Quickstepping around the bend, they swept up the hill towards the tavern. Double-gaiting, klip-klippity klopping, fetlocks flashing white in unison on a bright sun-washed morn. Later than usual.
A matching team, the apple of the Squire's eye. Rippling bodies with perked ears flickering with joie de vivre trotted the lord of the manor on their daily display around the holdings. Chestnut belles towing a carriage handcrafted from best Lithuanian oak. The Squire bragged never having lashed the pair; a testimony to their prowess. Sitting next to me, Gonniffovitz fluttered his lips in unhaltered admiration and raised a twisted curse, toasting the success of his upcoming endeavour. After a slurp, he slipped off our bench into the tavern and out through the back door, leaving me to face the Squire with a counterfeit tug on the forelock and a 'top of the morning, Master.'
My dear associate Gonniffovitz the Younger kicked his way into this world with an affinity for horseflesh. His equestrian features displayed a lantern jaw with flappy lips revealing yellowing teeth. Besides, he'd been apprenticed to his father – as his father and father's father had been before him – to learn the tricks of his trade with its stealthy ins and hastened outs, sealing his vocational fate that destined him to a lifelong career of horse thievery. Whether by genetics or tradition, he was destined to serve in the family business. His lazy look and slow blinking, far-apart-eyes belied a blend of cunning and courage; essential traits for a job well done. Not for years had he galloped through hamlets with a squadron of irate villagers whooping in his tracks hoping for the taste of his blood, or worse: the tsar's Cossacks in hot pursuit close enough to feel the swish of the sabre, while straddling a purloined pony. He took a skilled delight in his work and, indeed, his father and his father's father would have taken pride in their progeny's capabilities.
Last night, a bright moon washed evening, Gonniffovitz had wafted through the Squire's apple orchards in the direction of the stables, the wind rustling the undergrowth. Blown across the courtyard with the silence of a midsummer tumbleweed, his moon shadow ominously slid over the water trough; not a good sign. Ghosting into the stables, leaving his shadow on guard at the door, with quivering nostrils he breathed trust into one steed's nose. Avoiding the clanky burglar alarm buckets, he delicately led the horse out through the orchards. Faster then, faces into the wind, to the depths of the forest. And back for horse number two.
In all probability, overconfidence was Gonniffovitz's nemesis, although he put it down to the water trough drowning his shadow-guard on the second run. Perhaps superstition was the cause of his downfall, but it was without any shadow of a doubt superstition that championed his survival. Be that as it may, our intrepid rustler bumped into a tin bucket, disturbing the watchman sleeping unnoticed under a pile of straw, and found himself trussed up and quivering under threat of a thrashing from the alerted Squire who'd materialized in a bulky fur coat and horsewhip in hand.
"Droplet of a whore - prepare yourself for a beating!"
"Honourable Master, you have all worldly right to do with me as you will. For it is I. Look at me. I am your missing horse - can you not see this?" Gonniffovitz exhaled, fluttering his lips. "In the past I have done many bad things and was reincarnated as a horse as penance. Tonight, my reincarnation ended. I'd paid my dues and was transformed back into a man. So shocked, I kicked over a bucket by mistake. In all the years I served you faithfully, my Master, you never took the whip to me. Why start now? And if you so do, be warned: it is as a horse that you will return."
Better safe than sorry, the Squire turned his prisoner free, who, happy with the prize of only one horse and his life, slipped away through the forest, his pockets bulging with apples - a parting 'gift' from his ex-master.
As you can see: Gonniffovitz had every good reason to leave his barely-sipped morning ale on the bench top. An alcoholic's orphan pleading for adoption.
"Top of the morning to you, Squire - a mug of ale perhaps?" I hailed the carriage as it glided to a halt at the tavern door. And why not? In all probability it was the Squire who'd financed its original purchase, after all.
"Pox on a whore, it is me who's buying today. Providence smiled on me this morning. As the Master of Good Luck, the drinks are on me!" With the stalwart faith of the misbeliever, he ordered all to join him in the tavern to hear tell of how his good will of midnight had been rewarded most generously this morning.
Superstition, with all minions of darkness withered as dawn dissolved the night sky. The morning light cast a different perspective on the matter. The Squire, realizing he was a horse short for his carriage, set off to market to find an adequate substitute.
Hither and thither he had searched for a replacement. From across the way he saw an ear that looked familiar... the other ear completed the match. He examined the beast from muzzle to hock and admonished: "You droplet of a whore. Not for one day could you be a man. What shenanigans could you have possibly got up to, in such short a time, to be changed back into a horse?"
In the tavern we had doffed our caps and quaffed the Squire's generosity while listening to his tale, and forthcoming as we might be, no one furnished a reply to the squire's rhetoric - not even the horse. Especially the horse, as it does not behoove telling, that on exiting the tavern to our Squire's dismay both horses and chariot had disappeared. Gone.
After the hectic action subsided, the Squire offered a thrashing all round if the culprit was not apprehended forthwith. Then, completely out of character, discovering his whip to have gone the same way as his carriage, he reconsidered his options and offered a reward for his property's return. A well-proportioned prize.
I accompanied the dispirited Squire home, taking the short way through the fields, offering the security only a serf-in-tow can provide, helping him over low walls and fending off the occasional cow patty. Betting on more then an apple or two for my troubles, I told the Squire about the Israelite soothsayer of the town of N., who – despite the spirits and goblins – had taken up residence in the abandoned bird-catcher's shack. A man for whom the secrets of the world could be read from the palms of his hands, when filled with truth's true incentive - kabbalist gold. "Perhaps the reward would suffice. It is told it was the Town of N. Seer who knew Zyiddavitz's calves were to be found at the bottom of his well. The shack isn't terribly far off the beaten track..."
And so, to a dank residence in the forest we ventured.
"By the flogging you so soundly deserve for dragging me to this lair of gloom, I will not enter any den of hobgoblins, be it the Cardinal himself waiting to entertain me. You must enter that iniquitous warren, you droplet of Satan's semen, and conduct our business with your bastard son-of-Jacob Yakovlevich fortune-teller. And if the report is not positive, by sunset on this very day my whipping arm will deliver you back into the arms of the Devil that spawned you."
I returned with a positive report. "The Devil will have to wait for my company, Master. I shall ascertain the exact location as soon as the matter of the reward is taken care of."
Three return visits to the ramshackle shack concluded the negotiations. With nothing to lose and taking pleasure from the opportunity to grumble - 'A patron saint could not unearth what is mine!' and, 'This is but a wild goose chase to your just deserts!' and, 'It's a fool's task we have taken on!' and more of the likes - I cajoled the sceptic Squire through the depths of the forest to a clearing, where we found the abandoned carriage.
"How so? By the blood of Hecate's lunaries this cannot be! But what of the horses? Today I'm the Master of Good Luck and it is naked luck that has led us to this spot. Without the horses there is no evidence of your visionary's capabilities. He must have been beset by goblins. I shall dehorn, flay, and have him burnt at next full moon."
Following the Soothsayer's instructions, we waded through the brush, turned left at the big rock and followed the stream into a hollow to discover the horses tied under a slender birch. As predicted.
The Squire pronounced, "By truth, I could have sworn that the ratty Israelite was in cahoots with the thieves."
Later, I returned home with my pockets full of apples.
Two days later, it was a wiser Squire who drew up to the tavern and commandeered a dozing serf with the point of his whip in the ribcage. "What is your name, Old Man? Up off that bench and guard this carriage with your life and a cup of ale will be coming your way."
"You command and I obey, Master. My name? Why, I am Gonniffovitz the Elder, my Squire."