I pulled up a carrot and handed it to Gabrithon, who took it and munched it happily. Hithaeron looked irritated. I had refused to pull up carrots for anybody else, and my friends didn't bother with it at all. Cevenor trotted up and looked at me.
"Would you ask Filynora to get one for me?" the second born asked his golden colored brother; he had, much to Hithaeron's displeasure, taken a cautious approach to me.
"Ask her yourself. But be polite," Gabrithon replied, taking another bite.
"She is no stallion. Demand it from her!" Hithaeron ordered.
Cevenor gazed at him for a moment. "Did that work?"
The eldest brother opened his mouth then shut it. "Well, not really."
Cevenor shrugged and turned to me. "Would you mind getting me a carrot?"
Partly to make Hithaeron angry, and partly because I liked Cevenor—he wasn't Gabrithon nice, but he was polite and kind for a Centaur—I said with a smile, "I would not mind at all."
I pulled one up, brushed it off, and handed it to him. He looked surprised.
"But you refuse every Centaur that asks you who isn't Gabrithon. You even refused the king and queen."
"Wait a minute," Gabrithon said after he had swallowed another mouthful of carrot. "You refused my mother?"
"I don't like her," I growled.
"She just wants you to be a proper mare, Filynora!"
I grew angry enough that red and gold burst onto my face. Gabrithon sighed.
"Come now, Filynora," he said tiredly. When I continued to glare at him, his own anger suddenly grew. "Oh! Why can't you at least pretend to be a girl?"
My jaw dropped open, but before I could strike him with my knife, Elthinor stepped in between us, holding his hands out in front.
"Fily," he said sternly. "Gabrithon's just angry and irritated at how long we've been here, and how we've made no progress."
"He meant it, Elthinor!" I said coldly.
"You are just fine the way you are, right Gabrithon?"
"She could stand to be softened a little," the golden Centaur said after a moment.
That hurt. Quite a bit. "Well, then I'll just leave, you retched cart horse!"
Gabrithon gasped and spun to face me. I smiled cruelly, then turned and left, enjoying the looks on everybody's faces. As I walked to the queen's sitting room, I messed with the skirt I was wearing. Vincentia had stolen my pack and my weapons, and I wanted them back. I stormed through the curtain to find one of the servant mares there. I strode right up to her.
"Where are my belongings?" I demanded.
"The queen has not said we can give them to you," she said.
I pulled my knife and pressed it against her belly. "How much do you like pain?"
She swallowed. "I'll just get them for you."
She left and returned with my confiscated items. I changed into a fresh pair of clothes, relishing the feeling of wearing pants again; it felt like I had nothing on when I wore a skirt. When I was dressed, I went off into an adjacent room, sat on a table, and leaned against the wall, staring out the window as I ate some fresh cherries. We had been here for two whole months already with no progress. I rubbed my temples as I chewed on the sweetness of a plump cherry. This was so much more complicated than anything I had imagined. I sighed and relaxed. I must have fallen asleep because I woke up to a shout.
"Where is she? Where is that horrid girl?" Vincentia called.
I leapt nimbly off the table and walked into the main room. She snorted when she saw me. She could only move slowly. She was big at this point, and it was almost time for her to give birth. She ambled over to me and crossed her arms angrily.
"What is the meaning of threatening one of my servants?" she asked coldly.
"I wanted my stuff back," I replied.
"Why? So you could put on men's garb again?"
"Why?" she shouted. "Why do you insist on being different?"
"Because I am different! Look at me! I'm one of only two Strangelings in this whole world! Why should I even try to act normal when I know I'm not? I'd rather be myself than live a lie!"
I shuddered, realizing that I was crying. My little speech had the servants and the queen staring at me. Vincentia slowly lowered herself to the ground and held out her arms. I fell into them, forgetting how much I didn't like her. She stroked my back gently, cooing softly in my ear. I nuzzled into her, sniffling as my tears began to slow. She pushed me back slightly to wipe my cheeks.
"There," she said softly. "I did not realize how difficult it is for you. But I do have one question."
"What is that?" I asked.
"What is a Strangeling? You told me what it is, but I'm afraid I don't entirely understand."
I paused. Had I really not shown her? "I am a Strangeling," I said, then focused. As my designs appeared, she gasped. "I'm not just Human, I'm half Elf, too."
"Oh my!" she exclaimed.
Before she could say anything more, another female servant appeared.
"The king requests your presence, milady."
"Come, Filynora," Vincentia said, heaving herself up.
After I had belted on my sword and slung my bow and quiver over my shoulders, I placed my hand on her swollen side; we slowly made our way out to what would be the courtyard. Xylon looked distastefully at me.
"I see she is back in the wrong clothing again. How could you allow this?" he asked his wife. He held up his hand as she went to answer. "Never mind. I wanted to ask you—"
There was a whinny and several Centaurs came sprinting up. They looked like they were barely containing fear.
"My king, monsters heading this way!" one of them panted.
He ordered a trumpet to sound then I watched as the males, including my friends, raced into the forest. Males raced in from all over the city, following their king into glorious battle. I was about to follow when Vincentia squealed and practically collapsed. She leaned over onto her side and began whining. I realized what was happening a second before her servants rushed out, summoned by her noises of pain. I swallowed. She was giving birth; the call of monsters must have been too much. The servants began to try to coax her up, but she wouldn't move. My shoulders were suddenly grasped and a servant knelt beside me.
"She can't get up and get to the table so that we can help her. You must deliver this foal!"
"I've only helped birth normal horses," I argued. "I don't think I can—"
There was another squeal of pain.
"You must!" the mare exclaimed. "We shall instruct you."
I knelt down, noticing that her water had already broken. I gulped then positioned my hands.
"The head comes out first," the mare began.
"What's your name?" I asked suddenly.
She paused, obviously surprised by the question. "Luinanna." When I made no further comments, she started again. "Now, the head comes out first. You'll have to guide it out. Be very gentle with it. It's soft for about an hour after birth. Then comes the torso. You'll have to maneuver the body a little after you get that out then reach in to pull the two front legs out. Make sure the knees are bent, or you might tear something with the hooves, though there is a low chance of that happening as the hooves are coated with something to prevent that. The body should follow easily until the hips, during which time you might have to pull the front legs down towards her hooves. The feet should follow. Do you understand?"
I nodded. "The second half I can easily handle. The other part sounds a lot like Human birth."
"This foal is much bigger than a Human child," Luinanna said. "Here comes the head."
It was much bigger than a Human child. It was big enough to be a five year old! I did as she had told me, guiding it gently out. The torso came next. After that, I laid the head on a soft pillow covered in cloth that the servants had brought out. Pulling up my sleeve, I slipped my hand inside the queen and brought out the legs. The body followed, and when the hips came, I pulled the front legs down towards her hooves. Before I knew it, the foal was out, and Vincentia finally stopped writhing; she had actually screamed a couple times, too. I moved to cut the umbilical cord but was stopped by harsh voices.
"You don't cut it for fifteen minutes. Life is still being transferred through it," Luinanna said.
"Oh. Sorry," I said, wiping myself off with a towel they had brought.
About five minutes later, the air suddenly felt darker than anything I had ever felt, even from the Mngwa. I stood up, hand on the hilt of my sword. Vincentia sat up, squealing, and tried to stand, but was held down by her servants.
"Milady, not yet!" Luinanna shouted.
"They're coming! Darkness and evil! They want to kill and destroy!" Vincentia shrieked.
"Mother!" Cevenor exclaimed, running up; another group of males darted past us and headed into the forest. "You foaled! What's wrong? Did it…die?"
"Go get your weapons," I said tersely.
"I beg your pardon?" he asked, his eyes wide.
"Go get your weapons!" I bellowed as a thud reverberated through the forest around us.
He started at the noise and stared at my face intently. Then he ran inside the caves. There was another thud, and I watched as birds flew above us, hurrying away from what was causing the noise. They came out of the forest, crushing pavilions just for the fun of it.
One of them was sickly yellow with horns twisting out of the top of his head. The other only had one eye and was black, with fangs peeking from his lips. They were huge, nearly as tall as the towering trees.
The black one sniffed. "Mm, I smell fresh foal," he said, his voice deep and rumbling. He looked down and spotted the newborn then reached for it. "Nothing more tender than fresh foal."
Vincentia shrieked and tried to stand again, but, despite their terror, the servants held her still. I slung my bow off my shoulder and nocked an arrow. I aimed at his eye and fired. I hit my mark, and the eye popped, liquid splashing down his face. He screamed, stumbling back a few steps and destroying more pavilions.
"Who are you?" Cevenor shouted, standing beside me with his bow and arrow poised.
"I am Ogre!" the yellow one boomed.
"And I am Cyclops!" the now blind one growled, his voice strained with pain.
"We are what remains of the Dark Ones!" they said triumphantly.
Cevenor swallowed and looked at me. "You won't tell anybody I'm terrified, right?"
"I'm terrified," I said blandly.
"Yes, tremble with fear at our presence!" Ogre said gleefully.
"My God is bigger than you," I said confidently; that didn't really take away my terror, but it did lessen it.
"Your God is a horrible tyrant. He took your mother away."
"You took her away from me! Besides, He has a plan!"
"Yes, His plan involves death and suffering."
"We brought on the death and suffering from disobeying Him. But you disobeyed Him, too. You and your Dark Master!"
"We were wronged! He hurled us from the heavens with no good reason! It is only right that you, as some of His precious creations, should suffer as well."
"He always has a reason!"
Ogre growled and lunged for me, aiming to kill. Cevenor and I dashed between his legs. He spun around, chasing us while his blind companion tried to get his bearings. I looked at the mares hoping that they could head inside. Time seemed to pass slowly and quickly at the same time. When the servants finally allowed Vincentia up, the foal following its mother, they ran inside. I skittered up a tree; Cevenor stopped, looking at me.
"Filynora, what are you doing?" he called, ducking the monster's grip.
"Distract Ogre!" I shouted back.
I grabbed a vine then leaped forward to land on his shoulder. He reached for me, but he suddenly had to shield his eyes from Cevenor's arrows. I wrapped the thick vine three times around his neck then jumped back to the tree. I hurried down then stood beside Cevenor. Now that arrows weren't being shot at him, he tried to get the vine from around his throat. His fingers were too thick, and I had wrapped it around him too tightly.
"Hey, stupid!" I shouted. "You couldn't get us if you tried."
"Filynora!" Cevenor exclaimed.
Ogre rushed forward. There was a snap, and the entire tree toppled over, right onto his head. He hit the ground, unconscious. I noticed we had an audience of Centaurs, who weren't even bothering to help.
"Now for the blind one," I said, unwrapping the vine from around the monster's neck. I hacked it off what I figured to be the right length. "We're going to trip him." We wrapped the vine around two trees, and I called to the ugly brute. "Hey, Cyclops. You might as well give up! Even if you defeated me blind, your Dark Master would never be proud of you. He's too proud of himself!"
Cyclops roared, charging toward the sound of my voice. He tripped and fell hard, shaking the ground. I dashed to him as he sat up. I plunged my sword into his belly and dragged the blade, with great effort, through his flesh to create a gaping hole. Blood began pouring out of it, but he surged to his feet, dragging me and my stuck sword with him. I screamed and heard Elthinor call my name. I managed to get the blade out and plummeted down. I was caught by Cevenor, who set me on my feet. Ogre began to move.
"Quick! Slit his throat!" I exclaimed; Cevenor was closer than I was.
He ran over to the beast and did as I had told him to. The two creatures were dying now. Cyclops' insides were now coming out and that viscous black blood was gushing out with them, killing off the plants around him. Ogre was clutching at his throat. He looked at me.
"You're horrible," he gurgled. "Unnatural. Our Dark Master shall kill you where we failed."
"Only if God wills it," I replied.
Ogre died first, falling into the dirt. Before the mayhem with the blood could occur, Cyclops collapsed and breathed his last. I began rapidly backing up and Cevenor followed, looking at me curiously. Instead of exploding, they started melting, the blood oozing over the ground. Trees withered where they were, and the two beasts were enormous so there was a lot of damage as blood just kept flowing. The sticks that held up the pavilions melted like the trees were. Everything in its path was destroyed. I could see Elthinor push his way to the front of the Centaurs. We were separated by an ocean of blood, and it took five minutes for it to finally disappear in smoke. My Elven friend rushed over to embrace me.
"Fily! You're all right!"
"Yes," I said calmly.
"Good job, Cevenor!" Xylon suddenly called.
"What?" the prince asked, dazed.
"You defeated the monsters."
"What?" he asked again then shook his head. "No I didn't. Filynora did. I just helped."
"Ridiculous. A female cannot fight," Xylon snorted.
Cevenor's face suddenly got red. "You stood there and watched us! She defeated the monsters. I just helped!"
"That's not the way I saw it."
Cevenor stomped his hoof. "You saw what you wanted to see, not what really happened! Filynora is the real hero here."
"Um, not to interrupt, but I have a question for Fily," Gabrithon said as he and the rest of my friends made their way towards us.
"What's that, Gabrithon?" I asked.
"What exactly are you covered in?"
"Oh that? It's—The foal!" I gasped, turning and sprinting inside.
I heard others behind me as I burst through the curtain to the females' rooms. There was the foal, standing and happily nursing at its mother's breast. Cevenor, Gabrithon, and the rest of my friends yelped when they came through and quickly averted their eyes. I walked over; the foal stopped drinking, turning to look at me. It might have been large compared to a Human child and well developed, but in its face was the blankness and innocence of a baby. I was suddenly roughly shoved aside which made me fall on the ground. It was Xylon.
"Now, what shall I name my new son?"
I glanced up and snickered. "Nothing," I said as I sat up.
"What do you mean nothing?" Xylon demanded.
"You can't name your son anything because it's not a son."
"What?" The king did not look happy.
"She's a filly, sire," Luinanna said, bowing low.
"Preposterous! There hasn't been a filly born for six generations!"
"She's a filly, my king," Vincentia said, a little harshly. "There is no changing that fact. So what are you going to name her?"
"Nothing! I refuse to name the child!" he said, storming out.
Cevenor glanced at Gabrithon. "You know, brother, Hithaeron will not want to name her either. So that falls to me. I delegate some of my authority over the matter to you. Now, what shall we name her?"
They stood there thinking about it then began whispering to each other. Vincentia finished nursing her foal and slipped her shirt back on. I told the boys they could look now, so they walked over to observe the newborn. She shied away from them, pressing into her mother. I chuckled and poked her little nose.
"You know, you owe me a new set of clothes. You ruined these," I told her.
"I'll make you a new shirt and a new pair of trousers," Vincentia said. "I'll need to keep those to refer to."
"Thank you, your majesty," I said with a bow.
"That's the perfect name for her!" Gabrithon said with a laugh.
"What is?" Vincentia asked.
Cevenor walked over and placed his hand lightly on the foal's head. "We christen thee Nora, little one."
Then they both began chuckling.
"What's so funny?" I asked.
"Think about it, Filynora," Gabrithon said.
I did so. When I finally figured it out, I burst out laughing. Elthinor, Jaiden, and Pinnathir were still puzzling over it, and they frowned.
"What is it?"
"Nora!" I exclaimed. "She's a little filly named Nora!" When they still had blank looks on their faces, I laughed harder. "She's little filly Nora! Get it? Filynora!"
They paused then broke into bright, bubbly laughter. Nora joined us, waving her hands and clopping her little hooves on the ground. When we'd finally calmed down enough to breathe, Vincentia looked at her sons with a smile.
"I love it," she said. "It seems only fitting to name her after such a wonderful, beautiful girl. Even if she is a little different."
After a pause, Elthinor sighed. "Well, that's clever, Gabrithon."
"Thank you," Gabrithon said with a bow.
"Father's not happy," Cevenor suddenly said. "He's not happy about his new daughter, and he's certainly not happy about Filynora winning that battle with only a little help from me. I fear we'll never get him to go, now."
"We'll figure something out, dear one," Vincentia suddenly said. I could tell by the way she said that, she was coming up with a plan.