The old centaur stood quietly on the low hill. Looking out at the memorial to the one known as Aztek. Her mind wandered as she contemplated her own soon passage over the Rainbow Bridge. She longed to see those meadows. She had lost so many companions that she would rejoice to see on that day when, once again, they would be reunited never to part again. “Soon my friends” she whispered to no one.
She traced the pronounced veins in her hand with a still steady finger and wondered at the paper-thin skin she found beneath her light touch. Time changes so many things. She had many things to do this day but decided to lay down for just a moment. This place was so special and always put her in a emotional and reflective state. She marveled at the still wonderful feel of the soft grass as she positioned herself in a way she hoped would ease the pain in her old knees. She needed to work up a potion for that but most days it was still bearable. And you know what grandmother says about “too many potions.” She was powerful at her age but still knew enough to be careful with her use of magic.
The soft glow of the place made her drowsy as usual. As her wrinkled eyelids fluttered quickly and began to stay closed longer than open her mind wandered as it was wont to do. Her grey-haired head nodded and gradually came to rest peacefully on her chest.
The acrid smell of smoke assaulted her senses. Her fear was palpable as she looked around the small enclosure nervously, her eyes stinging as they darted back and forth. Nervously she tried to comprehend what was happening. The strong, confident face of her Papa filled her vision. “Quiet precious. You must do as I say now. No time for your usual questions. Come with me quickly!” She knew better than to disobey and in her confusion and fear she stuck close to her Papa as he ran out of the little place she had always known as safe. As home. The eerie red glow of fire everywhere mixed with the stinging smoke and her fear mixed with it. “Up child, into this wagon now. I am going to cover you with these burlap sacks, be brave for Papa. Stay down, make no sound. Uncle is going to take you to a safe place. As soon as we have dealt with this insult from the Ernok I will come to you.”
The Ernok. The name struck her with horror. The people of fire. Weren’t they just a bedtime story to scare the children with? Her little body shivered as she tried to lie still under the bags that smelled strongly of earth and potatoes. “Take her Artax! Keep her safe! Make all speed and I will come to you!” The wagon lurched and bolted off into the fiery darkness. The faint sounds of screams and clashing metal faded into the distance as home and all she’d ever known fell rapidly behind the racing wagon.
The days and nights that followed swirled in a nightmare of hazy dream. A time of running and hiding that refused to coalesce in her mind’s eye. An exodus of her kind as they fled from those that would put an end to them and their way of life. The one feeling she remembered well; the need to be with her Papa. She tried to still herself. He would come. He said he would.
Days passed into days and finally they stopped in a dark wood. Her uncle seemed to be more relaxed now as he held her by the hand and walked her into a small inn. Before opening the door he looked down at her small face and held it gently in his large, strong hand. “This is a safe place Pearl. You will wait for your Papa here. These folk are our friends and will take good care of you.” He led her through the door. It was a cozy, quiet place. She would soon learn it was not always so quiet. Artax smiled broadly as a fat, happy human female ran up to him and reached up to hug him around his waist. “Artax, Artax, it has been long! What on earth brings you here? And……with this child?” “The Ernok are on the move Bess. We had to flee to protect this one from their attack. My brother Aaron will come for her when he can. This is his child.”
Bess turned to look at the tiny centaur and smiled gently. “Of course, we will care for her as if she was our own.”
I looked anxiously at my uncle “Uncle, you are not staying with me?” I skittered nervously and looked around this strange place. “No sweet child, I have much I must do. You shall stay here with Bess. You can trust her as you would me. Do not fret. Your Papa will come for you.” “But uncle…” “No buts girl, you must trust us and do as you are told. Your life may depend upon it.”
After her uncle had gone a new, strange life began for Pearl. The inn became her home. As soon as she was able she began to work as a barmaid for her “Mama Bess.” Mama Bess and convinced her that because of the customers she would come into contact with she needed to wear clothing. She made her a working outfit the most fancy part of which was a frilly pair of panties. A little smile crossed the sleeping face of the old centaur as she dreamed. This was the reason for her nickname that everyone called her…Pearly Panties. It did not upset her at the time. In fact, she came to like it. She doubted she would brook such a nickname these days.
The work of a barmaid suited her. She was friendly and outgoing. The customers loved her as she waited on tables and trotted around with her silky tail flitting this way and that.
She cantered up to the table where a rather dangerous looking man sat. “What may I get for you sir?” “I’ll ha’ a pint’o yer best dragon’s blood lassy.” Dragon’s Blood was the name for a local specialty brew of red ale. “Coming right up!” She failed to notice the disturbing glint in this one’s eyes as he watched her frilly-pantied behind trot to the bar to get his ale. The rest of the evening passed normally and after a hard day’s work she went to her bed.
The old centaur’s head twitched now nervously in her sleep. Anyone observing her would think she was having a bad dream. She was.
Sometime during that night the nightmare had begun. She bolted awake as a pair of rough and cruel hands held her mouth in a grip of steel. “Make e’en one sound lassy and t’will be yer last!” She wanted to cry out but her shock and fear at being so handled effectively muted her ability to cry out. A smelly bag was placed over her head as she was bundled outside the inn where everyone else soundly slept. She was bound and thrown roughly into the back of a cart. “Nay a sound lassy!” And the cart bolted off at breakneck speed through the night. “Ye’ll fetch a fine price indeed me fine girly!” the horrible man cackled as he sped off.
The cart was small and old and rattled badly as they raced through the night. At some point there was an immense jolt and the little centaur was thrown out onto the road. The cart sped on its way leaving her where she lay. She struggled and finally escaped her poorly tied bonds and removed the sack from her head. She cried as she looked around fearfully at her surroundings. She was totally alone and in a place she did not know. As she ran, trying to put as much distance between her and her captor, she crashed through the strange forest. In her panicked haste she did not see the cliff she raced toward. When she finally realized something had gone terribly wrong it was too late. She pitched forward and rolled down the steep incline. Her head struck something and this part of her memory came to a sudden end.
She awoke head throbbing. She stood and shook herself. Luckily she didn’t seem to be hurt. Her body was unharmed, other than a few cuts and scrapes. Her clothes, however, were torn in several places and soaked in frigid, muddy water. She remembered the feeling as she dreamed. My clothing clung to me as I stood, weighing heavily on my arms and legs. Height was not a gift my parents’ gene pool had bestowed upon me, so I could barely see over the colossal plants around me. Peering through the wispy ends of the blades, I could make out the edge of a forest less than a quarter mile away on my right.
Hugging myself for warmth, I turned full circle in my little patch of flattened grass, looking for the highway I had left earlier in my fearful flight. But there was no road in sight, only the long line of the forest extending into the horizon. Any other landmarks that may have been present weren’t visible through the deluge of water and towering foliage. There wasn’t even a trail of broken stalks around to denote where I had come from. As though the sky had dropped me there with the rain.
To any observer she thought it would have appeared that the sky was raining centaurs.
She made her way slowly through the thick foliage. Before long she came to a small clearing. There were several small huts with smoke lazily curling from the chimneys. There were people……..or some kind of folk here. She stood at the edge of the clearing afraid to venture further.
She bolted when a soft voice spoke behind her. “Wherever did one such as you come from?” She spun on her hooves to see a short halfling woman looking at her in wonder. “I…..I was kidnapped.” Pearl began to weep. Thus began her new life in this place which was called “The Grove.” In her flight from her kidnapper she had stumbled……….or fallen…….into the grove of a peaceful community of druids. Their job was to care for this grove.
They took Pearl into their community and family. The next few years contained too many wondrous things to relate here. Suffice it to say that she learned much. Much of magic and the ways of the woods and the mystical way of life that she had become part of. She learned much. The arts of healing and of making potions of all kinds. But she never forgot her Papa. She missed him every day of her life. Over time she became a powerful user of magic. What these folk called a witch. She also had decades ago forgone her frilly panties and taken to wearing only black. For it was to her a black day when she was torn from her family and cast out into the world. The wearing of the black would forever remind her of her past and where she had come from. She vowed never to forget.
And then one day the raven came. It sat on her windowsill and would not be shooed away. At some point Pearl realized it bore a message. She removed the tattered note from the small band on its leg and began to read. She read of a place where such as her would be welcomed. A place where she could fit in and practice her skills to the mutual advantage of such as her. Where she could finally belong. It sounded like a wonderful place. And much to her surprise these halflings she had lived with for longer than she could remember actually encouraged her to go. To find this place where she could be with others like her. To find companionship and family. Perhaps even some of her long-lost family would have found their way there. Wouldn’t that be worth going? Maybe her Papa had found his way there?
The day finally came when she began the long voyage to this place she dreamed of. Centauria. After a long and often grueling sea-voyage she arrived on its shores.
The old centaur awoke. The many fleeting visions of her past in her dreams faded slowly away as she once again looked at the memorial of Aztek. She stood slowly to her feet. This was now her true home. She had never found her Papa. But she had been taken in as a stranger and had quickly become a valuable member of the community. She was surrounded by those of her kind. Beautiful and friendly and all skilled in so many things. But her forte was her magick and she had vowed to use it to help those she had come to love. She reached down and rubbed her aching knee and once again reflected on her age and the uncertainty of the future. “How long before I join you my lovelies?” But she had much to do. Her farm needed tending. She had potions to make for her friends. So much to do. And she still had to finish her morning rounds of the lands of Centauria. A Guardian’s work is never done. She was an old woman now, an elder. But there was still much she could do for these, her people.
She smoothed her black cloak and turned reluctantly from the statue of Aztek. A small but contented smile crossed her face as she slowly walked away down the path. The path towards home.