Chapter 9: A Centaur Tale for a Captive Audience
I grew up on my grandfather’s farm with my mother and younger brother, Hywel. Our neighbors were the Fleetwyndes, a family of Centaurs. Rory and I were the same age. The second brother, Patrick, was a couple of years younger. We were all pretty close. They would even let us ride on their backs, which, if you know ‘Taurs, they rarely allow. Hunting, hiking, camping; we did it all together.
One spring, when I was fifteen, we were walking home from school and Rory showed me a key.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A key, Rhodri.”
“I can see that! A key to what?”
“Paradise.” He grinned wickedly and swished his tail.
I stopped and gave him a skeptical look. “What are you at, Rory?”
He stopped, looked around to see if anyone might hear, put a hand on my shoulder and then bent down to where he could whisper in my ear. His broad, freckled face bore a conspiratorial smile. “’Tis naught less than the key to Mister McCrery’s aging house!”
I grinned back. Really? T’would be cruel for you to be foolin’ me now!”
He straightened, shook his shaggy, red locks and thumped the ground with a hind hoof for emphasis. “No foolin’. I take it you’re in with me then, Mister Morgan?”
I grasped his hand. “To the bitter end, Mister Fleetwynde.”
Anyone familiar with Caledon knows that, next to grain, whiskey is our primary export. It’s what we’re famous for. Caledonian whiskey is compared favorably to the best Terra herself can offer. The secret is the native Caledonian faroak-wood barrels in which the raw spirits are aged. They impart a peculiar but desirable taste to the product. Aging houses are barns where the barrels are stored in racks for up to ten years to mellow and fully absorb the taste.
Whiskey making is a family affair on my home world, we have no big distillers. Among these family enterprises, McCrery Single-Malt Select is the best. The McCrery aging house is located on a sunny hillside in a remote section of their property no more than three miles from my home.
Rory had been in town the day before to pick up some necessities when he happened to see old man McCrery drop the key while climbing into his skimmer. I don’t know how Rory knew it was the key to the aging house, but the large, ornate brass key simply had to unlock something special.
Our plan was to open one of the barrels, siphon off a couple of gallons, and then replace the bung. The key would be left in the lock, in hopes the old gentleman would think he’d left it there himself. We would then retire to a secret location to sample our loot and then hide the rest for future celebrations.
Sometime before first moonrise, I snuck out of the house. I brought with me a mallet and wedge for removing the bung. I left Hywel; I just knew taking a ten-year-old on an expedition like this would be a mistake.
Our rendezvous was a thick copse of woods with an evil reputation. For near its center was a ring of black obsidian standing stones called Darkhenge. This monument was said to be older than the colony itself; and haunted by the ghosts of the lost alien civilization that built it. This legend made it deserted, of course, and perfect for our purposes.
I walked cautiously along the path to the henge, my way lit only by the pale yellow light of Littlemoon filtering through the trees. Greatmoon would not rise for a few more hours. We would have preferred a night with neither moon, but we knew it would not be long before the key would be missed and our opportunity lost. I was grateful for the light, nonetheless. The area gave me the shivers.
Not far in I heard a hoof clomp. I smiled, ‘Taurs are terrible at moving silently. I still hid behind some brush. It could be someone other than Rory and Patrick. The hooves approached slowly and softly. Somebody stumbled and I heard a little girl’s voice cry out.
“Don’t you dare break a leg! Mum would kill us!” Rory growled.
Incensed, I stepped out of my hiding place. “Rory?! You brought Maeve! How could you!”
Startled, Maeve reared and stepped back. She had the same round, freckled face, red hair and sorrel body as her brothers. “Now you just shut up there Mister Rhodri Morgan or I’ll prance on over and tell your mother what you’re doing!”
“She found us out.” Rory said forlornly. “Heaven only knows how, but she did.”
“I left my brother behind because he’s ten and you bring your eight-year-old sister?”
“I’ll be nine in two weeks!” said Maeve with fists on hips and a front hoof pawing the ground.
I began to sense the first whiffs of impending disaster and thought seriously about turning around and going home. Patrick persuaded me otherwise.
“It’s all for the best. If Maeve comes with us, she won’t be able to tell on us without getting in trouble herself.” He whispered. Rory’s brother was by far the most sensible of the Fleetwynde siblings. If he was confident, it was hard to say no.
The four of us struck out for the aging house. I was carrying my tools. Rory and Patrick each had two one-gallon jugs tied together and slung on their backs. Maeve sometimes followed and sometimes galloped ahead, chattering and giggling uncontrollably. It was a good thing that we were in a very isolated area.
Finally, we arrived. The old building loomed above us in the ghostly moonlight. Rory produced the key and stuck it in the padlock. I half-hoped it wouldn’t work, but it clicked and the little filly squealed with excitement. The door opened to complete darkness. None of us had thought to bring a light.
We decided to work with the door open to allow moonlight in. That was alright with me (I had an unreasoned fear of the door closing and locking us in the stuffy darkness), but that made us have to work with the barrel nearest to the door. Our original intent was to pick one of the oldest containers. What we ended up with, since we couldn’t read the dates and had no choice anyway, was the newest and rawest. It was more akin to tractor fuel than whiskey.
Removing the bung was quick and easy, but distressingly noisy. Rory inserted a hose and began siphoning. He was rewarded with a stinging face full. On the second try, the whiskey flowed and the jugs began to fill. Within fifteen minutes they were corked and the bung tapped back into place. We closed and relocked the door while Maeve pranced about singing a whiskey chant she’d made up on the spot. No amount of hissing or shushing could make her stop.
We took off for the woods. Naturally, I was left behind until Patrick took pity and stopped to let me climb his back. By the time Greatmoon began to peek over the horizon, we were safe in the woods, or so we thought.
Late that afternoon, Old Man McCrery missed his key. He searched his home in increasing anxiety, huffing, blowing and swearing. It was after dark by the time he gave up, took the spare key and a new padlock and left the house. His horse had turned up lame that morning, so he took out his hoverbike (which happened to be much quieter), mounted it and started for the aging house.
Much was his surprise to find the door open. He was about to call his sons to come armed, when he got another surprise. Four children he couldn’t help but recognize emerged carrying jugs.
Duncan McCrery was a kind man, not at all vindictive; however, there was no way he could allow this violation of his property to go unanswered. He called and asked his sons to come unarmed with their hoverbikes.
It’s hard for me to describe the pure exhilaration of getting away with petty thievery. We galloped for Darkhenge Copse, whooping and hollering, slowing down only when we got to the first trees. We were all chattering and laughing as we clop-clopped to the main clearing which we’d designated as our rendezvous. By the time we arrived, Greatmoon was well up, giving off enough pale light to read by and also lending the obsidian stones of the henge an eerie glow. We settled down in the open. I leaned against Rory’s side. Patrick rolled in the grass. Maeve chased firecrickets.
“How ‘bout a sample Brother Morgan?” said Rory.
“T’would be a pleasure Brother Fleetwynde.”
Rory picked up one of the jugs and began working at the cork with his teeth. Patrick rolled upright and said, “Me too!”
“And I shall have some as well!” announced Maeve.
Rory frowned and spat out the cork. “No!” he said quite forcefully.
“No?!” She crossed her arms. “Why…Why, I’ll tell Mum!”
“No you won’t,” grinned Rory. “Besides, I’d rather be switched than give whiskey to a mere slip of an eight-year-old girl!”
Maeve shrieked and bucked. I thought she might even kick her brother. She knew her bluff had been called. She begged and pleaded. “I won’t drink much! Just a sip, please?!” Her brothers (for Patrick had backed Rory up.) remained adamant. Finally she collapsed and lay on the ground, flailing her arms and kicking all four legs at the sky. “I’ll get you for this Rory! And you Patrick! And you too Rhodri ab Owain! I’ll not be forgetting this! I won’t speak to any of you for a hundred years!
We tried, with little success, not to giggle at her tantrum.
“Well, my bipedal brother,” said the elder Fleetwynde. “Would you care for the honor of first sip?”
“I shall be forever in your debt, my four-legged sibling.” I took the offered jug and sniffed. It didn’t smell like the cork from a bottle of McCrery that my grandfather had allowed me to smell once. I hesitated.
“You’ve had whiskey before haven’t you?” said Rory.
“Of course!” I lied, and took a swig. It burned like reactor coolant. “Smooth!” I squeaked, and handed back the jug. My face reddened as I tried not to choke.
It was Rory’s turn to hesitate. Finally, he turned up the jug and took a pull. He too turned red and beads of sweat formed on his brow. “Very smooth!” he rasped and passed to his brother.
“Not fair. Not…Fair.” Moaned Maeve from the turf.
Patrick took his turn and choked. “Oh God!” he wheezed. “That’s nasty!”
We laughed at him. Even Maeve managed a forlorn giggle. “Serves ye right. That’s what you get for mistreating your sister!”
“Whoever heard of a Centaur who couldn’t hold his liquor?” Rory teased.
“You call that liquor? More like skimmer fuel!”
“Give it back to Rhodri. He’ll show you how!”
Thus began my downfall. Never do any serious drinking with ‘Taurs. They can hold their alcohol because their body mass is several times that of a main-line human. Even Maeve could’ve drunk me under a table. I was soon lit like a candle while the Fleetwynde brothers were just getting warmed up.
Sometime later, Maeve announced, “I’m bored and sleepy. I want to go home.”
We were more than glad to oblige, but didn’t want her to wander about by herself. Patrick volunteered to take her home then return. We waved a cheerful goodbye. Rory was plainly tipsy. I was well on my way to alcohol poisoning.
Rory passed me the jug again. Some feeble survival instinct kicked in and I waved it off.
“’Bout had ‘nough Rodders?” he asked.
Yes, I don’t feel well. I’d like to go home, is what my brain tried to say. What Rory heard was, “Burble hell blurble ome.”
Even in his befuddled state, Rory knew that wasn’t right. “I fear I must cut you off good sir. Na more nectar o’ the gods fer you t’night.”
“Yerrp!” I replied agreeably.
“In fact I should accompany you to your abode.” He tried to stand. I’d been leaning on his big body like a couch. When he moved, I slid off to the side as formless as a poorly-done pudding. When he got up, he was as unsteady on his hooves as a new-born colt. It’s a wonder he managed not to step on me. “Get up on yer paltry two legs ye heathen and climb on my back.”
I tried to do as he said but it seemed all my limbs had developed minds of their own and were no longer on speaking terms with my brain.
“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” he sighed as he watched me struggle. Finally he sat on his haunches and allowed me to drape myself onto him. He twisted round and tried to hold me on as he walked. It was rather like trying to balance a pumpkin on his back. That was when I passed through the veil of unconsciousness.
McCrery and his four sons were waiting on the path out of the Darkhenge Copse. It was fairly obvious where we had gone, but it took them a while to get organized and ready. Maeve and Patrick had already departed safely by the time they had arrived.
They were well prepared to meet us. McCrery had taken a length of twine and a wooden slat to construct a bull-roarer, a kind of instrument that makes a deep, loud moan when you spin it over your head. His boys had stripped to the waist and painted themselves green.
Eventually they heard the clippity-clop of approaching hooves along with the occasional stumble and curse. Then Rory appeared, twisted uncomfortably to hold his passenger steady, he was completely unprepared. McCrery began to spin the bull-roarer; its eerie moan filled the air.
Rory straightened, halted and perked his ears. “Wha…” He never got to finish his thought. Four bright, green McCrerys burst from the undergrowth. The young Centaur froze for an instant, mouth open, eyes like saucers. He reared on his hind legs and shrieked out a high-pitched squeal. My oblivious self was tossed, unthought of, into the brush. Then he thundered off, crashing through the undergrowth and howling.
The McCrerys did a bit of their own howling, but became concerned when I didn’t get up. They became more concerned when they found me and saw that I was as green as any of them. They stood me up, made me vomit, and then chaffed my limbs and cheeks. Finally the elder McCrery loaded me up on his bike and took me home.
Rory was most of the way to his home and near collapse when he met his brother, who was on the way back. It took a long time for Patrick to get anything coherent out of his older sibling. When it finally came (something about the woods being full of three meter tall, alien spirits) Patrick was skeptical, thinking Rory had been spooked by moonslight, shadow, a vivid imagination and (of course) the whiskey. They were arguing about the nature of reality when Patrick said, “Where’s Rhodri?”
Rory looked back at himself as if he expected me to still be there, and then groaned. “I don’t know!”
“You don’t know!?”
“He fell off.”
“In the woods.” Rory said miserably.
“You left our dearest friend to be eaten by SPACE ALIENS!?”
“YOU said there’s no such thing.”
“YOU’RE the one who said you saw them!” said Patrick. “We’ve got to go back and find him.”
“He’s done been eaten by now.”
“Doesn’t matter. We have to find him, if there’s anything left to find. Then we have to tell his mum.”
“Oh Christ!” Rory moaned and put his face in his hands. The prospect of telling Fionna O’Neal Morgan that he had misplaced her son was more frightening to him than facing a battalion of cannibalistic aliens. Soon, they were making their cautious way to the Darkhenge.
By the time they had arrived at the copse, the McCrerys had reclaimed what was left of their whiskey and departed. The father was willing to speak no more of the incident. No damage was done, most of the liquor had been recovered and he and his sons had been provided with a most enjoyable evening’s worth of entertainment.
Finding nothing encouraged Patrick’s skepticism, but Rory shook his head. “If there were no aliens, where’s the whiskey? Where’s Rhodri?”
The younger brother had no answer.
They searched until near daylight before they gave up. They then had no choice but to do what had to be done. When they arrived, I was awake, in a cold sweat and very busy trying to keep my bedroom from spinning out of control. My window was open and almost directly above the front door, however, so I heard most of what came next. My mother let them blubber and wail for nearly a minute, before she told them that I was upstairs. She then laid into them with a verbal lashing that would make a petty officer blush. I had no idea my own mother even knew such words. She finished up by grabbing a broom and chasing the Fleetwyndes off our property. I couldn’t help but notice; however, the cheerful spring in their gallop as they sped away, knowing their friend was alive was worth the humiliation. It was six months before I was allowed to speak to them again.
There was one permanent result of that night. I have no illusions about how fun getting drunk is. Therefore, I rarely drink and never to excess.