• Published 19th Sep 2013
  • 2,075 Views, 200 Comments

Wind and Stone - Ruirik



The Red Cloud War saw the pegasi lose everything to the griffon hordes. Legends rose, heroes died, and through it all, Pathfinder survived. Eighty years later he must confront those painful memories. Memories of loss, of home, of the wind and stone.

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Prologue: The Legate's Lookout

Lazy tendrils of smoke wafted through the open hall of the Legate’s Lookout. The old cloudstone walls had once been clean and white, painstakingly shaped decades earlier. Now, countless candles, pipes, and hearth fires had left them tainted nearly black. The Lookout wasn’t nearly the bastion of life it used to be; most of the old Legionnaires that had frequented the tavern had succumbed to the relentless march of time. Many of the younger ponies that made up the recently formed Royal Guard preferred newer establishments where stallions and mares of all three tribes commingled. On an ordinary night, Stalwart would have been in one of those taverns. Tonight, however, was anything but ordinary.

With his snow white coat, perfectly cropped blue mane, and his polished steel armor lined with plates of gold, Stalwart was everything that the Legate’s Lookout wasn’t: a proper stallion of the new guard, young, ambitious, and loyal to the Diarchs. His comrades were unicorns and earth ponies, some of whom were the grandchildren of the stallions and mares that had quarreled with the relics of Cirra’s once great legions.

Stalwart allowed himself the smallest hint of a smirk. It was, after all, a relic that he had come to the decrepit old tavern to find. One of the last relics of the Red Cloud War.

The Lookout was having a busy night; at least, busy by their much declined standards. In the tavern that could once serve nearly one hundred raucous and thirsty soldiers, there were now only a paltry dozen, including the Barkeep and Stalwart himself. Of the patrons Stalwart could see, the youngest looked to be in his fifties or sixties. None of them spared the young guard more than a curious passing glance.

Stalwart tried not to laugh as the patrons muffled their conversations further. He didn’t need spectacular hearing to know that the old guards were likely talking about him. Over the quiet chatter, he could distinctly hear the gentle crackle of the hearthfire, and the soft, slightly off-key singing of another stallion.

Cantering over to the bar, Stalwart sat at the first empty stool he could. Another stallion, his coat and mane long since grey, glanced lazily at the young guard before returning to his ale. After a moment’s wait, the barkeep trotted over. She was an older mare with a powder blue coat and a sandy blonde mane, though the color was fading as age took its toll. Still, she smiled to him with all the friendliness of a good server.

“Welcome to the Lookout, stranger.”

“Thanks.”

“What can I get for ya?”

“Ale, please,” Stalwart answered, fishing some coins from his bag which he set on the old wood counter.

“Old Cirran, or Lowlands Ale?”

“Old Cirran.”

With a look of almost relief, the mare nodded, scooping the coins up in her wing and tossing them into a trough below the counter. In her other wing, she hefted a mug from the back of the bar and set it under the tap. With practiced ease she filled the mug to the top with the dark liquid, a small head of amber foam crowning the drink. She smiled, sliding the mug down the smooth counter where Stalwart caught it in a ready hoof.

“Drink up, son.”

Stalwart hefted the drink in a silent toast before bringing it to his lips. He closed his eyes as the potent drink filled his mouth. He hated Old Cirran. Like the Legions of old, the drink was bold and aggressive, with little nuance or flair to distract from the punch of the alcohol itself. The young guardspony vastly preferred the lighter, Lowlands brew. It was subtle, friendlier to infrequent drinkers such as himself, and one could taste the complexities of the drink that each specific brewhouse specialized in.

Swallowing the bitter drink, Stalwart set the mug down and forced a seemingly satisfied sigh.

“Thanks,” he said to the mare.

She smiled, some of her weariness seeming to fade in light of the simple appreciation. “What brings you around here, lad? We don’t see too many guardsponies around this part of town.”

“I’m looking for somepony, actually,” Stalwart answered, grateful for the excuse to not take another sip of the vile liquid.

“Yeah?” the mare asked, her right eyebrow arching curiously. “Troublemaker of some kind?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” he answered, his hoof tracing over the tankard’s worn surface. “I just need to talk to him, and I got a tip he spent a lot of time around here.”

“Well, we don’t have too many regulars here anymore, but tell me about this pony and I’ll see if I can point ya to him.”

“I’m looking for an old Legionnaire named Pathfinder.”

The mare recoiled slightly, her expression caught between amusement and annoyance. Leaning forward, she kept her voice quiet as she spoke. “What do ya want with him? Old Finder doesn’t need some uppity greenwing—”

Stalwart held up a hoof to the mare. “It’s all right, I’m not gonna bother him. I just want to ask him a few questions, then I’ll be on my way. Could you point me to him?”

Sighing quietly, the mare shook her head and pointed to a table at the far corner of the bar. “The old songbird always sits there.”

Turning in his seat, Stalwart could just see the stallion, his coat and mane having long since lost the colors of his youth. His back was facing a wall stacked to the roof with old kegs, and his wings hung loose at his sides. Stalwart couldn’t tell if he was awake or asleep, not while his head was resting on his left foreleg.

Pushing away from the bar, Stalwart scooped up his tankard with a hoof and gave the mare a polite nod. “Thank you.”

She nodded, pulling an old rag from below the bar and wiping down the wood surface. “Take care, kid. And if Finder tells you to leave, please leave. We don’t want any trouble here, and I won’t stand for my customers gettin’ hassled.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Careful not to spill his drink, Stalwart wound his way through the packs of tables and stools towards the old stallion. The closer he got the more he could hear it: an old voice singing a melancholic tune. It wasn’t until he was almost on top of the old stallion that he realized what the mare had meant when she called him ‘songbird.’

His voice was raw and quiet, but he didn’t miss a single beat. Every word he sang with all his heart; no beat seemed less important than the one before it. He paid no mind to Stalwart when the young Guard arrived at his table.

Buy him another round ‘til the memories drown now
Buy him another round ‘til the nightmares faded now
Buy him another round ‘til the pain has ablated now
Early in the morning

Stalwart shook his head, distracting himself from the lyrics. “Excuse me, Sir, can we talk?”

Pathfinder either didn’t hear him, or ignored him, as he carried on, intent to finish his song.

Hey-oh and up we’re rising
Hey-oh and there we’re fighting
Hey-oh we’re up there dying
Early in the morning

Pathfinder sighed sadly, his song finished. No hooves applauded, no young soldiers shouted for another, nopony offered to fill his cup. Those days, like the many he had cared for over the years, were gone. Faded to dust before the winds of time.

“Scout-Centurion Pathfinder?”

“Hmm?” he grunted, surprised by the voice. Leveraging his hooves against the tabletop he pushed himself upright, biting back a groan as the stiff muscles in his back straightened out. In front of his table was a young stallion, too young for the Legate’s Lookout.

“Who’re you?”

“Lieutenant Stalwart, Sir,” he said, saluting with a hoof the way the new Royal Guard did. “Stahl, for short.”

“And what can I do for you, Lieutenant Stahl for Short?” Finder asked, a bit of a grin pulling at the corner of his lips.

“May I sit down?” Stahl asked, motioning with his tankard to the seat across from Pathfinder.

“By all means, lad!” Finder grinned, a bit of energy returning to his old bones. “Sit, drink, be merry! Gods above know this place longs for the life it used to have.”

Stahl chuckled, more out of politeness than actual amusement. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting of the old centurion, but he could work with this too. “Tell me, what was it like?”

“Oh, pup,” Finder chuckled, his head tilting back until his gaze was looking at the vaulted ceiling. “Years and years ago, the Lookout was a grand place. Full of songs and laughter, fine ale and warm mares. Well, nevermind, the mares would sooner knock your teeth out than bed you, but it was a grand place.

“This here,” he lightly pounded his hoof on the worn out table, “this here was the table of my regiment. Every week me and the boys would come in here, drink ourselves stupid, and sing ‘til our throats were raw! Sometimes we’d fight, sometimes we’d cry, but most of the time we would laugh and live!

“Over there,” Finder pointed to a table by the window, “I killed a private during Cyclone’s Coup. Smashed him over the head with my tankard and buried my sword in his breast. And over there,” his hoof moved to a table at the opposite corner of the bar, “that’s where my wife beat up three stallions who thought I wasn’t good enough for her.” Finder chuckled. “Sad thing is, they were probably right.”

“What happened?” Stahl asked.

Finder laughed, his smile becoming sad and his gaze nostalgic. “Time, my boy. Time happened. Even the strongest Legates can’t hold her off forever. Over the years there’d always be a new empty seat. Sometimes we’d drink to a comrade who fell in battle, but after we got too old for the front it was disease or age that took us.”

Finder sighed, picking up his tankard and gently swirling what little remained of the ale within. “I’m the last one now, aren’t I?”

“There’s a few left who were born in the homelands, but you’re the last one I could find who served in the war, Sir,” Stalwart confirmed.

Finder shook his head slowly and sighed again, his posture sagging as though the weight of the world had settled over his shoulders. His brown eyes cast down at his drink, silently recalling a thousand names and a thousand faces, each with countless stories to tell. His was the last, and all too soon, even he would fall to time’s unyielding march. With a weary grunt, he lifted the tankard to his lips, swallowing what little ale was left in one gulp. Setting his cup down, he eyed the ale in Stalwart’s hooves.

“You gonna drink that?”

Stalwart wordlessly slid the tankard across the table. Finder grunted his thanks, scooping the drink up in a hoof where he swallowed all the ale in one long gulp. Once he was sure he’d drained it of every drop, he set it down with a satisfied breath.

“Hey, Cirrus,” he called to the mare behind the bar, holding his empty tankard up for her to see. “Another, please?”

“Just for you, or one for the kid as well?” she asked.

“Two, I’ll drink his,” Finder answered.

“That’s a lot of Old Cirra,” Stalwart noted, earning a hearty laugh from Finder.

“Pup, that’s nothing!” he said, slapping the young Lieutenant on the shoulder and waving a hoof at the stack of empty kegs behind him. “Me and the boys are... were responsible for all those barrels.”

“I’m sure it was a sight to behold.”

“Oh it was, lad, it was a sight indeed,” Finder answered with a melancholic smile. “So many songs, so many stories...”

Finder’s eyes blinked quickly, banishing the traitorous moisture that threatened to seep down his cheeks. With a sharp breath, he forced a quiet laugh and shook his head. His hoof, worn and cracked with age, ran through the grey strands of mane on his head. Cirrus’ timely arrival with fresh tankards was a very welcomed interruption.

“Two Old Cirran’s for you,” she said, putting the mugs before Finder.

“You’re a goddess,” Finder said, giving Cirrus a warm smile.

“I know,” she replied with a wink, setting a third tankard in front of Stahl. “And a Lowlands Ale for the kid.”

Stahl balked, “But... I didn’t even—”

“You’ll thank me later,” she said, taking the two empty tankards from the table.

“I ordered Old Cirran, though.”

“Yeah, I know. It was sweet of you to try, but you really didn’t fool anypony in here.”

“How—”

“Your face, kid,” Cirrus explained with a playful smile, “looked like you were trying to swallow a rat.”

“Pups these days,” Finder grumbled, hefting the fresh tankard to his lips, “don’t know a good thing when they see it.”

“Anything else?” Cirrus asked.

“That’ll do for now. Thanks, Cirrus,” Finder answered, smiling up to the mare.

“Anytime, Songbird,” she said, giving Finder a warm smile before returning to her spot behind the bar.

Stahl’s gaze followed her retreat for a moment before he returned his attention to Finder. “She seems nice.”

“Cirrus is a good girl,” Finder agreed, taking a gulp from the fresh tankard. “Her parents built the Lookout themselves, back when Cloudsdale was a quarter of the size it is now.”

Stahl nodded, lifting his tankard to his lips and taking a mouthful of ale. The brew was malty, light, and perfectly balanced between its component ingredients. A more discerning palate than his could probably even identify the specific kind of wood barrel the drink had been stored in after brewing. A gentle, almost satisfied sigh escaped Stalwart’s lips after taking a few more gulps.

“So tell me, Lieutenant Stahl for Short,” Finder began with a smirk, “what gets a shiny greenwing like you to seek out a codger like me?”

Stahl seemed to chew on his words, unsure of how to best express his mission. “Well, Sir—”

“Please,” the old stallion held up a hoof, “call me Finder.”

“I’ll work on that, Sir.”

Finder chuckled, motioning for Stahl to continue his explanation. “What is it you want, son?”

“I’ve been given leave for an expedition.”

“Ooo, sounds fancy,” Finder noted, smirking mirthfully into his tankard. “But certainly not something you’d need a pony of my age for.”

“Begging your pardon, Sir, but that is incorrect.”

Finder looked up from his drink, the young stallion having gained his curiosity.

“I want you to show my expeditionary team the way,” Stahlwart leaned closer to Finder, his voice dropping to a hushed tone, “the way back to Dioda.”

Finder’s eyes widened in disbelief before quickly narrowing. “If that was a joke, then I certainly didn’t find it funny.”

“No joke, Sir,” Stalwart promised.

“Then you’re damned idiot. There’s nothing in Dioda but griffons and death,” he hissed, a sneer pulling at his lips. “We few barely escaped with our lives.”

“Yes Sir, I know the stories.”

“Whelps like you don’t know a damned thing. The homelands were lost before you were a squirt in your mother’s womb. Even Commander Hurricane, gods rest his soul, knew it was a fool’s errand to go back there.”

Stalwart snorted, a small grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Fair enough.”

“Why do you even want to know?” Finder asked, carefully watching the younger stallion’s expression. “Is there another up and coming commander looking to lead a mighty army to reconquer our forgotten skies? A new usurper like that fool Cyclone with delusions of glory?”

Stalwart shook his head. “No, Sir, nothing like that. It’s just that, well, we don’t know much about the homelands anymore. And ponies with that experience are all but gone.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” Finder noted dryly. “Why do you want to know? What’s this all about?”

“A simple scouting expedition, Sir. In and out, with not a soul to hear.”

“If only it was so easy to avoid griffon patrols,” the old stallion sighed, his hoof rubbing a large and faded scar on his left side.

“I have an excellent team, Sir.”

“Then you’re as deluded as you are stupid.”

“Sir?”

“Have you ever seen a griffon, son?” the old stallion asked. “Do you even have the slightest idea what they’re capable of?”

“We’ve studied the old journals—”

“So you know nothing!” Finder slammed a hoof against the table, earning the momentary attention of the Lookout’s few patrons. He pointed a hoof to the faded white scars that crossed his face. “This is the least of what an unarmed griffon can do.”

Stalwart sat up straighter, meeting Finder’s gaze with steely resolve. “We’re well trained sir. I assure you we can handle any griffon we might find.”

Finder scoffed, his head shaking slowly. “Well trained, pfft. The Legions of the old empire were well trained. Does it look like that saved us?”

“Well, you’re here, I’m here, and Cloudsdale is here,” Stalwart answered.

“Do you have any idea what it cost us? How many died to get us this…” Finder waved his hoof in the air as he searched for the correct words. “This… empty shell of our past?”

Stalwart remained silent for a moment, contemplating Finder’s question. He played with the tankard of ale in his hooves, his reflection looking back at him through the amber surface. Finally, he looked the old stallion in the eye. “I’d like to know.”

Finder seemed taken aback by the soft spoken sentiment, his eyebrows scrunched together as he stared at Stalwart. “Why?”

“Why what, Sir?” Stalwart asked, a confused look on his face.

“What is this about? What are the ghosts of the past worth to you?”

“Well, Sir, the Commander of the Guard—”

“No, no.” Pathfinder hushed Stalwart with the wave of a hoof. “I don’t give a damn about Hurricane’s daughter or some preening guard in shiny armor who wants her name in the history books.” Finder leaned over, tapping Stalwarts' chest with a hoof. “You, Lieutenant Stahl for Short, I want to know why you’re interested in this nonsense. Did your father fill your head with nonsensical ideas of the old ways?”

“My father was an earth pony, Sir.” Stalwart answered.

Pathfinder seemed stunned by the revelation. The tension between the tribes before the founding of Equestria had nearly ended with war on multiple occasions. The idea of relationships between a pegasus and one of the terrestrial ponies was still a fairly taboo subject.

“Huh.” Finder managed to mutter. “You know that this has nothing to do with earth ponies or unicorns, right? We were the only ones across the ocean."

“I’m a pegasus too, Sir. Cirra is part of my blood, my culture. We can’t forget where we came from.”

“Some things are worth forgetting,” Finder said, eyeing his drink.

Stalwart noticed the look. “Is that why you’re here?”

Finder didn’t answer Stalwart’s question. Silence filled the air between them, a silence louder than any sound either stallion had ever heard. Finder considered the young guard’s words, his mind drifting to days long past.

“We’re going back to Dioda, Sir, with or without you.”

“Tell you what,” Finder began, his hoof reaching out for his tankard. “Let me tell you a story. And, if after that story you are still committed to this fool’s errand, I‘ll consider helping you.”

Stalwart smiled and sat up eagerly. “I’m all ears, Sir.”

“Stop calling me Sir.”

“Sorry s—err, Pathfinder.”

The elder stallion leaned back in his stool, casting a nostalgic gaze to the ceiling. “Let us journey back, before Cyclone’s Coup. Before The Compact and The Long Winter, before The Crystal Barbarians and The Great Exodus. Back across the seas and under the stars to those skies long forgotten...”