by Erastus Centaur
©2005 Erastus Centaur -- all rights reserved
It is amazing what a two-year-old can get into when your back is turned.
Like most fathers, I would swear that I had been busy for only a few seconds, but my conscience insists it was actually several minutes. Being preoccupied was only one of several things to feel guilty about.
I had started cleaning the brush full of white paint after painting the colt I was preparing for King Rastilus the Fourth when I heard my young daughter Jorlie exclaim, "See, Daddy? Spots!"
I whirled around and saw she had used the other brush, the one with the red paint, to dab herself a few times in the same way I had painted the colt. I hadn't known she was even in the room!
I shouted, "Jorlie! Put that--"
Then I realized her fate was already sealed.
Her lower lip stuck out for a moment, until she saw that I wasn't going to yell at her. She didn't know, as I did, that there was no use in yelling at her. All I could do now was make it easy for her.
Which meant I had to help her finish the job she so innocently started.
I pasted a smile on my face, though I'm sure it was only a weak one, and walked over to my daughter as calmly as I could, carrying the not-very-clean brush with me. "Shall we make more spots?" She nodded.
I silently railed at the gods for granting me the craft and skill of magery. Why couldn't I have been given talents for farming? Right then I wanted a profession that was safe, that didn't expose my family to dangers any more severe than having an apple fall on the head. Unfortunately, my mage powers had been detected at a young age, and carefully developed thereafter. Nowadays I was considered one of the best in the area -- not that such talent would help my daughter now.
"Shall we paint one ear red and the other white?" She giggled at the thought and nodded, tapping her right ear when I held up the brush again dipped in the white paint. I paused for a moment to cherish the sound, knowing it would soon be gone.
I rolled condemnations of King Rastilus around in my head. What would make a man so vain that he wanted a new breed of horse just for himself? Pompous fool! Why not ask for something safer? My daughter's sweet voice would continue to charm my ears if he had but asked me to conjure more gold or just ensure perfect weather for his party! But no; what he wanted was a new breed of horse.
"How about some spots across your face?" I asked. She nodded. I touched her cheeks with the brushes and enjoyed her giggle again. I then dabbed her nose with the red brush.
And I foolishly agreed to make a new breed for him. "Something sleek," he'd said. "Not stodgy like the draft animals around here. Something colorful. Unpredictable too. Can you do two colors? I want it to be obvious the horse belongs to the king!"
"A splotch around the eye?" This time she pointed at the brush with the red paint and touched her right eye.
I certainly didn't leave myself out of my tirade. Why hadn't I made sure the door to my workroom was locked? Why hadn't I taken both brushes to be cleaned instead of one at a time? Worst of all, why had I thought it best to use a formula for the paint that required a protection spell to be cast first rather than one that had an available counterspell? This poor choice in particular would haunt me the rest of my life. I prefer to avoid melodrama in my manner, but in this case it was simple truth.
"Shall we take off your shirt so you can paint your tummy?" She liked that idea and proceeded to slap paint all over herself using a brush in each hand.
The king's request was straightforward, so I readily agreed. Besides, the king paid well -- quite well -- and what mage couldn't use the money? Not to mention the prestige of being His Majesty's preferred mage.
Her tummy was well covered, so I held out my hands for the brushes. "Shall I do your back?"
I had taken clay, rather ordinary clay, and formed it into a rough shape of a colt. It didn't have to be accurate, which was a good thing. Sculpting was not one of my talents.
I made the splotches on her back look as random as a rational mind could make them, varying the size of the mark left by one brush or the other. She thought a brush on the side of the neck tickled and she caught it between her shoulder and cheek. I used the other brush on the other side and she liked that too. Those would produce some nice stripes.
I hadn't bothered being accurate in my sculpting because of the power of the spell in the paint. Not only did it color the clay, it also reformed the clay into the proper shape and gave it life. Which was great when it was applied to clay --
-- and bad when the paint touched human skin.
"My goodness!" I said in mock horror. "We haven't painted your legs yet!" I gave the red brush to her and let her dab away, while I filled in with the white.
I had applied the counterspell to myself, of course, knowing that paint always splatters and drips. I had also applied it to my workroom -- one doesn't want the floorboards trying to twist into life -- but my beautiful daughter hadn't been in the workroom at the time.
"Did we miss anything?" I twirled a finger and she twirled herself as I checked for spots we missed. I dabbed under her arm, across the nape of her neck, through her hair, under her chin, and caught a spot behind her right knee. She smiled at me, "Paint! All over! Fun, Daddy!"
My heart broke again. That lovely smile would soon disappear. I could maintain the professional veneer no longer.
"Why cry, Daddy? Paint you, too. Daddy have fun like me!"
I roused myself and dabbed at my eyes. "I know a spot we missed!" I said with phony enthusiasm as I hooked a finger under her panties, something she had recently started wearing proudly as a step up from diapers. She giggled as she pushed the last of her clothing to the floor and stepped away. It was rare for her to get permission to be naked away from the bath. I usually had to cajole her to keep her clothes on. Being encouraged to take everything off was reason enough to giggle.
I let her dab with both brushes at the parts she could see for a while then I used the red brush to make sure no skin was showing.
She danced in front of me, showing off her spots and my mind renewed its litany of things that had gone wrong which brought me to the point of losing my beautiful daughter. She was too young, too cute, too graceful, too charming and funny -- too loving -- to be caught in such a fate! This was the only time I was pleased that my wife, her mother, had already died. I wouldn't have to explain what happened to her child. Of course, being reminded of that too squeezed my heart even more.
The spell had begun to work on the colt of clay. He breathed, and his eyes were now open. Jorlie heard him whuff; she danced over to him and around him. As he slowly gained use of his muscles, he tentatively and awkwardly joined her dance. I could see the paint had done its shaping well. He was a fine animal -- as she would be too.
She came to a stop with her arms around the colt's head. Now that she wasn't in motion I could see the paint had started its work on her -- she was now covered with fur.
Jorlie released the colt's neck and stepped back. Her hands caught her attention; not the middle fingers, that were now noticeably bigger, but the other fingers that had started to shrink. She didn't grasp a finger with the opposite hand; she only stroked them with the long middle digit.
I had, of course, not tried this paint on a living being before so I didn't know if the process caused distress. I was pleased to see that it didn't -- not in the spell's actual target, at least. Jorlie took the changes in stride. Her mental image of herself apparently adjusted along with the physical changes.
And so she changed. I forced myself to watch every step of the process. I watched as her muzzle grew, as her tail protruded, as... no. I neither desire nor need to review the details of this performance again. My negligence had caused my daughter to be taken from me; my punishment was to watch her disappear into the body of a horse. At least her last moments as human were happy and the change did not cause her any pain.
One takes comfort where one can.
King Rastilus arrived three days after, to see what my magery had created. Three days is time enough to consider the future and lay plans to meet it, even when one is struggling with grief and guilt. I spent much of those three days staring long and hard at the large mound of clay in my workroom. That was the clay that was would have become the filly for the king, if only... There was certainly enough of it. Which meant there was also enough of it to sculpt and paint a human child. There was no doubt my skill was up to the task.
I made my decision late on the second day. And on the morning of the third, Rastilus and his assistants came riding up on huge draft horses. No doubt he had something more suitable when he charged into battle, but perhaps he wanted to emphasize his desire for a sleeker mount. He wore the emerald uniform with the matching cape that hid the flanks of his mount, the one he always wore when he wanted to impress the populace.
One attendant held the reins of the horses while I led the other and the king into the shed behind my workroom where I was keeping both young animals.
He poked his head in and quickly said, "It's too dark in here. Bring the animals into the daylight." He stepped out of the doorway and took a regal pose facing the yard, the other attendant beside him.
I sighed quietly and took a moment to locate some rope, then I tied the ends around the necks of Storm, the colt, and my daughter. Even if she was in another form, thought like a horse, and now bore the name Star, she was still my daughter. I tugged on the rope and the two followed me into the yard.
As soon as he saw them, the foals had the king's attention. He even forgot to look regal, squatting for a better look. "How extraordinary! What beautiful beasts! The coloring is so remarkable. They will breed true, won't they?"
"Yes, sire. And the pattern of markings will be different on each of the offspring."
"All the better! They look to be fine animals, ones that will grow up to serve me well. Good job!"
I bowed low to show my thanks.
Rastilus said, "Would you like the honor of naming the breed?"
"Thank you, sire. I shall call the breed Paint."
"Paint?" He studied the foals. "Ah, yes, I can see it. The colt looks like he was covered with firm broad strokes. But that filly! She looks like someone had taken a brush and gone wild!"
He studied the animals a while longer, walking around them, touching them, inspecting them. He was smiling, I realized, delighted with what I had done. I steeled my resolve.
"Very good," the king said. "You deserve a bonus for this work, say double the agreed fee."
"I'm sorry, sire. I cannot sell you these animals."
"When they are old enough I will be glad to give you their offspring."
His face darkened. In an ominous tone, he said, "Having given your word to your rightful monarch, you would now turn oathbreaker?"
"I cannot say, sire."
He glared at me. Still, what could he do to a mage -- to me? Imprisonment would be a joke, as would an attempt at execution. I saw hardness in his eyes; I would be punished.
"When these foals are mature and produce offspring, I require that all of them be given as a gift to me."
"Of course, sire," I said quickly, bowing deeply.
"And only then will I again ask for your services."
As I expected, he used the weapon he had. My income from the castle was cut off.
"Of course, sire."
He mounted up and rode off, his regal bearing showing a fresh fierceness.
As I said, I had made my decision, and I knew what I must do. As soon as Rastilus was out of sight, I took down my shingle, the only thing that advertised that I worked the magery arts. Then I bartered with the potter, trading an old winter cloak for an even older pottery wheel. My trade baffled him and I confused him even more when I assured him I was not about to be his competitor.
I set the wheel up in the middle of the workroom and began to work my way through the lump of clay. My first few productions were no good at all, naturally, but I got better with practice. I learned one of the nice things about working with clay was that as long as I didn't let it dry out, I could scrap whatever I didn't like and start over. And those pieces that had dried out too much to be put back on the wheel made a satisfying sound when I threw them against the wall.
Besides, it was work that kept my mind occupied just enough.
I soon learned to make decent plates, bowls, and cups. I even tried a vase or two. I gave everything a simple glaze because I can admit now that I was only using up the clay. I may have been able to sculpt and paint a wonderful human girl, but no amount of mage power could have recreated Jorlie. The pottery was never good enough to sell, but I was able to make enough place settings for myself and a couple of old friends.
And now... I occupy myself with growing things. I've a large garden; herbs and vegetables to sell at market, plus enough more to keep me and two grown horses fed. I've delivered several of their colts and fillies to old Rastilus. His stables have been able to breed them; their lineage is smarter than the average hayburner. I wonder if the pompous fool has even noticed?
Magery I do no more, even with offers of work from the castle. I've never explained why to the fool's men, nor yet anyone else. But I'm an old man now. I started setting this story to paper with a hope of lessening the guilt; a foolish desire of an old man. My story is done but the guilt remains.