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The Thorns

Another story from my brief flirtation with Literotica, one of my first and an attempt to try out some inter-species action.

THE THORNS

The night closed in and so did the forest, dark green and glistening with the dew that had not dried from that morning. Telendra's travelling robes clung to her, weighing her down.

It felt like she had not stopped since fleeing through the southern gate of Brazen Keep. Through the fortress town's northern gate had flooded the army of the Penitents, chanting the praises of the gods of death. Telendra's last sight of the city had been of the Cerulean Spire burning and soldiers fighting with madmen on the battlements. How many others had made it into the Sorrowsong Forest? The sprawling woods could have swallowed the whole population of Brazen Keep a hundred times over. She could not rely on meeting a fellow refugee down there beneath the dark boughs. She was alone.

The trees were covered in thorny vines. Everywhere, there were thorns. They were underfoot, slowly shredding the sandals better suited to padding across the Temple of Neios. They left nowhere to sit or lie, nowhere for Telendra to rest and set down the bundle of relics wrapped in a tapestry torn from the temple wall.

Telendra heard a river's waters rushing, deep and gurgling. She heard birds whooping and shrieking at the fall of night. Wind rustled. Sometimes, Telendra thought she saw eyes glinting in the deepest shadows.

Light gleamed ahead of her, beads of moonlight on the wet leaves. She pushed onwards and the branches parted in front of her.

Telendra had come upon a clearing in the wood, with grass underfoot instead of roots and tangled vines. A full moon shone down on the standing stones that loomed over the clearing. They were black and ancient, forming a circle. A couple of pairs of menhirs still had their lintels to form archways. Other blocks, like altars, lay on their sides where they had fallen, half-sunk into the earth.

At last, a place to rest. She sat down and put the relic bundle beside her, leaning against one of the stones. Her legs ached and her arms were heavy. She closed her eyes, and night fell inside.

***

It was not dawn's light that woke her, nor the morning sun's warmth. It was some instinct, buried deep, that wailed inside her when confronted with the unknown.

Telendra's eyes snapped open. She blinked in the morning light that glittered off the time-smoothed stones and the edges of the leaves overhead.

The silhouette in front of her was not of a standing stone, or one of the ancient trees that grew here in the heart of the Sorrowsong. It was a centaur.

Telendra had heard tales of them and seen them in fanciful tapestries and illustrations. She had thought they were crude and simple things, beasts given the veneer of a man. She had been wrong. The creature standing before her was, from the waist up, a cord-muscled man with shaggy red-brown hair down to his shoulders, skin the colour of beaten bronze, and the eyes of a predator. Black tattoos spiralled around his chest and arms, swirling designs without reason. Braids hung in his hair and in one hand he held a spear tipped with a leaf-shaped shard of stone. He had a solid jaw, proud nose and a mouth curled into a sneer that made Telendra feel like the intruder into his lands that she undoubtedly was.

From the waist down he was a magnificent stallion, jet black, with white streaks of warpaint across his glossy black hide. His tail, like his hair, hung with braids.

Telendra couldn't speak. The sight of him struck her dumb. She had never seen anything so powerful, so savage, all coiled up in a half-human shape.

'I am Kirkos of the Thornwinder Hunt,' said the centaur in a voice as deep as thunder. 'Who violates this sacred place?'

Telendra fought to find the words. 'I am a priestess,' she stammered. 'Of the Temple of Neios.'

'Neios?' demanded Kirkos.

'The God of Kings,' said Telendra. 'The Winged One. The Sceptre and the Crown...'

'There are no gods in these forests save the lords of the hunt!' retorted Kirkos. He advanced on her, spear in hand. Telendra pressed herself against the stone behind her.

He smelled of damp leaves and freshly-turned earth, a smell of nature and primal power. The strength seemed to roll off him in waves, the powerful build of his chest and arms, the glossy black flanks of his equine form. Those hind legs could kick through a wall, and the front hooves could crush a man into the earth. Telendra shivered at the sight of him standing over her.

'Please,' she said. 'I have fled from Brazen Keep. I am lost and alone. Have mercy.'

Kirkos stabbed the butt of his spear into the ground. 'No four-limbed wretch has seen these stones in a century,' he said. He glowered still, but the fatal anger had died down from his voice. 'And the last to look upon them was spitted at the forest's edge.'

'I had nowhere else to go. I had to rest.'

'And now? Will you be gone from this place? No, you will see what darkness lies in this forest's heart and return here, to shelter among that which is holy to another. Outsiders would bleed us dry if the Wild Hunt did not ride them down and hang their heads from the trees! Why should treat you any different?'

'I mean you no harm! Look, I am a priestess. See?' Telendra opened up the relic bag. Holy objects spilled out onto the grass. The Book of Thangrel, bound in golden shards from the armour of Neios' own champion. The hands of Saint Urtelen, perfectly preserved by the Crown God's grace. Implements of Neios' rituals, gilded and studded with emeralds. 'Is not a holy woman protected even here? The gods decreed that their messengers shall be inviolate.'

'Ha! Your gods! No winged lord ever handed us a kingdom.'

'But the higher laws are the higher laws.'

Kirkos knelt down, getting a better look at Telendra. She shrank away from him instinctively, as if he was a predator baring fangs. 'You are a long way from the temples where your laws hold sway.'

'But you will not hurt me?'

'That remains to be seen.' Now he was closer Telendra could see old scars on his arms, hands worn tight and taut by warfare. For a moment she imagined the stories written across his skin, in the deep grey of his eyes.

'Your gods,' she said. 'Tell me of them.'

'The wild hunt?' Kirkos smiled. 'Warriors and killers! Skinners of prey! The autumn and the winter hunt side by side, the Red Mare and Lord Frost! Then the spring, King Dawn, and his lady Queen Thornfire, blaze through the forests their hoofprints aflame!' Kirkos's gaze had drifted away as he spoke. He looked at Telendra now, peering at her as if he had never seen a human before. Perhaps, thought Telendra, he hadn't.

'What of your god?' he said.

'Neios is the crowner of kings. The powerful pray to him. He builds the walls that keep our cities safe from the wilds. He shields us from evil.'

'Who rides with him?'

'No one. Neios is alone.'

Kirkos laughed. 'No god worthy of the name goes alone! How can holy fire blaze without a goddess on his arm? If your god knows no woman, how can he know anything?'

Telendra blushed and looked at the ground. The idea of the chaste Neios, the winged sentinel, cavorting with a flame-haired forest goddess was heretical. She might be flogged in the stocks for suggesting such a thing in the temple. Except the temple, of course, no longer existed. The invaders at Brazen Keep had burned it to the ground.

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