The war between Opugren and Witcenogra was in its fifth year. Once fertile farmland had been burnt down to dust, the only male residents remaining were feeble minded greybeards and boys too young to carry weapons. None of the common folk could say why the two countries were fighting. Politics was the realm of nobles, not the everyday man. King Slerich of Opugen’s army was made up of conscripted infantrymen & mercenaries whereas King Varska of Witcenogra’s army was a mixture of mercenaries, knights, and king’s soldiers.
The sun had not yet broken the horizon to light the new day. A thin band of fog lingered over the encampment of King Varska of Witcenogra, adding moisture to the chilly mid-Thaelia’s Moon. At a small tent flying a banner of the Treynan family of a black boar on a yellow field blazed with candlelight, two men were awake while the majority of their companions still slept.
Inside the tent, Averell hissed when his squire, Cedryth pulled his blonde hair a little too tight as he twisted the knight’s hair in warrior’s braids. “Easy there, Cedryth, my eyes are supposed to stay on the front of my face, not move to the back of my head.”
“Sorry, milord,” Cedryth mumbled, “I’ll be careful. I need to make sure the braids are small enough to fit under the helm.”
Averell shut the young man out, clearing his mind to the battle ahead. Averell closed his eyes, slowing his breathing. He concentrated on taking one deep inhalation and one equally deep exhalation, repeating the cycle until his body was relaxed. The knight pictured the fight in his mind. If King Varska could take out King Slerich’s mercenaries, the battle would be won; Slerich would have no choice but to negotiate a surrender. A touch on Averell’s shoulder let him know Cedryth was finished.
“I’ll feed the horses unless there is another task you wish me to do.”
“Nay, Cedryth, take care of the mounts. When you are done, break your fast. I’ll be here until we ride out.”
Averell reached for a mug of watered down wine. Sipping on his drink, the knight picked at a platter of cold venison, cheese, and hard bread. He thought about his home. It seemed forever since he rode out of the gates to join with King Varska’s men in the hope of earning enough gold to buy land or perhaps earn a title. A victory today could fulfill his dreams.
Averell was stopped from rising by blinding light. He covered his eyes, at first thinking the enemy had launched an attack but not hearing any noises, Averell dismissed that thought. He drew his dagger ready to fight for his life.
“Sheath your weapon, my son.” A deep voice said. “I won’t harm you.”
Averell felt an instant feeling of love and trust emanate from the voice. He slid his dagger back in the sheath.
The light diminished within the tent. It took a few blinks of Averell’s eye before he could focus on the figure standing an arm’s width away from him. He was a strong man, whose sleek body firm with muscles from training was dressed for battle, had the bearing of a king. The warrior’s eyes gave him away as not human: sky blue iris surrounded by a midnight blue instead of white. As Averell studied the man, what appeared to be a puffy white cloud passed from one side of the man’s right eye and continued to the left eye and disappeared.
Averell gasped, understanding who the warrior was: Jenslu. This was a God, the first son of Thaelia and Kyregat! The knight dropped to his knees in obeisance. “My Lord, I am honored by your presence. How may I serve you?”
Jenslu let Averell stay on his knees, his head almost to the floor. The Deity walked a circle around the man, stopping when he was in front of him. “I have watched you grow up. I am pleased, Averell. I want you in Joslurek. Slavers have secured a base at Stamthri Cove. My temples are filled with prayers for help to defeat the pirates kidnapping children from the residents of Joslurek. I want you to help organize the Joslurek people that they fight off and rid the land of the slavers for all time.”
Averell took a moment to consider the God’s words. “Why do Joslurek’s need outside help? Can’t they get together and fight off the raiders on their own?”
“Get up, Averell.” The God waited until the knight stood facing him. “The centaurs have tried, as have the wolves, but many of the other shifters are not warrior-clans. There have not been any wars between clans or tribes in over ten generations. Except for eating utensils farming tools, and defensive daggers, very few people own weapons. The predators shift to hunt, they have no need of weapons.”
“I suppose the pirates came in with swords, arrows, and spears.” Averell said in reply.
“Of course,” Jenslu said, “and they laid out traps and holes for centaurs. A centaur may be a dangerous fighter, but they still need four good legs.”
“What of the children who have been taken from their families? Do they not deserve to be returned home?”
Jenslu gave Averell a knowing smile. “Once the island is safe, you could select a group of shifters and take a ship. The weather and sea would cooperate with your journey. It would be up to you to find the missing children.”
“I’ll go. To be fair, I should notify my commander.”
“That is not necessary; both the commander and King Varska have in informed. Your squire, Cedryth has your horses ready. Ride past the camp to the stream. Stop by the three boulders, where you bathed yesterday. I will send you to Joslurek from that point where you will arrive a half days ride from the centaur Holrf’s village. He is the village leader. He shall be expecting you.”
Jenslu held out his hand for Averell to take. “I have confidence in you. Go with my blessing.”
When Averell placed his hand in Jenslu’s, he felt a heat rush through his body. Sweat broke out over Averell’s body when his body temperature rose rapidly. He felt like his blood was boiling. Unable to speak or pull his hand away from the god, Averell’s last thought was of his mother, Zherie.
When Averell woke, he was alone in his tent. He stood on shaky legs, looking for any signs that Jenslu’s visit was in his mind. The tent looked as it had before the God appeared. Averell took a breath. “Did I dream the visit?” He was ready to believe it was all in his head when he picked up his sword belt. A glint from his sword caught his attention. Two jewels displayed inlaid in the hilt of the weapon that were not there before: an amethyst and an opal. “He was here! Those jewels are sacred to Jenslu.” Sending a mental prayer to the God, Averell gathered his remaining weapons and hurried out to meet Cedryth.
As promised, Cedryth was waiting with the horses. The two men rode to the designated point. Stopping by the three boulders near the stream, Averell, Cedryth and their horses were surrounded by a yellow light. When the light faded, the scenery had changed. No longer in an old growth oak forest, Averell and his squire now found themselves in a wood grove of unfamiliar trees that reached twice as high as any oak tree either of them had ever seen before.
“Where are we?” Cedryth asked.
“We’re in the country of Joslurek, about a half day’s ride from the nearest village. We need to seek out Holrf.” Averell turned his stallion’s head towards a deer trail. “Let’s try this direction. If my information is good, we should make the village by nightfall.”
The two men rode in silence, glancing at the foreign landscape in all directions, waiting for the attack which didn’t come. Golden beams of sunlight broke through holes of the canopy, illuminating insects flittering around the trees. The forest thinned, giving way to clover-filled meadows. An occasional shrub blooming with red berries popped up among orange & yellow poppies. Swishing sounds from behind a copse of willow trees promised a source of water.
“It’s pretty here.” Cedryth said. “Long far do you think it is to the village?”
“Hopefully not too much further, and don’t lose yourself in the view. Remember, pretty can be dangerous.”
Gull pricked his ears, whickering in greeting. Averell pulled up the stallion going on instant alert. “I know you’re out there. Come out, we’ve come as friends.” The knight held out his empty hands as a show of good faith. Cedryth followed his master’s example.
A voice called out, “What are you called by, stranger?”
“Averell and my squire is Cedryth.”
“Why are you here?”
Averell looked back at Cedryth and winked, whispering, “I think we’ve come upon our destination.” He turned back to face the voice. “I was sent to see Holrf.” The two men were left standing waiting for a response.
“What happens now?” Cedryth asked after a significant amount of time had lapsed.
“We keep waiting.”
“I’m going to refill our water bags.” Cedryth announced, urging Japer forward. He was reaching for Averell’s’ saddlebag when sound of hoof beats froze his movement.
The knight and his squire watched as a black set of legs pushed through some low hanging pine branches. Instead of a horses’ neck, the chest thickened into a man’s torso. The centaur’s upper half wasn’t strictly human-like. His chest was shorter, muscular, and covered in the same black horse hair as his horsey half, except for his back, which had an appaloosa spotted blanket pattern. His human face, if Averell could think of the centaur as human, was slightly elongated, with long, tipped ears and eyes set a little further apart. His hair went all the way down his neck to stop just below his shoulders, in the same color as his tail.
“Are you done staring at me?” He asked Averell.
“I apologize. I’m Averell of Seimerki. Cedryth and I have never seen a centaur before.”
“Apology accepted, I’m Berliss, if you will follow me, I’ll take you to my village. I was told be on the watch for you.” Berliss turned around. “Stay on the trail; it’s easy to get lost if you don’t know your way.”
When they arrived at Holrf’s village, Averell was surprised to see homes, bigger to accommodate the centaurs, but homes just the same. Adult centaurs were everywhere, their horse hides in every horse color imaginable. Centaur children played with human children, and dogs. Chickens wandered the grounds, pecking for insects. Residents went about their daily tasks: cooking, cleaning, and in the far distance, tending crops in raised beds.
Berliss led them to a large building. “Wait here.” He went inside. Moments later, Berliss returned. “You can both come inside. Tie up your horses on the side pole.”
After securing the horses, the two men walked inside. The room was dark, only lit by candles and a fire pit. Two bay-colored centaurs stood at a table, looking over some paperwork. They looked to see who followed Berliss inside the building.
“Holrf, Chendrid, may I introduce Averell and Cedryth.” Berliss backed up, leaving the four males to get acquainted.
One of the centaurs stepped forward, holding out his hand in a friendly gesture to Averell. “I’m Holrf. Jenslu told me to expect your arrival via a dream. “
Averell reached for Holrf’s hand, the centaur’s grip was strong. “I’m pleased to meet you, milord. I pray Cedryth and I will be able to assist your village. Jenslu told me slavers have been capturing children, sailing to parts unknown from their base camp at Stamthri Cove. What have your people done to stop the kidnappings?”
“We tried sending our young ones to another village. It didn’t work; the strangers tracked us and raided the homes at night. They killed the families who took in our children.” Chendrid said, anguish and anger spilling out. “One of the stolen foals was my son, Chendayl. His dam, my mate Shayl, fought to save him and the other children. The scum broke both of her front legs. One leg, maybe, but two forelegs shattered…I gave her the mercy blow.” Chendrid choked up. “She was in foal at the time.”
“I don’t want sympathy; I want my son and the other children returned, and the men responsible dead. Tell me what I need to do to accomplish my wishes.” Chendrid said in a serious voice, “I will follow you to the sun if that is where they are.”
“Good,” Averell replied, “for I am a no nonsense man. I expect my orders to be obeyed without question.”
“It is late and you have travelled far. Berliss will show you both to an empty home with a corral set aside for your use. I’ll come by in the morning, and we can get started on the plans to rid this land of the menace.” Holrf said.
“The sooner we go over the events, the better. We’ll be up early.”
Averill & Cedryth wolfed down a light meal of cheese, grapes, blueberry muffins with fresh butter and a glass of herb tea. Belching aloud, Averell brushed crumbs off his tunic. He strapped on his sword belt, announcing “Cedryth, see to our mounts while I talk with Holrf. I shall return after the meeting.”
A chestnut-colored centaur met Averill halfway. “Sir Averill, Merry Meet. I’m to escort you to our long hall for the council meeting. If you please would come with me, Sir?”
“Thank you…I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
“Forgive my manners. I’m Liren. I shall try to remember to point out and name the individuals we come across as we move through the village and enter the room.” Liren was true to his word, naming every resident as he and Averell walked along. Averell knew he couldn’t remember each centaur the first time, so he decided on paying attention to those in the meeting instead.
Arriving at the village meeting hall, Averell was relieved to recognize Holrf and Chendrid. Three men stood next to a palomino colored centaur.
“Greetings, Sir Averell.” Holrf welcomed the knight. “You have met my second, Chendrid. My lead mare, and mate, Mauri, represents the females of the herd; Sallet is here on behalf of the raptors; Jerein represents the wolves; and, Irex stands for the horses. Each of the clans represented here have lost children to the slavers as we have.”
“Milords, I am sorry for your losses. I pray to Jenslu your young ones are still alive and I swear to Zabe those response will pay for what they have done. Tell me what has transpired from the day the men first arrived.”
Sallet spoke first. The shift looked like a bird, keeping his arms bent as if ready to burst into flight at any moment. He was an athletic man with piercing brown eyes, a hooked nose, and brown hair with golden highlights. His head moved in odd, jerky movements for a man, but normal for a bird. “I saw the ship while performing a surveillance flight. It’s not unusual to have a man’s ship wash up on shore after a large storm, but this time the men survived. They were chopping down trees to make repairs. I reported my findings to all of the clans.”
Jerein took over next. “My Alpha instructed us, the warriors, to watch the strangers. None of the men appeared to be of any danger. They kept to themselves. Once the repairs were completed, they boarded the ship. After the first week, we made the mistake of ignoring the strangers. We didn’t believe they knew of any of our clans.”
“The missing young were discovered after the ship was gone.” Irex blurted out, the rage in his voice echoed in the room. “None of us had made our presence known to the men. How could they have discovered our villages without us knowing? We’d warning our foals to keep away.”
“What I am about to tell is a secret known only to the clans. Jenslu has told me you will keep this information locked within your heart, never to share. Shifter young stay in their true animal base form, unable to change without help from the parents or Alpha, except under extreme stressful conditions. Once shifters hit puberty, they can change at will, but they can be kept from changing if bound with iron. Centaurs don’t change forms. We must retrieve our stolen babies before they mature. Shifter blood breeds true. What will happen when a woman gives birth to a baby that turns into an animal within hours of its birth? Shifter females stay as their base form until their young born. There is always a member of the clan in animal form to help the parents raise the children.” Mauri explained. “We do our best to hide our secrets from humans.”
Averell thought for a few minutes. “Did the men return or stay away?”
Holrf answered, “They came back six months later. The slime made their presence known, invading our villages and taking what they wanted. We all fought as well as we could, but the humans had weapons we’d never seen before. Until those awful men tread on our shores, none of us knew what a sword was. How does one defend against a weapon sharper than a shark’s tooth?”
Those in the room spoke up with agreement.
Averell made direct eye contact with each male and female in the chamber. “I will show you how. Together we will show those cowards what real fear is. Once they have been beaten down into nothing, we start the journey to rescue your loved ones.”
End of part one