“You did it! You saved them! You saved my little muffin!” Derpy exclaimed, her walleyed face bright with delight. “You really are the Great and Towerful Pixie!”
Trixie was too pleased and exhausted to argue. They had run through the trees until the river was far behind, finally coming to a halt out of sheer exhaustion. Now, in the fading light under the trees, the four ponies were taking a moment to recover themselves.
The unicorn filly, Dinky, was tugging at Derpy's saddlebags. “Get down, Mommy!” she ordered in a stern but squeaky voice. “Let me look at your wing.”
“My little muffin!” Derpy swept her up in a tight hug, wrapping both forelegs and her uninjured wing around the little pony. Dinky hugged her back, eyes closing with delight. Mildly embarrassed, Trixie glanced away from the mother and daughter.
She found herself looking at Jasper, who had halted a few yards away from the others and was regarding Derpy and Dinky with an unreadable expression. Trixie lifted her head to its usual confident angle, adjusting her hat. “So, you must be Jasper.”
The colt nodded, his bushy purple hair all but falling into his eyes.
“The Great and Powerful Trixie is pleased to have rescued you.” Trixie smiled with satisfaction. “Soon you will be safely home in Promise.”
Jasper looked away. “Gee, that's great,” he said in a flat tone. Trixie blinked, surprised.
“Don't you want to go home?”
Jasper shrugged and turned away, muttering something incoherent. Trixie leaned closer. “Trixie didn't quite hear you,” she began to say – and then she saw it.
Protruding through the colt's unruly forelock was what was unmistakably the tip of a horn.
Jasper was a unicorn.
He must have heard her gasp, because he turned back with a scowl. “That's right! I'm a freak!” He scuffled wildly at his hair with one hoof, trying to cover the horn.
“Trixie is –” Trixie was not sure how to react. “Trixie had . . . assumed you were an earth pony,” she said cautiously.
“Yeah, I was supposed to be,” Jasper snapped. “Everypony else in Promise is. Even my mom was. But I'm different.”
Trixie hesitated, feeling a wholly unfamiliar uncertainty. “Trixie . . . doesn't think being different is necessarily bad.”
“You didn't grow up in Promise,” Jasper shot back, but his anger seemed to be fading. “You didn't have ol' Brass and Elder Granite and the rest of the Filii Terram telling you you were a mistake, and your mother was no better than a brood mare, and your father must have been –” He choked off abruptly and ducked his head between his forelegs.
Trixie opened her mouth, not sure what to say, and stopped. The Filii Terram . . . where had she heard that phrase before?
Before she could complete the thought, Dinky Hooves bolted past her to stand next to Jasper. “He's not a freak!” the unicorn filly squeaked. “He's my friend, and he's awesome!”
“Aw . . .” Jasper pushed her gently away with one hoof. “Your mom's not going to want you hanging around with me.”
Derpy ambled over, her wing now expertly bandaged, her expression one of cross-eyed serenity. “Anypony who's good enough for my little muffin is good enough for me,” she said simply.
“And for Trixie too,” Trixie said with a nod. Jasper blinked in apparent disbelief, glancing from mare to mare.
“But – I'm just a useless little by-blow!”
Derpy looked bewildered, an expression that seemed entirely too natural on her. Dinky stared at Jasper, her enormous eyes watery.
Trixie blinked. “Trixie has never heard such rubbish in her entire life!” she declared firmly. “Trixie can tell already that you are intelligent, and a useless pony would never have survived an entire day and night in Dusky Dale.”
“Dinky's the smart one,” Jasper said, kicking at the ground.
“Ha!” squeaked the filly, pushing in close to Jasper. “See this?” She extended a hind leg, which had a neat, if grimy, bandage wrapped around it just above the hock.
“I hurt my leg on a rock, and Jasper fixed it! He even found a flower to rub on it that made it stop hurting!” She stuck her tongue out at Jasper.
“And Trixie saw what happened when the river serpent was after you and Dinky,” Trixie told him. “You tried to draw its attention away from her. That was very brave.”
Jasper looked back and forth among the other ponies, seemingly torn between joy and panic. He opened his mouth to respond, but at that moment a piercing howl echoed through the forest.
“Timber wolves!” Trixie said as the four ponies tried to look in every direction at once. Only Derpy had much success. The two foals huddled together, and Trixie and Derpy moved instinctively to shelter them.
“We have to get out of these woods,” Trixie said tensely.
“That way!” said Jasper, pointing a hoof. “Towards the valley wall! There are caves!”
The ponies galloped off in the direction he had indicated, the two foals close together, the mares on either side of them. Tree trunks flashed by, black pillars in the fading light, and Trixie realized it was almost completely dark. Of course, she chided herself, we're in a forest in a valley!
With an effort she brought her horn to light, the sky-blue glow making the shadows of the forest seem even darker. The light flickered weirdly through the trees, but it enabled the four ponies to move faster. Strange rustlings seemed to be following them, surrounding them, and Trixie half-expected some nightmare creature to leap out of the darkness at them at any moment.
Derpy shied suddenly with a cry of fear, and Trixie saw eyes shining from the trees to the left. They were yellow, higher off the ground than the top of her head, and they kept pace with the ponies effortlessly.
“Wimber tolves!” cried Derpy, crowding closer to Dinky. Trixie sped up, placing herself between Jasper and the eyes. How much farther? she thought desperately.
As if in response, the trees abruptly grew sparser, and the massive, rocky slope of the dale reared up before them. The shining eyes of the timber wolf disappeared, but Trixie sensed multiple large creatures lurking in the darkness behind them. Desperately, she activated her finding-spell, reweaving the magic to detect caves. She scanned the rocky hillside, then called “This way! Quickly!”
The others followed without question as Trixie galloped towards the dim blue glow her spell had detected. Oh Celestia, let it be big enough, she prayed.
It was. The cave mouth gaped before them, and the four ponies galloped into it without pause. Glancing back, Trixie was chilled to see three or four monstrous lupine shapes break from the trees and pursue them. “Keep going!” she shouted, slowing her own pace to let the foals get ahead of her. Her horn came alight again, driving back the shadows.
The cave itself was broad and deep, with a low ceiling supported here and there by pale stone columns. Leaves and branches were strewn about, blown in and trapped here by the wind. The columns and weird knobs and fangs of rock cast eerie shadows in Trixie's magic light.
Thorny claws scrabbled on stone as a timber wolf came after them. Derpy, half-panicked, turned back to see it and ran smack into a stalagmite with a thud! She collapsed to the stone floor in an insensate heap, her legs moving feebly. Dinky, either not noticing or maddened with terror, kept running.
Trixie cursed, torn between her loyalty to Derpy and her desire to protect the fleeing foals – and of course, her own elegant blue hide. She hesitated for a second that felt like an eternity as the wolf advanced on the pegasus.
The decision was taken out of her hooves when Jasper hurtled past her, to plant his stubby hooves between Derpy and the wolf. “Get back!” he shouted, lowering his horn. “Get away from her! This is Dinky's mom! You can't have her!”
The wolf paused, and Trixie almost felt like laughing at the unlikely spectacle. Jasper clamped his eyes shut, his expression one of fierce concentration, and the wolf took another step forward. Trixie began moving, still unsure what she could do, but determined to do something.
The faintest of violet glows enveloped Jasper's small horn, and a tiny orange flame appeared at its tip. The timber wolf stopped, then recoiled as the flame grew larger. Eyes open now, Jasper took a step towards the woody beast, even as two more appeared at the cave mouth.
Of course! Fire! He's brilliant! But one tiny flame couldn't hope to hold off all the timber wolves, and Trixie, despite her efforts, had no skill at all at fire magic.
She did, however, have other skills.
With a whoosh, illusory flame erupted from her horn, the very real light driving back the shadows. “You're afraid of a foal?” she shouted, advancing on the wolves. “Then fight Trixie! Come on, wolves, show Trixie what you're made of.”
She made the illusory fire larger and sent tendrils of it whipping out before her, lashing at the wolves. The creatures retreated in confusion. Jasper, eyes wide, continued to hold his real fire as he defended the semiconscious Derpy.
Then, reaching out with her magic, she touched Jasper's small fire with her illusory one. Jasper's fire erupted outward, forming a burning corona bigger than his head, and an arc of crackling flame appeared between the two unicorns, a burning bar to the timber wolves' progress.
This was enough for the wolves. With a scrabbling of claws on stone they turned and fled. Trixie held the illusory flame for several moments longer, then let it fade, feeling more worn than she could ever remember. A heartbeat later, Jasper's small flame went out as well.
For a few moments there was silence as the ponies recovered their breath. Trixie glanced at Jasper, but the unicorn colt had his eyes closed, head hanging, stubby legs trembling with reaction. Behind him, Derpy groaned and waved her forelegs aimlessly, and Dinky was suddenly there.
Have to act while we're still awake, Trixie thought; now that the immediate danger was past, the stress of the day was rapidly catching up with her. It would be worse for the young ones, she knew. They had to do something to protect themselves from the wolves; standing watch was flatly impossible.
Inspired by Jasper's performance, she decided that a campfire would be the best possible thing under the circumstances. She and Jasper quickly collected some wood, the colt keeping a watchful eye out while Trixie grabbed whatever fallen wood she could see with her magic and hauled it back into the cave. They saw no sign of timber wolves or other dangers, but they did not linger to be certain; as soon as Trixie judged she had enough wood to last until morning, they retreated back into the cave.
Derpy was sitting up and rubbing her head, with Dinky tending to her. Relieved to see that the pegasus did not seem permanently injured, Trixie turned her attention to starting a fire. She broke the longer branches up into convenient lengths and built a small cone of wood, then hesitated and turned to Jasper.
“Jasper? Would you light the fire?”
Jasper blinked his yellow eyes at her. “Me? But . . . why don't you do it?”
Trixie hesitated, a half-dozen pat replies crossing her mind, then decided that none would serve. “Because . . . Trixie can't,” she said finally.
“But I just saw you –” Jasper gestured towards her horn.
Trixie nodded. “It was an illusion,” she said. “Trixie has . . . never had any skill with fire magic. Trixie has tried,” she added ruefully, “but her talents do not lie in that direction.
“So you see,” she said quietly, “you can do something that the Great and Powerful Trixie cannot.”
The admission did not hurt nearly as much as she'd expected it to.
Jasper blinked again, clearly uncertain of how to take this, but stepped gamely to the cone of wood and touched his horn to it. He frowned with concentration and and was still for several minutes; then a tiny curl of smoke drifted up from the wood. Abruptly, a small bloom of flame appeared, and the dry wood caught and began to burn.
The four ponies gathered around the fire, Derpy and Dinky huddled together on one side, Jasper and Trixie forming the other two points of a triangle. Dinky dug into her mother's saddlebags and distributed the food, including several battered muffins. Derpy did not object this time; indeed, she hardly seemed to notice. All her attention was focused on her small daughter, and she often extended a hoof or a wing to touch Dinky, as though reassuring herself that the filly was truly there. Despite her bandaged wing, bumped head, and generally disheveled appearance, she wore an expression of quiet contentment.
There was silence for a time, broken only by the crackle of the flames. Dinky fell asleep, curled against her mother, and Derpy's eyes acquired a glazed look. Trixie felt tired as she had not in years, but somehow she wasn't ready to go to sleep just yet. She glanced sidelong at Jasper, and saw him lying like a cat, chin on his forelegs, his expression pensive.
She remembered his speech from earlier, about the hardships of growing up in Promise, and something clicked in her memory.
“The Filii Terram,” Trixie said softly. Jasper and Derpy looked up. “Trixie remembers now. It's from the Old Equestrian; it means 'Children of Earth.' Earth pony zealots, who think any crossing of the breeds is a sin.” She eyed Derpy and Dinky. “They'd love you two,” she added dryly.
“Some ponies are like that,” Derpy said simply, and spread her uninjured wing over her filly. It occurred to Trixie that Derpy, with her unusual eyes, absent-minded attitude, and unicorn daughter, must have seen her share of such such feelings. Somehow, it didn't seem to have altered her sunny outlook on life.
“That's them, all right,” Jasper agreed. “They said my mom must have – done bad things to have a unicorn son.” He glanced at the sleeping Dinky Hooves. “I never knew any other unicorns until Dinky showed up.”
Unspoken was his real meaning: I never had any friends. Trixie felt unfamiliar emotions stirring in her, thinking of such a lonely foalhood.
“I guess she'll be leaving,” Jasper continued forlornly. “She said she was only staying in Promise until her mom found the address she was looking for.”
Derpy nodded sadly.
“Is it really that bad?” Trixie asked. Jasper shook his head.
“I guess not,” he said tonelessly. “I mean, nopony's really all that mean . . . the adults, anyway. Brass is an old sourpuss, but he doesn't stand for fighting or anything like that. The rest . . . it's just foals, calling names.”
“My name,” he clarified. “It's stupid. They say it's a donkey name, that my father must've been a donkey. 'Jass is an ass, Jass is an ass,' ” he quoted bitterly.
Trixie had had more than her share of experience with hecklers, and foalish insults had long since lost any power to hurt her feelings, but she keenly remembered her early days on the stage. How much worse must it be for a little colt without anypony to stand up for him? A colt who seemed to half-believe the insults, who called himself 'useless'?
She smiled gently at him. “Do you know what your name means, Jasper?” When he shook his head, she continued. “It means treasure. Your mother must have thought a great deal of you to name you that.”
“Cross my heart,” she said, tracing an X over her chest with one hoof. “And you are a treasure. You kept your head and helped Dinky, and you saved her from the river serpent.”
Jasper looked away, but Trixie continued “You're the one who thought of the caves. You're the one who conjured fire to drive off the timber wolves. Do you know how rare it is for a unicorn to do magic at your age?”
He looked back at her. “It is?”
She nodded. “I am very impressed.”
“But . . . Elder Granite and the rest, they say it's wicked and wrong.”
“What do they know?” she said dismissively. “Hidebound zealots, afraid to look beyond their little fields. But you are a unicorn, Jasper, and unicorns have magic.” Her own horn glowed briefly for emphasis.
Jasper laid his chin on his fore-hooves again, staring sightlessly into the fire. “But I wasn't smart and brave like you're saying,” he said in a quiet tone. “I was scared.”
Trixie glanced over at Derpy, who had curled around her daughter and appeared to have fallen asleep. “Do you want to know a secret?” she asked in a low voice.
Jasper eyed her and nodded without changing his position.
Trixie leaned close to the colt. “Trixie was scared, too.”
“You were? But . . . the way you talked to that serpent . . .”
“Never let them see you sweat,” she told him. “Trixie learned that when she was about your age. That's half the secret to being successful on the stage.”
“What's the other half?”
“Never reveal your secrets,” Trixie said with a smirk. Jasper blinked at her for a moment, then laughed. The laugh turned into an enormous yawn, and the colt blinked sleepily, then closed his eyes.
Trixie levitated more wood into the crackling fire, then glanced sleepily around at her companions. Derpy and Dinky were curled into a single gray-and-blonde ball, and Jasper had faded into his own dreams. Trixie was tired to her bones, but found herself unable to sleep; the events of the day kept playing themselves over in her mind. She stared at the dancing flames, thinking about Jasper, and Promise.
All she had wanted was to find him, return him, and be on her way. She had been forced to take the job in the first place, and even Sheriff Brass had given her an easy way out. So why was she hesitating? She had already gone above and beyond what anypony could have expected. She had found two missing foals, and restored one to her loving mother.
And the other . . .
She glanced at Jasper. The colt was sound asleep, but even the comforting warmth of the fire could not entirely fend off the chill drafts that crept through the cave. He made no sound of complaint, only curled into a tighter ball.
With a sigh, Trixie got to her hooves and crept quietly across to where Jasper slept. Settling down beside him as silently as she could, she spread her torn, stained cape to cover them both.
Still asleep, Jasper nuzzled against her side.
Before she could clear her mind, sleep claimed Trixie as well.