Richard Wayne was in big trouble this time.
He was supposed to have been watching his little sister Donna, but the call of the village festival had been stronger than the desire to insure that Donna's boyfriend didn't take improper advantage of the smitten young woman. And she was a woman, old enough to take care of herself, as she had told her brother on numerous occasions.
Fool that he was, he'd believed her.
No, that wasn't fair. Their parents, Sir Bruce and Lady Diana, had plenty of enemies, enough that their children had been taught at an early age to defend themselves against common threats. Donna had been able to hold her own in all her practice sessions, every bit as good as he.
But it was impossible to defend oneself against a teleportation spell.
Castle Wayne was well-warded against magicks, but this was no petty casting. Whoever had snatched Donna from the midst of her home was a powerful, deadly adversary; one that young Richard most likely was unprepared to face alone. Not that he had a choice; his parents were away at Prince Clark's court, and were not due back until month's end. He couldn't allow Donna to be held for so long, even if Roy hadn't been frantic to get her back.
Richard glanced over at the man who rode next to him. Roy Harper was not of noble enough blood to satisfy his mother, who had frowned on her daughter's liaison from the moment of its inception. His soul, however, was noble where his blood was not, and he was as determined as Richard to see Donna safe in her own home again, even at the cost of his own life. For that, at least, Richard thought well of him.
They had prepared for a lengthy quest, as the range of a teleportation spell was limited only by the strength of the one casting it, and presently, that was an unknown. Roy had insisted on bringing his own supply of arrows, covering his pride with the truthful claim that the familiar shafts wouldn't hamper his aim in the hunt for game. Not that Richard had known anything to hamper Roy's aim; peasant though he was, he was unmatched in his archery skills. He had every right to be proud.
If only such skill alone was sufficient to make him a suitable suitor to a noblewoman.
Fortunately, Donna hadn't been wearing her amulet at the time. The eagle-shaped pendant was imbued with magicks that would guide them to her, though it would offer no protection against the perils of the journey.
Perils such as they currently faced.
True to their nature, the creatures had stalked them for days and surrounded them silently, waiting until they were well into the woods and away from any chance at help to strike. Richard had sensed something amiss, and had halted his horse even as the dark shape dropped down from the trees to pounce on the spot where he would have been had he kept on. The feline creature switched targets in mid-spring and raked razor-sharp claws down his mount's neck, severing blood vessels and muscle connections instantly. Richard leapt from his saddle, sword drawn, as his dying steed crumpled to the ground.
Feral eyes glowed in the darkness, excited by the smell of fresh blood. They were outnumbered eight to one; poor odds against vicious predators, but they still had a chance...
"Roy," he whispered up at his still-mounted companion, "these are the Catwoman's clan. To them, we're as much prey as the horses we ride. Our only chance is to take out the Catwoman herself. That will show we're a force to be reckoned with, and they may let us pass."
"You point her out, and I'll kill her for you," Roy murmured back.
Richard shook his head. "No killing. We only have to injure her, to let her know that we could have killed her if we'd wanted to." He scanned the furred shapes lurking around them and cursed silently. "She's holding back. This must be a hunting exercise for the cubs."
"Then we're in luck," Roy noted sardonically, looking down at Richard's dead horse. Roy's own mount was growing increasingly restless, scenting the predators, the blood, and the tension of her rider.
The cubs, in turn, smelled her apprehension, and moved in for another kill. Richard brandished his sword, ready to defend them but knowing not to waste his energy in making the first move. Having a distance weapon, Roy was less hesitant about wading into battle, and fired an arrow through the ribs of an advancing cub before Richard could stop him.
Hunting exercises were only performed with essentially harmless prey, and with that one act, they had proven themselves to be far too deadly to be left to the cubs. The adults poured forth from the shadows as the snarling cubs retreated, sizing up their opposition. Mere animals they may have been, despite their humanoid forms, but they knew enough to recognize Roy as the major threat. Their attack was a rush of flying teeth and claws, converging on the two humans and their terrified horse.
Roy got off three more shots before his horse reared, throwing him to the ground. It bolted, but didn't get far; the cubs converged on it and it disappeared under a pile of furry bodies. Richard stood by the fallen archer, wielding his sword to deadly effect, but keeping up a 360-degree vigil was nearly impossible, and one of the felines managed to breach his defenses. Claws slashed across his back and down his arm, the weight of his attacker driving him to the ground and knocking the sword from his grasp.
He felt a rush of air across him and the feline went flying, tumbling head over tail into the bushes. Looking up, Richard saw the underbelly of a palomino stallion, its pale grey hooves carefully placed around his sprawled form. From his vantage point, he could see no rider, but something had frightened the catclan, for the attack had ceased with the arrival of his deliverer. The adults were backing away, hissing, clearly not wanting to abandon their kills but unwilling to fight the new arrival for them.
The end of a wooden staff pressed into the ground beside him and a large hand reached down, grabbing a hold of his good arm and hauling him up onto the back of the stallion. Roy joined him an instant later; Richard's surprise that there was room for Roy triggered the realization that he and Roy were the only ones riding the stallion.
Their savior was a centaur.
Pulling a knife from his belt scabbard, the centaur cut loose Richard's saddle bags and tugged them free of the horse's carcass. Handing the bags back to Richard, he sheathed his dagger, hoisted Richard's fallen sword, and began to back away from the scene, brandishing his staff and the sword in a gesture to the felines to keep their distance. They needed no such warning; centaurs were warriors, their size and strength making them formidable enemies even in the face of daunting odds. When he was far enough, the stallion turned his back on the catclan and galloped away.
They rode in silence for the better part of an hour, whereupon the centaur slowed his pace and came to a halt beside a stream, one of many that eventually found its way down into the Gotham River that wound through the heart of the valley. The two men slid off, sore from the rough bareback ride as much as from the vicious battle.
Richard studied the centaur, who returned both his sword and his inquisitive gaze. He wasn't the largest stallion Richard had seen, but he was by no means a leggy colt, standing a good two feet taller than either of the men. It was not his size but his coloration that made him stand out; most centaurs were chestnuts or bays, others black, a few mostly white. A rich golden palomino with white socks was, if not completely unheard of, definitely rare.
His mane of white-blonde curls was pulled back by a woven leather band dyed a deep blue, a match for the leather belt and cuffs he wore over his loose white shirt. The equally-light tail was braided into dozens of tiny rows, a festive look which concealed the fact that the braids would sting like a whip if used as a weapon. But it was his wide-set eyes, a light blue-green reminiscent of sea water, that caught Richard's attention and held it. They were gentle, beautiful eyes, totally out of place with the image of a fearsome warrior that was usually associated with centaurs.
At length, Richard found his voice. "I'm Richard Wayne, son of Sir Bruce Wayne, who is lord over all the Gotham Valley. This is my companion, Roy Harper. We thank you for your timely rescue, and are in your debt."
The centaur continued to stare down at them curiously. It occurred to Richard that the stallion had probably never seen humans before; certainly he had no fear of them, nor, from his expression, any hatred. Odd, considering the history between humans and centaurs, but not impossible.
"Well?" Roy blurted into the silence. "Aren't you going to tell us your name?"
Laughter echoed through the branches above them. "Silly man," a female voice chuckled, "can it be that you don't know centaurs can't speak your tongue?"
Larger than any eagle, the harpy glided down from the trees, settling herself on the centaur's broad golden back. He seemed unsurprised by her presence, unlike the two humans, who gawked at her in amazement. Her iridescent black plumage was glossy, the long, soft feathers on her head falling down her neck like hair. She wore no clothes to cover her exposed breasts, which her plumage left bare; it was less startling than it might have been, as harpies were always very modestly endowed.
"I am Raven," the harpy informed them, "and you may count yourselves lucky that my people can speak all languages. Jericho here is limited by his people's physiology, which prevents them from such convoluted speech as you humans have developed."
"So he has no idea what we're saying?" Roy asked. The question earned him a glare from Jericho, accompanied by an offended snort.
Raven cocked her head. "Would this be your first time in the forest, young Roy Harper? I had thought by now you humans knew that centaurs could understand you."
Roy shrugged. "I've never met one before; I wouldn't know."
"If I may be so bold, why are you in the forest to begin with? There are perfectly good roads leading out of your valley, and you seem unprepared to deal with the realities of life outside of your village."
"Anyone can see who's coming and going on those roads," Richard said quietly. "Our mission requires stealth."
Harpy and centaur glanced at each other, then back at Richard. "There are greater perils to contend with than the catclan," she commented, casually stretching each wing in turn. "Perhaps we should accompany you, seeing as that you no longer have even your mounts."
Richard couldn't argue with that logic, but he hesitated to accept the harpy's offer. "How can we be certain of your loyalties? This mission is too important to jeopardize on unwise alliances."
A deep rumbling sound that even Roy recognized as laughter came from the centaur. Raven, too, grinned at Richard's obstinacy, nodding as Jericho communicated something to her via his native sign language. "I see you are both novices to the ways of others," she smiled. "Centaurs and harpies don't concern themselves with human politics. If we offer our company to you, it is only because of your current plight; were you capable of continuing on your own, we would certainly encourage you to do so."
"They got you there, Rich," Roy agreed.
"Not 'Rich'," Richard corrected him. "My friends call me 'Robin'."
"Robin it is." Roy thumped his friend's shoulder. "My friends call me... well, if they're being polite, they call me Roy."
Richard sighed and sat gingerly on the mossy ground near the bank. "My sister was abducted by someone well-versed in magic. We're trying to find her without letting anyone know that's what we're doing, so we acted as though we were off on a hunt. We didn't want to alert her captor, but we also didn't want the entire village to know that Castle Wayne is now unattended except for the servants, since my parents are away at the Prince's court." He picked listlessly at the tie of his saddle bag. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"It is a good idea," Roy insisted, dropping to his knees beside Richard and tugging at the remnants of his friend's torn sleeve. "Quit fussing, Robin," he muttered when Richard tried to pull away, "you need your arm bandaged." He ripped the fabric into strips and began winding them around Richard's arm. "You still have all your supplies, and I have most of my arrows. Even if we have to walk the whole way, we'll get to Donna eventually. That's what's important right now, not some little setback like having the catclan eat our horses." He finished the bandage and glanced at Richard's back. "You're lucky you wear your sword scabbard across your back; it kept the claws from slicing you open there, too. You'll need a new scabbard soon, though."
Jericho signed something to Raven, who nodded and took to the sky. She hadn't gone far before she vanished in a puff of black smoke. Richard didn't comment, but teleportation explained why no one had ever been able to capture a harpy before. In fact, until Raven had landed right in front of them, he hadn't really believed in the existence of harpies.
"Where'd she go?" Roy wondered aloud.
Richard looked at Jericho, who seemed surprised that either of them would try to converse with him. He sat next to them, lowering himself on his fore knees first before settling his hindquarters on the ground. His signs were slow and somewhat varied from the ones he'd used with Raven, but they were descriptive enough that Richard felt he understood the general message. "You sent her to retrieve something?" he asked.
Jericho nodded in confirmation and smiled. Richard thought nothing of the fact that the smile was close-lipped; to horses, baring the teeth was a threat, not a welcome. That triggered the realization that centaurs weren't exactly horses... a novel concept to him. It hadn't really struck him prior to this, but this creature -- this individual, rather -- who had saved his life was no mere animal. He wasn't human, that much was obvious, but he was sentient and much kinder than his race was given credit for. But that meant --
Richard pushed the thought from his mind. It was a concern for when they returned to Castle Wayne... if they returned. There was certainly nothing he could do about it now.
The light of the day had turned golden, a sign of the setting sun. Evidently they were going to bed down by the stream for the night, as Jericho showed no inclination to do anything other than eat the leaves off nearby bushes while he waited for Raven to return.
Roy got to his feet and wandered around the area collecting firewood. Just to have something to do, Richard joined him, though his one arm hurt too much to do any substantial carrying.
"Do you think he'll spook if we make a fire?" Roy whispered.
Richard shrugged. "I don't think so, but we'll have to wait and see. There's no way I'm sleeping in these woods without one -- not with the Catwoman's clan on the prowl."
"You'd think two horses would hold them for a while."
"A dozen growing cubs eat a lot, and get hungry again soon; better safe than sorry."
Raven had returned when they got back to their campsite. She had brought Jericho a travel bag containing a large blanket and a leather tarp that could be tied to overhead branches to act as a rain shield. Apparently, centaurs didn't believe in carting many luxuries along with them when they travelled; not too surprising, since they acted as their own pack animals, and didn't want to carry more than they had to.
Roy dumped the firewood into a pile and looked around for some rocks to form the edges of a firepit. Unfortunately, there were none to be found outside of the ones in the middle of the treacherously slippery stream bed.
"You won't need them," Richard assured him. "If you set the fire with a spell, all you have to do is define its limits, and it won't burn beyond them."
Roy glanced away, embarrassed. "Dad doesn't like magic; he says it messes with the natural order of things. I build fires by hand."
"Nothing wrong with that, if you like hard work," Richard grinned. "Allow me, then." The spell made little sense to those who were unfamiliar with magic, but its results were evident to all; the wood pile burst into flames, the fire rearing high as though it had been going for some time.
Neither Raven nor Jericho appeared concerned by the fire, though they made no move to approach it. Most likely Jericho had no need of it; a body as large as his would be slow to lose heat to the night. As for Raven, perhaps harpy metabolism was not as delicate as a bird's, for she showed no indication of suffering from a chill. Then again, it was still summer, so there wasn't much of a chill in the air to begin with.
It was full dark now, and with the moon hidden behind patchy clouds, the fire was their sole source of light. The woods weren't any darker than they had been two nights ago, but that was before the attack of the cat people, when the two humans had been more assured of their invulnerability. Now that they were no longer so sure, spending the night in the woods was a more daunting prospect.
Jericho, at least, wasn't at all bothered by the idea of spending the night away from the rest of his herd. Removing his cuffs, belt, and shirt, he rolled them up and stored them in the bag Raven had brought, then spread the blanket over himself and promptly went to sleep.
"Wish I could do that," Roy said quietly, setting up the tent that he and Richard would share.
"Donna's not here, so what's stopping you?" Richard quipped.
Roy blushed. "Look, Robin... I mean, I know it's hard, since she's your sister and all, but she's not a little kid, and this isn't some cheap fling for us. I know I'm not blue-blooded enough to be worthy of her in your eyes, but it might surprise you to know that there can be more important things than breeding when judging someone's worth."
Richard laid a hand on Roy's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Roy; I didn't mean that like it sounded. I know how my mother views you, but -- and I shouldn't be telling you this, mind you -- my father isn't at all concerned that your social status is beneath Donna's. He can see your true worth, and it must be enough or he never would have let you keep coming back. And I wouldn't have agreed to let you accompany me, if I didn't trust that your heart was as true as your aim."
Roy clasped Richard's hand briefly. "Thank you," he murmured.
They surprised themselves by being able to sleep through the night, awakening to the predawn songs of territorial birds. Richard crawled out of the tent, noticing that Raven was nowhere to be seen. She must have left after sundown, when her smoky black teleportation would be hidden by the darkness. Where she spent the night was a mystery that she had not yet chosen to share with them.
Jericho had found a deep spot in the stream and was submerged up to his ribs in the water. Richard smiled to himself; seen like that, no one would know that he was a centaur instead of a human. His smile vanished when the stallion suddenly disappeared underwater, but he reappeared a moment later, turning to toss a fish at Richard. Stunned, Richard watched as Jericho caught a second fish barehanded and emerged, dripping, from the water. Centaurs were vegetarians, so the fish were for him and Roy, though why Jericho had taken it upon himself to get their breakfast he had no idea.
Without the shirt to cover him, Richard could clearly see the thin scar that circled Jericho's neck. He'd seen scars like that before, on the ankles of peasant children who had carelessly stepped into a rabbit snare. The snare wire was designed to bite deeply, and always left a scar. For the scar to be around the centaur's neck indicated that he'd been much smaller, a young foal out foraging where human hunters had planted snares. His dam must have been nearby, else he would have garroted himself with his efforts to pull free of the trap. Obviously, he had made no connection between the pain and fear of that event and human beings, else he would not be so trusting as he was of them.
Richard thanked Jericho for the fish and set about cleaning them while Roy broke down the tent and went in search of new firewood. Jericho got dressed and wandered over to a bramble patch, ignoring the sharp thorns of the bushes as he plucked handfuls of berries to eat. By the time the fish was cooked and eaten, the bramble bushes were completely devoid of berries and had even lost a fair number of leaves.
Roy glanced at Jericho and looked back at Richard, hesitating to voice his question since he knew the centaur could comprehend him. Richard shrugged in response. He understood that Roy was asking about their future mode of transportation, but he, too, didn't want to offend their new friend by suggesting that he should serve as their new horse. If they had to walk the rest of the way, then so be it.
Jericho picked up his nearly-empty travel bag and slung it over his withers, securing it in place with a strap he tied around his waist. He then folded his blanket and draped it over his back, looking over at the two humans and chuckling. Apparently he had remembered their initial condition upon dismounting the night before, and was willing to make concessions for their delicate anatomy.
Richard laughed and vaulted up onto the centaur's back. "Much better," he sighed. "Your bony spine is like riding on the edge of a sword blade," he joked, ruffling Jericho's mane. The stallion swatted him playfully with the tip of his tail, then stood still so that Roy could hand Richard's saddlebags to him and climb up behind him.
Noticing that he had no reins by which to control their direction, Richard reached over Jericho's shoulder and handed Donna's amulet to him. "This is our guide to Donna; the eagle will glow when turned in the proper direction, and will darken when we go astray. Northeast seems to be our current course." Jericho hung the amulet from his belt and set off at a canter, making Richard even more thankful for the cushioning blanket.
They travelled nonstop for half a day, diverting from their course only once, when Jericho chased a young buck across a meadow in a contest of speed. The deer won, but not by much; Richard suspected that if Jericho hadn't been laden down with two humans, he would have won the race easily. Having been victorious, the deer promptly ignored them and returned to its foraging, and they resumed their journey.
A short while later they came across what Richard assumed to be another deer until it moved into open view. Far from being a common animal, it was another centaur, a dark female. He guessed her to be about Jericho's age, given the youthful spring in her step and her petite stature.
The bay mare looked up at them as they approached, her expression changing from joy to concern as she spotted the two humans. She flashed signs at Jericho, the meaning of which was lost on Richard and Roy without the benefit of Raven's interpretations. When they had gotten close enough, Richard could see that the mare was much older than he'd thought; she was probably Jericho's dam, and not at all pleased to see her son being used as a human's mount, like any common horse.
Roy was distracted by a little silver-grey filly who was staring at him from the bushes, her pale grey eyes taking in the wonder of the two-legged creatures. Her light color suggested kinship to Jericho, but before he could ask her, Richard nudged him with an elbow, bringing his attention back to their current situation.
The mare had stopped signing and was moving to gather up her errant filly as another centaur trotted into view. He was a huge white stallion, scarred from numerous battles and missing his right eye, and Richard would have guessed him to be the chief stallion even if Jericho hadn't shrunken down almost a foot as he arrived. Perhaps such submissive behavior was standard in centaur culture, but he had a feeling that there was more to it than mere obeisance to rank; the terse conversation preceding the stallion's appearance suggested that bringing humans to the centaur settlement was strictly forbidden, and doing so had put Jericho in very serious trouble.
His suspicions were confirmed as the white stallion's gaze met his. Pure hatred burned in his single blue eye as he charged, a fierce battle cry issuing from his throat. Richard turned and grabbed Roy's arm before the archer could even begin to reach for his bow; flinging arrows would certainly get them killed, not to mention being a poor return on Jericho's kindness in saving them.
Jericho straightened up and faced his sire squarely, returning his battle cry in a challenge so unexpected it brought the larger stallion to a halt. It also brought every centaur in the area, though none of them ventured close enough to interfere with the two stallions.
It was a bit of a quandary. Richard had no desire to stay seated on a centaur about to go into battle, but he knew that dismounting would bring an instant attack from the chief stallion, which he would have no way of deflecting without resorting to lethal means -- which would in turn bring an instant attack from the rest of the herd. Maybe, if they were very lucky, Jericho could talk some sense into his sire and everything would settle down peaceably.
That didn't seem to be happening, though. The white centaur made a few swift gestures in response to whatever Jericho had said, but the look on his face hadn't changed. It was a look that frightened even Richard, so he wasn't surprised to feel Jericho's body trembling underneath him. The situation was rapidly going from bad to worse, and any outcome he could predict didn't look good for any of them.
Suddenly, the chief centaur charged, and Jericho sprang backward a good ten feet, surprising both of the men on his back. His sire pulled up short, having proven to everyone there that his son was not his equal in battle, and repeated the gestures he had made previously. Jericho's only response was a pertinacious snort, coupled with a impetuous toss of his long, white-gold mane.
It was not the answer his sire expected, nor was it one that pleased him. He pointed sharply back the way they had come in a gesture even humans could understand. Jericho flinched, but hesitated only briefly before backing away slowly, his head down. When he had cleared the ring of watching centaurs, he turned and walked away, both hands gripping his staff so tightly that his knuckles were white. A soft, plaintive whinny trailed after them from the little grey filly, which spurred Jericho into a furious gallop, his hooves tearing up the ground as he raced away from his former home.
They were travelling in the wrong direction, but now was not the time to point that out. Richard was too busy hanging on to the distraught centaur, dodging low branches and balancing his weight against sudden changes in direction. Jericho's current breakneck speed was even faster than when he'd raced the deer, and without the benefit of being in an open field; Richard could only hope that he didn't lose his footing and send them all flying.
The growing roar of falling water alerted him to their location. They were approaching Misty Hollow from the high side of Seven Falls, where the Gotham River was divided by boulders into smaller streams before plunging three hundred feet straight down. Unless Jericho decided to stop or turn back, they too would be making a swift vertical descent.
The stallion was brought up short as his path ended, hemmed in between the impassible cliff and the treacherous rapids. He pawed the ground angrily, casting about for a new direction but seeing none. The brief spell of immobility was enough to allow despair to overwhelm his fury, and he sank to the ground in dazed disbelief, ignoring the two humans as they slid off his back.
Coming around to face their friend, they were both shocked to see that his face was wet, and it wasn't from the spray of the waterfall. Richard looked away, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach; the last time he'd seen a centaur cry --
No. He wouldn't even think of it, much less mention it. Jericho had reason enough to toss them both over the cliff as it was; no sense in adding insult to injury, although he hoped to be able to redress both in the near future.
A shadow overhead descended silently, coalescing into the obsidian harpy, Raven. She landed at the edge of the cliff and looked at Jericho, who ignored her presence as he had that of Richard and Roy.
"He brought us to his herd," Roy told her, understanding her quiet concern. "It ended up in a big stink."
"I should think so," Raven agreed, moving closer to them. "Centaurs and humans rarely cross paths, but when they do, it bodes ill for one or the other of them."
"Why?" he asked, crouching down so that he was at eye level with her. "His sire wanted to kill us, having never set eyes on us before. What engenders that sort of hatred?"
"We put them in cages," Richard whispered. "We treat them like animals, like exotic trophies. I've... seen it happen."
Raven nodded. "This herd has suffered large losses to humans, among them Jericho's mate and elder sibling. No one else would be so forgiving, but Jericho..." She smiled up at the stallion and stroked his cheek with the edges of her feathers, though he didn't seem to notice. "He is too gentle for such a warrior species. He should have been born a harpy; he would have been much happier."
"This is permanent, isn't it?" Roy asked, somewhat rhetorically. "He isn't allowed to go back to his herd anymore."
Raven's wings drooped. "No," she sighed sadly. "Unless his sire reverses the edict, but such an action is... uncommon."
Roy put his hand on Jericho's shoulder, which got no more of a response than anything else had. "Hey, I understand that kind of rejection, Jericho. My mom decided she didn't want a kid tying her down and dumped me off with my dad and his new wife. Dinah wasn't thrilled to be suddenly playing mommy to someone else's kid, but she put up with me when even I wouldn't have put up with me any longer. But I knew she didn't really want me, just like mom hadn't wanted me, and it hurt. A lot. I only managed to get back on speaking terms with my mom a few years ago, but hey, better late than never, you know?" He met Jericho's eyes as the centaur turned to look at him. "There's always hope."
Slowly, the centaur's hand reached up to cover Roy's, squeezing it in gentle thanks before dropping back to his side. He didn't look any less depressed, but at least Roy was assured that the stallion wouldn't be hurling himself over the nearby ledge any time soon.
It was evident that Jericho was in no mood to continue their journey, so Roy and Richard left him by the falls to go out hunting. They meticulously avoided the centaur herd's location, hoping that their scent wasn't enough to bring out a war party; without Jericho to give the other centaurs pause, they didn't stand any better chance against the angry herd than they did against the hungry catclan.
They were in luck; Richard spotted a deer and Roy brought it down with one well-aimed arrow. Upon inspection, it looked to Richard to be the same buck they had raced earlier in the day -- an unfortunate coincidence, but they had to eat. The meat from the deer, once cooked, would last them several days unless the weather turned too hot. Local scavengers would be more than happy to finish up the rest.
Using Jericho's rain tarp as a sled, they dragged the deer carcass back to their campsite by the falls. Belatedly, Richard hoped that the smells of blood and cooking meat weren't repulsive to centaurs or harpies, but it would have been too messy to butcher the carcass where they'd landed it and drag back the raw chunks -- not to mention ruinous of the tarp.
Richard's arm was a little better today, but he left Roy the difficult task of cleaning the deer in favor of gathering nuts and berries for Jericho. The centaur hadn't moved the entire time they had been gone, and showed no indication of moving even now. Richard sat down next to the stallion, spreading a mat of leaves on the ground and piling the nuts and berries on top of them. "I thought I'd return the favor of this morning," he grinned. Had it really only been that morning? In less than a day everything had been turned on its head. It wasn't the first time on this trip, and it probably wouldn't be the last. Azar willing, they would all survive these setbacks intact.
Jericho touched his chin and swung his hand down and out. Richard thought perhaps he wasn't hungry, but Raven, sitting on the other side of the centaur, translated. "He said 'thank you'."
As if to reinforce the words, he picked up one of the nuts and ate it, shell and all. It was a habitual motion; he didn't appear to have any real interest in the food. Well, as long as he ate, it didn't matter if he was interested or not; the last thing they needed was for him to faint from hunger. Richard went to gather another round of nuts and berries, in case Raven wanted some, too, and returned a short time later to find the original pile gone, along with the mat of leaves he'd put down.
He left the second pile with them and retreated to the fire Roy had built, where his own dinner was cooking. "Man, you're handy to have on a journey," Richard laughed, indicating everything Roy had done with a wave of his hand. "And here I thought I was efficient!"
Roy smiled at the compliment. "Well, you were gone longer than you thought in search of all those berries." He shot a glance at Jericho as Richard sat down next to him. "Think he'll be OK, Robbie?" he whispered.
Richard shrugged, concern that he hadn't allowed to show before crossing his face. "I hope so. I feel terrible about what happened, but I don't know what to do about it. I'm not sure there's anything we can do. But after we rescue Donna, I'm going to do whatever's within my power to put this right."
Silence reigned as Roy stared off into the horizon at the setting sun. "Robbie... do you think... I mean, what if Donna's not..." He couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence.
Richard punched him playfully on the arm. "Hey, hey, none of that! Of course she's OK, Roy; her pendant would have gone black if she'd been killed. What, you don't have any faith in our ability to rescue her?"
Roy cut a slice of meat from the section roasting over the fire and handed it to Richard before cutting another strip for himself. "I'm sure our horses wouldn't have a high opinion of our abilities right about now."
"Yeah, I know what you mean." Richard sighed and tried not to scratch his healing arm, which itched like mad. "I'm worried about Donna too, but I can't think about that, I can't let it overwhelm me -- I'd be useless, then. It's the same with Jericho; I've got to get him focused on something else, and soon, or all he'll do is sit there like a stone."
"So what distracts a centaur?"
"You got me." Richard tossed a bone into the fire. "I suppose I could tell him stories about you and Donna, like the time by the crystal fountain when you guys thought you were alone and --"
"Don't even try it, Robbie," Roy warned with a grin he couldn't suppress, "or I'll counter with the time you met Prince Clark's daughter Kory, and the complete fool you made of yourself fawning all over her."
"Donna told you about that??"
Roy nodded smugly.
"I wasn't 'fawning'," Richard muttered. "I was being courteous. Donna was just jealous that Kory was getting more attention than she was."
"Uh-huh," Roy said knowingly. "That must be why she and Kory are such good friends now."
"You know, I'm beginning to see the merits in being an only child... and Donna always told me she could take care of herself..."
"You lie like a cheap rug, Robbie. You know you'd throw yourself over these falls before you'd let Donna be hurt."
"Well, I'd have company," he grinned, getting to his feet and walking over to what was left of the deer carcass. He looked around, uncertain as to where he should take it; over the falls would be easiest, but it would pollute the water downstream with bacteria as it decayed, and the river was the source of drinking water for the Gotham Valley. Dragging it back into the woods would be more arduous, but it beat leaving the carcass where it was and inviting scavengers into their campsite. He took a hold of one hindleg and began to pull.
"If I may be of assistance?" a soft voice asked from behind. He whirled to see Raven standing there, only a few feet away. He hadn't heard her approach, so either her flight was silent or she had teleported the short distance to his side.
"Sure; if you could teleport this thing someplace where the scavengers won't interrupt us with their feast, I really appreciate it."
"I do not 'teleport'; I move between dimensions," she explained, hopping on top of the deer's head. "But yes, I can remove it for you." In a puff of smoke, she was gone.
Richard shook his head. "Something about her is very... unsettling. I can't pinpoint it, though."
"It's the way she always seems to know what you're thinking," Roy said, handing him a tent pole. "It's creepy, even if it is useful."
"Maybe," Richard agreed. They set to work erecting the tent, a swift task for two people. Raven was taking her time returning, assuming she planned to return; she'd left at nightfall before, too, so they probably wouldn't see her again until the morning.
He turned to Jericho, who was in the same pose he'd been in for hours. Richard wondered if the stallion's legs were cramped, but he didn't look uncomfortable -- just depressed. He walked over to the centaur, removed the blanket from his travel bag, and spread it over him, wrapping it tightly over his shoulders. "It'll be all right," he said gently, massaging Jericho's shoulders. It was like massaging steel, with all the tension in the already-powerful frame. "Your sire will get over his temper; maybe we can send him some kind of gifts when we get back to Castle Wayne. But right now, you need to get some sleep."
The stallion nodded, but that was the extent of his motion; he still sat rigidly in place. Richard sighed, patted him on the shoulder, and retreated to the tent, feeling mightily depressed himself.
Jericho was still listless the next morning. He didn't eat anything, which in itself was a bad sign, and made no response to anything less than a direct question. When they were ready to leave, he set off at a walk, as though his legs were too leaden to manage a trot, much less a cantor or gallop. Eventually, their course took them out of the woods and along a road, but even then he showed no qualms about travelling in the midst of humans who had never seen his like, who jerked their horses to the other side of the road or simply stopped and stared as he passed. He was oblivious to the trail of shocked humans in his wake as he stepped off the road and vanished back into the woods, following the course laid down by the glowing eagle pendant.
He stopped when Richard or Roy requested it, pausing to stretch their legs or attend to personal business. Richard made a point of gathering food for him whenever they paused, and he ate with the same unthinking reflex as before. So far, Richard had been unable to devise any feasible plan for lifting the centaur's spirits. Roy, equally concerned, was at a similar loss, so they pressed on, hoping that the task of locating Donna would be enough distraction, for now.
They came upon a vast clearing, where the domino effect from the fall of a large tree had taken down enough of its equally-large neighbors to bathe the forest floor in direct sunlight. The resulting mass of underbrush that sprang up to take advantage of the light appeared impenetrable, except for a narrow deer trail that wound through the heart of it. Going around it was impossible on one side, with the presence of the river, and arduous on the other, with the ground rising steeply to become Hawthorn Hill. The glow of the eagle pendant indicated that their destination was not too far on the other side of the bushes; perhaps they would see an end to their journey by sundown. Sensing the eagerness of the humans to continue, Jericho stepped onto the thin, uneven trail.
A metallic scream pierced the air and Jericho reared back, throwing both of his riders to the ground. As he fell, Richard saw that one of the golden stallion's forelimbs had been caught in a steel leghold trap. He had no time to look at anything else before rolling out of the path of the massive hooves as they pawed the ground, desperately trying to pull free of the painful snare.
Yanking Roy out of harm's way, he was nearly trampled again when a dozen people burst from the concealing shrubbery to rush at the trapped centaur. A weighted net flew through the air, tangling Jericho in the mesh and hampering his efforts to strike out at his attackers. A large black man with armor-clad limbs managed to loop a rope around his neck and pulled with all his strength in an attempt to bring the stallion down while keeping out of range of the sharp, deadly hooves. His limbs must have been cybernetic instead of just armored, for he succeeded in pulling Jericho's head down, which was more than any normal human could achieve against a centaur's strength. Others tightened the net with the trailing anchor leads, pinning Jericho's arms uselessly to his sides, while two more locked a chain-link hobble around his hind pasterns.
Roy struggled to his feet as a petite, golden-skinned woman leapt onto Jericho's back, locking her legs around his torso to prevent him from throwing her off. Slipping her hands between the links of the net, she reached forward and forced a metal bit into his mouth, deftly securing the bridle with hands made swift by frequent practice. He thrashed about violently in an effort to dislodge her, and she responded by pulling sharply on the reins until the pain compelled him to settle down.
"We have him, Victor," she called to the black man, a smile lighting up her face. "This one will bring in a king's ransom once he's been properly tamed!"
"No!" Roy called, reaching out to the woman. "Leave him alone! He's my friend!"
She turned, her dark, almond-shaped eyes staring down at him in stunned surprise. "Roy?" she breathed, with more than a hint of affection in her voice. "What are you doing here?"
Roy looked over at Richard, who had picked himself up off the ground and was brushing the dirt from his expensive clothes yet again. He needed no introduction to the woman; no one did. Jade Harper was the world-famous hunter Cheshire, who specialized in live-capture of exotics for the personal menageries of royalty and nobility. He'd never had reason to be embarrassed of that before.
"Jade..." he began, then stopped. Be honest, Roy, he told himself. Donna's mother can't like you any less than she does, anyway. "Mom, this is my friend Richard. He's Donna's brother. She's been kidnapped, and we're trying to find her."
"By yourselves?" Jade looked appalled. "Azar preserve me, Roy, you're no knight -- and, I'll wager, neither is your friend. Why isn't the girl's father doing this?"
"He's away," Roy explained, more defensively than even he had expected. "We were doing fine, until we were attacked by Catwoman's clan. Jericho," he indicated the centaur with a nod of his head, "saved us; we owe him our lives. And our only other setback has been you."
Jade tossed the reins to one of her men and slid down from Jericho's back. She watched silently as her assistant tied the reins to a nearby tree before stooping to dig the leghold trap's anchor post out of the ground. "You're asking me to give up a lot of money for your gratitude," she said quietly. "His coloration alone would bring double the usual price."
"He's not an animal, mom," Roy countered. "He deserves better than some lordling's gilded cage."
Jade stared hard at her son. "Any other centaur would have fought the catclan for the chance to rip you to pieces. They're a dangerous, bloodthirsty lot, and they have no love of humans."
And you wonder why that is? he thought bitterly. I'll bet they didn't start attacking humans until we decided they looked good in zoos. Aloud he said, "He's not just any centaur."
"Apparently not." She turned to her men. "Release him."
"Yer kiddin', right?" Victor warned, "'cause if we free him now --"
Jade flung an arm in the direction of her son. "He claims we'll be safe. If he's wrong, he'll have to live with our souls haunting him. Release the centaur."
Jericho stood immobile as the various restraints were removed. Roy sighed in silent relief; he hadn't really known how the centaur would react, but his gamble paid off.
Jade had mounted her horse as her men packed up the tools of their trade. "If you come to your senses on this issue, Roy, have Oliver send me a message. And don't get into the habit of trusting your life to anything less than human." With that, she turned her steed and rode off, her men scrambling to follow. In minutes, they were once again alone in the woods.
"Why didn't you tell us she's your mother?" Richard asked, startling Roy from his reverie.
He blushed. "Well, I... um... it never really came up." He picked up his quiver and began retrieving the arrows that had scattered when he'd fallen. "I mean, everyone knows that Dinah isn't my birth mother. Everyone just assumed my mother was dead, or that I didn't know who she was." He slung the quiver over his shoulder. "If you were so curious, Robbie, why didn't you ever ask?"
"I figured it out a long time ago." Roy's eyebrows twitched upward in surprise. Richard smiled. "But the information might impress my mother; she holds Jade's skills in high regard -- almost as much as Thia's."
"Yeah, well, don't say that where he can hear." They both turned to look at Jericho, who still hadn't moved since the attack. With a glance at Roy, Richard approached the centaur and put his hand on the stallion's arm. "You OK, pal?"
With a panicked snort, Jericho wheeled around on his hindlegs and took off at a gallop -- or tried to. His injured foreleg gave out from under him and he fell heavily, nearly crushing Roy. Terror filled the stallion's sea-green eyes as he realized he was helpless in the face of a very real threat to his freedom and possibly even his life.
"It's all right," Richard told him, keeping his voice gentle and his motions slow. The centaur's eyes were wild, his whole body trembling as the human moved closer. It struck Richard that for all his intimidating size, Jericho was probably no older than he was. "We're your friends, remember? Roy convinced the others to let you go. You're safe; you're free."
Plus you're hurt, you're scared, and you're alone , he thought. We've got to regain his trust, and not just for his sake -- Azar knows we'll need all the help we can get to save Donna.
A cloud of smoke heralded the return of Raven. She flew directly to Jericho and landed on his haunches, looking relieved. "I am glad you are safe," she began, then stopped, peering at his face. One long wing reached out, the tips of her primaries touching the blood that trickled from the corners of his mouth where the metal bit had torn his flesh. Turning to Roy, she added softly, "Now do you understand the enmity the centaurs hold for your people?"
"If you were so concerned, why didn't you help?" he lashed out at the ebon harpy. "Some friend you are, flitting off when others are in danger!"
If anything ever perturbed the bird-woman, it certainly didn't show. "Such battles are not for harpies," she replied calmly. "We are pacifists, and even were we not, we are poorly suited for conflict, with no means of carrying weapons nor any defense against them. My remaining would have only meant placing myself in danger, which would have done nothing to further your cause."
Richard ignored them both and knelt down beside Jericho, feeling along his injured forelimb for any sign of a break in the bone. The trap had caught him just above the fetlock; two inches lower and it would have shattered the joint. As it was the leg was swollen and bruised, though the cuts where the metal sliced the skin had stopped bleeding. Thank Azar it hadn't been a toothed trap -- that would have ruined the leg for sure.
He tore the remaining sleeve off his already-ruined shirt and used it to bandage Jericho's leg. The centaur was noticeably calmer now that Raven had returned; Richard hoped that meant they were all still friends. Roy found Jericho's staff lying among the trampled bushes, and the stallion used it to regain his footing, standing awkwardly on three feet.
"That's the end of the cushy life," Roy sighed, brushing off the blanket and folding it so that Jericho could pack it in his travel bag. "Looks like we'll be hoofing it -- so to speak -- the rest of the way, Robbie."
Richard glanced at Jericho. "Can you walk?"
The stallion nodded, though 'limp' was a better description of his motion. The leg was too painful to support much weight, so his gait was slower than his usual pace, but now that the two humans were on foot, it meant they didn't have to run to keep up with him.
Richard took the lead, using his sword to hack open the deer trail into a larger path. Jericho followed, and Roy brought up the rear. It wasn't an ideal arrangement for travel through a narrow corridor, but it made Jericho feel safer. Even then, he started at every unexpected sound or movement.
The forest continued on the other side of the clearing, but now the trees were thinning out, and the breeze that blew in their faces smelled strongly of saltwater. Richard had to use his sword as a machete to fight his way through underbrush as the deer trail diverged from their intended course. Jericho's hooves beat down the plants, making the passage effortless for Roy -- which was almost enough to compensate for having to stare at a horse's hindquarters for hours on end.
Rocky outcroppings defined the boundary between land and sea, the waves crashing up and over the boulders to create a constant misty spray of water. Richard sank onto one of the drier stones to catch his breath.
"Want me to sharpen that for you?" Roy asked, looking down at his friend's blunted sword. "No shortage of whetstones here."
"Sure." He handed the sword to Roy, wincing at the movement. No amount of gentlemanly swordplay was more strenuous than the honest hard work of chopping one's way through a forest. Belatedly, he realized he should have had Roy take the lead, since he was well familiar with that sort of manual labor, and would not have been made stiff and sore by it. Too late now.
Raven swooped down from the sky to land on the rock next to Richard. "There is a sandy delta a quarter mile west of here, where the river empties into the sea," she told him. "I think that would be our best course of action."
Richard checked Donna's pendant. "That's not the right direction; we need to head northeast, toward that island out there." He pointed to a small forested island several miles offshore.
Raven nodded. "The island is your destination, but to get there, you will require assistance. For me to summon the help you will need, I must have gentle access to the ocean, and the treacherous waves about these boulders are not it."
Grudgingly, Richard hauled himself to his feet. Donna had waited long enough for them; he couldn't, in good conscience, make her wait longer than necessary. "Lead on," he said, catching Roy's eye and pointing toward their goal.
The trek to the river's mouth was short but rugged, with driftwood barring their progress when the slick stones weren't. The two humans had an easier time of it than the centaur, who normally could have jumped over such minor obstacles. He chose to retreat back into the woods, much to the probable dissatisfaction of the plants he left trampled in his wake. Roy and Richard were having too much fun clambering over the rocks to follow the easier path behind Jericho.
When they reached the delta, Raven waded into the water up to her chest, careful to stay out of the powerful current in the river's center. Taking a deep breath, she ducked her head underwater and stayed there. Richard saw her mouth moving, but if she was talking, it was only to herself, for nothing else was in the river with her. Hopping out of the water, Raven shook her feathers dry and spread her wings in the sunlight. She didn't act like anything was amiss; nor did Jericho, who gazed out over the waters as though trying to catch the first glimpse of something neither Richard nor Roy could see.
The glimmer of red in the waves caught everyone's attention. Richard stared as the most exotic, beautiful creature he'd ever seen approached the shore. From the waist up, he looked like a man, with pale pink skin and short dark hair. From the waist down, he was a fish, the bold red and black pattern of his scales offset by the diaphanous, inky black fins that trailed in the water around and behind him. Tiny rainbows of iridescence flashed across his body when he moved, belying the fact that the 'skin' and 'hair' were anything remotely human; they were simply more scales. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that the merman's hands were also quite fin-like, with elongated, webbed fingers that resembled the spiny rays which allowed his other fins to be held erect from his body if he so chose. Large gill flaps fluttered on either side of his neck in an oddly hypnotic motion.
He wasn't the only one who thought so, apparently. "Wow," Roy breathed, awestruck.
Clearly, the fascination was mutual. The merman took a deep breath of water and stuck his head out into the air, his glittering purple eyes taking in the sight of surface dwellers the likes of which he had never before seen.
Raven jumped back into the water and stuck her head under to communicate. With a last glance at Richard, the merman followed suit.
After several minutes, during which Raven had to surface for air multiple times, the harpy flapped out of the water and smiled at Richard. "You are fortunate; Tempest will help you. There is no reason he should, but he was impressed by what he saw."
"That makes two of us," Richard smiled.
A ribbon of ice was already forming on the surface of the water, solidifying into a thick slab that rose above the rippling waves by a good foot. It snaked out from the shore toward the distant island at an astonishing speed. Richard put a tentative foot on the ice path, surprised to find it completely steady; the path was a virtual wall of ice that went all the way to the bottom, and considering how quickly the water became very deep, that was no minor feat. The surface of ice was less slick than he imagined, being dry and rough-textured for better footing. Amazing, that someone who lived underwater would think about something like that.
Roy followed him onto the ice, but Jericho hung back. Even with four good feet it would have been a tricky crossing for someone of his size, but with slippery hooves and an injured leg, he wasn't about to attempt it. Richard couldn't blame him, although he felt an unexpected pang of loss at the thought of the stallion staying behind.
"Fear not, Richard," Raven told him, reading the emotions on his face, "we will be fine, and will await you here."
He nodded and set out for the island with grim determination. Whatever they faced, they would have to do so alone, with his sword and what few arrows remained in Roy's quiver. Jericho, for all that he wasn't half the willing warrior most centaurs were, would still have made an ideal ally -- if he could cross the miles-long trail of ice. Horses were strong swimmers, but centaurs were built wrong for it. In shallows they did fine, but they sank too readily, a lethal trait in deep waters.
Roy tugged on Richard's shirt and pointed out into the depths. Tempest was pacing them, either out of curiosity or to maintain his freezing spell. Trailing him was another of his kind, a golden yellow female with bright red fins.
The trek to the island was slower than if it had been over land. Every step was made tentatively; one misstep would plunge them into the frigid water, and though both were strong swimmers, neither looked forward to a cold bath. Added to the fact that they were tiring, it took all their energy just to plant their feet properly on the ice.
The sun was setting by the time they reached the island. Richard turned to wave his thanks to Tempest, who slapped the surface with his tail before vanishing into the depths. The ice path disappeared with him, melting back into the rest of the seawater. How he and Roy would return to the mainland was a mystery for now; perhaps Raven would know when they were ready to depart.
Assuming, of course, that they were the victors in the upcoming battle.
Sleep would have been eagerly welcomed, but they couldn't afford to lose any advantage their unusual mode of arrival had afforded them, or even the clichd but useful cover of darkness. As they had approached the island, they had noticed a castle perched atop its peak; that, then, was their destination. The eagle pendant confirmed it, glowing as brightly as a small flame in the palm of Richard's hand.
They did take the time for a brief nap in order to gather both strength and wits for the climb to the castle. It wasn't perilously steep, but rugged enough to demand their full attention. Thankfully, there seemed to be no brambles growing on the island; moving through the underbrush was challenging enough without being torn to pieces in the process.
The castle was dark, which wasn't surprising, given the time of the night. It was also completely undefended, which was a surprise. Less so, given that it was on an island, but that hardly meant impregnable. Richard's alarms went off in his head -- easy access to a castle only meant one of two things: the castle was abandoned, or they were walking into a trap.
He whispered as much to Roy, who shrugged in response. "What else can we do?" he asked. "Donna's in there, and the only way for us to rescue her is to go in after her."
Unfortunately, he was right; Richard couldn't see any help for it but to go in and keep their wits about them. They already knew that their adversary was well-versed in teleportation spells, but perhaps that was the extent of their magical knowledge. He fervently hoped so; his sword was less than useless against a death-spell.
The glowing pendant gave them all the light they needed to find their way safely through the cavernous rooms and up the twisting staircase, to a small room at the top of one of the lookout towers. It was cold and drafty in the room, and Richard knew a moment's hot anger at the thought of his sister being locked in such inhospitable conditions.
As it happened, Donna couldn't have cared less.
She was lying on a well-padded cot, covered by a crystal dome. She would have suffocated under the crystal in short order if she had been breathing, but she wasn't. Despite her lack of any signs of life, she wasn't dead. Her features didn't have the slackness of death, and her eagle pendant glowed with renewed vigor in her presence. It was a setback Richard should have anticipated, and he kicked himself for not seeing it sooner. He didn't know how to undo such a spell, and finding Donna was pointless if rescuing her was impossible.
No, nothing was impossible, his father had always told him. You just had to look harder, think of options your enemy might have overlooked. There were always alternatives.
Assuming you had the time to find them.
"Foolish children," a voice hissed from the doorway behind them, "did you think mere darkness would hide your presence from me?"
In large doses, magic had a way of affecting people. Anyone could practice the little magicks Richard knew with no ill effect, but serious use of arcane knowledge left its imprint on the user, as if to warn others just what they were up against. The greater the magical knowledge, the less human the appearance.
The woman who faced them was still recognizably human, though no longer what she had been. Gone was the wavy chestnut hair, replaced by inky black tresses reminiscent of Raven's head feathers. Gone too was a healthy skin tone; she was as white as a corpse, the kind of bone-white that even a year spent lying in the sun wouldn't change, made even whiter by the contrast with her black dress. Her fingers had elongated, though they lacked the webbing and graceful motion of Tempest's hands.
But her eyes were exactly as Richard always thought they would be, small and intense, and burning with three generation's worth of hatred. The eyes told him who it was he faced. "Dark Angel," he spat, shifting his grip on his sword hilt.
He hadn't expected the name to infuriate her. "Whelp of a whore," she snarled, "you will address me by my proper name and title! To you, I am Baroness Paula von Gunther!"
"Uh, I take it you two know each other?" Roy asked, keeping his bow taut.
Richard nodded, keeping his eyes on the woman he knew as Dark Angel. "My mother told us stories of her mother's enemy, who sought to destroy all that Hippolyta cherished. She said that Baroness von Gunther was a weak and petty woman who allowed dark magicks to corrupt her in her quest to kill Hippolyta."
Unnaturally long fingers traced burning sigils in the air. "Is that what you were told, child?" she taunted, wafting the spell in Roy's direction. No matter how he moved, he couldn't evade it, but when it struck, the only effect it had was to dissolve his bow string. "Of course Hippolyta would make me the villain! Azar forbid that her children be able to see her for what she is, that lying, thieving jade!"
She took a small step forward and locked eyes with Richard. "Tell me, spawn of Hippolyta, how it is your mother's family gained its lands."
He stared at her, nonplussed. "Our lands -- ?"
She crossed her arms impatiently. "There is a reason for our antagonism, child. Tell me what you think you know."
"My grandmother was a warrior queen," Richard explained, more for Roy's benefit than anything else. "She hired her people out as armies for landed kings, many of whom repaid her with lands of her own. When she met my grandfather, she handed her queenship to her sister Antiope and became a Lady, ruling instead the lands of Themyscira."
"'Repaid' her, indeed!" she snorted. "As if we had a choice!" She stalked over to the couch and sat down, indicating that the two men should do likewise. When they remained standing, she shrugged and continued.
"The lands of Themyscira were mostly mine. It was a rich, tranquil land, and we had no need of armies. My people worked the land in peace, and tithed to me what was my due as Baroness. In return, I made sure that marauders were kept from their farms, that their children were educated, that medicine was available to all who needed it. It was as close to paradise as could be found on earth... until Hippolyta came, and saw, and coveted what was not hers.
"She brought her entire army, and surrounded my castle. I refused to grant her my lands as she demanded. In response, she slaughtered my garrison. I was shocked at such cruelty, but such is the way of soldiers; I thought it a petty act of vengeance that would soon be followed by her departure.
"Ah, I was so naive, back then!
"Again she issued her demands. Again, I refused. That was foolish of me, I know that, now; I hadn't any military with which to fight her, and I knew only simple magicks. But I hadn't foreseen the depths of her depravity. She rounded up half a dozen men from the nearest village and threatened to kill them if I did not accede to her unjust demands. I was certain she was merely bluffing.
"As I watched those poor men die, I knew this Amazonian monster would kill every living thing if that was what it took to get her way. She said as much, telling me that she would slay every man on my lands if I refused her again. There was no other way to save my people; I signed my lands over to her and left with nothing more than what my horse could carry.
"In time, I learned greater magic, enough for me to create this island. Paradise Island, I call it, to remind me of my mission in life -- to avenge the paradise lost to Hippolyta and her bitches! I never laughed so hard as when I heard that Antiope had grown weary of her dull role as garrison commander and led a rebellion against Hippolyta! Oh yes, Hippolyta handed the queenship to her -- in exchange for Antiope sparing her miserable life! The Amazons rode off with their new queen, back to whatever infernal lands they came from, and I am not at all sorry to say that I've heard nothing of them since that day."
Richard let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding and sheathed his sword.
"Robbie, what the heck are you doing?" Roy asked, still clutching his useless bow. "You can't possibly believe these lies she's spouting!"
Richard shook his head. "No, Roy, they aren't lies. It explains too much... why we rarely travelled to Themyscira, why we were never welcome there -- why an Amazon queen would suddenly give up her queenship and settle for the lesser title of Lady. Mom never discussed it with me in more detail, even when I asked; I got the feeling that the answers she'd been given were enough for her, and she never looked beneath the surface of it. But dad will know." He turned to Dar-- to Paula von Gunther, he forcibly reminded himself. "I'll make you a deal. Release Donna unharmed, and I promise to speak with my father about this, to come to some sort of conclusion. It isn't right that we hold your lands, and I think my father would agree, if he heard your side of the story."
Paula regarded him with wary respect. "Ironic," she laughed, if bitterly, "that was my original intent. I had meant to snare your mother, not your sister, to force Lord Wayne into hearing my tale. You sister is much like her mother -- so much so, that I did not realize my error until she was standing before me."
"I agree, she's much like mom," Richard grinned. "Right down to her taste in men." Roy gave him an odd look, but said nothing.
Paula ignored their exchange, rising and walking over to where Donna lay immobile. Placing one hand on the crystal, she murmured a quiet spell and the crystal dissolved into mist. Simultaneously, Donna yawned and stretched, then looked around. "Where --?"
Forgetting the tension of moments before, Roy bounded forward and wrapped her in his arms. "You're safe now, Donna; we're taking you home."
Donna's gaze fell on Paula. "I'm taking you down, witch," she snarled, pushing Roy aside.
Unconcerned, Paula watched as Richard put himself between her and his sister. "Donna, no," he said, holding up his hands to ward her off. "We're free to go -- all of us. For now, let's leave it at that, OK?" Donna was clearly unhappy with that decision, but realizing that her brother knew something she didn't, she agreed to let bygones be bygones. He handed her back her pendant; she slid it over her head, its glow fading as it came into contact with her.
"This way," Paula announced, turning toward the door and expecting them to follow. She led them down from the tower and out into the stables, where three horses awaited them, saddled and prepared for travel. How she had contacted the stablehands, or where they had been during his and Roy's arrival, Richard couldn't begin to guess, unless it involved more magic.
"I give you these mounts as a gesture of goodwill," Paula was saying as he snapped his attention back to the present. Catching his surprised expression, she added, "Of course I was tracking you for your entire journey, and witnessed the loss of your horses. This is for your centaur." She held out her hand, and a roll of cloth appeared in a flash of light. "It is a medicated bandage, and will speed the healing of his leg."
Grateful as he was for the assistance, Richard was displeased to learn that Paula had been observing them the whole time. Did that mean she would have watched them die in the catclan's attack if Jericho hadn't saved them? Did she send the catclan after them in the first place? Pointless conjecture, perhaps, but he filed away the possibilities for later consideration. "Thank you," he replied automatically, taking the bandage from her.
Roy and Donna were already mounted, so Richard boosted himself up onto the saddle of his horse and looked down at his former adversary. "You should expect a messenger no later than a month from now; I can't say that we'll have reached a conclusion by then, but we'll keep you updated on our progress. And," he added hesitantly, "if everyone can remain civil about it, maybe you should consider a visit to Castle Wayne, to discuss the matter in person."
She inclined her head regally, giving his suggestion due consideration before sending them off with a wave of her hand. The horses were used to it, but the three humans were startled to find themselves abruptly on the mainland shore, miles away from Paradise Island. Jericho was no less startled; he looked ready to bolt as fast as his injured leg would let him.
"Jericho, it's us," Roy called to the centaur, sliding down from his horse and handing the reins to Donna. "We were teleported back here. It's faster than walking, but my stomach can't recommend it."
Richard tossed him the cloth roll, glancing around for Raven. Sure enough, she was gone, as she always was after nightfall. His gaze travelled out over the dark waters, searching for any sign of movement under the waves. He was thrilled when a pale form half rose from the water, waving a long, webbed hand in a mimicry of Richard's earlier gesture. Smiling, he returned the wave and the figure disappeared again, the barest flash of red signalling his exit.
Beautiful , Richard thought, watching Tempest's wake vanish in the waves.
Roy finished rebandaging Jericho's leg and looked up at Richard. "What next, fearless leader? Depart immediately or camp for the night?"
The very question made Richard yawn. "We can sleep in the saddle, but it's really up to Jericho; he's the one who's been walking all day."
Whatever Jericho signed was utterly incomprehensible to Richard's sleep-deprived brain. It must have shown on his face, because the stallion laughed and began walking slowly back into the woods. Roy quickly remounted his horse and the three of them followed the centaur. I really have got to learn his language , Richard told himself before sliding into dreams.
He awoke to the sound of muted conversations and the rumble of wagons. Opening his eyes in the gentle morning light, he saw that they were once more on a road. This time, though, Jericho was very aware of the looks the humans gave him, and he stayed close to the road's edge, the forest's safety just a leap away.
Easing his horse up next to the centaur, Richard smiled and stretched, noticing that the stallion was walking much better on his forelimb than before. "If you don't mind, staying on the road will bring us home faster and easier than winding through the forests. And I'd rather not lose yet another set of horses to the Catwoman's still-hungry clan."
Jericho nodded reluctantly; he was still edgy around humans other than his three companions, but he didn't really have any other options but to stay with them. A lone centaur was a dead centaur -- or worse, a captive one. If Richard wanted to travel by road, then they would travel by road, and he would just have to hope for the best.
'Thank you,' Richard signed, smiling at the shocked expression on the stallion's face. "I learned that from you, with some help from Raven. I'd like to learn the rest of the language, if you're willing to teach me."
"Teach us all," Donna called from behind them. "Roy and I want to learn, too."
"Unless he takes up walking backward, sweets, he's going to have a tough time managing that," Roy chuckled, checking the tension on his newly-restrung bow.
"The village of Neyork should be less than an hour's ride from here," Richard noted. "We could stop at the inn, get something to eat, and take up learning Jericho's language before heading out again."
Panicked shouts and gestures from many of the humans on the road announced the approach of Raven, who ignored the outcry and took up her usual perch on Jericho's croup. He flicked his tail at her by way of greeting, not minding her slight weight on his back.
Richard told the tale of the island adventure to both the centaur and the harpy, expecting playful interruptions by Roy until he glanced back and saw the archer engrossed in his own conversation with Donna. The central conflict over land ownership was familiar to Jericho, if not to Raven; while centaurs didn't own land and migrated with the seasons, each herd established a territory into which other herds were not allowed. That a defeated previous owner would contest the new order even after several generations did seem unusually presumptuous, but the stallion attributed it to the vagaries of human behavior.
The complicated explanation of human land ownership that followed was interrupted by their arrival at Neyork. Jericho stopped dead in his tracks, staring wide-eyed at the odd structures that clustered together by a bend in the nearby river. He's never seen our buildings , Richard realized with a shock. "They're just big, permanent rain tarps," he clarified for the stallion. "We're not as hardy as centaurs; we don't like being at the mercy of the weather."
That seemed to be sufficient for Jericho, who tentatively followed Richard's lead into town. As adults screamed, scrambled to get out of their way, or simply grabbed their children and ran, it dawned on him that he had misread human expressions. What he had taken for hostility was, in fact, fear.
Of him .
That came as a surprise. His herd had lost members to humans, but none of the herd had ever dragged home a human as a prize. Well, not until he very stupidly brought home two of them, that is. Centaurs had every reason to fear large groups of humans, and given that antagonism, he supposed it was only logical for the humans to assume they had just as much to fear from him. And perhaps their concern would not have been misplaced, had it been his sire walking their streets and not him. But there was no way for them to know that.
The three humans dismounted and tied up their horses in front of a tavern called The Blüdhaven Inn. After confronting yet another novelty -- stairs -- Jericho trailed the others inside.
"Hey!" the bartender yelled at Richard. "What do you think this is, a stable? Get that -- that thing out of here!"
Less than an hour ago, Jericho would have been offended by that comment. Knowing what he did now, he observed how the man was trembling, avoiding eye contact with the centaur. The stallion felt sorry for the frightened little human, but he knew that approaching the man would only terrify him more.
Richard tossed a gold coin at the bartender. "This says he stays, and the harpy, too." Jericho had never heard Richard use the Voice of nobility before, an imperious tone worthy of a chief stallion's demeanor.
That and the gold certainly had the desired effect. "But, young lord," the bartender made a last attempt, "what of my other customers?"
Richard shrugged. "What of them? They keep to their business, and we'll keep to ours. We're paying customers, too -- even if some of us do have a few extra legs." He led them to a booth in the corner, which had room enough for Raven to perch on the table's edge and Jericho to lie down in front of it. They ordered enough food for twice their number, but the bartender made no comment, bringing everything that was requested and beating a hasty retreat.
While they ate, Jericho began teaching them the basic signs and grammar of his people's silent language. All three of the humans proved to be quick studies, and soon even their questions to him were signed instead of spoken. They were so engrossed in their language studies that none of them paid the slightest heed to anything else in the tavern, so the sudden shrill voice beside them made them all jump.
"I wanna horsie ride!"
Jericho turned to look at the little human girl who had clambered up onto his back and sat there, bouncing impatiently. "I wanna horsie ride!" she repeated, as if he hadn't heard her the first time.
A deadly silence had fallen over the tavern. Slowly, Jericho got to his feet, making sure to keep his back as level as possible so the girl wouldn't fall. Chuckling to himself, he walked around the tavern, ignoring the girl's demands for him to increase his speed to a canter. As he walked, he looked at the nearby humans; they were all still visibly tense, even though he had shown no signs of aggression to the girl. One woman was more than merely tense, holding her hands over her mouth to keep from screaming. The girl's dam, most likely; he stopped in front of her table and lowered himself so that she could snatch her daughter from his back. The girl complained loudly, heedless of the adults' fear, and her mother silenced her with the admonition that she was lucky she hadn't been thrown across the room or trampled for her impertinence.
"Can I have the next horsie ride?" Roy asked as Jericho returned to their table.
The centaur mimicked the scowl of an angry human, the effect of which was ruined by the laughter in his eyes. 'The last time I gave you a ride, my sire nearly left his hoof prints in my hide,' he retorted. 'The Lady Donna may have one, if she so chooses,' he added, turning a warm smile on her. She blushed.
"Hey," Roy protested, sliding his arm around Donna's shoulders, "I have enough problems in my personal life without having to compete with you! Azar, that's all I need, a guy who attracts females of every species!" Raven fluffed her feathers, but made no other comment.
Donna smiled and snuggled against Roy. "Don't worry, love, he isn't the only one here who's 'hung like a horse', as it were." Now it was Roy's turn to blush.
"Oh-ho, and just what do you know about that , young lady?" Richard asked, the wicked gleam of sibling trouble in his eye.
"Wouldn't you like to know," Donna teased, playfully sticking her tongue out at her brother.
"Wouldn't mom and dad like to know," he threatened with mock ire.
"Speaking of dads..." Roy hesitated, took a deep breath, and continued. "Robbie, what did you mean back on Paradise Island, when you compared me to your dad?"
Richard's eyebrows twitched. "Describe my father."
"In a word?" Roy asked. "Intimidating."
"Well," Richard conceded, " beyond the intimidating part."
Roy thought about it. "He's focused. Loyal to his Prince and his family. Concerned with justice for his people. A good Lord, and a good man."
Richard nodded. "Now I'll describe you. Focused. Loyal to his lady-love and to his family, both natural and adopted. Concerned with justice for all. A good man, and better still, a good friend."
Roy looked downright embarrassed now. "I... thanks, Robbie. You don't know how much that means to me." He tightened his grip on Donna. "But -- if I'm so much like your dad, why is your mom so set against me being with Donna? Is she that hung up on status?"
"Think about it, Roy," Donna said quietly. "If what Dark -- if what Paula said of my grandmother is true, then we have no noble heritage on my mother's side. Maybe dad doesn't care, but other nobles do, and we'd lose face in Price Clark's court if it was common knowledge. As long as we marry nobility, no one thinks to question it. Maybe mom's afraid that if we 'stoop' to marrying commoners, someone might get suspicious and start checking -- and find the truth."
Roy froze. "So... what you're saying is, you wouldn't marry me if I asked you to."
"If she doesn't, it won't have anything to do with our history," Richard interrupted. "If we return the lands -- as I hope to persuade my father to do -- everyone will know, regardless. And if she waits to give you an answer until after I have one from Princess Kory, then it won't matter because if we're good enough for royalty, we're practically given free reign to marry anyone we want."
" If we're not in the direct line of succession," Donna clarified, "and I'm not. It goes from Princess Kory to her children, and if she has none, then to her younger brother, Prince Ryan, and his children. Who I marry makes no difference to anyone but me."
"And me," Roy added.
"Well," Donna grinned, "then I guess I better marry you."
Richard buried his head in his arms as his little sister rewarded her rescuer and future husband with a zealous token of her appreciation. Latching on to the rumbling laughter of the nearby centaur as a suitable distraction, he prodded Jericho in the ribs with his boot. "Move out, old horse," he grinned, sliding out of the booth. "Maybe if we leave, they'll stop long enough to follow."
Jericho swatted Richard with his tail for the horse comment and trotted past him, holding the door open so Raven could sail through it and up onto the roof. As expected, Donna and Roy relinquished their grip on one another and ran after the others, laughing. The other tavern patrons let out a collective sigh of relief as the door closed behind them; this had been an event that would serve as a source of gossip for months to come.
In high spirits, they took the road at a canter, Jericho's leg still tender, but now healed to the point where he could once again make full use of it. With no obstacles to avoid and a straight road back to Gotham Valley, their return trip looked to be much shorter than their winding journey through the woods. Away from the village, there was much less traffic, and they picked up their speed to a full gallop for a while.
After a brief hassle similar to the one in the tavern, they spent the night in another village inn. Jericho wasn't overly fond of sleeping on the hard wooden floor, but it beat staying half-awake all night in the nearby woods, keeping an eye out for profit-minded humans or hungry catfolk. Raven was waiting for them on the roof when they left the next morning, and they set out once again.
After a brief hassle similar to the one in the tavern, they spent the night in another village inn. Jericho wasn't overly fond of sleeping on the hard wooden floor, but it beat staying half-awake all night in the nearby woods, keeping an eye out for profit-minded humans or hungry catfolk. Raven was waiting for them on the roof when they left the next morning, and they set out once again.
Richard grew quieter as they approached the valley where Castle Wayne stood. His sense of misgiving had been steadily growing, and good as he was at lying to himself when it suited him, he couldn't put aside the source of his feelings so easily this time. His entire world view had been shaken during this journey; Paula von Gunther's assertions were the last and possibly the least of his concerns. There was more at stake here than the well-being of one noble family, or one lone centaur and his harpy companion.
And all of it seemed to rest squarely on Richard Wayne's shoulders.
By late afternoon, they rode up to the gates at the main entrance of Castle Wayne. Richard's stomach had been knotted for hours, but he showed his inner tension to no one. If everyone else kept calm, he had a decent chance of pulling the whole thing off.
Servants and stablehands appeared to greet them, hesitating imperceptibly at the sight of an unrestrained centaur accompanying their master. Horses were led to the stables, torn travel clothes quickly exchanged for more suitable wear, and somewhere in the rush, Roy and Donna had vanished, presumably to her room in celebration of her return.
As usual, Castle Wayne's master butler was on hand to greet Richard personally. He inclined his head toward his lord's companions. "New additions to the collection, Master Richard?"
Richard flushed, embarrassed that Jericho and Raven had overheard that remark. Why they should have expected his family to be unique among nobility and not keep exotics, he didn't know; most likely they *hadn't* expected him to be any different, but it still hurt to live down to low expectations. "Uh, no, Alfred; they're guests. Show them to the outer courtyard, please, and provide them with some fruit. I'll be back shortly." He fled to the castle, unable to meet their gaze.
His destination was not his own room, but his mother's. She was taller and broader than Donna, and he would need as large a woman's tunic as he could find. Her loose green lounging robe would have to do; he snatched it from its hanger and dashed back out of the castle.
But not to the outer courtyard.
The menagerie was kept in the inner courtyard, as well protected as any costly investment might be. The gilded cages were reinforced magically, preventing even the smallest of the creatures from slipping through the bars to freedom. Those magicks were generated in the wards housed on a central pedestal -- three glowing blue cubes, each no larger than a hen's egg. Murmuring the spell under his breath, he watched as the wards were engulfed in flames and slowly crumbled into ash, their magic dying along with them.
"You're free," he said, loud enough that they all could hear him. "As of this moment, you're all free to leave." He would still have to unlock the cages for the larger occupants, but the smaller ones were already making good their escape. An ordinary-looking buck vanished in a flash of light and slithered through the bars as a snake, heading straight for Richard. Instead of attacking, though, the changeling altered form once again, and stood before Richard as a young man, his skin and hair as green as new grass. He smiled in wordless thanks and transformed himself into a sparrow, darting up into the sky and away to freedom.
Richard ran to each of the remaining cages, pressing his palm against the sensor plate that would trigger the lock release. Most of the exotics had some form of flight capability; the few who didn't wandered aimlessly in the courtyard, waiting for directions out of the compound. They would have to wait a little longer; Richard had saved the hardest for last.
'I'm sorry about all of this, I really am,' he signed, unlocking the last cage. 'It's because you can't speak our language, you know -- that makes it so easy for us to view you as animals. Too easy. But I know better now; I'm just sorry it took this long.'
The chestnut centaur mare stared warily at him. She had seen him destroy the wards and free the others, but after two long years, it still felt unreal to be able to set hoof outside the cage without half a dozen humans lading her down with tethers and restraints. Now here was a human not just offering her freedom, but telling her so in her own language. Hesitantly, she got to her feet and walked slowly out of the door.
He held out the tunic to her, keeping his eyes averted. She had given up trying to cover her nakedness several months into her captivity, and no longer kept her arms crossed over her chest at all times. It never used to bother him to see her unclothed, but that was when she was still just an animal to him. Now that she was a woman -- albeit a woman with four legs and hooves -- it was improper for him to see her without a tunic.
She took it from him gratefully and pulled it over her head, revelling in the feel of the soft fabric against her skin. It was a good color for her, the emerald silk casting green highlights in her blue eyes while setting off her flaming red hair and coppery coat.
"This way," Richard said, gesturing for the others to follow him. He lead them through the maze of open corridors, ignoring the stunned looks on the faces of the servants and the hushed whispers all around. As they neared the exit of Castle Wayne's walled estate, many of the former captives bolted for freedom, running through the exit and toward the woods as fast as their feet could carry them. The chestnut mare, too, picked up her pace, a giddy neigh bursting forth as she increased speed.
Surprisingly, her call was answered from the outer courtyard, and she stopped so suddenly that her hooves slid on the paving stones. Even as she turned to the sound, Jericho shot into view, his long golden legs flying at full gallop. With a squeal of excitement, the mare launched herself at the stallion, the two of them colliding in an embrace that would have knocked any other creature off its feet.
Raven soared over Richard's head and landed on the wall next to him. "Kole!" she gasped, staring at the mare. "She is Jericho's mate," she told him quietly; he had already guessed as much. "I dare say your life-debt to him is now repaid."
Richard snorted. "How did I give him anything that I wasn't responsible for taking away in the first place?"
"Did you, personally, capture Kole?" she asked.
He glanced up at her, annoyed. "Of course not. Thia did; we just bought her."
"There you have it," Raven smiled. "If you had not bought her, someone else would have -- someone who would not now be freeing her. Mares are highly prized in centaur society; the loss of one is tragic. For Jericho to return with Kole would be enough to overturn his sire's banishment decree."
"So... you'll all be returning to the forest?" Richard sounded unhappy, even though he of all people understood it to be for the best.
Raven stretched out one wing and wrapped it around his shoulders. "We have no place in your society, young human. You know that."
"Yes," he agreed, "currently you don't. But if you stay, and work with me, we can change all that. We can show everyone how wrong they've been. We can convince other lords and ladies not to build menageries, we can protect your forest homes from farmland expansion -- we might even be able to convince Prince Clark to give you a say in the Council meetings!"
"Aren't you the idealist," she laughed. "That's quite a large vision you have, Richard; a titanic one, even."
Richard smiled. "Titanic, indeed."