Authors: Meredith Ann Pierce
Jan shrugged and sidled.
And only darkness since: not even a whisper of a dream.
“What did you see?” he asked his friend suddenly. “You’ve never said.”
Dagg closed his eyes. “I saw a mare,” he said, “small, but exquisitely made, high-headed, her coat a strange bright hue such as none I’ve ever seen. Each Moondance, I’ve scanned the assembled herd….” He opened his eyes and turned to look at Jan. “Even though I know my search is hopeless. Her mane stands upright along her neck. Her tail falls silky as a mane. Her chin is beardless, no horn upon her brow. Each hoof is one great solid, single toe.”
The young prince stared at him, dumbstruck. Dagg nodded. “Aye. She’s not of the Ring, Jan,” he whispered. “She’s a renegade.”
Frowning, Jan shook his head. “You and I both know those legends of outlaws losing their horns when banished from the Vale are only old mares’ tales.”
Dagg stood silent. Again, the young prince shook his head.
“Yet, if not a Plainsdweller,” he murmured, “what manner of mare could this dream creature be?”
The dappled warrior snorted, shrugged, his pale eyes full of pain. “I’ve no notion. I only know she is my destiny—and I’ll never find her in the Vale.”
They both stood silent then. The breeze through the near Cliffs hummed and shuddered. Cranes wheeled screaming among the herons overhead. Tide came foaming in, wetting the two unicorns’ cloven hooves, eating away the beach. The prince’s shoulder-friend leaned hard against him.
“Jan, don’t wait for me,” he said. “Alma alone knows when I’m to find my mate. You’ve already found yours. Don’t hold off. Don’t spoil your own happiness—and Tek’s—because I can’t join you this year in the pledge.”
Jan turned to study his friend. Favoring one foreleg, Dagg forced a grin. Half-rearing, he smote at the dark unicorn smartly with his heels. Jan whistled and shied, fencing with him, grateful and relieved. He felt as though he had tossed a hillcat from his shoulders. Wheeling, Dagg sprinted away. Jan sprang to follow, and the two galloped back along the seacliffs to rejoin the band.
Other windriders skimmed low, their bent bills laden with tangled, suckered arms as they snatched prey from the combers. Their eerie, loonlike cries and staccato splashes sounded through the cool, motionless air. For once, the Singing Cliffs held silent, no wind to wake their ghostly song. Jan and Dagg stood at the edge of a tangled thicket, watching herons and firefish and foaming sea as evening fell.
“Moon’s up,” Dagg told him.
The huge, mottled disk hung just above the far Gryphon Mountains to the east, dwarfing them, paling the stars. Its light made a long path of brightness across the placid bay. Jan nodded.
Dagg fell in beside him as he turned and trotted through the verges of the thicket. Jan’s ears pricked. Above the herons’ distant plash and cry, the quiet rush of waves along the shore, he heard the sounds of unicorns gathering: snorts and shaking, the dunning of hoofbeats, a restless stamp.
He and Dagg emerged from the trees. Horn-browed faces turned expectantly as the dark prince loped to the center of the dancing glade, a circular, open space at grove’s heart, trampled clean of vegetation by generations of unicorns. He halted, chivvying, his own blood running high. His restless followers milled and fidgeted, anxious to declare their choices in the dance. Jan tossed his head.
“This is the night we have all awaited,” he told them. “Let those who know their hearts choose mates tonight, pledging faith to one another in the eyes of Alma for all time!”
With a shout, eager half-growns sprang into vigorous, high-stepping cadence, prancing and sidling before their prospective mates. Jan watched the moving river of unicorns, chasing and fleeing their partners in an endless ring. Dagg cantered past twice, three times—but where was Tek? He did not see her. Frowning, the young prince scanned the russets and blues of the others until a flash of pale rose and black revealed the pied mare. She seemed to be deliberately skirting the fringe, ducking behind other warriors to conceal herself from him.
The young prince plunged into the dance. The healer’s daughter quickened her pace. With a surge of determination, he sprinted after her. All around him, companions circled, manes streaming, heels drumming. The moon rose higher until the youngest warriors, wearied and unpartnered still, dropped out to stand at the edge of the grove, only watching now. He glimpsed Dagg among them, pulling back, panting, sparing his once-broken foreleg just slightly.
Jan redoubled his pursuit of Tek, dodging through the remaining half-growns. In pairs, some of these had started to slip away, mares leading, stallions following, chasing off into the trees. Jan listened to their whistled laughter, their hoofbeats fading. Deep under cover of darkness, they would dance their own, more privy dances under Alma’s eyes alone.
The crowded rush had begun to thin, more than half having slipped off or dropped away, unpaired. Yet still the healer’s daughter eluded him. The young prince snorted, wild with frustration. How could she manage it, threading so nimbly among the others, always just a few teasing strides ahead? Once more he started to quicken his gait—then abruptly stopped himself, for all at once, he understood. He must stop trying to catch her, cease striving to run her down like some rival in a race—for this was not a race, he realized suddenly, nor any sort of contest at all. It was a dance.
They moved in a circuit. He could not lose her, and whether it was he who overtook her, or she who circled forward to catch him from behind, what did it matter? Laughing, he let himself fall back into the flowing ring of unicorns, and all at once, she was beside him, the two of them prancing and frisking, chasing and circling one another. Others around them faded from his thoughts. He and Tek formed their own circle at the heart of every larger circle and cycle and dance.
They had left the grove, he realized. The sound of the other celebrants faded behind them as he and Tek loped deeper into the trees. The murmur of sea and shore drew nearer. The shimmer of sealight glistened beyond the shadows, mingled with the pale gleam of moonlight.
Tek moved ahead of him, still beyond his reach, but only trotting now. She glanced over one shoulder, nickering, her green eyes lit by the moon. In another moment, he would catch her and pledge his vows, hear her pledge hers in return. Then they would be conjoined for life, their bond unshakable in Alma’s eyes. It was what he had always longed for. He knew that now, and the knowledge warmed him like a fire.
His head rested upon another’s flank, his neck lying along her back. He savored the warmth of the other’s side against his own, her breaths even and light. Tek woke and, lifting her head, leaned back against him, caressing his strong-muscled neck with her own. Gently, he nipped her. She laughed, gathered her limbs, and, shaking the sand from her, rose. Jan did the same, nuzzling her.
“My mate,” he murmured.
Again the pied mare nickered, shook him off. “Enough, prince! All night we danced, and I am spent. We must rejoin the others and take our leave of the dust-blue herons.”
Jan sighed. By custom, the newly paired warriors must be gone from the courting shore by noon of equinox day. He stretched his limbs. Time enough to dance with his mate again when they reached the Vale some three days hence. He smiled, languid still, as Tek started away through the trees.
“What sluggards we have been,” she called. “Half the morn is lost!”
Jan laughed, trotted to catch her up. The trees were sparse enough to keep the shore in view. The sea was truly wild this morn. Wind gusted, frothing the waves to spume. The beach had been eaten almost away by the rising tide. Dense clouds thickened the sky. Across the broad bay, great purple thunderheads boiled above the Gryphon Mountains. The air smelled humid, heavy with the coming rain. Abruptly, the dark prince halted. Against the soughing of wind and the crash of sea he heard high, keening screams—too sharp and full-throated to be herons’ cries. Tek’s ears pricked.
“List,” she started. “What…?”
The strident calling intensified. Jan’s heart contracted suddenly as he caught the piercing whistles of warriors taken by surprise. Dagg’s voice bellowed orders from the beach.
“Gryphons! Haste—rally: make ring! Wingcats are upon us—”
With a shout, Jan charged past Tek, heard the drum of his mate’s heels only a half-pace behind. The trees fell away as he burst from the grove to behold his whole terrified band ramping on the wind-whipped shore, sea foaming behind them, while a dozen screaming gryphons circled above. Jan shied, staring, stunned. Never had such a thing been recounted in story or lay, that gryphons should attack unicorns upon the shores of the summer Sea. Wingcats only raided the Vale—and only at first spring!
Before him, the young warriors scrambled to form a ring. Dagg whinnied orders, hurrying them into rank. Skirling gryphons dived. The flock consisted mostly of lighter, smaller males: the tercels’ jewel-green feathers and golden pelts stood out against the storm-dark sky. Only four of the raiders were the larger females—blue-fletched formels with tawny hide. Jan shook his head: these were not mated pairs! Nor, so late in the year, could any hungry hatchlings yet remain in the nest.
Fiercely, the unicorns reared and jabbed at their attackers. Sprinting past her mate, Tek sounded her war cry. Furiously, Jan trumpeted his own. He dodged a green-and-gold tercel’s swoop—then, quick as stormflash, leapt after and felt his horn slash golden hide. The gryphon shrilled. Jan whinnied in defiance. Tek, he saw, had safely reached the ring. He himself was beside Dagg a moment later.
“They fell on us without warning,” the dappled warrior panted, rearing and stabbing at a swooping formel. She pulled up before meeting his horn. Dagg smote the ground in frustration. “Just moments before you arrived!”
“No taunts? No challenges?” Jan asked him, then shouted at a young warrior starting after a low-flying tercel to get back into line and not break ring.
“Nothing!” Dagg answered, wheeling to drive off another formel diving from behind toward the center of the ring.
Jan grazed her wing, champed a cluster of feathers in his teeth. He yanked hard, trying to pull her down but, shrieking, she tore free. Dagg gouged her belly, and she slashed at him with one claw.
“It’s war, then,” Jan said grimly. “Not just hunting.”
Across from them, he glimpsed Tek repelling a tercel that dropped toward a mare who had stumbled. Around her, the ring of warriors ramped and jostled, badly crowded by the tight formation. Above them the circling gryphons darted, stooping to slash, then lofting away. The young prince snorted in disgust. A traditional defense was proving useless. Nearly impenetrable to grounded foes, the band’s outward-facing ranks availed little against adversaries that darted from the air, attacking the unicorns’ unprotected hindquarters at the circle’s heart.
“Get to the trees!” he shouted as yet another formel plunged toward the ring’s center. “Haste! Break ring! Get into cover of the grove!”
“Jan, what—” cried Dagg, aghast.
“Fly!” ordered the prince. What he urged was unprecedented, he knew—but clearly facing an airborne foe required fresh tactics. “They can’t swoop to attack us among the trees!”
Rising wind nearly ripped the words from his teeth. He saw his mate nipping and hying her fellows, driving them toward the trees. Dagg and too many of the others simply continued to stare. The dark prince whirled and shouldered the young stallion nearest him, striking him across the rump with the flat of his horn to send him off. The half-grown mare beyond bolted as well while the wingcats redoubled their attack.
“Move!” he cried.
The dappled warrior seemed to swallow his consternation at last as the ring, now hopelessly broken, scattered toward refuge in the grove beyond the dunes. For an instant as she fled past him, Tek’s puzzled gaze met his. Clearly she did not understand his strategy, even as she carried out his commands. Dagg started after her. Jan himself did not follow, watching as the two of them hung back a bit, forming a rearguard for their escaping fellows. They were the last to disappear into the trees.
“The prince! The unicorn prince!” one of the tercels cried.
Other wingcats took up the chant. The wind off the sea had grown so strong that Jan saw his attackers wobbling precariously as they banked and turned, breaking off their pursuit of the retreating unicorns. The relentless sea surged at his back. As a dozen wingcats beat toward him from above the dunes, he knew he could never hope to win past them to the grove.
“Alma aid me,” he whispered. “Stand at my shoulder, O Mother-of-all!”
The Singing Cliffs rose to his left. Their honeycomb of wind tunnels and tidal canyons shrieked in the rising stormwind. Jan noted with relish how the wingcats strained and labored through the air. Whipping gusts tossed and batted at them. Earthbound, he himself was not so hampered.
As the first gryphon to reach him stooped, the dark unicorn dodged, sprinting away down the beach. The angry cries of his pursuers rose behind. The tall Cliffs opened before him. Jan ducked into their twisting maze. The air around him hummed, vibrated. Wind sheered and shuddered through the turning canyons, whistling like warriors, like birdsong, like reed flutes of the woodland pans.
His path looped and folded back upon itself. Powerful air currents buffeted treacherously. Rounding a bend, Jan glimpsed a wingcat formel being dashed by the gale against the cliff’s side behind him. She crumpled, falling, and her companions screamed, increasing their speed. Long, keening wails rose on the stormwind as the churning air grew furious, laden with scattered, stinging rain.
Glancing back again, Jan saw more gryphons swept against the cliffs. The tremendous gusts barely reached him in the canyons’ depths. Elated, the dark prince sped on while his remaining pursuers struggled to keep aloft despite the pelting rain. Drops fell more heavily, pounding down. Another tercel smashed into a ledge. Blue lightning split the heavens, casting a cold sheen like moonlight across the cliffs.
Tidewater spilled into the canyons suddenly. Jan found himself running through seawater up to his pasterns, flinging sheets of spray with every step. Only three gryphons remained in pursuit, green tercels all. Their shrieks tore at his ears. The cliffs sang, shuddered with stormwind. He heard the hammering of waves just beyond the canyon wall.
More seawater poured into the chasm. Halfway up his shanks, its depth impeded his gallop. Rain pummeled down. The tempest howled. Jan plunged on, limbs straining against the turbulent water’s pull. The canyon ran straight now, without a bend. If he did not find a way out of the Cliffs soon, he realized, he might well drown.
The cliffside opened abruptly before him. Jan glimpsed beach and storm-filled sky. Only a single gryphon’s voice trailed him now, the others all lost, or dashed to their deaths, or given up. Seawater crashed into the opening, the swell up to his knees, its undertow fierce. Furiously, Jan fought his way through the inrushing tide. The gryphon behind him shrilled in fury, so close the sound sliced the prince’s ears.
Suddenly he was free of the cliffs, in a tidal trough deep with running sea. Firm ground lay within sight, a rocky beachhead only a score of paces beyond. Jan plowed toward it through the foaming surf. Again the gryphon’s savage cry. The dark unicorn felt talons score his back, a razor beak striking the crest of his neck. He ducked, dodged sharply. Great green wings slapped the waves to either side. The raptor’s grip tore into his flesh, fastening upon his shoulder blades.
Screaming with pain, Jan bucked and reared. Lion’s claws hooked into his flanks, forcing him down onto all fours again. With a surge of unsought strength, Jan galloped breakneck, thrashing. Broken shells and beach gravel ground beneath his heels. The wingcat’s grip slipped, balance faltering. The sea drew back, momentarily shallower—then a huge green wave twice Jan’s height broke, overwhelming the young stallion and his attacker both.
Jan felt himself trod down as by a mighty hoof, the breath knocked violently from him. His knees, his ribs grated against the tidal trough’s stony bed. He felt the gryphon torn from him by the surge. Struggling against a powerful current, he broke surface, snatched a breath. The black sky above roiled as rain-pebbled waves swept him under again.
Choking and snorting, he flailed madly to keep afloat. He glimpsed the Cliffs—much farther off than he had expected—and strove frantically to swim back to land. But the tow only pulled him farther out to sea. Something green and gold washed onto the distant rocks. The surge dragged it back before flinging it higher. This time it lodged, sodden and unmoving: the body of the gryphon tercel, broken by the waves.
Jan lost sight of shore. Rolling hills of water bobbed all around. Merciless wind whipped, its driving rain blinding him. Again a wavecrest broke over him, forcing him down into churning depths. Again he fought his way up, but more weakly this time. Something drifted against him in the darkness under the waves, brushing his flank. Long tendrils twined about his limbs, pricking him with needles of fire. Sea-jells! Rucked up from deep ocean by the storm.
Panicked, the dark prince floundered, gasping, choking. But the barbed streamers only entangled him further. Their burning poison began to numb him. Vainly, he searched for land. The sea heaved. Stormwind buffeted. Presently, the sea-jells released him and floated on. Strange drowsiness stole over him. His burning limbs twitched, heavy as stone. Then his eyelids slid shut as he sank beneath the cold and furious sea.