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A Chance to Serve (Wang Lin)
To Wang Lin's credit, the pain did not start until he had carried the General for several miles. Though not yet 18, he was very tall and strong, with rippling muscles built by hard labor on his family's farm. And despite his powerful position, the General was small, frail, and old.
The old man grew heavier as time passed, and Wang Lin's pace began to slow. After ten miles, his muscles burned, and he was afraid he would collapse at any moment. He could feel the agony building in his legs and back, and felt shame and despair. He could not fail here, not after his miserable performance as a warrior.
Though miles from the battlefield, the stench of blood and death still haunted his nostrils. The enemy's surprise attack had provided a rude introduction to the ways of war for a boy who had joined the army on days before. Dark clouds of arrows rained death down upon the camp, followed by hundreds of enemy warriors.
Despite Wang Lin's size and lack of skill, no blade touched his skin. Unfortunately, his own battered sword drew no blood, and he felt shame and despair as the warriors he idolized fell around him. The enemy pressed in closer, their colors visible even here at the central camp.
The boy heard victory before he saw it. A muffled crack of thunder came from somewhere behind him, and then a strange sizzling noise caused him to turn around. For once, his clumsiness served him, causing his feet to tangle and send him falling to the ground just before a wall of fire roared past towards the enemy.
Screams sounded, mostly from the enemy, but some from his comrades. Dazed and confused, Wang Lin had looked back to the command tent to see the General standing there, eyes blazing and hands outspread. It was a glorious sight, but one that was short-lived. The old man collapsed suddenly, and was carried to safety by one of the officers.
Tears had filled Wang Lin's eyes, seeing the great man fall after such a grand gesture of defiance. His own poor efforts to serve seemed that much worse in comparison. Springing back up, he vowed to kill enemy warriors or die trying. But the enemy had fled, leaving only charred corpses to fight.
In addition to the terrible toll in human life, all of the livestock and horses had been killed as well. Even the great black stallion which was the General's personal mount had not been spared, though two of his retainers had died trying to protect it.
It was that particular casualty which had led to Wang Lin's current effort. The General needed to reach the Warlord's encampment, and was unable to walk such a distance himself. Warriors had scoured the countryside for any possible mount, but the enemy had been thorough. All had been taken or killed.
Wang Lin had been close enough to hear the great man bemoan his plight, and had reacted without thinking. Throwing himself at the General's feet, he had offered to carry the man to the Warlord's camp. To the Captain's horror, and Wang Lin's joy, the General had looked him over carefully, and accepted.
The offer seemed less wonderful now. Each breath was harder than the one before it, and he was feeling dizzy. Not that he regretted his offer. Dying in the service of the General was the greatest honor he could hope for, but only if he could fulfill his mission.
By the 15th mile, he knew he was not going to make it. Shame filled his heart, and he finally had to admit his failure to the General. "Master, I am losing my strength. I thought I could carry you all the way, but I am close to falling." Indeed, he was down to a staggering walk, each step agonizing.
"Keep moving." The General spoke firmly, and pulled his bag around. Wang Lin felt growing despair. If he fell, the old man might be injured. The boy's heart was pounding, and he feared that it might explode soon. How could he have been so foolish to think he could do this?
The General was mumbling something now, and Wang Lin felt cool liquid sprinkled on his head. The fire in his legs suddenly flared to encompass his entire body, and he screamed as he fell forward. He caught himself with his hands, almost tumbling anyway as muscles pulled and twisted. Amazingly, the old man remained on his back.
Even stranger, Wang Lin could hardly feel the General's weight. Indeed, it was as if the man had shrunk suddenly to a child. The boy struggled to rise again, but found that he could not control his body well enough.
Thought was confused and thick now, and he was only dimly aware of bony fingers pulling of his loincloth. Movement was stiff and jarring, yet he continued to crawl forward. The raging fire was fading now, and he moved faster and easier. Pain faded as well, muscles somehow recharged with energy.
A rush of strange sensations and images filled his head, and vision seemed to blur and shift. Yet he moved faster now. The General had done something to ease his pain! Despite the oddness, Wang Lin rejoiced in the sudden knowledge that he now had the strength to finish the journey. He moved with incredible speed, thrilled by the power in his muscles, the blur of passing scenery.
Time lost meaning, and he was shocked when the Warlord's encampment suddenly loomed before them. The General pulled on his hair to slow him to a walk as they were waved past the outer guards. Wang Lin was vaguely surprised at their lack of curiosity. They paid him no attention at all. None of the warriors did, even though they passed through to the center of the camp.
The General guided him straight to the main command tent, and slid down off of Wang Lin's back. He paused to stroke the boy' neck. "Good boy. You have served me well." The old man motioned to one of the guards. "See to it that he is well cared for." Then he vanished into the tent.
The thickness started to clear a little from Wang Lin's thoughts as he followed the guard. They were headed towards the pen where livestock and horses were kept. A couple of young boys scurried over to meet them. For the first time, Wang Lin was aware that everyone seemed much smaller than they should. He was used to being taller than most, but here he seemed to tower over even the largest guards.
The boys guided him not towards any of the tents, but into a separate pen that held some beautiful horses. Obviously the mounts of the Warlord and senior officers, they had their own guards and grooms. These animals were prized even above the warriors who guarded them.
A rope was placed around Wang Lin's neck, with the other end looped over the fence. Confusion grew stronger as the boys began to clean and brush him with thick, bristled pads. Although the experience was incredibly pleasant, he was disturbed by the liberties being taken by the two grooms. A warrior should not be handled in such a manner, especially one who had just performed service to the General.
Annoyance began to cut through the odd heaviness of thought, which finally shattered when small hands invaded his manhood in their quest for cleanliness. He whinnied in rage, and lashed out at the offending groom with a hind hoof.
The boy scrambled out of the way, obviously fearing another attack. But Wang Lin was no longer concerned with personal trespasses. Rage was instantly replaced with shock and horror, for he suddenly knew why he was in the pen.
A twist of his head brought the dark mass of his body into blurred view. Even without detail, he recognized the overall shape. He was a horse. A very large stallion, probably black in color. Just like the mount which had been killed. The General had made the boy's offer to carry him a permanent position, transforming him into an animal.
Yet even as he stared at himself, he could not regret his offer. He had been willing to die for the General. Certainly this was preferable to death. He tried to move a bit to get a better look, only to stumble awkwardly. Coordinating of four limbs was suddenly very hard, and he could barely stay upright. Whatever animal instincts which had given him the smooth motion of a stallion had fled, leaving only the very confused and bewildered thoughts of a boy.
The grooms shouted around him, probably fearing that he was ill or injured. Guards leaped into the pen to grab him, trying to keep him from falling. Wang Lin managed to catch himself and stood stiffly, afraid to attempt any movement. What had happened? He could not live this way!
A short time later, he heard a familiar voice. "There, boy. Be at ease." The General's hand stroked his neck, and the man himself came into Wang Lin's distorted view. "This does not have to be permanent. You have served me well, and I will reward you with a commission if you wish." The old man paused. "But I ask you to continue to serve me like this."
"I chose you because you are young and strong, and your heart is pure. As a warrior, you might last a month or so. And die as one among hundreds who fall in battle. Or you can choose to become my horse, a valued companion and treasured asset. And should we both survive this war, you will have mares and pastures to live a long and happy life."
He picked up a small handful of grain, and muttered strange words over it, and then turned back to Wang Lin. "But to be my horse, you must truly become in soul and mind what you already are in form. The spirit of the beast which guided you here was but temporary, and the thoughts of a boy do not belong in the body of a stallion."
The General held out his hand, displaying the grain. "If you eat of this grain, you will cease to be the boy. Even your memories will become those of a stallion, and no magic will be able to return you to human form. If you choose not to eat it, I will restore you now and send you on your way. The decision is yours, but it must be made now."
Wang Lin tried to speak, but was only able to whinny and whicker. Obviously, his only method of answering lay in the old man's hand. The idea of becoming an animal should seem repugnant, even horrifying. Yet there was much truth in the General's prediction of a short human life. And besides, he had wanted to serve the General in any way he could.
He thought briefly of his family. They had already bid him farewell, for few returned from the battlefields. And he still remembered the thrill of strength and speed that he had experienced on the way here. Sensations were intense, blurred vision more than made up for by incredible hearing and smell. Now that he thought about it, he could identify each man around him by odors, and even count the number of horses around him by their scents. One scent in particular called out to the part of his new body that had prompted the attack on the groom. A mare, her need calling out to his body.
The General sighed, and started to lower his hand. Wang Lin realized that his pause to think had been mistaken for refusal, and thrust his muzzle suddenly into the cupped palm. The grain was sweet to his tongue, and he carefully drew all of the grains into his mouth. But before he chewed, he took advantage of the last moments of human conscienceness and managed to kneel down on his forelegs.
A firm hand drew his muzzle up, and he stared into the General's warm smile. "No more bowing, my friend. Join me as a comrade, not a servant." Joy filled Wang Lin's heart, and he scrambled awkwardly back to all fours. The General stepped back and gave him a ceremonial bow. Wang Lin allowed his jaws to work, crushing the grain into savory paste, and with a final nod of his head, swallowed.
- end -
(NOTE: Special thanks to "TC Lin" for giving me the idea for this story. May he find his own handful of grain.)
A Chance to Serve (Wang Lin) copyright 1995 by Bob Stein.
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