The centaurs of the Emerald Isles are proud and strong. There are six distinct tribes: The Vega- Noble and purebred, leaders of all tribes. The Sunsmith- Craftsman and traders of the tribes. The Foxtail- The smallest of the centaur tribes both physically as well as in numbers. The Scorpion- Outcasts of the tribes. Banished to Scorpion island for unknown reasons. The Noya- The nomadic herd. Peaceful to many. The Whitewell- Not much is known of this tribe. They are a mystery.
There is something very soothing about fire, thought Briar. There are moments it can elicit terror but generally speaking, its warmth was almost like a sedative. Glancing around at her companions as they warded the night chill, she contemplated the source of energy in front of her. Herkus had taught her great reverence for flames. The sacrifices they brought forth issued power, and this evening had been no exception. Her immolation had given a blessing to each of her comrades, and whether or not they needed it, she was grateful for the opportunity to bestow it upon them. With a flick of her wrist a small flame appeared in her hand, a tiny gentler version of the focal point of camp.
Looking upon each individual in the group she considered that pain must have been a prerequisite to being chosen by the Oracle. She did not know all of their stories, just fragments of chapters in their hearts, but there was one language each of them understood: they were all fluent in suffering. Her own past, the moments that lead her to where she was right now, caused an ache upon her whole being. It was similar to the pain issued when her mother embedded ink upon the tender skin of her back. At first it was sharp, but then a dull throb would cover the sharpness. After a time, her skin learned to feel nothing but numbness, and she realized her heart warded away the memories in much of the same manner. Sting, throb, numb. It was a pattern she forced upon herself. There was no way to come to terms with the curse that had been pressed upon her, but she could fight it by feeling nothing. She had to feel nothing, for if she gave way, her heart would lead her to her very destruction, and the end of those she truly loved.
Briar’s life started with very little difference to other centaur foals. Her parents had welcomed her with soft nickers of love and encouraged her to stand as soon as possible. “Get those legs up, me Briarpatch,” her mother Irica cooed at her. “Ye have to be swift and strong.” Her smile brightened the small area around them. A grove with soft grass and tender saplings to give cover to the family. Briar’s father Telon stood near as sentinel, guarding his partner and newborn. He turned his head briefly and Briar saw a smile form on his lips, interrupting a tear that had fallen. She did her best to do as her mother requested. Her four legs straining to lock in and hold the weight of her tiny body. It was strenuous, wobbly work and she went down several times before finally locking her knees and standing tall. Her mother laughed and started to clean off the mess of dirt and such that accompanied new life. Her fingers brushed Briar’s short locks and tenderly caressed her cheek.
“Be a good filly then, walk to your da.” She gave a little shove of encouragement and Briar’s small stick-like legs carried her, one jolting step at a time to the towering figure of her father. She wasn’t sure why she felt so intimidated by this being, but she was. He stood with his arms folded, and a sword hung on his waist and a bow hung on his back. He had bay coloring, and it was reflected in his hair. A deep reddish brown that looked almost black in the dim light of the night. His eyes startled her however as they were a light grey, and somehow, she knew that was not typical. He smiled down on her, his face young but worn, and his skin was tan with work under the sun. She stumbled then and tried to catch herself by holding his leg, but before she could she heard the rich timber of his voice for the first time.
“Hold on now, little one. I’ve got you.” In a swift movement he gathered her up and held her against him. “Let me get a look at ya…” He smiled again and she grinned back. “I think she’s the best of both of us, Irica, m’ love.”
Her mother walked up to both of them and embraced her two loves. “Aye that she is. It will be this moment that I hold onto most dearly.” Briar felt so small between her parents. The strength they exuded made her feel safe. “We should start a fire…” her mother said softly, still holding their family together. With reluctance she pulled away and Telon placed Briar back down on the ground where her small tail flicked back and forth with eagerness. She felt cold outside the confines of their physical affection but excited to walk back to where her mother had folded her legs beneath her and began the process of bringing flames to life.
She took a moment to look at her mother and appreciate her beauty. She had the pale coloring of a palomino and her hair was almost white. Her skin was alabaster and her eyes a bright blue. Her long hair was loosely tied in a thick braid and it was then that Briar noted the black marks covering her back and neck. She toddled up to her mother as best she could, and her legs gave out just as she reached her. She snuggled up next to her and her father joined them on the other side. Looking across the growing flames she heard her mother sing a lullaby about owl squirrels, and she drifted to sleep.
“Quit yer dancin’ Briar and look…” Her father smiled at her young self, so excited she could hardly contain it in her small form. “Alright, now look at these tracks. What do ya see?”
Three summers had passed since she was born, and she was eager to learn more of her father’s knowledge.
“It’s a… tiger?”
“Are ya guessing?”
She looked further and inspected more fully the print, noting the shift in the dirt and how the set on the left gave a slightly deeper depression than the prints on the right. It couldn’t be a tiger; they dragged their prey. She shook her head, her white curls flying at the movement.
“Uh-uh, it’s big like a tiger but it’s carrying something on its left side… Tigers don’t do that, do they, Da?”
“Correct.” He smiled at her assessment. “Very good. Now it’s getting dark, and if I’m not mistaken, we are meant to go to the hold this evening.”
“The Satyr troop!” She bucked her back legs in excitement and did a little prancing jig at the thought of the music and entertainment her evening held. Not often did they enter into the Foxtail Hold proper, and usually they weren’t there for long. She didn’t know why but the other members of the tribe kept her parents at a safe distance. Well, the kinder ones did anyway, there were others that were less benevolent. She typically walked under the sheltering legs of her mother whenever they went, often while looking with yearning at the other colts and fillies playing in the center. One game she desperately wanted to learn was where a child would touch you and then you had to chase and touch someone else. It was so fun to run fast, and she was getting stronger each day, although she still tripped on her legs as though she had four left feet. Her parents assured her she would outgrow her clumsiness.
Walking back to their small home her mother was already waiting for them with a small cloak in her hands. “Come now me Briarpatch, you can’t catch a chill.” She ignored the protests of her offspring and dressed her for the night’s approach. “Now remember, you stay right with us. There is more than the tribe in the hold tonight.”
“Not that I’m sure she’s much safer with them,” her father remarked wryly.
“Oh hush,” she chastised. Irica then knelt down and put her hands on her daughters’ cheeks. “Listen, m’ dear. You are of the Foxtail tribe. This means something. Centaurs are proud and strong, and they take care of their own. Always.”
Briar nodded although she understood little of what her mother was saying. She glanced at her father whose face held a stern frown. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s get going.”
Upon entering the hold, Briar was astounded at the quantity of bodies that filled the main area. Torches were lit, and loud laughter rang in her ears. She couldn’t quite see what was happening but stayed obediently between her mother’s front hooves as instructed.
“Flower for the beauty?” A silky voice with cloven hooves stepped in front of her parents. The form began kneeling down and she saw the bright eyes and smile of a Satyr who held out a daisy to her. She looked at her father who rolled his eyes but nodded, and she took it.
“Perhaps wear it in your hair young one,” said the satyr. His eyes crinkled with delight that she took it.
“What do ya say dear?” her mother prompted.
“Thank you,” she shyly responded looking down. It was hard to talk to anyone but her parents.
They moved on but at some point, her father picked her up. She loved when he held her. It was as if the world was far removed and only safety could touch her. At last she could see the masses and put visuals to the auditory bombardment she experienced before. She thought she heard her father curse something about ‘damn flirtatious half goats.’ Her mother laughed and linked her arm in his. Before she could contemplate the meaning behind his words a smell caught her nose.
“Da! Sugarcane!” she squealed and pointed to a large fire where two older centaurs were manning a booth that held the crunchy treat that she loved so much. She had only had it a few times as it was a luxury for their household, but it was her favorite morsel. She entreated him, hoping against all hopes that they could indulge just this once, but the look on her father’s face made her blanch. There was a fierceness to his discerning eyes, and the scowl somehow seemed to envelop his entire countenance.
“I’ll take her,” her mother said quietly and pulled her out of his arms. “Why don’t you go get us a drink.” Setting Briar on the ground once more where she could hook her tiny arm on her mother’s leg, they made their way over to the group of other parents treating their offspring to the reed-like treat. The older male centaur had his back to them looking away, but his female counterpart turned with a bright smile to greet them. Upon noting who it was however she practically spit at Irica.
“You!” she hissed. “What are you doing here?”
Irica rolled her shoulders back. “I would think it would be obvious, Manara. We are here to enjoy the festivities tonight and thought we could purchase some of your sugarcane.”
“I’ll not let you nor your cursed bastard have anything from me.”
“She is not cursed, I am… And you know very well she is no bastard,” Irica replied calmly as though she had experienced this conversation many times. As she finished speaking the male turned to see what the commotion was, and rage shrouded him. It was then that Briar saw the unique grey color of his eyes. His features felt so familiar to her she almost wanted to run to him and hug him, but she held fast. Other’s around their booth had parted knowing this interaction could be both dangerous and entertaining.
“When our son left, he died.” the male seethed. “And I don’t recognize any union he would have had with the likes of you. That thing,” he spit, and it landed at Briar’s feet, “is nothing but a cursed bastard who should have been drowned the moment it came into existence, just like her wretched mother before her.”
Irica said nothing to them, instead turning to lift up her daughter in her arms. Briar often forgot how strong her mother was and while her arms did not hold the muscle of her father, the warmth they radiated was the same.
“I’ll not waste m’ breath on either of you, except to say shame.”
“You say shame to us!?” Manara screeched. “If you hadn’t used your devilry and tricks our son would still be with us. He had never even looked your way and then all of the sudden like magic- You… You…” She sputtered, “Mark my words, you will pay dearly for the pain you have inflicted on this hold.”
“I’m aware I will pay, but it won’t be by yer hands, Manara, nor yours, Ergo. I have the gods themselves I will answer to.” With that she turned and carrying Briar walked back into the crowd. Briar looked behind her at the two older centaurs. It made her sad that they were so upset.
She didn’t know why they were being so mean or why she couldn’t have sugarcane and she sighed into her mother’s neck. She looked upon the dark marks of the tattoo on that wrapped itself around and down her back as she had many times before. The images frightened her. So shifted her gaze back to the booth with longing.
When they came to the side of her father his brows furrowed and he began to walk over to the booth they had just vacated, but Irica caught his arm. “It seems as though they are out of sugarcane at the moment. Let’s just have a drink and watch, aye?” She smiled at him and he held up her hand and placed his lips to her palm. He handed Briar a small cup of something sweet and sour made for children, and with his wife shared a heavy barley drink meant for adults. They listened and watched as the Satyrs danced and sang, entertaining the hold until the dark hours of night.
By her fifth summer she was well aware that the hold was not the haven her mother claimed it to be, and that the only true safe space in her world was the small space she shared with her parents. Each time they entered the gates of the hold, the harsh words and actions directed at her parents and herself became more obvious to her, despite her young age. Other children were not allowed to interact with her, and she felt very lonely. Her parents made up for it as best they could, playing games with her, teaching her, and entertaining her with stories of their own childhoods. Usually it was Telon who would share his humorous adventures as a youth, but her favorite story from the past, was about her parents suddenly realizing they were in love and eloping. Her eyes would shine bright at their affection for each other. They held a powerful love, one that could seemingly stop time and create a bubble of perfection for only them and her.
“Tell me about the flowers!” she begged.
“Aye, the flowers. I had none to hold when we wed, so your da found some purple thistles and made a crown out of them for me. They had sharp thorns and he pricked his fingers several times,” she laughed. “But I was grateful. He made me feel beautiful.”
“Ah, but that’s because you are.” He smiled at his wife and kissed her making their daughter squeal with delight.
“Tell me more!” she cried and they did. They told her how they ran away and committed to each other, and only came back to the tribe when Irica discovered she was pregnant and they wanted the love and family of the tribe to be a part of their child’s life.
“And then there you were,” her mother said, “And I knew, I would never be happier than I was with my two loves.” She always ended the story there and tonight was no exception. But Briar wanted more.
“Mama? Will I ever have love like that? Like you and Da?” she asked.
Tears sprang in her mother’s eyes, and a pained expression crossed her delicate features.
“Aye, m’ love. You will… Now sleep.” Briar held Irica’s hand.
“Is it bad to love mama? You seem sad about it.”
Telon then came over to the both of them. “You should tell her, Irica. Your back’s been hurting for days now. I can tell…” He kissed her forehead.
“She’s too young…” Irica began to cry.
Briar was distressed. She had made her mother unhappy and she didn’t know how to fix it. “I promise if you don’t want me to mama, I won’t fall in love. I promise, I really do.” She crossed her heart earnestly.
“If only it were that simple, m’ love… Rest your eyes now. We’ll talk of this another time.”
Briar’s attention was brought back to the present and she rubbed her neck absentmindedly. She had once told Shadow that her curse felt like an itch that could never be scratched. At best it was a constant nuisance, at worst a fierce engulfing pain of distraction. Her breath shuttered. She had gleaned an idea of what would give her relief. If her constant desire to find love was anything to go on. The question remained however: what kind of love? Was it her love for someone else that activated the curse for her. Was it another’s love for her? It was all so confusing. Her parents had barely told her anything, and while she remembered wonderful things in her life as a young child with painful clarity, those precious details felt lost to her.
The rest of her comrades had started to bed down for the night. She had offered to stay awake and keep watch but was told to rest. It had been a long day and she was assured that sleep should be her priority. She folded her legs underneath her and rested her head against a tree looking at the embers glowing. As her eyes drifted shut she felt the sting on her back and winced.
She was playing in a patch of grass with the homemade owl squirrel doll Irica had created out of rags. It really was a sad looking toy but she absolutely loved it. She was running back and forth between the trees when she heard her mother cry out in pain. She turned to look at both of her parents. Her mother was screaming, the boiling water of laundry spilling out on the ground putting out the fire beneath it. Her father was doing his best to sooth her by holding her tightly.
“I can’t fight it…” her mother collapsed. “Telon, please.” She went to her knees in the mud and he stood and ran over to a tree that had a hollow in it and pulled out a glass vile of something dark and liquid, and a long sharp stick. When her father came back, he called to her, “Come ‘er Briar. Your mother needs you.” His voice frightened her and she hesitated. “Briar, NOW!” he barked.
Never before had her father raised his voice in such a manner to her. She took steps with trepidation towards both of her parents, intimidated and unsure. The doll hung limply in her hands, but she obeyed. As she grew closer her mother held out her hand and when she was within reach, she grasped it and pulled Briar in tightly.
“I’m so sorry, m’ sweets, I’m so sorry. Telon please forgive me. Briar, you’re too young. I can’t believe we didn’t have more time.”
“Mama?” she questioned and then looked up at her father. “Da?”
“I can’t tell her Telon. I can’t…” her mother wept into her hair making it wet and sticky.
“Aye,” he rasped, and knelt with the two of them. “Briar… listen to me.” She twisted slightly to see his face better and he continued. His face looked pained and ill as he took her free palm and held it. “Your mother… her family has… a curse. That is the dark markings on her back. The curse gets passed to each generation and added upon…and it’s never known when.” He took a shuddering breath and covered his face with his other hand. Her mother was shaking with her sobs. Briar was trying to understand everything she was told. A curse? Her family was cursed. What did that mean? Between the sobs of her parents she barely heard the rest, but her mother was going to pass the curse to her.
“What does it do, Da? Mama?”
Her mother sniffed and placed both hands on her cheeks with love and care. Her special form of affection. “You’re so much younger than I was, sweet one. I’m not sure you’ll understand. But the curse…It will make you find love; it will show you perfect happiness, and then it will be ripped away…”
“Why? Can’t we stop it?” she asked, feeling small and unsafe for the first time in her existence in her parents’ arms. She began to panic a bit. They spun her around and like a trapped animal she realized that her mother and father were about to hurt her. They were going to put the marks on her back. “I dunno, m’ Briarpatch. No one knows why my line is cursed. But they must have angered the Titans fearfully for this punishment.” Then her tone shifted and went flat. “They must have done something terrible to deserve this. Now… I must begin.”
Her father turned her around and kissed her forehead, but she struggled against him. “Da? Please stop her! DA! Do I hafta, Da? I don’t want to be cursed.” She started to cry. ‘I don’t want this, Da! No, please Mama, NO!” She fought and her father wrapped his arms around her tightly holding her with his strength that was once so comforting but was now terrifying.
“We can’t stop this. Y’ll receive this and grant ya mother and I rest and relief.” His voice was horrifyingly monotone and emotionless as he held her still, and her mother put the first prick of ink into her tender skin. She screamed in pain, but the restraining arms of her strong father held any movement at bay. She cried out as each dot and line was placed on her innocent flesh. After a time, a sort of numbness enveloped her, though tears still fell, and small whimpers escaped. At some point she got the hiccups.
It was well past dark when the tattoo was finished. If anyone was to look at her back it would be hard to tell what was new markings and what was blood. Some areas had already begun to scab and heal with an itching torment. She was exhausted and collapsed in their arms. As if waking from a dream her parents seemed to be released from their trance. Upon looking at their small daughter, they screamed in horror and anguish, their wails the last lullaby she would ever hear from them.
As dawn approached, she woke and looked at her sleeping parents. The fire had long since went out. The water from the laundry soaked the ground around them making a freezing mud for a bed. Her mother’s eyes fluttered open. They were red and puffy, and her throat sounded dry as she tried to speak. “Briar…” she murmured, and her eyes drifted shut again. Briar wanted to cuddle closer but she was still afraid. She then noticed that the tattoo which had always marred her mother’s beautiful skin, was completely erased. With a trembling lower lip she decided her need for warmth outweighed her fears and brought her small body against her mothers, seeking relief from the chill. She drifted off petting her mother’s neck and shoulders where the marks previously occupied space.
Several hours later she awoke again to the voices of her parents speaking but it all felt muddled. Her skin burned from pain similar to falling into a thorny bush and getting scratches all over her back. It was sticky with blood, mud and tears. She felt heavy and hazy.
“Don’t know how long… Please Telon, for her… Overcome… I can’t live without you…We both knew what this was…You have be strong for her… The tribe will care for her… No… Yes…” The argument and phrases intermingled until she heard deep coughing and a pat on her cheek bringing her fully to consciousness.
“Briar…” her mother spoke softly, looking weak and frail, as though she had aged years in the span of hours. She coughed and turned away and Briar saw blood on her lips. “I want you to remember… Remember us please… Please, don’t hate us. We love you. I love you. ” Then she began coughing again and Telon moved to her side to hold her up, pleading with her to stay with him. With several gasps and fear in her eyes she placed her palm on his cheek and her other hand went to hold Briar’s. “I truly…love you…” She choked with a painful gurgle and her eyes fluttered back as she fainted.
Irica never recovered after she passed out. Two days later gold pieces were placed on her eyes with great care and she had funeral rights in honor to Amalj’aa:
The coins upon my eyes pay the way back to you
In the eye of the storm I seek your glory
To become your energy in lightning or wind
As in life, I dedicate my death to you.
Briar held her father’s hand as the flames licked the empty shell that was her mother’s body. She looked up at him and saw the vacancy in his own eyes. He was distraught and drowning in an ocean she couldn’t even begin to comprehend. As they walked away, she saw a very old centaur woman approach.
“How fast did it happen, Telon?” she asked Briar’s father.
“A matter of hours before she was sick, and then she never woke up,” he replied flatly.
“That is quicker than her own mother. It took her a week after she fell ill. Perhaps it speeds up with each generation as well…” She scrutinized him. “Are you going to fight, or will you be like every male before you?” she retorted tersely.
“Don’t you dare judge me, grandmother. I couldn’t help loving her any more than I can help but breathe. This became my curse too. For whatever reason it chose me and her to be together.”
“But what of your child? Will you leave her to fend for herself the way her mother had to? Are you that weak?”
“The tribe will care for her… Irica always said they would.”
“They will not love her. They will mistreat her.”
“They will see her needs are met… You could help her.”
“I can’t take her on…You know this, Telon. You are abandoning her if you walk away now. Be stronger than whatever this is. You have to. She’s your child!”
Telon looked down at his small daughter and his face crumpled. “I can’t… live without her.” His body wracked with sobs. “I need her. I can’t do this.”
“You can if you force yourself to!” the older centaur snapped at him. “Your daughter needs you! Dare I say she needs you more than you need your dead wife. Stay alive, Telon! Don’t make me carve another plaque for you.”
“Da?” she asked quietly, unsure that this broken man was truly her father… She walked up to him and placed her palm on his front leg, begging in her heart for him to pick her up. “Are you going away too?” He didn’t answer, he just placed both palms on her cheeks in an imitation of her mother and kissed her forehead tenderly. He pulled her cloak around her to cover her better. At first she thought it was for her warmth but then she watched as a sneer feinted across his face when he looked upon her marked back. He took a deep breath and stood once more.
“You are the best of both of us, m’ love Briarpatch. Maybe you’re stronger, too. Maybe you’ll beat this curse. I love you, but I… I can’t… I can’t be a part of this anymore.” He turned and walked away. She started to follow but the older centaur woman held her back, surprisingly strong for her age.
“Da?” she called, “Da!? Don’t leave me Da? Please don’t leave me! Please! DA!” she screamed and pulled against the arms holding her. “DAAAAAAAAA! PLEASE DAAAAAA!” But he continued walking away. He ignored her cries and pleas as he walked further into the forest, and he never looked back.
Four days later, they found Telon’s body and gold coins were placed on his eyes while he burned for his funeral rights also in honor of Amalj’aa. Briar looked deep into the flames alone. Her paternal great grandmother standing at a distance with her paternal grandparents. She now knew who they all were. None came to offer comfort or respite from pain. So, she told herself to remember to be numb. The ratty owl squirrel doll was her only source of gentleness.
“I’ll not have that thing with us,” she heard her grandfather say. “I don’t care what the chief said.”
“Ergo, she is to be passed between families until she is old enough to care for herself. You don’t have to love her or even know her, just give her one ration of food a day and make sure she doesn’t die of exposure to the elements. It’s pretty minimal.” Great-grandmother shook her head at her son. “You would do more for an injured wild beast.”
“Not a beast that killed my son,” he replied stubbornly.
“But she didn’t kill him. Blame her mother all you want, but the filly had nothing to do with it.”
“We can do the minimum, Ergo,” replied Manara. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but the chief decreed it.”
That winter Briar attended one last burning, this time her great-grandmother had coins on her eyes. However, her rites were in honor of Eos. The words felt so different and they stuck in Briar’s mind but she was still too young to fully understand the meaning behind them. All she knew was the small feeling of comfort she could feel growing within her chest.
Dearest mother who holds us in her palm
I leave this life and the coins pay the way
You are all around and your love guides me home
As your child I grew to know so much
Please care for those I leave behind as you cared for me
And allow my body to serve as new life to others
I dedicate my rebirth to the earth to you.
While the woman was not what some would call affectionate to her, she was never cruel. And any time it was her turn to care for Briar she gave her not just one ration but two and possibly a sweet. There was also always an extra blanket around. Briar didn’t cry but did mourn in her own way. She would always remember this old centaur with reverence, as the only member of her tribe aside from her parents to show her compassion and care.
After the service she went to the center of the hold and looked upon the names carved in small plaques upon a wall. She saw her father’s name ‘Telon’ with an inaccurate date of death, then the true date of death carved more recently below it. Near it was her great-grandmother’s new plaque, freshly carved with beautiful scrolling letters. ‘Aglia’ it read. There was no marker for her mother. Her clan did not want to have her remembered. Aglia had explained one evening the importance of the plaques. For their tribe they marked the names of the dead so that they may live on through the tribe. The worst punishment for a tribe member was to be forgotten because it was as though you never existed in the first place. Briar knew somehow that just as her mother, her mother’s mother, and so far back for however long there were marked on the backs on her family line, that there would be no name for her unless she could win over the hearts of those in her clan.
Easier said than done however. Besides giving her food as ordered by the chief, none of her tribe wanted anything to do with her. She did everything she could to be in their good graces. If they claimed that centaurs were superior to every other creature, she readily agreed. When there were jobs that were disgusting, dirty, or unfavorable in any way, she volunteered, hoping that it would earn her some favor. The worst was when certain families would see her befriending animals out of loneliness. They would force her to kill her animal friend with her bare hands for her meal that day, and she did it all the while forcing back tears as they laughed cruelly at her.
After screaming for her father to not leave her all those months ago, she rarely spoke now, and only when spoken to and she only answered as needed. In her mind, words did little good. She also feared the repercussions and anger that her voice seemed to elicit from her tribes members. If she ever spoke up there were consequences that she would rather avoid. Adults did not beat her at the decree of the chief, but they had no problem if their children “played rough.” If she got any injuries, it was chalked up to youthful folly during games. She did her best to be stoic, and never complained, not even the time her ribs got cracked.
For many years this was the pattern, and outside of jobs in the hold, she learned to keep to herself as much as possible in order to stay away from the wrath of those who would do her harm. But one colt in particular sought her out as his personal toy. He was several years older, the chief’s son, and his name was Vanyel. He was cruel and malicious in his attentions.
When Briar was entering her eleventh summer and Vanyel his fourteenth, he started a new game that the other younglings seemed to enjoy called ‘live target.’ They would hold Briar down and paint large red targets all over on her body and then give her a ‘sporting thirty second lead.’
She could run anywhere but if they found her, he would shoot. The adults turned a blind eye to this sport, choosing to believe the others when they said she volunteered as a target to help the chiefs son improve. And while she had yet to be struck to the point of maiming her, she had been grazed several times by Vanyel’s arrows. He didn’t allow anyone else to shoot, but they could help him track her and call out when they spotted her.
This latest round of ‘live target’ was brought about by Vanyel being given a new bow. She had more bruises and injuries this time from the other’s holding her down and painting the red targets on her. She had fought against them harder than ever before. She saw his bow, and knew the strength behind it could unleash an arrow that might kill her. She was already limping when they gave her the head start, but ran as fast as she possibly could, zig zagging and going deep into the trees for cover. Several arrows hit trees near her, and she begged for mercy at the hands of the gods. A breeze blew by her and she perceived innately that she needed to turn and swiftly.
“Damn, I missed!” he said, laughing as she moved just in time for an arrow to slice her jaw and neck. Had he aimed for her head? She took off running again, ignoring the blood that itched on her skin and the branches that snagged at her long bushy hair. Aglia used to brush and braid it whenever she was in the old centaurs’ care, but after she died Briar had no one to teach her how to care for it. Plus the sight of her tattoo brought too much negative attention, so she began to let it grow wild and free. It was easy to hide behind and it distracted people from looking at her neck and back.
She heard another arrow coming through the trees, but she was hung up by her hair. It struck her hind on the painted bull’s eye and she screamed in pain before falling and tumbling down a hill. The arrow snapped as she crashed down, getting further injuries from the rocks and branches that did not stop her descent. Finally, she landed with a thud and lay there wishing she could just die or be swallowed whole by the earth. She wanted to cry but the thundering hooves of those who hunted her clattered loudly in her ears. Silently she prayed to Eos for delivery. She remembered Eos was one her great-grandmother believed in. She was the Great Mother of all.
In a swirl, leaves moved with the wind covering her body in the hole, and something told her to lay as still as possible. She obeyed not knowing if this was Eos’s intervention or another, but she was grateful. She quieted her breathing and focused on slowing her pulse so that she might refrain from going into shock from her injury. The hoofbeats of Vanyel and the others continued to search for her everywhere.
“DAMMIT!” screamed Vanyel in anger. “That was one of my best arrows. If I ever find her I am going to make her PAY!” The rest of the mob echoed his sentiments of how she deserved vicious repercussions for the loss of his arrow.
They searched well into darkness, and then adults joined the search, the chief proclaiming that none of their tribe should be lost if they could help it. It was not spoken with care but with a tone that indicated he was only doing and saying these things so that no one could claim he did otherwise. Centaurs were very proud and they looked after their own. It was what her mother had always claimed, though now Briar wondered if she was saying it to soothe her own self rather than teach her daughter the merits of their tribe. Their searching was in vain, Briar laid silent and still all throughout the night. She decided she would never go back to her tribe.
They were cruel and ignorant, and she could now care for herself. She had been feeding herself for almost half a year now anyway. Given, it was often scraps and trash leftover from the families but she was getting pretty good at recognizing plants that were safe. She would make her own way; she would praise Eos and never again would she submit to the torture that she had for the last six years.
Eventually they stopped looking and she heard the chief proclaim, “Foxtail Briar has left our hold. Let us return.” And that seemed to be that. They put in the bare minimum effort to help while she was with them, they would do even less to find her and bring her back. Good riddance she thought. When she was sure they were gone she heaved a heavy sigh of relief and twisted as best as she could in the dim light, to see the damage the arrow had done. When the arrow broke, it ripped the muscle of her leg. But it looked as though the bleeding had somewhat subsided. She got up as best she could and gingerly put pressure on it. It could barely hold any weight and tried to figure out how she would move quickly on three legs. At least her front two were okay, and she hadn’t broken any of them. She moved as quietly as possible and laid down in a cool patch of dirt, hoping to alleviate what felt like the beginning of a fever. She wished she could see. Maybe she could find the right kind of plants to numb her wound, but it was still very dark. Not even close to false dawn.
“I don’t know for sure, but if it was yer help, Mother Eos… Thank’e.” She whispered into the air. A soft breeze floated through her hair and she laid down and cradled her owl squirrel rag against her cheek for comfort.
With the brightness of daylight filtering through the branches and into her small hole, she opened her eyes and suppressed a moan. She needed water, the bathroom, and possibly a health potion, though maybe not in that order. She stood tenderly and began to move slowly but stopped as she heard hoofbeats and ducked down stifling as gasp. From the sounds of their voices there were just two.
“We have to keep on the move! I’ll not have you taken back to that island!” an older male was saying.
“I don’t know how much farther I can go, uncle!” a younger male responded. “Please can we rest?”
“We’re near Foxtail lands, so we have to be careful, but fine. Only a short stop, Jadus.” They slowed their canter down to a light trot and stopped just near where she was hiding.
“Whew!” the younger who was apparently named Jadus said as he halted.
“Quiet!” his uncle hissed at him. “Remember to check your surroundings.”
“Right.” Jadus turned his head to look and absorbed the knowledge of what was around him. Just as he was about to see her, she went to duck but smacked her head and let out a small “ooph” of pain. Her father had always said stealth was not her strong suit.
“Someone’s over there, uncle,” he said and drew a sword. The uncle drew his as well.
“You over there,” the older one called. “Come out, nice and slow.”
Briar wasn’t sure what to do. She really had nothing left to lose but the idea of more pain made her balk at giving up her little position. She reasoned that these centaurs were not of her tribe, so they had no reason to innately hate her; they didn’t even know her. So, she popped her head up shyly and said, “Hello?”
The older one looked shocked at her appearance and instantly sheathed his sword. He then gestured to Jadus to go the same. “Little one,” he said in a softer tone, “come out, we mean you no harm.”
We mean you no harm. Never had those words strung together meant so much to her as they did at that moment. She painfully made her way to the duo dragging her leg as much as using it. Upon seeing her injury, the one called Uncle trotted over to help her.
“Land sakes, filly, what happened?” She barely noticed as he lifted her up and carried her over to some softer ground covered in moss. She was no small foal anymore so he must be quite strong, she thought to herself. Although she was still on the wee side for her age. Lack of nutrition does that to a person. “Jadus, grab a blanket. She’s hurt!”
“But what about…” the boy started, then stopped when he fully saw her face. He took on a sense of urgency with his task. Getting his pack, he grabbed a soft blanket.
“My name is Tavish, and this is my nephew, Jadus. We are of the Scorpion tribe. Who are you and how did you end up like this?”
“Foxtail…Briar…” she said quietly as he checked her injuries. His hands were warm and kind but she still whimpered when he got close to her wound.
“I’m sorry,” Tavish said quietly. Then with some force he pushed his hand on her flank and said some words with his eyes closed. She marveled that her wound seemed to heal some and a bit of the pain eased off.
“Wow…” she breathed out. He then turned his attention to her jaw and began to inspect that too but stopped when she blanched. Tavish frowned at her reaction but turned and poured some water on a rag and handed it to her so that she could wipe away the dirt and blood herself.
“I’m sorry I can’t do more right now, and we don’t have any potions.” He turned to his nephew who stood awkwardly at the side. “Grab some rations from my pouch, she can have them.”
“Don’t we need to leave soon, Uncle?” Jadus asked, peeking from behind his uncle to look directly at her face. She looked at Tavish and then back to Jadus and felt her markings burn as though they were being freshly applied. She gasped and both Tavish and his nephew reached out to her. She held a hand up to stop them.
“I’m fine,” she lied and cast her eyes down. “I’m grateful for your help.” Her neck was screaming in pain and forcing her to focus on Jadus. She looked at his young face. He was maybe a few years older than her but not as old as Vanyel. He had reddish hair that flopped in his face as he continually brushed out of his eyes in frustration. He had nice eyes and she could tell all the way to the deepest part of her soul he was a good person, he was strong, and he would bring her great happiness. Unbidden, she thought back to the night her mother told her how she knew that Telon was the one.
“It was magical, Briar, and frightening. He was all I could see. My heart burned and it was if I could see everything good about him and why I was going to love him my entire life. I felt completely calm for the first time in my life. I had no choice but to fall in love with him.”
What a strange moment to remember right now. Not only strange but stupid. She didn’t want to think about things like that. Well, honestly, she craved the security and happiness of her early youth so powerfully it made her back physically ache, but she also couldn’t help but picture the coins on her dead parents eyes as they burned. Her young mind did not understand the term resentment but if she did she would know that was exactly what she was feeling. Her parents continually told her stories of their love. An all consuming love that was “perfect,” but that love meant nothing when they were both cold and dead. They left her and deep inside she knew that the curse on her family and love were related. That only death and pain waited for her if she allowed herself to remember those snippets and stories from so long ago.
Something deep within her became determined and rebellious. She would go through every pain the curse decided to inflict on her, but she would not be the cause of death or worse abandonment to someone she loved. She would not carry on this debt from the gods. She would use her head, not her heart. She could not give in to the fleeting temptation of joy that would be ripped away from her at a moment’s notice. She would find a way to defeat it, or she would die alone. Either way this had to end with her. The weakness of her ancestors would not carry forward on her shoulders. She couldn’t entirely forget, and she knew she would remember the happiness of the first part of her life. The joy on her parents’ faces. But Briar loathed it as much as she craved it. Forcing her mind to think of the coins on their eyes as they burned was the only relief from the craving for tenderness she felt. Focus Briar, she told herself. Focus on what you know is the reality. Death awaits those that love the way she wanted to be loved. She had to be numb.
“Thank you…” She whispered, not sure if it was to herself for her newly appointed goal or to the two beings in front of her. Maybe all of this was still Eos’s doing. Was she forcing the images of her parents’ eyes covered in coins into Briar’s mind at this moment to help her focus? She felt her eyes grow heavy. “I’m sorry, I’m just so…” she yawned.
“We need some rest too, little one. Come now, let’s get to some better shelter.” Tavish looked around and surmised a spot closer to the some water that was well hidden and before she could protest he lifted her in his arms and carried her once more, as though she was a small foal. “She weighs nothing.” He muttered. “What are those Foxtails eating? If they’re all like this it’s amazing their tribe has survived this long.”
When she awoke again the sun was well into the west indicating it was closer to evening than afternoon. The rest had done her a great amount of good. Her breathing wasn’t as labored and the pain had reduced to a dull throb. She could manage that. She stood to assess the difficulty in walking.
“Thank you for letting me rest. And for the food… and the healing… and everything.” It had been forever since she had spoken this much to anyone of her own accord. She wasn’t entirely sure what to say. Conversation never had been her strong suit. “I’ll be off now. I’m sorry I don’t know how to repay ya.” She stuck out her hand to Tavish for a handshake, hoping that would be enough. “If we ever meet again, I hope I can return the favor… Not that I want to see you injured but if you were and if I could do anything, I would…” She was trying to sound as grownup as possible, but it was all coming out so weird. Like she knew in her mind the words she wanted to say they just all came out in an awkward order and which gave her the need to explain herself. She offered a small smile to them both and turned to walk away from them and the opposite direction of the hold.
“Uncle, she looks terrible, we can’t just let her go, can we?” Jadus protested, but his uncle held up his hand. She turned around to look at him. “Well that was a jerk thing to say,” she thought. Sure she was beat up and tired but to say she looked terrible was kind of mean. Forget what she thought earlier about this boy. It must have just been some trick in her pain filled mind. She didn’t think he was nice at all.
“How about this?” Tavish said looking at her with concern, “We are traveling with a specific goal in mind, and we will be moving at a quick pace, but how about we make sure you’re safe with your tribe before we move on? We can’t let them see us but-”
“I don’t want to stay here,” she interrupted rolling her shoulders back in defiance. “I don’t want to go back to the Foxtail.”
Tavish narrowed his eyes warily. “Why is that?”
“I thank you again for y’ kindness. But I’m going to make my way on my own now, without my tribe. I’ll not go back to them for anything, but that isn’t your concern.”
“Phht,” snorted Jadus. “Wow, you’re kind of rude. My uncle wasted a spell on you and we’re in a hurry and this is how you talk to him?”
“What?” She looked at the boy incredulously. “I thanked you both, I… didn’t mean to be rude, but I can’t go back. Also if anyone’s rude, it’s you! Who says to someone who’s hurt that they look terrible? What kind of barn animal are you?” She was slightly shocked at her barrage of words towards Jadus. What was it about this boy that made her so angry and say so much?
“Tch,” he said and rolled his eyes. “One that at least knows what a bath and a hairbrush is, unlike you.” He folded his arms and looked down at her. All Briar could do was glare.
“You don’t know anything about me–” she snapped, feeling a strange need to defend herself and fight back. It was a foreign sensation but she embraced the idea of standing up for herself against this boy who insulted her. Never before had she allowed her temper to surface and while it frightened her it was also therapeutic to have a focus for all the energy she had buried in her small frame.
Tavish raised his hands. “Alright, you two, I think we are getting off on the wrong foot here. Briar, where will you go if not back to your tribe? It’s not safe out here for someone young and alone.”
She looked down in shame. “I… I don’t know. But I know I can’t go back. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you. Y’ve been very good to me.” As quickly as Jadus had ignited her temper, Tavish quelled it.
“Well, we can’t take you with us the whole way…” He scratched the bristles on his chin. “But… Maybe I can get you closer to a safe spot. It’s quite a bit of travel, though. Do you think you’re up to it?”
“You would take me with ya?” she asked, shocked.
“You would take her with us?” Jadus said at the same time. “Uncle, she’ll just slow us down. She has her people here! We can’t stop! If they find us, I’ll have to go back to that island-”
Again Tavish held up his hand. “Everyone has reasons for what they do, Jadus. Besides, I think it would be good for yo-er- us to have some new company. She can tell us more about the Foxtail.” He smiled at Briar. She offered a weak smile back until she caught Jadus’s face and looked away with a hmph.
“Whatever,” muttered Jadus. “Do you have anything you need help carrying?” He looked at her like his offer was only out of begrudging politeness.
“No. And I would carry it myself anyway,” she retorted.
“Fine,” he answered.
“Fine,” echoed Briar.
“Fine,” sighed Tavish. “Let’s go.”
Traveling with Tavish and Jadus was a completely different experience. Tavish was helpful with explaining answers to her questions, and spoke to her without hostility. Jadus did tease her endlessly about the most random things and seemed to enjoy riling her up, so she followed suit and did the same to him. But as irritating as he was, Briar never gleaned malicious intent. He sometimes would catch her off guard when one moment he would be almost kind and the next would make a remark about how she was weird. She heard Tavish once mutter something about first crushes. She had no clue what he was talking about. She had never so much as stepped on Jadus’s foot, and he was already so much bigger than her, she had no clue how she would crush him.
She did her best to keep up, and not complain even when she felt her wound acting feverish. She didn’t want Tavish to use any of his spells on her account so she made sure to wash it and keep it clean as best as she could. When they camped for the night she would bring them edible plants.
“Where do you even find these twigs?” Jadus complained. “I wish we had some meat.” He poked at his plate of dark greens with a sneer.
“Do you complain about everything or am I just lucky?” Briar muttered.
“What was that?” he asked and glared at her.
“Wow, you both are abrasive tonight,” groaned Tavish. He muttered something about pre-teens and puberty then turning back to her he said “Thank you for the greens. How are you feeling? Leg still okay?” She nodded and offered a small smile. “Good. We’ve got some long days ahead of us. How about you go be a good filly and fill our water skins, eh? We’ll clean up here.” She took each of their water skins and started to trek down to the river. She paused to look around just like her father had taught, and later Tavish reiterated. She noted no danger but did hear the voices of Jadus and his uncle carry on the breeze towards her.
“You could stand to be a bit nicer, boy.”
“I am nice. She’s annoying.”
“Good grief. I don’t think you think she’s all that annoying.”
“T-that’s not true at all! I do think she’s annoying! She’s always making digs at me. Uncle, I’m trying to be nice, I just… I get confused around her, and I don’t know why but she makes me feel nervous, and THEN I can’t help but tease her because I don’t know what else to say. But she always takes it so seriously and gets that look on her face, and that also annoys me because she makes me feel like I’m a jerk! I never know what she’s going to say or do and it’s irritating. She’s irritating. Why can’t she just be normal?”
“I think you’re both plenty normal. Just young. Have you tried just talking to her like you do with me?”
“I’ve talked to her about weapons…” The breeze shifted and then came back “not my fault that she’s boring and doesn’t care about fighting. All she seems interested in is plants and stuff.”
“I think she’s been through a lot, and it would do you good to remember that kindness is just as important as strength. Just think a bit before you speak and I’m sure things will improve. You can only control your end of this, and your reaction to her.”
Briar didn’t hear the rest of the conversation but she thought to herself on the way back that she too had been overly impatient with Jadus. He couldn’t help that he was a dumb boy that only thought of weapons and fighting. She didn’t like fighting. People got hurt when you fought. It scared her. She realized that was a pretty unfair statement about him. He liked weapons and seemed to work hard at knowing about them so there must be a reason. He was also the closest thing she had ever had to a real friend her age. And she would be remiss if she didn’t acknowledge that sometimes he was nice, like when she tripped and he caught her. He had laughed and asked if she was okay, but didn’t make fun of her. Not really. He teased her about having four left feet which wasn’t wrong, but she was the one who let it make her angry instead of just laughing with him. And then one night he gave her his blanket. He claimed he wasn’t cold, but she could tell he was because he got closer to the fire. She mentioned it but he said if she got any closer to the fire her hair would probably go up in flames, and give away their position so it was better she had the blanket. He seemed uncomfortable with being tender like his uncle was, but he did try in his own way. She decided that she would try harder from now on as well.
Briar woke up and looked about the camp. She had slept soundly and the fire was now well beyond out. She glanced over and saw that Actaeon was prepping Triple A for travel and she could smell fish cooking. Shadow must have caught some early today. As they all got up and ready to set out on the road, she grabbed her quarterstaff and couldn’t suppress a little smile. It was a well made tool with several strong woods incorporated. Her thumb ran over a well worn knob that often gave her comfort. Who knew a simple stick would carry so many memories?
One evening, she watched quietly as Jadus started practicing with his sword. It wasn’t a large thing and she had a feeling it was quite dull, unlike Tavish’s sword which was huge and terrifyingly sharp. He had been teaching his nephew how to fight every night she had been with them. Tonight, Jadus was going through some forms.
“What?” he asked almost defensively, when he noticed her watching him.
“You’re uh… getting better,” she commented. “Your arms aren’t so…”
“They aren’t so what?” he demanded still going through his forms.
“Squishy?” she offered.
“What!? ” he stopped and gaped at her. “You’re one to talk. You’re all skin and bones. I bet you couldn’t even hold up a sword!”
“I only meant that you’re getting stronger,” she huffed at him. “It was a compliment! When I first met you I noticed you struggled with lifting the sword the way you are now. I thought you would like to know that I noticed you’re getting better or something.”
“Why would I care what you think at all?” He turned away and she noted his neck and cheeks were flushed. “Do you even know what I’m doing?”
“Um, slashing at the air?”
“NO,” huffed Jadus. “I’m not just slashing at the air. Ugh! There are specific moves, so if someone attacks me I can fight them off.”
“Why put yourself in a position to get attacked in the first place?” she countered, feeling like her argument was very sound.
“I’m learning to fight because sometimes you have no choice. Sometimes you have to protect other people as well as yourself. Like you, I would protect you because…” he stopped and looked at her, the blush creeping to his ears. “Because, you’re so weak,” he finished lamely.
“I’m healing. I won’t always be weak. But I still wouldn’t want to use a sword.”
“There are more weapons other than a sword,” he suggested and looked around. “Like… um, like this!” He held up a branch with a smile.
“No. With some carving this could be a quarterstaff. It might be good for you to have one anyway. You can use it for a lot of things.”
“Name three uses for a stick.”
“Quarterstaff,” he corrected, “and um… Okay, one is obvious,:fighting. Then there’s um, you can use it as a cane, and uh….” She crossed her arms and tilted her head but didn’t interrupt. She looked at him expectantly and he frowned.
“It can help you if you ever learn magic. Some spellcasters are able to infuse their weapons as a focus and it helps them cast,” said Tavish. He then smiled and pulled his cloak down to cover his eyes as he leaned on a tree as though he was going to snooze.
“Right, that!” Jadus grinned at her. He had stripped away the smaller branches and bark, and now it was just one long bare stick with chopped off ends. “Here.” He held it out to her and she gingerly took it completely unsure. It was heavier than she expected but small enough that her frame could manage it. Jadus walked over to her. “Put your hands like so.” He instructed and she fought back laughter at how he was obviously imitating his uncle’s teaching style, but the laughter died when his hands covered hers to position them correctly. “Now, if someone is going to use a weapon and bring it down you could counter it like this…” He moved her arms to counter the attack. “This move will help you disarm them!” Jadus showed her various motions until the sun fully set. “I think you’re getting the hang of it. You’re never going to be a strong fighter but you could probably work at this and protect yourself okay after a while.”
“Uh… thanks,” said Briar, biting her lip. “You know, if you eat more greens you’ll get stronger too. Meat is fine and it helps but you also need nutrients from plants.”
He furrowed his brow like he wanted to say something snappish to her but refrained. Instead he put his hand on the back of his neck and shrugged. “Okay, how about this? You promise to learn to use the quarterstaff, and I promise I’ll eat more vegetables.”
“Why would we need to promise that to each other?” she asked.
“It just… It makes it easier to follow through if you make a promise or whatever and this way we keep even.” He folded his arms. “I won’t always be around to help your skinny butt so you should learn some of this stuff anyway. It would… suck if you got hurt. So try, okay?” He looked away again and she felt her cheeks get embarrassingly warm.
“Okay,” she smiled and he jerked his head back to look at her. “I, uh, promise, I’ll practice with the stick–”
“Quarterstaff… As long as you eat your greens without complaint.”
“Deal.” He stuck out his hand for them to shake it and she took it tentatively. With one fast shake they let go and each wiped their hands absentmindedly before turning away from each other to go to bed. She thought she heard Tavish chuckle but then it seems to shift to a snore-like sound. She hadn’t heard him snore before. Hopefully he wasn’t getting ill.
They had all traveled together for several weeks when Tavish told them to stop one night for camp. “We’re getting a bit close to one of the Vega outposts, and I would rather we didn’t draw attention to ourselves. Let’s sleep here.”
The air smelled like rain and it hung thick, making their skin damp and chilled. They found a small alcove to lay low in for the night that protected them from the worst of the weather. While the fire began to come to life, Briar began to heat water for a soup she decided to make with some of the plants she had gathered that day. As it slowly came to a boil, Briar saw that Tavish was uncharacteristically solemn.
“Is…everything okay Tavish?” asked Briar.
“Of course. I’m just thinking of the next part of our journey. It’s not an easy one, I’m concerned for Jadus.” She noted that he didn’t include her with his concern. That didn’t mean he thought she was more capable than his nephew. She knew what it meant. She wasn’t going with them. She swallowed hard.
“Do we part in the morning?” she asked quietly.
“I should have figured you would have picked up on that.” Tavish pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ve been thinking about where you might be able to go. I know of a strange little mortal; he might be able to help you continue to heal so you can set out on your own…”
“A mortal?” she gasped. “But…”
“Contrary to popular belief they aren’t the demons they’ve been made out to be. Plenty of them are terrible people, but I know an equal amount of fey that fit that category. This one, he’s one of the good ones. A little odd but mostly harmless. He’s about four days west from here as the bird flies. I think that would be a good place for you to go. Unless you want to find the Vega and go to them.”
“Do… Do I have to leave ya?” she asked quietly, fighting tears. “Couldn’t I be of any use to you? I know I’m not strong but I’ll try. I’m practicing with my stick- I mean, my quarterstaff.”
“You’re a good girl. You’ve been very helpful. I wish you could continue on with us, but… I’m sorry filly, you can’t. It has nothing to do with you.”
She stood up and walked away suddenly needing air. Things were far from perfect with Tavish and Jadus but she was better being around them. She knew she was. She felt confused and abandoned all over again even though she knew rationally that this was not a permanent arrangement. But she had been with them for nearly a month. She wanted to be angry but when she thought of everything they did for her she couldn’t feel any other emotion than heartbreak. Was this the curse? Was it because for the first time in years she felt happy? Her mother said the curse would show her true love and happiness and then rip it away. Was this the same thing? Maybe it was because she cared about them that it was getting torn from her now. It wasn’t fair. She wiped her face mixing tears and snot on her arm and sniffed loudly.
“You’re so gross,” Jadus said, walking up beside her. His voice didn’t have it’s usual amount of energy.
“Shut up,” she said quietly without any force behind it. “Did Tavish tell ya?”
“Yep.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She noticed through her peripheral that he was watching her.
“What?” She rubbed her face more and sniffed again.
“I uh… Wanted to give you something.” She turned to face him and he looked away. “It’s been kind of, um… fun I guess, to have you around. Before we found you my uncle and I were on the run. Bad things happened to our tribe… my parents and well, uh, being with you has helped me to kind of work out some stuff. Not that I couldn’t handle things but you were a distraction from everything.” He turned to look at her. “I saw this and it reminded me of you, and, uh, so here.” He held out his hand and offered her a dark purple thistle.
“This reminded you of me?” she asked quietly, gently taking the flower from him. A bright memory of her mother telling her the story of her father picking her thistles for their wedding flooded her head.
“Yeah I mean, because it’s kind of a pain, and it’s not what people think is a typically good looking flower. Most people think they’re a weed, especially if they pop up in a garden.” She furrowed her brows at his statement. “But, hey listen,” he grabbed her arm when she started to walk away. “But, they’re strong and they protect themselves. And…” he pulled her back and looked down at her. “ if you really look at them, they’re kind of, well… pretty .” He dropped his hand from her arm. “I think whenever I see one, I’m going to think of you.” He looked away and swallowed hard. “I hope… I really hope you don’t forget me.”
“I think it would be impossible to forget you, Jadus,” she answered with a smile.
“’Cause I’m so awesome?” He grinned at her.
“More like annoying,” replied Briar, rolling her eyes.
“You’re the annoying one,” he nudged her with his shoulder and laughed. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so weird and awkward.”
They settled into a comfortable silence before Briar reached into her pocket. “Jadus?” she said nervously, “I have something I would like you to have too. To remember me by.” She held out her owlsquirrel rag to him shyly.
“Your rag thing?” He asked with an eyebrow raise.
“It’s not a rag, ya dunce. It’s an owlsquirrel!”
“If you say so.” He took it from her and inspected it. His eyes softened. “Are you sure you want me to have it? I know this means a lot to you.”
“It… it does mean a lot. My mother made it for me when I was really little.”
“Then there’s no way I can take this!” He pushed it back at her.
“But I want ya to have it! Ya mean a lot to me too!” She blushed furiously. “You’re my first real friend. I know we fight a lot, and I annoy you but, you also taught me how to use my stick–”
“IT’S A QUARTERSTAFF!” he hollered into the sky.
“FINE! QUARTERSTAFF!” she yelled back. “You taught me how to use it and you also helped me in so many other ways. Both you and your uncle, and I can never repay either of ya, and so I want ya to have this and I hope ya don’t forget me because I know no one else will remember me.” Her voice hitched. “Please. I can’t go with ya, and I’m scared, and I just want someone to know I existed.”
His brows furrowed into a deep scowl. “Briar, I’m not going to take it. Because I’m not going to forget you, and because someday we’re going to meet again okay, and I’m going to show you how strong I am and what a good fighter I’ll turn out to be, and you’re going to show me if you got any weirder…” His voice grew quiet and she heard him swallow thickly with emotion. “I know you don’t have a lot from your parents.”
“Well, you gave me something.” Briar tucked her toy back into her pouch, and kicked at a rock, sulking.
“I’ll think of something you can give me, okay?” He nudged her a bit and turned to go back to his uncle.
The following morning Briar steeled herself to leave. Tavish helped her pack up a small satchel and gave her his extra blanket. “Keep heading west. Stay away from towns but don’t stray too far off the road. When you see a large tree grove, go in and you should find a small home. Ask for Herkus the Helpful.” He smiled and patted the top of her head as he handed her a roughly drawn map. “Please, Briar, be safe. I’m so sorry you can’t come with us.” Briar blinked back tears but nodded.
“Here.” Jadus came over and handed her the sti- quarterstaff. She took it with a deep breath. She was doing everything in her power to ignore the pain coursing through her back and neck. It was odd how she knew if she just stayed with them that she would have relief. Her pain had subsided slightly while she was with them and especially when she and Jadus were getting along. She didn’t want to think too hard on that piece of information. It wasn’t fair but she supposed it wouldn’t ever be fair unless she broke her curse. She was thankful that she could keep a clear head right now and that she also knew that while she might feel initial relief by staying with them… Eventually it would be ripped away and hurt far more than what it did at that moment. She never wanted to see anyone look the way her father did after her mother died, and she never wanted anyone else to feel the way she felt and know she was the cause of it. She smiled up at Jadus trying to put on a brave face and willed herself to be numb. She meant to tell him, “Uh, take care I guess,”, but before she could say anything, he leaned down and gave her a fast kiss on the cheek.
“What are ya doing!?” She screeched. Her palm shot up to her face, all ideas of remaining numb completely abandoned.
“I… I don’t know! What was wrong with it!?” cried Jadus. He jumped back from her. “It’s what people do when they say goodbye!”
“Maybe adults! It’s not appropriate for us, we… I mean I’m just and you… and” she stuttered and sputtered.
“Oh, gods, you are so weird. Quit acting like it’s the end of the world! So I kissed your cheek!” he fumed. He folded his arms and huffed as his face and neck began to turn red. “If I would have known you would be so mad about it I wouldn’t have done it. Sorry. Tch.” He scowled, blushing furiously.
“I’m not mad, I’m shocked. There’s a difference. You gave me no warning.” They both looked away from each other.
“Well… consider this your warning.” He pressed his lips in a firm line. “When we are grown, I might try and kiss you. Is that okay?” He refused to look at her but instead focused on the sky.
“Uh… maybe, yeah, sure. I mean as long as we’re adults it should be okay.” She studied a particularly interesting rock on the ground.
“What’s with you and being an adult?” They looked at each other again.
“I just remember my mum saying that those were things for grown ups and not kids and we’re still kids.”
“Maybe you are. I’m thirteen.”
“That makes it worse, ya dunce! Fine yes, you can kiss me if we are both grown, and we meet again, and neither of us have a-a m-mate, okay? Satisfied?” She felt like her face was on fire but she refused to look away again as she didn’t want him to have some imaginary upper hand in this situation.
He grinned at her and shrugged. “That’s a lot of contingencies but… okay, I’ll hold you to it. That can be my gift to remember you.”
“A gift you may never get? Alright then, if that’s what you want…” Briar couldn’t hold his gaze any longer and looked down. “Don’t forget your promise, you know, eat some vegetables.”
“You too, weirdo, don’t forget your promise.”
Briar rolled her eyes and turned to see Tavish watching them with complete amusement. She did a little wave and then started on her trek feeling stronger and sadder than she ever had before.
She had just crested her second hill when she saw the group of armed centaurs making their way toward the camp she had just left. From what Tavish had told her this group looked like they were from the Vega tribe. If they found Jadus and his uncle what would they do? Should she go back? What if they caught her and sent her back to the Foxtail? What could she do? She started running before she could think much longer and made it to the tree line just in time to see Tavish and Jadus in cuffs. She heard one of the Vega say something about them going back to the island where they belonged and then he struck Tavish hard across the jaw. She covered her mouth before her squeak would alert them to her presence.
While the Vega didn’t see her, Jadus turned in her direction. His eyes widened and then he shook his head at her indicating she shouldn’t come any closer. A large brute of a warrior inspected his pouch, and finding nothing of interest beyond his dagger, just said, “Hmph,” and tied it around Jadus’s waist again. “I’m taking this knife.” Jadus glared at the older stallion but said nothing.
Briar looked down at her own pouch and opened it. She had carefully placed the thistle on top and now took it out. She gently caressed the oddly shaped plant, careful to not prick herself. She looked up and saw Jadus looking in her direction again. She ached to go with them. Maybe if she went to the Scorpion tribe she could find happiness. But she also knew if she followed, then… Looking down at the flower she closed her eyes. Picture the coins on their eyes. It’s more important, she told herself. This curse would force her to find love, and then it will rip it away. She repeated that over and over again in her head. She couldn’t go with them no matter how much it hurt now. It would kill her if she gave in. Literally. Something in the back of her young mind gnawed at an idea. What if she was meant to love Jadus? She blushed and pushed it away, thinking again about her parents and how their perfect bubble did nothing but bring them pain. Besides, when she thought of her parents’ love, it was nothing like her interactions with Jadus. They never fought or honestly talked to each other about anything but their love for each other. No. She had to walk away now before she lost her chance and her nerve. She turned once more and ran.
It was hard to tell how far she had gone. Even with her injuries mostly healed she still grew tired easily as she pushed her short legs in the direction of the west. She ran with as much speed as she could muster and stayed away from all civilization, both fey and mortal, in order to hide. But some of the detours she had to make created longer hours, stretching the journey well past five days. She ate at a minimum and only to keep up her strength. She found hiding spots in the dark of night and cried silently out of fear and loneliness.
She was resolute, however. She would find this Herkus if only because Tavish said she should. She would get strong and then decide what to do after that. Tavish and Jadus were the first people to issue her any willing kindness since her parent’s and great-grandmother’s deaths, and she would not take that for granted. But each step was painful as it pulled her away from her first real friends.
She wanted to turn around at each bend and make her way to whatever island they would be taken to. But then she would force that thought down and seek the numbness again. Her parent’s words made it seem as though paths and fate were inevitable. She didn’t believe that. Not anymore. She felt guilty that she defied their ideas, but their views led to a most painful end. The life that they had crafted together lasted no longer than six years.
She demanded more and would pierce her heart long before she got anything less than her desires. She was unsure exactly how this curse fully worked and that would be her first step. Was it only romantic love like her parents? Everyone had kept her at a great distance in the hold, did that mean that if she genuinely cared for anyone, they would be harmed in some way? Did distance affect the curse? Could she love from afar? How closed off would she have to make her heart to keep others safe? There were many unanswered questions and she grew frustrated with the lack of thought and foresight on not only her parents’ part, but each generation before them. What had been done to battle the curse? It was maddening.
Along the way she marveled at the vastness of the world. Her youth was not the only indicator of her naivety. She had been incredibly sheltered by her parents and even within the tribe. She traversed the jungles and hills, passed by ruins and towns, and finally came upon the large grove of trees Tavish had described on his map to her. She slowed her pace and looked for a dwelling of some kind. She spotted smoke from a campfire and decided to head that way.
In the clearing she wearily took in the surroundings. Sitting alone on a log was a smallish figure that was kicking out his legs and giggling. His feet didn’t touch the ground, he was so small. Briar fought the bitter taste of irritation in her mouth. Of course, the first person she would come across, would be some odd laughing mortal. Then she thought, well maybe this strange mortal would know the other strange mortal she sought! This could work. She wasn’t sure how she would speak to him. She had heard in the tribe that all mortals were stupid and weak, and not to be trusted. Yet Tavish told her to trust some mortals. It was really confusing. She would just have to get really proficient at discerning which she could or could not trust.
“You might as well come over, little one,” the figure spoke in fey. “I’ve misplaced my teeth, so I promise I won’t bite.” He giggled again.
She walked over to him feeling exhausted. Maybe she could rest here for the night before moving on. “Thank you,” she said, quietly in common.
“Oh, educated are you in the world known tongue!” he said, sounding delighted.
“My mum taught me,” she responded. “But I haven’t in some time. I don’t like how I have to move my mouth.” She knelt by his fire and looked at him. He smiled and she saw a full row of teeth. “I thought you said you misplaced your teeth?” she asked, puzzled.
“Did I? Hmmm, well maybe I did and then found them before you sat down.” He laughed again and she couldn’t help but chuckle with him, though the sensation was abnormal to her.
“Something tells me you’re seeking someone…” he prompted.
She nodded. “I was told by… a friend… to find a person named Herkus.” The little person frowned. “I was told he could help me finish healing, and get stronger so that I can be on my own.”
“Herkus, huh? Not a very common name. Hmmm. Sounds like the name of a gnome.”
Her shoulders slumped. “I don’t even know what a gnome is.”
At that he burst into full laughter. “My, you are an awkward little thing, aren’t you? How very charming! Well, charming to me, more than likely not to others.” He tapped a pot over the fire with a stick and then indicated a bowl near her. “Help yourself.”
The stew was rich with mushrooms and dark leafy greens. It would have been delicious even if she wasn’t starving. Her rations had run out a couple days ago. She slurped the broth and took some offered bread from him with barely any notice. After three bowls she slumped down on the ground feeling oddly content in this person’s presence.
“Have you cast a spell on me?” she asked him.
“No,” replied the short man. “Do you want me to?”
She grinned despite herself. “No. I don’t.”
“Then I won’t. Let’s start simple and then maybe I can help you find this Herkus. What is your name?”
“Foxtail Briar, although… I left the Foxtail tribe; I don’t know if I’m still one.”
He smiled and she felt even more disarmed by him. “What is your age?”
“I’ve seen eleven summers.”
“That’s a fantastic age. I have seen more than that, but we won’t get into it.” He put a finger to his mouth. “Your friend sent you out this way, do they have a name?”
“He was called Tavish of the Scorpion centaur tribe.”
“Interesting! I know a Tavish from the Scorpion tribe; do you think they know each other?” He laughed at her confused face. “Ah, I see, maybe you think they are the same person, eh?”
“If they are, then are you his friend, Herkus the helpful?” she asked, standing up with excitement.
“Well, I am very helpful, and I do have a friend name Tavish, though we have not seen each other for years. So maybe I am. Do you want me to be?”
“Why would it matter if I wanted you to be? You either are or you’re not,” groaned Briar. She sat down again feeling confused. This conversation was making her dizzy.
“Ah but you see, if you want me to be the person you seek, then your journey is at an end. If I’m not what you expected or hoped for, well then you want to walk the very long road ahead of you until you loop back here.”
His logic was… interesting to say the least. “What would happen if I said yes, I want you to be the one he told me to find?”
“Ah, well then, you would stay here for a short time, maybe help me with some things, and I in turn would help you.” He smiled and hopped off his log. “Though I can’t say that I’m great company. I like to keep to myself. Not many trips to civilization I’m afraid.”
“I don’t want to see other people either!” she exclaimed. “I don’t look it, but I’m getting strong, and I can be helpful too! Would you let me stay? I won’t be a bother-” she stopped when he held up a palm.
“Well then, Briar, that’s just fine. Let’s just take it a day at a time eh?” He jumped down off the log and extended his hand to her. “Welcome to my home. I am Herkus, Herkus the Helpful gnome. No clan, no tribe, no family. Just me.”