“The Youth in the Garden”
Written by The Descendant
Cover Art by AnneHairball
Fluttershy stood in the bathroom, once more running the towel up and down her forelegs.
She squinted in the pre-dawn darkness, trying to see what could have brought her the unusual sensation, the one that had woken her.
“I-I could have sworn that my hoovsey’s were all wet… they seemed so, wet,” she said aloud to nopony. “L-like, oh, like splashing in water…”
She lifted the towel and touched it to her face. It was as dry as a bone. Even as the sensation began to fade away it seemed to linger in her memory. It had felt so real, seemed so much like actual water.
With a heavy sigh she departed the bathroom, leaving the towel draped across the sink and countertop.
She tread on light hooves, not bothering the sleeping form of Angel. As the rabbit slept on, she stood before her bed and pulled the covers back gently with her teeth. She ran her hoof across the sheets. She was very grateful when her touch revealed no wetness, and the awful memories of wetting the bed at flight camp washed out of her. As she stood there, in the dark, tiredness crept back in to claim her.
Still, it had felt so real. She could have sworn that she was rushing forward, that she had splashed through water, or that she had felt someone else do so.
Fluttershy wondered if a dream could be that real, that vivid.
“I-it felt so real,” she whispered to herself. Fluttershy’s head sank deep into the pillow, and as she lay there staring she wondered how long it would take her to fall asleep.
It was not long, but in the Land of Nod more visions would call to her and interrupt her rest…
The soldiers splashed through the creek. The cold waters instantly sank past their brogans and into their socks, wetting their trouser legs.
The youth listened as the first sergeant called the company back into line, reforming the long ranks as they clambered up the opposite bank.
“C’mon lads,” the youth heard the first sergeant calling as he took his first few steps in wet socks, “back into line! We’re the center, me boyo’s, we have to step smart!”
Other officers were calling out now, all of them from the first sergeant and captain all the way up to Colonel Tidball. As each shouted incomprehensible orders, the Fifty-Ninth New York Volunteer Infantry first dressed right, and then left, and then right again.
Around the youth, he could feel the power of the brigade as it formed once more. Riders on horses thundered down the line, and he looked up to catch the faintest glimpse of General Sedgwick pelting past, the general calling to his subordinates as he flew by.
No one cheered. Their eyes and ears were set on the space beyond the distant woods, the space where the rattle of musketry could be heard, and the low arc of shells could be seen even before the whistle reached their ears.
“Forward!” came the voice of the lieutenant colonel, Stetson, and the battalions tensed. “March!” came the order, and in unison the Fifty-Ninth began pounding at the earth once more.
“Company E! Right shoulder shift… arms!” came the voice of the captain, another officer the youth could hear but who he could not see among the thick morning haze. The youth brought his Springfield up from shoulder arms in time with the rest of the company, giving a slight sigh of relief as he tensed and flexed his right hand.
The stomp of the brigade carried out around him, and the youth could feel the strength of it.
The distant musket fire only grew louder, and as the youth jostled and bumped along with the rest of his company he felt the lump growing in his throat.
“Would ya’ look at that, Allie!” The youth heard the high, shrill voice of Lewis, another Kingston boy. He was calling to him, nearly shouting from the second rank. “The whole of General Gorman’s brigade is up there in line, and here we are, and General Howard’s boys are behind us a few paces or so! Why’d ya’ suppose General Sedgwick did that? Why’d he put all the division into three lines all together ya’ suppose?”
“I suppose that if I knew that,” answered the youth, “I’d be a general.”
“Quiet in the ranks!” called another officer.
“Most likely ‘cause General Sumner told him to, and Sumner ‘cause McClellan told him to, and McClellan don’t give a damn anywho!” answered an older soldier far down the line. The company erupted into laugher, ignoring the officer as they tramped along.
An artillery shell exploded over the distant canopy of trees, raining fragments of steel over the canopy of green. As they watched a great vast branch came crashing down with a moan, nearly landing upon the ranks of the soldiers in the brigade in front of them.
The company fell silent, and the distant sounds of the musket fire only became larger in their perception.
“One, one, one two…” called the first sergeant, making the company keep cadence with the rest of the battalion and the regiment as a whole.
Company, battalion, regiment, brigade, and division, corp… the chess pieces flew around in the youth’s mind. He swung his head left to right, looking up and down the vast sweep of the line of blue soldiers that marched forward across the field of low wheat, creeping towards the woods beyond.
“Damn Secesh roots!” grumbled a soldier to his left. As the youth watched the soldier stumbled across the first knot of trees they came across. The company laughed again as those nearest the soldier ducked away and his rifle went clanging to the ground and his canteen flew around him. “Damn reb trees! Almost were as many damn rebel trees in Virginny as there are hereabout in Maryland!”
The brigade broke up, the men moving in small groups as they made their way through the woods. Looking down the line he could see the Union flag dip low, joining the Fifty-Ninth’s battle flag in the careful hands of the honor guard, the color sergeant and his squad protecting the silk from the snagging branches.
“Company! Front! Into ranks, lads, into ranks!” came the first sergeant’s voice again. Near him the first lieutenant, Roosa, echoed the command.
More horsemen came up. The regiment formed quickly back into the long lines, gathering into the company front as General Dana came pelting up. “Form back on the Fifty-Ninth New York!” the general called to his soldiers as he sped along the long line of his brigade. “Dress on the Fifty-Ninth, dress on the Union Guards!”
In response the flags of the regiment came back up, and the youth could almost feel the brigade pushing against his regiment. He could feel the strength of the whole division, some five thousand men or more, leaning into him from the shoulders around him.
“Support… arms!” called Lieutenant Roosa, and with that the whole battalion brought the rifles in front of them, and then rested them now against their left shoulders.
Their was a fresh outburst of cheers, and some seventy yards or so ahead of him the youth could see the branches ending as Gorman’s brigade slipped out of the tree line.
At once they disappeared into a grey haze, and near him someone cursed aloud as a new round of artillery fire dropped its concussion around them. The artillery fire was coming closer now… was nearly on them.
The line began to surge, to buckle. “Steady on lads,” said Lieutenant Roosa, as he held his sword wide in front of him, making the battalion come back into their line. “We get into it together, there’s my fine fellows…”
The youth swallowed hard as the last few trees parted, and with that his company stepped out of the woods.
The sun streamed over Fluttershy as she strolled through her garden. Upon her head the sun hat bounced jubilantly as she hummed her happy song.
“Angel Bunny!” she called, lifting her voice in happy tones. “Angel? Could you p-please bring me my watering can?”
The rabbit gave her an unhappy glance, but still he turned and went off to fetch it.
Upon his return Fluttershy went towards the large cornstalks, each one standing proud, green, and tall in the late summer sky.
“Oh!” she called. “H-haven’t these just come up so wonderfully! Won’t… oh, won’t the nice corn taste so sweet, Angel?”
Fluttershy took the can, and lifting it she made to pour the water over the roots of the corn. Yet, no sooner had she lifted the can then a transformation overtook the tall, green shafts.
“Wh-what? Oh, oh no! Oh no!” she called again as she took to her wings. Before her eyes the wide leaves shriveled down to withered tassels, and the stalks lost their color. Soon her corn was no more, simply a shriveled mass. They soon snapped and fell to the ground, cut down in the prime of life and stark in death.
“Why!? Oh, h-how, what…” she mouthed, landing among the dry, brown stalks. “What…”
Fluttershy eyed the cornstalks, trying to understand what could have happened to the plants, ones that just a few moments before had been so green and full of life.
Her hooves danced, and there was a moan, many moans. Around her hooves something seemed to call out from within the earth. To her horror a white vapor began to lift from the hollow centers of the shorn cornstalks…
Fluttershy sat upright in her bed, coming awake. She gave a single small squeak of apprehension into the pre-dawn darkness of her room.
She lay there, her breathing ragged and uneven. It was still the deepest part of the night, and the darkness continued to sit heavily around her rooms, draped over the cottage.
As her breathing recovered she looked towards the box on the far side of the room. There Angel sat sleeping, and she wished that she could simply trot over, lift him up and bring him back with her, a warm presence perhaps helping her pass the night.
But, in reality, all that would accomplish would give her grumpy little companion more excuse for his rudeness and standoffishness. So, that being that, Fluttershy rested her head once more on her pillow and lay there awaiting sleep once more.
“Damnation!” called a soldier on his right, far down the line. “Christ!” called another. The youth sucked a deep breath as he heard Lewis do the same in the rank behind him.
The grey of the morning was mixed with another vapor. Thick smoke lingered upon the ground, hovered over what the youth realized what must once have been a cornfield.
A cornfield, it seemed, that had been shorn down to stubble, wiped away by shot and shell and ball as evenly and as perfectly as though it had met a harvestman’s sickle.
Among the stubble, forms moved and heaved… piles of them…
As he watched the feet of the brigade that marched in front of him he saw how the smoke from the powder of thousands of rifles still sat close to the ground, how the pounding of the feet of the soldiers of the other brigade kicked it up from where it sat among little spaces within the toppled corn.
The artillery rang out again, and the youth joined the thousands of eyes of the division as they snapped down to the left. There red flashes from upon a rise showed them cannon firing in anger…
It was Secesh cannon, rebel cannon… firing at them.
“Oh Christ! Oh Jesus!” came the cries of some soldier to his left, and as the shots streaked overhead the youth ducked at the sound, wincing as each shell shrieked above him.
More concussions fell over them, shaking their bones, but these came from the far right, from cannons that could only be their own. Union guns answered in loud reply to the challenge presented by their Confederate counterparts.
“Eyes… front!” came the command, the loud, hard voice of another officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stetson, demanding their attention. “Pay no mind boys,” he said as he walked briefly behind the youth, “Pay the shot and shell no mind.”
The youth concentrated on the distant figures of the other brigade. As he watched more shells flew overhead, and as they did he noted the way ripples went up and down the line as each shell shrieked past. The men of those regiments each winced and wavered as the sound reached them, sending waves along the line of that brigade as the men ducked and what little light that was drifting through the smoke reflected in their bayonets.
The youth reached for his, jostling the soldier next to him.
“No one gave the word for bayonets, Bassett,” came the voice of Lieutenant Roosa. The youth looked up to the officer who marched along in front of him, spinning about with his sword across his shoulder.
“Mah’ apologies, sir,” added the youth, tugging at the brim of his kepi. “Just a touch anxious, sir.”
The lieutenant smiled at the youth, and then turned back around and held his sword wide, calling the battalion forward with him.
“What devil’s work is that?” called out Lieutenant Colonel Stetson. “Where do they think they’re off to? Look at that lads, General French’s division is taking a holiday! Either they’re wrong or we are… Ha! What do you think of this army, this brass-mounted army?”
The youth turned his head to the left, saw the other division that had come with them start to slowly turn, seeming to move towards the distant rise where the cannon flashed at them. In the distance he could see a small white building, and to him it seemed a primitive church, not unlike those of Quakers or Puritans.
Around it there seemed to be a heaving mass, and the youth squinted to see what it could be. All too soon he got his answer. His eyes snapped back to Gorman’s brigade before him, and the men now wavered and stepped around objects that rose from the desecrated corn.
Objects that looked like men… that looked like broken, bleeding men.
“Don’t step on me, I pray you,” called one of them as they advanced. All beneath them and before them the Fifty-Ninth New York and the other regiments of the brigade began to waver as they reached the groups of wounded, maimed, and dead.
“Water. Water, please…”
“Sir, lad, I can’t walk off, I can’t walk… won’t you help me?”
“Oh God, forgive me! Oh Christ, it hurts!”
The wounded writhed around among the shorn cornstalks. Others simply lay there, their uniforms ripped open and great pools of red standing out upon their shirts as they stared to the sky and mouthed their prayers.
The youth felt a hand wrap itself around the strap of his haversack. He knew that Lewis had grabbed hold upon him, was letting the youth guide him through the cornfield so that he would not have to open his eyes, so that he’d not have to look upon the mangled bodies torn open by fragments of shells or shattered by the musket balls that must have flown across the field by the tens of thousands.
The youth lifted his eyes to see that the cornfield was littered with the despondent forms. It was crawling with them, the surface of the field writhing with the wounded and dying.
The men who lay there among the ruins of the corn called to them, begged them for help.
Men of both sides…
“Please don’t go an’ trample me,” called a weak voice as the company advanced. “I beg you, please, step ‘round me!”
“I’ll not step on you,” the youth answered as he bumped into the soldier next to him, making room and dragging Lewis to the side as well. He looked down to see what poor figure could be making such a desperate plea.
He looked into the eyes of a boy no older than himself, one wrapped in a grey coat and torn trousers of butternut brown that revealed a pool of blood.
The youth passed by the rebel soldier, keeping him in his eye as long as he could before falling back into line.
The youth had seen his first rebel.
The youth focused back on the distance, focused on the backs of the brigade before him. The eyes of the young rebel stayed in his mind even as an officer called out “Shoulder… arms!”
His rifle settled back into his right hand and the barrel rested against his shoulder.
“Now look at that!” came the voice of Stetson once more. “What’s become of the Thirty-Fourth New York? Hello, lads! Off to take Richmond by yourself are you?”
The youth looked ahead through the fog and gun smoke, squinting into the distance.
There indeed a regiment of Gorman’s brigade had simply lurched out of line. The regiment simply wheeled about and marched off by itself towards the distant wood line and the little white church. Its band played and its flags flew as though nothing were amiss or to be bothered with.
The men of both brigades waved their kepis in the air. They called to the regiment and whistled at them. But, despite their calls, the men of the Thirty-Fourth New York simply disappeared into the fog and smoke.
Soon, the sounds of musket fire began to leap from where they had gone. Soon the brigades were silent once more, only the continued calls of officers reaching out above the cries of the wounded.
To the youth it reminded him of a sheep, one he had loaded upon the Albany, a steamer of the Hudson River Day Line. It had been one of the many he had loaded in the two years he had worked on the steamboats that arrived at the dock in Kingston.
The sheep had simply walked about the deck as the youth and the other porters had loaded the ship for its trip down the Hudson. The youth had watched it, knowing that it must soon be corralled.
As soon as the big wheels had begun to turn and the steam and smoke had begun to rise from the stacks he went to fetch it.
As he and the other porters had watched, the sheep, as though knowing what would happen to upon the arrival of the steamer in Manhattan, had simply leapt into the wheel. With that it was dashed to death against waters of the Hudson River.
The youth thought of that single sheep as he and the Fifty-Ninth New York kept their cadence and marched across the cornfield. They went forward as the hazy, humid morning drew on towards nine o’clock, parting for men who begged for help or lay still upon the smoking ground.
After what seemed an eternity the regiment gained the fence line along the road that ran parallel to the cornfield, a large field and another set of woods just on the other side.
More wretched figures were piled at the fences, some moving, many not.
He watched the brigade before them take the fences, the regiments stumbling over the first one in a disorganized mass. The other brigade then pelted across the road, over the opposite fence, and into the field beyond, reforming itself as it avoided the dead and dying that lay all about.
The youth steeled himself. He did not favor looking upon the bodies of those who lay near the fence, or the wounded that crawled towards it in desperate hope of shelter.
In a few moments, his regiment gained the fence, and the youth smirked to himself. For him it would be no different than jumping from the dock to the steamboat…
“Cross over boys! Save your strength for the top, lads,” came Stetson’s voice. The youth began to take large steps, to gain momentum for his leap.
A soon as he gained the fence the youth placed his rifle over the top. It waited, leaning there, even as he leapt up to the top rail. As he swung his leg over it brushed against other men who fought for the top, and he nearly toppled over. As he recovered himself he saw another rifle next to his… a Sharps.
He wondered where such a fine gun could have come from. He looked back and forth, and soon he saw the answer to the question.
Next to the very fencepost his hand rested upon a figure kneeled, pawing at the earth. The youth looked down to see the green uniform of a sharpshooter, one of the elite marksmen of the army.
“Hello, Greencoat!” called the youth as he slid off the fence. The sharpshooter did not look up to him, and the youth grimaced at the man’s lack of politeness.
“Heh, you drop somethin’, Greencoat? Whatcha pawing around like that for?” the youth asked as he reached for his rifle.
The sharpshooter turned and looked up to the youth. At once the youth dropped his Springfield, and jumped at the sight that the sharpshooter presented him.
The man’s jaw had been shot away, shattered and broken. The sharpshooter had been scrapping at the earth in some feeble attempt to recover the pieces, as if somehow believing they could be recast and remade. He stopped only to look at the youth with disgust and dejection, handfuls of grass and earth in his dirty hands.
The youth fought to pick up his rifle as the man continued to gaze at him. The sharpshooter’s tongue hung limp, and it waved around freely. As the man looked up to the youth it bobbled upon the remains of the sharpshooter’s beard, caked and matted with blood as it was.
“Bassett!” came the voice of Lieutenant Roosa, “into line!”
The youth looked into the eyes of the sharpshooter once more, and then leapt to his feet. The youth pelted across the road. Nearby he saw another Greencoat, this sharpshooter dead and with arms outstretched. To the youth it seemed as if the unfortunate soul had attempted to crawl away, dark black stains seeming to follow him along the road.
The youth cleared the second fence with a leap, raising the Springfield over his head, and quickly found his place in line.
As the officers found their voices they began barking orders once more. The youth settled back into his place in the chess game… company E, first battalion, Fifty-Ninth New York Volunteer Infantry, third brigade, second division, second corp, Army of the Potomac.
Surrounded as he was by these other pieces, even as he stood tight to them, he felt very much alone… very much scared.
The Greencoats are the best we got, thought the youth as the regiment first dressed left, then right, and then left again. If that can happen to them, to the Greencoats, then what chance have I?
Gorman’s brigade had stepped forward. In an instant the long lines of infantry disappeared into the woods, swallowed up by the smoke that lingered around the place.
In moments came the rattle of musket fire, and the shrieking, piercing calls of wounded men filled the woods in front of him.
What chance have I? the youth asked himself once more as he swallowed hard. What chance have I?
The dawn came crisp and clear, and as Fluttershy’s eyes came open they blinked in the light that came cascading in through the window.
She snuggled her blankets to herself just a touch more, wrapping her forelegs around them and giving them a nice firm tug, bringing them closer to her body. She settled back into the bed with a self-conscious yawn. The pegasus drifted lazily in the space between the waking world and the land of dreams.
She did not hover there long. Something tapped upon her. It was gentle at first, but soon it became more forceful. As her eyes came open, and once more she found the disapproving face of her longtime companion and chief enforcer looking down over her. “Oh, Angel, good morning,” she said as she gathered him into her forelegs.
The rabbit rested against her chest with a look of subdued reticence. As they lay there she wiped the sleepiness from her eyes with the back of her hoof and yawned discretely.
Angel crossed his own forelegs over his chest and gave a judgmental smirk. Though he certainly wasn’t opposed to being held by his mistress, the rabbit had not woken her for the single purpose of receiving a cuddle.
No, there was work to be done, and he had trespassed here in her bed in order to get her up and to it. There were animals to feed, and gardening to be done.
As he lay there, wrapped close to her, a rumble went through his stomach, letting Fluttershy know that he had a selfish interest in seeing her awake and at work.
“Oh Angel,” she said as she lifted herself, “I had such unusual dreams last night… I- I haven’t had dreams like that for… oh, ever, I suppose…”
He looked up to her with another dispassionate glance. She though continued to rub his belly, and as she looked towards the distant wall the rabbit could see her eyes focusing on nothing in particular. Angel could see her simply trying to make some sense of the visions that had clouded her sleep.
“It… oh, Angel,” she said as she simply let her head droop and her pink hair fell across the rabbit, “I-I don’t really know wh-what the dream was about, but there was a stream, and woods, and a little white building… and noise. A rattle… pops, lots and lots of pops all together…”
Fluttershy went silent again, her eyes panning around the room and settling on nothing. Angel sighed and ran his paw up and down her foreleg, the rabbit doing all he could to help her put away the strange visions.
She smiled down at him. Angel, sensing an opportunity to begin the day, once more adorned himself with an unhappy glare and pointed to his mouth. His stomach rumbled in time.
“Oh! Oh, my!” she said, seeming just then to discover that the morning has been wearing away. Fluttershy lifted herself from the bed, gently depositing Angel upon the floor as she stretched.
“Are-are you ready for breakfast, Angel?” she asked. “I bet you are.”
The rabbit crossed is forelegs in front of himself. He tapped his foot on the floor, and eyed her incredulously.
The rest of the morning progressed as per her usual routine, and she even made up the time that she had spent sitting in the bed, pondering what her dreams had brought her. “Good morning! How are you today? Are you well? Yes?” she asked each of her mute friends, the animals and birds answering her in the chirps, squeaks, and grunts that she among only the fewest of ponies could understand.
“You’re doing well? That’s just so wonderful!” The pegasus began to hum her usual little tunes. Her voice began to rise as she felt herself surrounded by all of her little charges.
Angel listened in, some small part of the rabbit finding it pleasant to hear her return to her usual self.
That, of course, only made it worse when she suddenly stopped.
Angel hopped over to the far side of the divider between the kitchen and the living room. There he found her once more simply staring, this time having dropped her dust cloth from her hoof. Her wings slowed, and as her hooves found the floor she gave a single heavy breath and stared out the window.
Angel sighed once more. He hopped over to his mistress, took her hoof in his paw, and began leading her outside. Perhaps, he hoped, the gardening could help her move beyond whatever revelation the dreams had draped around the pegasus.
“Oh, Angel,” she said as he pointed to her sun hat and the watering can, “it was just so odd, it felt like… a memory. Like something that had actually happened, but that I don’t remember… l-like it actually happened.”
The princess had begun lowering the sun a little earlier each day, and letting it rise that much later, matching the ancient rhythms of the world beyond Equestria’s borders. In short, autumn had begun to linger around Fluttershy’s garden. The bright flowers of spring had gone to seed over the summer, and now only the lingering hyssop, freshly bloomed chrysanthemums, and proud monkshood flowered there.
The colors of these plants were pleasant, and Fluttershy smiled as she looked them over, but they were not the reason for her presence in the garden. The harvest was upon her, and her garden was filled with vegetables that were soon to be ready for the picking.
She had not always kept a garden, but for Fluttershy doing so had come naturally, it seemed. Life was life, and be it animal, avian, reptile or, apparently, vegetable, her soft touch called it forth.
Angel sat against the watering can, basking in the light of the early fall as Fluttershy worked nearby. He panned his head across the garden and found a few more weeds that even his long summer of helping in the garden had not discovered.
He hopped over to the edge of the garden and looked upon the weeds with an air of extreme prejudice. He spit upon his paws, rubbed them together, and reached to remove the unwanted inhabitants of his mistress’s small garden patch.
“Ah!” cried Fluttershy, wheeling about her expression going wide. Angel startled in place at her movement, his ears coming straight up and spinning about as her hooves danced around.
Fluttershy’s eyes panned the horizon and her heart beat faster. No… no, it couldn’t be.
“The pops… the pop, pop, pop,” she breathed, her foreleg rising as she searched the space beyond the garden. “The rattle, Angel… Angel, I heard the rattle just now… just now!”
Angel hopped closer to her and put his paw on her leg. He too took deep breaths…
… he too had heard the noise that had rumbled across the landscape beyond the cottage.
The youth looked deep into the locket, his eyes lingering over the picture of the one who rested within. As Lewis called for him once more he slowly closed it, letting his mother’s image sit in his mind’s eye as he slowly pressed it back inside his sack coat.
“Allie,” Lewis asked again, nervousness pouring out of him with each word, “why do you suppose we’re sittin’ here? The other brigade’s been fightin’ up there for a fair bit, and we ain’t gone in yet. Why do ya’ think the general ain’t put us in yet? Are we gonna go in?”
The youth looked up to the tree above them. Through them came a constant pitter-patter, much like the way that the rains of the night before had, drenching them as they marched up from Keedysville.
Though the grey haze still lingered over them it was no storm cloud that tormented the leaves. It was bullets.
“Damn sharp skirmishing to the front, lads!” lifted the voice of an older soldier down the line. The youth recognized it as the voice of Horace Thomas, a joker and a family man. The soldiers laughed nervously, and the youth joined them even as stray shots continued to whiz through the low branches.
If that many shots were coming at them now, just random ones, how many would meet them when they advanced? How much closer would they…
“Well, Lewis, I suppose that if I knew that,” answered the youth, reaching again for the locket that held the picture of his mother, “I’d be a general, too.”
Down the slope of the wooded hill the rattle of musketry sounded. The cries of Gorman’s brigade wafted out of the woods, the deep rumble of the cheers of the men from Massachusetts, New York, and Minnesota mixing with the high shrieks of wounded men.
At once a horrible sound rose up, and all of the eyes and ears of the men if the Fifty-Ninth New York turned to face it from where they sat.
The rebel yell lifted through the woods, terrifying in its resonance. The sound came to them, filling them with a special sort of dread. Their ears and eyes followed it as it rose through the woods… coming from the left, from the wrong direction, from what they knew must be the exposed flank of Gorman’s brigade.
At once the drums and trumpets of Dana’s brigade came to life, at once whole battalions and companies lifted to their feet.
The youth drew his ramrod, dropped it once more down the barrel of his rifle even as he stepped into line. The ball and powder still sat there. He hadn’t imagined loading the rifle.
“Shoulder… arms,” came the voice of Lieutenant Roosa once more, “dress left, Bassett, there’s a smart lad.”
“Yes sir,” answered the youth, swallowing hard.
“Forward!” rose the distant voice of Colonel Tidball. “Forward!” answered Stetson.
The whole of the Fifty-Ninth New York went forward in one long line, the rest of the regiments of the brigade stepping with them, and with that the whole of General Dana’s brigade went down the slope of the wooded hill.
The youth could feel Howard’s brigade move behind them, feel them close. Why were they so close?
The regiment descended into a pall of smoke, the sulfuric acidity of it burning at the youth’s eyes and throat. His eyes stayed open though, and his breathing did not slow, and before him figures began to emerge from along the smoke-shrouded trees.
The wounded poured out of the woods and climbed past them, the men parting so that forlorn figures could drift through the ranks like ghosts. Impromptu bandages covered arms and clung to the sides of heads. To his right the youth saw one man resting against a tree in an absurd pose, his arm through a crux of branches.
It was only after the line had passed that the youth could see that he was already dead, his wounds having claimed him in such a stark stance.
The smoke crept over them, and as the brigade halted red flashes erupted in front of them, illuminating the grey mist. Musket balls flew around them, whistling past them.
There was a loud, gurgling scream, and the youth’s head spun to the left. With that Horace Thomas fell out of line, clenched at where his windpipe had once stood, and then lay still upon the ground.
The youth had watched his first man die.
“First rank!” came Stetson’s voice, “Ready!”
The youth lifted his Springfield and looked into the distance. There before him shapes moved in the mist, and his eyes panned back and forth as more flashes broke through the grey.
“Aim!” called the lieutenant colonel.
Aim? Aim at what? What kind of fool order…
The youth squeezed the trigger. With a “ka-kang” the volley lurched out into smoke. The youth took deep breaths as his shoulder throbbed at the recoil.
For the first time, the youth had fired a weapon in anger.
The drill lurched back into his mind. The youth reached into his cartridge box, withdrew another round, and bit hard at the end. The nine steps flew through him. Months of training and drilling took over his mind.
The sight of Lewis’s rifle crossing over his shoulder startled him. As the second rank fired the youth felt a small amount of pride that he was able to keep loading, that even as he put the percussion cap on the cone and made his rifle ready to fire once more that he actually felt like a soldier…
General Sumner came pelting out of the mist, and as he did his curses drew any sense of competence out of the youth.
“Damn fools!” called the major general, “Cease fire! Cease fire! You’re firing into the Fifteenth Massachusetts! You’re firing into Gorman’s brigade!”
All along the line shocked expressions fell through the ranks. As a small breeze parted the smoke the youth could clearly see that the lines had overlapped, that the incensed faces of New Englanders turned to face them even as they struggled against the rebels in front of them. At their feet lay their wounded and dead comrades…
Oh God! Had he shot one? Had he killed another Union boy?
The youth had not long to ponder the act. To his left the call of rebel soldiers once more went up, and even as he watched the Massachusetts boys seemed to waver, their line falling apart as they took fire from their front and their left.
More calls of pain came out over the din of the musketry, and as the youth prepared to fire again a rough hand pushed his rifle into the air, nearly knocking him over.
The Forty-Second New York and the Seventh Michigan, the regiments on their left… they were breaking, running!
“Back into line you cowards!” came the judgmental voices of his own battalion, “Where’s that Tammany courage gone, eh?”
“You’ll not be so brave in a few minutes, ya’ damn River Rat!” said one of the soldiers of the Forty-Second, stopping to answer the calls. “The damn woods are thick with rebs! Yer’ gonna be flanked, just as we were!”
Roosa called to them, made the Fifty-Ninth wheel to the left. “Independent fire, boyos! Fire away lads! Keep it hot!”
The youth joined the wheel, Company E just at the crux of the line, and he once more dressed tight to the others in line. As he moved his feet slipped across the leaves, slick with blood as they were, stepping over the wounded men.
“Boys… men, rally on your colors,” came a deflated voice over the din of the battle. To his right the youth caught a figure in the smoke, laying with his head upon a ledge of rock. As the youth moved past he saw it was Stetson, the lieutenant colonel mouthing the phrase over and over as blood poured from his chest, every beat of his heart pushing the blood through the very fabric of his shirt.
“Men, rally on your colors,” he repeated, and then was gone.
The youth lingered his eyes across the man for a second, as though expecting him to simply sit up and clear himself off. As the musket fire continued around him the youth looked away and forced himself to concentrate on reloading his Springfield.
There was a ping to his left, and the youth heard the soldier next to him call out in pain. “Damnation!” the man swore as he threw his rifle to the ground. As he turned to walk away the youth saw him holding the shattered remains of his left hand in the air, the white of the bones evident against the red that poured from where the fingers had been severed.
“Damnation!” the youth heard him swear again as he walked to the rear, cursing and swearing as though he had simply been inconvenienced.
“Lewis,” the youth said, “did you see that? Wasn’t that just the damnedest…”
Lewis was not behind him. Lewis was on the ground, crawling… crawling away and sobbing. The youth saw Lewis tear at his pants, open them up all the way to his drawers. The youth saw them painted with red, and at once he went to help the Kingston boy.
“Bassett! Into line!” came Roosa’s voice, “We’re hard up for it, lad!”
He saw shapes moving in the smoke, red and orange flashed leaping from them. He reached back into his cartridge box as he stepped over more wounded men. He was shocked by how few he found there. How many had he fired?
He bit at the cartridge again, choking a bit on the powder. His throat was so dry. He drew the rammer as a volley ripped through the line, sending more men on his left and right down to the ground with cries of pain. To his surprise it stopped short. There were already rounds in the barrel. He had lost his pace, his training and drilling faltering as he trembled through the steps.
He thumbed through the cap pouch, his body quaking as he searched for a percussion cap.
He went to place it on the cone, but it dropped from his shaking hand. He scooped it up from the blood-soaked leaves and raised the rifle.
Even as he did a shrieking, piercing call sounded out, and men in brown, grey, and butternut emerged from the smoke-filled woods. The high staccato call of men from Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia, and North Carolina draped over them.
The rebels were upon them, murderously close.
The youth pulled the trigger.
Fluttershy and Angel had stood there, together in the garden, for a great long while after the pops and rattles had caught in their ears.
Nearby a few birds settled in the trees once more. They too had heard the unfamiliar sound, and as it had echoed across the landscape and around the cottage they had taken to flight, lifting into the air in a single rush of surprise.
“It’s alright,” Fluttershy said, speaking to the few that had returned. She turned her eyes up to the sky. There more of her little friends still wheeled about in confusion.
“Oh, please, do come back down,” she called. With a few firm flaps of her wings she was up and among them, painting cheer and certainty back into her features as she tried to calm them.
“I-I’m sure it was nothing… it was nothing to be afraid of,” she said as she guided herself down to the earth. As they settled she sang her song, and as she did even the animals that had scampered away at the unfamiliar sounds re-emerged from their little warrens and scrapes.
“I-it’s okay. It’s okay,” she said, “whatever it was, I’m sure that it can’t hurt you.”
Moments passed as Fluttershy went from one to another, checking on each and settling the most fearful. Soon a resemblance of normalcy had returned to the little cottage besides the stream.
But it was ethereal, and as Fluttershy returned to her garden she re-adjusted her sun hat and gave small, trembling sighs. The sound had been real. It had been so close… it had been the sound from her dream.
She looked down to the garden once more, caught up in her thoughts. What did it mean? How, how could it have been here? Was… could she just be mistaking some other sound for the ones that had come to her in the night?
Fluttershy lifted her eyes to the sky, turning in a small circle as she did. Another sky escaped her lips as another bright, beautiful day revealed only a few puffy clouds, none of which seemed able to produce thunder.
With that ruled out she panned the horizon. Nothing there seemed amiss, and nothing which could have made the pops and the rattle seemed to present itself.
“Oh, my,” she said aloud, her eyes falling back across her garden. As she pondered the squash and the single large pumpkin her mind flit back to the scene that her dreams set in her mind. The colors… earthy colors or grey, brown, butternuts, and the vivid blues, like the colors of the sea and the sky. The colors that moved and swirled in a misty...
Something brushed her leg. With a small “Eeeeppp!” Fluttershy startled, lifted into the air, and dove down into the azalea bushes.
After a moment a set of cyan eyes appeared among the leaves. After darting back and forth for an instant they found themselves looking into the eyes of the rabbit once more.
Angel was at first distant, the rabbit standing in his usual position of disapproval. But, as her eyes became more worried, the rabbit dropped his condemning glance and hopped forward into the bushes.
He found her cowering there, looking down at him. He had thought that she’d gotten beyond this. He had so very much hoped that her fear had diminished. She had been doing so well…
“Oh, Angel,” she said, "it was just you! You gave me such a start,” she said, gathering him up for a hug. As they sat there among the azaleas Angel had an odd sensation come over him. As he looked up to Fluttershy he realized that what he had at first mistaken for fear had indeed actually been something else entirely.
Fluttershy was staring off into the distance again. Even as little patches of light fell over her through the branches and yellowing leaves of the bush he saw that her mind was still set on the noise… not fear but, well, what? Bewilderment? Puzzlement… concern?
“Ang… oh, Angel,” she said, “You heard it too, didn’t you? You head the rattly, poppy sound, right?”
The rabbit could only look up to her and nod.
“It was just like the s-sound from my dream… just like it,” she spoke, her voice dropping and her eyes finding the ground as the words drifted over them.
After a long moment he realized he’d been running his paw over her foreleg. He smirked to himself, and with that he began to poke at her, force her back to the world of immediate concerns.
With that he lead her out of the bush.
Life in the garden seemed to return to normal. As her voice once more lifted into the sunlight the animals and birds all seemed to catch her spirit, their own fears lifting as hers seemed to dissipate.
She hadn’t always kept a garden, but after the unpleasantness in the market it seemed a good idea. That Cretan had brought a part of herself to the surface that she had not liked, and it seemed far easier (and less stressful) to grow her own asparagus than fight and scream for it.
No, this way was better. She enjoyed her garden. In it she felt so… happy. Here she was surrounded by her animal friends, and in her garden she could feel herself supplying their needs as well as her own.
Yes, keeping a garden had been a good idea. She had enjoyed watching the shoots come up, watching the light of Celestia’s sun give them strength and life. As the garden grew new plants came up and each revealed their bounty. As the plants came up she had watched in wonder as each had transformed into something different, as each had become an amazing new vegetable or herb.
Yes, she liked her garden…
… such interesting things were always popping up.
Fluttershy stopped to ponder her little cottage, to look upon it and the grassy expanse of her lawn. Nearby her chickens clucked happily, the yard birds fluffing their feathers and chasing after insects. Above, her bird friends sat in the sun and chirped small songs, and nearby animals came and went up and down her garden path.
There was the slightest hint of movement, and to her surprise Fluttershy felt something brush across the stifle of her rear leg. Though momentarily surprised, she did not call out, and her azalea bushes went undisturbed. She was very proud of herself, proud that she had not jumped or had been alarmed.
“Oh, yes?” she said, turning and looking to discover which of her little friends had brushed beside her, hoping to catch her attention. “H-how can I help… help…”
Fluttershy’s eyes panned left and right, looked down the sweep of her yard from the garden, henhouse, and path all the way back to the table beside the house itself.
No creature was near her.
She lifted her sun hat and scratched at her forehead. “An-Angel?” she asked, “Did, did any of our little friends…”
The movement came again, and Fluttershy felt it, heard it. Some creature had come running unseen up through her garden. Its progress had been utterly invisible.
Her mouth hung open, shock washing over her. Some large creature had run right through her cottage, invisibly, and had pelted right past her!
Her legs began to tremble. To her horror more sounds reached her, more movement.
“An-Anngeelll!” she breathed, and at once the rabbit had leapt to her. She looked down to see him clutched to her foreleg, he too sensing that something was transpiring here in the sunny space of their yard.
Above her, even as the sounds and the movement continued, her bird friends seemed to pan their heads back and forth in alarm and then take to the air, reacting to the unseen presences that were now thundering across her yard.
Her animal friends scampered away, some even darting back in forth in confusion as the sounds, feelings, and movement only grew.
Fluttershy trembled, shook. Unseen creatures, seemingly dozens, were racing through her yard. At once an alien, freezing sensation drifted through her…
One, one of… whatever these were, had run right through her.
The very feeling of it weakened her knees, sent her crawling to the protection of the distant table. Angel had gripped hard at her leg, and even as the rabbit was half-bounced and half-dragged Fluttershy sought out the shelter she hoped, begged it would provide against… these…
Smoke. Smoke, a grey mist just like in her dream! It hung close to the ground, filled her nose with a sulfuric, acidic stink.
Her eyes went wider as the smoke rose up around her, and in it she could see the creatures running, their shape visible in outline… unlike anything she’d ever seen.
Some ran. Others hobbled, as though they were… hurt.
As she sat there quaking more of the presences flit past, and to her horror she felt one… crawling, one crawling past her. At once the feeling changed, and inside Fluttershy a different feeling arose. Sounds were reaching her now, ones that a very different part of the pegasus than her trademark fears responded to. The only part of her greater than her fear rose up in her…
Voices. There were voices. Voices were coming from these… poor creatures, calls of pain. They were calling for help… sobbing…
“H-hello?” she called from beneath the table, pulling her sun hat down over her eyes. Even as she trembled and shook she extended her hoof, reaching for whatever may be beyond the safety of the table, her tea set chiming out above her as her own trembles shook the legs.
At once the sound… the invisible forms, and the feeling of movement they brought with them, they all seemed to drift away. As the last of them seemed to pelt past she extended her head, peeked out from behind the legs of the table.
“H-hello?” she called again, crawling forward a few steps. “Is… is there anypony, a-anything, t-there that needs… help?”
Carefully, tentatively, she crawled out from under the table. Even as she still trembled she tried to lift her voice again. At once horrible sounds rose around her cottage, stealing her words from her. Fluttershy bolted in place. Shock went through her as new calls met her ears. Before she had even known what she had done she had jumped back beneath the table.
Yet, this time, the sounds did not end.
Even as she wrapped Angel closer to her she panned her eyes towards the garden, towards where the sounds came in unhappy waves, as they flowed over and over.
As she watched something seemed to bounce, roll around in pain that reached her as shrieks and wails, the movement rippling through her garden. As she watched the cornstalks bounced, and a single gourd rolled into the yard. She caught sight of the movement… whatever was thrashing about was real, had a physical, visible presence.
There was something in her garden…
The Fifty-Ninth New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment had ceased to exist.
Twenty minutes ago they had marched forward through the woods, shoulder to shoulder, almost four hundred men, each strong and determined.
Twenty minutes ago they had been a regiment, two battalions of proud Union men.
Now two hundred laid dead and dying.
Around the youth men of his shattered regiment, and the whole brigade, broke and ran. They pelted off into the grey mist, escaping the unceasing fire that the rebels poured into their flank with continuous and devastating volleys.
“C’mon lads!” called Lieutenant Roosa, grabbing men, pulling them back into line. “What will you think of yourself if you run? What will your sweethearts think of you? What will your mothers think?”
The youth put his hand to his chest, tapping it. There the locket still sat there, safe.
The youth swallowed hard, tripped across the unmoving body of a comrade, and looked back into the line of grey and brown that stood to his left. He reached deep into his cartridge box, scrambling to find a remaining round. He threw an empty tin to the ground and rummaged through it. He fought to load the musket once more. Oh, how his throat burned! The black powder had now dried his throat, stung at his lips. To his horror his canteen now hung empty at his side, the stopper hanging loose.
“Good lads!” called Roosa, guiding them with the flat of his sword. “Keep at it, fire away! Fire at the sons of bi…”
A volley leapt at them, the whole length of the rebel line exploding with red and orange.
A spray of blood erupted from Roosa, and with that he was on the ground. The youth looked down upon the lieutenant, his face going ashen at the man held his hands starkly above himself, the arms shaking, his eyes flying around.
The youth was at once reminded of a cow that was in the midst of being slaughtered, one whom the first strike of the hammer had not at once killed. At once one instinct fell through him… the instinct to run.
“Please, God, don’t let me die here,” he said to no one as he spun, slinging the rifle across his shoulder. At once the rebel yell rose up around him again, and behind him came movement, the feeling of the Secesh pushing forward.
“Please, please, God, please! I don’t want to die here!” he called again, his pace quickening. With greater speed the youth scrambled back through the woods, his eyes set only on the distance.
“Allie! Allorian, please, don’t leave me!”
The youth looked back as the weak, plaintive call of Lewis met him. The Kingston boy had crawled far, but now he lay there, hardly even able to lift his head.
The youth was so close to being free, to escaping…
The youth scrambled back down the path, looked for some way to grab hold of Lewis. “Clear the way!” came a booming voice, and with that the youth felt himself being thrown aside, some panicked soldier tossing him as easily as if her were a sack of flour.
The youth fought to his feet and searched the brush for Lewis. The smoke clung to the ground, and he could not find him. The youth looked around once more and lifted his head…
Only to find himself looking down the barrel of an Enfield, to see himself in the sight of a Secesh only perhaps thirty yards distant…
“Please, God, I don’t want to die here!” the youth called aloud, grasping at his locket. “Please, God!”
There was a flash of red and orange, and smoke rolled out over the scene.
The young rebel picked his way forward with the rest of his battalion, rummaging through dead and wounded Yankees for whatever they desired.
The young rebel had no need for any trinkets, and he’d only just gotten some new socks of another dead Yank back at South Mountain. So, his only stop was to give some water from his canteen to a wounded Federal. He nodded to the man and then went forward towards a spot he had marked in his mind.
The young rebel stood in a patch of smoke, kicking through it.
“What in the bloody Hell you kickin’ at, T.J.?” asked the corporal, laughing at the sight.
“Should be a dead Yank here, or hurt bad at least,” said the young rebel, his hands going to his hips, looking around with a growing sense of disappointment evident on his features. “Took just as clean a shot at him as I ever done took at any squirrel I ever plucked…”
The young rebel sighed.
“Well, come out of there,” spoke the corporal. “Mr. Lincoln’ll send ya’ plenty more where that one came from.”
The young rebel kicked through the smoke once more, unslung his Enfield, and looked down to where he had seen the Bluecoat fall through the grey mist.
“Ain’t that the damnedest thing? I had him dead for rights, I swear it,” he swore as he walked down to join the rest of his battalion. “It’s like he just flew off, like that Yank just flew off to somewhere…”
The youth felt himself fall through the smoke, felt himself fall for what felt like an extraordinarily long time. His eyes closed, and he waited for the feel of the earth thudding into him.
Yet, as he fell, something shifted around him.
He felt himself lying upon the ground. Oddly, there was no pain. No, there was no pain, and he felt himself wrapped in a sort of hazy unawareness.
The smoke was gone.
Was… was he lying next to a pumpkin?
The youth blinked. He heard no sounds of musket fire. There was no high staccato sound of the rebel yell, no calls of dying men, no…
The pain began.
It welled up deep, flashing out to him. It rippled up to him from deep inside his guts. Soon it was cascading through the youth, each tiny movement driving it through him in merciless waves.
The youth rolled around, his legs kicking at the earth, digging deep trenches into the garden as horrible sounds began to rise from him.
High shrieks of pain began to erupt from him, uncontrollable and feral, each call louder than the last. He wrapped himself into a ball, soon exploding out of the position in wild tosses of his arms that brushed through the cornstalks, great vast, wild sweeps of his legs that sent a gourd rolling out into the yard.
As Fluttershy heard the sounds she began to creep out from beneath the safety of the table. Her legs trembled, her body shook, but… but, there was something in her garden. Something that maybe, it seemed, needed help.
Something in pain.
New red hot flashes of agony dove through the youth, and once more he threw himself around, fighting, raging against the pain. He wrapped himself tight into a ball again, his cartridge box, cap pouch, and canteen all bouncing against him as he clawed at the dirt. His calls of pain devolved into simpering and wailing, accented only once by a shriek as he fell over onto his back.
As the youth’s head rested against the little fence he tried to force himself to think, to take control over his shattered body. He felt the wetness all across his stomach, abdomen, and legs. His arms shook as he tried to lift them.
Even as the pain throbbed and rolled through him he pulled at the buckle, and as he did the accoutrement belt fell loose. He threw the canteen and haversack over his shoulder, each little movement bringing him fresh agonies.
There, once all of these had been laid aside, he looked down across the front of his sack coat. It was wet, the moisture standing out in stark relief among the dirt that now covered his uniform.
He had to know. He needed to know how bad it was. He reached down to the hem of his coat, and at once began pulling at it, tearing at it…
Fluttershy had been creeping forward, trying to go towards her garden with tender little steps. Her mouth came open, and as it did she tried honestly and earnestly to wake words. She tried to call to whatever was there. She tried to offer her aid, but the words would not come.
As she looked on there was a fresh yelp of pain, and in an instant shining points of light seemed to leap from the garden patch. “Yeep!” she squeaked, her body wrapping tight to herself as they sped closer, closer…
She opened her eyes to find herself looking down at a button. As Angel peeked out from behind her Fluttershy’s mind tried to comprehend it. Here, in front of her, sat a button. A bright brass button shimmered in the sunlight, and upon it an eagle looked proudly from behind a thin sheen of blood.
Her mouth opened once more. No monster can wear buttons, right? Once more she lifted herself, tried again to call out as she picked her way forward. Her voice though was sucked from her as a new call sounded from her garden patch … one that formed syllables, one that made words…
The youth’s buttons had flown off of the sack coat as he had torn at his uniform, the eagle buttons flying into the air.
Now, he tried to focus. The youth attempted to lift his shirt so that he could look down across his own body. The shirt had been white, issued to him freshly bleached, so much so that the chemicals had prickled across his skin for those first few days.
Now it was utterly red. Now it was soaked with his blood from below his ribs all the way to where they entered his trousers. The smell of his own blood gagged him even as fought to get the suspenders off, even as pain continued to course through him.
He opened the front of his trousers, saw that even his drawers were soaked red, and with a shrill sound of effort lifted the shirt.
He looked down across his stomach… and there witnessed the ruin of his own body.
“Ooohhh Gaawwwdddd!” the youth called aloud, “Goooddd, please, no, please!” He began to cry. He looked once more upon the great wet hole that sat to the right of his navel. Tears streamed down his face, both from the pain and the fear. He began to think… he began to think of many things.
He thought of steamboats, of the big church on Clinton Street, of the market. He thought of Mr. Vanderbilt’s railroad across the river. He thought of summers along the Hudson, of the Catskills erupting into oranges, reds, browns, and purples as autumn set in.
He thought of dancing with Sally Karmer at the harvest dance. He thought of his mother.
“Mother! Mootthhherrr!” he called, knowing full well that she could not hear, that she was nowhere near Maryland. He knew she was nowhere close to wherever… to wherever this garden was. He knew that she was back home. Home. Home along the Hudson, back in Kingston where he had run through the streets, where he’d lazily sat on the stone wall watching the little shad boats. He mouthed the word again, and as his hand went to the locket.
“Mooottthhherrr!” he brayed aloud, casting the word out into the sunlight and into the branches of the tree above, across the garden and out above the green lawn.
Fluttershy’s heart fell open.
Something in her garden was crying in pain, something in her garden needed help…
Something in her garden was calling for its mommy.
Her fear faded. No monster wants its mommy, no monster cried in long sobs like that.
Her hooves fell more resolutely, and her fear was washed away as her compassion, her kindness, welled up in her. She sped up as she entered the garden itself, barely missing all of the vegetables and herbs that she had been tending so carefully. Now some were smashed, others torn from their stalks, and around her she could see where the creature had torn at the earth.
She pushed through the corn, and there looked down upon the miserable spectacle of the… thing, that sat despondently in her garden.
She looked past many things. She looked past its long limbs and short face. She looked past the blood, the dirt, and the gore. She saw only the blue of its clothing…
… the blue that matched that of her vision, of the shapes that moved in her dream…
… and the pain that coursed through it.
“Oh! H-hello? Do, do you need…” she asked meekly.
The eyes flashed open, and the face that had been contorted in pain wheeled to her.
The youth heard the voice, the beautiful voice, and the sense of someone being near him filled his perception. The voice, could… could it possibly be…
“Mother?” he called in a dry, raspy voice as he blinked the dirt from his eyes, “Moth…”
He looked past many things. He looked past the odd form of the… creature. He looked past the way that the hat hung limply on its head, past the way it seemed in so many ways to be a… horse, a little talking horse. He saw only the compassion that sat in the eyes, heard only the concern that hovered in its voice. Motherly, female… the creature suddenly became a beacon to him, a well of hope.
“No, no, oh no, I’m not… I’m not your...” Fluttershy began as her voice only grew stronger. Her resolve was soon tested.
The youth rolled over onto his stomach and called out in pain. He reached for the legs of the creature, grasping at them, begging for her help.
Fluttershy tensed, felt the power in the… hands, of the creature.
“Please don’t go!” called the youth, misunderstanding the way her body reacted, “Oh… miss, please! Oh, God, please, don’t leave me!”
Fluttershy felt the blood wipe against her coat, the stickiness of it cling to her all the way down to her skin. She looked down at the youth, watched as his little funny hat come loose and sat serenely in the rows between the squash and carrots. His eyes were filled… filled with pain and fear.
Her mind raced, her eyes darted around her garden, past the dented watering can and all sorts of boxes and… things, that she did not recognize. A bag of some sort, a belt with boxes and… a long thing, a long thing made of steel and wood, glinting in the sun.
It smelled like the smoke, and she did not like it.
“H-how, oh! Oh, how do I help you?” she asked as her head turned from the objects. She looked back into his eyes, her wings coming open in shades of panic. Her hoof went to his hand, stroked it as he pawed through the earth, beat at the dirt against the pain with his other fist.
“Water. Water, miss… please, please I’m so thirsty,” he choked through parched lips. His lips still betrayed the presence of some of the black powder, the black mark where he had been biting open the cartridges standing stark against his skin, skin that seemed to get paler even as she looked upon him.
Fluttershy knew instantly what one of the items was. Equestrian soldiers wore them. Even though this one was far larger, she knew it was a canteen. She reached across him, gathering up the strap, wheeling it around to where she knew Angel sat hidden in the cornstalks.
“Angel! Oh, Angel, hurry! Fill this at the well!” she called to him. Angel though stood there, his eyes locked on the tossing, crying creature that rolled around even as it seemed to grip harder upon his mistress.
“Angel? Angel, oh, Angel I need you to fill this, please…”
Angel turned to face her. His eyes then settled back across the dirty, blood-soaked wool of the canteen. Disgust washed over the rabbit. At once he began to fold his arms, began to give her a look of…
She had no time for that. “Angel!” she shouted, painting her deepest resolve into her forcible stare, fixing him in with her determined gaze, “Fill it! Well! Now!”
The rabbit recoiled, wrapped the strap around himself, and with long leaps was off through the garden to the wellhead beyond.
Fluttershy’s attention went back to the creature that laid there, his… fingers, wrapped tight to her foreleg. To her surprise he, it definitely was a he, was looking up to her with something approaching awe.
She saw how throat bounced with each sob, betraying the presence of a laryngeal prominence, like the Cretan's. Around the face of the creature stubble caught dirt, and the whole effect convinced her that this was a male... thing. Not just a male, but a boy. A poor, wounded boy who looked to her with pleading eyes.
At once that faded, and new tears and sobs arose from him. He rolled back into a ball, and when that pose only brought new pain his cries flowed from him again.
“Oh, God! Oh mother, motheerrr!” called the youth, not lessening his grip upon the creature. “Oh, God!”
“Please, please try to lay still!” she said, nuzzling him, trying to get him to roll into his back, “Please, I-I have to see… to see what’s wrong…”
“The ball!” called the youth, falling over onto his back, his fingers dancing along her leg, “The ball is still there, ‘ah kin feel it! Oh God, it hurts! Oh, God!”
“The ball?” asked Fluttershy, trying to get him to lay still, not understanding his complaint, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry… I-I don’t… what do you…”
Fluttershy looked down, down into his wound. Her breath was stolen out of her as she witnessed the great sopping hole that stood out upon the creature, as she looked down into the ruins of his torso.
Fluttershy was no stranger to wounds, to injury. The pegasus had a rapport with death that none of her friends could ever really know of. She had tended broken wings, had set broken limbs that animals had crawled to her cottage to have tended by her caring touch. She alone sought for these many years to lessen the onslaught of disease and famine among her animal dependants, she had held little birds close to her during long nights as their lives had slipped away.
She had never seen anything like this. This was beyond her.
She whipped the hat off of her head, and as her wings stood out wide in alarm she tore it to pieces with her teeth, separating the flat edges from the dome.
She pressed the flat to the wound, doing the first thing that she knew to do, to try to apply pressure to the great, vast wound that continued to pour the creature’s blood.
The youth called out in pain, shrieked, and then looked upon the creature again. She, it certainly was a she, was trying so hard, concern was painted across her… horse-like, features.
She couldn’t be a horse. Didn’t look all that much like a horse… and most horses certainly don’t talk. The youth’s mind fought through waves of pain to determine what she was, where he could possibly be.
His eyes settled across her beautiful countenance, the soft colors that even his blood could not hide. She had been strong, forcible when she had called out, but her words to him were soft. Her wings spread wide, and…
… her wings.
“Are,” he choked, feeling as though he had breathed some of the Hudson’s cold waters, “are you… an angel?”
Fluttershy blinked, looked down across him, the oddness of his statement reaching out to her.
“Miss,” he called through dry, trembling lips, running his bloodied hand up and down her side, “a-are you an angel, miss?”
She blinked at him once more, her wide cyan eyes convincing him of his conviction that much more.
“My, my bunny is named…” she began, trying to understand what he was asking. How, how could the creature believe that she was an…
New pains rocked through the youth, lifting her in the air as his back arched and he cried aloud.
“Oh, mother! Mothheerrr!” he called again, and as his body writhed she was carried along on top of it, still trying to keep the blood from pouring from him.
Fluttershy watched as his hand went to his neck, and as he heaved and strained something golden came out from beneath his shirt. He grasped it in his free hand, and as he did he seemed to calm.
“Miss Angel, please, I’m so thirsty,” he whimpered, drawing his hand across her once more, “I’m so thirsty.”
“Water… water will be here very soon, very soon, I promise,” Fluttershy said, looking down to him. As the torn dome of her hat bounced away she saw what he had in his hand. It was a locket, and as it came open she looked upon the picture of another one of the creatures, this one seemingly older, and (she guessed) a female. His mother… the creature was just a boy, one who wanted, longed for, his mother. He wanted his mother, wanted her to take away his pain, his fear.
Fluttershy looked down to see that his blood had coursed right through the torn brim of her sun hat, that she could not stop it… and if she could not do that then whatever this “ball” was within could not be removed.
She needed help. Fluttershy’s mind raced to the one pony who might know anything about what to do, the only one who could possible use magic and knowledge to help the youth.
She lifted herself off of him, and at once he guessed her meaning.
“Please! Miss Angel, please,” he begged even as he heaved and rolled, grasping at her leg, “Please don’t leave me!”
“I-I’m going to go get Twilight! Twilight will help, she’ll know what to do… oh, do hang on, the water is coming! I’ll be back, I’ll be right back with Twilight and she’ll use her magic and… and…”
The youth rubbed his hand across her leg once more, and then released it. “Please, please… tell my mother…” he said, gripping the locket so that it closed.
“Of course,” Fluttershy said, looking down at him. “Please, oh, please be strong. Of course, of course I’ll tell her, just wait right here…”
Her nose pressed gently to his forehead, and with a few leaps she was off, lifting into the air on powerful flaps of her wings, great long flaps that only the greatest of emergencies could summon from the pegasus. Fluttershy did not know why she had made the promises, did not know what he had even meant. As she darted across the sky all of that sat upon her, and as the sun streamed around her his blood dried upon her body.
“Twilight!” she called as she streaked over the countryside. As she went his desperate, pleading eyes filled her vision. “Twilight!”
The youth lay back, his head resting against the fence.
He wondered where he was, and why an angel had found him.
He looked up to see the cottage nearby, and thought of how very much like the cottage he had grown up in, the one where his mother now sat awaiting his return.
The youth smiled. He knew full well that he would not be returning. Knew that his war was over.
He was in Heaven.
That’s the only reason why an angel should have been so near him. That explains her form. That fit with what the pastor at the big old Methodist church on Clinton Street had said, didn’t it? He had said that angels aren’t humans, but divine beings of grace and beauty.
That explained it, nice and tidy. He must be in Heaven. The beautiful angel had helped him, and the pain was starting to go away. Yes, it was going away. It was merely a throb now, and the coldness in his hands, arms, and legs… well, that was because he was at the gates of a blessed realm. Surely… surely, that was it.
That was the reason.
The pastor at the Methodist church said that they would all give up their pain, that when they died pain would end. Yes, his pain was ending… it was.
The youth smiled, looked around him. Above him birds settled back into the tree, and he was so… happy, happy to see the birds, hear their songs begin again. He looked on in awe as an eagle and a hawk sat next to the little songbirds, the cardinals, jays, and robins.
They did not move to attack each other, to feed on the little birds. No… no, they simply looked down over him sadly.
Nearby there was movement, and the youth slid his rifle far away so that it would not disturb the little creatures that peeked at him through the garden, or peered at him tentatively from the fence.
“Hello,” he croaked out through, parched, dry lips. Soon the water would come, and there would be such blessed relief. “Hello,” he said to the animals again, trying to smile at them as his body went numb. Near him badgers stood next to mice, and foxes among rabbits, and… and a bear? A bear sat there, the creature too simply worrying over him, not chasing at the squirrels or snapping at the chipmunks.
What had the preacher called this? Oh, oh yes… the peaceable kingdom. “A-and the l-lion will lay beside the l-lamb, and the bear will eat hay and oats…” he stuttered, wiggling his finger at a ferret that came close to him.
Yes, yes… this was Heaven, or at least the gates to it, the path beside the house… the little gate there…
Soon, soon the water would come and he’d leap back to his feet, be whole and fit again. Soon, soon his angel would come back and she’d take him down that path, through that gate.
The youth fought to raise himself, fought to look over the fence. There, there in the far distance he saw it.
The animals scurried away, or sat in the distance beyond the garden as he gave one last call of pain.
His eyes settled on the mountain beyond, beyond the little village. His eyes were clouded, but still he could see it so clearly, perched on the side of the mountain. Even at this distance he could see the tall, white towers, and the waterfalls that cascaded from it. Yes, it was there…
… it was Zion.
He slumped back down as the wonderful clouds filled his eyes. Soon the water would come and he would never be thirsty again. Soon his angel would come back, and she’d take him to Zion, the city of God, and he’d be happy and strong and safe forever. There they’d sing the hymns, and he’d be in the presence of God.
The youth lay back against the fence, and as he did he felt everything begin to leave him. He lifted his voice, put away his fear, and rejoiced. The hymn left his lips, his joy bubbling out of him. Even as his arms fell limp by his side, his palms open, he was so happy.
“Amazing… grace,” he sang weekly, his words coming slower and slower, “how s-sweet… the sound, t-that saved… a wretch, l-like me. I once was lost, but now am found…”
Yes, the angel had found him. He’d been found.
“… was b-blind, but now… I-I see…”
The youth opened his eyes, passed them across the serene landscape of the cottage, the garden, and the green fields beyond. How warm the sun was, how wonderful it felt… how sweet the song of the birds…
The youth closed his eyes.
Angel sped back to the garden, the canteen dripping, sopping with the waters of the well.
The rabbit fell back onto all fours, making his way forward to where the creature lay. He had seen his mistress take off, and he felt some small apprehension.
As he came to the creature he was disgusted once more by the thick red well of blood and gore that stood out upon it. As his nose wrinkled his eyes panned upwards, and as they did Angel felt his emotions change.
The creature had the most calm, happy look upon its face. Angel took a few steps forward and placed the canteen in the creature’s open hand.
Nothing, the creature did not move.
Angel shook him, pointed to the canteen.
Angel, being Angel, gave the creature a swift kick. With that the body fell from where it had sat upon the fence, Angel’s paws moving to cover his mouth.
As he looked upon the still, unmoving form of the youth Angel felt an emotion that was largely foreign to him, that he did not experience much. But, as the birds and animals gathered to him, it sat there, behind his eyes.
He felt such guilt that he’d ever been afraid of the creature. He felt guilt that he’d attempted to refuse it aid. He felt guilt that he’d not hurried faster to bring it the water it had begged for…
… that the youth had been alone, that no one had been with him when he died.
There was a rumbling shock, and a great purple ball appeared upon the grassy reaches of Fluttershy’s yard. As it condensed upon itself the forms of Fluttershy, Twilight Sparkle, Spike, and Rainbow Dash all lifted from the remains of the spell.
“Over here!” Fluttershy called at once, diving into the garden, “H-he’s over here! He’s…”
Twilight looked to Spike and Dash, and as the three made their way into the garden they tried to determine what could have silenced her so quickly. “Oh man,” mouthed Spike, looking at the torn earth, the broken and squashed vegetables, “what kind of creature could do…”
“Spike,” came Twilight’s voice, rising sternly, “I want you to look away. Look towards the yard, or the forest, or wherever… just do not look over here…”
Spike, being a boy of about twelve years or so, instantly looked to where Twilight told him not to look. He immediately wished he hadn’t.
“I said look away!” Twilight said, spinning him with her magic and placing him on the ground. She didn’t have long to dwell upon it. She watched as Dash made her way up to Fluttershy, the other pegasus nuzzling the distraught figure.
“Oh no! Oh, oh no! No, no!” Fluttershy whimpered over and over, racing up and down the length of the body, looking back into the eyes, reaching back for Dash’s nuzzle.
“I-I’m too late! I-I couldn’t… couldn’t help him!” she cried, leaning across Dash’s withers. The sound of her tears began to fill the garden, and soon Twilight too was brushing up beside her, trying to nuzzle to her.
“Hey,” Dash began, “Hey, I-I’m sure you, well, did everything you could for it. There, wow, doesn’t look like there was much of anything that you could have done for it…”
“He’s not an ‘It’! He’s a boy! A boy who was hurt and crying!” Fluttershy said, lifting her head, panning it between the two other ponies.
She spun around high on a flap of her wings, looking back over the crumpled form that lay among her squash and rhubarb. Her head panned down the length of his body, tears welling in her eyes.
“H-he was a boy! He t-talked and cried and asked, begged me for help!” she cried.
“Yes, okay, yes…but, but a boy what?” asked Twilight, lifting the odd boxes and bags that lay nearby with her magic.
“I-I don’t know!” Fluttershy wailed, turning to lay herself against Twilight’s head. Twilight ignored the streaks of the creature’s blood that sat upon her friend, and let the pegasus just speak and cry. “He… h-he was in so much pain, and I t-tried to help but I couldn’t! He, he was just crying over and over for his mommy! He was crying for his mommy and… for, for God!”
“What’s God?” asked Rainbow Dash, looking from the still body to Twilight.
“I don’t know,” answered Twilight, wiping her face to Fluttershy’s, “but it must have been very important to the creature.”
“He’s not a creature!” called Fluttershy as new tears fell down her face. “He’s a boy!”
Nearby another boy stood with his hands behind his back, wishing that he too could spin around and embrace the pegasus. Yet, dutifully, he stood in place, facing out towards Fluttershy’s yard, avoiding having to see the horrible spectacle that lay in the garden.
Spike kicked at the grass, and as he did he stubbed his toe on something. After a few hops of pain he peered down into the grass. There his eyes caught across the something, and he kneeled down to look upon it.
It was long, more than twice his length, and made of steel and wood.
It smelled of sulfur, and he found the scent pleasurable to his draconic senses. He used his foot to timidly kick it over, and as he peered down at it cautiously he sensed that the sulphury, salty smell lifted from a certain part.
Spike looked over his shoulder, saw the mares still at once trying to calm Fluttershy and answer her concerns about the creature not being treated as an animal.
Seeing that they were not looking at him he lifted the thing slightly, and pulling back on the one part he found that it clicked into place, revealing a brass part that seemed to have been squashed flat.
He gingerly picked it off and flipped it back and forth over his clawed hands. It smelt of spent fire, and he wondered what it could be. He put his hand on his hip as he pondered it…
… and there he discovered he was surrounded by them, by unsquashed brass… things, each like the one that he held in his hand. He turned again, saw them spilling out of one of the pouches upon the belt that he assumed the creature had worn.
He quickly picked one up.
Spike looked it over, and then gazed at the long object that still sat hidden in the grass.
He leaned down, lifting it carefully. A smell of sulfur, and something more, lingered about the object, and Spike’s keen dragon senses smelt that it lifted from a hole under where the brass thing had sat.
He tilted the object back and forth, and to his amazement little black pellets came dripping from the hole.
What is it doing in there? he thought. Maybe… maybe this little thing helps it get out?
With that Spike placed the percussion cap on the cone of the musket. He flipped it up and down, and there saw the trigger beneath.
“Oh,” he said aloud, unheard by the ponies beyond, “that must let this part move…”
With that Spike lifted the Springfield. He placed two fingers upon the trigger, hefting the rifle up so that it lay against his side, the barrel still upon the grass…
“Its teeth are really kinda dirty,” said Rainbow Dash, placing her hoof to the chin of the creature, pushing it down slightly so she could see within the mouth. At once she was overcome by the odd sensation of having been butted by Fluttershy, the other pegasus shoving her away.
“Please!” Fluttershy called out, her eyes still streaming. “Oh, please, don’t touch him like that! H-he’s not… he’s not an animal!”
Rainbow Dash was beginning to have enough of this. Her tongue had hung out as she’d stumbled around after Fluttershy’s rather timid assault, but now she recovered.
“Hey!” she answered, looking back at Fluttershy’s defiant face, “Look, I know you’re all upset and stuff but we don’t know anything about this thing, so…”
“He wasn’t a thing!” Fluttershy said again, her face still red.
“Girls, please,” answered Twilight, interjecting herself between them, “I know that we’re dealing with something unusual here, and I know that this must be very upsetting for you, Fluttershy, but right now what we must do is…”
There was a loud report, a “ka-kang” that sang out and echoed around the cottage, thought the garden, and across the fields.
The ponies turned their heads as something whistled through the grass, pinged off of a rock on the far side of the cottage, and tumbled through the air above their heads, knocking a few leaves from the tree.
The birds lifted into flight, and most of the animals scurried away or bolted in place.
For an instant all was silent.
“What,” asked Dash, settling back down to the earth, “what was that?”
Twilight studied the landscape around her, calling for her little dragon whelp.
“Spike?” she called, “Spike?”
She found him standing not far from where she had placed him. He stood there trembling… trembling with something held in his grasp.
As she watched he dropped it to the ground, threw it away from himself. At once his hands came up to his mouth, and he looked to them with terror in his eyes.
It was a weapon. As the smoke drifted around him he came to a certain realization… that it must be a weapon. Nothing good or happy or positive could make such a noise. Nothing joyful could send whatever had escaped it buzzing through the grass. It was a weapon… he had just used a weapon.
There was pain.
“I’m so sorry!” he called as his hands went to his ribs, and at once she was with him.
“I’m so sorry!” he called again as she ran her hoof over him, searching for any physical hurts. “I’m sorry!”
“Spike, Spike,” she said, calming him, “are you okay? Does anything hurt?”
“My side! My side hurts, Twi! I-it kicked me!”
Twilight rubbed him, made him sit in the space between her forelegs as she did so. As he took a few large breaths silence once more filled the field and the space beside the cottage. As soon as she knew him to be safe she lifted her little dragon whelp upon her back and turned back towards where the other two mares still stood in the garden.
She didn’t bother to make him look away this time, and as they approached the other two ponies Dash’s look sped between Twilight and Spike, and then deep within the garden.
“Oh, poor Fluttershy,” Twilight mouthed as Spike leaned into her mane. The three looked upon the beset pegasus as she tried earnestly to find some rational reason, some answer, to what had happened among her carrots and gourds…
The pegasus stood over the crumpled, deflated, torn body of the youth. She tenderly helped his head settle back into her hoof, let it rest gently upon the ground. She ran her hoof through his fair-colored hair, lifted his arm so that it lay across his chest.
She had been about to put the locket back within the shirt, but as she tried gingerly to lift upon it the hinge bounced open. The pegasus found herself staring at the picture within. The youth’s mother, her hair up in a bow and her eyes deep and gentle, stared at the pegasus.
“He, he wanted me to tell you,” she whispered…
Fluttershy thought hard, and fought against the tears.
“H-he wanted me to tell you t-that he l-loved you,” she whimpered, “I-I promised h-him that I would tell you, but… b-but I don’t know how to get to… to wherever you are…”
With that she began to cry once again.
“I d-don’t know how…”
She whined, sputtered.
“He was just a boy!” she said, her hooves dancing as she stood over him. “He was just a boy who was scared and hurt and afraid!”
She turned back to her friends, caught them all in a look that spoke of her plea for answers. “He was just a boy! H-he thought I was an angel… called me an angel!”
“Oh, Twilight! W-why did he have to die? Why did he come from… f-from wherever, just to die?” she turned back over him as the others approached, looking down into the unseeing eyes.
“He j-just wanted his m-mommy!” she called aloud as she nuzzled against the youth’s forehead, her tears falling over him, “H-he just wanted his mommy!”
Her eyes closed, and the unfairness of it sank through her as she bawled.
“He just wanted his mommy!”
For Fluttershy, there were no easy answers.
The proper authorities had come, had claimed the youth, his weapon, and the accoutrements. Within a few hours all that remained to mark the passing of the boy from her garden were the squashed plants, the broken stalks, and a prevailing sense of unease and concern that floated through the pegasus.
Her friends did all that they could for her, each coming to be with her, hoping to get her to talk about her experience. Yet, in truth, there was little that she could tell them. She could tell her friends no more than she had told the officers, biologists, and cryptozoologists who had come to her little cottage.
She had tried to be polite. She had served tea, had brought them cakes and tried her hardest to answer each question.
But, by the second day, she found herself becoming assertive again… she began sending them away. She began sending the gawkers and “experts” back out of her little home.
Who would answer her questions? Who would put her mind at ease? Who would listen to Fluttershy?
Twilight Sparkle had listened.
Twilight and Spike sat up late that second night, had sat up until Luna’s moon hung high in the sky, carefully crafting the letter. By dawn’s first light a very tired dragon sent it off to the one they hoped could most help their friend.
Fluttershy sat up in the bed, staring at nothing, just letting her eyes settle on the distant wall.
“Oh, Angel,” she said, cuddling the rabbit close to her for the third morning in a row. “Why…”
Even as she sat there, staring at the same vacant spot on the wall, the knocking began. She listened anxiously, hoping that it was one of her friends. But it was not…
They’d all been using “Shave and a Haircut” just to let her know it was them.
This was not one of them.
She felt herself becoming angry. At first she tried to ignore it, simply creased her face and hoped that whatever pony had come around would simply tire after a time and leave her alone.
No, no… the knocking continued.
“G-go away!” she called out from her bed as she covered her head, her ears, and her rabbit with the pillows.
Still, the knocking continued, sounding out at perfect intervals. Anger crossed Fluttershy’s face, and she felt that part of her that seldom held dominion claiming her.
She flew down the stairs, winging her way to the door even as she prepared The Stare. “I don’t want to tell you anything else! I don’t want… oh!”
As she had opened the door Fluttershy found herself staring up into perhaps the only pony in Equestria who would not be moved by her stare.
“Oh! Oh, I am sorry Fluttershy, dear. Twilight said that you were only answering to ‘Shave and a Haircut’… I forgot! Please, do forgive me.”
“Yes, yes… t-that’s how, how my friends… were letting me know, that-that they were here,” Fluttershy stuttered, her usual demeanor returning. “W-would you, ummm, like to join me for breakfast, princess?”
“That sounds lovely,” answered Celestia, smiling down over her little pony.
They sat at the little table, the same one Fluttershy had huddled beneath as the phantoms had flit across her yard and the youth had appeared in her garden.
The conversation centered on her bird and animals, and Fluttershy beamed as her little companions gathered close to the princess. Celestia, it seemed, enjoyed hearing their songs and seeing their antics.
“Philomena sends her regards,” the princess remembered as she took another sip of her tea.
“Oh! T-that’s truly nice of her! Is Peewee training well beneath her? I bet he’s growing quickly,” Fluttershy added.
“Assuredly. I hardly think that Spike will recognize him when they return!” the princess spoke. Around them the animals and birds dozed, pruned, sang, or ate their fill. Still, one animal could not be ignored…
… the elephant. The proverbial elephant in the room sat heavily around the half-emptied jars of jam and the uneaten bits of muffins and toast.
Princess Celestia placed her cup of tea back down upon the table. She tilted her head, cleared her throat, and let a gentle gaze settle over Fluttershy. The pegasus sensed what was about to come. Angel jumped up into her lap, knowing that his presence would be welcomed. As the pegasus wrapped her forelegs around him she prepared herself for the conversation that was about to begin.
“We… I made sure his body was treated with the utmost respect. He was under guard the whole trip. Nopony was allowed to gawk or stare, I promise you that.”
“T-thank you,” Fluttershy whispered.
“Fluttershy,” the princess spoke in an earnest tone, reaching across the table to gather the smaller pony’s hoof into her own, “I want you to know that there was nothing else you could have done for him, for the boy, the youth who came to you in your garden. Even my magic might not have been enough to save him, had I known…”
Fluttershy forced a smile, looked up to her sovereign, and then back down at her bunny. Angel snuggled closer to his mistress, put his head to her barrel and let her stroke him as she sat quietly.
Finally, after long moments, the pegasus broke her silence.
“Princess?” she asked, her voice squeaking, “Who hurt him? Who put the ball in him, the one that… k-killed him?”
The princess looked across the garden, imagined the youth laying there, bleeding out and in such pain. It was such a beautiful spot, and some small part of her felt great sadness that it had been the scene of such heart-wrenching agony, and that her child her before her had been made to witness such things.
“Well, dear, to the best of our knowledge, one of his own kind…”
The princess swallowed before continuing.
“Yes, one of his own kind. And, wars being what they are, it was perhaps one not any older than himself. That seems to be the great flaw of their kind, you see. It appears that they still do not see that they are all the same…”
Fluttershy began to shake her head, slowly at first, and then in long shakes, and tears began again.
“I-I can’t believe, believe it! That, that anyone like the boy could do it… but, but I know it’s true! He was a soldier too! I saw his uniform, saw his weapon! But, but even though he was a soldier, he thought I was an angel! He thought I was an angel! H-how could any type of being who believes in angels fight… k-k-kill their own kind?”
Fluttershy’s eyes settled back on Celestia.
“He… h-he called for his mommy! He loved her! The others like him, they had to love theirs too… but how can they k-kill each other? How can any boy k-kill someone just like themselves?”
Celestia put her other hoof on Fluttershy’s foreleg, ran it up and down. As she scooped her hoof into her own she let her words fall over her child.
“They are not so different than the ponies were, long ago, before they came back over the mountain… before Luna and I called them out of the caves, back at the time of the first Hearth’s Warming,” she said softly, “back when the races still believed themselves so different from one another.”
Fluttershy eyes streamed as they looked deep into those of her sovereign.
“The race of the boy, they are not of our world, but they are so like us,” the alicorn spoke, “they just need to find their grace.
Fluttershy’s mind tried to understand the words. Instead, an important question claimed her again, the one pressing question that begged to be answered.
“Princess, please,” she asked, “why did he come here, why did he find his way to my garden… just to die? Why did he have to die here, so far from his home, from his mother, from everything he knew?”
The princess studied the pegasus. She smiled at her once again, stroked her foreleg.
“It was his fate to die, my dear, as sad is that is to think upon,” she spoke, “and we can only hope that for whatever reason he picked up that weapon, and wore his uniform, that it was a cause that he believed was just and good… just as we hope that those who took his life believed.”
Fluttershy blinked, trying to understand the words.
“As for why here, all I can say is that, because you are you… because you are kindness, and that you were just as fated to show him what kindness you could,” she said. “Your element, kindness, compassion, burns bright in you, and that was what he needed… needed to see an angel, see an angel so that he could pass in peace. But, as for why here, in your garden, in my kingdom, in Equestria, there is another reason. That happened so that he would be remembered.”
Fluttershy blinked, pondered. If… if she was fated to give him what little comfort she could, she should also be able to remember him. Yes, yes… whatever else, she could do that.
“Can you do that, Fluttershy?” Celestia asked, “Can you honor him? Can you remember him?”
“Yes,” Fluttershy breathed, “Yes, yes of course.”
Celestia smiled to her child. Her expression reflected her belief that the little pony would do just that. As cyan eyes reached up to her, softening, Celestia had a thought. Yes, there was a way to help her pony begin to heal from her ordeal, let her find some peace.
“Fluttershy?” the princess asked, “If-if I could arrange, to… to have his body brought back to you, would you bury him? Would that help you find some, well, closure?”
Fluttershy blinked again.
“His weapon, and the elements that go with it, they must remain in Canterlot,” the princess said, tilting her head back and forth, “but the uniform, his effects… these, could come back to you, if you wish…”
Fluttershy let Angel drop to the earth, and as the rabbit watched Fluttershy trotted to the far side of the table. There she fell into the chest of her sovereign, and as Celestia wrapped her tight in an embrace it was only one thing that Fluttershy could do, and there was only one thing she could say…
The next day dawned with a chill, a bracing chill that drove the fact that autumn was upon them through the ponies and dragon that gathered in the garden.
The ponies stood around a cleared patch of the garden, one where the plants had been cleared away, and before them a fine lacquered box stood over a pit dug into the black earth.
On a hillside not far away a few stones marked the places where animals that had touched Fluttershy’s life were laid to rest. Dear little friends, companions who, in their time, had been as important in her daily life as Angel was now… those were the ones buried there, where she could come and remember.
Her friends had asked why she chose the garden for this burial, why here instead of that distant hill? In the end, she had said, here is where his blood had already been shed. He was already a part of this garden, and here, she thought, he should stay. The boy from somewhere beyond, the youth in the garden where she could always remember his voice lifting and naming her as an angel.
The ponies all looked on Fluttershy as she draped the canteen and haversack, each meticulously cleaned, over Spike’s shoulder. She spoke to him in gentle tones as she and Rarity adjusted the straps and tacked them with a few safety pins so that they would not drag on the ground.
“I-I didn’t think it right to, right to let them just go… I-I thought that they might still, still be useful. I thought that you might like them,” she said, as she stepped back to examine the dragon whelp.
Spike looked down across himself, and then back up to the pegasus. He leaned forward, gathering her in a hug. “Thank you, Fluttershy. Thank you so much.”
Spike released her, and as Fluttershy walked towards the box Rarity came with her. “T-thank you for cleaning the uniform, f-for sewing the buttons back on,” the pegasus said to her dear friend, “I-I would have done it m-myself but, but I…”
“You are most welcome, Darling,” Rarity said, laying her head to that of Fluttershy, “You were… occupied.”
Fluttershy took a deep breath, and alone among the gathered ponies she stepped forward and looked within the box.
The youth looked like a proper soldier. Cleaned of dirt and blood, and in a freshly sewn and spotless uniform, he looked so much better. He looked so much more serene than before.
He still looked far too young.
As the detachment of Royal Guardsponies looked on she lifted Angel so that he could offer a product of the garden to the still form, put them among the cold, still hands that gripped the odd little hat that sat upon the youth’s chest. As the rabbit deposited the peppermint there Fluttershy kissed him and then laid him back upon the black earth.
Angel hopped once, and then turned to better hear her words.
“Please, p-please, forgive me,” she whispered, “but… b-but I kept the locket. I-I kept it because maybe, maybe someday… maybe, just maybe someday I’ll see her. That way… that way, if I keep the locket, I can tell if it’s her… and I can keep my promise. I want to keep my promise… both of them. I-I hope you understand…”
The pegasus lifted a lock of the youth’s hair, and let the fair colored strands settle back beyond his ear. With one last glance over him she nodded to the sergeant, and soon the face of the youth was gently covered by silk.
“Nightfall” began to drift in from a distant soldier, the trumpet carrying on the chilly air. As the sound of it reverberated around the cottage the guardsponies lowered the box into the black earth.
All of her friends leaned close to her, almost jostling her uncomfortably as they reached for more hooves than she could offer. As she watched Fluttershy could only hope that the spirit of the youth had flown to wherever it could be happy. She begged, pleaded that he was free, that perhaps he was with his mother, and with his god.
She hoped, hoped, hoped that on whatever beautiful world had sustained the youth, and among the amazing race that had birthed him, raised him, and killed him, that there was no more strife. She hoped that it had disappeared in the smoke of whatever conflict had taken his life. She hoped, earnestly, powerfully, that among them there was no more reason for death, pain, and weapons…
… that there were no more wars.