“Ugh, you know, these mountains didn’t look nearly this big on the map.” Rarity lifted a hoof and scowled at the patina of dust on her coat. “Or this dirty.”
“At least it’s pretty, Rarity.” Fluttershy was walking slightly behind the unicorn, her teal eyes wide as she drank in the beautiful scenery about them. They were walking through a thick glade of the silvery-trunked trees and a soft breeze had set the star shaped leaves to fluttering about, alternating the purple and blue sides in a dizzying swirl of color.
“Yes, gorgeous,” Twilight said breathlessly. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, Prince Linden…what are these trees? We don’t have anything like them in Equestria.”
“They’re starwoods. They only grown here in these mountains, but the wood is precious down in Saddellia. It’s very strong, hard wood with a very distinct silver sheen to it. It’s used to make furniture and some jewelry, but the pieces are very hard to come by and expensive because these groves are protected and cutting is strictly limited.”
“Come spring, these branches will be completely covered in brilliant purple flowers and full of singing crimson skipperwings.”
“Crimson skipperwings?” Fluttershy turned to the colt eagerly. “What’re they?”
“A small bird. Bright red with purple wings. They come here in the spring to sing and find mates. The males dance from tree to tree and sing constantly—there’s not a moment’s peace.”
“Oh, how wonderful! I wish we had come earlier so I could have seen it. Are they all gone now?”
“They’re around,” Fletcher answered. “But they stay hidden now that their mates are sitting on eggs and chicks. And they build their nests way up in the highest branches so the chances of seeing one now are incredibly slim.”
“Not for us!” Rainbow Dash spoke up from where she lounged on Tiny’s back. She had predictably put up a fight that morning when the prince had insisted she keep off her injured leg by riding the massive pony, but had relented when her friends outvoted her five to one. Now she sat up, fanning out her wings eagerly. “Fluttershy, I’ll fly up with you if you want to try and find one. It’ll give me a chance to stretch my wings.”
“Oh, no, that’s okay, Rainbow. I wouldn’t want to frighten the mama birds and babies on their nests, even if they do sound lovely.” Fluttershy scraped a hoof across the ground and gave the canopy a last, longing look, then set out again at a trot.
Rainbow groaned as she flopped back down on Tiny’s back. “This is ridiculous. I need to fly!”
“Oh, for pete’s sake, Rainbow…it’s just for a few days until your leg heals up. Just take yourself a nap or somethin’. You’re always nappin’ back in Ponyville—usually when there’s work to be done.”
“Well, that’s not very fair, Aj. Did it ever occur to you that I take so many naps because I’m worn out from flying so much? All this sitting around makes me restle—”
“Wow! Look at that!”
Rainbow Dash and Applejack stopped glaring at each other and looked forward at Pinkie’s excited yell. The earth pony was standing at the top of a small rise, waving to them frantically.
“Come on, you guys! You have to see this! It’s amazing!”
“Seems Pinkie was the first to spot Crescent Moon Canyon,” Linden told them.
“Crescent what? What’s that?”
Linden only smiled at Rainbow Dash and trotted ahead. “You’ll have to see it to understand, my lady!” he called back.
Instantly intrigued, Rainbow tapped Tiny with her hoof. “You heard the prince! Let’s go, Big Guy!”
“At your service!” Tiny broke into a rolling canter, bringing them up the rise and into the midst of a truly spectacular sight.
The trees through which they had been traveling suddenly vanished, as though an enormous knife had come down and simply sliced the forest to an end. The troupe of ponies now stood on the edge of a tall bluff, overlooking an immense and breathtaking canyon. Two steeply sloping walls of deep, rose-hued rock plunged hundreds of feet down into a grassy meadow valley below. They formed a distinct pattern in the earth that easily explained why Linden had called it Crescent Moon Canyon, though this canyon was larger than any the ponies of Equestria had even experienced. It was easily seven miles wide and stretched out before them for thrice that, the leading arm of the crescent disappearing in the distance.
“Whoa!” Rainbow Dash breathed, sitting up on Tiny’s back so she could properly take in the scene.
“I second that!” Rarity proclaimed. “This is marvelous! Those stones are beautiful! They positively glow against the sky!”
“It looks like a giant banana!” Pinkie observed. She had stepped to the edge of the bluff and was looking downward. “Ooh! It’s really far…it makes me kinda …dizzy…!” Her hindquarters began to sway alarmingly and she tilted forward over the drop.
Applejack and Nightfire both rushed for her, grabbing her pink tail in their mouths and dragging her back from the precipice.
“Better keep back, Miss Pinkie,” Nightfire said. “There’s no Tiny at the bottom to catch you this time.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t want to lose you, Sugarcube.” Applejack waved a hoof before Pinkie’s whirling eyes until they focused again. “That’s better.”
“It’s so wide open…look at all this space!” Rainbow jumped to her hooves and snapped her wings open. “It’s perfect!”
“Perfect for what?” Twilight glanced at her, then spun around. “Rainbow! No!”
But the pegasus had already launched herself into the air, jumping so lightly that Tiny hadn’t even realized she had moved until she soared in front of him.
“Rainbow Dash, you get back here right now!” Applejack demanded.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Rarity called out.
“Flying!” was the shouted response. With a whoop of pure pleasure, Rainbow jackknifed in the air and plunged down the side of the cliff, spinning rapid barrel rolls that turned her into a bright blue blur. Just before she hit the ground, she pulled out of the dive and shot straight ahead, the tops of the grasses just brushing her belly and making her giggle. She changed the angle of her wings, slowing her forward speed and slipping effortlessly into the midair prance of her Super Speed Strut.
Relishing the feel of the summer wind caught in her wings, she spun a backflip and a series of aerial somersaults, then banked a turn to head back to the cliff. She was just waving to her watching friends when she flew into what felt like a wall of warm air. It shot her upwards so quickly her stomach lurched and she yelped in surprise.
Her initial shock quickly turned to utter delight as she realized what had happened. She’d caught a thermal…and a huge one at that! Instinctively, she spread her wings wider to trap the updraft and let herself be lifted in a soaring spiral on a column of hot, rising air. The wind whipped past her face and through her hair, catching on her feathers and driving her higher and higher into the crystal blue sky with absolutely no effort.
“This. Is. Awesome!” she cried, finally flipping backwards to escape from the main rush of the thermal. Flapping her wings leisurely, she looked down and could just barely make out the bright, colorful specks that were her friends. She knew they probably couldn’t see her—not with a blue coat against such an amazingly blue sky—but she waved anyway…until she spotted something out of the corner of her eye.
A dark speck was also moving through this level of the thermal, and bright, fierce eyes regarded the pony with amazement as a sharply curved beak opened in a shrill scream.
“Hey there!” Rainbow Dash cheerfully greeted the falcon. “Wonderful day for a flight, isn’t it?”
The falcon banked sharply and folded its wings in a dive, quickly dropping.
“Oh, I gotcha! You want to race!” Rainbow tipped forward and pulled her wings close to her back. Extending her hooves out in front of her, she shot after the falling falcon. The bird sensed her presence and looked back, screeching. It zigged nimbly left, then zagged right, needing only the tiniest of wing adjustments to alter its headlong course. Impressed, Rainbow followed behind, pacing the falcon to one of the canyon walls, where they wove in and out of a series of tall, wind-shaped spires and arches. The thrill of flying was upon her and she let it take over completely. Her wings beat in perfect rhythm, her heart pounded excitedly, her ears filled with the sound of a wind symphony that no instrument could possible mimic. The strain on her muscles, even the ache of her injured leg, only added to her pure exhilaration and Rainbow Dash shouted her joy into the wind.
The chase went on, but by now the bird seemed to have decided that the winged pony was a friend and fellow flight enthusiast rather than a dangerous foe. Playfully, he dipped a wing and flew under the pegasus to tickle her chin with two of his primaries, then flipped up and over her back, clacking his beak in laughter.
“Show off! Two can play at that game!” Rainbow tucked her legs in close to her belly and lowered her head, letting her momentum spin her around and around in a tight series of somersaults while gravity started to pull her down to the ground over a hundred feet below.
The falcon squawked in alarm, thinking her in trouble, and rushed to save her, angular wings flapping frantically to catch up with the free falling pony. It reached her a mere twenty feet above the ground, stretching out his claws to catch her mane, but Rainbow Dash suddenly snapped out of her tucked position, caught the falcon in her front hooves, and hugged him to her chest. She swirled free of the dive with a wild laugh and sped upwards again, spinning a graceful pirouette that flung her mane and tail out in a multi-colored fan.
She released the falcon, flinging him into the air in front of her, where he expertly opened his wings and twisted in a graceful arch that let the sunlight glisten off his grey and black speckled feathers.
“Huh?” Rainbow snapped out of her euphoria, hovering high above the ground, and glanced down to see that she and the falcon had flown back close to the bluff. She could see her friends watching her and noted Twilight raising a hoof to cup her mouth.
“Aww, I guess I’d better get back.” She sighed heavily. “But it’s been a blast flying with you! Look me up if you’re ever in Ponyville, okay? Bye!” She darted away from the bird and winged her way to the bluff and her waiting friends. The Saddellians stared at her in awe, but she could see the look of slight annoyance on Twilight’s face and anger on Applejack’s. She was in for a lecture, no doubt, but even realizing this could not dampen the sheer joy of flying through so much wide open space and discovering the thermal.
“Yeah!” she exclaimed, backwinging and hovering before the other ponies. “That’s what I was talking about! That was so cool! Did you see me hit that thermal? I went so high!” Rainbow was smiling brightly, tossing her mane and tail about as she excitedly described the entire flight.
“Yeah, yeah, Rainbow…but you—” Rarity suddenly slapped a hoof over Applejack’s mouth, silencing her intended tirade.
“No!” she hissed in a whisper. “Let her be! Don’t you see it?”
The unicorn surreptitiously tilted her head to indicate the prince. Linden was staring up at the blue pegasus, his eyes sparkling with wonder, admiration, and what was unmistakably infatuation.
“She doesn’t even realize what she’s doing,” Rarity murmured. “But anypony can see that the prince…”
“…is lovestruck,” Twilight said softly, shaking her head.
As they watched, Rainbow demonstrated one of her backflips and asked the prince if he had seen her waving.
“You waved to me?” Linden asked, his voice dreamy.
“Yeah…I was way up there!” Rainbow pointed to the sky in the general vicinity of the thermal, her rose-colored eyes sparkling. “I thought I could see you all standing down here, so I waved.”
“Oh…oh, yes! Yes, I believe I saw you, my lady. That was truly spectacular!”
Rarity raised her perfectly shaped eyebrows pointedly at Twilight and Applejack. “I think our Rainbow has just done us all a huge favor. An infatuated boy is so willing to listen…” Rarity let the statement go unsaid, but they both caught her point. Prince Linden could be a huge help in convincing his father to agree to Celestia’s peace treaties…and if he knew it was what Rainbow Dash wanted he would be far more likely to assist them.
“Ooh! Ooh! Look! Dashie brought back a friend!”
Pinkie Pie jumped up and down, drawing everyone’s attention and directing it to one of the tall trees behind them. Sitting on a low branch was a black and grey falcon, his bright eyes watching them all with keen interest.
“Hey! That’s my flight pal!” Laughing, Rainbow swooped over to the tree. “Hi again, buddy! You’ve got some great moves!”
The falcon nodded and let out an ear-piercing screech. Turning its head, it began preening the feathers of one wing, plucking a long, striped primary free. Holding the feather in its beak, it stretched its neck towards Rainbow Dash.
“For me? Really? Wow…thanks! Oh, wait…hold on a second!” Fitting the feather behind her ear, she pivoted to pluck out one of her own blue feathers, wincing slightly at the sting. “Here you go…in case you want to build a nest or something.”
The falcon accepted the gift, cocked its head one last time, then took to wing and disappeared into the trees.
“So cool!” Rainbow stared after the bird with shining eyes. “I’ve never flown with a falcon before. Those guys have some serious speed!” Wings flapping slowly, she came down to land delicately on the ground, keeping her injured leg raised so it would not take any of her weight. Only then did she smile sheepishly and face her friends. “I know what you’re going to say…I shouldn’t have rushed off like that and I’m sorry, but—”
“It’s alright, darling. You just needed to stretch your wings. We understand.”
Rainbow Dash looked at Rarity as though she had suddenly grown a second head. “You do?” She glanced quickly at Twilight and Applejack, but they both smiled at her, further adding to her confusion. “You’re…not mad?”
“No,” Twilight replied.
“It’s fine, Sugarcube. Looks like you were havin’ a good time out there.”
“Huh? Did you three fall and hit your heads while I was gone? I’m missing something here.”
“Don’t be silly, darling.” Rarity put a hoof around Rainbow’s shoulders, drawing her into a hug. “We like watching you fly. And the prince and his friends were all very impressed. What was your favorite part of her routine, Prince Linden? I just adored the somersaults.”
“I…I thought it was all wonderful,” Linden stammered as the young mares turned to look at him expectantly. Rainbow raised an eyebrow and the colt quickly amended, “But I loved that high speed prance you did over the ground!”
“Yes! Me too!” Twilight exclaimed. “What is that called again, Rainbow?”
“The Super Speed Strut. It’s actually a lot harder than it looks. And it’s kinda funny how I figured out how to do it.”
“I’m sure it’s a fascinating story.” Rarity nudged the pegasus towards Tiny. “You should tell Prince Linden all about it while we travel. Oh! And how you performed the Sonic Rainboom and won the Best Young Flyer’s competition! It will help pass the time.”
“Oh, well, I guess I could.” Rainbow looked askance of the prince. “If he wants to hear them.”
“I would love to, my lady.” Linden beamed at her. “This Sonic Rainboom sounds interesting.”
“Sounds dangerous.” Tiny bent a leg so Rainbow Dash only needed a short flutterhop to get onto his back. She settled comfortably onto her haunches, then yipped when Pinkie Pie suddenly appeared behind her, planting her hooves on Rainbow’s shoulders.
“Oh yes! The Sonic Rainboom story is the best! When Rarity was way up in the clouds and then she was falling down, down, down, and she was like, ‘AAAAAHHHH!’ and Dashie was, ‘I’m coming, Rarity!’—”
“Let Rainbow Dash tell it, Pinkie Pie!” Twilight scolded. “It’s her story.”
“And get down from there…you can’t expect poor Tiny to carry you both.”
“It’s alright, Miss Applejack. My little Pinkie can ride if she wants.”
Pinkie Pie smiled at her huge friend and sat on her haunches as the prince led them along the rim of the canyon and Rainbow Dash launched into a dramatic retelling of the second time she had performed the infamous Sonic Rainboom. The Saddellians listened avidly, amazed by her description of the sky city of Cloudsdale where she had grown up, the factory where pegasi manufactured the weather for Equestria, and the fierce competition to determine the Best Young Flyer. When she got to Rarity’s terrifying plummet from the clouds, the unconscious Wonderbolts, and her own headlong dive that resulted in a thunderous rainbow explosion, the colts loudly cheered. Even Aster, who had been reserved all day, looked thoroughly depressed.
“Looks like you’ve made a habit of saving lives in need, my lady,” he observed. “You are certainly a most fortuitous friend to have around in times of trouble.”
“When she’s not making it herself,” Applejack quipped with a quick wink at Twilight and Rarity. “Tell ‘em about the dragon, Rainbow.”
“Ah, yes! The dragon! You said you’d faced a dragon—but I thought it was miss Fluttershy who stared it down?”
“Only after our Rainbow coaxed it out of its cave by kickin’ the goshdarned thing in the snout!”
“No!” Nightfire gasped.
“You did not!” Fletcher exclaimed, laughing at her audacity.
“Actually, I sort of did.” Rainbow Dash was blushing at the memory. She certainly didn’t consider it one of her proudest moments. “But only because the big bully wouldn’t stop snoring and was covering Equestria in a black haze.”
“B-b-but you’re so…so tiny!” Fletcher protested. The giant pony snorted, so Fletcher amended, “Not you, Tiny. Tiny, tiny!
“Compared to the dragon? Oh yeah! To that guy I was no bigger than Fluttershy’s mouse. He was huge! And…he wasn’t really happy about getting kicked either.” She told them the story of how she and her friends had journeyed up the mountain to the dragon’s cave to convince him to nap somewhere else. When she got to her ill-planned kick, she ducked her head. “I kinda ended up making things worse.”
“That’s just because you were so anxious to save Ponyville,” Rarity spoke up. “Like Aster said, you’re always so willing to help others, isn’t she, Fluttershy?”
“Huh? Oh, uh, yes. Yes, she is.” She smiled sweetly up at Rainbow Dash, not really sure what her friends were doing, but willing to play along. “She was always protecting me from bullies when we were just little fillies even though she’s younger than me.”
Rainbow raised an eyebrow, perplexed. Compliments were one thing, but this was bordering on embarrassing, and she was far more used to her friends taking her down a peg than singing her praises.
Luckily, Pinkie Pie took over the brief silence with a sudden slew of her own random stories that kept them all laughing throughout the long hike around the length of the canyon and through another thick patch of forest filled with singing birds and frolicking squirrels. The antics of the animals and the beauty of their unfamiliar surroundings made the journey pass quickly.
Fletcher was in the middle of regaling them with a daring tale of a trek through land rife with enormous snow bears, wolves, and ice snakes when Linden halted in his tracks so suddenly the green colt smacked into him.
“Walk much?” Fletcher asked snarkily, backing up and rubbing his nose.
“I walk just fine, you big oaf” Linden retorted. “You, however, have a bad habit of not looking where you’re going.” The prince turned to grin at the girls and gestured to a thick stand of dark red bushes. “My ladies, we’ve been on Saddellian land for some time now, but you’re about to get your first glimpse of my real home, Castle Royal Oak.” He beckoned them with a wave of his hoof and slipped through the bushes. The girls hurried after him eagerly.
“Lansakes! Will you look at that!” Applejack said breathlessly as Rainbow Dash landed lightly beside her.
The had finally reached the end of the Saddlebacks and now faced a long, gentle slope of grassy hills as bright and green as polished peridot. Brilliant washes of yellow and purple flowers spread out in a colorful haze before them, blending into a vast expanse of neat farms and clusters of small houses, and, in the distance, a towering castle of shining white stone sparkled and flashed in the sunlight like a giant diamond. Unlike Celestia’s delicate manse on the mountain side of Canterlot, this castle was a formidable fortress with massive walls and watch towers reaching to the clouds. Brightly colored banners flew from the turrets, waving and flapping in the breeze. From their vantage point, they could see earth ponies working in the fields and walking along the neat, winding roads that crisscrossed the countryside.
“I gotta say, Prince Linden, it’s mighty impressive,” Applejack, whistling in appreciation.
“My, my, my! That castle is fabulous!” Rarity’s blue eyes were wide.
“Yeah, it’s so sparkly and shiny! Isn’t it shiny, Twilight? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so shiny!”
“It sure is.” Twilight shaded her eyes with a hoof. “It must be something in the stone that reflects the light like that. It’s beautiful.”
Rainbow Dash peered appreciatively at the landscape, then her brows furrowed confusedly. “What’s that over there?” she asked, pointing at a faint, dirty haze hanging in the air like a beige cloud on the far side of the castle.
“That’s the quarry,” Aster told her. “Where we cut stone for bridges and houses and the roads.”
Linden edged closer to the pegasus, his blue eyes slightly troubled as he followed her gaze to the smudgy sky. “It’s about twenty miles from the castle—not the most ideal location, but it’s where the best stone is, I’m told. Sometimes, when the wind is right, you can hear the sounds of the workers chipping away at the stone even in the castle.”
“Well, that’s what minstrels are for,” the steward said loftily. “To drown out such annoying sounds with beautiful music.”
“Yes! We have the best musicians in Saddellia housed in the castle. My mother adores music and often arranges special performances for herself and her ladies in her chambers. If you enjoy singing, I’m sure she will want to do so for you, as a special treat.” When Rainbow Dash continued to stare towards the quarry, he added, “And, of course, there is plenty of wide open space on the castle grounds for you to stretch your wings, my lady. The gardens and the Whiteblossom Grove, even the training grounds.” He lowered his eyes and voice slightly, dragging a hoof shyly across the ground. “I’d be honored to give you a personal tour when we get there.”
The other ponies fell silent, Twilight, Rarity, and Applejack exchanging pleased glances as Rainbow Dash finally turned away from the quarry. She caught their smug looks and frowned slightly, then landed beside the prince and folded her wings tightly against her back.
“Sure. That…that would be nice.”
Linden’s handsome face brightened with pleasure. “Then let us not waste another moment.” He turned and trotted partway down the hill before raising a hoof to gesture to the surrounding land. “Ladies…” he said proudly. “Welcome to Saddellia.”