Behind her, dogs barked and torches flickered in the waning daylight, casting shadows off the trees and the surrounding shrubbery. Men jeered, yelled obscenities, and demanded that she turn herself in, all because of something they’d thought she’d done.
Keep running, she thought, desperate to pull hope from a seemingly-hopeless situation. They won’t catch you if you keep running.
Her skirt—long since torn by shrubs, branches, and other wayward plants—billowed at her knees, threatening to send her head over heels at any moment. If she fell now, she would have no way to escape. The dogs would find her, sniffing and grappling with their teeth, and the men would drag her to her feet, bind her, and do God knew what.
“No. I’m going to get away.”
She stopped, turned in a complete circle, and—finding no obvious destination—bounded through the thickest part of the greenery, hoping it would deter the men, if only for a moment. They couldn’t chase her forever, not with what supposedly made its home here watching them.
It doesn’t exist.
They said she—the creature from the wood—had perished long ago in a fire set by delinquent juveniles who’d been playing with fire. Her savior—no matter how real or imagined she was—would not be helping her today.
“Bitch!” a man screamed. “Come back!”
His companions threw in their own insults—whore, bitch, witch. It didn’t matter what they called her, as long as they further broke her down.
Sticks and stones.
In the blink of an eye, a branch level with her face appeared out of nowhere, striking her forehead. The unexpected blow sent her feet forward. Her head—the most vulnerable part of her body—slammed into a rock. White covered her vision and blood ran into her mouth, fresh from a gaping cut on her forehead. Her tongue instinctively slid out to lick crimson from her lips.
“She’s… she’s gone!” one cried.
“Nonsense!” another added. “She can’t be gone.”
A dog howled.
The faint hairs on her neck stood on end, beckoning her to her hands and knees.
“She can’t be gone,” someone growled, close enough so that she could hear fallen twigs cracking under his boots.
“Let the dogs off their chains. They’ll find her.”
Oh no, please no.
There would be no way to defend herself if the men released the dogs.
I can try, but… it might not work.
With unsteady feet, she stood, leaned against the base of a tree, and closed her eyes.
A moment later, a halfdozen men carrying crossbows entered the clearing.
“Got you,” the head man sneered, tightening the strings of his bow.
“Stay away from me,” she warned.
“I’m not afraid of you, witch. You’re too weak to do anything to me, much less five armed men and dogs.”
A bolt shot at her face, but stopped no more than a finger’s width from the bridge of her nose. She sent it back at the man with a simple flick of her wrist. Thick blood poured from where his eye used to be.
“Kill her!” another man screamed.
Five more bolts flew at her. Three missed, a fourth grazed her leg, and the fifth caught the shoulder of her dress, pinning her to the bark. She freed herself before the last—and fatal—shot could embed itself in her chest. She tore away from the tree, ripping the whole shoulder of the garment off in the process.
You won’t get me, she thought, raising her hands.
Green light enveloped her hands, casting the area in a harsh glow. The dogs whimpered, tugging at the end of their chains, while the men restrained them. One let the creature go completely, where it ran into the forest with its tail between its legs.
All it would take is one shot, one precise hit, and they’d all be dead.
They’ll send more if you kill them.
It didn’t matter.
She’d already killed.
With more anger, hurt, and hate than she’d ever felt in her life, she threw the energy from her body with all her might. It shattered the ground below the men and forced them and their dogs into the ground screaming and howling as an earthbound whirlpool tore them apart. Rocks bit into their flesh, roots slapped their skin, and their weapons—loaded to perfection—disengaged, spearing one another like pigs to a stake.
When the ground settled, when she felt everything had since stopped and calmed, she turned and ran, throwing herself into the woods before her.
Baelra walked the forest in complete darkness. Even the moon—which, ironically, shone full in the night sky—could not pierce through the forest’s thick branches. She felt as though she existed under the ground, in a sunless world where nothing except her and moles existed. She rubbed her arms, somehow resisting the urge to cry when dirt and rock filled her open wounds.
The concept astounded her. Surely, she should have died back there, in that clearing with all of those men. They’d shot without hesitation, without acknowledging the woman in their presence, and she’d stopped a bolt from embedding itself through her brow. Then, in an act of will, she killed a man like he would have killed her, then dug the rest their own grave.
It wasn’t necessary.
Necessary, her conscience laughed. Six armed, fully-garbed men had chased a lone woman without shoes through the forest and tailed her with dogs. They hadn’t intended to give her a chance. No. They’d wanted to kill her then and there, without mercy of any kind.
They got what they deserved, Baelra, her conscience whispered. You did nothing wrong.
Nodding, she closed her eyes and backed up against a nearby tree, where she slid down its trunk until she sat at its base. She pulled her knees to her chest and locked her wrists at her knees, resting her brow against the rough, torn skin on her legs.
Blood kissed her lips.
She found herself crying for the first time that whole evening.
Rustling in the woods woke her.
Slowly, as to not alert anything—or anyone—of her presence, Baelra turned her head up and scanned the area, tuning her eyes to what little light existed. Like a cat, a deer, or a similar creature of the night, green washed over her vision, marking out details she wouldn’t have been able to see had she not used magic. Nearby, the dog that had run off with its tail between its legs lay beneath a tree, tongue hanging from its mouth like a man at a bar. She thought the creature ugly—with flaps of skin that hung over its black eyes and its heavy cheeks—but not guilty of what its master had tried to make it do earlier.
“Here,” she whispered, extending her arm.
She wiggled her fingers, feigning the action a man would give should he give the dog a treat. The bloodhound raised his head, watched her for a moment, then crawled forward, like a child not used to his legs. Baelra slid her hand along his face, then down his neck, where she caught the metal collar between her fingers.
“This may startle you.”
A spark of green lit the immediate area for a brief moment. The dog—surprised at the sudden action—jumped away, free of its collar. At first, it didn’t know what to do, and hung its head as though scolded for an action. Once it realized the woman had freed it of its burden, it woofed, pouncing the ground as if it had found a mouse.
“Shoo,” she whispered, flinging her hand at the things face. “Go home.”
Whimpering, the dog lowered its head onto its outstretched paws and stared at her. Maybe, she thought, it wanted a treat, or wished to show its appreciation for the gift she had given.
“I said go home,” she repeated.
The bushes rustled.
Are they here? she thought, raising her hand in the direction the sound had come from. Have they found me?
If the men had indeed returned, why hadn’t the canine returned to its owners?
Standing, she kept her one hand toward the bushes, while the other she used to keep the dog at bay. Again, the bushes rustled, but stopped soon after. Whatever watched her used the slight breeze to its advantage. Whenever the wind drew forward, it moved, and then so on; repeating the process over and over as it steadily advanced. Baelra knew better though. She knew how easily creatures could sneak up on unsuspecting humans.
They could be all around me and I wouldn’t even know it.
The urge to turn and scan the area struck her hard, but she managed to keep her focus.
If she turned her back now, she’d be dead.
“Come out,” she said, biting her lower lip. “I won’t act in self defense if you show me who you are.”
At that moment, it stepped from the bushes, revealing herself for the first time. Blonde hair spilled from the darkened roots at the base of her skull, where it fell to her shoulders to shield perk nipples from the wind. Firm breasts lay fully exposed on her naked chest, carving its way for a flat midsection. What stopped Baelra in her tracks was the thin amount of white hair that fell from her abdomen, then slowly to her waist.
There, Baelra realized, the woman was not human.
Equine from the waist down, with fine, white hair the color of fresh snow, the centauress pawed at the dirt with a hoof, testing the ground below. She allowed Baelra to stare, unashamed of the naked beauty granted to all proud creatures.
“Hello, human,” the creature said. “I hope I have not frightened you.”
“Nuh-No,” she managed, tears flowing down her face. “You haven’t.”
Until that moment—when the equine stepped from the bushes to reveal herself for the first time—Baelra had never cried for something beautiful, for something so unique and true. She found herself shaking in the presence of such a mighty thing.
You’re not gone, she thought. You’re still here.
“Do you require assistance?” the equine asked. “You are injured.”
“I was chased by men,” she said. “They… they called me a witch.”
“Come, child. There is nothing to be afraid of.”
“They called me the witch,” she repeated, holding her hands to her chest.
“I know,” the centauress said, “and I am sorry they called you such names, because you are too beautiful to be a witch who does naught but cause the innocent harm.”
Smiling—but with her lips, not her teeth—the most beautiful thing Baelra had ever come to know offered her hand.
“There is a place we can go,” the creature said. “A place where you will be safe.”
The grotto stood near a pond of crystal-blue water, shielded by the overhead trees. Had the equine not led her to it, Baelra would have never imagined her home existed in such a beautiful place. She trembled under the beautiful thing’s touch, not only because of the kindness such a creature offered, but because she’d been blessed to meet her. She—a creature who had, supposedly, died with the forest—stood no more than a breath away, holding Baelra’s hand to steady her pace.
“We are here,” the centauress said, releasing hold of Baelra’s hand. “But it is dark. Here—let me give us light.”
The creature closed her palm, then opened it. A silver moth no larger than a broad-winged butterfly rested in the palm of the equine’s beautiful, smooth hand, flickering its wings and moving its antennae. Baelra watched her savior lift the moth to a lantern woven from wicker, where she closed the cage and set it on a slab of rock. The moth—realizing its purpose—beat its wings against its body, producing a subtle light that would not have been noticed from outside the cave.
“Tell me,” the equine said, “why you were chased. You say… you say they called you a witch?”
“Yes,” Baelra nodded. “I… I was only there for the good of the people, to help them. The children, you know how they suffer from blood cough. A little boy of only ten years had lain in bed for weeks on end, suffering in unbearable agony as his chaffed lungs bled with each and every breath. I only wanted to help, so I did—with the parent’s permission, of course. But when I cured him, it… something happened. His arms convulsed and his back arched, where he clawed at his chest as though he couldn’t breathe. But the truth was, he couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t know why. The mother, she went to the child’s side, while the father pushed me from the home, drawing a knife from his belt when I tried to push myself back into their home. He called me a witch and chased me down the street.
“That evening, the men, they… well, a man, he came to my room at the bar and said that he needed me to leave, that I was no longer welcome. But when I came out, carrying my belongings in a rucksack, he had men with him—militia, from the village. They said that I was to be taken to the town square, where I would be burned for witchcraft. So… I ran.”
“You are very wise, young one.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt that little boy. I was just trying to help him.”
“I understand. It is not your fault that your magic turned against you. That village, it is everything but good, a place where boys become young men who burn forests down. You must remember, how they said I burned with the fire?”
“Yes, uh… uh…” She paused. How did she address this creature? “Your…. I don’t know your name.”
“My name is Rohln,” the equine said. “Please, do not scarlet your cheeks. You did not know.”
“Yes, my lady.”
She bowed her head, taking a quick breath. Her mouth tasted copper, her throat and chest burned from exertion. Rohln turned, reached for a crystal vial on her stone table, and offered it to Baelra. “Here,” she said. “Drink.”
“What is it?”
“Water from the outside, near the grotto.”
Baelra accepted the vial, careful not to drop its cap as she twisted it from its base. She pressed it to her lips and tilted her head back, sighing as water cooler than the sky’s rain slid down her throat. The sensation reminded her of milk—slightly old, but smooth, like a sweet. She drained half the bottle before returning it to the centauress.
“Thank you,” she gasped.
“There is a matter I am concerned for, young Baelra. You are not safe here, in these woods. Their wolves bred captive by man will find you if you linger.”
“I know, but… I don’t know where to go. I can’t go to another town, because they’ll already know what happened here, and I’m too weak to travel on my own.”
“You may stay here for the night. I would say as long as you need to, but I know that these men will return.”
“How?” she shivered.
“It speaks on the wind. The trees that passed from their mortal lives to build your homes, they whisper to their brethren, the ones that still stand in this forest. They say that these men will come soon, and they will return with dogs, maybe even more.”
“The trees tell you this?”
“No,” she said. “They do not tell me. But I know, Baelra. The trees, their voice is not as quiet as you may think. Listen to it—their rustle, their hum. There. Out there, in the distance. Do you hear it?”
“It does not matter,” Rohln said, taking the moth and its cage in hand. “Come. You must rest.”
Rohln led Baelra through the cave, guided by the light from the moth she’d summoned from the ether. Baelra thought the grotto would never end, with all its twists and turns and bends. But soon, they came upon a definite ending—a dead end, as one would say. Here, a blanket large enough to support the creature’s length covered the stone floor. Nearby, a shelf chiseled from the rock itself held Rohln’s personal items—her jewelry, her glass vials, human trinkets that she must have come across in the forest. Baelra resisted the urge to touch a pendant in the shape of a butterfly, which looked to have been carved from some kind of grand stone.
“You have a very nice home,” she said, looking over her shoulder.
“Thank you, child. Come, now. It is not time to talk about my home and whether or not it is pleasant.”
“Where will I sleep?”
Rohln set the moth near the edge of the blanket. She settled onto it, folding her legs under her to assure that she would not harm herself when rising. She gestured for Baelra to come lie down after she spread out along her side.
“You can rest against my belly,” the centauress said, stroking the fine hair on her human stomach.
“You won’t mind?”
“You will be warm this way.”
Nodding, Baelra slid up against the equine, careful not to lay on one of her long, powerful legs. She brought her knees to her chest and closed her eyes once warm and comfortable, surprised that sleep tugged at her so strongly.
“You will be safe for now,” Rohln said, spreading her human half out along the blanket. “Sleep without worry, for if something goes wrong, I will protect you.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. “I…”
She could no longer speak.
Sleep had pulled her one step too far.
“Baelra,” Rohln whispered, gently shaking her shoulders. “Wake. It is dawn.”
She opened her eyes, content in the faint light that the moth continued to produce. Fresh and rested, she pushed herself up into a half-sitting position and looked over her shoulder. Rohln watched her with calm eyes the color of honey, waiting to see if she would say something. The stare unnerved Baelra, if only because she’d come to trust Rohln so much in such a brief period of time.
“Will you help me find my way out of the forest?” she asked.
“Yes,” Rohln said. “I will.”
Standing, Baelra stretched her legs, glad that the sores on her arms and knees had stopped burning. She waited for Rohln to rise to her feet, half-expecting the centauress to hit her head on the high ceiling. Thankfully, she seemed a good judge of height, as she kept her head slightly tilted forward, the moth in her hand.
Stepping into pace beside the equine, Baelra took slow, deep breaths, wishing how she had shoes and how good it would feel to walk in them. She said nothing about her slight discomfort. Rohln would not be able to help her, because she had no need for human clothes or necessities, so it would be no use complaining.
She’s done so much already, she thought. I couldn’t possibly ask for any more.
“We’re almost there, Baelra.”
Light flowed into the grotto, gold at this early hour of morning. Baelra took a deep breath and looked at her companion, watching as she walked to the table to set the now-empty wicker cage down.
“The trees do not whisper of men in the forest,” Rohln said, turning to look at Baelra. “I believe we are safe.”
“You’re not sure?”
“The trees choose when they speak. Perhaps they are sleeping.”
Perhaps they are sleeping…
She’d never imagined the world being so in tune with itself, despite the fact that her gift allowed her powers that men deemed evil. Before, she would have never imagined the trees could speak, nor would she have imagined them sleeping. Some people said that, because trees do not move, or breathe, they cannot be alive. Now, though, she didn’t believe that, not in the least.
“All right,” she said. “I’m ready when you are.”
“I am ready,” Rohln said. “Let us go.”
With dawn came its blessing, eastern heat. Fresh dew embraced the greenery, clinging to it as though it would fall at any moment, while the slight wind rustled the overhead branches. Baelra shivered, reminded of last night and the men and dogs that chased her.
Why did you come for me? she thought, looking up at Rohln. What was your reason?
“You are bothered,” the equine said.
“No,” Baelra murmured. “I’m not.”
“Do not hold back the truth. I know you think of something.”
“Why did you help me last night?” she asked. “What made you come to me, of all people?”
“You were hurt and tired,” Rohln replied. “You would have surely perished.”
“I would have?”
Deciding it would be best not to ask anything further, Baelra crossed her arms over her chest, trying her best not to think of just how close she’d come to death. What would have happened had she been a moment later in catching the bolt, or if she hadn’t tore herself from the branch of the tree soon enough?
I’d be dead, that’s what.
“It will not take us long to leave the forest,” Rohln said, drawing Baelra’s attention. “I assure you, you will be safe on this path.”
“I would not take you this way if I were not sure of your safety.”
With one last nod, Baelra pursed her lips, sealing them with a single drop of moisture.
They continued on for the next little while in silence, only occasionally speaking if something merited a warning. Once, before Baelra had slid her foot into a root that jutted out of the ground, Rohln had set a hand on her chest and gestured to the root. Baelra nodded, smiled, and thanked her friend for her warning, sliding her foot out soon after before they continued.
As the morning wore on, the temperature began to rise. With the shift in humidity came bugs—bloodsuckers, mostly, but nothing more than that. They seemed to target Baelra and ignore Rohln completely. She briefly wondered if they left the centauress be because they knew she guarded their forest, or if they just weren’t interested in her.
Doesn’t matter, she thought, squashing a rather-large insect against her arm. She doesn’t deserve to be eaten by bugs.
There, under the arch of two curved trees, a path extended from the forest into the open plains. It followed a long, winding river that seemed to continue on forever.
“Follow the river,” the equine explained, “and you will come to a place where you will be safe.”
“Where will I end up?”
“There are women like you, with the gift that runs through only the most special’s blood. They will not turn you away.”
“What about you?” she frowned.
“I must stay here, to ensure that others are protected from the evil of corrupt men.”
“I…” she paused. “Rohln, I…”
She had no chance to finish.
A dozen men appeared from the woods, bearing crossbows and swords.
“Holy Lord of Mercy,” one breathed, stumbling back as he laid eyes on Rohln. “It can’t be.”
“A centaur!” another man breathed.
“You have no business here,” Rohln said, eyes narrowing to deadly slits. “Leave.”
“We just want the girl, beautiful. We have no business with you.”
“Your business with her is also with me. I have asked you to leave. I expect you to do so.”
“Or what?” one man asked. “What’re you going to do, half-breed?”
“I am much more than a simple half breed, human. Still your tongue before it is stilled for you.”
Several of the men gasped. Some chuckled, while others snickered at the warning. Baelra glanced out the corner of her eye. The men had flanked them on both sides. Thankfully, though, they had not stumbled behind them. Whether that was because they were wary of Rohln’s back legs, she did not know. Quite frankly, she didn’t care. The two of them had stepped into a trap that the men had set for them. Nothing else seemed to matter at that point.
“I will not ask a third time,” Rohln said. “Leave. Now.”
“We’re not leaving without the girl,” the head man said, taking a step forward. “Get out of our way, horse, and we won’t have to deal with you.”
Rohln bucked, striking the leader with her front leg. His neck snapped up in a spray of blood before he fell to the ground, dead.
Baelra ducked as three arrows shot at her. She reached into her magic and threw a blast of energy at one man, knocking his crossbow out of his hand and into his face. Bloodied, he hurled himself away as rocks the size of his fist hurtled toward them.
“ROHLN!” she cried. “RUN!”
Throwing her head back, the equine whinnied, a sound that Baelra would have never expected from her beautiful friend. Rohln thrust her arm forward, an arc of silver light spearing a man through the heart and killing him instantly. She ducked, avoided an arrow, and slapped two men at once with her hair. She hit one directly in the nose with her palm, seemingly driving the bone into his skull, and kicked the other in his stomach, projecting blood from his throat in gory detail.
This can’t be happening, she thought, watching Rohln slaughter two more men. This can’t…
The crossbowman whose nose she’d broken took aim.
Rohln turned just in time to be struck in the shoulder. She screamed, a sound half horse, half human. Her eyes burned silver, the muscles in her forearms bulged, the muscles in her neck divided in three. She raised both hands and summoned balls of light into them, throwing both at the man who’d just injured her. He flew into the air, spinning over and over. Slowly, his body dissolved, spreading like ash on the wind. He disappeared before he could hit ground.
Forced to realize that one more shot could kill her friend, Baelra stood and grabbed a nearby crossbow, shoving a bolt in it. She slammed it against her shoulder andfired. The bolt tore through a man’s neck, disarming his own bolt from his bow. It speared his partner in the groin, forcing him to his knees. Rohln jumped, crushed him beneath her huge weight, then turned, striking two men at once with her back legs. Baelra buried both underground with a sweep of her arms.
The remaining three shook as Rohln advanced on them, quivering in terror at the terrible beauty that advanced on them.
“Puh-Please!” one cried.
“Don’t do this!” another sobbed.
Rohln said nothing.
She raised her hand, summoned one last bit of energy, and severed all three’s heads at the neck.
After that, the equine fell to her knees, spent and bleeding.
Baelra knelt at Rohln’s side, pressing a hand to her shoulder. Thankfully, the bolt had missed her breast. She couldn’t imagine trying to remove it from such a tender spot.
“This will hurt,” she said, looking into her friend’s eyes. “Bear with me.”
Taking a deep breath, Baelra wrapped both hands around the bolt.
“Ready?” she asked.
With one hard, mighty tug, she slid the bolt out of Rohln’s shoulder with little more than a grunt from the creature in response. Baelra examined its smooth, single surface and thanked the Gods the tip had not been jagged or barbed. She both regretted and thanked herself for pulling the weapon out blindly—regretted because she could have seriously injured her friend, thankful because she’d done it without hesitation.
“Are you ok?” she frowned, pressing a hand to the fresh, bleeding wound.
“I will be fine,” Rohln sighed, turning her eyes on Baelra. “I would have died had you not stayed behind. Thank you.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” she said. She closed her eyes, pulled the magic out of the deepest part of her body, and channeled it into Rohln’s shoulder. “Does that feel better?”
“I cannot feel anything.”
“I’m afraid to heal the wound, because I don’t know how, but I numbed it so you wouldn’t feel the pain.”
“Thank you, Baelra… You should go. You do not want them coming after you.”
“You can’t stay here. You’re hurt.”
“There are others…”
“Look,” she sighed, setting both hands on Rohln’s shoulders. She stared into her friends eyes, willing them to connect on the personal level she wanted them to. “You’re not going to be able to help anyone if you’re hurt, so there’s no use staying here and letting your shoulder get worse.”
“I can tend to it myself.”
“You may be able to tend to it, but you won’t be able to defend yourself with one arm.”
Rohln said nothing.
“Rohln,” she said, setting a hand on her friend’s cheek. “Please, look at me.”
The equine did as asked.
“You helped me,” Baelra continued, “so I’m going to help you.”
“There is no need for this.”
“Yes, there is. I would’ve died if you hadn’t have helped me last night. I’m not just going to leave you out here by yourself, all right?”
“I…” Rohln paused. “Yes, Baelra,” she then said, “I understand.”
“So it’s settled then,” she said, taking her friend’s hand and helping her to her feet. “It’s ok—don’t be sad. You’ll be back soon.”
“I understand this,” Rohln said. “Thank you, Baelra.”
Baelra smiled, tightened her grip on her friend’s hand, and began to lead her down the path.Wherever it would lead, they would go, together.