In which Jägerson finds a centaur in trouble, and joins it.
Jägerson had always held as a personal opinion that while goblins and werewolves exited, centaurs did not. This was based on a very pragmatic view that there was no way to make the plumbing work out. How did food know which stomach to use? How could you get enough air in through such a small nose? Did young suckle at both chests or just one? It was easier to imagine dragons flying on their puny wings than to imagine a centaur surviving.
Jägerson was pretty sure he wasn’t just imagining that the centaur in front of him was surviving. The hunder of hooves as it had galloped up had seemed quite real. The mixed odor of horse and human sweat and the heavy, synchronized breathing of both chests were unmistakable. So was the fear in its face. It occurred to Jägerson that perhaps it was in danger of not surviving.
The centaur was speaking to Jägerson with some urgency between gasps for breath. Unfortunately, Jägerson had no idea what any of the words meant. He guessed (it was just a guess; he wasn’t good at these things) that it was trying to warn him about something. He wondered idly why a centaur obviously in such a hurry would be stopping to talk with an unarmed human and what could have spooked it in so idyllic a forest. In three hours of walking east he had been continually surrounded by all kinds of prey that showed no signs of fear and had yet to see anything as dangerous as a thorn or a sharp stick.
His wonderings and the centaur’s jabberings were both cut off when an arrow or quarrel of some kind ripped a piece off of his left ear. He screamed and grabbed at the wound with his left hand, reaching instinctively for his missing sword with his right. The centaur reached instead for him, tossing him with no evident effort onto its back, and then took off into the forest at a dead gallop.
As adrenaline kicked in, the pain from Jägerson’s wounded ear subsided in urgency and he found himself assessing his situation with the cool detachment of desperation. The centaur seemed to have no trouble in navigating the forest at full speed, but neither did whatever was shooting quarrels at them. They were definitely quarrels, and shot from enough distance they mostly struck trees or ground rather than flesh. The centaur had at least two in its rump, though.
There didn’t appear to be anything to do about the situation. He had no weapons, nor could he see any on the centaur. They were moving too quickly to make grabbing a branch safe. There wasn’t enough advance warning of the quarrels to tell the centaur to dodge them nor enough space to dodge them himself. To run appeared to be the only solution, and the centaur was doing that very well for the both of them.
The centaur galloped so effectively that it wasn’t even a minute later that all signs of the pursuers were gone. The centaur slowed to a quick trot, but did not stop despite its obvious exhaustion. It was also speaking again.
Jägerson was not an equestrian man by choice, but he knew enough to recognize that this centaur was not going to be able to keep moving indefinitely. He thus set himself to spotting some place where the two of them might hide. Fortunately, they seemed to have galloped into a less friendly patch of woods; the ground was harder here and he didn’t see much of a trail behind them. There were also several thickets and areas of tangled undergrowth around; all he had to do was find one that was large enough but didn’t look large enough so pursuers would be likely to pass it by.
When he spotted a likely area he had some trouble communicating this to the centaur. Pointing, speaking, and pantomime each failed by turns and at last he tumbled off the moving centaur and jogged back to the thicket he had selected. Fortunately, the centaur followed him; he had no desire to lose contact with the only person (was it a person?) that might understand where he was and what to do about it.
The thicket matched his every hope. There was a hollow beneath a thick layer of dark greens that provided more space than you’d guess at a glance, and the leaves were dense enough to provide good cover from all directions. The two were soon safe from prying eyes.
But not prying noses. The centaur stank enough to arrest even a phlegm-stuffed nose. “Please don’t let them have dogs!” he muttered in faithless prayer. As if any of the gods would remove dogs on his behalf! It had been years since he had even attended a sacrifice.
When the pursuers came into view Jägerson knew he needn’t have worried. Not only did the things not have dogs, they didn’t even have noses. Indeed, they were like nothing he had ever seen before: long sinewey arms, a broad chest, and a stomach that morphed into a flexible leg/trunk thing terminating in three huge clawed toes, all topped with a thick short eyestalk. They appeared to have no other organs: mouth, nose, ears, or the like. Centaur physiology seemed very mundane and logical by comparison.
Jägerson watched in dumb amazement as the things, whatever they were, bounded past in surprisingly quiet and rapid hops. The way they flexed trunks as the hopped past reminded him of huge leathery tongues. He hoped he never saw their like again.