82: Jack

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The forest had ceased ringing with weapon fire. His senses now informed him that the enemy had withdrawn several hundred yards. They were not withdrawing from the area, but instead, holding a new position out of combat range.

It also told him about a presence approaching him from behind. It was the one rider who hadn’t dismounted. He glanced over his shoulder only long enough to catch a feminine face at the opposite end of a rifle similar to the one he had just fired, then returned his attention to the girl in his arms. The vision he’d received had cautioned him to keep his attention on the patient and her wound for as long as he could.

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“I’ve stopped the bleeding, but she’s in bad shape,” he reported to the newcomer.

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“What of Lady Tatoan?” came a strong alto query with a lilting accent.

Remembering that the girl now in his care had called Nam “Lady Tatoan” as well, he nodded. “She’s alright, but fainted. She wore herself out by using flux for too long.”

The hoof falls drew closer, then silence prevailed for several seconds. In his new sense, he continued to feel something very strange about the shape of the newest arrival, but he didn’t want to take his eyes off the wound a second time, so soon. He kept track of the newcomer only with flux-sense.

Finally, the rider spoke. “I will carry Lady Tatoan. You collect Meadhbh’s weapon and carry her.”

He nodded, and began organizing. He pulled his uniform shirt back on, collected his utility knife and his backup, slung the girl’s rifle over his shoulder and gathered her into his arms. As much as possible he mostly  kept his eyes on the wounded girl the entire while.

Once he had hefted her, stood and turned, his jaw almost fell open. He had discovered at last why the rider’s flux image confused him.

Rather than seeing a rider dismounted to collect Nam and put her on the horse’s back, he was seeing the ‘horse’ kneeling so that the ‘rider’ could bend down to reach her.

From human hips upward, she was a striking East Asian beauty, dark eyed, bearing a luxurious length of black hair worn in the same style as the wounded girl in his arms. She also wore the same hat and the same outfit, except without the leggings. The bare portions of her arms bore tattoo sleeves as impressive as Nam’s hawk.

The wrongness in his mind’s eye arose from the fact that, although the short skirt draped around a swell resembling human hips where it should have wrapped them, what emerged below the hemline was not thighs but equine withers and shoulder.

She was fully human from the hips up, but she had four legs, a cover of short horse hair, feathered fetlocks, hooves and a horse’s tail.

Actually, her lower body was horse-like rather than horse. In detail her non-human portion had minor differences of proportion just enough to belong to a similar but different animal. Her tail and fetlocks sported the same human black hair as her scalp, but the rest of her equine portion bore a horse’s coat of the same color as her skin, broken up by faint tan stripes in a pattern like a wildebeest.

She was clearly comfortable with both human and equine natures. She wore pack-horse bags over her equine portion in addition to her human backpack and rifle.

In the end, no matter how he parsed it, he was looking at a centaur.

After returning to a standing posture, her steady eyes stared back at him.

“Come”, she ordered at last, then turned and began carrying Nam toward the clearing.

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