by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©1998, 2001 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
"Enow. The door will ne'er open. Now stop yer poundin' upon it an' come sit. That be right, o'er here. Come, come. Me patience wanes an' I'll not wait fore'er. Sit comfortable by the fire sir whilst I recounts me sad tale, an' I pledges ye a tale o' an uncommon sort.
"Some wine good sir or wouldst ye prefer mead?
"The padded chair?
"Perchance an ottoman 'neath thy feet?
"No? Then give me but a bit for settlin' me old bones an' I be ready to tell me tale.
"They calls me the Wizard o' the Keep an' maybe by now I be that for real, 'though once I were called Erin Stonecutterson. Every now an' then one o' the Villagers has the mettle to come ask me aid an' sometime I e'en obliges. Unlike the likes o' ye, they enter not, but leaves food an' other offerin's. They fears me an' the castle. Ye sir, be the first soul stout-hearted enow to enter in many a summer. The fools. If they but knew the truth. But ne'er mind. Me story commences."
"'Twas a dark an' stormy night...
"Eh? I knows, I knows, but 'tis me tale an' in truth 'twere past nightfall, an' the weather, oh the weather, 'twas gruesome. Chillin' the bones the winds done, an' the rain, 'twere like the underside o' a waterfall. It made the very act o' breathin' toilsome. Occasional-like, the night 'twere lit by blindin' flashes o' lightnin', but were there a moon neither me nor me mate recalls seein' it through the dense roilin' clouds."
"Eh? Me mate? Dead now these past twelve summers.
"Aye, twelve, but let the tale tell itself. Thy words take from the tellin' sirrah.
"'Pology 'cepted. Now where were I? Aye, I 'members..."
"'Twas a dark an' stormy night. Colin Farmerson, me mate, an' me, we was but thirteen at the time. We was off in the hills searchin' for venison. I were along 'cause we was mates, but also 'cause I were the better archer. The harvest 'twas poor an' things was lookin' tough for his family come winter, tougher still should we not come back with some meat to cure. Anywise, we got us a young doe, an' 'twere e'en his shaft to make the kill, but 'twere well past noon when we finally trailed it to where it went down an' near dusk when we was done guttin' an' dressin' it. We was too busy to see the storm comin' in o'er the mountains an' the first drops hit just as we was startin' back. In a nonce we could see naught an' 'twas but a short bit later that we was forced to admit our woods skills 'ad failed us an' we was lost.
"Cold, lost, night already fallen, we wandered aimless an' didn't e'en realize we'd come upon this castle until a flash o' lightnin' showed us we was but a few steps from the open front postern.
"Knowin' where we was, we knew we'd not make it back to the village, but knowin' o' the tales the old wives tell to scare the young tykes, we was unwillin' to enter. Instead we tried usin' the lee wall for shelter but, with no tinder or dry wood an' with that cold wind whistlin' 'bout us like a banshee, we was shiverin' so bad we knew we'd be dead afore morn did we not find better shelter.
"After much debate we moved into the courtyard, what were a bit better. The wind weren't so bad, but we'd still naught o' the fixin's for a fire an' was shakin' like one o' them gypsy dancers our paps an' mams always said to shun. The courtyard had naught that might burn an' we knew we was still in trouble.
"Colin wanted to hike back to the village but I were sure we'd ne'er make it an' the first flakes o' snow were the clincher. We went 'round the huge front entry to the castle proper an' knocked, then we awaited the lightnin's we was sure would strike us dead were but half o' the old wives tales true.
"There were a flash an' we near bolted right then. To this day I still thinks how different this story might o' ended had we run. Anyways, we wasn't dead an' there weren't no answer neither, so we knocked 'gain, harder. Still no answer.
"Colin shivered an' leaned in on the door tryin' for a bit more shelter an' all but fell as it opened on him smooth an' silent as can be. We should o' knowed we was in trouble with magic when somethin' heavy as that door ye passed through when ye entered, opened easy as a beggar's hand.
"Inside there was candles all o'er makin' it bright like now an' a huge fire were roarin' in the fireplace, this selfsame fireplace. The warmth rolled out to tempt us but reached us naught through our wet garb. We yelled our 'halloos' but was 'gain greeted by silence.
"Finally, bein' the brave one, I stepped inside an' Colin followed, bumpin' me he were so close. The fire drew us like them flyin' pests ye see zoomin' 'bout the flames o' campfires. It were toasty warm an' our clothes was soon dryin' an' we was feelin' like we might live the night as we roasted bits o' the venison o'er the fire an' filled our bellies. But we kept wonderin' where the lord o' the castle or his servants was, so we kept lookin' 'bout. That were when Colin noticed the door were closed.
"We ran to it an' tried to pull it open but 'twere stuck an' budged naught. When that worked naught we e'en tried pushin', with no luck. That same door what Colin opened by leanin' on it would move naught. We knowed it were magic and was scared somethin' awful now. Colin were snifflin', but I were still the big brave one an' I said, 'If none will come to us then go to 'em we will.' So with Colin trailin' close behind, explorin' the castle we went.
"There was three hallways. Off to the right was all sorts o' bedrooms. Some was for men an' some was for women. Some was for young an' some was for elders. Some we wasn't even sure was for people. Each room were full o' stuff, clothes, shoes, jewels, even personal stuff for the ladies an' other stuff just for the men. We ne'er found how many rooms there was, 'cause the hall seemed to go on fore'er an' we stopped to try the other halls afore long.
"Off to the left were 'nother bunch o' rooms, but in these was desks an' work tables o' all sorts, writin' rooms an' sewin' rooms, rooms for workin' metals, rooms for workin' wood, an' rooms for what we could guess naught. We ne'er went all the way down that hallway neither. Somehow the inside o' this castle be much greater than the outside.
"Then we went down the third hall, that one aside the fireplace. There we saw a huge dinin' room, an e'en bigger kitchen, pantries, cold larders an' a stable. Some o' the other doors off this hall led out to pastures for all types o' beasts an' e'en to all types o' gardens. At the time it scared us somethin' fierce. Funny thin', 'twere sunny an' warm outside each o' those doors yet 'twere a storm most foul we heard from this great room.
"Not that night, but some time later we found a door leadin' to a big, well cared for garden with a maze an' a pool in the middle. Colin loved it there.
"No matter where we looked we found not a soul an' it'd been a long day havin' headed out huntin' afore dawn. Knowin' not what to do an' afeared to touch nothin' for fear o' gettin' the lord o' the manor angered at us, we left the venison in the kitchen after takin' a bit to fill our tucks an' slept that first night on that rug in front o' the fireplace.
"Next morn we woke to the fire roarin' away an' the candles lightin' the room just like now. We thought someone'd come when we was sleepin' to care for 'em so 'gain we called out an' 'gain we heard naught back.
"We used the convenience in the nearest bedroom to relieve ourselves an' cleanup for the day. Then we headed off to the kitchen for some more o' our venison to break our fast only to find it gone. We wandered about unsure what to do until we passed the dinin' room. On the buffet was rolls, pastries, an' breakfast meats piled high. No one were 'round an' we was gettin' hungry from the airs we was smellin' so we took a small sticky bun each an' beat a hasty retreat back to the main hall where we tried the still unmovin' door an' awaited our host.
"Noon come an' passed with naught in the way o' a visit. The dinner hour were upon us an' we 'gain visited the dinin' room. Now on the buffet were roast pig an' all the trimmin's. We 'gain partaked a bit an' was 'bout to head back to the main hall with the repast but Colin said, he were tired o' waitin' for anyone to come an' sat to table. After a bit I joined him an' we ate. It were the best meal we'd e'er 'membered havin'.
"After eatin', we used the convenience an' set out 'gain in search o' a way out. E'en if we'd not the venison there were still a great need to be back with kin. This time we found 'nother door, there on the other side o' the fireplace, hidden back o' that hangin' rug. This door led to a small staircase leadin' up to a room, near big as this hall, filled to overflowin' with books an' thin's arcane. We was afeared to go in the room then, but we found later that there were 'nother room, the wizard's bedroom, an' a balcony o'er the front entry an' o'erlookin' the courtyard.
"'Twas 'nother day. We was tired an' 'lone. Mayhap, I were the brave one, yet here Colin were the more adventuresome. He said we sleep in a bedroom that night, an' we did from then on.
"May I offer ye a bit more wine?
"No. Then I'll continue me tale."
"Time passed an' more an' more we despaired o' e'er getting' home to our paps an' mams. We kept searchin' for a way out with no luck. Even walkin' the pastures an' gardens only went so far afore we'd find we was back where we'd started. Bein' adults, but just barely at eighteen summers each, we also played a game as we tried to catch the invisible people that kept cookin' an' cleanin' 'bout us, but e'en this game wore thin afore long. I thinks we stopped after the time we separated an' Colin stood in the dinin' room an' I stood in the kitchen much o' one afternoon waitin' to see where the food come from only to 'ave nothin' happen 'til we gave up shortly past nightfall. As we stood in the hallway 'tween the two rooms discussin' what next to do, we was hit o' a sudden by the smell o' spiced roast chicken from the dinin' room. 'Nother meal'd been laid out in the moments we'd been gone.
"Visitors 'ave been rare, an' e'en more uncommon durin' winter what takes up a full six months an' then some this high in the foothills. After the first month we gave up waitin' for the Lord o' the Manor an' enjoyed the run o' the castle an' grounds, all but that front courtyard. We could ne'er get to it, e'en by jumpin' off the balcony like we tried. We was bored quick so was constant seekin' new games to play.
"The only place we'd not go were the wizard's workshop what scared us bad an' the only problem were we couldn't take any o' the objects from any o' the rooms. Every time we'd try 'twould be like there were a wall what we could pass through but naught else. That peeved poor Colin somethin' awful, who by then were in love with a large soft bear doll in one o' the children's rooms. 'Twere much like one his mam kept about the house an' he'd sleep in that room so he could cuddle with the bear all night.
"I teased him 'bout it once but he got so mad he'd not talk to me for three days 'til I said I were sorry an' ne'er did it 'gain. He so liked the bear he made it part o' his family an' called it James Farmerson.
"In time our garb, ne'er meant to be worn constant-like, was wearin' thin. When we couldst no longer co'er ourselves with the tatters, we found a room with garments for someone our size an' decided to change into 'em, but bein' brought up proper we was unwillin' to show our bodies for ridicule from the other. We each turned from the other as we stripped off our old rags an' put on new.
"I finished first an' as I done the last button I turned to see Colin. He done his last button an' turned to me but, instead o' his usual grin, his face showed a look o' horror. I stood mute as he stared at me an' I stared back at him, then me look must also o' changed to horror. His curly red hair were changin' to a smooth flowin' black as I watched an' his face somehow changed, the nose becomin' straighter, the cheeks a bit thinner, an' his eyes turnin' from green to black.
"I looked to meself an' saw nothin' much different 'cept me hands what seemed smoother an' the scar I'd got two summers earlier in a knife fight with Big Willum were gone.
"'Colin, be that ye?' I called.
"'O' course 'tis me, but what's happened to ye?' he called back.
"We walked slow to each other, meetin' near a fancy full length floor mirror. In the mirror we saw twins, dressed different, but twins nonetheless. Imagine our shock as we'd realized that naught but just the other'd changed. We touched our faces an' watched as the people in the mirror copied our actions.
"We wasn't scared 'til Colin asked, 'How will anyone know it be us?' Then we both panicked an' stripped off the new garb quick as rabbits only to find two naked twins in the mirror. We ran back to our old rags an' yanked 'em on, almost trippin' in our haste to run back to the safety o' the main hall.
"I were in front so I realized naught 'til I turned to see Colin, the old Colin, runnin' at me. Quick as we realized we was us, the fear were gone. This become a new game an' we quick learned the rules. For the most part it were simple, dress all in the togs o' the room an' be the person that room wanted ye to be. Leave anythin' o' our old selves on an' no change, but no leavin' the room with anythin'. Full change o' clothes an' we could leave an' take anythin' we wanted from the room. This made Colin happy as then he could finally carry James with him to the garden he so liked.
"By mid winter we was no longer afeared o' the wizard's workshop, though I spent more time there than Colin, probably cause I could read better. We'd also tried on most e'ery male body we could find feelin' a bit more comfortable with those with at least twenty summers behind 'em but not more than forty. Colin looked pretty funny as a grown man carryin' that stuffed bear but I knew I weren't goin' to tell him that.
"The other problem were, as adults we was feelin' more an' more the urge for companionship o' the ribald sort. We spoke about it an' at last agreed to flip a coin for how would go first, which were easier said than done. O' all the things in all the rooms the one thing we'd ne'er seen were a coin. It took another two days afore I found somethin' we could use as a coin in the wizard's workroom 'Twere a bag on one o' the shelves with a bunch o' coins inside. The coins had the face o' some real ugly woman on one side an' some design I knowed not on the other. There was words on both sides an' I figured they must be magic, words o' power, so I took but the one for fear o' what might happen if we misused 'em.
"We flipped the coin after lunch one day an' Colin lost the toss.
"I quick took the coin back to the workshop an' then led Colin to the room o' the woman I'd picked. He weren't goin' to let me watch but when he saw all the hooks an' ties an' whatnot we both went in the room. I sat on the bed an' he went to the dressin' table where I'd laid out the clothes I'd chosen. He asked yet 'gain could we stop but I told him I'd won fair an' so he turned 'round an' slowly took off what he'd been wearin'. Still facin' away from me he began dressin' with me advice an' help; first in the petticoats, then the waist restrictor, stockin's, an' shoes. Finally, pullin' the gown over his head he turned to me with a pleadin' look in his eye before askin' me to do the buttons down the back.
"Havin' made these changes many times already we was sure we knew what to expect. After all, the paintin' o'er the fireplace showed rare beauty, a woman o' maybe twenty summers with wavy blonde hair long enow to reach the middle o' her back but draped over her shoulder.
"For some reason it did naught happen that way this time. The transition, what'd taken moments afore was barely seen. By dinner Colin's hair were blonde but still short, he'd lost an inch or two an' his face might o' looked a bit softer, but that were it. By bed time he were a bit shorter still. His hair were still a bit above his shoulders an' his face were clear womanly but still his, an' breasts was only just beginnin' to bud.
"Once he'd started, Colin were a good sport 'bout it an' promised to stay in the clothes 'til the change was done. O' course, he did make me change long enow to be the boy who owned James Farmerson an' fetch it to him.
"By then we was gettin' tired. He were clear a woman but not the woman in the picture. His blonde hair were past his shoulder blades an' his breasts had almost filled out the bodice, but he told me that what made him a man'd not yet changed. I were ready to give it up, but Colin insisted he weren't no quitter.
"He said, 'I always finishes what I starts.' So he stayed dressed an' we went to sleep on the bed, the three of us, Colin, James Farmerson, an' me.
"Next morn Colin were her, the woman in the picture, 'cept where it counted. He went to the convenience to check an' told me it were much smaller, but still there. It weren't 'till evenin' that it were finally gone an', unsure what should replace it, we waited yet 'nother day before tryin' naught. What'd started as a simple lark were becomin' more an' more complicated. Again the three o' us slept together in her room.
"That second morn Colin were up first. When I woke he were cryin' an' sittin' naked by the dressin' table, 'cept for the stuffed bear he were huggin' to him. He'd tried puttin' on some makeup but had done poor work. It'd smeared as he tried to take it off an' it'd smeared e'en more from his tears. I took one look o' what'd happened to me best friend an' ran out o' the room callin' back that I could do this naught more.
"The next week I spent most o' me time but for meals locked in the wizard's workroom, too embarrassed to be with me best friend. Finally, Colin cornered me as I were fillin' a plate for dinner. Me plan had been to sneak back to the workshop an' eat there but Colin stood by the door an' would naught let me pass. I could easily o' pushed her out the way but I were afeared to touch him, me best friend.
"She cried as she told me how she'd waited 'nother day to see if I'd change me mind so she could keep her promise. Then she'd tried puttin' on his old clothes, but whate'er piece o' her clothin' she held'd fall from her hand soon as she tried to put it on. She were scared an' begged for me help. What could I say? She were me best friend.
"We went to the room the bear were from, it'd always been one o' Colin's favorites, an' I watched her get undressed. She looked beautiful an' I found I could not help bein' excited by the sight o' her. The need to hold an' comfort her were amazin' strong an' her sorrowful look as the pieces o' clothin' kept slippin' from her hands made those feelin's stronger. She stood there, one hand o'er her crotch the other o'er her teats, eyes downcast an' face bright red as I walked up to her an' picked up the shirt she'd dropped. Presentin' the arm she'd been usin' to cover her breasts I tried to slip the shirt over it, but she seemed to be pullin' her hand back as I got close. I thought it were a trick until I saw her determined look an' the beads o' sweat formin' on her brow. Next I tried to slide it o'er her head but somethin' seemed to stop me. I pressed harder, only stoppin' when I could see her knees tremblin' as she tried to remain standin'. I dropped the shirt an' Colin collapsed to the floor cryin'. I watched her for but a nonce afore runnin' out o' the room cryin' meself.
"I saw naught o' Colin for neigh two fortnights. I'd taken to eatin' in the dinin' room 'gain, hopin' that I would. Then one evenin' she were there, still in the body I'd picked for her, but it were clear she'd taken time with her looks. Her dress had a low cut bodice, an' her hair were put up in some artful design. She were beautiful.
"She come in an' seein' me ran up to me an' hugged me afore takin' some food an' sittin' by me in that huge room to eat. Durin' the meal she spoke constant 'bout events o' no consequence like the weather, the quality o' the food, an' some new workrooms she'd found. For the most part I listened amazed, doin' naught but peckin' at me food as I watched her. When she asked did I like her new dress I could hold meself back naught. I asked her what were goin' on.
"First she seemed to understand naught, but then she got real serious. She told me how she tried three times to sleep in men's rooms e'en without bein' able to wear the clothes in the room an' how each time she found herself back in her body's room in the mornin'. Then she said how she'd watched me, afeared to be seen by me or talk to me, an' how each day she got more an' more lonely an' sad. When she saw me leave for dinner on the seventh day she braved the wizard's workshop. She passed through the workshop an' the bedroom to the balcony. She said how she looked out o'er the balcony an' cried for a while afore standin' on the railin' an' jumpin' head first to the cobblestones o' the courtyard only to find herself flyin' back to the balcony. Seems be I come back from me dinner afore she got the nerve to try 'gain so she stood out there shiverin' for hours waitin' for me to cease me studies, go to bed, an' fall asleep.
"That were the turnin' point. She decided that e'en were she not to be a man 'gain nor die a woman, she must needs still be me friend. She went back to her bedroom an' prepared for bed. O'er the next days she tried 'nother female body each day, havin' no trouble changin' each time, but went back to her first woman's form at night. She said 'twere 'cause 'twere the one I'd chosen for her an' she felt a special attachment to me through it.
"Durin' that time somethin' happened. We'd always took new bodies, but ne'er more'n a day or two, an' we always thought we was wearin' the body, not that it were our body, if ye knows what I means. She found that each mornin' when she woke up she felt a bit more like she belonged in that body, with a bit more understandin' 'bout who she'd become, a bit more acceptin' o' this as her real body, an' a bit less able to remember what 'twere like to be a man. That were the day she took me hand in hers, stared into me eyes with tears beadin' up at the edges o' hers, an' with a tremblin' voice asked me to call her Colleen instead o' Colin.
"O' course I agreed, but I also promised her that I would find out what'd happened and find a way to give her the chance to choose her old body should she want. From then on I spent as much time as I could in the wizard's workroom studyin' an' practicin'. I found that I could do that e'en better if I donned the wizard's body ye now see afore ye.
"Colleen would make plates from the buffet that she would fetch me an' make me stop an' eat. Then she would clean up after I were done. When she thought I was workin' too hard or too long she'd make me change to 'nother body an' drag me out to play games like hide an' seek in the garden maze or for a ride on one o' the horses from the stable.
"When a poor plantin' season came an' a few brave people from the village come by, she were the one what spoke to 'em an' helped 'em. We'd tell 'em not that we was Erin an' Colin for we knew our families thought us gone an' asides how could we expect 'em to believe that the beautiful lady an' the bent, bearded old man was their children?
"O'er time I learned to be a good wizard an' I likes to think that me magic's done much to make the valley a nicer place to live. I ne'er did find how to break the curse an' get the castle to let us leave though I am gettin' closer. I now knows it has somethin' to do with the coins I spoke o' earlier.
"Sadly, I also ne'er found a way to let Colleen change back as I promised, though I did find out why she were not able to change back. Seems be more than three full days in one body locks it in place. Sadly, I did naught discover this 'til after I too'd been locked into a body, this frail an' aged one.
"Me studies begat some good findin's. We could still make brief same sex changes though it got more an' more painful after the first day. Me other findin' were that the castle's magic stops agin' an' Colleen an' I've 'ad centuries to turn our child's friendship to a deep an' carin' love.
"Yet e'en the strongest love lasts not fore'er. Sadly, a dozen summers past Colleen died. We was ridin' 'gain, one o' our favorite pastimes, when her horse stumbled an' threw her. What we could not do o' a purpose she done by mistake."
"Let me dry these old eyes. It still hurts to remember."
"Her head... it struck a rock. She were gone afore I could dismount. E'en the magic o' the castle cannot stop death by misadventure. In me sorrow, I too tried to jump from that accursed balcony. I find the pain o' her passin' fades not with the summers as one is taught. If anythin' I loves her an' misses her now more'n e'er.
"Here, let me take that glass from thy hand. I hopes ye liked the wine, 'tis a grand vintage. I disliked dilutin' it with the concoction I added from me workshop, but me pain is such I could bear not to wait for 'nother to brave the curse. Soon I will give ye some orders an' obey 'em ye will 'cause ye must. Me concoction gives ye no choice, but afore we start I owe ye an endin' to me tale.
"As I said, once entered no one can leave this castle an' now ye too be trapped here. Me pain be such that I can bear naught the thought o' waitin' 'nother day an' I pray that in time ye will forgive me awful need. Listen ye well. Come ye with me to the bedroom I've picked. There ye will dress thyself in the clothes I've set out for ye. In three days ye will be me beloved Colleen."