Trixie thought to winkle more back-story out of the Miller, but the Beast had returned from wherever it was they were disposing of the harvest-straw, and he'd clearly heard at least some of the Miller's tale.
The Beast's angry glare sent the burgher hurrying off to disappear into his work, babbling "Ah didne pure techt tae gab it ay skale!"
Trixie and the Beast exchanged wordless glares, but Trixie's glare was not strong enough to challenge that of the Lord of Shadows, and she broke first. So, looking for something else to focus her attention upon, Trixie turned her eyes away, and told the Beast she was going to go exploring. He waved his irate permission, asking only that she not disturb the Harriers if they appeared.
Trixie took a direction at random, and followed a track along the millrace over to where a little, rickety hoof-bridge carried a tow-path over that diversion beside the main creek. Somepony had once smoothed out the banks and the course of that greater stream, and Trixie could see the traces of canal-scrapings here and there. She turned downstream, and followed the tow-path along the bank of that abandoned canal, its flow lazy and strong.
Trixie thought on the probability that those waters had flowed for hundreds of years unattended, neither flooding in wet seasons, nor slacking and growing brackish in drought. It did not look like a canal left abandoned for fourteen hundred years, which by the Lord of Shadow's own reckoning, was the time they had been in this darkling exile. But then Trixie passed over another rickety hoof-bridge that carried the tow-path over a weed-choked ditch. That ditch was a landing, a drag-path leading up out of the canal to a tumbledown shed, and Trixie stopped to look down at the rotten boards and decay which must have once had been a brace of canal-boats put up into storage.
Here was all the centuries of decay and desolation, concentrated. As if the long, long years had crawled, wounded, into the shadows to die of the neglect of ages. Even the nails were nothing but spots of rust-stains among the rubble.
Trixie passed the peasants reaping yet another wheat-field beside the canal and its tow-path, and she exchanged cheerful waves with the ponies with which she didn't really share a language. She continued onwards, downstream toward the line of towering trees, and rising up out of the half-darkness, half-light, one of the great statues.
Trixie climbed up the slight slope, to look at the base of the stone pegasus, vast and sightless like a similar statue she had once seen in sandy, isolated Somnambula.
She knew that face, knew it even as the expression of it diverged so greatly from the noble, blind-folded visage which had graced its Equestrian opposite. This one was almost – mischievous. Not giddy, but full of determined humor, as if the stone knew something that flesh had forgotten.
"And what do you find so funny, my lady stone? Is it your prank that brought Trixie here, to share these rustics' eternal exile? If Trixie were not Trixie, she might even join you in laughing at the joke." Trixie looked around at the oddly open ground around the feet of the statue, which simply stood bare-hooved in the dirt, as if it had grown right in place, no tool-markings or jointures. Was it a true statue, or was it some vast giant of a pony, turned to stone?
"Or was the joke on you, Milady Stone? Is this where the great savior of Anugypt ended her days of legend? The ponies of Somnambula never do tell the story of where their benefactor and namesake disappeared to, and there are no crypts bearing your name. The Miller curses his heroes – but surely you were so ancient that even these exiles could not possibly have lived in your time?"
Trixie had never been one for staring pompously at statues and tumble-down ruins, so she quickly ran out of the piety necessary for such ponderings. But when she tried to pass around the base of the statue of the hero-pegasus and resume her travels along the canal-stream, she found herself turned around, and facing the manor in the distance, standing on the other side of Somnambula's hooves.
So Trixie tried, again and again, stymied each time by thickets too tangled to pass through, and each attempt to by-pass the blockages found her once again standing turned-around, facing towards the distant tower and the fields and the outbuildings of the exiles in their shadowed darkness.
Trixie burst into a gallop, and ran around the wooded edge of her world, red tinting her sight as she passed yet more great statues, blurs of stern stone in her peripheral vision. She ran and ran, until her lungs worked like a bellows, and her hat blew off her head, her mane streaming behind her.
Trixie came to a stop before the statue of Beardo, the Omnipresent, her damnable ancestor. The point at which Trixie had been pitchforked into this midden. Trixie's hat bobbed in her rage-red hornglow, and Trixie thought seriously about taking up a boulder she spied in the woody verge just beyond the wizard's petrified hooves. See if she couldn't bash some expression into that smug stone muzzle!
"You! Beardo! Is this where you fetched up, after bedding all the mares of history, and cuckolding all of their husbands? All the stories of legend, and in the end, you amounted to nothing but a pile of rocks in a devil's trouser-pocket?"
The stone Star Swirl said nothing to Trixie, and Trixie was done talking to rock. The Pies say otherwise, but as far as Trixie has ever seen, sweet-talking stone has never made them do what you want them to do.
So Trixie gave up on walking the perimeter of the manor, and went on back to find the Beast, and a meal.
The Lord of Shadows and his ponies divided up their glasses into roughly day-shaped packets, four watches long. You'd think that ponies who spent the overwhelming majority of their eternity as little bits of obsidian wouldn't feel the need to sleep away what little fragment of existence the Lord granted them when their time came up in the furlough-rotation, but it seems that even bodies infused with, and animated by, dark magic, need to sleep.
The Miller kept busy, making flour of the little harvest, and the peasants kept their scythes sharp and active, but Trixie and the Beast had little to do until the new stooks dried out. Trixie tried to follow the Beast around on his errands, as she was increasingly bedeviled by that demon of curiosity which has ever been her special torment.
The Beast paid little attention to Trixie in his rounds, his full attention dedicated to his tasks. Trixie found, by following him, where he and the Miller had been depositing their straw, in a depot full of piles of various varieties of straw and assorted sedge and so forth. The heaping high pile of fresh straw had been set aside, and the Beast concentrated on the older, slightly greening piles of wheat, of oat, of rye, and other grasses' straw that were beyond Trixie's limited capacity for farm-pony wisdom.
Trixie sat on her haunches, and watched the great and terrible Lord of this afterlife, using his dread and eldritch greyfire tendrils, carefully weave varied and aged straws into tight mats of thatch, piling each completed mat upon a cart set conveniently to hoof. Trixie observed carefully for several hours, and after a bored while, began attempting to mimic the great demon-lord's thatch-work. But, Trixie is sad to report, thatching is not nearly as easy to learn as cleaning-spells or threshing, and her attempts to produce those nice, neat blankets of thick, fresh thatch were… not so neat. Or at all nice.
After a half-dozen of Trixie's failures to produce acceptable thatch, the Beast looked up from his fixation upon his work, and discovered her failed attempts at mimicry. The great Lord of Shadows barked out a gravelly demand that Trixie cease wasting his straw, and a touch from one of his tendrils exploded Trixie's mistakes into a cloud of ten thousand bits of straw and moss, which circled his head in a dizzying display of power and control.
"Dame Trixie, if you must be helpful, please go assist Sharp Hone and Loose Bind. I have six cottages to re-thatch, and very little time left for the work."
Trixie did not remind her host, that she shared no languages in common with the peasants, nor that the Miller was determined to air no more of his lordship's business before outsiders. So, recognizing that she was in the way, Trixie wandered by her lonesome, kicking at weeds along the byways, and meandering until she came upon the canal-creek upstream from Miller's mill. She followed it that watch upstream, on the bank opposite of the tow-path. It was a bit of a stretch, casting back and forth along tracks and trails not precisely parallel to the stream, but Trixie generally was able to keep it in sight as she worked her way to the far side of the manor, where the creek poured out of a cleft in a wooded rise behind yet another great stone statue.
This statue was of a greatly aged eastern unicorn, her face's crevasses mournfully deep, as if she had once looked over this dark land, and had been captured in all of her heart-break at the fading of the light.
"Cease that at once, you judgmental old nag! It is not that bad! It isn't even close to horrible! Trixie is rather warming to the prospect, and does not appreciate your condescension! She would like to see you keep such a huge estate clean and tidy with so few servants."
Trixie stomped up to the statue's hooves, and laid back against that reassuring coolness, looking back across the slight slope towards the distant tower, and the various cottages, which only the other glass, Trixie had been so rude as to call 'hovels' in her own imaginings.
"Trixie has never," confided Trixie to the great mare's statue, "met a great lord so willing to work like an impoverished tenant at his own estates' upkeep. Trixie thought at first that the Lord of Shadows had no other choice in the matter. But that's hardly true, is it? He could simply let it all go to wrack and ruin. Do demon lords of shadow starve? She has seen him eat, one supposes he wouldn't do that if he could simply exist from shadows and dark magic.
"Trixie has no idea who you are, lady stone. Given your august company, and your air of nobility, you are no doubt some paragon of virtue Trixie should have learned of, if she had only paid closer attention in unicorn school. But Trixie has never had that sort of time, not when there was magic or rhetoric or trickery to be absorbed. And History was always a tedious mass of Star Swirl-infested botheration. Perhaps in Trixie's zeal to avoid further idiocy about Beardo, she skipped out of whatever lesson you lurked within."
Trixie looked up at the great, sagging chin of that mare of infinite sadness.
"You look like a mother who's been disappointed by her progeny. Are we such a disappointment to you?
"Bah, Trixie gets enough of that from her own relatives, she doesn't need it from utter strangers. Keep your woes to yourself, Lady Lugubrious."
Trixie eventually found her way back to the tower, and found the Miller and the reaper-ponies burbling happily, slick and clean, perhaps from a dip in the canal-creek, Trixie supposes.
"Hej, Lady Trixie!" greeted the peasants as they caught sight of her. "Ikke vores herre? Ikke en elskers skænderi allerede?" asked the mare.
"You be leaving the Miss be, you chatterbox!" chided the Miller, looking worriedly at Trixie, as if he were worried for the giddy peasant mare. As if Trixie would harm a gossipy wench for laughing at her lonel- at her having refused to hang on the traces of the Beast like a needy little foal!
Trixie trotted in front of the peasantry, her tail high and proud, and led them into the fortress, opening the great doors of the gate and the tower itself with her magic. They found the great hall in as terrible and disordered a shape as it ever had been, and Trixie busied herself clearing the previous several meals' worth of detritus and used plates in her magic, trotting down into the kitchens as the peasants helped themselves to tankards and a conveniently-placed half-barrel of beer the Beast must have hauled up from the pantry.
Trixie found the Lord of Shadows acting the cook yet again, boiling up another pot of bean-soup, oatcakes sitting on a platter already finished and prepared on a counter. Trixie quickly washed the dirty dishes she'd found upstairs, and flung the filth into the mulch-barrels, which looked to be needing emptied quite soon, lest the whole kitchen stink like death.
Trixie washed off her hooves, and helped the Beast carry the dubious feast upstairs to his small court of minions. Neither of us said a word to the other, somehow separated by too many hours of drudgery and the Beast's disinterest in talking about what he'd heard the Miller disclose to Trixie.
Upstairs, the two harvesters had gotten deep into the beer-barrel, and were singing folk-songs back and forth over their cups. The Beast's monotonous feast interrupted this serenade briefly, as everypony tucked into the soup and the cakes, but soon enough, they had cleaned their bowls, and returned to the beer, and their songs. One went like this:
Der camptown mare, plejede at plove og synge
Og hun elskede at muldyr og muldyr elskede hende
Da dagen blev lang som den gør om nu
Jeg ville høre ham synge til hendes muley-beau
Opkald, "Kom på min søde gamle colt,
og jeg ville vædde på hele den forundrede verden
At vi kommer til at gøre det endnu i slutningen af rækken"
Sang "hårde tider vil ikke regne mit sind
Hårde tider vil ikke regere mit sind, Balsam
Hårde tider vil ikke regne mit hjerte mere"
The two of them, Loose Bind and Sharp Hone, stared sloppily into each others' eyes as they sang back and forth. As they tore through those verses, the grand hall seemed to fill up with their earthy intentions. If you've ever seen two earth ponies drunkenly court each other, you'll know exactly what Trixie is telling you. They were about two cups beyond being subtle about it.
De spiste på tårer, de spiste på vin
Vi kommer alle til himlen i vores egen søde tid
Så kom alle dine Tambelon colts og skru op din gammel-tid støj
Og spark 'til støvet kommer op fra revnerne i gulvet
It was then that Sharp Hone turned to the Beast, and bowed his head, and asked him, "Herre, hvis du ikke har noget imod lejernes lejlighed?"
And the Beast, a complex expression of amusement and sadness crossing his black face, levitated a pair of heavy keys to his drunken retainer, and the two stumbled across the hall and up the stairs to the guest apartments,
Sang, hårde tider vil ikke regere mit sind, søster
Hårde tider vil ikke regne mit sind
Hårde tider vil ikke regne mit hjerte mere
The Miller, having drunk his own fill from the Lord's beer, looked sadly after the two peasants. "She's married, you know," he said, draining his tankard. "But the husband, he must be thirteen hundred years into the dust by now. Sharp Hone, too, but his wife's on another rotation, and I do believe they neither of them have seen each other in the last thousand rotations. Lord Stygian?"
"It was Jute Bale's decision, Miller," ground out the Lord of Shadows, who had picked up the half-barrel, and drank from it like it was a tankard. "I will need another half-barrel, tonight, I think. Dame Trixie, if you wouldn't mind? It occurs to me, that I've taken your share, here. They're downstairs in the cold pantry, to the left as you enter the kitchens."
Trixie had her own thirst by now, and acquiesced in the Lord's request. As she went down the stairs, she could hear the Miller and the Beast continue the peasants' Low Ponish song, singing,
Men camptown mare, hun plover ikke mere
Jeg så hende at gå ned til tobaksbutikken
Gæt hun mistede den talent, og hun glemte den sang
Vågnede en morgen og muldyren var væk Så kom,
du tigger dronninger, og kom videre, du diamanthunde og syng
Og tag det støvede gamle horn op og giv det et slag.
Thank you, thank you. Trixie might not quite understand Low Ponish, but she can remember it like those stallions were singing right here, in front of her, even now.
Spille, hårde tider vil ikke regne mit hjerte, skat
Hårde tider vil ikke regere mit sind, sukker
Hårde tider vil ikke regne mit hjerte mere
Trixie found the Beast's beer-pantry, and something more besides. She stood for a good many minutes in that space lined with well-oaked barrels heady with the scent of alcohol, and stared up at the mask hanging over the Lord's beverage-storage. Trixie knew that fright-mask, had seen it every time she'd visited her earth-pony cousins in the Hayseed Swamps. She didn't know why it was here, better-preserved than it ever had been in Cousin Cattail's disgrace of a home.
Eventually, Trixie went back upstairs, with the beer she had been sent for, and questions besides. But first, she intended to get as drunk as anypony else in the Old Bailey.
It took nearly a full barrel of beer, less the Miller and Trixie's withdrawals from the Lord's drinking-vessel, but eventually the two of them were able to drink away their imaginings of what the other two were doing overhead, cheating on their respective, long-lost spouses. And Trixie mostly was able to forget the thing she had seen downstairs.
After the Miller passed out, and even the Beast was in his cups, the great Lord of Shadows rose up off of his muzzle, which had been pressed into the remains of our feast, at the head of the table.
"This is all my fault. My fault, do you understand? The Miller, and all my followers, they blame our stone-struck guardians, but I know what happened, and I've had fourteen hundred years to think it over. Oh, I was so very, very angry for so very, very long. And most of my followers, that time is so much closer to them than it is to me. It's like they carry my past self's rage for me, long after it burn out in my own breast."
The Lord belched a flaming shadow into the air overhead, lolling back in his chair, lighting up the vast open space underneath the distant rafters.
"I am but a shadow of my evil self, I fear. No fit host for a proper mare."
"Trixie would like to understand, My Lord – Lord Stygian?"
"Ah, all you have to understand, Dame- Dame Trixie, is that Stygian Crop-Tail has been dead these fourteen hundred years. I and his ambition conspired to – oh, I suppose it's no longer important. Not like what came before. Even before Stygian betrayed his heroes, and his principles, and grasped after mere power – oh, damn."
The Lord of Shadows drained his barrel-tankard dry in a great and terrible gulp.
"My Lady, let me tell you a tale. It goes like this:"
And the Beast, drunker than a lord, told Trixie this story:
Suppose a demon, all-powerful in the realm he made, decided to fill its empty and sterile confines with fragments and shards stolen from happier lands. Not great on the scale of cosmic thievery, but rather a sort of petty larceny of the gods. A town taken here, a province there, a mountain range, a lake, a river, a port-city.
This malevolent land-developer looked into an infinity of pony-settled worlds, and picked out of those infinities, seven stones. Six pearls of great price, and an irregular lump of glossy obsidian. And the trickster stole these seven stones from their proper settings, and flung them into his bowl of night.
And seven sisters birthed a single, patchwork foal all unknowing, six heroes and their worlds gathered around them, and one lackey gathered up with a random assortment of his regal relative's subjects.
I was that lackey, stolen away from my world along with a random collection of rural hamlets, and a modest market-town called Hollow Shades. We were not a continuous land, like some of the other seven sisters whom Discord carefully placed like golden settings around his stolen gems. It is my theory that he missed his catch in grabbing us away from our kith and kin, and flung us carelessly aside where-ever we might fall. Whichever precious stone he had grasped for, when he grabbed us up, he only got me.
The seven sisters of Equestria were not the only stones flung into Discord's garden of chaos. Minotaurs, griffons, zebra, buffalo, yaks, strange disordered fragments of monster-haunted woods and blasted wastelands - if there were any order to the chaos with which the demiurge cobbled together our patchwork-world, I never saw it. Star Swirl insisted he could see the outlines, the purpose beneath the madness. But Star Swirl was fond of lying to himself, and through himself, others. And he hated to admit that he did not understand something.
I gathered together the heroes of each of the pearls of Equestria. Not Star Swirl, not one of the other heroes. They all were sufficient in themselves, they could handle what horrors Discord's chaos threw at them. They were heroes, after all. I – I could not protect my ponies alone. I needed help. And so I went out to find my help – and I found them. All six of them.
The irony is, I think my world, the one I and my people were stolen from, was older than theirs, for I knew every one of these heroes' names, these ponies of myth and legend. The great drake-bane, Flash Magnus the brave. Rockhoof, greatest of the Mighty Helm, and the rod and staff of his sea-faring nation. Somnambula the faithful, the trust of nations in her princes. Mistmane, the fountain of virtue, who poured forth beauty, and left nothing for herself. Star Swirl himself, who in my world had been gone for generations beyond counting.
All, that is, but for the sixth, but I sometimes think that sixth was wiser than any of us. Meadowbrook knew too much, I thought, and Star Swirl exploited her knowledge ruthlessly. Even – no, no.
That is not my story to tell, not -
Here, the great lord pulled over one of the emptied half-barrels, and vomited up a great stream of bile and beer. You'd think that after fourteen hundred years of drinking himself into a stupor, the Lord of Shadows would be able to hold his liquor better than this, but there it was.
He wasn't finished, though.
"Seven stones, six precious and beautiful and stronger than diamonds. And the seventh, friable, breakable, fallible me. Can you understand why I tried to steal a little of their strength, their virtue? They had so very, very much, and I was so very, very little…"
Then he started to snore, hugging his barrel. Trixie pried the barrel full of filth away from him, and went upstairs to figure out where he kept his guest-blankets. She came down with as many clean ones as she could find, to make a nest for the Beast to sleep off his drunk. The Miller Trixie hauled upstairs, and chucked in the bed the Beast had made up for her in the upper guest rooms.
Trixie looked in on the peasants, to make sure that neither was likely to drown in their own sick. Then she went back down to the great hall, and kept watch over the great lord of the manor as he snored into his blanket-nest. Trixie curled up with a spare blanket in his throne, after she'd cleaned it off and blown off the dust.
Thrones are surprisingly comfortable.