• Published 11th Dec 2014
  • 2,587 Views, 31 Comments

Remembrance - Viking ZX



Most would use their day off for fun and games, seeing family, or just enjoying some well deserved R&R. But not First Lieutenant Hunter of the Dusk Guard. He's going to visit someone special he sees every year.

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Never Forget the Fallen

The arch over the entrance was just the same as he’d always remembered it being; a weathered piece of stone with no gaps or seams, carved from a single titanic rock centuries earlier. Ancient, weathered stone vines wound their way across its facade, all definition and detail long since lost to time. Still the words remained across the peak of the arch, etched so deep in the rock they would be there long after all else failed, written in ancient Romane: Nunquam Obliviscaris Lapsis.

Never Forget the Fallen.

Most ponies didn’t come the Royal Cemetery that often. Most didn’t have a reason to. The final resting place reserved for the nation’s Guard didn’t have much occasion for visitors—or even for use. Few was the pony that died in the line of duty in the modern age, fewer still those that were buried here.

He walked down the marble path, his eyes on the monuments around him. For the most part, they were simple—flat, basic stones with a few words etched across them. Here and there an obelisk, a carved relief, or some other form of more formal remembrance stood out, marking the grave of one who’d lost their life not just serving in the Guard, but in the line of duty as well.

The grass around the path was trimmed to a razor’s edge, not a single blade crossing the aged marble walkway. It was the same scene around each of the gravestones as well: The grass cut to absolute precision, not a single speck of green marring the colored surfaces. The markers had been there for centuries, and would be for centuries more, but the Guard responsible for maintaining the sanctity of the place would be there each day of those years, both day and night, two trimming back any wayward growth, and two guarding the mausoleum in the center of the cemetery. They would switch with the rising and fall of the sun, always four Night Guard and always four Royal Guard, ever watchful of both the graves of those who were known, and the tomb of those who were not.

He angled to his right as the path split, following the gradual curve of the stone as it twisted towards the far side of the area. The cemetery was set apart from the city, northwest of Canterlot itself and elevated slightly above it, nestled almost right up against the mountain itself. It was said that Princess Celestia herself had chosen the plot of land when the city had been founded, having picked the spot because of all the places on the mountainside, this was one of the few that would have the light of the moon and sun upon it from the moment they rose to the time that they set. A fitting memorial of remembrance and respect.

And she can probably name every pony in here, Hunter thought. Each and every one. He’d heard rumors that from time to the time, the Diarchs could be found browsing the stones, lost in the memories of ponies long since past. He’d never dared ask them about it; either of the pair. Such things were personal.

Like my own visit. The soup he’d purchased had long since gone cool against his flanks, though he could still feel some heat through the cloth bags, and he could feel a faint nip in the air that told him there would be a frost tonight. The bouquet was going to be withered by the next morning.

The sound of his hooves ringing against the stone seemed to echo across the expanse, a steady, memorial drum beat for those in attendance. The path he was on wound towards the north edge of the cemetery, past empty plots and fields of bare grass reserved, ever waiting, for those members of the Guard who had not been born yet.

Maybe one day they’ll put me in one of those, he thought as the pathway beneath his hooves shifted again, still circling around the mausoleum at the center of the park. It was a slightly grim thought, a reminder of how close he’d come already. Probably best not to think about it.

Up ahead the stone path began to twist, turning as it approached the weathered, stone wall at the northern end of the cemetery. The wall was a more recent addition, scarcely a few centuries old, although the weathering was natural. As were the vines the grew lazily over the stones, their leaves still holding a tinge of green to themselves, as if summer was just out for a bite, to return with its warmth soon.

The space beyond the wall was almost the complete opposite of the cemetery he’d passed through so far, though still part of the same grounds. Where the grounds tended to on one side of the barrier were clear and open, with finely trimmed grass following crisp, military lines, what lay past the wall was wild, almost untamed. Large trees with wide-spread canopies towered into the sky, their colorful autumn plumage extending right up to the wall itself, shielding what lay beneath them from the elements. A simple, wooden gate marked the only opening in the wall, its bare, dusty surface carved with a single, singular phrase.

Until we meet again in the wilds, Hunter read as he came to a stop a hoofsbreadth from the entrance. This was it: The final resting place of those souls who had lost their lives in the service of the Equestrian Rangers. Those who’d dedicated their lives to the safety of the citizens of Equestria in a fashion no less dangerous than that of any Guard.

He reached out with one hoof, running it over the wooden gate and feeling the sun-dried texture. We’ll need a new wall here soon, he thought as his hoof ran over a wrinkled leaf, creating a faint crackle that echoed across the Guard area of the cemetery. He wasn’t at all surprised by how quickly the sound was swallowed up by the space across the gate, however. The small forest that the Rangers had covered their own memorial in was just as vast and encompassing as any other, swallowing up all sounds in its depths and trading them for its own, natural whispers. A faint breeze stirred, rustling through the leaves of the trees, a soft, cascading sound that made his ears swivel as it traveled through the woods.

This is it, Hunter thought, taking a deep breath. Only a little further now.

The gate creaked loudly as he eased it open, its aged hinges protesting the movement, but still turning with enough ease that it was clear he’d not been the only visitor that week. The hinges were well-used, the rustic squeak as much a part of the purposeful design of the place as the billowing orange and red canopies overhead. He stepped past the entrance, wings stiff against his sides. A quick glance back told him that the bouquet, its soft orange blooms matching the leaves above him, was still with him, and he took another deep breath. Here we go.

The trunks around him were evenly spaced, though not in straight rows. Many of them were large; ancient, smooth-worn things that had been planted long ago, perhaps when the first graves had been laid. There was no longer stone beneath his hooves, but a smooth-worn dirt trail that wove back and forth between the trunks. Occasionally he would have to step over a root that had snaked its way across the path. Each bore marks of other hooves, from where less-alert ponies had simply brushed their hooves across the top or even used the roots as a step.

The memorials here were more extravagant, more personal, than the ones that were used by the Guard. Carved stone reliefs of the pony in question, nestled at the foot of a tree, or tall monuments depicting their accomplishments. The Rangers had always been a little less formal than their brethren, and it showed even here. Hunter glanced over at a smaller, more conventional tombstone that had a perch carved along the top for any birds that might want to rest on it. Another marker was little more than an ornate flowerbox filled with dozens of rare flowers from across Equestria, though it appeared that one type in particular seemed to be winning the battle for the space.

The cemetery was tamed, certainly, and cared for, but part of it was still wild. There was nothing about it that was bodgy or hinted that its caretakers were shonky about their duties. He could see the most recent set of hoofprints left in the dirt by whoever was tasked with caring for the area, fresh from that morning. He followed the tracks with his eyes, watching as they crisscrossed from one side of the trail to another, pausing here and there and shuffling in a jumble as the pony took care of something or other, to make sure that the respectful wild of the place was maintained.

Unicorn? Hunter thought as he followed the tracks to yet another jumbled of steps. No, definitely an earth pony. There were too many prints for a unicorn, who could have used their magic to tend to that area. And the gap in the prints could have been a mark of wings, but there were a few scuff marks on the bark of the nearby tree, leading up to a recently pruned limb, which meant that the pony had climbed rather than flown. And the space where the hoofprints had resumed, they were too deep to come from a pony who would naturally want to slow their descent with wings. Male, too, most likely, from the stance of the legs and the deepness of the impact.

His ears twitched, swiveling back against the sides of his hat as a faint squeak slid through the trees. Somepony else had come to pay their respects as well. Or maybe just to wander through and look. It wasn’t uncommon with the Ranger’s cemetery. There was an untamed roughness to it that was hard to find anywhere else in Canterlot.

Still, I’d better pick up the pace, he thought, moving on and heading for the far end of the cemetery. I’d rather not bump into somepony.

Up ahead the trees began to thin, his path bringing him near the cliffs that marked the cemetery’s end. His steps slowed, a faint feeling of dread weighing his legs down as he neared his destination. It wasn’t far away at all now, just another few turns and he’d be there.

It’s the first time I’ve ever done this without talking to Derpy beforehoof, he thought. He swallowed, his throat feeling harder than it had felt all day. The ache in his chest was back, a dull, burning emptiness that smoldered deep inside. Come on, he told himself. Don’t be stroppy. You can do this.

Then he rounded the final bend, and there it was.

It was picturesque, perfect even. Swift’s memorial was set just at the end of the tree line, set beneath the boughs of a willow tree, just like she’d asked. Just a dozen feet past that, the world opened up, the ground dropping away into one of the Canter Mountain’s many cliffsides, giving him a perfect view of the Equestrian plains and the clear, crisp, blue sky.

There was a wreath at the foot of her memorial, a fresh one, and he could see the hoofprints in the ground. Somepony had been there already. Probably another friend of her’s.

He walked up to the foot of the memorial, his eyes fixed firmly on the ground as he passed through the dangling willow branches. He paused a few feet from the base, his throat hot, swelling against his neck like it was going to burst, his eyes still turned downward. It wasn’t hard to sit, his rear legs felt like they were going to drop out from beneath him anyway, and he flicked his tail to one side as he dropped back on his haunches. He swallowed a final time and picked the bouquet off of his back. Then, he tilted his hat back and looked up.

Swift’s smiling face looked down at him, her soft grin captured in stone for all to see. She was in a triumphant pose, her wings spread wide, one foreleg up as if she was about to take flight, her chest swelling with pride. The artist that had been hired to capture her had done such an amazing job that he could almost picture the grey stone taking on color, Swift flapping her wings as she leapt from the pedestal and soared into the clear sky; a living, breathing pony once more.

But instead, for all its cunning likeness, it was nothing more than grey stone. Only one bit of color stood out against the rock: A dull, sun-faded blue baseball cap perched on top of her mane. A hat enchanted with the same spells his own hat had been. She’d loved that cap. He could still make out the faint colors of the team’s name, hear her laughter at his complete boredom with the niche sport. He’d taken her to every game anyway. It wasn’t the game that was important.

His eyes began to water as he turned them downward once more, and he dropped the bouquet into his hooves, letting out a cough as he cleared his throat.

“Hey—” He cleared his throat again, the heavy mass in it making it hard to speak. “Hey, Swift. Another year, and I’m here again. I—” His voice faltered, as he glanced up at the smiling stone face. The hollow in his chest was burning, an ocean of loss pressing against him, beating against his ribs as it tried to escape. “I brought you some of your favorites,” he said, setting the bouquet down along the statue’s base next to the wreath. “Even got a few extras in there from the shopkeeper. She said you’d probably like them, and I think she’s right.”

“It’s been a ripper of a year, Swift,” he said, turning his eyes upward once again, blinking back tears. “I got a new job, left the Rangers, signed on with a new Guard division. No beat up there. I’m a Guard now. First Lieutenant Hunter of the Dusk Guard.” He let out a weak laugh. “You should see some of the stuff we’ve got, toys like you wouldn’t believe. There’s just six of us, but we get all the best stuff. There’s a pegasus mare on the team you’d have liked. Sky Bolt, our engineer. Practically starkers she’s so smart, but the stuff she’s built … You should see the armor she built for us, I’ll have to wear it next time I come by.”

He closed his eyes, letting out a long, shaky breath as his front legs grew weak. “Sorry I’m a little stuffed today, it’s just …” He shook his head and looked back up. “This is the first time I’ve done this completely alone, you know? Derpy, I’ve told you about her, she’s still back in Ponyville, working hard, and I didn’t want to pull her away from her job. She tries hard, you know? She’s already got so much on her plate, I didn’t want to add any more to it.”

“Hey,” he said, his voice shaking but still coming. “You remember Dawn? Dawn Triage? The crazy unicorn medic mare who got shoved into retirement kicking and screaming? She’s on the Dusk Guard with me too. Just as happy as ever to stick needles into somepony and claim it’s for their own—” His voice faltered, and he shook his head, shutting his eyes tight and feeling hot tears stain his muzzle. “I’m sorry, I’m just—”

“Hunter?”

He froze, not even daring to breath. That voice, had it—No. There wasn’t any way it could have been, but it sounded so familiar, so similar, it—

He didn’t want to open his eyes, didn’t want that brief moment of fleeting hope to fade, to see the statue of Swift in front of him and know that she was still gone. Maybe he was losing it, cracking a fruity out of sheer grief. He’d heard of it before, ponies going starkers from loss. Maybe it’d just finally been enough—

“Hunter?” But no, this voice, it was real. He wasn’t imagining things. And it wasn’t Swift’s, either. It was close, but no, this wasn’t her. He opened his eyes, wiped a hoof across them, pulling away the wet tears that made the world blur together and turned to look.

Thistle stood at the edge of the break in the trees, looking at him with a nervous look in her eyes that said she wasn’t sure if she’d just done the right thing or not, but there was no backing down. He blinked again, still worried that he was seeing things. “Thistle?”

She nodded, her sea-green mane bobbing up and down as she took a cautious step forward. “I’m sorry,” she said, her words starting slow but then coming out in a rush. “I followed you. You didn’t feel like yourself, and I wanted to know what you were up to, and then I saw the bouquet—” Her words trailed off and she gave him a fearful look.

“I …” Part of him wanted to be angry at her, but he knew it wasn’t the right way to feel about it. She’d followed him because she cared, not because she’d wanted to spy on his grief. “I’m sorry,” he said, pivoting slightly in the dirt so he could look at her. “You should know.”

“This is her, isn’t it?” Thistle said, looking up at the statue. “Swift Wind?”

Hunter nodded, his throat swelling again now that his momentary panic had faded. “It is.”

“Can I?” Thistle asked, moving one leg forward.

He nodded. She cares, Hunter, he told himself as she stepped forward. And she deserves to know if you’re going to call yourself a dinkum friend. The periwinkle pegasus came forward slowly, her wings held tightly at her sides.

“Thistle,” he said as she sat down next to him. “Swift Wind.” He nodded his head towards the statue, fighting the burning feeling in his chest. For a moment the memorial was silent, save for the pulse of his heavy breaths in his ears and the heavy pounding of his heart in his ears.

“What was she like?” Thistle asked looking up at the statue’s smiling face.

“She was … a lot like you,” Hunter answered, nodding. “A little louder, more in-your-face with new ponies, but bright, cheery, happy. She was always trying to make everypony around her have the best day possible. Brilliant smile that could stop my heart at a hundred meters. She loved being out in nature, soaring above the clouds and riding the currents.” He glanced over at Thistle. “You two would have gotten along really well, I think.”

Thistle nodded but didn’t say anything, her pink eyes still fixed on the statue. Then she glanced at him, a sad look in her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

He nodded. “Me too.”

“No, I mean, I’m sorry I followed you,” she said, her voice quiet. “I shouldn’t have done it. It was wrong of me to intrude.” She started to rise.

“Don’t go,” he said. She looked at him with surprise that mirrored his own. “Please,” he said again. “Stay.” She lowered herself to the ground carefully, her eyes still fixed on him. “You can if you want to, but right now, I …” His voice caught in his throat as he looked away, the burning embers in his chest spreading, the void filling every limb.

“I’ll stay,” she said, nodding, her eyes still fixed on him with a faintly surprised look.

“Thank you,” he said, watching as his front legs trembled. “Usually I talk to Derpy before I come here, but she’s so busy—”

“She asked me to keep an eye on you,” Thistle said, her voice soft, like a faint breeze. “She didn’t tell me why.”

He chuckled. He couldn’t help it. “I owe her another one, I guess.”

“How did it happen?”

He looked over at her in surprise, his throat burning. She opened her mouth again.

“How did it happen?”

“I …” He took a deep breath, closing his eyes. “It was an accident. It was nopony’s fault. I can’t even blame myself, though I feel like I should.”

“What happened?”

“We were in the Crystal Mountains,” he said, closing his eyes. “On the eastern side. There’s a small ski-resort there, and it had just opened for the winter after a series of deep snows. Swift and I, we … we worked together at that point. As freelancers, in the Rangers. We’d move from place to place, helping out however needed us. Dealing with diamond dogs and manticores in once place, chimeras and cragadiles in another.” His legs were shaking now, trembling as the burning void in his chest moved out to each limb.

“We’d just come off of a vacation in Neighagra Falls a few weeks earlier. We’d taken it in celebration of our engagement. It had been nothing but light work since we’d been back.”

He could remember the day, clear as anything in his mind. The crisp, cold air. The bite of the mountain breezes, the pearlescence of swirling snow. “Anyway, we got asked to go help chase off the yeti’s near the resort, make sure they didn’t set up any avalanches that could hurt anypony. While we were there, a blizzard hit, one the local weather patrol couldn’t deal with, and we got put on search and rescue for a missing ski party.”

The void was rushing in his ears, now. “We found them. They were alright, but there were signs of yeti nearby, and Swift decided to do a quick circuit, make sure the valley we were in wasn’t in danger. She left and … and …” He took a deep breath. “It was the last time I saw her alive, telling me she’d be right back.”

“What happened?”

“There was a yeti nearby, a territorial male. She was skimming over the top of the snow, looking for tracks, and … he brought a bluff down on top of her. By the time we found her … It was too late.”

He fell forward, his chest aching as tears rushed from his eyes. “It wasn’t anypony’s fault. I didn’t—I mean, there was nothing I could have done, it was just bodgy luck but …” He opened his eyes, looking up at the statue. “I miss her, Thistle. Still, all these years later. I think about her and—”

Her wings wrapped around him and he stopped in surprise before the dam broke, every bit of his sadness sweeping out of him as she pulled him close. “I know,” she said quietly as she put a foreleg around him. Her wings—her beautiful, wide wings—held him tightly against her. “You just miss her, even though you know it’s not the end. You want to tell her things, wish that things had turned out differently.” He didn’t say anything, the fire in his chest finally fading, calming slightly and leaving him feeling worn and tired.

He pulled away at last, unsure of how long he’d been sitting there. “I do,” he said, taking a breath that seemed to hang slightly behind his heart. “Most of the time, it’s just fine. I don’t lie to Dawn when she asks me how I feel. But when today comes, and I’m here, it just—” She nodded as his voice broke off. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” she asked, and he almost pulled back at her tone. “For caring, Hunter? For loving somepony? For being honest about it with yourself that you miss her?” She shook her head. “Don’t Hunter. I know you don’t blame yourself, but don’t feel bad about yourself just because you don’t, just because you care.” She shook her head. “You have nothing to apologize for,” she said, her tone softening again. “If anything, you should feel proud of yourself for missing her so much. You cared about her a lot; anypony can tell that. She was honored to have a fiancé as caring as you were.” Then she nodded, her expression understanding. “Even if it does hurt.”

“I …” She was right. “Yeah,” he said nodding. “It does hurt, but because it should.”

“Loss hurts, Hunter,” she said, her eyes taking on a faraway look. “Sometimes we just have to accept it and take our time healing for it.” The corner of her lip turned up slightly. “It helps to know that it isn’t forever.”

“No,” he said, nodding. “Just a very, very long time.”

“No pain lasts forever, Hunter,” she said, wrapping one wing around him once more. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned here in Canterlot, it’s that we sometimes have to remember that it’s not permanent. We just have to remember what’s coming and hope.”

“And what is coming?” he asked, pushing himself up on his front legs. He did feel a bit better, a bit more alive. The embers were still there, but the sadness was mostly gone. She was right.

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “All I know is that we hope for the best, and we can know that in the end, things will turn out all right. Even for those we’ve lost.”

“Death is only the beginning,” Hunter said, nodding. “The old saying.”

“Some sayings are old for a reason,” Thistle remarked cryptically, pulling her wing away as she looked back up at the statue of Swift. “Don’t worry, wherever she is, she’s waiting for you with that new beginning.” She sniffed. “Is that soup I smell?”

“Crikey, it is,” Hunter said, shaking his head. “I almost forgot. I was going to eat lunch while I told Swift what I’d been up to.”

“It’s a little late for lunch,”

“Early dinner then,” he said, shaking his head. “I ended up with a lot. Are you hungry?” He pulled a hoof across his cheeks, wiping away the last of his tears.

“Yeah, I think so,” she said, smiling at him. His heart lifted a little. “Got any stories you can share while you eat, in honor of … well, you know.” She looked towards the memorial.

“Yeah,” Hunter said, smiling as he looked up at the statue. “I think I do.”