Gabrithon led us through the pavilion into some caves. He paused when we came to an intersection. He turned to me.
"The mares' rooms are down that hall," he said pointing to the right. "Ask one of the servant mares to help you."
I moved down the right hallway as they turned left. I passed rooms with curtains spread across them. When I got to the end of the hall, I hesitantly moved the curtain of the doorway in front of me. I saw a regal looking mare, lying on a blanket. She was humming and combing her hair. I stepped through, dropping the curtain back into place. She looked up, and her eyes widened. Surging to her feet, she gave a small squeal of surprise. It was then, as she faced me head on, that I realized that she was pregnant. Several mares suddenly rushed in to steady her. They were all glaring at me.
"How dare you interrupt the queen!" one said angrily.
She charged me, so I pulled my sword—they all squealed at that—and said, "The king ordered me to clean up. Gabrithon said to ask for a servant mare to help me."
"Gabrithon? My boy is back again?" the pregnant one asked.
"You're the queen?" I asked, lowering my weapon.
"Yes," she said. "I am Vincentia."
"You're darker than Gabrithon is," I said after a moment, sheathing my sword.
"Yes, well, he is an odd color for a stallion. Usually the mares get the lighter colors. He, unfortunately, is light in the color of his hair and his eyes."
"I think he looks quite handsome," I replied. "I can't imagine him any other color."
"My queen, may I ask who this intruder is?" asked the one who'd charged me.
"Fair point. Who are you, my dear? You speak of my son as if he were a friend so it is only fitting that I know who you are," Vincentia said.
"I am Filynora."
"Well, Filynora the Human, I—"
"I'm not a Human, I'm a Strangeling."
"What, pray tell, is a Strangeling?"
"I am," I said. "I'm half Human and half Elf."
"Well, you are full of surprises. Now, let's get you clean."
They had me strip down in a separate room, and they dumped several bucket of warmed water over my head, which drained down into the small stream I'd seen outside. They then gave me soap and had me thoroughly wash myself. They then poured twice as many buckets of water over me. Then they stared at my clothes.
"What are we to do with these rags?" one of the servants asked. "These are no proper clothes for a female!"
" I have some clean ones in my pack. Those just need washed," I exclaimed.
"But milady, it isn't appropriate. You need one of our shirts and the long flowing thing that females of Humans and Elves wear."
"A skirt?" I asked then laughed. "I am not wearing a skirt. Besides, nobody has one."
Twenty minutes later, I angrily stomped into the room that contained my friends. Pinnathir took one look at me and spat out the wine he was drinking. Everybody stopped talking and gaped at me. There was no laughter, but suddenly everybody saw something very interesting in every direction except where I was. I stomped over to them, and Gabrithon wordlessly handed me a glass. I drank it quickly, sputtering at the slight burn but handed it back. He filled it back up and handed it to me. I started on this one more slowly, sipping at it sullenly.
"Um, Filynora?" Elthinor asked; he had blood trickling down his chin from biting his lip so hard.
"What?" I spat.
"Why are you wearing that?"
I looked down at myself. I wore a reddish brown shirt that ended in a point above my navel, baring my belly. The skirt the queen had quickly made for me was made of plain, dark brown material. It was loose and flowing, and more than anything else, I hated it. I glared up at Gabrithon.
"Your mother thought it would be more appropriate than my normal attire," I growled.
"You've met Mother?" Gabrithon asked.
"Is she well?"
"Well enough to force me into this outfit."
"Come now, Filynora," Jaiden said. "You look nice."
"You look weird," Pinnathir said honestly.
"Gabrithon!" Vincentia said as she entered the room.
"Mother!" Gabrithon said happily, trotting over.
"How are you, my boy?"
"I am well." He paused. "Mother, why did you put Filynora in a skirt?"
"It is the proper thing for her to wear."
"But she can't fight in it."
"What kind of girl fights?"
"I do," I said irritably. "I fight. I've fought Aswangs and Vampires, Naga and Rakshasa. I even fought the Mngwa! And now you've gone and taken away my sword, my bow and quiver, and my pack! I want them back!"
"But it isn't right!" Vincentia said, stomping her right front foot.
"I don't care!" I snapped.
"You're such an ugly girl!" she said loudly.
I froze. "What does that have to do with anything?" I asked, fighting down a wave of hurt.
"Mother, please!" Gabrithon said, moving to stand between us. He paused. "Are you pregnant?"
"Then you shouldn't be getting so upset. Go take a bath, you're all sweaty."
When she had slowly walked out of the room, Gabrithon turned to me. "Fily?"
I pretended to be unhurt by the comment that Vincentia had thrown at me. "What did she mean by that?"
"Beauty isn't just skin deep, Filynora," Gabrithon said. "To Centaurs, if you're not the way you're supposed to be, you're ugly if you’re a female, and worthless for a male. You don't act like a complacent little mare. That's what mother meant by ugly."
"Filynora, you know you're a beautiful girl, right?" Elthinor asked, taking my hand.
I felt my face harden. "Shut up, Elthinor."
"Fily," he said sternly. "You are. Who cares what some Centaur thinks of you? You're beautiful just the way you are."
I jerked my hand out of his and downed the rest of the wine in my cup. I threw the empty chalice at the silver and green Elf and he caught it, surprised. He actually began to look a little angry. He opened his mouth to speak, but a booming voice suddenly rang out through the room.
"Well, now she looks like a proper girl!" It was Hithaeron. He was with another strong looking Centaur, but this one didn't look so fierce.
"Cevenor," Gabrithon greeted.
"Hello, brother. So that is the trouble making female?"
"Yes, but now she looks tame," Hithaeron said, sounding very satisfied.
"Somebody should tame you," I snarled.
Shock appeared on both of their faces.
"She is a feisty one," Cevenor stated, staring are me curiously. "How long have you had her, Gabrithon?"
"Almost two years."
"Then you certainly should have been able to tame her by now!"
"Filynora…will not be tamed," Gabrithon said carefully, glancing at me.
"You act hesitant when speaking of her," Hithaeron said, peering at me.
"You certainly aren't afraid of her, are you?" Cevenor asked.
Gabrithon looked me over then straightened himself. "She is more frightening than anything or anyone I have ever faced."
Hithaeron laughed, but Cevenor pursed his lips. He walked over to me and tilted my head up so I could look into his face. My hand grabbed at the knife handle sticking out of the skirt; it was the only weapon I'd managed to keep. Cevenor hummed and removed his hand, so I lowered mine.
"She has the wild spirit of an unbroken filly. She is free and untamed. And," he said after a moment of silence, "she is dangerous. I don't know where you found her, brother, but she is trouble. Set her free."
"I don't need to be set free," I said. "He does not own me."
There was quiet after that as the two brothers studied me, then Gabrithon, then me again. Cevenor finally nodded.
"Well brother, what other trouble have you gotten yourself into?"
"Oh, Vampires, Naga, and, more recently, Rakshasa," Gabrithon admitted.
"What are those creatures?" Cevenor asked, sounding genuinely curious.
Gabrithon began to describe each creature in turn, and in the middle of his description of the Vampires, I noticed the king—Vincentia had called him Xylon—slip into the room. He stayed on the fringe, listening to the descriptions and the stories that went along with them. I watched him, only half listening to my friend. He reminded me of my Tindre Tigre when he had a mouse, ready to pounce the moment it got too far away.
"And then they started turning into birds, so we shot at them. We took down quite a few."
"Where are these creatures then?" Xylon suddenly asked; he'd just pounced.
"Not here," Gabrithon replied. "And that's good. They're horrid to look at and difficult to fight."
"I've never heard of such creatures before," the king said derisively. "I take it that these are the beings you want us to go to war with?"
"Yes," Gabrithon said with a nod. "And I suggest we leave soon. There's no telling what they're planning to do to Greensage."
"What's Greensage?" Cevenor asked.
"It's the Human town that the races are gathering to. We've already gotten the Satyrs, the Elves, and the—" He cut off abruptly, realizing his mistake too late.
"And the who?" Hithaeron demanded, something fiery alight in his eyes.
Gabrithon grimaced as he said, "Dwarves."
"My son has been associating with Dwarves?" Xylon bellowed. He reared and lashed out with his front hooves before coming down hard. "How dare you? They are rotten, filthy monsters! They're horrible and violent!"
"Oh, we're not violent?" Gabrithon demanded. "We beat our own mares if they do something detestable. Besides, once they decide not to kill you, they're quite nice."
"Despicable!" the king cried, though I wasn't sure if he was talking about the Dwarves or his son.
"I agree," Hithaeron snorted. "You should be ashamed of yourself Gabrithon!"
"Well, I'm not," the youngest prince snapped. "In fact, I would trust one of them with my life! He's brave and ferocious in battle and a better friend than you are a brother and you a father."
That shut them up. They stared at him, but their stares steadily morphed into glares. Hithaeron stomped his front hoof and stormed out of the room. Xylon crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at Gabrithon.
"I don't believe in these creatures. You are tricking us like you did last time. I refuse to go to battle with these imaginary beings. Especially if we must work with Dwarves to do it."
With that, the king turned and left the room, leaving Cevenor behind. The second born Centaur prince had been attentive and had asked many questions when Gabrithon had been describing the creatures. He stared at us.
"Do you have physical proof of these monstrosities that you describe?" he asked.
Elthinor hesitated then stripped his shirt off and turned around. Cevenor sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. He then looked over at me, walking over. My shirt was sleeveless with a high neck, a thin strip of cloth tying behind my neck. It bared my scars. Touching the marking on my shoulder—and making Elthinor growl in the process—he looked into my eyes.
"And this, Filynora?" he asked. "Is this from those creatures?"
"Yes," I replied. "The Aswangs. I had a puncture on the back of my shoulder, too." I turned around.
He fingered the mark. "Very well. I believe you. My question for you is, will these beasts come here?"
"Honestly?" I asked. "It's very likely. They're persistent. But it might also be something worse."
"What could be worse than the Mngwa?"
"I don't know. But the Mngwa was only one of the Dark Ones. 'Ones' suggests more than one."
Cevenor looked thoughtful. "I shall do my best to keep our warriors strong and prepared. What should we look for?"
I smiled. "If it's the Aswangs, Vampires, or Naga, then look for clouds. Thick, dark clouds. Naga can walk around in sunlight, but they're not as strong. Rakshasa can walk around in sunlight easily, but you need to look in their eyes. If the colored part of their eye looks shattered, then they're Rakshasa. With all of them, there's a sense of darkness that fills the air. It makes a person uneasy. And the feeling gets stronger the darker the creature. If it's a Dark One…Well, you'll know it's a Dark One."
"I think I've got it. I must go warn the warriors of these signs. I bid you good day, Filynora. Brother. And to you all, as well."
Cevenor walked out of the room and we glanced at each other.
"So, Fily," Pinnathir said. "About your outfit."
"Is that cup empty?" I asked, gesturing to the one in his hand.
I slugged Pinnathir in the arm, making him crumple. My friends laughed.
"Shut up," I said.