• Published 15th Oct 2011
  • 4,440 Views, 44 Comments

Airborne - Fernin

A misnamed colt and a misplaced human Soldier find friendship despite the barriers between them.

  • ...

Chapter 4: The Road Ahead

Skydancer worked his neck awkwardly as his mother, Quartz, led him to the schoolhouse. It still hurt a bit where his father had hugged him. His blue fur was still a bit wet, too. The colt couldn’t even remember the last time he’d seen his father cry, even as the big stallion reprimanded Skydancer for making his mother worry. From the look of it, the white-furred mare hadn’t been the only worried one.

The entire experience had left Skydancer feeling more than a little guilty. His ears drooped as his mother made unnecessary adjustments to his saddlebags, straightening his school books and closing the flap again. Much to his embarrassment, she nuzzled him too, right in front of everypony. The blood rushed to his face as he blushed hotly. “M-mom!”

“Shh… Now, Skydancer, don’t go anywhere after school, okay? Your father had to go work some things out at the Mine Foremare’s office, but he’ll be back here to pick you up when your classes are done. Okay?” Quartz’s voice may have been quiet and loving, but it obviously wasn’t a request. She smiled as Skydancer nodded and gave him a quick peck on the cheek before taking ‘embarrassing mother mode’ up a notch by smoothing down his unruly mane.

Glad to escape his mother’s loving clutches, Skydancer hurried into the school just as recess was ending. He sighed in relief and unloaded his saddlebags at his desk, glad to have avoided further embarrassment. Or perhaps not. A familiar and annoying voice set the blue colt’s teeth on edge. “Wow, Skydancer, you found your desk! We thought you might have gotten lost... again.”

Skydancer took his time, taking a seat at his desk before he turned around to see Cirrus Cloud sneering at him. A few of the other ponies giggled at her remarks, even if none were brazen enough to join in. Skydancer rolled his eyes. He knew how to shut her up. “Oh hey, chicken wings.”

“You little clod of—!”

“All right, class. All right. I hope you had a good recess.” Miss Periwinkle, the schoolteacher, shut the door with a thud of finality, bringing recess to an end and interrupting a fight before it began all in one sweeping movement. The blue and yellow earth pony trotted to the front of the room, surveying her class for any further disturbance. Finding none, she smiled and opened her lesson book.

Cirrus leaned forward, bringing her light gray muzzle almost even with Skydancer’s ear. Her voice was a quiet, resentful hiss. “Earth pony.

“Uh, yeah. Duh…” Skydancer whispered back. The stupid pegasus must be running out of ideas if that was the best she could come up with.

Cirrus Cloud seemed to read the blue colt’s thoughts. “Yeah. That’s insult enough.”

“Yeah? Well—” Skydancer struggled to find the right retort. Somehow ‘yeah and I think you might be right’ didn’t have the right ring to it.

Fortunately, Miss Periwinkle rescued Skydancer from his dilemma. “Skydancer. Since you’re just joining us today and seem so eager to talk, why don’t you come up here and start the class on its lesson?”

“But I-- Yes, Miss Periwinkle.” Skydancer sighed and climbed out of his desk, knowing that Cirrus was probably sticking her tongue out at his back. He walked slowly to the front of the class, clambering up to the lectern to the book. It was open to a page that was, unfortunately, almost devoid of pictures. Wow, that was a lot of words…

The teacher nodded encouragingly. “Go ahead, Skydancer. Top of the page. Class, follow along on page 207.”

“Ahem. Er… ‘Under the banner of the Royal Pony Sisters, the ar- the army of Buce… Buceff… Bucephalus the Great continued marching along the Hippocrene River...’” Haltingly at first, Skydancer read aloud from the history book. At first he kept glancing up at the class, but that just made him trip over his words as Cirrus made faces at him. Scowling in concentration, he focused on the book to the exclusion of all else.

Despite the lack of pictures to go with the words, by the end of the page Skydancer felt his interest growing. He continued, his voice gaining strength as he read out some of the exploits of the brilliant general. The little blue colt could almost see Bucephalus in his bronzed armor, feathered wings fluttering in the wind as he led the charge against the onrushing hordes of tribal pegasi… or maybe with magic glowing brightly from his horn as searing bolts of magical fire slammed into the enemy lines. Come to think of it, what kind of pony was Bucephalus? The book hadn’t said.

Miss Periwinkle nodded appreciatively. It was nice to see Skydancer take an interest in something besides the usual back-and-forth with Cirrus. He’d finished the page and then some, and showed no signs of slowing down. “All right. Thank you, Skydancer. If you’d turn the page for me… Now, class, who can explain to me why Bucephalus the Great is important to our own little town?”

Following the teacher’s instruction, Skydancer nosed over the page. He was about to head back to his desk when his eye caught sight of a large illustration his movement had revealed. It was a painting of a battle from Bucephalus the Great’s campaign across the Bactrian Plains. Ponies of all colors and types skirmished and fought with the strange, hump-backed camels. Many wore simple war dress. Others had ornate bronze armor that seemed able to shrug off any attack.

But the thing that caught Skydancer’s interest and held it in its electrifying grip was the depiction of the tall, muscular pony in the center of the image. He was reared up on his hind legs, forehooves pawing at the air as he urged his troops onward. It was Bucephalus the Great… and his back was completely bare of any wings. And his forehead was utterly innocent of any horn. Bucephalus the Great, one of the most famous conquerors in Equestrian history, had been an earth pony!

Skydancer listened with rapt attention to the lesson as Miss Periwinkle led the class through the tale of Bucephalus the Great’s triumph over the Bactrian camels and their tribal pegasus allies. He could hardly believe it. With all the amazing victories that the history book had described he’d been certain that the extraordinary Bucephalus the Great had been… well… just as extraordinary.

While Skydancer may have been sitting quietly at his desk for the rest of the school day, his mind was elsewhere. Fizzing with fascinating new ideas, it hovered leagues away over ancient battlefields. Despite being faced time and again by seemingly impossible odds, the long-dead general’s bravery, strength, and intelligence had guided him to victory after victory. Picture after picture of Bucephalus the Great’s battlefield and diplomatic successes sparked the young colt’s imagination. It was incredible!

Skydancer looked up in surprise when Miss Periwinkle shut the last textbook with a resounding thump. Was the school day over already? Apparently it was. The blue and yellow mare nodded to the class. “All right, my little ponies… That’s all for now. Don’t forget to read the rest of chapter four. I’ll see you all bright and early tomorrow!”

The subdued colts and fillies leaped into action, grabbing up their things and racing for the sweet air of freedom as Miss Periwinkle opened the classroom door and waved them out. Quickly donning his saddlebags, Skydancer followed the rushing current of young ponies out into the bright afternoon sun. He was still mulling the history lesson and, distracted, nearly bumped into a towering mountain of horseflesh that blocked his path.

“Oof! I—” Skydancer looked up and grinned. “Oh. Hay there, Dad!”

Diorite raised one large, dark gray hoof and mussed his son’s blue-white mane. “Hay there, Sport. How was school? Did you learn a lot?”

“Yeah, it was neat! We learned about Bucephalus the Great! And he was an earth pony! I mean…” Skydancer was practically living up to his name as he tried to find the words to describe how excited he was.

The enthusiastic colt’s father smiled affectionately. It was good to see Skydancer so happy. Diorite hoped that whatever had made his son disappear in the night like that was just a passing whim… but it probably couldn’t hurt to spend a bit more time with him. Quartz could only do so much… Which, of course, was why Diorite had talked with the Mine Foremare, Mrs. Craft, to approve this little trip. “Great! Why don’t you tell me about it as we walk?”

“Sure, Dad! Uh… where are we going?”

Diorite looked sidelong at his son and feigned nonchalance. “Oh, nowhere… just thought I’d take you down the valley a bit, maybe show you the mine.”

“Yeah!” Skydancer still had fond memories of the last visit he’d taken to his father’s workplace. They’d been blasting for a new shaft that day. He could still remember the voluminous cloud of smoke and the earth-shattering roar as the explosive spells had released their energy into the mountain’s unyielding rock.

Father and son trotted side by side through the village and down the narrow, rocky path that followed the meandering Hippocrene River as Skydancer described his (somewhat shortened) day at school and all the interesting things he’d learned about the history of the region.

Diorite chuckled at his son’s antics when the young pony tried to act out some of the famous battle scenes all by himself. Still… perhaps it was time to turn to more serious subjects. “Sounds like you had quite a time, Sport, but you’ve only told me about the afternoon. What about the morning?”

Skydancer looked up at the mountains. He glanced at the rushing, frothing course of the Hippocrene River. He examined at the clear blue sky, empty of any and all clouds. He focused on anything but the concerned face of his father. He could still remember the tears in the big gray pony’s eyes when Professor Pyrite had brought him home earlier that day. He should say something, but what? ‘Guess what, Dad, I found this big mountain monster who stands on two legs and I think he’s friendly and smart but it’s hard to tell since he can’t talk?’ That wouldn’t end well. Finally, though, he could avoid his father’s question no longer. “Well… I just…”

To the discomfited colt’s surprise, his father backed off. Diorite shrugged. “Eh, I’m sure you were just getting a bit antsy; you wanted to explore the valley and got carried away, right?”

“Yeah…” Skydancer sighed in relief.

Diorite mentally berated himself. Shame on him. He was being a terrible father. First he’d practically abandoned his son by taking double shifts at the mine for months to cover for other ponies who had been too ill or injured to work. And now that he was actually spending his time with his son, he was going to interrogate him? No. “Well, just try to let us know where you’re going next time, and don’t stay out so late. All right?”

“Sure, Dad… Uh, sorry for making you and Mom worry.”

“And don’t do anything too silly, all right? Your mother would have my hide.” Chuckling, Diorite nudged the colt playfully.

Skydancer glanced up at the ridges to his right. If he concentrated, he could just make out the edge of ‘Green’s hiding place. “Yeah…”

“Right then. Hey, Skydancer?”

“Yeah, Dad?” They were nearly at the mine now. One of the towering spoil piles peeked over the nearest granite spur.

“Race ya.” The dark gray stallion burst into motion, sprinting down the path. In a heartbeat Skydancer was in hot pursuit as the two galloped down the valley, laughing as each strove to be the first to reach the emerald mine.

* * *

Lieutenant Green leaned tiredly against a boulder, staring down the constricted, sloping trail at his feet. From his earlier vantage point it had looked like it would let him get all the way around the bustling excavation site without detection... but the terrain here was even more rugged than the rest of the valley. It was already late in the day; Mike didn’t even want to think about what might happen if he was still on the narrow path when it got dark. If he somehow managed to turn his ankle or, worse, break his leg trying to traverse the unfamiliar ground... No, this wasn’t a good way to go for now. It would be better to wait until he had more light and more time.

Glancing back up the valley, the lieutenant thought hard and tried to plan his next move. If he got down here a little after daybreak, he could probably climb way round the mine… but that would rely on no one coming back this way. He’d better spend the rest of his evening watching the miners and try to get a feel for their normal movement patterns.

Sore and nutrient-starved muscles protested as Lieutenant Green scrambled back up to the top of the ridge and went into the prone. His stomach grumbled again. Ugh… Mike hugged his stomach, praying once again that the river water hadn’t given him anything unpleasant.

Forcing himself to ignore the hunger pangs, the famished Soldier edged forward on the rocks until he could peer down into the river valley below. Without realizing it, he let his mind wander back over the events of the past few hours. He’d made good speed retracing his steps down the valley, but now he was on unfamiliar ground. Every instinct had been screaming at him to wait until it was dark out, but he’d been eager to make up for lost time… and to put as much space as possible between him and the jarringly alien village.

The walk next to the river had restored some of Lieutenant Green’s jangled confidence. Now that he wasn’t being slapped in the face with the cheerful little colony of horse-people, old certainties were able to reassert themselves once again. Of course Mike was still in Afghanistan. He hadn’t stepped into some kind of Disney version of the twilight zone; he was just having some sort of a nervous breakdown or trauma-caused hallucinations... which somehow didn’t impede his ability to see everything else as normal. Yeah.

Unfortunately for the increasingly mystified Soldier, he’d been forced to slow his pace had to slow considerably as the wide, spacious valley narrowed and near encounters with the valley’s inhabitants became more frequent… and then came the obstacle that he was currently facing: the mine.

Colorful locals of varied shapes and colors busied themselves under the shadow of great spoil heaps—piles of rock and dirt cleared out of the many dark shafts that spotted the cliff face. Even this late in the day, with the sun dipping inexorably towards the high and snow-shrouded peaks to the southwest, workers covered the near hillside and the river valley beyond. Lieutenant Green wondered vaguely just what they were mining for, but the little mine carts emerging like clockwork every few minutes were far too distant to see clearly.

Mike frowned in discomfort as his stomach muscles clenched once again. It hadn’t seemed too bad while he was moving around. But now with nothing else to occupy his thoughts, his body had taken a renewed interest in food and comfort. Just now it was reminding him that he’d missed both breakfast and lunch, and was coming up on missing dinner.

Shifting slightly, Lieutenant Green brought his hand to the grenade pouch on his ballistic armor. Instead of a grenade, it carried the last of the snacks he’d brought for the convoy. It was tempting to open it and feast on the contents now; he’d nearly done so when he’d first discovered that the beef jerky, the peanut M&Ms, and the Hershey’s bar had all survived his recent adventures. He hadn’t eaten any of them yet… he didn’t know when his next meal was coming and gorging himself now didn’t seem like the best—

Argh… to heck with it. Giving in to his hunger at last, Lieutenant Green unclipped the grenade pouch and pulled out his crumpled bag of beef jerky. It was as leathery and unappetizing as always, but it was true what they said—hunger is the best spice. The famished lieutenant sipped some river water from his camelbak and gnawed peered over the ridge again, hunting for any new and interesting movement to take his mind off his hunger. He didn’t have to look for long. Was that..? It was! The distinctive light blue fur on the little colt was unmistakable even from this distance. But what was ‘Sky’ doing here, and who was that larger one with him?

Lieutenant Green shielded his eyes and watched as the two horses approached. ‘Sky’s larger companion was dark gray with a slightly lighter mane, and obviously much older. The two seemed to know each other. A relative, perhaps? Maybe it was just his imagination, but Mike was sure he could see hints of resemblance in the two creatures’ build and stance, even if ‘Sky’ was much younger. Then again, maybe it was just something in the body language and behavior… although why body language filtered through the sparking remnants of Mike’s trauma-addled brain should be any indicator, he didn’t know.

Whatever was going on, ‘Sky’ certainly seemed happy to be with the big gray horse. He stuck close by the big one’s side as the two meandered their way through the bustling activity. Lieutenant Green smiled and watched the activity down the slope. At least someone was having a good day right now…

Skydancer looked up and squinted. That was odd. For a minute, he’d sure he had seen… Wait, there it was again! ‘Green’—or another mountain monster very much like him—was up on that low ridge above the mine. What was he doing there? The colt was about to give his strange new friend a quick wave when he noticed his father looking at him in puzzlement.

“What are you looking at, Sport?” Diorite asked, following his son’s gaze and seeing only the jagged outline of the ridge against the sky.

Phew, the mountain monster had ducked out of the way in time. That had been close. Skydancer shrugged with what he hoped was nonchalance. “Oh, just looking around, Dad.”

“All right. You know, Skydancer… You’re not going to explore the hills behind the mine, are you?” Diorite kept his tone light, but his expression was deadly serious as he followed his son’s gaze.

‘Green’ seemed to be gone now, but that had been close. Skydancer turned back to his father, eager to turn the big stallion’s gaze to somewhere besides the nearest ridge. “Why’s that, Dad?”

“The Mine Foremare just put the word out today… Some of the guard ponies have been seeing strange things around the back of the mine. We think some kind of monster might have moved into the area. I don’t want you going back there until we can send some bigger ponies to check it out.”

Skydancer cringed a bit inside, hoping it didn’t show. ‘Some kind of monster might have moved into the area.’ Was that ‘Green?’ Surely his dad and the other mine workers wouldn’t do something to the big, friendly creature, would they? “He—er, it can’t be that dangerous, can it?”

“Just promise me you won’t go behind the mines. Okay, Sport?

“Sure, Dad. N-no problem. I promise I won’t go behind the mine.” Now, trying to warn ‘Green’ that the miners were on to him, that was something else entirely…

Diorite beamed. All right, that was taken care of. He could be sure his son wouldn’t do anything foalish, and a promise was a promise. “Now, come on, let’s go see shaft two—they’ve just uncovered the most amazing fossil down there. We think it’s an ancient dragon. Want to see?”

Skydancer matched his father grin for grin. “Awesome!”

Lieutenant Green chanced one last peek over the ridge. Hmm, ‘Sky’ and his relative were gone. All right, he’d seen enough. From his furtive reconnaissance, he could tell that the path through the hills above the mine was infrequently visited at best—and no wonder with all those crevices and boulders. All he had to do was get some shelter for the night, and tomorrow he could be out of here and on his way to safety.

Things were looking up! With his heart reasonably light and his belly full—for a given value of full, at least—Lieutenant Green clambered down the slope and stealthily made his way back to his ‘hide.’ He could try again tomorrow. Soon, he would be enjoying the dining facility food at Bagram. He could almost taste it… unless that was just the aftertaste from the beef jerky, of course.