In the twilight of the Elder Days, a story was told that was so improbable as to be disbelieved even by its witnesses. For though it is said that love knows no boundaries, still it is frowned upon when one loves outside one's own species. Here, then, is the tale of one such occurance...
The gentle spring breeze ruffled the hair of the young maiden as she picked flowers in the sunlit meadow, gay and laughing as she chattered with her companions, completely unaware of the danger lurking in the fringes of the forest.
The shapeshifting werebeast had marked one girl out of the many present to steal away as a slave because she was the closest to the edge of the forest. The werebeast needed a human slave to tend its young, for it came of a magically created race and was incapable of feeding its own offspring. And so it waited, biding its time in the shadows until the carefree young maiden approached within easy reach. Then it sprang, growing wings and leaping into flight even as it clutched the human in its claws. To the sound of much shrieking, the werebeast escaped with its prize.
Away it flew over the vast expanse of untamed forest, toward its mountain eyerie. The maiden wailed and wept as she was carried away.
Far below, in a sunny glade. a group of centaurs paused in their discussion of the dire portents in the heavens.
"It is a werebeast!" the eldest centaur exclaimed in disbelief. Such creatures had been eradicated in The War- or so all had believed.
"I will kill it!" said the youngest centaur, swiftly fitting arrow to the string of his ever-present bow and shooting.
"But what about-" another centaur spoke, concerned for the human. All the centaurs saw the arrow strike home, and the beast fall, bringing a new pitch of fear to the human's terrified screams. "Damnation. Didn't you think about the girl?"
The youngest centaur hung his head. "Apologies, Elder. I just thought-"
"Never mind. The beast is dead. I will go see to the girl." And the centaur, who was called Greatheart, set off at a canter into the forest.
"Poor little thing," a voice said above her head. Startled, Lilly opened her eyes and gasped. There was what appeared to be a naked man standing upside down over her. She tried to stand up, and realized that she was the one upside down. "Wait, don't move yet. I'll help you."
"What happened?" Lilly asked feebly. She seemed to be tangled in a bush.
"A young colleague of mine shot the werebeast that had taken you without considering the possibility of damaging you," the man said, bending down to help untangle her. What's wrong with his legs? Lilly wondered, then got a better view as she was helped upright.
"You're a centaur!" she breathed in wonder, almost reaching out to stroke his gleaming red-chestnut hide. "I've always wanted to meet one, but Father says-" she broke off, embarassed.
"Well, now you have met me, little human," Greatheart said, with some sorrow for further evidence of human bigotry. "Are you damaged in any way?"
Lilly carefully tested her body. "Not badly," she replied. "I am sore and scratched, but nothing feels broken."
"Then I shall endeavor to return you to your home."
"Where are we?"
"In the depths of the forest realm, far beyond the point of the deepest human penetration. Can you walk?"
"Yes," Lilly said, with more conviction than she felt. The centaur led the way into the forest and Lilly followed. "Why are so few of your kind friendly with humans?" she asked, picking her way through the ancient and trackless forest with difficulty.
"My people frighten humans terribly," came the reply. "We are too wise and live too long for the comfort of most men."
"But you are not a cruel people, like the Djinn." Confusion was plain in her voice.
"You have said a word which is key to one of humans' biggest problems with us- people." He courteously held a branch out of Lilly's way. "Most humans would rather convince themselves that we are not people, thereby justifying the growing trend of fearful intolerance. It was not always so. There once was a time when humans were far more friendly to the other races. In days past, it was not uncommon to see a human in company with one of my people, or to see the King's court filled with as many non-humans as humans."
"What happened?" Lilly winced as a branch slapped her in the face. The centaur was beginning to approve of this young human, so obviously unsuited to travel in a forest, yet uncomplaining.
"After The War, people began to change. All that humans chose to remember was that one of the Great Djinn had turned renegade, not that all the races banded together to destroy him. Humans began to look on all the other species, even the Elves, with distrust that slowly changed to fear. Over the years, the change became painfully obvious as the humans sought to exclude all others from their towns and villages. Of course, we non-humans reacted by ignoring the humans, and the situation deteriorated into the intolerance of others that is today's norm. Would you like to stop for a drink, little one?"
"Thank you, I would-" Lilly paused, blushing. "I'm sorry, I forgot to ask your name."
The centaur paused, turning to look at this frail-seeming human child, wondering why under the stars he had been about to reveal his true name. "They call me Greatheart," he said instead. The human smiled shyly, offering her hand. He reached out and took it.
"I am truly pleased to meet you, Greatheart. I am called Lilly." The sunlight filtering through the leaves of the forest shone softly on her hair, giving her a faint glow. Greatheart stood for a moment, admiring her beauty, which was undimmed by the scratches and debris from the bush he had pulled her out of.
Ah, if only she were a centaur... He could see how she would look- the silly human coverings gone, the way her smooth skin would blend into a golden palomino flank- with a shock, he realized what he was doing and shook himself all over, releasing Lilly's hand. She laughed.
"I'm sorry," she giggled. "You just looked funny, all serious one minute, then like a great overgrown foal getting a nosefull of pollen for the first time-" She controlled her giggles. It would not do to offend her rescuer. "My apologies, Greatheart. Now, you mentioned water?"
"This way," he said shortly, leading her to the stream he could hear. When they had both drunk their fill, he suggested they rest for a few minutes. Gratefully, the girl sat down and leaned up against a tree.
"How long will it take to reach my home?" Lilly idly ran her fingers over the mossy ground. She enjoyed the springy feel of it, and the moist coolness.
"Several days, I should think," Greatheart replied, settling himself a short distance away.
"That long?" The girl seemed very surprised.
"Indeed. Flying over dense forest is much easier than walking through it, and there is no way you could match my pace were I to run, as I did to reach you."
"Oh. I suppose that makes sense." She wondered if she would be able to take several days of hiking through virgin forest. "I don't mean to be rude, but what shall we eat?"
"The forest provides plenty of food, if you know what to look for."
And so it proved. After a long afternoon of walking through the silent trees, the centaur showed Lilly how to light a fire with flint rocks- a process which he made look easy. Then he showed Lilly a variety of edible berries, barks, fungi, and lichens- although she rather thought he got the better dinner, being able to eat grass as well.
Lilly was fascinated by her rescuer. He was so wise and knowledgeable about everything, and yet he was friendly, not at all condescending. Contrary to everything her father said, he was not heartless, soulless, or cruel. He wasn't ugly, either. His horse half was graceful and elegant, and his man half was quite handsome. In all, she found him to be a much better companion than the rowdy young men at her father's court.
After dinner, Lilly found herself drifting in and out of sleep. Several times she thought she heard voices,or saw vague shadow-shapes moving about. Then she did hear a noise and woke up entirely. She sat up and saw great shadowy people that looked like trees moving in a stately dance. Lost in wonder, she watched their dance for a while before realizing that Greatheart was also awake and watching. She quietly got up and went around the remains of the fire to the reclining centaur, settling at his side.
"What are they?" she whispered.
"Dryads," he replied. "Tree-spirits. They are dancing because today is Beltane, High Holy Day." Feeling her shiver, he put his arm around her, thinking she was cold. Lilly leaned trustingly against him. She was tremendously excited to see the spirits of the trees in their sacred dance.
"Why have I never seen them before?"
"They are terribly shy of humans. Years ago, there was an agreement made between the Trees and the race of Man that no human would destroy the waking Trees, instead using stone to build with and deadfall to burn. Lately, the agreement has been forgotten, and many of the sacred Trees have fallen."
"How sad," Lilly breathed. She thought with guilt of the fine new hardwood table in the King's Hall. Had it been made from murdered Trees? "The more I learn from you," she said, looking up at Greatheart, "the more I wonder if I truly want to go home. I am quite ashamed of what my people have done."
"To be human," Greatheart said, "is to be of both the proudest heritage and to bear the greatest shame of the present."
"And what is our heritage?"
"The Great Ones of old, whose names have been forgotten, built a most wonderful and elegant civilization, in a faraway land which has now been destroyed by their own foolish pride. The worshippers of the Great Goddess were able to escape to this land, where their belief in the words of the Goddess was rewarded with the stewardship of this land. For many centuries, the humans helped their fellow creatures, building shelters and giving healing, settling disputes, and being good caretakers. Perhaps, though, there is an inherent flaw in the human race- perhaps they are doomed to destroy all that is good, and ever struggle to rebuild it. Pride... it is great folly.."
Lulled by the warmth of the centaur and his quiet voice, Lilly drifted back to sleep. She was unaware of the conflict raging within her companion.
She is not even your species, the voice of reason was admonishing Greatheart. Unfortunately, the past was full of occurances where human/non-human pairings had been successful- dragons, unicorns, mer-people and were-people, elves... all had tales of the love possible between human and non. Finally, long after the Trees ended their dance, Greatheart settled himself for sleep.
* * * *
When Lilly awoke shortly after dawn, she was at first disoriented. She couldn't remember why she was laying on a forest floor. Then she tried to move, and memory returned along with shrieks of pain from abused muscles. Greatheart was nowhere in sight. So Lilly grimly forced her body to obey her and tried to perform some approximation of her usual morning routine. She detangled her hair with her fingers and took a shockingly cold bath in the deep pool near their campsite. Shivering, she put her stained and torn dress back on and felt much better for being clean. She found her way back to the campsite and saw Greatheart had returned, with a most unusual little person.
"Lilly,I would lke you to meet Amber the faun," Greatheart said. "She greatly desired to see the 'unprejudiced human-child,' as she put it."
"Good morning, Amber," Lilly said, curtsying with as much grace as her stiffness would permit. "I can't tell you how happy I am to meet non-human people at last."
"I brought you some breakfast rolls," the little faun said, offering the basket she carried.
"Thank you." The three of them shared a pleasant breakfast, then Amber hurried off into the woods.
"Within two hours, the whole forest will know everything about you," Greatheart predicted with a fond smile as he watched the departing faun.
"There are so many people out here, it's hard to believe."
"Yes, well, we'd best be off." The centaur led the way into the forest. Lilly followed, heartily wishing she hadn't led such a sheltered, sedentary life. She was having difficulty keeping up with Greatheart today, trippping over things and unable to move as swiftly. After a while, some of the stiffness went away, but not the soreness. Finally Greatheart halted and waited for her to catch up with him.
"Is something wrong?" He could see that she was in pain, and he admired her for not complaining or quitting.
"I'm just a little sore," Lilly replied, crossing a fallen log and looking up at him. "I'm not used- oh, blast!" Her foot broke through the rotten trunk and she felt her ankle twist. Tears of pain sprang to her eyes. "Now I've really done it!" She gingerly pulled her foot out of the hole, grateful for the solicitous help of the concerned centaur.
"Let me see," he said, holding her steady so she could raise the injured ankle. He felt it with one hand. "It doesn't feel broken, but you'd beter not walk on it for a while. Perhaps if I carried you on my back-?"
"You're not a horse!" Lilly was surprised. "But if you're willing, it would be very much appreciated."
"Then up you go. Allow me." Greatheart knelt so she could step directly onto his back from the treacherous log. Then he got back to his feet, and Lilly almost slipped off again. "You'll need to hold on."
"Where?" Lilly asked shyly.
"Put your arms around my waist," the centaur said, unable to keep from shivering as she did so, "and hold onto my sides with your knees."
When she was settled, Greatheart set off into the woods again. "Have you ridden on horses before?" he asked, trying to distract himself from the disturbing, yet pleasant feeling of Lilly on his back.
"Not really," Lilly replied. "Father doesn't approve of me learning anything interesting. The most exciting thing I've ever done is learn how to dance and embroider. I can't even cook."
"It is indeed. I have had more fun since I met you than I ever have."
"This is fun?" He laughed, a rich mellow sound.
"Actually, it is. I enjoy hearing your stories of other times and learning about edible berries and such. I wish this could go on forever."
"So do I, Lilly," the centaur admitted softly. "I have enjoyed your company as well. I have never met anyone, much less a human, like you before."
"Thank you," Lilly said. "Tell me, how did you get the name Greatheart?"
"It was during The War," the centaur said. "I was the commander of the King's forces. I have never been defeated in battle. But what the King named me for was the rescue of his son, from a near-impossible situation. He said, 'And now, for your courage in battle, for your steadfast support, and most of all for your spectacular rescue of my son, whom I had given up for lost, I give you the name Greatheart. Most noble of centaurs, I pray that you have a peaceful life and find your heart's desire.'"
"Who- what was the prince's name?" Lilly asked in a small voice.
"It was Prince Marek, he that is now King. Why? What is disturbing you?"
"How could he be so ungrateful? You saved his life, how could he... Greatheart, I am truly ashamed to admit this, but I think you should know. King Marek is my father."
Greatheart stopped in his tracks for a moment. "Oh," he said, then continued on through the trackless wilds. "Then my rescuing you is completely in character."
"Now that you know who I am, please don't let your opinion of my father influence your opinion of me."
"Never, dear lady," Greatheart said, placing one of his hands over hers and squeezing gently. "I judge you by who you are and what you do, not what your father does."
They traveled in silence for a while, Greatheart picking the easiest path with tender concern for his injured rider. Then he heard the cantering hoofbeats of one of his own people, and the young archer came into view.
"Ah, there you are, Greatheart! We were worried-" and he stopped short, shocked to the very core of his being by the sight of his admired elder bearing a human on his back.
"Good morrow, Thorn," Greatheart said calmly. "As you can see, I found the human. She has been injured, and we must travel slowly."
"But you- she's-" Thorn was at a loss for words. Suddenly he whirled and raced off the way he had come.
"What was that all about?" Lilly asked.
"I imagine that he's gone off to inform the Council of Elders that either I've gone insane, or you've enchanted me."
"Oh? And have I?"
"More than you know, pretty one," he admitted softly. His breath caught and he froze for an instant midstride as he felt warm lips press against the joining of his neck and shoulder.
"And you have enchanted me as well," Lilly murmured into his ear. "Perhaps you should carry me off into the sunset, so I need never face harsh reality again."
"Don't think I haven't thought of it, my dear. And that frightens me, even as it tempts me. For you are human, and I am centaur. The days are long gone when humans formed relationships outside their own species. Now such a thing is anathema to all."
"But why?" Beautiful and mature as she was, the human was still girlishly innocent. Oddly, this innocence made her all the more appealing to the centaur.
"It is just not acceptable. My collegues will undoubtably consider me deranged for letting you ride on my back."
"At least, while you are taking me back home, we can be together and enjoy each other's company."
"Indeed." Greatheart fell to thinking about his strong reaction to this girl. He had never been one for emotional ties before- at least, not since his mate Silkwind died in childbirth, many long years ago. What he was feeling for this girl was different from that long ago love- great tenderness, fierce protectiveness, joy in her company- he could not see anything perverse in what he was feeling.
Lilly rode through the day in a pleasant daydream. She could hardly believe her luck in being rescued by a centaur. She had been raised on tales of the time when the nonhumans were a part of society and had longed for those days to return again. She had spent hours on end talking to the palace cats, wishing for a response, as well as looking for Little People in the gardens. She had once seen an Elven ambassador and his retinue, but that was all the nonhuman contact she had ever had. Now she finally was living her dream. And Greatheart was such a noble being, so brave and strong... She dared to stroke his rich chestnut shoulders, feeling the smooth muscles sliding beneath her hands.
"Greatheart," she said, breaking the peaceful silence, "What is your life like?"
"How do you mean?"
"What do you do? You mentioned a Council of Elders?"
"Yes, I am on the Council of Elders. We don't do much, though. Mostly I am an astronomer. I watch the movements of the stars in the heavens. In fact, it was a Council meeting that the were-beast interrupted by flying over. We were discussing the dire things written in the stars."
"What do the stars say?"
"There is great change coming to the world. I do believe this Age is ending, and a new one shall begin in which the humans will be dominant. I believe it is time for all us fairyfolk to move on to the Other Realm."
"Where is that?"
"It is the place where we all came from originally. Not humans, though- no one is sure where humans came from. The Other Realm can only be reached by magic. In its natural state, it is shapeless and changing, like mist. But the mist is purest magic, and one with the will to do so can create their own reality. That's it!" he cried suddenly, throwing out his arms and half-rearing with excitement.
"What?" Lilly asked, loosening her deathgrip on Greatheart's waist as he settled back to earth.
"I could take you there! You could be centaur, if you wished!"
"A centaur..." she breathed in wonder. "That would be wonderful! Can we go now?"
"Unfortunately, no. The door to the Other Realm is only open on Samhain, several months in the future. But then, if you still wish to go..."
"I can't see why I wouldn't," Lilly replied dreamily. She giggled suddenly. "My father will have a fit!"
"Too bad," Greatheart said rudely. Then he chuckled. "It will serve him right to have the centaur that saved his life run off with his daughter."
That night, when they made camp, there was no pretense of staying separate. When they lay down to sleep, Greatheart arranged his legs so he could lay on his side and hold Lilly. He watched her sleeping, feeling a great tenderness for this strange woman-child. Samhain, he promised himself. At Samhain she will be yours. He fell asleep thinking of Lilly as a graceful palomino centaur.
* * * *
The following day the idyllic journey was interrupted by reality.
"See, I told you true!" Thorn felt vindicated and the Elders were completely shocked as Greatheart paced gravely into the Council clearing.
"Greatheart, have you lost your reason?" one of the Elders blurted out. All the normally sedate and dignified centaurs were showing signs of agitation.
"I have not," he replied with dignity. "This is Lilly, the human which the werebeast was carrying. She injured her ankle and must not walk any great distance until it is healed."
"Have you considered carefully what you are doing?" The Chief Elder was the calmest of the lot.
"I have." Somehow, Greatheart had doubted the perceptive Chief would miss the way his and Lilly's auras had meshed.
*I would speak with you privately,* the Chief mindspoke him. *Walk with me.*
They left the clearing. *Ages ago, when I was young, the world was a different place. All beings were more liberal in their thinking. But it still shocked many when I found a human companion more to my liking than one of my own kind.*
Greatheart was startled. He hadn't known that.
*For a time, life was wonderful. I had my Talya, and we were happy. I was able to ignore quite cheerfullly the pointed fingers, the cries of "pervert." But then the pain began.*
Greatheart could feel the echo of the ancient pain.
*She grew old, Illyn. I had to watch her as her body deteriorated and failed her, until she finally died in my arms. I, on the other hand, was still vigorous and young. It hurt me like no other pain I have ever experienced to watch her grow old and die. I made up my mind as I stood over her grave to never again care for a human. They will always leave you alone... alone...*
*Thank you for the advice, Elder,* Greatheart said respectfully after a brief silence.
*Do as you will- you will anyway.* And the Chief Elder of the centaurs returned to the Council clearing.
"What was that all about?" Lilly asked, as the other centaur vanished into the trees.
"He was telling me what happened when he once loved a human woman," Greatheart said in a subdued voice. "He had to watch her die, painfully and slowly, of old age. But that won't happen with us," and as he said that, a cold chill raced down his spine.
"No, it won't," Lilly agreed. "How was he talking to you?"
*Like this. Can you hear me?*
When there was no answer, he replied verbally. "We were using mindspeech. I just tried it with you, but you don't seem to have that ability."
"The worst thing about passing through the Council clearing is that we are near your home."
"Excrement of a pig," Lilly said vehemently. Greatheart choked back a laugh. "Greatheart, before we get there, I wanted to tell you- my name is Anya."
"Anya, my name is Illyn," he replied smoothly, keeping the tremor of emotion out of his voice.
"I've never told anyone my name before," Anya Lilly said shyly.
"And I have told only one other, now living," said Illyn Greatheart. "The Chief Elder alone knows my name, and now you. Guard it well, and I shall do the same with yours."
* * * *
Later that day, the forest began to thin. They stopped for water at a merry little brook. After she drank, Lilly stood looking up at Greatheart.
"Illyn," she said, "I'm not sure, because I've never experienced this sort of thing before, but I think I'm falling in love with you."
"I have experienced this sort of thing before, and I know I am falling in love with you, Anya," he said, taking her hands. "Does that frighten you?"
"No." She smiled brilliantly up at him. He gently raised his hands to her face, and bent down to kiss her lightly on the lips. She hesitantly slid her arms around him and leaned into the kiss. A long, breathless moment later, they separated reluctantly.
"Oh my," Lilly breathed, starry-eyed.
"We'd best be going," Greatheart said, "although I'd far rather carry you far, far away, and keep you for myself..."
"I'd rather do it that way too," she agreed, "but I have to let everyone know that I'm alive. I'm sure people at home are worried."
"Of course. Will you at least let me visit you?" he asked plaintively as she mounted.
"If you don't come visit me, I shall have to hunt you down," she said playfully. They had decided that she should remain home for the next five weeks, until her twentieth birthday. Then she could legally- although not morally- renounce her position in the royal family. Fortunately, she was not the Heir, she was only the third born.
They reached the fringes of Eirian in the late afternoon. People dropped what they were doing to stare and cheer as their travel-stained and battered looking princess returned atop a magnificent centaur. Halfway to the palace, they were met by a group of Palace Guards. By the time they reached the Palace a formal reception had formed.
"We thank you, Centaur Greatheart, for returning our daughter, whom we had thought lost to a foul beast of unclean magic." The King was too controlled to allow his dislike to show in any way other than the coldness of his eyes. "It seems you have once again served the house of Castille beyond all expectations. Please accept our invitation to stay at our Court as we prepare a feast in your honor."
"It was my pleasure and duty, King Marek," Greatheart said, bowing gracefully. "I accept your kind invitation."
"Oh, Father!" Lilly cried, slipping off the centaur's back and limping up to the King. "This wonderful centaur saved me! He took care of me when I was hurt, and I feel so safe with him around! Do let him have a suite near my rooms, please?"
The King's eyes smouldered with an unnameable emotion as he granted his daughter's request. Then the princess was carried off into the palace to be bathed and tended by the Healers.
Soon Lilly was transformed from a scruffy foundling back into a Princess. Clean, and dressed in proper clothing again rather than the rag her dress had become, she felt much more like herself. The Healer ordered her to stay in bed and rest her abused body so she would be fit to attend her own feast. She complied willingly enough, thinking that a forest floor was no match for a clean featherbed.
* * * *
The following evening, the King put on a great feast to honor the heroic centaur. To all but the stupidest or the most altruistc, it was plain that the King hated every minute. Lilly found the atmosphere opressive, although nothing appeared to affect Greatheart. The night dragged on interminably. The tension in the Great Hall was all but visible. All things must end, though, and after what felt like centuries Lilly was at last able to escape to her suite.
Restless, unable to sleep, Lilly sat in her windowseat watching the moonlit garden. She was beginning to doze when a movement roused her. Illyn was out in the garden, treading the carefully raked paths slowly. Lilly slipped out her own garden door and went to join him. Unaware that she was under observation, Lilly met the centaur in the midst of the moonlit roses.
"Lilly, we must not be seen together," he said softly, even as he reached eagerly to grasp her hands.
"I know," she said softly. "I had to come, though. I wish we could just be together."
He hugged her close for a moment, then let go and glanced around to check for any other people. None were in sight. "I have the strongest feeling that this was all a mistake," he said. "Perhaps I should have carried you off after all."
He began walking. Lilly fell in beside him, holding his hand. He couldn't shake the uneasy feeling of being watched.
"It's too late now," Lilly sighed. "I feel the same way. I wish I could have just let them think me dead." Not paying attention to where she was going, Lilly tripped on a fallen branch and almost fell. She laughed at herself as she recovered. "I certainly am clumsy lately! How will I ever manage four feet, when I'm having problems with just two?"
"You'll manage," Greatheart said, gazing into her eyes. He was about to kiss her again, when he heard something. "What-?"
"Step away from the Princess," a harsh voice shouted. He could hear many running footsteps. Totally amazed, he saw Palace Guards running towards them in the moonlight.
"What is the meaning of this?" Greatheart demanded, as the Guard Captain skidded to a halt in front of them.
"Come with me, Miss," the Captain said, attempting to detach Lilly from Greatheart's hand. "You shouldn't be with him. We saw what happened- how he tried to hurt you a moment ago."
Lilly laughed. "Hurt me? How absurd! I merely stumbled in the dark, and Greatheart caught me."
"Nonsense," said a cold voice, as the King strode in upon the scene. "I clearly saw him push you. You are lucky you were not injured."
"Father! That is not what happened, and you know it!"
"Guards, take him away. Put him someplace secure."
Greatheart went quietly with the guards, turning for a last look at Lilly. "It will be alright," he said. Then he faced forward, determined to find a way out of this mess. Now that the crisis had arrived, he was quite calm. He should have known the King was looking for any excuse to cause trouble.
"No! Greatheart!" Lilly called after him. The pain in her voice cut him like a knife. "Father, what is the meaning of this?" she demanded angrily, turning on her father and speaking her mind for the first time in her life. "You know he did nothing to harm me! You must release him at once!"
"Daughter, I am King. If I say I saw him hurt you, none will dare say otherwise." The cold satisfaction in his eyes sickened her. "Take her back to her rooms," he said to the Guard Captain. "And see that she stays there."
And so Lilly found herself a captive in her own rooms. She could not believe what had happened. As the days wore on, and she was still not allowed to leave her rooms, Lilly drove her servants to distraction with her questions about what was happening to Greatheart. The rumors were incredible. Now it was being said that everything that had happened to her was part of a plot- which also conveniently explained why she was being held prisoner in her suite. Of course her loving father wanted to protect her from the conspirators. She learned that Greatheart was being kept in the stable, in a box stall which had been built to contain vicious stallions. Other than that, there was no news of him.
Sitting at her windowseat once again, Lilly stared out at the garden with tears in her eyes. Why did things have to go so wrong, so suddenly? Just a few short-
"Psst!" A whisper broke into her thoughts. "Lilly, are you awake?"
She could hardly believe her luck. "Rolf! Of course I'm awake! What is it?" The guard outside her garden door moved closer to the open window. He was an old friend of hers. As children in the nursery together, they had shared endless adventures.
"I traded duties with the guard who was supposed to be here," he said in a low voice. "I had to let you know... They plan to execute your friend the centaur."
Lilly felt all the blood drain from her face. "Oh no! When?"
"They are going to try him in the King's Court tomorrow, then find him guilty and send him into exile. It will be then, as soon as he has left the city. Maybe two more days, if he's lucky."
"Goddess, Rolf, I've got to help him!"
"I know. Get dressed. I promise I won't see anything." He moved back into his position by the door.
The meaning of his words took a moment to penetrate Lilly's frantic thoughts, then she understood. "Thank you, Rolf," she said. "Truly you are the best friend I have ever had."
She hurried around her room, searching for clothing more practical than a summer dress for life in the forest. Tunic, work pants, plain cotton shirt, sturdy boots- all clothing she had for working in the garden. Suddenly she was glad tending roses was considered an appropriate ladylike occupation. She pulled her long hair into a tight braid, fastening it securely. She could find nothing else of use, however. Pausing by the door to the garden, she took a deep breath, then slipped out into the night. Rolf stared straight ahead, still as a statue. "Thank you," she whispered, then slipped away into the shadows, out of his line of sight. He could tell the truth about seeing nothing.
Heart in throat, she made her way to the stables. There was a barred window that opened onto the stall where Greatheart was being held. She looked up at it dubiously, then jumped up and caught hold of the bars. Grunting and wiggling in a most unladylike manner, she pulled herself up and caught a brief glimpse of the centaur before she lost her grip. She fell back to the earth with a muffled curse, then saw a crack in the wall. She put her mouth to it and whispered, "Greatheart?"
There was a rustling noise inside, then "Lilly! Is that you?"
"Yes! I've had news. There's to be a trial tomorrow, and they're going to find you guilty of whatever they charge you with and sentence you to exile. They are going to try to kill you as soon as you get out of the city!"
"So that's the plan," he said grimly. "I can tell you, it won't work. I will not allow it. They are no match for me."
"What will you do?" Lilly felt a flare of hope.
"You must remain free, Lilly. Trust me, I will win free of whatever guards they put on me, and then we shall leave this place. Can you get to the Council clearing on your own?"
Lilly nodded, then remembered he couldn't see her. "Yes, I can."
"I want you to go there, and tell them what has happened here. Then have someone show you where the Holy Oak is. I will meet you there in seven days' time. Do you understand?"
"Yes," she whispered, feeling tears threaten as the reality of the situation sunk in. "Illyn, if you don't make it, I- I- I'll just die!"
"Hush, love. I told you it will be alright. Now I must be quiet. There will be a guard coming any time now. Go, and remember I love you, Anya."
"I love you too," she whispered, then tore herself away and ran off into the night. She escaped the Palace grounds through a tiny gate meant for the people who tended the great orchards just outside the wall. Stumbling in the dark, wiping away the tears that kept leaking from her eyes, she snuck out of the city like a thief in the night. She continued through the forest until the horizon began to lighten with false dawn. Then she curled into a miserable ball on the forest floor and tried not to think of Illyn, trapped and already condemned for crimes he did not commit.
* * * *
"Wake, human child." A voice roused her from her restless sleep. Blinking, she sat up and saw a centaur standing over her. It was the Chief Elder. "What do you in the forest alone?"
Lilly struggled to her feet, glancing at the sun. It was barely over the horizon. No wonder it felt like she hadn't gotten much rest. "I have come to tell the truth of what happened in the City of Eirian," she said. "Greatheart is being held prisoner, and accused of crimes which he did not commit. The King held me prisoner as well, in my own rooms. I was able to get away and spoke to Greatheart. He sent me to you, and bade me wait for him at the Holy Oak. He expects to be free and with me in a week or less."
"Will you tell your full tale to the Council?"
"Then come with me. You have already made friends here, and they wish to look after you."
Mystified, she followed the old centaur. Her only friend from the forest was trapped in her father's barn.
Moving through a haze of weariness, Lilly still was aware enough to realize they weren't going the right way. "Where are we going?" she asked.
"To the clearing."
"I thought it was the other way?"
"I'm afraid you missed your way in the dark."
Lilly blushed. She had thought she knew the way... Ah, well.
They emerged into the Council clearing, to be met by Amber the faun.
"Oh, you poor thing," she said, rushing forward to grasp Lilly's hands. "You look all done in. You must come with me, get some food and some rest. I heard all about what happened to you and poor Greatheart. Now, come this way..."
Somewhat bemused, Lilly followed the chattering faun to a cozy little cave. Here she was treated to another batch of Amber's fine rolls and shown to a bed, of sorts. She collapsed gratefully into the ebmrace of a blanket-covered pile of leaves.
* * * *
Telling the Council of Elders what had happened to Illyn was a much more difficult task than she had imagined. The assembled centaurs questioned her until every detail of the last few days was laid out on the forest floor for the Council to examine. They were appalled, one and all, at what had happened. Unfortunately, no one had any better ideas for her than her own plan- go directly to the Holy Oak and wait.
* * * *
Lilly sat under the great spreading branches of the Holy Oak. It was peaceful here. She watched the flickers and heard the rustling of the leaves in the gentle breeze. Quiet time to think. Quiet time to reflect on her future. She ran a finger along the edge of the blade in her lap. She smiled a little at the memory of the quiet sympathy and understanding in Amber's eyes when she had asked for it. These so called animals were far more human than some humans she could name. There were still a few days before the time Illyn had given himself was up. She'd even wait a few days extra, just to be sure. And then... she caressed the blade again, wondering if he would forgive her for wanting to join him.
The trial was a farce. He had known it would be, known it from the instant he had first heard the guard's voice in the garden that night. The King was out to indulge his nonhuman prejudices to the limit. The charges were utterly ridiculous- conspiracy, intent to do harm to a Royal Princess, even treason. When the expected sentence of banishment was pronounced, he felt a sense of great relief. At last he could get away from this mockery of justice and roam free again. He was grateful that Lilly had not seen how he had been treated at the caring hands of her father's guards. True, the lash marks would not have a chance to heal completely before he saw her again, but at least they would no longer be raw and bleeding.
Head bowed, Greatheart moved slowly through the streets of the city. He was escorted by a group of heavily armed mounted men. Officially, they were to escort him to the edge of the forest, then turn to let him go free. He knew better than to believe that, though. So when they fell on him at the edge of the forest, he was prepared. He bolted for the safety of the trees, only to see more mounted men emerge from hiding. They gave chase, forcing him from his intended path. He lost them easily enough- no mere horse could keep up with a centaur in his native environment- and slowed down at last. Walking himself cool, he circled wide around where he expected the guards to be and began working his way toward the Holy Oak. This was ridiculous. Time was short. He had already used up three of the days he had given himself in waiting for the foolish trial business to be over. Now it was growing late. He had to get to that tree in time. Remembering the note of hysteria in Lilly's voice when he said she'd die without him was enough to send him into a steady trot. He was making good progress when they burst into view again. He had enough time to recognize that they had crossbows trained on him before instinct took over and he bolted again. Zigzagging through the trees, he heard the whistles and thumps of quarrels striking the ground and trees around him. He ran faster.
He worked his way through the forest, pursued at every turn. He finally went farther out away from the Oak, hoping to give himself a chance to rest. The sun was long gone. Running by the faint light of the moon was not something he wanted to try. He could scarcely believe the way the hunters anticipated his course. It was as if they knew that his goal was the Holy Oak and were determined to keep him away from it. At last he felt safe enough to rest. He dozed off still standing, and set himself to rouse at first light.
* * * *
Greatheart fretted at the delay. He had traveled easily four times the distance between the edge of the forest and the Holy Oak, and still was nowhere near the tree. The hunters were still there. He had lost track of the days, he only knew that this madness must end soon. His flanks were hollow, his withers gaunt- testimony to the fact hat he couldn't even get a decent meal without being harassed by his tormentors. They were everywhere, herding him away from his goal. He refused to give in. He would be there in time to save Lilly from herself. He would be there to take her with him, deep into the forest where no human had ever gone. His dimming senses told him it was night. He staggered to a halt and collapsed on the ground, too spent even to eat. He lay there for perhaps a minute before unconsciousness descended upon him.
* * * *
This is it, he thought, gathering himself. From where he stood, it was a straight shot to the Holy Oak. He could even see the top of it through the trees. Part of him wondered that there were no mounted devils to chase him away again, but he was too focused to listen to that voice of reason. He gave a great leap and was off. Flying through the woods, no signs of pursuit... and there was the Oak. He could even see Lilly, sitting beneath it. But what was wrong with her? Why didn't she rise to greet him?
"Oh, no," he whispered, skidding to a stop beneath the tree and staring at Lilly in the pool of red, red blood. "Anya!" The hunters emerged from the shadows of the forest.
"Get away from her!" one of them called.
"NO!!" Greatheart howled. He knelt on the bloodsoaked ground beside Lilly, trying to hold the wound on her arm shut- the one that traced the whole length of her vein. "Lilly, please, no! Don't die on me!"
Her eyes fluttered open. "Illyn," she whispered. Her already faint heartbeat vanished, returned a moment later. "Forgive me, my love..."
Then she was gone. Greatheart choked back the howl of grief in his chest and gathered her body carefully into his arms. "You shall not have her!" He couldn't even recognize his own voice, it was so twisted by grief. "You shall not have me!"
Finding one last burst of strength and speed, Illyn Greatheart ran for his last escape. Ahead of him was the river. He could hear them gaining on him. He was tired, so tired... He stumbled, then wrung a last burst of speed out of his weary body to send himself and his lost love off the edge of the ravine, to plunge into the foaming river far below.
And so the story was told, my friends, of the great love which knew no bounds. They said, those that were there that day, that there was a great burst of light as the courageous centaur and his lady love fell to their doom. And out of this light came a hand, reaching out from the fairy realm, and plucking forth the souls of Illyn and Anya, that they may live always together in the Other Realm.
And what of the King, you ask? Well, Amber the Faun saw to it that the truth was known of what he had done to his daughter and her chosen mate. But that is another tale, and shall be told another day.