Three days later, we bid Valtrak and our send-off party goodbye and off we went. It was raining lightly, rather cold, but not too bad. We traveled swiftly, making good progress. We reached the forest in two weeks' time, but Gabrithon looked nervous as we stood at the edge.
"Why don't we make camp here for a night or two," I suggested.
He nodded. "Yes. That sounds fine."
After camp was set up, we settled around a fire; however, Gabrithon wasn't lying down. I looked up at him—he was much taller from the ground—and frowned.
"Gabrithon, why don't you lie down?" I asked.
"We are very close to Centaur halls. I wouldn't dare. It isn't right for a stallion to lie down unless he is grievously wounded, remember?"
"Vaguely," I said honestly. "If you want to stand, feel free to, but it's going to be weird."
"I know," he said with a shake of his head. "I know."
That night we ate pheasant. I enjoyed it, as I had never had it before. Elthinor had promised that it would be a treat, and it was. He said it tasted a lot like chicken, something I found delicious. He also said that duck was better. I was interested. I'd had lamb, sheep, and goat before, but never duck. I mentioned this, and Pinnathir choked on his food.
"You've eaten goat?" he asked, looking horrified.
"Yes," I said then thought about it. "Sorry, I shouldn't have told you that."
"That was rather thoughtless," Gabrithon stated.
"I didn't think about it," I said with a shrug.
"Well, next time, please do. That's a disturbing thought, you eating goat," Pinnathir muttered, returning to his food.
"Sorry," I apologized again.
We fell into silence again. Gabrithon was nervously clopping his front hooves against the ground, peering anxiously into the forest.
"We are close to Woodspell, yes?" I asked, and he jumped, almost spilling his untouched food.
"What? Oh, yes. Yes, we are extremely close to Woodspell. I wouldn't be surprised if they're watching us right now."
I turned to peer at the trees, narrowing my eyes. "Well, they won't get to see much," I finally said. "I'm going to sleep."
I fell asleep quickly but was awakened when somebody actually kicked me. I jerked and looked up to see Gabrithon, his eyes frightened, staring down at me.
"Get up, girl!" a rough male voice said.
"Hello, Fily," Elthinor said, standing in front of a Centaur, looking quite unenthused. "Have a nice rest?"
"It was pleasant enough until somebody kicked me," I growled, standing up. I was grabbed immediately.
"Gather your belongings. We are taking you all to the king. He will be especially eager to see you, my runaway young prince."
"Shut your mouth. And get your hands off her!" Gabrithon said, snatching me from the brute's unforgiving grip.
"Oh, the colt is trying to be a stallion now, ooh," the Centaur holding Elthinor taunted.
Gabrithon squeezed my shoulders, warning me not to respond. It was just in time, too, as I had a comeback on the tip of my tongue.
"She is mine to protect, now leave her be. If you don't, she has my full permission to make you leave her be," my Centaurian friend said sternly.
All the Centaurs laughed at that. "She couldn't do anything," the first one said, his voice full of superiority. "She's a girl, or haven't you noticed?”
"I have, but you don’t know what that girl is capable of."
They laughed again and made us gather all we had. When I belted on a sword and swung my quiver and bow over my shoulders, they stared at me hard. Then we started out for Cyrene. We walked for several days, and they were not pleasant days. The Centaurs were rude and cruel to all of us, including their prince. I was very upset at that but didn't say anything. To Gabrithon's credit, he held his head up high and walked regally in a way I hadn't seen since he met Korvict. He really is a prince, I realized, he just doesn't show it all the time.
We were getting close to the Centaurian capital of Cyrene after a week. The Centaurs were gathered together, whispering. Pulling back, one said, "My young prince, do you fancy losing a race like you lost races with your brothers?"
Without another word, they all took off. We began to run, too. I easily kept up with Gabrithon as we came up alongside the others. We dashed through the forest, ducking and weaving through trees. With a smile, Gabrithon pushed my shoulder from behind.
"Beat them, Filynora!" he shouted breathlessly.
I whooped, shooting ahead, Gabrithon right behind me. I could hear the Centaurs' cries of disbelief. I broke through the trees and found myself in the middle of a wide swath of dirt that looked like some sort of a road. I stopped running, Gabrithon behind me, and Elthinor behind him. The Centaurs came out a second later, doubled over as best as a Centaur could be, gasping desperately for breath.
"I guess being with you has made me faster," Gabrithon said to me in between pants.
"You have to keep up with her. She so ambitious that she'll leave you behind if you don't!" Elthinor laughed breathlessly.
Just when we were catching our breaths, Pinnathir and Jaiden came walking out, looking flushed.
"You are all insane," Jaiden said blandly.
"Sorry, Jaiden," I said. "I forget that you don't run with me."
"When do these two?" Pinnathir asked, gesturing at Gabrithon and Elthinor.
"While we were traveling, we would have little bursts of running. Then when we would stop for the night, we'd race around to different points. We'd only do it around the middle of our long trips, though. We stopped after the Dwarf caves because of Valtrak."
"We should really start that again," Elthinor said.
"Shut up, all of you! Now, I don't know how you did that little filly, but it is very unladylike to run like that," said the meanest Centaur as he seized me roughly. "Now, tell us how you did that and I might let you go."
"You will let her go now!" Gabrithon boomed.
"Shut up, you pathetic prince," the Centaur sneered as two of them moved to restrain him.
"I'm a Strangeling," I said cautiously.
"What is that?"
"I'm half Human and half Elf."
"Liar," he snarled then began putting pressure on my arm as if he wanted to break it. "Tell me the truth."
"She's telling you the truth!" Elthinor yelled, racing forward to stop him. He was snatched up.
"No, she's not. Where are her designs?"
I quickly focused, and my designs tingled to life. He didn't stop the pressure, just grinning. He wasn't going to stop. He wanted to hurt me to hurt Gabrithon. I grew angry and pulled my knife. Then I plunged it through his arm. Literally. He screamed, releasing me, groping for the handle of the knife. Gabrithon burst from the two Centaurs' grips and wrested the arm with the knife down, so I could pull it out. The wounded Centaur held his arm gingerly as blood gushed from the injury. I heard murmuring and noticed that we'd drawn a crowd.
"You wretched abomination," he growled, his voice quivering with pain. "How dare you strike a stallion?"
"I gave her permission to do that," Gabrithon said with a nod, shoving the aggressor back. "Remember? Or is your memory as dull as the rest of your mind?" Turning, he gestured for us to follow. "Now, if you'll excuse us, we shall be going to the caves of the king."
"Caves?" I asked as we left. "I thought you used those strange tent-like dwellings."
"They're called pavilions. Most Centaurs do live in only those, and they can vary in size. The king's pavilion is big, and it runs back into a large system of caves that are perfect for Centaurs. There are rooms and hallways running far down into the ground. It's quite nice."
"Sounds like a Dwarf house," Elthinor said.
Gabrithon stopped. "I suppose it does," he said, chuckling softly. "Just don't tell my father. Or any Centaur for that matter. They would be angry at a suggestion like that."
We wound our way through pavilions of all sorts and colors to one of black and grey. Gabrithon stopped outside it and talked to one of the guards posted to either side of the entrance. The guard walked inside while we waited. Gabrithon turned and pressed his hands on my shoulders.
"Filynora, you must behave. Promise me you will behave. You have to."
"Gabrithon, I'm not going to promise that. I can break it too easily. I shall try, but that's as far as I'll go," I replied.
Gabrithon grimaced and dropped his hands. "I truly appreciate your honesty, but I have a feeling we're going to be in trouble."
"Hey Gabrithon, what's with all the carrots?" Pinnathir asked, leaning down.
"We love them. They are a delicacy to us. But as we cannot reach them without a special tool, which doesn't work very well, we plant a lot and only get a meager harvest."
"They look ready," I said.
"How would you know?" Jaiden asked.
"I wasn't just an Elemental keeper. I was a farmer, too." I turned to Gabrithon. "Do you want one?"
He brightened. "Very much," he said, taking a step forward.
I grabbed one and pulled up. The carrot came away with dirt on it, so I washed it in the small creek that ran beside the garden. As I handed it to my Centaurian friend, he smiled and gratefully took it, immediately taking a big bite out of it.
"Isn't it ironic that horses like carrots, too?" Jaiden asked.
Gabrithon frowned. "We're much better than any horses. We can talk," he said with his mouth full.
"Not always a good thing," Elthinor teased.
Gabrithon hit him in the face with his tail. "Shut up, limbless tree," he said with a grin.
Elthinor tried to steal the carrot from our friend, but he simply held it high above the Elf's head, wiggling it tauntingly.
"What's the matter, dead wood?" he laughed. "Too short?"
"At least I'm not just full of air!" Elthinor shot back.
"Oh, how original!" Gabrithon said, crunching on the carrot again.
"How did you get that?" a male voice asked.
"Filynora pulled it up for me," my Centaurian friend said, turning to see who spoke.
There were two Centaurs standing there, both chestnut colored. They were of equal height and looked very similar, though there were a few differences in their faces. The one with the higher cheeks walked down the gentle incline and stood in front of Gabrithon.
"Who is Filynora?"
"That would be me," I said cautiously.
"Your female is quite bold," the other Centaur said.
"Who are these Centaurs, Gabrithon?" Pinnathir asked, looking up at them.
"These are my twin brothers, Marwon and Orodon," was the reply, gesturing at one then the other.
"Nice to meet you," Elthinor said, bowing low.
"Why did you bring such rabble to our city?" Orodon demanded.
"We need to discuss a matter of war," Gabrithon said.
"Oh, like the last matter of war?" Orodon scoffed.
"Yes, the one where you send our Centaurs to attack the Dwarves, only to disappear afterwards," Marwon said with a snort.
Gabrithon snorted, too. "I had my reasons."
"What were they? To go around with this group of misfits?"
"Yes," was the reply, rather harsh.
"How ridiculous," Orodon snapped.
"You're ridiculous," I muttered.
The twins looked at me sharply. Orodon walked up and stood in front of me. I wasn't afraid, though my hand went to my knife. I didn't trust these Centaurs. Not one little bit. He scrutinized me.
"You are too bold. You meet our eyes and talk out of turn," he said.
I didn't lower my eyes from his. I heard Gabrithon sigh. When Orodon reached for me rather suddenly, I drew my knife. Before he could touch me, Gabrithon had grabbed his arm and thrown him rather violently away from me. Orodon took several steps back and stared at his brother with shock written all over his face.
"Well, you've certainly become a stallion now, haven't you?" Marwon asked, a note of derision in his voice.
Orodon stared intently at him. "You've changed," he stated slowly. "There's something more…stallion-esque about you, really and truly there is. You've grown up, little brother. I never thought I'd see that."
Gabrithon looked his brother over, looking for teasing or taunting. He found none.
"Our journey has been long and difficult. I know what matters now, and I know our ways are not the best."
"Oh really?" asked a scathing voice.
"Father!" Gabrithon gasped.
He placed his right hand across his chest with his hand balled into a fist then bowed as low as he could. He looked at me and mouthed, "Do this." So I did. Our friends followed suit.
"Rise," the black stallion said.
When we came up, I looked him over. He was taller than Gabrithon by about six inches. That had to make him eight feet tall. He had a stronger, bulkier build than his golden colored son, and there was no kindness in his stern face. He walked over to his son, and I could sense how nervous Gabrithon suddenly was, though there was no trace of it in his posture or face. I watched them carefully as the king looked over his son. The black one suddenly snorted.
"Your brother was right. You have changed." He paused. "But you've changed in all the wrong ways."
"Sorry to disappoint you, father," Gabrithon said tonelessly.
"Don't worry, Gabrithon. He expects disappointment from you by now," said another chestnut stallion coming up behind the king.
"Hello, Hithaeron," my friend said.
Hithaeron didn't grace him with a response. "Father, why are these vagabonds even here?"
"They say they come for war, father," Orodon said, smiling contemptuously.
"War? But the Dwarves have given us no trouble."
"Not against the Dwarves, your majesty, but against the Dark Ones' minions."
"Dark Ones?" Marwon asked. "What is a Dark One?"
"They are evil creatures, fallen angels with physical forms. They are the most powerful creatures in this world," I said.
"You need to teach your female some manners," the king said harshly.
"You need to—" I started angrily, but Elthinor slapped a hand over my mouth.
"Stop it!" the Elf hissed in my ear. I elbowed him in the ribs, and he grimaced, but didn't dare make a noise; it was considered weak for a male to sound out his pain, and Gabrithon had warned them not to.
"She needs some more training," Hithaeron said. "I suggest you work on that."
Elthinor had removed his hand from my mouth, and I was sorely tempted to say something mean back to him. But, I thought suddenly, to them it wasn't mean. It was a fact of life. I wondered if there was any way to change that. The king looked over our little group and snorted.
"You all are filthy. Go clean up." The conversation was over.