tagNonHumanThe Healer Pt. 02

The Healer Pt. 02

byAfterDusk©

All eyes immediately turn to her. It takes her a moment to process what just happened. She looks over to Rainer, his expression defaulted to a smooth blank face; when she turns her gaze to Quell she sees that he is just as surprised as her, starting at Rainer in shock before glancing directly to Coral.

"Coral," the Governor says softly, drawing her attention to him. Suddenly remembering what she is supposed to do she rises to her feet, carefully picking her way through the women to the aisle. She pauses briefly, catching Piers' distraught gaze, before she continues down the line past the Governor. Stopping before Rainer she looks him right in the eye defiantly, dropping into a curtsey. Then, she stands next to the inconsolable Margaret, shedding no tears of her own.

The Governor can see his son shifting angrily so he quickly finishes up the ceremony, "We thank these three villagers for their sacrifice so that we may continue to thrive in a peaceful country. Their families may come up now to say their goodbyes and accompany them home to pack their things. The rest of you may return to the town and prepare for the feast tonight."

The villagers get up, almost all thankful that neither they nor none of their family were chosen for the Atonement. Margaret's mother immediately comes running over to her, gathering up her wailing daughter in her arms. Cecil's son approaches his father, wrapping the man in a hug.

Coral, still stunned by the sudden derailment of her life, is left staring at Piers. He slowly walks to her, his face clearly upset. He makes no move to comfort her, having never done so before in his life; instead he offers a nod and grumbles, "We should pack some things for your journey."

Several feet away, she can hear the ending of a heated argument between the Governor and his son. All of the centaurs are watching it, their keen ears having heard it in detail. Coral catches a snippet of Tobias's rage, "...she was to be mine! You cannot let those beasts take what is rightfully mine!"

"Quiet your tongue, boy," the Governor whispers sharply, "She is just a girl. There are more and there will always be more. They have chosen to take her and like it or not there is nothing you nor I can do about it, so you would do best to simply forget her and move on with your life."

Tobias tries to push past his father; it is unclear whether he means to approach Coral or fight the centaurs, but the Governor spins him on his heels and shoves him off in the direction of town, motioning to two of his officials to take him back and keep him there. Though he rips his arms free of the men, he shoots a burning glare towards the centaurs before stomping off.

The Governor rubs his face exasperatedly, turning back to the centaurs.

"Is there a problem, Governor?" Rainer asks, a frown etched onto his dark face.

"No, Sir Rainer, just the rantings of a boy in love. I apologize for his behavior," the Governor says, pressing his hand to his heart.

"I wasn't aware that he had laid a claim to the young woman," Rainer says, glancing at Coral.

"He has not, Sir. It was his intention to do so at the Celebration tomorrow. She is unclaimed," he reiterates, also looking at Coral.

Rainer nods, "I see," turning to the centaurs he gives them orders, starting with the bookkeeper "Elex, you will accompany Ms. Elwood as she retrieves her things. Quell, you will assist Mr. Evergreen. Reid, Ms. Blackthorn."

The thicker stallion nods his head, waiting for Piers and Coral to start their last walk towards home. He trails a few feet behind them to allow some privacy, though neither bothers talking. Since the meadow is on the outskirts of town it doesn't take them long to arrive at their cabin.

"I will wait out here," Reid says to Coral, "we do not have all evening but you do not need to rush your farewells. Pack what you wish, the rest will be provided for you."

Coral nods, following Piers into the house for the last time. She stands there looking around, as he shuts the door and begins to hurriedly pack up the medicine case for the journey. He grumbles in a low voice, keeping it quiet so that the centaur won't hear him.

"I was a fool to bring you with me to fix that colt's leg. I should have seen this coming a mile away—of course they would choose you, with your knowledge of healing and animals. I should have made you stay home."

"This isn't your fault, Piers," she says. "I mean they chose Margaret, and she doesn't know the difference between a goat and a ram."

Piers stops and looks at her, his face slowly draining of color, "I heard one of the men say they have been choosing at least one maiden from each town. They must be in need of...breeding stock," his jaw clenches.

"That is just a myth," she says, trying to assure herself as much.

"Bullshit, have you ever seen a female centaur? How do you think they make more? Oh, heavens above," his hands start to tremble with rage as he crams more medicines into the case. Barely managing to shut and latch it, he stands with his head hung low. Before Coral can say anything he walks to the workbench and grabs a sturdy blade almost a foot long, its sheath attached to a short belt. It is the blade that he commonly wears over his boot when he is out in the forest. He motions for her to sit down then he grabs her right leg and unlaces her boot, buckling the blade against wool sock on the inside of her leg before pulling her boot back over it. His voice is barely a whisper, "You know how to take a horse down, I imagine they are no different. Do what you must to get out of their camp tonight and hide in the woods, down by the stream. You can survive out there, I have taught you as much. Wait a week, maybe two and make your way over towards the mountains, two towns over. Once you are there pick a new name, get a job as a maid and send word for me. I have friends there, I can make arrangements for you to start a new life." He is frantic, his hands shaking so badly that he can't lace her boot up.

Coral reaches down and places her hands on his to steady them; she wraps her fingers around them, bringing up a soft hand to his face when he looks at her.

"I want to thank you for taking me in Piers and caring for me all of these years. You have taught me so much and I will forever be in your debt. I know how to take care of myself—I am not afraid. I will not run from them; there is no reason to risk retaliation on everyone for just one person," she dries the tears that fall from his eyes; it is the first time she has ever seen him cry, "This is not your fault. I cannot be anyone other than who I am and if that means helping an injured creature, then I would never say no, you know that. I am sure that is why they chose me. And, if they chose me as," the words get caught in her throat, "breeding stock, then I will deal with that too. You need to make sure you take care of yourself now that I won't be around to do it for you. Take in one of the Petersen boys, they are poor and I know their family would be happy for one less mouth to feed. Teach him what you have taught me so that you can pass your knowledge on."

Piers, shaking, pulls her into a deep hug, holding her tight. He smoothes her hair while whispering softly, "All right, Coral. You remember the mushrooms we use on animals when we have to perform a procedure and cut them open?"

She knows the exact mushroom he speaks of; they crush it into a paste and spread it on the livestock's tongue. It seems to put them in a trance; they are awake, but don't seem to feel anything—they just simply stand there and watch. She nods against his shoulder.

"If...when...the time comes, you put one of them in your mouth. Chew on it and hold it between your cheek and gums; it will numb your mind and your body, then you won't have to suffer as much. There should be no pain," he tries not to sob into her shoulder.

She squeezes him tight, "All right, Piers, I promise I will use it."

Coral packs her clothes, though she doesn't have more than a few changes anyways, as well as a second pair of high boots that she wears after it rains. She doesn't have anything else to bring with her, save a small box of things from her childhood. Inside of it, a wooden horse that her dad carved for her, a handkerchief that her mom embroidered with her initials and two lockets of her parents hair, a bright red curl from her dad and a shiny brown tuft from her mom.

Piers walks her outside, lugging the medicine case awkwardly, having packed it fuller than it has ever been. Before she can take it from him Reid slowly approaches, "I will carry that for you, maiden."

Coral watches him easily pluck the case from Piers. She slings her own bag over her shoulder; standing before Piers, he reaches out and gives her a final hug farewell before abruptly turning and shutting himself in the house. She stands there for a moment, memorizing everything she can of the place she called home for most of her life.

"It is time," Reid says, turning and leading her back to the encampment. She follows him without objection, her head down and eyes watching his brown back legs as his hooves rhythmically rise and fall on the compact dirt. She already feels like her life was just a distant dream before now and that she just woke up to the crushing oppression of reality. Her heart aches for the way things were, though she always had a hard time believing in a future life in this small town. She has never truly belonged anywhere, always being treated like an outlander, similar to the way the men treat the centaurs. Coral can't imagine she will feel any less out of place amongst them than she has her entire life.

Most of the men and women in the meadow are busying themselves with preparations of their own feast, separate from the villagers outside. Smells of savory meat and bread waft through the air, though Coral feels numb to it all. She follows Reid blindly, only stopping when he does, around a low fire in the center of the encampment. The only ones sitting there are Cecil, perched on a log with his legs stretched out before him and his arms crossed over his chest and Margaret, whose face is bright red and puffy—she stares into the fire, each breath causing her to frantically suck in more air, on the verge of another melt down. While they remain unaccompanied, Reid stands behind Coral as she sits on an empty stump waiting for whatever is to come next.

After a little bit a man comes to get Cecil; a while later, the man comes back for Margaret, leaving only Coral around the fire. The sky has darkened, the sun just a distant glow over the tree line. Though she is a stone's throw away from home she feels as if she is in an entirely different country, a strange new land filled with creatures of myth and foreign customs. She finds comfort in the warmth of the fire, watching the dancing flames whip around in a frenzy, almost taunting her with their seductive movements. She feels like she should cry, or yell, or scream, or run away, but she simply sits there and accepts her fate.

An older graying man carries an arm full of cut wood over to them, dropping it into a pile on the ground before jabbing a few logs into the fire, "Hoy, Reid," he says.

"Marcus," Reid replies in greeting, having not moved from his position behind Coral; his arms are crossed over his chest, the flames casting shadows over his looming figure making him appear larger than he actually is.

Marcus glances over at Coral, waiting until she looks up at him, "Ah, so you're the one all the gossip is about."

She looks at the man blankly, sitting with her hands in her lap. She wasn't expecting anyone to approach her other than a centaur. It only makes sense for someone of her own kind to extend a greeting, though she got the distinct impression that the centaur behind her would warn others off; the way he hovers near her makes her feel as if she has been accused of something, though she doesn't know what her offense is.

"Heard there was an argument, some young lad felt slighted?" He laughs, "I can see why, you are a pretty young lass."

Coral gets a chill down her spine; she barely inclines her head towards Reid, her voice quiet, "They seem to think that I will run off."

Marcus glances up, "What, Reid? Naw, that's where you've got it all wrong, lass." He sits on the log next to her brushing his hands off on his pants, "A few Atonements back, I forget what town it was now, but a young maiden was chosen—a pretty little thing, though not as pretty as you. There was a lad who had gotten it in his mind to propose to her but she was plucked before he could. Later that night he snuck into the camp," Marcus shakes his head, "Lads are stupid when they are that age; when they get an idea in their minds and they convince themselves it is the right thing to do. It makes them dangerous and determined and it takes years for that haughty dumbness to wear off. He found the woman and he, well," clearing his throat, he words it politely, "he stole her maidenhood from her, against her will. I suppose the lad thought he was saving her, that if she had already been taken by a man she would be less valuable to the centaurs. I doubt it even occurred to the lad that it wasn't his choice to make." Shaking his head, he tilts it slightly towards Reid, "He's not here to make sure you don't run away, he's here to make sure you remain safe. In time, you'll see the truth."

Her brow crinkles, "What truth?"

"They aren't the savages, lass, we are." He rises when a man walks over, finally summoning Coral. Marcus nods at her, "Good luck, maiden."

Nervously, she follows Reid into a tent mulling over what Marcus had told her. She always felt that the centaurs were chivalrous creatures though she never wanted to admit that the stories she'd heard had still struck fear deep within. Coral tries to keep an open mind, but still finds her heart beating fast, like an animal being hunted, full of worry and scared that they will be no different than the monsters the past had painted them to be. Reid sets her medicine case down to the side, gesturing for her bag only to do the same. Then, he leaves.

Coral stands there awkwardly, waiting. The tent is one of the larger ones, sectioned off into two other chambers by thick tan canvas. Brightly colored woven rugs cover the floor and aside from a few pillows tossed into piles, it is sparsely furnished, containing only a tall table on which a basin and pitcher sit.

When she hears movement, she turns towards the sound. Rainer walks out from one of the partitions, his large, dark, imposing form contrasting the surrounding canvas makes Coral's knees grow weak. She tries to breathe slowly, willing herself not to run.

"I didn't expect that much of a ruckus when I chose you," he says, almost as if it were an apology. Not following it up with anything he waits for her to speak.

"I'm not sure why you did choose me, master centaur," Coral's voice is timid, her fear obvious; she keeps her eyes trained on his black hooves. They bring him a few steps closer.

He snorts, "We are not good with dancing around the truth, Ms. Coral. I chose you because you appear to be a gifted healer. We have a master doctor back in our land who tends to all centaurs, but I am afraid that there is no one to help the human population with their ailments. Plus, our doctor doesn't travel well as he is getting on in years. You are young, vibrant and capable, and while your fellow villagers would look upon us with distain you do not hesitate to help."

She nods, "I understand, Sir." She gets a small sense of relief, barely enough to knock down her will to run though she is still nervous at being left alone with the leader of the centaurs.

"As I said, eloquence often evades us so I will let you know that my reasoning is twofold. The first is as I have said. The second, well," he pauses.

Coral dares to raise her eyes to his, waiting for him to continue.

"You are a young and beautiful woman, Ms. Coral and a verified maiden."

She draws in a sharp breath, feeling her ears burn as the blood rushes through her body. She trembles, trying to keep herself together.

Rainer looks her over waiting for her to speak but when she doesn't he adds, "I chose you in hopes that you will become a mate to my son."

A slight choking sound escapes her and she drops her gaze. Coral wishes she would have put some mushrooms in her pocket before she left home.

"I saw the way he looked at you yesterday, the way he minded you—I have no doubt that he is attracted to you."

Her eyes get wide as she remembers the injured grey centaur and she stutters out, "But he's just—a colt...he's younger than me!"

Rainer's brow furrows, "What, Wistan?" Instantly he laughs, his hearty booming voice no doubt carrying out into the night; the sudden deep sound makes Coral jump. It takes him a moment to rein it in, "Yes, Wistan is a young one and yes, he is my son, but that is not who I was speaking of. I chose you for Quell."

That name instantly dredges up images of his piercing blue eyes, the way his lips felt against hers; she can feel her face start to flush and her fear and dread are almost instantaneously replaced by another feeling—desire. "He is your son too," she states. "Did he...did he ask you to pick me?"

"No," Rainer affirms, "nor would he have even if I gave him the option. He is wise enough not to trouble me with such whims. But yesterday when he spoke with you, you did not shy away in disgust as many your age do. And, last night, I spoke with him when he returned to the encampment from wandering out on his own. He smelled of your scent."

Coral repeats the choking sound, dropping her head to shield her face from his burning eyes; she asks, wondering to what extent their encounter was revealed, "What did he tell you?"

"The truth. That the Governor's son was acting a drunk fool and you ran off into the woods. And that he saw you home safely, and alone, which is definitely not something I approved of as a lone centaur makes a target. But when he told me that despite what you had been through you had concerns for his well being—I knew then that you two would be a good match."

She doesn't respond, her mind a jumbled mix of a million thoughts. While before her future was molded and decided upon by Tobias, her future now is at the choice of Rainer. Either way she is at the whim of men.

Rainer can see her struggle; he retreats behind the curtain only to come back out with a box. He speaks gently to her, "I will not force you into this match, none of us will. Despite what your kind says that is not our way. If you choose each other, then you will be mated. If you don't, then you will be treated justly as our other humans are. You will work your trade in our home for one year and you will be paid a fair wage for it. If, at that time, you decide to leave, you are free to do so."

Coral manages to gain the courage to look up back up at him, "No one ever comes back," she replies.

He opens the box, taking out a pair of short, soft leather gauntlets, much lighter in color than she has seen before and much smaller, almost more of a cuffed bracelet. Reluctantly she offers up her wrists to him; he responds as he laces them on her, "That is because no one ever wants to return."

Looking over the cuffs she sees the beautifully tooled scroll pattern swirl about the leather, "These are different from the others?"

"Aye," he says, putting the box on the table, "a visual way to determine your ranking, if you will. You may freely attend our feast and when you are tired you will sleep in this tent tonight," he points towards the left enclosure.

"You are giving me special treatment," she affirms, "I did not ask for this. Is it because—"

He cuts her off, "It is because you are a special asset. You are more valuable to us than a baker or a seamstress, you are a healer. You will sleep in here so that we can make sure you are safe."

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