It turned cold in the air, rising briefly before disappearing altogether. Resting one arm upon the alabaster balustrade, he waved his other hand. Resignedly: “Let him though.” A tinge of regret touched his heart then and he smiled to the young guard.
Powell nodded, paws wrapped firmly about the spear. It was almost two feet taller than he, but the wolf morph did seem to have large paws. He still had room to grow. With long dark tail wagging behind him, he rushed back over to the door at the other end of the promenade. Thomas turned his back to the open air, staring instead up along the central spire of the lower Keep, a shining pillar whose marble tipped summit seemed ready to tear a gap within the sky. Should the sun pass directly overhead it would be pricked by that spike and spill its golden substance across the sky. That tower and its six brethren around it watched the valley with unbending eye.
Thomas himself had never climbed to its summit. In his younger days, he’d often climbed to the belfry, the massive brass bells swaying in the wind sweeping through the opening across marble balconies. From there he could see from one side of the valley to the other, from the Great Barrier Range in the east to the southernmost extremities of the Dragon mountains in the west. While he’d never been able to see to the Giant’s Dike in the north or the mouth of the valley in the South, it had not been from lack of height. Rarely was there a day when the sky was clear enough within the valley that would have permitted such a range of sight.
He felt it strangely appropriate that he would be considering such matters as the prosimian ambassador strode along the promenade, a long ashwood walking staff in one paw, his other gripping the folds of his robes to keep them from dragging along the stone. Behind him, his long black and white striped tail swayed back and forth with each step, curled upward like a question mark. His robes were purple, the sleeves marked by twin lightning bolts sewn in a brilliant yellow.
Thomas had not had much occasion to speak with the Ambassador from Marzac. Usually his discussions were with his daughter Malisa, who was now the Prime Minister for Metamor. Of late, Thomas had taken even less interest in those deliberations, and had not asked her once in the last month on how they proceeded. In truth, there were far greater matters at hand than the wishes of some Marquis living along the southern coast of Pyralis.
However, when they had spoken, Yonson was always dressed in the sea-blue of his liege’s house, the unicorn heraldry prominently displayed upon his tunic. Today, he bore the colours of his mage clan, and a staff that Thomas had only heard of, never seen. It was completely black, as if burned within a fire, though he struck the tip firmly at the stone and it remained as solid as refined steel.
“Ambassador Yonson,” Thomas said in way of greeting.
“Good afternoon, your grace,” Yonson inclined his head respectfully, his tail rising even higher as he did so. When he lifted his head again large golden eyes met his own. “I trust I am not disturbing you?”
“Not at all,” Thomas said, standing fully upright then, straightening his tunic. Why was Yonson coming to him? Surely if there was any matter of concern he could have easily brought it to Malisa. Why burden him with yet one more decision? Thomas yearned to feel the strong tines of the curry upon his flanks, and the brush through his mane, and the bit between his teeth. And to hear her call his name, “Toumoth.”
After several moments in which the lemur simply stood there quietly, Thomas finally asked, “What is it that you want?”
A smile cracked along the lemur’s short muzzle. “You may recall that when I first arrived just before the last Summer Solstice, you asked me if I would ever cast any weather spells.”
Thomas blinked, but the fog of time had erased any such memory. He held back the smile that wished to crease his lips when he thought of the gently fog he would enjoy that night. “No, I do not remember that.”
“Well, your grace, I told you that I would not cast any such spells for at least a year. The reason being that I was not familiar enough with the weather in this region. Had I dared to cast even a small spell, to summon a cloud, or shy one away, even to warm a dreary day, it could have had terrible unintended consequences. Why, I could have brought us a winter that would have lasted into June, or no winter at all.”
“It is ending when it should,” Thomas mused, unsure what Yonson was trying to say. He wished that the man would not be so circumspect.
Yonson let his smile widen. “And very grateful I am for that. I do not think my lemur form was made with such cold in mind. But it has been nearly nine months since I first arrived, your grace. I have been studying the patterns of the weather through this valley with a keen eye. I have discussed their vagaries with both Electra and Saroth quite extensively. I would never presume to instruct either in their work. I am no grand master to be indicting the methods of Northern magicians. I have much yet to learn myself in the art.”
Here Yonson let go of his robe and held his staff with both paws, holding it crossways before him. The dark ashwood seemed to bring with it the wind. Thomas felt it blowing through his mane and tail, drawing both towards that shaft, and away from it at the same time. As if the tendrils of air were wound about it like twine on the spindle of a spinning wheel. “But that is the purpose of my visit to you today, your grace,” he continued. “I must continue my magical studies as a Weathermonger, no matter where I might live. I am seeking both your permission to do so, and for the use of a place close to the air for my work.”
Thomas grunted a bit, running a fold of his hose between his fingers of one hand. “Could you not have asked this of my Steward... Thalberg?”
“For the use of a room in the Keep, yes,” the lemur nodded, golden eyes focussed. “But as to the use of magic, and I being a foreign dignitary, I would have also needed to seek out the Prime Minister. You are the final arbiter in both matters, so I sought you instead. What say you, your grace?”
The Duke of Metamor sighed. This was a decision he would have to make. Glancing about, unable to meet the golden gaze of the Ambassador any longer, he pondered for a solution, and longed for the coming dusk. Perhaps he would be ready to be saddled and ridden once more. After all, he would only have but to follow the direction of is rider.
His eyes alighted upon the central spire once more, and he pointed to it with one hand. His finger traced up the long spike as it extended upwards away into the cloud-crossed sky. “There, the bell tower. Would that suit you?”
Yonson followed his finger, leaning back slightly, the end of his tail curling about one of the banisters. He smiled. “Ah, yes, that would do nicely, your grace. It is open to the air of course?”
Thomas nodded. “You can see for miles from it.”
A queer expression came across the lemur’s face then. “I would not be interfering with the use of the bells while there, would I?”
“They are hardly ever rung anymore. Only when an attack is imminent.”
“And they were not rung in time this last Solstice because we could not see the army approaching?”
Thomas nodded then, his head feeling strained. “That’s right. From there you would be able to see if anyone was attacking.”
“If so, I would leave before being deafened,” Yonson smiled broadly then, returning his staff to just his right paw. “I do thank you, your grace. I will not be needing its use for some time now, but I thank you for your permission.”
Thomas did his best to smile. “You are welcome, Ambassador.”
With a low bow, Yonson began to back off. “I shall leave you to your thoughts, your grace. Thank you for your time.”
Thomas nodded and turned back towards the expanse of the city stretched out before him. Long shadows from the Keep’s spires lay across the town like knives resting upon a table. Dusk was fast approaching, but he still had some time yet before he was to meet with Bryonoth. He could hear the clack of the lemur’s claws, and the thump of the staff on the stone as he walked back along the promenade.
After the Ambassador had stepped back within the Keep’s walls, Thomas let his long head rest between his arms against the cool stone of the balustrade. It pressed between his eyes, the hairs upon his ears tickled as they brushed against the smooth rock. He closed his eyes tight, feeling the weight of a thousand decisions pilling against his back, bearing him down. He’d borne them for so long, so long he found it nearly impossible to remember a time without them.
Except for those moments with Bryonoth.
If he waited any longer, another might come seeking his authority, and he’d have to make a decision. Breathing heavily, he stood back to his full height. One hand upon the railing, the other swinging freely at his side, he walked to his left, where the Ambassador had disappeared a moment before. The young wolf morph was standing before it, spear pressed loosely to his chest. He stood straighter at the Duke’s approach.
“I am returning to my chambers. I need to rest, and wish not to be disturbed,” Thomas said.
“Yes, milord,” Powell said, tail stiff between his legs. He then opened the door, and the other two guards standing outside quickly formed around their Duke. Bryonoth may not yet be waiting for him, but at the very least he could touch the halter and feel it take his worries away.
Thalberg strode purposefully down the corridors of the Keep. The Duke had not been in his chambers of state, an odd thing still so soon before nightfall. And so the crocodilian steward sought him out in his personal bedchambers instead. When he arrived at the door, he saw the liveried guards standing beside it, spears crossed before the massive oak frame.
“Is his grace in?” Thalberg asked, glancing between the stoat and a young man he must have been a girl only a few years earlier.
The stoat nodded then, the senior of the two guards. “Yes, but he asked not to be disturbed.”
“Surely he would see his steward,” Thalberg said, yellow eyes narrowing curiously.
“I’m sorry, master, but his grace asked that his rest not be disturbed for any reason,” the stoat bore a moue, whiskers dropping downward apologetically.
Thalberg nodded then, and leaned back a bit on his tail. It was not like Thomas to refuse even him entrance, but he was entitled to his privacy when things were quiet. The matter he wished to bring him could wait until the morning.
Nodding his head to the two guards, he took a step back. “If he should emerge, do please inform him that his steward wished to speak with him at his earliest convenience.” He then turned about and walked back down the hall. He pulled his scarlet robes more firmly about him, the warm southern air still being far too cold for his taste. A bit of rest seemed a good idea. Perhaps a libation as well while sitting by a roaring fire.
Thalberg’s muzzle shifted ever so slightly until he bore a reptilian grin. Duke Thomas likely had the right idea for an evening such as this, he mused brightly. There would be time enough for other matters in the morning.
The alcove set back within the eastern wall of the castle was cold, stone’s pressing obsessively close around the Duke of Metamor. Long slanting shadows stretched towards the outer bailey, while massive buttresses rose like the fins of some sea monster up from the field still lightly covered with snow. The snow was a jumbled mess of foot, paw, and hoof prints that had traced back and forth over the last few weeks. Along the most travelled paths there was snow at all, only the promise of new grass in the coming months.
Thomas held the magical halter between his fingers as he leaned against the wall, staring out into the shadowed field. Behind him, the dark secret corridor stretched back until it angled upwards as a musty staircase. A flambeaux was guttering woefully behind him, the tender flame struggling to stay lit as short gusts of wind churned within the small corridor. Amidst the greater darkness of the Keep’s shadow, his own silhouetted form thrown against the ground danced to and fro like a inebriated jester with only one leg.
His fingers stroked along the leather of the halter, the fabric brushing along the fur of his hands and wrists. His tail flitted from one side to the other in both agitation and eager anticipation. He wondered if he could not place the halter on himself. He certainly could not remove it, as it would force him to be a full horse, but was there anything preventing him from placing it on himself?
Staring with intense eyes down at the small straps of leather firmly bound together, he began to stretch them out until they were of the proper shape. The metal bit hung down in the ball of his palm, cool against his fur. He stepped a little higher, hooves clacking against the masonry, echoing back up the alcove and stairwell. None but he could hear it though.
With unsteady fingers, he lifted the halter towards his face, ears twitching forward, lips trembling. He felt the first of the leather straps brush over the fur along his muzzle, his whole body beginning to shake. His heart pounded so loudly in his chest, he was certain that the guards standing upon that distant bailey watching the valley would think it war drums! More and more of the straps scrapped along his face, until just beneath his lips bobbed the sweet bit.
“Thou shouldst not don that with thy clothes still on, Toumoth,” a voice a short distance away chided. Suddenly abashed, Thomas turned, and smiled as he saw Bryonoth standing there just outside the alcove, a small pack slung across one of her shoulders. She repositioned it, dark eyes studying him there as he leaned against the dank wall.
“Nor shouldst thee don that by thy own hand. Thou art but a horse, Toumoth. No horse dons his own halter.”
He nodded then, and offered the halter to her. On their second meeting, Bryonoth had told him very plainly that horses cannot speak human tongues. Ever since that moment, he had never spoken a single human word to her, only whinnied and neighed. Sometimes he would snort and bob his head up and down, or scrape the door to his stall with one hoof, and other times he would stamp his hooves upon the hay-strewn floor of the stables. But never did he speak human words.
Bryonoth lifted a slender hand, callused still from years amongst horses, and brushed along his muzzle with it. His eyes watched that hand, ears perked tenderly atop his head. Her hand slid down slowly long his neck, until she had placed her palm against his woolen tunic. “Horses do not wear such things,” she chided gently, as she always did. Thomas could not help but smile slightly at that. He waited for her to pull out the plain clothes from her pack as she always did.
Instead, she pulled out a long lead, and several long blankets. “Remove thy clothes and leave them here, Toumoth,” she instructed, her voice gentle but firm. There could be no argument with her, Thomas knew that well. It was clear that she intended to have him walk openly throughout Metamor as just a horse this day. It was why she had summoned him before nightfall.
Her eyes settled upon the opposite wall as he undid his clothes, leaving them in a small pile upon the floor. When he had nothing on, his hands rested at his navel, flesh twitching nervously. The cold draft blew across his skin, his fur twisting in whorls. “Tis wide enough,” she murmured to herself, one hand patting the stone wall. Her gaze then returned to the Duke, eyes surveying him quickly, dark, firm, but admiring as well.
She then lifted the halter in her hands. Thomas felt his heart quicken as he saw that. Bryonoth smiled to him, holding it out, even as his head leaned forward to press once more within the leathery confines. With deft ease, she slipped the thong behind his ears, the bit fitting squarely within his jaws. He felt the metal’s tang upon his tongue, a simple but bitter taste that made his whole body shiver.
And then, she had attached the thong behind his ears, and he felt the familiar fire spread through his body. The first time he had experienced the demand, it had pained him greatly, an agony as if he had been plunged into scalding water. But now, after it had come upon him so many times, it felt as if he were stretched out before a campfire, the warmth suffusing his body with pleasant energy. His mind was lifted by it, wrapped in cushioning quilts as his form was remade by that halter.
And then, he who was one Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor, was now Toumoth the horse, all four hooves clattering upon the stone masonry of the alcove. He breathed in deeply through his nostrils, noting that Bryonoth smelled of other animals, the familiar scent of an elk and oryx, Sir Egland and the knight’s squire Intoran. There were also other horses, filling his heart with a sudden pang of jealousy.
Bryonoth did not dally long there in the alcove. She soon had lain the blankets across his back, providing him with some protection against the cold of the late afternoon air. She then attached the lead to the halter, and gave it a firm tug. He stepped forward, walking out into the snow, crushing the frozen blades of grass beneath his hooves. She pulled the secret door shut behind him, and then continued to lead him back through the shadows of the Keep towards the town.
Toumoth was very self-conscious at first, glancing this way and that as best he could on the lead. At first as they made their way around the buttresses, they saw no one on that side of the castle. But as they made their way towards the town, back around towards the northern side, more and more people were walking about. When none of them paid Bryonoth and her horse any heed, Toumoth felt his heart begin to beat more slowly. Who could guess what soul lurked within the body of the horse the Flatlander led?
Soon his hooves began to clop along the stonework, and it would be clear to anyone that he was unshod. He nervously scanned about, watching as Metamorians walked by unconcerned along the streets, many returning to their homes after a long day at work. The houses along the streets were mostly rebuilt. A few ruins dotted the variegated avenues, smouldering piles of ash and stone that had been swept together, conspicuous only by the gap they left in the face of each street.
Very quickly Bryonoth turned down a narrow side avenue. On either side were homes, their eaves still filled with the last of the winter’s snow. Toumoth felt the tug upon his reins and followed, setting each hoof down gently, for fear of the sound that resounded to his ears indicting him as unshod. But Bryonoth was insistent, and so he had little choice but to follow after her at a comfortable walking pace.
The alley opened out onto a smaller street, along which, Toumoth could see was the stables that Bryonoth had kept him in. His pace quickened a bit, and his muzzle came up to her shoulder, lips brushing against the thick wool of her shirt. She leaned her head against the side of his muzzle, coarse hair ticking his nostrils. He snorted once, blowing those strands onto the other side of her head.
But instead of leading him through the main doors, Bryonoth took him around one of the sides where a wagon sat unoccupied. The side door to the stables stood closed, but she opened it quickly. A bit of snow fell from the roof, dashing off the side of the wagon, and brushing Toumoth’s flanks. He stepped forward at that, bumping his snout against her back.
Bryonoth laughed lightly at that, turned around to pat his nose firmly with one hand. He snorted into it, nickering softly. She leaned forward and planted a small kiss upon his tender flesh, and then walked inside the stables. The fresh scent of hay, as well as the powerful aroma of horses came to him even before he made his way underneath the lintel.
There were no lamps lit within the stables, and so the only light came from a westward facing window set just over the door. It cast a rectangular block of light down upon the near side of the stables, illuminating two other horses. They glanced up from their feed troughs as Bryonoth and he entered, but returned to them just as quickly.
When Toumoth next glanced over at the Flatlander, he saw that she was bringing a yoke and harnesses. He blinked, scratching his forehoof in the hay. She simply smiled and set the wooden yoke over his neck. “I hath told thee I needed thee for work, Toumoth.” Her voice was firm, almost lecturing. But what thrilled him the most was its paternal quality, as if she were speaking to any old horse.
She took his lead again, and brought him back outside to the wagon. The weight of the yoke was burdensome, but hardly unbearable. Toumoth found that he barely strained in carrying it upon his neck and shoulders. As long as he held his head up, it rested comfortably at his shoulders.
At Bryonoth’s instruction, he backed between the two poles at the front of the wagon. She hooked them to either end of the yoke, and then removed the lead from the halter. In its place she took long leather straps and hooked them tight. Moving around behind him, she climbed up into the seat of the wagon, gripping the reins tightly in one hand. With a sudden crack, Toumoth felt the snap of the reins upon his back like the nip of a fox or dog. He lurched into motion, dragging the wagon behind him.
He felt the bit in his mouth pull to the right, and so he turned that way as soon as they were out upon the street. The wagon followed behind, clattering over the stones in the street. Toumoth had to push harder to pull the wagon, his hooves digging into the stones with every step, but it offered little resistance, for which he was grateful. Occasionally, he would feel the sting of the bit pulling in one direction or another within his muzzle, and he would turn to lessen the pain. Otherwise, he just walked, vaguely aware of the Keepers moving about as the sun continued its downward trek towards the western mountains.
The shadows that lined each road were long fingers that climbed up the houses on the other side like black sentinels. Along the road where the sun still shone, the wet stones and snow sparkled with its incandescence. Toumoth could see the bobbing of his own shadow before him, and he could trace the yoke and hitch that held him fast to the wagon. He carted the burden with a simple solemnity, not truly noticing much else as they moved through the city streets.
Suddenly, as they were passing before several larger buildings, the scent of metal even clearer in his nose, he felt the reins pull back tight, the bit pressing firmly against his tongue and teeth. He slowed to a stop, leaning his head back to get away from the painful tearing of the bit. The wagon came to rest just behind him, the front end gently bumping his hind quarters as it did so. Toumoth gave a small start, stepping forward uncertainly, and then leaned his head down, the journey come to an end.
Bryonoth stepped off the wagon, patted his flanks with one hand, and then knocked on the wide door. A few moments later a thick animal scent filled his nostrils, though he was used to them in Metamor. The door opened, revealing a heavy-set badger. Another scent, this one pungent, came to him then as well, that of onions.
“I was wondering if you were going to make it, Dame Bryonoth,” the badger said, wiping his paws together. “When you told me you would carry my onions, I did not think you would do it so late! Any longer and it would have been tomorrow!”
Bryonoth nodded her head. “I wast needed elsewhere this morning, master Derygan. Thou hast my apologies for my tardiness.”
Derygan snorted and glanced past the woman to the horse pulling her wagon. “What horse is that? Isn’t Povunoth your horse?”
Bryonoth sneered then, a strange expression that startled Toumoth. “I wouldst not dare insult Povunoth by making him tow a wagon like a common beast! ‘Tis a horse found in battle. I hath named him Toumoth.”
Toumoth felt his flesh shake then. He could not quite understand how he felt just then. A part of him was angry, but another part seemed to exult in his diminished status, and neither part seemed wholly against the other.
He glanced up, lifting his head as Derygan took a step closer, claws hooking through his belt. “Nice looking beast, I suppose. Why isn’t he shod?”
Bryonoth grimaced then, and nodded. “The blacksmith’s hath little time for such things. But I shalt have him shod ere next time thee sees him.”
Shod? Toumoth tried not to blink or appear alarmed. How was he to be shod?
“Good,” Derygan nodded, stepping back into his doorway. “We cannot let him get a split hoof. Now you have four sacks to deliver, each sack is worth two gold. I’ve drawn each Inn’s sign on the bags, so you won’t miss them. Collect the money and bring it back once you are finished. If you finish before I go to bed this night, I’ll let you keep a little more.”
“I thank thee, master Derygan,” Bryonoth inclined her head appreciatively at that.
“Good, the bags are right here,” the badger kicked at something just inside the door with is foot paw. “I’ll help you get it loaded up.”
Between the two of them, it only took them half a minute to load all four bags of onions into the wagon. Toumoth felt the hitch shake when each bag was dropped into the back. He simply stood there, waiting, his mind still reeling from what was said. He could not quite imagine himself with nails driven through all of his hooves. But it was what all horses had upon their hooves after all.
Before he realized it, Toumoth felt the crack of the reins upon his back again. He started out, following the bit, towing the much heavier wagon behind him. For the moment, pulling that load was all he could think about.
It was with great relief when Toumoth dragged the wagon back into its place beside the stables. As soon as they had come to a stop, he let his head lean forward, his chest heavy with breath. The Inn’s that they had gone to were spread out over the city. Even though Bryonoth had directed him on the quickest course possible, still, he felt as though he had crossed the city twenty times that night.
The moon was high in the dark sky already; half full, it shone down brightly. The streets were also lit by lampposts, bright flames burning within each. With some roofs covered still in snow, and others not, it cast an eerie pall upon the night, as if it were a face with a thousand eyes, some opened and some closed, staring irresolutely up into the sky.
Toumoth could feel as Bryonoth undid the hitch, the weight bearing him down no longer pulling and grating upon him. His muscles, unused to such labour, were sore, though strangely relaxed. He doubted he’d want to do much of anything tomorrow. And then he blinked in surprise, as he could not remember what it was he was supposed to be doing on the morrow. Yet, that did not unsettle him as much as he thought it would have. It was strangely calming to think ahead to the morrow, and see nothing.
Bryonoth undid the reins and attached the lead once more to the halter. Toumoth was then led back into the darkened stables. As the moon was overhead, only slivers of light were hinted at through any of the windows, the light he could see was so thin they appeared to be cuts exuding silver blood from the curtain of darkness.
A moment later, Bryonoth had managed to strike a lamp. It gave scant illumination, but it was enough to cast fantastic shadows about the nearby wooden stalls. Toumoth glanced to Bryonoth, wondering what was to happen now. How he wished he could ask how he was to be shod. Yet Bryonoth had said very little to him that entire evening. And so it was strange to suddenly hear her voice again.
“I shalt let thee sleep, Toumoth. Thou hast need of rest after they labours. I shalt return hence in a few hours to take thee back to the castle.” As Toumoth blinked, he felt the yoke lifted from his neck, and returned to its place along one wall, though he could only barely make it out in the darkness.
When Bryonoth returned to his side once more, she picked up the lead, and guided him to his stall, the one that he had so often been groomed within. “I wouldst stay to groom thee, but I must return Derygan his money. She smiled and undid the lead and halter. Toumoth felt a sudden shiver race through his form at that.
Her eyes became stern in the darkness, the whites febrile in the dim light. “If thou dost not stay as thou art, then thou shalt ne’er feel the touch of this halter again.” Her voice was threatening, and it made him shudder even more. He backed up a step in the stall, his tail brushing against the wall behind him.
She then smiled, and patted the side of his face. “Get thee rest. I shalt see thee again soon.” And with that she turned about, hung the halter from a peg next to the stall, and then extinguished the lantern. She smiled one last time in the doorway before she closed that too, leaving him alone in the darkness. The sounds of other animals sleeping, or stamping about in their stalls came to him, a quiet refrain, strangely sublime. Outside he could hear the grind of cartwheels, the clopping of horse’s hooves as well as a few Keepers’ hooves and the sound of footfalls.
He bent his legs underneath him and laid down in the soft hay. He pulled some of it into his muzzle and chewed, swallowing the brisk straw. Breathing heavily as he chewed, he realized that he was tired. Laying his head down, he let his eyes droop shut. Bryonoth said she would take him back to the castle in a few hours. That would be plenty of time. It would still be night then, and nobody would know where he had been.
With that comforting thought in mind, the horse that only hours before had been the Duke of Metamor drifted into pleasant slumber.
As promised, after a few hours of peaceful sleep, he heard the sound of the stable doors being opened once more. His ears rose up, as the soft sounds of footfalls came to him. They were feminine, their delicacy too distinct to be otherwise. He breathed in heavily, hay and straw his first impressions, and then the musks of the animals about him. Finally, he could distinguish Bryonoth’s particular odour. He felt his heart beat harder in his heart, and he struggled to all fours.
Without a word, Bryonoth slipped the halter back over his face, and led him back into the night, across the cobblestone streets, through the snow-swept fields east of the castle, around the buttresses that sparkled with the moon’s austere glow, and finally to the secret door that led into the alcove back inside the Keep. Bryonoth pressed a series of three stones, and the door swung inwards, revealing the darkened interior within. The flambeaux was still lit, but only barely, casting scant light across the pile of clothes that he had worn earlier that day.
Bryonoth leaned forward and rubbed his head with her hands. Toumoth leaned into the touch, feeling his heart swell with sweet delight at it. How he hoped that next time she would groom him as well. But how to ask her?
Before he could begin thinking of a way, she had the thong undone behind his ears, and slid the halter from his head. She took the lead off, and smiled, “Thou mayest change now, Toumoth.”
He nodded his great head then, and focussed his thoughts on his old form, the one that stood upon two legs, the one that was the Duke of Metamor. He felt himself pulling backwards, the bulk in his chest disappearing, the world tilting on its side. And then, he was leaning against the bone cold stone wall, holding his arms before him. The weight of innumerable years settled around his shoulders, a weight that on many days was far heavier than the yoke had been.
Bryonoth held the halter out to him and smiled slightly. “Fare thee well, Toumoth.” She then began to walk away into the night, her pack slung once more over her shoulder. He watched her go for a few minutes, until she had walked behind one of the buttresses and was lost from sight.
Sighing, Thomas reached down and began to pull his clothes on once more. He was no warmer dressed, but he would be shortly. After closing the door, he began to climb the stairs, first to return to the halter to its place behind lock and key, and then to his own chambers, to spend the rest of his night within his bed. A bed of quilt and mattress instead of wood and straw. His muscles were still sore, and the Duke of Metamor could not help but wonder which would be the more comfortable.
It took him only a few minutes to reach his chambers again. They were as he had left them, dark except for the moonbeams streaming in through the windows. He drew the curtains on both of them, knowing his room well enough to walk it in the dark. Removing his clothes again, he slipped beneath the covers of his bed, sighing as his tired muscles came to relax once more.
But his eyes did not want to close at first. He tightened his hands into fists, almost hooves then themselves. Bryonoth said that she would shoe him. He trembled at the thought, even as his eyes began to droop. It could not be done if he were to remain the Duke. But, if he were to be a horse, it would be necessary.
Curling tightly under his covers, Thomas pressed his hands to his face, trying to stop the tears of frustration from staining the woolen pillows.
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