I woke early the next morning and, despite my body’s soreness, decided to take a walk in the woods. I knew I would be nearly silent so any Centaurs, if there were any this far away from Cyrene or whatever the nearest town was, would be unable to tell it was a Strangeling. I debated on waking one of the others up, but decided against it; I wanted everybody to get as much sleep as they could so there would be no more irritability. As I walked, I took in the sheer beauty around me and just felt awed.
The trees seemed to become bigger and bigger the farther I went. Sadly, with autumn so close, the flowers that had been so bright the day before had already begun to die, and I wished for their colors to brighten up the dying greenery on the forest floor. Even though the ground plants were losing their beauty, the trees were just beginning to show theirs. The leaves were just starting to turn and there were hints of red and yellow and orange everywhere. Almost subconsciously, I redirected my awe up to God, who had created such wondrous beauty. I knew it was strange, but I still talked to Him; I just did not say anything about my feelings to Him.
As time wore on, I found it was more and more natural just to thank Him for all the things around me, like my friends, whom I knew were loyal; I supposed we were loyal simply because we had never had friends before. I was happy to praise God. It was like I was made for it. As I thought about it, I realized we all probably were made to praise Him and love Him. Maybe that’s why life was so empty without Him. All my hard work on the farm really amounted to naught in the grand scheme of the world. Now, with God guiding me, I had a mission, something that I knew would matter in the grand scheme of things.
My musings were interrupted by a soft sound. I immediately froze and ducked behind a tree. After a moment, the sound was repeated and I realized it was a sob. I crept forward until a little stream was in view and, lying beside it, was a female Centaur. She had her face down and her long black hair hung in a large braid down her back. She wore a single garment: a red-brown shirt that covered her chest, but left her stomach exposed so that it was easy to see where the tanned skin ended and the black horse’s body began. She was quite beautiful and I didn’t like to see such a magnificent creature so sad. She sobbed again, her whole body shaking, and I was just about to go out and talk to her when a snort sounded and I tensed. A male Centaur came out and of the woods across from me and walked straight towards her. She looked at him, quickly wiped her face off, and stood.
“Bellana,” he said in a deep voice. “What are you doing out here all by yourself?”
She did not answer and kept her head down.
He sighed. “You mares are all the same,” he sighed. “You should be happy a suitor has chosen you. Now you can serve your purpose and bear foals for him.”
“But Tailsan, I do not wish to be married to him,” Bellana said, sounding miserable.
“Sister,” Tailsan sighed. “Father has already accepted the bridal price. You are to be wed in a week. We cannot change his mind. I know you do not like Hidasor, but you must marry him. Father will not be swayed. He thinks Hidasor is a suitable stallion for you.”
“But brother,” Bellana started.
“No more talk. Father awaits. You must make lunch anyways. Come.”
I watched as Bellana followed him, her head lowered again. I felt sorry for her. From the tone of her voice, this Hidasor was not a pleasant stallion. In fact, she sounded as I would if I were forced to marry Tynan. I felt my lip curl in disgust at the thought and turned and walked back towards our camp on the edge of the forest. By the time I got back, the others were awake. As soon as Elthinor saw me, his face lit up in relief. He embraced me, then hit me lightly. I winced, suddenly aware of how sore my body was from the sparring the night before. He did look a little sorry at that, but his face also held a bit of anger.
“Tell us when you are going somewhere. If Ember hadn’t been so calm, we would have thought some dark thing had snatched you away in the night!” he scolded.
I was about to give a sharp retort, but it died in my throat when I saw how serious he was. I realized that my disappearance probably had worried them all greatly. I sighed softly and hugged Elthinor, obviously surprising him.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.
“What’s wrong?” Elthinor asked immediately.
I explained to them what I had seen while in the forest. Elthinor had a slight frown on his face, Nolan looked surprised, and Gabrithon looked a little sad.
“If the bride price has already been accepted, there is no turning back for her,” the Centaur said with a resigned air. “It is an unspoken law.”
“What if her father found him to be an unsuitable match?” I asked.
“Then he would give the bride price back and keep his daughter,” Gabrithon replied. “But it sounds like he approves.”
I felt sad for the young Centaur lass, but dropped the subject. At least I stopped speaking of it, but my thoughts raced around and around the subject. I did not think it was fair that she had no say, at least no say that I could see anyways, on who she was to be wed to. I would never wed somebody I did not want to, and nobody could make me. Not even with the threat of death.
“You know, when you think really hard, you have an odd expression on your face,” Nolan said, and I looked at him in surprise.
“You must still be thinking about the Centaur girl,” Gabrithon said, amusement obvious in his voice. “Your face sometimes betrays your thoughts,” he added when he caught sight of my confusion.
“Oh. Is it that easy to read me?” I asked absently as my mind kept going back to the unfairness of being a female.
“When one gets to know you, yes,” Elthinor said with a smile, which disappeared as he became serious again. “I am serious about you not running off without telling us, Fily. You have so many creatures after you that it isn’t safe for you to go anywhere by yourself.”
“Especially if you are right and they get darker and more powerful,” Gabrithon added.
I stared at them irritably then glanced at Nolan. “Is there anything you would like to add?”
He smiled. “No. I think they pretty much said it all,” he said, laughter in his voice.
“Great,” I said softly, looking back at Elthinor. “Look, I appreciate your concern, but I will be fine. If you haven’t noticed, I can fight just fine.”
Elthinor’s eyes were hard and I suddenly knew I would not be able to talk him out of this. With a speed that I had only seen when we were in danger, he grabbed the sparring sticks and tossed me one. I caught it easily and glanced at it for a moment. When I looked back up, the Elf was charging me!
I yelped and leaped aside, spinning around to face him with the stick at the ready. I did not have to ask what he was doing; I knew he was trying to prove his unmentioned point that I couldn’t fight as well as he would like. I was determined to prove him wrong. I quickly found out that I was the one who was wrong. He was not hesitant like Nolan and he was much more skilled. I found myself constantly on the defensive, and suffered from several well timed strikes. I was sore enough from the night before, but I knew after this I would not want to move. I suddenly stumbled back and saw a streak coming at me.
The next thing I knew, cold water was being poured onto me. I sat up, breathing heavily and looking around. My head was throbbing and I lightly pressed my hand against my temple. I felt something sticky and pulled my hand away to see blood. I looked up to see Elthinor kneeling in front of me, looking guilty.
“I expected you to block that,” he said sheepishly.
I frowned and a burst of anger flooded through me. I swung my own stick, which had fallen right beside me, and hit his as hard as I could. His body jerked as the stick made contact with his head and he fell back limply. I felt smug satisfaction as he lay there, which quickly faded as blood began pouring out of a cut on his forehead. I winced and crawled over to sit beside his head; I wasn’t sure if I could stand without falling over again, so I decided to stay as close to the ground as I could. There was a titter of laughter and I looked up to see Nolan trying not to laugh. Gabrithon was wide-eyed with surprise, his mouth slightly agape, and was staring at me.
“You knocked him out,” the Centaur finally said.
I blinked and blushed. “Yes.”
“How about I go get more water?” Nolan asked.
I nodded and he disappeared quietly into the forest. Gabrithon was still looking at me, seemingly impressed by my act of anger. I shifted under his gaze and pressed my hands against Elthinor’s forehead, trying to staunch the blood flow. Nolan returned quickly and poured the water over Elthinor’s lifeless-looking body. The Elf sat up gasping and sputtering, looking bewildered.
“What happened?” he asked after a moment of gathering his wits.
“Fily hit you back,” Nolan said, laugher in his voice.
Elthinor looked at me, confused. “Did you knock me out?”
“Do you remember anything after staring at her?” Gabrithon asked dryly.
Elthinor’s face scrunched up as he tried to remember. “No,” he finally said then looked at me. “I didn’t think a female could hit hard enough to knock anybody out. No offense, but I just didn’t think it could be done.”
I felt irritation at that, but pushed it down. “Sorry. I did not mean to hurt you.”
“Nor I you,” Elthinor said with a smile then lifted his hand to his forehead. “I’m bleeding,” he said in surprise. “And so are you.”
I chuckled. “A cut for a cut, yes?”
He laughed softly. “Yes. Seems appropriate.”
Nolan gently tended to my temple while Gabrithon did the same for Elthinor. Against the Centaur’s advice, we decided to stay for another night. I was too sore to want to walk, and both Elthinor and I were a bit dizzy from the blows we had dealt each other. We knew it was dangerous to be so close to the Centaur city, even if we were a ways away; because of their horse bodies they could travel longer distances than most of the races could. Despite that fact, we were staying put. Another day of rest would help us a lot. Gabrithon was exceedingly nervous, but didn’t comment. We all knew of his reluctance to see his father again. I silently hoped that it wouldn’t come to that, for his sake.