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Should Have, Would Have, Could Have

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Shrieks and cries reverberated off the towering peaks that protected the Cliffs of Assembly from the harsh winds, making Illishar’s ears ring, but the fledgling ignored the discomfort and sat up straighter on the ledge. All the clans were gathered, either circling high above or squabbling for position on the outcroppings below, and it would not do to appear slovenly before so many, not when his parents and his nestmates were under the scrutiny of the great flock, not with the queen so close.

Malar lay upon her own ledge close by, a great behemoth of a formel whose blue feathers caught the sun’s rays and gleamed with health. Her eyes were lidded, but at this distance Illishar could see her gaze shift every now and then as she scanned those assembled. More and more gryphons were landing now, until the skies were finally emptied, but the shrieking continued to swell, and Illishar couldn’t help but bury his head against his mother’s side in an attempt to dampen the noise.

Shreel preened the feathers of his headcrest. “Look up, my son,” she crooned. “Pain you might feel now, but soon it will pass, and this will become a day you shall never forget.”

Obediently the young tercel looked out again toward the assembly, and at the same moment Malar gave one of her guards a brief nod. The formel stalked to the front of the ledge and with a brief bow to her matriarch, she drew herself up, threw back her bill, and trilled.

The eerie sound echoed throughout the cliffs and made Illishar shiver, but the gryphons fell silent, turning their heads up to gaze at the highest ledge. The trilling slowly trailed off until it finally stopped, and the guard returned to her place. Malar sat up.

“Today, Isha, mistress of the sky, smiles down on us,” she said, softly, but in the dead silence her voice carried to the farthest and lowest of the perches with ease. “And today she saves her greatest favor for two of our kin. They have shown great courage and cunning, flying with skill and grace to bring themselves honor and strike a terrible blow to our enemies!

“Let us honor brave Shreel and her mate, the mighty Kilkeelahr! And let us fly to war to drive out the trespassers from Ishi’s Vale once and for all! For the black prince of the unicorns lies dead!”

The sound that burst forth from the throats of the assembled gryphons was deafening, but Illishar was oblivious as he and his brothers and sisters joined the cacophony, his half-grown’s shrill cries and their hatchlings’ peeping drowned out by the fierce calls of formels and tercels alike. His parents remained still as stone for a few moments, basking in their hard-won glory, and then began a war chant that was quickly taken up by all the flock.

Illishar sat up straighter, chest puffed out and eyes shining with pride. The gryphons now flew united for the first time in their long history and it was all due to his parents’ deeds. Today was glorious!

He only hoped he could do something as great one day.

 

****

 

The negotiations were finally beginning to wind down.

The gryphons had arrived yesterday, shortly after sun up, a great vee of blue feathers and tawny hides. The males - tercels, green-and-gold hunters just as deadly as the formels - were expected to mind the nests while their mates conducted business. The matriarchy of the wingcats baffled Zod, but he held his tongue. It wouldn’t do to offend potential allies, not when the unicorns were in so precarious a position. They needed this alliance to work.

It helped that Halla led them; the formels were more in mind to look favorably on them. The princess might not have had killing talons or a razor sharp bill, but her quick wit and strong will had impressed these children of the sky, especially their de facto leader.

Tirzah was a massive formel and a ruthless leader according to the gryphons, and ultimately it would be her decision that dictated the unicorns’ fate. She was in conference with her brethren now, their voices inaudible to the assembled herd. Halla waited patiently upon a small outcropping of stone near to the small flock, her expression calm and polite, but Zod could see the muscles of her shoulder tense and twitch with both apprehension and exhaustion. It was past noon now and the parley had gone long into the night; neither Halla nor Zod had slept.

A sudden rustling drew the seer’s attention away from his princess and to the wingcat queen that now approached the flame red mare. He could see Halla raise her head and flare her nostrils, but she made no other movement as Tirzah sat before her.

“We are in agreement, my kin and I,” the gryphon said, her purring voice rolling in the still afternoon. “So long as your people disturb not our wind god’s sacred flocks, and so long as you tend to their safety from wolves and pans when the winter winds keep us to our nests, then you shall be welcome in Ishi’s Vale.”

A deep sigh of relief rose from the herd and Zod could hear more than a few near-hysterical, disbelieving laughs at this turn of fortune. Halla dipped her neck in a bow to the formel and said simply, “We are in your debt, Queen Tirzah.”

 

****

 

The autumnal equinox had arrived and the clifftops overlooking the sea were abuzz with activity as daya and two-foots alike moved about. Usko had been overthrown that morning in the trials and now Mot reigned as First Stallion. Even this far from the stables of the chon, the echoes of the old lord’s rage could be heard.

Jah-lila was too nervous to care. The weanling colts had passed beneath Dai’chon’s scrutiny some hours before, some to grow up to one day challenge Mot’s rule, some to become geldings and sent to work as drudges within the city. And now as the sun neared the horizon, the fillies would come under the godking’s eye, their fates either alongside the wretched geldings or as a mate to the First Stallion. She could think and gossip about the change in the stable hierarchy after her future was secured.

Her keeper had groomed her until her roan coat had shone, combed her full tail until it felt like silk, coated her round hooves in gleaming black oil, and woven bells and bits of bright ribbon into her upright mane. Other fillies were being similarly prepared, for an unpolished appearance was an insult to the chon, their bloodlines, and their god.

The godking was terrifying, Jah-lila thought, her black-green eyes so wide the whites showed, and with a start she realized the procession had begun. Already fillies were being led before the da-headed deity for him to consider their beauty of form and purity of blood. Each was stopped before Dai’chon’s dais as he carefully examined them, for a hasty decision here meant either sullying the lines of the sacred herd or letting a finely-bred specimen become nothing little more than dirt.

A snap of the whip - to the city. A jab of the skewer - to the stable. The crowd of townspeople murmured as the godking made his choices, but she couldn’t tell if it was in approval or disappointment.

And then suddenly it was her turn and her keeper was leading her before the god. Jah-lila forgot her fear; how could she be scared when she needed to put all her energy into making the best impression possible? So she raised her head, pricked her ears, and stepped high as she approached the dais, showing off her long legs and clean movement. A sudden hush fell over the crowd.

She halted, and she could feel the nervousness rolling off her keeper in waves, but she ignored him, all her attention on the godking. He didn’t seem so frightening now, not so close, and she paid no heed to how stiffly he stood nor how still he kept his face, focused only on the limbs that held the instruments of her fate.

It seemed an eternity before he moved, when she saw the grip on the lash change. Jah-lila herself moved at that moment, arching her neck and prancing in place, the bells in her mane chiming softly and her muscles rippling beneath her shining coat. Awed gasps and sighs arose from the throng of onlookers, but the roan filly didn’t hear them: the grip had loosened.

Dai’chon raised the skewer.

 

****

 

Bitterness was Ses’s sole companion as she trudged across the early morning Plain, her hooves slowly but surely taking her back to her fellow Valedwellers on the shores of the Summer Sea. Last night had been…exhilarating. Liberating, even. No cares about being a Law-abiding warrior, no worries of an uncertain future. There had just been the longdance and the handsome stallion with which she had completed it.

Calydor had offered freedom and she had rejected it. She had a life in the Vale, a family she loved with all her heart. And on her initiation night she had seen herself give birth to a flit of flame. There was no doubt in her mind what that meant. Dam to the Firebringer. Her duty to her people went well beyond protecting her home from marauding gryphons.

And he would be no Ring-born unicorn at all, but a Renegade outside the Law…

Ses halted, head jerking up and nostrils flaring as the words of the prophetess Ellioc rang through her mind. Most scoffed at Ellioc and her predecessor, wild Caroc, as false dreamers, unable to see their visions as interpretations of uncertain futures. She had always been fascinated by any telling of the Firebringers, though, and had mulled over Ellioc and Caroc’s words as much as Zod’s. How could she have forgotten something she knew so well?

Why couldn’t she help fulfill a prophecy and have happiness? It was selfish, so selfish as to be abhorrent, and anyone who knew what she was thinking would scold for putting her interests before the herd’s.

Anyone save Calydor.

The young mare closed her eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. She wanted to be with the indigo stallion, wanted the life he spoke of with such passion. She wanted to spend the rest of her days with him. She wanted to bear his children. Oh, she knew life on the Plain wasn’t easy; on her initiation Pilgrimage the warriors had always been wary of pards stalking the long grasses, always been alert for foul weather, always made sure they were close to water when the band rested. Living on Alma’s Back would be a challenge. But with Calydor, it would be worth it.

Could she turn her back on everything she’d known?

Poppy mane flying, Ses wheeled and charged back in the direction she came. For Calydor, for herself…she could.

 

****

 

“Tell us a story!”

“Yes, tell us how you met our granddam!”

“Yes, tell us how you met Jah-lila!”

The stallion nickered in amusement. “You must have heard that story near a hundred times,” he said, “and from far better talespinners than I!”

Aiony and Dhattar exchanged looks. “Maybe,” the black-and-silver filly said.

“But we’ve never heard it from you,” the white foal added.

“And we want to hear your version of it!”

He looked heavenward, as if asking the Mother-of-all for guidance. “Are you absolutely sure you want to hear it from me?” he said. “You’ll only have yourselves to blame when your ears begin to bleed.” He gently nipped the wispy tassels on their ears for emphasis, making the twins giggle.

“Please, Grandsire?”

“Please?”

He sighed heavily. “Oh, all right. Only you two could convince me to do something as silly as tell a story.” Korr bent his head again to nuzzle his grandchildren fondly, taking the sting out of his words. As the pair settled themselves at the night-dark unicorn’s feet, the former king hmm’d thoughtfully, pondering where best to begin. He smiled and nodded to himself, then began: “Long, long ago, in defiance of the Law, a proud and hotheaded prince wandered the Great Grass Plain…”