Over the next several days, Solaria was subjected to a treatment that the commoners called ‘mothering’ from the earth pony mare that had first taken her in after she had arrived. The mare, Smart Cookie, had shown her to a room that she could use temporarily before practically ordering her to lie down. Any objections were buried under several layers of warm comforters before the candle in the room was blown out and the door closed quickly.
The night had passed quickly as the disguised alicorn had attempted to process all the information she had learned over the previous day. The exact moment the sun came over the horizon, her door flew open and Smart Cookie entered with a bewildering amount of good cheer. Before any questions could be levied or objections voiced, Solaria found herself wrapped in a coarse, thickly woven cloak and hurriedly dragged out for a tour of the village.
Dozens of ponies were seen and introduced, and Solaria found herself struggling to keep them all straight. Places and roles were easy enough for her to remember, such as the blacksmith’s forge or the common hall that the majority of the ponies stayed in. The individuals were another thing entirely. The majority were earth ponies, followed by the pegasi, and the minority were the unicorns, and each had their role to play in the hidden community.
After a week’s worth of this treatment, Smart Cookie dropped the thoroughly overloaded ‘Sunny Skies’ off with Starswirl and Lulu before trotting off to talk with Clover.
“So, are you finally settled in, child?” Starswirl asked with a smirk. “I suppose I should have warned you of what would happen when we got here. I was expecting to have at least a day before she swept in to show you how everything works here.”
“I might have considered the treatment condescending if it wasn’t so useful,” Solaria said truthfully as she watched the mare in question move alongside Clover to rub against him. What does that behavior mean? I know the commoners have a word for it…
“The first step to learning is admitting that you don’t know everything,” the elder stallion said with a smile as he retrieved a small jug of water and began to sip from it. His sharp gaze peered over the container at Solaria as he continued, “I do not know where your talents lie, but any unicorn will be immensely helpful to the community if you choose to stay. Based on what you saw from the tour, did you see anything that you might be able to contribute to? I know the unicorns working on keeping the fields warm could definitely use some help.”
“Teacher!” Lulu shouted as she hopped up. “Sunny said she would teach me! I bet you know all kinds of magic, don’t you? What can you teach me first?”
I had honestly forgotten about that promise. Solaria thought as she tried to divide her attention between the bouncing filly and the interaction between Clover and Cookie, plus the conversation with Starswirl. “Well, how about…” This is rather vexing, as I know the mortals have a word for this. Ah! I have it! “Concubine!”
Water sprayed from Starswirl’s mouth as he shot an alarmed look at Solaria, then in the direction she was looking. His horn flashed and a silence spell fell over the trio before he spoke. “Sunny, if you value your life you will never say that word in Clover’s presence,” he warned as he wiped the remaining water from his beard.
“What’s a concubine, and why would that make Clover angry?” Lulu asked, puncturing the suddenly tense situation with her innocent question. “Is that some kind of special magic? Is it some kind of magic that he can’t do?”
“No, it’s not, Lulu. And that’s a grown up word so you aren’t allowed to use it,” Starswirl said firmly, and his swift reaction combined with the slightly exasperated expression was a sure sign that it wasn’t the first time that similar topics had come up.
As soon as the phrase ‘grown up word’ left Starswirl’s mouth, Lulu’s expression took on a cunning edge. “Like ‘plothole’?”
“Yes, exactly like that, Lulu.”
“Lulu, did you hear that Clover and Cookie are expecting a foal?” Starswirl asked in an attempt to stave off the perhaps not-so-innocently listed profanity. When the filly’s scarred expression lit up as much as it could from behind the hood, Starswirl added, “Why don’t you go ask them about it?”
“Okay!” Lulu cheered before dashing off towards the pair. She only stumbled once before skidding to a halt and barraging the couple with increasingly uncomfortable questions, judging by the adults expressions. Cookie’s expression went from surprised to positively glowing, then to slightly embarrassed as she did her best to keep up with the barrage from the filly. Clover’s expression was a pointed glare at Starswirl that usually preceded a political assassination, and it only intensified as the elder stallion grinned and waved a hoof.
“Sunny, I know things are different here, so I urge you to tread carefully,” Starswirl explained carefully. “Everypony here is an equal, and most of us consider each other friends. It’s a fragile thing, but there’s something special that happens here when everypony works together. It gets stronger every day, but tension still exists between the three tribes. Making assumptions about somepony’s role here might offend them, so please come to me first if you have questions.”
Solaria blinked with honest confusion at the lecture. “I’m not certain what you mean. Their relationship is servant and master. If she assisted in the cleaning of his chambers, she would be a maid. If she assisted with his personal effects, she would be a carry-all. Unless my eyes deceive me, she likely assist him with more… carnal needs. The title of one in such a position is co--”
“Do not speak that word,” Starswirl snapped, and with far more heat than the disguised alicorn had expected. “You hear my words, but you do not understand my meaning, child. In this place, all are equals. She is his wife, and he is her husband. They love each other as much as anypony can love another, and their race does not matter to them. Whatever their foal turns out to be, they will love it as much as any child can be loved by its parents.” When Solaria tried to speak, Starswirl cut her off. “It does not matter if you have a horn, or wings here. It’s not the what, but the who that matters.”
The explanation smacked against everything that Solaria knew about the people she ruled, and no matter how she approached the knowledge, it just did not fit. I suppose there are exceptions to every rule, and with a lack of suitable partners then it makes sense that Clover would look beneath his station to provide his heirs, she finally concluded. Rather than dwell on the subject, Solaria chose to latch on to something else that Starswirl had said… something that might explain the unreality of this community. “You mentioned that there was some force at work here that bound everypony together?”
Starswirl’s head tilted enough so that she could see an arched eyebrow beneath his wide-brimmed hat. “Everypony that has chosen to stay here to keep this place alive and successful has exhibited several clearly defined behaviors. When these individuals work together they can achieve far more than if they did so individually. They even achieve far more than the same number of ponies attempting the same thing under Solaria’s rigid caste system.”
The alicorn in disguise managed to resist the temptation to snort in disbelief, but her expression must have given her away as Starswirl showed his tired, patient smile.
“Honesty. Loyalty. Generosity. Kindness. Laughter. These five things you will find in abundance in this hidden village, and in all my years I’ve never seen the like,” the elder unicorn explained. “Scoff if you must, but something is happening here that is real. Tangible even. It’s more than just simple friendship regardless of birth or status. To be a part of something like this, it’s empowering. I’ve never felt as young or hopeful for the future in years.”
Empowering… Solaria mulled the possibilities that the word implied, even though she tried to make sense of what Starswirl was saying. There was a power in this land long before I arrived and began to shape the species to serve my purposes. Perhaps there could be a way to harness this power… to capture it in physical form and use it to break the Traveller’s hold upon me.
“Regardless, we’ve dithered on this subject long enough. I hope you take my original instructions to heart, or you may not be long for this world,” Starswirl said, and the silence spell around them dissipated. “Come, we should go to the fields. Something tells me you will be uniquely suited in assisting with this duty.”
Solaria had expected to see the vast and vibrant fields of produce that were commonplace prior to the rebellion. The fields that sustained the village were a pale shadow of that, much to her surprise. Instead of the billowing wheat fields or tall stalks of corn, the cultivated rows boasted only pathetic sprouts that barely reached past her fetlock.
What was more surprising was the amount of effort that was being invested in the weak harvest. A dozen earth ponies patrolled the rows, and each hoof that touched the ground channeled just a bit of magic into the surrounding soil and plant life. Half as many unicorns also paced around the field, each one maintaining a small flock of flickering flames that hovered over their respective areas. Several pegasi darted through the air to keep the normally overcast sky clear so that the sun could reach the field for the few hours that it was in the sky.
“This is what keeps our community going, Sunny. Without all three tribes working together, we would likely be starving right now,” Starswirl explained, and when he glanced to Solaria and saw only confusion on her face, he continued, “I suppose if you spent most of your life in the capital, you probably didn’t see much farming, right? Under ideal circumstances, earth ponies can grow and tend to the crops with no help necessary. Due to the current conditions, unicorns are vital in keeping the crops and the soil from freezing, and the pegasi have to keep the skies clear while the sun is out. The Windigo’s winter is a cruel thing, but we will survive it.”
“Windigo?” Solaria asked, more curious as to the unicorn’s biting tone than about the term itself.
Starswirl affixed her with one of his looks that was too good-natured to be considered suspicious before continuing. “The windigoes were creatures that fed on emotions such as anger and hatred, and they were well known for the wintery weather they brought with them. It’s been several hundred years since any have been spotted, and I suspect they were the victim of one of Solaria’s purges. The griffons and dragons were spared extinction when they surrendered to her, but I suspect the windigoes did not. It is ironic that ponies are speculating that Solaria is a windigo, and that her purge of them was less about the protection of ponies as it was a greedy coup so she wouldn’t have to share.”
Starswirl’s story brought up vague memories of emotional vampires made of ice and snow, but nothing concrete came to Solaria’s mind. After all, there were far too many dead species at her hooves for her to remember all of them. The last sentence piqued the disguised alicorn’s interest, though. “That assertion is absurd. Why would anypony believe that Queen Solaria is anything like such creatures?”
“Besides her apparent affinity for ice and snow?” the stallion asked with a bemused expression. “On its face, the caste system creates a perfectly functional society if everypony in it operates like a cog in a machine. Unfortunately, they don’t. Resentment, cruelty and hatred are rife within all of the castes, and Solaria does nothing to mitigate this. Thus the windigo theory was born.”
“Surely you do not believe this, do you?”
“No, I don’t. I don’t think Solaria is one of the windigoes. I think she just doesn’t care.” The statement was laced with a bitterness that the disguised queen found surprising. After all, he was completely correct. Before she could ponder on the subject any further, Starswirl let out a sigh before continuing, “Now is not the time for the old and jaded to place the burden of grudges on the young and hopeful. I was actually hoping to see what you can do with your magic, so we can find the best place for you. Do you think you can make a globe of fire like the unicorns out in the fields?”
“Of course I can,” Solaria said with absolute certainty. The particular spell they were casting was one she had never attempted, so a quick glance was needed to dissect the exact formulae they were using. To her surprise, the base of the spell was actually a highly modified spell that the battle magi had used, with a variety of minor changes that were unimportant. With a slight inhale, she closed her eyes and cast the spell using her normal routines.
A globe of fire was summoned before her, cast as easily as a master of the arcane craft. Unlike the warm spheres in the field, though, hers was like a sliver of the sun.
“By Tartarus, child, do you not know restraint!?” Starswirl’s yell broke Solaria’s concentration, and she opened her eyes to see just what had elicited the comment.
The stallion was surrounded by a shimmering shield, but the edges of his hat and robe were blackened and a look of panic was in his eyes. The packed snow outside the protection of his shield had melted almost instantly and the ground directly beneath where the sphere had appeared had scorch marks. The nearby fence beside the field had also been blackened, and several wafts of smoke could be seen rising from the wooden crossbeams. Solaria’s cloak had also been scorched near to cinders, though not a hair was out of place on her disguise.
Starswirl’s shield dropped as he approached with a far more wary expression on his face. “That was… well, unexpected, Sunny. Are you unharmed? I must admit to being surprised, child. The spell was well formed, but the power behind it was rather excessive.” The wariness gradually morphed into contemplative evaluation. “You have too good a grasp of spellwork not to have been tutored extensively. Did your teacher not instruct you on how to throttle your power?”
“Well… no,” Solaria answered after a long moment. It is technically the truth. I have never had a need to ever restrict my power.
“No, of course she wouldn’t teach you that,” Starswirl muttered under his breath before he cleared his throat. “How about we move away from the fields and we’ll see about fine tuning your casting for just the right amount of heat, okay?”
The sun was setting as Solaria tried and failed, again, to produce a sufficiently restrained globe of fire. The small clearing that they had chosen for practice was peppered with scorch marks and melted slurries from all of her attempts. Despite Starswirl’s patient and calm coaching, the alicorn was becoming increasingly frustrated with what should have been an extremely easy test. It also hadn’t helped that the unicorn stallion had chosen to offer his advice from several body lengths away.
A modest crowd had gathered around the perimeter to watch Solaria’s pyrotechnic displays, which made every failure seem far worse. This is far too vexing! Surely there is something more useful and significant that I can do other than warming the fields, the disguised alicorn thought. She started to ask Starswirl for a different role before her pride stopped her. It’s nothing but a simple spell, a manipulation of the world around me. I am Solaria, I will not be defeated by so simple a thing!
The problem, however, did not meekly surrender to her might as she tried three more times with no progress. The root of the problem was less about the spell itself and more about the power that was required for the desired effect. Specifically, Solaria couldn’t reduce her power enough to produce the warm torchlights that were necessary. Even with the supercharged incendiary globes, she couldn’t feel even the slightest draw on her power to gauge the consumption and thus had no frame of reference as to how to achieve the desired effect. If she tried to assist in the fields in her current condition, the plants would likely be incinerated…
Once that realisation struck her, Solaria knew exactly how to defeat at least one of the challenges that had been set before her. She whirled around to face the crowd of onlookers and shouted, “I require a…” the words ‘test subject’ were almost said, but stuck in her throat. What do the mortals call it when they offer their services? Ah! “...volunteer!”
The amused crowd recoiled slightly at the request, and nervous glances rippled back and forth through the crowd. Several long moments passed before somepony shouted, “I’ll do it!” The crowd parted to reveal an adolescent pegasus colt on the cusp of adulthood as he cantered out into the clearing. His confident demeanor faltered when he hit a patch of recently refrozen snow as he slid and stumbled forward. His hooves finally found enough purchase for him to right himself before he smiled brightly at Solaria.
“Sunny, what are you--?” Starswirl asked, before a look of alarm entered his expression. “Sunny, wait!”
The gentle crackle of flames was the only sound that could be heard in the clearing, and a tiny globe of fire hovered nearby the volunteer. Everypony observing held their breath, Starswirl included, and the volunteer began to look somewhat panicked once he realized just what he had volunteered for. Once it became apparent that the colt wasn’t going to burst into flames, the assembled crowd let out a collective sigh of relief.
“Success!” Solaria gloated at the tiny ball of flame, and a sense of… accomplishment filled her. If my magic cannot hurt anypony, then using the volunteer allows me to gauge the proper amount of power! Her grin grew as she ran a test and duplicated the tiny spark on the opposite end of the field. “Haha! The success has been doubled!” She repeated the process again and again a dozen times over, until the clearing was as well lit and warm as a summer’s day. She nearly lost concentration when the crowd approached her to offer congratulations and other accolades. The smiling faces and kind words brought a new emotion to the alicorn in disguise, one that she was not familiar with but was still… pleasant.
Solaria was so enamored with the experience that she didn’t notice Starswirl hanging back with Clover, or the eager look that the elder stallion gave the younger.