The next morning, we packed up our camp and moved toward the forest. I was still scared, and it was mainly because this was the way the Vampires had fled. We had decided to resolutely move forward, so we walked toward the place that contained our fears. Elthinor was quiet; Ember had his ears up, and his hackles rose when we got to the forest. We stopped at the edge of the trees, staring into its shady depths.
“Fily?” Elthinor said quietly. “I’m scared.”
“I am, too,” I replied, my voice strong. “But God has protected us this far. He will continue to protect us.”
“Are you sure?”
“Not really,” I said bluntly.
We stood there for another minute then stepped into the shade of the forest. We walked quickly, keeping close beside the river. The flowing water was getting stronger the farther we went, its ‘song’ becoming louder and louder. It was a calming sound which pushed back the silence that threatened to engulf us. At first, I kept my eyes on the river, watching as it bubbled along in the opposite direction beside us. I wished we could follow it back out of the forest, but we could not. The man in white had said to follow it upstream, so upstream we went.
We walked the entire day, stopping only for a brief lunch. During that time I actually tore my gaze away from the river and looked around, studying the area we were in. It was lush and green, but the trees were spread apart nicely. There was plenty of room for us between them, and probably even for those Centaurs. I mentioned this to Elthinor, and he agreed with me then went back to eating the fish we had caught for lunch. He’s really starting to love fish, I thought with a smile. He had told me that thinking of fish as poor food no longer made sense to him since it tasted so good.
We started out again, more relaxed after our meal. Now that we weren’t as scared, I took in our surroundings, which seemed less threatening in the daylight and with God on our side. There were few flowers, which I had grown used to seeing in Ellavendir, but there were plenty of ferns and other green plants. The forest completely lost its foreboding edge as golden afternoon sunlight filtered through the canopy, making our earlier worries seem silly. Indeed, we began laughing about it. When it got closer to evening, or what we thought was evening as there were no longer specks of sunlight filtering through the thick canopy overhead, Elthinor broke the silence that fallen, which had been broken only by the river’s tune, as the light had moved west.
“So, Fily, what do you think about the scrolls?” Elthinor asked as he picked up a rock from the ground and began to play with it.
“I’m not really sure. They raise so many questions. Why were they written? To preserve a lost history? Or to just tell a story?” I asked.
“Why can’t it be both? Can it not be a story about our history?”
“I hope one of them explains the rift between the races,” I said, leaping over a fern with ease.
“Me, too,” Elthinor agreed. “We are such good friends that I can’t imagine Elves and Humans not getting along!”
I smiled at that statement, laughing softly when Elthinor tripped over a root. He blushed as I helped him up but forced a laugh all the same, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. I continued to chuckle as we went along again. Ember, who had been trotting faithfully beside me the whole time, had begun to get restless. I finally looked at him and told him to frolic if he wished. He began leaping around sniffing everything he could get his nose on or near. Elthinor and I laughed at his antics, and I began to play with him. After some reluctance, Elthinor joined in. Ember had paused, looked him over, and then resumed playing with both of us with renewed intensity. We got no farther, but we did have some fun, so I was satisfied by our travels for the day.
We camped that night between the river and a large tree, feeling sheltered beside the strong trunk and beneath the sturdy boughs. We were rather quiet as we sat staring into the fire, the crackle of flames and the wind through the leaves the only noises to be heard. Ember, tired out by our romp, was lying beside me asleep, though I knew he would wake with a simple command. Elthinor and I had been tired out by the playing, too, so we ate. Then I just stared at the fire, ready for bed, but not wanting to move.
Elthinor stirred first. “I’m tired,” he murmured softly, as if he were afraid to be too loud.
“I believe we’re safe for the time being,” I replied. “But I’ll watch for a while to make sure. Go to sleep.”
Elthinor smiled graciously at me while slipping into his bedroll. I stayed beside the fire and watched him for a while. I felt guilty that he had taken all the watches so far. It wasn’t all my fault, as he had never woken me for a shift of my own. I moved my attention to the fire, watching the colors dance within each other. Time passed slowly, yet the need for sleep diminished with each passing minute, and the later it got, the more alert I became. It was as if my nerves were all standing on end. The smallest noises or the faintest smells were caught by my suddenly keen senses. My breathing became shallow and I strained my ears to hear whatever it was I was supposed to hear.
A squealing noise made me gasp in surprise and I shot up, grabbing my bow and quiver. Elthinor sat up, rubbing his eyes roughly before staring at me. I returned the look, my entire body quivering with that strange oversensitivity. Another squeal shattered the night and Ember stood, his eyes peering into the darkness. I had heard that kind of squeal from our horses, and even then it was only once. It was when the fire and water horses had fought each other. A third squeal, this one clearly laced with pain, sounded through the air and, before I was aware of it, I took off at a run. Elthinor shouted for me, but I ignored him. I had to get to the source of the squealing. Ember followed me, quickly catching up to me and shooting ahead, the markings along his body glowing with heat, but not catching fire. Another pain-filled noise reached my ears, but this time it wasn’t a horse’s squeal. It was a Human cry, a sob of agony and fear.
Ember suddenly howled, and I put on an extra burst of speed. In the glow of the wolf I saw shadowy figures huddled around a shape on the ground. The shape was strange, but it was letting out whimpers. That was what was in pain. I shouted angrily, nocking an arrow and firing at the most prominent figure. He cried out and shot toward me suddenly, stopping a couple feet away. He stood in the light glow of Ember, and I recoiled at what I saw.
He had sickly grey skin that looked stretched and old, yet seemed like it had once been young and supple. His face had an edge of fairness but was drawn into a permanently cruel expression. His eyes were pure red, no irises or pupils, and they glowed even in the light given off by Ember’s coat. I could not look away from him, yet I wanted to so badly. He looked like fallen beauty.
“Lugat?” I asked stiffly, another arrow nocked without conscious thought.
“Little one,” he greeted sweetly.
“How can you stand the light?” I queried.
“It is not direct light. It does not sting as the fire light does,” he replied, smiling a hideous and lovely smile at me. I shivered.
“What is wrong with you?” I asked, revulsion coloring my tone.
He laughed, the sound like broken bells. “There is nothing wrong with us. It is the Light One’s fault. He simply would not listen to our reason. He cast us out of Paradise to this place, taking delight in stripping away our light as we fell.”
I frowned. “That does not sound right,” I said quietly.
Lugat shrugged. “It is the way we see it.”
“It was nothing you did?” I asked, narrowing my eyes.
“No!” he snarled, irritated at my questions. “Now come along little pretty. Come to meet our Masters.”
I shook my head and moved my gaze to the still shape on the ground.
“What is that and what are you doing to it?”
“The Centaur?” he asked, waving his hand lightly. “We are hungry. We are going to feed off it. Centaur blood is quite delightful…” he finished with a cruel grin.
“No!” I shouted, letting loose the arrow.
Lugat dodged and grabbed for me, but he drew back before he reached me, skittering backwards out of the glow. I realized why when a gleaming blade appeared beside me, wielded by Elthinor. His eyes were angry and his body stiff.
“Why did you not heed me?” he growled.
“The Centaur is in danger!” I exclaimed, gesturing at the fallen figure. “We must help him!”
Elthinor assessed the situation and began to inch forward. “Follow. And bring Ember.”
I hit my leg twice to call him, whistling. He followed close beside me as we trailed Elthinor, his ears back, his eyes glowing like smoldering coals. As we moved forward, the Vampires moved away from us, aware of the Ember’s power and the danger of our weapons.
We got to the Centaur, and I gasped at my first true glimpse of the creature. He was male. His Human torso bore gouges and bites while his horse body had deep scratches. Blood was oozing from the wounds, staining the golden colored hair. His legs were splayed out awkwardly, and he wasn’t moving. I lowered my weapon and knelt down, gently touching his face. His eyes fluttered open; they were bluer than the sky and staring fearfully at me. I leaned down, and he whimpered in fear, closing his eyes. I kissed his forehead gently, and his eyes surged open again, the fear lessening.
“Are the creatures gone?” he asked hoarsely.
“That is enough, Strangeling. Move so we can eat,” Jiang Shi snarled, making the Centaur look scared again.
I felt my face twist in anger, and I looked back at them as I gave my command. “Flaren!”
As soon as the fire crackled across his fur, the Vampires disappeared with hisses. Elthinor sheathed his sword and knelt down, his fingers tracing the Centaur’s jaw. The Centaur flinched, staring in wonder at the Elf in the firelight. I could not help but wonder if I’d had the same look on my face when I had first seen Elthinor.
“We need to get him patched up,” Elthinor muttered quietly. “Good thing I brought medical supplies.”
Elthinor and I attempted to lift the horse-man but despite our combined strength, we could barely get him off the ground, let alone carry him to camp. We set him down, panting from our efforts. I crawled back over to his face to stroke his cheek. His blue eyes had watched us curiously the whole time, and he seemed amused by our efforts. He had a small smile on his face even though I knew he had to be in pain.
“Mister Centaur,” I said softly as my friend stood. “You are too heavy for us to lift. Could you please walk? We shall help all we can.”
The Centaur still looked frightened. “I don’t know who or what you are,” he finally replied. “But you saved me from those monsters. I have to trust you. Besides, you are a female.”
I wondered at that last comment as Elthinor and I helped him to stand. It took a moment for the poor creature to get his legs under him. We began to walk back to camp, the Centaur’s wounds making us walk slowly. We were all tense and our eyes dashed around the darkness around us, well aware there were eyes staring at us. We finally got there, and after helping the wounded creature lie down, I signaled for Ember to stop flaming.
“Relax, Mister Centaur,” I said. “We will help you.”
“Gabrithon,” the Centaur ground out.
“Gabrithon then,” I replied, smiling kindly.
“You…you are not going to hurt me?” he asked, his voice small and frightened.
“No. We are friends,” Elthinor said as he carried a bowlful of water back from the river. “Now, stay still. This will sting.”
Gabrithon let out a soft groan when Elthinor began to tend to his wounds. I watched him as Ember settled beside me, observing the new arrival with wary eyes. Gabrithon seemed too tired for talk, and his eyes slid closed before long. I pulled some cloth bandages out of Elthinor’s bag to wrap the poor creature’s chest with. There were so many bites. That the Vampires could do so much damage to such a large creature was frightening.
“Is he going to be all right?” I asked after a while.
“Yes,” Elthinor replied. “But I am afraid if we tend to him, we shall be here for a few days. He lost quite a bit of blood and shall be weak and in need of care.”
“Well, we are not going to leave him here all alone! The Vampires could come back to attack him if we leave. Then there would be nobody to save him!”
“I can fight,” Gabrithon said weakly as he opened his eyes.
“I’m sure you can,” Elthinor replied. “But not Vampires. We can’t even fight Vampires.”
“Yet,” I said firmly. “Now, Gabrithon, you need to sleep. Good night.”
He smiled at me, but there was an odd air about it. “You are a brave female to speak like that,” he murmured as he closed his eyes and hung his head. “Good night.”
We tended to his wounds for quite a while, finishing about the time the moon was directly above us, though it was hard to see its pale form through the leaves of the trees. We stoked up the fire then collapsed into our bedrolls, exhausted beyond belief. Without saying a word, we fell into a deep sleep, knowing that Ember would keep the monsters away from us for the night.