|The Transformation Story Archive||Horses and Doggies and Cats, Oh my...|
Ashes and Dust
The stone building hadn't been occupied in a long time, but it was the first sign of inhabitation Bob had found in the past three hours. He'd seen it from a distance, and ridden over in hopes of finding someone. Stiff and sore, he groaned as he climbed off his overloaded mountain bike and leaned it against a wall. Luckily, he remembered to check the ground for evidence of Scotland's most common inhabitants before sitting himself.
Kicking the dried sheep dung off to the side, Bob grinned as he plopped down wearily. If a census was taken on Skye, and even large parts of Scotland itself, eighty percent of the inhabitants would either bleat or moo. And another ten percent would neigh. Although there were a lot of domestic animals back home in Virginia, he'd never seen them wandering free like they did here. Cows and sheep were everywhere, on the roads, in the fields, yards, and even in the streets of small towns. Most of the horses he'd seen had been fenced in, but even a few of them had been grazing on open land.
God, he was tired. Leg muscles burned, his back ached, and his hands were almost numb from gripping the handlebars. This trip had been planned ten years ago. Unfortunately, there was a lot more difference between 33 and 43 than he had been willing to admit. Worse, he'd been almost completely ignorant of riding conditions here. Even though he hadn't established any itinerary, his plans had been ridiculously enthusiastic.
He'd been using BritRail for long distances so far, but the last train station was about thirty miles back. On the wrong end of a ferry which ran only twice a day. Mainland Scotland had lulled him into a false sense of security. There, Bed and Breakfast signs were posted every few miles. And every town, no matter how small, seemed to have at least two tourist facilities. Up to now, he'd been able to find a place to stay with no trouble. Things were different on Skye.
Oh, there were towns here. And plenty of places to stay. On the East coast of the island. The promise of spectacular scenery (and less nerve-wracking traffic) had lured him away from the single-lane main 'highway' towards the West side. And he hadn't been disappointed. Rugged hills and rocky beaches had already consumed three rolls of film. A strong tail-wind and the total absence of traffic had encouraged him to continue even when the poorly-maintained road degenerated into a rough gravel path.
According to the map, there was a village maybe ten miles further. It might as well be another thirty. The flatlands around home hadn't been much preparation for this terrain. He'd pushed himself as far as he could go today, and now he faced a night stuck in the desolate landscape.
So what? Bob grinned to himself and shook his head. He'd come to Scotland for a great adventure. Well, here it was. He had bread, cheese, and some currant scones in the duffel bag. The water bottle on his bike was almost full. And though it might get a little chilly, he had shelter and plenty of dirty T-shirts to use as a blanket. There was even a battery-powered razor for the morning.
Rousing himself, he stretched out aching arms and legs, and checked out the building. From the lack of windows, it was probably an old storage shed. Either it wasn't as old as it looked, or someone had replaced the original thatched roof with one of now-rusted metal. The door had long-since been removed, and there was a scattering of debris on the dirt floor. No trash, though. Just leaves, bits of dried heather, and of course, sheep dung.
At least the doorway was too small for Scotland's shaggy cattle. And the sheep had set a precedent for him. There hadn't been any toilets in the last thirty miles, either, and he ended up leaving his own deposits in a corner. It was already getting dark by the time he finished, so he rolled his bike inside and unpacked the duffel. Photocopies of his passport and BritRail Pass, candy, tools, even a flashlight. No matches, of course.
Spreading last week's clothing on the ground, he positioned the duffel to use as a pillow, and lay down facing the doorway. The sun was a dull red fire behind the hills now. He watched until the last glow had faded from the sky, leaving an impossibly deep field of stars. The combination of solitude and beauty was almost overwhelming. What he'd give to be part of this forever.
'Loch Lomond' came to mind, and he found himself whistling the melody. A slight echo effect from the stone walls enhanced the sound, and he closed his eyes to concentrate on his music. As he started a third variation, the richness of the tune increased. It was more than just an echo. The new sound increased in volume, becoming the humming of a clear, painfully beautiful, female voice.
Startled, he sat up suddenly to see the silhouette of a woman grinning at him from the doorway. Flustered and more than a little embarrassed, he scrambled up and brushed himself off. "Uh, hello! I, uh, didn't mean to trespass. The place looked abandoned, and I, uh, just need a place to stay for the night."
She responded with words that were unintelligible. Not just the Scottish brogue that he was getting used to. A different language. Gaelic, probably. Most of the signs here in Scotland were in English and Gaelic. This far away from civilization, maybe English wasn't used at all. Still, her voice was pleasant and the tone was friendly. And there was no mistaking her gesture to come out.
Feeling a bit nervous, he stepped out beside her. There was enough of a moon to provide a clear view now. She was young, probably in her early twenties. And big. Not fat, just very tall and solidly built. The full-length dress she wore covered a full and shapely figure. Her features were a bit coarse, framed by rust-brown hair that was unkempt, yet becoming. But her smile and large, deep eyes radiated inner beauty. It occurred to him that this was indeed a different world. Even in the relatively small city he called home, a girl would never be so trusting of a stranger.
She spoke again in that lilting tongue, cocking her head in obvious curiosity.
"Sorry." Bob shrugged and held out his hands. "I don't understand you. Do you know English?" From her puzzled look, it was certain she didn't. Yet there were other means of communication. She gestured at the sky and the dark hills around them, and then beamed at him. "Yes. It is beautiful." He smiled back at her, feeling a little self-conscious. And then she leaned forward suddenly and kissed him on the mouth.
Caught off-guard, Bob sputtered and fell back. Not that the experience hadn't been pleasant. But this girl was a good 20 years younger than he was, and he didn't want some outraged Scottish father after him.
"I'm sorry, laddie. Do you prefer the boys, then?"
He turned brilliant red and started stammering a denial before realizing he'd understood her. "You speak English!"
She grinned. "Aye, we understand each other now. You didn't answer my question, though." Her eyes twinkled in obvious amusement.
"No!" The outburst didn't help his mortification. "I mean, I like girls. It's just that, well, I didn't expect you to kiss me."
She reached out and took his hand, her eyes never leaving his. "And why not? You are a fine and handsome young lad, the night is beautiful, and we are alone. Do you find me unattractive, then?"
"Of course not!" Flustered, he couldn't help grin at the situation. A pretty girl was calling him a fine and handsome young lad, and trying to kiss him. OK, maybe she needed glasses. Really strong glasses. "Uh, I think you are really nice looking." That was the truth. "I guess I'm not used to having pretty girls I don't know kissing me." Sadly, he wasn't even used to pretty girls he DID know kissing him.
She laughed, and then made a deep curtsey. "Point taken, my bonnie lad. You may call me Lillith. And you are…?"
"Bob. Or Robert." He bowed awkwardly, feeling silly and somehow exhilarated at the same time.
"Robbie." She held out her hand. "Now that we are introduced, walk with me, my lovely Robbie, and tell me how you came to my domain."
Still a little self-conscious, he took the offered hand and followed her in a slow stroll. An explanation of the day's events wasn't enough. She kept prompting him, until he broke down and basically gave her his life history. He was sure the girl would be bored to tears, but she seemed to hang on every word. Even after he had made a point to reveal his age, her interest was unchanged.
He stopped and looked up at the sky as he finished. "You're very lucky to be here. It's the most beautiful place I have ever been."
"Aye. But it can also get very lonely." She raised her hands to cradle his face, her breath sweet as clover. "Be with me, my handsome Robbie." And then she kissed him again.
There was no pulling back this time. A fire ignited inside him that he could not control, and he let her pull him down to the ground. Somehow, their clothing vanished, and her warm flesh pressed against his. Some small corner of his mind protested, only to be silenced by overwhelming passion.
The hills were just being re-ignited by the dawn when he woke. The sensation of dirt and rocks against bare skin confused him at first. And then he remembered the girl. Sitting up, he found himself naked and alone. However, even in the dark, there was ample evidence that he hadn't spent the night alone.
Oh, God! What had come over him? Memory of the overpowering lust was frightening. He'd lost control completely. His greatest fear was that he had possibly raped the girl. No, that was probably as far from the truth as he could get. Not that she had raped him. It had been an intense, mutual need unlike anything he had ever experienced.
But why? He felt a new sickness. Had she robbed him? His thoughts about this being a different world seemed laughable now. He'd been even more naïve and trusting than he'd thought she was. Having sex with some girl he'd just met? With no protection? These days, that was like playing Russian roulette.
One way to find out. He scrambled up and looked around. At least she'd left his clothing. He pulled the scattered garments back on, not even bothering to brush himself off. At first, he didn't see the stone building. They had walked quite a ways. He ran back, stumbling occasionally on the uneven terrain. All of his money, his charge cards, his clothes, his passport. Even his airline ticket home.
Still there. Even in the dim light, he could see everything was just as he had left it. The discovery made him feel ashamed. And a little bewildered. Why, then? He had no illusions about his own appearance. He wasn't bad looking. But he also wasn't the kind of guy who got much attention, either. At least not from girls half his age.
Uncertainty prompted him to gather his things and repack the bike quickly. It was still dark out, but he wanted to get away from this place. He couldn't shake the feeling that Lillith wasn't through with him yet. And as powerful as the experience with her had been, he was frightened. Maybe because of the intensity. Because he had lost control after a lifetime of playing it safe.
He heard her in the distance as he reached the road. Calling his name. Her voice aroused the passion once more, and he had to struggle not to respond. Fear was stronger, and he rode harder than he'd ever done before. The bike shot up the hill like a motorcycle, and her voice was left behind in the dust.
The town must have been closer than he thought, for he reached the outskirts even before the sun was fully up. His heart sank when he saw the signs, though. Before, everything had the English above, and Gaelic below. This town apparently had yet a third language which replaced the English. Great. Well, the girl had spoke well enough. And even the most remote corners of Scotland had to have some English.
One thing for sure. They weren't used to strangers. At least, scruffy-looking strangers on mountain bikes. The few people up at this hour gawked at him like he was a side-show freak. He ignored them for now, concentrating on finding what might be a Bed and Breakfast, or at least a place he could get something to eat.
His nose found the bakery before his eyes did. The door was open, so he walked in. An older couple was busy stocking the case, only to stop and stare when they saw him. "Do you speak English?" From the frowns, he figured that he'd struck out. Pointing at a tray of rolls, he held up two fingers. A nod this time. Good. At least they could use sign language.
As the woman wrapped up the indicated bread, he fished around his pockets and wallet. No change. All he had in his wallet were traveler's checks. At least he'd had the good sense to convert his American checks into pounds. Holding up a 20-pound check, he was relieved when the woman nodded and took it from him. Let's see. ID. He pulled out the familiar blue passport and offered it to her. She opened it and looked at the picture. And frowned.
Bob realized he wasn't in the most presentable of condition, and self-consciously brushed at some of the dirt on his sweatshirt. That didn't help anything. The woman called her husband over and showed him the passport. Now both of them were looking at him funny. The man scowled and began talking to him in a firm voice. Something was obviously wrong, but he still couldn't understand a word. Noticing his confusion, the man switched languages. Maybe French. Not that it made any difference. He'd forgotten what little he knew of French and Spanish almost as soon as he graduated high school.
"What's wrong?" He knew they didn't understand him, but he felt compelled to try to communicate. "I didn't steal the money! It's my signature!" He grabbed the traveler's check off the counter and pointed at the familiar scrawl. "See, just like the one on the pass…"
His voice trailed off as he stared at the check. Yes, the signature was the same. But what had happened to the printing? He was sure they had been standard English. Now all he could make out was the number 20.
The man shook his passport and pointed at the picture. That wasn't what caught Bob's attention. Like the traveler's check, all of the wording printed on his passport was in a different language!
"What's going on?" Confused, he tried to grab the passport. As he did, there was a movement in the corner of his eye. He spun around, panicking. A mirror. Then he blinked. That wasn't him. Instinctively, he turned to see who was behind him. And saw the reflection do the same.
The traveler's check slipped from his fingers unnoticed. Almost in a trance, he approached the framed glass, watching the stranger on the other side do the same. Shaggy, rust-brown hair framed the coarse-featured face of a very young man. Certainly not much more than 20, perhaps even in his teens. It was a nice face, even a familiar one. Especially the eyes. Dark brown, with huge irises that seemed deep as wells.
Trembling fingers verified what the mirror reported. There was no stubble on his cheeks, and the thick growth of hair on top of his head was no toupee. Even his teeth were different, larger and thicker. What else was different? Ignoring the old couple, he pulled off his sweatshirt and the T-shirt underneath. It had been too dark to see anything when he got dressed before, and besides, he'd been thinking about other things. Still, it seemed like he should have noticed the changes.
His chest, once covered with hair, now had smooth, unblemished skin over rippling muscles. Not quite like a bodybuilder. A young athlete, maybe. Big boned and solid. Part of him had to admire the improvements. Most of him was absolutely terrified.
It occurred to him that he felt wonderful. No soreness, no fatigue. Even after the long, hard ride which had brought him here. If he was hallucinating, the sensations were pretty complete. But if it was a hallucination, why had the old couple had a problem with his passport?
He realized that only the man was here now. The anger on his face had been replaced with one of concern. Bob shivered, swaying a bit as the room began to spin around him. A tear slid down his face as he reached out for help, and then he was swallowed by darkness.
There was murmuring around him when he woke. Nothing he could understand. He was lying on a blanket, but the surface underneath was rough and uneven. And he was naked. Jerking up, he drew his legs up against his chest and gave his audience a bewildered stare. The old couple from the bakery was here. And three others, all much older. Then he saw where 'here' was.
The stone building from last night. None of things were here, but he recognized the place with no trouble. The time of day looked a bit familiar, as well. The sun was going down. He'd been unconscious all day.
"What the Hell is going on!" He shouted at them, venting fear and frustration even though he knew none of them could answer. Except that one of them did.
"You be gifted." The oldest of the group spoke in slow, halting words. "You be potato…" He stopped when he saw Bob's confused look. "No. You be chosen."
Despite his bewilderment, Bob couldn't help a laugh. What was this, a Scottish Tarzan movie? "Do you understand me? Doesn't anyone here speak English? I mean, really speak English?"
The old man shook his head violently. "No! No! Too fast! Talk slow."
Bob took a deep breath and tried again. "OK. Does. Anyone. Speak. English?"
This brought a confused look to the man's eyes. Then he began to rattle off more of the gibberish that they called a language here.
"No, no! English!" Bob was feeling growing frustration. "Why doesn't anybody here speak English? And what the Hell have you done with my clothes?!"
"That be English." The old man said something in gibberish. "and that. You no speak English. You speak…" He seemed to be searching for a name. "The Old Tongue."
One of the women produced a plain cloth bag which she dumped on the ground in front of Bob. His wallet, passport, airline ticket. Everything of value. Cautiously, he reached out and picked up his wallet. Every credit card, the receipt from the Bed and Breakfast he had stayed at two days ago, even his United Airlines travel card was now a mass of unrecognizable characters and numbers.
Nobody could make such perfect replacements, even if there was a reason to do so. He pulled out his American Express card, recognizing the tooth marks where he had absently chewed it one day. And then he heard the singing.
The others didn't seem to notice. They were watching him with obvious concern. Somehow, he knew they meant him no harm. There was sympathy in their eyes, but also something else which confused him. Envy?
"The singing. She's coming." Even as he said that, Bob felt his fear drain away. The effect on the old man was quite different.
His eyes widened in obvious terror, and he rattled something off to the others. The couple from the bakery almost ran outside, and he heard car doors open and slam shut. The other two observers stayed long enough to gather his belongings and put them back in the bag before leaving. Only his translator remained.
"Time short." The old man wanted to run, that was clear. "Old One come. Choose you."
Bob shook his head. "I don't understand. What is happening?" But he did understand. Maybe not the reason, or the method. It was the passion. Her singing was louder now, filling his thoughts and surrounding his body.
The old man stood up to leave, then turned back and placed a hand on Bob's shoulder. "No fear. You be with Old Ones." His eyes brimmed with tears, but Bob couldn't tell if they were from sadness or longing. "Life short. Life full." A panicked shout from outside prompted a final sad smile before the man stumbled out to the waiting car, which took off in a spray of dirt and gravel.
As the dust cloud settled, Bob stood and walked outside. He was only mildly surprised that his head brushed the top of the door frame. She called to him from the spot where they had made love. The sound drew rust-brown hair from his chest, his arms. Growing passion throbbed in his muscles, pulling bones and tendons painlessly into larger, stronger shapes.
He could see her now, the vision filling his manhood, and swelling it into much larger maleness. Her song caressed his flesh, now shaggy and thick, pulling a muzzle from his face, and a tail from his spine. Then he fell forward, unable to support his growing mass on two legs.
The jolt broke her spell on him momentarily, and he twisted around awkwardly to see his form grow even more massive. The music of her voice numbed his hands and feet, turning them hard and dark. And the arms which had stopped his fall stretched out into powerful, rounded forelegs.
Moving easily on four legs now, he approached her. The song continued to reshape him, rewrite the notes of his music to match hers. Yet he was going to her of his own free will now. There were words of love. Promises of companionship for all the years of his life, and ever-present passion which would burn in him until he was consumed by its fires.
Her scent filled his nostrils, washing away even the smallest doubts. She turned and presented herself to him, tail lifted up and aside as she leaned forward. His head throbbed as thoughts became unfocused. Then his brain finished reshaping, and his mind was clear. Clear of doubt. Clear of worry. The old man's words made sense now. She had chosen him as her companion. He had been given the form to be that companion, and the life span which went with it.
What was the old saying? "I'd rather be ashes than dust." Bellowing his song to merge with hers, the massive, shaggy bull slid over the Old One's back. The fire was lit, and would burn until oblivion.
Ashes and Dust copyright 1997 by Bob Stein.
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