Nelda, HoneyBeard and BugleHead scrambled down the tunnel and popped out on a grassy hillside.
"You're going to get a treasure!" BugleHead said excitedly.
"I am never going back in there," Nelda said,
"But wh-why?" BugleHead was astounded.
HoneyBeard trotted past them down the hill. "Because she's just slightly less of an idiot than you are, brother. Good luck with the dragons, girl!"
He continued down the hill at quite an impressive pace for a somewhat portly individual. There was nothing ahead of them but a long expanse of gently rolling hills descending down into what looked like a marsh or moor. HoneyBeard could canter a good mile or two without passing out of sight, and Nelda's feet were hurting. [Besides, where could he possibly be going?]
"But, but you wear the raiment of the unicorn?" BugleHead looked like a kid who had just heard the bad news about Santa.
"Yeah, that's just for decoration. I told you about the big metal god, right. But big metal gods are terrible inspirations for fabric designs. Unicorns and rainbows are much prettier."
BugleHead walked alongside her, drooping ears bobbing with each step. "Alicorn is very useful you know," he said. "It's a really high-grade treasure. It is the antidote to any drug or poison, and the cure for any disease. And if you perform the right rite. Ha, ha, Right rite…."
"Oh, right. You can bring the unicorn back to life. Because unicorns are extinct and that's kind of sad. Oh, I've got another one, rainbow raiment. The right rite in rainbow raiment."
"Which will not be happy happening."
"You're no fun. No wait, you've still made things more interesting than they have been in years. So, I mean, no treasure. It's okay. I guess. There's still the centaur."
"I mean, that's a centaur, isn't it?" He pointed ahead of them where HoneyBeard was now running directly back towards them, pursued by a… centaur.
[Can I not get a break here?]
The centaur wasn't quite like they are in overblown fantasy paintings. He seemed to be made by combining a rather small, bow-legged pony with a rather large, pot-bellied man. He held a long spear in one hand, and rather nice woven basket with a loop handle in the other--in which some brown scaly objects were bouncing vigorously.
"Halt, foul creature," the centaur proclaimed.
Bluffing had been working pretty well for Nelda so far, so she decided to just roll with it. "Foul? You're not exactly a posy of spring flowers yourself."
"What?" The centaur stopped short, his spear raised menacingly.
"I mean you must have a nasty little mind if you come across a person minding their own business, strolling along, and you accost them like this and make with the insults." Nelda tried to summon the acidic tone and phrasing of Ms. Andrew, the deputy principal of her primary school who had dealt with all the female miscreants.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the centaur said, abashed. "I didn't see you was a priestess. Do you vouch for these guys?"
"Certainly, these satyrs are my retainers. We have been on a quest and were at this moment—loud stomach growl—thinking about finding something to eat."
"And drink," added BugleHead.
"Aw yeah," the centaur said, his whole mood suddenly changed. "I'm out here picking sweet cones, but also like keeping an eye on the lamia cave in case she comes out. So, when I suddenly saw you coming from that direction, I sorta freaked out."
"Oh, Echidna. Yeah, I can see that being an issue."
The centaur stiffened, hefting his spear again. "How do you know Echidna Drakaina, then?"
"It's not like we're buds. We were just on… a quest. Searching for a unicorn horn."
The centaur's eyes flicked to Nelda's now considerably soiled clothes. "I guess that makes sense. I bet she wouldn't give it to you." He huffed and thought about the situation with a visible and painful intensity for a moment. "You should come talk to the BellMare."
"What an excellent idea, and isn't it about time for lunch?"
BugleHead clapped his hands with enthusiasm. HoneyBeard, still catching his breath, just rolled his eyes.
As they crested a low hill, an almost-hidden crevice-valley came into view. Nelda was starting to limp. Her socks had worked their way down and her heavy shoes rubbed on the back of her heels. In order to maintain some illusion of dignity, Nelda didn't stop to fiddle with her footwear.
In the valley, there were various structures that looked like fences or windbreaks made from woven branches. There were clusters of centaurs, several fires smoldering, and tasks being carried out. One female was overseeing what looked like centaur-baby nap time, with the little ones snoozing in the grass with all their limbs curled up.
Some of the activities were a little more ambiguous, like the two hefty centaurs that seemed to be digging a trench or hole with almost modern-looking shovels. And one who was beating the contents of a large sack with a heavy stick.
They were brought at last to a female centaur near the center of the group. Her horse-body was lying on the ground atop a rug, but her lady-parts [so to speak] had the posture of a Victorian Dowager. She had short yellow-white hair on her head and horse-body and a shawl that was woven in shades of red and blue wrapped around her shoulders and clutched in her hands.
Instinctively, Nelda knelt down in front of her, putting her hands on her knees. [This is not someone to look down at.]
"Ah," said the centaur accompanying them. "I thought you'd want to see, ah, this."
The old female centaur looked at Nelda appraisingly while the satyrs did their blending-into-the-background act.
"Guardsman Freyason," she said in a creaking but charismatic voice. "Have a message sent to Gryphon GuildSmith. He will want to know about this, and then do return to your post." Before he took more than two steps the old lady winked at Nelda and said, "You can leave the sweetcones."
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