I slid to a stop, my hooves sliding, unsure if I recognized this clearing. Yes! I looked up and saw the sentries flying overhead, and yes, there was Tyren, the leader of the hippogriffs! Finally, some luck!

I whistle-neighed S.O.S.; I had taught the meaning of it to all the hippogriffs and sure enough, they started to circle. A worried snort beside me drew my attention out of the sky and back to worry.

Shoshona's head was high, whites showing in her eyes. I assured her, "It's gonna be fine, it's gonna be just fine!" Shona glanced at me, clearly disbelieving, before looking up again at the flying predators. Oh, well, she could trust me on this one, or not. She was the one who had wanted to come. I really didn't care, even though that sounds heartless of me. I had gotten here on time, my secret was safe, and I would see Sunfire again! Even though I had not succeeded in the task they had sent me away with . . .

Tyren landed, saw Shona was barely able to keep from running away, and saw me, who could barely stand from the pain. Tyren knew immediately that I had failed. He sent a questioning look at me about the female horse by my side, but I shook my head. My head ached, and I could barely see. Tyren took pity on me, and whistled three other hippogriffs down. Before they landed, he quietly said, "My foal, she-" Tyren paused, then added quietly, "Never mind, she can tell you herself . . . and don't worry, we will not tell." The first I was pretty sure was referring to Sunfire and I tried to squash uneasiness in my gut that had nothing to do with changing shape. The second phrase brought much comfort. The hippogriffs would not tell Shona my secret if I did not want them to.

When I woke, I immediately felt the pain of changing shape. Already, my hooves were feet and hands, my mane had reddish streaks in it, and my tail was almost gone.

Grimacing at the pain that I would never get used to, I rolled over on my bed of leaves, and looked at a solid screen of leaves.

Moon Sparkle, the Healer, came in with a wooden goblet, and I immediately teased, "Hey, doc, where are my meds?" I spoke in Animal, the universal language of all animals, except humans. I had learned it on previous visits. She smiled (yes, hippogriffs can smile and frown and cry, and everything else) and handed me the cup. I tasted it, and said in a deep and commanding voice, "A heady brew, which sings of acorns and mighty oaks," and then added in my normal voice, "But not my meds."

Moon laughed. "Oh yes they are."

"You sure?" I said, mock seriously.

Pretending to be offended, she said witheringly, "Yes of course . . . " With a change to a serious tone, she said, "Oh and Tyren wanted to see you when you woke, and so did the horse you came with . . ." She added curiously, her white-gold eyes piercing me.

"Sheshona. When she learned that I was going to see the hippogriffs right after graduation, she wanted to come with me . . ." I thought about that; she hadn't complained about the fast pace, short sleep, or anything, she was merely curious about the reason behind it all. The one thing I couldn't tell her, at least, not yet.

A silence spread like a forgotten pool in the deep forest. I fiddled with the grained goblet with my human hands, and Moon likewise, fiddling with the leaves on the ground, tearing them to shreds with her claws. Finally she muttered, "Tyren'll tell you . . ." and backed out of the nest that served as my sick bay.

These three words brought back the memories of yesterday, when Tyren had said, never mind, she can tell you herself, I guessed 'she' was Sunfire, and began to feel uneasy.

A little while later, Tyren poked his head in and came in when he saw I was awake. He asked quietly, "Have you not spoken to the elves?" There was no reproach, no disappointment in his voice or eyes, but I felt as if I had disappointed him. I had had a year to do it in, but I still didn't. To not do what you say you are going to is a big thing in hippogriff society. It's as bad as lying, or worse. Talking the talk, not walking the walk, I thought to myself, and then wondered where that came from. Some human had said it, a long time ago . . .

"Yes. But she wouldn't change me into a horse or human. She said that this whole thing was the point of the spell, and to take it off now would just be," I paused, looking for the word the elf mage had used. it had struck me as a normal word for humans and not usual for elves. Ah, yes, "Contradictory. She wants me to suffer some more, that's what the elf that helped me said."

Tyren nodded, as if this was to be expected, and said, "You haven't been around the elves too much, but hippogriffs have, and I am not surprised. They want you to learn the lesson that to get something easily is not success, to work for something makes the end success much sweeter. But this . . . it sounds like the elf mage has become fond of power and become cruel." Tyren looked away, his orange eyes registering sorrow and I knew that he was thinking that humans had contaminated everything; even things they had never seen, especially things they had never seen, because they did not believe.

After a long silence, not as bad as the one between Moon and I, Tyren said, "Oh, yes, Sheshona wants to talk to you before we do the memory wipe." Tyren stared at me and I detected sadness in his gaze but of a different kind than before. "Should I call her up?" he asked softly.

"Er-" I remembered all the questions and no complaints, and made up my mind. I had put both our lives in danger of dehydration. "Yes."

"You sure?"

"Yes." I avoided his gaze, and instead stared down at my still-mostly-horse body. I had hands and feet, my spotted hide was disappearing, no tail, and my mane was shorter and red, and I could feel my skeleton and organs rearranging.

Tyren whistled then came to stand beside me. Tyren was saying, with that simple move, that all the hippogriffs were behind me and I could count on them.

I rested my hand on Tyren's feathered shoulder for a moment, feeling soft feathers with a human hand, which felt odd. I was saying thanks to a friend and mentor who had stood by me through so much and was doing so again.

Shona came in, not believing what she saw. Her friend, a male appaloosa horse, was transforming into an enemy; and the leader of the hippogriffs seeming oblivious to the human enemy beside him.

I said, before Shona could get past the shock, "See why I had to rush here? See why I could not tell the herd? Yes, I'm human, Shona . . . I am a two-legger." I turned my head away from judgment, but not soon enough; I see shock replaced by revulsion and hurt.

Shona soon finds her voice. "No, I don't see! You're just a . . ." she struggled to find a word bad enough. "You're just a fraud, a pretender, a LIAR!! And I can't believe I ever even talked to you!" She whirled around, pushed through the leaves, and almost fell off the branch that held the nest; she squealed but the hippogriffs that had brought her up caught her.

"Shall I tell her the truth?" Tyren said, looking out onto the hippogriff camp through the leaves.

"Don't. It's not worth it. She's right, anyway." I replied, thankful horses cannot cry, and that's what I felt like doing. Was nobody except the hippogriffs look beyond the human body and find the truth beneath?

Tyren looked at me sternly, "You were human; you are animal. No human-no true human- could have learned the Animal speech. You are no longer human. No matter your form, you are one of us." I smile with gratitude, and he leaves through the leaves.

You are no longer human . . . I thought about this for a while, it scared me that it seemed like I could never go back. Even though I didn't want to, it had been an option. Now that choice could never be made. I had to stick with the curse of not being human, of never going back. Never. Never seeing my family again . . .

On a different note, I thought of Shona's words. Though her words were arrows to my heart, the point of those arrows was true. Animal form or not, I had been born a human. Who could trust me? I was the enemy of all animals. Especially the magical ones.

I could hear Shona's voice as she and Tyren walked to his nest, where they would talk for the next hour or so.* I tuned out Tyren's voice, I knew he was telling my story I couldn't bear listening to it, but I listened for Shona's reactions. But she didn't say much, just asked questions.

I turned away, knowing when I next woke up, I would be fully human, and in time fell asleep.

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I had never had a watch or anything that kept time, and here in the magical world I had never needed to know what time it was. I found you knew more about the seasons and time seemed unimportant. All you needed was the season. Time just made everything complicated.