• Published 1st Dec 2013
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The Book of Water: The Heart of Winter - TalonMach5



Part two, of books two of four, in the Great Slave King Saga. An anthology of Equestria's history

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Chapter 1: The Fear That Stalks Their Hidden Hearts

The Book of Water: The Heart of Winter

A Story by TalonMach5

Chapter 1: The Fear That Stalks Their Hidden Hearts

He felt the warmth of the sun’s rays gently kiss his flesh as it roused him from his slumber. He felt somewhat refreshed after such a good sleep, yet at the same time rather weak and lethargic. He couldn’t quite explain it. By all rights he should be feeling his innate magic empowering him, as well as the strength of the earth flowing through him. But this morning he felt nothing but a void where his divinity should have been. Still groggy from his slumber, he yawned deeply and moved to rub the sleep from his eyes with his hands. But to his surprise, he found both his arms restrained away from his body. Surprised at his predicament, he opened his eyes and examined his surroundings.

He found himself lying in a strange bed, and in an unfamiliar room. As he looked at his surroundings, he saw that the room was richly decorated with cheery colors in silk and satins. From the bed, to the carpets and tapestries, to the furniture, everything had a certain feminine quality to it. Breathing in deeply, he examined himself and saw to his shock that someone had seen fit to pilfer his right arm! Made completely of arcanum, the mostly magically impervious metal had always been his insurance policy. Even completely cut off from his power, his false arm had always proved useful against malicious magical attacks against his person.

With his limb missing, all he had left was the capped stump affixed to rather thick and heavy chains. Angered and annoyed that someone dared accost him in this way, he looked to his left and saw that his other arm was shackled as well. Though the chains binding him weren’t stretched tight, they offered him little freedom of movement. Looking down, he saw that his normally utilitarian clothing had been replaced with silken finery. Spying a nearby mirror, he saw that his normally burning green eyes were nearly bereft of their magic. And even curiouser, someone had attempted healing his numerous scars. Though to his amusement, he could tell they hadn’t had much luck. The ugly scarred and burnt flesh that marred his face was still there, and the deep angry red scars, the evidence of his former existence as a slave still covered his flesh.

Spying a nearby balcony, he looked out and saw the mountains surrounding his prison. Carefully studying their topography, he soon discovered where he was being held. Londwhinium. And judging by the sun motif carved into the masonry and embroidered into the carpets, this room belonged to Celestia, the Radiant. Inhaling deeply through his nose, he caught the familiar scent of his fellow deity, and scowled. Somehow she’d seen fit to spirit him away from his bed, palace, domain, and though he didn’t care much for her, his wife.

His wife. Now that begged the question, where was she in all this. If last night’s jealous outburst at his being embraced by her sister was any indication, she would most definitely not approve of his incarceration in her sister’s room. But he found it even odder, judging by the position of the sun, the humidity, and the temperature, this was the middle of summer, not spring. Had his wounding caused him to go into torpor? That might explain the time lapse, but not why Celestia had seen fit to spirit him away without his say so.

So much about this situation he found troubling. Never before had she ever acted with such duplicitous aggression before. Such behavior he might expect from one of the others, but never from her. She always preached harmony to him, inviting him to join with her in friendship. But abducting him from his domain, imprisoning him in her city, and chaining him to a bed, seemed beyond her usual methodology. Also what had happened to his divinity and connection to the earth? He could still sense them, but it was as if he was separated from its power by a dense fog. It was as if something or someone was leaching it away from him.

Struggling against his restraints, he reached out with his tongue and tasted the heavy chains restraining his left arm. Raw arcanum ore! Of course, that’s why he’d had trouble connecting to the earth. The chains holding him to the bed, were also dampening his own power. Had the chains been the only thing standing in the way of his freedom, he wouldn’t have been so worried, but Celestia had also severed the ley lines in the room, cutting him off from the earth, the source of his power. Obviously, she had gone to great lengths to keep him weak and powerless, but he couldn’t understand why. As far as he was concerned, she had him under her hoof, right where she wanted him.

She had a foothold deep in his territory at Bone’s Landing, via her pony garrison. Though she’d protested her innocence regarding last night’s attack, he’d nearly died and it was only by her power that he’d survived the ordeal, leaving him indebted to her. And through marriage to her sister, he was now linked to her through blood ties and familial obligation. With so many advantages over him, why risk war with his domain and her sister’s ire over his abduction? Lord Triton was correct, truly no man might know the mind of a woman.

While struggling to decipher Celestia’s devious machinations, he felt his greying beard itch and wished he could scratch it. As he lamented his inability to so much as scratch his own nose, he heard someone approaching. Judging by the clippity clop of their hooves, the sound of gold striking against the marble floor, and the weight of the approaching pony’s hoofsteps, it could only be Celestia, coming back to check up on her prisoner.

Seeing the golden aura of his jailor’s magic enveloping the door, he offered her what he considered an appropriately menacing scowl. When the while alicorn entered the room carrying a covered silver platter, his eyes smoldered with rage. However, instead of being taken aback when she saw him glaring at her, her lavender eyes held a momentary look of surprise which quickly morphed into one of warmth and great joy.

“Celestia, I demand you release me this instant!” he growled, unsuccessfully stoking the fires of his earthen rage. “Furthermore, I… ack!”

Before he continued his tirade against her, he was interrupted as she embraced and kissed him deeply, nearly drawing all the breath out of his lungs. To say he was surprised by her behavior, would be nothing short of an understatement. He was completely flabbergasted, though she had been affectionate towards him in the past, it had always been chaste. But the kiss and licentious looks she’d given him, were full of lust and wanton desire. Offering him one last peck on the lips, she drew back and smiled at him with a lusty gaze suggesting they were lovers or something even more intimate.

His anger momentarily forgotten, he gave her a flummoxed look. “Celestia, the Radiant,” he said, in a calm and even tone before offering her a full measure of his displeasure. “Have you lost your mind!?”

At his outburst, she laid back her ears worriedly, before sitting down on the large bed, and laying her head on his scarred chest. Looking up at him, her eyes gazed longingly at him. Her multi-hued mane flowed and rippled as it covered him with its solar and light domain fueled magics.

“You have no idea how seeing you awake, Slave King, brings me joy,” she dreamily said between kisses, as she worked her way up his chest.

Though he didn’t particularly care for his wife, he was still a married man, and to Celestia’s own sister no less. His personal honor wouldn’t allow himself to succumb to the temptation she was offering him.

“Celestia, the Radiant,” he said as sternly as he could, hoping to return her to her senses. “I am married to another. If your lust for me was so great, you should have stated your desires towards me before I wed your sister.”

When she heard his objections, she released a musical laugh that left him further confused by her flippancy. “My sister already had her chance with you,” she said, snuggling up against him and enjoying his warmth. “It’s my turn now.”

Trying as best he could to pull back from her advances, he found himself stymied once more by the arcanum chains restraining him. “Somehow I doubt your sister will see things that way,” he said, unsuccessfully dodging her passion fueled kisses.

“As sisters, we share everything,” Celestia answered, placing yet another kiss squarely on his mouth. “I see no reason why you should be any different.”

Furious that she was ignoring his wishes in this matter, he offered her an angry scowl. “Celestia, when Lord Triton hears of this, there’ll be Hades to pay,” he threatened, hoping to appeal to her sense of honor and propriety.

When she heard his threat, Celestia simply laughed once more. “Oh, Slave King,” she smirked, nibbling on his ear and allowing him to breathe in the intoxicating scent of her perfume. “He and the others are in no position to intervene.”

“Not even if I call a moot, as is my right?” he countered, fully intending to end this farce once and for all.

When she heard his threat to call a moot, she giggled, as if remembering some private joke.

“Is there something you find humorous about being stripped of your position? He demanded, growing ever angrier at her playful antics. “That’s what will happen, if your crimes are revealed there.”

Kissing him lightly on the cheek, she looked him lustily in the eye. “Lord Triton, and the rest of the members of the Solar Council have all been appropriately dealt with,” she said, getting up from the bed. Removing the lid from the platter she revealed to him all manner of delicacies. Levitating a large strawberry, she offered it to him. “I do suggest trying these strawberries, they’re simply divine.”

Refusing the offered food, he glared up at her. “What have you done?” he demanded, worried for the first time that some terrible fate had befallen a majority of the pantheon.

“What was needed,” she replied, offered him a spoonful of cream. “Try the cream, Slave King, it’s quite delicious.”

Remembering the pact he had with Jormungandr and the others, his thoughts turned to his domain and its unguarded horrors. “Celestia, you must release me at once,” he commanded, struggling in vain against the chains that held him to the bed. “Release me, and I forswear any vengeance against you for this.”

“And why would I ever do that?” she asked, wearing a rather bemused expression. “My turn with you just started. And luckily for us, since you’re awake now, we’ll both be able to enjoy it.”

“Then you leave me no choice, Celestia,” he said, with a hint of finality. Drawing a deep breath, he uttered the true names of the only two he knew would aid him against her.

Within moments of having uttered the true names of his allies, a great whirlwind entered through the open balcony, revealing the sky blue plumage and silvery hide of a griffiness. Her piercing blue eyes studied the scene thoughtfully, as a ball of flame exploded beside her. Once the flames had dissipated, a large phoenix with bright red feathers and ruby eyes gazed at them expectantly.

“Why did you call us, Celestia?” the griffiness asked, as she looked at him with the ever familiar hunger he once knew.

“Lady Zephyr, it wasn’t I who summoned you here,” she replied, biting into a tiny cake. “But now that you’re here, would either of you care to join my husband and I for breakfast?”

“Only if I can enjoy the after breakfast activities, Celestia,” the phoenix seductively said, looking at the Slave King with an unfulfilled longing.

“Lady Suzaku, how scandalous!” Celestia teased, offering her a faux scolding.

“Now, Zuzu, Celestia’s turn just started,” Lady Zephyr said, admonishing her friend for being greedy. “You know the rules, we each get a month to ourselves.”

“But, Zephy!” Lady Suzaku pouted. “It’s no fair, he’s awake now. I don’t want to wait another whole year for my turn.”

He couldn’t understand why they were just standing there, hadn’t they sworn their undying devotion to him? Why didn’t they help free him, and what did Celestia mean by ‘my husband and I’?

“Anyways, Zuzu,” Lady Zephyr said, placing her talon on his leg. “Isn’t Cerynitis yours this month?”

“That popsicle, Zephy?” she replied, rolling her eyes with disdain. “He’s certainly no Slave King, or even Triton.”

“Wait, what?” he shouted, now completely confused by their conversation.

“Feeling jealous, husband?” Lady Suzaku asked, as she caressed his cheek with her wing.

“But I’m married to Luna…” he murmured, trying to comprehend how he could be the husband to three different goddesses simultaneously. “I was told I’d have to divorce her first, before marrying another.”

“Celestia, it appears our dear husband doesn’t recall what happened,” Lady Zephyr said, looking out the balcony towards the mountains in the distance.

“I take that it has something to do with the reasons behind my being chained to this bed,” he said, trying to discover the truth behind the cause of his imprisonment.

“The Solar Council went to war with each other, Slave King,” Celestia said, as her eyes threatened to well up with tears.

“You and the others destroyed everything,” Lady Suzaku added, wiping away a tear from her eye.

“Our son Dawson, and the all others, they’re dead,” Lady Zephyr said with a mournful sigh, remembering her little fledgling.

“Slave King, you’ve been asleep for nearly a century,” Celestia said, offering him another piece of fruit.

Accepting her offering, he chewed it thoughtfully before swallowing. “But that doesn’t explain this,” he said, gesturing to his chains.

“That’s because you’ve shared the same fate as the rest of the Solar Council,” Celestia said, feeding him some more.

“But my domain, I need to return to it,” he objected, as he struggled once more against the unyielding chains holding him captive. “Jormungandr told me…”

“The Winding One has exiled himself,” Lady Zephyr angrily said, pointing a talon accusingly at him. “Though I love you dearly, husband, for your crimes, you deserve to share Darkpaw’s fate.”

“Now, now, Zephy,” Lady Suzaku said, placing herself between them. “Our darling husband doesn’t seem to recall his minor part in the war.”

“There were no minor parts,” she bitterly replied, before burying her face in his chest. “My griffins, and our son are dead.”

“That’s why their punishment is rather fitting,” Celestia said, giving him a kiss. “Not a day doesn’t go by, that I don’t weep for the loss of my little ponies. But our foals have been such a blessing, and a balm to my heart.”

“I refuse to be a party to this perversion,” he said, pulling on his chains with all his might.

“Perversion?” Lady Zephyr replied, incensed that something as holy and sacred as procreation was being slandered so. “How dare you! You stole our children from us, it’s only fitting you offer us recompense.”

“Yes, beloved,” Lady Suzaku said. “You and the others all lay powerless and in torpor, restoring our children to us, while creation heals itself.”

“Now come, husband,” Celestia cooed into his ear. “Join with us, and sing the song of creation, so we might restore Equestria to what it once was.”

“No…” he moaned, as he fought against their gentle caresses. “No!”

Feeling their divinity enter him, he knew there was nothing he could do to protect himself against their advances. As Celestia climbed on top of him, he knew he was utterly at her mercy.

Trapped and unable to escape, he released a wail of despair.

“Ahhhhhhhh!” he screamed, before waking up beside his wife in his own bed.

It was dark now, he realized he must have slept through the day and most of the night. And though still weakened by his brush with death, his link to the earth and divinity were as strong as ever. Sighing in relief that he’d only been under a nightmare’s thrall, he looked towards his wife’s softly snoring form. Looking at the mistress of dreams, he felt some level of annoyance. Surely under her auspices, as her husband, he was entitled to protection from such. He felt her rousing from her sleep, as she turned to face him.

“Husband, art thou still of ill humor?” she yawned, the concern she held for him reflected in her large turquoise eyes.

“No, wife,” he coldly replied. “It was naught but a nightmare.”

Feeling hurt by his unexpected hostility, she laid back her ears with worry and looked at him imploringly. “Husband, please, we beseech thee,” she plead, reaching out to draw him close with her wing. “Allow us to aid thee, beloved, against the darkness that clouds thy mind and poisons thy heart.”

Looking up her, he considered her entreaty. He didn’t know what he should do with her. Even lovelier than her sister, Luna, the Beautiful, threatened to steal his breath away whenever he looked at her. With a coat the color of the night time sky, and mane and tail that shimmered like the stars in the heavens, one could lose themselves in their beauty. Though sorely tempted to accept her offered aid, he remembered the pain he felt when he last let his guard down, and withdrew from her touch.

Though his crippled condition had left him nearly an invalid, he dare not trust her with his safety. “Wife, the dawn approaches,” the Slave King said, hoping to evade her persistent nagging as he gestured towards the balcony attached to his room with his head.

Sensing his reluctance to accept her abetment, she tried unsuccessfully to hide her hurt. But knowing he was right, she exited the bed, and made her way to the balcony that overlooked the ruins of the Diamond Vale below. Looking up, she saw that her moon was still high in the pink tinted sky. It cast a small amount of illumination on the city, revealing the broken streets and ruined and collapsed buildings of the once great and vast city. Looking down, she saw the garden where they had been wed the night previous, and lightly blushed at the memory.

The garden, like the ruined city, had once been as desolate. But in less than the space of two weeks, in no small part thanks to her ponies’ hard work and efforts, it had been restored to its former glory. Looking at the ruins, and the dangers that lurked within, she knew it would be a long time before the Diamond Vale could be expected to share in the gardens fate. Looking over her shoulder at her husband, she saw him lying in their shared bed in convalescence. When he returned her loving gaze with a hardened flinty look, she sighed.

Just like their city, her husband would take some time to be restored to his former self. Her soul wanted to reach out to his and become one, making him truly understand the depth of her feelings for him. But she knew until he was ready, that could never be. Turning away from him with an aching heart, she prepared to perform her duty so that her sister might perform hers.

Unfurling her wings to reveal her gorgeous blue plumage, she focused her magic into her horn, and began communing with her native element. Rising into the air, she felt the power and majesty of the Lunar Domain flowing through her. The moon had been standing as a sentinel and guarding the night sky, and knew that its sibling was coming to relieve it soon. Calling out to it, Luna beckoned it to set, so it might rest and be prepared to stand as guardian for the upcoming night.

As the moon set, she felt her sister’s magic crossing paths with hers. Though they hadn’t left on the best of terms, she found herself missing her sister greatly. A small part of her nearly wished they had both married the Slave King, so there would be no need to be separated like this. But then she remembered the events of last night, and hardened her heart. Though he was her husband, he despised her, and steadfastly refused all her affections. However, he seemed to have no issue accepting her sister’s. Remembering the voice’s taunts, she scowled. Shooting her husband a dirty look, she took a deep breath, and silently vowed by the moot that he would have eyes only for her, or so help him.

Trotting over to their bed, she looked down at his weak form and smiled. “Husband,” she sweetly said. “Our duty has been fulfilled, as thou hast counseled us. Even now our sister sees to the sun. Come, beloved, let us greet the day together.”

“Very well, wife,” the Slave King agreed, sighing deeply as he struggled to get up. Silently cursing his hamstrung condition, he struggled to reach the communication gem affixed to the wall besides his bed.

Seeing what he was trying to do, Luna frowned. Using her magic, she pulled his hand away from the gem. When he shot her a questioning look, she shook her head, causing her magically billowing mane to shake. “Nay, husband,” she chided. “Didst thou so soon forget our oath to thee? We shall be thy helpmeet in this, and all other things. None other shalt touch thee.”

Growling that his normal routine was being thwarted by his wife’s meddling, he narrowed his eyes defiantly at her. “You’re putting my servants out of a job,” he said in the surliest manner possible, in hopes of dissuading her from any further attempts at meddling in his affairs.

“Then we suggest, husband, that thou assign our servants other divers tasks,” she patronizingly replied, letting him know she had no intentions of ever leaving his side until she was satisfied he was fully recovered.

“Woman, you try my patience,” he seethed, furious that there was nothing he could do against her playing as his nursemaid.

When she heard his complaint, she snorted indignantly. How dare he treat us like this! she thought to herself. Without us, he wouldst have perished.

What’s this, Luna? the ever familiar voice asked. Trouble in paradise?

Begone, deceiver! We hast no desire to speaketh with the likes of thee, she shouted, having little patience to deal with both her husband’s rudeness and the voice’s lies.

Now, now, Luna, the voice said, dripping with false sincerity. That’s no way to treat an old friend, now is it?

Leave us, we have nothing we wish to discuss with thee, she replied, refusing to entertain the voice’s desire for idle conversation which would most likely be slanderous against herself. We possess no desire to listen to thy wicked tongue.

Luna, you wound me with these accusations, the voice said with false sincerity. My only desire is to aid you in your quest to gain your husband’s affections.

Liar! she snarled, remembering how it had so cruelly mocked her last night. Thou only wish to sow hate and mistrust, and reap misery and despair.

But didn’t I push you towards the Slave King in the beginning? the voice countered. If you had had your way, you would’ve had nothing to do with him.

When she heard its counterargument, she was unable to deny the validity of its words. It was true, originally she felt her husband was nothing more than a petty tyrant. And if she had held the clout necessary, would’ve sought his removal from the pantheon. But something had changed within her, and for some inexplicable reason found herself drawn to him. And in the end, her initial attraction had changed from intrigue to love.

Thou speaketh true, she hesitantly admitted. But speaking one truth, dost not negate thy other wicked lies.

And didn’t I show you the path to victory over Lady Minoa, it continued, offering her a brief glimpse of their prior battle when she tasted the full power that the Domain of Shadows offered her.

We… that is, Luna said, stumbling over her words as she tried unsuccessfully discounting what the voice had said.

Lost your tongue, eh, Princess? the voice mockingly derided her. Face it, I’m the only friend you’ll ever have, the only one who’ll ever care about you.

Tis a falsehood! she shouted, unwilling to accept the voice’s argument. Our sister loves us, and our husband cares for us, though he knows not how to express it. Why else would he have aided us during the contest, or allowed us the chance to prove our innocence?

You foal! the voice hissed. Celestia’s simply using you to control the Slave King, and he would rid himself of you if he could.

When she heard the voice’s final slander against her sister and husband, the seeds of doubt and uncertainty found purchase within her heart. We hast nothing further to say to thee, deceiver, she said, desperate to end the conversation which was bringing her such heartache. We say to thee, take thy serpentine tongue and leap into the Pit!

Very well, Luna, I’ll take my leave of you… For now, the voice said with a dark chuckle. So go, fulfill your sister’s purpose, and serve your ungrateful husband. We’ll continue this conversation later.

Hearing the voice’s final taunt, Luna released a silent scream in her mind. Breathing heavily, and feeling enraged by her persecutor, she looked at the Slave King and wondered what if the voice had been speaking the truth? But then she remembered, her sister’s warm smile and was reassured that her sister did love her, no matter what the voice said. And as far as the Slave King was concerned, she was convinced she only needed to be patient with him, and her longsuffering would be rewarded when he would finally return her heartfelt affections.

Finally free from the voice’s distraction, she approached their shared bed to assist her husband, who was struggling to sit up. “Come, husband,” she said, with a voice that belied her earlier anger and frustration towards his rude and surly behavior. “Allow us to assist you in getting ready for the day.”

The Slave King gripped the silken sheets tightly, as he stubbornly attempted his quest to get out of the bed on his own power. After his ninth attempt and failure, he rested his head against the headboard, and sighed in frustration. “Very well, wife,” he said, looking up at the ceiling in defeat. “Do as you will.”

Pleased that he was no longer fighting her attempts to serve him, Luna beamed a wide smile at her husband, and stamped her hooves in excitement. “Oh, beloved, this shalt be such delightful fun,” she giggled.

When he heard her exuberance, he frowned. Somehow he knew he was going to regret this. “Wife, you’ll find my clothing in the wardrobe,” he instructed, motioning with his head towards a large intricately carved stone dresser. “Inside you’ll find my usual attire.”

Trotting over towards the wardrobe, Luna opened the stone doors and was impressed by the skill and workponyship of its creation. She could tell great care had gone into its manufacture. In fact, when she examined the rest of the furniture in the room, she noticed that similar care had gone into each of the stone pieces.

Noticing his wife’s interest in the wardrobe, the Slave King nodded thoughtfully. “Wife,” he said. “Do you like it?”

Turning towards him to reply, she nodded once and smiled. “Verily, husband,” she said, studying the intricate designs that had been carved into its surface. “We must applaud the stone carver for their skill.”

“I made it, and the other pieces you see,” he said, neither bragging nor boasting. “If you like, I’d be happy to make one for you as well.”

When she heard his unsolicited offer, her heart swelled with joy. Perhaps he was warming up to her already. “Verily, husband,” she said, trying to hide her happiness. “We wouldst be honored to accept thy gift.”

“Though I’ll need to get out of bed first,” he said, offering her a mild rebuke for making him wait for his pants.

“Of course, beloved,” Luna said, returning her attention towards his clothes. When she picked up each article of clothing and examined it with her magic, she frowned at how plain and even threadbare most of them were. Surely he didn’t expect her to allow him to dress as a pauper or vagabond. “Husband, we art somewhat concerned by the condition of thy raiment.”

“Oh, and why is that?” he asked, giving her his undivided attention. “Did the moths manage to finally devour all my clothes?”

“Nay,” she said, levitating several pairs of pants towards him, each more threadbare than the last. “The condition of thy pantaloons is deplorable, and thy tunics have assuredly seen better days.”

“They serve their purpose, wife,” the Slave King said, arching his brow at her disapproval of his choice of fashion. “Come, just pick something and help me get dressed.”

Frowning in displeasure, she selected the least tattered shirt and trousers, and levitated them to the bed. Silently she vowed, that with the fashionista Ringing Bells for help, her husband would shine like the moon. Using her magic, she removed the sheets from their bed and levitated him up off it. Now floating freely, she approached him and gazed appreciatively at his pale skin and hardened muscled body. She still remembered how he’d lustily gazed at her on their wedding night, and lamented that his foul curse had prevented her from enjoying that which was hers by right.

Looking at him slyly, she began removing his clothing with her mouth. “Husband,” she said, flicking her tail as she blushed with desire. “Dost thou desireth to take liberties with us? If so, allow us to serve thee properly.”

The Slave King glowered at her. What was she thinking? Why the blazes would she think he had the slightest desire towards her, after what had happened between them? “I only wish to get dressed, and then enjoy my breakfast,” he coldly said, caring little that his words of rejection pained her heart.

Disappointed that he’d rejected her advances, she used her magic to finish undressing and then clothing him for the day. Looking at him dressed in his tattered and well-worn clothes, she wondered, Could this possibly be the same stallion we married? Biting her lip, she remembered how splendid he looked in his finery, and wished he looked as good now. Levitating her husband’s cloak, she examined the pelt that had once belonged to the previous lord of earth.

Lord Darkpaw had been a fierce hound, and even her mate for a time, back in the first age of ponies. Now she found it surreal, dressing her current husband in her former husband’s skin. Draping the pelt across his broad shoulders, and connecting its clasp to the hook, she gave it a slight tug, ensuring it wouldn’t fall.

For his part, when the Slave King felt the cloak resting on his shoulders, he felt more like himself than he’d ever felt in more than a century. There was something invigorating about it, which made him feel alive and powerful. And now there was only one thing left to make him complete, his iron crown. The crown, more a helmet than anything else, was made from a mix of arcanum and iron ore, and was the very symbol of his power and authority as the sovereign of the Domain of Earth. Often times those who beheld it, even those among his own subjects, trembled with fear. For those who crossed him, usually met with a terrible fate. But of late, he’d grown somewhat weary of being so feared, and often yearned to rule with a lighter touch.

Seeing Luna struggling to levitate his crown, he lightly chuckled. “Wife,” he said, his burning emerald eyes flashing with mischief. “My crown is absorbing your magic. I suggest levitating the iron inside instead. The arcanum will have no choice but to follow.”

Nodding once, she used her magic to locate only the iron within the crown. But because the earth was not her native element, she found it somewhat difficult to do.

Seeing her struggle, the Slave King reached out with his magic and mingled it with hers. “Wife, allow me to assist you,” he said, as his magically burning eyes flared with power.

As she felt his magic mingling with hers, she found his cold distant heart suddenly within her reach. Reaching out with her own magic, she poured hers into him, allowing him to feel the love and devotion she held for him. Their divinity now combined as one, she easily found the iron in his crown, and together, they levitated the crown, and placed it on his head.

Now fully dressed, both Luna and the Slave King no longer needed to mingle their magic. However, neither moved to withdraw from the other. They looked at each other, neither wishing to speak, lest the moment be lost forever to the aether, and yet their shared silence spoke volumes.

Finally breaking the silence, Luna offered him a warm smile. “Husband,” she said, with a light blush, wishing she could be even closer to him.

“Wife,” he replied, grateful that his crown hid his flushed face from her.

“Come, beloved, let us eat,” she said, gentling lifting him onto her back with her magic.

“Wife,” he said, suddenly feeling self-conscience about riding her like some common animal. “It’s unseemly riding you like a land wyrm going to war. I have servants who can carry me.”

Chuckling lightly at his concerns, she looked over her shoulder at him. “Husband, serving thee is our privilege and honor,” she said, nuzzling his leg with her muzzle. “We art not ashamed to be seen carrying thee.”

Knowing he wouldn’t win the argument, he relented and allowed her do as she willed. Exiting their bedchamber together, the couple continued sharing their magic as they headed to the kitchens to share their first of many breakfasts together.

*****

Carefully poking his head out from the cloud he was hiding in, he scanned the skies for the telltale signs of his griffin pursuers. He hoped that his white coat would help hide him from their sharp eyes. He just prayed that his yellow mane and tail wouldn’t give away his position. Poking his head down through the cloud, he scanned the landscape with his sapphire eyes looking for a good place to hide if he was somehow discovered. Suddenly he felt his right ear twitching like mad, without a second thought, he leapt off the cloud and plummeted like a rock to the earth below. Not seconds later, the cloud exploded in a puff of white, as two furious griffins dive bombed into it.

Looking up, he saw the annoyed griffins pumping their wings as they prepared to dive towards him once more. With a wry grin, he unfurled his wings and spun, trying to control his descent. Behind him, he heard their angry cries as they prepared for the kill. Once more his ear twitched, and he knew what that meant. Opening his wings fully, he was catapulted up, as his wings caught air. To either side of him, he felt his pursuers rush past him in a blur of fur and feathers, as he gained the upper hoof.

Looking at the brand superimposed over his cutie mark, he realized traveling this deep into griffin territory had been a mistake, one that had just nearly cost him his life. The brand he wore was of a pair of large jaws biting down on a gem, surrounded by broken chains. The brand, which marked him as a free citizen of the Domain of Earth, was universally feared and hated by most of the denizens of the other various domains. Because those who wore the citizen’s brand usually participated in the slave trade, few outside the Domain of Earth would have anything to do with anypony who bore one.

Although he’d taken steps to hide his brand, ponies were still looked down upon by the griffins of the Domain of Air. And all it had taken was an innocuous slip of his tongue when ordering a drink from the tavern he’d been visiting, for the griffins to take exception to his presence. Unfortunately for him, the altercation had escalated beyond words, into blows, and quickly devolved into a full on brawl, which had revealed him to be a free citizen of the South, and their sworn blood enemy.

But none of that mattered now, all that mattered was somehow surviving this encounter, and hopefully living to see another day. Turning away from his brand, he fell back on the familiar. Being militarily trained, he knew that in aerial combat, victory usually went to the one with the higher altitude. With only seconds to make a decision, he studied his foes. The first was much larger than his companion, with a much larger wing span and hooked beak. He possessed grey and black plumage, owned a slate colored pelt, and judging by his muscles, would easily overpower him in a straight up fight. While his companion was decidedly more feminine, had silvery streamlined wings and a tawny coat, and was the smaller of the two. And though she was nearly half the other’s size, judging by her wings, she was the more skilled flyer.

Feeling his heart beating heavily in his chest, he activated the latent magic in his arcanum shod hooves, releasing sharp spikes, and made his choice. Pulling his wings to his sides, the pegasus dropped like a stone at the unwitting griffins below. Moments later, he felt his sharp hooves digging deeply into unprotected griffin flesh. With a cry of pain and surprise, the griffiness’s wings flailed about helplessly as they both plummeted to the unforgiving ground beneath them.

The other griffin, seeing his companion’s distress, reached out a talon in concern for her. Looking up, the pegasus could see his fear and anger towards him reflected in their large golden eyes. Knowing that this was his chance to escape, he dug his hooves deeper into the griffiness for good measure, breaking her delicate bones and rending her flesh, as she shrieked in agony from his assault. Opening his wings, he felt himself forcibly ripped away from his victim, sending blood and feathers flying everywhere.

Narrowly missing hitting her compatriot, he saw the griffin give him one last hate filled look as he tried reaching the griffiness before her body was dashed upon the stony earth beneath them. Pumping his wings as hard as he could, he frantically searched for someplace where he could lose the other griffin. Far in the distance, he saw exactly what he needed, a dense thicket of thorns. Ignoring the cries of fury echoing from behind him, he tucked in his wings, and shot towards the safety of the thicket like an arrow.

As he drew closer towards the thorny forest, he altered his trajectory, hoping to achieve a vector that would allow him to navigate unmolested through the tight space between the tangles of thick thorns. Behind him in the distance, he heard a screeching cry of fury, signaling that his pursuer was resuming the chase. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as he pumped his wings as hard as he could, hoping to reach the thicket before the griffin could reach him.

Not daring to look behind him, he felt his heart pound and senses heighten, as adrenaline surged through his veins. He felt the wind rushing through his mane and pull at his tail, imagining it to be the cruel talons of the griffin behind him. Beating his wings even harder, his eyes began to tear up and burn as he searched in desperation for an opening big enough to accommodate himself, but small enough to deny passage to the griffin who was in hot pursuit.

Spying an opening in the thicket’s thorny canopy, he studied it for a moment before committing himself to a new flight path. The opening was scarcely bigger than himself, and would require that he navigate through dozens of razor sharp thorns and a tangle of choking vines. Any of which would spell his demise. Tilting his wings, and spreading his feathers, he banked sharply to the north before entering a sharp dive into the waiting thorns, to either his salvation or doom.

Feeling a slight tingle in his hooves as his right ear twitched, he twisted his wings slightly and entered a roll, right as he felt himself being grazed by a pair of powerful talons. Without missing a beat, he adjusted his angle of descent once more, hoping to shoot right through the middle of the waiting opening. A frustrated cry pierced the air behind him, nearly stopping his heart. However he steeled himself, and drove back the fear that threatened to petrify him. Instead, choosing to use it to push himself even harder.

He could see the safety of the thicket clearly now. Though his eyes weren’t nearly as sharp as a griffin’s, he could clearly make out the many thorns that waited for him below. They jutted out of the opening like the maw of some wild beast, just waiting to feed on the succulent flesh of anypony who was foolish enough to approach it. His mouth, like his eyes, felt dry and parched. He knew he would have only one opportunity, if he failed, all he had to look forward to if he was lucky was being mortally wounded by thorny perforation, and if he was unlucky, being torn to pieces by an angry griffin.

Drawing ever closer to the thicket, his senses heightened even further. He felt the wind pulling at his feathers, and smelled the bitter scent of the flowering spines and thistles of the thicket wafting past his nose as he dove towards it. It seemed as if eternity passed between the beats of his heart, while the threatening thorns waited to greet him and the griffin’s talons promising to end him. Feeling tiny pin pricks crawling up his left-rear leg, he twisted his wings once more, and spun counterclockwise. Once again, he felt the griffin’s talons grazing his flesh.

Now nearly three lengths away from the thicket, he tried correcting his descent before he ended up crashing into the waiting thorns. Angling his wings, he righted himself, and entered the small opening between the thicket’s sharp thorns, before narrowly missing being impaled by a large jutting spine. All around him, thorns and spines threatened to end him if he veered even a hair breadth off the correct path. He felt a slight tickle along his belly, and tucked his legs against himself as tightly as he could. When he felt the razor sharp thorns raking against his hind legs, he winced. Which, all things considered, could have been much worse had he failed to raise his legs in time.

The deeper he flew into the thicket, the darker it became, and soon he had to rely solely on the various twitches, flops, and tickles that served as a sort of sixth sense for him. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes, hoped for the best, and followed his itching nose. Like a piece of thread through the eye of a needle, he flew through the deadly thicket, unscathed for the most part. Only when he failed to react fast enough to his body’s direction, did he suffer any harm.

He felt his tail shake, and left eye start twitching. Immediately, he flared out his wings, causing him to nearly be perpendicular to the ground beneath him. Pushing out his legs as hard he could, he felt his arcanum shod hooves slam hard into a bramble nearly as thick as a large oak tree. Flapping his wings a few times to stabilize himself, he looked up at the dark canopy overhead, before gazing down at the ground, a few lengths beneath him. Retracting the metal spikes back into his horseshoes, he freed himself from the thick bramble, and landed gently on the thicket floor.

Now finally able to catch his breath, he felt his flesh feel as if it were on fire. Turning his head, he saw that he had many cuts and gashes all around his flanks and barrel. Softly moaning in pain, he reached out with his hoof to examine the extent of his wounds, and grimaced when he saw it stained crimson with his own blood. Reaching into his saddlebag to retrieve some water and the meager medical kit he always carried, he silently cursed when he discovered the hole torn inside it. Fortunately, his canteen was larger than the hole and had managed to stay inside his saddlebag. Taking a small sip of water, he poured a liberal amount of it on his wounds in order to clean them. Hissing through his teeth in pain, he involuntarily flinched away, as the sensation of the cool water against his wounded flesh stung like the Pit and Hades combined.

By the Pit, Bucky! he said to himself, desperately wishing he had something to take the edge off his pain. That sure stings like the lash.

Looking at his surroundings, he found that he had trouble seeing more than a length in front of him. Returning to his saddlebags, he rummaged through them looking for anything he could use for light. But unfortunately, like the medical kit, the magic lantern he’d had, was also missing. The only thing that seemed to have survived the chase, beyond his canteen, was a large bag of bits, each baring the Slave King’s likeness. Before today, he’d always thought that beyond his freedom, nothing mattered more than money. But now bleeding, wounded, and stumbling about blind in the dark, he knew the true value of money. If given the chance, he’d have traded the entire sum, nearly fifteen hundred, for a bit of light, or some clean bandages to dress his wounds.

But then he noticed something. It was entirely too quiet. Before, he’d heard birds chirping and insects buzzing. But now, all he could hear was silence. He felt his right ear twitch, and knew he was being stalked by the griffin. Looking at his surroundings, he searched desperately for a means to escape. He thought that he might try flying away, but he was too weak and tired, and his wings refused to move. Preparing to defend himself from an invisible enemy that could attack from anywhere, he backed up against a large bramble to protect his back.

When his back hit the bramble, he looked behind him and spied an opening big enough for him to wriggle through. Giving his surroundings a quick look, he pushed against the bramble in an effort to get through. Gritting his teeth in pain as the thorns scratched his wounds and caught on his coat, he felt himself moving forward, until he finally broke free. Not wanting to face his griffin pursuer, he ran as fast as his weak and exhausted constitution allowed him to.

Pushing his weakened body as hard as he could, he galloped blindly through the dense underbrush of the thicket trying to escape. In the distance he could hear the rustling of leaves and twigs snapping, as the much larger griffin pursued him through the dark thicket. Exhausted and winded, he knew that if he didn’t keep moving he wouldn’t survive. Ignoring the brambles that were catching and pulling on his mane and tail, he charged through the thorny underbrush without any regard for the pain he was feeling.

After running for several minutes, he no longer heard his griffin pursuer behind him. Swiveling his ears back and forth, he paused for a minute to catch his breath and see if he’d finally lost him. Unable to hear anything moving, he sighed with relief, finally he was safe. Looking at his surroundings, he noticed it was much easier to see in the clearing that he’d found himself in. Smelling the air in case his ears were deceiving him, he was relieved when he only smelt the bitter scent of the briar thicket and himself.

Examining the thicket, he saw that almost every bramble was nearly as large as a full grown tree, and possessed thorns and spines as thick as, or thicker than his foreleg. Looking up at the canopy overhead, he tried determining which way was north to help orient himself. Suddenly his right ear began twitching once more.

“Oh no, not again,” he muttered under his breath, as he rushed towards the middle of the clearing.

Before he’d managed to move three lengths, a large dark shape smashed into the ground where he’d been resting at. Turning to confront his stalker, he narrowed his eyes, dug his hooves into the rocky soil, and prepared to defend himself. Peering into the shadows, all he could see was a vague, dark shape breathing heavily. Inhaling deeply through his nostrils, he caught the scent of feathers, blood, and anger. Knowing that he didn’t have much time, he slowly backed away from the large dark shape, as he searched for an escape route.

Through the shadows and poor lighting, he saw the dark shape of his stalker take a step forward. Digging his hooves lightly into the unyielding soil, he shook his mane once as he prepared to defend himself. When the shadowy form took another step forward, he sucked in his breath through his teeth, making a slight hiss. Feeling his heart pounding in his chest, he knew he was no match for the much larger creature. Pound for pound, they outweighed him nearly three-to-one, and had talons besides. There was no way he could win.

Perhaps he’s weakened and bloodied from the forest like me, he thought, as he activated the spikes in his horseshoes.

“Slaver scum,” a rough guttural voice accused.

Feeling his aching wings threatening to flare out in fear, he stomped his hooves a few times to buoy his courage. Peering into the shadows, he saw a pair of golden eyes opening into slits, staring back at him. Slowly backing away from his accuser, he kept his eyes peeled as he looked for a means to escape.

“Thanks to you, pony, she’ll probably never fly again,” they growled in a low even tone, suggesting unbridled rage was simmering right beneath the surface and was just waiting for the slightest provocation to be unleashed. “Not that you care, slaver.”

“Who’ll never fly again?” he asked, trying to buy himself some time.

“You know damn well who!” the voice roared, from the approaching shadow, allowing the light filtering through the canopy to flash against their strong, sharp beak.

“Oh,” he replied, thinking back to their griffin companion. He could still see the abject terror and pain etched into her face, when he’d sent her plummeting to her doom. “I take it she survived?”

“Oh, just barely,” they replied, raking their talons against a nearby bramble, leaving three deep gashes that began weeping sap.

“I’m glad to hear that,” he said, spying a narrow space between two large gnarled brambles. Backing up towards it, he nearly jumped when one of his hooves broke a branch, making a large snap.

“I’m going to do to you, what you did to her,” the voice said, coming ever closer.

By now, they were close enough that he could see their grey and black plumage illuminated by the dim light of the thicket. Looking at them, he could nearly feel the griffin’s fury as they took another few steps towards him.

“Perhaps if you took your friend to the nearest town, she might be all right,” he offered, moving towards his planned escape, and hopefully salvation.

“She’s my sister!” the griffin roared, swiping his talon against some low hanging vines that were in his way, neatly cleaving them in twain.

“Well, all the more reason for you to get her to a healer,” he replied, glancing towards the narrow gap, and calculating how much time he’d have before the griffin could reach him.

“No,” the griffin said, shaking his head. “The nearest town is leagues away, slaver scum. She’d never make it in time.”

“Hey look,” he said, preparing to make his escape. “I’m sorry about your sister. Truly I am. But you attacked me first. I had to defend myself.”

When the griffin heard his words, he tilted his head slightly, and offered him an incredulous look, suggesting that he’d taken great offense at his excuse. “Spare me your lies, pony,” he said, grinding his teeth together.

“No, it’s true. I swear it!” he exclaimed, taking another few steps towards freedom.

“I wonder how many others you fooled and enslaved with your lies, pony?” the griffin asked, running his tongue against his beak in anticipation of the kill.

He was about to protest his innocence, but then thought back to the reindeer battlemage he’d sold to the Slave King, and remained silent.

“Your silence is telling, slaver scum,” the griffin said, tightening their muscles and preparing to pounce on their prey. “I’ll make you pay for hurting my sister, and for our mother.”

Breathing heavily, he moved within five lengths of the gap. Knowing he needed to keep the griffin talking, he nervously bit his lip, took a deep breath, and hoped they would take the bait. “What happened to your mother?” he asked, hoping they would choose to answer rather than attack in rage.

“Shut your mouth, you damn slaving monster!” the griffin roared, furious that he’d dared to speak of her. “She was taken away by a bunch of no good pony slavers, just like you.”

That’s right, he thought, stealing another glance at the gap that was now within spitting distance. Keep talking, griffin.

“I figure once you’re dead, pony,” he said with a vindictive smile. “There will be one less feather stealing, slaver scum for my people to worry about.”

Deciding that it was now or never, he steeled himself and prepared to make his getaway. “It’s a shame that you failed to protect your sister, like your mother, griffin,” he taunted, hoping to send him into a rage and making him lose all control, as he dashed towards the narrow gap that promised his escape.

As soon as he heard him speak, the griffin released a primal scream of fury, and leapt at the fully prepared pegasus. Scrambling for the gap, he pushed past the thorns without a second thought, as the much larger griffin slammed into the thick and twisted brambles. Scrambling through the gap, he heard the griffin’s screams of rage, as the brambles denied him entry.

“I’ll kill you, pony!” the griffin cried out, making sure his blood oath reached the ears of his prey. “I swear by the first egg, and on my ancestor’s honor, you will die by my talons.”

Normally, he might’ve been tempted to taunt them further, but he was much too exhausted and tired to make the effort. Besides, he’d heard it was bad luck to mock an oath maker who had invoked their ancestors. Moving away from the furious griffin and deeper into the thorn choked thicket, he searched for a safe place to rest and recover.

After walking for about fifteen minutes, he heard a familiar sound. Tilting his ears, to confirm his suspicions, he inhaled deeply through his nose, and smiled. It was unmistakable, he’d found a source of running water. And if his nose wasn’t lying to him, he’d also found some berry baring bushes.

Inwardly cheering at his good fortune, he walked towards the stream so he could drink and eat his fill, tend to his bleeding wounds, and finally get some rest. The smell of the berries filling his nose and the sound of the running water gave him renewed strength. He’d felt so weak before, but now he was filled with a sense of hope, that everything would be all right.

The stream and berry bushes were in view now. He could already taste the cool refreshing water on his parched tongue, and taste the sweet berries filling up his stomach. He simply needed to go a bit further, and then everything would be fine. Reaching the stream, he prepared to lower his head to slate his thirst, but then felt his right ear beginning to twitch.

Freezing in place, and only a hairbreadth away from satisfying his great thirst, he looked at the tempting water and sighed. Backing away from the stream, he looked at his surroundings cautiously, trying to determine where the griffin stalking him was hiding at.

“Um, hello,” he heard somepony say, with a slightly high pitched feminine voice.

Not seeing anypony, he looked around confusedly for the source of the voice.

“Ah, down here, traveler,” he heard the voice say.

“Excuse me?” he asked, not sure who it was he addressing, and not altogether sure he hadn’t lost his mind yet from thirst and hunger.

“Down here, in the lotus berry bush,” the voice replied.

Looking down at the bushes near his hooves, all he saw were presumably lotus berries and large white flowers. Moving his muzzle closer to the lotus berry blossoms, he inhaled their scent once, and finding it sweet, opened his mouth to eat a few.

“Ah, stop! Please don’t eat me!” he heard the voice shriek in terror from inside his mouth.

Opening his mouth, he spit out the sweet tasting flower, and saw to his amazement, a tiny yellow pony with gossamer wings looking angrily up at him.

“Hey!” the tiny creature demanded, clearly put out by having been nearly eaten by him. “What the hay do you think you were trying to do?”

Taken aback by the tiny pony, he didn’t know quite what to say. “My apologies,” he said, after giving it some thought. “I didn’t mean to eat your house. I was just trying to get something to eat.”

The tiny creature, still wringing out his saliva from her purple mane gave him a sour look. “I’ll have you know, I don’t live in a bush,” she indignantly said, feeling slighted that he’s assumed she lived in the wilds like some uncivilized brute. “I live in one of the most renowned and celebrated ziggurats in all of Autumn.”

Relieved that the only thing he had to worry about was a pony small enough to fit inside a teacup, he began satisfying his parched tongue and empty belly. “So… uh, whatever you are,” he said, in between mouthfuls of flowers and berries. “Do you happen to know the quickest path out of this thicket, and where the nearest nongriffin settlement is?”

“How dare you!” she squeaked, annoyed by his ill-manners and lack of proper decorum for a lady of her standing. “It’s rude to make demands of somepony you just met, without introducing yourself first.”

Deciding he could ill-afford to offend the first non-aggressive creature he’d seen all day, he decided to humor her. Finishing his meal, he flashed her a small grin. “My name is Pecan Buckeye Pie,” he said, with a slight bow. “But you can call me Bucky, all my friends do.”

The tiny pony gave him an appraising look, as she hovered in front of him. Nodding once, she landed lightly on his muzzle, placed her front hooves together, and bowed her head. “Welcome traveler, I am Glitterwing, apprentice to the great kirin sage, Zhange,” she said, before opening her wings once more and gently taking off into the air. Flittering around him, she took stock of her new acquaintance. When she noticed how bad his wounds looked, her muzzle became ashen. “Oh dear, you’re wounded quite badly.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, trying unsuccessfully to open his wings, so he could inspect them for damage. “I ran into a pair of griffins, each of which seemed to have a grudge against me.”

Glitterwing nodded understandingly, as she ran her tiny hooves along his body, trying to see the extent of his injuries. “Oh dear, I’m surprised you're even still conscious, let alone standing,” she remarked, when she noted how much blood he’d seeming lost.

“Tell me about it,” he said, wincing as she began removing several thorns from his barrel. “And the worst part is, during the chase I lost my medical kit.”

“Don’t worry, traveler,” she said, flying into the lotus berry bush. “I have some pear wine we can use to disinfect your wounds, and I know where some herbs grow that we can use to treat them as well.”

“Ah, thank you, Glitterwing,” he said, laying down on his weary legs.

“Just rest,” she told him, offering him a reassuring smile. “It’ll only take me a few minutes to gather the herbs.”

Leaning up against a nearby giant bramble, he closed his eyes, and waited for her to return.

After a few minutes had passed, he heard the bushes rustle. “Ah, back already?” he asked, yawning deeply.

Opening his eyes, he nearly had a heart attack when he saw the griffin looking at him less than half a length away. With a murderous gleam in his eye, the griffin towered over his prone form. Looking at his much larger opponent, Bucky knew there was nothing else he could do, he only hoped the griffin would spare Glitterwing. Raising his talon high over his head. Bucky’s eyes grew wide, as he looked at the three sharp talons that would shortly end his life.

“Step away from him!” he heard Glitterwing shout.

The griffin looked away from his prize in surprise at the demand, and looked back and forth trying to determine the identity of the one who would so foolishly dare interfere with his kill. “Who dares to get between a griffin and his prey?” he growled, flicking his tail back and forth in anticipation of a fight.

“No, Glitterwing,” Bucky said, too weak to save himself, but hoping to spare her from being the griffin’s next victim. “Escape while you still can!”

“I do, you uncivilized brute!” Glitterwing said, flying out the lotus berry bush and wearing a stern look. Pausing to look at Bucky to make sure he was still okay, she hovered in front of the griffin, and folded her forelegs in front of her in challenge. “I’ll only say this once more, step away from the pegasus.”

The griffin sneered derisively at the tiny yellow pony, and laughed. “Bawahaha. What are you going to do if I don’t,” the griffin said, flashing his teeth and beak menacingly at her. “If you don’t go away small fry, I might decide to make you into a snack.”

“I’m warning you, you big oaf,” Glitterwing threatened, leveling a steely eyed glare at him. “If you don’t leave now, I’m going to have to forcibly remove you.”

“Get lost, pipsqueak,” the griffin said, flicking the tiny pony away from his face with his talons.

“Ouch!” she cried, when she roughly landed in the bushes. “That’s it, you brute! You asked for it.”

Ignoring her hollow threats, the griffin returned his attention to Bucky, trying to decide how best to kill him. Perhaps ripping him to shreds with his talons, would be best. But then there was always gutting him and ripping out his entrails. Of course, there was always the old standby, breaking the pony’s neck with his beak. With so many choices available to him, it was tough to decide.

With a malicious grin, the griffin drug one of his talons along Bucky’s barrel, drawing blood. Seeing the pegasus flinching in pain, brought a small piece of happiness to his anger filled heart. “I think, pony, I’m going enjoy this,” he said with a dark chuckle. “You however, I’m not so sure.”

Bucky just lay against the bramble, too tired to move or escape. But before the griffin could begin administering his brutal justice on the pegasus, he felt a sharp pain striking his flanks.

“Ow!” he yelped, as he rubbed his backside gingerly with his talon. Turning around, he became furious when he saw Glitterwing flying behind him, glowing, as arcane power filled her being. “I’ll get you for that, you flying rat!”

When she heard herself being compared to a disgusting rodent, she scowled angrily at him. Without another word, she released a bolt of energy at the griffin, sending him flying towards a nearby bramble.

With a cry of pain, the griffin flew high into the air and landed hard against the gnarled bramble. Winded, and in great pain, the griffin struggled to get up. Hobbling towards them, he gave the two of them a hate filled look. “This isn’t over yet, pony,” he snarled, before limping away into the dense underbrush of the thicket. Before disappearing completely into the undergrowth, he turned and glared at them one last time while running a talon across his throat.

Satisfied that the griffin had retreated for now, Glitterwing hovered above Bucky and looked at his newest wound with concern. “I’m sorry I took so long,” she apologized, pouring about a thimbles worth of wine on the gash.

Sucking in his breath sharply at the stinging sensation, he looked up at the tiny pony tending his wounds, and offered her a smile of gratitude. “Thanks,” he said, resting against the bramble. “If you hadn’t come when you did, I would’ve been a goner.”

“Well, I couldn’t just let him do whatever he wanted,” she said, pulling out a few thorns and dabbing his wounds with the sweet smelling pear wine. “Besides, that oaf should’ve know better than going hunting in Autumn as if he owned the place.”

“So how did you do it?” Bucky asked, feeling a new found respect for the diminutive mare.

“How did I do what?” she asked, preparing a poultice with the herbs she’d gathered.

“Blasting that griffin into next week,” he said, wincing as she gingerly applied the herbal salve to one of his larger gashes.

“Oh that,” she absentmindedly said, while tending to his wounds. “That was nothing special, just a rudimentary repulsion spell.”

“I only thought unicorns could use magic like that,” he said, spreading his wings so she could apply the ointment to them.

“Unicorns, ha!” she said, derisively rolling her eyes at such a ridiculous idea. “Unicorns could only dream of having the raw arcane power a flutterpony possesses.”

“So is that what you are?” he asked, curious as to what other secrets she might hold.

“Of course,” she said, slightly annoyed by such a redundant question. Flittering about him, she inspected her hooftiwork, and nodded in approval when she saw that he seemed to be patched up as well as could be had in the thicket. “So are you well enough to move?”

Standing upright, he felt his muscles ache in response. “Ugh,” he groaned, wishing he could lie back down and rest some more. “Yeah, I’ll live, Glitterwing. Just as long as I don’t have to fight anymore griffins.”

“Good,” she said, happily clopping her hooves together. “Now we can discuss the small matter of your payment for services rendered.”

“Payment…” he balked, not liking where the conversation was headed.

“Yes,” she said, poking his saddlebag once with her hoof, which made the bits inside jingle delightfully together. “I believe saving your life, and tending to your wounds entitles me to at least some form of compensation.”

Had he not been so wounded and exhausted, Bucky might have been tempted to make a break for it. Although grateful to the aid the flutterpony had rendered to him, parting with his beautiful bits left a bitter taste in his mouth. Besides, he didn’t want to risk the mare’s wrath. She’d easily dispatched the griffin, and if he tried escaping without paying her, there was no telling how she might retaliate against him.

Sighing at the injustice of it all, Bucky reached for his saddlebag to grab some bits. “Very well,” he grudgingly said, unhappy that he had to pay her.

Rubbing her hooves together in anticipation, she watched his saddlebag like a hawk, wondering exactly how many bits he was carrying on him. As he worked on untying the strap that held the saddlebags closed, they shifted forward, allowing her to get a good look at the brand burned into his flesh. Though she knew very little about pony cutie marks, she immediately recognized the mark he carried, and what it represented.

The Slave King, she murmured to herself, as her eyes traced the image of a pair of large jaws biting into a gem, though she noted the absence of intact chains as being rather peculiar.

Now anypony who was worth their salt as a scholar, knew the various marks of the gods that made up the Pantheon. For example, Princess Celestia’s was a stylized sun, and Princess Luna’s was the moon, each representing the celestial body they controlled. Lord Triton had a trident over an unrolled scroll, and Lord Ouroboros used a dragon skull wreathed in flames. Not only were their divine symbols used to mark their various territories, they were also used in their heraldry and seals. As for the Slave King, sure enough Bucky carried his mark, but with one important difference… the chains. The chains were broken. What significance this held, Glitterwing didn’t know, but she intended to find out.

Hovering in front of his muzzle, she looked him straight in the eye. “So, Bucky,” she said, pointing a tiny hoof accusingly at him. “Tell me, when did you intend on telling me you were from the Domain of Earth?”

“Damn it,” he swore under his breath. Though she didn’t strike him as somepony who would attack him for simply being from the South, he knew that any further aid she might have been willing to render him, was now forfeit. “So what gave me away?”

“Well it wasn’t too difficult to piece together,” she said, wearing a slightly smug grin. “Why else would a griffin chase you all the way in here? Besides, you bare the Slave King’s mark.”

“Look,” he sighed in resignation, wishing his former status as a slave would stop haunting him. “Just tell me how much I owe you for your help, point me in the direction of the nearest town, and I’ll be on my way.”

When she heard his request, she shook her head slightly, causing her purple mane to fall in front of her eyes. Brushing it away with her magic, she gave him a careful look. “Perhaps we can come to an arrangement,” she said, looking thoughtfully at the brand scarring his flank.

Realizing he was dealing with a scholar, he felt relieved that his bits were safe for now, but wondered why she seemed so interested in the South. “Okay, Glitterwing. I’m listening,” he said, wondering exactly what he was getting himself into.

“So tell me, Bucky,” she said, her greed for knowledge displayed as plainly as the muzzle on her face. “What can you tell me about the Slave King?”

“Well what I do know, might take a while to tell,” he replied, hoping to milk his info into a hot meal and warm bed.

“Alright, I’ll take you to the ziggurat,” Glitterwing said, flying towards the lotus berry bushes to gather her things. “Though we’d better leave now, if we want to arrive before nightfall. It’s a good hour away by hoof.”

Bucky started walking towards her, but then caught sight of the leftover herbal ointment she’d made for him. Feeling his bruised and battered body’s aches and pains, he made his decision. Although he might regret it later, he knew what needed to be done.

“Hey, Glitterwing?” he asked his new friend. “Can we make a small detour first?”

*****

It was almost dark now, and he was sure she’d perished by now. What was supposed to only be a twenty minute errand, had turned into an all day excursion. And now not only was his sister dead, unless he managed to get some food and shelter soon, he’d most likely be following her to the grave as well. If only he’d been better prepared to take his revenge, instead of gloating like a fool. That pegasus had played him, and now he was in dire straits indeed.

The nearest griffin settlement was nearly an hour’s flight away. How long by paw, he had no idea, but knew in his weakened condition it could possibly take him weeks to reach it. Where did it all go wrong? he wondered, limping towards where he’d left his sister behind. Though he’d wanted to stay by her side, she’d demanded that he go and avenge her honor. She’d been defeated by a much weaker opponent, and couldn’t bear the shame. Though it was fair to say, that they’d both been bested by that damn pegasus.

That pony! he growled to himself. Though he’d most likely die from hunger out here in the wilds before reaching civilization, he fully intended seeking vengeance against him. Though not only for his dead sister, but for himself, and their mother as well, may the Maelstrom watch over her in the Summerlands. But these days, he didn’t know what use it was to pray to her for her protection. The days where Lady Zephyr protected her griffins from those foul slavers was long past.

Limping along the broken uneven terrain of the Highlands of Autumn, he wondered how things had ever come to this. Their people had once been respected by the other races for their great strength, and feared for their ferocity in battle. But now? Now ponies trespassed on griffin lands with impunity, and unicorn’s with their damned magic took whoever they wanted. And the worst thing was they couldn’t even retaliate. Lady Zephyr had forbade any griffin from laying waste to the pony settlements along their border and the numerous caravans that traveled through their domain.

Spying the meadow where his sister had fallen, and in all likelihood had perished. He lowered his head in shame for his failure to his kin, as he prepared himself to attend to her body. Though he hadn’t the strength to make a bonfire a top a peak as was the custom of their people, he’d make sure she was at least properly buried, before making the long trek to either civilization or his own lonely grave.

As he approached her, he wondered what she must think of him. Here he’d failed her last request, and now beaten and defeated, all he could do is bury her beneath the sod like a pony. Looking for the marker he’d left behind before pursuing after the pegasus, he sighed when he saw the familiar rocky outcropping near where she’d plummeted, marking the site like a gravestone. Drawing closer to where he’d left her, he was surprised to smell smoke lingering in the air.

Tilting his head back and forth to get a fix on its location, he sniffed the air gingerly, while slowly creeping towards where he’d left his sister behind. Crouched low to the ground and creeping through the tall grass of the veldt, he saw greyish smoke wafting up through the air. Narrowing his eyes in anger, he emitted a low growl. Somefeather was desecrating his sister’s remains, he knew it. Though wounded, he vowed that whoever it was would pay with their lives.

Moving silently through the mixture of green and yellow grasses providing his camouflage, he felt his tail twitching in anticipation of the kill. Sniffing the air, he caught a strange unfamiliar bitter scent. Skulking through the underbrush, he caught the intruder resting near a small fire. Though his eyes were normally sharp, due to the position of the sun setting to the west, and the light from the fire, it made identifying their identity problematic.

Creeping closer to them, he saw that it was a fellow griffin. Though most griffins were friendly enough with each other, it wasn’t unheard of for some of the more unsavory kind to resort to banditry. And a wounded and weakened griffin like his sister would have been easy prey. She was considered fairly beautiful, and had had numerous suitors. It didn’t take long for him to imagine the griffin bandit happening upon his sister, and having their way with her in her defenseless state.

Silently cursing himself for ever leaving her behind in such a state, and that damn pony slaver for leaving him in this deplorable condition, he prepared to ambush the bandit and make them sorry for ever laying a talon on his sister. Tensing his muscles and flexing his talons, he prepared to launch himself forward, knocking the interloper to the ground, to pin them. Then he’d beat the truth out of them.

Then he saw them move. They cocked their head in his direction, and he could see the flames of the small fire reflected in their soft blue eyes… Soft blue eyes, just like she once had. Then he caught the sight of their silvery feathers, and nearly wept when he realized who it was that was resting beside the fire.

“Sister!” he shouted from his hiding place, overjoyed that she’d somehow survived. Standing up, he rushed to her side, eager to tend to her wounds. Having forgotten his own wounds for the moment, he embraced her.

“Argh!” she screeched in pain, before smacking him with her talon. “Len, let me go, you featherbrain!”

Remembering her wounds, he gently let her go. “I’m sorry, Raine,” he said, offering her a sheepish smile in apology.

Smiling fondly at her sibling, Raine approached and rubbed up against him affectionately. “So, brother,” she said, laying back down in front of the fire. “Have you killed the pegasus and restored my honor?”

Remembering his failure back in the thicket, he lowered his head in shame. “Sister, I’m afraid I’ve failed you,” he said, turning away from her, unable to look her in the eye.

“How could this be?” she demanded, limping towards him. Grabbing his beak with her talons, she turned his head to face her. “Len, how could you lose to somefeather as weak as a pony?”

“The slaver scum, tricked me!” he protested, trying to deflect the blame for his failure.

Annoyed with her brother for having returned with empty talons, she took a good look at him and frowned when she saw his deplorable condition. Examining his many cuts and bruises, she shook her head disapprovingly. “Len, tell me, did the pegasus do this you?” she demanded.

Slowly shaking his head affirmatively, he said nothing, instead choosing to sit down by the fire. Noticing that his sister’s wounds were cleaned and dressed, and judging by the pungent bitter smell, had been treated with some kind of ointment. Surprised that she’d taken care of herself, he gave her a questioning look. “How did you tend to your wounds?” he asked, remembering how bad of shape she’d been in when he’d last seen her.

“Len, I awoke not more than an hour ago,” she said, picking up a bowl of greyish looking paste. Pouring some water on his cuts to clean them, she began applying a liberal amount of the ointment to his wounds. “Somefeather tended to me while I slept,” she explained, as he winced in pain from the stinging sensation from the astringent she was slathering on his many cuts and bruises. “They cleaned my wounds, applied this balm, and left a fire to keep me warm. They even left food and water for me.”

“So they didn’t rob you of your virtue?” he asked, remembering his earlier fears.

“No, Len,” she said, pulling on his pinfeathers slightly with her talons, eliciting a whimper of pain from her brother. Rubbing up against him once more, she hugged him briefly before returning to tending his wounds. “We owe that stranger a debt of gratitude, brother.”

“I wonder what kind of feather they are?” he wondered aloud, feeling relieved that nothing untoward had happened to the only family he had left.

“We should reward them for their nobility,” Raine said, finishing up her work. Looking at her brother, who was now covered in so much ointment that he seemed like nearly a different griffin, she released a small laugh.

“But, Raine,” Len said, helping himself to the small pile of berries and nuts their benefactor had left behind. “Our clan is poor, what could we possibly offer them?”

“Well, brother,” she said, giving the small white feather left behind by the good samaritan in her talon a thoughtful look. “Neither of us is promised to another clan. And while we are poor, we can offer them titles and more.”

“But what if they’re low born?” he objected, worried about diluting their bloodline.

“They’ve saved our clan, that makes them worthy,” Raine replied, giving her brother a steely eyed gaze. “I’d gladly marry a feather like that.”

“And if they’re a hen?” he asked, not particularly caring for the direction the conversation was heading.

“You’ll marry her, and be glad to do so!” she snapped, nipping at her elder brother with her beak.

“All right, Raine, all right,” he sighed, hoping that his sister’s savior was male.

Satisfied that her brother would no longer be disagreeable about the matter, she laid down beside him to rest. “Once we’ve restored our honor against the pony who besmirched Clan Gold Dawn,” she said with a deep yawn. “We can look for the feather who aided us, and properly reward them.”

“Rest well, sister,” Len said, placing a wing protectively over her.

“You too, dear brother,” Raine replied with a dreamy smile, while clutching the white feather to her breast as she drifted off to sleep.

Illuminated by the remnants of the slowly dying fire and resting on the tramped down grass of the Highlands of Autumn, was the small pot containing the remainder of the bitter smelling ointment. Hidden beneath the pot, and nearly obscured from view by the tall grass of the veldt, were a few forgotten white feathers and a single half-formed hoofprint.

Author's Note:

Thank you gentlereader for reading chapter 1 of The Book of Water: The Heart of Winter, as always comments are appreciated.

Here we find the Slave King trapped and tormented in his greatest fear, enslaved by Celestia via marriage. I think it interesting that his actual marriage doesn't seem nearly as restrictive, as the one he was forced to endure in his dreams. I wonder what Celestia would think, if she knew the content of his dreams. Would she laugh at his predicament, or would she cry that he thinks so poorly of her? But perhaps the more important question is what would his wife do, should she discover the contents of his night terrors? Would she be flattered that her husband fought to stay loyal, or furious that he dreamt of other mares? And though they got off to a rocky start, it appears that the Slave King might just possess a sliver of affection towards his wife, either that, or he might only be humoring her.

And what of Bucky, we see his triumphant return to the big screen after being absent for most of the previous book. Apparently, he'd made good on his promise to see the world. It's just unfortunate that he hadn't taken Dawson's advice regarding griffins seriously, else he might have avoided the confrontation altogether. But though it was unlucky for him, it made for exciting reading. And in the end, isn't entertaining the readers all that really matters? Fortunately for the cocky young pegasus, he found a friend in Glitterwing, the young apprentice to the great and renown kirin sage, Zhange. Perhaps if he asks her nicely, the flutterpony might be wiling to read the heavens, and tell him what the future holds. And watch out, if you try to welch on her, young Glitterwing might have a word or three to say to you, either before or after she blasts you with her magic.

And what of our griffin siblings, Len and Raine? Such affectionate siblings are a rarity in this day and age, you better believe it, or Raine will sic her brother on you. But who could it be, that aided them in their time of need? Perhaps we might never know, at least I'm sure Len hopes so. But whoever it is, I'm sure Raine will pursue the owner of the white feather to offer her thanks, and talon in matrimony. Hopefully when they finally meet, they'll see eye to eye on the matter, because she doesn't strike me as the kind of girl to take no for an answer.

Find out the answers to these questions and more, in the next exciting chapter of The Book of Water: The Heart of Winter, coming soon to computer near you!

Once again, gentlereader, thank you for reading and all your kind words and support. You make writing worthwhile. Until next time!