• Published 16th Aug 2014
  • 3,764 Views, 92 Comments

The Last Trumpet's Call - Cold in Gardez

A gryphon survives a battle in the north. His friend does not. He wonders, sometimes, who really won.

  • ...

The Deerfolk

Gryphons don't live in the clouds.

We can walk on them just fine, and sleep in them, and all the other things pegasi can do. We can even shape clouds, some of us, just as well as pegasi can – don't let them tell you any different.

But we don't. We live in our mountain aeries, where the rocks rise to touch the sky. Where two worlds come together. A hybrid place, just like us.

Still, sitting in the kitchen in Cirrus's old home, I could see the appeal. It was not all blinding white, like I expected; the walls were a subtle shade of turquoise, the color of the sea at dusk. The floor was bruise black, like the darkest of storm clouds, and the ceiling was as blue as the sky outside. The palette was vaguely reminiscent of a long flight over the ocean. It was cool and soft.

The colt scrambled up beside me, climbing onto the table to get a better look at my claws. I leaned back, bemused, but he followed until he was practically hovering over my lap.

“Alto! Get down from there.” The mare's voice was like a whip, cracking the silence. The colt rolled his eyes, but nevertheless he bounced down from the table, taking a seat next to me.

“Sorry, he likes to climb on things,” the mare continued. She trotted over to the counter and pulled a pair of ceramic mugs out from the cupboards, and then filled them with the contents of a steaming teapot sitting on the stove. Balancing them on her wings, she trotted back to the table and set them down. After a moment's hesitation, she took the seat across the table.

And... nothing. We sat, staring at our steaming cups. Somewhere in the house, a clock ticked by the seconds. Its echoes were the loudest sound in the room.

I had a speech for this. About pride and honor. About valor and Cirrus and brotherhood, and I tried as hard as I could to remember the first word.

The mare interrupted those destructive thoughts. “I think introductions are in order,” she said. “I'm Aurora. You've already met Alto.” She gestured toward her son, who still sat between us, gawping at my alien form.

He was adorable, so adorable I almost missed my cue. “I'm Corvus,” I said, just a moment late. “I... Like I said, I knew Cirrus. We were partners up north.”

Aurora's expression softened, and she tilted her head, as though to look at something in the distance. “Corvus. He mentioned you in his letters. I didn't realize you were a gryphon, though.” She paused to take a sip from her tea. “No offense, of course. I should have realized from the name.”

My ears perked up. “He mentioned me?”

A nod, and another sip. “He would write us sometimes. We still have his letters.” She glanced through the doorway leading into the living room as she spoke, an unconscious gesture, one I wasn't sure I was supposed to see. “He spoke highly of you. Of all of you.”

I considered my tea. It smelled bitter, and I got the impression Aurora wasn't the sort of mare who took sugar with her drinks. Had she always been like that? Was there a jar of sugar somewhere in her pantry, crusted shut with neglect?

“He was the best of us,” I mumbled. I don't think I meant for her to hear, but those damn pegasus ears. They can hear a snowflake hit the ground from miles away, I think.

She took another sip and closed her eyes. The conversation seemed to die, and what replaced it was not the awkward silence that so often fills the space between two strangers sitting side-by-side, but something contemplative instead. We had our thoughts to occupy us, to get lost in.

Eventually, when my tea had grown cold and Alto had curled up into a feathery ball of slumber at my feet, she spoke again, quietly. “He never said much about what he did. He said it was boring and that we wouldn't be interested.”

I rolled my shoulders. “That sounds like something he'd say.”

“Can you tell me?”

I had a speech, dammit. I'd rehearsed it. Instead, I nodded, and set my cup down on the table.

“Yeah, I can.”

* * *

The Equestrian borderlands are often a bleak, uninviting place. But even in their desolation, one finds color and life.

Lots of ponies think the borders are just mountains, an endless line of crags and peaks stretching across the world from horizon to horizon, beyond which lies only monsters. That it is a land of endless winter, outside the writ of the princesses, where nature and animals and weather all ignore the polite harmony of Equestria. Where only savages would dwell.

That's not really true. There are forests along the borderlands, and it does not always snow. There are a spring and a summer, short though they may be, and sometimes, in the autumn, when the vast groves of aspen have turned yellow and gold, and the air is filled with the buzz of arctic bees making the final rounds of the season, and the world smells like fallen leaves and cold water and loam, the borderlands don't seem so bad. They are beautiful, in their wild way.

There are monsters, though. That part is true.

Autumn had just begun when I arrived. The days were already growing short, and at night the temperature dropped well below freezing. Some mornings, when I stumbled out of my tent, the long grasses would be stiff with frost, and the sun would take hours to melt it away.

There weren't many other gryphons in the Long Patrol. Not many of us join the Equestrian services, though our treaty with the princesses affords us the same citizenship rights as ponies or donkeys. I always thought that was a bit odd – we're such a warlike people, but so few of us become soldiers, much less rangers.

Pegasi, though. Lots of pegasi in the Long Patrol. I asked Cirrus once why that was, and he said he didn't know. He only knew why he joined – obligation.

Me? I was excited just to be there. Months of training, waiting, more training, more waiting, and then finally getting word to fly north. To join a squadron patrolling the Chillwind Forest. I don't know if Cirrus mentioned it in his letters, but that's what we always hoped for in training: to be stationed out on the edges of the kingdom, to be the very farthest point in Equestria's crown.

And that's where I met him, of course. The morning after I arrived, the sergeant major grabbed me by the wing and dragged me across our little fortified camp to an open-sided tent filled with tables, books, loose papers and scrolls. There was a pony inside, and I could smell his feathers, but it was too dark to see anything else. He looked up as we approached.

“Cirrus!” the sergeant major barked. That's just how he spoke. I don't think I ever heard him speak any other way. “Got a new one for you. This is Corvus. He's your new wingman.” With that, the sergeant major turned and flapped off before either of us could respond.

The pony inside the tent stepped out into the sun and squinted. His grey coat was starting to get a bit shaggy for the winter, but his feathers were immaculate. He was also kind of short for a stallion, the tips of his ears barely coming to my eyes, but he didn't seem intimidated by me. Maybe he was used to gryphons.

“Hey,” he said. “Corvus, huh? I'm Cirrus, glad to meet you.” He held out a hoof.

I bumped it with my fist. “Yeah, Corvus.”

And that's how I met him.

* * *

I think it was a month after I arrived that we saw our first action.

That probably makes it sound more exciting than it really was. Let me describe an average day.

First, if you're on the day shift, you get woken up about an hour before dawn by the sergeant-at-arms blowing reveille on his trumpet. Why a trumpet? I don't know; tradition, or something. There are other songs – sorry, 'calls' – he plays, for various events: lights out, under attack, retreat, you get the picture.

So you stumble out of our tents and into the chow line, where ponies get boiled oats and gryphons get boiled oats with a small piece of smoked fish. Yeah, it's about as delicious as it sounds. Don't worry – dinner is better. You get two pieces of fish.

After that, you form up with your unit and go about your duties. For some ponies, that means staying in the camp and keeping the place running. For Cirrus and me, it meant starting our patrol along the border. Imagine wandering through the wilderness for twelve hours, and you've got a pretty good idea of what those entailed. With luck we'd make it back before the sun sets and collapse into our cots, and the whole thing would repeat itself the next day.

It sounds pretty terrible when I say it like that, doesn't it? It wasn't. As hard as the conditions may have been, we weren't miserable. We had friends, and the lands we walked were beautiful, and sometimes hours would pass while Cirrus and I just talked about anything that came into our heads. I got to know him pretty well in that first month. He was the first pony I ever felt was really my friend. Not just a buddy or a squadmate, but an actual friend.

So that's an average day. But this day, this day was different. We got a report from the night scouts of a commotion in the forest beyond the border, trees torn up, odd sounds, unusual weather. The commander wanted it checked out, and Cirrus was one of his best rangers. I was just lucky to tag along, really.

I remember when we reached the edge of the forest, maybe a mile or two past the border. There's no real sign or marker out there to signify the lines on the map; one step you're inside Equestria, the next you're not. The world seems the same on either side.

We'd been past this stretch of the woods before, and there was nothing special about it. Thousands of aspen trees, most bare by that point but some still clinging to their yellow leaves. A few pines and spruces added splashes of green throughout the woods, and beyond them, leagues away, a range of mountains rose into the sky. They were already white with snow, and the glare from them at noon was blinding.

Beneath us, there was a white trail a few yards across where the long grasses had frozen solid, starting at the edge of the woods and leading deeper into the forest. They snapped like glass beneath our feet. I leaned over to peer at them; each blade had grown long, feathery rimes of frost. They melted in my breath, revealing the amber stalks beneath.

We stopped in this frozen path, both of us silent. I'd never seen anything like it. Cirrus just frowned.

“What is it?” I finally asked.

He took his time before answering. His wings fluttered at his side, like he wanted to take off, and his ears plastered themselves back against his mane.

“I think it's blood,” he said.

“Blood?” I looked around again. There was no scent of blood, or hint of red, anywhere in that trail of frost. Only ice and white.

“Maybe. Let me try something.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

I'd always known pegasi could control the weather. Gryphons can do the same thing, really; we can drag around clouds, or kick them to make it rain. We just don't want to.

But before that moment, I'd never seen a pegasus really control the weather. Not just with clouds, but actual magic. The kind of thing you – well, gryphons, anyway – read about in books but never expect to see.

It happened fast. One second it was dry and freezing, and then he made some weird motion with his wings, and suddenly it was like a warm spring day. Every bit of frost within a dozen paces melted away, leaving us in a little dry circle in the middle of the sub-arctic plains. Further away, the frozen path continued into the woods.

I waited for him to open his eyes before speaking. “You mean we've been freezing our asses off this whole time, and you could have done that?”

He smirked. “It's harder than it looks. Besides, it won't last long.” He was right; already the warm air was rising, replaced by a cold breeze flowing in around our legs. Within seconds it was only a memory, and we were as cold as before.

“So why'd you do it?”

“Because...” He trailed off, his muzzle low to the grass. He sniffed at it, and then trotted a few steps toward the forest. “Here. Look at this.”

I followed and peered down where he was pointing. In the midst of the muddied ground where the frost had melted, there was a small patch of ice. It was dark, almost black, and as I watched, the grasses around it slowly began to freeze, writhing as the ice conquered them once more.

Next to the ice, there was a depression in the ground, a spot where the grass had been crushed into the dirt. A hoof print, but larger, larger than any pony I've ever seen could have left. Too large even for the princesses.

Cirrus set his hoof in the print. He could have put all four hooves in it, with room to spare.

I looked again at the patch of ice. The ring of frost around it had grown, and from a certain angle, with the sun hitting it just so, I thought I could see the faintest hint of scarlet, like it was the darkest of rubies still lurking beneath the earth.

“Windigo?” I whispered. We'd learned about them in training; rare, but not unknown out here in the borderlands. It was suddenly important to be very, very quiet.

Cirrus nodded. He looked up, along the frosted path, into the forest. “Wounded, obviously. Chasing something, or being chased.”

“Should we head back?”

He shook his head. “Not yet. Let's see if we can find where it went.”

“Is that safe?” I felt like a fool as soon as I asked. Me, a gryphon, asking if something was safe. I'm a gryphon, a predator. The monsters should be fearing me.

If he noticed my sudden flush, he kept it to himself. “It'll be fine. Windigoes aren't terribly fast, even in the air. If things go pear-shaped, we'll just make a break for it.”

'If things go pear-shaped.' Did I mention I love pony metaphors?

Anyway, I just nodded, and together we entered the forest, walking along the frosted path, our ears up and alert for any sound other than the hammering of our hearts in our chests.

It was a pretty easy trail to follow. The white, frozen ground pointed like an arrow into the forest, and wherever it had passed a tree, only a broken, splintered stump remained. Every few dozen yards, great furrows rent the ground. I saw more splatters of frozen blood – now that I knew what to look for, it seemed that they were everywhere. At one point, I accidentally stepped on one, and it felt like plunging my claw into a glacier. It burned for an instant, and then it went numb, all the way to the bone. I still have a scar in the shape of that little drop of blood.

We followed that trail for almost a mile, deeper and deeper into the woods, until it just ended. No windigo body, no cave, nothing. Just freshly fallen leaves, blowing in the light breeze. We stopped and looked around, searching for any clue we might have missed.

“Ideas?” Cirrus asked.

“Flew away, I guess.” I looked up at the low clouds above us. No one really knows how windigoes fly – they don't have wings. Still, they manage it pretty well. “Think it caught whatever it was chasing?”

“I'd prefer to think it didn't. C'mon, let's head back. Maybe we missed something.”

We started back along the frosted path. It was warm enough now that the ice was starting to melt, and not even windigo blood has enough magic to fight the sun forever. Within a few hours, I guessed, the path would be gone entirely, and in a few years new trees would sprout along it, and in enough decades the forest would bear no sign of this scar.

I was almost lost in those thoughts when something caught my eye. Far to our left, almost lost in the maze of trees, there was a flash of motion. A branch, a leaf, a spot of something that didn't move with the wind. Pegasus ears might be sharp, but they have nothing on gryphon eyes. We can see a rabbit crouching in the grass from miles away.

Cirrus noticed the change in my posture, and he sidled a few steps closer. “What is it?” he whispered. He was sharp like that, especially out in the field, always seeming to know when something was wrong, even if he didn't know what.

“To our left, maybe fifty yards.” I kept my eyes straight ahead, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. “Something's pacing us.”

His ears twitched. We kept walking in silence, listening, watching. I did my best not to breathe.

“I hear it,” he said, after we'd moved another hundred yards. “It has hooves, whatever it is.”

“Windigo?” My wings flexed involuntarily.

“No, too light. It's more like a pony.” He paused to hop over a smashed tree that had fallen across the path. “See anything more?”

“No.” I strained my eyes, but whatever it was had moved further away, and there were simply too many trees. “Do you think we should fly—“

“Stop,” Cirrus said. His voice was as calm as if he were talking about the weather, but I froze in place. I'd already learned to trust him.

Ahead of us, maybe forty yards away and standing directly across our path, was the largest stag I had ever seen. He was taller than I was, at least by a foot, and he bore a crown of antlers that rose like a forest from his brow, tipped with dozens and dozens of points, more than even my sharp eyes could count. It must have weighed hundreds of pounds, and I couldn't imagine how his neck bore the weight without snapping.

A patch of forest moved to our left again, and I glanced over to see a doe step out from between the trees. She was lithe and leggy, smaller than the stag, and she moved with an unearthly grace, like a spirit herself, flowing across the forest floor. Her antlers were little more than nubs, barely noticed between her ears, and in the crook of her foreleg she held a staff, a long, willowy thing that bent under its own weight, with a small cloth pouch hanging from the far end.

We'd seen deerfolk before, usually from the air. They lived far beyond the border, ranging up and down the mountains, passing from forest to forest with the seasons. As far as we knew, they were peaceful; they shunned outsiders, always bolting away if we drew too near. No one has ever spoken with them, because they cannot speak. They have no vocal chords. How they manage to communicate is one of the mysteries of the borderlands.

I'd always assumed they were shy and unthreatening. This stag did not look either of those. The doe stared at us with her huge brown eyes and an unreadable expression.

“Okay, don't worry,” Cirrus whispered. I'm not sure if he was talking to me or himself. He cleared his throat and said, louder, “Greetings. We are members of the Equestrian Long Patrol, here on business of the crown. We have no desire to trouble you or your kind.”

Silence. The deer stared at us. They might as well have been statues.

Cirrus licked his lips and continued. “We were tracking a wounded windigo through these woods, and now we are leaving. In peace.”

That last part felt tacked-on, but I definitely felt where he was coming from. The deer were unnerving. I couldn't take my eyes off of them, so when Cirrus lifted his hoof, I had a perfect view of what happened next.

The doe moved. I know that doesn't sound like much, but one moment she was a statue at this stag's side, and the next she was in front of him with that long staff held behind her. If I'd blinked I would have missed it.

Cirrus froze, sensibly. For a long minute the four of us just stood there, staring at each other.

“Fly?” I whispered.

He nodded. “Slowly. Try not to spook them.” With his eyes still fixed on the doe, he started to spread his wings.

The doe moved again, whipping her staff toward us, and an aspen stump a few feet to my left burst into a shower of damp splinters with a crack of thunder. I flinched away, almost tripping over Cirrus, and eventually managed to scramble into a humiliating, belated combat stance, my wings and claws out.

The doe didn't seem impressed. She tipped her staff back over her shoulder, casually fished a round river stone out of some hidden pouch, and flicked it into the air. At the apex of its flight, she snagged it with the leather thong at the end of her staff and turned back toward us.

I'd seen ponies use slings before. Among gryphons, they're usually considered toys, something for fledglings to play with before they molt and get real weapons. No self-respecting warrior would ever use one, I was taught. Which just goes to show, sometimes gryphons can be idiots.

“What now?” I asked. It came out in a wheeze.

“I don't want to fight them,” Cirrus said. That was good – I wasn't looking forward to fighting that doe either. “We'll make a break for it. When you see the fog, fly back to the forest's edge. Stay below the treetops.”

There was no fog anywhere around us. I was too confused to ask what he was talking about before he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, as though he were preparing to dive to the bottom of the ocean.

The doe noticed. Those huge brown eyes narrowed, and the tip of her sling bobbed at the end of that slender willow staff, eager to fly toward us.

Cirrus let out his breath. “Now,” he said, as calm as a windless day.

All hell broke loose.

The air temperature plunged, going from a cool autumn day to the most frigid, barren winter night you can imagine. The cold burned my skin and eyes. In an instant, all the moisture in the air condensed into a thick, billowing fog that roiled all around us, consuming the forest for dozens of yards. The deerfolk vanished within it, as lost as we were.

We bolted. A hair's-breath behind us, something whistled through the air, and a second later there was a loud crack as the doe's sling demolished some poor tree.

We burst out of the fog bank together, our wings pumping like mad. I kept expecting another stone to smash into the back of my skull or shatter my legs, but within seconds we were a hundred yards away. Nothing could catch us.

“You okay?” I yelled. I could barely hear over the rushing air.

“Yeah!” He looked beat – either the flying or the weather working had drained his energy. His ears sagged and his legs dangled beneath his belly, like he didn't have the strength to hold them up. I heard his breath wheezing in his chest.

“Okay, we're almost there. Just stay by my—down!” I shouted and ducked at the same time. A piece of the forest to our left blurred, and another stone came singing toward us with enough force to twist the air in its wake. Cirrus bobbed, and the missile skimmed across his mane.

The doe was chasing us. That sounds silly, I know – a landbound creature chasing a pair of flyers, but she did it. She bounded through the forest like nothing I had ever seen, each of her legs a spring that launched her dozens of yards through the air.

I've never seen anything so beautiful, before or since.

I angled my wings and banked toward her. She had another stone out, somehow loading it into the sling even as she ran. She cocked it back, and there was no way she could miss at that range. I was close enough to smell the pine tar on her hooves, the juniper berries she had crushed and worked into her coat, and the hemlock staining her antlers.

I slashed at her face. She whipped her head away, dodging easily, but it was enough to unbalance her. She landed awkwardly, stutter-stepped to recover, and dropped the willow sling.

Good enough. Cirrus was already far ahead of us both, and I zipped away through the trees before she could retrieve her weapon. The last thing I saw of her, before the trees between us grew too dense, was a tiny frown.

Cirrus was waiting outside the forest, hovering hundreds of yards above the frigid plains. He looked exhausted, about to fall out of the sky. His coat was dripping with sweat, and his wing beats were ragged.

“You okay?” he asked.

That should tell you a lot about him. The first words out of his mouth weren't “I'm tired,” or “I need help.” No, he asked if I was okay.

“Yeah, fine. Also, what the hell happened back there? What were they doing?” Our hover became a glide, carrying us southeast, to home. “And how are we going to report this?”

He chuckled, and something inside my chest relaxed at the sound. “Creatively, I guess. The commander's a smart pony, she'll know what to do.”

But we all thought we knew what to do, back on that first day. We didn't know anything.