• Published 14th Jan 2014
  • 1,124 Views, 57 Comments

Guardians of the Old Forest - ocalhoun

For centuries, timberwolves have guarded their secrets in the deepest corners of the old forest, but that may change when Roseluck stumbles in. A war is brewing under the shadows of the trees.

  • ...

Passion Blooms

e growled from behind her. “Get moving!”

Bark Hide's rough paw shoved Rose out through the door of his den. She stumbled from the sudden push, but she didn't fall.

“Hey, what was–”

“Quiet,” Bark snapped at her. “You speak when spoken to, pony.”

Rose stared at him, her mouth agape. What happened to the wolf she was talking to inside?

“Come,” Bark Hide commanded. “Don't fall behind.” With that, he stalked off into the forest.

Rose hurried behind him. The last thing she wanted was to be left alone in the timberwolf village. Even though she could hear birdsong high above her, the morning light did nothing to brighten this dark corner of the Everfree.

A few little timberwolves, even smaller than Rose herself, froze in the middle of the path through the village. Glaring at her, a larger one came and whisked them away. All around, green eyes stared at her, glowing from the darkness of warrens under tree roots, or peeking at her through cracked doorways.

Rose followed Bark around a line of closely spaced woodpiles, and then through a tight gap between two enormous oaks. She couldn't help but notice rows of little bushes sprouting on the other side of the narrow path. Unnatural things, each one had a miniscule pair of glowing eyes that followed her as she walked by. They gnashed at her with their tiny wooden teeth.

“Don't touch them,” Bark snarled.

She nodded. She didn't want anything to do with those creepy timberwolf babies.

Only after the village completely faded from view, blocked by the many twisted tree trunks, did Bark Hide finally speak again. “I'm sorry about that little show back in the village. It's just that, well, my entire life, I've kept my interest in ponies secret. I can't be seen being soft to you now.”

“I... Well, I guess I understand.”

As Rose followed him in a twisting route around the huge tree trunks, the path faded, giving way to simple, untouched forest floor. Rose's still-sore back hooves appreciated the change from dirt to a soft, springy covering of fallen leaves. Still, her feet didn't feel so great. “Is it much further?”

“We're about half way there.”

Rose sighed.

“It's just on the other side of the Freestone River, after Spruce Hall.”

“Spruce Hall? What's that?” Rose hadn't expected any buildings out here in the deep forest.

Bark trotted off to the side a little and laid a paw on one of the tree boles. “We're almost there.”

The tree he touched was different than the rest. All the trees Rose had seen in this part of the forest so far were huge, gnarled oaks, but this one rose straight, thin, and true, well above the canopy of the oaks' leaves. Its bark was rougher and flakier than the oaks'. It must have been some kind of evergreen, but she couldn't tell exactly what kind, not just from seeing the trunk.

“Are you coming?”

Rose looked up with a start. Bark was almost out of sight up ahead. She galloped to catch up.

Gradually, as she followed Bark along, the giant oaks gave way to more and more tall evergreens. The ground cover changed, too, with tiny, fragrant pine needles and isolated sprigs of grass replacing the mouldering oak leaves. Too many oaks still lingered for her to be able to see up into the canopy of the evergreens, though.

Bark paused at the edge of a long, dry trench, covered in rocks at the bottom. “This stream bed is the Doorstep. It marks the edge of Spruce Hall.”

Rose's jaw dropped when she looked out ahead. Nothing but evergreens stretched out before her, but these ones weren't relatively small like the ones she'd seen so far. These trees were massive, even bigger than the oaks behind her. Each one as wide as a house, they stretched hundreds of feet into the air. standing apart from one another allowing light to filter in. In the patched of sunlight, tall, stringy grass sprang up through the covering of needles.

Now that Rose could finally see up into the canopy, she could tell these were definitely spruce trees, though they were a variety she'd never seen before, and the warm light filling the area and the airy, yet enclosed atmosphere did remind Rose of a great hall inside a castle.

She caught Bark Hide looking at her and smiling. “Yeah, I like this part of the forest, too,” he said before trotting off again.

Rose followed along in awed silence, constantly craning her neck up to look at the trees, until she began to hear the roar of a waterfall up ahead.

“Is that the Freestone River?”

Bark turned his head around, but didn't stop moving. “It is. We're almost there.”

“And which way is Ponyville?” Rose asked, trying to be as nonchalant as possible. She would need to know that if she was ever to get back, but she couldn't let the timberwolves guess why she wanted to know.

“Oh, the Freestone flows right into Ponyville.”

Rose felt like slapping herself. She should have known she had nothing to fear from this wolf.

“And here it is.”

Rose stepped up next to Bark Hide. They stood just above the crest of a high waterfall. To their right stretched a deep, wide river. To their left, water crashed down a huge cliff face to fall into a roiling pool far below. Mist constantly rose from the falls, coating everything, and every surface it touched was covered in rich green moss. It dwarfed even the giant trees around it.

“Okay, follow me, and be careful.” Bark hopped onto one of the many stones lining the lip of the falls, then bounced on to another. He made it halfway across before he turned to check on Rose.

She still stood firmly rooted on safe ground, staring at him in disbelief.

He paused, sitting down on a rock out in the middle. “What's wrong?” She could barely hear him over the falls.

She looked down at the mossy stepping stones. They glistened with moisture. The crest of the waterfall beckoned her with its hypnotically rippling waves. “Isn't there somewhere else we can cross?”

He hopped a couple stones closer. “Everywhere else is too deep.”

“Well...” Rose took a step back from the falls. “Maybe we could swim across somewhere upstream?”

“And get all soggy?” He jumped a few more stones and landed back beside Rose. “What's the matter?”

“'What's the matter?' Are you crazy? I can't do that!”

Bark looked over at the waterfall, then back at Rose. “Why not?”

“It's too dangerous!” Rose threw her hooves up, amazed that he still didn't understand.

He laughed. “It's not dangerous – just don't slip.”

Rose stared him down.

“Okay, fine. We'll find another way for you to get across.” He glanced all around, looking for some other way. “I could carry you.” His eyes shone bright with hope.

Really?” Rose kept her disapproving stare firmly in place.

“Come on, Rose. It'll be fine, trust me.”

She shrank down a little. “Are you sure there isn't any other way?”

“There isn't. Now come on.”

Rose moved a little closer. “Well, okay... how do I–”

Bark held out his paw.

She winced, but she took hold of the paw. As soon as she did, it flung her up onto Bark's back. She clung onto a couple sticks poking out of his back, too stunned to do anything else.

With a leap that nearly broke Rose's grip, Bark took off, bouncing from stone to stone as if it was nothing.

Rose glanced at the water rushing over the edge beneath them. Once. After that, she just clenched her eyes shut and held on, hoping for the best.

Finally, Bark's back stopped heaving beneath her, leaving only the rhythmic rise and fall from his breathing. The way his mossy, wooden back flexed mesmerized Rose... it somehow made her feel secure, like she could–

“You can get off me now.”

She shook herself back into reality and released her hold on Bark. Had she really just been deriving a sense of comfort from a timberwolf? She let herself slid off Bark's back.

He just stood there, staring at her, and she couldn't read his lupine face.

“So,” she said, “are we going the rest of the way?”

Bark shook his head... which soon developed into a full-body shake, flinging a few droplets of water onto Rose. “Yeah, this way. Come on.” He trotted off, away from the falls, and Rose had no choice but to follow.

As they progressed away from the river, the giant spruce trees all around them became smaller and smaller. The thin, wiry grass around their feet grew thicker.

Rose was sorely tempted to sneak in a few bites. She hadn't eaten anything in nearly a full day now. She refrained. She could only imagine what Bark might do if he caught her eating plants.

They trekked on and on, and before long, the trees around them were tiny. They were just saplings; they couldn't have been more than ten years old.

Bark pushed his way through the ever-denser young trees, but he didn't crash through them as Rose would have expected. As he passed through, the young trees all bent out of his way, slowly bending back in his wake, all without a sound.

Rose kept as close as she could behind him. She didn't fancy having to push through this kind of thick brush herself. “What happened to the trees here?” she asked. “Why are they so small?”

“The river once flowed here, moving slowly away.” He glanced back at her. “That was before the breaking of the great beaver dam.”

“Really?” Rose hopped over an old, dried-up log, scrambling to keep up. “What happened to it?”

I happened to it.” He glanced back again, this time with a wide, toothy grin. “My people have no love of beavers, as you might guess.”

Rose continued on in silence, a little cowed at the idea of her only friend here massacring woodland creatures.

Finally, the two of them broke free from the last of the brush, coming out into a wide, shallow depression – the old riverbed.

Rose's jaw dropped. She had never seen so many flowers in one place, growing so vibrantly in the sun. Bright sprigs of Salvia coccinea grew among the great purple bursts of Gilia capitata. She could even spot some of the light pink Anagallis arvensis she'd been hunting for years. She couldn't even identify half of the blooms in front of her.

“Bark, this is... this is...”

He looked back at her, a huge grin on his face.

“This is incredible! Did you do all this?”

“I didn't plant them, but I come here sometimes to guide them up, and I do what I can to nurture them. The old riverbed makes for some really good soil.

Rose stood still at the edge of the shallow valley, looking in awe at the natural garden laid out beneath her.

Bark's smile grew even more, and his eyes flashed bright. “Come on – one of my old trails starts here, and if we hurry, we should be able to get to the fire lily patch and still get back before dark.”

“You have fire lilies? A whole patch?” Rose's eyes went wide.

Hundreds.” Bark trotted off, down a narrow path through the flowers.

Rose hurried after him, genuinely happy for the first time since her encounter with the wolves.

The fire lilies waved in the breeze through the sunny little valley, filling it from brim to brim with the light and warmth from the little candle-like flame in each flower.

A phoenix fluttered down from the trees on the other side. Bark visibly tensed and crouched away, but rose looked on in awe as the firebird flitted from flower to flower, nibbling at the tiny flame inside each one. She had always wondered how fire lilies pollinated. Now she knew.

If Rose hadn't been sitting right next to a huge timberwolf, she never would have believed she was deep in the Everfree Forest.

Bark eyed the phoenix warily, still crouched down low in the brush. “We should get out of here,” he whispered.

“You're scared... of a little bird?”

“I'm not... It's just that... They're dangerous, okay?”

Rose just looked at him, suppressing a giggle.

His glowing eyes narrowed, and he pressed his muzzle right up next to her. “A bird like that killed my grandfather. It's not a joking matter.”

The laughter died on Rose's lips. “Okay. Let's go.”

Bark slank away, back into the taller brush and trees, and Rose followed, taking care to be as quiet as she could. Despite her smaller size, she couldn't match the stealth of a timberwolf, and she still made more noise than he did.

He kept going until they were deep in the trees, with the lowest branches well above his head. He looked up at the sunlight still filtering in from above. “We should probably be going back soon, anyway. Come on, I know a shortcut back to the village.”

Rose glanced back at the valley, remembering all those beautiful, delicious-looking flowers. Her stomach growled loudly.

Bark shot into a low, ready crouch. He glanced all around, his ears perked. “What was that?”

“That was me.” Rose blushed. “It means I'm hungry.”

Bark relaxed and started walking again. “You're what?”

“Hungry.” Rose shook her head as she followed him. “It means my body is telling me I need to eat soon.”

“Oh, that's right.” Bark hide stopped, tapping his chin. “And you don't eat rabbits or squirrels or deer...” He stood for a moment longer, still deep in thought. “Hm, I think I smelled a family of badgers a little way back. Do you like badger?”

“What? No!” Rose took a step back from him.

“Yeah... I don't really care for them either. Too stringy.” His brows furrowed as he dipped back into thought. “What about fish? Do you eat fish?”

Rose groaned. “No! Ponies don't eat anything that moves around, okay?”

He glared at here from the corner of his eye. “Well, you can't eat any plants.”

There had to be something. “What about fruit?”

Bark recoiled away a little. “Ew... you want to eat fruit?”

“Well... yeah. That would be good.”

“Just regular fruit, not zap apples?”

“Yeah. Maybe some regular apples... some peaches or something?”

Bark shuddered and stuck his tongue out. “But that's what plants use to...” He shook his head. “Oh well. The plants freely give that, and if that's what you want, we'll find it... I think there's a blueberry patch not too far from the path up ahead. Come on, let's go.”

Rose laid on her side on a bed of pine needles, just outside the huge blueberry patch. She'd eaten her fill and then some, and she doubted she could have moved even if she had to.

Bark eyed her with one brow peaked. He'd hardly been able to watch at first, and though he seemed to have gotten used to the idea of her eating berries, he still kept glancing at the blue stain around her mouth and grimacing. “So... you got enough to eat? You'll stay alive now?”

“For a while.” Rose giggled. “Hopefully.” She looked up at him. “Thank you, by the way. I don't know what I'd do if you were like the other wolves.”

The look of suppressed disgust faded from his face, replaced by a warm smile. “I'm glad I could help.” He stared at her for a moment longer. “What brought you to the forest in the first place, anyway?”

“It was my friend, Lily.” Rose's heart jumped in her chest. Could she tell him? She had never told anyone before. “Well, more than a friend, or at least I hoped we could be more than friends some day.” She paused for a moment, waiting for some kind of doom to come crashing down on her for finally revealing her crush. Nothing happened. It actually felt good to finally confide in someone, even if that someone was a timberwolf. “Well, she got sick, and Nurse Tenderheart says it's a disease called 'the trots'... It's an intestinal disorder that makes her unable to digest food. She can barely keep anything in her, and she just keeps getting weaker and weaker. The nurse said Lily was going to die.”

Bark picked his head up, crossed his front legs, and perked his ears. His back legs stuck out to either side. He actually looked... cute, like a big, wooden puppy. She had his attention, at least.

“Well, I couldn't accept that. I went to an old friend of mine, a zebra named Zecora. I used to be scared of her, but once I got to know her, I found out we actually have a lot in common. I used to trade flower-growing secrets with her all the time...” She sighed. That seemed like another life already; had it really been just yesterday? “She said she could cure it, but she needed a special ingredient – a rare flower called the Wolfstone rose.”

“So that's what you were looking for... and why you wanted the rose...” Bark stared down at his paws.

Rose sighed and looked up at the spruce forest around her. She knew now, there was no hope of getting that flower and curing Lily. She spotted something moving between the trees. She stared in that direction, straining her eyes to pick out what it was.

She spotted it again – a thorn bush moved a little. Only... that wasn't a thorn bush... it was a timberwolf, a familiar one. Briar Thorn. What was he doing, slinking around and spying on her? She caught a glimpse of his scowling green eyes. It was probably best to just ignore him... probably. She'd keep a watchful eye out for him, though.

Briar Thorn took another step, and Bark's ear twitched. Did Bark know he was being followed?

“You know roses are sacred to us,” Bark said, “That one more than most. If a timberwolf youngling is planted, and no trees are murdered to give it substance, he will instead grow into a beautiful rosebush – the kind you call Wolfstone. But... the forest is much abused now, and that never happens anymore. The one in front of Fang Horn is the only one left. He looked her in the eye. “I know how badly you want it, Roseluck, but you can never have it.”

“I know. I know.” Rose let her head fall to the ground.

Bark's face twisted into a grimace. “Well, the zap apples will be here in just five days. That's something to look forward to, right?”

Lily had always loved zap apples; Bark's attempt to lighten the mood fell flat. “Let's just go back,” Rose said with a heavy sigh.

The shadows of the old oak forest around the timberwolf village were even darker than usual by the time they returned. Somewhere, above the trees, sunset was well on its way.

“Keep moving,” Bark growled, as the two of them walked into the village. Evidently, he was still set on keeping up appearances.

There didn't seem to be anyone around to appreciate his efforts, though. The village was deserted.

Bark glanced around. “Where'd everybody go?” He ran from one side of the village to the other, and he poked his head into a few of the dens. After a few moments, he came back to Rose, still swiveling his head around. “Where'd they all go? I've never seen anything like this.”

Rose kept close to him. Somehow, the absence of the timberwolves was getting to her even more than having them all around.

A distant chorus of howls filtered in through the trees on the left.

“That sounded like it came from Fang Horn's glen! Come on!” He rushed away, off toward the sound.

Rose hesitated for a moment, but as Bark dashed away, she could already feel the creeping loneliness of the empty village closing in... and Briar Thorn was still out there somewhere. She hurried after Bark Hide – the last thing she wanted was to be alone out here.

She ran, chasing after Bark in a dark parody of the chase that led her here, struggling to keep up with the wolf, rather than to get away. She pursued him down the winding trail through the giant oaks, always on the verge of losing him entirely.

Ahead, Bark Hide skidded to a stop.

She trotted up next to him, gasping for air after the run. “What's... going on?”

Fang Horn's clearing was full of timberwolves, completely packed. Bark and Rose stood unnoticed, just outside the edge of the crowd.

“It's my brother.” Bark pointed to the middle of the crowd, right in front of Fang Horn.

She looked out, expecting to see Briar Thorn, but instead, she found the burly Moon Howl circling in the middle of the crowd – the other brother.

Bark Hide crept in closer, and Rose stuck close behind him. She could begin to hear what they were saying.

“... And I think your brittle old branches might not be up to the burden of running the pack anymore!”

The crowd of wolves exploded again at Moon Howl's outburst. Rose couldn't tell if they were howling in agreement or in outrage.

Fang Horn's huge, mossy head turned to follow Moon Howl's pacing. “My eyes have watched this forest for three thousand years, and my branches have failed not. My purpose has faltered not. My vigilance has slept not.” His eyes narrowed. “You are but a summer sparrow, and yet have much to learn.”

Moon Howl snarled. “You haven't failed? What a joke. Where were you when ponies razed the Birchwood valley? Where were you when the dragons burned the southern village? Where were you when a pony crushed me under a rock?” A beam of light from the setting sun shone on him, lighting him orange as if on fire, and he whirled around to glare directly at Fang Horn. “You were sitting there, as always, doing nothing!”

“From this glen, my eyes can see the whole of the forest – all of its beauty and wonder. In all my years, ever have I sought peace and–”

Peace!” Moon Howl stalked toward his father, taking himself out of the sunlight and making him suddenly dark. “Don't talk to me about peace. We are at war! They will never stop until the entire forest is gone and every one of us is dead!” He stalked even closer. “And here you sit, day after day, year after year, doing nothing, all for the sake of your precious peace.”

“Peace is the most–”

“We don't have time for your bleeding heart! Trees are dying. Timberwolves are dying. We need a realist – a wolf who will take action.”

The crowd mumbled and shuffled around. Rose ducked down, sure she didn't want to be noticed just now. She spotted Briar Thorn circling around the other side in the darkness and watching everything.

“How little you know, young one. Action has already been taken. The young pony here with us now will learn our ways and our values. She will spread the word, and peace will be made between our peoples.”

Moon Howl glared at the giant wolf. “How naïve can you be? She will learn our ways, and when she goes back to her own kind, she will betray us! Our homes will burn in unicorn fire, and our younglings will be uprooted! Ponies can never be trusted. We should kill her now, before she betrays us all!”

Bark Hide backed up a little, pushing Rose back. He turned to face her. “We should probably go now... I'm not sure you'd be safe if they notice you. Come back to my den, and we'll wait it out.”

“Will he–?”

“Don't worry. Fang Horn will talk some sense into them. He's the one in charge, and he always will be.”

As Rose followed him back to the village, another loud howl broke out from behind her. She wished she could be as sure about that, but she couldn't stop worrying.

Rose jumped again, this time at the sound of a cricket chirping just outside the den.

Bark held her closer, snuggling into the soft ferns of the bed. “Don't worry, little pony. You'll be fine. As long as Fang Horn lives, no wolf will dare lay a paw on you.”

Rose knew he was right, even though she couldn't shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong... but what else could she do but try to get some sleep?

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