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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Pierce Meredith Ann
 

«Birth of the Firebringer», Meredith Pierce

Beginning

When Alma created the world, most of it she made into the Great Grass Plain, which was not a flat place, but rolling like a mare’s back and covered all over with the greencorn and the haycorn and the wild oats, knee high, so that when the wind stirred it, billowing, it looked like a mare’s winter coat blowing. And that is why some called the grasslands Alma’s back. It was not the truth, for the Mother-of-all was not the world, but the Maker of the world.

With the stamp of one hoof, she made the Summer Sea, running shallow and warm even in wintertime. And with a little dig of her other heel, she raised the Gryphon Mountains upon its northern shore. Ranging north from there spread the dark Pan Woods, tangled and close, where only the blue-bodied goatlings roamed. Somewhere to the eastern north lay the Smoking Hills, where the red dragons denned, and due north across the Plain lay the Hallow Hills, a sacred place to the children-of-the-moon.

And that was all that was known of the world to the people I shall tell of in this tale. They lived in a great valley on the northern verges of the Woods. To the gryphons, they had always been a’ítichi, the enemy, and the pans murmured and gestured among themselves of the ufpútlak, four-footed walkers. The plains dwellers, being near cousins to those of whom I speak, called them simply southlanders. But they named themselves the unicorns, which means the “one-horned ones,” for each bore upon the brow a single spiral shaft as sharp as river ice and harder than hoof-breaking stone.

I am one of the fellows of this tale—I will not tell you which I am, though I promise that by the end of the running you will know me. My tale touches how the Firebringer came to be born among the unicorns, and what his coming meant to Aljan, son of Korr. But to start my tale, I must begin a little before the Firebringer, on a day near winter’s end when Jan was six years old, nearly half-grown, though still counted among the colts. It had been a long, cold, dull winter, and the prince’s son longed fiercely for the fiery storms of spring.

Stormwind

Stormclouds were rolling in out of the south-east. They darkened half the sky. It had been storming all day over the Gryphon Mountains, far on the horizon’s edge. He had been watching the lightning there off and on since midmorning, flickering like great, violent fireflies, and he wondered whether the rain would spend itself before reaching the Vale of the Unicorns.

Jan paused on the trail heading up slope through the trees. He lifted his muzzle, his nostrils flared. The savor of moist earth and evergreens filled him. Winter was done, the snow gone from the ground, but it was not yet equinox. No new shoots sprouted on the slope, no new grass yet scattered among the stubble in the valley below. The year was just now struggling into birth, still in its storming month, the time of cold gales and showers before spring.

Jan lowered his head and shook himself, feeling his mane settle along his neck. He pawed the leaf mold with one cloven heel, swatted a pair of stinging gnats from his flank with his tassel-ended tail, and wondered where Dagg was. He and his friend had a standing agreement to meet on the hillside whenever a storm was in the wind. Jan nibbled at a fly bite on one shoulder, fidgeted. Then the sound of hoofbeats made him wheel.

Pale yellow and dappled with gray, Dagg was like most unicorn colts, the color of his sire. Jan was not—the prince’s line never ran true, not since the days of Halla, four hundred summers gone. It was their mark, and set them off from all the herd, that no prince’s heir might ever be a match for him, so while Korr was as black as the well of a weasel’s eye, Jan, his son, was only sable, a rich dark brown like the color of earth. He spotted Dagg coming toward him through the trees.

Dagg neared and nipped at Jan, shouldering him, and the prince’s son shied, kicking. They chased each other off the narrow trail, nickering and fencing with colts’ long, unsharpened horns that clashed and clattered in the heavy, storm-awaiting stillness. Then Jan broke off, dodging back to the path, and sprinted toward the hillcrest.

“Hist, come on,” he cried over one shoulder. “The storm’s nearly here.”

They sped up slope then through the patches of sunlight and shadows of the trees. Jan threw up his head, letting his long legs stretch. The wind fingered his mane and played through the shag of his winter coat. He felt young and strong and full of his power. The rush of air laid back his ears. In another moment—in another moment, he would fly. Then he felt Dagg pulling up alongside him from behind and dropped back to a trot. They had nearly reached the top of the slope.

“Your father’ll dance thunder if he finds out,” Dagg said after a moment, “that we’ve come up this high, and with stormwind from the east.”

Jan shook the forelock out of his eyes and nickered. Colts were forbidden to stray from the valley floor, away from the ready shelter of the grottoes there. The Gryphon Mountains rose barely a day’s flight to the eastern south, and a gryphon could fly far with stormwind at its back. The unicorns lost foals every spring when the gryphon formels, the females, were hatching their ravenous young. Jan shrugged and laughed again. “We’ll be back long before we’re missed.”


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