I awoke to heavy, frightened breathing. I sat up, rubbing my eyes, looking around for the source. I was confused at first when I noticed the horse-man looking at me with fearful eyes. The memory of last night hit me after a couple of moments, and I quickly hurried over to the Centaur. He flinched back, so I paused a few feet away. He was looking at me with disdain, yet he was also scared. I was confused as he looked away from me and glanced down at Elthinor.
“Gabrithon?” I asked gently.
He blinked, his eyes focusing on me again. “Yes?” he asked.
“Do you remember what happened last night?”
Gabrithon shuddered and wrapped his arms around himself. “Monsters,” he whimpered. “Monsters attacked me. Then you and the strange looking man saved me and brought me back here.” He paused. “Is the man going to hurt me?”
Shaking my head, I smiled. “No. And he is not a man. He is an Elf.”
The words I had expected to help made him snort in fear and try to stand. I hurried forward to pull him back down. He fought me, but he was so weak from the attack that I could hold him down. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Elthinor shift in his sleep, and I tried to calm the Centaur down.
“No, no!” I exclaimed softly. “He will not hurt you. I know you must have horrid stories about Elves in your culture, but Elthinor is kind and gentle, nothing like the dark, devilish creatures we expect.”
He stopped struggling and looked at me. “How did you know that?” he asked curiously. “How did you know about the stories?”
“There are stories in the Human culture, too. They make Elves seem evil. They eat children in our stories, decimating the villages they visit.”
“In our stories they are responsible for the stillborn or crippled foals and the deaths of colts and fillies,” Gabrithon said with a tentative smile.
“It seems the rift is bigger than I previously thought,” Elthinor’s voice said, sounding as if he had just been awakened.
I turned to see Elthinor sitting up in his bedroll watching us. I smiled even as Gabrithon snorted again and tried to maneuver himself farther away, though it didn’t work as he was on his belly with his legs curled under him. I placed a hand on his flank, turning and smiling up at him. He stilled, glancing at my hand with an odd expression then raised his eyebrows at the Elf.
“I promise he will not hurt you,” I said sincerely.
Gabrithon seemed indecisive but settled back down. Without thinking, I ran my hand down his flank gently, enjoying the way it reminded me of my horses. The Centaur snorted again, the sound angry, and I looked over at him.
“What is the matter?” I asked.
“Please stop touching me,” he said, flicking his tail at my hand.
“I apologize. I didn’t think that it would hurt you,” I said, removing my hand.
“It doesn’t hurt,” he replied, crossing his arms over his chest. “It is considered offensive for a filly to touch a stallion unless they are mates or she is his daughter. Even then touching of the sort you were doing is looked down upon. Besides, I am not a horse, so don’t treat me like one.”
I felt sheepish. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” I paused then frowned. “Why can’t a female touch a male? I mean, I know you don’t know me, but I mean females in general?”
He looked surprised at the question and opened his mouth as if to answer, but none came out. He seemed to be at a loss for words. I waited patiently for several seconds before Elthinor spoke up.
“You have a strictly male-dominated way of life, yes?”
Gabrithon leaned his torso back away from the Elf, but nodded at the query. “Yes.”
“So, naturally that would mean that females are beneath you.”
“That is right. They are weaker than we are and can’t fight. They are good only for housekeeping and bearing foals.”
I felt a spark of anger and injustice. “Is that so?” I asked coldly.
“Is it not the same with Elves? Are you not his mate?”
“No,” I replied shortly. “I am my own person. In fact, the only reason Elthinor is here is because of me. The only reason you are still here in this world is because of me and my quick actions. Elthinor was too frightened to come rescue you, so you owe your life to me. A ‘weaker than you are’ female.”
With that, I turned, walking straight into the forest. I knew if I stayed, I would say something that I would regret. Walking away was the best option, and my Elven friend seemed to realize this as he did not call for me this time, nor did he come after me. I felt so slighted that it would have been the worst action he could have taken. I walked for a while then sat down on a fallen tree. Soft panting let me know that Ember had followed me, and he plopped down at my feet.
In spite of my treatment in the village and in the Elf town, I was angry at Gabrithon for his views on females. It seemed harsher than Elves’ or Humans’ views on the matter. In Human culture, as in Elven culture, women were expected to stay at home, but they could run a small business, such as selling home grown vegetables or fruits or wash others’ laundry for coin. Centaurs would not even let a female touch a male? I mean, like I said, I was a stranger and shouldn’t have touched him to begin with, but not family members? It was too much.
I sighed and rubbed my temples, forcing myself to calm down. I reminded myself that it was a different race, so naturally there would be different traditions and expectations. My anger drained away, leaving me feeling foolish. I lay back, staring up through the branches of the trees at the sunlight. After the events of the night before, I wanted to be bathed in light to erase the lingering fear and darkness that haunted me. So I lay there for about an hour, relaxing and reveling in the beauty of nature. The sunlight was warm, but the cool breeze that rustled the leaves in the treetops offset the heat nicely. I listened to the birds singing and watched them flitting from branch to branch, entranced by their lightheartedness. My thoughts floated gradually to God, and I felt awed by his creativeness. The birds were all so different. By the time Elthinor came to find me, I was as far from angry as I could be. He chuckled as he found me.
“I had a feeling you would come here,” he said with a crooked smile. I gave him a questioning look, and he gestured at the forest around us. “This is where the Vampires were last night. This is where they attacked Gabrithon.”
“It is?” I asked in surprise, sitting up to look around.
I was astonished to see that it was indeed the place we had been last night. Blood still stained a patch of earth and I quickly looked away. It made me shiver in remembrance of the events surrounding it. I saw a flash of red eyes in my mind, hearing the strange hissing and growling noises of those hideous creatures. I swallowed hard and pushed the memories away, lowering my head.
“I’m sorry,” I said, looking up at Elthinor through my eyelashes. “I didn’t take into account his different culture.”
Elthinor shrugged. “I don’t mind, Fily. It is not Elven culture you were insulted by. Gabrithon was quite surprised that you spoke so boldly to him. I did try to explain the differences between our cultures, though I am not sure he understood. I let slip something about God and he seems interested about it, to say the least.”
I raised my eyebrows at that. Elthinor was excited, but I could not think of a reason. There must have been something in my face that betrayed my confusion because Elthinor suddenly became a bit more shy, and he bit his lip.
“Is something the matter?” he asked meekly.
“What? No,” I assured him. “You just seem excited, that is all. I can’t figure out why.”
“Oh. Well, it is nice to sit and talk with another man…or well, male,” he said with a smile. “For a girl, you can be awfully quiet.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to react to the news that I was too quiet. I just stared at him for a moment then shrugged. “We should head back,” I said, patting my leg twice to call Ember to my side.
“If you insist,” Elthinor replied with a sigh. “I did not mean to offend you, by the way.”
“You did not offend me. You…surprised me,” I said as we began to walk. “I suppose I am a bit quiet. If I don’t see the need to talk, then I will not. My mother is a quiet woman as well, though that might have been because my father was taken away from her. We just never talked much. When we talked, she would tell stories, and I would ask questions.”
Elthinor smiled at me. “I don’t mind the lack of conversation most of the time. But…I feel as if I hardly know anything about your past or skills, besides those with weapons, that is. I realized that while talking to Gabrithon.”
“What about me?” Gabrithon asked as we made it to camp.
“Nothing. Just telling Fily that I was talking to you,” Elthinor said.
“Filly?” Gabrithon asked. “As in a young filly?”
“No. It is a nickname I gave her. Her full name is Filynora. I call her Fily.”
“Fily,” Gabrithon said staring at me. “Yes. Seems appropriate.”
I arched my eyebrow but did not ask him. “I would like to apologize. It was rude of me to touch you without asking. We hardly know each other. How are you feeling?”
“I’m sore,” Gabrithon replied, shifting uncomfortably. “The bites are stinging badly, the claw marks are throbbing, and I feel bruised all over. And thank you for the apology. I accept it.”
“Might I take a look at your wounds?” Elthinor asked politely.
Gabrithon nodded. “I am glad you asked for permission. Yes you may.”
Elthinor began to undo the bandages, handing them to me. I took them and stared at my friend.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” I asked when he turned to look at me.
“Boil them. It will sterilize them, and we can reuse them. There is a pot in my pack that you can use.”
I walked over and pulled out a kettle. I stared at it, trying to figure out how I was supposed to use this on an open fire. I began to go through his pack again and found two ropes, one quite long, the other short. I hummed, looking up at the trees around us a moment before grabbing the ax. I cut three branches, each about three feet long. They were about an inch in diameter and quite sturdy. I set the three tops together and tied them with one end of the shorter rope, leaving about a foot hanging down in between the three.
I set the three-legged contraption on the ground, making sure it was steady before tying the free end of the rope firmly onto the handle of the kettle. I lowered it to the end of the rope and gently let it go. It hung there, swinging slightly, and I smiled. It worked! I moved the wooden tripod over the fire, untied the kettle and filled it with water before tying it back onto the rope. It hung right over the open flames, so I was pleased.
“You are quite creative, Fily,” Gabrithon said.
I jumped, having forgotten about both of the males. I turned to see both of them staring at me with raised eyebrows. I felt my cheeks burn, and I shifted under their intense gazes. They both suddenly smiled, amused at my reaction, which made my cheeks burn even hotter. Gabrithon chuckled, exchanging a glance with Elthinor.
I was embarrassed that I could not control my blush. “I will never understand why males find it so funny when a female blushes,” I muttered, turning away and watching the kettle.
“Because it shows us that we have influence over you,” Gabrithon replied, a grin in his tone.
I turned to stare at him. Gabrithon stared back. Elthinor watched us carefully. As I stared, Gabrithon’s grin slowly melted away. His eyes slowly grew frightened of me. Finally he threw up his hands, hiding his face.
“Females can have influence as well. You might think we are physically weaker, but we can make up for it. Remember, I saved your life. You owe me. So I have influence over you.”
That stumped him. He looked down and became quiet. I felt guilty about saying that, but it was true so I did not take it back. The water came to a boil and I put the bandages in, stirring them around with a stick before sitting back to watch Elthinor doctor Gabrithon’s wounds. He was smearing some kind of green cream on the bite wounds.
“Where did you get that?” I asked, walking over and gesturing at the cream.
“I made it this morning,” Elthinor said, smiling at me. “I found some Raysiam. Crushed up and mixed with water and tree sap, it is a powerful healing agent.”
“Raysiam?” I asked curiously. “So it is a kind of herb?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I gathered quite a bit of it for future use. Even dried, the herb is still good.”
“Good thinking considering what we are up against,” I said with a nod.
“You called them Vampires, correct?” Gabrithon asked.
“The creatures that attacked you last night were Vampires,” I agreed. “But they are not the only monsters we are up against. There are also the Aswangs. They are flying women with poisonous fangs and yellow glowing eyes. They have vicious claws, too, correct Elthinor?” I asked teasingly, and in turn he swatted at me.
The Centaur’s face paled. “What did you two do?”
“What do you mean?” I asked with a frown.
“You have so many dark creatures after you! What did you do?”
I lowered my head. “It’s my fault. They all seem to be after me, though I don’t know why,” I said, feeling ashamed. “They seem to have followed me even when I was younger. I don’t know what I have done to deserve it. They took my mother, so we are going after her. The only hint we have is that they call me Strangeling”
“Fily, it is not your fault,” Elthinor said quietly. “You were still a child when they started.”
Gabrithon hummed. “Maybe it has something to do with your parents?”
I shrugged, looking up at them. “I don’t know Gabrithon.” I paused. “I won’t lie. I feel that this is just the beginning of the dark creatures we will face, Elthinor. If you want to stay here with Gabrithon or go back home, I won’t blame you.”
“I told you when we left, I will not let you go alone,” Elthinor said with a smile. “I still mean it. Once Gabrithon is better we can leave again and he can return home.”
“No!” Gabrithon gasped, his eyes wide. “I am not going back home! I would rather face those Vampires again than go back there.”
“Oh?” I asked, raising my eyebrows. “Why is that?”
“I…My father is putting pressure on me to be something I am not,” Gabrithon said sullenly. “Please let me leave it at that.”
Elthinor and I shrugged, allowing the subject to drop. There was silence for a moment then Gabrithon spoke up, albeit quietly.
“I don’t want to go back home, and I certainly don’t want to stay here alone with those Vampires running around. May I go with you?”
My Elf friend looked at me with surprise etched on his face as he answered. “I don’t see why not, but as Fily said, there will probably be creatures darker than Vampires attacking us. Do you have any weapons?”
“I can use a bow, though it was shattered the night of the attack. I wasn’t considered old enough to learn to use a sword when I left my village, though I did practice with sticks. It’s a Centaur tradition to be twenty-one before sword lessons are given, though there can be some exceptions,” Gabrithon added at our surprised looks.
“How old are you?” I asked.
He gave me an irritated look that I ignored. “I am almost twenty. How old are you?”
“I am almost sixteen,” I replied with a smile.
“Seventeen,” Elthinor added with a proud grin.
“You, Fily, are quite appropriately named. You are nothing but a little filly!”
“You have already mentioned that,” I said dryly. “Now, we can make you a new bow and plenty of arrows. So your weaponless state is no problem. Other than that, as long as you can stand the threat of enemies without running away, you are welcome to join us.”
Gabrithon looked nervous as he smiled. “I am not fearless, but I will try.”
I shrugged. “That is good enough for me. Welcome to the team.”
“You should probably tell him about the man in white,” Elthinor said with a smile. “And God.”
I smiled as Gabrithon looked at me curiously. “Well, there are holes in the story,” I admitted. “But we are trying to fill them in. I guess I’ll start by asking a question. How do you believe we got here?”