We had to wait a good week for Gabrithon to recover before we packed up camp. He had listened to the story with fascination then said it was a nice little fantasy, though there was something in his eyes that told me it had affected him more than he let on. I didn’t say anything, however, and simply smiled at him before I returned to my task. Elthinor and I were restless to get started as we shouldered our packs. Judging by how Ember was prancing around, he was eager to leave as well.
“Are we ready to go?” Elthinor asked, looking at me expectantly.
“I hope so,” I replied, and we both looked to the Centaur.
Gabrithon slowly stood. “I suppose if we are to get anywhere,” he said, sounding a bit reluctant.
With that said, we started out, travelling slowly so Gabrithon would not overexert himself. He was still sore, but he had healed nicely, only a few scars peppering his torso from the ordeal. We walked in an awkward silence, Elthinor and I unsure of what to say to our new arrival, while Ember darted around sniffing and biting at squirrels and other small animals. Gabrithon had his eyes down, watching the forest floor to avoid making eye contact. He seemed as uncomfortable as we were. Several hours in Elthinor broke first, unable to take the silence anymore.
“So, Gabrithon,” he said casually.
The Centaur looked up, his blue eyes wary. “Yes, Elthinor?”
Elthinor suddenly looked unsure when Gabrithon met his eyes, just as he had been when I first met him. His eyes flicked to the ground and he shook his head. I had figured out that most males intimidated him, and Gabrithon was no exception.
Gabrithon looked confused. “Is something the matter?”
“No. He is just a bit shy,” I said without thinking.
“Fily!” Elthinor hissed, his cheeks reddening around his facial designs.
“What?” I asked as I looked at him. “Oh, come now,” I said as I realized he was embarrassed. “He would have figured it out eventually.”
“It’s not as simple as that,” he muttered.
“Is this another male pride thing?” I asked, not bothering to keep my voice down. Gabrithon was looking at us curiously.
Elthinor glanced at the Centaur before giving up. “Yes. It is. Shyness is a feminine trait and males are not looked highly upon if they have it.”
I shrugged. “I, personally, don’t see the point in hiding something like that. If we are to travel together, we must be able to get along, and to do that we must know each other.”
“Yes, but you don’t have to tell him everything at once, do you?” he asked.
“I just told him you were shy!” I exclaimed. “It isn’t as if I was spilling all of your secrets!”
Not waiting for a reply, I put on a burst of speed to get ahead of them, Ember following loyally. I stayed within earshot just in case a problem arose. As I walked, my temper cooled and I began to feel guilty. I knew I probably shouldn’t have so casually mentioned something so personal. I remembered the teasing Elthinor had withstood when we had been in Ellavendir, and I realized that his shyness had been a reason for or a reaction to the teasing. I sighed as I came to the conclusion that I would have to apologize to my friend for my thoughtless words.
I heard the murmur of voices from behind me and looked back to see the two males deep in conversation. As I watched, Elthinor laughed, no trace of shyness in his movements. He seemed to have already gotten over it. I frowned and just as I did so, Elthinor caught my gaze. His smile faded as he hurried toward me.
“Fily, what’s the matter?” he asked when he got close enough.
I shrugged off his question, looking away. “It’s nothing.”
“Nothing is making you upset?” he asked. “Oh yes, that makes sense.”
“You seem to act different around him than you do around me,” I admitted bitterly.
“It is because I am a male,” Gabrithon said proudly and I jumped in surprise; I had not heard him approach.
I stared at him for a moment then looked at Elthinor for an explanation. He shrugged and, with a grimace, I turned to Gabrithon. I wasn’t looking forward to his way of explaining this. Within the short time I had known him, I had realized that he did not consider females worthy of much—if any—respect, and it always sparked angry indignation in me. I had a hard time controlling my temper around him.
Gabrithon looked pleased as he informed me. “Males are more comfortable with other males. It is just a fact. We enjoy talking about the same issues. While females prefer more delicate topics, like the raising of foals or housekeeping, we talk about hunting and other such important matters.”
I glared at him for a moment but smirked, feeling a burst of satisfaction as I said, “You do know that I am the one carving your new bow, correct?”
Gabrithon looked surprised. “You?”
“Yes, me,” I replied smugly.
He went silent, falling back again. I noticed how confused he seemed. He was clearly not used to a female like me. He wasn’t alone. Most people weren’t used to a female like me. I had grown so accustomed to Elthinor (who was, in turn, accustomed to me) and his attitude toward me, that I had forgotten how I was treated back in Ellavendir and my own village of Paxtonvale. It made me sigh, so I stopped walking, waiting for the Centaur. I knew I had to say something to him.
“Gabrithon,” I said as he got to me and he looked up.
“Yes?” he asked, looking wary and interested at the same time.
“I know I am different from the females you are used to,” I started solemnly, “and I am not going to apologize for that. However, I don’t want you to change what you believe, but I will ask that you at least try to get along with me. If you can’t stand it, I hope you will talk to Elthinor about it. I am sure he has some complaints as well. I am strange to him, too. I am strange to everybody,” I finished, looking away.
“It’s not that you’re strange, Fily,” Gabrithon said softly as he looked down at me. “You just act more masculine than any female I have ever met. I do respect your forward nature and your resistance to those creatures, which is hard enough. To change anymore…I just can’t. Not at the moment. In the future, perhaps. I may even take orders from you, but for now it’s too much against my upbringing. I will, however, try to accept your differences. Is that all right with you?”
“I could not ask for anything more,” I replied with a smile as we began walking again.
Elthinor had listened to us with raised eyebrows, and he smiled at me as he fell into step. His silver-green eyes sparkled as he looked at me, his white teeth peeking between his lips as he tried, and failed, to not smile. I raised my eyebrows, asking silently what was so funny.
“You continue to surprise me,” he replied, laughter underlying his voice.
“Oh come now, I have travelled with you for a while now, and I can honestly say I know your attitude, if not your past. That was difficult for you to do. I am rather proud of you.”
I flushed at the praise and smiled back, meeting his eyes. “Thank you, I suppose. It had to be done. He and I can’t be at odds with each other if we are travelling together for an unknown amount of time.”
Gabrithon cleared his throat. “We are looking for scrolls as well as your mother, correct?”
“Yes, why?” I asked, looking up at him.
“That poem. I believe I know where the location is.”
“You do?” I exclaimed excitedly.
“Yes. There is a place in Centaur lore that we are forbidden to visit outside the forest. It is upstream, at the source of the river. The source is surrounded by an enormous rock formation with a small entrance where the river comes out. Centaurs are forbidden from going inside. It is a depressing place on the outside, and the tunnel that leads into the formation only has a narrow strip of rock to walk along to get in it. The rest of the tunnel’s floor is covered by the river.”
“Why is it forbidden?” Elthinor asked.
“For one thing, it is near a Human settlement. For another, even the air there is desolate. According to lore, a painful choice was made there, followed by death. Since then, the place has been heavy with sorrow and shame.”
“Would you be willing to take us?” I queried.
He looked more than a little reluctant but nodded. “I will take you. It is the least I could do. You saved my life. But I will not go in.”
“How long will it take for us to get there?”
“From here it is a two day journey upstream. That is, if we continue at our current pace,” he replied.
I suddenly noticed how slow we were going, but it could not be helped. Gabrithon was in no state to be going faster. Or was he? Centaurs seemed to be just as resilient as Elves, maybe more so, and both were much more resilient than Humans. I hummed thoughtfully, deciding to test him and see if we could pick up the pace.
I glanced at Gabrithon then started to walk faster. He moved ahead of me, and Elthinor kept up with him. I laughed softly—evidently he was well enough to walk faster— and sped up again. We were all at a trot now, and I felt a spark of delight rush through me, one that I had not felt since this whole mess began. It was such a relief that I let out a whoop of joy and took off, Ember on my heels. Elthinor let out a laugh while Gabrithon whinnied and they both sped up after me. Oh yes, Centaurs were tough and healed quickly, I thought happily.
I ran through the forest, ducking through the trees, leaping over low lying plants and rocks, and following the river, my thoughts soaring like the birds I scared as I passed by. I felt as free as I always did when I ran, and this time I wasn’t hunting, so I did not have to stop. I ran and ran, my breathing heavy, my feet light. Ember began falling back, and I gave an exhilarated laugh. He could never keep up with me when I ran for a while. Nobody could. To my surprise that included Elthinor and Gabrithon.
“Fily!” Elthinor cried out breathlessly. “Please. Stop!”
I looked back to see that they were no longer following, so I turned to sprint back. An impulse hit me and I jumped up, kicked off the tree and flipped, landing in front of them with a smile on my face. It faded when I saw that they were both staring at me with incredulous looks. They were panting heavily and sweating profusely; even Ember was more winded than I was, and it made me feel uncomfortable. As they continued to stare at me, I blushed and looked away. I had never given it any thought that nobody could keep up with me as I ran. It was simply something I did well, but now I felt self-conscious.
Between gulps of air, Elthinor asked, “How in the world are you not tired?”
I shrugged and turned away from them, my breathing already steady again. “I just like to run,” I mumbled, my fingers playing with my hair.
“Even the fastest messenger Stallions can’t run like that without tiring,” Gabrithon said as he sank down to the ground, his legs trembling from the exertion. “They can run that fast, mind you, they just get tired.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, lowering my head. “I did not mean to—”
“No! You should not be sorry. That is an incredible feat, Fily,” Elthinor said, placing a shaking hand on my shoulder. “But Gabrithon and I actually have the need to breathe, so we can’t keep up with you.”
“I believe we should rest before we resume our journey,” Gabrithon panted then sighed. “We need to run more often to get to where we can keep up with her.” He sounded a little bitter at that, and I turned to look at them again.
“Agreed,” Elthinor said, dropping to the ground against a tree. “On both counts.”
I walked over to the river and sat on its bank, still feeling a little off. The fact that I had outrun them bothered me. Gabrithon had the body of a horse, and Elthinor was an Elf. During the time I had been in Ellavendir, I learned that Elves were faster and stronger than Humans. I had just outrun an Elf, and a male Elf at that, but it was the Centaur that really bothered me. I mean, he was part horse. I didn’t know that I could outrun a horse! I let out a sigh, still trying to digest the fact that I was that fast.
“Filynora,” Elthinor said softly, his breathing a little more even. “Please cheer up.”
“That is easy for you to say,” I mumbled. “You’re not the freak.”
“It really was amazing, what you did, Filynora,” Gabrithon said, a smile in his voice. “I am quite impressed.”
I could not help but smile at that. I knew how much it meant that I had impressed him. “It really was nothing to me,” I admitted. “I run all the time. Well, I used to when I went hunting.”
I could feel Gabrithon’s surprised reaction, but Elthinor was the one who responded.
“Hunting…Hmm,” he murmured. “Gabrithon, are there deer in this forest?”
“Yes. Quite a few,” he said. “Why? Do you want her to go hunting?”
“Yes,” the Elf replied. “Would you be willing to Fily?”
“Hunt?” I asked, turning around with a smile. “I would love nothing better at the moment, but how are we to cover any more ground today if I go hunting?”
“You go ahead of us and hunt. Make sure you get it to the riverbank, and we’ll catch up and camp there for the night. Just make sure you don’t go too far.”
I stood, slinging my bow into my hand. “I can do that. Come on Ember!”
I smiled and waved at them before taking off into the forest, Ember by my side. As we ran, I heard a soft voice whispering in my ear that it would all work out. I fully agreed, and I swear I felt the man in white smile, which made me happier than their words had. In fact, I wondered if I had ever felt this happy before.