"The Eyries. The Crystal Mountains. La Rochers Tempête. The Snowmanes. In my travels I have come across a dozen names for that enigmatic range of ice and rock. From one village to another, which often means a difference of fewer than twenty miles, the name can change dramatically.
No two ponies can agree on what lies beyond those mountains, either. Official records in Germaneigh claim that an ancient civilization of crystal ponies once dwelled beside them, though on which side in particular is a subject of some dispute. Meanwhile, any Equestrian shirepony will tell you that the frozen north is home to a fabled griffon homeland. Griffons! As if those featherbrains hold any claim there.
The ponies of Shetland, unsurprisingly, have the closest relationship to those mountains. One might say the kingdom's history is bound tighter to those snow-capped peaks than to the Shadow Wood itself."
-- From the journal of Sworn Shield --
Five griffons and a unicorn alighted on the crags. Steel gleamed moonlit at their belts. Snow muffled every stone. One by one they stole up to the ridgeline. A sharp northern wind cut amongst the rocks and stabbed at their eyes, sweeping clouds of vapor breath out behind them.
From on high Luna’s moon cast a disapproving eye. Her pale gaze swept the land from horizon to horizon. Five of the figures felt that gaze all too keenly. They cleaved to the shadows and nursed guilty consciences. Only the pony ignored it. She stood alone, bathed in moonlight.
A valley stretched out below, strewn with fields of ice and broken rock. Out of that valley rose spires needle-sharp, and above them stacked cliff shelves akin to colossal stairs, all layered fifty feet deep in snow. Every pair of eyes scaled those walls, higher and higher, alive with dread and longing.
Above it all towered a prison built for dragons.
The Glowing Mountain loomed astride the shoulders of the cliffs, incandescent as a lighthouse. A false dawn welled from within its crown like a beacon into the heavens. The clouds above it burned an angry, roiling orange. Every inch of the arctic landscape huddled beneath its enormity, just as every inch dripped with the malicious irony of Discord. What could be more appropriate a prison for immortal beasts of fire than one wrought of ice and stone? No one knew how many dragons were trapped inside. Was it their entire race, or did some yet hide in the far corners of the earth?
The leader of the griffons crept forward. He hulked over the others, clad in leather and sooty mail with a wingspan to dwarf them all. One taloned hand went to the axe at his belt. His long, cruel beak was trapped in a smirk by misfortune of its design. It was a hard image for a coward to live up to.
“We need to move quickly,” he said.
“They won’t wake,” piped up the shortest of his fellows, raising a talon. He licked his stub of a beak, not quite believing his own words. “No need to rush.”
The others rustled their wings and looked to one another for reassurance. They were warriors all, save the smallest of their number, and even he was bound by their honor. But not a one could bring themselves to boast. Not in this place, not when all sense bade them flee. Each one saw the same uncertainty in the eyes of the others.
But the pony amongst them looked to no one. The cold seemed hardly to affect her. Her eyes remained on the mountain and its burning clouds, only slightly squinted against the driving wind. Her flanks were bare, as she’d left her saddlebags to fly light. The cutie mark emblazoned there was a knight’s helm with lowered visor and flying purple plume, the same color as the mane and tail she kept braided.
Her spiral horn was further proof of noble birth, yet she wore a patchwork of furs and oiled ringmail under a saddle of battered leather. Unusual dress for a pony to be sure, perhaps even unsettling, but practical all the same. At her side hung an undecorated sword. Lashed to the scabbard was a metal crest, her family’s ancestral seal. It was the one thing of importance she still carried.
“This is the last chance to change your mind, pony.” The leader of the band glanced back south. It would be a hard day of flying back to the Eyries. He would gladly make the journey in half that time if only they could start immediately.
The unicorn’s nostrils flared and the wind quailed before her. “I’ve come too far to turn back now.”
She thought little of the griffons. Four years she had wandered, and now at last she stood at journey’s end. Only a valley of rocks stood between her father’s House and redemption. Nothing would stand in her way. If necessary she’d drag herself back across the Crystal Mountains on broken hooves.
Without willing it, her thoughts turned to home. She longed to feel the warmth of the hearthfire again, to experience the love of family and the familiar smells of her childhood; scented candles, warm baths, clean sheets, and good pony bread. She remembered her father, and their dutiful servants, and the taste of wine. Most of all she remembered the cool breeze of Luna’s nights across ballroom floors, and the warmth of Celestia’s sun on tournament lists. The sudden memories twisted like a knife in her chest, surprising her with their sharpness. She took a moment to compose herself, then locked them back inside the secret corner of her heart where they had slept for so many years.
“Lady Tilter?” beseeched the smallest of the griffons, always polite. He reached out as if to touch her shoulder, then shrank away. He was only barely her height, with a delicate little beak and feathers as soft as his voice. His only blade was encrusted with gems and seldom touched. The others called him Bantam, but she suspected they meant it in insult and not as his real name.
“Not lady.” Tilter kept her eyes resolute on the mountain ahead even though the wind stung them to tears. “I have not been a lady nor a dame in a long, long time.”
He pressed on. That was unusual for him. But then, desperation pushed even cravens to audacity. “Please, let’s go back. This place is... It’s dangerous.”
Tilter had already made up her mind years ago. This time she turned and met his eyes. “And I am dangerous too. You may fly home if you wish.”
Bantam swallowed and seemed to shrink into his downy neck feathers. He looked to his older brother Voehorn, the leader. There was pleading in his expression. Voehorn found his courage against the backdrop of his brother’s cowardice. He puffed out his chest and widened his smirk, then slapped Bantam on the back.
“Not scared of a few sleeping dragons, are you? Don’t be pathetic. We’ll be rich after this. Rich as kings!”
One of the other warriors did not agree. He crouched behind the group, crank-bow crushed to his breast. His eyes were wild. “Rich as kings?” He scoffed, voice on the edge of cracking. “Dead like dead kings, more like. Forget it. Forget this whole mess! I’m not risking it!”
He backed away, waving one clawed hand. “You lot can go ahead without me.”
Some of the color went out of Voehorn’s face, though his smirk remained fixed. It was almost rictus now. He threw himself at the other griffon as a drowning pony might scramble to keep hold of sinking driftwood.
“Wait, Gerfried!” Voehorn spread his wings and arms. The wind tore at his feathers. “Surely you know how bitter you’ll be when we’re all back at the Eyrie splitting your share. Think about this!”
But Gerfried was already coiling to leap into the wind, wings spread. “I have thought about it.” He stopped just long enough to stab a talon in the direction of each griffon. “And if you took a second to think about it too, you’d follow me!”
He launched into the air and was away like an arrow. If he said anything else, it was lost to the wind.
Strange. Tilter had thought Gerfried looked the hardest of them all, full of a sincere, quiet toughness that overshadowed Voehorn in every way. Perhaps she’d been wrong. Or perhaps the grey griffon was simply the wisest of them. That thought troubled her, so she excised it from her mind.
“Yeah, well, you’d have just lost it all at cards anyway!” Voehorn whipped out his axe and made as if to throw it, then stopped himself. He sputtered, stomped, and fumed, but to Tilter it was clearly all for show. “I always knew you were craven! Cud-chewer!”
His curses chased after Gerfried on the howling wind, but the grey griffon flew faster. He was already gone. Their courage flew with him.
The four remaining griffons exchanged glances and turned south. Bantam furled and unfurled his wings. He would follow his brother’s lead, and even Voehorn was all too ready to fly home. Tilter could see them wilting right before her eyes. Would they fall apart here, now, on the cusp of success? It was clear their code of honor was no longer enough.
Tilter ground her hoof in the snow and lit up her horn. The magic tingled at the base of her neck, calm and precise. She loosened her sword in its scabbard, wrapping it in a sheath of light. The message was clear.
“Pathetic. All of you.” She hardly needed to force a deeper scowl. It came naturally. “You call yourselves warriors? Warriors don’t slink away from danger.”
Voehorn’s smirk almost managed to become a snarl. Almost. His talons tightened around the axe. Then he softened, casting his eyes from one griffon to another. They looked to him with bated breath, desperate for his decision. Tilter knew what they were thinking; please let us turn back. Please let us turn back.
But Tilter had gotten the measure of his pride. He glared daggers at her and shoved the axe back into his belt. There was no backing out of her challenge, not now. The others could only follow his lead.
“Fine.” He snarled over Tilter. Her magic cast a sparkling pink glow across his face. “But I won’t carry you.”
Another griffon took her in his claws and they leapt from the crags, diving low to fly beneath the winds. Tilter could feel the fear and resentment grow in her companions as they drew closer to their goal. She wondered if they’d drop her now, let her fall screaming to a cruel death below. Nobody would ever know. But they didn’t try it. Perhaps they worried that her magic might somehow slow a fall. Most griffons feared unicorns, and magic in general.
They landed where the lines of the mountain converged sharp on its highest cliff. The ledge was built for landings, wide and flat, an anvil towering over other shelves below. Misshapen spires surrounded it on two sides like vast teeth with snowdrifts for gums. The crags where they’d started now formed a rim of squiggles far away. High above towered the mountain’s violent peak.
Bantam pointed upward, shivering. “There.” His beak chattered.
Tilter followed his talon. Sure enough, her eyes found the cleft in the mountainside wherein hid the tunnel entrance. It was the only safe way into the mountain, at least as far as the griffons knew. Anything was safer than descending into the glowing abyss atop the crown, for while magic might have conceived a way to bypass lava, it was not lava that shone in the mountain. The griffons claimed a deadly barrier sealed its mouth, vast and brighter than the brightest magelights. They would not so much as fly over it.
She turned to little Bantam. It was hard to believe that he was the only griffon to ever enter through the hidden passage. His brothers had been too cowardly to enter themselves, and he too cowardly to refuse their dares. Oh, how he must have quaked and cried. She pitied him for that, but she checked her sympathy there.
Despite herself Tilter felt fear worming its way down her throat. She drew air in through her nose and grit her teeth. “Move.”
The griffons checked their weapons. Two of them loaded crankbows with slender bolts of iron; one of these pulled out a knife and clenched it in his beak. Voehorn snatched up a shortspear that another had carried for him. Bantam lit a little iron lantern, talons trembling. His breath puffed orange around it.
Tilter resisted the temptation to draw her sword. It remained secure in the scabbard. She had no need of a weapon’s false comfort. With luck, none of them would.
They scaled the rocks with care. Ice encased every surface, ribbed and invisibly slick. Bantam led the way with lantern held high. Tilter followed close behind, dragging herself over the roughness of the stones. Her braided mane lashed at her back and flanks in the wind. She scraped swirling snow from her eyes.
The cleft went deep, a cave in its own right. It reminded her uncomfortably of a throat, ridged as it was with a thousand layers of ice all down its length. Were they climbing into the mouth of a great beast? Still they pressed on. Soon the entrance to the tunnel loomed in front of them. It was cramped, triangular, where the walls of the cleft had pressed together and left only this tiny chink between them.
Their breath rushed away from the opening as if fleeing from what lay within. Every fiber of their beings told them to follow, to escape as Gerfried had.
A gust of warm air rushed out from deep within the tunnel. The mountain’s breath roared faintly in their ears. Tilter reminded herself it was more likely to be the collective breath of countless dragons. Somehow that was worse. The candle within Bantam’s lantern flickered, as did the griffons. Voehorn gulped.
Tilter pressed against Bantam. “Move,” she commanded. He obeyed with no small amount of trepidation.
They slipped into the darkness. The tunnel wound its way through the rock, widening and then shrinking, always claustrophobic. Bantam’s lantern barely illuminated enough to see around them, much less whatever lay ahead. The griffons only seemed to follow because they dared not leave that light, and Bantam only pressed on because Tilter blocked the way back. She didn’t bother to hide her quickening breath or the trembling in her legs, but she didn’t let it stop her either.
How far did this tunnel stretch? It felt like they’d been slinking downward single-file for an eternity. The air grew warm and heavy, blowing every now and then in their faces. The walls were damp, the floor slick. Little drops of water fell in front of the lantern.
“How much further?” asked Tilter. She could smell brimstone. The taste entered her mouth when she spoke and made her want to gag.
“C-close,” was Bantam’s weak-throated reply.
The others said nothing.
At last the tunnel widened and leveled out beneath them. They stepped out into a cavern that swallowed up the light of the lantern. The smell of brimstone was stronger here, more pervasive and eye-watering. There was another smell too, something musty that none of them could identify. The roaring sound of the mountain’s breath had not faded in the open space.
They moved ahead of Bantam to put the lantern at their backs. It took a minute for Tilter’s eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness. They stood in an antechamber. The ceiling sloped up and disappeared, and something wet dripped on Tilter’s collar. The floor was smooth save for nearly imperceptible smears of dampness. A few pillars of glistening stone rose from those smears closest to the walls. Their tips were scarcely visible in the darkness.
“I see a light,” whispered one of the griffons, knuckles creaking around his crank-bow. “Up ahead. What is it?”
She saw the glow as well. It was a different, fainter light than what shone from the top of the mountain. It came from around a bend where the wind whispered.
“Come.” She led them ahead, taking special care to place her hooves quietly. They were unshod, but each step was torturous to the ears. Behind her came the padding of lion paws and the scrape of talons.
The cavern expanded yet further around the bend. It took Tilter’s breath away to see Bantam’s light crawl up the walls and disappear utterly into black. She stared into an abyss that stretched in all directions, an endless and unnatural night devoid of stars. The weight of it made her eyes clench shut involuntarily, and still she felt dizzy. The griffons skirted around her, tight-beaked, wide-eyed.
“We’re here,” breathed Bantam. The lantern rattled in his hand. Something glinted at the swaying edge of its influence.
“Give me that,” snapped Voehorn. He snatched the lantern away and lifted it yet higher. “By the moon...”
Great stone fangs dipped into existence from above, dripping beads of water. Some sank deep into the floor. Ridged spikes rose up to meet the rest. A few were slender, others wider than Voehorn’s wingspan. All were knife-sharp. Like teeth. And jaws. They shone cruelly in the light. Shelves of rock stood on either side of the five little figures. And all around them, above them, ahead of them, were embedded gemstones of every imaginable color.
But all of that paled in comparison to what lay at the other end of the cavern. For there, nestled on a shelf of stone and ringed by enormous clusters of clear crystal, lay dragon eggs. There were eight of them, each a different size and covered in different patterns. The crystal nest caught the lantern light and came alive with it in a flash, glowing with shifting rainbows, refracting the eggs behind it.
“By my pinfeathers,” echoed another griffon, as if seeking to outdo Voehorn. Everybody stared at the nest of crystals.
“Pry out everything you can carry!” Voehorn pointed to the walls. His shout echoed away and never returned, lost in further expanses of the cave that no eye could see.
The griffons spread out slowly, all of them unblinking. They had the wide-eyed look of foals on Hearth’s Warming Day, beaks agape and tongues dry. With knives they began to gouge out rubies, sapphires, and other gems, all the size of fists or larger. Voehorn passed the lantern to one of his companions while he set to work with his spearhead. Each griffon had brought canvas sacks. The sacks filled up quickly.
“Do not be too greedy,” warned Tilter. She scorned the common gems and turned back to the crystal nest. It drew her forward, tantalizing and beautiful.
Strange, long tendrils spilled all across the floor like the roots of great trees. Many lay intertwined. She stepped over them, no longer caring what noise her hooves made on the floor. Bantam followed her.
“I told you they’re like metal,” Bantam whispered. He put a hand on one of the eggs, then struck it with a claw. It rang dully like a stuffed bell. “Feel it!”
Tilter ran a hoof over the eggs. Some were smooth, others porous, one of them textured like a towel turned to stone. Each was comfortingly warm and hard as steel.
“Help me pick out the best!” cackled Voehorn. He and a third griffon pressed in close, sacks open. He wrenched the biggest egg from the nest. It was so heavy the tendons stood out in his arms, and it made a muffled bang on the floor when he shoved it in his bag. Gems bulged sharp against the canvas.
“The best egg goes to me,” warned Tilter. She cast her eyes from one prize to the next.
Greed had made Voehorn drunk with newfound confidence. He puffed out his chest. “You’ll have a good one and be thankful. I get the biggest. You can’t even lift it.”
Tilter had strong doubts that his strength matched that of her magic. She gave the pony-sized egg another glance. It was huge, yes, but ugly. It was covered in barely perceptible yellow diamonds. The pattern reminded her of an old quilt.
She smiled and nodded to him. “You may have the largest. ‘Tis only fair.”
Voehorn nodded, prouder than ever. He didn’t even consider her smile suspicious.
The crystals and eggs were reflected in Bantam’s huge eyes. “How many can we carry?” he wondered aloud.
“Only four,” said the third griffon, who had set aside his crankbow. He worked to stuff a squashed green egg into his bag. “Maybe five if the pony can float one behind us.”
The childlike Bantam appeared crestfallen. “We should come back for the others, then.”
“And we will!” Voehorn searched for a good egg to stuff into his brother’s bag, his promise to Tilter forgotten. “We’ll rob the dragons blind. Then, when these are gone, we’ll go deeper and look for more.” He stepped over another tendril. “Where are those dragons, anyway?”
Tilter was beginning to wonder that herself. Surely they hadn’t just left their eggs on this altar as if in offering. Were they escaped? And if so, to where? She had little hope that they were dead. If they were, somebody would have seen bones by now.
Her eyes turned to the fourth griffon. He had stepped onto a rock shelf and held the lantern high, regarding the wall from inches away. With the light closer, the stalactites above appeared almost bone white. There was a curious bulge in the wall just in front of his face. The moisture on the wall made it glisten like wet metal. The stone was even textured differently from the floor.
Voehorn stuffed the last of the sacks with an egg striped like a zebra, only red. Each sack contained a dozen or more gemstones as well. Bantam took the smallest, visibly straining with the effort. This would more than double the time it would take to return to the Eyrie. They would need to pitch camp. Tilter wished she’d brought her saddlebags.
“Pony, pick an egg already and let’s go!” Voehorn’s confidence was beginning to wane. He wanted free of this place.
“One minute,” she replied, holding up a hoof. She needed an egg that would bring respect back to her family. But none of the remaining eggs caught her fancy. She indulged in a frown and settled on one that appeared to be made of fresh bronze. It would have to do. Maybe she could trade for a better one later. Her magic sparkled to life and floated it over to the sack provided for her.
That’s when she saw it. The egg in her telekinesis froze, then fell to the floor with a BANG before rolling to a stop against a great stone tendril. Another egg had been revealed, one that sat unobtrusively behind all the rest.
It was tiny, somewhat smaller than the head of a little filly. But there was something about it that caught Tilter’s eye. She reached out and rolled it over for a closer look. There was no other so perfectly shaped. And it was purple, all purple, with lavender spots of varying sizes all over. She felt herself smile, truly smile, for the first time in years. She grinned so wide it hurt her cheeks.
Purple. The color of royalty in the days of old. The former ruling family in Canterlot still wore it. They paid exorbitant prices for the dyes to make it. It was the color of her mane and tail, the shade of the night sky when viewed from the window of her childhood room. There was no color in all the world that held more significance. This egg would buy redemption.
“Ha! A little egg for a little pony!” Voehorn’s laugh was far too loud. “Come now. Bring that little runt of a thing before I leave you.”
Tilter wrapped the egg in her magic and sat it reverently in the folds of the sack. It was heavier than she’d expected, nearly as heavy as the bronze egg, but the canvas would hold it. She looped the straps around her neck to carry it against her breast.
“Alright, let us go.” She nearly danced with joy, only reining herself in so she as not to trip over the root-like things that criss-crossed the floor. There was a new spring in her trot.
Voehorn turned to the griffon holding the lantern. “Come on, you cud-chewer. Quit staring at the wall!”
It happened then. Of course it happened then. A hot, stale wind roared in Tilter’s ears. She felt it on her back, smelled the overwhelming stench of sulfur. The fur on her neck prickled like spines.
She froze. They all froze. Steam rushed around their legs.
Every nerve in Tilter’s body flared with fear. Some part of her said don’t turn around, don’t turn around and it won’t be there. It was the same juvenile part of her that as a child bade her sleep completely wrapped in a blanket for fear of the noises in the night and beasts under the bed. But when the rush of air and steam came again, she knew without a doubt that this time the fears were real.
Little Bantam saw it. He made a noise in his throat that died before it could escape. His brother made a similar noise, half gasp and half strangled scream. The cavern began to glow with a green, burning light that threw deep shadows across across the floor.
Tilter turned. She immediately wished she hadn’t. Fear like a hot knife cut her open and let the contents of her guts spill on the floor. It was as if the bottom had fallen out of her.
The entire wall behind the eggs was not a wall at all. It shifted and reared high, high, higher into the air. The cavern was far more vast than Tilter had dared imagine, and the head of a monster surged upward into that starless night. Green light flooded from deep within its smoking throat. All around it fires came alive, and illuminated in the distance were leathery wings that unfurled so impossibly wide she had to turn her head from side to side to take in their entirety.
It was a dragon. A dragon more enormous than any legend.
Then something on the right wall splayed out and became a tree-trunk leg, its scales turning to red before her eyes. Ancient rock shattered around the crush of its foot. Talons as long as swords flexed and retracted. They sliced the stone.
The things like tree roots all over the floor began to slither and writhe. Color bloomed down their length, and Tilter saw now that they were massive tails, some studded at the ends with spikes or clubs. She and the griffons jumped away, screams lifting from every throat. Above them the bone-white stalactites moved, not stalactites at all but claws attached to vicious hands that dwarfed the trunk-like leg. Claws like those could pull down castle walls. Tilter could picture five little ponies impaled screaming on the points.
“YEAAGH!” shrieked the griffon closest to the wall. He stumbled back and dropped the lantern. The bulge he’d been inspecting flew open to reveal a glistening eye as tall as the griffon’s wingspan. A translucent inner lid like mucus pulled back and the slit pupil contracted, then rotated in a flash to stare directly through him. Tilter could see the warrior’s whole reflection in that emotionless onyx gash.
He aimed his crankbow before the lantern even hit the ground.
“No!” Tilter screamed too late.
The griffon shot directly into the dragon’s eye. It hardly reacted, just blinked the eyelid like a huge leathery shutter and batted the bolt away. The whole wall that was its face rose high into the air. Before the warrior could even reach for another bolt, he disappeared beneath a falling green hand. Talons longer than his whole body sank into the stone. A feathered wing flapped and spasmed between them.
This new dragon’s head was smaller than the enormous monster above, but no less threatening. It was quickly joined by a dozen others, each a different size and shape, some as large as barns. They shrugged off crusts of stone. Fires of red and green and yellow lit up every wall from floor to arched ceiling. Suddenly the unnatural night above had its countless stars, and for every star, a dragon. The cave wasn’t just one cave but many conjoined, most stretching half a mile to ceilings that writhed with serpents. Tunnels and alcoves filled every wall, and each was alive with the glow of yet more fires. Stalactites tumbled from above to shatter against newly woken wyrms.
The first dragon with its green fire dwarfed everything. Its head almost reached the ceiling. Nostrils leaked black smoke, while purple and black scales shone like adamantine in the light. The tail was a coiled hill. It was ridged with tapering green plates. His mouth crashed open and closed, alive with that powerful inner light that burned brighter and brighter.
“Who DARES steal the child of Glaurâg?!”
The dragon’s voice threatened to burst Tilter’s eardrums. It shook the whole cavern, drove even the other dragons to cower. The griffons shrunk around her, their beaks open in silent screams, and she couldn’t open her eyes. She felt it thunder in her ribcage, felt her teeth rattle and skull throb even though she had hooves to her ears. Each word Glaurâg chomped out was a crack of rolling thunder, too loud to understand. Tilter’s eyes were about to burst. She was going to die.
When the echoes finally faded she felt physical pain in their place. Nothing had ever hurt more. She found herself writhing on the stone floor, face slick with moisture. She half expected both hooves to come away wet with blood. Only one did.
The surviving griffons fought one another to get away. One stumbled over her. She looked to Voehorn and saw his rictus beak open wide to scream “RUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN!”
The words sounded distant as if shouted through water. But her legs obeyed. She needed to escape. Her House wouldn’t survive without her. A tail swept across the floor in front of her and she leapt it without thinking.
Air rushed past her face. The dragon’s glow intensified, turning everything green. She knew without having to look that Glaurâg was drawing in breath for dragonfire. It would turn her flesh to steam and glue her sticky marrow to the cave floor. The sound was indescribable, more like reverse thunder than anything. She had maybe seconds to live.
Glaurâg’s lungs were vast. Tilter rounded the bend and was almost to the mouth of the tunnel in the antechamber before he filled them. Still she would have died, surely, except that a century of sleep had cooled the furnaces of Glaurâg’s heart. The blast that hit Tilter from behind was more smoke than fire, but still it lifted her off her hooves and threw her tumbling ahead on a wall of hot air. She felt flames lick at her, burn her. A thousand kicks landed very suddenly in every part of her. She struck every surface of the tunnel.
When she stopped rolling, she scrambled to her hooves and galloped for her life up the throat of the mountain.
Somehow she was alive. She couldn’t breathe, and every inch of her was a bruise, but she was alive and she intended to stay that way. The purple egg was still at her breast, but the weight of it felt like it might have wrenched her neck during the fall. She couldn’t feel if she’d been hurt yet.
The three remaining griffons raced ahead of her. She lit up her horn with an overglow of silver light, caught a glimpse of a lion’s tail whipping around the bend ahead. Puddles splashed around her hooves, and sharp rocks tore at her knees and chin with every stumble. Her egg whirled and slammed against her back. The tunnel flew by in a flash, and her lungs burned when she finally burst free. Moonlight nearly blinded her, slashing deep into her dilated eyes. The cold air shocked her awake, cooled her burns, and raked pain through her lungs.
She didn’t even bother to slow down, simply bounding from one stone to the next until she hit the ground and tucked into a roll. The scabbard of her sword fetched up against a ridge of ice to stop her slide. Burning clouds and Luna’s moon loomed above.
Voehorn lay next to her, tongue lolled out, chest heaving. He had somehow dragged his great big dragon egg all the way outside. One strap of his bag was torn.
“Fly, fly, we need to fly!” wailed Bantam, his pupils mere pinpricks in the whites of his eyes. His egg and tiny sword were nowhere to be seen. The third griffon gasped for breath nearby.
The mountain shuddered. Thunder boomed again and again, and suddenly light spilled out across the plain like the sun rising from the earth. Only it wasn’t yet dawn. Tilter looked up with a muttered curse. The peak of the mountain had split open. Enormous claws tore at it from within.
She shoved Voehorn, gathering up her egg with an envelope of magic. But when she tried to stand, the whole cliffside bucked beneath her. She landed on her side. The griffons struggled to take off, and Bantam shrieked.
The Glowing Mountain gave a casual shrug and its cloak of snow slid from stone shoulders. Tilter wondered why she wasn’t screaming yet. Fear pinned her where she lay. The avalanche appeared slow-moving, almost languid, and yet it was already halfway down the mountainside. It would flatten them all long before the dragons broke free.
She didn’t run so much as stumble back to the griffons. There was no point in yelling. The avalanche was deafening. Instead she wrapped her magic around one griffon and braced a shoulder against Bantam to steady him.
The mountaintop exploded.
Voehorn and Bantam threw themselves into the air. Tilter felt talons wrap around her middle and yank her after them. It knocked the breath out of her. She could only watch upside down as the mountain sloughed off layer after layer of rocks and snow. The avalanche was above them, ahead of them. Wings tore the air around her, brushing her face with every beat. But it wasn’t enough. The moon went dark.
The wave caught them. Tilter saw a flying boulder strike a griffon square between the shoulderblades and tear him from the sky. Then all she saw was white, and pain and fright. She was in freefall. Tumbling, tumbling, tumbling, unable to breathe and out of control.
The cold shocked her awake. Had it been seconds or minutes? There was snow in her mouth and nose. She spat out a clump of it and tore a leg free to scrape at her eyes. Was she in an air pocket? Her head pounded. Brainfreeze. Just like when she ate one of those fancy popsicles as a filly. It almost made her want to laugh. The pain was blinding in its intensity and yet she was amused. Or maybe just concussed.
The avalanche had broken at the top of the cleft before slapping them out of the air. They’d been carried down to a lower cliff shelf. One of the griffons frantically dug himself free nearby. She recognized him as the one who’d carried her. What was his name again? Her head was full of snow. She sat up and shook herself while the roaring subsided in her ears.
Voehorn’s head burst free with a wild shout lower on the slope. He was buried to the neck. Tilter and the other griffon struggled down to free him. Falling debris blasted into the snow all around.
“Where’s Bantam?” he shouted, barely audible over the wind and crashing of stone on stone.
Tilter almost replied before she remembered the dragons. Her eyes turned upward.
The mountaintop was shattered. Veins of ancient obsidian cut through the rockface where snow had once sat, and dragons poured from the peak. Drakes, longwyrms, wyverns and ice wyrms, some tiny and some beginning to approach the size of Glaurâg. They streamed out like bats. Hundreds of them. Thousands beyond the counting. For a moment Tilter’s heart stopped beating. The scene was apocalyptic against that backdrop of angry, burning clouds.
How could Discord have imprisoned them all? How did they even fit?
“Where’s my egg?” shouted Voehorn. His brother was forgotten. “My egg! Where’s my egg?”
Tilter placed a hoof to her own egg, reassuring herself that it was still there. She breathed a sigh of relief. “It does not matter! Fly us out of here!”
The griffons exchanged glances, their pupils pinpricks of fear in the whites of their eyes. Then they looked at her. No, she realized, they looked at her egg. It took her just half a blink too long to process their intent. Maybe it was the cold, or a head injury, or just the shock of the moment.
She went for her sword. Voehorn was faster. His fist collided with the side of her head and stars exploded behind her eyes. Her ear rang, felt the impact, but the pain came later. Then she realized she was lying in the snow, on her side, and something was being wrenched free from her. She blinked, tried to speak, to rise, only for another punch to drive straight into her ribs. A fist fumbled with a dagger and she lashed out with a kick, shattering knuckles. Someone screamed.
Her magic coalesced around the sword far too late. Feathers beat against her face and in a rush of wind they were gone. She wrenched the blade halfway free, struggled upright, but the griffons were already beyond her reach. It took a moment to gather herself, to catch her breath. All she could do was watch the griffons race into the distance on swift wings, her egg dangling beneath Voehorn. Boulders rained down around them, showering the landscape. She watched because she had no idea what else to do. Part of her wanted to scream. Most of her wanted to sit down and cry.
Was that it? Was this how her journey would end, betrayed by those she never should have trusted, left to die to fire or the cold? It hurt deep inside to know that the griffons’ displays were still not the cruellest Tilter had yet seen. A sense of defeat welled up within her.
That’s when she heard it. The voice. Bantam’s voice.
She turned, wild-eyed. Had she imagined it? But yes, there, she spotted him. The little griffon was trapped up to his chest less than a hundred yards up the slope. He waved an arm down at her. The wind plucked his pleas from the air and threatened to bury him in yet more snow.
Hope surged in Tilter’s breast. It always did seem to come from the unlikeliest of places. Maybe she was doomed, but she had to try.
She stumbled on frozen legs, righted herself, struggled upward through knee deep snow. A dull ache throbbed in her ribs. Desperation fueled her pace until she was bounding forward, panting. Within a minute her heart pumped raw pain through every vessel in her body. She kept climbing.
Bantam reached out to her as she approached the last twenty feet. He was bleeding from a nostril. One whole side of his face, eye included, was clumped with snow tinged red.
“Help me!” he screamed. “Please help me help me, please!”
A boulder exploded into the snow just yards away. Another hit the toothlike spires of rock that rimmed the sides of the cliffs. Shards of stone blasted everywhere. Tilter ducked low, felt shrapnel carve through the snow around her. It didn’t slow her for but a moment.
She came to Bantam’s side after a lifetime of running, pain ripping sharp down her side, and began to scoop away with both forehooves. The snow was loose, powdery, full of chunks of ice and stone. She threw herself into the task with a tenacity born of desperation. Bantam didn’t even have the presence of mind to help. He held his arms up and cried, every inch of him dusted white.
Before long she nearly had him free. Both wings were out and rigid. And then her hooves struck stone. She cursed aloud, swept the last of the powder aside.
“What? What is it?” Bantam’s voice choked on his own tears.
When he looked down, he sobbed. One little lion paw was trapped between two stones. Boulders, no doubt. Was there time to free him? Could he be freed at all? He wouldn’t survive an amputation. Tilter choked on the rising urge to scream. The griffon beside her just sat back, a defeated look on his face.
Tilter took a moment to gather herself. She tried to measure how many minutes she had before the dragons reached her, how many seconds. It wasn’t enough. The rational part of her mind told her to cut her losses and run, to hide, but she knew it didn’t matter. Something inside her had locked in place, something more than practicality, stubbornness, or pity. That terminal disease that put her House to ruin and sent her into exile now stirred in her bones. Honor, some called it.
More than that, she knew Bantam was her only chance to escape. She tuned out his cries.
A roar sundered the new dawn sky. Glaurâg’s arm burst free of the mountaintop and sent an entire cliffside spinning through the air. Tilter hardly spared the dragon a glance. She breathed in, breathed out, and lifted her swordbelt over her head. The chape of the scabbard struck deep by Bantam’s foot.
Thoughts of home and sunshine and father’s hugs spilled free of her heart as she worked. She put them out of her mind and concentrated on the digging. Her hooves drove the makeshift shovel down again and again, widening the hole around Bantam until she could stand in it. Before long her body fell into a rhythm, stabbing again and again until sweat melted the snow from her furs and her breath was agony. Chips of rock scattered before the chape of her scabbard and peppered her face. Snow whipped in a frenzy around the widening hole.
It was exhaustion that finally made her stop. There was no use. Tears swelled in her eyes. She’d worked herself into a frenzy and still failed to expose the whole of the boulders. She couldn’t find their edges in her magic.
Bantam had finally cried himself out. He was in shock now. Blood dribbled from his beak down sticky plumage. There was blood in the snow now, too. Did he realize she couldn’t save him? Would he be able to forgive her?
“I’m sorry.” Tilter sank to her haunches. The metal chape of her scabbard was bent and torn nearly off. She regarded it sullenly, then banged it one last time on the boulders. She couldn’t even fit it down between them to use as a lever. It would only have hurt her sword if she tried.
“Just go,” Bantam croaked. A distant roar nearly drowned him out. He blinked hard, looked away. “Save… save yourself.”
The words struck Tilter as truly, undeniably brave. She hesitated, then carefully took his taloned hand in her hooves and kissed his forehead. It was all that she could think to do. “Bantam...” She squeezed the hand in her hooves. “I’m sorry. I am.”
“Voehorn was r-right a-about me.” He sniffled and screwed his eye shut. “But I’ll be… b-be s-s-strong.”
It seemed to her a brave thing to say. But there was naught left.
Tilter shrugged her harness back on and tightened the cinches. Another roar and the boom of breaking stone hit her ears. Glaurâg had clawed himself nearly free of the mountainside. A jet of green flame leapt from his throat and beat back the clouds. The sound of it was like an onrush of charging knights.
She bounded down the slope at breakneck speed. Twice she stumbled and rolled. The third time she couldn’t stop herself and fell from one cliff shelf to the next. Over and over she tumbled through the snow until her hooves found solid stone. Behind her came a thundering crash, and jagged boulders big as houses carved through the toothy spires to her right.
She turned back just long enough to see that an entire cascade had smote Bantam’s cliff to ruin. The snow it threw in the air would temporarily screen her escape, but the little griffon was gone.
Down she galloped, faster and faster, between tall spires sharp as axes and over chasms that had no bottom. She tumbled down cliffsides and dashed herself against rocks even as debris smote the land around her.
At last she reached a shelf of frost-swept stone that reached out farther than all the rest, near three hundred yards. She was near the bottom now. Her hooves clattered across sheets of ice. When she looked up, she saw hordes of dragons swarm in spirals across the sky. Hundreds of them were headed south to the Crystal Mountains. She almost thought she could see them chasing two tiny specks.
“Ahh!” she screamed. Her hooves dug into the ice and skidded to a stop. She teetered, held her breath, and barely avoided a long fall to a sudden death.
She’d reached the end of the last cliff. Far, far below lay the plain, but it was all in shadow. The shadow was in the shape of a dragon.
Her head swam at the thought of the fall. It was easily a hundred foot plummet into the darkness below. Probably two hundred feet. There was no way down. She’d never be able to climb it, not unless she wanted a broken neck. A sprinkle of snow swirled around her hooves and vanished over the edge.
Glaurâg at last wrenched himself free of the mountainside. Smaller dragons struggled out around him, clinging to him, leaping from the swell of his shoulders. When he unfurled his wings they seemed wider than the shelf on which Tilter stood. His wings were black, not purple. Their wind blew other dragons in whirling circles. The thought of facing him chilled her very blood to ice, though it raced through her veins.
“Find them!” that terrible voice commanded from far, far away. The mountain crumbled beneath him at his every move, rolling new avalanches down to destruction. And then, impossibly, he looked down straight at her.
Glaurâg roared with the pent-up rage of over a hundred years of captivity. Even at a distance, Tilter felt the force of it bounce around in her ribs.
A horde of dragons poured out from the hidden tunnel below him and swarmed down the slopes like winged ants. Some flew, while others slithered and clawed their way over shattered obsidian. They were faster than any pony and scaled with every color imaginable. A dozen of them were coming straight for her, young drakes and wyverns by their appearance, an onrush of teeth and fire that spelled certain doom. The fastest had already reached Bantam’s final resting place.
Tilter glanced over the cliff. Wind tore at her braided mane and tail. Jump to one death, or stand and fight to another?
She wrenched her blade from its scabbard and cut away the harness. The straps fell in a tangle around her hooves. There was blood there, caked with frost, and streaked all down her side. She remembered a griffon’s fist, and a dagger. She wondered how she’d not felt it when they stabbed her. Two wounds throbbed, numb with cold. No matter now, at least. The blood froze to her coat. One ear rang continuously. The other heard nothing at all.
The hilt of her sword was worn and discolored, stained with more than just saliva over years of exile. Its dark blade was sharp-edged without a nick, though silver scratches cut across the flat on both sides. It had served her well and now it floated easily in her magic, light as a feather, an extension of her very mind. She fell into a fighting stance, wounds forgotten.
It was a woefully inadequate weapon for fighting dragons. She was all too aware of that. Even against pony-sized foes she’d have preferred a good spear. A single, calm breath fogged on the flat of the blade.
The dragons swept closer and closer. They roared and shrieked, flame dripping from angry maws. It had been mere seconds and already they were a single shelf above her. For just a moment she glanced to the side, saw rocks a few yards away and wondered if she still had time to hide. Maybe the dragonlings hadn’t yet seen the little unicorn on the cliff.
Then they were upon her.
Tilter suppressed a pang of sorrow. A memory sprang unbidden to the forefront of her thoughts. It was of her family the year before the war that damned them. Her brother… Father tied a ribbon in her hair. She indulged in the happiness for but the barest instant before she forced it from her mind.
Then she seized a clump of snow in her magic and flung it, evaporating, into the face of the first drake. A single breath died with a sizzle. Dozens more flared around her.
She met them with sword and gritted teeth.
“What You Wish For”
Red Pommel had too much money.
It wasn’t that he minded being wealthy, it was just that he didn’t know what to do with it all. He missed the days when he could carry his every coin in a single pouch. Sure it was easy to go hungry back then, but at least the worries weren’t nearly so heavy. Now he was drowning in gold. Spending it was like bailing water out of a sinking boat.
And it made him do stupid things. Like buying brand new suits of ceremonial armor on a whim.
“That will be three hundred gold bits, ser Pommel.”
Red found himself staring mouth-agape at the armorer. She sat on a raised chair behind a raised counter, which almost made him feel as if he were standing trial before a judge. Only her bright expression spoiled the illusion. She was a sprightly little thing, all gleeful smiles and prone to flights of fancy. And she was smiling right that very moment, even if she didn’t realize it.
“I’m sorry, what?” He shut his jaw.
“Three hundred bits,” she repeated, levitating a sheet of paper. It was covered in figures. “Eighty and two for the gold trim, ten for the rubies, another ten for the rest of the gemstones, a hundred to cover the cost of the materials--”
“Yes, yes, okay.” He couldn’t argue with figures, even if they might be wrong. Numbers made his head spin. “I trust you, it’s just that... three hundred bits?”
“Plus a dozen in silver.” She shoved the paper under his nose. It sparkled in her magic. “Those are included right at the bottom.”
Red turned to the rack holding his new armor. She’d spent a month and a half working on it. The breastplate and pauldrons bore the crests of both Princesses, and every major piece was studded with tiny gemstones. It was undoubtedly beautiful plate, all a-gleam and heavily trimmed in gold, but... three hundred royal bits?
“Isn’t this a bit... excessive?” He bit his lip.
“Is everything not to your specifications? It matches your hair and coat so nicely, and… and I gave you a discount...” The armorer shrank down. Her eyes were wide enough to swim in.
Red stymied a bout of self-loathing. “Yes. Yes, this is perfect. Thank you, Heart Strop.”
The discount, if there existed such a thing, was paltry at best. She only offered it to ensure his continued business. It meant a great deal of distinction to have the Master Swordpony of Everfree Castle buy armor exclusively from her shop. The position was of no small prestige around the castle, even if it was currently occupied by a lowborn earth pony.
He counted out the coins one by one on the countertop. A bit was equal to one eighth of a coin, but even still he found himself staring at a mountain of gold before the counting was done. They left a bitter aftertaste on his tongue. It was an awful lot of money. His purse was left a desiccated husk.
“And the silver.” She stuffed some hair back under the scarf that restrained her mop of a mane. Her smile only grew brighter by the second.
Red spat another gold coin onto the countertop. It was stamped with Celestia’s face. Luna was relegated to silver coins, and he had no Lunas.
Heart Strop pulled a face and made sure not to touch any of the drooled-on currency when she seized it in her magic. Red wondered if she even knew what money tasted like. It all went into her enormous safe, which locked shut with a bang. A moment later she produced silver bits as change and levitated them straight into Red’s open purse.
“Would you like some help getting into your new armor?” she asked, her expression all open sincerity. She liked to speak simply, unlike most Everfree unicorns. Her family was middle-class. “I noticed you didn’t bring your squire, so...”
It was hard for Red not to cringe a little. “Ah, yes, I had to... let him go. It really wasn’t working out and--”
Heart Strop frowned. “I liked him. He was probably the best squire you’ve had yet, you know. When are you ever going to graduate one of them? They all say such mean things about you now.”
“I’m well aware of that, but they should have looked elsewhere to begin with. What I need is an assistant, not an apprentice.” Red waved his hoof. “And enough of that, I need to get to the pavilion before the tourney starts. Would you kindly lend me your horn?”
It took less than a minute for Heart Strop to clasp the padding and the plates over Red’s auburn coat. She was well-practiced in all things concerning armor. Her magic kept a dozen pieces flying all at once, each jumping into place as if they had helpful little minds of their own. Not a buckle was left unchecked. She worked her way up from his hooves, ending with the helm.
“I’ll take that.” Red tucked the helmet under one leg. He nodded. “Thank you very much, m’lady.”
Heart Strop curtsied with a grin and flung herself across the room to write a receipt. Her quill snapped to attention, then danced across a scrap of paper before it saluted and dove out of sight.
The deed was done. Three hundred gold bits spent on a whim, just like that.
She’d probably cheated him, but that was the cost of doing business without an educated squire to check the figures. Red folded the receipt into his purse and felt a little guilty when he realized that it would be thrown away by the end of the day. He really ought to keep more careful track of his money, but even this hefty purchase had only put a dent in his funds. Alas.
“Have a wonderful day at the Solstice Tournament!” Heart Strop waved him out the door. Her magic seized the sign out front and swung it around to say ‘closed.’ Every shop door in town would read the same today.
The doorbell jingled behind him and all of a sudden Red Pommel was back in the not-so-open air of the streets. He took a moment to drink in the sights and sounds. Fresh bread crept up his nose and he saw a baker locking up her shop. Every door on both sides of the street was hung with signs that read ‘closed’ or ‘gone to tourney.’ Ponies bustled past in streams. Foals weaved through the crowd laughing all the way. Everypony moved in the same direction: to the city gates.
Red breathed in deep. His golden mane wrapped under his chin, pulled by the wind. There was song in the air, pegasi zipping back and forth over the streets and playing trumpets. Groups of ponies were singing, cavorting. A small part of him wanted to join in, to sing and dance along with them on their way to the festivities.
Heart Strop locked the door behind her and shot past him. “Hurry up, ser Pommel!” She shouted over the noise of the crowd. “You’ll be late!” She disappeared scarcely a moment later.
He stopped a moment longer to appreciate the beautiful blue skies and the banners strung from rooftop to rooftop. Everfree was a small city, more a town wrapped around a citadel than anything, but today it was filled with colorful banners and countless ponies from all over the kingdom. The sun was shining, the breeze warm, and the smells of city life washed away by all the aromas of a holiday.
Red stood magnificent in his new armor, tall and proud with his flowing mane, golden helm under one leg and longsword buckled at his side. He could feel the eyes of the crowd drawn to him.
Ah, yes. Now he remembered why he’d spent those three hundred bits.
"As the capitol of Equestria, Everfree Castle is every bit as opulent as one might expect. The power and prestige of the alicorn sisters are clearly on display here, as evidenced by the staggering height of some of the citadel's towers, all of them fashioned from black onyx hewn sixty miles away. Chief among these is the Tower of Harmony, which stands nearly half a mile high. It boggles the mind how such a structure could support its own weight. But this place was also built to last, and with so many high walls it is obvious that the Princesses wanted something capable of withstanding a siege.
The citadel feels saturated with magic. Some ponies believe this is because the keep was built on the site of Discord's defeat, but while it is possible that some remnant of the draconequus' power does indeed remain in the air, that monster was in truth laid low far to the south.
I personally find it far more likely that the castle's proximity to the heart of the Everfree Forest is responsible for the extraordinary weight of magic. Such is the forest's power that even with a city in its midst, much of it remains unexplored."
-- From the journal of Sworn Shield --
Tall onyx towers loomed above. The tallest pierced the sun. Red found his eyes drawn to them.
A fitting name for the capital of the equine world. Erected at the command of the Sisters Alicorn, the citadel had grown continuously over the years as refugees poured in from all directions. Now, after more than a century, it stood surrounded by walls and homes as a proud testament to the sovereignty of ponykind.
A dozen soaring towers commanded the skyline, dwarfed in the center by the Tower of Harmony, the tip of which stretched like a spear into the sun. Curtain walls held safe the city, a haven to all creatures large and small, a bulwark of sanity in a land still savage with chaos. The primordial forest beyond the walls served only to magnify its supernatural majesty.
Over the years Red had witnessed many wondrous things in Everfree, from foreign emissaries to fantastical beasts, to ancient ghosts and firework displays that dazzled the mind. He’d spoken with wise deer unbent even by centuries of age, dueled with a living painting, and seen both sun and moon impaled on the point of the Tower of Harmony. It had always fascinated Red how the tower was built to cradle both sun and moon. As a feat of engineering it was one of the great wonders in the known world, and as a work of art it could not be matched.
Despite all this, at least in the swordpony’s biased opinion, the citadel could not even hope to compare to the festivities that were currently taking place just outside its walls. The hordes of ponies following the sound of trumpets certainly attested to that. Nothing matched the opening of a new royal stadium each year for this event. He loved watching as iridescent flags were strung from cloud to cloud by soaring pegasi.
The Summer Solstice Tournament was an enormous affair, an annual spectacle renowned throughout the land. Grandeur! Ponies flocked to the event from all over Equestria. Many planned months in advance for the expensive and often dangerous trip to Everfree. It was a festival of glorious chivalry -- and no small degree of violence -- lasting six days and six nights, and all of it building up to a grand finale: Come the seventh morning, on the longest day of the year, Princess Celestia would raise Her sun in a public display for all to see.
For Red Pommel it was the apogee of every year. He loved to watch his fellow knights in action. It provided a welcome break from long months of putting up with the Princesses and their antics.
He only wished he himself could participate.
Five long years. Had it really been so long? Nearly a quarter of his lifetime. Sometimes he found it hard to believe that he’d actually made it here.
Had he really been just a simple farmer’s colt once? He shook the bits in his purse and wondered, not for the first time, if this was all a dream.
But no, the title was his. That fact was undeniable. He’d fought and paid for it in his own blood. Now he would have to live up to it.
Red turned away from the towers and stuffed his purse down into his breastplate. He donned his gilded helm and secured the sword hanging at his flank. When he trotted through the city’s high gates, the crowd flowed around him.
The stadium stood a few hundred yards outside the city. It had been erected only a week before. High grandstands flanked it on both sides down its length, with pavilions at either end. The larger pavilion was three stories tall, reserved for nobility and the Princesses, while the smaller was made up mostly of awnings. Tents surrounded the whole structure, many stretching down the road and into the forest. It became almost a miniature city during the week of the Solstice.
Streams of ponies swarmed everywhere, steadily filling up the stands. Most were poor, ragged and drab. Their eyes were everywhere -- on the city walls, on the Tower of Harmony, on the hundreds of colorful flags snapping in the breeze. But most of all their eyes were on the gold-armored knight that walked among them.
They recognized him, he knew. Some had even been there, witnessed that victory those five years ago. He heard his name, a whisper in the collective voice of the crowd. They spoke of his feats, of his awe-inspiring skill. It was flattering, of course. He could feel the fame and attention going straight to his head. He let it. And why not? He’d earned it.
Squads of Royal Guards patrolled around the stadium, their armor reflecting dully in the magelights strung up beneath the stands. They directed traffic and manned checkpoints, searching the occasional peasant. A few of the guards saluted Red as he passed. He knew most of them, by face if not by name, and they knew him. Even with the illusion spells woven into their armor he could tell them apart at a glance.
He gave a few nods in their direction, noting the dark circles under their eyes and the stubble of unshaven whiskers, before he split off from the crowd.
If the halls beneath the stands were crowded, the inner sanctum was packed to the brim. Here beneath the royal pavilion bustled hundreds of ponies of all shapes and sizes. They swarmed through a maze of tents and flags. This was the heart of the tournament, the staging area for every event to come. It was easy to see the inner workings of court politics here. Red could find no end of amusement in such a place.
Knights of every color clanked about to the fanfare of trumpets. Squires and pages bustled after them, laden with bolts of cloth and stacks of weaponry. Noble ponies strutted in the margins and conversed in small, formal groups away from the bustle. Unicorn horns sprouted from nearly every head, though a number of knights sported armored wings instead. Earth ponies were servants here. There were plenty of those, but they stayed out of sight.
While not readily apparent at first, there were clear lines drawn between the brightly colored tents, demarcating various camps. Each was a territory unto itself, strewn with banners and sigils, where knights and lords of similar livery gathered to glare at their rivals from a safe distance. Perhaps the largest two belonged to the Order of Night and Day, headquartered here in Everfree, and the Knightly Order of Her Sun, located in distant Canterlot. Their sprawling tents were large enough to warrant skeletons of scaffolding in addition to being hung from the rafters.
There were other factions as well. The Knights of Truth who wore nothing but white, the Didactic Order with all their books, even the Knights Exemplar who answered only to the wizards of Horn Tower. All swore fealty to a noble or a house of nobles, sometimes even a coalition of them in the case of the larger orders.
Said nobles could be seen discussing the latest additions to their fighting stables, bragging on all manner of trivial affairs. More than a few wore swords, mostly of the fashionable slim variety with the ornate basket hilts, and most were so bundled up in expensive fabrics as to hardly resemble ponies at all. Red saw a number of the powerful Houses represented here. There was the sigil of House Oak, and there was Countess Hauteur of House Silverblood. She spoke with Lady Hail Stormwalker, an armored, fierce-eyed pegasus who commanded the loyalty of, it was said, every pegasi in Equestria.
To Red’s intense chagrin, Prince Ebouillon of Canterlot was in attendance. He was draped in purple silks, but carried no sword. The old ruling family, the Platinums, still clung desperately to their sense of importance. They stamped their own currency and kept their own guards, challenging Celestia and Luna at every turn. Trends were set in Canterlot, and the Platinums enforced traditions. Ebouillon was heir to all their power.
And Red hated him. Red hated him more than he hated magic itself. It was a special kind of loathing reserved for a special kind of tormentor.
Ebouillon looked up from a conversation with several fancy dignitaries from Prance, as if sensing Red’s baleful glare. The Prince knew who the swordpony; Red’s very existence was a constant source of shame to the Platinums. They ruled the Shires where was raised, and now he defied their oldest laws.
Their eyes met for only an instant, just long enough for Ebouillon to take note of the swordpony and lose interest. He smiled an easy little smile with eyes half-lidded, all but unreadable, and turned back to his conversation.
Red seethed. He kept staring, wishing for all the world he could do something ugly. Two armed guards in silver armor took note and fixed him with glares of their own. They brandished halberds, all too ready for a fight.
Some of the richer knights, lords in their own right, were followed by swarms of squires and other servants. Red made a game of recognizing them. There was ser Seaworth the Onion Knight arguing with ser Stomper, also Onion Knight. Yet another Onion Knight glared at the both of them from the safety of a tent. Nearby stood old ser Diction Hornbuckle the Librarian, who wore entire books over his armor and was said to be capable of reciting from memory every tome ever written. Red even caught a glimpse of proud ser Segmund Craw the Lobster Knight, arrayed as always in his ridiculous crimson armor. Nopony squired for Craw. But then, nopony squired for Red Pommel.
Other more destitute fighters huddled around the edges, away from the colorful banners. These were the hedge knights, hopeful participants in the tourney who possessed neither land nor title. Most wore battered, undecorated armor, their faces guarded. For them, squires were close friends or an expensive tax on an already meager living. They needed this tournament to prove themselves and catch the eye of a wealthy patron. Few would get the chance.
Red could sympathize. It was a hard life traveling from tourney to tourney, looking for wealth and fame. The swordpony tried to give friendly nods and words of encouragement to all those he passed near.
They smiled. Some asked for his blessing, or even his sponsorship. The latter he was forced to decline, even though he would have loved nothing more than to put together his own stable of knights. It was his dream to one day compete with the aristocracy, but that would involve stepping into the realm of political maneuvering. It would be more than just frowned upon.
But opportunity caught Red’s eye. He marched up to one of the fancier nobles, a porcine stallion draped in various green silks and velvets that matched his bushy mustache. He was remarking on the fineries of wine and some sort of expensive flower, which had been laid out on a bench for him and his equally fat wife.
It wasn’t customary to speak to powerful nobility without first being spoken to in turn, but Red tried to spurn such rules as often as possible.
“Good evening, Baron Tralee!” Red always opened with his best accent. “I trust you are enjoying yourselves?”
The Baron wrinkled his nose and set down his goblet of wine. He selected an exotic flower with his magic before giving the swordpony a barely restrained glance of distaste, looking as if he were about to pointedly ignore this affront to his dignity. Then, taking note of the royal crests on the swordpony’s armor, he forced a smile. Avarice flashed in his eyes.
Perfect. No noble could pass up the chance to buy the ear of a pony so close to the Princesses.
Red smirked. Bad enough that he’d wrecked the established order of things just by virtue of his title, but it especially rankled the nobility that nobody had him under their personal control.
“Verily,” said Lord Tralee in a pretentious impersonation of the Royal voice, minus a few octaves. “‘Tis a most remarkable occasion, thoroughly delightful and exciting. And how art thou on this fine evening?”
Red noted with satisfaction the look on the face of the Baron’s wife. She was absolutely livid, only just restraining herself to indifference. If he had been any other pony she would have already insulted him nine different ways, each more cutting than the last, and seen him removed from her presence by guards. But as Red had a great deal of pull with said guards...
“Oh, I’m just fine,” said the swordpony. “I look forward to the jousting, myself.” He looked down with feigned surprise at the Lady’s attire. She was wearing half the colors of the rainbow, all of them so brightly-hued as to be saccharine. But what really caught his eye was her necklace. “Pearls? Honestly, who wears pearls anymore?”
The Lady’s eyes flashed. Her mouth fell open. She huffed and stammered, her pink face rapidly turning a deep shade of violet. “Why, I never!” She stormed away.
Lord Tralee looked flabbergasted, angry, and embarrassed all at the same time. He shot a murderous glare in Red Pommel’s direction before waddling after his wife.
“Hmph!” the Lady snorted, nose in the air. “Earth ponies!”
It took effort on Red’s part to keep from laughing out loud. For an earth pony, there were few joys in the world greater than being able to mock the nobility and get away with it. Being Master Swordpony certainly had its perks. Maybe now House Tralee would quit sending him all those greasy, patronizing letters.
Cutting through the maze of tents, Red kept his eyes and ears peeled for further opportunities. Knights hailed him from afar or greeted him as he passed, and he returned the favor. He had crossed swords with many of them in the past. Unlike their masters, they had long ago grown to respect lowborn shireponies. He’d certainly given them enough hard knocks to earn it.
The end of the assembly hall came all too soon. A checkpoint of ten highly polished Royal Guards stood before the entrance to the Royal Booth. They lifted their spears to allow Red passage, and their sergeant greeted him with a simple nod.
Red hesitated upon entering. Inside, his smile faded and he tugged at his armor, tightening the straps. Was his crest of office on straight? He aligned it as best he could before continuing up the wooden stairs. He wished he could be somewhere else, doing anything but this. Unfortunately, as much as he disliked it, his real job wasn’t basking in fame, it was standing guard behind the Princesses.
Somewhat surprisingly, a particularly high-ranking Guard waited halfway up the stairs, his own golden helm tucked securely under one leg. The blue horsehair crest stood as stiffly at attention as the pony himself, his embellished breastplate glittering in the light of a powerful brazier.
This was the steadfast Glinted Chape, Captain of the Royal Guard. A puffy pink scar split his face down the middle, starting just below his horn and cutting through one nostril to end on the point of his chin. He wore an enormous bushy mustache.
“Hail, Glint,” greeted Red, armor clanking with each trot.
“Hail, Pommel.” The buckskin stallion returned. With his magic he dipped the hilt of his namesake, an undecorated dueling saber.
For a unicorn of high rank, the Captain was a surprisingly affable fellow. He was also one of Red’s few friends around the castle. It helped that he didn’t practice the pretentious mannerisms of most unicorns.
“The guardsponies are already looking exhausted,” Red declared. “This is going to be a long week.”
Glint snorted with a ruffle of his immaculate mustache. “A pity we still lack full strength, then. I have my stallions stretched to the breaking point, Red. We simply cannot patrol castle and stadium. Not with this much traffic.”
Red nickered. The Royal Guard had been on a recruitment drive for months, having lost fully a third of their number to a vampire earlier in the year. It had taken intervention on Princess Luna’s behalf to finish the fiend once Red and Glint had it impaled on their blades. The Captain’s face was still knitting itself back together after that particular scuffle, as evidenced by his gruesome scar. Red was beginning to wonder if it would ever heal.
“We may be short on strength,” he said. “But I have confidence in you, Glint. The tournament is in good hooves.” He smiled encouragingly and laid an armored greave across his friend’s shoulder.
The Captain put on his helmet, dour as usual, before he turned to trot up the stairs. “I’ve a pessimist’s mind, Red. But if you think we can keep a lid on this affair, then I’m with you. Let’s to the Sisters afore they murder each other, eh?”
Red laughed, the tension of the moment shattered. Glint’s grim demeanour melted away, replaced by a toothy grin that flashed beneath his mustache.
Ribbing each other, the two friends performed an exaggerated imitation of an argument between the Princesses, looking both ways to make sure nopony was around to watch. It was good to make light of things now and then, but it was best the other guards didn’t see the display.
“I suppose we really should get up there...” Red muttered with trace of resignation. His laughter was still echoing in the stairwell.
Captain Glint’s mask of dutiful gruffness returned. “Aye.”
A bearded guard of middle age and high rank waited for the two stallions at the top of the stairs. He saluted, then opened a set of oaken doors with his magic. Idyllic laughter wafted out of the room as they entered, coming from one of two tall and stately alicorns seated on twin piles of cushions.
Glint took up position against the back wall, between his Lieutenants. Each cradled a spear.
Princess Celestia was still laughing when Red Pommel made an inspection of the booth, her hooves running over the ornate wooden banisters as if she were an excited foal. Like the Master Swordpony, this was by far her favorite time of the year, allowing her a little time off from the endless struggles of mending a broken world.
“Is it not fantastic, sister?” she asked in an elated voice, sparkling rainbow hair flowing around her as if it had a life of its own.
Luna snorted, having apparently descended into another of her choleric moods. Her lip twisted upward into a sneer, marring an otherwise beautiful countenance. It seemed the younger Princess’ disposition grew worse year by year, exacerbated by the celebration of the Summer Solstice. She’d get over it soon enough. There was alwas winter.
A spontaneous cheer suddenly erupted from outside the purple curtains surrounding the booth. Red pulled the drapes aside with one hoof and poked his nose through, wondering what had happened to stir the crowd.
The great stadium was filled to the bursting point today. Red doubted its like had ever seen such a crowd as this one. The smaller pavilion at the other end of the field was packed with merchants and shopkeepers, families of the middle-class. Both grandstands on either side had been crammed full of lower ponies, with booths for noble families scattered at even intervals. Red knew that the floors of the pavilion beneath him would be stacked full of yet more rich families.
Even the skies above were stacked with clouds for the swarms of pegasi. Only the Royal Booth contained enough room to move about in, much less actually sit. Not that there was much room in the booth either, what with the alicorns, the half dozen Royal Guards, and the perch set aside for Celestia’s absentee pet phoenix.
"Where hence flies that insouciant bird?" Celestia mused aloud, taking note of the aforementioned empty perch. She turned and nudged her sister’s wing. "Luna, art thou troubled by something? Thou seem... distant."
“Thine celebration riles me, Tia,” grumbled the Princess of the Night, her sable coat shimmering despite the shade of the booth. “Thou knowest of my vexation. Why dost thou bother with dragging me along year after year when no tournament exists to call my own?”
Red Pommel took up position behind the Princesses as they bickered, rubbing at the breastplate of his new armor with one hoof. The sisters argued often enough that he had taken to ignoring them more often than not, and he knew this particular argument by heart. It was as much an annual ritual as the Solstice itself. In point of fact, it was the same argument that he and Captain Glint had imitated in the stairwell. Were it not so tedious he might have laughed.
It was always the same. Luna would demand a Winter Solstice Tournament, and Celestia would argue that Equestria couldn’t support two tourneys a year, not with the realm still struggling after the War of Provincial Secession. Besides, she would finish, nopony would want to make a trip to Everfree when the snow was ten feet deep. Then Luna would sulk and make snide remarks or cast angry glares in the direction of anypony nearby.
Presently, her gaze settled on Red Pommel. He had to admit, there weren’t many things in the world as discomforting as the angry stare of a goddess made flesh. He shuddered at the thought that she might somehow have read his mind.
“Hark, citizens of Equestria!”
The vast stadium did not so much fall silent as it was drowned out by the sound of the announcer. Red knew her by voice, a white unicorn mare equipped with a powerful voice amplification spell somewhere down the field. He was tempted to lift the curtain and look for her in the opposite pavilion, but to do so he would need to leave his post.
“Hail, all ye travelers!” the mare called in a perfect imitation of the Royal voice. “Verily, thou art prepared to commence with the festivities, art thou not? Doth thy heart beat all aquiver with anticipation? Prithee, lend me thine ears as we commence the first bout of the evening! Cast thine eyes upon yonder Royal Booth and witness our exalted Princesses in all their splendor!”
"For sisters who purport to rule side by side, it is clear that Celestia holds the power. She basks in the adoration of her subjects. The heraldry of Equestria shows the truth: it is a golden sun holding within it a tiny silver moon, which pales in both size and detail. And to the Court of Her Sun come nobles and travelers from all over the realm, each seeking audience with their beloved high Princess. Every day a new menagerie fills that place, from silk-draped camels to proud zebras and ancient deer.
But only Luna knows that same chamber come the night. No travelers attend her silent court. No petitioners seek her audience. Only moonlight, only shadows. She sits alone, with but the echoes to hear her decrees. I wonder still if the laws she passes are ever recognized by those who call themselves her subjects."
-- From the Journal of Sworn Shield --
On cue, the curtains at the front of the booth were drawn back with a dramatic flourish by the glow of unicorn magic. Wild cheers erupted from the packed hordes as they spotted the alicorns within, quickly turning into a pulsing chant that echoed inside Red’s helmet and shook the floorboards beneath his hooves. It seemed as if everypony in the stadium were stomping in time with one another. He was sorely tempted to join in, as he had when he’d been a colt.
Celestia leaned forward over the banister, hooves draped across it with childlike enthusiasm. Her sister reluctantly joined her a moment later, though she for once remained stiff and regal. The crowd cheered all the wilder when the Princesses started waving, threatening to bring down the entire stadium with their enthusiasm. The roar was deafening.
“Hark!” the announcer continued, “The combatants for the first bout make their entrances! Right to the chase we cut, it seems! Oh-ho! Behold, ser Silver Lance, Knight of Canterlot, and ser Neighwain of Hoofington! Honorable stallions both, they have proven their steadfast courage on numerous occasions. Many can attest to their chivalry and valor in battle, but few can match them!”
Red raised an eyebrow. He knew both of the combatants personally, had even fought beside them once upon a time. Both were among the best knights in the realm. They were beneath his line of sight, but he imagined them marching out onto the lightly tilled lists, squires at their flanks. Neighwain was as chivalrous and sincere as they came. Red remembered him well from the Bloody Pasture. He was the first son of a powerful unicorn family, but as an earth pony he might as well have been born fourth. He would be carrying himself humbly, as befitted his temperament, with only one squire at his side.
Silver Lance, on the other hoof, was the cousin and sworn shield of Prince Ebouillon. He was, by all appearances, the perfect fairytale ideal of knighthood. Highborn, noble and honorable, a model of chivalry, and skilled at everything he attempted. Furthermore, he was a unicorn of Canterlot, and that made him the complete package of everything wrong in the world. And yet, even all of that might have been forgivable if not for Silver’s dashing good looks and glittering platinum mane.
There was just something about the white stallion that set Red ill at ease. To call them rivals was to make a generous understatement. Had things gone differently five years ago, it would have been Silver standing in this booth.
Both knights stopped in the center of the field and made short bows to one another. They waved to the crowd. Here they were in view of Red, and he took the opportunity to size them up.
As expected, a single squire flanked Neighwain in drab livery. A crimson plume flowed from the top of Neighwain’s pointed helm, matching the red embellishments on the rest of his armor as well as the surcoat that he wore over it. Silver Lance, meanwhile, was flanked by three attendants, all of them unicorns like himself. His armor shone impossibly, blindingly bright, likely the result of a glamour spell. For all that, he greeted Neighwain with a friendly hoof-shake and received by far the louder cheer from the crowd.
A knot of officials and judges ran out to address them. Red knew what they’d be saying. Injury to one party must be paid in full by the other, and points were to be scored not just based on control of the fight, but also on style, flair, and placement of hits. He’d been down there himself, the eyes of a thousand ponies boring into his armor. The memory of that time flowed hot in his veins. It wasn’t an experience any pony could forget.
After a minute, the crowd was pressing in on all sides to get a look through the throng of officials. A breathless roar built in the air as excitement rose. Celestia herself joined in on the cheer, and even Luna’s frown had morphed into a look of strained anticipation.
Red shot a glance at Captain Glint, who returned it with an expression of amusement.
The knot of robed officials in the arena suddenly scattered, moving to various posts around the field. The crowd erupted into a shrill, singular scream of jubilation, pounding their hooves in unison. They were just building up to a good wave when Celestia leaned over the balcony and let loose an overenthusiastic shout of her own, and this one at full Royal Canterlot volume.
“BEGIN THE BOUT!”
Both Red and the Royal Guards winced, attempting to cover their exposed ears. Celestia’s yell echoed in the booth with all the force of a roaring Ursa Major. Luna’s smile fell immediately. She shot her sister a venomous glare that would have liquified lesser ponies. Celestia didn’t even notice.
In the arena, the knights cast off their quilted surcoats. They shone in the sun, incandescent as dueling candles. Neighwain sported a hefty studded tail mace, which he flicked about experimentally before letting his squire sheathe a sword across his back. Silver grabbed a long, winged spear and levitated it into the crook of one leg. A spark of lightning danced on the point of his armored horn.
A loud trumpet bellowed even as the knights lowered their visors, and the fight was on.
The earth pony and the unicorn were well matched, ducking and swinging with wicked precision, landing a flurry of blows on each other’s defenses before breaking apart for a moment’s breather. They circled each other, slowly strafing tighter and tighter until they met again with another peal of thunder.
Red Pommel found his gaze fixated, the breath hitching in his lungs as the knights converged again and again. For a while they dipped below his line of sight, and it was all he could do not to rush forward. When they came back into sight, he almost cheered.
Silver lunged with his winged spear, alternating between holding it in his legs and mounting it on his armor for incredibly accurate strikes. With his magic he held the decisive advantage, his horn lending the spear a life all its own. Neighwain just barely fended him off with his shield before spinning about to sweep at the unicorn’s legs with his tail-mace. When next they broke apart, the crowd was cheering so loudly that not even the clash of steel could be heard.
“Ser Pommel,” called Celestia, turning her head to the swordpony, “Come hither!”
Keeping his eyes on the fight, Red stepped to the Princess’ side and snapped to attention, feeling especially formidable in his new armor. It wasn’t often he found occasion to wear such lavish accoutrements. He wondered if she was going to point out that his crest of office was off-center.
“Look upon yonder bout!” exclaimed the Regent of the Sun. “‘Tis exciting, is it not? Truly, the competitors are the finest of knights. Doth thou remember when last thou fought in the Tournament?”
Red nodded deferentially, glad for the view he had been provided. “Indeed I do, your grace. Five years ago, almost to the day. The Centennial.”
Down below, Neighwain landed a solid blow on Silver’s helm, only for the unicorn to reciprocate with his spear even as he was reeling backwards. Cascades of dirt fountained into the air as both knights slid to a stop away from each other, hooves plowing deep ruts in the earth.
Silver’s helm had been knocked aside. It was still bouncing in the dirt when the unicorn’s sword flashed into existence. Neighwain charged again, head down, crimson plume flying.
Red almost missed what Celestia said next.
“Doth thou miss thine days of tourneying?”
“No your grace,” lied the swordpony. “My career was as short as it was enjoyable, but I am content in my station.”
In truth, he would have loved nothing more than to be a knight again. Not just a tourneying knight, but a questing knight like the ones of old. He wanted to be on adventures, to see new places, to save damsels in distress and sleep under the stars. Anything was better than following the Princesses around all day, standing in court for hours at a time and trying to stay on top of the latest politics.
Oh, how he hated the politics.
“Thine final bout was even greater than this,” enthused Celestia, never taking her eyes off the two knights below. “Doth thou remember it? Thine skill with the sword put even unicorns to shame.”
Red smiled, an armored hoof moving involuntarily to the longsword at his flank. He gave it a fond pat. It was a beautiful sword, mostly undecorated but deceptive in its simplicity. Years ago he had used his winnings from two separate tournaments and still gone hungry for a month so as to pay for its forging. With it he defeated Silver Lance, then the most renowned knight in the realm. Face to face, blade to blade. His namesake, the ruby set into the pommel, was a recent addition.
That victory in the Centennial Tournament had been the greatest triumph in Red’s entire life. He almost chuckled aloud, remembering a time when the legendary Dusky Oatis had held the mantle and given rise to the ambitions of a young shirepony.
But in truth, Red didn’t remember the fateful duel which had come to define his career. All memory of the encounter had been stripped away by a concussion sustained at Silver Lance’s doing near the beginning of the fight. He’d gone on to win anyway with a stunning counter-riposte after an extended duel.
So they told him, at any rate. He remembered little besides walking into the arena with a badly bruised hock, trembling with anticipation, and being carried off the field some time later with a splitting headache. Sometimes, when he was on the blurry line between sleep and awake, he could dimly feel the outer edges of another memory, perhaps something that Silver Lance had said during the battle. But the specifics were lost to time.
Come to think of it, the only real record of the battle was a painting hanging in the castle library. The gouache showed a younger Red bucking young Silver in the chest with both hindlegs, sword firmly gripped between them to embed itself in the unicorn’s breastplate. He was fairly certain that such a thing had never happened in the actual bout, but he couldn’t begrudge an artist their bravura.
All of a sudden a terrific cry sounded from the heavens, shaking him from his hazy reminiscing. Moments later there shot a magnificent red and gold bird from the sky overhead, fire billowing from its wings. Pegasi scattered as the phoenix dove through the cloud banks to land gracefully on the perch set aside for her at Celestia's side. Red took a careful step back when tongues of flame dripped into an ashtray on the floor.
“Philomena!” Celestia scolded. “Thou art late!”
The bird cooed indifferently and folded her enormous red wings back at her sides, leaning in to nuzzle the alicorn. Then, as if Philomena had spoken, Celestia stiffened and put her ear to the bird’s beak. Her normally serene features went unreadable while the phoenix trilled in her ear.
Red felt ill at ease. He'd seen that look once before, when a delegation of deer from the Shimmerwood came bearing ill news of one of Celestia’s old friends. Both Princesses had agonized for days after that, ignoring every petitioner that came seeking audience. Not even during the War of Secession had she looked so grave. What could...
Without warning a horn blew from the other end of the arena, silencing the crowd for just a moment before the climactic cheer tore from everypony’s throats. Red turned back to the bout, cursing himself for letting the phoenix distract him.
Down below, Neighwain’s helmet lay beside him, the magnificent red plume spilling across the ground like gore from a wound. The defeated knight sat on his haunches in the churned up dirt. Silver Lance stood over the him, sword suspended over his head in an envelope of magical energy. A sure victory, then. His snowy mane billowed theatrically in the wind.
Red frowned. This wasn’t a particularly surprising outcome. For all his skill, Neighwain was still only an earth pony, and earth ponies were at a woeful disadvantage when it came to armed combat. Still he swore under his breath at having missed the resolution of the bout.
In the corner of his eye he saw Celestia move, partially obscured by his helm.
“To the Knight of Canterlot goeth the victory! Jubilation! Verily, a bout to be remembered o’er the ages! To the lists we shall proceed, and ready yonder field for the tilting as...”
The announcer suddenly went deathly silent, as did the crowd. Red started and went for his sword. He looked around to see what had gone wrong, only to realize that Celestia and Luna had cast a noise nullification spell around the entire booth. The air around them actually seemed to drape in leaden sheets. Sparkly leaden sheets.
Red and Captain Glint exchanged wary glances. Philomena simply cooed and nuzzled her head into her sparking breast for a nap, fire lapping at the perch on which she sat.
Across the booth the Princesses stood alone, the elder sister whispering urgently to the younger. Red turned his ears to the pair, attempting to listen without appearing to eavesdrop. He knew even the guards were doing the same. The silence continued to press in around them.
“More dragons?” questioned Luna, her normally thunderous voice suddenly as quiet as a field mouse. Red strained to hear her. “How then doth thou intend to react?”
Celestia was grim. “We shall need to send an envoy to the Crystal Mountains. I shall write up the document myself. Tonight.”
“Whom do we trust to deliver it?” the younger sister pressed. “A pronghorn?”
The elder Princess thought for a moment. “Nay, dear sister.”
“But why? ‘Tis the simplest solution!”
“Perhaps we shall wait until the tournament is complete, and name the champion our envoy?”
Luna scowled. “Why tarry a week? This reeks of folly!”
Red frowned, tense with worry. Had he heard “dragons?” And yet...
An idea wormed its way into his thoughts. Dare he act on it? His head filled with fancies of adventure. For his whole life he’d wished for the opportunity to go questing like the knights of old. This was his chance.
He opened his mouth, then shut it. No, he shouldn’t. It would be against every protocol he knew. But he spurned the silly rules of the nobility... didn’t he?
Suddenly Red realized he was staring straight into the eyes of Princess Celestia.
He froze. His tongue went dry in an instant. He struggled to look away, to turn to the drapes, to the floor, to the crowd outside. Anything to avert the burning sense of shame in his throat. But all he could do was hold that piercing stare. It burned straight through his armor, cut right to the heart of him. What did she see?
When had she turned to look at him?
Princess Luna looked to her, then to him. She cocked an eyebrow.
“Celie...” she said in a voice usually reserved for warnings. “Shall I send for the pronghorns?”
Celestia smiled. Her gaze softened. She brought a hoof to her chin and turned to regard her sister. Only then was Red able to look away. He nearly missed what was said next.
“Oh, don’t worry dear sister.” Celestia had dropped the Canterlot voice. “I believe we already possess a perfectly suitable envoy.”
The Princess’ piercing stare returned to Red.
He stammered, panicked, and fell into a low bow almost without meaning to, one front leg stretched out before him, the other curled beneath him. His eyes screwed shut of their own accord.
Suddenly he felt a horn touch his helm.
“Rise, ser Pommel.”
Red obeyed with just a hint of trepidation. For him the Solstice Tournament was already over. And yet, was that a hint of excitement fluttering in his breast? No, no it was probably wariness. He swallowed the lump in his throat.
Something his father once said came back to him in a condescending whisper. He barely heard it, even tried unsuccessfully to ignore it.
Be careful what you wish for, little pony... you might just get it.
“Edge of the Map”
"...And as I stood there, so very far from home, I was reminded of just how stark and lonely the Crystal Mountains truly are. They are as sharp and jagged as broken glass, and the land is but a reflection of them. To the south, miles on miles of hills roll into the distance with not so much as a cottage or a wisp of smoke to be seen. To the north, the shadow wood, a line as black as its name that stretches from one horizon to another, threatening to swallow whole those snow capped peaks which claw so desperately at the sky.
And for all that distance, those endless leagues of wilderness and grass, when I looked upon it from that hill I could not be sure that the barest trace of civilization had ever existed within a thousand leagues in either direction..."
-- From the journal of Sworn Shield --
The road to Shetland was not a busy road. It was hardly even a road at all, being little more than a long swath through the gentle green hills that marked Equestria’s north-western boundary. Long stretches of it were nearly overgrown.
The last town on that lonely path, if it could be called a town, was just as small and weedy as the road. Scarcely more than a dozen ponies lived there, their homes clustered together for safety, ringed by pens and shacks.
The town was uncharacteristically busy today, as close to a hive of activity as it could ever be. A tinker had passed through in the morning, stopping to mend pots and tools for the ponies living there. He’d brought with him stories from abroad and fine goods from Prance -- for a price.
It wasn’t often tinkers passed down through this nameless place. Their trips were few and far between, sometimes even years apart. For this reason alone the blacksmith had bought for himself several bars of quality iron in exchange for fitting the tinker with new horseshoes. The mayor, if he could be called a mayor when his town wasn’t even large enough to warrant a name, had bought himself a new rug with the money he’d been saving for his daughter’s wedding.
And yet despite the excitement, the little village still maintained an air of sleepiness. There was a deep quiet here, so deeply entrenched as to be almost imperceptible. A pony might not even notice it. But there it was, a blanket dulling the edges of the town, taking the corners off the events of the day.
Six ponies were gathered in the tiny inn that served as the town’s only landmark. They huddled over their drinks around a single table and in doing so took up half the space in the room. Their voices mingled with the familiarity of those who have known one another all their lives, talking of little things and laughing over old jokes worn smooth by long use. Behind the bar, a doughy unicorn sorted bottles with an idle ear to the conversation.
This was the smallest kind of village, as isolated as could be, the sort of place where everypony had cutie marks of shovel handles and plowshares. No amount of excitement could dispel the silence. Even outside, the ring of the blacksmith’s hammer seemed somehow muted. Because of this the conversation in the inn gave the impression of being almost desperate, a secret meeting held in defiance of the quiet that blanketed everything.
One earth pony, his back to the corner, was relating a story the tinker had told him for the price of a penny. New stories were worth gold in towns such as this and it had been a long time since anything of the sort had found its way so far out into the wild. Though his tones were hushed, he spoke with excitement and vigor.
“The tinker says the Old Kingdoms are telling a new story these days,” he said so quickly as to nearly trip over his words. A half empty bottle rubbed back and forth on the table between his hooves. “It’s one about a terrible monster, a demon what thrives off rot an’ suffering. They say he stalks the night, looking for ponies to feast on. He goes from house to house, radiating cold. Just looking at him is death. They say he’s returned from ages gone by to...”
“Now hold on, Lanky,” interjected an older stallion, chewing on an unlit pipe and, occasionally, the stray hairs of a mustache. He leaned back in his chair until his back touched the wall. “If you can die just by looking at him, how does anypony know he exists?”
Lanky scowled and waved a hoof. “Don’t interrupt me. They can hear him and feel his cold when he’s nearby. And ‘sides that, the tinker said that if you hold up a piece of glass like this...” He held up the half empty bottle between his hooves, swishing the beer inside. “Then you can look right at him and be fine. So long as you don’t look into his eyes, o’course.”
“O’course.” The ponies all nodded in agreement. Everypony with a lick of sense knew about the dangers posed by the eyes of demons. Demons held most of their power in their eyes, after all.
“So anyway,” Lanky continued, “He stalks the night on cloven hooves, feasting on death and sickness and spreading it wherever he goes. And he has these great big ol’ antlers, so big they’d fill up this whole room!” He gestured expansively, but it wasn’t saying much. The room could barely fit two tables and a scattering of stools. The other ponies nodded anyway, impressed.
“So he’s a moose?” the youngest of the stallions asked. He was by no means a child, but even at the age of twenty six he was still called ‘colt’ more often than not. His inability to grow whiskers didn’t help.
Lanky scowled again. “What? No, he ain’t no moose. He’s a monster what just happens to have antlers. He’s also made completely out of shadow and skeletons and stuff like that. And his eyes are made all of blue fire. Who ever heard of a moose made o’ stuff like that?”
“That’s mighty frightening,” said the older stallion chewing on the pipe. “How’d the tinker come to hear that one?”
“He says it’s all over Germaneigh. Parents tell their foals about him to keep ‘em quiet at night. Says even the Shetlanders are locking their doors when the sun goes down.”
One of the older stallions snorted in amusement. “As if Shetlanders have doors.”
“Heh, right. So anyway, he roams far an’ wide, trailing death like a snail oozes slime. And they say his name... no, wait. What was his name again? I think it was ‘the bone stumbler’ but I’m not rightly sure...”
A long moment of silence took hold, digging its claws deep into the conversation. Lanky mulled over the forgotten name of the deathly horror, lost in thought. The other ponies exchanged looks, but nopony could think of anything to say. One or two cast longing glances at the door, almost eager to leave.
At length, one of the older stallions spoke up in a voice that was barely more than a whisper. The creeping silence halted. It withdrew its claws ever so slightly.
“Tinker said the dragons’r gettin’ worse. Might come this far south in a month or two.”
The six ponies muttered darkly amongst themselves. Dragons were a distant threat, far removed from their little corner of Equestria. But nopony was willing to distrust a tinker’s word.
“No way they’ll come this far west,” said Lanky matter-of-factly, only the faintest hint of uncertainty in his voice. “They’ll go south through the Counties and wind up around Canterlot. That’s a long ways off.”
Everypony nodded, anxious to soothe their fears. The Counties formed the northern third of Equestria’s lands, wrapping up around the east side of the Old Kingdoms and stretching nearly to the Eyrie Mountains. That was where the dragons belonged, not here in this little village.
The old pony with the pipe had other thoughts. “What’s to stop them from flying over Shetland?”
“Why would they want to come over Shetland?” asked Lanky, but the seeds of doubt had been sewn. “I mean, wouldn’t they avoid the Shadow Wood? That place is...”
The scraggly farmer stopped short, ears perked. Heavy hooves tromped on the landing outside. All eyes turned to the entrance. Was the blacksmith coming in for a drink?
The clip-clopping stopped just outside. A moment later an armored stallion pushed his way inside, the thick-timbered door squealing on its hinges. Everypony froze, startled as if the newcomer was a constable come to enforce the silence. Even the innkeeper stopped polishing bottles and stared at the armored pony as if unsure of what to do.
The newcomer was tall, well-muscled and broad across the chest, his coat a healthy auburn. He wore dragonscale armor and intricately detailed greaves, all of it some kind of leather. Quilted barding was tied over his backside, dyed a bright pink on one flank and midnight blue on the other. The six patrons felt their guts tighten and instinctively clutched at their purses. Even a foal could recognize the royal colors.
Even more frightening was the longsword sheathed across the pony’s back. Its ruby pommel glittered in the square of sunlight that poured through the inn’s open door. The stallion’s chiseled features and square snout gave him the appearance of a rough mercenary, offset only by his long golden mane and easy smile. He stood there for a moment, framed in the doorway as his gaze roamed over the room.
The stallion’s lively green eyes finished scanning the inn in a heartbeat, soaking up every detail. Apparently satisfied, he stepped over the threshold and kicked the door shut behind himself before trotting up to the bar. The building shuddered.
“Good morning!” He nodded to the six ponies in the corner, stepping around the room’s only support beam. They all winced at the sound of his voice, loud and booming in the silence. One or two returned his friendly nod, unsure of what else to do.
The innkeeper jumped to attention at the stallion’s approach, suddenly remembering his job. He scrambled for a wooden mug before stopping himself and reaching instead for a bottle of wine. Still unsure, he cast a questioning eye to the imposing newcomer.
The stranger set down two bits, real gold bits that sparkled in the inn’s lamplight. He eyed the bottle of wine for a moment, then shook his head and pointed to the beer instead. The innkeeper nodded happily and pulled him a full mug. It scraped on old splinters across the bar.
With a roll of his shoulders the armored stallion shrugged his saddlebags to the floor and took a seat, shifting his sword to one side to make room for himself. The saddlebags made a heavy thwump that everypony felt in their hooves. They winced. He just sat back with an air of unshakable confidence, looking completely at ease as he gulped from his mug.
The inn seemed to hold its breath while it waited for him to finish.
“Good beer,” he complimented, wiping foam from his chin. The mug was unnecessarily loud coming down on the counter. “Much better than the dreg in Everfree.”
“Everfree?” blurted Lanky from across the room. “What’s a pony from Everfree doing all the way out here?” His eyes narrowed, noticing the gleaming gold that trimmed the scabbard of the newcomer’s sword. It shone just as brightly as the two gold bits on the bar. Lanky had seen plenty of armed ponies in his time, but he’d never seen any of them rich enough to plate their scabbards with money.
The armored pony frowned, then returned to his easy-going smile. He had an affected, vainglorious baritone. “Well I’m not a tax collector, if that’s what you’re afraid of. I’m just passing through on my way to the Eyries.”
Another of the patrons whistled appreciatively. “Long way to the mountains, friend.” He didn’t mention the dragons. There was no sense in mentioning them when everypony with a lick of sense knew that dragons were thick as flies over the Eyries.
“Aye,” said another, chewing on his unlit pipe. “And you’re not exactly on the right road.”
“Pardon?” Red took another sip from his mug.
Lanky leaned forward over the table, pointing in the general direction of north. “You’re on the wrong road, friend. If you want to get to the Eyries you’d best start heading east. The road to Hornkeep’s the one you want.”
“I have no interest in going through the Counties,” Red sat his drink back on the bar with finality. “I’m cutting through Shetland.”
Silence rushed back into the inn like a cold wind, swallowing up every trace of warmth in the room. The patrons stared incredulously at the stranger.
“You can’t be serious,” marveled the youngest stallion.
Red frowned again. His smile didn’t return as quickly as it had before. “Do I look like the sort of pony to joke about that?” He didn’t. Nopony carried a sword as casually as he did without knowing how to use it. He still felt the need to stress the point. “Furthermore, I’m a knight. I can defend myself.”
He left out the part about being the Master Swordpony of Everfree. As much as he was proud of the title, his mother’s lectures on the wrongs of boasting were enough to hold his tongue. That, and he’d always felt contempt for nobles that used their titles to make other ponies feel inferior.
The young stallion at the table shut his mouth and went back to staring at his hooves. A few of the other patrons blinked. The stranger looked rich, and he certainly carried himself like a knight, but his accent was far from cultured. He sounded as if he’d been coached on proper speaking but had never gotten the hang of the clipped pronunciations used by the nobility. Besides, where was his shining plate armor? His trusty squire?
Lanky took a long draught from his mug. “Hate to tell you, stranger, but the colt’s right. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll turn around and head for Hornkeep. Nopony can go through Shetland.”
The swordpony scoffed. “Really now, it’s not as if I’m going straight through. I’ll be skirting around the edge. And besides, I’ve got the Princesses’ colors.” He pointed to the quilted cruppers on his flanks -- one pink for Celestia, the other blue for Luna. “No barbarian would be stupid enough to attack me.”
The patrons shook their heads at the swordpony’s conceit. One of them rolled his eyes.
“Listen,” said the old buck with the unlit pipe. “We’re not stupid. I been in the Shadow Wood myself when I was younger. Foalish colts are always going in there trying to prove how brave they are. But that place ain’t natural. I seen it with my own two eyes.”
Red narrowed his eyes at the patron. “Just because a place is old and magical doesn’t mean it’s evil. Dangerous, sure, but I’m dangerous too.”
The old pony shook his head. Slowly, with the utmost focus, he lit a match on the rough grain of the table and lifted it to his pipe. A wisp of smoke curled out from the corncob bowl, wreathing his ears. He didn’t even shake the match out before tossing it on the table and grinding it beneath his hoof.
“When I was a foal,” he said gravely, staring at the black smear. “A little filly went missing from the village. Everypony was devastated. Spent weeks trying to find her. Scoured as deep into the Shadow Wood as anypony’d ever gone. Then three stallions out of the search party just disappeared. Right into thin air. One minute they were within shouting distance of my father and the next they were gone. No trace. Just gone.”
His eyes grew distant, hard. “We stopped looking after that.” He turned back to the swordpony at the bar. “The Shadow Wood’s a bad place, stranger. It eats light, actually devours it. The trees don’t just have shadows, they make them. And the ponies that live there... they’re dangerous. Wild.” He gestured to his chest with both hooves. “They wear the skins of animals. They wear furs. They eat stuff ain’t supposed to be eaten.”
The other patrons were nodding, their faces serious. Even the barkeep bobbed his head. But Red Pommel didn’t seem impressed.
“Really now,” the swordpony replied, draining his mug and setting it down on the bar. “I’ve come a long way from Everfree, and I was really expecting that you folk would be a lot smarter than the idiots further south.”
He shook his head. “Guess I was wrong.”
Lanky turned red under his coat and opened his mouth to shoot back his own insult, but the stallion with the pipe cut him off.
“I’m trying to help you, stranger,” he said. “We’re not superstitious. I’m telling you from personal experience, don’t go into the Shadow Wood.”
“Give me three good reasons,” said the swordpony, his tone impatient.
The old stallion was puffing furiously on his pipe now, making enough smoke to cloud the room. He dropped his hoof onto the table with a loud thud. “I honestly don’t care about your wellbeing, stranger. And I certainly don’t care for your tone. If you’re set on getting yourself killed, be my guest. But don’t go insulting me or my friends.”
Red arched an eyebrow. There was iron in the old stallion’s voice. He wasn’t the kind to be scared by a long sword or a set of armor. Red could respect that. “Fair enough. I apologize if I was short with you.”
The pipe-smoking pony turned in his chair and ignored the apology. “Just spend what you’re going to spend and get out of my town.”
“Better if you spent everything you’ve got,” said Lanky, eyeing the shiny golden trim on the swordpony’s scabbard. “Your gold won’t be of much use in the Old Kingdoms. Some barbarian’ll just take it off you and make himself a couple of nice necklaces.”
Red snorted, half amused by the quip. “I’ll be on my way then.”
The swordpony bent back down to take up his saddlebags, only to be stopped when a heavy hoof draped itself over his shoulder. He turned his eyes up to meet the barkeep’s.
“You sure you don’t want anything else, sir?” the unicorn asked quietly. “Two bits pays for a lot of drinks...”
For a moment Red just blinked. Then he threw his head back and let out a laugh, deep and loud enough to split the silence that had been accumulating in the corners of the room. He realized his mistake now - two bits went a lot further out here than they did in Everfree. These ponies paid in barter or iron pennies, not in gold. He’d probably just bought a barrel’s worth of beer.
“Tell you what,” he said, holding back his laughter. “I’ll take a couple bottles of your best wine, and you keep whatever’s left of the bits after that.”
The bartender gleamed, his smile threatening to split his wide face. He probably didn’t have the funds to break a golden bit anyway. He scurried into the back room, re-emerging with two dusty bottles floating over his head, one green and one red.
Red looked over the latter, brushing some of the dust off with his leg. There was no label, but the glass was lightly engraved with what appeared to be a date. “What’s this?”
“Fine Chambre d'Automne,” the unicorn proclaimed proudly in his soft voice. “Seventy six years old if I’m a day. Straight from Prance.”
“Seventy six… Wasn’t that--”
“Huh. Good year…” Once upon a time, eight decades was a juvenile age for good wine. But there was the small matter of anything older than a century turning to water, now. Some of the older bottles still bore polka dots. One in Everfree was labeled with Discord’s face, but it was kept under lock and key.
Red didn’t bother asking where the pony had gotten Chambre d’Automne. He nodded appreciatively. Such stuff was truly expensive and hard to come by even in Everfree, especially when trade relations with the Old Kingdoms were still in their infancy. It was doubtful that the innkeeper would have ever found someone willing to buy it. Such a wine was only brought out for a truly special celebration, and even then only so it could be shown off and summarily drained.
“And this other bottle?” Red asked, tapping the dull green one. It was smaller than the d'Automne.
“That,” the innkeeper said thoughtfully, “Is a vintage I’ve never had the pleasure of tasting. I’ve always wanted to know what it was. I don’t even know how old it is or where it came from.”
“Well,” said Red, his easy smile turning on the bottle. “How about we find out?”
The barkeep’s horn glowed as brightly as his smiling face. In a flash he produced a corkscrew from beneath the bar, snatching up the green bottle with his magic. Then he hesitated, moving with nervous excitement. In the end, curiosity got the better of the moment’s trepidation, and without further ado he jerked out the cork.
“I hope it’s something good,” he muttered, pouring a glass for himself and another for Red. He chuckled quietly to himself and waited for the swordpony to take the first drink.
Red didn’t bother with ceremony. He threw back the glass as soon as it was in his hooves. He immediately regretted it and grimaced, the oily taste assaulting his mouth with all the subtlety of a warhammer.
The innkeeper’s eyes went wide with shock, but quickly closed when he tried his own glass. He sighed with a smile.
“This stuff is nasty,” groused Red, setting his glass back on the bar. He reached for the Chambre d'Automne to wash the taste out of his mouth, then decided it wasn’t worth wasting such valuable wine.
“You just don’t have a taste for it,” replied the unicorn. He smiled and poured himself another glass. “This stuff isn’t wine. It’s brandy!”
The surly patrons in the corner looked up, ears rising. Lanky nearly jumped out of his chair. “Did somepony say brandy?”
Red pulled a face. “Ech... I don’t think brandy is my kind of drink. Do you have anything else?”
The unicorn shook his head. “I’m afraid not. Nothing to your tastes anyway, sir.”
“That’s bunk. I’m a pony of simple tastes.”
“In that case, would a bottle of sixty two Riesling do? It’s not too dry. Fairly sweet.”
Red nodded. He wasn’t enough of a wine expert to know if sixty two had been a good year, but he knew enough to know that Riesling was best when it came from the north-western parts of Equestria. And you didn’t get any further north-west than this. “Sure thing,” he said. “I’ve always liked white wine.”
In the corner, Lanky looked about ready to leap across the table to get at the bar. “I’m serious, did somepony say brandy?” He turned to the pony with the pipe. “Cob, did you hear...”
“Ayep, I heard,” Cob replied, still puffing on his pipe. The old stallion turned around in his chair to fix the innkeeper with a level stare. “Marley, have you been keeping brandy from us?”
The unicorn smiled sheepishly. “Well no, not exactly. I didn’t know I had any. It’s not free, mind you.” He wagged his hoof.
Lanky emptied his purse out on the table. It wasn’t much, just a few iron pennies and a bit of silver, but he looked ready to pay it all for a glass of whatever was in the green bottle. The other patrons appeared almost as enthusiastic, the innkeeper less so. If Red had to guess, he’d have said that Marley was looking forward to drinking it all himself and wasn’t particularly happy with the idea of losing it.
“You know what?” said the swordpony, flicking his own purse up onto the table with a swish of his tail. “I’ll pay for the brandy too. Half of it.”
Shouts of protest from the corner threatened to finally finish off the silence that had been creeping out of the room. Lanky actually stood up and made an insult that nearly curled the hairs on Red’s back. Marley blanched a shade of ghostly white underneath his coat.
“Aww, c’mon!” another stallion cried bitterly.
Red set a silver half-bit on the bar but kept his hoof on it. “It’s not for me,” he said with a grin. “It’s just that my good friend Marley here looks thirsty.”
The inn fell silent.
Then the patrons broke into fits of laughter, the room booming with their amusement. Old Cob and several others nearly ran to the bar, bursting out of their chairs. Marley chuckled with relief, pouring glasses for everpony as quickly as he could. There was more than enough to go around, even with only half a bottle. Lanky still grumbled, muttering something about having less to drink, but by now everypony was ignoring him.
“Thank you sir,” the bartender said to Red, nodding to the swordpony.
“One good turn deserves another, friend.” Red clapped the unicorn on the shoulder and tossed his saddlebags over his flanks. “I’m in the habit of rewarding integrity.”
It would have been easy for Marley to let the swordpony walk out and keep the two gold bits for himself. But he hadn’t, and because of that simple exercise in honesty Red was glad to buy him a drink.
The swordpony left as quickly as he could, but not before buying a sack full of food for the road. The silver half-bit had been the smallest coin he’d been carrying, and it would have easily paid for the full bottle of brandy. It went a long way toward covering the cost of his supplies. Red had a feeling that Marley had discounted him, too.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have much money left to spend and he still needed a few more things before he left. With that in mind he stopped by the blacksmith to have himself fitted for new horseshoes. The ones he’d worn back in Everfree weren’t exactly meant for long travel, and they were already hurting his hooves.
As it turned out, the stuffy little blacksmith knew his trade better than just about anypony in Everfree. When the swordpony walked out of the forge he did so on hooves shod with the finest iron. Unlike Marley, however, the blacksmith was not so keen on discounts, especially when he saw the royal colors on Red’s flanks. Red couldn’t blame him. Money was tight in these parts.
His purse significantly lighter, Red Pommel shouldered his sword and set off down the road. There was a spring in his step and a smile on his face.
It had been a long hundred and twenty miles since Everfree, but the swordpony couldn’t have felt more excited to keep going. He’d made good time and felt none the worse for the wear. With good luck and a swift trot he expected to put another twenty or so miles behind him before nightfall. It felt like he was coming around a bend and seeing the straight-away, even if he was still only on the first leg of journey.
All in all, it felt good to be on a quest of some sort, even if he had missed the Summer Solstice Tournament. It had been far too long since he’d had any sort of adventure.
There was a smile on Red Pommel’s face as he trotted his way down the faded path. For the first time in years he was finally on a real quest, sword across his back, saddlebags heavy with provisions, and a spring in his step. He couldn’t have been happier if he’d been dueling on a swinging chandelier -- not that he cared to repeat that little incident, of course, but it was nice to feel alive and fully in his element again.
In the distance sprawled the next phase of his journey. The Shadow Wood. It was a massive forest, grey and immense with untold centuries of growth. The hills beneath the woods swelled up above the rest of the land by hundreds of feet. Even at a distance it was menacing. But it was a ways off yet, and he had his sword. He had the colors of the Princesses too. Even skin-wearing barbarians would fear the heraldry of Equestria.
Not that he’d see any barbarians. After all, he’d be skirting the edge of the forest.
The path was better traveled than Red would have expected, even if it was still in the process of being devoured by hungry grass and weeds. As such, it was little surprise when he discovered that the track led to a pond nestled in the saddle between two small hills.
Ponies from the little village he’d left behind were doubtlessly fond of this pool, probably using it as a swimming hole. Thick bushes grew around most of the pond’s circumference, the water itself murky and seemingly free of fish.
No, it was not at all surprising to find a swimming hole. The surprise came when Red saw the cart.
The thing was parked in the grass next to the pond, sheltering under a willow tree. He stopped short when he spotted it. This was no regular cart. The wheels were rimmed with well-worn iron and painted a variety of warm colors. The body of the cart itself was covered, and bulging with all manner of bundles, boxes and sacks.
The swordpony trotted closer, wondering what a rich looking cart was doing all the way out here at the edge of civilization. A familiar hammer was painted on the wooden sideboards, angled so that it appeared to be striking a painting of a rusty frying pan. It was peeling and faded from long years in the sun.
Red knew that sign. This was a tinker’s cart.
Looking around, Red felt his heart flutter with excitement despite himself. He couldn’t help it. He’d been conditioned ever since he was a foal to jump with joy whenever a tinker came to town. Tinkers meant stories and valuable goods that couldn’t be found anywhere else. They meant good harvests and happy parents and new toys. Most of all they lent a sense of significance to his journey. Every good adventure story had a tinker in it.
Besides, tinkers were good luck. A questing knight could never turn down free luck.
"I met two travelers on the road today, a father and a son. While their long ears and distinct lack of soul marks left me on edge, the two donkeys turned out to be fine, trustworthy fellows, as well as excellent companions for the road. Imagine my delight when I found that they are tinkers on the road to Everfree! They have offered to take me with them, so long as I am able to accompany them for a time and provide protection for their cart. It is a fine offer, one that will grant me a chance to take in much of this beautiful land.
Equal parts traveling merchant and tool repair, the ubiquitous tinker is a common sight in Equestria. They travel far and wide, a jack-of-all-trades bringing wares and services to the far corners of the Realm, and the two I now travel with are no different. It should come as no surprise that all manner of myths and fairy tales surround their line of work, but such is the nature of superstitious ponies. I buy into none of it, no matter how extraordinary these individuals are. Still, seeing the father teaching his son has left me with the feeling that I have witnessed something truly special... and secret to all but a rare few.
I must end this entry early, for I have offered to make the meal for tonight. I am thinking carrot stew will suffice. After all, a tinker's debt is always paid, and my debt is much the same."
-- From the journal of Sworn Shield --
“Hello?” he called softly, seeing nopony. He checked under the wagon but found only a tangle of dead weeds wrapped around the axle.
A rustling sound caught his ear and he looked up, stepping around the corner of the wagon.
“Hmm? Who’s there?” came a husky voice from the bushes surrounding the pond. The bushes rustled again and a moment later there emerged a squat little equine carrying a sack full of blueberries.
The tinker was surprisingly young considering his occupation and the apparent age of his cart. Enormous pointed ears poked through a sagging straw hat and a slender tail swished in the bushes like a whip. His eyes shot open behind round spectacles when they alighted on the auburn swordpony. He nearly dropped the sack of berries.
“Ah, hello!” he said, seemingly surprised. He stammered something before clamping his mouth shut and giving a warm, fatherly smile.
“Good morning,” replied Red with a smile of his own. He gave the tinker a closer look and was surprised to see that no cutie mark could be seen on the brown buck’s flank.
Red had seen donkeys before, but it was still hard to wrap his head around the concept of equines without some sort of symbol on their hindquarters. He’d grown accustomed to measuring ponies by their cutie marks. Back in Everfree that had often been all too easy. Most nobles wound up with something extravagant or glittering on their backsides. But, he supposed, it was fitting for a tinker to have no cutie mark. Tinkers were good at a little of everything.
The tinker cleared his throat and straightened his hat with a gangly foreleg. Besides his spectacles and potbelly he was a fairly robust little donkey. Red guessed by the gray tufts crowning his ears that he was just beginning to approach middle-aged. In the grand scheme of things, he was fairly young for a tinker… and still quite old enough to be Red’s father.
“I’m afraid you’ve caught me at a bad time, son,” said the tinker, trotting to his wagon and depositing the sack of blueberries. “Wasn’t expecting anypony to follow me out here.”
“What are you doing out here in the first place?” asked Red. “You on your way to the village?”
“Just came from there, actually.” The tinker raised a well-shod hoof, the iron of his new horseshoe gleaming dully in the sun. “Thought I’d come out here and see if the berries were as good as I remembered. Maybe go back through the village later this evening and drum up a little more business. Ponies is always forgetting to buy something when the tinker first passes through.”
Red shot a glance at the bulging sack. Hunger tickled his belly and he realized he hadn’t bothered to eat since the day before. “Are they? As good as you remembered, I mean?”
The tinker’s smile had a distinctly paternal quality about it, all fondness and somber knowing. “Nothing can compare to childhood memories, I’m afraid.”
Red blinked. That sounded like something his father would have said. “Isn’t that the truth.”
“What about you?” asked the little donkey, popping a few of the berries into his mouth. “What are you doing out here? You look as surprised to find company as I am.”
The swordpony gestured to the pink and blue barding on his flanks. “I’m on a quest for the Princesses. Well, more of an errand...”
“An Everfree pony?” probed the tinker, leaning against his wagon. He frowned. “I would have pegged you for a shirepony by your accent. Been hiding it long?”
“Well, truth is, I am. Red Pommel at your service, Master Swordpony to the Princesses. Grew up in a shire and never could shake the burr.”
The tinker whistled. “Impressive. Can’t say as I’ve ever heard of you, I’m afraid. But meeting a Master Swordpony in the flesh... well, I’m honored. Out of curiosity, is it ‘sir’ or ‘my lord’?”
Red chuckled. “Just ‘Red’ will do fine. The novelty of titles wore off years ago.” In all honesty he’d have preferred ‘my lord,’ but that kind of behavior around a tinker was inexcusable.
“How humble of you.” The tinker reached into his cart and tapped a wooden box. “Might I interest you in a little trade? Master Tinker at your service. I have baubles, trinkets, oddities and commodities, a few broken puzzle pieces and... well, I’m sure I’ve got something useful in this old cart...”
The swordpony frowned despite the tinker’s gentle mocking and sing-song voice. “I haven’t got much to spare save coin. And I’m short even on that. Got anything interesting?”
A mirthful laugh bubbled out of the donkey’s throat. He adjusted his glasses and started rummaging. “Balms for what ails you, repairs for all your tools, fancy odds and ends from all over the world... and, of course, stories.”
“Well, let’s see... I’ve got some good, strong rope. Questing ponies is always in need of some rope. Never know when it’ll come in handy.” He tossed a few bits of junk back into the pile and sorted through the contents of a chest. “I’ve got a good whetstone in here for your sword... lovely sword, by the way.”
“Thank you, but I’ve already got my own whetstone,” apologized the swordpony.
“Hmm. Well, I’ve got some fancy lace from Prance that I picked up earlier this year. Don’t suppose you’d have any use for a wedding veil?” The tinker’s face somehow stayed deadpan serious.
“Perhaps something a bit more... practical?” Red smiled and dropped his saddlebags to the grass. “Say, an early lunch?”
The tinker raised an eyebrow and cast an eye to the sun. “Hmm. Well, I suppose. It’s a bit early for lunch, but I still haven’t had breakfast, so why not?”
They deposited themselves beneath the willow tree, glad for the shade. The tinker nibbled at some of the lush grass and continued popping blueberries into his mouth. Red dug out some of the provisions he’d bought in the village and dug in ravenously. He’d scarcely gotten two bites in when the tinker nudged him in the ribs.
“Say, Red... shouldn’t you be wearing some sort of fancy armor? Maybe some shining steel, perhaps a little chainmail? Or was it too heavy?”
Red looked down at his lamellar vest and vambraces. “Well, no... plate’s not that heavy. Hard to maintain, really. I just thought some traveling leathers would be better for the road, ‘s all. Looks kind of ‘mercenary,’ you know?”
The tinker raised another eyebrow. “Hmm. I’d have expected a little more gold filigree.”
Red chuckled. “My armorer was furious when I picked this out. Not enough gold trim, she said. Not enough sparkly bits. But it’s awfully light, so I think it’s just fine.”
“Must be nice having attendants like that.”
“Eh, it’s okay,” Red said lamely. He didn’t want to admit it, but for all the awkwardness of having somepony to dress him every morning, it was awfully convenient. He especially enjoyed sending the young pages on wild goose chases around the citadel.
There was a minute’s pause, both ponies chewing thoughtfully and slowly. There was an air of procrastination about them, neither really wanting to leave but not quite willing to work up a conversation either. Red found himself wishing he could pass his saddlebags on to a servant and have them carry on the journey while he himself sat in the shade of the willow tree for another few weeks. He was well aware of the fact that the tinker might be the last friendly face he would see for over three hundred miles.
hree hundred miles. Was it really that far? The taste of bread went sour in Red’s mouth.
“What exactly is this errand you’re running for the Princesses?” asked the tinker, interrupting the swordpony’s train of thought. “That is, if it’s not some terrible secret and you don’t mind me asking.”
The question had been inevitable, Red supposed. He’d honestly gotten sick of answering it around the time he’d reached his third roadside inn. Still, he puffed his chest out a bit and tried to sound amiable.
“Well,” he began. “It’s about the dragons.”
The tinker nodded but didn’t appear very interested.
“And the griffons,” Red went on. “They’re supposed to stop the dragons from crossing the Eyries, you know.”
“Quite a job,” the tinker remarked dryly.
“Yeah. Quite. Anyway, Celestia wants to know why they’re slacking off.”
“So she sent you? Why?”
“Well, to deliver a letter. A Dictum.”
The tinker frowned and looked down at the grass. He muttered something, but before Red could ask what he’d said the donkey looked back up and stared him in the eye.
“If you’re going to the Eyries, then why the hay are you here?”
“Pardon?” Red felt a familiar irritation building somewhere inside himself.
The tinker gave him a flat look. “I should have known. You’re going into the Shadow Wood.”
“Yes,” the swordpony replied, trying in vain to keep a smile on his face. “And?”
The tinker shook his head and closed his eyes. “Tell me, Red Pommel. Have you ever heard about the Shetlanders?”
“Yes. I have.”
“They wear animal skins. They wear furs. Some even say they wear the skins of other ponies. And do you know why they wear these things?”
Red returned the tinker’s level gaze and didn’t answer. He was tempted to say ‘that’s a bunch of horse apples.’
The tinker didn’t wait long before he continued anyway. “It’s because they’re vicious killers, my good swordpony. They have to be. If they weren’t, the Shadow Wood would have wiped them out by now. Everything in that forest wants to kill them.”
“How exactly would you know this?” asked Red. Because you obviously haven’t seen it firsthoof.
The tinker’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “I’ve been to Germaneigh, son. I’ve been through bits and pieces of the Shadow Wood. Hay, when I was a colt my papa made camp right here under this very tree. And you know what the first thing I did was?”
“You went into the forest.”
“I went into the forest. I went exactly twenty steps in before I got scared and came back. But you know what I realized? Even though I retraced my path exactly, it took thirty steps to get back out. And most of my hoofprints had already been erased.”
“It’s a magical forest. Such things are to be expected.”
“Then why are you going in there?”
Red’s gaze shifted, just for a moment. He found himself staring at the pond before he turned his eyes back to the tinker. “Look, it’s none of your concern. I’m going through Shetland and that’s that.”
For a moment the donkey seemed to be sizing him up. “You know,” he said, “I thought I had the measure of you. But I see now that I didn’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Red asked through clenched teeth. Deep breaths, Red. Now is not the time for a temper tantrum.
“You’re taking the hardest road possible because you want adventure. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s why you’re going into Shetland. You think you’ll swashbuckle your way through and come out on the other side with a heroic tale under your belt.”
Red blinked. That had cut a little too close to the mark for comfort.
Again the tinker’s eyes narrowed. He was almost glaring at the swordpony now. “Well Red, let me save you the trouble of finding out for yourself. Your precious Everfree Forest is nothing. For all its magic and mystery, the Everfree can’t even begin to compare to the Shadow Wood. It’s too tame, too lived in.”
“You’ve obviously never seen the monsters that live there.”
“I’ve slept in an Ursa Major’s cave, Red. I’ve been chased by Manticores and nearly been made a cave troll’s pet. And for all that, I’d still rather be lost in the Everfree than spend one minute in the Shadow Wood.”
He gestured with his hoof in the direction of north. “That place is old. So old it predates even the historical records on the origins of Hearth’s Warming Eve.”
Historical records? Red almost scoffed out loud. “Hearth’s Warming Eve is just a story. It’s an old mare’s tale.”
The tinker shook his hoof in the swordpony’s face. “There’s truth in old mare’s tales,” he said, his patience obviously beginning to wear thin. “Little specks of it. Myths accumulate around these little truths, like an oyster forming a pearl from a grain of sand. Some myths have more truth in them than others. Some stories actually happened.”
The metaphor was lost on Red, who knew nothing of oysters or pearls. He’d always assumed that the little balls were formed in the earth like gemstones. Regardless, he still felt irritated and was beginning to piece together a verbal tirade when the tinker held up a hoof.
“I know what you’re doing out here, Red. You’re walking into dark forests and ignoring reason. I can see your new horseshoes, so I know you talked to the townsfolk. And if you talked to them, they probably warned you about the Shadow Wood. So why do you insist on trying to pass through it?”
“Because,” said the swordpony between gritted teeth. He’d heard this argument a dozen times since he’d started his journey. “It’s just a forest. Sure, it’s old and magical. Dangerous even. But I’m dangerous too. I can handle it.”
The tinker just shook his head and made a wave of his hoof. “Don’t go ignoring the warnings and stories of the smallfolk. They’ve survived out here on the fringes because they know things most ponies don’t. They know how to raise crops from the sorriest soil. They know to lock their doors at night and light a candle when the full moon’s out. They know the shape of the world.”
“Shape of the world?” sputtered Red. “What in the hay are you going on about?”
He would have said more, but the tinker brought his hoof down. It was enough to give him pause. The look in the little donkey’s eye was eerily similar to the one the swordpony’s father had used to end arguments.
“I will say it one more time. The Everfree is nothing like the Shadow Wood. Two different breeds.”
He paused for a moment, chewing his lip. When he went on, it was with slow, carefully chosen words.
“My papa once told me about maps. He said that places like the Shadow Wood are off the edge of the map.”
Red frowned. “That’s not true. The Shadow Wood is on plenty of maps.”
The tinker shook his head. “Maps don’t just have outside edges. They have inside edges. Holes. Folk like to pretend they know everything about the world. Rich folk especially.” At this he gave Red a pointed stare. “That’s why we have maps in the first place.”
He scraped a patch of dirt smooth with one hoof and drew a line in it. “Say this is a map. On this side of the line is Baron Taxtwice’s land, on that side is Count Uptemuny’s land.”
Slowly, carefully, he made a wide circle in the middle of the crude dirt map. “And this is a forest. A blank spot. You can’t have blanks on your maps, so the folks who draw them shade in a piece and write, ‘The Shadow Wood.’” He spat. “You might as well burn a hole right through the map for all the good that does. That forest is big as Shetland. For all intents and purposes it is Shetland, or at least most of it. But nobody owns it. You head off in the wrong direction, you’ll walk a hundred miles and never see a road, let alone a house or plowed field. There are places in that wood that have never felt the press of a pony’s hoof.”
Red looked up. He could see the edge of the Shadow Wood in the near distance. It was a blue-grey line just over the edge of the next row of hills.
The tinker went on, turning to touch the bark of the willow tree. “Most forests are tame. Domesticated. Most parts of the Everfree are too, or at least on their way there, and it’s been a hard road, trust me. But not the Shadow Wood. It’s older, wilder. It doesn’t care one wit for you. It’ll swallow you whole.”
He paused, staring at the grey line in the distance. “There are parts of that forest that have never felt the touch of a pony’s hoof,” he repeated. “Never even been glimpsed from afar. Go deep enough and you’ll find monsters the likes of which you’ve never even imagined.”
He turned back to the swordpony and fixed him with a cold, hard stare. “If something in there gets the jump on you, they’ll kill you, and they won’t even need to bury you. You’ll lie there for a hundred years, two hundred, and nobody will ever come close to stumbling across your bones.”
Red’s gaze returned to the forest, to the rise and fall of the land. The endless ranks of trees seemed to press forward like a vast army, dark and mysterious. But he didn’t feel fear. Instead he felt the forest calling him, beckoning him to explore its mysteries. He sighed and packed away his lunch before rising to his hooves.
“I’m sorry, tinker,” he said. “It was nice talking to you.”
The tinker harrumphed and went back to nibbling grass.
Red turned to leave, his gut sour with the thought of being rude to a tinker. He wondered what his father would have said about the conversation. Don’t ignore the warnings of a tinker, you idjit, came to mind.
Suddenly, an idea occurred to him. He almost kicked himself for not thinking of it sooner.
“Say, tinker,” he said, turning back around. “Would you like some sixty two Riesling?”
“Never been much for white wine,” was the disinterested reply.
“How about a bottle of Chambre d’Automne?”
The tinker’s glasses nearly fell off of his nose. “You have a bottle of d’Automne?”
Red flipped open his saddlebag and produced the red bottle. It fit nicely into the crook of his elbow, so he swished it around a little for show. He could almost see the gold bits appear in the tinker’s eyes.
The donkey seemed to consider his options for a minute. “And you’re sure you’re willing to part with it?”
“I didn’t know I’d find somepony as fond of the stuff as I am.” He brushed at one of the willow’s hanging limbs with the bottle. “Anything you’d like to trade for it?”
The tinker’s paternal smile returned. The sight of it filled Red with a sense of worth and appreciation. “I have for you three things. A word, a story... and a curse.”
Red laughed. “That’s a bit too storybook for my tastes.”
The tinker kept smiling.
It took a minute for the swordpony to realize that the buck was being serious. His eyes widened. “You mean...”
The tinker nodded his head. “What kind of tinker would I be without three mysteries in a box?” He rose and trotted to his cart. “A bad one,” he said over his shoulder. “That’s what.”
When he returned it was with a small lockbox, placing it reverently in the grass. It sat, a dull lump of black iron, battered and without any eye-catching qualities. Red found himself fascinated with it.
“I like to bring this out from time to time,” the tinker continued, tapping the lock with his hoof. “It’s not often I get the chance to show it to adventurers, though.” He looked up from under the wide brim of his hat.
“All for a bottle of wine?” breathed Red.
“D’Chambre is my favorite wine.”
Red chewed his lip. The three mysteries in a box were as common in folktales as damsels in distress and plucky village heroes. They were always different for every tinker and you could only choose one of the three. Sometimes the tinker would provide the hero with a weapon or a special amulet that made them impervious to certain dangers. Other times they simply gave words of advice, though the advice invariably saved the hero’s life later if they remembered it in time.
He’d never thought real tinkers actually carried around such things. Now he was confronted with the reality and he actually had to choose between them.
“I don’t suppose you could give me a hint as to what each of those are?” Red asked without a shred of hope.
The tinker’s fatherly smile brightened. “I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way, son.”
Red kept chewing at his lip. He could rule out the curse immediately. Nothing good came from curses. Ponies who chose the tinker’s curse always wound up learning harsh lessons on the disadvantages of curiosity.
Unfortunately, the word and the story were giving him far more trouble. He wondered if he should flip a coin. If he chose the word then the tinker might give him the secret password that opened some hidden door. But if he chose the...
Red nearly smacked himself. Really? he asked himself. That’s bunk. There are no secret doors between here and the Eyries. It’s all just forest.
“I’ll take the story,” he said without further deliberation, still berating himself for nearly getting lost in storybook nonsense.
The tinker smiled. Red couldn’t help but feel that he’d made the right choice. “Very well then. I won’t need to open my lockbox if that’s the case.”
The swordpony tried to hide his disappointment. It felt like he’d been kicked in the gut. All that deliberation and he didn’t even get to see what was inside the tinker’s box of mysteries? Then again, it was probably empty. Words, stories, curses, none of them had material form. The thought gave him pause and for a moment he wondered if the tinker was just pulling his leg.
The little donkey looked the swordpony straight in the eye before he began. “Let me tell you,” he said, “Of the questing knight who ignored the warnings of wiser ponies.”
Red felt his eyebrows knit. Judging by the mild irritation creeping up the back of his neck, he had a fairly good idea of where this was going.
The tinker popped another blueberry into his mouth. “For generations, strong stories will be passed down from one pony to another. They will spread, multiplying. They start off true. They start off with meaning. But as time goes on, these things are diluted. Little by little, stories lose their value. After a few decades, they get to the point where they hold little to no meaning at all. And when that happens, ponies take to ignoring them. Forgetting them. Losing them.”
Here he leaned in close. “But stories are told for a purpose. The strongest stories will last for a thousand years, changing little by little until nopony remembers them for what they were. But wise ponies will still pay them heed. They see the purpose of the stories.”
Red felt confused. The tinker was talking in circles here. What did all of this talk of the nature of stories have to do with him? “And what were they?”
“Warnings. Warnings and messages from another time. They pass down through the ages in folklore and myths. Some become songs. Others fade away. A few float about here and there, still vaguely remembered.”
The donkey popped another blueberry before continuing. “I tell you these things because you obviously don’t respect old stories. You don’t even recognize them when they’re biting you on the nose.”
Red frowned, gritting his teeth. He’d been expecting this. “What in the hay are you talking about, tinker?” he asked, even though he knew exactly what the tinker meant.
“You’re on the road to Shetland, swordpony. Of the two paths laid out for you, you chose the hardest. I know you won’t turn back now, but out of the decency of my heart, I’m trying to warn you off anyway.”
The swordpony allowed himself a deep sigh. “Sorry, tinker. But you’re not going to convince me.”
The donkey shrugged. “I didn’t expect that I would. Still, might as well try.” He held his hoof out and Red reluctantly gave him the d’Automne. A deal was a deal.
“Good luck in your travels, tinker,” said the swordpony, turning to leave.
“Sure you don’t want anything else?” asked the graying donkey. “You can have this rope for free. Take it, you’ll probably need it at some point or another.”
Red might have listened to common sense if he hadn’t been repressing the urge to shout and kick a tree. He actually might have taken the rope. A small part of him wiggled in the back of his mind, pleading for him to respect the tinker’s wishes. Unfortunately, that was the same part of his mind that had been telling him to turn back. Common sense was stubbornly ignored.
“No, tinker,” he said, his voice sharp, his patience gone. “I don’t want any rope.”
“It’s not too late, you know!” the tinker shouted after him. “I’m going north, up into the Counties! We could travel together for a time...”
It was no use.
“The Sound of Cut Air”
Red Pommel had to admit, the Shadow Wood was definitely a forest. Trees and everything.
It was also a tad more frightening up close than he’d expected.
Regardless, he kept up his rapid pace. The spring in his step was gone and his smile had turned into a thin, stiff line, but he was determined now more than ever. Hiking his saddlebags up into a more comfortable position, the swordpony hopped over a stony brook. The rest of the way to the forest’s edge was a gentle upward slope, which the little stream wrapped around like a loose thread that had wiggled free of the trees.
He stopped short a few yards from the forest’s edge. The fur on the back of his neck was standing up straight, his entire coat bristling. Had he just seen movement?
To say the forest was dark was to make a serious understatement. Red saw now how it had earned its name. An inky blackness seemed to pool around every tree, completely carpeting what he could see of the forest floor. The darkness hung in translucent curtains from each branch.
Red eased forward a few feet. The grass was cool under his hooves. He hadn’t seen movement, nor did he hear anything except birdsong and the gentle swaying of the branches. Birdsong is good. That means there’s nothing dangerous nearby.
The trees weren’t even particularly close together this near to the forest’s edge. Red could see sky through the holes in the forest canopy, and yet... there were no splashes of sunlight on the ground beneath them. How was that even possible? He stretched out one leg, careful to yank it back at the first sign of trouble. His own shadow was pale in the midday sun where the shadows of the forest were black as pitch. Their edges were so sharp they looked drawn onto the ground, and they barely moved even when the branches that cast them swayed in the wind.
On a hunch, he whipped out his sword and angled it to reflect the sun. The weight of it settled his stomach, felt good in his jaw. It took him a moment to find the focused beam on the ground in front of him, just inches from the shadow’s edge. It was a pale ghost of light, nearly drowned out by the clouds that lurked over the forest. Turning the hilt in his mouth, he reflected the beam up gradually until it reached the shadows.
The little spot of light vanished, devoured by darkness.
"Few ponies remember that in the ancient days, when the deer still held dominion over the earth, all the great forests were connected as one. So vast was this verdant wood that it is said a squirrel could pass from coast to coast on branches and never touch the ground. The trees grew tall and strong under the watchful care of their antlered masters, who shaped great swathes of them into beautiful living cities.
Today, the deer have all but retreated from this world. The forests shrink day by day, hacked and hewn by the ever expanding pony industry, and only a handful remain; shadows of their former selves. Everfree, Whitetail, and Shimmerwood, to name a few. It is whispered that some deer still tend and defend those dwindling groves, but there is one place where even the guardians of the Old Wood fear to tread.
The Shadow Wood, a forest forsaken.
And those who remained in that wild, forgotten place... well. Those who go into dark places, and into shadows, fall..."
-- From the journal of Sworn Shield --
So the shadows were definitely magical, then. Red sheathed his sword and licked his lips.
Well, nothing for it, he thought to himself. He could still hear the chatter of birds, so he steeled his nerves and put a hoof forward into the darkness.
Nothing happened. The shadows didn’t start to creep up his leg, no monsters leaped out to kill him, and no weird sensations ran down his spine. It did feel unnaturally cold, almost winter temperatures, but he’d never really minded cold.
With a sigh of relief, his confidence restored, the swordpony set off into the woods. Whatever was in this forest, he could handle it. He could handle himself, and nothing was going to get the jump on him if he stayed alert.
It was oddly peaceful in the forest, actually. Red didn’t feel a presence staring at him from behind, nor did he feel an oppressive silence. The birdsong was louder and richer now that he’d entered the woods. He wondered how much more powerful the forest’s magic would get as he traveled away from the edge. He decided he didn’t need to find out. After all, he’d be skirting the edge.
It didn’t take Red long to stumble across the stream. Judging from the direction it was flowing he decided that it was probably the same stream he’d hopped earlier to reach the woods. It bubbled along beneath him in a narrow ravine, one side of which rose up several feet higher than the other. Upstream, Red saw that it curved around toward the outside edge of the forest. That was convenient, because he’d rather travel next to a source of water than have to drink out of his tiny canteen.
Walking steadily became more and more difficult the deeper Red pushed into the forest. The stream turned to the right more often than it did the left, back toward Equestria, so he figured he was staying close to the edge of the trees, but the fact remained that the shadows were deepening, the roots and underbrush growing thicker, and the rocks were making his progress very slow. He pushed on anyway, keeping his eyes and ears peeled for any hint of danger. All he heard was the trilling of birds. Once, he saw a fox drinking from the stream, though it sprang away as soon as it saw him.
After what felt like several hours of walking, Red glanced up at the forest canopy. The forest was mostly pines now, many of them deep blue in the shade. Through their thick clusters of nettles he could see the sky. It was a dull grey, making it hard to tell what time of day it was. It felt like late afternoon, but he couldn’t be sure. He decided he’d walk for another hour or so, or until the darkness grew too deep to press on.
He barely made it twenty more steps before he stumbled out on the road.
He blinked and rubbed his eyes to make certain he wasn’t seeing things. He even scraped his hoof in the dirt, wondering if this was a magical illusion. Sure enough, it was real. That, or the illusion was very convincing.
Well, he thought. I guess the tinker was wrong all along. Now, he just had to decide if he wanted to walk on the road or keep following the stream.
The decision was obvious. The road seemed to follow the stream anyway, and his legs were aching from the effort of walking over the wild rocks and roots.
When Red broke camp several days later he awoke to find that, yet again, nothing had dragged him off. Everything was in its place, the coals of his small fire were still glowing and there were no tracks around him. The birds were even singing a pleasant wake up song. He looked around for them but the pine nettles and tree limbs were just too thick.
After a quick breakfast to wash the taste of sleep out of his mouth, Red made a quick search of the area and then suffocated his fire under a mound of dirt. That taken care of, he pulled himself out of the draw in which he’d made camp, then worked his way back to the road. The slope was steeper than he remembered, but he’d been exhausted the previous night and it still wasn’t enough to give him any trouble.
The road was better traveled than the one Red had followed to reach the Shadow Wood, and wider. There were a few wagon ruts, though none were recent, and a number of hoofprints in the softer spots. The rest was packed hard, with only a few weeds and tufts of grass springing up beyond the edge. It almost seemed the forest avoided the road, because when he looked up he could usually see long stretches of sky. A road of clouds, winding through the treetops.
Walking was boring. Red found himself paying less and less attention as the days went on. Occasionally he caught himself and stopped to listen, to look. He wondered if the forest was lulling him with a false sense of security, but the birds hadn’t let up. They only stopped singing twice, and never for long. Red saw several squirrels in addition to another fox. By now he could pick out the trails cutting through the forest where various animals had walked on their way to the stream.
The stream. Red stopped short. He hadn’t heard the gurgle of water in hours. He’d been walking nearly the whole day and hadn’t even thought to check.
Ducking into the woods, Red weaved his way through the maze of gnarled trunks, ducking under and pushing his way past clawing limbs. The stream turned out to be easily a hundred yards from the road, if not more, and by the time he even heard it he’d stumbled through at least a dozen cobwebs.
Pawing strings of web from his mane and face, none of which seemed to want to leave his eyelashes alone, the swordpony stepped onto the bank of the stream.
Oddly enough, the stream was much wider and faster moving than when he had last seen it. Weren’t streams and rivers supposed to grow in size the further downstream they went? Red thought he remembered hearing somewhere that forks in rivers always converged downstream. The realization only made this stream seem all the more supernatural.
Either way, it didn’t matter. Red was parched and hadn’t bothered to dig out his canteen for most of the day. He bent to take a refreshing drink from the cool waters.
That was when he heard it -- the sound of cut air.
He shouldn’t have heard the sound, not by any means, not over the noise of the fast moving current. But his was a swordfighter’s mind and, perhaps out of familiarity, his ears caught it.
He reacted without thinking, his long mane cracking like a whip. He twisted his neck, tucking his chin as he spun away. The sword swept by within a centimeter of his face, close enough to trim his eyelashes. His head did not roll, wide-eyed, into the stream. His blood did not spill over the rocks.
The sword flashed again, buzzing in the air like a hornet. Red ducked, body straining. He flowed like water around the deadly iron, muscles and ligaments protesting. There was a tiny snik when the edge clipped a lock from his golden mane. It flashed again, thrusting this time, and when he danced away he found himself up to all four knees in fast moving water. In an instant the vigilant part of his mind lost control. The world opened back up and all of a sudden he was terribly aware of the fact that he was about to die.
Red’s thoughts turned to the precious scroll in his saddlebags as he lost his balance in the rushing stream. Before him, his barbaric assailant raised the battered iron blade for another swing. It was a Shetlander, he knew. It had to be a Shetlander. Red caught a glimpse of animal furs and a dark brown coat, covered in a hauberk of chainmail and boiled leather. An iron helm obscured most of the dark stallion’s face.
This time there would be nowhere to run. He couldn’t dodge away in water this deep. Not even his leather lamellar could save him now. The muscles in the Shetlander’s neck bulged, his blade hacking down at blinding speed.
Time seemed to hitch, jerking almost to a dead stop.
I must say, the Tinkers were right. These Equestrian tournaments are more enthralling than I had anticipated! The exhilaration of the crowd, the fanfare of trumpets, the exaggerated crash of one armored knight against another... it puts fire in a pony's blood. Your Grace, that much is certain.
By far the greatest part of the tourney was the jousting. My King, how you would have pranced to see it! The pegasi proved especially adept at this game and played it on the wing some twenty yards above our heads. One successfully struck five others from the air and splintered every lance; a marvelous display, to judge by the reaction of the crowd. My ears still ring.
Unfortunately, the Equestrians are obsessed with some form of faux combat they call 'the melee',’ which is exactly as barbaric as it sounds. I did not stay to watch, as the screams and clatter of the fighting resembled too closely the real ordeals of the past. I am told, however, that the melee did end on a duel between a lowborn hedge knight and a unicorn of noble standing. In three thrusts of their swords it was concluded, and the winner was the earth pony. “Yield!” was the cry of the day, and even now peasants and knights alike are breathless to speak of it. They say he fights alike to the fabled Dusky Oatis, though as Dusky possessed magic and a horn, I am afraid I do not see the possibility. Nonetheless, I hope to see a display of this earth pony's bladework in the future."
-- From the journal of Sworn Shield --
The vigilant part of Red’s mind seized control again, grabbing the reins by the skin of its teeth. He was balanced somewhere between blind panic and senseless reflex, leaning wildly toward one and then the other. Then time sped back up again and it was all he could do not to lose control, to fall and die under his assailant’s blade.
But now he knew what to do.
Red caught his balance on the shifting rocks, bit down on the hilt of his own sword and tore it partway out of the scabbard. He pitched forward as he pulled, putting that hoof’s length of steel in between himself and the Shetlander’s incoming sword. Steel rang against iron, reverberating in his ears like hammered bells.
With a grunt of effort, Red pulled the rest of his sword free. Its length scraped the edge of his opponent’s blade. The Shetlander wasted no time in withdrawing and slashing again from the left, only to be parried with a flick of Red’s head. Struggling to stay upright, the auburn stallion returned the blow with a twist of his neck and parried the resulting counterattack with as much deftness as the stream afforded him. Water flicked through the air where his blade skimmed the surface, spoiling the angle of what might have been a deadly riposte.
Undeterred by his victim’s resilience, the Shetland attacker pressed his advantages, raining a flurry of hacking blows on Red Pommel from the bank. He had the higher ground, sure footing and the lingering element of surprise. Red struggled against the current, soaked from head to hoof, his leather armor sodden, and desperately matched the stallion blow for blow.
But it wasn't enough. He was losing control. He had no maneuverability, no advantages, no options. Worse yet, the water weighed him down and sapped his strength. When the Shetland pony slashed at his throat with determined precision, the best an exhausted Red Pommel could do was to turn his head and catch the blow. Both swords locked, the attacker's blade scraping the length of Red's own before meeting the hilt with tooth rattling force. A line of pain cut down his neck where the Shetlander’s point dragged against his exposed coat.
Crying out in pain, Red held his ground for the breadth of a second before his assailant pushed down on the blades and drove him off balance. The chilling water of the stream enveloped his back half immediately, his hind legs slipping on the rocks at the bottom. From his haunches he desperately parried one final blow with the tip of his blade, but the enemy's vicious attack spun him around to crash, reeling, into the stream.
Red inhaled a lungful of water before he could close his mouth, blind and weighed down by the crushing weight of his armor. Noise roared in his ears, burned his eyes, sucking into his nostrils. He bucked and thrashed, felt another line of pain rip through his flank where it broke the water's surface.
How did I get myself into this? The swordpony’s mind was screaming. His lungs struggled for air. But he already knew the answer, a memory leaping to the forefront of his panicked mind as the iron blade came down in one last vicious arc.
Careful what you ask for. Careful what you ask for.
He had to get out of the Shetlander’s reach. With a kick at the rocks, he propelled himself out into the stream, only just barely avoiding that last deadly slash. Struggling, he pulled his head from the current and sucked breath. His hooves scraped against mossy rocks at the bottom, scrambling for purchase that wasn’t there. Water streamed into his eyes.
With a start he realized he still had possession of his sword. It dragged in the water like a rudder, his clamped jaws aching from the effort of keeping his hold on the hilt. But he had no intention of letting go of it now.
When he looked back, his assailant was following him along the bank like a beast stalking its prey, murderous rage in his eyes.
Red Pommel began paddling, using the momentum of the stream to carry him ahead of his pursuer. Something tore at his legs, possibly rocks or a submerged tree, but the current carried him just faster than the Shetland pony could go along the treacherous bank. It was a minute before he heard a shouted curse, and when he turned again to look back, the brown stallion had disappeared. More than likely he was moving to intercept Red around the next bend, but the sense of panic receded immediately.
Forcing his trembling body to obey, Red kicked his way back toward the bank. His hooves dragged along rocks until he caught a submerged root and was able to haul himself to safety. It took a shocking amount of his remaining strength to tear himself free from the iron grasp of the water, though it couldn't have been more than knee deep. He ached to lay there in the water, to give up and move no more. The strength of the water almost dragged the sword from his clenched teeth.
Belly-crawling onto the slick grass along the bank, the exhausted pony spat out his battered weapon and began hacking up fluids of various consistencies. He'd swallowed more water than he'd inhaled, but his lungs still rasped and gurgled when he gasped for breath. He didn't know if he'd be able to breathe, much less budge, should his pursuer find him.
And find him the Shetland pony did scarcely a moment later. He crashed through the bushes with that scarred sword still in his mouth. His eyes gave the impression of wild desperation.
Red Pommel gave vent to a weary sigh and lunged sluggishly for his own blade.
"What do you want?" he groaned.
"Yer headf!" was the reply, and with lightning speed the Shetlander sprang forward to make good his threat.
Red Pommel snatched up his blade just in time, pulling up a mouthful of bitter mud along with it, and rolled onto his back for the parry. The Shetlander's blade glanced away and cut deep into the soggy ground with a wet squelch.
"You jus' donff geff uff," the attacker spat around his hilt, tugging his sword from the mud while Red Pommel lurched unsteadily to his hooves.
The Equestrian had no breath left for an answer. Instead he relaxed his grip on his sword, coughing up yet more water and stumbling shakily to one side. His armor was an anvil draped around his neck, the leather lamellar still dribbling water down his legs. He barely had the strength to stand, let alone move about and fight.
There was no way he could win this. At least, not with force. But the swordpony had one more card left in his deck...
With a violent roar, the Shetlander surged forward and brought down a devastating blow. This time Red was ready. He stood his ground. There was no room for error. The angle of the blade needed to be exactly right. He steeled himself for the titanic effort and drew from reserves he had not called upon in years.
The two swords met with a resounding clang, Red Pommel allowing his opponent to come straight to him. Then, exhausted muscles straining, he rolled his neck in a tight clockwise circle, pulling the Shetlander's blade along with his own before taking a single controlled step forward. With a strangled cry, the overcommitted stallion fell forward onto Red Pommel's outstretched steel, meeting it with the base of his throat.
The sword disappeared into the Shetlander with a sound akin to the ripping of wet cloth. In an instant it was buried to the hilt in his breast.
Red stood fast though his legs quivered beneath him, blood welling out against his snout. His foe's body folded around him. The Shetlander didn’t even struggle, though his lips moved with words that he could not speak. His battered iron dipped into the mud, then fell with a squelch. He gurgled weakly in Red’s left ear, windpipe shorn in half.
Slowly, those wild eyes went dark. Red watched them fail.
They stood there for several moments, one body supporting the other. Red leaned into the dying pony with trembling relief, blood that was not his own spraying from his nose with every rasping breath.
At length, the Shetlander shuddered, relaxed, and fell limp with a final bubbling sigh. Pink foam burbled out of his throat.
Red released his hold on the sword and let the Shetlander fall to the grass with it, unable to support the weight of either. He gasped for air, sank to his haunches before he could stop himself, swelling not with a sense of triumph, but with cold relief. The pain of his wounds caught up shortly after. The thought of cleaning himself of the Shetlander's blood quickly pulled a weary curse from his lips. He did not relish the thought of going back into the stream.
The villagers had been right to warn him of this unruly land. The tinker had been right. Shetland was no place for ponies.
Leaning over, Red bit the tassel of his attacker’s battered iron helm and pulled it away. The face underneath was blocky, weathered, and both ears had been cropped into squares. Tattoos covered most of his head, made up of a series of interlocking blue circles that varied in size.
The eyes, forever wide open in death, were a tired and pale yellow. Red closed these carefully with one hoof, then set about the task of searching the rest of the corpse.
Underneath the bloody chainmail, Red discovered what he assumed to be the insignia of some local warlord. It was branded into the Shetlander’s muscled side, a swirling pattern that could have been two snakes fighting over a sword, or possibly a curved quillon. His cutie mark was a shattered shield, befitting a warrior.
The dead stallion carried few possessions. Red found only a canteen, which he hung around his neck when he discovered his own was missing, in addition to a few trinkets and what appeared to be a carved wooden doll.
The wooden doll, shaped like a little pony, had obviously been important to somepony. It had been painstakingly repainted at least once, and was covered in little tooth marks. A foal’s toy to be sure, but why was it in the possession of a warrior? Red tucked it back into the Shetlander’s saddlebag, unsure of what to make of it.
Blood was beginning to pool around the swordpony’s hooves, which squelched in the grass. He idly wondered what the Shetlander’s name might have been.
“You’re quite the enigma, aren’t you?” he mused in a low, wheezing voice. He searched the body for hidden pockets and coughed up another lungful of water.
Finding nothing, the stallion rolled over and tried to cough up the last of the crud. He cursed himself for letting somepony sneak up on him and cursed himself all the more for nearly letting himself be overpowered. He was the foremost swordpony in all of Equestria! He was the right hoof of the Princesses, their champion! And yet here he was in Shetland, straying off the beaten path so he could be set upon by barbarians in the woods. If he had died, who would have carried the Royal Dictum to...
He froze, sitting bolt upright. The Dictum.
Tearing open his saddlebags, Red pulled out a narrow tube in which he carried what was possibly the most important scroll of the century. He shook it in his hooves next to one ear, hoping against hope that it had not been ruined during his impromptu swim. Nothing sloshed within, but that didn’t mean the scroll was safe.
Red tasted blood from his hooves when he removed the cap. He peered down into the tube. He saw no water at the bottom, but even just a little damp could prove disastrous, couldn’t it?
“No, no, no...” he moaned, unable to see enough of the royal document to ascertain its safety. He swallowed as much spit as he could, then cautiously bit down on the scroll’s handle and pulled the document out with his teeth.
It was unharmed. The tube had done its job marvelously. Red was instantly flooded with relief, the pain in his wounds and tight chest fading with euphoria. He closed his eyes and murmured his thanks to whatever force had spared the Dictum. Then it occurred to him it might have been magic, and he almost took it back.
The container sealed with a click. Red sat on a fallen log while he stripped himself of his saddlebags and armor. He would need to dry his equipment before he could safely carry on with his journey, and he only had a short time before nightfall. Through the branches high overhead, he could see that the ceiling of clouds was hued orange and pink. The sun was already beginning its descent.
“Princess Celestia,” whispered the swordpony, speaking in the direction of Her sun. “I am a fool.”
It felt half-hearted, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say. And he needed a blessing. He needed something. His self-confidence had suffered a blow that he couldn’t just shake off.
Red peeled off the last of his lamellar armor and hung it up on a branch of the log for safekeeping until he could get a fire started. He checked his wounds, finding that for the most part they were only scratches. The gash on his neck merely hurt. The one on his right flank, however, was quite serious.
The Shetlander had hacked deep into his cutie mark, and it was bleeding freely. The pink colors of Celestia were torn and soaked dark with crimson, while the blue of Luna was mud-stained. Unfortunately, Red possessed nothing with which to dress his wound. He would just have to wash it clean and dry some cloth for bandages.
With nothing left to do, Red moved to pull his sword out of the Shetlander’s breast. It came free by inches, fresh blood welling from the gaping wound. The blade was a mess of blood that slipped in long, dribbling strands to the grass. When he shook it, it splashed red across the corpse like paint from a brush. He grimaced.
It was a beautiful sword, wrought of shining steel and almost long enough to be one of his legs. Years of use had somewhat dulled its splendor, but it still remained one of the best blades in Equestria. Should the Shetlander have killed him, it probably would have ended up a fixture over the fireplace of some local lord. The Shetlander’s sword, meanwhile, was an old and hard-made thing. Where it still kept an edge it had been ground down almost to the core, and where it could not it was comb-toothed with notches and silver scars. Red could only guess it was a sword passed down through the generations. The hilt was bound in real leather. Rawhide. Animal skin.
A terrible thought occurred to Red. He had found no provisions on the Shetland warrior, not even rations for a day. Could that mean his attacker lived somewhere close by, possibly in these very woods? Was his Lord’s castle nearby? He had been planning to drag the body back to the road when morning came, but now he didn’t know if he could risk it. What if this stallion’s Lord had ponies watching the road?
He couldn’t risk a fire, he realized, not this close to the stream. Out of common decency he would still drag the body to the road, but now he had no way to dry his equipment. They would remain damp well into the next day, leaving Red overburdened in a dangerous land. And while his lamellar was not true leather, it could still be harmed by wet. He glared at the royal colors on his barding.
Inwardly kicking himself, the swordpony limped back to the stream and, after a short survey of the area, dunked his blade in the water. The drying blood scraped off easily enough under his hoof. It swirled in the water like pink tendrils, disappearing when it reached the current. He tried not to think about the fact that he was going to be sleeping next to a corpse tonight.
Red hoped the corpse wouldn’t disappear in the night. Now that would just be too much for him to handle. Best to keep an eye on it.
He needed to clean his wounds, he knew. Setting his sword and scabbard within easy reach behind a rock, he steeled himself for the icy water.
Behind him, a bubble swelled from the dead pony’s nostril.
Three days had passed since the fight by the stream. Three days of no fires at night, no stream with which to refill his canteen, and the worst chafing he could have ever imagined. They were possibly the three most miserable days of Red Pommel’s life. It wasn’t quite enough to drive a pony mad, but sodding meadows, it was trying.
The swordpony winced, the raw marks under his legs chafing with every step. He had worn his armor the day after the attack, not even realizing his folly until well after the first sores cropped up on the second day. The leather lamellar had dried now, but the dampness of Shetland seemed to seep into Red’s bones. He never felt dry, never felt warm.
He regretted not keeping the makeshift litter with which he had hauled the Shetlander's corpse back to the road. Had he thought to drag it along with him, he might have been able to remove his armor all the sooner. As it was, he had been forced to waste the better part of a frustrating evening building another. It was nothing fancy, just two trimmed poles with boughs strung between them, but it made a good drag.
He walked now with legs spread wide apart, trying to keep his thoughts focused on the road. The litter scraped along behind him, piled high with armor and saddlebags. He’d tethered it to his tail so that his protesting flesh would not have to suffer further agony. Out of necessity he wore his sword slung across his back, over a loose brown garment that had been white as snow when he started his journey. Every few miles he stopped to check the drag, fearing that he would lose some precious piece of armor or, even worse, the irreplaceable saddlebags.
He was making terrible time, he knew, and his itching wounds weren’t helping. His ‘shortcut’ had turned out to be the worst mistake he had made since his days as a hedge knight. Even the long trip through the Counties now seemed preferable to meandering through this accursed forest. That was the last time he was going to doubt a tinker’s advice.
“An acceptable risk,” grumbled Red, mocking his own voice. “A week off the journey! Feh! The Princesses should have trusted a pony with some brains for this task.”
Stopping for what seemed the thousandth time that day, Red limped back to the litter and re-tied one of the branches that kept threatening to come undone. Lashing the thing together with green twigs had seemed a good idea at the time, but they dried out quickly and frayed just as fast. He’d already needed to replace a number of them, and the chore was quickly becoming a serious headache. He cast about for more suitable candidates as he worked.
There were no seemly replacements in sight. Though the trees were so thick they crowded out the sky overhead, all were gnarled with age and hadn’t grown near the ground in decades. Dead wood was no use. He would have been tempted to use the bushes, but he’d already found that they made poor substitutes for saplings. They also had itchy thorns.
Worse yet, there were no birds. Not for days. The forest was silent as the grave, save for the moans of a weak headwind. It seemed the Shadow Wood had finally revealed its darker side to the Equestrian. Now he felt its eye wherever he went, boring into his back.
A bend in the road ahead promised greener pastures, so Red continued on with a weary sigh. He’d have to rest soon to eat and drink anyway, and the bend provided a convenient stopping point.
It was with great surprise that he fetched up short when he rounded the turn. He drew in a sharp breath.
In the middle of the road ahead there towered a pillar of stone almost eight ponies tall, though it was dwarfed by towering conifers. The road split around it, shooting off in two different directions to disappear into the dank forest. Wisps of fog curled around the base of the pillar, lapping gently at the stone.
It was a marker of some sort, that much was clear. Perhaps it was a road sign, or possibly an old border-marker between two territories?
“Well, I’ll be...”
Pains momentarily forgotten in his excitement, Red trotted to the base of the pillar and tried to interpret its purpose. The old thing sat in place on a stone dais that was almost completely obscured by ferns, and it was wide enough that three ponies could have wrapped their forelegs about its circumference.
Tall symbols were etched into the white, weathered stones. He didn’t recognize the language, though it seemed similar to some ancient deerish script he’d seen in Celestia’s personal library. Basic geometrical shapes comprised most of the symbols, each interlocked with more complex figures of smaller size, starting at the top of the pillar and working their way down on all sides of the stone. Red even checked the back, dragging his litter through prickly bramble and cobwebs to do so, and found that it was covered in moss as well as hardy vines.
The feeling of being watched intensified. He took a cautious look around, but saw nothing except shadows and creepers weaving amongst the trees. He felt as if he were standing in the middle of some ancient crossroads, and quickly dragged his litter back out of the bushes before paranoia could set in.
Morning on the second day of fall, and the enemy occupies more than half of our territory south of the river. They hold the hillforts, they hold Broch Dunhalligan, and they hold the forest itself. The ground is theirs, but they have handed the initiative to us. We have made deep advances into Gallopway along the east road.
Word from the Hebridles is not forthcoming, but I believe there are yet holdfasts standing firm within the pocket. Plans are in motion to campaign forward and lift the sieges ere winter comes. We will relieve those trapped ponies.
At the crossroads I sent four scouts up the dimwood road, north into the hills. They have not returned.
Sworn Shield, Advisor of War and First Guard to King Paramount August”
-- From the letters of Sworn Shield, royal archive --
At the base of the pillar were more recent carvings, perhaps only a few decades old to judge by the lichen. Somepony had chiseled words right into the bottom-most glyphs. They wrapped around the front third of the dome-topped marker, facing the road at eye level. Red could just begin to make sense of them if he forgot everything that his Equestrian schooling had ever taught him about proper spelling.
“Ware - tu Wrothkin laneds” read the first of the carvings, which faced toward the left fork in the road. It didn’t take much thought to realize that “ware” meant to beware of whatever lay down that path. Since the track was eaten up with weeds and didn’t seem to have felt the touch of hooves in quite some time, Red decided that the “Wrothkin,” whatever they were, meant bad news.
The swordpony stepped forward and examined this smaller road. The natural gloominess of the forest was amplified here, intensified by a preponderance of dead trees, their boughs sweeping low over the path. In point of fact, it wasn’t just gloomy, it was nearly pitch black. Just twenty yards in, all visibility was reduced to zero. Red could only make out dim shapes swaying in the breeze.
That was when he realized there was no breeze. Everything around him, even the sickly blades of wild grass, hung motionless. The headwind must have stopped. But then what was moving back there?
He looked closer, but he might as well have been staring into a cave. One of the shadows had the distinct shape of a horned skull, though it swayed in time with the other branches. Another had the outline of a pony, only to gradually morph into something thorny and twisted before it shifted back again.
Red backed away, only to feel claws grasp at his legs. He jerked backward, nearly tripped over his litter. But nothing was there, only shadows. Shadows that were already worming their way back up his legs...
The swordpony froze, the tendrils of sticky black worming their way into his coat. It felt like slugs or leeches were crawling all over him him where they touched his exposed hocks. If not for his leather vambraces, he might have noticed them sooner.
Red shuddered and stepped back. The unnatural shadows peeled away and retreated, leaving a cold sensation in his bones that lingered for several long moments.
Well, at least he knew which path he wouldn’t be taking.
When he looked up, the skull-shaped shadow was nowhere to be seen. Whether it had taken on another shape, as shadows were wont to do, or simply vanished, he had no idea. Was it just him, or had the darkness deepened further down the path?
Red’s heart hammered in his chest, his breath coming in short gasps. He shuddered again, then kicked himself for being so jumpy. As loathsome as they were, the deep shadows here appeared to be harmless. They were merely an extension of the forest’s natural, powerful magic, and he’d wandered deep enough in for it to manifest itself. So long as he stayed away he’d be fine.
The carvings on the right read, “Tu Broch uv Norethmose Lored.” As near as Red could tell after reading it out loud, it had nothing to do with moose and instead meant something about “this way to the Northernmost Lord.” He had no idea what a “Broch” might be, but he doubted it meant anything about hospitality.
This second path was well traveled, at least by comparison to the first. It appeared to be a continuation of the main road, if anything.
Red scratched his chin. While he’d seen nothing more than old ruts in the road on his journey, with a scattering of equally old hoofprints here and there, he had long suspected this to be some form of trade route. The fact that a Lord resided at the end of the road only served to confirm that suspicion.
And that made his heart sink.
He was at a crossroads, and neither choice seemed particularly appealing. Down one fork lay Shetlanders, and down another lay some unspeakable horror that even the Shetlanders feared. Either way, he had the feeling his head would be on a spike before he made it very far down either path. One killer pony had already proven enough.
Red dumped himself in the cold shade of the pillar. He dug the last apple out of his saddlebags and nibbled at it, pensive. He needed to make a decision, and soon. The Dictum was to be delivered before the end of Summer, and that was scarcely a month away. There was no time to sit idly at forks in the road.
The Dictum. Red cast an irritable eye on the saddlebag in which it hid, cursing the day it had been entrusted to him. Could the Princesses have not found a more suitable envoy? He may have been their Master Swordpony, but he’d never once set hoof beyond Equestria’s borders, nor spent more than a few weeks at a time in the wilderness. Some knight he turned out to be.
Well, he mused, getting sidetracked, there was the Campaign... But he’d been with an army then, and army camps were far different than roughing it in alone out in the woods. Difficult, yes, but the challenges were entirely different. And yet here he was taking a shortcut through Shetland, and out of provisions already!
Red kicked his saddlebags off the litter. Accursed Dictum! How many nights had he spent staring at it, wishing all the world for a fire, but wishing all the more that he could open that damned scroll? Nothing was stopping him. The Princesses had never explicitly stated that the scroll was not for his eyes. But he had his honor, and it was bad conduct on any messenger’s behalf to read the documents in their charge, at least before they were delivered.
Besides, it was probably written in whatever language the griffons spoke. Red wouldn’t be able to read that anyway.
Casting aside the spent apple core, which he detested, Red struggled to his hooves and placed his saddlebags back on the litter. As reluctant as he was, the crossroads would not keep him, not when the choice was so clear. He’d have to risk the road of the Northernmost Lord. Better the enemy he knew, after all. The unsettling left path could go to Tartarus, and the Wrothkin too.
Red secured his sword and made tracks down the Broch road, swigging his canteen as he went.
The first pegasus swooped overhead at noon the next day. Red had been traveling uphill when it appeared, zig-zagging on the slope to keep the litter from spilling its burden. By the time he saw the grey wings it was too late to hide. He ducked into the trees anyway, pulling his litter with him.
The flyer was long gone when Red chanced to peer out from the bushes. It had passed out of sight over the forest canopy. There was no way to be sure whether or not the pegasus had seen him.
After a minute of anxious deliberation, Red pulled the litter back to the road and continued up the hill, quickening his pace despite his chafing sores. He had no doubt the Shetlanders would kill him as soon as clap eyes on him, but some irrational part of his mind told him that he had to make it as far as possible before he was discovered. He'd hide in the forest should any patrols happen upon him, or so he promised himself as he crested the slope.
And if the situation called for it, maybe he’d win a fight through sheer desperation. One never knew.
The top of the hill proved a magnificent vantage point, the deciduous trees falling away around him into a wide clearing scattered with boulders. The vista was, in a word, breathtaking, not that Red had any breath left to give after his trot up the hill. He felt tempted to lay down under one of the rocks and eat the last of his food.
Through the spindly arms of the enormous conifers around him, he could make out the Crystal Mountains far in the distance, tall and grim, sharp cut against the grey sky. Into the boiling grey of clouds they rose and disappeared. He knew above those clouds towered the white peaks of an endless winter. That was his destination, shrouded in mist and... so very, very far away.
A dark pall of smoke caught Red’s attention before he could succumb to the grip of despair. His hill was not alone. Dozens of others rose and fell in the near distance, blanketed in towering firs that bristled with nettles of black and blue. Fog rolled between them in the low places, bleak and dismal like all the rest of accursed Shetland, masking whatever lay beneath the hills.
Just beyond the furthest of those hills rose the slender bands of smoke, a dozen palls twisting up into the dark, somber sky. That, he assumed, was where the road would eventually lead. It couldn’t have been more than a few miles away. The word ‘Broch’ flashed in his mind, suddenly terrible and menacing.
It was then that a second pegasus appeared, brown this time. His helm gleamed briefly in the muted sunlight. He flew abruptly into the Red’s line of sight and stopped, freezing in the air. Red ducked low behind one of the rocks, but it was too late. The Shetlander had seen him.
For an agonizing second they stared at each other, the pegasus hovering just above the tops of the conifers, the earth pony frozen in place beside a stone. Then the scout was gone, swooping back down into the fog.
Red didn’t stay to see which way the pony had flown. He ran, the litter bouncing crazily behind him on the rocks in the path, his heart pounding in his chest.
Red’s sores were forgotten in his reckless descent, the pain locked away with the rest of his rational mind as he galloped down the hill. He slowed only to check the litter, stopping just once to strap his lamellar vest to the saddlebags. The thought to stop and don the armor never entered his mind as he pounded down the road, the litter skittering behind him.
Darkness and fog quickly descended on all sides, steadily pressing in the further Red ran. Shapes flashed on either side of him in the woods, real or imaginary he couldn’t tell, bounding down the hill like horned equines shrouded in black. He bolted, all thought of preserving the thing tied to his tail fleeing his mind. Foam flecked from his lips, smeared down his neck, his eyes wide with blind panic. His sword slapped at his flanks.
The road became a narrow ribbon of safety, the sprinting silhouettes of the ephemeral figures weaving in and out of the trees in the corners of his eyes. Everything ran together in his mind -- the Shetlanders that were doubtlessly pursuing him, the feeling of something running at his back, the thought of being captured and killed.
The Shadow Wood had finally caught up to him. Branches hanging over the road whipped at his face, invisible in the darkness until they appeared suddenly to slap at his eyes and ears. He was the prey, and the Shetlanders his hunters. He could almost hear their horns rattling against the branches in the woods, their hooves pounding in time with his own. Mocking, sibilant laughter flew in the wind, chasing after him.
Just as Red began to falter, when he thought that the illusory Shetlanders had him for sure, he caught sight of a break in the trees just fifty meters ahead. It materialized out of the fog like a door to freedom and he surged forward, hooves kicking up dust, breathing ragged. He could feel breath at the back of his neck as the break loomed nearer. His terrified mind imagined the litter was something clawing at his tail.
The road slanted downward as Red galloped, muscles straining, lungs tearing in his chest. He put on one final turn of speed, hooves flying, and powered on despite the pain. Two branches hung low between twin trees at the end of the road. He soared over them, pulling the litter through the air behind, and crashed on all four hooves to the ground beyond.
He slid to a stop on level ground beyond the branches, sucking air, and turned to look back the way he’d come. Fog had already enveloped the woods, and darkness spilled out of the dark. He almost felt relief at having escaped through the break, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet, not by any measure.
Turning, the swordpony found himself in a dell. Not quite a clearing, but the gaps between the trees were significantly wider here than they had been before. Mist churned in the spaces, shrouding the dense vegetation that lay at the edges of the lowground.
Other than that, Red decided, at least it’s not trying to kill me. It was no Equestrian glade to be sure, but it was far less claustrophobic than the rest of Shetland had proven.
It suddenly occurred to Red that he had dragged the litter all the way down the hill at a full run. His heart seized in his chest at the thought of the Dictum lying somewhere back up the road.
He whipped around, sense of panic rising anew. The litter’s tattered form attempted to follow his turn, trailing along in the dirt with one pole dragging askew.
Miraculously, the drag seemed to have come apart only after his leap through the boughs. One of the poles must have torn free on the branches. His armor was scattered about where he’d made his landing, one of the vambraces having rolled to a stop against the gnarled roots of an ancient, stooping oak.
A noise from further up the road caught Red’s attention. He whipped back around, chest heaving from his panicked flight.
Hoofbeats. A small group, if he guessed correctly. A bend in the road ahead hid them, but they’d be on him within seconds.
Hastily, the fear burning in his breast, Red began gathering up his scattered armor and piling it back on the litter. He still entertained the thought that maybe, just maybe, he could still pull his things off the road and hide somewhere in the mist. But the litter refused to cooperate. It was beyond repair, and when he tried to pull it off the road it tore completely in half. Frustrated, he dragged out his sword and severed the leather strap holding his tail. He would have to make his stand here, or run and abandon everything he owned.
That, or take the saddlebags and flee. But the Shetlanders would know where to look for him then.
The hoofbeats grew louder, accompanied by voices. Red bit down on the hilt of his blade and hunched down, felt the hair prickle on his withers. The sores between his legs seared with sudden pain, reminding him of their presence, and he winced. Every place where his armor had rubbed him burned anew with agonizing pain, redoubled by his frantic run. How could he possibly fight like this?
He grit his teeth down on his hilt to stop the pain. Armor or not, he reckoned he could take out two, maybe three of the Shetlanders before he was subdued and killed. If he could lead them into the trees, perhaps string them out so they couldn’t come at him all at once...
The Shetlanders rounded the bend, half a dozen of them cantering in a short column arranged two warriors abreast. The brown pegasus from earlier flew at the shoulder of the lead ponies, chattering away like a madpony and pointing his hoof up the hill. They froze when they spotted the lone Equestrian standing in their path.
“There!” the pegasus neighed, pointing wildly with his hoof.
The Shetlanders leapt out of formation in a storm of blades and polearms. One of the stallions at the head of the column pawed at the dirt with a hoof that was almost completely hidden behind bushy fetlocks. A pole weapon like a long axe swayed on his saddle.
Suddenly Red wasn’t sure if he could take even one of these ponies. They wore furs and boiled leather, with one or two arrayed in hauberks of mail, and all wore iron helms. Only the pegasus went lightly armored, and even he wore a helm and padded jerkin smeared in mud. Red had no doubt that all of these ponies had taken lives. He could see it in the make of their arms and armor. He could see it in their faces.
The Shetlanders looked at him like hungry wolves sizing up a cornered elk. Seven hardened ponies, armed to the teeth. And one of them, Red realized, was a unicorn with two swords.
Two swords? The swordpony groaned inwardly. He was reminded of why he hated unicorns.
The stallion with the huge axe stepped forward. He hadn't yet drawn his weapon. Instead, he held out a foreleg. "Are you Kingsguard?" he asked in a low rumble from his chest.
The other Shetlanders fanned out immediately, the pegasus zipping through the air to land behind Red. One of the warriors prowled between the trees on Red’s right, chewing on a spear. Another snarled around a battered sword, an equally battered round shield slung over one flank. He could even hear the pegasus steal up behind him, a blade rasping against leather as it was carefully drawn from its sheath. They had him hemmed in before he could react. Any hope of escaping into the woods was dashed to the ground.
Except... they weren't focused on Red. They moved to surround him, but why were their eyes elsewhere? It was as if they considered the trees more dangerous than the armed Equestrian.
"Isn’t it awfully cold out here without furs?" asked somepony out of sight. Red turned to see a stallion with only one eye, a spear couched in one leg. The other socket hid behind crushed eyelids, twisted with a scar.
Red backed up to the stooping oak beside the road and pressed his rump firmly against its bark. Pain shot through his right flank, and he could feel the blood streaming from where he’d reopened his wound. It felt like a thousand biting ants were swarming all over him, stinging and tearing into every inch of the flesh where his armor had chafed. He pointed his sword at the nearest Shetlander, daring them to come closer and feel its edge.
The earth pony with the huge axe took another step forward. "Woah now, point that sword somewhere else. We're here now, you're safe." He stretched his hoof out.
“Whatff?” Red nearly lowered his guard. But he’d seen dirty tricks before.
"We need to go, Bar!" shouted the unicorn with two swords. Why was he looking over his shoulder into the trees?
Looking at the Shetlanders, Red felt a growing despair. The Dictum would go undelivered, and nopony would ever know why save for the seven ponies here in this clearing.
Well, he thought to himself, eyes darting from one encroaching barbarian to another, I’ll subtract from that number before I go...
Another option wormed its way into Red’s mind, a final, desperate recourse that he never in his life thought he would have considered. The Shetlanders circled closer, gnawing at the hilts of their weapons, looking him up and down for any weakness they could exploit. They had no intention of underestimating him, it seemed. So why were they so keen to look past him into the woods?
The unicorn with the two swords rasped his weapons together and bared a set of yellow teeth. Sun’s sakes, Red hated fighting unicorns.
"He's not Kingsguard, Bar."
One of the warriors ducked behind a tree, staring out at the fog that was closing steadily in on all sides. "Yeahff," he said around a mouthful of spear. "No ffrs? Whaff kindffa Kiffgards fdonff fwear ffrs?"
"Yeah? Would a thane have gold like that, then?"
“Well, maybe. But that’s hardly…”
The enormous warrior with the axe slammed his hoof down, sending damp leaves into the air. "Give him a chance to speak!" he roared, before turning back to the swordpony. "Where are you from? Be you a thane?"
“Equefftria!” Red answered around a mouthful of sword. “Nopffony has to geff hurff, nowf! Leff’s jusff ffhink abouff bffis fer a secondf...”
The unicorn Shetlander cast a questioning glance at the pony with the axe, who seemed to be the leader of the band. The enormous brute shrugged, then pinned Red to the tree with a murderous stare. The rest of the Shetlanders froze, at least for the moment.
“What do you mean, Equestria?”
The stallion dragged his axe from his saddle with one dinnerplate-sized hoof, only to slam it to the ground. He set his hoof atop the upraised haft. The stallion’s bushy black fetlocks perfectly matched the tangles of his beard. Red wasn’t sure he’d ever seen such a beard.
A moment of silence hung over the dell. All eyes were on Red now.
After a second’s deliberation, Red followed the barbarian’s example and stabbed his sword into the ground. He kept a hoof over the hilts to steady it. He didn’t know how long he had to speak, but he intended to make his case as fast as possible.
“I’m an envoy,” he said, the words spilling over his lips in a rushed jumble, years of proper schooling forgotten. “On a mission for the Princesses. To the griffon kingdoms! I’ve got to deliver a scroll, you see, and it’s very important. And if I’m not there by the end of Summer, it’ll be too late, and that’s... well, that’s bad. That’s very bad.”
One of the Shetlanders shook his head and started laughing. It was not a happy laugh. His eyes were wild, strained. Desperate. Almost as if he didn’t want to believe what he was hearing. Red fought back the urge to snatch up his sword and take a defensive swing at the barbarian’s head.
“Now wait!” he protested, putting out his other hoof. “I’m just passing through! I know your land isn’t exactly friendly to Equestrians, but I don’t intend to stay. And I mean no harm to anypony, I swear it.”
He left out the part where he’d slain a Shetlander some days before. Better not to let anypony know that he might have murdered one of their kin. But, his parley finished, Red kicked his sword up into the air and caught it between his teeth.
He didn’t feel particularly ready to die. Part of him wondered how many pieces they’d hack him into. Another part wondered if he’d feel much of it.
If anything gets the jump on you in that forest, they’ll kill you, and they won’t even need to bury your body...
The ragged band looked to their leader, who raised an eyebrow under his soot-blackened helmet.
“A messenger. From Equestria. Equestria.” His bass voice somehow grew deeper. “Show us your message then, Equestrian. I wanna see yer not lying!”
"Bar!" shouted the unicorn, his voice high and strained. "We don't have time for this. We need to go!" His twin swords wavered in the air, sweeping left and right in time with his eyes.
A flood of relief nearly dropped Red to the ground. He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, praised the heavenly bodies, then stuffed his sword back into the scabbard. None of the Shetlanders made a move to put away their own weapons, but they didn't seem to be pointing in his direction anyway.
“It’s just over here,” he said, “I was carrying everything on my litter, and...”
The shattered litter was strewn with armor, but his saddlebags were nowhere to be seen. His eyes snapped to the dark stretch of forest through which he’d bolted minutes before. It stretched into the woods like the mouth of a serpent, an inky black tunnel that wound its way back up the hill into deep fog. His mouth went suddenly dry as it dawned on him.
He’d lost his saddlebags.
He’d lost the Dictum.
Red choked. A terrible weight dropped into his gut. His legs trembled weakly at the knees. Somewhere back up that tunnel, lost in that cloying murkiness, was everything he had required to complete his journey.
“No, no, no. No. No!”
The drums of fate pounded in his ears.
He was going to die, he knew. Instinct screamed at him to go for his sword, but he knew that the instant he bit down on steel would be the instant he found out what his guts tasted like. Instead he cast his eyes to the grey and overcast sky.
It was sometime around midday, but he couldn’t find the bright stain of Celestia’s sun anywhere in the soupy murk above. A hole formed in the stallion’s chest at the thought that not even the Princesses would not be with him in his moment of death.
“Equestrian!” snapped the leader of the Shetlanders. “What’s the problem? Don’t dither with me now...”
Red turned back to the band of barbarians, his face drawn. “I’m afraid I’ve lost it,” he mumbled lamely. “Back up the road, as I was running...” he made a weak gesture toward the broken litter, unable to find the words.
There was a short pause, the forest holding its collective breath. One of the Shetlanders snorted.
The stallion with the axe nodded. He took a deep breath, turned away to look into the woods. “Hellfire,” he muttered, before turning to his comrades. “Alright, we need to go. Everypony saddle up. Now.”
What was going on here?
Red put the question out of his mind. Now was not the time. The Shetlanders didn't seem to be hostile, at least, and he wasn't about to look a gift-bearing horse in the mouth. Something out here had them spooked, and every fiber of his being was telling him to start running, preferably alongside the nice armored warriors.
"Argh. Enuff of ffthis." The half-blind Shetlander stepped forward with his spear in his teeth. Red stood still and allowed himself to be captured, feeling like a rotten coward. Every muscle, every nerve of his being was telling him to fight back, to resist. But for once he would have to ignore those instincts. Time to resign himself to fate.
Without warning the pony whipped his head to the side and struck Red upside the temple with the spear.
Stars exploded behind Red’s eyes. He stumbled away, pain ringing in his ears. For a moment he reeled, confused, unable to realize that he had even been hit. Then, as the pain set in, he had the feeling that the blow was meant to knock him out. He desperately wished it had.
“Ow,” he groaned. Not very articulate, but it got the point across. He blinked away the colors combusting behind his eyes.
“Hey, lice coat!” snapped one of the other Shetlanders, punching the spearpony in the side. “What’re yew thinkin’?"
The spearpony spat his weapon into the crook of his leg. “I’m capturing him."
"And who’s gonna carry all this armor o’ his if he’s out cold, huh? Who's gonna carry him?”
The spearpony blinked. Red felt concussed when he regained his balance. The dell was swimming before him. He put a hoof to his temple. It came away sticky with blood. He could hear his own pulse. The noise in his head reverberated endlessly, bouncing around against the insides of his skull.
“Ow...” he said again.
The dell was a jumble of commotion as the Shetlanders shouted at one another. If he hadn’t just been struck in the head, Red might have been able to slip away into the woods and make an escape. As it was, he just wanted to lie down for a few minutes until the bells stopped ringing in his ears.
“Enough!” the leader of the warriors roared. He kicked a vambrace over to Red. “Equestrian, put on yer armor! Now!”
Unable to find it in himself to explain that he was too chafed to wear armor, Red limped back to the litter and dropped his sword-belt to the ground. The effects of the blow to his head were already fading, but the pain lingered. He stuff himself into his leathers, usually a simple affair, but one that required monumental effort when two thirds of his body were protesting in agonizing pain.
Without warning, one of the Shetlanders stiffened and raised an ear. The others went silent, sensing something that was beyond Red’s ken. He looked around, tried to puzzle out what was going on.
The forest had fallen dead silent. Not even the chatter of forest bugs remained.
Somewhere a blackbird fled its perch with a panicked caw. The sound of flapping wings receded into the trees, only to be cut short a split second later by a nearly imperceptible zip. Then silence. It was as if the unseen bird had never existed at all.
Red listened to the sound of breathing. He tried to calm his own.
“They’re here,” whispered one pony.
Bar with the big axe nodded. “I hear ‘em too.” He whispered without turning, eyes fixed unblinking into the woods. The intensity of his gaze made its direction all the more frightening when Red realized it was at his back. He turned, but saw only more mist and trees.
“Equestrian... best put your armor on a little faster.”
The words carried the weight of alarm with them, frightened and full of dread. Red bent back to his task, rushing to lace up the vambraces with his teeth.
His tongue was fumbling with the last knot when something on the wind caught his ear. Lilting cries, tumultuous and distant, like broken wind chimes.
His stomach churned. His heart pounded. A single word tugged at the back of his consciousness, something half-remembered, something he’d heard or seen somewhere before. It was right on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t quite remember it...
“What... is it?” he whispered to the nearest Shetlander.
The pony turned to fix him to the spot with an expression of dread. Red saw barely restrained fear in the Shetlander’s single eye. He understood then, looking at the shredded socket of the other eye, that no mere pony had stricken him half-blind.
Terrible things dwell in the Shadow Wood. Ancient things.
“Wrothkin,” said the warrior, trembling. “The Wrothkin are coming.”
Red’s throat clenched shut. The roadmarker, he remembered. That’s where he had seen the word before.
“Can we still make it back to the broch?” the blue unicorn asked nearby, his swords held at crossed angles. The twin hilts sparkled faintly in the murkiness of the forest, surrounded by his dim aura. "We should never have come out here for a single pony."
Bar looked back down the road, at the bend from which his band had appeared. “We might could make it,” he whispered, the air of alarm rising in his voice. “It’s just a mile...”
A foul scent drifted in the air, rank and musty. Red sniffed the breeze, almost gagged at the stench. He knew this smell. He had never wanted to smell it again.
It was the smell of death.
The Shetlanders exchanged glances. Then, without another word, they all turned and ran as fast as their legs could carry them.
Suddenly it all made sense. Now Red knew why the Shetlanders had kept their backs to him, why they'd taken cover in the trees and shivered with fear. He wanted to hit himself for being so blind as to not see it earlier. He wasn't the threat. He had never been the threat.
The Shetlanders were here to save him.
“Better be a fast Equestrian,” urged the pegasus. He bounded into the air and shot through the trees with a few strong beats of his wings.
Panic seized Red like claws. He threw the sword-belt over his unsecured lamellar and cinched it tight. He had no time to lace up the vest. At least this way it wouldn’t chafe so much.
The sick, lilting cries were already louder when the swordpony sprinted after the Shetlanders. The last of them disappeared around the bend as he ran. The cries reverberated in the woods like sickly warbling, threading in and out of the conifers. It almost seemed to be coming from the trees themselves. Red’s skin crawled beneath his auburn coat, his four legs digging hard.
Then, hesitating, he slid to a halt and looked back at the other end of the dell. The Dictum. He couldn’t leave the Dictum. Did he have time to run back and find it, he wondered? He wavered.
Then the sound of rustling and crashing reached his ears from deep within the forest, as if a massive beast with a hundred legs was plunging through the underbrush. Something unseen rattled the boughs just beyond his sight, splintering wood.
A harsh shriek suddenly ripped through the trees, coming from every direction at once. It cut into Red’s ears like knives, needling fear straight into his brain.
That settled it. He bolted, galloping faster than he’d ever galloped before.
He looked back just as he was rounding the bend, just for a second and without slowing his pace. For just that one second he could have sworn he saw a four-legged form bounding out of the quickening fog, black as the trees. Then he rounded the bend and it was gone, hidden by the forest.
But he’d seen it, seen the many prongs crowning its skeletal head. It had antlers.
And it was coming.
Red tore the road under his hooves, stretched flat out with every stride, his lungs working like bellows. Ahead of him the six Shetlanders dashed at breakneck speed, their tails glimpsed around bend after bend. Behind, the sound of his pursuers grew steadily louder until they drowned out even his own hoofbeats, defiling the forest with their warped cries.
Something shrieked in the woods to his left, a wicked and grating gibbering in his ear. The unnatural scream continued, picked up by multiple voices until it filled the air. The things crashed through the trees just behind him, felt, unseen, smelled, almost nipping at his tail.
It had antlers.
Red plunged into a gully that bent into a sharp turn, trampled sucking mud and raced up the rain-cut slope at the other end. The Shetlanders came back into view, flickering through the intermittent light of the path ahead.
He put on another turn of speed and forced himself to ignore the shredding pain in his flank. The other ponies drew slowly closer with every footfall. At the same time, something flashed in the corner of the swordpony’s eye.
It had antlers.
The Wrothkin were gaining ground.
Red’s mind returned to the Dictum lying somewhere back up the road. He cursed himself for abandoning it, and cursed himself all the more for bolting. When had he become a stallion of panic? When danger threatened he stood his ground, fought back with steel and everything he had. Kill the threat, live another day, and tell the tale. That was why he was the Master Swordpony of Everfree and not a slump-back hay farmer.
But the things chasing him, the phantoms with antlers, they’d inspired a reaction in him that he’d never known. And that wasn’t the half of it. Even as he ran, the fear grew in his chest just as it had when he’d fled at the sight of the Shetland pegasus.
It had antlers.
He’d seen them before, he knew. In his mad flight down the hill they had been in the corners of his eyes, bounding alongside him through the forest. He’d heard their cruel laughter, felt them nipping at his heels. They’d fed his fear and made sport of him, running him to ground. How long had they been in the woods, watching his every move? How long had they watched from the trees as the Shetlanders surrounded him? Had they been there at the fork in the road?
And he knew what they were.
It had antlers.
“Deer!” he cried in disbelief when he drew level with the slowest of the warriors. “They’re deer!”
The Shetlander made no effort to reply, his eyes wide and breathing ragged. Red left him behind with a few more galloping lunges, pulled ever further ahead. His mind reeled as he ran, sword slapping at his side.
Deer. But how was that possible? The deer were the very definition of good. They’d ruled over all of nature when ponies were nothing more than nomadic herds. As the most powerful and magical of all the races, the deer had shaped the very world. They cast their light over all things great and small. They were incorruptible, nigh immortal.
Another keening wail cut through the forest. This time it came from all sides.
“They’re going to cut us off!” shouted the blue unicorn from the front of the stampede.
“We’re almost... there!” Bar panted between breaths. “Keep... going!”
Red looked ahead, surging forward between the Shetlanders. The path grew level. They were on a straightaway, only a hundred yards to the end of the road. Beyond that the trees came to an abrupt end. In the dim light of the forest that end looked like a portal shining white.
The ponies put all of their remaining strength into the effort, every muscle straining to keep them ahead of the monsters at their backs. Foam flecked from every mouth, flying into the faces of those behind. The pain built in Red’s legs, shooting up and down from hoof to shoulder. Blood gushed from the wound in his flank, spilling down his tail and flying into the wind. The cut in his neck stretched and ripped.
Somepony behind gave a strangled cry. Nopony dared look back.
Red’s heart felt about to burst. He ran breathlessly now, unable to draw in air. His eyes watered, stinging in the cold. He could not close his mouth. Wounds raked down his lungs and his scalp burned.
The end of the road came closer, closer... closer...
The shrieks sounded again, stabbing into Red’s spine like white hot needles. This time it came from the woods mere yards to either side.
He could see them now, just for a few hairs of a second each time. The Wrothkin bounded like shadows just alongside the ponies, leaping through the underbrush on all-but-silent hooves, antlers slashing velvet at the trees. They vanished and returned in the corners of his eyes, trying to pull his attention away from the road. But he couldn’t look, not now. If he looked away he would fall or give out. And he daren’t think of what they’d do to him.
The Shetlanders pulled ahead, their endurance gone but their bodies unwilling to give out. There was a sharp Twang and one veered off course, went flying, skidding down the road with a long shaft snapped off in his neck. Red leaped the tangle of legs without breaking stride, every sore on his body like fresh burns.
They ran on muscles that stiffened with each stride, suffocating themselves from exertion. Red’s vision faded, darkened, until shadows strangled his eyes.
Another Twang. Another scream of pain. The Wrothkin chorus filled Red’s ears, rolling through his brain, enveloping the noise of the stampeding ponies. They would not escape. They could never escape.
One of the ponies still ran even with an arrow lodged in his rump. There was a third Twang, an arrow thudding into the shield slung over his side so hard it knocked him off course. Still he ran, powering on.
“Hrr’up!” Bar rasped behind.
The Wrothkin in the forest screamed again, raking at Red’s brain. They were angry this time, their mere voices cutting new wounds into his flesh with their malevolence. He heard bows sing and arrows hiss.
Then the white light was upon him.
The ponies broke from the trees all at once, leaves trailing after them. As they adjusted to the brightness a great clearing opened up before Red’s eyes, at least three hundred yards in every direction, all ashen mud and ruin. Severed tree roots grasped at the sky. And standing at the center of the clearing in stark contrast to the blue hills beyond, a stone tower surrounded by walls of oak and pine. Slender columns of smoke rose from within the palisade, snaking into the sky.
If this letter reaches you I have fallen in battle. I write it only in the hope of letting you know what I could not in person: that the days spent in your service, and as your friend, were the finest of my life. If I fail you, I hope you can forgive me and think of me as I was before, when we were colts on the banks of the Rhein. When we only played at swords and war.
There will be no word from the Hebridles. I fear that if there are indeed ponies still alive within the pocket, they are truly surrounded and beyond our aid. But in the depths of winter, I cannot even imagine that any survive. Either way, there will be no breakthrough. We cannot reach them.
The contingent from Boarholt was ambushed and cut off. No survivors have yet returned, for I fear there are none.
I bid you a fond farewell, Param.
Sworn Shield, General of the Army of the King Triumvirate, His Threefold Majesty.”
-- From the letters of Sworn Shield, never sent --
Fresh air poured into Red’s lungs, his wounds forgotten in an instant. There was safety!
Another pony screamed when an arrow punched through his shield. It was only then Red noticed the sound of swarming hornets. Arrows spattered the plain all around, each longer than a leg. Shafts snapped in the mud at his passing.
Just ahead, the blue unicorn’s horn flashed and a shield hummed into existence, a shimmering ceiling which rippled overhead. Arrows rang like bells, shunting down a blast of heat with each hit. Entropic shield, notoriously bad at dispersing kinetic energy. The remaining ponies bunched together under the ceiling, lashing one another with their tails. They ran in an oven; Red’s nape prickled at the sudden heat. He’d bake alive if the arrows didn’t get to him first.
“Almost...” one pony wheezed, hooves flying in the mud. Arrows beat a steady tempo overhead.
The blue unicorn’s magic faltered, just for a moment. Bar appeared at his shoulder, keeping the unicorn on track even as they flagged behind. Another stallion fell in on the unicorn’s other side, bracing him further.
Feathers brushed Red’s cheek. He felt the shaft glance from his vambrace. Sweat and foam flecked down his neck. His head swam in the sweltering heat.
The shower of arrows ended as suddenly as it began. Red barely slowed. Whether the Wrothkin were loath to continue wasting arrows or the ponies had passed beyond their range, there was no way of knowing. The unicorn maintained his spell-shield either way, struggling to keep the pace under the strain of it.
The fortified Broch loomed closer and closer, Red’s legs threatening to give out from underneath him but relief carrying them on. He could hear shouting now, the stone tower blocking out the mountains in the distance. Tattered pendants flew in the wind from the menacing palisade.
Armored ponies appeared between the sharpened timber battlements, shouting encouragement. A ramshackle gate of planks was drawn open even as Red dashed through.
The Shetlanders poured into the fort, sucking air, and the gates crashed shut behind them. Red slid to a stop ahead of the other ponies, left deep ruts in the ashen mud and almost collapsed. His legs quivered, his lungs aflame, his head spinning from the sudden stop. He paced in a circle, tried to cool down, but the feverish heat remained even in the chill northern wind.
Nearby, the axepony Bar stumbled to a stop and collapsed to his knees in the mud. Sweat dribbled into a greasy puddle. “Water!” he croaked. He looked ready to try the puddle. “Fetch water!”
Nearby, the blue unicorn groaned and collapsed on his side, heaving in the mud.
Only one other stallion remained. He staggered about in circles trying to get a look at the arrow wagging in his flank. Warriors clustered in, hauling the exhausted Shetlanders away with magic and strong hooves. Other ponies, some wearing nothing but rags to protect them from the cold, rushed up with waterskins.
Red couldn’t help but notice that nopony was fetching him any water. Then again, he had his own canteen. He dug it out from beneath his armor and loosened the cap with his tongue before dumping half its contents down his throat.
He was just about to sprinkle some on his face when an axe prodded his throat. He choked.
“Hiltstrong. Timber Haft. Hoarlock.” The crescent blade scraped at Red’s throat.
Red looked down right into the burning eyes of Bar, red-rimmed, exhausted, his mane and beard matted wet. He blinked away rivulets of sweat, and bared a sordid mess of teeth. Red could smell the oats on his breath. His hooves pressed the axe harder into Red’s throat, drove him back a step.
“Hiltstrong. Timber Haft. Hoarlock.” He bit out the names like they were fire. The yard around the two ponies had fallen silent. All eyes were on them. “They died for you today, Equestrian. For that you will answer.”
Red backed away another step; the axe followed. The canteen trembled in Red’s mouth. He tried to speak around it, realized it sounded like an excuse.
“Take him,” Bar wheezed. He stumbled away, suddenly deflated. Another warrior took his place, with another axe.
“What’s an Equestrian doing here?” the new pony at his throat asked, licking his lips and staring at Red's scabbard. Avarice gleamed in his eyes. This pony had an axe strapped to one foreleg, and he wasted no time in pressing it to Red’s throat before the swordpony could back away.
Red would have laughed had he any breath. The Shetlanders had just saved his life, and now they were robbing him. All he could do was stare upward at the overcast sky, the hoofaxe biting into his throat. He attempted to stand perfectly still, but the onset of pains from his open wounds and overexerted muscles made the effort impossible. Even the smallest of breaths had to force its way past the edge at his throat.
Nearby, Bar sucked down water and swayed on his hooves. “Take him to my father,” he ordered, pointing to the swordpony and somehow managing to sound commanding despite his lack of breath. “Says he’s a messenger. Three good thanes..." he paused for air. "Three. I want to know... why.”
My father. Well, that certainly explained things. Red gulped one last trickle from his canteen.
The gathered Shetlanders muttered oaths and curses, ranging from incredulous to outright furious. An Equestrian? In their midst? Red felt several new blades prick him from every direction. Blood off his flank tickled down one leg, warm against the bite of the wind. The hoofaxe at his neck carefully lifted the canteen over his head by the strap, to be passed to another pony.
“Awright!” somepony snapped in a gravelly voice. “Get inside or I’ll have yer ears.”
Two pegasi thrust their hooves under Red’s front legs and dragged him to the tower, buffeting him with their wings. He groaned in pain but bit it off, eyes screwed shut. Better they carried him than force him to walk, after all. He wasn't sure if his legs could carry him another step. It felt as if every sore on his body had opened up into bleeding wounds.
The Shetland camp passed by in a blur, Red's vision so swam with pain. There were lean-tos and tents that ran nearly to the base of the tower, and the smell of mouldering death hung everywhere. Beyond that, his reeling senses grasped nothing.
It was not until they had reached the Broch itself that he was able to recall himself. The doors to the great stone tower were abnormally small for so large a structure, but when they opened they did so with all the weight and strength of old oak. Red was yanked through them before he could gather his wits, crying out anew.
Pain pulsated behind his eyes, in his ears, on every inch of his flesh. He’d have sooner been raked by hellfire than be dragged another step.
As if sensing his surrender, the warriors cast him cruelly to the hard floor. He found his muzzle in warm straw, blowing dust, and slowly began to gather his faculties as he fought down the pain.
It was dark in the Broch, full with smells of filth and equine sweat. There was a stench of death, too, not quite so profound as it had been outside but ever-present nonetheless. Dozens of voices fell silent when the tower’s denizens took note of this new pony’s presence.
Steel rasped on leather and Red’s body jolted with pain. He was aware of someone taking his sword. The voices rose again in awe, no doubt marveling at the reflection of torchlight off the blade, or at the glitter of the ruby in its pommel. He didn’t care. They could have the sword so long as they left him to lie in peace. Maybe if he didn’t move the pain would fade.
Silence returned to the Broch. Red could hear the breaths of a hundred ponies, each hitching in their throats. Somewhere a pony said the word "Equestrian" over and over.
“Bring him here,” a deep voice rumbled from across the room, crushing Red’s hopes of respite. The other voices quieted to mutters.
Red groaned. More hooves took hold of him and dragged him on his belly across the dirt floor. By this point he didn’t even have the strength to protest the rough treatment. It was all he could do to keep from whimpering.
He was relieved when his captors hurled him back to the straw at the other end of the room, only to be forced up to his haunches a second later. He hadn't even caught his breath yet.
Red felt more than saw the Shetlanders bow. It was the sound of a full room pressed down by the weight of a single pony, silent but heavy. Some cowardly part of him wanted to bow with them. A braver part was tempted to ask “do you treat all your guests this way, or just couriers?”
Were he a true questing knight, full of dare and vinegar, he might actually have said the words. Instead he kept his mouth shut and tried not to squirm when a warrior pressed his own sword against his throat.
When his eyes adjusted to the dark he found himself sitting before a raised stage. Above, towering in an enormous carven throne, reclined a grulla stallion the colors of ash.
The lord wore entire animals worth of furs. Hair like silver velvet obscured most of his face. An iron helm covered the rest. That helm was adorned with a hideously huge set of downturned antlers, bone-white and bristling with prongs like spears. They stretched out to either side beyond the span of any pony.
Equally imposing guards flanked the throne on either side, two of the biggest stallions Red had ever seen and both silent as statues. Their armor alone must have outweighed him. And behind them lurked attendants wearing animal furs of their own, at least a dozen. A goblet hung in the air before the ashen lord’s lips, green with the aura of one of those attendants.
“Father.” Bar stepped forward from behind Red. He spoke formally, or at least tried to through a hoarse throat.
Ashbane pushed the floating goblet aside. It receded into the shadows along with his attendants, hidden by the arms of the wooden throne.
“What is an Equestrian doing so far north?” asked the reclining Lord. It sounded like an accusation.
"Stormwind spotted him on the road. On High Hill. We intercepted him just in time.”
Ashbane lifted his head just enough for one of his orange eyes to be seen through the helm. “Stormwind tells me you were beset by Wrothkin.” For the time being he pointedly forgot the Equestrian at his hooves. “What happened?”
Hushed whispers filled the room at the word Wrothkin. Red was tempted to turn his head and see just how many ponies were at his back, but the sword at his throat pressed too tightly.
Bar rolled right over his father’s question. “He claims to be an envoy from the Sisters Alicorn. We were beset as I was making my interrogation.”
“An envoy?” questioned the Shetland lord, suddenly taking interest. “What message could the alicorns possibly have for me?”
“The message is not for you,” Red interrupted. Time to get this over with. His heart was hammering. He’d give them whatever answers they sought and be done with any misunderstandings. “The Princesses--”
“Speak when you are spoken to,” Ashbane snapped. "If you truly are a messenger, then act like one."
Red shrank down, cowed by the booming voice and menacing antler crown. His sword shaved a tiny patch of hair off his throat.
“Now,” continued Ashbane, settling back into his throne and nodding toward his son. “You say… you say you intercepted him on the road? And the Wrothkin attacked immediately? Festering bile...”
“We… I could not leave him to die, father. We did not know him to be...”
“Bile!” Ashbane repeated the curse. “You acted without my consent! Equestrian or not, you ran off into the woods for a single pony. You have cost lives, Bardiche!”
Bardiche stared unmoving at the floor.
The silence stretched on until Ashbane shifted in his chair. His voice softened. “Who did we lose?”
“Hoarlock. Timber Haft. And Hiltstrong.” Bardiche didn’t look up from the floor. “And Roanblade took two arrows.”
There followed a brooding silence while Ashbane absorbed the news. His chin sank to his chest, and a hoof rose to meet it.
The sword at Red’s throat dug deep, until he was afraid to breathe. He needed to swallow. But he knew how sharp that edge was. Just another pound or two more pressure and they’d be sweeping red straw out the door for hours. He stayed still.
At length Ashbane pulled himself upright in his throne and set his hooves to the armrests. Not a lord but a judge, high and dark in the chair, mighty in his wrath.
“I’ve known Hoarlock since I was a colt,” he said. His voice was so soft and raw it did not seem his own. For a moment Red thought it came from somepony else. A borrowed thing, taken from an older and quieter stallion.
The silence stretched on.
“...Damned Wrothkin. Damned… It’s been too long since their last visit. I should have known we were overdue.”
Red’s curiosity got the best of him. “What in the hay is going on here?” His jaw tap-tapped the blade. “Overdue for what?”
Stars flashed behind his eyes. He felt the pain two shakes later. It blossomed from his left ear where one of his captors cuffed him upside the head. The sound of it rang in his ears for a lifetime. He blinked it away and wondered just how much abuse he’d taken over the last few days.
He did his best to stare into Ashbane’s glowering orange eyes.
“Are you so ignorant, Equestrian, that you do not know of our besiegement?”
Red gulped. His sword pressed slid against his throat. “I’m afraid I don’t, m’Lord.”
“I am not your lord,” Ashbane rebuked. “You are a vassal of the Sisters Alicorn, and would do well to remember that.”
Red fought back a scowl of his own. It wasn’t as though he could forget whom he served. He wore their colors on his flanks.
“This is Shetland, little pony,” said Ashbane. “Not your beloved little land of little meadows and little forests and little princesses. How are you here if you do not know of our affairs? Were you sent to find out? Well then, hear me Equestrian. I will enlighten you on a few matters that are... unique... to this neck of our proud kingdom.”
Ashbane spoke harshly, his voice measured. He didn’t shout as he had before. If he still felt the same rage and pain as he had with his son, he didn’t show it. He motioned for something, and the unicorn mare from earlier floated the goblet back to his lips. He drank deep before continuing.
“You know of the Draconequus’ rule, yes?”
“I know of Discord.” Red fought down his tone.
“For a hundred years since, my people have been harried by the fallen woodkeepers... the Wrothkin, as they call themselves.”
It had antlers.
“You mean the deer?” asked Red.
Ashbane spat on the floor. “Fie! They are not deer. Not anymore. They are murderous cannibals, bent solely to the purpose of eradicating my people. For generations they have waged war on us solely for the fact that no antlers grace our heads, and we, in turn, have waged war on them.”
He seemed to reflect for a moment.
“Tell me, Equestrian. Have you ever seen war?” His hooves dragged on the armrests of his throne and his teeth thrust forward. “Not the simple combat of two ponies, but the clash of armies. The storms of swords. Have you seen arrows fall like rain?” His voice sharpened and his eyes did the same. “Have you killed to survive?”
Red tried to follow, found he couldn’t. In an instant his thoughts were gone away to another time and another place. To the screams of the dying. To an earsplitting din of steel on steel.
He could remember even years later what it felt like. He could still feel it. The resistance of the poor colt’s throat as his blade passed through it, taste the stickiness of the blood as it gushed into his face. The image of two armies, spears and banners held aloft as they rolled into one another on that snowy field, was one that would never leave his nightmares. The war spells coming in to… to...
"Like a waking nightmare it was, and even the memory of it so vivid and real and terrible that no other nightmare can compare. They call it a victory, but the dead are beyond the counting, the kingdom burned and all is lost. I remember only the howling and gnashing of teeth, a hell beyond description, as if we stepped into the farthest and most insane realm of the Fae and emerged under such panic and ruin that our minds merely invented the battle as a means to cope.
And yet in the morning I stood in the blood-red shallows with His Majesty, and together we wept at the mere sight of the battlefield... how did I ever pass through such a hurricane of arrows when it seems every inch of the field is part of a corpse and every inch of corpse stuck with a feathered shaft... What monsters did we become that we should even survive, much less break the ranks of the enemy?"
-- From the journal of Sworn Shield, entry entitled: “The Night of Lightning” --
“I have been to war, yes.” Red sliced off the memory as quickly and cleanly as he could. It was like an oozing limb. He couldn't let its infection spread. “And I’ve killed ponies.”
No, that’s not quite true. He looked away. “...More than a few.”
Ashbane spat again. Disdain. “Well, Equestrian. I have not.”
The lord reclined in his chair, letting Red stew in the revelation before continuing. How could a pony like that never have seen battle? he could only wonder, confused.
“But then...” he began, only for Ashbane to cut him off.
“I have never killed a pony. Not by my own hooves and not by intrigue. This surprises you, yes? But I have fought the Wrothkin... and they are far more terrible than any mere pony. Perhaps you have seen war. But you have not seen our war.”
Ashbane sounded weary. This was a pony who stood between his people and death’s door, Red realized. The weight of old battles lingered on him like a mantle. But he did not seem to know regret.
He seemed proud.
The Lord of the Broch leaned forward again in his chair, fixating Red with a furious stare.
“Did you know, little envoy, that all deer once had antlers? Buck, doe, it made no difference. All were magical. But that changed when the deer took up arms against one another. They waged a war more terrible than you or I have seen. They broke their magic, broke nature itself... And when it ended, what deer survived were fractured ghosts of their former selves, set against one another in eternal enmity. They withdrew from the world, and from one another, to live in isolated communes.
“That is how the Wrothkin came to be. They came here, to the Shadow Wood, and here... they devolved. Something happened to them, corrupted them. Now they eat flesh, drink blood, and adorn themselves with the bones of the slain. The females wear the horned skulls of their husbands. Even the animals of the forest flee before them, hunted just as we are. I have seen them run a boar to ground and tear into it like wolves.”
Red’s mind reeled, unable to comprehend. How could something like the deer fall so far? Were they cursed? He had no doubt that Ashbane was telling the truth. He’d glimpsed the Wrothkin for himself, heard their cries. But the revelation of their true nature... it was almost too much for him to handle.
Ashbane tapped the arm of his throne, regaining Red’s attention. “So you see, Equestrian, why my people live in this hillfort, surrounded on all sides by walls. We live at the end of the road, outside the reach of our own kingdom. We are the bulwark that holds back the Wrothkin. And we are overdue.”
His voice grew dry as he spoke so he took another sip from his cup, wetting his lips.
“As for what, specifically, we are overdue for… let us say the Wrothkin are a... seasonal problem. We are under perpetual siege, but though they lurk in the woods just beyond my clearing, only rarely do they come in force. And it has been well over a year since their last attack.”
He reclined for a moment, and seemed larger. Prouder. “That is not to say we are trapped here, however. On the contrary...” He pointed up at something behind Red. “We do very well for ourselves in this war.”
The hooves on Red’s shoulders slackened their grip, allowing him to turn.
The great hall was a sight of barbaric splendor, like a twisted parody of civilization. Long tables stretched from the stage to the doors, many of them packed with mares and children. Animal furs adorned every bench. Most of the room was shrouded in darkness, the rest lit by guttering firepits down its length and menacing candle-chandeliers that hung from the high ceiling’s support beams. Barbarous decorations were strung from the rafters.
It was with a start that Red realized just what the decorations were made of.
Antlers. They decorate their hall with antlers!
Moldering deer skulls hung everywhere. Candles flickered in their mouths, in their empty sockets. The chandeliers were made entirely of antlers and filled with candles or torches. There was no magic illumination to speak of here. Foals played in the dark with stained bones.
Horrified, Red turned back to the throne. He recoiled with the realization that such ghastly decorations covered even the wall behind Ashbane from floor to ceiling. An enormous skull hung from the back of his throne, not quite a deer, but not quite something else.
And he wore those vast, downturned antlers on his helm. Wider than the wingspan of Celestia. Wider than dragon’s jaws. What deer could wear those?
“You keep their bones?” Red’s voice cracked.
He faltered, tripping over his own words. Could he blame he Shetlanders if the Wrothkin were as bad as Ashbane claimed? Maybe not, but he certainly couldn’t forgive them. The Wrothkin were still deer, weren’t they? Fallen or not, that had to count for something. And he sincerely doubted they were operating under their own free will. At the very least, the bodies of the dead deserved proper treatment.
“This is monstrous,” Red finally declared, feeling the edge of his sword press harder against his neck. “Are you really any better than them if you make trophies of their bodies?”
Ashbane’s eyes flashed. Thunder struck the hall; his hoof hammered the arm of his throne with a resounding bang. “This is Shetland! Your Equestrian ideals do nopony any good in these hills. Only cruelty can pay back the monsters at our door. Only steel! Fire! Now silence!”
Attendants shirked away, cowed low. The green mare sprang to the lord’s side, her eyes wide.
The anger slipped away and the room fell silent. Ashbane slumped in his chair. He looked away from Red as though he were trash, beneath notice. “Your lesson is over.”
Ashbane motioned for his goblet, then turned to his son while he drank.
“Bardiche, fetch the thanes. Only those on wall duty need stay outside. I’ll send for them when the others have eaten.”
Bardiche bowed low enough that his beard brushed the dirt. “I’ll stand watch with them myself until it is their turn to feast.”
“No, stay. I wish to feast with my sons tonight.”
The axepony frowned. “You have many sons, father. Some are on the walls.”
“I meant my trueborn sons, Bardiche. Please, do this much for me. If I lose you tomorrow, or the next day... I want to at least have had this last feast. Is Angharad on the wall?”
“Aye. She is.”
“Bring her too.”
Bardiche gave another bow, more reserved this time, before trotting back across the room. Red’s ears perked up at the sound of the doors being flung open. As the son was leaving, several other ponies entered.
The cries of a stallion in agony could be heard from across the great hall.
“Woanbwade,” muttered one of the tall guards standing at Ashbane’s side, horrified. Red did not fail to notice the lisp.
The hall fell silent save for the cries of the wounded thane. Red turned his head enough to see several ponies carrying the poor wretch between them, wrapped in dirty woolen blankets. The stallion pawed at the air with one leg, spewing unintelligible curses.
Lord Ashbane made to rise, grunting, but was stopped by the hoof of the unicorn mare that held his cup. He sat back, harried but resigned to his seat, and shooed the attendant away.
It took nearly a full minute more for the thanes to carry Roanblade across the hall. He only stopped gibbering long enough to beg for them to stop and set him down. They did so at the foot of the stage. Red could make out bloodstains in the blankets even in the dim light.
“Hellfires,” mumbled the warrior holding Red’s sword.
One of the unicorns that carried the thane now stepped to the throne. Red recognized him as the blue unicorn who cast the entropic shield during the long run. He looked exhausted and there was blood smeared down his neck, but he was uninjured. His twin swords hung on either flank.
“We’ve done all we can for him, my lord. He took a shaft in the flank before we even left the woods, and another in his side. His shield took the brunt of the second, but... well... Both wreaked terrible mutilation. If he survives...”
Roanblade just laughed a bloody laugh and lay still. His teeth were blood spotted. Every heave of his chest was a rattle and a rasp.
Red knew what he was hearing, and what the unicorn implied. He’d seen what one arrowhead could do to a pony, and Roanblade had run almost two hundred yards with arrows in him that put spears to shame. It took a masterful Equestrian doctor and powerful healing magic to repair that kind of damage.
“Set him by the hearth,” Ashbane commanded. “Gently now. Renvers! Where is Lush Renvers?”
The thanes gathered around their stricken brother, each taking a corner of the blanket beneath him before tottering off to a large fireplace on the right of the stage. Roanblade protested weakly but could do little besides shout and groan in pain until they set him by the fire.
Ashbane motioned for his attendant again, having seemingly forgotten the Equestrian sitting before him. Red’s hind legs were about to go to sleep. He had no idea how long he’d been sitting on his haunches, but he could feel blood glueing the quilted crupper to his flank. The pains in his sores had dulled, at least. His skull still throbbed.
The attendant was at her Lord’s side in an instant. She lifted the goblet. Ashbane waved it away but set one enormous hoof on her shoulder, caressing her mane. Judging by the mare’s age, Red judged her to be his wife or concubine.
“Verdant. My sword. Please.”
The hushed voices filling the great hall fell silent in reverence. Even Roanblade bit back his rasping moans. Ashbane’s two massive guards stepped back out of sight, bowing as they went.
Red’s ears swiveled, curious. Was he about to witness some sort of ceremony?
The green mare returned, an enormous sword balanced across her withers. Red’s eyes almost bugged out of his skull at the size of it. Ashbane was big, at least a head taller than most stallions, but he wasn’t that big. The blade was smeared with black soot, and easily longer than any pony. Surely it was only ceremonial?
Ashbane scooped up the sword in one hoof, wrapping his foreleg around the hilt to stand the blade on its point. Red couldn’t help but notice that the pommel was carved in the shape of a horse’s head.
With a grunt of exertion, Ashbane pulled himself out of the throne, his hooves thundering on the stage. One hind leg curled up beneath him, withered and obviously lame. He kept a foreleg on the hilts to compensate for the maimed limb. His guards and attendants poised just beyond the throne on all sides, ready to catch him at a moment’s notice.
And then Ashbane opened his wings.
It was with a start that Red realized the Lord of the Broch was a pegasus. His wingspan must have been two ponies across in his prime. But Ashbane was no longer in his prime. When he unfurled his enormous wings Red could see that only one remained intact. The other stopped short at the wrist, severed by some cruel blade. It was less than half the length of the other, a stump of limp feathers.
Ashbane bowed his head low and two attendants crossed the stage. They took hold of the antlers on his helm, lifted the iron bowl from his head, and bore it away into darkness. He shook his fraying mane, let the tattered remnants of it spill velvety down his neck.
Red almost looked away at the sight of Ashbane’s face. It was pink and wrinkled with melted flesh. Burn scars. One whole ear and the forelock of his mane were gone. The corner of his lip twisted in a permanent snarl.
Ashbane raised his free hoof into the air. Once he might have been among the largest ponies Red knew. Even aged and broken, there was muscle under those furs. The reverent silence of his ponies was broken by a wild cheer. Red’s guards stomped their hooves, bellowing praise.
“My children!” the lord roared, his voice stretching to the end of the hall and back again. “Let every family sleep warmly this night. Let every thane gird themselves for the coming days!”
The assembled Shetlanders cheered again. Pegasi leaped the rafters and howled among smoke.
Ashbane patted his chest, then swept a hoof down the intricately patterned blade of his sword. There was an anger in his scarred face, a set to his jaw that sent a shiver down Red’s spine.
“By this, my father’s sword, and the sword of his father before him, the sword of my ancestors… the sword of Nomare the Wanderer... I declare tonight a night of feasting, and tomorrow a day for war!”
Another cheer. By now, scores of warriors had filtered in from outside and taken up their places all around the room. They jumped on the tables, shouting at the tops of their lungs. Bloodlust filled the air. Red could smell it.
Lord Ashbane’s gritty bass lowered an octave, silencing the roar of his people. "Steel your hearts and bodies! It is only a matter of time before Shetland calls once more upon the strength of our necks."
The Broch rattled in its foundations. At the next collective shout rang steel, aglow with fire as though from within, as from every warrior’s heart. Red felt it in his chest, accompanied by the rising cheers of the other Shetlanders. The whole floor shook beneath the pounding of their hooves.
“And when Shetland calls, we shall answer.”
It was several minutes before the cheering died down to a dull roar. Red’s ears were ringing. By then the ponies on the stage had rushed to a breathless Ashbane’s side and began helping him down from the stage. The green mare, Verdant, took his sword and hauled it away. At the same time a number of thanes dragged a table into the space just behind Red. They set it perpendicular to the twin rows of the other tables, as if it were a capstone to a great arch.
The firepits running down the length of the room blazed to life while mares prepared the feast, already laying out bowls of oats and hay for the swarms of ponies to whet their appetites on. Several stallions appeared as if from nowhere rolling an enormous barrel onto the stage. More barrels followed. Ashbane’s throne was hidden in moments.
“Move,” one of Red’s guards growled in his ear, yanking him to his hooves. He was dragged away, teeth gritted against the pain, as Ashbane limped to his personal table.
Red hadn’t even been given the chance to explain his business in the griffon kingdoms.
They met Bardiche behind the torchlight, an armored mare at his side. His namesake hung loosely from his saddle, crescent blade a-bright with orange gleam. The mare had her leg intertwined with his. They stopped mid-conversation, jaws clenched tight at the interruption that must surely be the Equestrian’s fault.
“What should we do with him, Bar?” one of the guards asked. He prodded an elbow into Red’s side.
With one leg that was thick enough to be Red’s neck, Bardiche dragged the guard to one side. Up close he towered over the other Shetlander. They stood nose to nose, Bardiche looking down. Red had to strain his ears over the noise of the feast to hear what they said. Thankfully the lord’s son couldn’t whisper worth a bent straw.
“Put him somewhere out of sight. Under guard.” Bar pulled his comrade’s forehead to his own. The guard’s horn rested in his mane. Neither pony blinked. “Nopony touches him. Not until I've had a chance to speak with him myself. Is that understood?"
The guard nodded.
Red breathed a sigh of relief before he was led away.
“Lucky buck.” The guard returned. He and the other hauled Red through a doorway.
The stairs to the upper floors of the broch turned out to have been built inside its outer walls. It was a cunning design, Red noted as he was dragged up flight after flight. His wounds blazed agony before they even reached the second floor. By the third he knew what Roanblade felt.
Red grit his teeth and focused on counting the landings, tried to ignore his raw sores and the building headache. It didn’t help that one of the thanes had him mane in teeth and was apparently trying to dislocate his neck.
He was close to vomiting when they reached the sixth floor. He hurt so badly, he wasn’t even sure if he could open his eyes. I’ve gone soft, he told himself. Pain like this wasn’t any worse than the agony he’d endured for years during his training. It didn’t even begin to compare to how he’d felt during the Centennial Solstice Tournament. And yet here he was, sore from running just a few measly miles and wishing he could pass out because of a few cuts, a possible concussion and...
Oh, right. He’d forgotten about the blow to the head. Not a good sign.
One of the thanes pinned Red to the wall while the other hauled open a door rotted to grey and rust. Hinges screamed like windigos and a breath of shocking cold hit Red full in the face. It was dark, and the circular room inside was tiny in comparison to the great hall below. It was also far colder.
Red’s nose hit the floorboards at the same time as his eyes. He stood on his ears for a moment, groaned, and toppled over onto his back.
Had they just thrown him?
He found himself looking at the faces of his captors. One of them, the unicorn who spoke with Bardiche, had Red’s sword and its golden scabbard. He had the stronger build of the two, and the longer horn. There was a dangerous glint in his eyes when he leaned close. Those eyes sparkled with fresh tears.
“Hiltstrong was my brother,” said the thane inches from Red’s face. His grimace was misery. “And Timber Haft was my friend.”
Red suppressed another groan. He knew where this was going.
His magnificent Equestrian blade pressed against his throat. Again. This time the Shetlander held it in a magical envelope, his silver horn alight with yellow magic.
“Don’t kill him, Hornwin,” said the other thane. He still didn’t look any less murderous than his friend. “Bar’ll beat eight shades of guts outta you.”
Hornwin displayed remarkable control of Red’s sword. It didn’t move at all when he turned to the other thane and shot him a glare. “I’m not gonna kill him,” He snarled. “He’s got to suffer first.”
Now the sword did move. Red blinked instinctively, the heavy ruby-pommel coming down hard against his temple with a resounding CRACK.
For a moment there was only a dull ringing in the swordpony’s ears, his eyes rolling slowly in their sockets. He lay completely still, unable to even make a sound. The pain crept up on him slowly, steadily building until finally it was a crushing agony that forced him to writhe and groan on the floor.
“Ow,” he managed to groan inarticulately after several moments of blinding agony. He had the feeling that he was supposed to be unconscious.
Hornwin was turning the longsword over and over in his magic, unperturbed by the fact that the Equestrian was still awake. “This is the best sword I’ve ever seen,” he said, his voice quiet but sharp. He slid the blade back into its sheath with only the faintest rasp. “Masterwork. Weight’s a bit off... too much in the pommel... Still. This is fine work.”
Red wasn’t sure if he was passing out or just surrendering to exhaustion, but the edges of his vision were growing darker. Within moments all he could see was Hornwin waving the sheathed sword under his nose. The other thane was just a fuzzy blur. He fought to stay conscious. He needed to stay awake...
“I swear by all the gods under the earth,” the unicorn was saying through gritted teeth, his snout inches from Red’s own. “I will put this sword through yer guts for the thanes you killed.”
Red gave in, closed his eyes. He was dimly aware of hooves clip-clopping out of the room when the door slammed shut.
“A Night For Feasting”
A pile of pony and armor stirred on the floorboards. Splinters ground into his neck, crackled in his mane. A moment passed while the pile’s thoughts slowly coalesced into consciousness. Then, a shiver running from one ear to the end of his tail, he blinked his eyes open and moaned.
The room around him was strange, at odds with the world he’d inhabited mere moments before. Where was he? This couldn’t possibly be his quarters in Everfree. And yet his surroundings seemed somehow familiar, as if from a half-remembered dream...
Red Pommel yawned, tried to rub the sleep from his eyes with the backs of his hooves. The movement seared, drawing taut every strained muscle in his body. As his vision cleared he began to recognize more and more of the chamber. He studied it, searching for some clue as to where he was.
To say the room was sparse was to undersell just how empty it truly was. Four blackened timbers dominated the center of the room, bent almost to snapping under the weight of the ceiling, with a square hole in the floor between them. Smoke tinted the air. A crude chimney, then. The only furnishings were a few wooden racks draped heavy with animal furs. They filled the room with an overwhelming stench of death and slow decay. Red crinkled his nose and tried not to breathe too much of it in. His throat felt scorched raw.
Other than that there was only a door, unbarred and unguarded, and a hole in the wall for a window. A stiff breeze rushed through, drawn to the open doorway. He shivered down to the bone.
Dragging his sluggish gaze up from the door, Red’s eyes fell upon the crossbeams of the low ceiling. It was a roof, he realized, noting the dilapidated thatching between the beams and cobwebs. So he was on the top floor of... the Broch? Yes, he remembered now how he had been dragged up the stairs and hurled bodily through the door. He also remembered being clubbed upside the head with his own sword. The spot was still tender, swollen.
He scratched his chin, a nagging question tickling the back of his mind.
How long have I been asleep?
It was early evening when the thanes left him at the top of the Broch, and now it was... midnight? He turned back to the window. Outside, tiny pinpoints of white flitted back and forth through a black sky, occasionally spilling through to melt on the floor. It must have been several hours at least. And still the revelry at the bottom of the tower had yet to cease. Dull noise reverberated in the floor. Why on earth were the Shetlanders carrying on so late?
Red stretched his icicle legs and rolled over onto one side. He sighed happily when his crackling spine thanked him. He wasn’t happy for long. A burst of pain lanced through his flank. He squeaked, kicked, his hindquarters arching into the air. There was a muffled crash and a wooden rack toppled to the floor amidst its bounty of furs.
“Bile...” Red wheezed, the swear harsh on his tongue. He tried rolling onto his other, less tender side.
He’d amassed quite the collection of splinters, he noticed. He peeled back the quilted barding from his flank and frowned at the sight.
What would Celestia think of him now, he wondered? He’d let his fetlocks grow unruly over the last week, and the pink half of his crupper was caked in blood, some of which had yet to dry. The wound itself didn’t appear much better, having reopened in his run to the Broch before spilling down one leg. Even his tail was matted with gore.
Red bit his lip, pulling back the edges of the gash. It was only a cut, he told himself. He’d been cut before. He’d been cut a dozen times. Without his auburn coat he would have been a roadmap of scars. But in the hills of Shetland, imprisoned in a tower, a mere cut could be a death sentence. He brushed away the splinters from the ragged edges of the wound and tried not to open it any further. For now it was all he could do.
It hurt to do even that, but pain was a familiar entity, something he’d grown accustomed to during his long years of training. His body just had to be reminded of that. He set his teeth and fought it down, cursing Everfree for its softness and cursing himself all the more for letting his years there dull him.
Unwilling to shed the warmth, Red folded the crupper back over his flank and jammed himself against the wall. There was one comfort in his dismal prison, at least. That being a closed-off chimney built between the wall and the staircase. It was a minor feat of architecture, and to a shirepony unversed in the construction of brochs and chimneys it seemed quite impressive. If he pressed himself close enough he found he could feel just enough heat escaping to soothe his joints. It was not lost on him that this was the same chimney poor Roanblade lay beside far below.
He couldn’t quite remember finding the little island of warmth after his captors left him unguarded, returning to their revels below. Still, he distinctly remembered it having been much warmer. Red wished for his sleeping roll. He rubbed his legs together for warmth, breath coalescing in the air to mix with miniature crystals that danced in the starlight.
Even with the warmth of the chimney Red shivered. Any colder and he’d start chattering. He was almost tempted to bundle up in animal furs, anything to stave off the bite of the cold. There were more than enough such furs scattered about the room.
But Red had already made his decision. He’d sooner freeze to death. It still turned his stomach how these Shetlanders could drape themselves in pelts. And many of those pelts were eerily similar in color to buckskin. The stories he’d heard back in Equestria were one thing, but finding ponies actually clothed in corpse hair was wholly unexpected. He resolved that the day he sunk to that level was the day he gave himself up for dead.
Of course, that day doesn’t seem far off, he thought. Another breath turned to fog in the air.
Red’s thoughts were just turning to the possibility of contracting pneumonia when there came a sudden noise outside the door. He tensed, ears swiveling toward the entrance.
The hoofsteps grew louder, the staccato sound of a single pony trotting at a brisk pace up the stairs. Red didn’t have time to get up before the trotting came to a stop and a Shetlander pushed his way into the room. The door screamed on rusting hinges.
“Ah, hello,” greeted the pony at the door. A smiled cracked wide under a beard of white. “Yew’re the Equestrian, then.”
He was a scraggly stallion, mane hoary with age, his watery eyes peering out with apparent interest under eyebrows like mustaches.
Red raised an eyebrow of his own, ignoring the pain in his face, and remained where he lay. Had this pony come just to stare at him, as Equestrians of nobility often visited Everfree to gawk at exotic foreigners? The thought was mildly disturbing.
“I am the Equestrian, yes,” the captive replied, repressing thoughts of being kept alive solely to play the part of a one-pony zoo. The thought of giving saddle-rides to cloying Shetland brats was beyond bearing.
“Enjoyin’ it up here?” the old Shetlander asked, nudging the door open a little wider. He was draped in an assortment of rags and furs, many of which seemed to be moldering. “By Isos, it’s cold, hmm...” He shivered.
Red shifted closer to the wall, unsure if he was still feeling its warmth or just suffering from hypothermia. He buried his cheek in the crook of one leg. “Cold? It’s freezing. Why are you up here?”
The Shetlander blinked sleepily. “I just want yer name. And shouldn’t yew be wearing some of these furs?” He gestured toward a rack.
Red cast a glance at his bloodied flank, wondering what the thanes would do to him should he defile their precious blankets.
“They won’t mind th’ blood.”
Of course they wouldn’t mind the blood, he groused. He searched for another excuse, then caught himself. Why do I even need an excuse? Nopony should wear furs.
“I’m fine,” he assured, perhaps a little more forcefully than necessary. “I’d prefer freezing to death over wearing the skin of another creature, thanks.”
The codgy stallion shrugged. “Suit yerself. Now, yer name?”
“Red Pommel. And you?”
A brief twinkle of the eyes. “Yew can call me Scop.”
Red propped himself up on one leg, shuddering when the warmer pockets of his body were exposed to the breeze. “Scop? What kind of a name is that?”
“A Shetland one,” the other pony replied, his white beard masking what might have been a wry smile. “It means storyteller.”
“Your parents named you Storyteller?”
Scop shook his head. “O’ course not. They named me Crying Thing and put a sword in my mouth afore I could walk. But not all of us ‘r meant to be thanes, so I took up the quill instead.”
Ah, a sarcastic scribe. Wonderful.
“Yew know...” Scop stepped further into the room, the floorboards creaking under his weight. “There’s really no reason why yew should be here. I mean, what on earth brings an Equestrian such as yerself to the Shadow Wood?”
Red propped himself up against the wall. Yes, it was undeniably cold. “As I told your Prince, I’m just a messenger.”
“Prince? ...Ah, yew must mean Bardiche. Excuse my ignorance. We don’t go by yer concepts o’ nobility up here. But go on. Where were yew takin’ yer message?”
“I was on my way to the Eyries,” Red continued, pointing his hoof in the direction he had decided was most likely to be north. “And I made the mistake of cutting through the Old Kingdoms.” He laughed humorlessly. “Thought it would save me some time...”
Scop arched an eyebrow and moved closer. He stopped a few steps short of the huddled captive. “Well that was a terrible stupid thing to do. Didn’t yew know it was dangerous up here? Yew’d have t’be a suicidal fool to trespass, especially when the Wrothkin are out in greater numbers each passing year.”
Red scoffed, tried to seat himself comfortably. Every inch of his body locked up with aches. “Never even heard of the Wrothkin before I came here,” he said, wincing. “I thought the colors of the Princesses would see me through. Stupid, I know... but...”
He sighed, put a hoof to his forehead. There was too much emotion seeping into his voice, into his behavior. He needed to stop that, to get a rein on himself.
Scop cast an eye at Red’s bloody pink crupper. “Foolish to trust in heraldry,” he said, then paused, scrutinizing the ripped barding. “That’s not a Wrothkin wound, is it?”
Red shook his head and vented a weary sigh.
A hoary eyebrow arched high over its twin. “Ah... so yew were waylaid on the road by more than just deer.”
Red nodded, shrinking further into himself. He wished he could fall through the floor and avoid answering that question. Suddenly seemed awfully convenient to have a hole in the middle of the room.
But the storyteller wasn’t stupid. He’d already figured it out.
“Yew killed ‘em, whoever did that?”
Scop plopped himself down in front of the humiliated knight. He was surprisingly spry for an old pony. “Listen, Red Pommel,” he said, his bored demeanor changing to one approaching concern. “Yer an Equestrian, and that means we’re supposed to be… less than friendly. But I’ve lived most o’ my life with the Wrothkin at my door. A conflict ’tween ponies means nothin’ to me.”
He turned his head, chewing at his beard. He seemed to be staring at Red’s blackened eyes and bruised face. “Unfortunately, not every Shetlander has forgotten the old grudge.”
It was Red’s turn to raise an eyebrow. He stared at the elderly stallion, at once confused and somewhat relieved. What were this Shetlander’s motivations that he’d side with a foreigner over the matter of murdered kin? Something didn’t fit.
“Scop, surely you can’t mean to tell me you came for a social chat. Why are you up here, really?”
The storyteller sat back, pawing at the tangles of his beard. “Well... I suppose yew could say I was just curious. I’m a collector of tales, a historian at heart. And ‘sides that, it’s my job to keep this Broch entertained. But I’ve run outta new stories. So, for yew to show up outta nowhere in all yer gold trimmings, well... yew provide a unique opportun’ty.”
Red saw what the stallion was getting at. “I see... So you want to know my story, then. Perhaps learn why I’m up here?”
Scop nodded. “Aye, that I do. I could use it to entertain the next crop o’ foals once yew’ve gone. Tell them about the time an Equestrian passed through.”
Red almost laughed. He managed a snort and half a smile. So the Shetlanders didn’t intend to turn him into a zoo exhibit. Unless they intend on killing me, or throwing me to the Wrothkin...
“Anyway,” the storyteller went on. “Yew don’t have to tell me anythin’, though I can’t see any reason why yew wouldn’t. I’ll leave yew to yer own devices if’n yew so desire.”
Red shook his head and permitted himself a full-on chuckle. “No, no, it’s alright. Might as well tell somepony. It’s not like I’ve anything better to do...” He shifted his haunches to a more comfortable position. “Though it’s not much of a tale.”
He took a moment to collect his thoughts before continuing.
“About a month ago, the Princesses received word that dragons were swarming into the North Counties, thick as flies. The griffons have always been in charge of keeping that kind of trouble out of our lands, but apparently they’ve been… er... slacking, as of late. So in the interest of finding out what the hell’s going on, I was sent to deliver a Dictum to the Eyries.”
He blew out a cloud of fog. “I was making good time, too. Or, at least I was...” He stared down at the blood on his crupper.
Scop frowned, still pawing his beard. “But why were yew chosen to make the trip? Surely the alicorns have some other means o’ delivering messages? Other ponies, perhaps somepony more expendable?”
“Well,” Red answered, mirroring Scop’s frown. The concept of expendable ponies struck him as callous and barbaric. “I’m the Master Swordpony to the Princesses, so I was the natural choice.”
“They don’t have a Master Messenger?”
“No, of course not,” Red rebuffed, though he’d asked himself the very same thing in his time on the road.
“And why are yew alone? Long journeys are dangerous, even fer a so-called Master Swordpony. Especially when yew intend on takin’ a shortcut through Shetland.”
Flustered, the swordpony scrambled to find an excuse. “Well, no, but I... I insisted on traveling alone for the sake of expedience. And it’s not like there was anypony else ready or willing to bring along. I mean, I’d have had a few of the Royal Guard, but they needed every stallion they could get to guard the Summer Solstice Tournament.”
“So yer just stupid.”
“No!” Red shot back, quickly growing irritated. It didn’t help that, in hindsight, he could plainly see how reckless he’d been. “They couldn’t spare anypony! And besides, the Dictum needs to be delivered before winter. There was no time to wait.”
Scop held up his hooves. “Woah, there. No need to shout. I was just pokin’ fun at ya’. Now, what’s this dictum? What good’s it supposed to do?”
Red threw up his hooves. In truth, he hadn’t the foggiest idea of the Dictum’s purpose. Words on paper weren’t exactly going to keep dragons out of Equestria, were they? If anything he assumed he was being sent to assess the state of affairs, perhaps see if the griffons were angry with ponykind. Maybe he’d been sent to lean on them a little.
That would explain it. Right?
There was a moment’s silence as Scop digested this new information. Red found himself stewing in doubt, wondering just why exactly the Princesses couldn’t send the message some other way. Surely Philomena could have delivered it? But no, the phoenix was too mischievous and easily distracted to make such a trip.
A memory flickered to life in the back of the Red’s mind. There were other alternatives, all of them more convenient than sending a pampered knight. There were organizations, people willing to speed messages all over the world. Most were expensive, but well within the limits of Equestria’s purse. For the right price, a hippogriff could have delivered the message within a mere span of days. A pronghorn could make the trip in a fraction of the time. Why couldn’t the Princesses have sent them in his stead? They’d made important deliveries for Celestia and Luna before.
Why me, then? Why would the Princesses choose me over pronghorns?
It just didn’t make any sense, not unless... Unless...
He froze, killing that thought before it could fully manifest. He couldn’t let himself doubt the Princesses, not when his first duty was to them and them alone. Besides, if there was one thing he’d learned since his rise to Master Swordpony, it was that the Sisters Alicorn always had a reason. If nothing else, he had to trust in their foresight.
Scop interrupted the swordpony’s musings with another question. “Now, yew say yer a ‘Master Swordpony’?”
“The Master Swordpony,” he replied, brushing away his doubts in favor of reassuring pride. “Foremost in all Equestria. I answer only to the Princesses.”
The old stallion perked up at that bit of news. He shivered, pulling his furs tighter. But to Red’s chagrin, he did not continue down that line of questioning. Instead he returned the subject to the swordpony’s errand.
“Interesting... Now, yew said somethin’ about dragons earlier?”
“Yes, dragons have been cropping up in the North Counties as of late. The griffons are supposed to turn them back before they cross the Eyries. Hay, the griffons are supposed to make sure the dragons stay locked up. Why do you ask?”
The Shetlander seemed to mull over the news for a second before answering. “Well... fer one, the thanes have been seeing a dragon in the skies for weeks now. Or hearing, anyway. And Stormwind -- that’s the pegasus who spotted you on the road -- he said he’s seen signs of other dragons further north.”
“That stands to reason. The dragons are crossing the mountains in search of new territory, I would think. No reason why they wouldn’t settle in Shetland as well as Equestria.”
“Aye. And a few months back some thanes showed up saying Boarholt was burned to the ground by a red drake. Took everything left inside. They say the King himself is worried, shoring up Thanehome in case of an attack. Why d’yew suppose the dragons are doin’ loose, anyway? What let ‘em out?”
The two ponies sat silently for a moment, pondering. The vapor of their breath mingled and evaporated in the chill air like shared thoughts made manifest. Red hadn’t dwelled on this question before. He’d merely assumed that the dragons made up their minds to leave, and now they were out searching for new warrens to settle. But now that it had been brought up, he couldn’t help but wonder if there was more at play than met the eye.
Before he could come to a satisfying conclusion Scop rose to his hooves, stretching his legs and back. “Well, it’s too cold up here fer an old pony such as myself. I think I’ll head back downstairs. They’ll be expecting some entertainment out o’ me soon enough.”
Red nodded and huddled closer to the wall. His teeth had finally started chattering. “Thank you for your kindness, Scop. Though, I was wondering... is there any chance you might bring me some food? I’m starving.”
The Shetlander paused on his way out the door, then laughed. “Why, I don’t see why yew can’t feed yerself. Come on down, we’ll continue our little interview where it’s warm, eh? B’sides, yew can’t stay up here freezin’ yerself to death.”
Red’s ears perked up, an escape plan already forming between them. “Really? Me, downstairs?”
“Sure, why not? Don’t worry ‘bout the thanes. They’re all drunk by now.”
The storyteller walked out the door, disappearing from sight. His voice called up a moment later, echoing in the stairwell. “Just don’t jump me from behind and make off into the night. The Wrothkin make even worse hosts than ol’ Ashbane.”
Red’s escape plan withered and died on the vine before it even bloomed. He rose to his hooves dejected and limped after the Shetlander. Scop was right. Prison or not, the Broch was a far safer place to be than the woods. And he couldn’t exactly trod all over the old stallion’s hospitality.
The stairwell was cramped and dark, made all the more oppressive by cobwebs spilling from the low ceiling. As it ran the circumference of the entire Broch, with landings for each of the six floors, it was also a long way down. Red quickly lost sight of Scop’s white tail. For a gawky old scribe he was surprisingly quick on his hooves. It didn’t help that Red’s legs were stiff as stumps, and wounded on top of that. Every sore on his body he felt twice, the cut on his neck finding especially new and interesting ways to stab at him.
But the Shetlander was waiting patiently for him when he finally reached the bottom. He’d produced a quill from his rags and was busy chewing on the end while he made small-talk with a young mare that Red recognized as one of Ashbane’s attendants.
Red looked beyond the two Shetlanders to how absolutely packed the hall had become. Several hundred ponies swarmed up and down the rows of benches, and a score of smaller round tables had appeared out of nowhere since he’d gone upstairs. The entire room was lit bright orange, blazing with freshly lit torches and antler chandeliers. Mares bustled everywhere carrying barrels and fresh food. The firepits were still blazing, stewpots suspended over their flames. The air, meanwhile, was sticky with the smell of beer and the still-lingering stench of rot.
Suddenly, the idea of showing his face downstairs no longer seemed entirely sensible. Red tried to back away and beat a retreat, but he was a moment too late.
“Ah, there he is!” Scop exclaimed, throwing his leg around Red’s shoulders. “Good t’ see yew finally made it down.” He turned to the green mare he’d been speaking to. “Lush Renvers, this is Red Pommel.”
The swordpony nodded, deciding against offering his hoof to the attendant. He’d been trained in formal greetings, but he had no idea how they worked in Shetland and he was unsure as to the mare’s station. For her part she merely cocked an eyebrow and remained silent. She did smile, just a flicker at the corners of her mouths.
With a few rough shoves Scop directed Red into the great hall and away from Renvers. “Come now, come now. Let’s introduce yew to a few drinks. I’ve still got plenty of questions fer yew, master ser swordpony!”
They weaved their way through the crowd to a small table next to the deserted expanse of Lord Ashbane’s stage. Favoring his injured leg, Red was barely able to keep up with Scop’s lively pace and was almost crushed by several drunken thanes. He picked his way through as best he could, sticking close to the wall. But there was no way to stay truly hidden, and by the time they made it to the table he could almost feel the eyes boring into his back.
Nearby thanes stared and pointed, drawing more attention to the ragged Equestrian that had blundered into their midst.
“Ignore them,” muttered Scop almost as an afterthought, settling himself onto a bench. “They're just curious. We've never seen an Equestrian before, now have we?”
Red supposed that was true.
Still wary, and uncomfortably aware of how many weapons each Shetlander wore, the swordpony eased himself into a seat with his back to the fire. His coat tingled, the sudden warmth of the fire kneading the tension out of his shoulders. The sensation was a welcome distraction from the stress of the previous few weeks and for a moment he felt his eyelids drooping in anticipation of rest.
He couldn’t help but notice there was no sign of Roanblade. Not even a trace of blood on the floor.
There were two occupants already at the table which Scop had chosen, both of whom looked up at the swordpony’s intrusion. One of them, a mare, stood and disappeared into the crowd as soon as he sat down. The other, a glowering stallion, merely turned to Scop.
“What’s going on?” the young stallion asked, his short beard dripping with foam from the drink before him. “I thought the Equestrian was supposed t’be locked up?”
Scop shook his head, dispelling the lad’s fears with a fond pat on the head. The lad didn’t look to appreciate it. “He’s under my care, don’t worry yerself. Anyway, somepony's gonna hafta show him around eventually, so why not tonight?” Then, pointing to the captive, he made an introduction. “Scrip, meet our honored guest, Red Pommel. And Red, meet Wistful Scrip, my apprentice and soon-t’-be successor.”
The two stallions eyed each over, guarded but not unfriendly. Scrip was a sinewy pony, hard-edged and tense, the sort who appeared to be much older than he likely was. Youthful features belied the intensity of knowledge and wisdom in his purple eyes. Those same eyes stabbed, probing up and down Red’s body, their gaze as sharp as knives. It was as if he took in everything he saw in an eyeblink and could peer straight into the Equestrian’s soul.
Red tried to keep his posture loose and confident, but under the Shetlander’s scrutiny he might as well have been trying to steal the crown jewels.
At length the apprentice storyteller stuck out his hoof, somehow smiling and glaring at the same time. “Well met, Red Pommel.”
It’s the eyebrows, Red realized, taking the offered hoof and shaking it firmly. It was true; Scrip’s eyebrows were as thick as mustaches, set into a permanent scowl. If not for that, he would have possessed a relatively pleasant demeanor.
“Our Equestrian friend here presents an opportunity,” said Scop when the formalities were finished. “He’s been kind enough to offer us his story while he remains our guest.”
The mare who had been sitting next to Scrip made a sudden reappearance, a wooden tray balanced across her back. Taking it expertly in her teeth, she set it on the table and began distributing full tankards.
“Ah, and here’s our drinks,” exclaimed Scop, greedily snatching up a mug of his own. “Now to business, eh? Thank you my dear.”
Scrip took a mug too, having emptied his own, and set to drinking it down with slow, rhythmic sips.
Red peered into the mug that was left for him, his stomach churning at the sight of what appeared to be the urine of a severely dehydrated cow. He was reminded of just how dehydrated he was himself, but didn’t dare risk a taste. He slid the mug aside.
Across the table, Scop finished draining his own tankard and slammed it down with a hearty plunk. His beard sopped with foam, running in rivulets into his fur cloak. “Ahhh,” he sighed, letting his drink settle for a moment before finally returning to the promised interview. “Now, Red, tell us about yerself. What’s it mean to be the Master Swordpony o’ Equestria?”
A nearby thane, his ears turned surreptitiously to the tiny fireside table, choked on a mouthful of beer. For his part, Wistful Scrip almost kept a rein on his own reaction, but a break in his rhythmic sipping gave him away.
Red shifted uneasily, searching for a suitable answer that wouldn’t paint him in too pompous a light. He tried not to think about the fact that at least a dozen Shetlanders were eavesdropping on him. Some weren’t even bothering to be stealthy about it. The words of his mother reached out from distant memory to chide him. ‘Do not boast, child. Boasting is the surest sign of pride and arrogance.’
And arrogance is the surest way to downfall. I know, mother. I know.
Regardless, a spark of pride blazed to life in his breast, spreading a tinge of warmth through the swordpony’s bones. This was a subject he enjoyed, and one he rarely found the opportunity to discuss.
“Ah,” he began, smiling. “Now there’s an interesting question. To be a Master Swordpony means many things, especially in the service of the Princesses. In many respects I am their bodyguard, but I also serve as their chief advisor in all things martial. Furthermore, in the event of any challenge made against them, I serve as their champion. There's also a clause in there about control of the Royal Guard, but I've never been the right fit for a commander.”
“Sounds like a heavy burden to bear,” said Scrip. One of his eyebrows was a hair higher than the other.
Across the table, Scop gave a little nod and steepled his hooves in front of his snout. “And what did it take for yew to become a Master Swordpony, hmm?”
Red paused, turning to look down at his hooves. His eyes focused on something in the middle-distance. “Practice,” he replied after a moment’s wistfulness, his smile fading slightly. “Years and years of practice. I always wanted to become a knight, ever since I heard the stories of Dusky Oatis and the heroes of old. Spent my whole life training for it.”
He trailed off, eyes dead to the world.
“And was it worth it?” asked Scop.
Red blinked, returned his gaze to the Shetlander in front of him. His smile returned in a flash. “What? Oh yes, definitely. I hold Dusky Oatis’ office now, what more could I want?”
Scop frowned, but didn’t push the matter. He quickly directed the interview back to its original course. “So anyway, what does it take fer somepony to become a Master Swordpony? Are there tests, perhaps? Trials and tribulations?”
Red gleamed, his moment of self-doubt forgotten. “An excellent question. To earn the title, one must first learn the many forms of swordplay. It’s only when they can show their mastery of each of these forms, usually in a tournament, that they may be awarded the title. It’s usually bestowed by another Master Swordpony, but it can be given by any ranking noble if they so desire."
He chuckled. "There’s also a load of bunk about having to be born to nobility and then knighted, but... well, in my case they made a generous exception.”
A twinkle appeared in Scop’s eyes. “So yew are neither nobleborn nor a knight?”
Red shook his head. “No, no. I am a knight, or at least I was. Though, I suppose it wasn’t an official knighthood. I was a hedge knight. That is to say, I was a knight without Lord or title.”
“Interestin’...” Scop nodded again, motioning for the Equestrian to continue his story.
He got no further than opening his mouth before a hoof slammed on the table. Tankards jumped into the air. Red almost went backwards into the fire, jumped and banged his leg against the underside of the table.
When he looked up, he found himself staring into the flinty eyes of an enormous fur-wrapped warrior.
“So, yew’re the Equestrian, eh?” the thane asked, his voice throaty and loud so his fellow thanes could hear him. He was a solid brute of a stallion with an ocean-foam beard and muscles that rippled beneath a coat of blue. A chainmail hauberk stretched over his withers, secured with rope as if it had been cut open to fit. Over that was a skinned deer draped across his back, the hide pierced in a dozen different places. His bald head only served to complete the image of brutality made flesh.
Red swallowed his surprise and nodded. “Yes. I’m the Equestrian.”
The flinty eyes narrowed, boring straight into the swordpony’s. Red met the gaze and stared back, noting the sword buckled at the thane’s flank. A sudden pain dawned on him at the thought of his own sword. Not having its reassuring presence close to hoof was like being naked in the cold. Worse than that, even. He felt deprived of a limb.
Some of the raucous noise in the great hall died down as ponies ponies turned their attention to the contest of nerves taking place beside Ashbane’s stage. Nearby thanes rose to their hooves, ever so slowly drawing a loose circle around the scene. Curiosity drove them more than anything, but Red remained wary nonetheless.
Slowly, the pitiless glare of the big Shetlander turned to the untouched tankard next to Red’s hoof. He regarded it for a moment, brows furrowing, before turning back to the captive. Then, a violent spark in his eyes, he thundered a challenge.
“What’s the matter? Our mead too strong?” His breath smelled of beer. Rotten beer.
Red raised an eyebrow, confused and offended. “Excuse me?”
The Shetlander leaned in close, teeth bared, practically spitting in the swordpony’s face with each syllable. He talked like he was chewing on mouthfuls of ice. “I asked... is our mead too strong for your kind?”
Mead. So that was the name for the dehydrated cow urine. Red bared his own teeth and stuck his snout into the Shetlander’s face so that the bristles of the thane’s beard tickled his nose. Unfortunately, or perhaps luckily, Scop jumped in just before the swordpony could make a reply.
“Too strong?” the old storyteller shouted, as if unable to comprehend the words. “Too strong? Why, Red here claims he’s never met a mug o’ mead in all his life that he couldn’t handle!” His eyes shifted from one pony to another before he leaned in close and whispered, "Not that I believe him, o'course. Yew ought to prove him wrong."
The swordpony tensed, expecting the first punch to come from the left. Every muscle in his body coiled painfully tight for the fight, his thoughts already turning to the other thanes gathering around him. How many could he take on if they all came at him at once? Perhaps if he disarmed one, kicked another into the fire...
But the expected attack never came. Everypony had turned their attention to Scop, all of them suddenly off-balance and confused. The immediate vicinity of the hall seemed to hold its collective breath, tension building in the air until it was almost palpable.
The foam-bearded thane looked from the storyteller to Red and back again, fire in his eyes.
Red realized he was standing. He didn’t even remember getting up. His legs tingled, ready to catapult him straight into the barbarian.
Then, unexpectedly, the thane’s beard split into a huge smile and teeth flashed in the firelight. He laughed, softly at first, then louder until it became a booming guffaw. The laughter spread. Soon their little slice of the hall thundered with it as thanes joined in all around.
“Well then!” the warrior finally finished, clapping Red on the shoulder with a hoof the size of a shield. “So you think yerself a mighty drinker, o’ masterful swordpony? Well, whatever swill yew Equestrians call mead could never compare to our brew! How about yew back up yer boasts and try some, eh?”
Red opened his mouth to protest, only to find his words had all escaped. Completely flabbergasted, he turned back to Scop and Scrip. What had they just gotten him into? The two stallions were chuckling into their mugs, exchanging knowing glances.
“It’s a challenge,” said Scop in what amounted to a stage whisper. He stopped for a moment to suck the foam from his white mustache. “He’s challenging you to a contest.”
Red’s stomach lurched. “A contest?”
“Aye!” one of the nearby thanes replied. He clapped the big warrior on the back. “Drink the cud-chewer under the table!”
The burly thane dropped onto the bench next to Scop, clearly ready to oblige his friends. Ponies closed in on all sides, jostling for position around the table. Somepony shoved Red back into his seat and slid his mug into his hooves. Yellow-brown liquid sloshed everywhere. His mind reeled, unable to comprehend the ninety degree turn in events he’d just experienced.
How could this get any stranger?
“Well now,” said the bald-headed brute across the table, taking a mug from another thane and raising it to his lips. “Let’s see just what yew Equestrians ‘r made of.”
Scop leaned across the table, whispering into Red Pommel’s ear. “I should warn yew, swordpony, they call this particular drink a skull cracker. I helped make some of it!”
He wasn’t entirely sure how exactly it happened, but at some point in the night Red Pommel made the transition from loathsome prisoner to honored guest. Thanes patted him on the back, shoving mugs under his nose and calling his name like an old friend.
It probably had something to do with the massive quantities of alcohol being consumed, he realized.
The local drink, mead as the Shetlanders called it, was as strong as it was delicious, and somehow he’d managed to quaff several whole flagons of the stuff. It actually tasted distinctly of white wine and honey once one got around the bitterness. Red enjoyed it. If it weren’t for the fact that he was looking up at the world from the bottom of a well, he felt sure he could have drained an entire barrel.
“Ha! For a fop, yew sure can hold yer drink!” a strangely familiar blue-ish thane was shouting, before he laughed so hard he went red in the face. He pounded Red’s shoulder from across the table with a massive hoof. Then, slumping, the Shetlander’s snout met the table with a painful WHUMP. A wild cheer went up around him.
Red was dimly aware of somepony pressing another mug into his hooves and he set to draining it just as he had the others. All around him thanes were drinking and singing, cavorting about the hall. Laughing, he dragged his sopping muzzle out of the new mug long enough to join in on a few bars of one of their drinking songs. He couldn’t help himself. The Shetland ballads were as catchy as they were fun to sing. It hadn’t taken him long to pick up on the humor in them either, though the mead certainly helped.
This particular song was a quick and raucous one, less music than it was a pounding chant. It had something to do with old hags turning into young mares. Or was it the other way around? Sometimes the mares of the Broch joined in with a chorus about codgy old stallions acting like colts of pasture.
Still laughing to himself, Red dunked his muzzle back into the mug. It came out with a beard of foam, running down his chin and into his already soaked lamellar armor.
He remembered now how he’d come to be accepted into the celebration. Scop had been plying him with alcohol... probably working up toward prying personal information out of him. One of the thanes, seeing the Equestrian out and about, had issued some sort of challenge. And somehow, Scop had diffused the situation by arranging a drinking contest. Red wondered if he’d won, then realized his head had fallen to the table. It was cold and wet against his ear.
Nearby, several thanes crowded around their own table, cavorting and drinking heavily from mugs that sloshed all over the floor. One of their number, a unicorn, cast dice on a wooden plate while the other thanes shouted bets and curses. From Red’s point of view they were all tilted to one side, as if dancing around on a wall. The sight made him feel more than a little unwell.
Head spinning, the swordpony hauled himself back upright and tried to regain his bearings. Scop was nowhere to be found in the jumble of bodies that logjammed the aisles. But a few tables over, just outside the light of the fires, he could see Ashbane’s son Bardiche necking with a female thane.
The two warriors held each other like the world was ending. Bardiche hulked over her, her mane under his chin, and he whispered in the mare's ear.
After a time Bardiche looked up and caught Red staring from across the room. The thane's soft expression hardened immediately, eyes raw. Before Red could look away, ashamed at having stared at such a personal moment, somepony jumped in front him.
“Pommel!” the intervening thane shouted, setting a hoof on the bewildered swordpony's shoulder. “Tell us the one about yew and the paintin’ again!”
Red blinked owlishly, head spinning. “The one about the paintin’?” he asked, his words slurring together.
Somehow the thane understood him. Apparently everypony spoke the same dialect when they were drunk. “Yeah, yeah. Yew fought a paintin’! Inna castle!”
The Equestrian’s eyes widened, memory returning in a flash. He swayed, sat up mostly straight and draped his front legs across the table. A small crowd materialized around him, pressing in with dripping beards that shook with laughter. Red didn’t recognize a single one of them, but from the looks in their eyes he’d obviously been telling stories for quite some time. Normally that would have worried him, but he was more than well buttered now and as a result had lost touch with his sensibilities.
“So there I was, right?” he began, pausing for dramatic effect only to forget where he’d left off. “Er... anyway, I wuz jus’ walkin’ down this big ol’ corridor--”
Red shrugged in answer, then went on. “Anyway, there’s all these paintings o’ famous ponies, right? An’ some of ‘em are… uh, enchanted-like, so they can move aroun’ a bit. Well, one of ‘em was a paintin’ of a knight. And as I’m walkin’ along the thing shouts a challenge at me!”
The word ‘me’ turned into a protracted belch. The table shook with the pounding of hooves and wild laughter. Red plowed headlong into the rest of the story, heedless of the guffaws drowning him out.
“So, I tells this painting... ‘yer just paint on a wall,’ right? And what’s paint on a wall gonna do to me? But the thing just leaps straight outta its frame an’ before I know it I’m parryin’ and riposte’ing up and down the hall like some kinda fool!”
Red made wild jabs with his hooves while he spoke, as if he were maneuvering a sword. One of the thanes caught a hoof in the throat and fell backwards out of his chair, choking and laughing at the same time.
Out of nowhere a booming voice cut through the commotion, silencing Red before he could finish his tale. The noise in the hall fell silent almost instantly. Every head in the room swung around to the source of the shout. Red followed the gaze of one of the thanes and found himself looking at the head table, where Lord Ashbane sat.
But it wasn’t the formidable pegasus who shouted. He sat quietly, sipping from a goblet held before his lips by a wife’s magic.
To Red’s surprise the shout had in fact come from none other than Scop. The old stallion had finally reappeared. He stood across the hall, underneath the largest of the antler chandeliers. As everypony watched, he clambered atop a table and raised one fur-wrapped leg. A firepit cast his shadow on the far wall, flickering wildly at the edges.
The showponyship was impressive. A bit dramatic, but impressive.
“Thanes, mares, foals!” he shouted. His voice carried surprising weight. Every conscious ear turned to him, immediately enraptured. “Tonight I’ll tell yew all a story. It’s a good one, as old as the hills an’ thrice as fine as gold!”
There was a loud cheer, which Red joined in on wholeheartedly. Helmets and mugs and at least one pony flew into the air to land on unprotected heads around the room. A tankard clattered off Red’s shoulder. He barely noticed.
Scop let the cheering die down before continuing. Red had to admit, the storyteller was good. Rather than try and shout over the crowd, he pulled their attention to him like a master, slowly lowering his voice until they were forced to remain quiet just to hear him. Even Red was soon leaning forward, ears pointed to the speaker in rapt attention. He’d seen a musician in a tavern use the same trick to reel in a crowd once, now that he thought about it.
It was only when all had fallen silent that the power of Scop’s timbre returned, echoing in the hall as if shouted from the lungs of a titan.
“Between the time when Altostrata was swept from the heavens, and the rise of the Draconequus, there was an age undreamed of... and unto this, his blade wrought of stars, rose the mightiest of all heroes...”
Red listened with eyes wide, the mug in his hooves forgotten. Ponies all throughout the hall leaned in, anticipation mounting.
Scop let the tension build for another long moment before he dove back into the tale. A knowing grin flashed behind his beard.
“...Ironwing! Destined to bear the jeweled crown of Equilonia, he who slew the Ice Kings, whereupon all the world fell beneath the beating of his wings. It is I, yer wordsmith, who alone can relate to yew his saga. Listen carefully, and let me tell yew of the days of high adventure...”
The winter had lasted for nigh on a decade, a season as unending as that of war. The corpses of trees hung heavy with years of ice, their boughs splintered by the weight of the snow that fell day and night. For food, ponies starved or made forays into the dark woods in search of rare magical plantlife. Fires burned at all hours wherever there was shelter, entire forests disappearing under the axe in the course of months. It seemed that the days of ponies were numbered, and in their desperation they turned on one another. No end lay in sight.
Then, one day, it somehow grew worse. A blizzard stronger than any before rolled down from the mountains, ice spirits devouring all in its path. Kings froze in their castles, and castles collapsed under the ferocity of the storm. Left with little choice, ponies fled south by the hundreds like so many before them, desperate to escape the unnatural cold. But they would find no reprieve from the terrible wrath of the Maelstrom.
The Ice Kings had come at last to reap the land. The time of ponykind was at an end.
Or so it seemed.
Ironwing, soon to be the last hope of ponykind, was little more than a foal when Altostrata was torn asunder by angry winds. Cast from their sky home, the scattered pegasi roamed the land in warbands, fighting for food, and into this world he was thrust from his earliest days. He lived by the sword, constantly on the wing from those that would do his people harm. Before he was nine years old he had been driven from his clan, his father fearing the young stallion’s growing might. But Ironwing was not deterred. Where others would have died, he not only survived but thrived.
Now, as the Maelstrom descended on the land with icy teeth, the pegasus warrior rose from parts unknown, a broken sword held high. Warriors from his father’s tribe confronted him in the tundra, one stallion against twenty, and fought with him a terrible battle in the sky. At last, in the highest of clouds where naught existed but never-ending gray and no sane pegasus dared fly, only two warriors remained: Ironwing, and his father. They fell upon one another, battling with such ferocity as to rival the gale winds around them.
In the end, Ironwing proved more than a match for his cruel sire, and with only his broken sword he struck the older warrior down. In the struggle he cast his father’s body against the rocks of Guldor Tor, shattering the very pinnacle of that ancient rock.
But the battle had taken its toll and Ironwing was wounded. He plummeted from the heavens, wings frozen to his sides, and would surely have died if not for a unicorn and an earth pony that plucked him from the air. They took him in to heal his wounds and soon befriended him. They were Pyrefrost, a mage of immense power, and Baymane, a thane so beautiful and ferocious that winter itself melted before her very gaze. And as the Maelstrom swept the castles of the ponies to the ground, these three rose to stand defiant before it. At their backs stood the remaining pegasi of Ironwing’s tribe which he had gathered together, now bound in loyalty to him and him alone.
At Guldor Tor the ponies made their stand against the ice spirits. Together they fought off the harbingers of the storm in a terrible battle that lay waste to the land all around. And while the pegasi wrestled back the storm, Pyrefrost sundered the beasts within with his fire magic and Baymane split the ice with her thundering hooves. The storm retreated before their ferocity, defeated for a time.
As the news of the victory at Guldor Tor spread, pegasi flocked to Ironwing’s banner. Soon Pyrefrost and Baymane sent out word for the unicorns and the earth ponies to march to the hill as well, to make their stand against the Ice Kings. And march they did, everypony who dared brave the terrible winter. They gathered around that hill, even as the Maelstrom fell upon them again and again. Where the first battle had been long and terrible, each successive battle grew larger and more terrible than those before, until the blizzard froze even the combatants where they stood.
But though the ponies repulsed each attack, they were not winning this war. It seemed the full might of the Maelstrom’s host would soon fall upon the tiny army, and the ponies had already taken heavy losses. They would not win this fight. The army of the Ice Kings encircled the hill, the eye of the storm focused on that broken crag. One more assault would break them.
But hope was not lost. Seeing how the united might of ponykind could outfight the forces of winter where the individual races could not, Ironwing formed a plan. That night, he approached Baymane and Pyrefrost with his broken sword, and told them of this strategy. Together, the three ponies remade Ironwing’s sword from the core of a fallen star. From Pyrefrost’s magical fire it was forged, pounded into shape with Baymane’s mighty hooves, and Ironwing cooled it with the breath of his wings. They named it Isos, the pegasus word for “equal,” for it was equal parts of all three ponies.
With Ironwing wielding Isos at their head, the remaining ponies at Guldor Tor assembled for the final battle. Before them the mustered host of the Ice Kings stretched for miles, from wolves with icicle teeth to towering frost giants, to ice-carven horrors the likes of which have not been seen before or since. And with the weapons of nature itself on their side, they fell upon the hill in greater force than ever before.
But this time, when the armies of the Ice Kings crashed over the defenses of the hill they found that the ponies were unbreakable. The fire of their unity burned forth, and Ironwing led his pegasi in a charge that sundered the enemy. Holding Isos aloft, burning like a star, no monster could stand before him without being swept aside.
And behind this charge came the unicorns and earth ponies, pouring into the gap, driving the evil of winter’s might before them. In an hour the whole of the enemy had been routed, thrown back on all sides of the hill, and the ponies gave chase across the land. To see them fight was to see valor and desperation personified in every pony present, armed only with unity, hoof-made weapons, and basic magics against all the might of evil.
The Ice Kings, however, would not be defeated so easily. They swarmed in the skies, three horrific beasts in the shape of ethereal horses, their immense bodies fashioned from the bones of winter itself. From their cold throats tore a bitter scream of anger and evil, turning back the ponies that had defied them. Hundreds froze in their tracks, and the gale winds brought the Maelstrom back upon the land once more.
But then, Isos ablaze with blood-red fire, Ironwing erupted from the heavens and tore into the Ice Kings from above, untouched by their attacks. Their ancient bodies he cut apart, their gray clouds he sundered before his wings, even as they pummeled his body with spears of ice. He faltered not, beating them back again and again, until with a surge of red light the magic of all three pony races converged on the point of his sword and lanced into each of the Ice Kings.
All three fled before his fire, but it was too late. Ironwing overtook them over the Eyries and slew them one after another, the red fire of Isos consuming their bodies, their clouds, their storms. Their death knells shook the land, ringing harshly in the ears of all that were left alive to hear it.
Before the unified might of ponykind, the everlasting winter at long last had been broken. Ice retreated from the land, the snows ceased to fall for the first time in a decade, and the gale winds scattered to the four corners of the world. Those ponies that stood frozen on the battlefield shook off their shackles of rime and marveled as long-dormant seeds grew from soil that mere hours before was hard as stone.
In celebration of this amazing victory, Ironwing built the broch of Guldor Tor on the hill’s summit, proclaiming it the capitol of a new land... Equilonia! And with the snows clear, the ponies at long last returned to the lives they had known before.
The unicorns retreated to their holds, the earth ponies to their fields. The pegasi longed to rebuild Altostrata and return to their homeland in the clouds, urging Ironwing to lead them.
But winter returned when the races split, as cold and bitter as ever before, freezing the land solid in a single night. Ironwing rebuffed the scattering of the ponies, calling them back to Guldor Tor. Together with Pyrefrost and Baymane, he ordered all ponies to live as equals on the ground. Truly, it seemed that the pegasi could never return to their sky home, and the unicorns could never live apart from the earth ponies. Only their unity kept eternal winter at bay. Should they separate again, it would return.
And so, the ponies of Equilonia crowned Ironwing their Lord, the King upon the Rock. And from that day forth, the ponies of the land lived as one, with the flaming sword of Isos to guide them, never to be taken by everlasting winter ever again. No enemy could conquer them, no army defeat them, and no king ever since has matched the pegasus warrior we call... Ironwing.
The Broch settled into silence, each word of Scop’s tale ringing from the walls.
Red Pommel blinked, his vision swimming, startled by the sudden reintroduction to reality. He could still see Ironwing and the Maelstrom in his head, their battle playing out on the frostbitten hills of ancient Shetland. He felt his gorge rising at the smell of beer, but the story weighed it back down and turned his thoughts away from nausea.
In the brief moment of silence before the Shetlanders broke into cheers, Red found himself reflecting on what the story had meant to him. In his drunken stupor it was nearly impossible to keep it all straight in his head, but he grasped at snatches of clarity nonetheless, trying to make sense of it all. It felt like his mind was a soup strainer and everything he’d just heard was leaking out through the holes. Only one memory stood out, refusing to drown in the sea of alcohol that swirled in his gut.
The Ice Kings. They swarmed in the skies, three horrific beasts in the shape of ethereal horses fashioned from the bones of winter itself.
There was something familiar about that line, something Red couldn’t quite put his hoof on. A half-formed mental image of actors in a play came to mind, something he’d seen as a colt...
Then the Broch erupted into an ear-splitting cheer, all three hundred Shetlanders lending their voices to the shout. The noise drowned out any semblance of clear thought in the swordpony’s mind, his snatches of clarity sinking beneath the waves. The half-formed images of memory were gone, leaving only a feeling of awe and confusion. He found himself cheering along with everypony else, clapping his hooves together with all the gusto of a drunken farmpony.
Across the room Scop took a short bow and snatched up a mug from the table he stood upon. Draining it in one hearty gulp, he tossed it aside and flourished a leg after it. “Thank yew, thank yew all! Now lend yer ears to our young skald, Wistful Scrip!”
In a flash the old storyteller leaped from his beer-stained stage to disappear amongst the crowd. Drunken revelry resumed, trays full of food and fresh beer passing between the tables once more.
Out of this chaos rose Scrip, a large musical instrument slung across his back. Moving like a mountain goat, he hopped up next to the barrels that hid Ashbane’s empty throne.
The din in the hall died down as quickly as it had begun when Scrip took a seat on the stage, all ears turned to him as they had his teacher. The respectful silence only deepened when he produced his instrument and set it on the floor, eyebrows furrowed with concentration. It was a strange instrument, appearing to be a mix between a harp and a lyre, save that it was laid flat like a washboard. By the time his hooves moved to play it, the hall was quiet enough to hear the drop of a feather.
Scrip plucked the strings with all the tenderness of a lover, brushing one hoof across the breadth of the contraption so gently that even in total silence it could scarcely be heard. The sound seemed to dance in the air, holding for a moment before it disappeared. To Red’s alcohol-saturated imagination, the chord was the color of ripe wheat. Golden.
Satisfied, Scrip looked up at his expectant audience with a smile stretching from ear to ear.
“Sons and daughters of the Broch,” he began, sweeping one leg over the room. Then, looking to the foremost table, “And father, greatest of all.”
From his seat at the head of the central table, Lord Ashbane raised a hoof and nodded for Scrip to continue. His burn scars glistened in the firelight. A short cheer swept the hall, other hooves rising into the air all around the room. The noise pounded at the back of Red’s eyeballs, forcing an exhausted groan out of his chest.
“We have lost ponies today,” continued Scrip. “Let them know we have not forgotten them. Let this song… let this be a tribute to their names.”
He puffed out his chest, flexed his legs, and cleared his throat. Then, after a moment’s pause, he closed his eyes and brushed his hooves back over the strings, sweet music dripping from them like honey. The dramatic display smacked so heavily of theatrics that Red couldn’t help but imagine that Scop was somehow to blame.
Scrip’s melody started slow and simple, a soft chime that drifted through the hall to capture the hearts and minds of everypony within. Like water it swelled, then ebbed, a sea at high tide. It pervaded Red’s mind, tickling his ears, drawing him in as he the tale of Ironwing had drawn him. But he never got to hear Scrip sing, for right as the young stallion opened his mouth to let loose a verse somepony else grabbed the swordpony’s attention.
It was Scop, of course. The elderly stallion was as stealthy as he was agile, it seemed. He slid up to Red’s table and cleared a space amongst the heaps of empty mugs and plopped down on a bench.
“My, yew look about ready to pass out. Enjoyin’ yerself, swordpony?”
For his part Red didn’t appear to be enjoying much of anything. His head gravitated back toward the comfortable puddle of mead on the table, lulled by each pluck of Scrip’s strings. His face, meanwhile, had taken on the pallor of a pony about to vomit.
“You Shetlanders,” he mumbled. “You tell the best stories...”
Scop arched a caterpillar eyebrow. “Thank yew, I suppose?”
Red bobbed his head up and down until he felt sick. “An’ the music!” he shouted, nearly taking the head off a nearby thane with a sweep of his hoof. “I ain’t heard music like that since... well, ever!”
“Ah yes, my student does possess quite a bit o’ talent with that zither. Just listen to him sing. Like a songbird, that ‘un.”
“Zither?” Red’s cheek inched closer to the table. He belched, suddenly aware of a sharp pressure in his bladder.
“You know, the lap harp?” replied Scop, incredulous. “I woulda thought they were commonplace. Nary a broch in Shetland without one. What kinda instruments do yew have in Equestria if yew don’t have a zither?”
The more inebriated of the two ponies made a half-hearted shrug. “Y’know. Harp. Lyre. Lute... Some other stuff. All sorts o’ stuff, really...”
“Is this yer first time drunk?” asked Scop. He frowned and eyed the swordpony cautiously, scooting further across the table just to be sure.
“Naw, naw... I been drunk before. Plenty o’ times. Just...” Red grabbed an empty mug and peered into its depths, struggling to keep his eyes straight. “Never been very good at it.”
“Good at what?”
“Bein’ drunk, tha’s what.” Staring into the mug made Red’s head spin. He dropped it to the table. “They tell me... they tell me I always do somethin’ stupid when I’m drunk...”
“Hmm... Yew don’t look so good. Do ya’ need to lie down?”
The swordpony blinked owlishly, mulling over the question for a moment. The vast quantities of mead he’d consumed had drowned his brain. Now it felt as if the last two synapses in his head were struggling to light a fire. In the rain. Without tinder.
He felt sick. His head was throbbing, his eyeballs burning. And he was tired. Ever so tired...
“Don’k feel s’good,” he mumbled. The two little synapses in his head gave up and fizzled out with a pop.
“Yew should take that outside, then,” said Scop, pointing to the door across the room. “Or better yet... woah, woah, not at the table!”
Red didn’t even feel himself vomit, nor did he feel it spill down his chest. “Ya’ know,” he began, eyes crossing. “I wouldn’t never talked to anypony as much as I’ve talked t’you? Why...” he hiccuped, slouching further toward the table. “I might even tell ya’ ‘bout the War...”
The swordpony’s eyes went blank. With nothing left to hold them up, his eyelids gave out and slammed shut. Then, as if the invisible strings holding him had been cut, he slumped to the table and went face down in the mead.
He slept like death, lost in the vastness of an ocean of alcohol.
All credit for the pronghorns goes to Jetfire and “Dangerous Business”
“Rope Swings, Marbles, and Everberry Pie”
Dawn unfurled over Shetland almost imperceptibly, the broch stirring awake just before the faintness of early morning’s light. Ponies roused themselves from sleep and emerged one by one to attend to the day’s business. They moved freely throughout the compound, but they did not smile. They did not tarry. They did not leave the safety of the walls. They did not walk near the gate.
A blacksmith’s anvil rang out in the chill autumn air, sharp and clear as a bell. Steel rasped on whetstones. Armor creaked and strained as thanes slipped into it like second skins. For a people under constant siege, this was to be expected. But today was different from any other day. They were under siege, yes, but it was a quiet siege, a seasonal danger. It was not out of place for their children to come out and play despite the threat. The silence would shatter at the laughter of foals playing in the mud. It would vanish under the weight of a hundred little conversations. But there were no foals outside today. There was no play.
If one were to watch long enough, listen hard enough, they might begin to notice that something was wrong about that morning in Shetland. Something was missing, something that would have been taken for granted had it been there. It was hard to tell that anything was missing at all.
The most obvious absence was sunlight. If a pony looked closely enough, they would see that nothing cast a noticeable shadow within the clearing that surrounded the Broch. There was light, but it was dull, muted. The sun did not touch the land, nor could it. Heavy clouds blanketed the sky, as flat and featureless as a sea without wind. Beneath them the colors of the land were grey and subdued, as were the ponies living there.
And yet, somehow, the trees that hemmed them in were blanketed in shadow, casting darkness as the sun casts light. Theirs was an unnatural gloom, one that stretched in all directions over impossible distances to surround the clearing on every side.
Light was not the only thing that was lacking. There was a silence, too. Not an easy thing to notice, but vast and hollow so that once recognized it could not be ignored. No birds called from the trees. No small animals rustled in the underbrush. No laughter welled up from within the Broch as it had last night, nor did any voices soothe away the silence with idle chatter. Even the trees were quiet, their limbs still and lifeless in the dead air. Everything sat muffled, afraid to so much as twitch lest the things that dwelled in the woods chase them down.
No, this was not a normal day for the Broch. Thick smoke billowed in black columns from the thatch atop the lonely tower, twisting sinuously with the thinner smoke of smaller fires outside. Oily soot settled on the ponies as they moved tents inside the tower, to be replaced with tall fences leaning inward. Bundles of arrows began to stack up around forge fires. Warriors galloped to and fro, bent to a purpose.
All eyes were on the sky, waiting for arrows to fall without warning. Four unspoken words ran through every mind, gripping every heart. The thanes knew them well -- four words to bring hell.
The Wrothkin are coming.
Red Pommel knew he was dreaming. He had to wake up, but the nightmare wouldn’t end.
The taste of blood.
The sound of cut air.
Two walls of ponies lined up across a snowy plain, one ragged and outnumbered but possessed of a powerful determination, the other gleaming and well armed yet shuffling, uncertain.
Armored ponies rolling across the plain in long rows, the thunder of their charge rattling the bones of the earth itself. In the light of the snow their armor shone like suns and stars. Their banners whipped and snapped in the wind, the sound of ice cracking beneath hooves.
War spells arcing across the battlefield, tearing combatants limb from limb, soul from body, throwing up explosions of dirt, blood, and snow.
The resistance given by the throat of another pony to his blade, sheets of blood cascading from the wide-eyed colt, heart pumping out the last of his very life into the snow.
Steel flashed on all sides. Red spun and dodged, pleading for his foes to stop, but either they could not hear him or his voice had fallen silent. He was at the center of a storm of blades, caught between armies of magic and armor. There was no way to avoid them all.
Wild with fear, he lashed out and fought back. Blood gouted from wounds, ponies piled up at his hooves. He fought and killed and stabbed and sliced, a whirlwind of death. Not even armor could stop him. He screamed for them to stop fighting, that he did not want to hurt them, but they just kept coming, kept hacking and slashing. He gave up pleading. He simply killed. He kept killing until they stopped struggling.
“Stop!” they pleaded when he had cut the last of them down. “Don’t kill us!” And only then did he realize that the ponies before him were fighting only for their lives, desperation and fear burning in their dying eyes. Still he hacked and slashed at them without remorse, without mercy.
“Oh gods and the gods of gods, how I wish I could forget that night of lightning! In the darkness the arrows fell like rain and we could not see them, and by the dozens we fell with them. And then the first bolt of jagged white came down, slashing straight through that blackest of night skies, and now we saw them. We saw the enemy, as great a host as there ever was, rank upon rank upon rank charging across the fords. I do not even remember if it was they who charged or us, only the shattering of spears and the boom of thunder that drowned out even the screams in my own throat. Another bolt slashed down and I saw a frieze of black and white, ponies and pieces of ponies cast through the air, weapons tangled like a forest of branches in winter. Hot blood and screams and the bone-chilling shrieks filled the gaps between claps of thunder.
For an eternity we fought by the light of horn magic and scattered fires, all but blind, in such desperation as cannot ever be described in the tongues of ponies. For in that darkness there was no friend or foe, only kill or be killed.”
-- From the journal of Sworn Shield, entry entitled: “The Night of Lightning” --
He wanted to stop. He wanted them to stop. But he couldn’t, so he didn’t, and neither did they.
A desolate battlefield, corpses strewn in every direction. Some still heaved with breath, but their time was short. No amount of healing magic could save them, no doctoring could put them back together. Red sat amidst the carnage, blood streaming down his coat to run, steaming, into the churned, muddy snow.
A spear jutted from the ground at an angle some twenty feet away. Below the spear was a face, down as if in mourning. It turned to him, and only then did he wake up.
The first thing Red noticed when he awoke was that he lay face down on the floor. He groaned and attempted to roll onto his side, desperate to escape the smell of moldy straw. His injured flank complained, as did every other inch of his body, but he was too exhausted to care.
The second thing he noticed was that his skull had grown painfully small during the night. It throbbed incessantly. There was even a rotten taste in his mouth, sickeningly bitter, so he’d probably vomited before morning. Even worse, the cloying stench of urine and mead clung in the air, worming its way into his nostrils.
Finally, Red noticed that he had been dumped next to the fireplace. The warmth of it provided an interesting counterpoint to his nausea and headache. The bed of coals crackled and popped by his ear. He could already feel his gorge rising with the taste of smoke, and his awareness was still in the process of spreading out to encompass the rest of the hall.
He wanted to go back to sleep, but he knew he would not manage so much as a wink. It felt like being trapped in a prison of exhaustion and pain. No, it felt like a length of iron had been wrapped around his head and somepony was hammering it into a constricting band.
Grumbling and smacking his lips, the swordpony reached for his blade. It wasn’t there, but that wasn’t entirely surprising. Red remembered now that it had been stolen... but who had taken it? He couldn’t remember.
He wondered if this was how amputees felt after the war. His sword was like an extra limb. Even with it gone he could feel the ghost of its familiar weight on his back. It left an itch, a strange sensation of needing.
“So yer awake.”
The voice rang in Red’s skull like a hammer on a bell. He winced, his eyes snapping shut.
“Good morning... Scop?” It took him a moment to remember the old stallion’s name.
“Terrible morning, actually. Woke up with a crick in my neck. Yew don’t look so well either.”
Scop deposited himself by the fire, looking even older than he had the night before. He tossed in a few extra logs and stoked them with a long stick. The fire hung deep shadows in the wrinkles of his face.
Red sighed and closed his eyes, enjoying the tender caress of the flames. It was almost enough to relieve him of his pounding headache. Almost, but not quite. It made his hair feel warm.
“I’ve been wondering,” said the storyteller. “How exactly did yew make it all the way up here?”
“Pardon?” Red asked, throwing a hoof over his eyes to shield them from the brightness.
“The forest,” was the reply. “The forest should have killed yew long afore yew got this far.”
“Forest was pretty nice, actually,” Red muttered. His words came out in a sticky mess and he worried he might vomit again.
Both of Scop’s eyebrows jumped up to his receding hairline. “What do yew mean, nice? Yew came up the road alone, didn’t yew?”
“Yeah. Stumbled across it while I was following a stream. Can we shut up now? My brain’s in a vice.”
“I’m sure it is. Yew drank enough last night that I’m surprised it didn’t kill yeh. But the fact still stands... the forest should’ve put an end to yew.”
“Well, I was making great time until that run-in by the stream.” Red tried not to think about the pony he’d killed, but the memory was already there. What had he tried to say after Red’s sword bisected his throat? Had it been a prayer, a plea for forgiveness, or just a dying pony begging for their mother?
Maybe he’d cursed Red to a thousand headaches.
Scop’s hoof disappeared into the depths of his white beard, supporting his chin as he was chewing on his mustache. “Out of curiosity, did yew ever hear any voices? What about unusual birdsong?”
“Hmm...” the swordpony thought back, trying not to strain his aching brain. His eyes kept clamping shut when he wasn’t actively holding them up. “No, I never heard any voices. But I heard plenty of birds. They never really let up, actually. Kept me going.”
The Shetlander frowned. He blanched visibly under his coat. “What d’yew mean, kept you going?”
Red pried his eyes open and lifted the leg he’d been using for shade. “Well, if the birds were singing, I knew nothing dangerous was around.” He looked up at Scop to find the storyteller’s eyebrows hovering near the tips of his ears. “What? What’d I say?”
“Think back. When was the last time yew heard the birdsong?”
Red honestly couldn’t remember. The noise had just blurred into the background after a few days and he’d rarely noticed it afterward. “I don’t know. I know I didn’t hear it at the fork in the road.”
Scop shook his head, marveling. “Yew have no idea how lucky yew are, do yeh?”
“Umm...” Red looked down at his bloodied crupper and absent-mindedly touched one of his black eyes.
“Yew probably weren’t hearing birdsong.”
Scop held up a hoof, putting a stop to any consternation the swordpony might have expressed. “Lemme rephrase that. What yew heard probably wasn’t bird song.”
“Then what was it?”
“The Shadow Wood is full of all sorts of dangers. Some ‘r a bit more... sinister than others. Fer example... the Voice Stealer.”
“Voice Stealer?” Red echoed.
“Benign name. Terrible monster. It lures unsuspecting victims in, then kills them and takes their voice. Mimics it. So if it gets a pony -- say, by pretending to be a bunch of birds -- then it can mimic exactly the words spoken by that pony. Other ponies hear the voice, come looking... and bam! It gets them too. The last thing they hear is the Voice Stealer mimicking their friend’s dying screams.”
The swordpony swallowed, his throat going dry. He tried to think back to the road. Had he seen anything?
“It... it doesn’t look like a fox, does it?”
“What? No, more of a spider thing that swings around in the trees. Leaves cobwebs everywhere.”
Now the swordpony actually shuddered, remembering the cobwebs he’d been scrubbing from his face when that thane attacked him by the stream.
“Why didn’t it attack me?” he asked, thinking back to all the times he’d caught himself daydreaming during his long march through the woods.
Scop just shrugged. “I dunno, honestly. Maybe yew were just hearin’ birds. Maybe the Stealer never saw yew. Or maybe it was just waiting for yew to speak. I don’t suppose yew talked to yerself any while yew were on yer way here?”
Red shook his head. He wasn’t the kind of pony who carried on conversations with himself. Some small part of him wondered if he had just remained too attentive for the Stealer to catch him unawares. Deep down he knew that wasn’t the case.
Best not to worry about it, he decided. He was here in the Broch now, relatively safe for the moment. With that in mind he settled into a semi-comfortable position and tried to go back to sleep.
It was then the heavy hoof kicked him in the ribs. Red hissed through his teeth, his body wrapping around the instrument of his pain. It took him a moment to straighten himself out again. Trying to catalogue his various hurts was quickly becoming a chore.
Glowering, Red’s eyes traced up the fetlock-obscured hoof that had kicked him, up to the armored shoulder, the enormous tangles of beard...
“Get up,” snapped Bardiche. His voice carried an unspoken threat of violence. His eyes burned with that threat.
A pulse began to beat in Red’s left temple, pounding against his brain.
‘I don't want any of the thanes tearing into him until I've had a chance to speak with him myself...’
Ashbane’s son put great stock in looking imposing. He wore moldering animal furs layered over chainmail and boiled leather, all of it marked with old bloodstains and mud. His distinctive axe hung at his side within easy reach of his mouth, its crescent moon blade coming uncomfortably close to Red’s face. It was so close he could see the tiny patches of rust that pockmarked its surface. And he reeked. Not just of death, but of sweat and blood and smoke.
“I said get up,” Bardiche growled when Red didn’t move. He kicked even harder this time.
Red’s body contorted against his will, straining all the clenched muscles that Bardiche had missed with his kicks. Grimacing, he pulled himself shakily to his hooves.
“Well,” said the swordpony when the world stopped spinning. “You’re running a bit late.”
He had the urge to punch the thane in the mouth and gallop for the door, but even the irrational part of his brain knew how suicidal that would be. He was as far from the door as he could possibly be. At best he would lose a few teeth. With his knees trembling just from the effort of supporting his own weight, he wasn’t even sure he could throw a proper kick.
Bardiche’s teeth snarled yellow behind his bristling beard. Red tried not to show how intimidated he felt. The quivering in his legs wasn’t from fear, he told himself.
“What are you going to do, anyway?” asked the swordpony, swaying on his hooves. “Interrogate me for state secrets?”
A hoof cut him off. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t a punch. Instead it was Scop’s leg appearing in between the swordpony and the thane. The storyteller had a huge smile showing from beneath his white beard, visible only because of how badly stained his teeth were. It might have meant something if not for the fact that he wore it near constantly.
“Now hold on, colts,” he said, mollifying both stallions. “Bardiche, what’s this about?”
“I have questions for the Equestrian,” replied the warrior, pushing Scop’s leg down. “Questions which ‘r none of yer business.”
Scop’s eyebrow hopped up a few inches. “Well, that doesn’t sound particularly productive, nor does it sound particularly healthy.”
“Three thanes died because of him,” said Bardiche. His voice trembled. “Stallions I have known my entire life, killed for an Equestrian.”
“So yer gonna… what? Beat him to a pulp? Gouge out his eyes? Hang him by his tail? Those deaths weren’t his fault, Bardiche. They weren’t yer fault either.”
“Fires and thunder, Scop!” boomed the thane. Several nearby Shetlanders stopped to stare. “How was it not his fault or mine? He never should have come here and I shouldn’t have gone out so hotly to find him. Good ponies lie rotting in the mud because of him and me.” He pointed at Red and then himself for emphasis.
Scop just shook his head and sighed, all weariness and old age. “I don’t know what to tell you, Bar. Leaning on this pony won’t bring them back. And he certainly didn’t set out to kill those thanes, now did he?”
Ashbane’s son froze, unsure. His tongue snaked out to scrape dry lips, dragging his beard into his mouth to chew.
Scop continued. “Yer a good pony, I know yew are. I’ve seen it. Don’t do this.”
Bardiche worked up a scowl that could have melted ice, chewing angrily at his bottom lip. After a moment he looked away.
“He’s an Equestrian.” He looked helpless, confused. “He shouldn’t be here. I should have left him to the Wrothkin.”
“But yew didn’t,” said Scop, prodding the thane in the center of his chest. “As soon as Stormwind flew in babbling about a lone pony on the road, yew armored up and went after him. Yew went with the intention of reinforcing him, bringing him back safe. Yew went because he’s a pony. Just like you. Just like me.”
“I thought he was a thane!” Bardiche roared, stomping the ground. “We all did! If Stormwind had flown closer and talked to him, or if I’d just stayed here, three good ponies would still be alive, and Roanblade wouldn’t be suffering at death’s door.”
“But yew saved him. Yew brought him back.”
Red was beginning to feel more and more out of sorts. He was torn between the urge to lie back down by the fire or to speak up and ask if he had a say in the matter. Unable to decide, he simply stood where he was and tried not to make a sound. His legs creaked beneath him, each muscle a knot of pain. Was it just the hangover, or were the nearby Shetlanders fading in and out of focus?
“Because I brought him back, one of my father’s oldest friends is out there rotting. Or worse.”
“All thanes know the dangers of war.”
Bardiche stomped the ground again, hard enough for Red to feel it in his own hooves. Dust and hay jumped into the air. “Tear it all, listen to me! This Princess-loving Equestrian brought the Wrothkin down on us!”
“They would’ve come sooner or later anyway. Mebbe they were already on their way, eh?”
“No... I...” Bardiche shouted something incoherent and punched the floor. The fight left him with a heavy sigh. He turned to leave, eyes downcast. Only Scop stopped him, put a reassuring hoof on his shoulders.
Red blinked, trying to keep the two Shetlanders in focus. The iron band around his head was weighing down on him like a too-tight helmet, obscuring his vision and squeezing his brain. Try as he might, the ponies in front of him simply disappeared. He blinked again, forcing his eyes to focus despite the throbbing in his skull and the invisible claws raking his legs. In fact, he felt refreshingly numb, perhaps even a bit light-headed.
Was it just his hangover or was the entire broch turning over onto its side? Yes, it had to be the hangover...
“It’s not yer fault,” Scop said, patting Bardiche’s shoulder. He turned to the Equestrian at his side. “And it’s not Red Pom...” the storyteller’s eyes shot open and he lunged for the falling swordpony.
He was too late. Red’s face slammed into the floor, bounced once, and came to rest.
Red had no way of knowing how long he was unconscious. When he finally woke his head was pounding harder than ever, the iron band now full of nails. He groaned into the hay.
Muffled voices caught his ear, letting him know of Scop’s return. The old codger was accompanied by a mare, one of Ashbane’s attendants. Looking up through bleary eyes, Red dimly recognized her as Lush Renvers, the green unicorn he had been introduced to the night before. His skewed perspective tilted her sickeningly to one side, yet did nothing to offset her beauty.
“Yew’ll watch him?” Scop asked. He was somewhere outside of Red’s field of vision.
“Yes, yes. Go get some water.” Renvers shooed him away and knelt beside the fallen swordpony. Her horn flashed, sending a sharp, stabbing pain through Red’s skull.
He groaned and squeezed his eyes shut. The invisible iron band around his head was tightening, crushing him bit by bit, strangling the life out of his brain. He wanted to pass out, to throw up, anything to relieve the unbearable pressure.
“Open your eyes,” the unicorn demanded. When Red didn’t comply she forced one open with her hooves, prying back the bruised eyelids. The light of her horn was blinding and painful enough for the swordpony’s stomach to lurch, flaring right in the middle of his vision. He looked sluggishly to one side, groaning all the louder.
“Just as I figured,” she muttered. “Your pupils are two different sizes.”
“Concussion?” he managed to reply, the words sticky in his mouth. Lights danced in front of his eyes. “Shudda known...”
Red complied. He couldn’t move even if he wanted to. The iron band was bearing down on his brow with agonizing force now. He dreaded the beating of his own heart, each pulse a hammer blow tightening the band. There were spikes set into it and they were boring straight into his skull, straight into his dying, oozing brain.
Renvers peeled back the bloody pink crupper on the swordpony’s flank, wasting no time in taking a look at his injuries. Red flinched when she pried open the cut in his cutie mark.
“This is infected,” she said, sounding irritated. Her nose wrinkled involuntarily.
Producing a coarse, wet rag, Renvers vigorously scoured the wound. It burned like two different hells and the unicorn was nothing if not thorough. Red tried not to show his pain, but the best he could do was clench his teeth to keep from biting his tongue. Something like a whine eked out of him.
The invisible band tightened a little more. An awful taste rose in the back of Red’s throat. He held it back, unwilling to compromise his last shreds of dignity by vomiting all over a pretty mare.
A knight was nothing if not chivalrous, after all.
When she was done with the rag, Renvers sprinkled some sort of powder over the freshly cleaned cut. It was bleeding again, streaming across his belly into the dirt. The powder burned almost as much as the cloth, but by comparison it really wasn’t all that bad. A moment later she applied what he assumed was a poultice and a stiff bandage, his pain immediately receding to a dull ache.
Renvers was an accomplished healer if he’d ever seen one. Even in his concussed stupor he recognized that much. She moved with efficiency and experience, shucking off his barding in short order. It took some work to get the lamellar vest off, as his tangle of legs were too leaden for him to move on his own, but within moments even that was piled off to one side.
“Raw?” she asked, touching one of the chapped patches under Red’s legs. He muttered an affirmative and a moment later she was rubbing some sort of new, softer powder into his coat. When she finished with one side she rolled him over with telekinesis and started on the other. He kept his eyes shut the whole time, but it still felt like his brain was sloshing around in his head.
Normally he would have protested being levitated, even in injury. But this… this was almost nice. For a moment he was weightless, and all his pains faded. Coming back to the floor was almost disappointing.
“This cut on your neck is healing nicely,” she said, lifting his head to wrap a bandage around his throat. “Looks like you got lucky. Whatever did this was close to your jugular.”
“It wasn’t luck,” the swordpony grumbled, taking offense. Any other pony would have failed to block that thrust, much less kill the assailant that delivered it.
Renvers nickered and lit her horn up again. The glow was visible even through Red’s clenched eyelids, vibrant and green as a spring morning, just like the rest of her. “Whatever helps you sleep at night,” she muttered, a hint of teasing in her voice. “Hold still and let me have a look at your skull.”
While it was entirely unnecessary telling him not to move -- he really wasn’t going anywhere -- Red didn’t mind. Renvers had the kind of pleasant voice that could have ordered him to jump into a river and still earned his fullest devotion.
From behind the curtain of his eyelids he felt and saw the probing glow of her horn come closer. The iron band around his skull tightened possessively, pulling him away from the light. Then the pain was gone, replaced by cool tendrils of green that seeped into the cracks in his skull, soothing his inflamed brain like cold water on a burn. His eyes trembled open with a sigh.
Renvers had her lip in her teeth, focusing on her healing magic. In the dim light of the Broch her face was almost incandescent, illuminated as it was by both her shimmering horn and the fire in the hearth. She was beautiful. She was radiant.
“How did you get this concussion?” she asked when she was done, her breathing labored from the effort of the magic. Beads of sweat dribbled down her neck, but she ignored them. Instead, she busied her hooves with prodding around Red’s puffy eyes. It didn’t take her long to find the swollen knot underneath his ear.
Red winced. “Well,” he said, his words clearer now that much of the pain had been taken away. Light still hurt his eyes, but only slightly. “First there was the spear haft upside the head... then there was the pommel of my own sword. Twice.”
Renver’s frown was almost audible, even over the noise of the Broch.
“Hmm. Well, I have another in my care who needs tending, so take care not to remove those bandages. Some ponies might see it as a waste to use them on an Equestrian. Don’t prove them right.”
The swordpony nodded weakly, trying not to shake his mushy brain around in its cracked bowl. There was noticeably less pain, but an overwhelming exhaustion had replaced it after the initial euphoria of the healing.
Wait. “What of the other pony who rested by this fire?” he asked, reaching out a hoof to stop her. “Roanblade. The thane. Where is he?”
Renvers looked away, back to packing up her things. “He is downstairs, where he can be closer to my medicines.”
“Will he… make it?”
“That is for him to decide,” she said, turning briefly to meet Red’s eyes. She closed her bag and stood. “But I do not think he ran all that way for nothing. He’s of hardy stock.”
She stopped, turned again. Her smile was full and bright. “I will tell him you are thankful. When he wakes.”
“Thank you,” said Red, his voice barely a notch above a whisper. “Thank you so very, very much.”
She simply nodded. “I’ll come back and check on you in a bit. Get some sleep.”
Red watched her walk away, taking note of the curve of her flank beneath the animal furs. He’d been wrong, he realized now. The Shetlanders did have healing magic, though where they’d gotten it was beyond him. He was thankful for it, at least.
He lifted his head a few inches and tried to work out where Scop and Bardiche had gone. Despite the healing magic, his hurts throbbed and forced his head back down.
Rest it is, then, he thought to himself, grateful that at least he wouldn’t be disturbed. He shifted slightly, ignoring the headache and nausea while he made himself comfortable. His knotted muscles began unraveling almost immediately.
At least he could see most of the great hall from his place by the fire. The Broch was a flurry of activity and noise, everything from shouting thanes to laughing foals and the crackling of fires. There was no system to the chaos, no rule with which to make sense of it all.
Mares outnumbered the stallions now that most of the warriors were outside. They prepared meals and bustled everywhere, frustration apparent on many a frown. Older thanes here and there repaired armor or dispensed equipment to their younger brethren. Red couldn’t help but notice that there were more eyepatches than children.
More eyepatches than children... what kind of trouble had he gotten himself into? What kind of world was this?
There was worry on every face. Even the children would look to the door or huddle around their mothers when no friends were around to entertain them. The carefree festivities of the previous night were all but forgotten.
But it wasn’t all bad. Red’s gaze stopped on two enterprising thanes, fathers by the look of them, carrying coils of rope in their mouths. He watched with interest, noting how thick and heavy the coils were. A rope could be a weapon, if he really needed one. Tie something heavy to one end, maybe a rock, then swing it about and make a tail of it. He’d practiced that once, years ago.
The two thanes had other uses in mind for these lengths of rope, however. As Red watched, they tossed the ropes into the rafters and fixed up a crude swing. Within minutes their foals dangled from the wooden seat in twos and threes, laughing wildly. The fathers stayed only long enough to grab weapons and armor before heading back outside.
For a minute, whoops of laughter and joy overcame the dull bustle of the broch. One foal, a pegasus, scrambled up a rope and into the rafters, his tiny wings buzzing. At the top he threw up a little hoof and let out a victorious yell, earning cheers from his fellow children and adults alike below.
The sight took Red back to his own childhood. He had once stood on a swing much like this one, then had several colts push so he could practice his balance. But he had never actually played on one. He’d never just sat down and let himself swing.
A curious feeling built up in his chest. Was that a pang of... homesickness? He tried to remember a time when he hadn’t been training, when the idea of becoming a knight had not yet become an obsession. For some reason, he couldn’t remember anything of the sort. But when he thought back to his home, to the dirt and the fields, he wasn’t sure he wanted to remember.
“Maffs hyew fwish hyew pffurr a colt again, ffon’t it?”
As always, Scop’s reappearance was completely unexpected and mildly startling. His eyes twinkled with amusement, and for some reason he had a bucket of water dangling from his teeth. High-strung as he was, Red nearly jumped into the air. Even in the chaos of the broch, he wondered why he hadn’t seen the old stallion approaching.
“Pardon?” the swordpony asked. The word was becoming a mantra.
Scop sat the bucket of water next to Red’s face, letting out an exaggerated sigh of relief before popping his neck and back. With his mouth freed, he was much easier to understand.
“The swing. Seein’ foals at play. Always makes me wish I was a colt again.”
Red shrugged, or at least tried to shrug.
Scop’s eyebrows ratcheted up to a height that seemed to mean perplexed. “Somethin’ wrong, Red?”
“Nah,” he said. He sat up and took a drink from the bucket, cold relief washing down his throat. He hadn’t realized just how thirsty he had been. “I just never played on many swings as a colt.”
“What fer? Weren’t there trees where yew came from?”
“Yeah, there were a few. There was this one really big oak out in the field that we used for shade...”
Now that was definitely a pang of homesickness. Red blinked and shook off the memory. What was with all this reminiscing lately? Was it the concussion, or had he really gone soft? This was hardly the time or the place.
Scop didn’t push the issue any further. Instead he put his cheery smile back on and nudged Red’s shoulder. “So what did fair Renvers have to say about yeh?”
The beautiful green unicorn appeared as if from thin air, draping a hoof over Scop’s withers. He froze, as if the gesture was one of enmity and not familiarity. Red didn’t blame him. Lush Renvers’ scowl toward the storyteller was positively bloodcurdling.
“Scop, did you give this pony mead last night?” Renvers’ voice was cold.
Scop pursed his lips, giving his beard the appearance of being pulled into his mouth. “Well, er, he was thirsty. Why?”
Renvers sighed and put a hoof to her horn. “You daft idiot. You know what concussed is, right?”
The storyteller looked taken aback. He raised a hoof, waving it vigorously in what seemed to be dismay. “What? Well, he was thirsty!” he repeated. “I didn’t realize he was concussed, yew know. Just thought I was being hospitable, s’all.”
“Pfft,” Renvers all but spat in his face. “I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. Mead is not a cure for headaches. You were just buttering him up, weren’t you? Trying to weasel a tedious story or two out of him?”
Red protested weakly from the floor. “Hey, my stories are perfectly interesting.”
“I’m sure they are, but the fact still stands that you drank yourself under the table while suffering from multiple head wounds. I swear, stallions...”
Scop tried to apologize with a smile, but Renvers just sighed and turned away.
“If he needs to take a walk,” she said, her saddlebags chasing after her on glowing sheets of magic. “Then make sure you go with him. Make sure he doesn’t take those dressings off, and by the buried gods, keep some water in him. His breath smells worse than your beard.”
Scop took a stealthy sniff of his whiskers.
“It’s not that bad...”
Red chuckled and took another drink. Sun and stars, this water was too delicious to be real. It was clear as crystal and cold as winter stone. No d’Autumne could have compared.
“Feelin’ any better?”
“Heaps better,” said the swordpony, pushing the bucket away with a stiff foreleg. If he drank any more he’ld make himself sick. “Where’s my armor?”
Scop pointed to the heap next to the fire.
It took effort for Red to wrestle himself back into his leathers. The brown garment he wore beneath it was the hardest part, forcing him to sit up on his rear, his tailbone an angry knot of protesting.
“So,” he asked as he tugged on his vest. “Where did Bardiche get off to?”
There was something close to worry in Scop’s eyes when he frowned. “Well, after yer well-timed faint, I managed t’convince him to leave yeh alone fer a while. He’s gone outside somewhere to organize the preparations. Which reminds me...”
Red grumbled, tossing an uncooperative bracer to the side. He’d leave those alone for now. Tying them was a pain. “Reminds you of what?”
The storyteller lowered his face to eye level. “Well, yer a long way from home, Red. And yer not familiar with our customs.”
“Yes, that’s fairly obvious. And?”
“So, this is how it’s going to be from now on.” Scop stomped once, firmly. He lowered his voice. “One. Yew will not speak unless spoken to. To most of us yer just another pony, but I don’t doubt that some of the thanes ‘r just itchin’ to beat on the girly froo-froo Equestrian. Try not to give ‘em an excuse. Yer lil’ drinkin’ contest last night won a few of ‘em over to yer side, but don’t expect that to count fer much when you start pestering the wrong sorts of ponies.”
Wait, drinking contest? Red didn’t remember any drinking contests. He hoped he hadn’t done anything outstandingly stupid. Again.
Scop stomped again. “Two. Yew will not go eyeballing any of the mares, and fer yer own sake, don’t go near the littluns. Especially don’t go striking up conversations with any of Lord Ashbane’s girls, because he can be real jealous when it comes to them. Got that?”
“Three.” Another stomp. At this Scop’s voice dropped lower still, “Yew will watch yer back at all times, because I can’t watch it for yew. There are ponies here who want to kill yeh, and they will kill yeh if yew give them the chance, so try not to go drawing attention. Most ponies’ll just leave yew alone, but yew’ve already gotten on Hornwin’s bad side, and yew really don’t want to be on Hornwin’s bad side.”
“How did you know about Hornwin?” asked the swordpony, flashing back to the moment the unicorn had tried to dash his brains out with his own sword. He frowned, trying to remember if he’d said anything about that to Scop last night. It was a little detail, but being unable to recall a thing made it all the more frustrating for him.
Scop gave him a flat look. “Bardiche might hate yew because he blames yeh for the thanes he lost. He’d have already beat the snot outta yeh if he didn’t blame himself, too. But Hornwin?” He shook his head. “Hornwin’s a dangerous pony. He’s just on the edge of reckless and he’s been unstable fer years. Bardiche’ll probably fergive yew in due time, but Hornwin doesn’t have the same loyalty to Ashbane. Or sense. Or compassion. Or law, for that matter.”
He looked Red square in the eyes. “Yew let yer guard down, and Hornwin’ll run you through, damn the consequences. And I don’t have his ear like I have Bardiche’s.”
Red gulped. It was bad enough that Hornwin had his sword, but if the unicorn had no qualms of breaking his own people’s laws over vengeance... well.
“Nah, that ought to do it. Just use yer head and try to stick close to me or my apprentice, Scrip. Or Renvers. She might could keep yew safer than anypony else.”
“But I thought you said not to go after any mares?”
Scop smirked. “Lush Renvers is nobody’s mare. Yew’d have better luck chasing yer shadow.”
Red pictured the vibrant unicorn somewhere nearby, her mane spilling over one shoulder as she tended to the arrow-shot thane from the day before. And he couldn’t help but agree. She looked every inch the kind of mare that stallions would chase for a lifetime, even knowing they could never catch her.
The call of nature had been inevitable. For hours it was a source of dread, driving Red slowly insane. He had no intention to find out just how bad the local privy was. But, try as he might, he couldn’t hold it in forever. Eventually, he had to go out.
Conditions were every bit as terrifying as he had feared. There was one privy, just one, for all three hundred of the broch’s inhabitants, and it was hardly a privy at all. In fact, it was nothing more than a line of shallow trenches dug just behind the tower. The smell alone nearly took Red’s nose off. He tried not to breathe.
“Ugh,” he groaned as he limped away. “This place. This place.”
Scop met him at the tower’s base. “Well, it’s not as neat a ditch as other... ditches. But trust me. Some brochs have worse.” He grinned, yellow teeth shining through his beard.
Red shuddered. “I’m trying not to think about it.”
“Eh, fair ‘nuff.”
They trotted away, anxious to leave the smell behind. Red shrugged some of the tension out of his shoulders and looked up at the sky as he walked. The bandages around his neck stiffened, limiting his range of movement. Only by a faintly glowing patch of clouds could he tell that the sun was low in the western sky.
“Never any sun here. How can you ponies stand it?”
“Stand what?” Scop frowned.
“Being so gloomy all the time.”
Outside the broch was even bleaker than being inside. It was still summer, or at least what passed for summer in Shetland, but the weather was already as cold as any Equestrian autumn. Tiny specks of white drifted in flurries all over the compound, sticking to everything that had hair and piling up in every recess. Sleet, the Shetlanders called it. They paid it no mind.
Looking up at the sky, Red could get an idea for why an entire nation of ponies might reject the Princesses. How could they bow down to the heavenly bodies when they never even saw the sun or moon? The roiling mass of grey that was the sky had actually darkened since the beginning of Red’s stay. Inside the ring of the wooden walls, he could feel its oppressive weight, crushing down on him from above. How the Shetlanders withstood that weight was beyond him. For an Equestrian, being cut off from the sun and moon was terrifying.
“D’yew not remember the story I told last night?” asked Scop, taking his own look at the sky. “I told it fer yer benefit, y’know.”
“To be honest last night’s a painful blur. What kind of story was it?”
Scop’s eyes stayed fixed on the sky. “An origin. The tale of Ironwing and the founding of Equilonia.”
Red nodded. “Sounds interesting. Did it explain those clouds?” He pointed at the sky.
“It’s a unity thing,” was the reply. “Ever since yew Equestrians broke off and went south, it’s been an uphill fight for us to beat back another eternal winter.”
Scop set a leisurely pace around the muddy yard, weaving through earthworks, rows of stakes, and bustling ponies. Red stuck as close to him as possible, keeping an eye peeled for trouble. The thanes mostly ignored him, busy with their preparations.
“What do you mean by ‘eternal winter?’” he asked, sidestepping an earth pony hauling a bundle of timbers.
Scop nodded at the sky. “Way back when, there was a winter what lasted fer decades. It all started because ponies couldn’t live together, y’see. The pegasi lived in the clouds, the unicorns in castles, and the earth ponies just made do with dirt and hovels. They wouldn’t work together, so three terrible monsters called the Ice Kings came and blanketed the world in snow.”
The storyteller stopped and swept his hoof dramatically across the clouds. “The great pegasus city of Altostrata was ripped out of the sky by gale winds. Then the castles fell, and everypony was left fighting tooth and hoof fer food. A lot of ponies just left, migrating south to greener pastures. That’s where yer lot comes from.”
Something about this story seemed eerily familiar. Red thought back and tried to remember where he’d heard it before. For some reason, he was reminded of actors in a play...
“Anyway, the winter got worse and worse until one day the Ice Kings swept down to reap the land of life. Luckily fer us, a pegasus named Ironwing came and united everypony under one roof.” By this point Scop was talking full tilt, waving a hoof around to accentuate what he considered an exciting story. “Together they fought a long and terrible battle at Guldor Tor, and in the end they forged a sword called ‘Isos’, the pegasus word for ‘equal,’ and with their unity they struck down the Ice Kings.”
He looked wistful for a moment. “O’course, when the three races tried to go their separate ways after the great victory, winter swallowed ‘em up again. Ironwing had to all but drag them back together before the blizzard would end. The poor pegasi never could tame those clouds again...”
The Ice Kings. Three horrific beasts in the shape of ethereal horses, fashioned from the bones of winter itself...
It all came back to Red in a rush. “Hearth’s Warming Eve!” He grinned, bobbing his head. “It’s just like Hearth’s Warming Eve!”
Several nearby Shetlanders stopped what they were doing just long enough to cast a wary eye at the Equestrian. Scop just looked confused. “What do you mean, Hearth’s Warming Eve?”
Red kept smiling, his eyes fixed on some distant point to the south. “In Equestria, we celebrate Hearth’s Warming Eve on the longest night of winter. Ponies dress up and put on pageants, there’s a big parade in Everfree... It’s almost as big an event as the Summer Solstice Tournament. The day after that is Hearth’s Warming. It’s a time for families to come together and give gifts.”
Scop’s eyebrows stayed aloft. The white wisps of hair were almost windows into the workings of his mind. By their positioning, Red judged him to be somewhere between confusion and curiosity.
Red elaborated. “Before Discord’s rule, ponies from the north came down to escape a land of endless blizzards. With the power of friendship and harmony, they broke the spell of winter and banished a trio of horse-like winter spirits called the Windigos. That’s how Equestria was made.”
“Hmm.” Scop stroked his beard again, leaving streaks of ashen mud. He frowned and wiped the hoof on his layers of animal furs. “Well, yer Hearth’s Warming certainly matches up with our celebration of Yuletide, but yew Equestrians never beat back any Ice Kings. We did that.”
“It’s all just stories anyhow,” said Red with a dismissive wave. “Even if it did happen, it’s in the past.”
“Just stories?” asked Scop, taking umbrage. “That’s a bit of an insult to my trade. My stories serve a purpose, yew know. And!” he held up a hoof, “While I can’t attest to the amount o’ truth in them, I can tell yew that the threat of everlasting winter is definitely real. And Isos is a real sword, too.”
“Have you ever seen it?”
Scop pulled a face.
Glancing back to the sky, Red shivered. There was a peculiar chill in the air. He was beginning to grow jealous of the pelts worn by the Shetlanders. They didn’t look particularly warm or dry, but at least they weren’t as miserably damp as he was. His golden mane was plastered down over his brow and neck.
“Any longer out here and I’ll catch a cold,” grumbled the swordpony, wishing he at least had his blanket. “I’m beginning to see why a pony would wear those furs.”
“Aye,” replied Scop. He looked into the distance, at the trees rising up above the level of the broch’s wooden palisade. “Just another minute. There’s something I want to show yeh.”
Red followed the elder stallion’s swishing white tail, looking around the broch’s courtyard for anything of interest. It was strange, he thought, that he had been here only a day or so and already this old pony seemed to accept him as one of his own. Perhaps Scop was overfamiliar, but it was comforting to know that at least one pony was on his side.
The yard was alive with the ringing of iron and throaty voices. Red counted three different forge fires amongst the few tents left outside. Where the rest of the ground was hock deep in mud, the ground around the forges was cracked and hard as stone, baked from the heat. Thanes huddled near them for warmth when they weren’t working to shore up the Broch’s defenses. Red let out a contented “aaaaah” when he passed by one, his ears relishing the familiar sound of hammer and anvil.
Nearby in the space between the three forges, a group of thanes had set up a makeshift sparring square, bordering it with barrels and stakes. A dozen of them lounged around the outer edges of the square as they fiddled with their weapons and armor, making up most of the fence with their own bodies. Inside their perimeter swords sang together as several warriors tested their mettle. Red pulled up short to watch.
Of the three sparring ponies, two were working together, moving as one to attack the third, who for some reason wore a headdress made of skull and antlers. Outside the ring, a single unicorn worked to cast some sort of dulling spell over the combatants’ weapons.
The thane in the wrothkin headdress was a fearsome opponent, even with a deer-skull helmet obscuring his vision. He moved fluidly, exposed horn glowing a bright yellow, as he effortlessly turned aside the battered blades of the other thanes. A rusting iron weapon spun in his magical grasp, eerily similar in appearance to a pair of metal antlers. It whirled in the damp air, singing a vicious note. Against the two earth ponies he was unstoppable.
With a thump and a cry one of the fighting thanes went sprawling into the mud. His helmet bounced to a stop with a splash a few yards away, still ringing from the blow dealt to it by the unicorn. The thane’s partner backed away, chest heaving.
The unicorn removed his skull headdress, levitating it off to one side. To Red’s surprise, the warrior was actually a mare. She looked vaguely familiar, though he was unsure where he’d seen ehr before.
“Your hoofwork is still all over the place,” said the mare, her voice barely carrying over the sound of hammers and anvils. From the ground, the fallen earth pony made a reply that failed to reach Red’s sensitive ears.
Scop interrupted the swordpony’s observations. “Wouldn’t go ogling that one too much,” he said, his mustache turning up into a smile. “She’s Bardiche’s mare.”
“Ogling? I’m not ogling. I didn’t even realize she was a mare until she took that helmet off.”
“Mmm, I suppose that’s a good enough excuse.” The storyteller chuckled. “Her name’s Angharrad. She’s not our best swordpony, but she’s a helluv an archer.” He waggled his eyebrows. “She’s also one of the only ponies capable of wielding a wrothkin bladebow. Makes her the best choice for training.”
“Wait, bladebow?” Something wrenched in Red’s chest. Bows were a fearsome weapon, a mark of the nobility. Only unicorns could use them effectively, making them a staple of Equestria’s upper class. He loathed them just as he loathed magic. But adding blades to them...
“Yeah, that’s what I said. Bladebow. It looks like a pair of antlers.” The storyteller made some sort of gesture with his hooves. “She’s holding one right there, or are yew just blind?”
“I can see that now,” Red replied, “I just didn’t know what it was.”
He looked at the mare’s weapon. The blades really were shaped like antlers, forged into a series of concave crescents with multiple wicked points, especially on either end. Angharrad had taken it back up and was back to sparring with the two earth ponies, putting the instrument of death to terrifying use. As Red watched, she sent it sailing toward one’s throat. He deflected it, only for it to wrap around his sword and whack him upside the head with a magically dulled edge.
The other earth pony charged her from the side, only to be repelled by her helmet’s antlers before she lunged underneath him and used the bladebow to hook his helmet from behind. The earth pony froze, three points of dulled steel pricking his neck and snout. The bow held his head firmly in place.
“Aye. O’course, she’s fighting Squirm and Quench. Those two are about the daftest idiots I’ve ever seen. Showed up a few months ago on charges of thievery.”
Red frowned. “You take criminals up here?”
Scop just shrugged. “Just about all do take. The wrothkin take a heavy toll. Gotta get thanes from somewhere.”
“Murderers too, and… worse.” The storyteller regarded the two muddy earth ponies with an unreadable gaze. He turned back to catch Red studying him and met the swordpony’s stare with one of his own. “We’re the Last Broch, Red. We’ve got something of a reputation for... let’s call it a brutal lifestyle. Ponies don’t live long up here.”
“So the rest of Shetland sends you their dregs...” Looking around, Red wondered just how many of these rough, tattered looking thanes were running from a criminal past. Had they been sent here to die?
Not for the first time, Red found himself wishing he’d listened to that tinker.
“Sometimes they come on their own,” Scop explained. For a moment his eyes were far away. “We take all sorts, even exiles and glory-seekers. The Last Broch is aptly named. It’s often a pony’s last chance at livin’ amongst civilization. Or of findin’ any form o’ redemption.”
Red looked back to Angharrad and the earth ponies, Squirm and Quench. The smaller of the two glared at her, while the other’s eyes had a starved cast to them so lecherous that Red was surprised the thief wasn’t licking his lips. The mare ignored both, leaving them in the mud while she trotted to the edge of the square and struck up a conversation with some of the onlookers.
Suddenly, a flash of brilliant ruby red caught Red’s eye. He stiffened. There, talking with Angharrad, was a familiar silver unicorn. He stood tall and well-armored, and he wore two swords in a web of leather belts, one on each flank. One sword hung in an unadorned sheath, while the other, the longer of the two, wore a distinctive gilded scabbard. A ruby glittered in its pommel. It was not a sword for unicorns. It was a stolen sword.
Red bit his lip, eyes locked on his namesake, his most prized possession. There it is, he thought. So close, and yet it might as well have been on the moon. His cutie mark itched beneath its bandages.
“C’mon,” interrupted Scop, breaking Red’s daze. The storyteller had been saying something, he realized, and he’d missed it.
“Wait, what?” the swordpony asked, trotting after the old stallion.
Scop waved with his hoof and made a beeline for the wall that surrounded the broch, trotting through puddles and half-finished palisades. Red worked to keep up, his flank twinging beneath the bandages. He looked over his shoulder, fixing his eyes one last time on his sword. If he could just grab it...
The swordpony jumped when a hoof tapped him on the shoulder. “Quit staring at her,” Scop said sharply, his voice low and dangerous, “Or Bardiche’ll make yew regret it. Now c’mon, there’s somethin’ on the wall I want to show yeh.”
Red frowned and tore his eyes away, saying nothing. His flank itched again, all the more infuriating because he knew he couldn’t scratch it.
If there was one thing that defined the Broch, it was the wall that surrounded it. It loomed on all sides, a fence that kept out the forest beyond. Ponies patrolled up and down it, unicorns all.
The big palisade was certainly built to last, Red noted from a distance. It was tall, easily twelve feet at its lowest. The earth had been built up around the base, and mud packed between each post. The thinnest of the pales was easily as big around as his leg, and most were even wider than the barrel of his chest.
“Each of these was a tree, once,” said Scop, knocking his hoof against one of the pales. It made a solid sound, too hearty for rot. “I understand it took less than a span of days to build this whole wall.”
Red marveled and stepped closer to take a better look. He didn’t know if Shetlanders used the term ‘span’ in the same manner as the Equestrian calendar, but by any measure it was quite a short time in which to build such a wall. In Everfree it was eleven days. “Just a span?”
“Aye. Desperation drives ponies to do extraordinary things.”
Red shuddered involuntarily, and not from the cold. The wall’s purpose was readily apparent in the deep scars gouged into each post. He touched his hoof to one of these, feeling the chunks taken out of its sides. Somepony had shaped it hastily with an axe, favoring function over form. Heavy rope, of the same variety he had seen the thanes make a swing out of, anchored each post to its neighbors. They were pulled so tightly that the wood had actually splintered in places from the force of the cords. Not even the sleet could pass between those pales.
A hint of bone white caught Red’s eye. Turning, he found a length of what appeared to be a curved silver branch jammed between two posts. It contrasted with the dark wood, appearing to have been thrust through from the other side. With his hoof he worked it free, until something on the other end snapped and it plopped into the mud. He knelt, turning it over on the ground.
It wasn’t a branch. It was the point of a horn, six inches of shattered antler, tines all snapped off.
It had antlers...
Red jumped, looking up.
Scop was balanced overhead on a sagging wooden ramp that led onto the wall. “Come on now, lad. Let’s not be out here any longer than need be. I’m cold ‘nuff too.”
Red gave one last glance to the length of horn, then at the wall through which it had been forced. Shivering, he mashed it into the mud and trotted up the ramp.
The makeshift staircase was slippery beneath Red’s hooves, even though wooden steps had been set into it with nails. It creaked and would have turned over, dumping him into the mud, if not for the wooden posts supporting it from below. Uneasily, he worked his way up a step at a time, consoling himself with the knowledge that even if he fell it would at least be into a nice, soft puddle.
Up top, the wall was an entirely different world from that below. Platforms and a walkway had been rigged along the perimeter, supported by timbers. Crude ramparts were hewn every few yards, little more than small gaps where the tip of a pale had been cut short. Unicorns patrolled between these, bows slung over their backs.
“Here,” said Scop, waving Red over. “Come look at this.”
Red took a moment to feel the wall beneath his hooves, appraising it as only an earth pony could. He concentrated, trying to feel the strength of the wall. It felt solid, actually exuding strength, as if it were capable of pushing him away as one lodestone did to another. He knew in his bones that it could withstand any assault. His hooves could feel each log in the mud; they had been sunk deep, deep enough that nothing could undermine them. If he wasn’t mistaken, there was even a hint of magic in them, perhaps some tapestry of spells woven into the ropes to slow the process of rot.
“Are you sure it only took a span--” the swordpony froze mid-sentence, noticing the long, slender poles jammed between the sharpened ramparts. They lined the wall, jutting up into the sky. Rotting mockeries of pennants hung from them, reeking of death.
Skulls. The Shetlanders had mounted deer skulls on the walls, facing outward. Many still wore their antlers, moldering strips of flesh peeled from their stained shells. One, spinning loose from its mountings, regarded the swordpony with a dripping rictus grin. His blood ran ice cold in its veins.
Scop reached up and tapped the skull with a hoof. “Knock knock, anypony home? No?” He turned and gave Red a reassuring smile. “Wouldn’t worry if I was yew. These ‘uns won’t be hurting a thing.”
Laughing, the storyteller made a playful swipe at the banners of rotting flesh.
With a pop, the lower jaw snapped off and clattered to the platform. Scop jumped, but Red only laughed, his momentary alarm forgotten. The storyteller just frowned and shot a reprimanding glare at the jawbone before kicking it into the mud below.
“That was entirely uncalled fer,” he grumbled, not bothering to disguise the fact that he had been startled.
Red stopped laughing. He got the distinct impression that the skull’s grin had only grown wider, now stretching from the foot of the wall to the top. The idea left him uneasy.
“Sh-sh-shouldn’t mess with those,” said an unfamiliar voice, strangely serene despite its stutter.
A yellow unicorn ambled up to the two stallions, his hooves clip-clopping on the walkway’s splintering slats. He was lightly armored, wearing little more than a padded jerkin and a deerskin cloak that was damp with melting sleet. His unassuming moss-green eyes matched his beard, which came to a point just below his chin.
“How goes the watch?” asked Scop, giving the unicorn a friendly nod.
The unicorn did not stutter this time. “It goes.”
He apparently wasn’t much for speaking. Instead he stopped at the parapet which the storyteller and the swordpony were occupying, pulling his iron half-helm down over his eyebrows. Red followed the thane’s gaze out over the wide clearing. A nightmarish battlefield greeted his eyes.
If it was dreary and grey inside the perimeter of the broch, what lay beyond was nothing but bleak. The trees sat not far outside bowshot like a surrounding army, dark and brooding. Everything between them and the palisade was a chewed up no-pony’s-land, strewn with half-exposed stumps and torn up roots. Red’s keen eyes picked out bones scattered in the mud. This was a graveyard, filled with untold numbers of the dead.
How many assaults had this broch weathered, he wondered? The feeling of firmness beneath his hooves intensified. He looked down, craning his neck out over the rampart.
Something vicious had savaged the face of the wall. Deep scars were gouged into the pales from the outside, their exteriors shredded to the point that many of the securing ropes simply hung in fraying tatters. Bark and twigs hung like flayed strips of flesh. No, not twigs. Those were arrows. Some were nearly as long as a pony’s leg, and a few of them still displayed the remnants of their fletchings. Most had snapped off long ago, leaving stumps embedded in the wall. They pincushioned the ramparts.
“See anythin’ out there?” asked Scop, redirecting Red’s attention back to the no-pony’s-land.
A mist issued from the forest to creep across the barren clearing, just thick enough to obscure the woods beyond. Red found himself straining his ears to hear over the noise of the Shetlanders and their anvils, desperate for any sign that something lurked beyond.
“Yew won’t s-s-s-see much,” said the yellow unicorn, sounding bored. “Not till they make their m-m-muh-muh...” He frowned, crossing his eyes to scowl at his own snout.
“Their move?” asked Red.
The thane shrugged, leaving it up to Scop to answer.
The wrinkled storyteller’s eyes stayed fixed on the treeline. “The Wrothkin won’t come ‘til the weather is at its worst,” he said, and for the first time there was no trace of humor in his voice. He turned to the swordpony. “And when they do come, it’ll take the most attentive eyes and ears to get the warning out in time.”
“What if they sneak up on us in the fog?” asked Red, including himself in the Broch’s measure without thinking.
Scop’s voice lowered to a breath, his bushy eyebrows sitting low on his face. He fixed the swordpony with a cold stare. “If they do then no god, above ground or below, will be able to save us.”
Red turned to the thane on his right, but the unicorn’s eyes were fixed on the treeline. The muscles in his jaw worked, chewing thoughtfully on the lining of his cheek. One forehoof balanced on the edge of the parapet, the other on the hilt of a battered sword slung low beneath his arrows. He appeared to be the picture of calmness, a grizzled veteran who had seen it all. But in those green eyes smoldered a grim pragmatism, a hidden fear.
The swordpony shivered, casting one last glance at the trees and the mist rolling in from the enshrouded hills beyond. The shape of the broch’s problems was quickly becoming apparent to him. He could see why the Shetlanders behaved as they did.
“Why are you showing me this?” he asked. “This doesn’t have anything to do with stories, does it?”
Scop put a hoof on his shoulder. “No,” he replied. His mustache curled into an almost-smile. “But yer stuck in here with us, and our problems’r yer problems. Yew needed to see. Now c’mon, let’s get back indoors.”
Red nodded, anxious to get away from the wall. He felt exposed, even with ramparts to hide behind. Still, the idea of walking back down the slippery ramp wasn’t at all appealing, especially with the sleet drifting in as it was.
“Is there another way down from here?” he asked.
“Weellll...” mused Scop, stroking his beard. His eyes flashed like a mischievous colt.
Without a trace of hesitation, the storyteller turned and leapt from the battlements, landing with surprising grace -- and a massive splash -- in the courtyard below. Red shook his head, marveling at the stallion’s agility. For a knobbly-kneed old codger, he was certainly spry.
The swordpony looked back at his injured flank.
“On second thought, I’ll take the stairs.”
“Suit yerself,” called Scop from below. His smug grin was all too visible, and all too yellow.
The ramp wobbled beneath Red’s hooves. He inched down, cursing the bandage on his hindquarters. Had it really been so high a climb?
“By Isos,” mocked the storyteller down below, his voice so distant it might have been shouted from the bottom of a canyon. “Yew look like somepony’s arthritic grandsire.”
“Har har,” was the reply. Red struggled to ignore the height. It wasn’t that every inch of him hurt. It was just that he didn’t want to fall, that was all. He wasn’t going to make excuses. Heights and earth ponies did not mix. The squelching ash-mud of the ground was a relief to his hooves.
The walk back to the tower was cold and uneventful. Hammers rang in Red’s ears, and Scop launched into some story about aching joints. The swordpony did his best to ignore him, his thoughts drawn elsewhere by what he had seen on the wall and what had been said afterward.
How long would he be trapped here, he wondered? A month? A week? Had he doomed himself to stay here in the Broch until his dying day?
No. He pushed that poisonous thought from his mind. He had a quest, and that was to deliver the Dictum before winter could spring its trap. He would see it finished. Shetland would be a distant memory in a matter of weeks. That was a promise. Stopping, Red turned and searched for the fighting square between the forge fires. It took him a moment to find in the chaos of the courtyard, with all its muddy ups and downs, cut through by clouds of greasy smoke.
In the end he spotted it by the sparkle of blood-red, the pommel of his sword.
Sure enough the thief was still there, directing thanes in their training. Hornwin wore the sword proudly, as if it were his own. Something about that rankled Red even more than the act of theft itself, lighting an angry fire that burned in the bottom of his belly.
He would have his sword again, too. That was his first goal. With it he could get back to his saddlebags, find the Dictum, and continue his journey. If he had to steal it back in the dead of night and make his escape by darkness, then that’s just what he would do.
As if sensing the angry stare boring into him from afar, Hornwin looked up and scanned the air. His eyes alighted on Red, cold and full of an anger of their own. They were a grey so dark as to be nearly black, but in their depths he could see a pinpoint of ruby red, a reflection of the gilded sword at his side. Those eyes promised vengeance.
Despite himself, Red looked away. The old Red would never have looked away, he told himself. There was not a unicorn alive who could fight him and win. He had proven that years ago. And yet without his sword he was just another coward. He grimaced, furious with himself, but the fire in his belly had turned to ash.
He was afraid. It was not the wild fear he had felt in the woods, nor the careful fear he always felt before a fight. This was a quiet fear, strangled and sickly, like the fear of a nursemaid wringing her hooves. It filled his mouth with a rotten taste that he wanted to spit out, and he knew that all he had to do was look up, to return that vengeful stare.
Except he couldn’t. He was a bear robbed of its teeth. Without his sword he was nothing. He could never look an enemy in the eye with such an important part of himself gone. It was as if someone had stripped him of his cutie mark, of his entire life and purpose.
“Say, Red,” interrupted the white-haired old pony standing beside him, jostling the swordpony’s shoulder. He had been talking, but Red had not been listening. “What kind of stuff did yew get up to growin’ up?”
“Huh?” he replied, the fear shoved into the back of his mind. “Why do you ask?”
“Arthritis,” Scop explained. “I hear tell you can cause it as a foal by wearing out yer joints too early. Yew were a farmer, right? Yew worked the land?”
A peasant, you mean. Indentured to the field. “Uh, yeah. Something like that.”
“Was the work hard?” Scop nudged the swordpony to get him walking again. It wasn’t far to the Broch’s oaken doors.
“Not really.” Red shrugged. “It could be hot sometimes, or it was cold, but it was never hard. I tried to get out of it every chance I got because it was boring.”
“So what kind of play did yew get up to, eh?”
A slurry of sleet blew into Red’s face on a chill wind. It cut him to the bone, chilling his teeth and lungs. He shivered. His armor was damp and his legs bare save for the mud. “I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing, really. I didn’t play, I trained.”
“Hmm.” By Scop’s eyebrows, Red judged him to be perplexed. “What did the other fillies and colts get up to, then?”
“Kid’s stuff. They played on swings, played marbles, ate everberry pies... Maybe played chase, I don’t know. I guess I did play chase a few times, though I daresay it was more about proving myself than having fun. There wasn’t a lot to do where I grew up. Nothing that interested me, anyway.”
He looked ahead to the Broch’s threshold. The thick doors were built to withstand any weather, in addition to a Wrothkin assault. They were old and beaten, but hardly the worse for wear despite it. Old scars had gouged the wood and more than one arrowhead was lodged in its timbers. They weren’t tall, not by any measure, but they were heavy.
Scop, ever nimble on his hooves, got there first. He put his shoulder to the door and pushed, heaving it open on his own. They groaned, straining on their hinges set deep in the stone walls. Red wondered when they’d last been oiled.
“Brr-rrrrr-rr,” Scop shivered despite his layers of furs and rags. He slipped inside and shook himself free of sleet and mud. The wind howled in the gap, but neither slab of oak moved an inch. “Get inside, yew, ‘tis freezing out--” He cut off, cocking his head as if trying to see around the swordpony.
Red threw himself to the side.
As a colt, Red hadn’t swung on swings. He hadn’t played marbles, or eaten everberry pies. Instead, he’d trained. It had been a sacrifice, one that had cost him his childhood, but it had been made willingly. And right then, he had something to show in exchange for that loss: reflexes.
The longsword parted the oaken timbers with far too little effort. He had sharpened that blade himself, and it showed its edge.
Idiot, he thought. He should have known Hornwin would try something now. He came up from the roll with his shoulder to the stone of the tower’s base, already feeling the ice of winter’s touch through his lamellar. A trace of golden hair fluttered in the wind, spinning in the corner of his eye, before it was sucked through the open doors.
Bright luster-yellow magic flared around the hilt of Red’s sword, the same color as its gold filigree. The blade twisted in the door, shaving away splinters as it slid free. A shower of mud hit Red in the face when Hornwin slid to a stop nearby, eyes wild with rage. He must have started running as soon as the swordpony turned his back.
Those charcoal eyes no longer promised vengeance. Now they shone with the delivery of the act, tinged red with murder.
“Well,” breathed Hornwin. And then, without another word, he charged.