I had lost everything I had considered important: my home, my Elementals, and my mother. I was a girl on the cusp of her sixteenth birthday and I had lost it all. My home had been burned by the people from my home village of Paxtonvale for a reason I did not understand. My Elementals, animals twisted by the Dark Ones and their minions to bend earth, air, water, or fire against the original creation, I had released into the wild for fear they would be murdered by the angry villagers. And my mother. My mother was murdered herself by hideous creatures known as Aswangs, servants of the Dark Ones who rule Humankind.
Though I had lost all I had considered important, my travels had given me new things to consider important. Friends in the form of an Elf named Elthinor, a Centaur named Gabrithon, and a Human named Nolan. A belief in an all powerful creator called God and His Son Jesiah, whose role I was not sure of, but I was certain it was important. And finally, a mission. A mission to collect the scrolls which tell the story of a forgotten history where the now-separated races actually knew each other and belief in God was common. At least, that is what we assume the scrolls say. The first two scrolls explained the creation and fall of the races. We can only hope the others explain more.
These beliefs are what have kept me going through the long weeks of attack after attack by the Aswangs or their blood-sucking superiors called Vampires. The last attack we suffered from was the one where my mother died. As my mother died, she revealed something I had never known: my father was an Elf and that was the reason the dark creatures called me Strangeling. I did kill Tikujar, the Aswang that murdered her, and no creatures have been stupid enough to come near our little group in a while. That’s not to say we do not have our difficulties.
Being so wary of attack has left us all tired and irritable, and with the autumn chill permeating the air, we have been fighting with each other. Gabrithon and Elthinor are the worst. Nolan is too hesitant to fight and I just stay silent most of the time. Because of my mother’s death, my relationship with God and Jesiah is awkward. I am angry with them, and am ashamed of it, so I am not talking to them, nor have I had any more dreams come to me. I know in my heart it was not right, but I could not help it.
We were all confused on the specifics of what we were to be doing. We did not know when they next attack would come. We did not know whether we would be captured by the servants of the Dark Ones. We did not know where our travels would lead us. There were two things we did know: our journey had only just begun, and that the scrolls were our primary mission, no matter what we had to do to get them. That mission was burned on my heart, and I knew that where I would go, my friends would follow. Or at least, that’s what I hoped.
Here is the link to buy the second book if you can’t wait to see what happens next. 🙂
I awoke to the sound of a crackling fire which was warming my left side. My eyes flickered open, and I found myself staring at a perfect night sky strewn with stars that looked like diamonds. I shifted slightly which forced a groan to leave my lips at a sharp, stabbing pain in my right shoulder. There was frantic movement and suddenly Gabrithon’s face hovered over mine, worry etched in every tired line of his face. He slowly smiled, his bottom lip quivering as he reached down as if to stroke my cheek.
“You are awake,” he whispered happily. “Oh little filly, you are finally awake! One moment and I shall get Elthinor.”
I lay there in a daze, staring up at the sky. I didn’t understand what was happening. Each breath I took in burned slightly, and my body felt strangely heavy. There was a rustling noise, an exclamation, and the sound of a scramble of quick footsteps hurrying toward me. An exhausted looking Elthinor was suddenly peering down at me. Tears immediately started streaming down his cheeks then he bit his lower lip as he tried to staunch the flow.
“You are awake,” he said, emotion coloring his voice. “Oh, how I thank God that you are awake! Oh Fily, I was so worried. You have been asleep for three days. I prayed for you every minute. As sure as I was that there was no God, that is how sure I am now that there is one! You are alive and awake, and that is all I asked for. I am sorry I ever doubted you about Him.”
I smiled weakly at him. “I am sure our Father and Jesiah are pleased that you believe.”
“Oh Fily,” he murmured. “I thought I would lose you. After coming this far, it would be devastating to see you die. I would not know what to do with myself.”
“If I die, look for the scrolls. Look for the truth within them. It is imperative that they are found by our generation. Promise me this. Please? The world is dark enough as it is,” I said with an odd note of strength in my voice.
The Elf looked miserable at the thought of my death, but I saw something in his eyes stir as he replied. “I promise, Fily. I promise.”
“Good,” I sighed and relaxed again; I had not even noticed I was tense until that moment.
“Elthinor,” Gabrithon said quietly, interrupting our moment.
The Elf looked at him calmly, an air of peace about him. “Yes?”
“It is time to change her bandages.”
“Ah…yes,” Elthinor answered, a note of embarrassment working its way into his voice. “Well then, I suppose we had better.”
I arched my eyebrow at him and he blushed.
“What?” I asked, confused.
“Well, Fily, your shoulder was wounded. Quite badly I might add. It is…I mean…Well…”
He gestured at my shoulder, so I turned my head to look at it. I stared at it blankly for a moment before realizing that I wore no shirt. My face turned redder than Elthinor’s, and I hid it behind my hands as I wished I could disappear. When I finally gathered the courage to remove my hands, Gabrithon and Elthinor were looking at me sheepishly.
“Might I say that if we had a female traveling companion other than yourself, she would be the one tending to you?” Elthinor asked with an awkward attempt at a smile.
“Yes,” I said weakly, looking away from his eyes. “But that does not help at the moment.”
There was a deep, awkward silence, in which Elthinor and I avoided each other’s gazes. Gabrithon just stood there, staring at the two of us. He finally could stand the silence no longer and walked over to stand above me.
“Well, let’s get this over with,” Gabrithon said, kneeling down in front of me to help me sit up.
I kept the blanket firmly clasped to my chest, but the Centaur kept his gaze on my eyes. The kindness I saw in the depths was mesmerizing; I relaxed unconsciously. Elthinor had me move the blanket just enough to get to my bandages and began to work, carefully unwinding them and setting them in a pile. He treated my wounds with the same paste he had rubbed on Gabrithon when he had been hurt, which eased the pain quickly, and then began wrapping my shoulder skillfully with fresh bandages. He patted my whole shoulder when he was done then helped ease me back down.
“Now, you need rest,” Elthinor said firmly, picking up the used bandages and moving to set them in the pot of boiling water over the fire. “And I don’t want to hear a bit of argument.”
“You shall anyway,” I said stubbornly even though I was exhausted. “I want both of you to rest as well. You look like you have been up the whole three days I have been unconscious!”
“We have,” Gabrithon said as he stood and moved to lay down beside me. “You worried us.”
“I thought you did not care for me?” I blurted out before realizing how cruel that sounded.
Gabrithon flinched as he settled down. He still seemed a little self-conscious of the act, and he leveled his gaze on me.
“I do care for you. I realized that these last few days. There is just something about you that makes me feel comfortable around you. I feel less pressured to be what I am expected to be in my own race. As you are a female, I don’t feel threatened by your skill and prowess with the bow and with the knife, though I would if you turned on me. Because of your passion for God, of whom I am still not sure, I know you possess loyalty and would never do that. Because of your understanding nature—even if it takes a while for you to understand—I don’t fear relating my own culture to you. Because of your seemingly natural compassion and lack of judgment, I don’t fear letting my barriers down.
“You are, quite simply put, quite an interesting individual. You seem to be the perfect companion for both me and Elthinor, as he has told me stories about your time with him, and we are both perplexed at that. We do enjoy your company and I, like Elthinor, would not know what to do with myself if you were to die. I don’t wish to go back home where I would be treated like the outcast I have always seemed to be. I suppose I would help Elthinor in the quest for the truth. But it would not be the same without you, Fily.” He paused then looked a bit embarrassed at his speech. “I hope this disperses any negative thoughts you believed I had against you. We are still different, but I hope you will accept this extended offer of friendship.”
“I do accept it,” I said with a smile and no hesitation. “I am sure we shall be good friends.”
“I’m so glad you accepted,” he sighed. “Elthinor did as well, but I was more nervous about you. Like I said before, there is just something different with you. I can’t place what it is. It’s just so, I don’t know, alluring?”
“I am not sure that is the right word for it,” Elthinor said, lowering himself to sit on his bedroll. “But I can’t think of a better one. I do know what you speak of though. It is what first drew me to her side. It is what made me rescue her from the Aswangs and what drew me into this dangerous journey. It is what made me her friend.”
I forced myself to sit up, still holding the blanket firmly against myself, and stared intently at both of them. What were they talking about? I thought about it a moment, and all I could come up with to explain what they were describing was the impression that had made the people in Paxtonvale avoid me like I had a plague.
“Is something the matter, Fily?” Gabrithon asked.
“No,” I said immediately. Ember growled at my side, catching my lie, and I glared at him as I told the truth. “Yes. I don’t understand your fascination with whatever it is that you are talking about. I think what you are talking about is what my village despised about me.”
Elthinor stared at me. “Well, we are not your village. We are not even the same race as they are.”
“That might be the only reason you like me,” I said, suddenly nervous. “What if I lose it?”
Gabrithon laughed. “Oh Fily, the chances that you would lose your personality are…” He trailed off thoughtfully then laughed again. “There is no chance of that! Now put those ridiculous ideas out of your head.”
I lay back down slowly, wincing as I jarred my shoulder. I could not help but feel insecure about my friendships, though I didn’t know why I was suddenly so uneasy. As I thought about it, the answer came to me. I did not want to lose the only friends I had ever had. Even though Gabrithon was a relatively new friend, I cared about him. The battle had naturally brought the three of us closer because we had to trust each other. I could feel the nearness in the air even between Gabrithon and I and we had not been too friendly before. This feeling was something that I did not want to lose. Elthinor must have been watching me because he laughed softly.
“Females worry over so much. I don’t believe I shall ever understand it,” he said then paused for a moment. “Fily, if it makes you feel any better, we shall still be your friends no matter what. Right, Gabrithon?”
“Right,” Gabrithon replied, also sounding amused. “Always.”
“Always is a long time,” I replied, looking at the stars. “And our lives will not be easy for a long while, if ever. Are we strong enough to take it?”
“Maybe not alone, but we are not alone, are we?” Elthinor asked.
I ignored Gabrithon’s snort and smiled fondly at the Elf. That he would acknowledge Jesiah and God like that made me feel happy. It gave me joy that he was aware of them and that it pleased Jesiah, because I knew it would please him. We settled into silence; I yawned as sleep began descending on me. My mind was aflutter with thoughts, but my body was taxed by the little bit of moving I had actually done. Elthinor noticed, and he yawned himself.
“Now that that’s over with, shall we get to bed? I am sure we are all tired,” Elthinor said, tucking himself into his bedroll.
I nodded and turned over, snuggling down into the pleasant warmth. “Good night.”
“Sleep well, friends,” Gabrithon said, and I could hear the joy in his voice at that word.
“Aye, sleep well,” Elthinor muttered then the only noise to be heard was the crackle of the fire.
Just as Gabrithon had described, there was only a narrow path beside the river that led into the tunnel. The water was flowing faster now that we were at the source, and I was worried about falling in. I could not swim, and the current was so fast that I knew I would drown unless they caught me quickly. Elthinor was much less nervous than I was. In fact, he seemed excited. On the other hand, Gabrithon was obviously extremely uncomfortable about being so close to the forbidden place he had grown up hearing about. His tail was swishing and he was shuffling his front feet, stomping the ground, one after the other. He finally looked away from the rocky structure and leveled his eyes on me and Elthinor.
“This is where we shall part. I shall wait for you here,” Gabrithon said, backing up a little. “Or maybe back at the camp. Yes, back at camp.” He nodded his head a little too hard, obviously eager to get as far from this place as possible.
Elthinor nodded, and when he spoke, his voice was full of sympathy. “We shall see you there.”
The Centaur turned, quickly trotting away, looking back over his shoulder at the half-circle of rocks with a frightened expression. He disappeared into the forest, and I swallowed hard as we turned back to look at the tunnel. My eyes were immediately drawn to the water rushing out of the tunnel. The bottom of the riverbed couldn’t be seen; the river was simply too deep. Elthinor placed a hand on my shoulder and I jumped, my gaze leaping from the water to his face.
“You look scared,” he commented, trying to sound casual.
“Yes, well, I can’t swim,” I mumbled quietly, embarrassed at the admission. “I mean, we had a stream by our house, but it was too shallow to learn how to swim in.”
Elthinor looked surprised. “Is that all? Well, when we get the chance, I shall teach you how, but for now, be wary of every step. If you like, I shall go first to show you the slick spots.”
I smiled, relieved he had not laughed at my inexperience. “That would be perfect,” I replied.
“Very well then, on we go!” Elthinor said dramatically.
He set out, each step filled with purpose. I followed, placing my feet exactly where Elthinor’s had been but still getting more and more frightened of falling in the water. The light quickly became dimmer, and the echoing sound of the rushing river assaulted my ears. There was no question about my fear when I started to panic. My breathing became shallow, and I grabbed the wall for support as my legs grew weak. The place where I set my hand was slippery, not helping my state of mind. I was sinking to my knees when strong hands grabbed me.
“Fily!” Elthinor exclaimed in a low voice, sounding alarmed.
“I don’t want to drown!” I moaned, looking into his eyes, hoping to find purchase on reality again.
“Hush, you shan’t drown. Hold my hand and we will be out soon. See the light? We are almost there.”
I clutched his hand desperately, afraid that if I let go, I would fall. I forced myself to focus on each step individually and began to pray mentally that I would not fall in. Before I knew it, light leaped up into my eyes and I looked up to see one of the most beautiful sights that had ever graced my eyes. My first impression was that it was bigger than it looked from the outside. Next, I noticed the wide grassy sweep of land with a few trees here and there. Many flowers of all colors bloomed around the edges where the grass met the bottom of the rock formation. In the middle, next to the cliff edge was a lake, shining blue in the sun, fed by a waterfall that tumbled from a hole on the cliff side. Something moved beside the lake just as the sun went behind a cloud, and I reached instinctively for my bow.
I inched closer. It was certainly alive, whatever it was. The sun decided to show herself again, and I gasped. It was a Human with sleek black hair down to her shoulders and naturally olive toned skin, darker than mine by a few shades. I would know that form anywhere.
My mother looked up and made an unhappy muffled sound. I hurried to her, embracing her before I did anything else. Wiping my tears of joy from my eyes, I pulled my knife to slice the cloth gag away. She gasped and shook her head as if trying to discourage me.
“Filynora! What are you doing here?” she asked, her blue eyes searching mine for answers.
“I came after you,” I replied with a smile, cutting the ropes binding her hands and feet.
“You must leave before they come back!”
“Who? The Aswangs?” I asked, trying to pull her to her feet.
She balked, refusing to stand. “You know their names?”
“Tikujar and Rattuin? Yes.”
“Hush child. You must go. You and your Elf friend. They want to capture you!”
“I know that, but why?” I asked, exasperated at her unwillingness to cooperate.
“It is because of your father. He is—”
There was an ear-shattering shriek of fear that sounded more animal than Human, and the clatter of hooves as Gabrithon suddenly came charging out of the tunnel into the clearing, his newly finished bow out with an arrow nocked. I brought my bow around and pulled out an arrow, aiming at the tunnel. The sun disappeared behind suddenly thick clouds again, and the temperature dropped sharply as the two aforementioned creatures flew through it. They stopped for a single moment to look around then flew straight at me, claws outstretched, teeth flashing.
I dove to the side, so they missed me by a narrow margin. I rolled, stopping on my stomach, and shoved myself up with my elbows, firing an arrow as they turned to face me in the air. Gabrithon loosed his own arrow, and we watched as they both cried out in shock as the arrows struck them, even though they were nonlethal hits. They tore the arrows out of their flesh and flung them back at us. I dodged and scowled at them, unease rushing through me at the black substance that dripped from the fresh wounds. It looked unnatural.
“Elthinor!” I shouted, turning to look at him for help as the Aswangs shrieked again.
“My bow is at the camp! Bring them to the ground if you can!” he called as he drew his sword, his eyes locked on the creatures.
As they began to descend again, I sprinted toward the Elf, ducking beneath the gleaming sword. The two creatures shrieked and pulled up, but not before the shorter Aswang, Rattuin, was slashed by the blade, but it was another nonlethal hit; they were just too fast. She wailed in anger and pain and flew high above the reach of Elthinor, Tikujar following. As they glanced down, I suddenly realized that I had left my mother alone. I whistled sharply and pointed at her. The two creatures were heading at her, and Ember rushed from where he had been crouching as he followed my command. He got to her just in time and burst into flames, growling at the now cowering creatures as they flew up again. Gabrithon pulled out another arrow and aimed it at them and stood at the ready even as one of the Aswangs started speaking.
“Come, Strangeling! Come with us, and we shall leave your friends alone,” Tikujar said.
“No! Whoever your Masters are, I don’t wish to meet them!” I shouted, keeping a steady hand.
“Come now, girl. You can’t hope to escape the forces our Masters shall send to capture you,” Rattuin growled.
“Yes, they will be too numerous for you and much too powerful, especially for a mere girl to beat by herself!” Tikujar said.
“Not if she is backed by Jesiah and the Father!” my mother said sternly, her eyes gleaming.
I frowned for a few moments, confused about who Jesiah was before it hit me. Could the man in white be this Jesiah? Was that his name? I had never asked if he had a name before. It had not seemed necessary. Then a more important question popped into my head. How did my mother know him, and why had she never shared it with me? I could tell my expression showed my thoughts when Rattuin and Tikujar laughed.
“Oh, Estelle,” Tikujar said in a jovial tone. “It seems as if you have kept much of your life away from your Strangeling daughter. You haven’t even told her the truth, have you?”
“What truth? And why do you keep calling me Strangeling?” I snapped, glaring at the Aswang.
They simply laughed again, and my mother actually looked a little ashamed. I watched in shock as my own mother turned her face away from me, moving away. I began walking toward her, ready to demand she explain whatever they were talking about even in the midst of battle, when Tikujar dove for me yet again. I ducked and fired an arrow up at her. She dodged it, changing angles so suddenly that I could not react fast enough. I cried out as I was suddenly scooped up in her talons and carried up effortlessly. Ember charged for me, and Rattuin grabbed my now unprotected mother, who let out a shout of pain. I noticed blood welling up on her face from fierce-looking scratches.
“Mother!” I gasped, moving to fire an arrow.
My shoulder was pierced by four sharp talons in the front and one in the back. They sunk in deep and I screamed, doing what they wanted, dropping my bow, which fell with a splash into the lake. I heard three voices simultaneously call my name, so I forced my eyes open, gritting my teeth, fighting off the pain. I looked at my mother with tears in my eyes, knowing I could get away, and she could not. She nodded at me, and I knew that she knew, too. I reached down to my hip and jerked my knife out before digging it into Tikujar’s shriveled flesh between her ribs. The horrid creature shrieked and dropped me. I fell farther than I thought I would, slamming hard into the lake’s surface.
The impact took my breath away, squeezing it out of me into little bubbles that floated up to the surface. I sank like a stone, deeper and deeper into the chilly waters, my knife still in my hand; I had pulled it down and out of Tikujar when she had dropped me. I moved slowly through the water and put it back in my sheath, out of habit more than anything, as I reached the bottom. I was starting to see blackness on the edge of my vision when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I reached forward and grabbed the floating leather strap, wrapping it tightly around my wrist. Just as my vision went completely black, I felt strong hands grab my wounded shoulder and I used the last air in my lungs to scream in pain.
As I sat up gasping for air, I saw the strange trees and the man in white standing beside me. I looked into his intense caramel brown eyes and the name my mother had uttered came unbidden to my lips.
“Jesiah,” I said, and I knew immediately that was his name. It just so naturally fit him.
“Yes, precious one?” he asked, his lips curving into a smile.
“I’m drowning. Is it all over for me?” I asked, so calm that it surprised me. I had expected to be much more panicked.
“No, child. Not yet. You have much to do still,” he said warmly. “Now rest your weary mind and body. I shall speak with you again soon.”
“Wait! Does prayer work? Am I doing it right?” I asked, insecurity coloring my tone.
“The Father hears you, Filynora. He hears and knows all. He loves it when His children talk to Him. It is only sad that so few do in these dark days. As for your second question, yes, you are doing it right. God wishes for you to talk to him as you would anybody else but to also keep in mind that he is holy and perfect.” The background began melting, and I felt my mind being sucked into a deeper sleep. Before I left, Jesiah smiled at me, kissed my forehead, and whispered softly into my ear. “I love you, child.”
The rock formation was beautiful. Its color was a strange muddy orange, and it seemed to be a nearly vertical group of rocks, slightly angled inward in a half circle. They started on one side of the cliff that backed them and arched outward. I wondered what it was like inside. Were there only more rocks, or was it filled with green things? There was, however, one off-putting quality about it: an almost tangible air of sadness. We stood at the edge of the forest staring at it in the fading light of evening, which splashed golden light everywhere and speckled us through the canopy of the trees. Gabrithon suddenly shivered and looked away from it, but Elthinor and I just couldn’t seem to look away. I felt like this was an important moment, though I didn’t know why. Without thinking, I tilted my head back to look up at the sky.
“This is beautiful,” I whispered.
“What are you doing?” Gabrithon asked.
“Talking to God,” I said without thinking before realizing that it was true.
Gabrithon looked bemused. “He is not real, Fily.”
“Yes, He is,” I snapped fiercely, turning to look at him.
“How do you know?”
“Because I do.”
That was the truth for me. I just knew that He was real, that He was there watching us. Aloron had told me once, while I was cleaning the house, that He was always watching, always listening. I asked him how he knew, and he told me that he knew from years of praying to God. After I had asked him to, he taught me how to pray. He told me to simply talk to God as if He were standing there, but that I needed to also be reverent because he was powerful enough to create me. The Elf had not told me to call Him Father, but ever since the man in white had told me that my ‘Father in heaven’ loves me, I thought of Him as the Father I had never known.
“Don’t argue with her on this,” Elthinor warned. “She is stubborn on the subject. I am almost sure she learned it from my grandfather.”
“Why does it even matter?” Gabrithon asked. “It can’t affect a person’s life…Can it?” He sounded genuinely curious about that, for which I was glad. It meant he wasn’t completely closed off from what I was saying.
“I believe it does. I don’t know how yet, but if God wants me to know, He will let me know,” I replied. “Now, let’s make camp.”
We did so quickly. The routine was familiar to me and Elthinor, and Gabrithon was learning. As Ember started the fire by putting his muzzle in the fire pit, Gabrithon watched with fascination. He was still not used to the fact that Ember was an Elemental. Evidently, Centaurs believed that Elementals were just a myth, so he was shocked to find they were real. He had wanted to pet the beast, but if Ember had not liked Elthinor when he met him, he loathed Gabrithon. I wasn’t quite sure why, but I had a suspicion that he disliked the animal part of him.
“He will begin to like you eventually,” Elthinor said to Gabrithon with a smile. “He still does not fully like me, and I have been travelling with him for a while now.”
Gabrithon shrugged and sighed. “It is all right. Believe it or not, I am used to people not trusting me.”
“Me, too,” I said as Ember plopped down in front of me and rolled onto his back.
“You?” Gabrithon asked as I began to rub the Kindle Wolf’s belly.
“Humans are male dominated, too, but not to such an extreme degree as your culture. A woman and her daughter taking care of a farm and raising Elementals was looked down upon,” I said bitterly. “You know something, why is a woman considered lower than a man? Is it just because we are physically weaker? Without females, none of our races would exist, for males can’t bear children! Why then are we treated as if we are property?”
Both males looked uncomfortable. They glanced at each other then looked away at anything and everything but me. I made an angry, indignant noise as they continued to remain silent. I could feel my cheeks warm with emotion, and it took all that I had inside not to go slap some sense into both of them. Instead I kept a calm, albeit sarcastic tone.
“No comments at all? Not even from the worthier-than-thou-art Centaur?”
“I don’t wish to incur your wrath on the subject. Elthinor has informed me that you are quite sensitive about it. He told me about your many talks on the topic in his village. If even some of them are true, then I don’t wish to ever speak of such issues around you or to you. My views, or rather Centaurian views, would probably make you even angrier than Elven views.” He paused then looked directly at me, holding his chin up high. “I have never met a filly like you, and I probably never will again. As hard as it is for me to admit it, I am impressed with you. I know I have said that before, but it is just so strange. You are all right. You know, for a female.”
I stared at him intently before letting the subject drop as I sat down in front of the fire and began pulling out the meat we’d salted; it still amazed me that Elthinor had thought to bring salt in his bag. Elthinor sat down beside me, earning a soft growl from Ember. Gabrithon seemed at a loss for what to do for a moment before lowering himself down to the ground and curling his legs underneath him so he was closer to us. I smiled at him.
“I take it that Centaurs are not prone to lying on the ground?”
“Not stallions,” he said. “We even sleep standing up, though I must admit it feels nice to lie down and sleep. I feel safer closer to the ground. I know why mares prefer it now.” He paused as an upset look passed over his face. “My father would not be happy that I had to lie down, even though I was hurt. He and the other stallions would have expected me to remain standing unless my legs were broken.”
“You don’t like your father either?” Elthinor asked.
“No,” Gabrithon said bitterly then perked up as he registered what the Elf had said. “Wait, either?”
“I don’t like mine. He is an angry Elf. He does not like me believing in God. Or well…I don’t quite believe yet, but the idea is there, and he hates that nonetheless. He calls the belief a silly fairytale. I believe there is more to it than that, though, and that displeases him.”
“It does stir something in your heart, does it not?” Gabrithon asked absently.
“Exactly!” Elthinor exclaimed. “That is what makes me believe there is something there. I just…something is keeping me from believing. I don’t know why, but I need some kind of, well, proof.”
“Proof would be nice, though Fily does not seem to need proof.”
Elthinor smiled. “You forget, Gabrithon, that she talks to the man in white.”
“Oh yes. The Son of God,” Gabrithon said contemptuously with an incredulous smile.
I felt a flash of anger at his disbelief. “I haven’t yet heard your explanation for how we got here,” I growled. “Please, inform me of it.”
They looked at me, obviously startled by my hostility. I really did not care what they thought of me at the moment. I wasn’t going to sit by and let them make fun of God and His Son. That wasn’t something I could tolerate. To me, that was worse than berating females in general.
“Fily, I did not mean to insult you,” Gabrithon said slowly, looking nervous for some reason. “I just…”
“Was making fun of my beliefs?”
The Centaur paused and sighed. “Um, yes,” he answered reluctantly.
“I have refrained from making fun of your culture. Please refrain from belittling my beliefs, especially because I’m in contact with the man in white.”
“I’m sorry,” he said after a moment, shifting.
I felt a soft smile curl my lips; I knew it wasn’t easy for him to apologize to a girl. “You are forgiven, friend.”
Gabrithon started in surprise. “Friend? I have friends?”
Elthinor and I glanced at each other, smiling at his surprise, realizing just how alike each of us were in spite of our physical differences. Apparently, Gabrithon had been just as friendless as we had.
“Yes,” I replied with an amused smile. “We are friends.”
He tried to hide a pleased smile as he hummed thoughtfully. “Well, being friends with a filly is discouraging, but I suppose I can overlook it.”
Elthinor and I laughed at that, and he smiled openly. I became aware that he was relaxed for the first time since I had met him. As I thought back, I recalled his constant tension around us: the way he kept his distance from us when we traveled, the haughtiness that he had always addressed us with (which I now realized was his way of keeping a wall up), and the way he always trailed us with his eyes. There was a marked difference in his countenance. I was sure that he would still be wary of us for a while, but as we sat around the fire talking, it was as if we were of the same race. It was nice, I thought, to be surrounded by friends. I suddenly smiled at a new thought, and Elthinor and Gabrithon looked at me.
“What?” Elthinor asked.
“Did you ever think that the people in this particular group would be your group of friends?” I asked with a giggle.
“What do you mean?” Gabrithon asked.
“As a Centaur, did you ever think you would be friends with an Elf and a Human? And the same for you Elthinor. Did you ever think that Gabrithon and I would be your friends?”
“No,” they both answered in unison.
“I never expected to have any friends until I moved into the city,” Elthinor continued after a brief pause. “Once they knew…” he trailed off and glanced at me, looking a little embarrassed. “Once I was away from Elves who knew who my father and grandfather were, I figured they would be more receptive to being my friend.”
“Why?” Gabrithon asked curiously.
“Well, my father is an influential Elf in Ellavendir—that is the name of my village—and he intimidates all of the Elves there, including the males and females my age. They tease me because I am nothing like my father and am therefore an easy target.”
“And your grandfather?”
“He is a Follower and looked down upon by most in our village. But he is also looked up to by most in our village because of his ability to spot greatness and because of his ties to the king. He is an odd Elf. I am always teased for him, too, because I am like him in all the wrong ways.”
“Oh. I am terribly sorry,” Gabrithon said solemnly.
“I don’t mind it too much anymore,” Elthinor said, though I could tell he was lying. “Besides, Fily does not tease me, and I hope you will not either, and at this point you are the only two who could. What about you?” he asked, changing the focus to Gabrithon.
“Well, I am the youngest of five,” Gabrithon said cautiously. “And I think differently from them, and they hold the popular opinion. That is all I am going to say on the subject.”
Though we prodded a bit, Elthinor and I could not get Gabrithon to say any more, so we slipped into more relaxed and less personal conversation until we went to bed. As I settled into my bedroll, I was pleased by how comfortable we were with each other. I hoped that this would last, but I was also sure that Gabrithon and I would clash again. Oh well. I would worry about that when it happened.
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.
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?”