It is the first moondance since the Battle of Endingfire.
The herd is reunited, the dead have been buried. They have crowned a queen, and a prince, and for the first time in forty generations the unicorns are at peace.
Culu is still very young, though, and it will be some time yet before he understands what has passed. All he knows for certain right now is that a great battle occurred, he and his dam and sire live in a new grotto and his dam has yet to let him go exploring with Aiony and Dhattar.
(His disappointment about the last was lessened when the twins told him their dam had forbidden them from exploring, too. They also said, with the firm surety that often unnerves the adults, that their dams will let them explore the Hills once the scouts have finished locating areas that are free of predators and uneven footing that could cause a dangerous fall. Since Aiony and Dhattar were never wrong, Culu stopped badgering his mother. At least about exploring the Hills.
“That once I looked forward to the time when my son had wit enough to speak his mind,” Ryhenna once grumbled good-naturedly while Culu napped at her hooves. Jah-lila, near enough to hear, had simply laughed.)
The herd is milling restlessly in the great open meadow found in the very center of the Hallow Hills as the moon begins to rise. They cannot start, not yet.
Culu paws the ground restlessly with one weanling hoof. Ryhenna nickers softly while Dagg gently nips his crest. He snorts but settles obediently.
A clear, sweet whistle fills the air. Ears prick and heads swivel. A pied pale rose and black mare breaks away from the throng and begins an easy lope, her stride short to allow a white foal and black and silver filly to keep pace. Answering whistles and whinnies echo off the hillsides and the unicorns follow their queen in the dance.
Culu kicks up his heels as the circle begins to form, ecstatic to finally be moving. Dagg and Ryhenna step lightly on either side of him, guiding their son in the ever-widening dance.
Aiony and Dhattar have suddenly appeared before him, and Culu looks up imploringly at his parents. Ryhenna laughs and says, “Go dance with your friends,” and the yellow and salmon foal needs no further encouragement.
The three chivvy and shoulder each other around the ring as the dancers swirl around them. Lell briefly joins their game of tag, the mottled amber and gold of her coat flashing in the moonlight, before dropping back to join her poppy-maned dam. (Culu will find out later from the twins that this will be Ses’s last moondance before she ventures forth on the Plain, and he will miss the cream mare who so often watched over him when his own dam needed rest, but for now he enjoys himself.) Tas and Leerah pass them and Culu beams up at his grandparents, his murrey-spotted granddam slowing to nip his ear tassels before she and her yellow dun mate join Ryhenna ahead.
Dagg and Jan spar as they dance, horns clicking loudly and spending up sparks that are quickly extinguished by fast moving hooves. (Culu isn’t sure when the prince joined the ring and he’s certain the Firebringer was not with them at dance’s beginning.) Other warriors, laughing as they chase and whirl, mimic their lunges and parries, and soon half the circle is a battle rather than a dance.
The dance resumes as normal as the moon climbs the heavens and eventually the circle slows. Culu rejoins his dam and sire as the dance finally reaches its end and unicorns throw themselves to the cool, grassy ground, panting in exhaustion and exhilaration.
Culu flops in an undignified heap between his parents and Ryhenna immediately begins to clean the sweat from his coat. He is tired but not ready to give into sleep as Tek gains the small rocky at circle’s center, so oddly similar to the one in the Vale. The new-made queen looks out at her assembled brethren and Culu swears he can see her green eyes flash in the moonlight.
“We have been at war so long, so long exiled from our rightful home, that it seems too much like a dream to dance in the Hills,” Tek says, her voice carrying out over the still night. (The rustling of feathers can be heard very faintly, though, and Culu realizes that the gryphon must still be here, and watching the unicorns dance from the trees.) Young and old alike look eagerly to their queen as she moves her gaze from one part of the ring to another.
“But it is no dream,” she murmurs softly, almost to herself, but the herd hears her clearly. “After four hundred years, finally we may dance without the shadow of war looming over us. Finally our children may grow in safety without worrying over from whence the next battles issues. Finally we may have peace. So let us be reminded of a time when the unicorns were still innocent, still ignorant of battle and bloodshed. Let us be reminded of what peace truly is. Singer, come forth! Let the story be sung.”
As Tek rejoins Jan and her children, Teki ascends the rise. “Hark now and heed, children of the moon,” the healer sings. “I’ll sing you a tale of the world’s beginning, when the milkwood trees were but sleeping seeds beneath the ground, when the unicorns were young and had yet to choose from amongst themselves a king…”
(Years later, when he is gray with age and ready to ascend the starpath, Culu will tell his grandchildren that this is when the Age of the Firebringer truly began: with a dance, and a song.)
As the moon reaches zenith and the singer spins his tale, Culu listens with wide eyes and pricked ears, absorbing the story into himself, and does not sleep until Teki quits the rise and Ryhenna hums a lullaby that finally convinces him to close his eyes. And Culu dreams.
They are good dreams.