Originally published on Kickstarter on October 30th, 2013.
On a small farm in one of the many verdant valleys in the land of the Tuatha de Danann there once lived a farmer named Phadrig. He was a kindly old soul who had been a generous neighbor, a good father, and a gentle husband. Now, as his days upon this earth were dwindling, he alone was left to run the farm. His children had long ago fled the rural life to seek their fortunes elsewhere. His goodly wife was waiting for him in heaven. Having reached this stage in life, he cared little for human companionship and was content to work the farm as he had for decades.
Aiding him in his farm duties was an old black stallion who had wandered into his fields many years ago. This horse had become an important part of the Phadrig’s life, helping plow the fields and providing the farmer with the simple routine of caring for him. Whether he realized it or not, the horse was more than a mere farm animal to Phadrig, he was a companion. Sadly the worked of two aged souls is not the work of many and, the farm was on the verge of failing. There was indeed little that the old man and the black horse had been able to do to reverse their shared fortunes. As the horse suffered greatly from the ailments of the aged, the farmer nursed him. He even took up the curious habit of reading to the horse; for the sound of the farmer’s voice calmed the horse when he was upset or in pain. Phadrig’s favorite stories involved the Tuatha de Danann and their great black steeds. The horse too seemed to enjoy these tales. He would neigh and whinny and even try to raise his arthritic legs at some particularly exciting passages. The farmer smiled at this and he thought that he was in possession of a special horse; though to be fair, the horse showed no other sign of intelligence or special gifts. He did however seem to possess a greater degree of both stubbornness and mischief than the average horse. His favorite prank was to repeatedly throw off his blanket, causing the old farmer to bend over and replace it again and again, much as a toddler will do to his overburdened parents.
Phadrig’s life had become a mixture of ritual and routine and while the rhythm of it wasn’t particularly exciting, it served him well at this stage in his life. That is of course until the Piercing of the Veil. Then, everything changed. Though the Veilstorms didn’t immediately affect his farm, some of Phadrig’s friends and neighbors were greatly hurt by them. Being a kind man, he offered what help he could but against the flood of need that had quickly arisen, he could do very little. Unlike others though, he tried, even if it meant that he went to bed hungry several nights a week. As bad as Phadrig’s situation was, he was still far better off than many.
One summer’s evening Phadrig heard strange sounds coming from his barn. In the past, he would have ignored them, attributing them to some harmless animal, but the world was different now. He grabbed a weapon, lit a torch and with some trepidation, he directed his steps toward the barn. Reaching it, he found the door hanging open and in the faint moonlight he saw an abomination walking slowly and purposefully toward his horse. The horse was staring at the creature as if mesmerized; the abomination had cast a spell on him. It was widely known that some of these creatures had strange abilities and unfortunately, this was one of them. Knowing that he had to do something Phadrig screamed at the creature, hoping to scare him away. The creature turned and faced him, not the least bit alarmed, for Phadrig was not the first person to try to fool it with this trick. The abomination rushed at Phadrig and while the creature wasn’t as physically powerful as others of his kind, he was more than a match for the courageous old man. Phadrig’s weapon struck the tough hide of the abomination and so began their battle. As the abomination’s attention was focused entirely on the farmer, the horse began to awaken from the enchantment. Seeing the abomination clearly for the first time, the horse became very agitated. Fear rose within his throat, his eyes grew wider and he reared up painfully on his hind legs, even this effort causing him distress. He tried to charge the abomination but his sadly his body did not match his heart and he quickly stumbled to the ground, helpless, as the tide of battle took an ill turn for Phadrig. The creature, sensing victory, went in for the kill.
Perhaps it was prolonged exposure to the Veilstorms, or perhaps the horse was always more than it had seemed; something very strange happened that evening. No storm was present outside, yet the horse began to transform. The aching that had filled his joints for many years evaporated as quickly as the morning fog in a bright morning’s light. His black coat became as bright and slick as when he was a young stallion, his rummy eyes cleared and his hooves glowed as if ablaze. He became the horse from the farmer’s stories, a true steed of the Tuatha de Danann. He was also surprised to discover that he had a greater understanding and he knew that this farmer, his friend, was dying. He rushed to Phadrig’s side, placing himself between the abomination and Phadrig, daring the foul creature to attack. It did. Leaping towards the horse the abomination was intent on rending flesh from bone. The horse surprised him, spinning his backside to face the creature. As the abomination neared, the horse used its powerful hind legs to kick the creature through the flimsy barn wall.
Picking itself up from where the horse’s blow had delivered him, the abomination screamed for others of its kind. Some abominations were known to travel in packs, like wolves. Hearing the scream, two other abominations rushed from the nearby woods, eager to join the hunt. The horse galloped forth to challenge the creatures. He hadn’t been able to gallop in years, but he scarcely noticed, so desperate was he to protect the farmer. Now facing three foes, the horse knew he was in trouble, yet he fought bravely. His hooves and legs were powerful weapons and he managed to quickly dispatch the two newcomers. One of the abominations burst into flame as the horse’s hooves flared brightly during one particularly powerful kick. However, the leader was still alive and the horse was greatly weakened by his efforts, his flanks were running red. Sensing that victory was finally at hand the abomination once again rushed the horse. The creature leapt onto the gallant steed’s back and raised its claws to slash the horse’s throat. Suddenly the abomination froze, its claws still poised to strike and it fell from the horse, dead. As the creature fell, the horse saw that the farmer, who was bleeding profusely, had crawled here to hurl a pitchfork at the abomination. It had pierced the creature’s foul chest and killed it instantly.
The horse limped over to the farmer and together they made for the barn, where the farmer dressed their wounds. This done, the farmer looked at the horse and saw that he was greatly changed. Gazing at him, their eyes met and seeing the light of an intelligent being there Phadrig said, “I know not how this happened horse, but I thank you for saving my life. I’m sorry that I never gave you a name. Would it be alright if I called you Puck?” The horse, while wiser than it had been, did not know that name though he liked the sound of it.
Phadrig and Puck worked the farm together for several more years. Puck’s newfound powers and intelligence were put to good use and the farm prospered as never before. Puck and Phadrig also spent many hours in relaxation, reading together and enjoying the richness of rest after a day’s toil. It wasn’t long before Puck learned to read on his own and Phadrig and Puck even engaged in conversations of a sort. For his part, Phadrig was delighted by the change and even though Puck would disappear, sometimes for days at a time, Phadrig knew his friend would always return. As to where he went and why, Puck just smiled in the toothy way of a horse and went about his business. When the time came for Phadrig’s light to be extinguished, it was said that his horse let an almost human cry of mourning that was heard throughout the countryside. The following dawn, when his neighbors came to investigate the sound, there was no trace of the horse but they did find a shallow grave in which Phadrig was buried. Carved on Phadrig’s gravestone were the words “He was a good master but a better friend – Puck.” The neighbors were confounded by this yet they had bigger problems than to sort out who this Puck was, so they said their prayers and went back to their lives.
As to Puck, his time away from the farm was well spent for he and others of his kind have been spotted running through the hills, their fiery hooves lighting up the green grass in the dark night. They have also been credited with all manner of mischief, as well as random acts of kindness. None of them have ever been captured or ridden, no matter how hard some have tried to do so. It is said that they are awaiting the rise of a true warrior king and only then will they come down from their hidden homes in the hills to aid him in his quest.
Thus ends the tale of the Phouka.