by Edward Lazellari
All rights reserved.
No part of this story may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author/publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a newspaper, magazine, or journal.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Everything was black.
The ogre had taken them all in seconds. It was implausibly swift for such a large, brutish creature-twenty-five feet tall, with the rancid odor of a garbage pit. So this is death, thought Lelani. Her cheek stung fiercely but she couldn’t move, as though she were made of lead. She had always imagined death to be more comfortable then this. A tiny hand slapped her face-again.
“Wake up!” came a tense whisper.
That high, squeaky voice did not belong to any centaur. Lelani opened her eyes just as her diminutive friend Mytah was about to administer another smack of impromptu medicine. For an unabashed pacifist, Mytah packed a good wallop. She wore her hair in a pixie cut with matching big brown eyes. Her short-sleeved forest-green smock denoted the Fhlee preference for forest colors and materials, as did her hemp-rope belt and sandals woven from leaves of the water lotus. Her eyes were red and puffy, the tracks of her tears clearly marked upon her cheek.
“Thank the gods…I thought you…”
“What happened?” asked Lelani.
“It carried them off!” Mytah whispered.
“But not me?” Lelani asked.
“Don’t you remember?”
Lelani could not remember-recent events were hazy. She recalled the previous two days quite clearly, however-the moment everything started to go wrong-the moment Kreeg ruined her first hunt.
Lelani had tracked a fox through two miles of hills and woodlands that day as she attempted to earn her hunting badge. Her four powerful legs propelled her faster than her target. This availed her naught against an opponent who knew the forest better and could hide and tuck into any burrow or fallen tree, and knew that it ran for its life. It was tradition in her family to win that badge on the first try. She did not intend to be the first Stormbringer to fail.
At twelve, Lelani was at the cusp of Centaur adolescence. Her equestrian half, strong as a thoroughbred, was covered with a downy auburn pelt that complimented her bright crimson hair-her upper body was comparable to a human of fourteen. She hunted unfettered by tunic or doublet, as all scouts did, and carried her nascent breasts with pride. She hated archery drills near the human village. Centaur girls were expected to cover up due to an accord between her tribe and the villagers. Humans were remarkably immature.
The centaur came to a clearing, but stayed in the shadow of the ring of trees that surrounded it. The remnants of a fallen tree sat in the center, partly scorched from a lightning strike a few months earlier. Moss and mushrooms already grew on the shady underside. Lelani’s belly growled at the thought of sautéed mushrooms. The fox’s trail led into the opening at the base of the old log. Lelani quietly circled around the clearing, careful to stay upwind of the animal. She got into position, both hands gripping her spear, with the tip aimed at the log opening. She thought about how easy it’d be to set a trap, but that was against the rules. Traps were for pelt mongers. This was a hunt.
Rustling sounded from the log, and a flash of red-brown fur moved under a sliver of sunlight. The creature’s snout poked out of the hole. Its head emerged-beady eyes taking in the scene. Putting one paw forward, then the other, it suddenly bolted toward Lelani who was perched in the bush. She was a statue, denying herself even a breath. In a moment she would strike.
Someone charged into the clearing from her left. A spear struck the ground in front of the animal. The fox froze, then bolted to its left toward the other end of the clearing. Lelani charged from the brush kicking up clumps of grass and dirt and hurled her own spear at the creature, missing it by inches. The thick red tail disappeared under a hedge. She approached slowly, waiting for the fox to betray its position. She looked over the hedge; an embankment led down to a wide brook. The fox was gone.
Seething, Lelani turned around and confronted the intruder.
“Kreeg!” she shouted.
“It’s not yours until after you catch it,” Kreeg said. His dialect was thick, typical of centaurs from Farrenheil. They were Loffoss, a slightly different breed than Lelani’s people who lived in Aandor. Loffoss speech had a guttural quality as though forming words were a struggle.
The rest of the group approached. Golden Sala, with her soft yellow hair tied back with rawhide, and Kendal, with short-cropped, light-brown hair, were from Lelani’s tribe. Mytah rode on Sala’s back.
Behind them came two males and a female from Kreeg’s tribe. The Loffoss were swarthier, hairier all over and apparently had never discovered combs. Their equestrian halves were bigger, more muscular, with thick shags of hair over their hooves. The males sported thick unibrows and low foreheads; they had large uneven teeth, thick noses, and a fuzzy trace of soon-to-be scraggily beards.
Lelani resented the Loffoss’ presence in this hunt. It was unheard of for the two tribes to share in rituals. Until recently, they barely acknowledged each other, and only with contempt. But the elders of both tribes decided that as Man encroached on their lands, centaurs would be safer in larger numbers. To men, a centaur was a centaur. They made no distinction between the tribes when they pillaged and killed.
“You destroyed her set up!” Kendal said, coming to his tribes-mate’s defense.
“Rules don’t exist in the wild, Dhahsoss,” Kreeg said. Dhahsoss was what other centaurs called Lelani’s people; it rolled off Kreeg’s tongue like an insult.
“Yes they do,” Lelani said. “Have you not heard of the rule of ’cause and effect’? You caused my hunt to fail, and I shall now affect you with my fists.”
The two scoutmasters appeared.
“Stand down!” Fronik ordered.
Lelani charged at Kreeg. He barely managed to move beyond the reach of a well-executed right hook.
“Enough,” Blagh yelled, trotting between them.
“This cart hauler ruined a perfect hunt!” Lelani said.
“Save your ire for the tall walkers,” Blagh said. You are the first generation to hunt together in a millennia.”
“We will suspend the hunt for today,” Fronik said. “Until tempers cool.”
“No!” Lelani panicked. “No one in my family has failed their first hunt. I’ll go alone if I have to.”
For a Loffoss, Blagh had a kind, wise face. He smiled at Lelani warmly. “You have not failed, child. Kreeg will be reprimanded for interfering. Today’s chase was…a practice run.”
Kreeg glared at his scoutmaster.
“Come,” Fronik said to his charges. He led them from the clearing. Lelani looked back at Kreeg who endured Blagh’s lecture with his arms folded across his chest, his eyes studying the ground. Kreeg shot back a defiant glance. Lelani shot him a smoldering glare. A lecture wouldn’t be enough for that one.
Rubbing her eyes did nothing to clear the numbness in Lelani’s brain. She had enough of her wits though to remember to watch for the ogre lest it return. They were in a druid’s refuge in the middle of the forest, an almost perfect circle about fifty feet in diameter. On its perimeter were thirteen large evenly planted oaks. Thick, thorny bushes and smaller trees filled the gaps between the oaks sealing off the circle.
“It’s gone,” Mytah said. “It took them.”
Lelani tried to stand. Mytah stood a safe distance back as Lelani’s legs wobbled beneath her. Regaining her height, she could see over the knee-high grass of the field better than her friend. They pushed through toward the tree with the dark red stain. Mytah began to cry at the sight of Ghack’s blood. How had it come to this? Yesterday, they were children-full of bluster and pretending to be older than they really were. Their scoutmasters tried to teach them…to warn them.
The groups had retired to their own corners of the camp after Lelani’s interrupted hunt. Around their fire, Lelani’s friends tried to coax her out of a black mood while she picked at a greasy chicken bone that slipped between her oily fingers.
“Their teeth…” Kendal sniggered. “Like tilting grave markers.”
“And those names,” Sala chimed in. “Blagh, Kreeg…sounds like something you say after you’ve been stabbed.” Sala wedged a knife under her armpit and pantomimed it coming through her chest. “BLAAAGH!” she mock-screamed.
Lelani cracked a reluctant smile.
“Look who finally broke,” Kendal teased.
“I find it strange that you don’t get along with your fellow centaurs. So what if their names are odd? I traveled west with them. They are friendly. My father trades with Kreeg’s family back in Farrenheil.”
“They’re not like us,” Lelani muttered with a mouth full of chicken.
“They’re not that different,” Mytah shrugged. “So they’re a little unpolished.”
“By the gods, she’s as bad as a human,” Sala said, shaking her head.
“Hey! Don’t be mean,” Mytah shot back.
Mytah was one of Lelani’s oldest non-centaur friends. She barely reached thirty inches from head to toe but was disproportionately smart for her size and peacefully good-natured as were most from Fhlee. However, in this case, Mytah was not paying enough attention to details.
Lelani pointed to the female across the camp. “Look at her,” she told her friend. “How can you say we’re the same?”
Mytah looked back and forth between the two camps, trying to figure out what they were talking about. “Gruah is swarthier, a bit hairier, not quite as much rouge and gloss as Sala here…”
“Hey!” Sala protested.
“For gods’ sakes, Mytah…look between that cart-hauler’s legs,” said Lelani.
And there it was, staring right at her. Mytah checked between her friends’ legs to confirm what she’d just realized. “Great Finlhee’s ghost! She has an udder!”
“About time,” Sala said. And, she’ll stay flat all her life, too.” Sala hoisted her budding chest to proudly emphasize the difference. “Lelani and I will nurse our young like civilized beings.
“Now do you get it?” Lelani said.
“Udderly fascinating,” Mytah quipped. “But they’re still really nice-especially the other males Klaugh and Ghack. You should try to get along.”
“Our small guest more than makes up for her size in wisdom,” said Fronik, joining their circle. He had seen eight and twenty years and was held in good regard by the village. A blacksmith, he kept his well-groomed beard short and his tail fastened by gold bands of his own making. They were the third troop that he guided through trials.
“Must we hunt with them?” Kendal asked.
“The Tribal elders have embarked on reunification.”
“Ugh,” Sala shuddered. “When I think of one of us with one of them…will our foals suck milk like barn animals?”
“Future centaurs will hail your generation as saviors,” Fronik emphasized.
“How can you be so sure?” Lelani asked.
“Because, if you fail there will be no future for centaurs.” Fronik let that thought sink in.
“They don’t even live in forests,” Kendal pointed out. “They come from the hills. Like goats.”
Fronik pulled out a curved, long-stemmed pipe. He lit the bowl with a stick from the fire and discharged generous white puffs. “Farrenheil has routed people who’ve dwelled within its borders since before Man sharpened his first stick,” he said.
“Many of my people are indentured servants,” Mytah said. “It’s why my father sent me to stay with you while our chiefs sort out our rights with the archduke. I hope Aandor does not succumb to this madness as well.
“Aandor honors the Blue Forest Accord diligently,” Fronik told his charges. “We must share our good fortune with our cousins…regardless of how they wean their babes.” He stared down Sala.
“I don’t like them.” Lelani interjected.
“Whom should we turn to then?” Fronik asked. “Trolls? Dwarves? Perhaps Frost Giants?”
“They smell better than the Loffoss,” Kendal said.
Lelani and Sala laughed. Mytah shook her head in resignation.
Fronik looked like a tired centaur with an impossible task. “Get some rest,” he said, and left the young ones alone to ponder the future.
After some reflection, Kendal said, “Maybe they act out in grief…over losing their homeland.”
Lelani didn’t care for Kendall’s empathy.
“It’s okay Lani,” Mytah said. “You’ll nab that fox tomorrow for sure. ” She put her tiny arms as far around her friend’s shoulder as they would reach and gave her a hug.
“You Stormbringers are obstinate,” Kendal put in, jokingly. “Is there one of you that isn’t a clan chief or healer? Don’t any of you clean stalls?”
“Leave her be,” Sala said.
But he’s right, Lelani thought. Stormbringers aspire to great things. Hundreds of years of history to live up to and she was off to a poor start. Kreeg needed to pay for interfering with her tradition.
“I watched from the safety of the bushes over there,” Mytah explained as she tried to help Lelani piece together the ogre attack. “The ogre had rounded up all the others and then came for you. You were the last centaur standing.”
“And then what?” asked Lelani. It was an odd sensation being able to remember yesterday, but not the last few hours.
“You charged it.”
“You ran between its legs and struck its ankle with your spear. But it kicked you, and you landed on that granite slab in the middle of the circle.”
Lelani approached the slab that was buried in the center of the druid refuge. Her blood painted the stone where her skin scraped along the etched in runes. She looked at her arms, scraped and streaked with blood; it brought to mind her fox hunt the previous day.
The hunt went well. Without Kreeg’s interference, Lelani picked up the trail and caught her prey in half the time it took the previous day. She hoisted her trophy over her head and signaled that she had completed the trial. The animal’s blood ran down her arms, a gesture of victory among her clan.
Fronik beamed with pride. “You set a tribal record.”
Blagh and the rest of the scouts joined them. “Even among our own, no hunt has gone so well.”
“Stormbringer blood,” Kendal said, grinning.
“One drop on your fishnets and they come up bursting,” Sala added, with a giggle. Lelani’s friends burst into fits. They were proud of her, but kept her grounded.
“Not so hard when you get to do it twice,” Kreeg said.
“Kreeg!” warned his scoutmaster.
“Thanks to your dumb stunt yesterday, Lelani has the fastest first hunt of the year,” Sala said, rubbing it in.
Kreeg stormed off with Gruah and Ghack close behind. Klaugh, a copper-haired lad with green eyes and reddish-brown lower half, remained. He was odd in that he preferred to use a bow and arrow over the more noble spear.
“Good hunt,” he said to Lelani. “Wish I had broken that record, though.” He gave her a big smile-one that said they were competitors, but not enemies.
“Kreeg is a man’s ass,” Klaugh admitted. His father is important; the others were told to stay in his good graces. Kreeg does not represent our best face. Just like not all Dhahsoss are overly groomed, and doused in perfume.” He smiled at Sala.
“Hey!” Sala protested. She trotted over to Mytah and whispered, “Is that true?”
Mytah put her finger to her chin, made a show of giving it thought, and said, “The animals think you smell very pretty. Perhaps they will mistake you for a flower when it is your turn to hunt.”
Lelani and Kendal chuckled. Klaugh trotted ahead to join his friends.
“Red-headed carthauler,” Sala whispered to Mytah before yelling after Klaugh, “I wouldn’t look too closely into his family tree. Dwarves have red hair, you know!”
Further on, the troop had gathered around a deep, large footprint pressed into the mud. Mytah could have laid in it with room to spare.
“Ogre?” asked Blagh.
“Aye,” Fronik said. “Came down from the mountains a few years ago. Nasty one. Prints lead away from camp. We’ll head north tomorrow, put some space between it and us.”
Kreeg, Lelani, Mytah, Kendal, and Klaugh lingered to examine the print.
“At least fifteen feet tall,” Lelani said.
“Is that all?” Kreeg said.
“They have large feet,” she responded. “You wouldn’t want to meet even a seven-foot ogre, though…brutishly strong.”
As they made to rejoin the others, they realized Kreeg wasn’t with them. He remained at footprint, gazing in the direction of the ogre.
“This is not good,” Klaugh said.
“Fronik thinks we’re safe,” Kendal said. “I wouldn’t worry.”
Lelani thought that Kendal misread Klaugh. What was not good was whatever was going on in Kreeg’s head. Eventually, Kreeg turned to follow them.
“What is that?” She asked Mytah.
“I don’t hear it,” Mytah admitted. “Do you think it has something to do with why the ogre couldn’t touch you?”
“What do you mean?”
“It cried out in pain each time it tried to grab you. Finally it yelled ‘vekma’ and took off with the others.”
“Vekma?” Lelani’s head throbbed-she wasn’t sure if it was the kick the ogre gave her or still part of the hangover from the hunt celebration.
Lelani started that day in pain, the consequences of too much lingonberry wine. It was tradition to toast a successful hunt with real spirits-a symbol of adulthood. She opened the flat of her tent that morning to find her scoutmasters frantically pulling together their hunting gear. The others were also up and helping. “What’s going on,” Lelani asked.
“Is Kreeg in your tent?” Blagh demanded. He looked desperate. Lelani arched an eyebrow as though Blagh had lost his mind.
Kreeg is missing,” said Kendal. His satchel and spear are gone.”
“Blagh has found Kreeg’s trail,” Fronik said. “He and I will go after him. Everyone stay in camp. Keep the noise down. Lelani, you’re in charge.”
“Me?” she asked incredulously.
“You have your hunting badge,” Fronik responded. “With it comes rank-and responsibility.”
The scoutmasters left. Kendal and Sala cooked eggs and salted ham for breakfast. Mytah produced rolls and butter and invited Gruah and Ghack to join them. Klaugh looked deep into the forest-the opposite direction that the scoutmasters had gone. Lelani pretended not to notice and buttered a roll.
Klaugh joined the group and set his gaze upon Lelani. She ignored him and washed down her bread with tea.
“They won’t find him,” Klaugh said.
“What are you talking about?” said Kendal. “Fronik could track a flea in a blizzard.”
“Kreeg set a false trail and then circled around toward his true purpose.”
“Which is…?” said Gruah.
The entire group froze, except for Lelani. She pulled a fried egg from the pan and gulped it down.
“Is he mad?” Mytah said.
“He cannot hunt an ogre,” added Kendal.
“He does not have to kill him,” Klaugh explained. “Only steal something. Treasure…perhaps its fetish.”
“His what?” Sala said.
“An ogre fetish…” Lelani said, trying to swallow too much bread, “…a vine looped through the skulls of the ogre’s adversaries, which it wears about its neck.” She burped loudly.
“Kreeg seeks to supplant Lelani’s hunt,” Klaugh said.
“Ha!” Lelani yelped obnoxiously.
“Do we stop him?” asked Mytah.
“We’re not risking our necks to save that human’s ass from his own stupidity.” Lelani said.
“He is a fool,” Klaugh agreed. “But I must try.”
“No,” said Lelani.
“He is not of your tribe,” Ghack interjected.
Lelani stood. “You heard the scoutmasters-I am in charge and we are staying put.”
“It’s not just that idiot’s life,” Klaugh argued. “Kreeg’s father, Kronos, is a centaur of considerable power in our tribe. Blagh, however, is a simple carpenter. But he is responsible for our safety. If something should happen to Kreeg…Kronos is vindictive-never one to drop a grudge.
“Lani, we have to do something,” Mytah pleaded.
Kreeg deserved a bloody thump from an ogre’s club. But the thought of Blagh’s family suffering over that fool of a Loffoss did not sit well with Lelani. Blagh had been kind and extremely fair during this hunt. He made it possible for her to save face-even excel beyond his own scouts.
“Klaugh and I will go,” Lelani relented. “Everyone else stays in camp.”
“Are you sure you can track him,” Gruah asked.
Lelani smiled. She pointed to her new hunting badge and said, “Kreeg is not nearly as smart as a fox.”
Kreeg turned out to be better at covering his trail than Lelani had predicted. She’d assumed incorrectly that because he was an ass, his skills would be deficient. It helped that they knew Kreeg’s objective. Klaugh turned out to be an excellent tracker as well, and Lelani was certain he would have a successful first hunt when it came his turn.
They came to some ogre footprints in soft mud leading in Kreeg’s direction. “Fairly fresh,” Lelani said.
They slowed their pace, cautious to not run blindly into the ogre.
“So…is Sala spoken for?” Klaugh asked softly, out of the blue.
“Ha!” Lelani snorted.
“That a no?”
“I think you are fishing in the wrong river, Klaugh. Did you not accuse her of being overly scented?”
Klaugh smiled. “Most Loffoss do not care for golden-hair. It is rare among my tribe. I find her quite beautiful.”
Lelani chortled. “So you would court her for her hair even though she smells bad?”
“I never said she smelled ba…oh, forget it.”
The ogre prints stopped as the ground hardened. Kreeg’s trail through the woods had also become thin-a trickle through clusters of trees and bushes. The faint path led into a clearing-an almost perfect circle about fifty feet in diameter. There was no other visible exit.
“A druid refuge,” said Lelani. “These are sacred places.”
There was something about the clearing-a buzz; she could not put her finger on it, but it drew her in. “We should rest here a minute-eat something, Klaugh said.”
Klaugh unwrapped some salted beef, bread, and an apple and offered her some. They ate in silence. Guilt nipped at Lelani for mocking Klaugh’s interest in Sala. Why should he not desire her? All the males in her tribe tripped over their hooves for Sala. As Loffoss went, Klaugh was decent enough-considerate and strong-even if he didn’t use a spear.
“Why a bow?” she asked.
“Why the spear over bow?” Klaugh shot back, driving the point that a choice is a choice.
“I do not like archery,” she admitted.
“You are probably not very good at it.”
She was about to shoot back a snarky retort when it occurred to her that he was right. Lelani liked to excel, and archery was one of those things she was barely average at.
“You are more like Kreeg than you’d care to admit,” Klaugh grinned.
Lelani pretend punched his arm. Klaugh laughed that warm inviting chortle of his…the kind everyone welcomes around a hearth after a good meal. He was confident, but not cocky. He had a good understanding of what others were thinking.
“Are you good?” She asked pointing to his bow.
“Mites off a grasshopper’s head from fifty yards.”
His brashness fell just short of egotistical-yet Lelani found it strangely funny.
“Blagh says those with a natural affinity have a responsibility to hone it for the good of the tribe-even in it means taking up a less popular weapon. Here…” Klaugh said, handing her his bow. “Show me.”
Lelani shot at a wide tree at the other end of the circle and missed it by inches.
“Not bad,” he said.
“Yes, but the arrow flew straight.” Klaugh came up beside her and pressed close. He lifted her bow arm by the elbow and reaching around her back put another shaft in her string hand. With his string hand over hers, he guided her to the proper form. His muskiness brought to mind the times Lelani and Sala made fun of the way the Loffoss smelled of patchouli, except that Lelani found Klaugh’s scent strangely appealing. His touch gave her goose pimples. His breath warmed her ear as he instructed. His cheek pressed against hers. He was a solid shadow joined to her, two becoming one with the single bow.
“You’re afraid of the string hitting the inside of your arm,” he told her, softly. “It’s throwing you off. You should get a leather brace when you return home. Also, you’re dropping your elbow too much. Keep it up higher, pretty much on a line with what you are aiming at.”
He released her string hand, sliding his fingers along her forearm to hold her position. When she released, it was as though they fired together. The arrow hit the center of the tree with a solid “thud.”
Lelani barely had time to let her elation sink in because the bushes behind them began to shake violently. Klaugh pulled another arrow and notched it with her. They steadied themselves, standing as one, neither admitting fear to the other.
Sala crashed through the bushes first and landed on her chin. Gruah followed, landing on Sala-then Kendal and Ghack. Mytah crawled calmly through a space under the bush and dusted herself off.
“Hey Lani,” said Sala cheeringly from underneath the centaur pile.”
“What are you doing with a bow?” asked Mytah. “You hate archery.”
“I told you all to stay in camp!” Lelani exclaimed.
“Quiet!” Klaugh whispered, tensely.
“Hey, what’s that awful smell,” said Gruah.
One of the trees shook violently. Huge leathery fingers with chipped yellow nails textured like aging lime ripped the tree from the ground with roots cracking and splintering.
The ogre’s hairy chest and paunch belly were covered in black ringlets; it wore only a leather loincloth precariously pinned together with a bone. A mass of greasy black hair fell on its shoulders, a jutting lower jaw and large tusks protruded from its lips, and it slobbered like a mastiff. The bone fetish around its neck jangled with movement.
“RUN!” Yelled Lelani. She scooped up Mytah and charged toward the exit. The ogre launched the tree it held at the exit-it fell from the sky nearly hitting Lelani and blocked the way out. Lelani reared up to avoid hitting the tree, then tried to find a way around it.
The ogre entered the clearing with two large strides. Ghack threw his spear piercing the monster’s forearm. The ogre ignored it and backhanded him with a loud “Wump.” Ghack flew across the clearing, into a tree with a sickening crunch. He fell limply to the ground. Gruah held her spear before her to keep the ogre at bay. The ogre reached out with one hand and scooped up Kendal. Then it picked up Gruah ignoring her jabs. They wriggled like worms in its grip, kicking and punching against its thick leathery hide.
The ogre turned toward Klaugh, who was trapped against a thick, thorny brush. Lelani still had his bow. She shot an arrow into the back of the ogre’s neck. The ogre ignored the arrow completely and began dropping the centaurs into a net woven from vines as thick as branches. It grabbed Klaugh by his rear legs and dropped him into the net, then Sala and even Ghack’s limp body.
“This way!” Mytah said, leading around the tree that blocked their exit.
“We can’t abandon them!” Lelani said.
“We’ll be caught, and then won’t be able to get help!”
Lelani wanted to run with Mytah…to hide from the ogre. The Fhlee were gentle folk who never killed so much as an insect if they could help it. They retreated at the first sign of trouble. But, this was not the centaur way.
The ogre approached. Mytah slipped through the exit and into the forest. The ogre, agitated by her escape, made to follow. Lelani dropped Klaugh’s bow and pulled forward her spear to stand before the giant. The ogre reached out intending to add her to his net full of swag.
Lelani charged ahead below its grasp and between its legs. She jabbed her spear into its ankle as she ran through. The ogre kicked back with its other foot and sent her flying toward the center of the circle. She landed on the granite slab where her blood scraped along the runes etched in the rock. Lelani struggled to stay conscious after the impact.
That strange buzz she encountered upon first entering the circle returned-as though a beehive had covered her from head to toe. She had little time to ponder the mystery-this would become her slaughter block if she did not stay conscious. The ogre hovered over her. As it reached down for her, Lelani’s fear intensified-and so did the buzzing. A hot pinprick jabbed at the base of her skull, like someone had poked her with a needle right out of the forge. An invisible force stopped the ogre’s hand a few feet from Lelani, and then its fingers began to smolder.
The beast cried out in pain, pulled his hand away quickly, and took a few steps back from Lelani. Fear and uncertainty spread on the ogre’s expression as it blew on its blistered fingers.
“Vekma!” it growled accusatorially and pointed at her. It hoisted its net full of centaurs and left the druid’s circle as quickly as it appeared. And then she passed out.
The fog in Lelani’s mind had lifted. The druid’s circle rejuvenate her, channeling healing energies through the center stone.
“How did you do it?” asked Mytah.
“I don’t know,” Lelani said, still trying to sort it out. “I’ve felt weird since coming into this circle. I drew energy from this slab like water from a well.”
Mytah looked around the druid’s refuge and back at her friend with eyes wide and full of wonder. “You have the gift.”
“Stop talking crazy.”
“That ogre couldn’t touch you. You burned its fingers.”
I don’t know what I did,” Lelani insisted. “The last centaur sorcerer was a hundred years ago.”
“That ogre believed you were magic. That’s why it shot out of here.”
“Stop it!” Lelani began to cry. She shook with exhaustion. “My friends are dead. I don’t care about magic. Crazy talk.”
“Only Ghack is dead. The others still live-for now.”
“Fresh meat. For gods’ sakes Lani, you don’t kill all the chickens in the coop on the same day.”
“Then…we still have time!” Lelani realized.
“I don’t know…” said Mytah. “By the time we get back to your village…”
“I’m not going to the village. I’m going after them.”
“Now who’s talking crazy?!”
“They’re dead if I don’t go. You don’t have to come, Mytah.”
“Leave you alone?! ” Mytah began to panic. Lelani understood it was not her people’s way to seek conflict. Mytah struggled with her instincts and the guilt of abandoning her friend.
Lelani gave her a powerful hug. “Get back safely,” she said, and grabbed her spear and the bow, and several arrows that had fallen out of Klaugh’s quiver. She followed the ogre’s trail.
There was no challenge in tracking the monster. The added weight of the centaurs made for deep imprints on even the hardest ground. The sun was long past its midpoint; Lelani didn’t know whether the cover of darkness would help. Did her friends even have that long?
The trail led to an opening in the forest and a depression into a shallow rocky canyon. The eroded rock walls rose high, shifting in color and texture ever so slightly. The road declined gradually. At the top of the canyon walls was a barren rocky plateau baked yellow by the sun. The road into the canyon disappeared after the first bend. She imagined the path snaking through the stone like a meandering river. She took the high ground on the plateau, tracing the path below. The forest crept closer across the plateau until it eventually butted the edge of the cliff. Lelani preferred the cover of trees anyway and continued along the perimeter until a rancid odor assaulted her.
A rocky outcrop jutted from the forest’s edge. It looked strong enough to hold her weight, so she carefully walked onto it. Sixty feet below was the ogre’s pit. The thin twisty road came into it from the right and widened into an ovalesque shape. The hole was a dead end surrounded by high cliffs. On the far wall opposite the entrance rose a mountain of discard bones, wide at the bottom and tapering to a point on top. From Lelani’s vantage it looked like a rockslide. Her friends were in a crude wooden cage near the opposite cliff. A spit over a fire pit sat in the middle beside a boulder covered with furs and skins. Beside the boulder was a high pile of shiny objects overflowing from a massive chest.
The ogre opened the top of the cage and grabbed Ghack’s limp body. Her friends tried to pull Ghack back in. The Ogre shook them off with a brutish flick. He skewered Ghack with the iron spit, sat on the fur-covered boulder, and began to roast him. Lelani stepped back under cover of the forest shaking with revulsion and horror. She wretched. She focused on the impossibility of her task until a twig snapped behind her. Her heart jumped. She spun around, spear at the ready.
“You!” she sneered.
Kreeg walked onto the ledge and looked down. The smell of roasting meat wafted toward them on tendrils of smoke. The ogre picked clean one of Ghack’s legs and threw the bone high on top of the pile. Where it hit, it sent other bones skittering down the mountain. Kreeg’s blank expression annoyed Lelani to no end. How dare he feign indifference.
“You should not have followed me,” he said.
“We were trying to save you from your own stupidity.”
“I’m perfectly capable of evading an ogre.”
“That will comfort Ghack’s parents, greatly,” she said sarcastically.
“My-my father will…make amends to his family.”
Lelani slapped him across the face. He put his arms up defensively, shocked and angered, and unsure of what to say or do.
“Your family loves wealth-yet would gold comfort your father should you perish?”
“Shall we argue while the ogre makes meals of our friends?” Kreeg said, challenging her condescension.
“That is the first intelligent thing I have ever heard you say,” she replied.
“You don’t know what it’s like to grow up as the son of Kronos-great warrior and chieftain-prosperous. He broke all our tribe’s records in his youth. He had first pick among the females and yet he never fails to point out how much I take after my mother…and how little from him.”
“Then Kronos is a man’s ass. Doesn’t mean you have to be, too. Lelani threw him a half smile. Kreeg accepted the comment as a peace offering.
They studied the camp.
“I will sneak into the canyon and hide in some crevice. There,” Kreeg said, pointing near the entrance. “I will throw a red apple high into the air to signal I am set. You shoot the ogre with an arrow from up here. Make a lot of noise. It will come after you, but since it must take the path, you will have a head start. Run as fast as you can toward the river-about ten minutes that way at full gallop. You will be safe on the other side-ogres are terrible swimmers. While he’s distracted, I’ll sneak into his camp and free the others.”
Lelani thought the plan was a good one-except for one aspect. “It won’t chase me,” she said.
“It’s afraid of me.”
Kreeg began to laugh. “One hunting badge, Stormbringer, and you’re the scourge of the ogres. Your friends spoke truly of your ego. Why not simply smite the monster by yourself?”
“It’s complicated. I’ll have to sneak in to set them free. You lead the chase.”
Kreeg turned hot. “It’s not enough that you humiliated me on my first hunt…yet again you rob me of my triumph.”
“What are you talking abou…”
“The ogre’s horde! Another trophy for your growing legend!”
“Ogre’s horde?” She pushed him against a tree by his shoulders, surprised at her own strength. “We are not here to claim glory, Kreeg. Our only task is to free our troop. I care nothing for treasure. Neither should you. Regardless of whose progeny you are, if you allow Klaugh and Gruah to die while you return home with treasure, you will be a pariah-a mark of ill favor will haunt you the rest of your life.”
Kreeg grudgingly acquiesced. Lelani instructed him on using the bow and arrow, and when satisfied he would at least come close to hitting the ogre, she took off for the canyon entrance.
The long path down into that canyon was claustrophobic and tested her courage. Though she was sure she could smell the ogre if it were around the next bend, there was nowhere to run except back, and the ogre had a long stride. Lelani found a fair-sized crevice in the rock face to hide from the ogre’s view. She rubbed sand all over herself to muffle her scent, then threw the apple high enough to clear the top of the canyon wall.
From her hiding place, she could not hear the twang of Kreeg’s bow and had no way of knowing if the plan had commenced. Lelani waited until eventually she began to wonder if Kreeg had even seen the apple. Lelani thought to signal again and took one step out of the crevice when she suddenly felt the ground shudder. She pulled back just in time as the ogre bounded around the corner and past her toward the forest. The arrow sticking from his shoulder looked like a splinter. She was impressed Kreeg hit him at all. She wished him a good sprint. If he should sprain his hoof or run into a dead end…
The cliffs in the ogre’s camp looked much higher and steeper from her new vantage point inside. Humans could probably climb those walls but not a centaur. The pile of bleached bones on the far end rose up precariously like a high temple and stank of rotted flesh-a carnivore’s house of worship. The shiny stack of swag next to the ogre’s seat was a king’s treasure trove; gold goblets, silver serving platters, swords, chandeliers, jewelry, scattered armor, and piles of coin from various kingdoms. The glittering treasure had her mesmerized.
“Lani!” Yelled Sala.
Her friends’ faces were a mix of fear and relief. Up close, the bars of the cage were massive-the ogre had bound whole tree trunks with iron.
Lelani wished she had studied the cage more thoroughly before starting the rescue.
“You have to push the pin out first,” said Klaugh pointing up. What he called “the pin” was a large log that had to weigh five stone at least, looped through two iron hoops above the cage.
Lelani stacked some of the ogre’s possessions to reach the top. She pushed the log, but it barely budged. It was tight; friction held it firm. Time was wasting. That ogre would eventually give up on Kreeg.
She looked around the camp-not an ax in sight, and fire would burn her friends as well as the cage. Something kept pulling her attention toward Ghack on the spit, which she was trying hard to avoid. Then the idea hit.
Lelani grabbed an urn and large silver ladle from the treasure pile and placed it under where fat dripped from Ghack’s flesh. She also scooped in whatever grease had already fallen to the ground. The scent was awful in that cooked centaur and boars smelled about the same and it reminded her she was hungry. At the cage, she slathered the fat along the pin. Her friends pushed and pulled on the cage door to make spaces for the grease under the loops. The pin finally slid out. The rusty hinges fought them as they all pushed the top up. Since Sala was the lightest, Lelani and the others helped her out first. Next they pulled out Gruah, who helped with Kendal and Klaugh.
They galloped at full charge toward the exit and were almost out of the canyon-the forest in view-when Kreeg emerged from the trees and down the path toward them.
“Why aren’t you at the river?!” Lelani said in shock.
“I shook off that stupid ogre before reaching it and circled back to get my share of the horde,” Kreeg responded. He looked at the group and with a perplexed expression and said, “None of you are carrying any treasure.”
“Are you mad?” cried Gruah.
“Forget the horde,” advised Klaugh. “We should…”
Sala screamed loud enough to alert their village twenty miles away. The ogre emerged from the forest blocking the path and was none too pleased to see its next four meals walking out and about.
“You idiot!” cried Kendal.
The ogre bounded toward them with an angry roar. The centaurs galloped back toward the camp with the ogre hot on their tails. Because it couldn’t cut the turns as swiftly as the youths, it smashed into the cliff walls on every turn, letting them get a small lead on it. In the camp they fanned out in all directions. Klaugh and Kendal ran for the treasure horde on the left-the girls and Kreeg behind the cage on the right. Lelani ran straight to the mountain of bones. Kendal found a sword and Klaugh a golden bow and quiver of arrows.
The ogre staggered into its camp breathing heavily, looking back and forth, trying to decide which group to chase after.
Lelani backed up into the pile of bones, cracking a dried out femur that had gotten under hoof. When her rump touched the bones she sensed that buzzing again. This time it was in the bone pile.
The ogre picked up the empty cage and placed it in front of the exit. The centaurs were trapped in the pit. They joined Lelani at the far end.
“Do you feel that?” Lelani said.
“What?” asked Sala.
Klaugh shot two arrows: one into the giant’s cheek, the other under its collarbone, pinning the ogre’s fetish. Both arrows turned red hot and began to smolder. The ogre roared, singing its hands as it pulled them out. The seared fetish broke but the giant caught it before it fell. He eyed the youths cautiously as he backed away, winding the fetish around his wrist like a bracelet. Then it turned to search through its possessions for a particular thing.
“What are we going to do?” Kreeg asked.
“Throw you at it while the rest of us vault the cage blocking the exit,” Gruah said.
The buzzing drew Lelani around the bone pile to a spot near the canyon wall. She reached in-the bones shifted, clacking as they moved. Whatever called to her was deeper still. Her arm was in to the shoulder-a shift in the pile could rip it off, but she pushed in anyway. Bones began to spill around her. And then she touched it-hard, thin, and cylindrical. A vibration coursed through her. She pulled, but it would not come easily. There were too many bones in the way.
“Help me,” she cried out.
Gruah pulled. “Let go,” she said.
“No,” Lelani insisted.
Kendal added his weight, and they heaved with all their might. Just when Lelani thought she would lose her arm, the object came free.
It was a wood staff, sanded, carved, and etched with runes. The decayed hand and radius of its former owner still gripped it. Two rings adorned the hand-one plain and silver like a wedding ring on its index finger; one gold with tiny etchings in a foreign alphabet and set with a multi-faceted ruby on its pinky. A torn swatch of green silk with gold lace stitched on the cuff still clung to it.
“Ewww!” cried Sala.
The ogre advanced again holding a broken buckboard wagon, as a shield. Klaugh fired, but it batted away the arrows.
The staff was no ordinary piece of wood. The buzzing turned into a humming and became more harmonious-more in tune with Lelani’s internal frequency.
“Let go,” she ordered.
The skeletal hand released its grip and dropped to the dirt. How did she know it would do that?
The ogre was almost upon them.
They heard the whistling of a spear before it lodged into the left side of the ogre’s neck, deeper than any of the scouts could have done. The ogre howled. It ripped the spear out and threw it back in the direction from whence it came. High atop Lelani’s former vantage point above the pit were Blagh and Fronik with Mytah on his back.
The ogre roared at the scoutmasters then turned its attention back to the scouts and stepped forward. Fronik hesitated to throw his spear-the ogre was too close to the troop.
The scouts separated into two groups on either side of the bone pile, backed as far as they could go against the cliff wall. The ogre turned toward Lelani’s group first but stopped when it recognized her.
“Vekma!” it hissed angrily and pointed at her. It backed up to go around the pile to the other group of centaurs.
Through the terror that gripped her, Lelani remembered the staff and had an inkling of what to do with it. She grabbed it from its bottommost end, and with a long swing of her arm, thwacked it with gusto against the mountain of bones. The pile released, cascading in its entirety toward the ogre like the crack of a spring thaw. It knocked the giant back, sweeping it to the other end of the pit. Fronik took advantage of the ogre’s vulnerable position and threw his spear. It sunk deep into the monster’s left eye. The giant roared in anguish.
“Look!” Sala shouted.
A second egress had emerged from behind the remains of the pile-a continuation of the path from the other end of the pit.
“Move!” Klaugh ordered.
Kreeg went first, climbing atop the wave of shifting bones to get to the gap.
Klaugh remained last, allowing everyone to escape ahead of him even though as the swiftest, slower runners would disadvantage him.
“Lelani…!” Klaugh started.
“I will guard our retreat.”
“Do not argue with me, Klaugh! I have the hunting badge.”
The ogre was almost on its feet again. Lelani felt ogre-ish herself-Klaugh was only looking out for her…being a leader.
“It’s afraid of me,” she offered as an explanation. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Klaugh galloped off.
The ogre, half blind, approached her cautiously.
“Vekkkkmmmaaaaa…” it grumbled.
“Vekma, Vekma! Is that all you can say?” She pointed at Ghack on the spit and then to the ogre. “Monster!”
The ogre shook its head. “Gog no mohnstarrrr,” it said, attempting to speak her tongue. It pointed back at Lelani. “Whitshhh.”
Witch? Was Mytah right?
Fueled by the prospect of an empty cupboard, the ogre started toward her. She looked at the staff and the thought of “wind” blew into her head. Lelani lifted the staff above her and swung it in a circle like she was stirring the sky. Gusts began to spin around the ogre, kicking up sand and dirt into its one good eye. The ogre covered its face with one hand and reached around blindly to grab Lelani, but she had already taken to the path, sure that her friends were far away by now. As she galloped, the canyon walls grew closer together. Ahead, it came to a dead end except for a small opening in the wall. Klaugh waited for her on the other side. She ran for it with all her might, certain that the monster was right behind her.
Lelani had to crawl through; her hoof got wedged between two rocks. She threw her staff ahead and gave Klaugh both of her arms to pull. With a mighty heave, they fell back together, her on top of him. They lay in the sand holding each other, catching their breath. She gazed deeply into his eyes. No one had affected her like this before. They started to laugh, certain that they were safe. Lelani ignored the nagging “something” in her peripheral vision until it grew into an alarm. The ogre’s large good eye spied them through the hole. It reached through and caught Klaugh by his hind legs. She grabbed Klaugh and pulled with all her might, wishing the others had stayed behind as well, but the ogre dragged both of them toward the hole.
Lelani spotted her wooden staff. She kicked it up with her front hoof and grabbed it. As they got close to the wall, she whacked the rock above them with the staff. The canyon wall cracked. A large vertical chunk fell on the ogre’s arm, pinning the monster. She beat the hand that still gripped Klaugh with the staff until it released her friend. The hand flayed wildly, though whether it was the pain of the cliff upon the arm, or the monster’s last attempt to grab them, Lelani did not know. The ogre’s fetish came loose around its wrist. Lelani decided she did deserve a trophy after all. She pulled it free of the ogre and they put as much distance as they could between the monster and themselves.
At camp, when the masters grew tired of hearing their own voices, they ended their reproach of the youths with a dirge for Ghack. Fronik spent the evening consoling Blagh, who would have to face Ghack’s family.
Gruah and Klaugh refused to let Kreeg bivouac with them. Even Blagh shunned the boy.
Lelani lay by her fire, writing down thoughts in her journal. Her newfound staff and neatly coiled ogre fetish lay next to her. Mytah slept peacefully atop Lelani’s horse half, rising and falling gently, covered under a blanket of the centaur’s long red hair. Her gentle nature had been pushed to its limits.
The sky had turned indigo and the horizon was a faint cerulean blue sitting on a line of faded yellow. To Lelani, campsites were their most beautiful at twilight: shelter and comfort in the midst of a harsh terrain.
Kendal and Gruah were going over the next day’s foxhunt with Blagh at the center fire pit. Despite the tragedy, they would earn their badges-their right of adulthood, but no fox badge could match the lessons of this adventure-or the treasure. The skeletal hand from the wizard’s staff wasn’t rancid enough to keep Sala and Gruah from claiming the rings. Klaugh kept his enchanted fire bow and quiver and Kendal kept his sword. Everyone had a trophy-except Kreeg.
Across the camp, Sala played with her hair and giggled as Klaugh chatted her up by his fire. If someone had told Lelani only a day ago that the peer she would admire most among all the centaurs was a Loffoss male, she would have called them crazy. Lelani thought she and Klaugh had made a connection; apparently, she was mistaken. Kendal explained that Sala had the hardest time with their captivity and Klaugh comforted her, never doubting they’d escape. His confidence bolstered all their spirits.
Lelani was the hero. She risked her life, freed them, yet Klaugh wooed Sala-just like every other male in their tribe. The lessons of adulthood were hard and fast.
“May I join you?” Fronik, puffed on his long pipe.
Lelani motioned for him to lie down. She always enjoyed his smoke.
“Few could have hit the ogre’s eye from that distance,” she said.
Fronik laughed and let out a puff of smoke. “There was an element of luck in my aim.”
Typical Fronik-modest to a fault.
“You could probably win him over if you wished,” he said.
He pointed to the spectacle across the camp with his pipe. “Klaugh. He’s too young to have his heart set.”
Had she been visibly pining? “Some males have a weakness for turnip heads,” she said.
Fronik laughed so hard he choked on his smoke and turned red. “Do you really believe Sala to be a…turnip head?”
“I do not,” Lelani answered, feeling like a brat. “Klaugh had been interested in Sala all along. She’s a good friend and deserves to be happy. And I…I am not sure of myself anymore.”
Fronik studied the carvings on her staff. “Wisdom is vital for any sorceress-especially the first centaur in almost a hundred years.”
“I have not been able to make that stick do anything since the canyon.”
“You called upon your abilities in the heat of a crisis; desperation has its own power. Magic is a mystery to be studied…preferably in AandorCity under a master. You fared much better than the staff’s original owner, though. He did not survive the ogre,” Fronik said eyeing the monster’s fetish.
Lelani wondered if that wizard’s skull was among the collection on the vine. “Why me?” She asked.
“Well it’s obvious…somewhere in your lineage there’s a human.” She crinkled her nose, grossed out at the though of some bipedal monkey in her ancestry. Fronik laughed.
“I do not know what the future will bring, Lelani, but I am certain yours will be extraordinary.
Fronik turned in and left Lelani with a head so full with thoughts, she was certain she would not sleep again for a year. Her abilities could be a boon to her people, who relied too often on unsympathetic human wizards. With that came more responsibility than she ever imagined. But she trusted her friends to help her bear that burden.
“The Wizard Lelani,” she whispered to herself as she drifted toward sleep. The stars were brighter than usual that night.
About the author:
Edward Lazellari is the author of two fantasy novels, several published short stories and plays, and has written for Marvel Comics. His second novel, The Lost Prince, came out in August 2013 and he currently working on the third book in The Guardians of Aandor series for Tor books. He resides in New Jersey.
I’d like to thanks Dionne Lister, Amber Jerome Norrgard, Evan Gunter, and Rayna Bourke for contributing their time toward this story.
GUARDIANS OF AANDOR Series (Tor Books)