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A Madness of Kentaurs (Excerpt)

by Niko Silvester

The kentaurs were running.

It was spring, the season of madness, and all creatures on hoofs, from the usually placid cattle to the naughty fauns in Arcadia, felt the swelling of green things in their blood, the tingle of pollen and wind-borne seeds on their skin, and it made them want to run.

The kentaurs--those horse-legged creatures that human beings called "centaurs," softening the initial consonant as if to make the creatures named less frightening--the kentaurs were more organized in their running than most. They were careful to leave behind the very young and the very old and the very ill, or injured, or pregnant, in the safety of villages nestled on the edge of the forest, against the knees of the Pelion Mountains. They prepared ahead of time, strapping on bundles of food and water, so that when the green winds came they could leave the village and run.

And they ran. Sometimes for hours, sometimes days, until the first urgency of spring was worked out. Then they began to cluster together until a great herd cantered across the plains. Every now and then, they'd break out into a mad dash, only to slow and wait for stragglers. Every now and then, a farmer's horse would break free of its tether or take the fence of its corral and run off to join the kentaurs. Horses seemed to prefer the company of four-legged half-humans.

The farmer might shake his head and curse the kentaurs, but he knew he'd get his horse back when the herds returned in the fullness of the growing season. Human folk called both the spring winds and the assembled herd of kentaurs a "madness." A gaggle of geese, a flock of sheep, an unkindness of ravens. A madness of kentaurs.

Chapter 1

"'Tis the season," said Hostilar, taking an exaggerated breath of air in through his big nose.

Octavian, called "Tavi" by everyone but the inn's elderly chambermaid, just nodded and kept shoveling. He wanted to finish mucking the barn quickly so he could get away for a few hours, to perch at the top of his favorite tree and watch for the kentaur herds to pass on the plains below.

"Make sure to latch all the barn doors," Hostilar said, as if Tavi hadn't been working as the inn's stable boy for two years already.

"Yes, Hoss," Tavi said, setting aside his shovel to reach for a pitchfork. He'd put the new straw in the stalls first, then take the dirty to the manure pile on the way to his vantage point.

"And don't leave the horses in the paddock after today," Hostilar continued. "Could be any day now the madness comes."

"Yes, Hoss," Tavi said again.

"Wretched centaurs." The innkeeper pulled out the wisp of straw he'd been worrying between his teeth as he talked, and inspected the chewed end. He tossed the straw onto the pile of refuse in the wheelbarrow.

"Kentaurs," said Tavi, carefully pronouncing the hard first sound of the word, the way the kentaurs themselves did.

Hoss looked at him over his bulbous nose. "What's that?" he said.

"They call themselves 'kentaurs,' with a 'k' sound," Tavi mumbled, wishing he'd kept his mouth shut. "Not centaurs, with an 's.'"

"You become a kentaur, boy," growled Hostilar, pronouncing the 'k' like a harsh cough, "and you can call 'em whatever you like." He cuffed Tavi on the ear and the boy blinked. "But you're human, so you use human words in my hearing, got that?"

"Yes, Hoss," said Tavi, repeating the words like a mantra.

Hostilar nodded and lifted his hand again, as if to remind Tavi of what would happen if he failed to follow instructions. Then he spit a gob into the wheelbarrow and turned away from the barn. "Mind what I said about the horses," he said as he turned to go.

"Yes, Hoss," said Tavi under his breath.

***

To Ixion, each spring was like a rebirth. He awaited the coming of the green breezes even more eagerly than he looked forward to his own birthday. At first it was just a tickle in his flared nostrils, a hint of indefinable scent. Then there was the soft touch of air that made each silver hair on his pale arms stand straight up, even though he wasn't cold. It was like every hair became a whisker, sensitive to vibrations of the earth and air.

It was then he'd arrange his backpack snugly over his shoulders, taking care to smooth the padded felt shoulders of his vest so it wouldn't chafe. He'd prop his bow next to the door, and ask his teacher, Chiron, to attach the quiver of arrows on his back next to his pack. He could never quite get the straps snug enough if he did it by himself.

When the winds came with a moist whoosh and the madness hit, all he had to do was grab his bow and he could gallop on his way, all thought left behind in the need to do only one thing: race the wind.

When the winds came this year, he was off before his sire Nessus, before his mother, Deianira, who lead their little village, and even before his tutor Chiron, could get past the thresholds of their houses. He raced as fast as he could but soon all three of the most important people in his life, and some others from their village as well, had left him in their dust. Ixion was fast, but he was still small, and even the heavy-footed Chiron, a huge kentaur from high up in the Pelion Mountains, could outpace him. In the madness, though, it didn't matter who ran fastest. It only mattered that one was running at all.

***

The mood in the inn that evening was merry, but there was an edge to the merriment. On the one hand, the centaurs had not come that day, and they would not come that night. Even centaurs had sense enough not to run full out in the darkness, where they might catch a leg in a gopher burrow. Like humans, like horses, centaurs had poor night vision.

But the herds would come. Perhaps the next day, perhaps the one after that. The farmers and townsfolk--anyone who owned hoofed livestock--would not be at ease until the entire season of madness had passed, until March was over and April well begun. Not, in fact, until the centaur herds had passed on their way to the River Acheron, did whatever it was they did on the other side of that fell watercourse, and had gone back the other way again.

Tavi sat on the stairs and watched, trying to appear invisible. If Hostilar or his wife saw him, he'd be put to work pulling glasses of ale, or sopping spilt liquor off the packed-earth floor before it could turn to mud. Tavi had heard there was a tale spinner in the area, that he might stop by the inn for a place to sleep and a meal. Sometimes, storytellers could be persuaded to talk about the kentaurs--centaurs, Tavi reminded himself, thinking of Hoss' big hand. Tavi had probably heard every story there was with centaurs in it, but there was always a chance this story man would have a new one. Failing that, there were always tales of Kymric horses, those dainty, swift beasts of pale gray that the Emperor had once brought back from some barbarian land far to the north.

Even more than he'd like to meet a centaur, Tavi wanted a horse of his own, a Kymric horse. He'd seen one once in the city. Before his parents had died and Tavi had been forced to work for Hostilar at the inn, Tavi had traveled to the city with his big brother. They'd been admiring a statue of some famous orator, when there was a clatter of hoofs and a black-clad guard galloped past after some fugitive from the law. The horse he sat so easily was the gray of doves' feathers, with a slightly darker gray shadowing her legs and muzzle, and a mane and tail of fine hair that was almost silver. Tavi's brother had seen the boy's open-mouthed stare and laughed.

"She's Kymric," Arcus said. "That mare. They say those barbarian horses are fleet as deer with the stamina of a hundred oxen. They can carry even a heavy man with ease, and have more brains behind those wide black eyes than a raven."

Tavi had often thought his brother should have been a poet instead of a soldier, and he believed every word Arcus said. He stared after the horse until she was long out of sight, and later in the market, he spent all his money on a little panel of wood on which the artist had painted a silver horse. It was one of the few possessions he still had from the time his parents were alive, and it was his greatest treasure.

There was a gust of wind as the door opened and everyone in the inn's common room turned to look.

"Is it the madness?" someone muttered.

"We'll know in the morning," someone else said.

The man who'd opened the door and let the wind in closed it carefully behind him. He was dressed in a ragged white toga, with gray trousers underneath and a gray cloak over. He had a battered pack on his back and a roundish instrument case that looked like it might hold a lyre.

"Tale spinner," said Tavi under his breath. Others murmured similar words, and the man grinned 'round at them.

Hostilar bustled out from behind the bar. "Ale?" he asked the man. "Or dinner perhaps. We've rabbit stew and new bread. Or perhaps a room?"

The storyteller nodded, and made his way to a seat by the fire that the locals had cleared for him. "Ale first, and a meal," said the man, nodding his thanks at Hoss. "Then a room, and perhaps a bath?"

Not every inn offered baths. Baths were not all that popular, and people who bathed daily were considered unfashionable. Tavi got his morning wash at the well or the creek--Hostilar would have thought it wasteful to give him hot water more than once a month.

"We can arrange something," Hoss said, and glanced around. Tavi hunched down in the staircase, hoping the innkeeper's gaze would pass him over, else he'd be hauling the big bronze washtub up to whatever room was given the storyteller, followed by seemingly endless buckets of water.

"Tavi!" Hostilar bellowed. "Where'd that boy get to?"

Tavi tried to shrink down further.

"On the stair," called one of the locals. Tavi stuck out his tongue, then hastily arranged his features into an obedient look when Hoss turned to glare at him.

"Washtub," Hoss growled. "Room 5. Then fetch water."

"Yes, Hoss," Tavi said, covering his disappointment.

"Don't worry, lad," the tale spinner said. "When you've done, I'll tell you a story about whatever you like."

Tavi grinned then, and ran for the tub, followed by the laughter of the inn's patrons. Should he ask for centaurs or Kymric horses? Maybe if he was quick, he could ask for both.

***

In the end, Hostilar decided it. When Tavi opened his mouth to ask the newly-bathed tale spinner for his story, Hoss flexed his big fist and looked meaningfully at the boy. Tavi bit the end of his tongue between his teeth; if he stuck his tongue out at the innkeeper, he'd be scrubbing floors for days with no time off.

"Tell me something about Kymric horses," Tavi finally said.

"Aah, only the best for you, eh?" asked the storyteller. "Many years before you were born, I imagine," the man began, and even the most jaded of the locals leaned in to listen, "the Emperor sent his legions out across the lands to the north and south, to educate the barbarians about the wonders of civilization."

Someone in the crowd snickered, but Tavi couldn't see who it was. He thought it might have been the old chambermaid, Augusta, who had been named for the Emperor's grandfather. She was a bit of an anarchist, or as much of one as a low-paid servant could be.

The storyteller let a grin creep onto one side of his mouth, but he continued the tale. "One general found himself on the shores of a sea to the north and west, where he could just make out islands in the mist. They marched all the way back to Novaroma to tell the Emperor what they'd seen, and he gave his leave to take boats out of the shelter of the Median Sea and into Oceanus to see if there was an easy way to those islands. Perhaps the Emperor thought islands in the mist was a romantic and picturesque land to add to his Empire."

Again there was a snicker, but this time there was the quick smack of skin on skin and Augusta's rough voice saying, "Ow, I didn't--" The people around her quickly shushed her.

The tale spinner had paused in his story, and he winked at Tavi. "Someone doesn't appreciate my story," he said quietly.

"It's not your story," Tavi said. "She doesn't think much of the Emperor. She says the barbarians should be free to be barbaric in their own lands if they want to." He looked around to see if Hostilar was within earshot, but the innkeeper had gone to the bar to get another round of ale for a big group of farmers near the door.

"What did you really want a story about?" the storyteller asked.

"Oh, I did want to hear about Kymric horses," Tavi said, carefully earnest.

"You're heard this story before?"

"Yes," Tavi admitted. "But you tell it very well."

The storyteller's grin spread across his mouth and to his eyes. "But what did the big innkeeper lout not want you to ask for?"

Tavi glanced at Hoss again. He was still occupied pulling cups of ale, and mixing water and wine for his patrons. "Kentaurs," said Tavi, barely above a whisper. "I mean, centaurs."

"Aah," said the tale spinner, placing one finger alongside his nose.

"Kentaurs." He pronounced the name with a slight accent, as if he might be familiar with the language of the half-horses themselves.

"Hey," what happened to the story?" complained someone, loudly.

"Yeah, don't stop now."

"It seems," said the storyteller, "that some among you don't care very much for my praising of the Emperor."

"Naw, we don't mind."

"Perhaps I should cover a more . . . timely topic?" he said, giving Tavi a mischievous look.

"You mean the season?" said Hostilar's wife.

"The madness?" said someone else.

"None of that nonsense in my inn," growled the innkeeper.

"Oh come on, Hoss," said the blacksmith, who lived just down the road and was a daily visitor at the inn for both his meals and his drink. "What harm can it do to hear about the things we're all thinking on right now?"

"There are some as has too much imagination," Hoss said.

"Surely you don't mean this boy?" asked the storyteller, gesturing at Tavi.

"He doesn't look like he even knows what imagination is." He winked at Tavi again.

"Hrumph," said Hoss, but did not argue further. "If I hear a word about green winds or centaurs, boy, there'll be--" Hoss raised his hand and wiggled his thick fingers threateningly.

Tavi made a motion as if sewing his lips closed, then he put on his best meek look. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the storyteller cover a smile with one hand.

"So," said the storyteller. "Tonight, or tomorrow, or someday very soon, the Season of Madness will begin. It is the time when once wild things become wild again, still wild things become wilder, and civilized things shut their doors and pretend they had never been wild." He leaned forward, away from the fire, so his face was strangely lit by the dim oil lamps scattered around the room. No one made a sound except to sip quietly at their drinks. Even Hostilar's usually-noisy breathing hardly whistled in his nose.

"In the early days of March, these very days we are now in, all creatures with hoofs feel the need to run. Cattle must be penned stoutly, and horses kept in the barn. Goats must be tethered on chain instead of rope, and other things come out romp and race across the flat land. Satyrs may be seen in March, outside of their usual Arcadian haunts, and Selenoi even, can be spied. And those creatures all horses love, whose presence lures the tiredest farmer's nag to frolic . . . Leaving their homes in the Pelion Mountains to race across the plains to some errand on the far side of Acheron River, the kentaurs appear and form a great herd.

"A madness of kentaurs."


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