Aiony, painted princess of the unicorns looked out over the Hallow Hills. The light of the setting sun set the Hills awash with colour, hot reds, cool golden and sundog. The spangled light fringed the half-grown mare's silhouette with fire. The sweet wind of late spring cast her mane about her.
She stood on a lookout knoll above the Hills. Gazing out beyond the Hills, Aiony could see the plains, and she thought of her granddam. Aiony missed the poppy maned mare, though it was three years since Ses had quit the Hills, and ventured out onto Alma's Back. Three years since the Battle of Endingfire, where she and Dhattar played their part, telling Lell to join the warhost and carry the firebrand against the wyrmking Lynex.
Her twin had nearly matured to the size of Jan and Calydor, attaining the shape of both. He was molded exactly the same as Jan and Calydor, with a dancer's gait and warrior's grace, while Aiony had attained the shape of her dam, pied queen Tek. She was lithe and long-legged, tall and strapping, possessing her passionate, bold ways, agile quickness and wit.
Dhattar, nicknamed Dha, had forgone the throne to pursue the healing arts as Teki's acolyte, and learn of the singer and seer's craft from Calydor, leaving Aiony to shoulder the burden. And bear it she would. When Tek died, Aiony would ascend as queen, which wouldn't be for a great many years.
With a furious snort, Aiony wheeled at the sound of hoofbeats behind her. Her surprise changed to delight as she beheld her mallow-red, black-maned granddam Jah-lila mount the knoll behind her. Squealing like a filly, Aiony reached to champ the Red Mare on the crest of her neck. The magicker mare shook her off, laughing. "Hail, daughter of my daughter!"
"Hail as well, granddam! How have your travels kept you, and my pan aunts?" Aiony smiled, remembering her dear playmates.
The Red Mare looked past the young mare, over the knoll, and down to where Pitipak plucked strands of grass from fire-white Dhattar's mane. Sismoomnat suckled a young pan child as she watched the antics of colts that frisked about the small meadow. She had pledged with a pan warrior, Taxillatat, the previous year, and had borne him a fine, sturdy child. "My travels have been well! Your sire's peace forged with the Free People of the Plain has been a lasting one." Aiony murmured her assent.
A gentle wind picked up lifting Aiony's night and silver mane from her neck. "Moon's rising," she observed.
Jah-lila nodded, a small smile creasing her dayan features. "Moondance tonight, as well."
Aiony started. "I had forgotten."
"We should hasten to the council rock, for it is you, now, who leads the dance." Jah-lila cautioned with a smile.
The painted half-grown picked at the grassy turf with one cloven heel, than began forward, sighing.
The Red Mare fell into step behind her, and the two descended through the trees to the floor of the Hills.
Pied queen Tek stood on the council rise, overlooking the circling rush of unicorns dancing below her. At her shoulder stood the dark stallion Jan, Alma's prophesied Firebringer, once acclaimed prince of unicorns. Standing on the rise, Tek was reminded of when she learned that it was she, not Jan, to whom the throne belonged.
Leaning on him now, Tek remembered the gut wrenching loss she had felt when she thought that she must lose her beloved because of her deceiving sire, mad king Korr. Now, the jet-and-rose mare mused, now she knew why he had always held her in high regard against the one he believed his son. Korr must have felt some secret pride as she grew, feeling smug as Tek became a warrior to be reckoned with. It always Jan that he loved most though, for he had turned against her when he learned of the innocent pledge she and Jan shared, and fell through to madness when he learned of her pregnancy. Korr died believing that Jan was his son, and had pledged with his daughter.
But such thoughts, what has been done and gone, were bootless. Tek shook them off like flies. It was hard to believe that scant three years past she had taken the throne. Gazing down Tek saw their new weaned filly, Ciree, traipsing about the swaying line of dancers.
The young filly was deepest rose, near mallow in colour with a coal dark mane and tail, and her shanks were black night, as well. A jagged silver blaze extended from her forehead to her nostrils.
Tek came back to herself when Jan champed her lightly on the crest. Chivvying his ribs, Tek laughed. Jan whickered "Come, love, let us join the dance." Nipping him smartly on the shoulder, Tek vaulted from the rise to land among the celebrants, followed by her dark mate. Swallowed by the steam of moon's children, the pied queen shook herself for sheer exuberance and danced.
Aiony kicked up her heels beneath Alma's silver daughter, shivering with delight. The snorting breath and panting of her fellows filled her ears as she plunged about, the line of dancers trailing, streaming behind her. Night wind breathed warm and balmy, and Aiony could scarce contain her verve.
Watching her sire and dam's antics, she felt flush with power, as she and all her folk drew strength from the bright moon, the white fire that burned in the hooves, horns, teeth and bones of all unicorns.
Pale Dhattar pranced up alongside her, blue eyes gleaming devilishly. The acolyte healer whickered spiritedly "The dance is all the more lively for your coronation."
Aiony chivvied his shoulder. "It might not have been as lively had it been yours," she teased laughingly.
"Those are fighting words!" Dhattar brought his horn down in a sharp curve on her rump. Aiony shouldered him sideways and knocked at his horn. They circled each other in play, and stopped every now and then for a furious round of fencing. It was proving harder and harder to spar with Dhattar, for he was fast nearing the size of his sire and grandsire, already taller at the shoulder than was she.
Aiony tossed her head and caught a flash of mallow-red and night-dark. It was Jah-lila, midwife and magicker, standing at the edge of the grove. She simply stood and surveyed the milling colours that marked the dancing unicorns.
Aiony shifted in step, warning Dhattar off. She pummeled harder with her hooves, driving him backwards. Whickering, he retreated into the flow of dancers, sky blue eyes promising to settle it later, a mischievous smile gracing his lips.
Returning her attention to Tek's dam, Aiony couldn't help but wonder what the Red Mare was doing. Black-green eyes staring straight ahead, the mare seemed fiercely focused on something the painted half-grown could not see.
Suddenly the mallow mare shook herself; eyes becoming less clouded, clearing. Jah-lila's attention jerked back to the earthly plane and she returned to herself. Aiony shied a little when the mare turned her glassy-eyed stare on her, one of surprise and was it…awe?
Aiony turned from the midwife to reenter the dance. She could feel the Jah-lila's eyes bore into her back as she gave ground, and allowed herself to be swept away in the river-rush of dancers.
The morning breathed cool and clear, blowing sweet fingers of wind over the Hills, and sweeping away silt and spare brush in its catch. It raced about trees and eddied at the forest floor, touching gently on the Mere of the Moon, and gliding on. It seemed to pause at the smooth egress of a grotto, than continued.
The sun filled the dusky light of the cave with sparkling light, dancing in the new morn's heat. Lell opened her eyes and, blinking sleepily, pulled herself upright. Shaking her head, mane splashing like milk, she stood and shook away the last drowsy coils of sleep trammeling her mind.
Inhaling a deep, eager breath she bounded from the cave, glorying in the warm sundew shimmering in the air. At a youthful eight summers old, Lell was still full of herself, and not yet pledged, though some in the herd murmured that she should be by now. Fencing with an imaginary foe, Lell darted and sprang, than trotted briskly over the green meadow.
No sooner had she moved to join the other early risers that Lell staggered from a great impact on her side. Staggering, Lell fought for balance and whirled on the enemy. Pawing the ground she charged at…none other than the six summers-old daughter of Jan and Tek.
Aiony laughed at her aunt, and lowered her head for Lell. Springing forward like roe bucks, the two young mares clashed, slapping at each other with the flats of their horns. Lell's neck muscles bulged as each pushed for ground. With an unexpected heave, Lell threw off the painted half-grown, Aiony reeling backwards.
"I can still beat you in a fair fight, princess," Lell panted.
Aiony stamped the ground. "Not for too much longer, late king's daughter." Aiony was tall for her age, and stood of a common height and heft with Lell, but not for long. It was known that the princess would soon overtake her aunt in growth.
Lell nipped the ebony shoulder and took off. Galloping away o'er the meadow, she entered the trees and heard Aiony in hot pursuit. Showering in dappled spots all about her, the light let in by the trees was near to nothing. Using her own memory of the placement of obstacles, Lell shot through the wood.
The ground tilted upwards and free of trees. Golden grass swayed around her hooves. The milkwood groves surrounded them, the sweet odour hanging in the air. Stopping at the side of a polished mahogany trunk, Lell sampled a spray of the sweet flowers. She closed her eyes, savoring the taste and remembering how she had come to these cliffs before, as a fugitive, to fulfill her own destiny.
Aiony drew even with the gold-merled darkamber mare, nickering. "Sooth, you have gained in speed since last we matched!"
Lell tossed her head, ramping. As she made to reply to the night and silver half-grown, she glanced up at the sky. It was clear; midmorn and green as grass. As green as tercel's down, Lell thought.
Her expression softened, saddened. She missed greatly her shoulder-friend of old, the huge gryphon tercel Illishar. His burnt plumage had come back silver, the rest still green fletched and gold, marking his bravery in saving her life. Illishar's visits had been few and far apart, the latest many moons ago.
He had promised to visit often when he left! Lell ducked her head, fighting back anger and tears. Her countenance hardened. She was a warrior, she needed no one.
Aiony's voice broke her from her thoughts like a thunderclap. "Lell? Aunt Lell?"
Lell snorted and shifted, memories ebbing. She smiled, a little pained. "Sorry, Aiony. You bore me."
Aiony squealed and champed her-hard-on the neck. Rearing, she pushed her elder aunt over sideways. The darkamber mare chivvied Aiony's side. "Come," Aiony bade her "the herd will wonder if we are lost."
Lell cast a longing glance over the treetops of the milkwood grove, into the sky. "You go. I wish to stay here a while longer."
The young painted mare eyed her dubiously, but made no protest. "Come soon," she began, but thought better of her words and turned to leave. Moving to an easy trot she left the glade behind.
Digging the turf with her hooves, Lell sighed. With a heave of breath, Lell, too, turned slowly to go, back the way she had come. So lost in times of the past was she that she didn't prick her ears to the sound of wingbeats mounting the sky, flushing air out of their way. A large shadow flew over Lell's back. Feeling the shift of heat, Lell whirled. Gazing upwards, she saw nothing. Grass parted as within the shade of an overhanging bough of forest lit a shadowy shape. Easing, she turned slowly around-and gasped.
Unable to catch her breath, Lell could scarcely believed what she beheld. "Illishar!" she exulted in a near shriek. "Illishar!"
Couched modestly in the lush grass flooring the milkwood glade, Illishar purred in a relaxed tone "I was began to wonder when you would notice, warrior." Preening one shoulder before rising, the gryphon tercel was nearly brought down again by the force of Lell crashing into him.
Dancing delightedly about him the gold-merled mare launched into a series of questions. "Whence have you been the duration of this time, with your flock? Why have you not come to visit me?"
Illishar chuckled deep in his throat, green eyes gleaming. His expression abruptly softened. "How have you been, among your people, your flock?"
Lell smote the ground unhappily with her foreleg " Answer me, first. Then will I answer your questions."
The tercel sighed. "I have been unable to visit you, on account of certain…events."
Lell began to ask him of what events delayed him for so long, but was stopped by a third voice. "Aunt Lell? You've been here long enough, have you not? Come, the morning runs short-Illishar!"
Aiony bounded from the depths of the groves. "Hail, Illishar!" She rubbed shoulders in greeting with him, difficult for her to do since he was so tall. "Was the journey hard?"
"Nay, moonshadow. My pinions are strong." Watching him flexing one such magnificent wing, Lell felt her withers draw once more, longing for some of her own. The trio began to drift gradually into the wood, lost in easy, aimless chatter, murmuring softly off of the trunks of trees and echoing in the stillness.
Aiony stood at the edge of the Mere of the Moon. The cool waters lapped gently at her cloven hooves, as she stood lost in thought. After Illishar's joyous reception and welcome to the herd, he and Lell had retired to the forest to speak, as they had never had the chance to do so for many moons.
She was brought to attention by a voice calling her name. She wheeled lightly on her hindquarters, to see Dhattar and another coming through the groves. "Hail, brother, what brings you here?"
Dhattar chivvied her shoulder. "We spent the better part of an hour seeking you."
"We?" inquired Aiony.
"Dhattar and I," a new voice spoke. Aiony turned her head to view the speaker better.
Emerging from between the smooth, mahogany trunks of the milkwood trees strode a young stallion, a year Aiony's junior. He shook his true yellow forelock from his eyes and snorted. True yellow forequarters shading to brilliant salmon on the rump, Culu was a rare colour indeed.
"Hail princess," he said evenly. Culu was of the same height and heft as Aiony, and as Lell, standing level with her, and still growing.
Aiony dipped her head, "Hail son-of-Dagg. Is my calculating brother leading you astray?"
Dhattar nipped her on the shoulder. "It's the truth, isn't it?" she teased him. Culu came to stand beside the painted mare, blowing through his nostrils. "The Red Mare would speak with you," he continued "She sent us to locate you."
Champing him lightly on the crest of his neck, Aiony nodded. She had not held council with her granddam since moondance the eve before. Culu struck at her with a soft forehoof. With a whinny, Aiony struck his horn away from her. Dhattar stood off, absently nibbling a flybite on his shoulder.
The easy shove and pushing match quickly became a fast sparring match. Batting her horn away, Culu gained ground, pushing her from Dhattar and the pool. Bracing herself against his shoulder, she slashed his neck light enough not to draw blood, but hard enough to make him back down. Seizing the opportunity, she moved forward in an onslaught of thrusts and jabs. Culu signaled for a stop, his fiery horn no longer slapping at hers. Aiony slowed…only to pummeled lightly on the shoulder with Culu's forehooves. He sprang away laughing.
With a whinny she sprang into pursuit. Culu charged in the direction of the limestone cliffs, where the wyverns used to dwell. Redoubling her speed, Aiony galloped harder, to intercept him. Dhattar had dashed a few halting steps after them, than halted, a smile playing over his lips.
Glancing over one shoulder to make sure she was following, Culu dodged among the milkwood trees, well aware she was gaining. He reached the vertical slope where the battle had raged three years ago, and paced a few steps.
Like a startled hare, he shot off to the side, avoiding the place where Lell had descended to join the fray. Aiony bounded after him. The slope added to her speed and she stretched her long legs to catch him up.
Instead of veering to span the vast expanse of meadow where three years ago, the Battle of Endingfire was fought and won, Culu kept running. He disappeared in the gloom of the trees.
Aiony closed the distance quickly. Halting, she listened, pricking her ears to catch the sound of Culu's passing. After a moment, Aiony turned…and found herself looking into Culu's mahogany-brown eyes. He had been watching her from the trees. With a whinny, he sprang away.
Crashing through the bracken in hot pursuit, Aiony stopped at the edge of a fast-flowing river. A quick glance found Culu standing in the middle of it. His legs were braced against the current, and his forelock dropped over his eyes, giving him a rakish look. Not twelve paces from where he stood lay a sharp dropoff, a thin trickle of a waterfall. It didn't fall very far, but solid rock was all that lay at its bottom. Even as Aiony watched, from upstream a thick log floated towards the sundog hued young stallion. If he didn't move, it would catch his legs and drag him over the edge!
"Culu!" she cried. He whirled to behold the log flying through the water. He tensed to jump, and leaped. A strand of aquatic weed coiled about his fetlock and jerked him down. Culu stumbled and landed splay-legged in the midst of the flowing water. The log coursed toward him at a great speed.
Aiony felt rooted to the spot. Her eyes found the log as it raced toward Culu. Focusing, she fixed with a fierce stare, willing it to stop. To her wonder, it halted. A great pressure pressed against Aiony's mind. Fighting it back, she kept it at bay, training her eyes on the log.
Sweat broke out over her, hot pricks that soon turned to beads, than to drops. Her body shook with the effort. It almost felt as though she were the log, the water pushing her, slowly, inevitably toward Culu and the edge. "Go Culu!" she gasped out.
Culu, not wasting a moment of his time, worried the weed furiously with his teeth. When that proved to no avail, he slashed it with his horn. It sheared off, carried away with the water. Leaping from the water, he stumbled upon landing. His eyes became as round as moons, to see Aiony fighting the pull of the current.
She felt something filling her, and she let go. The force rushed from her sweat-soaked body and suddenly, she was no longer standing.
Aiony awoke to a warm side pressed against her own. Leaning against the other's side, she heaved an exhausted sigh. Culu nipped her gently. "Are you hale?" she asked him.
"I am," he answered "but how of you? What happened? What did you do?"
"I don't know," she answered him honestly "I-" From the corner of her eye, Aiony saw the Red Mare. Jah-lila stood in the shadows of the wood, smiling. A look of utter conviction showed in her eyes. Conviction of what? Thought Aiony. As she watched, the midwife's left eye closed in a slow wink as she retreated into the forest.
Culu's eyes filled with concern. "You needn't have…done that for me."
"Yes I did," Aiony said with a fierceness that surprised even herself. "You could have perished."
"I feel as though I owe you something," he said.
"You don't." the painted half-grow mare shook her head.
"My truename," Culu said suddenly "My truename is Culkelu."
Aiony's eyes widened. "Colour-of-burning." She smiled. "It suits." She felt a rush of gratitude, followed by shame. "My truename is Aionil'yah."
Culu shifted. "Shadow-under-the-moon. It suits as well."
Aiony sighed and leaned into his warmth. "We should leave. The others will wonder where we are."
Culu stood up with a grunt, and used his nose to steady her as she rose shakily. Resting a bit on his shoulder, Aiony and Culu began to make their way back to the herd.
That eve, the eyes of Alma shining all about her, Aiony found Jah-lila, standing apart from the herd, grazing contemplatively. "You wanted to see me?"
Jah-lila nodded. "I believe, granddaughter, that you have the talent to become a magicker, as am I." She paused to watch Aiony catch her breath. "I watched you, when you held the log back to protect young Culu. It came to me, as you regained consciousness, that I have no acolyte, no one to keep the herd in their care for the duration of my many absences. I have seen," the Red Mare paused "that you would develop such powers in time. For some years, I thought perhaps Dhattar would. But no. It came to me last night, during the moondance that you would inherit this gift and burden. You have the rare ability to understand, and use the limited ways of magic, even when you yourself is not aware of it."
Aiony digested this slowly. For some reason, this revelation did not alarm her. She wondered why this was so. "You have known this only since last night?"
Again Jah-lila nodded. "I can teach you to use your powers for the good of the herd. To scry, call weather…and other things."
Tossing her head and feeling her parti-coloured mane settle along her neck, Aiony consented. "Very well. I will be your acolyte."
Jah-lila smiled in approval. "Come to me tomorrow. I will teach you the ways of the magicker."
Aiony gazed up at the stars, and was reminded of the star path markings possessed by her grandsire, Calydor the seer. Heaving a sigh, the painted princess bade her granddam farewell. "Good eve to you, until we meet tomorrow."
"And to you as well, young magicker." Jah-lila bade softly to her back. If Aiony heard, she did not mark it, but for a small halt in her step.
The rest of the young half-grown warriors cavorted in the meadow, shaking their heads and sparring. Aiony approached them but did not join in. Instead she stood off, watching them play. Doubt, confusion and a little excitement weighed heavy on her mind.
Dhattar, always the observant one, noticed almost immediately. "What ails you sister?"
Aiony smiled, if not a little weakly, at him. "Nothing. I am fine and hale. It's just...nothing. You needn't worry. Go ahead, don't let me interrupt your gaming."
Dhattar shot a curious glance over his shoulder at her as he retreated, but raised no protest. His blue eyes caught the light of the stars, giving them an almost unearthly glow. As she watched him leave, Aiony felt the presence of another rise at her shoulder. The faint body heat he gave off signaled his approach.
"Hail," Culu greeted her softly.
Aiony snorted softly in return, and a small smile creased her lips. She did not turn to see him.
Culu stood at ease, his muscles relaxed. The ebony and alabaster young mare wondered why she was so acutely aware of his presence. He gave her an affectionate nip, and blew warm air into her mane. They stood like this for a long time, enjoying one another's company. Neither spoke a word, simply watched the frisking of their fellows into the night.
Finally, Culu broke the silence with a sigh. The half-grown warriors were dispersing, streaming into their grottos. "I should go," he said, already moving away.
"Go then, weanling," she teased, and swatted at the sundog-hued rump. Others were already asleep in their caves. The half-grown watched Culu slip away to his own grotto. She, too, should go.
A thought struck her, just then, as she padded off through the darkness. The sojourn to the Summer Sea was almost at hand. Illishar was to accompany the unpaired half-growns this year, to keep them from trouble and harm's way. Lell would be glad of the company, Aiony guessed, or more perhaps. As for herself, well…she would not pledge this year. She had not chosen a mate. Or hadn't she…?
Aiony smiled softly to herself as she paused briefly at the egress of her cave. Glancing back into the dark, she spied Culu, too, watching her. As soon as he felt her eyes on him, he flitted into his cave as though he was no more than a wraith in the night.
She had gone only once to the courting shore. Again, this year she would depart unpaired. The first summer, she had barely got her beard. On her second…Aiony smiled. The one she had just now chosen was raw, unready yet to eye the mares. Next year, when he grew wit enough to know his own heart…well.
Until then, she had much to do and think on. Her training beneath the watchful black-green eyes of the Wild One, the Rare One, her own granddam began tomorrow. She was an acolyte magicker now, however raw and untried, with much to uphold, and expectations as well.
With these final thoughts in her mind, she slipped away into the warm darkness of her grotto.