He was back in the dream. The rough hands clenched Miral and, just as the tylor’s armored jaws jabbed into the crevice, powerful arms hauled him through the back of the crack in the stone.
“Truly thou hast gotten thyself in a royal fix, little elf,” a deep voice said above the toddler’s head.
Miral, eyes wet with tears, lifted his head and peered up through the gloom of the cave; this portion seemed to be lit less well than the tunnels he’d come through. He gulped back a sob and tried to focus on his rescuer.
It was a man, the youngster saw, but what a man! Bands of muscle rippled across a corded, barrel-shaped chest. The man’s shoulders were huge, brushed with white hair that curled from his head and chin. When the man looked down at him, Miral looked deep into violet eyes that shone with kindness.
“Methinks thou art too young to be wandering about without thy dam, youngling,” the man said.
At that moment, Miral became aware of hoofbeats clopping against the damp stone of the tunnels. The man came to a fork in the tunnel and turned to the right without stopping. But how had he signaled his intention to his horse? the little boy wondered. Miral looked down.
The man was a horse! Or the horse was a man; Miral couldn’t decide. He looked up again, a delighted smile lighting his face.
“You’re a centaur!” Miral cried.
“Of course,” the creature replied, cradling the youngster in strong arms.
The centaur must have been seven feet tall from hooves to the top of his aristocratic head. He moved gracefully on the wet rocks, long tail flowing behind. Around the shoulders of the horse portion of the centaur, the creature wore a leather purse. Miral slipped little hands down to investigate the purse, but the creature held him higher, out of reach.
“Thou art a curious one,” the centaur murmured in a bass voice. “No doubt ’tis why thou art so deep in the caverns.”
“Someone called me,” Miral explained, wanting this creature, above all, to like him. “From the tunnel.”
The centaur’s pale purple eyes widened and his gait slowed somewhat, then speeded again. “Thou heard the Voice? Truly thou hast magic in thy soul, young elf. ’Tis not all who hear the Graygem call.” He took another turn, and another. Soon the toddler had no idea where he’d been or where he was now.
The creature continued to speak soothingly to the child. “Thou art warm, child. Thy dam should give thee a posset for thy fever. I will take thee home directly.”
Miral, rocked by the steady pace of the gentle centaur, was growing sleepy. “Why are you here?” he asked drowsily.
“Ah, the Graygem hath great treasure indeed,” the centaur said. “And, in truth, the beastly rock hath done me grave ill in the past and I’m sworn to vengeance. And that, little elf, be all thou need know.”
The centaur picked up his gait, and soon the toddler dozed in the creature’s arms. He awakened periodically, once when fresh air fanned through his hair and he realized he was moving through the moonless night, somewhere outside the caverns, and once while the centaur moved nearly silently through the tiled Qualinost streets.
Finally, they arrived at the palace. Miral roused enough to note their passage around the back of the structure, through the gates into the garden—Why didn’t the guards look up? he wondered—and from there into the courtyard. Large hands laid him down on soft moss and covered him with a cloth.
“Go to sleep, little elf,” the centaur murmured. “Thou wilt not remember this experience in the morn.”
With a last pat on the toddler’s shoulder, the centaur wheeled in the courtyard and, silently, was gone.