Read [Firebringer 03] - The Son of Summer Stars Online
Authors: Meredith Ann Pierce
Meredith Ann Pierce
Zod the dreamer called this warrior-to-come the Firebringer: black as the dark between Alma’s eyes on the coldest of cloudless midwinter nights. The crescent moon would mark his brow and a white star one hind heel. Wild Caroc prophesied burning blood, sparking hooves and a tongue of flame: a colt born at moondark out of a wyvern’s belly and sired by the summer stars. Ellioc, who followed Caroc, claimed he would be no Ring-born unicorn at all, but a Renegade outside the Law. He would storm out of heaven in a torrent of fire, and his advent would mark the ending of the world. But the unicorns called wild Caroc and Ellioc mad. Their strange visions, though recounted long after their distant passing, were scoffed at. Only Zod was believed true seer of the Firebringer, and he, too, by the time of my tale lay centuries dead.
Two nights past, when we assembled here, I told of how, many years ago, I midwived the birth of the Firebringer. I spoke of Aljan, called son-of-Korr, who, while beardless and callow still, made his way from the Vale to the Hallow Hills on pilgrimage and slew a wyvern there. Her poisoned barb set his blood alight. Companions bore him in her severed hide and cast him into the waters of Alma’s mere. The deadly venom fevering his blood cooled then, and he rose weak as a newborn foal from the she-wyrm’s bellyskin: hooves and horn tempered to unbreakable hardness, his coat burnt black, a slim crescent moon traced into his brow and a white star marking his heel. Thus completing his initiation into the Ring of Warriors, young Jan returned to the Vale and became his people’s battleprince.
Night past, I sang you the second cant of the Lay of the Firebringer, how Jan pledged himself to my daughter, Tek, the pied warrior mare, a bond unshakable in Alma’s eyes. I recounted his peacemaking among the goat-leggèd pans, the battle he fought with marauding gryphons by the shores of the Summer Sea and how, in the end, he set enmity aside to befriend the wounded wingcat that had once so fiercely sought his life. I told of his sojourn in the far land of the two-footed firekeepers where, upon the sacred cliffs above their settlement, he learned the secret of the flame that smoldered within him. Before Jan departed, trekking homeward with his gift of fire, his hosts dubbed him Moonbrow, but his name among his own folk means Dark Moon.
This even, which marks the last night of my telling, I sing of how Aljan Moonbrow fulfilled his destiny as Alma’s Firebrand, returning with his people to the Hallow Hills and casting the venomous wyverns out. My name is Jah-lila. I am called the Red Mare. A seer and a singer and a traveler am I, a midwife and a magicker—fourth and final prophet of the Firebringer. Of my own small role in his triumph and downfall shall I also speak: how Aljan broke the Ring of Law and lost his kingship of the unicorns forever, how he hurtled across heaven on pinions of fire and proved every word of my predecessors true—until here at the last, he has kindled the spark unquenchable, which even now as we dance is unmaking the world.
New grass, green as gryphons’ down, covered the dark earth in fine, sparse filaments. Breeze lifted, and the downy strands rippled. Spring sun warmed the hillside’s restless air. Jan halted and shook himself. Sod packed the clefts between the toes of his cloven hooves. He bowed his head, used the long, spiral skewer of his brow-horn to pick the clods away. Sparks leapt when the horn’s keen tip grated.
With a snort, the black prince of the unicorns straightened, tossed the forelock from his eyes. He bounded up the steep, grassy slope to catch up his twin daughter and son. Aiony, the filly, glanced back at the sudden pounding of his heels. She reared up nickering, limbs fine as a fawn’s, her one side pale silver with black stockings and a black-encircled eye, the other side just the opposite: black with silver shanks and eye. Jan nuzzled her as he came alongside. Aiony pranced and whistled to her brother up the slope, the sound high and sweet as panpipes.
“Hey up, Dha! Wait for Jan and me.”
The foal Dhattar paused, the same size as his sister but pale as pure cloud. Like her, he sported a nubby horn little more than a promise on his brow. Like hers, his young mane was only beginning to lengthen from its nursling’s bristle, the tassel at the end of his ropelike tail barely sprung. He stood picking at the turf with one snow-white heel.
waiting,” he called.
The prince of the unicorns nickered. Barely weaned, his children already spoke better than most colts half again their age. Jan nibbled his son’s withers as he reached him. The white foal shivered happily. Jan snorted, continued moving up the slope.
“Will you tell me what you two are so eager for me to see?” he inquired, for the sixth time.
Chivvying her father’s raven-black ribs, Aiony shook her head. Dhattar glanced at her.
“We can’t,” he answered.
“It’s a secret,” Aiony insisted.
“A surprise,” the white foal concurred.
The prince of the unicorns heaved himself past another slippery place and shook his head. “Well enough, then,” he laughed. “Lead on.”
The twins bolted, sprinting and chasing as they scrabbled up the rocky hillside. Jan glanced back, startled at how high they had come. The Vale of the Unicorns unfolded below, open meadow hemmed by partially wooded slopes. Far away on the valley floor, Teki the healer stood peering at some medicinal root or herb, his pied black-and-white coloring unmistakable. Around him clustered five or six half-growns—among the few then-colts to have survived the devastating winter that had ravaged the herd barely two years earlier.
The prince of the unicorns gritted his teeth. Half his people had perished in that terrible season of ice and snow—a death toll burgeoned in the prince’s absence by one mad usurper’s tyranny. A green-tailed, whining fly bit the young stallion’s ear, drew blood. Jan rankled and slapped it away with his tail. Korr—his own sire—responsible for so much misery, when a careful policy of scouting and sharing forage would doubtless have saved many who instead had succumbed to hunger and the cold. The prince’s ear stung. He shook his head.
“Tell us about the wyvern!”
Aiony came skittering down the hillside. The dark unicorn returned to the present with a start.
“Aye, tell how you slew the wyvern in her den,” Dhattar called. “When you were just a colt.”
Whickering, Jan shook his head. “Older.”
“Lell’s age?” Dha ventured.
“Your aunt’s only four!” cried Jan. “I was six—three times your age, little goatling kids.”
Aiony butted him. Gently, the black unicorn shouldered back. Above him, white Dhattar sneezed amid a swarm of lace-winged flitters. Aiony nipped at her father’s flank. Jan shooed her away and began.
“Long ago and many springs past, on pilgrimage…”
The tale told itself, unwinding before him like a well-worn path. He hardly listened to his own voice, lost in story, crafting without a thought the internal slant-rhymes and measured cadences of the storyteller’s art. His own mate, Tek, was a fine singer of tales, and Teki the healer, her foster sire, one of the best he had ever heard. He had harked the two of them all his life, and never yet dared offer his own recountings to any listeners more critical than his raptly attentive young daughter and son.
“Were you afraid then?” Dhattar broke in, nudged him insistently. “When the wyvern stung, did you fear to die?”
Jan nodded. “Aye.”
“But our dam’s dam healed you,” Aiony was saying. “Jah-lila quelled the she-serpent’s poison with the waters of the sacred mere.”
Again the black prince nodded, putting his head down, using powerful hindquarters to propel himself up the steepening trail. Dhattar and Aiony spurted ahead as the path led into a dark mass of trees. The black unicorn’s skin twitched. View of the Vale behind vanished as firs and cedars closed around him. He glanced at the sky as they emerged once more onto rocky slope, more mindful than ever how they had climbed. The farther from the safety of the valley floor they ventured, the easier prey they made for gryphons.
Yet strangely, for the last two years, not a single winged marauder had come. No huge, blue-winged formels—the females—had swooped to steal his people’s nurslings, nor had the swifter, lighter tercels struck, their pinions the color of new-sprung grass. The unicorn prince frowned, puzzled, for hunting wingcats would have found ample tender prey. Following that bitterest of winters now two years gone, the Vale had enjoyed early forage, balmy summers, bountiful falls and unseasonably mild winters.
the whole herd whispered,
the blessing of Alma’s appointed midwife.
The children-of-the-moon had lost no time in getting and bearing new young.
Jan followed his own young, the black-and-silver filly and the snow-white foal, now skirting an outcropping of pale limerock. Truth, he mused, glancing warily at the rocky mass thrusting up from the rich black soil, perhaps the only ill effect of two nearly snowless winters in a row had been a vast increase in the number of serpents: some no thicker than a heron’s leg, others stout as a stallion’s. The unicorns had begun to watch their tread.
Jan whistled his young. “Aiony! Dha! How much farther?”
Halted on the far side of the outcrop now, the pair whinnied. “We’re here.”
Jan trotted around the pitted rocks. “When came you here before?”
Dhattar answered, “Never.”
Jan turned, perplexed.
“No one brought us,” Aiony told him. She and her brother exchanged a glance.
“We came night past,” Dhattar continued.
His sister nodded. “Not by hoof.
Jan cocked his head. “The pair of you slept betwixt your dam and me night past, and never stirred.” He turned his gaze from one to another. The twins’ eyes watched him with uncanny directness, almost as though they overheard his inmost thoughts. “Are you saying,” he ventured, “that you came here, both of you…in a dream?”
The white foal nodded, but the black-and-silver filly shook her head. “Not a dream.
Her voice trailed off.
Dhattar finished. “We came looking.”
Jan felt his pulse quicken. Might his children, like their granddam Jah-lila, possess the dreaming sight?
“Do you see things this way,” he asked carefully, “things that are real?”
Aiony had turned away, stood surveying the rocks. This time it was Dhattar who answered. “When we saw this place night past, we knew we must bring you.”
“Why?” their father asked.
The white foal fidgeted, silent now.
“To show you the serpent,” the filly murmured, standing perfectly still.
“Serpent?” Jan’s heart thumped hard between his ribs. Quickly, he scanned again, alert for any sign of snakes. Dhattar cavaled.
“Aye, a great long thing,” the white foal continued. “Old and ill-tempered. Snows should have killed it winter past.” Jan turned to eye his son as he shifted away from his sister, who stood still gazing off into the rocks. “But no snows have fallen, not these two years running,” Dhattar went on. “It’s dying now, old wyrm, but slow and painfully.”
“Here it is,” the black-and-silver filly was saying.
Turning again, Jan realized that she had left his side. She was moving forward now, picking her way among the rocks. The prince of the unicorns saw a pale form, seething, blue-speckled, coiled directly in his daughter’s path. The nadder rose, hissing, flattening its hood. Above gaping jaws, black-slitted pupils dilated. Milky venom hung at the tip of each long, curved fang. The filly stepped fearlessly within the serpent’s range.
“Daughter, no!” shouted Jan, vaulting to come between the nadder and its prey.
The serpent struck. The black unicorn felt a fiery sting along one foreleg as he crowded Aiony aside then spun to crush the sapling-thick viper beneath his forehooves. The dying serpent writhed, struck again, reflexively. Jan felt its spine snap as he trampled it. Moments later, all that remained was a nerveless, twitching tangle. The prince of the unicorns stood swaying, staring down at his bloodied foreshank. The double wound below the joint seared his blood. Dizziness swept over him. His pulse throbbed as the nadder’s poison crept upward past the knee.
“Daughter, son,” he gasped. “Haste down the hillside and whistle for help. Bring the healer…”
Jan felt fiery venom spreading toward the muscle where his forelimb joined the chest. His whole leg ached, nearly numb.
“Off now,” he gasped. “At speed!”
The filly and foal remained rooted, their expressions less frightened than curious. “Peace,” Dhattar bade him. Aiony answered at almost the same time, “No need.”
Jan stared at the pair of them, his heart hammering. “Children, hark me,” he choked. “That was a speckled nadder, fat with poison. Without the healer, I’ll die.”
“But you won’t,” the white foal told him. “That’s the secret.”
Aiony insisted. “No wyrm may harm you.”
“Not since that other serpent stung you,” Dhattar added.
“The wyvern,” the filly said.
They both gazed at him calmly, expectantly. Jan stood reeling. He had suffered only one other such sting in all his life, from the wyvern queen four years gone while on pilgrimage in the Hallow Hills. Only the magical waters of the moon’s mere had saved him then—but that sacred spring lay half a world away: useless. Unreachable. His vision dimmed. Blood beat like slow thunder through him. The speckled viper’s venom had nearly reached his breast—but strangely, its progress slowed, the burning diminished.
“You survived the wyvern’s sting,” Dhattar was saying. “No serpent can fell you now.”
“Nor can their stings harm us, your progeny,” said Aiony.
His view began to clear. Jan glimpsed his filly shake her mane, her brother nod. “When we beheld the nadder night past, in our vision, we knew this.”
“Its sting only burned you a moment,” Aiony went on, “and brought no harm.”
Jan’s sight returned. His balance steadied. Mute with astonishment, he gazed at his twins. Though his pulse still pounded in his chest, the venom’s pain had faded, dissipated like cloud. Feeling returned in a prickling rush to his injured limb. Cautiously, the prince of the unicorns set heel to ground.
“We knew you’d not believe us if we simply told you,” Aiony said earnestly.
Nervous, the white foal pranced. “We resolved to show you instead.”
“We didn’t want you to fear,” the filly added. “Did you?”
The prince’s injured leg bore his weight easily. He no longer felt any numbness. The clot of blood on the shin was drying, matting the hairs. “Aye, children,” he answered truthfully. “Very much.”
Aiony nuzzled him. “Are you angry with us?”
The prince of the unicorns bent to caress her. “Nay, little one,” he murmured, “but you mustn’t keep such things from me.”
Clearly relieved, white Dhattar nipped him. “We’ll not,” he said. “You’ll believe us now.”
Jan gathered his offspring to him and chivvied them gently. “Come. Let’s find your dam.”
The twins fell in alongside, frisking and shrugging as he picked their way down the steep, rocky slope. The thought did not occur to him till they were nearly to the trees.
“I wonder,” he murmured, as they entered the thicket. “Since I am proof against serpents—you two as well—does a way exist that others also might be made proof?”
The trees thickened, blotting out the sky. The prince of the unicorns shook his head.
“Perhaps if I could somehow sting our fellows, as I have been stung…”
Aiony scrubbed her cheek against his flank. “Scratch them with your blood,” she told him.
“We could do it, too,” the white foal added, “if we weren’t so young.”
Aiony sighed. “If we had horns.”
Ahead of them the trees were thinning. Grassy slope lay beyond. Jan just barely glimpsed it.
“If the herd could be made proof against poison,” he mused, “we’d no longer need fear wyverns’ barbs—” The prince of the unicorns stopped in his tracks. “We could win back the Hallow Hills!”
Just paces from the wood’s edge, Jan stared at nothing.
Win back the Hills?
The possibility rocked him. He had been waiting years for a sign from Alma that the time at last grew ripe to reclaim his people’s homeland. Now the goddess had spoken with the mouth of a serpent, slithering out of his children’s dreams to leave a bloodmark on his shank. The black prince of the unicorns shook himself, pressed on downslope. He must speak of this with Tek at once. The moment the thought formed in his mind, Dhattar glanced at him.