They ran off the train, whooping and hollering with a grand commotion that often follows the wake of youth, pushing through crowds full of briefcases and crisp clothing and scowls as they scampered towards the Rent-a-Wagon stand. The six of them moved as a single mass of excitement, crowding into one another as they smiled deviant smiles at the graying, flat-faced stallion behind the counter.
He took one look at them and accepted his fate. His voice was stale as a dead autumn leaf.
“Welcome to lovely Vanhoover, home of Neighagara Falls and Equestira’s finest wagon rental. How can I be of service.” It wasn’t a question. Sandbar answered it anyway.
“I’d like to rent your finest wagon, sir,” he said, fetching a stack of bits from his saddlebag. “We’re off to Mareskoka.” The graying stallion told him the price of fine wagons. Sandbar adjusted his answer accordingly. “I’d like to rent your shittiest wagon, sir,” he said.
The shittiest wagon looked like a foal’s unfinished art project that was the unlucky survivor of a nail bomb. Metal studs impaled old wood, jutting sharply into the passenger seats. It was also missing the cover entirely.
Neither of those facts got them a discount.
The six of them were gone before the ink finished drying on the terms of agreement.
“Fuck trains,” Gallus said. The rest of the winged creatures echoed the statement. Sandbar and Yona, who were hitched up to a set of ancient, unforgiving yokes, stayed silent. Leather straps petrified by years of abusive weather grated against their sides as they meandered down a dirt path that remained thoroughly ignorant of the modern world. The decrepit wagon yipped and squealed with each pothole and hump caught under the wheels. Delicate bottles of smuggled booze jostled against each other like a rowdy mosh pit of wind chimes. Yona and Sandbar bet five bits on which wheel they thought would fall off first.
The four passengers burst into a giggle-fit. It was the kind of laughter that kept pogo-sticking from chest to muzzle, breaking tight lips into a smile with ease.
“What?” Sandbar asked.
“Nothing,” Gallus said, making it clear that wasn’t the case. “We all just agreed that your ass looks really good when you’re trotting.”
“That’s not true!” Sandbar said. “My ass looks good all the time.”
Yona huffed. “Please. Pony have nothing on yak.”
Laughter washed over all of them that time.
One broken wheel and a rainstorm later, the six students spilled onto the rental site, heaving in the smell of ash maples and goose shit and shy spring flowers. They were soaked, sacrificing their rain gear to keep their containers of clover dry. Good bits had been spent on that stash. It was to be protected at all costs.
“Dragonlord’s scales,” Smolder swore, shaking dew from her wings. “That sucked.”
“At least the house looks nice,” Ocellus offered.
The house looked horrid.
It was the least expensive cottage on lakefront property they could afford that also had the luxury of working plumbing. It was made out of logs with paint that peeled away in long strips like a bad hangnail. The color, which was once possibly a pleasant mint, had faded into a dried booger green. A garden of smashed gnomes was guarded by an equally smashed fence. Nothing grew there despite the nourishing rains of early May. They decided it was cursed, adding their own mythology to the strange, new place.
Silverstream twirled the keys to the cottage in her claws. Her usual jovial face wore an expression of raw determination that her friends had never seen before. They eyed each other nervously.
“I don’t know about you guys,” she said. “But I’m ready to get fucked up.”
Together, they stormed the porch with a warcry that was swallowed by the thick forest surrounding them.
Gallus didn’t understand why they were laughing. It was an honest question. Who didn’t like pickle-flavored beer? It was all the adults could talk about in Griffonstone. Pickle beer, pickle beer, pickle beer. He couldn’t walk through the streets without tripping on an empty bottle of the stuff. Grandpa Gruff had an entire corner of the kitchen dedicated to it like he was trying to open up a new branch of alcoholism. He’d stolen ten or 12 from the old coot, consequences be damned. Gallus downed the last gulp with defiance, showing off the empty glass like a trophy.
Silverstream applauded dully. “I mean, I’m always down to play spin the bottle, but I’m definitely not kissing you if your beak tastes like pickles.”
“Seconded,” Yona said.
“Thirded,” agreed Sandbar from his comfy position in Gallus’ lap.
Gallus frowned into the emerald mane below him, pecking the pony’s ear. “Boyfriends aren’t allowed to deny kisses based on pickle-related matters.”
“Maybe in Griffonstone, but we’re in Mareskoka, babe,” Sandbar said. “There aren’t any rules as long as the police aren’t around.”
“You two should fight to the death about it. That’s how it goes in the Dragonlands,” Smolder said, clenching a fist in pretend victory.
They argued well over half an hour on the politics of pickles—dill, sour, Gherkin—until Ocellus reminded the rest that they were frighteningly behind on their rounds of spin the bottle.
Funnily enough, nobody minded the taste of Gallus’ beak, which soon lost its battle against the cocktail of berry-sweet saliva that dripped down his chin the rest of the night.
The plague of recklessness started with Yona, infecting the others after watching her take down the feeble remains of a cedar with a mighty push. They listened as the rotting tower cracked in places unseen, leaning under the persistent weight of her bouldered body until the bark split into a smile, and the entire history of the tree toppled to the ground with a mighty thud that rattled their bones. Earth and leaves geysered from the site of impact.
With a mad roar, they scattered off the forest trail, hunting down the ash-white skin of dead elm, birch, and alder. They swung damp branches against trunks and cheered no matter which gave out first, delighting in the explosion of splinters. It was a primal joy that spiraled into dancing without music, a ritual of their tender age, and then they were off again, charging through streams of ice melt and slick mud, daring anyone to witness their rampage.
They found the beginnings of a hill at dusk and climbed it before the first star shone in the sky, scrambling up ancient stones that harbored the last patches of winter snow on their cool surface. Overcast stole the vibrancy of the sunset, casting an apocalyptic shade over their vista of a hundred shattered islands sitting still in the frigid waters of the north.
There, on top of that hill, they screamed things they didn’t know if they meant to say, but it felt like a pipe of foolish things had burst inside them with nowhere to go but out.
Novo is a dolphin fucker! Yona think Rutherford smell like shit she take after eating hayburger! King Thorax lays eggs out of his ass! Ember has a scaly cunt! The princesses can blow me ‘til their cutie marks fall off! Break a wing, Gruff!
They listened to their blasphemies echo over the hill, returning to them as a chilled breeze that climbed up their vertebrae like a ladder until they felt it behind their eyes.
Suddenly, the aimless mutterings of someone else caught their ears, and they fled like panicked critters, galloping into the brief slice of wilderness outside the cottage, imagining themselves thriving beasts before lining up to wipe their paws clean on the doormat.
It was somewhere between the clover-induced haze and the dullness of a scavenged board game that Silverstream felt the lake call to her. The wordless moon sang enticing beams of silver that shone off the water like a shoal of herring. Migrating clouds played odd shadow puppetry, leading the reflection in a dance between the shores. For a moment, her mind buzzed with memories of home. Images of Seaquestria flooded her brain, dripping down her spine like nostalgic sweat.
Her friends watched as she ambled hypnotically to the large, dusty window overlooking the front yard. Her breath stretched a thin layer of milky condensation over the surface. “I’m…swim,” she said, and was out the door before her words evaporated off the glass.
Her action spurred life into the rest of the group, pursuing her onto the lawn that was a minefield of goose droppings and grass yet to revive itself for spring. They thundered over the dock in time to see Silverstream knife into the air, apex framed by the perfection of a full moon. A chrysalis of yellow light wove out from her neck, wrapping around her from beak to tail before shattering into her aquatic form.
Silverstream slipped in with hardly a sound.
Yona was the second in, shattering the mirror stillness of the water. Stars rippled out of existence as the rest followed suit, crashing into the shallows. Five bodies shot back up as if spat out by the lake itself, sputtering profanities between chattering teeth.
“F-f-fuuuucking fucking f-fuck that’s fucking fre-freezing!” Smolder shrieked. Gallus might have made a jab at how high her voice was if he wasn’t too busy squawking for Sandbar to pull him to shore.
Silverstream giggled bubbles as she watched them kick up silt and twigs and leaves in a frantic dash back to the pier, the debris floating slow as snowflakes back to the bottom. When she was finally alone again, she lay her back in the mud, letting her mane unravel over her face. Her gills flexed—the only sound to accompany her.
She closed her eyes, raking a claw through her hair and pretended it to be seagrass. She smiled as murk floated by.
“I think I figured out how to explain it,” Ocellus said.
Smolder raised a brow without opening her eyes. The two creatures curled around each other on a grimy rug in front of the fireplace, fending off the frost of a late spring flurry. The others elected to romp around outside, building phallic imagery to accompany their snow angels. Cackling laughter mingled with the storm. “Explain what?” Smolder asked.
“Why I love you,” Ocellus said, and her girlfriend laughed.
“Should I be worried that you’re only finding this out a year and a half in?” Smolder said. Even without her sight, she could tell Ocellus was blushing. The changeling’s wings buzzed in her shell like she was communicating her embarrassment in morse code.
“No! That’s not…ugh. Let me try again,” she said. Smolder’s claw found the pearl-shaped chitin on Ocellus’ neck, tracing electricity around its circumference. Ocellus shivered with pleasure. “Think of a painting. Hive love is like the whole picture—something everyling can step back and enjoy. But the love you and I share is like two specific brushstrokes on that painting. Two things that blend together and fit the whole so perfectly that you think to yourself, there’s no other place those two fit except right next to each other. Does that make sense?”
“Not a bit,” Smolder said, and kissed Ocellus hard. “But you look damn cute when you’re trying to explain it.”
Ocellus melted as a warm tongue flicked over the roof of her mouth. As Smolder’s tail licked down the side of her flank, Ocellus made a note to try and explain things to her girlfriend more often. She didn’t think much after that.
On the final day of spring break, they lay their towels on the bank and watched an empty sky roll by. It felt like the season had finally let its hair down, rolling gentle, warm breezes over Mareskoka. Plump birds jumped between branches budding with new green. Boats filled with young stallions buzzed over the lake, sawing white wakes into its surface as they towed friends behind them on all manner of rafts.
The friends sipped beer and smoked clover, making their own clouds in the cloudless sky. They laughed and slept and sang out of tune and tossed ideas into the air, catching some while letting others blow away like dandelion seeds, never to be seen again. Promises were made and sealed away in the back of their brains.
“We should buy this place when we’re older,” Sandbar said.
“That,” Smolder started. “Actually sounds like kind of a good idea.”
“We could use it like a home base. Meet here once a year at least,” Sandbar said.
“More than once,” Yona said.
“Yeah, it’s gotta be at least like, five times or something,” Gallus said.
“I’ll go,” Silverstream said. “Just as long as you don’t bring any more pickle beer.”
Gallus flipped them the bird, smile curving up his beak. “Alright, alright. No pickle beer. I promise. We have to come back here before we graduate.” He raised his arms towards the sky as if to hold it up. “It’ll be a while before we get there, though. We got plenty of time.”