We had been traveling for two weeks and were now at the edge of the forest that housed Cyrene, the Centaurian capital. The forest was beautiful with thick, tall trees spread apart enough to leave room for the Centaurs to move comfortably. The leaves hadn’t started to turn yet so everything was green. Leafy ferns grew around the bases of the trunks, and flowers were visible in the shade of the great trees. We could see quite far into the forest, and Gabrithon had warned us to be extremely vigilant. Centaurs, he told us, were not too kind to other races trespassing on what they considered their property.
“That is why we do not like the stone men,” the Centaur told us, referencing the creatures we knew as Dwarves. “We see them as encroaching on our territory.”
“But what if they were there first?” I asked, hefting my pack higher on my shoulder.
Gabrithon immediately looked irritated, an emotion we were getting more familiar with from everybody. “I don’t think anybody considered that,” he growled. “And it would be appreciated if you would keep your mouth shut!”
“No need to get snippy!” I said, holding my hands up defensively.
“Yes there is. Do you have to challenge everything instead of taking it at face value?” he asked with a frown, stomping his front hoof harder than needed on the ground.
I stopped walking. “Maybe we should make camp. We’re all tired. We need some rest.”
“Wonderful solution,” Gabrithon snapped.
“Hey, I don’t see you coming up with anything! Besides, isn’t she almost always right?” Elthinor growled.
“Almost always. Emphasis being on almost!”
Nolan watched them warily and I sighed tiredly. I thought that Gabrithon knew it would help, but I figured his foul mood was getting the better of him. Their glares intensified the longer they looked at each other, and I frowned, stepping between them; if they had been the same height they would most definitely be in each others’ faces.
“That’s enough. We should rest. Now.”
“Fine,” Gabrithon snapped. “But I am not setting up camp.”
“You just need to sleep. Maybe that will make you less grouchy,” Elthinor muttered.
“Be quiet, Elf boy,” Gabrithon growled.
“Oh, the mule’s got a temper!”
Gabrithon let out a squeal like an angry horse. I had raised Elemental horses and knew that noise meant trouble. I watched as he reared, lashing out his front hooves. I jumped in front of Elthinor, who, if I was judging the look on his face correctly, realized he had crossed a line. Gabrithon came down, breathing heavily and glaring at the Elf, but he did calm down so he wouldn’t hurt me.
I spoke slowly, still trying to smooth over the tension. “Now, I know we are all tired and irritable, but that doesn’t mean we need to kill each other. We are going to calmly make camp, eat an early supper, and then go to bed. We’ll stoke the fire up high so that it will burn for a while and we will all go to sleep. Does that sound like a reasonable plan?”
There was a mutter of agreement among the males and we set up camp. Nolan and I had bought tents back in Bushacre before we had headed up here, but we were waiting for colder weather before we started putting them up. For now, setting up meant rolling out our bedrolls and digging a fire pit, which we did happily. We had run out of firewood the week before and with no trees to gather from anywhere near us, we had gone without. Now, though, we gathered some from the forest, careful not to go too deep into the trees in case Centaurs were there.
I built up the fire and had my Kindle Wolf, Ember, light it ablaze. The blast of warmth from the fire was nice; it was rather chilly outside. We all huddled around it for a while then I pulled out some of our carefully rationed food, giving each member of our group their own share. Gabrithon stared at the small portion unhappily, but didn’t complain; he didn’t want to starve any more than we did.
The silence and tension were palpable as we ate. It was especially bad between Elthinor and Gabrithon. I sighed and looked at Nolan. He had several bad bruises on his arms and a welt on his hand. The stick ‘sword’ fights between him and Elthinor were getting a bit longer and more intense, but Nolan just could not beat him yet. I had always wanted to try my hand at it, but I was hesitant to ask. I had a feeling Elthinor would go easy on me because I was a girl. As if Nolan had read my mind, he spoke up quietly.
“So, Elthinor, are we going to practice tonight?”
“No,” the Elf said sharply.
Nolan looked so sad that I pressed a hand against his shoulder. “I can practice with you if you want?”
Gabrithon snorted. “Ooh, I am sure we are all surprised by that. She wants to fight like a male.”
I stared at him. “You know, maybe you should just go home if you’re just going to complain about everything,” I said, gesturing to the forest. “I mean, your home is that way, correct?”
Gabrithon looked startled for a moment then bowed his head and went silent. He glanced up at me after a moment.
“Sorry,” he muttered, seemingly abashed. “I guess I really do need some sleep.”
“We’re all tired,” Elthinor sighed. “I am sorry I called you a mule. I didn’t really mean it. Your complaining has just been grating on my nerves. I guess I just lost my temper.”
“Me, too. I am surprised I have been this patient so far on our journey. I guess it is the approaching cold weather that has me feisty. Back home, I received princely treatment, and was never lacking in anything I needed during the winter, as long as it coincided with our culture.”
Elthinor and Gabrithon smiled at each other and the tension disappeared. Elthinor turned to me and tossed me one of the sticks he and Nolan used to fight each other.
“If you want to attempt this, go on, but he has improved greatly,” Elthinor said.
I gripped the stick the way I had seen Elthinor and Nolan do it, and stood, stepping away from the sleeping bags. Nolan followed eagerly with his own stick, his eyes alight with joy. He dropped into the starting stance and stared at me expectantly.
“Maybe you will actually get a hit in this time,” Gabrithon said with a grin.
“Probably,” I replied, smiling encouragingly at Nolan.
We stood there for a moment then the Human lunged towards me. I dodged and the sticks banged together as we swung. Though Nolan knew the dance, I did not and most of the steps were new to me. I was hit several times. One well placed hit on my leg had me go down onto my knees as fresh, sharp pain shot through me. The boys were immediately concerned. Nolan knelt down and looked at me with a tinge of fear in his eyes.
“Are you alright? We should stop. I knew this was a bad idea!” He sounded frantic.
“I’m fine,” I said, forcing myself to stand up. “I just need to learn how to do this. I am a novice, you know. It might take me a while, but I can take the pain.”
“I don’t know…” Nolan looked hesitant.
I smiled, a fierce and devilish look judging by the looks on their faces, and I did not give him a choice. This time, I got in a few good hits, and Nolan looked a little frightened by the ferocity of my attack. He still managed to strike me more than I struck him, and it took Elthinor standing between us to get us to stop, but overall I had fun despite the aches and bruises I would most assuredly have the next day. And there was just something about the fight that had me trying to remember something. The fighting had seemed familiar, but the memory seemed just out of reach. Had I learned this before? I shrugged the thoughts away after a few minutes of trying to remember.
We settled down, and I could feel Elthinor’s stare, but every time I looked up, he would pretend to be petting Ember, who was settled beside him. I finally grew tired of it.
“What are you thinking, Elthinor?” I asked finally, meeting his eyes before he had the chance to turn away.
“You just continue to surprise me. Nolan was not that aggressive the first time he and I fought. After you get a little more practice with him, I would like to try my hand at sparring with you.”
I tilted my head curiously. “Why not tell me that outright? Why keep staring at me?”
Elthinor shrugged. “I don’t know,” he replied simply, a small smile on his face.
I watched him for a second then hummed and lay back on my bedroll. If Elthinor said he did not know, then he did not know. I yawned and stared up at the sky. The sun was still up and we were all exhausted. I relaxed further into my bedroll and closed my eyes, wanting to just rest for a minute…
I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I knew I was waking up in the forest in which I always met Jesiah. I immediately felt awkward at the mere thought of the man in white. I sat up from where I lay and found myself looking at my lap and fiddling with my hands.
“We have not spoken in a while, child,” I heard him say and I muttered a response, feeling my anger at him bubble up.
I immediately tried to hide it. I hated these feelings. I shouldn’t be feeling angry at God or Jesiah. It was wrong. I felt miserable in front of him.
“What’s the matter?” he asked softly, and I saw his feet in front of me.
I glanced up shyly at him and lied. “Nothing.”
He knelt down and made me look at him. Those caramel eyes made me feel ashamed as soon as I met them, and I knew he knew I lied. I bit my bottom lip and looked away from his eyes.
“Filynora,” he admonished gently. “Talk to me.”
I felt tears burn in my eyes and I took a deep shaky breath as I admitted what I didn’t want to admit.
“I don’t feel as if I can.”
I gasped as I sat up and Nolan was staring at me. He blinked and I could feel everybody looking at me. Nolan’s eyes, which had slowly become less and less shy as time had passed, held hesitation. He sat back on his heels and looked away, playing with his hands. He refused to look at me as he spoke.
“You looked uncomfortable in your sleep. I did not mean to wake you.”
I turned onto my side and looked away from them all. “It…It’s fine.”
“Is it still awkward?” Elthinor asked gently.
“Yes,” I replied sadly. “He keeps wanting me to talk to him about my anger towards him. How do you calmly tell a person that you are angry with them even though you shouldn’t be?”
“Why should you not be? I mean, didn’t he take your mother?” Nolan asked; he was more open to God than Gabrithon, but he was still hesitant about it.
“He had to have a reason,” I replied defensively. “I just don’t know that reason. I guess that’s a part of why I am angry.”
“And the rest?” Nolan queried.
I stayed silent at that, even though I knew the answer: it was because the all-powerful God could have saved her, yet He didn’t.