That night around our little camp fire, we ate more than we probably should have considering we were supposed to be rationing our food, but I did not have the heart to care. My mother was safe and with me again. Gabrithon and Elthinor fell asleep quickly after dinner, tired from the battle and their wounds, but I could not fall asleep no matter how hard I tried. I wanted to speak with my mother, but she, too, had fallen asleep shortly after they had, and Nolan was the only other one awake. I wrapped my arms around my knees, staring into the depths of the fire. Nolan shifted often, as if he were uncomfortable.
“Filynora?” he asked softly.
“You know you can call me Fily, right?” I asked, looking up at him with an amused smile.
“Oh…I wasn’t sure if you would mind.”
“Why would I mind? You are a part of our group. Soon enough I hope you will be a good friend of mine.”
“What am I to you now?”
“You are simply a member of our group right now. I need to get to know you better,” I answered honestly.
“How?” he asked innocently, reminding me that he was an orphan who’d had little civil interaction with other Humans, let alone the other races.
“Spend time with us. You have been too quiet during our trek, and are always behind us while we walk. Speed up a little and converse with us. Let us see who you are through your words and reactions. That is how I got to know Elthinor and Gabrithon.”
“Nobody has ever really wanted me to spend time with them before. They all just pushed me away,” he mumbled.
He sounded so sad that I leaned over and embraced him. He stiffened then slowly returned the hug. He smiled shyly at me as I pulled away and seemed much more relaxed.
“Thanks…Fily,” he said with a smile then yawned. “We should probably get to bed.”
“Yes, we should. Good night, Nolan,” I replied with a smile.
I tucked myself into my bedroll but still could not sleep. I stared up at the stars and thought about God, about how he created them. They were beautiful mysteries, kind of like Him, I realized. I did not know much about Him. I knew He was kind from the way Jesiah’s face shone. I knew He was creative because of all the different creatures and plants. I knew He was good because there was good in the world, and He had created the world. I knew he could not be bad, but I did not have a reason for that. At least, not yet. Though there was bad in the world, I just could not believe that a God who had created so much good could create evil.
I began counting the stars, my mind focusing on the task. I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew, I heard Gabrithon whinny, the sound angry. I was confused and sat up, rubbing my eyes tiredly. I saw my mother standing in front of Gabrithon, who was still lying on his belly; she was looking a bit frightened. To my disbelief, Gabrithon none too gently shoved her hesitant hands away from his arm and bristled with anger. My mother stumbled back, falling to the ground.
“Stop touching me, woman!” he spat, holding his wounded arm close to his chest.
Before I knew it, I had jumped over the fire pit and, before thought caught up with my body, slapped the Centaur across the face. Hard. Ember leaped up from where he was sitting and barked, his tail swishing back and forth excitedly.
“Don’t talk to my mother that way,” I said. “And if you ever shove her again, I will finish what the Aswangs started.” I grabbed his bandaged arm to make my point.
He gasped in pain and leaned his torso away from me, looking bewildered and frightened. I could see a perfect red patch of skin on his cheek in the shape of my hand. As everybody stared at me in surprise, I felt the anger dissipating. I relaxed my defensive stance and rubbed my arm sheepishly, feeling guilty. Gabrithon did not relax and just stared at me, gaping in shock.
“Sorry. My mother is everything to me, you know? And she has no one to protect her but me.” He did not look like he understood what I meant, but I got an idea on how to help him understand. “How would you feel if I hit your mother?”
Immediately his eyes held fire. “I would not like it at all,” he said.
“It is the same for me,” I replied, and he relaxed slightly then turned to my mother.
“I apologize for shoving you,” he said quietly. “I still don’t like females touching me. Filynora is the only exception, and that is because of the her aura.”
“What do you mean?” my mother responded, confusion in her eyes.
“Centaurs have a male-centered culture. Even more so than ours,” I said as I moved back to my bedroll. “Females just don’t touch males unless they are a direct blood relative.”
My mother suddenly nodded. “All right. I suppose I understand it now. I am sorry, Gabrithon. I did not know. Please forgive me.”
“It is all right…I don’t believe I know your name,” Gabrithon said politely.
She smiled. “Estelle.”
“Interesting name,” Elthinor said. “It is not Elvish sounding.”
“If you haven’t noticed,” Mother said, “I am not an Elf.”
Elthinor frowned and, glancing at me, was about to say something else when my mother turned back to Gabrithon. The Centaur looked surprised and rubbed his cheek without thinking. I knew that he would now respect my mother, but I still felt guilty. Well, mostly. I did feel a little bit of satisfaction in hitting him.
“Sorry,” I said again, smiling hesitantly at him.
“It was my fault,” Gabrithon said, still looking wary, then looked over at my mother, who was still staring at him. “Yes, Estelle?”
“How is your arm?”
“It aches. Quite badly, I might add. Those claws went deep.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“I shall be fine,” Gabrithon assured her. “We need to save all the Raysiam we can.”
“If you are sure,” my mother said, looking unsure about what he had said.
Gabrithon and Elthinor stayed down all day, proving that they were better patients than I was. They both knew it, too, and continuously dropped little hints for the rest of the day. By evening they were restless though, and I could not help but smirk at them as they kept shifting positions and trying not to show it.
“Not easy, is it?” I asked with a knowing smile.
“No, but we’ve lasted longer than you,” Gabrithon replied.
I laughed at that. “True. Very true,” I said matter-of-factly, not even bothering to deny it.
“She has never been a good patient,” my mother put in. “When she was younger, even if she was ill to the point of vomiting, she would want to go outside and play with Ember.”
“Yes,” Elthinor said, nodding as he sat up slowly; he tried and failed to hide his wince of pain. “That sounds about right.”
I shook my head and mimicked Elthinor. “You should not be up, Elthy! You’re much too delicate and the wound is horrible!”
Gabrithon let out a hearty laugh as Elthinor frowned.
“I don’t sound like that,” he argued, crossing his arms.
Gabrithon snickered. “Actually you do. Not really the sound of her voice,” he defended as Elthinor turned his head to glare at him. “But in the actual words. You do say things like that to her. You never did to me when I was wounded.”
“At the time, I cared little about your wellbeing because you are not a…” he trailed off and glanced at me.
I arched my eyebrows. “You can say it. I knew you were babying me because I happen to be a girl.”
“You can’t blame me for not wanting to say that. Sometimes you get so defensive about it. Like with Gabrithon,” the Elf said with a shrug.
“I don’t like it when it is derogatory. At first, our Centaurian friend was disrespectful toward females. And it seems he still is, unless they are me.”
Gabrithon had the grace to look embarrassed. “I said I was sorry. Females just are not that highly noted by Centaurs. I suppose because of your differences that it is easier for me to be civil around you. You don’t seem to possess most of the, and I say this lightly, weaknesses of the opposite sex.”
I thought about commenting but chose not to in favor of petting Ember and glaring at him. Gabrithon smiled at me, a tinge of worry on his face, but he slowly relaxed when he realized all I was going to do was give him a dirty look. I sighed and finally looked away, feeling happy. It felt like my family was back together, and it was no longer just my mother. Elthinor and Gabrithon were just as much my family as she was, and Nolan was like a new baby. I just had to get to know him better, and he would be a part of it soon enough.
Suddenly my thoughts were on the scroll and what we would do now. I did not want my mother to come on the journey with us, nor did I just want to take her back home. Either way, I knew she would be attacked by more monsters. I lowered my head, making Elthinor look at me. He seemed to know what was wrong.
“What are we going to do?” he asked seriously.
“I am not sure,” I replied honestly.
My mother stared at us. “What are you talking about?”
I looked at her. “Well,” I started quietly. “I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite, but I don’t know what to do with you.”
“What are you talking about?” she repeated.
“You can’t fight, not even with a knife or a bow. It is hard enough for us to fight without having to worry about somebody else to defend. The Aswangs will be back for you.” I paused. “Why is that?”
My mother shrugged, avoiding meeting my gaze. I frowned.
“What are you hiding?” I demanded, suddenly feeling angry at my mother as I remembered the Aswangs’ talk during the fight by the lake. “And why does every monster I meet call me a Strangeling? Who are these monsters? Why do they know you?”
My mother looked sad. “Filynora, the information is dangerous.”
“Dangerous? I have fought Aswangs, threatened Vampires, and run from Naga, whatever they are. And you want to talk about information being dangerous?” I asked incredulously. “You know what? Keep it if it is so important. I am going for a walk.”
“Filynora,” my mother said, reaching for me.
“Just leave her be for now,” Elthinor said softly, smiling sadly at her. “She will be back in a while. She just needs to cool down.”
I glanced back for a moment to see my mother watching helplessly as I called Ember to my side. I walked out of the little grove of trees and into the bright light of late morning.