Paul had never lived a particularly easy life. His father was a craftsman. This meant that they were always low on money, but it also meant that Paul was always expected to pull his own weight around the house. Even when DeMule had begun to train him, Paul found that his father's eyes were on him. Every failure was criticized to no end, and all successes were accepted as some sort of payment owed from him to his father, and never given any praise.
This translated to him getting a lot of punishment from his father. He was strong; years of work at his father's bench had given him good strength and hard hands. When he left the workbench and took up a sword, however, he lacked coordination enough to defeat his opponents. If one was foolish enough to challenge his strength, he would easily succeed. Anyone who noted his relatively ponderous style, however, could destroy him with repeated application of quick, precise strikes.
If it wasn't for his father's reaction, Paul would have been fine with losing. In fact, he had always been fascinated by the quick strikes used by his opponents. Once he had tried to adopt such a style, taking training from another student, but his father had intervened. Dancing about the ring was for women and fops, his father had said. He would not see his son doing any such thing. If he was to be quick, it would only be to the extent of being able to block such opponents. Otherwise, strength was to be his main skill.
At fifteen years old, Paul was also the oldest person he knew who had not been Cursed yet. His case was such that mages had been consulted on the subject to study what was happening. Such people had told him that it was most definitely going to affect him; the lines of the Curse's magic had started clinging to his form already, but had yet to form its inescapable death grip on him. So, he continued to live; no sign of fur grew on his skin, even as he continued to age, and he remained very definitely male, just as he had been from birth. With no cues to play off of, he had always just lived as though he would never change. He knew it would change some time, but he saw no sense in worrying over it until the inevitable happened.
The sun was just going down, and Paul was in his room. He had returned early from the shop after feeling slightly sick during the day, an allowance made only because he had worked well up until that point. He had felt better now for a good half hour, but he was in no hurry to return to the shop. Any time left for him to think in quiet was a luxury he rarely had.
On this particular day, as he had a few times in the past week, he was thinking about the man he had watched at the training grounds a few days before. He had been there to get some independent practice, but had seen the man who called himself Vincent Lois. His fellows could manage quick attacks, even more when their forms aided reflex, but that man was the quickest he had ever seen. Fighting against the lynx swordsman, he had shown such a stunning combination of speed and poise that it had left Paul breathless. His father's sudden arrival had forced him to leave before the two men could truly begin to fight, but Paul secretly hoped he would see the man again. Even if his father forbade him from using such a style, he felt no guilt for admiring it.
He mimicked the motions as closely as he could as he paced restlessly around his room. In his hands he held two carvings he had done himself, caring more for his fantasy than for the safety of his creations. They were rough facsimiles of the daggers used by Lois. He knew his crude imitations fell far short of the originals' grace, but he didn't care. He would never be allowed to learn the correct method as it currently stood, so the accuracy of his wooden weapons was of little consequence.
Paul's thoughts were anywhere but on the feeling of sickness he had experienced earlier in the day during his exercises. He was too focused on trying to make his movements fluid to think of anything less important. As he continued to move, however, the sickness returned. He ignored it as much as possible, but a sudden, severe pang caused him to double over suddenly. He gasped, even as his stomach seemed to wrench within him. He reached one spasming hand for his bed, dropping his carvings to the floor loudly. He never saw if his desperate grasp reached its destination. He blacked out as the pain overwhelmed him, and let the darkness hold back the tide of agony.
When Paul again became aware of his surroundings, he flinched as though to catch a fall, although he had already been lying on the ground for several minutes. So many things felt wrong that he had to take a moment to let his mind try to cope with the changes. He knew what had happened; the Curse had claimed him. By the violence of his change, he expected that he was either a woman or an animal, and a quick inspection of his body yielded the answer to his question.
His jerkin was taut around his chest now, and he could feel what had happened beneath without aid from his hands. His, now her, breasts were still extremely sensitive, and she whimpered as she resisted the urge to check the more intimate changes. Reaching a much more slender hand to her bed, she hefted herself back to her feet with some effort. Everything was so wrong. Her legs were longer now, yet she had lost at least half a head of her height. She stumbled towards the hallway, looking for the one mirror in the house, left untouched since her mother had passed two years ago. With hands shaking from shock and desperation, she wiped the dirty glass as clean as possible, leaving her to stare into her own, extremely frightened face.
Her face was a young woman's, almost as though the change had also advanced her age a year. No more freckles remained from his male face. Instead smooth, unblemished skin had replaced her original scarred and pimpled visage. Long black hair hung uncut around her shoulders, showing clearly that its entire growth had taken place in less than an hour. Her breasts, although small, were still clearly visible beneath her shirt. Other changes made her female body unmistakable for what it now was. She was a woman, and there was no cure yet found for the Curse that now held sway over her. She would live out the rest of her life in this form.
She was a reasonable young person, and would generally have accepted her change with little resistance. As she stood there, however, one thought brought her nearly to the point of panic. Ever since her mother had died, Paul's father had been set on raising his son to be a true man, free from whatever flaws he had seen in his wife in the late days of their union. He had always claimed that it was because she had somehow caused her own death by those flaws. Paul had been old enough to realize what his father had always feared. It wasn't his wife's flaws he sought to quash. It was her memory.
And there, standing across from Paul in the mirror, stood a person that neither he nor his father had seen in two years. Younger, taller, but still recognizable beneath the smudges on the glass, stood Paul's mother. For Paul, it was a haunting nightmare come true. Not only had he failed his father's expectations, he had become the object of his fears.
Paul's panic over his transformation had a long time to fade. Although his father should have been back from work by the time she had woken to discover her change, he had still not after two hours of waiting. The delay did nothing for Paul's state of mind, however. An unannounced delay in his father's schedule usually meant that he had gone drinking. It was one of the things that Paul had been trying to keep his father from continuing while he learned the craft. It was no secret between them, however, that the man would go drinking whenever he could avoid his son after work. Perhaps that was the entire reason he had let Paul go early that day. Either way, it only further terrified Paul that this might be happening.
She tried to sleep, hoping that perhaps her father would just collapse after his drinking spree. She couldn't do it, however; there was no way to predict how her father would react if he found a young woman in his son's bed, especially while drunk. She would feel much safer if she could be there, able to give account for herself when her father arrived. The longer she was awake, however, the more time she had to think over what was going on, and that just compounded her fears.
There was no clock in her dark room, so Paul couldn't be sure of what time it was when she heard the door open. She jerked slightly as the latch was worked several times, each time more loudly. Still, Paul could here copious amounts of cursing over each failed attempt at opening the door. Thankfully, it sounded as though he succeeded before breaking the latch completely. Paul stood and turned towards his door once the racket died down, but could not bring herself to move towards the door. Her father's boots thumped around the entry area for a while before becoming quiet as he finally kicked them off just inside the door.
"Boy? Where are you, Paul?" His father's voice was noticeably slurred, not a good sign at all as he tried to find his son. Paul remained frozen, the door in front of her seeming to warp like the surface of the ocean. She blinked, but the dizziness wouldn't leave. She was so nervous, she could only barely move at all, and what she was able to do only had the result of keeping her balances.
"Paul! I asked where you are."
She tried to speak, but all that came out was a choked sound somewhere between a shout and a squeak. She cleared her throat, almost hoping that he father had not heard her, but she could hear his somewhat softened footsteps stumbling towards her door as though he were on a tossing ship.
Paul finally convinced his body to take a step forward, but his father was already at the door. The latch worked on the first go, giving her no extra time to think before her father's face appeared outside of her now opened door. He had been Cursed with the form of a dog, but she had grown quite skilled at reading his facial expressions, and he was clearly angry at discovering her in his son’s room.
"Who are you?" he demanded angrily.
"Father, it's me, Paul," she managed to choke in her new voice.
His face didn't move at all for several minutes as he looked her up and down. It seemed to her that his swaying had become much less severe suddenly, almost as if he had been scared sober. When he spoke again, however, both his voice and his actions revealed something much different.
"You're not my son," he said coldly. His slurred voice was nonetheless strong and sure, and each wavering step hit the ground like a hammer as he approached the girl that claimed to be his flesh and blood. "You hear me? You're not my son; I don't have a daughter!"
"But father, the Curse took me!"
"No! You hear me? My son hasn't been Cursed!” the dog barked. “When the Curse takes him, he'll be strong! He'll become an animal, an ox or a bruin, and he will be the strongest man this Keep has ever seen. Where is he? If you've hurt him, I will kill you!"
"Father, stop!" Paul was genuinely terrified now, and quickly stepped away from her rapidly approaching father. Her eyes were filled with tears; clearly he understood the truth on some level, but he had yet to show it. "Please, I am your son!"
Her father’s paw struck her hard across the cheek, and she staggered back a few more steps, reaching for the stricken area by reflex. She dropped to hands and knees, crawling away from her father as he approached.
"I said no more lies!” he growled desperately. “Take me to my son!"
Paul cowered, too consumed by grief and confusion to fight back or try to reason with her father. She scrambled on the floor, seeking shelter beneath a small table. She couldn't fit underneath it completely, but anything that kept her from being completely exposed was an improvement. He father was not impressed. He pulled one end of the table away from the wall, sending several carvings tumbling onto his changed son. She cried out as he took her by the front of her shirt, pulling her until he supported all of her weight.
"Where is my son?!?!" he cried, the desperation in his voice mixed with fear and sorrow. She tried to pry his fingers away, all the while trying to find something to quell his father's rage. In the end, it was his father's actions, and not his that finally made him realize the truth.
As he lifted the girl up to demand the location of his son, Paul's father gave himself a clear view of the girl's tearstained face. While the change had certainly altered his son's appearance radically, the face he saw before him resembled his wife's even more than it had previously. As he realized this, the clarity that his rage had given him faded away, replaced by even greater instability as his mind grasped the truth. He let the girl fall to the floor, stumbling away until he was forced to support himself against the wall.
Paul watched from the ground as her father stumbled to the wall and braced himself for several minutes. She barely dared to move, until he finally spoke to her again.
"Paula..." He spoke the name as though it were poison on his lips. "Help me to my bed. I am not feeling well."
The young woman's head drooped slightly as she heard her name changed, but it comforted her some to know that her father had recognized her. She slowly drew herself to her feet, steadying herself before going to help her father. As she helped him onto the bed, she saw him roll over to stare at the opposite wall.
"That will be all," he said, voice hardly above a whisper. Paula nodded silently and stepped from the room without a sound. Her footsteps fell slowly on the floorboards as she returned to her room and sat on her own small bed to consider what had just happened. She had woken that morning as Paul, eager and ready to help his father at his craft. Now, she was Paula, changed into a younger image of her mother with no way to return. Her father had finally recognized her, but she could not help but dread the future. She had taken the first step, but there were miles yet to be run.
Paula was not sure how her father had convinced her to go back to training just two days after her change. She knew that she had to adjust, but it seemed almost as though he was just trying to keep her away from him. Things had not gotten much better since that first chaotic night. While the physical blows had stopped before too many had fallen, her father's eyes had a constant haunted look to them whenever he saw her. It made her feel as though she was an intruder in her own home, and she had cried herself to sleep the last two nights.
Her mind was in conflict. Everything that she had been taught by her father told her that her reactions to her change were unacceptable; true men pushed forward, gritted their teeth in adverse circumstances, pushed forward without showing weakness. Any such argument had one fatal flaw, however, and it only served to complicate her feelings more. She was no longer a man, and never would be again.
She was still lost in her thoughts when DeMule called for her to enter the training ring. She had no idea what was going on, but she stepped forward anyway.
"Paula, are you feeling all right?"
She nodded slowly, noting with bitter irony that her trainer had already adopted her new name. "I'm all right, just distracted," she said. Had Jack not been standing directly beside her, he would have missed the words carried by her weak, exhausted voice. "What are we practicing again?"
"I want a few of you to get some more practice sparring. There is no specific technique we are concentrating on, just defeat your opponent." He looked at her again, certain that she was in no shape to fight. "Paula, if you want you can return home. I know your father sent you here, but I think you could use some rest."
"No, I'll be fine." Paula finally raised her eyes enough to see her opponent. It was another transgender, a young woman once named Mary who had taken the name Martin when he became a man. He had preserved his fighting style from before, a flexible style that made use of the relative light weight of a short sword. He gave what Paula could only call a sympathetic smile as she faced him, but remained ready as he waited for her.
Paula's weapon was still a powerful longsword, even though it looked horribly out of place in her hands. Just lifting it into a combat stance told her that using it would be an exercise in futility, but she had to go through with it. Her father had already lost a son. Having his daughter throw away the things she had been learning for the past few years would just add insult to his already considerable injury.
"All ready?" Jack asked in a raised voice. When both combatants nodded he took a moment to wait, and then started the match by signaling with one hoof-like hand and calling "Begin!"
The match ended quickly. Paula managed to fend off a furious opening flurry, but couldn't adjust in time to beat a quick sidestep and slash towards the throat. Martin stopped his blade just short of its target, but the result was clear. Martin had won without contest.
Jack shook his head. "Paula, your technique is still good, but you're not moving the blade fast enough to keep up. Try dodging a few of the blows. Go again."
The next duel lasted a little while longer. Paula blocked a good number of the first attacks, and then managed to step aside when Martin moved forward to take advantage of an opening. She tried to bring her sword up to exploit his momentary weakness, but found that her blade was too heavy to allow such a maneuver. She managed to twist it into the path of another blow, but had to settle for bringing it back into a defensive position. She gritted her teeth; she couldn't move her weapon fast enough to exploit holes!
Martin kept pressuring Paula, but she held her own. Finally, however, Martin brushed her blade away and moved inside to finish the battle. His footing suddenly slipped, and he fell against Paula gracelessly. He struggled to gain his balance, but was pushed off of the young woman with great force. He managed to stay on his feet, only to see the enraged face of Paula staring back at him.
He had accidentally landed against Paula's chest when he lost his balance, and such a sudden intrusion into her private space had sparked something in her. She stepped forward, brandishing her sword with new zest.
Martin was terrified by the sudden change of face that Paula had undergone, and he swung his sword around to try to knock hers away. She gave, letting him spin himself out of position. She grabbed his wrist, twisted, and slammed the hilt of her sword into the hilt of his own. He released it with a cry of shock, only to have the breath knocked out of him as she drove the hilt into his stomach. He fell over, staring up at her with panicked eyes as he tried to tell her to stop. She raised her sword, and brought it down over his arm as it rose to turn the blow. With a crack, the dull practice blade easily broke the bone, eliciting a choked gasp from the young man. He fell against the ground hard, trying to cry out but still unable to find the breath. As Paula raised her blade for another strike, he finally managed to say something.
"Please, stop!" His voice was a half scream, and he watched, terrified, as the blow came down.
The strike never fell. Another blade blocked its progress, holding even though the strike came down like a hammer's blow. Paula's blade was then wrenched to the side, held in one of the trainer's large hands as he stole it away from her grasp. She turned her fury on DeMule now, trying to beat at him with her fists, but he wrapped both of his arms around her and pulled her too close for her to do any damage. She continued to beat at him until the realization of her actions hit her, and then she fell into choked sobs, letting the trainer hold her in what she now realized was a comforting embrace. She could no longer hold back the tears, and they flowed freely.
When next she could tell where she was, she was seated beside DeMule in a vaguely familiar chamber. She slowly recognized it as Coe's infirmary. The training master was watching her with a sympathetic look on his face, but it was a little while before she could bring herself to ask about Martin.
"He'll be fine," DeMule said before she could ask the question. "The broken arm will be an inconvenience, but he'll recover."
"I'm sorry for what I did," she said quietly, unable to meet his eyes.
"I know you are. I saw what happened during the battle, but I was a little slow getting to you. Don't worry; Martin knows what you're dealing with, I'm sure he'll forgive you if you give him some time to heal."
"What am I supposed to do?" Paula asked quietly. "I can't even use my sword like I used to. I have to use so much more effort just to move the blade... How can I expect to fight like this?"
"Paula, you've been given a new form by the Keep. Every person here has had to go through similar things, and everyone has had to adjust. Before you changed, you fought with a longsword because you were strong enough to handle it. Now, you'll have to find something that your form can use more efficiently."
"My father won't let me! He insists I train this way!"
"Paula, your father is a craftsman. He uses different tools for different purposes. He has tools for fine details, and tools for less detailed work. If he had to do a detailed design, he wouldn't use the second tool, because that is not its purpose. He will understand that you have to change, because you aren't suited for using a longsword anymore."
Paula looked at DeMule, unsure of what to say. "Do you really think he will understand?"
DeMule smiled. "I'm sure he will. Both of you will have to adjust, but you'll pull through."
Paula took a few deep breaths, trying to settle herself. The memories of attacking Martin were still vivid in her mind, but she tried to push them back. It was over now; she couldn't let her failures distract her. She managed to smile to DeMule, even though the pain remained even in that gesture. Still, the few words he had spoken to her had given her hope that she would be able to survive. She was truly grateful; now she simply hoped that her father would be as understanding as DeMule seemed to think.
Paula sat on the edge of her bed, feeling far colder than she should have, even in the freezing weather that the Keep was suffering. She had been restricted to the house since the incident in the training grounds, not as any sort of punishment, but just as she waited for her father to make a decision regarding her training. After DeMule had come and recommended a change of approach in her training, her father seemed to be having second thoughts about insistence that she train with the longsword. At any rate, he had asked her to wait on his final decision before going back to train, so that they could avoid any further problems with the other trainees.
To Paula, those instructions simply meant that she would be forced to sit around the house alone while her father worked, praying he wouldn't come home drunk again. In the hours that she spent in such a state, she tried not to remind herself of the change that she had undertaken. Her new form was so different, however, that every feeling was a constant reminder of her change. Looking about was worse; a turn of the head caused locks of hair to fall before her eyes, and dropping her gaze reminded her that she now very often wore clothes that had once been her mother's.
Very often she cried, huddled in her bed, tears coming on tears as she found herself unable to stop them. The tears themselves pushed her to further tears, as each one that fell called to memory her father's counsel against such outpourings of emotion, only to further strike home the blow that crushed her soul.
Everything her father had loved about her was gone, twisted instead in such a way as to remind him of the loss of his love. She had seen him in the quiet house before, eyes red, looking towards her. Often his eyes would widen as he thought he saw his wife returned to him, only to remember that death had taken her, and the Curse had now robbed him of his son as well, leaving behind only painful memories.
Paula had cried until she had no tears left after waking this morning, and had been sitting with only the company of her thoughts for several hours since. She didn't realize how long until she heard the door to the house open quietly, followed by the sounds of her father dropping everything where it belonged. She realized that it had been at the very least six hours that she had waited there. She turned to look at the door, but was simply too defeated in heart and body to rise and go to meet him. She was spared the necessity when her door opened slowly, allowed her father to peak around the door.
As his muzzle became visible around the door, she mused with some bitterness that he had been spared her fate. As an animal keeper, and one that bore the familiar and welcome form of a dog, he had been spared the stigma that many other Keepers faced, whether because of being strange sorts of animals, being stuck as children, or being one gender outwardly, while forever left with the thoughts of another gender within.
Her father sat beside her on the bed, looking over at her quietly. He could see the streaks that the tears had left on her cheeks. The part of him that saw her as his fallen wife's image returned wanted to reach across and wipe the tears away, muttering simple words of comfort, while the part of him that saw her as his son wanted to chastise her for weakness. He found a middle ground between the two for now, just waiting for her to become calm so that he could talk to her.
The resulting silence was heavy in the air. Paula feared to speak because she was loath to hear her voice, and she feared that her father would punish her when he heard the trembling in her voice. For his part, he father simply waited, occasionally cursing himself for allowing her to suffer further, but otherwise stoically sitting by while she got her emotions in order.
Finally, Paula spoke. "Hello, father," she said in a whisper, disguising her weakness behind words too soft to be discerned.
"Hello, Paula." She flinched at the name, but knew that it would remain with her for the rest of her life. Her father continued. "I've come to a decision regarding your training with Master DeMule. I wish for you to continue on with him and learn the ways of a warrior. Many other women in this Keep have already done the same."
Paula nodded. She had suspected as much. That still left the question of the manner of her return. "Have you given thought on Master DeMule's recommendation, that I be trained with a lighter weapon?" she asked.
Her father nodded. "Yes, I have." He paused here, and Paula knew then what his decision had been, even though he wouldn't speak the answer outright for several moments. "Paula, you know that this Keep has seen many heroes come and go over her history. Now, in our time, there have been such heroes as to merit remembrance for all the ages to come, all in the last ten years. There is one guiding factor, though, one thing that all of those heroes had in common. They refused the easy road. Each of them had choices, and each time it was a choice between an easy, good path and a more difficult, but far better path, they chose the latter."
Paula nodded silently. Similar stories had flowed constantly from her father's mouth ever since she was old enough to remember. Those great defenders of the Keep were the measure by which all were tested. Other people simply fell short in his eyes, but he could control the activities of his son.
"This is that sort of choice now, but now it is your choice. Don't let the easy path point you away from the better, more difficult path. Your change will make this path more difficult, but there is strength in you. While I am not proud that you broke your competitor's arm, it does please me that you had it in you to do that." He offered his most sincere smile, but it had long ago lost its charm. "I want you to keep training like this. It will be hard, and you will have to face it down every day with everything you can muster, but I know you can do it."
Paula looked away. She knew this would happen; only when Jack had suggested this course of action had she dared to hope. Now she knew it was a fool’s hope, a respite from her humiliation but nothing more.
"Paula, I know you don't like it," her father said. He had leaned close, placing a paw on her right shoulder and embracing her softly. It was a gentle, caring gesture, more genuine in its intent than anything she could remember him doing in ages. "I know you can do this," he whispered in her ear. He pulled her close, taking care not to press too hard or make her uncomfortable in her new form. It was a simple gesture, a simple, caring gesture that carried more weight than all the rest of his words.
His explanation was certainly lacking, and the way he had led up to it was clearly meant to make her feel guilt. Still, Paula wanted to believe. She wanted to believe that the caring father that carefully held her there would be there every day she returned from her training, available to hold her, to whisper comfort to her, and to have her cry on her shoulder. She wanted to believe that he could be that man...
She turned, pulling him closer to her and crying on his shoulder. He held her softly, still taking care not to make her uncomfortable. Through the tears he heard her choke, "I will do it, father, I'll do it for you..." She tried to say more, but her chest heaved as she shook with sobs. He sat there, running a hand through her hair, eyes closed.
As they sat there he tried to bring himself to accept his daughter for her changed self. Everything seemed so wrong; everything that he had known for the last ten years seemed to be disappearing, and he didn't want to accept it now. Perhaps if he gave it time he would come to accept it. For now he would comfort her and try to convince himself that he had made the right choice.