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On a Pale Horse

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Steve was angry. That was nothing new. Some days, anger was the only thing that kept him going, kept him on his feet and pushing through. Anger at the world, at the sheer unfairness of it, the injustices that piled up like blown leaves.

Anger at himself, at his body for betraying him. For letting him down when he needed it, for leaving him gasping and in agony when he tried to help fix the small injustices, to stand up for people who couldn't stand up for themselves.

Anger at fate, at death, at the gods themselves when they saw fit to snatch his mother away from him, leaving him alone in the world.

The city had a Watch, but that didn't help his neighbourhood. It was too poor, too full of people from other places, too unlikely to net them anything to make it worth their while. They didn't turn a blind eye to the injustices; turning a blind eye would have required them to bring their eyes down here in the first place.

Steve was on his way back from his job, a long journey involving a walk through the dismal back streets in the cold fog, making everything ache, his heart pound, his lungs catch, when he heard the pleading. The sounds of fists on flesh. It was automatic, his anger acting without consulting Steve, to hurry towards the sound, to toss himself into the fray, to end it lying in the dirt and the wet, bleeding and with maybe a cracked rib, but by the gods he'd stopped them. Maybe only because they'd been made uneasy by his pigheaded refusal to back down, to run away, blood on his teeth as, fists raised, he dared them to keep going—but whatever the reason, he'd stopped them.

The poor bastard who'd been tonight's easy target helped Steve to his feet, put Steve's arm over his shoulder, and took him home. His wife patched Steve's wounds and they shared their supper with him. Steve was touched, his anger soothed by their unexpected kindness.

He barely noticed the pain as he finally made his way home.

 


 

The other scribes, hunched over their desks scribbling away by the light of their lanterns, didn't speak while they were working. As harsh as their boss was, they all got a break at noon-time, to eat, to stretch, to walk in the air, and then the scribes gossiped like they were giving vent to a lifetime's pent up words.

Today it was rumours. Rumours of a sorcerer. A great and powerful worker of magic, powerful enough to change people, to make them different. To make them better. He was powerful but miserly, went the rumours, went the gossip, preferred to have mundane tasks performed the standard way, saving his magical powers for magical matters.

A sorcerer who would take on servants, exchanging spells for service.

Steve silently listened to the rumours, to the gossip, and his anger whispered that this might be an answer: surely it would be a matter of no consequence for a great sorcerer to wave his magic wand and change Steve's body into something strong, something he could use to make an actual difference.

Steve was a scribe. He could read and write, but more, he could do figures and sums and he could draw. Surely that would be of value to a worker of magic. If the sorcerer demanded a term of service in exchange for the spell, well, it wasn't as if Steve was doing anything meaningful with his life.

The rumours and gossip were everywhere, a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest, and Steve followed them, pinned down definites, made a plan and made his way to where the sorcerer's estate was supposed to be.

He found it, brooding stone surrounded by twisted walls like a warning, and was directed to the servant's entrance. When he offered his skills—reading, writing, drawing, sums—he was made an offer: not a term of service but a term of indentured servitude. His better sense pointed out that an indentured servant was little better than a slave but his anger shouted it down, said that it was only ten years and he would be strong and healthy at the end of it.

 


 

It wasn't a bad life. He spent most of his time copying old books of runes and spells and who knew what onto clean parchment, eyes growing sore and dry, hand cramping, back aching, but overall it wasn't terrible. The sorcerer had cast one small spell, to ensure Steve's life would be preserved until the end of the indenture, since his health was chancy enough ten more years of life hadn't been guaranteed, but the rest would have to wait until the end.

He had time to walk out in the sunshine through the maze of winding walls, to peek into the many courtyards with their dark, gnarled trees.

On one of his walks he found the dog. It was a mangy mutt, sad and scrawny and tied to a tree in a courtyard. Once it might have been strong and sleek, it had that look, but now it was scraggly and thin. It growled at Steve the first time Steve saw it, but, as the days passed and Steve talked to it, soft and gentle, brought it scraps of food and spent time in its vicinity, it gradually warmed up to him.

Started waiting for him.

Looked at him with a disturbing intelligence. Listened when he talked.

"You don't act much like a dog," Steve mused one day, offering the dog the last of his lunch.

The dog leapt to his feet and hooked his front paw over Steve's arm, staring with a fervent desperation. Steve stared back, met the dog's eyes that, now that he was really looking, didn't much look like the eyes of a dog.

This was a sorcerer's estate. There wasn't much that wouldn't be possible here.

"Are you a dog?" he whispered, like the walls themselves might overhear, like the trees would tell tales if he spoke too loud.

The dog shook his head and pawed at Steve's arm.

"Are you," he swallowed hard, with the sense of perching on the edge of a cliff, knowing he was about to take an irrevocable step, to plunge into the depths, "are you a person?"

The dog gave one frantic bark and twisted, paws scrabbling at its throat. Eyes wide, Steve stared as it writhed, changed, pale human limbs emerging from narrow furred ones, and he lunged forward in sudden understanding to unbuckle the collar before it strangled the naked man lying, panting, where the dog had been.

Thundering silence pressed down on them like sodden snow as the sorcerer appeared. The man cringed away and Steve surged to his feet, planting his skinny self between them.

"So," the sorcerer said. "You broke the curse."

Steve said nothing. Behind him the man slowly climbed to his feet, a tiny whine, pure dog, escaping him.

"Some might say that was an unkind thing to do when I have been good to you."

"Some might say that cursing a man to be a dog was an unkind," Steve put a vicious twist on the word, "thing to do." Inside he was shaking, because he knew what he faced, he knew what he risked, but a fierce wave of anger, of rage, washed through him, carrying him forward.

"Perhaps." The sorcerer's lips formed something that could have been a smile if it wasn't so steeped in malice. "But once a dog will more easily be a dog again." The sorcerer's hands twisted, the man behind Steve whined again, and Steve, fury riding him, spurs of pure anger raking his sides, launched himself forward, tackling the sorcerer and driving him to the ground. 

"Run. Run!" Steve screamed at the man. "Go!"

The man hesitated, Steve yelled it again as the sorcerer bucked under him, then the man who'd been a dog was bolting for the gate, disappearing through it, running with the fleetness of a coursing hound. "Thank you," he called as he disappeared. "Thank you."

Sudden pain wracked Steve's body and his limbs were weak, all he could do was curl around himself as lightning burned under his skin. The sorcerer rose to his feet and he waved his hand. Steve was frozen. The pain slowly faded.

"That was very unwise."

Steve glared at him.

"You've earned a curse of your own." Steve kept glaring as inside he refused to be afraid; he'd known when he'd launched himself forward that he'd sealed his fate. "Only your curse won't be so easily broken. Magic has rules that even I must obey, and every curse must have a seed of hope, so," he tapped his chin, "you may not, by deed or action, attempt to reveal that you are something other than the beast of burden you appear, except in answer to a direct question. Someone must recognise you for what you are and ask it of you. If that happens you may answer and the curse can be broken, but you will still need to find a magic user to actually break it."

The sorcerer's hands twisted and Steve was engulfed in black light, like being entombed, and his body twisted, he was drowning, shoved down into the deep black ocean. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't think and he screamed, a high pitched cry of rage, and thrashed four feet, swung a long neck, the world gone flat and colourless, filled with strange scents. He flung his feet, felt them scrape the ground, could see himself: long nose, four hooves, pale grey body, almost white. Horse. Horse. You're a horse.

"And I have fulfilled my end of our bargain. No one can deny that I've changed you into something strong and healthy, so you will have to serve out the rest of your indenture. I'm certain we can find a use for a horse."

 


 

It was possible the sorcerer's servants could have found a use for a horse.

They couldn’t find a use for Steve, filled with fury and, for the first time in his life, with the strength to match it.

He'd been given a stallion's body, tall and strong and brimming with power, and when they tried to subdue him, to force him to obey, whips and chains and ropes, they met hooves and teeth and iron will. He didn't have control of his body yet, was still clumsy and awkward, but he'd never, even when he'd been a person and skinny and half-dead, let anything stop him.

A month after his transformation Steve was sold to the first horse dealer who'd take him.