Trissiny and Ruda both reached for their swords, but before either had a chance to draw, Toby stepped forward, his hands raised peaceably.
“Good morning,” he said politely. “Despite what Professor Rafe was suggesting, we have no intention of disturbing your corn. We don’t listen to him as a rule. Would you mind removing the wand from my friend, please?”
“Actually, go ahead and blast him,” Rafe said cheerily. “Boy’s half hethelax, I doubt he’ll even get a sunburn.”
“Professor,” said Gabriel tersely, trying to watch the elf out of the corner of his eye without moving, “please go fuck yourself.”
“Hah! Sass and sauciness in the face of imminent zappage! Ten points, Arquin!”
“Sideways,” Gabe clarified, “with a hatchet.”
“Enough banter,” Trissiny exclaimed. “Put down the wand, please. Nobody here wants a fight, but if it comes to one you’re not going to win.”
“Whoah, whoah, everybody just calm down,” Rafe said soothingly. “She’s not gonna shoot him, she knows Tellwyrn’s hunted people down over longer distances for less reason. Also, Triss, when you’re scrapping with elves, don’t worry about the one you see; worry about the three you don’t. Guys, this is my old buddy Ansheh. Annie, dollbaby,” he went on, turning to face the elf directly and holding out his arms for a hug. “You never come visit anymore! I was starting to worry you’d been eaten by a swallowgator or disemboweled by a jackalope.”
For a tense moment, she stared at Rafe, eyes narrowed but her expression unreadable. Then, her lips curled up in a sneer and she spoke one syllable.
She did, however, remove the wand from Gabriel’s neck, immediately stepping back out of arm’s reach. The wand stayed pointed at the ground—not overtly hostile, but ready to be brought up in an instant.
“Well,” Gabe said, rubbing his throat, “I guess that’s a sign she really does know him.”
Professor Rafe said something rapidly to the woman—Ansheh, apparently—in elvish. She replied in the same language, her posture still wary and expression faintly disdainful. The students glanced about at each other as this exchange drew longer.
“Is anybody gonna let us in on the joke?” Ruda asked finally. Rafe and the elf ignored her, but Teal spoke up in a low voice.
“He’s getting the news on the region. Apparently her tribe live around here, usually… Oh, wait, no, they travel through this area a lot. They’re nomadic. They’re not here now, though, she’s scouting the region to check up on patches of crops like this one and to see if…” Her voice trailed off and she grew a shade paler. “Centaurs.”
“To see if centaurs?” Ruda snorted. “Well, that’s good to know. Personally, I hate it when centaurs.”
“Don’t joke,” Trissiny said tersely.
“Listen, shiny boots, the day I stop joking because you told me—”
“Ruda,” Teal said more urgently. “She’s right. Centaurs are not a joking matter.”
“They are not,” agreed Ansheh flatly. The two of them had ceased talking as Ruda grew louder, and now she switched to Tanglish and addressed herself directly to the students. “The presence of a full horde in the region is the reason my tribe have moved on.” Rafe started to say something again in elvish, but she cut him off with a slashing gesture. “Are you not some manner of teacher, Admestus? Then do not presume to ‘protect’ your students from truth. I will warn you, and them, of a danger in the region as I would any traveler in good faith.”
“Are they still nearby?” Trissiny asked, tense.
Ansheh shook her head. “The main horde has moved on, and the Sea has shifted. They are nowhere near. However, there are fresher tracks of a smaller band that may have split off from them, within miles of here. Forty to sixty, maybe. I have three times seen tracks of individuals, doubtless sent out to scout.”
“Time? Location? Direction, even?”
“You’re new to the Golden Sea, little warrior,” the elf replied, her face softening into the merest hint of a smile with more than a hint of condescension. “These things cannot be planned for, here.”
“Then how do you maneuver, or manage not to get lost from your tribe?”
“There are ways.” Finally, she holstered the wand, then reached behind herself into the tallgrass and plucked two long stalks, one with each hand. The left she held up before them, perpendicular to the ground. “The center of the Golden Sea can never be reached, but one can travel toward or away from it; one can go deeper in, or seek to escape, and the Sea will allow this.” As she spoke, she manipulated the other stalk with the fingers of her right hand with amazing deftness, twisting it into a figure eight. “To travel around, though, is to travel at the Sea’s whim. One place may be next to another place one moment, on the opposite rim the next. A person may never see it shifting, but in the instant you close your eyes, the world realigns around you.”
“We know this, thanks,” Gabriel said, reaching up to rub his throat again. His expression was just barely on the right side of a glare.
“It is in traveling around that one must make accommodations with the Sea itself,” Ansheh continued, ignoring him. “You initiates of the tauhanwe University tie a rope to yourselves that leads you back home. The Sea allows this because it does not affect the Sea itself, but only how you pass through it. My people align ourselves with the will and the way of the Sea. It is kind to us because we are kind to it, because we are of it. We trust in it to lead us where we should go.”
“The fuck does that even mean?” Ruda demanded.
“It is a thing that is done,” said Ansheh, gazing inscrutably at her, “not a thing that is said.”
“…the fuck does that mean?”
“The centaurs,” the elf continued in the same even tone, “are practitioners of dark magic. They twist the Sea to carry them where they wish to go. It works, until it does not. That is why we are always alarmed to find centaurs where they are rarely seen. Right after the Golden Sea has struck back against their manipulation and thrown them off…that is when they are most angry.”
Trissiny blinked her eyes twice, then shook her head. The elf’s roundabout explanation—or what was apparently meant to be an explanation—made her brain feel the way her stomach did when she tried to digest richer food than she was used to eating. “All right, well… Can you tell us anything about how close the centaurs are? Any suggestions how we avoid them?”
“They are few, and they are not here,” Ansheh said infuriatingly. “’Close’ means nothing here. You will probably not find them unless you wish to, or they wish to find you. The Sea does not reward their sorcery.”
“…okay then. Thank you.”
Ansheh nodded gravely to her.
“Right then!” For a few moments while he and Ansheh had been speaking, Rafe had seemed almost concerned. His irrepressible cheeriness was back now, in such force that it made his momentary lapse seem like a trick of the light. “Nothing for it but to press on! We’ll either meet centaurs or we won’t, and probably not more than sixty.”
“Not more than sixty?!” Ruda planted her fists on her hips, glaring at him. “I don’t even know what the deal is with these centaurs, but if they’re hostile, sixty is a pretty big fucking deal!”
“Nonsense!” he bellowed. “Bring them on in their hundreds, in their hordes! We shall show them what it means to be, uh…paladins, pirates, priests and whatever-all else! The bards will sing of our triumph for ages to come!”
Ansheh gave him a flat look and said softly, “Tifau.” It was one of those words that didn’t need a translation to communicate quite plainly. She made three soft clicks with her tongue in a syncopated rhythm, and a shape rose out of the tallgrass behind her.
It was horse-sized, but built more like a deer, with delicate legs and cloven hooves, and a long tail ending in a graceful tuft of fur. A single, spiraling horn rose from above its eyes. The unicorn’s coat was silvery white, but had been painted with vertical streaks in shades of brown and gold; hiding motionless in the tallgrass, it was as invisible as the elf had been.
Fross gasped audibly. “Pretty.”
She placed one hand against the unicorn’s neck and then leaped onto its unsaddled back, in a smooth motion that resembled water flowing uphill. Ansheh clicked her tongue once more and her mount turned to face the endless sea of tallgrass; she looked over her shoulder at them and nodded once, curtly. “We will not be back here in time to harvest. Take as much corn as you need; the rest will go to the crows as the wards fade.” Then the unicorn bounded away, making only the most impossibly soft noise as it disturbed the grass in passing. In seconds they were lost to sight.
“Huh,” said Gabriel. “After Tellwyrn and Sunrunner, I figured the old stereotype about elven mysticism was bunk. Maybe it’s just the wild ones.”
“Yeah, no, the stereotype is bull,” Rafe replied, grinning. “Don’t go expecting any elves you meet to act like that; they’ll either laugh at you or shoot you. Ansheh’s the biggest drama ham I ever met. You give her attention, she’ll give you a show.”
“Also, it may be a bad idea to judge anyone by Tellwyrn’s example,” Toby noted.
“That, too,” Rafe agreed. “Welp! You heard the nice lady with the ears, kids. Since I was just talking about finding food a few minutes ago, let’s CORN IT UP!”
“So what’s the big issue with centaurs?” Ruda asked after they had resumed their trek. Rafe was again in the lead, and again singing to himself in elvish. Ruda had produced a bottle of bourbon from within her coat and was working at it. Apparently, their professor had similar bag-of-holding enchantments on the pouches at his belt; that, anyway, seemed to be where he was keeping all their supplies, including the corn they’d just picked. “The way you guys reacted I’d have thought you were talking about Elilial’s own brood.”
“They might as well be,” Trissiny said darkly. “Centaurs are diabolists. That magic the elf was talking about that they use, it’s pure evil.”
“Oh, everything’s evil with you,” Ruda said dismissively.
Trissiny drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “How many things have you actually heard me describe as evil? Name two.”
“Centaurs and Teal.” The pirate grinned at her and had a long pull of bourbon.
“Honesty, I thought centaurs were a myth,” Gabriel said.
“History,” said Teal, “not myth. They only still live in the Golden Sea, because the shifting geography makes it pretty much impossible to go in and hunt them down. The Sisters of Avei have wiped them out everywhere else.”
“Big fuckin’ surprise, there!”
“Ruda,” Teal said sharply, “the fact that you can’t get along with your roommate doesn’t mean you get to call all Avenists genocidal maniacs. They’re anything but. The Sisters gave up trying to deal with centaurs diplomatically and simply killed them en masse, and nobody, not even the Omnists or Izarites, argued with them about it. That should tell you everything you need to know about centaurs. The demon magic isn’t the worst part, though.”
“We don’t need to hear about it,” Trissiny said, her face hardening.
“Triss, I’m gonna have to argue with that,” Teal replied. “This group is three-fourths women. If we even might meet centaurs…everybody deserves to know what to expect.” She turned her head to face Ruda again as they walked. Rather than going single file as before, the students had drawn together in a clump with Fross darting overhead and the boys bringing up the rear. “Centaurs don’t have a word for ‘rape’ in their language. Or maybe it’d be better to say they have only words for that, and none for love.”
There was a brief period of relative quiet while Ruda scowled, the bottle in her hand momentarily forgotten. The swish of grass, the buzz of Fross’s wings and Rafe’s less-than-tuneful singing were the only sounds.
“Wait, you mean they…” Ruda shook her head. “These are the things that are horses on the bottom half, right? How does that even work?”
“It does not work,” Teal said grimly. “That’s not how I would prefer to die, thank you.”
Another brief silence fell, which again, Ruda broke. “Well…shit. Good on the Sisters, then. Hell, I kinda hope we meet some, now. Wouldn’t mind killing a few of those myself.”
“You really don’t possess a shred of common sense, do you?” Trissiny asked.
“Really, blondie?” Ruda tilted her head back to give her a long look from under the wide brim of her hat. “You wanna start this up?”
“Let us not start anything up, please,” Shaeine said quietly. “In fact, unless there is something further we urgently need to know about centaurs, I suggest a change of topic. This one is likely to inflame tempers.”
Ruda grunted and tilted her head back, drinking. They all watched the level of bourbon in the bottle go down.
“Ruda,” Toby said from behind them, “it occurs to me that I always seem to see you drinking something, but I’ve never actually seen you drunk.”
“Yeah?” She grinned at him over her shoulder. “Or maybe you’ve never seen me sober.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask about this, too,” Gabriel added. “It’s supposed to be a dry University, but I’ve seen you hitting the bottle right in front of Tellwyrn. How come the rules don’t seem to apply to you?”
“Diplomatic immunity,” she said cheerfully. “It’s good to be a pirate, boys. Incidentally, anybody have any clue just where the fuck this guy is taking us?”
Rafe paused in his current song to shout “TO GLORY!” without turning around.
“Wow,” Ruda muttered, “I walked right the fuck into that, didn’t I. Well, I hope glory’s got a roof. We’re gonna get rain here in a day or two.”
“Wait, what?” Gabriel peered around at the sky, which was deep blue and cloudless. “Maybe you are drunk, after all.”
“Up yours, hell’s bells. That’s your new nickname, by the way. I grew up on ships; don’t fucking talk to me about weather.” She twisted her mouth in a grimace, then took another drink. The bottle was getting close to empty. “I could tell you more exactly than that, but…I dunno how much this place is fucking with my weather sense. There’s no decent-sized bodies of water anywhere around, and who the hell knows how it all works when the ground isn’t even lashed down properly. Rain’s coming, though. Bank on it.”
Before anyone could reply, the ground began to rumble.
“What the—earthquake!” Gabriel cried, reflexively ducking down.
“Shh!” Up ahead, Rafe turned and waved his arms frantically, shushing them as if he hadn’t been singing at the top of his lungs moments ago. “SHHHHH!”
Juniper’s gasp of obvious delight only added to the confusion, at least until she pointed off to their right. “Look! Look! Bison!”
Carefully, the eight of them crouched low enough to almost hide themselves, peering through the upper fronds of the tallgrass. Fross belatedly fluttered down to join them after being hissed at and urgently beckoned by Ruda.
It was an awe-inspiring sight. The herd stretched nearly to the horizon beyond, but they were passing close enough that those nearest the students were clearly visible, their numbers fading into a deep brown expanse that moved as if with one mind. The bison were running parallel to them, beginning to curve away, but as the freshmen watched, they gradually slowed, coming to a halt and beginning to graze. No longer running, they could be examined individually. Massive, shaggy beasts with huge hammerlike heads surmounted by black horns, each bison was an impressive spectacle. Together in their sheer numbers, they were breathtaking.
“Wow,” Gabriel whispered.
“Um,” said Ruda softly, “what happens if they all charge this way?”
“Well, then we get trampled,” Rafe said cheerfully. “That’s not likely, though. So, who wants to go bag one?”
“Every time I think you’ve said the stupidest fucking thing you can possibly say, you open your mouth again,” said Ruda.
“Oh, don’t be such a sourpuss, Punaji. Elves hunt these.”
“They hunt them with staves, spears and arrows, while riding unicorns,” Teal hissed. “Let’s not provoke the herd, please.”
“Oh, but you were saying we need meat, right?” said Juniper. “One of those would keep us supplied for…well, probably the whole trip, assuming we’re not planning to be out here more than a week or so. That’s about what Tellwyrn said, right?”
“Yeah, well, the fact remains, those are bison, there are thousands of them, and we are really not equipped or prepared to do any hunting,” said Gabriel.
“Lemme see what I can do,” she replied, and stood upright, disregarding the hisses of her classmates. The dryad strode forward through the grass directly toward the herd.
“The thing that bothers me most is how we didn’t hear them before they were this close,” Teal muttered. “If the Sea can drop thousands of bison right on top of us…”
She didn’t bother to finish. Everyone knew where that thought was going: why not centaurs?
They all reflexively ducked even lower when the herd spotted Juniper and shied away. Those nearest the dryad seemed to move as one organism, the effects of their alarm rippling backward. She kept approaching slowly, though, making a beeline for one specimen standing relatively near. The general consensus of the herd seemed to be that she wasn’t a threat worth running from, but they weren’t interested in being approached; they began to resume their course at a brisk walk.
All except for the single animal Juniper was approaching. It moved to face her directly, tail swishing behind as it studied her. There was something almost poetic about the way it broke from the herd to acknowledge the dryad’s approach; suddenly it wasn’t facing the same direction as the others, nor moving along with them. From part of a unit, it transitioned to an individual, shifting its allegiance to the dryad. It did shy backward a few steps as she drew closer, hands upraised, but eventually allowed her to stroke its face.
“Quick bit of trivia,” said Rafe, “dryads have an innate and powerful connection with nature. The rest of you, do not try to pet wild animals. Especially not ginormous ones with big-ass horns.”
“Got it, thanks,” said Gabriel. Nobody else commented; nobody tore their eyes from the spectacle before them.
It was a spectacle worth seeing.
The woman stood before the mighty beast, her green hair and golden skin framed by its dark, shaggy bulk, running her hands over its face, scratching in its bushy mane, stroking along its giant horns. All the while, behind them, the herd was picking up speed, heading away and leaving one of its members to the dryad’s attentions. Juniper had crossed her arms, now, for some reason, each hand taking hold of the horn on the opposite side of the bison’s head.
When it happened, it was almost too fast to watch.
She quite suddenly un-twisted her arms, throwing her weight to one side. The audible crack of the bison’s massive neck breaking was immediately lost in the thud of its huge weight slamming to the ground on its side. It landed, head twisted at a horrible angle; its legs kicked feebly a couple of times, then with startling suddenness, the creature stilled.
The herd took this as the signal to leave. In the next moments, nothing was audible but the constant thunder of their stampede. Blessedly, they held to their previous course and did not turn toward those watching, but some of the students had difficulty balancing due to the shaking of the ground. Despite their speed, the incredible numbers of the bison meant it went on for some minutes.
Eventually, though, the ragged rear edge of the herd passed, and then they were retreating toward the horizon. As soon as the noise lessened enough that she could be heard, Juniper waved cheerily back at the others, shouting, “I got lunch!”
Ruda summed up what they were all thinking.
They approached slowly, warily. Juniper seemed as cheerful as usual, and rather pleased with herself. “It’s a lot of meat,” she said proudly. “Like I said, this should keep us set for the rest of the trip. How much storage space have you got in that belt, Professor? Oh, well, Ruda and Gabe have the same kind of enchantments on their coats, we’ll manage. You don’t mind helping carry, right, guys?”
“Um. No?” Gabriel offered hesitantly.
“Great! Let’s just get this started, then.” Stepping around to the side of the felled bison, she pulled back her arm and drove a hand directly into its shoulder, sinking up to the wrist in flesh. Gabe clapped a hand over his mouth and turned away. “Oh…oops, I’m sorry I should’ve thought, first… Did anybody want its hide? Cos, y’know, it’s pretty big so I guess it doesn’t matter where we tear it. I’ve heard people trade the hides for good money, though.”
“I don’t think that’s important right now,” Trissiny said carefully. “We’re survivalists, for the moment, not fur traders.”
“Great!” the dryad said, beaming. “We can still make use of the skin, I’m sure, but I guess it doesn’t matter how many pieces it’s in.” She grasped the torn edges of the bison’s thick hide with both hands and pulled, ripping a long seam open across its side, baring steaming muscle. Gabriel retched and doubled over; fortunately Juniper didn’t seem to be paying him any attention. She sank the fingers of one bloody hand into the muscle and pulled, dragging out a large chunk. Strings of tissue snapped, flicking droplets of blood across her face and upper chest, leaving her with a thick handful of raw meat.
“Um, I always forget details like this,” she said thoughtfully. “How important is it to you guys that meat be cooked before you eat it?”
“It’s fairly important,” Teal said, her voice faint.
“Ah. Well, I guess we’ll need to make a fire, then…” She pulled off a few strands of muscle and tucked them into her mouth, slurping them up like spaghetti. Gabe, having chosen that moment to look up at her again, immediately turned away; Toby stepped over to drape an arm over his shoulders as Juniper carried on with her mouth full. “Y’don’ min’ if I do, righ’?”
“Knock yourself out,” said Ruda, and finished off her bourbon.
“You’ve got blood in your hair,” Fross noted.
“Yeah, I’ll clean up after we’re done here,” the dryad said cheerfully. In fact, she had apparently opened an artery in her prey and now had blood splattered across herself rather liberally, including dripping from the corners of her mouth. “Doesn’t seem much point when I’m just gonna get all bloody again! Now, who’s got a knife? Or I can just keep tearing, it’s no trouble!”