Edgar stepped into a clearing and found a centaur suckling her child. He threw his hands over his eyes.
'I am terribly sorry, madam!'
'It's all right.'
Her tone was scornful, but with better things to worry about, Edgar did not take it to heart. He uncovered his eyes. She was feeding the child like a mare, not a woman, so he felt no need for embarrassment. He stooped down a little, trying to determine the gender of the young one. As with foals, it was easy enough to tell.
'What a delightful little boy,' he said.
The mother smiled. 'Thank you.'
'Do you mind if I sit down here for a few minutes?'
'I am very tired.'
The centaur made no reply. She stood with arms folded and her back legs slightly apart, gazing out into the forest. Edgar was disappointed. The significance of the situation had not escaped him, and he hoped she would talk to him.
The first thing to do was find somewhere to sit. There was no handy log nearby, so he had to settle himself under a tree. The ground seemed a lot further away than it had as little as ten years ago. He felt the strain in his bones as he lowered himself down, and puffed and panted with the effort. The centaur swung her head round to look at him.
'Are you all right?' she asked.
'Yes, I'm fine. Just feeling my age.'
'Well, there's water not far in that direction if you need it.' She indicated with a tilt of her head, and then continued to ignore him.
Edgar wondered whether he ought to have exaggerated his discomfort. Maybe she would have offered to help him, or at least been willing to engage him in conversation to distract him from his pain. But it was too late for that now, so Edgar turned his attention to the little one. He had already made the mother smile with his compliment towards the child.
The young centaur seemed steady enough on his stick-like legs. He had to stretch his neck to feed, and his arms flailed uncertainly at his sides, unable to reach and rest upon any part of the mother.
'Excuse me, madam,' Edgar said. 'I hope you don't mind my asking. How old is your child?'
'I'm not sure precisely,' said the centaur. 'Not much more than a day.'
'Really?' The fascination in his voice was genuine. 'A human that age cannot even support his own head - not until he is some months old. A horse, on the other hand, gives birth to young considerably larger than your boy. How very fascinating.'
'Well,' said the centaur, 'he is neither a human nor a horse.'
Edgar's heart sank. He had heard that centaurs were highly strung, and now this one was clearly offended.
'I'm sorry. I didn't mean
'Never mind, old man. Humans and centaurs have never really understood each other, I know.'
'Indeed,' said Edgar. 'As it happens, we humans don't take very kindly to being called "old man".'
'But you are one.'
She stared at him for a moment. Then she said, 'I'm sorry.'
'That's quite all right.'
Edgar knew already that the centaur was not going to ask him his business. He also knew it would be folly to ask her directly what he wanted to know, but perhaps he could bring up the subject of his predicament in a casual sort of way.
'I suppose I shouldn't stay,' he said. 'But I don't quite dare go back home, you see. I've come from Victory Keep.'
The centaur raised her eyebrows. 'Have you indeed? Let me guess. You're on some mission for the human king.'
'Indeed I am.'
'Are you a servant?'
'Not exactly. I'm the king's chief advisor.'
The centaur laughed. 'I'll never understand you humans. Kings
advisors! Why bother living under a dictator if he can't even make his own decisions?'
'Now then,' said Edgar, 'you don't know our king, young lady.'
'Would you call a human "young lady"?'
'And it isn't an insult?'
'What? Oh,' said Edgar, 'you mean like "old man". Well, no. It doesn't make any sense, really, does it?'
The centaur smiled, and shook her head.
Encouraged by the smile, Edgar asked, 'What is your name, my dear?'
'Xorie,' she said. 'And yours?'
'Well, Edgar, if your king isn't as bad as all that, why are you afraid to go back to him?'
'I'm on a very important mission,' said Edgar. 'The king would be very nice about it, I'm sure, but even so I don't like to go back empty-handed. A child's life is at stake.'
'The daughter of a friend of the king's, barely even as old as your boy. Her mother died in childbirth, and the father died of grief.'
'Died of grief?' said Xorie. 'Can that happen?'
'Well, there may have been poison involved.'
'Selfish brute! What about his child?'
'Indeed,' said Edgar. He took a deep breath. Now was the time. 'The king has charged me with finding her a wet nurse. But they're just not that easy to find, you see, at short notice. Normally we'd have months of warning.'
'You could feed her on other animals' milk,' said Xorie. 'Cows, goats
You humans do that, don't you? I'm sure it wouldn't harm her.'
'You are quite right,' said Edgar, 'but she is the king's ward now. He will insist upon her being fed by the, um
Xorie laughed. 'How funny. Our men have no difficulty in talking about such things. If you were after a human mother, why did you come all the way out here?'
'I'm not sure,' said Edgar. 'I didn't expect to find a wet nurse in the woods, of course, but having searched every town and village I am starting to feel rather desperate.'
'Well, I suppose it's occurred to you that I could do it.'
'Could you?' Edgar's eyes dropped to her breasts, covered by a pretty garment fashioned from leaves and flowers.
She folded her arms across her chest. 'Yes.'
Edgar looked away. 'I'm sorry. I just wasn't sure if, um
'He has a choice.'
'I do find this more comfortable,' said Xorie. 'But a human child I could cradle in my arms, couldn't I? You say she's smaller than Fipp? And she can't even support her own head? How utterly pathetic human babies must be.'
'Fipp,' said Edgar. 'What a delightful name. The young girl's name is Katrina.'
'Don't say that to anyone at the castle, whatever you do. That is
if you're coming.'
'Will it be quite all right?' Xorie asked. 'A centaur suckling a princess, I mean?'
'Oh, she isn't a princess. That is
the king and queen would be most grateful to you, madam. And
it is an agreeable arrangement to you, is it?'
'I suggested it.'
'Indeed, but I have heard that centaurs don't like working for humans.'
Xorie sighed, and said, 'What choice do I have?'
I don't know.'
'Of course you don't. What about Fipp? I trust he will be treated well?'
Edgar glanced down at the child, who was still suckling. 'He will be made most welcome, madam, and you will both be quite comfortable. Shall I return to the castle and arrange transportation for him?'
'It's all right. He'll follow me on foot.'
'Are you sure?'
'He can stand, hold his head up and walk,' said Xorie, 'and I happen to know your Victory Keep isn't far from here. We'll go now, shall we? I think you have had enough, my darling.'
She reached behind her and pulled Fipp gently by the tail. He licked his lips, tottered round on shaky legs and shot his mother a resentful look.
'We're moving on now, Fipp,' she said. 'Edgar, do please lead the way.'