• Published 16th Aug 2014
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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 Windigoes

Aurora listened to the last of my tale, her front legs crossed atop the table. Her ears, which had bent toward me for the past hour, sagged for a moment before snapping back to attention, and she looked down at her hooves.

“He never wrote us about that.”

I rolled my shoulders, letting my spine release some of the tension that had built up in my back. Gryphons aren't meant to sit for so long.

“Maybe he didn't want to worry you,” I said. “Maybe he thought there wasn't any point.”

“It would have been nice to know.” She prodded her empty mug with the tip of her hoof, mostly, I think, so she didn't have to look at my eyes. “We could have done something.”

How do you respond to a mother who says that about her lost son? The silence returned, and I found my thoughts drifting back to the borderlands, drawn there by memory's terrible gravity.

“So,” she asked, after some time had passed, “what happened to the windigo?”

“That particular windigo? We never saw it again, or if we did, it was just part of the pack. I always assumed it caught whatever it was chasing and carried it back into the sky.”

“Hm.” If that image bothered her, it didn't show on her face. “And the deer? Why did they attack you?”

That I did know. “They were just scared. Their herd had been fleeing from one forest to another in the borderlands for weeks, ever since the last day of summer. Those two were the first of hundreds.”

“What were they running from?”

I opened my beak to answer when we heard someone land outside on the cloud a few feet from the door. Alto, who had dozed through my story in a feathery ball at our feet, suddenly sprang to his hooves. “Dad's home!” he shouted, and then he vanished in an azure blur out of the kitchen.

I heard the front door open, and then Alto's voice again, almost bursting with excitement, “Dad! There's a gryphon here! He knew Cirrus!”

That was answered by a pause. Aurora and I exchanged a glance, and we both stood as Cirrus's father entered the room.

I recognized him immediately from Cirrus's stories. Slender and short, like Cirrus was, with a gray coat a few shades darker and the same tan mane as his youngest son, who bounced in at his side. His eyes were the most colorful part of him – a brilliant, deep green, like grass emeralds. The same as Cirrus's eyes.

“Cumulus,” I whispered under my breath. His ears twitched, and I cursed myself silently as I stepped forward, my arm extended toward him. “Apologies, sir. Sergeant Corvus, at your service. I had the honor of knowing your son.”

Cumulus met my arm with his hoof, tapping it against my talons. “So you're Corvus?” His voice was soft, reserved. He glanced over at his wife, who met his gaze silently. “Cirrus mentioned you a few times. Said you were his best friend out there.”

Hearing that, my throat closed for a moment, and I took my time before speaking. “Not all the ponies were comfortable around us. Gryphons, I mean.” I sat back on my haunches, doing my best not to tower over the stallion. “It didn't bother him, though. I don't think he ever mentioned it, after we met.”

“He wouldn't.” Cumulus walked around me to Aurora and gave her a gentle nuzzle. “So, what brings you to Cloudsdale, sergeant?”

I had a speech. “I was... I wanted to—“

Aurora interrupted, or rescued me, depending on your perspective. “Corvus was just sharing some stories with me, about Cirrus.” She returned her husband's nuzzle and captured his eyes with her gaze. “The things he never wrote us about.”

They stared at each other, their noses just inches apart. It was like they hard forgotten me, and it quickly became uncomfortable. Poor Alto, confused by all the adults, glanced between the three of us, uncomprehending of the wordless conversation.

Finally, Cumulus turned back to me. “You were his friend?”

“We were inseparable.”

“You fought beside him?”

“He saved my life.”

“You were with him when he” – there was a pause, a hitch in his voice, so short I almost missed it – “when he died?”

I looked away. “I was as close as anyone.”

Silence again, except for that hidden clock, still ticking away the seconds. Aurora's expression was reserved; Cumulus frowned at something only he could see.

What was I accomplishing here? I had no good answer. I was only dragging these two ponies back through the swamp of their loss, soiling them with memories they had clearly just started to forget. This was all wrong. A mistake. I stood and started to speak the apology that would do nothing to assuage them.

Cumulus beat me to it. He glanced up, his brilliant green eyes transfixing me. “Would you like to stay for dinner? I would love to hear one of these stories.”

I should have said no. Said I had to leave. Said I just wanted to stop by and thank them for raising such a wonderful pony.

I let out a quiet breath. “Of course, I would be honored.”

* * *

Cirrus and I weren't the only scouts to run into trouble that day.

Our camp – really just a bunch of tents with a line of sharpened wood stakes circling it – was responsible for forty leagues of the borderlands. The nearest village was a a half-day's flight to the south. The nearest real city is Crystal City, which is days away. The borderlands are huge; they stretch on and on across the north, from coast to coast, filled with mountains and forests and tundra that we haven't even begun to map. They are wilderness.

All along our piece of the border, a line that stretches further than the distance between Cloudsdale and Fillydelphia, our scouts saw signs of windigoes, or herds of deerfolk moving through the forests, or strange storms boiling over the mountains. Most stuck to the air, and didn't have problems like Cirrus and me. All together, the platoon saw or encountered evidence of twenty-two windigoes.

Let me put that in perspective – before that day, over the past fifty years, the Long Patrol recorded three windigo sightings. All three were on the same day, during a blizzard so fierce it dropped more than a foot of snow on Canterlot, a thousand miles to the south. Along the borderlands, the snow took years to melt.

The Hearth's Warming legends – the real ones, not the dressed-up fairy tales your foals put on as plays – say that in the ancient times, before the princesses, when all the pony tribes lived in the north, the windigoes roamed the skies in packs. In the heart of winter, they galloped across the night sky, their hooves like thunder in the snow. Their glowing eyes were as numerous as the stars. From the heavens they conquered the hearts of the ponies below, sowing discord and hatred, driving the tribes apart, and plunging the world into darkness. They began an ice age that lasted a dozen centuries.

In the oldest tales, the ones only gryphon loremasters tell, the windigoes were once ponies themselves. They were full of pride, and they believed themselves above all the other creatures of the world. They enslaved their lessers and grew fat off them, until one winter their subjects revolted and abandoned them. The masters, suddenly alone, had no one to build them shelters or harvest their food. They froze, and they starved, and as they froze and starved the last of them, desperate, ate the flesh of her dead brothers. The gods – yes, the gods; this is a gryphon tale, remember – cursed her for this crime: they chilled her blood and filled her heart with an endless, aching hunger that could only be sated by strife.

And thus, the first windigo was born.

Do I believe those tales? No, they are just myths, like the Hearth's Warming legends. But at the heart of every myth is a grain of truth, and if even a single grain of those tales are true, then windigoes are something to fear indeed.

All this is to say that when we convened that night in our camp, and the scouts reported their sightings, we were concerned. Pegasi and gryphons don't mind the cold much, but there are limits to what even we can stand. The prospect of an endless winter is a haunting one.

The snow began the next evening. Just a few flurries at first, but by the time I crawled out of bed the entire world was smothered in white. The sky was filled, from horizon to horizon, with low, thick clouds, dark and heavy with moisture. What I remember most, though, was how silent everything was, as if the falling snow muffled every sound. Even the sergeant-at-arms' trumpet, normally a piercing cry audible for miles around, sounded weak and subdued.

I found Cirrus in the weather tent, seated in the center of a pile of books and charts and maps. He seemed frazzled. He didn't even look up as I entered.

“Cirrus,” I asked, “why is it snowing?”

I won't describe the look he gave me. Obviously, I wasn't the first person to ask him that question. It's a fact of military life that the weather pony always gets blamed for bad weather, even if he has nothing to do with it.

“We're in the borderlands. It snows in the borderlands. There's nothing unusual about this.” He closed the thick tome on his desk and pushed it away, and then stood and shoved past me, stepping out into the winter morning. “Except it's not normal snow.”

I tilted my head to peer down at my shoulder, where a dust of snow was already accumulating on my feathers. It looked real, it smelled real. I touched my tongue to them, and it tasted real as well.

“Are you sure about that?” I asked.

“As sure as I can be without flying up there.” He pointed with the tip of his wing toward the clouds. “And the commander won't allow that. Says it's too dangerous after yesterday's sightings.”

“Sounds reasonable.” I peered up at the sky. It was hard to tell how far away the clouds were from the ground – even with gryphon eyes, I didn't have any scale to compare the clouds with. These felt so close I could have tossed a rock and hit them, though. They pressed down on us, hunching us over. I blinked away tears as snowflakes melted on my eyes and then looked back at him. “Can you tell how long it will last?”

He huffed under his breath and sat beside me. His coat seemed to blend with the curtain of flurries between us; only those bright emerald eyes of his stood out. Even in the snow, I could have seen them from a thousand yards away. “As best I can tell? Forever.”

I waited for him to clarify. He said nothing, just staring up at the clouds.

“When you say forever...”

“I mean, there's no natural cause for this snow. No mass of rising moist air, no low pressure system, no large body of water nearby. It's literally coming from nowhere.” He paused. “Well, not literally. It's falling from the clouds, but it shouldn't be. It will keep snowing until whatever is up there stops.”

I ran my talons through the snow. It was dry and fine; as much as I wished to, I couldn't squeeze it into a snowball. “Enough to build a snow fort, you think?”

He flicked my shoulder with the tip of his wing. “At least. Right now, we're getting an inch every three hours. It'll start to compact under its own weight, so the real rate is more like an inch every six hours. That's...” He paused for a moment. “Four inches a day.”

“That's not so much.”

“You say that now, but there will be almost ten feet by the end of the month. You'll be able to dig tunnels.”

I thought back to my mountain home, the aeries whose leagues of tunnels wound through frozen rock, and I frowned. Tunnels should be made of stone, not snow.

“Do you think it's the... you know.” I spoke softly. Everyone on camp had heard of the windigo sightings, but the subject was still treated with fear. As if merely saying their names could draw them out.

“It has to be,” he said. He pulled the tent's flap shut and laced it tight to keep the snow from his precious books. “Nopony knows if they cause the snow or if it somehow causes them, but... well, yeah. It's gotta be them.”

I nodded and looked back to the sky, trying to imagine what ten feet of snow was like. More than twice my height. Its weight would crush our flimsy tents.

I don't know how long we sat there, each of us lost in thought. The flurries built up on his coat and my feathers, anointing us in winter's garb. For all the tension and fear, it was oddly peaceful there in the falling snow.

A shrill, piercing note broke the silence. Even in the muffled air, the brassy scream of the sergeant-at-arms' trumpet woke every soul, set ponies shouting, lit the camp on fire. A rapid, pulsing tattoo – report to stations. Cirrus and I flinched, but in moments we were already airborne, soaring to the nearest picket tower. Other ponies were starting to gather along the fence to peer out into the snow.

“I don't see anything,” Cirrus muttered.

“I do,” I said. I squinted, trying to puzzle out the shapes in the distance. The falling snow, light as it was, still obscured the dark forms out on the horizon, but gryphon eyes are the best in the world. I could count the snowflakes falling miles away. After a few seconds, I managed to focus through the din.

There were deerfolk, hundreds of them, walking through the snow toward us.

* * *

“What deerfolk?” Cumulus asked. He had listened silently through my tale to that point.

“You missed his first story, dear,” Aurora said. “They found some deerfolk in the woods.”

“I thought they avoided ponies.” He paused. “And gryphons.”

“They do.” I took the interruption as an excuse to sip at my water. I wasn't used to speaking for hours on end, and my throat felt raw. Like each word was a grain of sand, slowly wearing my voice away.

We had moved into the living room after Cumulus returned, taking seats on that lovely furniture pegasi are so fond of. They weren't so much chairs as amorphous blobs of cloud-stuff fluffed into extra springiness. I had one to myself; Cirrus's parents nestled together on another, vaguely couch-shaped puff, their wings draped over each others' barrels.

Were pony couples always so intimate around strangers? I didn't think so, but I had little experience to judge from. I frowned at the thought, and took another sip.

Aurora's eyes touched on my glass. “Would you like to take a break, Corvus? It's almost time for dinner.”

I nodded. “Sounds wonderful.”

We moved from the living room to the kitchen, all of us except for Alto, who had vanished at some point. I realized it had been at least an hour since he had tugged at my feathers or tried wrestling with my tail. I peered under the table and up the stairs, but there was no sign of him.

Cumulus gave me an odd look, followed by a chuckle. “Don't worry, I'll find him. Go ahead and get started, dear.” He gave his wife a kiss on the cheek and then trotted down the hallway to the front door.

Pegasus foals, Aurora explained to me while preparing dinner, tended to roam when left to their own devices. It was harmless, most of the time, and every evening around sunset the streets of Cloudsdale and other pegasus cities filled with mares and stallions, mothers and fathers, all searching for their wayward progeny. Sometimes, if they couldn't find their own foal, they would pick some random other colt or filly and adopt them for the night, well aware that elsewhere in the city their own children were enjoying an impromptu sleepover too.

It sounded rather haphazard, and I couldn't imagine an earth pony or unicorn family ever allowing it. But as Cirrus was always reminding me, the pegasi were the oddest of the tribes. They took a certain pride in it and never tried to conceal their differences.

Aurora was just finishing dinner – hay lasagna with a side of fresh cod for me – when Cumulus returned, bearing a squirming bundle of muddy fur and feathers. He vanished upstairs with his prize, and ten minutes later descended with a still-damp Alto riding on his back, apparently no worse for wear. They settled down at the table just in time for Aurora to start setting out plates.

I'm still not sure where the colt found that mud. It was a cloud city.

Conversation over dinner was light, about my family and my plans for the next few months. Nothing about the borderlands or Cirrus. Alto regaled us for a good twenty minutes with a story about a talking robin he had found with his friends. That led into a discussion about other birds, which somehow took us to a conversation about the best places to migrate for the winter. Apparently, the whole city voted in the fall, and then Cloudsdale would actually fly there.

I felt a twinge of jealousy. Mountains couldn't fly anywhere.

After dinner, we went outside to catch the last of the setting sun. Alto and I tossed a ball around, and I showed him how gryphon hunters would hide beneath the clouds to ambush their prey. He tore up the lawn imitating me, and proudly told his parents before being dragged off to bed that he wanted to be a gryphon when he grew up.

Eventually, well after the moon had risen and the stars were out, Aurora, Cumulus and I found ourselves back in the living room. The gas lamps in the corners of the room gave the place a warm, cheery feeling, and I found myself sinking ever deeper into the cloud seat.

“Tired?” Cumulus asked.

“A little,” I admitted. “I flew most of the night to get here, but I'll be fine for a few more hours. Would you like me to continue?”

“If you don't mind,” Aurora said. She snuggled up closer to her husband and leaned her head against his shoulder.

“Not at all. So, the deerfolk...”

* * *

We didn't have any plans for fighting deerfolk. I don't think anyone had ever considered the possibility. They were too shy, too flighty to even imagine in battle.

But out there, veiled by the falling snow, hundreds of them marched toward us. They outnumbered us several times over. All around me, ponies shouted and hustled to the wall, grabbing whatever weapons they had on hand. A few scouts took to the air, but the low clouds smothered us still, preventing them from rising too high. Not even the appearance of a small army outside our post could make us forget the threat of the windigos.

Cirrus vanished back into his tent and stumbled out a minute later, his wingblades half attached and a long spear held in his teeth. He passed the spear to me, and then set about fastening the wingblades fully into his primaries. Normally it only took him a few seconds, but his wings were shaking, and he missed the snaps several times.

“Need help?” I asked.

“I've got it.” He swore under his breath and glared out at the snow. “What do you see?”

“They're not moving very fast.” All along the wall, small knots of ponies had formed around the few gryphons in our ranks. The commander, a grizzled pegasus mare twice my age and with four times as many scars, listened quietly as Aquilas, our only gryphon officer, whispered in her ear. Unlike most of us, they didn't seem frazzled, just intense.

Out there, still leagues away, the mass of deer moved toward us. They seemed to trudge through the snow, and as they drew closer I made out more details and passed them to Cirrus. I saw antlered stags, and does, and finally fawns, almost lost between the legs of their parents. Some limped. A few leaned on their brethren, and at least one was being carried, stretched across a stag's back.

By now, they were close enough for the ponies to see. The hum of alarm faded, and pegasi pressed against the wall, peering over the edge, more curious than frightened.

“They don't look like they're here for a fight,” I said. “They don't... they don't look very good.”

That was an understatement. When the deer finally stopped, just a few yards outside our stake wall, they looked like refugees. Many of the stags dragged simple sleds behind them, stacked atop which were mounds of canvas and sticks. As we watched, the healthier deer pulled the bundles off the sleds and began assembling tents out of them. Most, though, just sagged to the ground. They looked exhausted and hungry. Defeated.

We all looked to the commander. For the first time in the months I had known her, she seemed uncertain. Even more than the snow, it was chilling to see her like that, at a loss.

But she was a good commander. She noticed our attention, and look of uncertainty was instantly banished, replaced by the same look of cool command that wore so well on her face. “Watch them,” she barked at the sergeant major, and then she and her officers vanished into her tent. Within moments, I heard their voices, indistinct but loud and energetic.

“What are they saying?” I asked Cirrus.

“They're just arguing. Nopony knows what to do.” He stared at the tent before turning back to the deer.

In the space of just a few minutes, they had set up several tents and moved most of the fawns inside. Only the stags and a few does remained out in the snow. They gave us a few inscrutable looks, but mostly they stared out, and up at the low clouds.

* * *

By nightfall the deer had set up a small camp outside of our fort. They didn't approach us, or try to speak to us, or acknowledge us with anything other than wary gazes whenever we stepped outside the low stake wall separating us. A few had weapons – slings and spears and staves – but nothing they brandished at us. All pointed outward, toward the distant forest from which they had come.

The commander doubled the watch, which was easy to do, since none of us went out scouting in the snow. In other circumstances, a day spent lounging on the wall might have counted as a day off. Instead, keyed-up and frazzled as we were, the enforced idleness simply made things worse. We felt like prisoners rather than soldiers. The pegasi, who like all ponies were high-strung to begin with, scowled out at the snow, or snapped at each other. Shortly before sunrise, I caught Cirrus gnawing on his primaries, a nervous habit he had confessed to during one of our earlier, happier scouting trips.

I took his spot on the wall and sent him off to bed. He looked like he needed the rest.

And still it snowed. The dry, powdery flakes came up over my talons now. The wind picked it up, sweeping bare the flat parts of our camp and piling the snow high against the tents and walls. Every few minutes I would shake my wings, scattering the dust that slowly clothed me.

An hour after sunrise it was still dark. The sky to the east was a brighter gray than the rest of the world, but otherwise it was as if night had never surrendered to the dawn. North, above the forest, the sky churned with clouds the color of slate, of lead, bilious and threatening. They promised a storm like none we had ever known.

We woke Cirrus up. He was grumpy, but as soon as he saw the northern sky he became a different pony. Sober, calm. Worried.

“That's bad,” he said.

We were gathered around the northern fence. A few yards away, stags and does sat out in the snow, staring north with us. The commander stood next to Cirrus. I held his books.

“How bad?” the commander asked. Like the rest of us, she had strapped on her armor, and now looked like someone straight out of a recruiting poster. Even I felt a little intimidated, and I was twice her size.

“I don't have much to go by. A cold wave, at the very least. If the winds keep picking up, and that system moves further south, we'll have blizzard conditions in a few hours.”

“Can you stop it?”

He shook his head. “It's miles across, ma'am. I might be able to keep the winds down locally, or prevent a major cell from forming directly over us, but this isn't a job for one weatherpony. It would take a large city team to have any effect on the whole system.”

“So, what do you recommend?”

Leave, I wanted to say. We were out there to patrol the border, not to guard it from the weather. The borderlands had always been wild and always would be – there was no harmony to impose here, no order in the chaos. Those clouds above us might as well have been the stars rising in the night sky, for all that we could stop them.

But she hadn't asked me, so I kept my peace. Cirrus, who I suspected didn't have an answer either, merely stared up at the clouds. Perhaps he heard something in them I couldn't.

I saw something he didn't, though. High above, at the edge of the twisting mass of dark clouds, something moved. A soft blue glow, faint at first, began to light the clouds from within, as if a cold sun had risen behind them. It moved with the wind, growing brighter and brighter, until even the ponies around me could see it. I heard them gasp and shout.

The light flared, filling the clouds. A bright spark, blue as a sapphire, momentarily broke through, painting the snow and the fields and the bottoms of the clouds with its sharp, cold light. The air upon my face grew chill where it touched, and frost began to form on the metal tip of my spear. For a brief instant, before the spark darted back into the cloud and vanished from sight, I saw a tangled, wild mane, and two eyes filled with malice. Even from miles away, they seemed to stare straight into my heart.

I let out my breath. All around us, ponies muttered and clutched their weapons tighter.

Cirrus spoke first. “Windigo?”

The commander nodded. “The stories don't do them justice. Cirrus, do whatever you can to keep the worst of the snow away. Corvus, keep him safe.” Without waiting for any questions, she turned and stalked away, shouting orders to the ponies on the line.

“Well,” Cirrus said. He rolled up the weather chart in his hooves and tucked it away. “It's nice to have a clearly defined mission. Even if it's impossible.”

“That makes two of us.” I looked back up at the clouds, which seemed lower, closer. Far off in the distance, another patch of the sky began to glow with a gentle blue light. “How many do you think are up there?”

“No idea. Frankly, I'm happier not knowing.”

I wondered if I was, too. Some dangers were best faced in ignorance, others with knowledge. I pondered which of those quandaries this might be while we watched the storm gather.

After a while, I realized we had an audience. A young fawn, small enough to walk under her mother's belly, stared up at us with wide, brown eyes. As always, I had no idea what she was thinking.

“Hey, Cirrus?”

“Hm?” He had a faraway look in his eyes as he stared at the clouds.

“What about the deer?”

“Huh?” He blinked and looked down at the fawn. “Oh, they'll be fine. As long as they stay near us.”

I wish I could've been so confident. The deer had more faith in us than I did.

* * *

When the attack finally came, I was relieved. You can't fight a snowstorm or cold or the clouds; windigoes, at least, were something I could stick a spear into.

That was the theory, anyway. It wasn't as easy as it sounds.

Windigoes don't fight in neat ranks, following an order of battle. They are like a pack of wolves, harrying their prey for hours or days, seeking just the right moment, the weakness, the chink in the herd's armor, before they attack.

It was night when they struck. Without the moon or stars overhead, the only light came from the lanterns and bonfires we set throughout the camp. Outside, among the deer, only the weak and flickering shadows of our fires gave the night any definition. Their eyes, glowing like sparks when they faced us, were the brightest objects in the gloom.

The snow doubled, and doubled again, whipping around us in the crazed wind. It coated our feathers, sticking to them, binding them faster than we could shake them free. The temperature plummeted.

High overhead, almost lost in the cacophony of the storm, something began to wail. The sound pierced through the false courage I had clothed myself in. It tore away the mask I wore, the false strength and confidence that comes so easily to gryphons, and it mocked the childish hope I still clung to, for battle and the glory I was sure must be mine. The haunting notes grew louder, and a fear I had not felt since I was a fledgling came over me. I saw that same crushing weight on every pony's face.

How can I describe the battle? It was chaos. I remember images: the smothering clouds burning with a cold blue fire as the windigos descended; the dark silhouettes of pegasus warriors rising to meet them; the deer scattering in the snow, fawns clutched in their thin legs. The sky above us became a whirling cyclone, bands of clouds whipping around a great eye that opened high above, revealing the black sky and stars beyond. An arctic wind battered us, tearing the tents apart, sending swirls of snow hundreds of feet into the air. A sound like thunder rolled across the plains and shook our bones.

I thought dozens of windigos must be attacking us; in reality, it was only three or four, the ones most eager to test our defenses. They galloped over our heads, their hooves cracking on the air like it was stone, and one by one they descended on our little camp.

The stories, the plays, the illustrations in foals' bedtime stories – none of them do the windigos justice. They are massive, monstrous, a dozen times the size of a full-grown pegasus. They had no coats that I could see, only pale white skin and long, tangled manes that stretched out for yards behind them. Eyes like stars blinded us, and around each of them hung an aura of absolute cold. That, I think, was the most dangerous part about them – not the teeth that could snap a pony's wing clean off, or the hooves that could smash rocks; simply the cold they exuded, a cold-like death that sought out our hearts.

That makes it all sound so hopeless, doesn't it? But still we fought them. Pegasi and gryphons, agile and small, rose up like wasps to meet them. Our spears found their cold flesh and bit deep, spilling freezing blood onto the snow. Swords slashed at their hooves, scattering sparks everywhere. And all through the battle, the sergeant-at-arms rallied us with his trumpet, calling out attacks and withdrawals, feints and retreats. It was the one sound I still remember clearly from that battle, more than ponies voices, or the constant thunder of the windigos' hooves, or the screaming wind in the clouds.

We all survived that battle, and all because of Cirrus. He never lifted a blade or left the ground; all through the night, he summoned a south wind to blow against the windigos, weakening the terrible cold aura around them. Without it, they were still monsters, but vulnerable, and the Long Patrol knows how to kill monsters.

Wounded, angry, the windigos withdrew one by one, until only the greatest remained. His mane was streaked with silver, and any one of his legs could have crushed a pegsus or gryphon warrior flat. He screamed and bit at the ponies darting around him, ignoring the dozens of wounds they inflicted. Nothing, it seemed, could break through that ancient, frozen skin.

In the end, it was the commander who killed him, though it cost her dearly. She flew straight up beneath him, up into his jaws, and thrust her spear into his mouth. I cannot fathom the bravery it must have taken to do such a thing; the windigo shuddered and fell to the ground, but not before his blood splashed onto her wing. She lost most of it to frostbite, and never flew again.

She saved us. Cirrus saved us. All the pegasi who fought that night saved us.

Me? I just flew around like an idiot. I never even hit them.

* * *

I finished my tale staring into my cup, which was long-since empty. Tea? I couldn't even remember tasting it. For a long while there was only silence. I risked a glance across the room, and saw Cumulus and Aurora staring back.

Cumulus spoke first. “She lived, though?”

“The commander? Yeah. She had to retire from the Patrol, obviously, but she survived. She teaches at the academy, now.”

“I'm glad to hear that,” Aurora said. She shook herself, as if dislodging some memory. “I can't imagine losing a wing. It must've been terrible.”

“I don't think she cared much,” I said. “She knew it could have killed her, and she saved more lives than I can count. I have to believe that soothes her loss.”

Silence fell again, giving me the chance to reconsider those words. Perhaps that was not the best time to talk of soothing losses.

As if reading my thoughts, Aurora spoke again. “You said Cirrus saved everypony, too?”

“Oh, yeah.” I couldn't help but grin. “We treated him like a hero afterward, he was so embarrassed. Said it was just a little weather working, but it was what made the difference. Without him keeping that cold away, we never would have won. We'd have all died that night.”

Aurora matched my grin with a small, wan smile. It was the happiest I'd seen her all night.

Cumulus did not smile. He looked down at his hooves, out the window, up the stairs; everywhere but at his wife or me. His wings shook, and after a moment he stood and trotted out the room. I heard the front door open and shut.

I blinked. “Uh, is he...”

“He's fine,” Aurora said. The smile was gone, and I had to strain to hear her. “He taught Cirrus everything he knew about weather. He's why Cirrus became a weather pony.”

“Oh.” I wasn't sure how I was supposed to feel about that. Happy? My confusion must have shown on my face.

“He blames himself, sometimes,” she said. “If he hadn't taught Cirrus to be a weather pony, he wouldn't have been up north with you.”

I swallowed. “He saved our lives.” It was a protest and a plea.

“I know, and I'm glad. But it still hurts.”

How do you answer that? “I'm sorry.”

“You don't have to be.” She stood and stretched her wings. “Do you have someplace to stay tonight? If not, we have a spare room.”

I hadn't planned on spending more than a few minutes in this house. Just long enough to give that speech. I should have been halfway back to Canterlot by now, perhaps sleeping in tree or on a cloud. Instead I nodded, and she beckoned me upstairs with the tip of her wing.

The guest room was small and unassuming, with a simple bed and dresser its only furnishings. I stood in the threshold for a long moment, pondering it, Aurora a dark presence by my side.

“Was this his?” I whispered.

She shook her head. “No. Alto sleeps there now. This is just an empty room.”

I let out a shaking breath. “Okay. Thank you.”

“Of course.” She pressed her nose against the side of my neck, ruffling my feathers. “Come find us if you need anything.” That said, she turned and went back down the stairs, to wait, I guessed, for her husband's return.