I had only a moment to settle myself on the centaur's back before the crashing sound of breaking branches heralded the beginning of a headlong race through the trees. My first discovery was that it is distinctly more difficult to balance on the back of a centaur than it is on the back of a regular horse. I felt bruised and bounced within moments despite the smooth gait of the being between my legs. It was awkward and uncomfortable, primarily from my own concerns not to offend the stallion - for stallion he must be if he is the leader - by treating him like a regular horse.
His head turned slightly as he raced with an impressive agility through the trees, ducking to avoid a branch as he looked at me. I ducked just in time, feeling myself slip slightly over the slick but coarse hair that covered the striped flanks. "Hold on properly, human. You are making this significantly more difficult for us both if I must worry 'bout keeping you on my back." It was said with a good amount of disgust and I was certain it was both for my own awkwardness and his position of being a load-bearer.
I winced, leaning forward to grab fistfulls of the main that trailed down the stallion's back. His grunt, barely heard in the whipping of air past my ears, made it rather clear I was to get a better grip, and so I wrapped the long strands of hair around my hands. Then I tightened my knees around his sides, longing for stirrups and a saddle, two thing I knew no centaur would ever willingly condescend to allow.
In moments my thighs ached from the unaccustomed position. Wider around than any horse I remembered, the muscles moving just a little differently, the torso changing the center of balance from being directly below me to a point slightly ahead. I leaned forward just a little more, feeling the coarse hair of the mane flick my face, threatening to pass between my lips as I gasped for air. I was tempted to just wrap my arms around the waist before me, press my cheek against the back that rippled with musculature on either side of the mane, but that was more than I could take, to say nothing of the stallion who no doubt would much prefer bucking me off to having me cling to him like a maiden to her first lover.
That thought had me easing my grip, but a snarl carried on the wind had me tightening it again.
I saw little as we raced through the trees, merely hoping not to smash my forehead against a branch, lose an eye to an outstretched twig, fall from my perch, or be scraped off by a close pass by a tree. The shades of brown and green blurred, dappled with yellows and hints of other, barely visible colours. Nothing could be seen clearly but the streaks that were the other centaurs.
I was in awe of the ability of these creatures to maneuver in the tight spaces between the trees. Nothing in my admittedly patchy memory had prepared me for centaurs with such markings. I knew of zebras, but a race of centaurs related to them was not something I expected.
A sudden stirring beneath the skin of my chest left me breathless, an uncomfortable feeling of my skin being a little too tight for what it contained. If I could have spared a hand I would have rubbed it along my sternum, but just then the stallion who carried me whipped quickly around the trunk of a tree and I had to clutch tighter to avoid falling.
Of our pursuers I had seen nothing, merely heard the occasional crash or heard cries that suggested other centaurs in the party were doing what they could to disuade their enemies they named the Ixion.
What manner of beings could the Ixion be? More, what interest had they in artifacts?
What other artifacts had fallen from the sky? I had to wonder if their number included other people.
Perhaps a more important, if much more daunting question, related to just why this was happening at all. Something was causing it, that much was certain, but I had no idea what. Even if I had previously known, I no longer could answer that question.
Too many questions, too many things unknown.
A sudden lurching stop, panted breaths, heaving sides of the centaurs brought me out of my reverie and I realized that aside from those noises there was silence. I straightened slightly, although found my knees clamped too hard to relax, muscles knotted from unaccustomed use.
"Are we... safe?" My voice was thick, sounding unfamiliar to my ears from an apparent lack of use. I tried to clear my throat and heard rough, if soft, laughter echo around me.
"I suppose you could call it that," one of the other centaurs snorted. I still had trouble distinguishing between them, the differences seeming slight in comparison with the similarities to my eyes. But still, I thought this might have been one of the first two I had seen. That he gripped a lance hightened that suspicion as the weapons they each held represented a fairly wide-ranging arsenal.
The leader stamped a hoof, tail switching, and I adjusted my balance slightly to avoid an embarrassing tumble to the loam. "The Ixion will not follow here, not without great numbers and great risk." His head turned, and I presumed his eyes met those of other warriors, before he nodded his head in the direction we had come. "Go. Check the wards. I will put the artifact with the others."
I had been downgraded again from "human" to "artifact." It was rather demeaning and I suspected it would be on par with referring to a centaur as a horse, but I was hardly in a position to argue at the moment. Still, I felt pride and anger burn within me. More, I felt a painful drumming of my heart, each beat demanding I find a way back to her, find a way to save her.
I saw a face in my mind, a figure, but more than that, who she was or why she was so important, that I was not quite certain of. I simply knew that the moth on my chest was her gift, that she had tried to save me when I fell. And most paramount, I knew she was critical to... everything.