THE CENTAURS’ BRAWL
She was alone, walking through a dark wood, when suddenly the trees came to life. The rough branches, like so many knobby fingers, tugged and pulled painfully at her hair. An unsettling chorus of cruel giggles floated through the mass of trees. The more she struggled to free herself, the more tangled she became until she was swallowed up altogether.
Willow woke with a splitting headache. Shaking herself free from the dream, she stood and stretched her muscles with echoes of fiendish laughter still resonating in her mind.
“Whoa, nice hair!” Rohan said, doubled over in laughter. “Where have you been hiding that all these years?”
“Wha- ?” Willow said patting her hair with her hands. It was a snarl of tangles and knots, frizzing out in every direction. “What happened?”
The same perverse laughter from Willow’s dream rang out among the trees. Rohan, Devon, and she caught sight of the retreating Fairies.
“Apparently they were out for revenge,” Rohan laughed.
“Fairies are known for their malice and mischief.” Devon tried to keep a straight face, but failed.
“Looks like you’ve got a bad case of Elf Locks!” Rohan pointed at the tangled mess of honey brown atop Willow’s head.
“Very funny coming from you two! Have we forgotten already the events of last night?” Willow said, raking her snarly hair with her fingers.
Maybe camaraderie between Rohan and Devon was not such a good thing after all, Willow thought. The boys exchanged an amused look between themselves before turning sheepishly toward Willow.
“Sorry, Willow,” they said together.
“I’m sure you are,” she said sarcastically as they burst into another fit of laughter.
“Can’t -- help -- it -- Willow,” Rohan said panting, his left hand resting on his knee.
Willow shot him a dirty look.
“Alright -- alright -- We’ll -- behave -- promise.”
“You better,” Willow said turning pink.
“Here, let me help,” Devon said. “Do you have a brush?”
“In Bellefire’s saddle bag.”
Devon retrieved the brush while Willow rinsed her hair in the brook. It was a slow and tedious process, and quite painful on Willow’s end.
“They really went to town on your hair,” Devon said. “How did you not feel this last night?”
Willow could hear Devon trying to suppress laughter and blushed even deeper. “I’m sure I have more Pixie dust to thank for that. But I’m pretty sure my subconscious picked up on it. It sure explains the crazy dream I had.”
“You really do have beautiful hair, Willow. I can see why they were jealous.”
Willow’s cheeks burned scarlet. Stunningly attractive Fairies jealous of her? Inconceivable...but what a compliment!
“Thank you,” she said shyly.
Rohan, who was down the brook catching breakfast, caught their exchange and glared angrily at Devon. Their amicable feelings towards each other were all too fleeting. Willow still could not understand why Rohan was so threatened by Devon. It just did not make any sense.
“I think I have it from here. Thank you so much though,” Willow said.
They cooked and ate the fish quickly, scarcely taking time to savor the fresh catch. Willow was grateful and impressed by Rohan’s efforts, especially considering his right hand was still handicapped by a sling, and wondered if a little magic might have been involved in the process.
The moorland stretched before them, a damp and desolate wasteland. The horses’ hooves left imprints in the peaty soil, but the land was level and easy to cross, and they quickly made up for lost time due to the morning mishap.
“So when will we get to the Pit of Despair?” Rohan asked Devon.
“Probably not until the day after tomorrow. If we're lucky.”
“Great,” Rohan said sulkily.
Just then, Devon pulled back on Apollo’s reins, “Whoa, boy.”
“What’s wrong?” Willow asked, bringing Bellefire to a stop beside him.
“Do you see that bit of dust up ahead?”
“Near the line of trees way over there?” Willow said pointing due south.
“No. In front of the trees – over there,” he said, pointing in a southwesterly direction.
Willow squinted and thought that she might just barely see what Devon was talking about.
“What do you think it is?” she asked.
“I’m not sure, but whatever it is, it's coming fast. I have been watching the dust cloud for several minutes now. I wasn’t sure I was seeing anything at all, at first -- that’s why I didn’t say anything until now. But it came out of the trees way over yonder, and look at all the ground it’s already covered. It’s closing in.”
“What do we do?” Rohan asked.
“There is not much we can do, I’m afraid. We can try to out run it, but there is no guarantee that we can, and that would mean backtracking. A whole day, at the very least, wasted. And there is definitely no where to hide out in the open like this.”
“Look!” Willow shouted excitedly. “It’s horses! A whole herd!”
Instantly relaxing, Rohan said, “There is nothing to worry about then.”
“I don’t think those are wild horses Rohan.. Look. They have riders,” Willow said.
“But who would be riding way out here? This is no man’s land -- home to nothing but wild animals and mystical creatures.”
“I don’t know...that’s what concerns me.”
Fear clenched Willow's stomach. “Could it be the Grim at last?”
“They have no need for horses,” Devon said. “With the Black Angel’s assistance, they can pretty much materialize where ever he wishes.”
“I don’t think those are ordinary horses and riders. Their shape seems off somehow,” Rohan said as the cloud grew larger.
“Centaurs,” Willow and Devon exclaimed together. Willow’s voice was full of excitement and adventure; Devon’s full of defeat.
“Even better!” Rohan said, clearly thrilled. “I’ve always wanted to meet a Centaur.”
“Willow, listen to me. No matter what happens, do not find yourself alone with one of them,” Devon said, his eyes boring into hers.
“Just trust me on this...please! I’ll fill you in later -- there is no time now -- though you may soon find out anyway,” Devon said, his voice clearly stressed.
Willow would have promised him almost anything.
“Sure. Whatever you say.”
“Thank you,” he said sincerely. “There is no use waiting here. Let’s get this over with and go meet them. Take Bellefire at an easy walk though, Willow. I don’t want them thinking we are any kind of threat.”
Willow complied not understanding Devon’s concerns. From all that she had learned about Centaurs at Credo, they were woodland creatures that lived in a generally tranquil and pastoral society. They had a great admiration for the balance of nature and related well with Elves, Gnomes, and other humanoids. Admittedly, they tended to be a tad gluttonous when it came to wine, and at times short tempered, but for the most part they were known for their wisdom and stargazing.
As the trio slowly approached, Willow took in the Centaurs appearance -- much more barbaric and intimidating than had been described in her textbooks. From the torso up, they resembled men. They were joined at the waist to horses’ withers. Wild tanned faces were pierced with bones: through the ears, under the nose, at the eyebrows. Leathered torsos, arms, and faces were splattered with war paint in fantastic colors and geometric designs. Their long black hair was tied back in silky braids decorated with feathers and beads. Slung across several of their naked backs were bows and quivers.
They were remarkably swift and agile and covered the remaining distance in no time. Willow could feel the waves of tension radiating off of Devon. He apprehensively pushed Apollo ahead of Bellefire.
“Stay behind me and follow my lead,” he demanded.
“What’s his problem?” Rohan whispered into Willow’s ear.
She shrugged her shoulders, just as baffled as Rohan. The Centaurs positioned themselves in a lose V-formation before the three travelers. The one in the center, serving as the spear point, was the largest and most savage looking, and covered in battle scars and wounds not yet healed. A bone horn hung from his shoulder.
Willow wondered if his position of leadership was newly acquired and at what expense it was bestowed. The Centaur took a deliberate step forward, nodding his head towards the trio.
“Ho, greetings, fair travelers. My name is He Keeps Watch. This is my herd.” He gestured with his hand to the surrounding Centaurs. His voice was deep and earthy.
One by one the Centaurs stepped forward and stated their names:
“Lives in Woods,” said the one to He Keeps Watch’s immediate right.
Devon visibly tensed in front of Willow as the third one pronounced his name.
“Talks Too Much.”
Willow could not help but crack a smile at that one.
“Talks as He Walks.”
Devon nodded in greeting and then said, “I am Devon Riley, along with Willow Payton, and Rohan Brewster. We hail from the Village of Speratus. ”
“Yes, we are aware. Welcome to the Wild Lands. We have been expecting you,” He Keeps Watch said.
“You have, sir? But how did you come to know of our journey?”
“The stars, Brother. They foretold of your coming.”
Rohan nudged his elbow lightly into Willow’s side and she turned, and he flicked his eyebrows. Rohan was a bit of a skeptic when it came to the validity of Divination, and Willow tended to agree with his assessment.
“Then I am sure you are aware of the nature of our quest?” Devon asked obviously attempting to gage their knowledge.
“You seek the Pit of Despair, Brother. Beyond that your journey is cloudy.”
His vague answer only confirmed Willow’s lack of faith in stargazing.
“Even to us, sir,” Devon answered without missing a beat.
Willow wondered at Devon’s answer. Why he would feel the need to be so evasive?
“As we thought. Nothing hidden among the stars escapes us.”
Devon nodded his assent, the epitome of respect. “We appreciate the welcome, sir, but I’m afraid we must be off. We are pressed for time.”
“Nonsense, Brother. We will accompany you.”
Devon stiffened in his saddle. “That’s very generous of you, sir, but quite unnecessary.”
“On the contrary, we find it of the utmost necessity. A fair damsel such as is in your company deserves a proper welcome. We dine with you tonight,” He Keeps Watch said firmly, leaving no room for argument.
“Very well, sir. As you wish.”
“Indeed,” he said.
For the first time in the exchange, Willow felt a knot in her stomach and a chill sashayed up her spine. The way he said that single word made her skin crawl.
“Shall we, then?” Devon's voice was far too calm for Willow's liking.
As an answer, He Keeps Watch galloped toward the distant tree line. Live in Woods, He Laughs, He Fights, and Restless One turned and followed after him at a brisk trot.
Star Blanket turned to Devon and said, “After you, Brother.”
Apparently the rest would take up the rear, herding the travelers forward, allowing for no hope of escape. The Centaurs were impatient and followed closely, driving Apollo and Bellefire faster with each stride. They reached the tree line as the sky changed from light blue to gray. Just inside the trees, a wide clearing created a fire circle. An enormous fire already burned brightly in the center.
“I have prepared a fire. I assume you prefer your meat cooked?” He Keeps Watch asked pointing to a skewered slab of deer meat rotating over the fire.
“Yes, sir,” Devon answered.
“Please do not take offence, but we desire our meals raw.”
“Certainly,” Devon said.
Willow eyed several dead, bloodstained deer strewn about. Her stomach turned, and Rohan turned deathly pale.
“Well then, dismount and enjoy.”
The three obeyed hesitantly, all having lost their appetites. They secured the horses a short distance from the fire down by a creek. He Keeps Watch kept a steady eye on them, until they forced down hot mouthfuls of the venison. Content, He Keeps Watch and his herd turned to the carcasses. Blood trickled down the chins of the Centaurs and smeared their war paint. Willow watched with revulsion, though try as she might, she could not seem to pull her eyes away.
After finishing their meal, the Centaurs disposed of the remains in the fire, which emitted a thick cloud of black smoke, and washed their faces with water from the shallow creek.
“Delicious,” He Keeps Watch said, licking his lips. “Not very hungry, I see,” he said gesturing to the mostly intact slab of venison before his guests. “Was it not to your liking?”
“No, sir. It was quite good, but sheer exhaustion has diminished our appetite. Thank you for your kindness and hospitality, but I think we will be turning in soon,” Devon said.
“But we have not even sampled the wine, Brother. Let’s not be rude.” He Keeps Watch said, taking a great pull from a large flask he had been holding and then passed it to He Fights.
Willow, Rohan, and Devon pretended to partake. The Centaurs grew wilder and more boisterous with every sip, swaying and slurring, singing and dancing. After emptying numerous flasks of wine, Star Blanket made his way to Willow. He ran his thick fingers through her curly hair. She flinched away.
“You are a pretty one, aren’t you?” he mused, unperturbed.
Devon and Rohan moved in closer, eyeing Star Blanket warily.
“Shall I show you the stars, Sister?”
“Umm...well...actually it’s getting rather late.”
“Time is subjective. Let us go.”
Willow could feel his hot breath on her face, ripe with the stench of alcohol and raw flesh. His chin and lips were stained purple.
“I really should stay with Devon and Rohan.”
“Are you really denying me my pleasure?” His expression was incredulous.
“No, it’s just...I just....”
Star Blanket was outraged. “How dare you!”
He grabbed hold of her upper arm to tow her into the woods.
“Rohan, Devon, help me!” Willow called in panic.
“Is there a problem?” He Keeps Watch asked calmly, making his way over to Star Blanket.
“Just showing the damsel the stars,” Star Blanket said innocently.
“No fear, Sister. He means only what he says,” He Keeps Watch assured her.
“But she doesn’t want to go!” Rohan shouted, his wand shook unsteadily in his left hand. His outburst was met with a chorus of raucous laughter. Devon silently retreated to the horses, doing his best not to draw attention to himself.
“Put that thing away before you hurt yourself, boy,” He Keeps Watch snickered.
“Not until he lets Willow go.”
“It is not wise to taunt those larger, stronger, and more numerous than you, boy. On all counts, you are severely deficient.”
Terror shown in Rohan's blue eyes, but he refused to back down.
“I’m warning you, boy. Drop your wand.”
All chaos broke loose with his denial. Star Blanket pulled Willow deeper into the forest, bruising her arm in his vice-like grip. He Keeps Watch drew his bow. Devon now had his bow and aimed it at the leader. Rohan fired a random arsenal of spells at any Centaur within range. The remaining beasts took up bows, oaken clubs, and lances they had hidden out of sight. Some charged forward unarmed -- their front hooves serving as formidable weapons.
Willow struggled under Star Blanket’s grip but managed to focus on a nearby boulder. It didn't budge, but then she used the pain she felt as a catalyst and hurled it into Star Blanket’s head. It struck his temple with a horrible thud. He dropped his hold as blood gushed down his face. He walked a few unsteady paces before he collapsed in a lifeless heap.
Rohan hit Lives in Woods and He Laughs with stunning spells and disarmed He Fights of his lance. He Fights charged forward and his hoof landed a solid blow on Rohan’s injured arm. Rohan screamed in pain and crumpled to the ground.
Willow scrambled out of the trees just as He Fights reared up, ready to trample over Rohan’s quivering body. Her eyes fell on the fire. She planted her feet solidly on the earth, reached her hand toward the flames, and in her mind’s eye watched it engulf He Fights. Firebrands jumped from the blaze, and He Fights fled into the woods tearing at his burning flesh as he was consumed by the licking flames.
Devon released his arrow and hit He Keeps Watch square in the chest. The Centaur’s arrow flew from his bow as he fell, grazing Devon’s shoulder. Restless One and Black Hoof descended upon him. Rohan sprang to his feet and spun around directing impaling curses at Restless One, while Willow rained down a shower of rocks on Black Hoof.
But there were just too many -- Lives in Woods and He Laughs had recovered from the stunning spells. Talks as He Walks and Swift were flanking them on either side. Thunder and Talks Too Much were closing in from behind. Devon, Rohan, and Willow stood with their backs to each other.
Then, a loud horn blasted long and steady through the forest. The Centaurs froze, and Charger called out:
“He Keeps Watch blows his horn. Retreat and reform! Retreat and reform!”
“But Charger, we have them cornered!” He Fights protested, continuing to advance.
“You have your orders! We are subject to our leader!”
“You can’t be serious!” He Fights screamed.
“Stand down, He Fights. I will not ask twice!”
“You have no right to order me around! You are no master of mine!”
Furry flashed in Charger’s eyes, and he rushed at He Fights. They met with a thunderous crash, a flurry of hooves and barred teeth. The drunken warriors forgot their mutual enemies, turning on one another instead.
Swiftly and silently, the three stole off in the chaos. They found Bellefire and Apollo whinnying and stamping their hooves. They mounted in silence and set off at a gallop through the dark, guided by Rohan’s wand and Willow’s torch.
Eventually Rohan asked, “What happened back there?”
Willow slowed Bellefire to a comfortable trot. “Devon, you said you would explain. They seemed nice enough at first, strange eating habits maybe and a little pushy, but hospitable all the same. What made them turn like that?”
“By Rohan and your excited reaction to the news of approaching Centaurs, I gathered that Credo may have sugar-coated the gruesome details of a Centaurs’ lifestyle.”
“Gruesome, how? The drinking and fighting? Why wouldn’t they tell us about that?” Rohan asked.
“Not the drinking and fighting, but what it leads to. Do you know why they attacked us tonight?”
“Because I didn’t go stargazing with Star Blanket,” Willow said sadly. “I caused the bloodshed, but he was being so rough.”
Devon tried to explain. “You were wise to refuse. Stargazing was not on the agenda tonight, Willow.”
Willow could not meet his eyes.
“Centaurs have a certain fondness for human girls. One as beautiful as you are is hard to resist for a man, let alone a wild Centaur. Centaurs are dark, heedless forces of nature, bent on debauchery. They are obtuse creatures, yet very shrewd, guided by instinct, bloodthirsty lust, barbarism, and malice. They are ruled by their bestial half. They know no temperance only excess, no morality only passion, no pardon only vengefulness. Their desires know no bounds. They are strong and proud, impulsive and easily offended. They are not to be denied. If they do not kill each other before the night is over, they will seek retaliation.”
“Let them try!” Rohan said.
“That is easy to say now that we have escaped. We were lucky once -- if it were not for that horn we would all be dead, or in Willow’s case, even worse.” Devon said, eyeing Willow carefully. “We got away with only a few bruises and scrapes. I do not expect to be so lucky a second time. There is no delicate way to say this, Willow, but you were to be dessert.”
“They were going to eat Willow?” Rohan exclaimed in disgust.
“They were going to take advantage of me, Rohan.”
There it was – she had said it, the ugly truth.
A wildfire raged in his eyes. “What? I’ll kill them! I’ll kill them all!”
Willow's voice was strained. “Calm down. It’s alright. I’m safe. We’re safe.”
Though she attempted to comfort Rohan, she was visibly shaken.
They traveled half the night over steep wooded hills, for fear of being followed, but eventually exhaustion overcame them. They made camp in the dead of night, under some dense undergrowth at the base of a hill, too frightened to light a fire.