I'd have thought, my friends, that you'd grown weary of listening to an old mare? For three nights I've done nothing but talk the fringe off of your ears! But gone are the days when I could tease the very wind and rain to follow me like a mare drawing a stallion out of the dance; so as this lovely summer storm finds us all here together, seeking camaraderie as well as shelter, I will most eagerly provide you with yet more entertainment if you ask it of me.
For this tale, I must ask your indulgence. Oft times these past seasons I have found myself in your company and always you tolerate my prattling. As this evenings' telling unfolds, however, I worry that I may seem little more than a doddering fool; one who has lost her better sense to age, along with the strength of her body. I can only assure you that the tale I seek to impart is absolute in its veracity; and should you but wish to see the truth of it for yourselves, I bid you seek out your Southland cousins in their reclaimed homeland. You know you would be welcome. For now, you shall have to take the word of an aged mare, whom the Mother-of-All should have called to her side long winters gone.
Tonight, it is not that night-dark Prince, Alma's Firebringer, who is the champion of my tale. Instead, you shall hear of Lell Darkamber, she who so bravely fought the Wyvern King, and of Illishar Brokenwing, that rare Gryphon who saved her life at risk of losing his own. Many of you remarked that their story seemed unfinished, so here at last, is an ending to that tale.
Milkwood leaves danced in a late spring mistral, dusky green arrows with pale undersides flickering and flashing like silverfish darting in a pond. The soft susurrus of their rustling was the only noise to disturb the stillness around the mere. A mare, gold-flecked and dark-amber with a milky mane, stood at the side of the moon pool, hoof-tips just at edge where sand met water, staring intently down into its ice-smooth surface.
Lell lowered her head further, narrowing her eyes as she tried to look past her own reflection. A faint ripple disturbed the mirror image and she held her breath for just a moment, waiting expectantly. The appearance of another face in the water, just a few inches from hers, would likely have startled her had she not half-expected it. "Illishar," she chided, and saw amusement on the tercel's reflection. With a sigh heavy enough to flutter the tendrils of beard that draped her chin, Lell lifted her head and turned to the gryphon who'd so silently taken up a similar position at the mere's edge. "Finished with Jan's council at last?"
"Aye. Queen Tek and Prince Jan have run out of messages for me to convey to Malar at last and our farewells have all been spoken at length." The amusement remained on his face, dancing in his feline eyes and curving the corners of his beak, even as he turned to meet her gaze. "Visions of your future eluding you still, little darkamber?"
She stamped a hoof, allowing her frustration even though she knew it would just feed his humor. "Aye. I've seen nothing, no matter how long or how hard I look." The young mare canted her head towards the water, "I cannot wait until the night of my initiation to know what my future holds.
"Perhaps you are not meant to know?" he offered, though not unkindly.
"But you're leaving, Illishar," she blurted, hating how much a foal she sounded, "I must know that I'll see you again."
Illishar eased himself down to his haunches, fanning his massy wings once before folding them neatly at his side. "Lell, have I not told you time and again, that Gryphons do not take their friendships lightly. It is only a few days flight for one as strong as I. You'll see me again afore you know it." He made a throaty, rumbling noise that she knew to take as a chuckle. "Besides, I should think that you've grown tired of keeping my company these past weeks while your folk settle in? You've learned all the songs I have to teach, what more can you learn from me? Wouldn't you welcome a bit of peace with your own kind in your hard-fought home?"
"No!" she found herself exclaiming, and only after she saw the curve at the corner of his mouth curl tighter did she realize she'd been baited. Chagrined, she dropped her chin and looked up at him through the fallen curtain of her forelock. "I should know better than to let you tease me so," she admitted. "But you're right; I'm being unkind to you by doubting your word." The milky strands of her tail tassel, spun through with gossamer golden hairs, slapped against one gold-merled, amber flank. "I just wish you didn't have to go before my initiation. I would have very much liked for you to be there."
Lifting one foreleg, Illishar gently reached out and stroked the curve of Lell's cheek with a dexterous digit. The silver flecks in his grass-green feathers caught the light; flicking and flashing much like the milkwood leaves. "I've fought by your side, brave one. I do not need to witness the formalities of your initiation to know you are a true warrior."
The dark-amber mare flushed with pride, suddenly grateful for the hue of her coat, that it would hide the heat suffusing her face and neck. She couldn't help but lean into his caress.
The gryphon tilted his head, eyeing her strangely for a moment. "But I would be with you, in spirit if not body, if I could. Here," he drew his talon away as he unfurled one wing and swept it forward within reach, then very precisely fingered through the verdant plumage. With a soft grunt and a sharp tug, he pulled one of the long, slender primary feathers loose.
Lell could see the gap where it had fitted when he raised the wing before tucking it back at his side.
"Here," he repeated, presenting the feather for her inspection. It was one that had been heavily damaged from the fire that had marked them both after the battle, and its' green fletching was almost half shot through with silver. "I'd say it's a far grander specimen than the one your brother wore. If you'll permit me?"
Nodding eagerly, Lell moved a pace closer and tried to hold still while Illishar worked it into her mane. Though his touch was deft, she couldn't suppress a slight shiver as his strong talons brushed against her crest. "There," he said at last, giving a final tug. "I'd say that's there to stay."
Lell craned her head around to see it and gave her mane an experimental shake. The feel of it slapping against her withers was strange, but not unpleasant. She turned back to Illishar. "I've nothing to give you," she said sadly, "to remember me. No token."
The tercel threw back his head with a deep, growling guffaw of laughter. "Look at me, Lell," he said quite merrily, sharing the joke with her. "My very fur and feathers are marked by our time together." He gestured to the silver that spattered both his tawny furred hindquarters and the verdant feathers of his plumage. "My own people will not know what to make of me." The chuckle became somewhat self-deprecating. "Though that will be nothing new. Turning the flock on its collective ear is something I've been doing since I was just a newly pipped hatchling. Not one of them thought I might survive past my parents death, but I managed even more than that, now didn't I?"
His tone lost some of its levity. "Think I could ever forget you, little darkamber? Nay. Ishi herself has seen to it I need but look at my own feathers to be reminded of you. But even were that not the case, I could never forget you, Lell." His raptorial green eyes stared down at her intently. "You've left your mark upon my heart just as if it, too, were touched by fire."
Gryphons could charm one with their eyes and their singsong voices she knew, but she had no defense against it. A heavy silence fell over the pair of them, as Lell let herself fall into the mesmerizing gaze. She could see herself in the green depths, just as clear as looking at the Mirror of the Moon. Dreamily she wondered if the reason she might not be able to see her future in the mere was because it wasn't to be found there.
She leaned closer, her own amber gaze wide and guileless as she studied herself in the gryphon's eye. She could almost see…
Illishar gave a soft cough, breaking the spell. Blinking, he turned away from her, seeming strangely abashed. "If you do wish to give me a token," he said hastily, "I'd not object to wearing one."
Puzzled, the young mare scraped a gilt forehoof in the sand. "But I've nothing I can give."
Illishar swiveled his head to face her directly once again, though it seemed he was careful not to let his gaze alight on her for too long. "Ahh, but there you're wrong, little one. If I might beg a few of your tail hairs?"
"Of course!" She switched her tail towards him and did not flinch when he tugged out a few of the longest strands of milk-cream and a few of those that had grown back gold.
Lell stayed silent while he worked. She'd known how nimble his talons were; she remembered Jan telling her how Illishar had once fashioned a net out of seaweed for fishing. To see it first hand, though, as he carefully wove the filament strands of her tail together was something else. It seemed in no time at all, he'd managed to twine them all in an intricate pattern, which he then fastened around his wrist joint. He held up the encircled fore limb for her inspection. "There, now we both carry a part of each other."
"Thank you, Illishar." Lell stepped boldly forward, pushing her breast against the gryphon's heavily feathered chest, and laying her neck against his. She could feel the tension in him as she laid her cheek into the feathers behind his ear. The she felt him sigh, and relax, and a moment later her embrace was returned as he wrapped a heavy arm over her withers and pulled her closer. "I'll miss you, my gryphon," she whispered.
"And I you, little darkamber." His low purr vibrated against her throat. "But now I must go, afore I lose the wind."
Reluctantly, she drew away from him, then gave a formal bow. Her horntip swept the grass before she rose. "Fair skies, Illishar Brokenwing. May Ishi's wind find your wings and see you safely home."
"Alma go with you, Lell Darkamber. Swift-running, fair-singing and no pards behind you."
With a mighty bunching of his hind-quarters, the tercel launched into the air. The wind from his rapidly flapping wings stirred the loose sand around her, but Lell would not look away. She watched after him even as he rose above the milkwood grove, her eyes tracking him as he looped and spun in the sky for what she knew was her amusement. And long after the dark dot of him vanished to distance, Lell stared upward, gazing into the white-blue of the clear, spring sky.
Jan, the night dark prince of unicorns, raised his head from grazing as he heard his mate beside him draw in a surprised breath. He followed Tek's gaze and saw that she watched his half-sister, Lell, making her way down the slopes from the milkwood grove. "Again?" he asked, though he already knew the answer.
"Aye," the rose and black pied mare answered, "another morning spent gazing upon the mere."
The black unicorn sighed. "Three turns of the moon it's been since Illishar departed, and still she goes up there each morn. I guess I'd hoped that after her initiation, she might have found what she's been looking for. Though she's not confided in me what it was she saw upon the mere that dawn, I'd hoped it might assuage whatever fear it is that plagues her."
Tek sidled a pace closer to her mate, pressing the lushly rounded curve of her belly against his flank. "I think she may have spoken of her vision to the twins, though whether that did her more harm than good, I cannot say." There was a mother's amusement in her tone. "Aiony and Dhat have been keeping an eye on her as well, and they assure me that she's well enough and we should leave her to her mornings' contemplations."
She felt Jan's shrug against her side. "I should know better than to ignore the words of my most wise children," he nickered warmly. "And in truth, most of the time Lell is as right as rain. She's becoming a fine singer, even if the lays she favors are those of the wingcats. And she's proved herself a capable warrior time and again in her training. I think that catbird taught her some of gryphon warfare," he grumbled, "for even I was hard pressed to keep up to her when we sparred."
"Aye," Tek agreed with a whicker, "she's certainly become an able warrior. And she's still a favorite companion of Ai and Dhattar and Culu."
"Yet she's of an age that I'd like to suggest that she accompany the unpaired young warriors to the sea." Jan gave a noisy snort. "I suspect she'll argue against me though. And I fear there's no reason for her to go. Her heart is not her own any longer." He looked over his shoulder to his mate, the mare who'd beguiled him and charmed him and who he loved wholly and completely. "I think she's lost it to a gryphon. I'd hoped," he admitted, "the distance might cool her ardor. Instead it seems only to have fanned the smoldering coals of her passion into white-hot flame."
Tek's agreeing nod was both resigned and regretful. "Pretty words, but no less the truth for their poetry. I recall that day upon the council rise in the Vale, when Malar and her kith first sought parlay with us. Remember?" Jan nodded. "Lell seemed so young then, but I could not help but notice the ardent way she set her eyes on Illishar. I laughed at myself for my folly, but perhaps I wasn't quite as foolish as I once thought." She looked up at her husband in some concern. "With Ses upon the mare's back in Calydor's company, she's trusted us to look after Lell. I do not know what she would think to come back and find her daughter mooning after a wingcat?"
Jan turned deasil a few paces, like one of the singers at moondance might to face a new quarter of the audience. The move put his point of shoulder against Tek's slightly swollen middle and he draped his neck over the smooth dip of her back, and then tucked his bearded chin into her parti-colored mane. "In truth, love? I think my dam expected this. She told me once, right after I returned from pilgrimage, that she'd known I was to become Alma's Firebringer. I think she has similar foreknowledge of my sister's destiny."
The rose-pied mare leaned against the stolid form of her mate, shifting the weight off of one hip and canting a rear leg to rest, toe-tip just barely on the ground. "But what kind of future can she have if she's to devote herself to a gryphon? Where would she live and…" Tek swung her head around to lip at her own, burgeoning belly, "what of offspring?"
Jan shuddered then, as he suddenly recalled a dream he'd beheld while napping upon the sands of the summer sea not long after he and Ryhenna had washed ashore there and first encountered the wounded Illishar. He'd not remembered it until now. Voice wary, he recounted this to Tek. "In that dream I saw both Unicorn and Gryphon in harmony in the Vale. And I also saw another creature, which bore the likeness of both. Limbed and bodied like any unicorn, but feathered and winged like a gryphon. It flew…" He met his mate's surprise-widened gaze, "Could this be the future for Lell?"
Jan broke off as the sound of a sentry's call pierced the quiet in the low meadow. He held still for a moment while Tek steadied herself against him, then pushed away from his mate to see what the call was for. He only waited a moment, as he spotted the yellow and grey-dappled form of his shoulder-friend Dagg, cantering towards them. Though Dagg hurried, there was no alarm on his face, merely excitement. Jan breathed a sigh of relief.
"Hist," Dagg called out, whistling shrilly for Jan to join him, "wingcats spotted coming in off the southern plain. It looks as if Illishar's returned!"
Prince and Queen exchanged a look, and the exasperation he felt was mirrored on her face. Jan at last quirked a grin and blew a snort of wry amusement. "Come, my love, let us parlay with the Gryphons and see if we can't keep my impulsive sib under control!"
Lell picked her way carefully down the slope, wary of the skree and tumbling stones set loose by her hooves. Focused as she was on a steady descent, she didn't hear the commotion until she'd almost reached the valley floor. From nearby she heard a voice exclaim: "Gryphons," and immediately her head lifted and her eyes scanned the heavens. She spotted them in the span of a heartbeat, two dark specs low in the Southern sky. Even if she hadn't heard the word of the lookout spreading so swiftly through the herd, she'd have recognized them for what they were. No eagles or hunting hawks grew so large, and as the forms grew closer and more distinct, she could see that one was hued in tercel's green, the other, slightly larger, a formel's blue.
For a moment, Lell's heart leapt to hear throat. A formel came with the tercel; they flew close together, skirling and twining patterns around one another and soaring side-by-side. She wasn't sure why the thought bothered her so, but she couldn't seem to swallow past it, nor slow the hare's trammeling of her pulse. Then the figures dipped closer and Lell felt a new and utterly different sting. That wasn't Illishar.
She'd spent many an hour watching the large gryphon soar overhead; his flight patterns and wing beats as familiar to her as her own dam's gait. Though it had healed well, there was an unmistakable hitch to Illishar's wing beat from the bone having been broken and knit wrong, then broken again and reset properly.
A flurry of thoughts, many dark and worrisome, flooded the amber mare's mind as she put heel to turf. Bounding like a startled deer, she leapt the remainder of the down-slope, landed hard on the flat ground, and then pushed off at a fast gallop towards the far end of the large valley that dominated the heart of the Hallows, where the gryphons looked to be landing. Where was Illishar, she couldn't help but wonder as she sped past curious onlookers, and dodged those to slow to move out of her way. He'd said he'd return to her, yet there were gryphons in the Ringdancer's Hills and he was not among them.
In the nearing distance, she saw both of the wingcats lite with grace that belied their bulk, and spied her brother approaching, with Queen Tek at his side. Dagg also hurried to join them and a few of the elders as well. There were formal bows being exchanged, and she scrambled to push faster lest she miss any words the gryphons might be speaking. Sides heaving, the milk-maned mare skidded to a halt only a handful of strides away from the small gathering.
"And here she is now," Lell heard Jan say, and she looked up to find herself the object of both gryphon and unicorn regard.
"Well," she panted, "met." She gave a quick and sloppy bow, the feather tangled in her mane flipping forward to stutter against her neck.
"Ah, then you would be Lell Darkamber," the blue-feathered formel cocked her head, staring at Lell in open curiosity. "You'll forgive me, but from the way Illishar speaks of you, I'd half suspected you to be twice your size with fire blazing in your eyes." Had Lell not been overly familiar with the sound of a catbird laughter or gryphon sense of humor, or perhaps inured to it, she suspected she might have found that insulting.
"He's alright then?" she blurted, aware that her decorum was sorely lacking. She'd apologize to Tek and Jan later if she must, but her first concern was for her absent friend. "Illishar is alright?"
"Oh, aye. Illishar fares quite well. His return was much heralded." The formel again. Lell knew that they'd hear little from the male wingcat. Illishar was unique amongst his people that his word often carried as much weight as a formels. "He sends his deepest regrets, Lell Darkamber, but there is much upheaval amongst the flock, and Malar required his presence at her side."
"But Malar's clan still leads? She still nests in a place of honor upon the Cliffs of Assembly?"
The formel drew herself up to her full, not inconsiderable height and looked slightly impressed at Lell's knowledge of wingcat hierarchy. "Wingleader Malar does indeed lead the clans." Pride and a bit of haughtiness infused her words. Clearly she'd enjoyed seeing some of Malar's doubters proven wrong. "In fact, as a result of her peacemaking and the reclamation of the Bowl of Ishi, many of the clans have spoken of uniting entirely and naming her Wingleader of the entire flock!" The gryphon shook her head in disbelief. "It is a strange and heady time amongst my people, and thus the reason that Illishar has stayed behind."
Before she could ask more questions of the formel, Jan stepped between them. He smiled tolerantly at Lell, and then spoke to the gryphons. "I'm sure we'd all be very interested to hear about what's been happening. Illishar Mended-Wing is counted a loyal friend to all of us, and we felt honored to call Wingleader Malar our ally as well. We are well-pleased to hear that she fares so well, Shriaar." Here he gave Lell a brief, but pointed glare. She flushed beneath his regard; she'd not even thought to ask their names before deviling them with questions. "But you and Kreehakhil traveled long, and we invite you to rest and refresh yourselves before we continue our parlay."
Shriaar spread her wings, stretching them to their fullest for a moment. "Normally such a flight would not be considered taxing but," she continued with a conciliatory nod to the stallion's offer, "we fought the wind for much of the end of our journey. A chance to rest our wings would be appreciated."
Reluctantly, Lell fell back as Jan began to escort the gryphons to the lowland meadows. There was a spring-fed river there and both shade trees and sunlight in equal abundance. It was where she and Illishar had shared much time together and even where her friend had spent his nights, and she wasn't ready to see another gryphon there.
Heart-heavy, the dark amber mare turned away from the departing quorum. About to return to the mere, she turned back at a low voice calling her name. It was the tercel, Kreehakhil, beckoning her over with a wave of one wing. "Lell? Might I have a moment?"
"Aye," she nodded, moving close to him. She couldn't help but study his form and shape. He was so different from her shoulder-friend, much smaller in build, but similar enough that it troubled her to look upon him. "How may I assist you, Kreehakhil?"
"It is I who may assist you, Lell Darkamber. Illishar is kinsmeet to me, his mother hatched in the same nest as mine. He bade me send a message to you. He holds himself to his promise to you, that he will see you again. He asks only that you do not lose faith in him." If the tercel found this a strange message to bear, it was not evident in his tone. "He would also ask a boon of you. He knows that you are of age to join your brethren at the Heron's shores this summer. Illishar requests that you do so."
Illishar wanted her to join her people's courting trek? How could he ask such a thing of her? Before she could protest, Kreehakhil raised a forestalling talon. "Illishar knows this may go against your wishes, and he would remind you that Ishi's nesting grounds are but a short flight from those shores. Even if his business with Malar is not concluded by then, he would like the chance to see you. And he also bade me return with an answer. Would you give it now? Will you be there?" Kreehakhil's leonine tail flipped and twined idly as he waited.
Lell didn't even bother to appear as if considering it, she merely dipped her golden horn to the sandy-furred, and leaf-green feathered tercel. "Aye, you may tell him that I will be there."
She loosed a whicker of amusement once the wingcat had moved off after the others and out of earshot. Not two days ago, her elder brother had been talking around and in a sideward manner, though never quite directly bringing up the issue, of her sojourning to the summer trysting grounds. She'd been pondering how to beg off the excursion, but now she'd not have to.
"By the beard," she muttered to herself as she turned to make her way back to the mere, "Ai and Dhat are going to have a good laugh at this." Her niece and nephew had been attempting to teach her the art of scrying, that she might look upon Illishar from a distance, but their efforts had been little more than futile. Since viewing a glimpse of her destiny upon the morning of her initiation, she'd burned with a need to see the gryphon again.
The odd-pied filly and cloud-white foal had cautioned her that even in the ideal conditions – upon the mirror smooth surface of the mere, at early dawn before the sun's refraction would hamper her efforts – scrying was a magickers art. Lell might have been growing into her skills as a singer, but she was no seer. They'd told her that placing her trust in the Mother-of-all, having faith that Alma would set her hooves on the right path, would guide her well. That all things would come in their right time and she'd see Illishar soon enough.
How right they were.
Illishar cursed the elements. He'd spent a morning's fitful flight dodging bulging rain clouds that seemed determined to drop their burden upon him as he flew beneath them. And now, even as Ishi's golden egg shown bright and warm enough chase away the rain and to dry his damp, bedraggled feathers, the Goddess of air sent contrary currents and slipstreams that hampered what should have been an easy journey. Gliding down from the high peaks of the mountains, he found himself buffeted by odd play in the wind. Instead of coming in over the trees, he had to change his route, and skirt the far circumference of the bay.
The tercel's initial plan had been to greet Lell and her brethren before they reached the beach - perhaps when they were still in treatise with those scrabbling, cackling herons – but Malar had needed him for just a few more days. So he stayed for his Wingleader two days longer, and then four, and every day felt more of the summer slipping away. He'd sent word to Lell that he'd meet her upon the silver shores, and what must she think of him that he kept her waiting?
He could only hope that she'd still want to see him. Almost five months they'd been parted, and everyday of that he'd felt the distance as almost a physical thing. He knew his own people mocked him for his strange affections for the unicorns, cawed like gossiping crows about the circlet of twined milky hairs round his wrist, but he did not care. Always he was set apart from the flock, and in this he would be no different. Malar, at least, knew that Ishi had set a different wind stream for him to follow, and respected him for it, though she was loathe to lose his guidance.
He'd taken such pride in seeing Malar take leadership of the flocks, uniting almost all the clans behind her. And against all odds, he'd won a nesting spot high upon the most honorable perch. Leaving that behind would be no easy thing, but he knew that uncharted skies lay before him. He reflected on it, even as the powerful thrust of his wing beats pulled him further from all that was hard-fought and familiar, driving him relentlessly forward into the unknown.
The familiarity of this journey was not lost on him either. Just a few years ago he'd made this same flight, though with a wing of fellow gryphons in formation on his flank and riding dangerous on the crest of stormwind. They'd harried the unicorns summering upon the shores, and he himself had almost lost his life to the sea in his combat with the black-coated prince. How strange a turn his life had taken since that fateful day, but he'd not have changed any of it – the pain of his broken wing, surviving that whole, long term of privation at the mercy of the herons, the re-breaking and mending of his wing – for it brought him to this moment now.
Gliding over the treetops, grass-green fletching catching hold of the wind, he swooped down past the perilous, honeycombing reaches of the singing cliffs, coasted low over the gently rolling white caps and folded his wings tight to his side for the final descent and landing. Even before his hind paws and fore-talons found purchase on the shelf of rock, his cat-green eyes were scanning the beach, searching for…
He knew her golden form immediately, but was startled all the same. She stood some paces down the beach, apart from the others who were chasing through canon-deep wavelets, staring up towards the skies beyond the dunes. She'd changed since last he saw her. Gone was the gangling, adolescent mare not quite grown into the length of her limbs. The awkward, uneven growth spurt that had put her haunches higher than her shoulders had leveled out and the slope of her spine was smooth and even. Her milky mane had lengthened, it frothed in the morning breeze like the white capped waves, but his feather hung there still and he thrilled to see it. The arc of her neck was proud and elegant and there was a hart's litheness about her, though he'd never looked upon any of the fallow deer in Ishi's Vale and felt his heart stutter against his breast.
"Lell," he breathed.
He didn't know if she heard the hiss of her name, or just sensed the change in the air-currents from his landing, but she turned towards him then and for a moment she was no more than the delighted young filly he'd first treated with upon the lookout knoll all those seasons ago.
"Illishar!" Her joyous cry reached his ear only a few moments quicker than she did. With a bound and a splash, she leapt and scrambled like a surefooted hill-goat up the craggy rocks he'd landed upon; even as he padded down to meet her. She crashed into him like waves breaking upon the shore, and he rocked back with the force of it. It was the most natural thing to do to wrap his forelimbs around her and hold her tight to him.
"Oh, little darkamber," he whispered hoarsely into her silken pelt, "how I've missed you."
"And I you, Illishar. My gryphon."
"I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner, Lell. I wanted us to have the whole of the summer, but Malar…"
"Hist," she interrupted, mouthing her words into the thick, downy plumage of his neck. He could feel the damp heat of her breath. "You are here now, and that is all that matters."
The surety in her tone surprised the tercel. Only a few months back when they parted on the sandy banks of the mere she'd been so full of doubts. He drew back from their embrace, letting the sensitive undersides of his talons slide down the firm lines of her shoulders, and looked into her eyes. Again he was stunned by the absolute faith he saw in their golden depths. "You sound so sure of me. How could you be, after all this time I've kept you waiting?"
A coquettish grin dimpled the corners of her velveteen muzzle. "You forget, Illishar, that I have looked upon the mere and seen my future."
He hissed in surprise. "And what did the foretelling waters of your moon pool show you?"
"You," she said simply.
"And that was enough?" he pressed, needing to know more. "Just a glimpse of me was enough to know?"
Lell dipped her chin in a slow nod. "Aye. Although," she added significantly, "'twas not only you I foresaw in my dreaming vision."
Illishar blinked in confusion. "Who else did you see?"
"Our family, Illishar," she explained.
Heavy brows dipped over his cat-green eyes. Then they widened almost comically as realization struck. "You mean? I… you…?" Never before had the silver-tongued catbird found himself bereft of speech. No more was Lell a filly to be taunted and teased but kept at a wing's distance. Now she was a grown mare, beautiful and confident and so clearly aware that things had changed between them. He'd been half-afraid that his feelings were one-sided, that while she might care for him as a friend of her shoulder, he'd be alone in his newly named passion. How wrong he was indeed.
Leaving him dumbstruck, with laughter trilling from her lips, the dark amber mare sprang away, leaping down the rocks to land, already trotting, upon the damp sand. "Come, Illishar, let us join the games."
A great bonfire blazed in a sandy clearing set amongst the smooth-barked shore trees. Gleaming molten copper in the firelight, Ryhenna stood a few yards back from the blaze she'd kindled, and by her side her mate, Dagg, fitted himself tight against her barrel. With the Queen in foal, Jan had elected his shoulder-friend and the unicorn's Mistress of Fire to stand in as leaders at this summer's sojourn. Their son Culu was long since weaned, and the pair of them were happy to have the chance to renew the vows they'd made years back.
Lell stood several paces back in the dancing glade, watching and waiting. Beside her, Illishar sat on his haunches with his wings half-stretched to catch the heat. One of those wings curved over her back, tips of his long, primary feathers just brushing her barrel. She shuddered, despite the warmth.
"What next?" he asked, pitching his voice to a low, skirling purr.
"Dagg will invite all to dance," she explained just as soft, her words for his pard's ears alone. "And as the night wears on, those who've found their mates will steal away together, and declare themselves to one another, under the witnessing of Alma's thousand eyes."
Even as she described it, they heard Dagg call to all assembled: "Tonight is the night you've awaited. Go now, and let the dancing be underway! Let those who know their hearts choose mates tonight, pledging faith to one another in the eyes of Alma for all time!"
All around them unicorns sprang to the center of the grove, laughing and whistling and snorting their excitement. In short moments they'd formed a rudimentary ring, twining steadily widdershins around the blazing fire. They pranced and paraded before their prospective mates, hoofs flashing in elegant high steps and heels kicking in saucy struts.
She heard the gryphon take a steadying breath, couldn't help but smile at how shaky that little hissing inhale had sounded. "Do we join them?" he finally asked.
Lell didn't answer at first. The others had grown used to the gryphon's presence long before he arrived at the sea. He'd been a familiar figure in the time that he'd spent with them in the Vale while they prepared for their war upon the wyverns. And after, in the reclaimed Hallow Hills, he'd been such a part of their victory and homecoming that none even remarked on his presence. Even these past few weeks upon the strand he'd joined in their games and revelry and he and Lell regaled the courting unicorns with the lays of both their people, and none questioned it. Despite all that, Lell suspected that none of them really understood what his attendance at their summer courtship really meant.
They'd know this night.
"Aye," she said coolly, with an almost regal incline of her head. Then it was her turn to shake as she canted her head to look at Illishar. The yellow-orange firelight danced golden in the green of his eyes, and his pupils were thin slits that met her gaze. How such a look could reduce her to that tremulous filly of old, she did not know. "That is, if you'll follow me."
His brows dipped inward, his grin was positively predatory, and it sent a thrill through the whole of her. "Lell," he growled out a throaty rumble, "I will follow you anywhere."
"Then come," she urged, "let us join the dance."
As she bounded into the fray, Lell heard many a gasp and utterance of astonishment. Likely they'd not expected her to join at all. The drumming of dozens of hoof beats was echoed in her veins as her heart raced for what was to come. A few over-eager young stallions immediately stepped in line behind her, but she paid them no mind. She footed this dance for only one.
The dark amber mare knew the very moment that Illishar set a paw into the dance. All around her bodies stumbled and staggered and there were snorts and whinnies of surprise and alarm.
Lell ignored them all, continuing to weave her way through the sluggishly moving figures, her head high and pert tassel flagged behind her on a sinuously twining tail. She could feel the weight of Illishar following doggedly on her heels, trailing after her on the strength of his faith that they'd come through this together. Through her very force of will she encouraged the dancing to continue. As important as this night was to her fellows, she knew it held far more significance. They must not stop. They must be made to accept. She shouldered a wide-eyed stallion and chivvied a slack-jawed mare, traded horn play with a pied blue, and nipped a dun flank and slowly, ever so slowly, they all began to move again.
Though some still eyed her askance, it wasn't too long before the meaning of the night's revelry caught up with the rest of their herd mates, and thoughts of gryphons dancing were pushed out of their minds for more amorous ones. Lell danced on, moving differently now, first stalking through the dancers like a pard on the prowl, then leaping in long-legged bounds, almost as if she weren't tethered to the ground and instead cavorted amongst the clouds. This was no horn-browed, cloven-heeled unicorn she enticed, but a lion-tailed, eagle-pinioned wingcat. And like the great beasts he resembled, Illishar echoed the mare's movements, finally bringing himself abreast of her so that they danced shoulder-to-shoulder.
The bone-white orb of Alma's eye dropped low in the sky and the fire burned down; already many of the unpaired had retired and many more of those who'd found a partner had sidled off into the darkness. A flushed and panting Lell finally peeled away from the remaining dancers, trotting lightly away from the grove and into the dim trees. Illishar followed close, his breath hot on her flank. There were whispers as they moved past the unpaired observers, but none moved to intercept them.
She guided him far from the others, leaving the shelter of the trees and breaking onto the moonlit beach. The strand looked strangely abandoned; all the hoof prints from earlier in the day worn by wind or water, and a low bank of fog crawled in with the waves. Tepid water sloshed over her fetlocks and damp sand compressed between her toes, and still she pranced on. She could hear Illishar's rumbling laughter over her shoulder. "Where is it you lead, little one?"
"You'll see," she sang back to him, laughter and anticipation warring in the lilt of her voice.
His own laughter joined hers a few moments later and she knew he'd realized just where they headed. The high sandstone walls of the singing cliffs gave way to a break in the cliff wall, and treacherous half-submerged rocks waited just beyond a trough in the sand. He'd spent an entire summer grounded on the sand and rocks just above the waterline.
"I thought," she said with what she hoped was a sultry tone, "that you might like to make some new memories of this place." She stopped abruptly and spun on fringe-tufted heels to face him, her mane blowing and tossing like a banner spun of moonlight.
He lifted his wings to stop himself just a horns distance from her. "Aye, I would," he agreed, breathless but smiling still, though amusement was fast giving way to different emotion. "Lell…" He broached the slight space between them, stepping close enough that their faces were only inches apart.
He raised a talon and gently stroked it along the edge of her muzzle, over the long line of her jaw, and around the smooth curve of her cheek, before letting it trail down her throatlatch, and the skin of her neck juddered beneath that sensuous caress. She felt a tremor in her belly and a quickening of her pulse. Illishar's riant eyes caught hers, and she let herself fall into their mesmeric depths. "Lell," his voice was barely a whisper, "Lell Darkamber, I love you with all that I am and I would pledge myself to you. My heart has long been yours, my mind and my body are simply slow to catch up. But they are all yours now, all that I am is yours, and I vow that always I will be at your side, forever your gryphon."
Unblinking, despite welling tears, Lell stared into Illishar's verdine eyes, feeling joy and passion and a rightness that she'd never known before. "And with the Mother-of-All as my witness, I, Alell, pledge myself to you, Illishar Brokenwing." She gave a tender smile, "you who have always been my gryphon. Long before I looked upon the waters of the mere and saw a future for us, I knew that you and I were destined. I promise you my love and my fealty for the whole of our lives."
She pressed her lips against the delicate skin that edged his beak, sliding her muzzle into the soft plumage beyond, let her supple cheek glide against his, and nipped playfully at a pert, fur-tufted ear. "Now," she whispered even as his wings unfolded to wrap around them both, and his strong talons gripped her shoulders, "let us see what we can do to make the rest of my dreams come true."
And so, on that moon swept strand, Lell and Illishar spoke their most sacred vows and shared that most intimate of dances.
And… perhaps that is where I should leave off.
Now I suspect you've all begun to question just where it is that my role in this tale takes place. In night's past, I've always had my own part to play in the events that unfolded, and yet here I've done little more than recount them as they were told to me. But play my part I did, though it was some months following the courting trek. I made my way to the Hallows after having spent some time amongst the pans and my fosterlings, Sismoomnat and Pitipak. Great healers they've grown into, by the by. Though I miss them dearly, I cannot help but be proud of their accomplishments.
Oh by Alma's beard, I've gotten off track with my prattling once again. I implore you, my free-wheeling friends; do see fit to champ me when I do that. It is Lell and Illishar's tale I am recounting and I've not yet got to my part in those historic events. After taking Lell as his mate, Illishar left his lofty perch and position as Malar's advisor, to journey to the Hallow Hills once more, forever an envoy of the Gryphon people. He vowed never to leave Lell's side, and that is a vow he takes most seriously. And now, even more so.
For you see, nine turns of the moon after they returned from pledging beneath the eyes of Alma, or Ishi as the Gryphons call the Mother, a midwife was called for. And there could be only one suited to usher this brand new life into the world. I arrived in time to escort a very steady-nerved Lell to the birthing groves. And through it all, Jan kept himself at the side of a pacing, growling and snapping wingcat. But he needn't have worried; it was a smooth delivery for all it was unprecedented, and that special child is the daughter of Lell and Illishar, of unicorn and gryphon.
She is an incredible wonder, just as Jan envisioned all those years ago. To this day the Firebringer will dismiss any claims that he is a true seer, but occasionally his glimpses have been nothing but the surest of truth. He foresaw this miraculous child and what her birth would mean to both the Unicorn and Gryphon people. Lell and Illishar and their daughter have since made the journey back to Ishi's Vale, as have other's, and what change they have wrought! But it has grown late, already the sky brightens with coming dawn, and that is a tale for another time.
Now, children of Alma, I bid you rest. The storm's run itself out and on the 'morrow I journey to the Hallow Hills. But forget not this night's telling, and keep your eyes to the heavens, for the Mother only knows what you'll see.