• Published 27th Jan 2015
  • 1,985 Views, 31 Comments

The Weak - Wisdom Thumbs



When nature ran wild and free, ponies had only begun to dream, and a different moon roamed these skies. So it might have stayed, had the deer in their pride not turned to Wrath and to Ruin. That time is gone, but its legacy—and its lessons—remain.

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When the Wise Falter

My scars itch. The winter gnaws my bones, makes them ache, makes them brittle. You admire me for them, but why? Look at them. This finger I lost on the breaking shores, when the caribou came in a thousand longships of every color. Here a lance shattered in my side, and these marks were arrows. The long winter took my ears, took half my tail, long after my fighting days were already done.

You think these scars are badges of honor? You must understand they are not.

It’s time I told you a story. Sit closer and listen, little ones. It happened long ago in the blazing ruins of Antilocapridus, when deer hunted deer, and compassion fled howling into the night. It was there that one of you showed me the truth.

The smell I remember clearest. It was the smell of magic, sharp in the air, wrought of cruelty. The accloying ash, the smoke of burning hair. Standing water gone putrid, all choked with the offal of battles washed from far away. I remember the tortured sun burying itself in the horizon, like a tick, and how it scrawled its blood across the clouds.

That horizon burned day and night.

The war had far outstripped our capacity to fight it. Vast engines of destruction stalked the eventide or slouched broken in the mud, reduced to tinder by sorcery even stronger than they. The very air curdled with distant shrieks of beasts possessed. But it was not the monsters we feared.

In those days the rain still had a mind of its own, but there was naught else natural left in its make. Not after the deer bent it to their will. It scoured the green from leaves, left bark sloughing from trees. It licked holes through our cloaks like changeling wings. The plundervines reveled in that rain, squirmed fat in it like worms. You needed only put a hoof down in the wrong mud, and they'd yank you under fast as blinking. Or, if they knew your name, hunt you through spells and stone and fire. And there was no saving you then.

But my people were built to withstand worse. We'd seen worse. There was nothing for it save to keep our horns down and our weapons dry.

So we hunted.

That night the hunt was for shadows. Our wight-hares were streaks in the night, ghosts hot on the heels of enemies unseen. They were rabbits once, the wight-hares. You wouldn’t want to see one. Magic twisted them up, made them all wrong, made it so they could never stop. They ran, they tracked, until they died. Nothing could outrun them, least of all those of us on two legs. But we could follow the screams.

And the deer, our minders, could follow us.

We caught up with the first wight-hare on the banks of a dwindling stream. This one wasn’t dead yet, but it was spent. The little horror’s spine was broken, and its fur stood all on end, reeking smoke from whatever had struck it down. Somehow it still scraped thick blood down the bank, unable to cease in its pursuit. We gathered behind it, panting ragged from a hard night’s running. The wight-hare's eyes rolled wild when it saw us. It tried to scream but only managed a rasp that pleaded kill me.

“Put the poor creature out of its misery." The voice of our Captain rang clear as a bell. He melted out of the dark with the rest of our minders. They had no need of cloaks. The rain shied away from them in a wide ring, afraid to so much as splash their dainty hooves. Only by that rain could we spot their magic shields.

The Captain was a great deer, a red deer, full in his power. We called him Haughty Hart. Never to his face, of course. As the tallest and most senior present, it followed that he possessed the brightest armor and the widest antlers. Like his subordinates, he kept that armor spotless, and ribbons fluttered from his many-tined rack. A bow hung folded at his flank by a quiver of long blades and longer arrows.

“Did you hear me?” asked the Haughty Hart when we refused to answer. His tone was all firm command. “Finish the wretched thing. Or are the mighty minotaurs afraid of a crippled hare?”

He turned his gaze on each of us with eyes of unsettling gold.

Even huddled under our oilskins we towered over the deer. Our nose rings and axes caught red in the light of the horizon. We were bigger than the Captain, and stronger, all of us striped with hard-won scars. But when his gaze passed near, we each took our turns to peer off into the dark.

All of us but Asterius. Our leader's eyes were cold gems in sunken sockets. As the senior of our number, it should come as no surprise that he sported the longest axe and the tallest horns. He banded those horns in rings of silver. But his cloak was exactly as filthy as mine, and the ring in his nose was simple iron. Asterius alone met the Hart’s yellow stare.

“Captain,” he said in a voice like measured thunder. He tromped after the wight-hare and ended its twitching with a whack to the head. Not hard, but hard enough. He stared at it for a moment after, unreadable.

One of the deer observed the tracks by the stream. “The trail leads south,” she said, “And the hare did not drag itself far. Whatever did this might still be nearby.”

Haughty Hart sniffed the air. “We’ve wasted too much time. Tercáno! Position reports!”

The deer worked fast, antlers gleaming. Wards and scrying spells layered heavy in the air.

I have no idea where the tercáno got his information. Some magic, doubtless. He said, “Still no word from the rearguard, milord. And… Our sister company is roughly six minutes east, at least nine hundred meters. The other elements have missed their window.”

“I won’t have us strung out all over in—” the Hart glanced at us. “Auxiliaries! Some perimeter security, please?”

The reprimand stung, but we were too grateful for rest to care. We took up positions squatting in the mud at even intervals. I rocked on my hooves under my cloak, tail in the wet, axe across my knees, and tried to feel dry. Somewhere out there was the rest of the company, scores of deer and another dozen minotaurs besides. My friend Tung was with them. I looked for them in the dark, strained my ears to hear, but in vain. For all intents and purposes, we were alone. And alone meant danger.

I had scarcely caught my breath when an unmistakable scream cut the night.

Every set of eyes pulled southward. There flashed a light behind the outline of a hill. Lightning shattered the sky and filled our skulls with thunder. There was no gap between the sound and the blast. Then darkness prevailed.

“Distance?” Haughty Hart stared ahead, unblinking.

“Acre’s length,” said a stag.

“Wight-hares,” muttered Asterius. He crouched to my left. “And something else.”

Our hands found little solace in steel. We watched and listened, waiting for the silence to break, half-hoping for it to pass a while longer. Rain dribbled from my chin and sprinkled in the stream.

Another shriek carried over the hill. Then another, and another, louder every moment. The wight-hares had flushed their quarry back to us.

The deer bounded through our line in a concert of hooves and were gone. A second vein of lightning arced into the clouds, and picked out the silhouette of antlers disappearing over the hill. We splashed after, blades drawn, stomping up the far bank.

I caught the scent of magic popping in the air long before the source came into view. White light flashed again, brighter than before. An angry orange glow joined the strobe of lightning. The orange glow swelled until the clouds burned. There was no mistaking it. Fire. The shrieking grew louder.

Asterius bellowed for us to form a wedge. We fell in, panting up the slope. Tongues of flame leapt into the sky ahead, clawing angry at the rain. I hauled myself upward with sod between my fingers, rain striking tufts of smoke from my axe. The ozone smell of war spells was eye-watering now.

That familiar battle fear grew in my guts. What raged over the hill? Trolls? Golems? Against those we dared take a chance. But they were brutes without magic. And there were things bred for war fouler than any troll. Things on wings of shadow, unclad in the raiment of the world...

...Things with furnace eyes.

An oak rose into view, consumed by flame and boiling black smoke.

“Get away!” cried an unfamiliar voice.

We crested with myself and Asterius at the center, as ready for a fight as we’d ever be and knowing full well a fight was like to see us killed. A little valley unfolded below us, painted in bars of firelight that stretched between dead tree shadows. Tiny balls of smoke writhed in the muck, still shrieking that unmistakable rabbit squeal. Other wight-hares darted out of the shadows, heedless of danger, some of them on fire and heedless of that too.

Lightning snapped across the dell, scattered deer squealing in all directions, and left blue ghosts dancing in the air. A red deer fired back with a spell of their own, erased a tree in a blast of splinters. Another twisted through the mud on his belly, antlers smoking. I caught a glimpse of Haughty Hart in the cover of a boulder with filth streaked all down his neck, mouth open but shouts lost in the chaos.

A shape fled away up the next hill. Arrows flitted after them, wight-hares close behind. For a moment I thought that was our attacker, before yet another bolt of white scorched our ears and eyes. Whatever had escaped over the hill was no longer our concern.

“Break!” roared Asterius. He went right. I went left, sliding more than running. The wedge split in half down the scree and skirted wide around both sides of the dell.

I jumped the last few yards to the bottom, into the cover of a twisted elm. Roots snapped when I hit it. Bark peeled in great rinds down around my horns. The wood beneath was grey and spongy to the touch. Color spots danced in my eyes.

Other minotaurs crowded behind, scrambling through filth up to their knees. “Can you see it?” someone asked.

I risked a peek around the trunk. Nothing. Just blue afterimages.

Twenty yards to my right, Haughty Hart shouted something over the blood pounding in my ears. I cupped a hand over my right eye just in time, another pillar of white hammered the Hart's position, and light flashed between my fingers. Flecks of stone pricked my hand, sliced strips through bark.

In that instant I saw it. A silhouette just across the dell, highlighted in dazzling blue.

“There!” I pointed. Something like a deer ducked behind an arrow-riddled stump. Electricity crackled between its tiny horns. A pronghorn.

It occurred to me that pronghorns weren’t supposed to be our enemies. This was a citizen we were fighting to protect.

But there was no time to dwell. I motioned the others to follow me and slipped wide around the pronghorn’s flank. We splashed waist-deep down the length of a ditch. Deer continued zipping arrows from cover. At the time I wondered how on earth they kept missing. Now I know they were aiming to capture, not to kill.

The pronghorn refused to stay pinned. Lightning zig-zagged from tree to tree, strobing shadows across the hills. It felt like a whole storm was calling down on us. Thunder pounded our ears. I kept that pincushioned stump in sight while I slogged closer, and glimpsed Asterius doing the same across the dell. Asterius saw me too. He held up two fingers and made a fist. I lifted my own fist in reply. We waited for our moment.

“Get back!” the pronghorn shouted again. I couldn’t see him myself, not from that angle, but I could see his horns. Arcs of white danced between the twin tines. A wight-hare streaked out of the dark, caught a jagged bolt between the eyes, and flopped away screeching. Two more bore into the pronghorn at full speed.

Now was our chance to end this clean. I broke into a run up the embankment.

The clouds above parted. That was our only warning before the pronghorn exploded in a tremendous blast of thunder. There’s no other way to say it. He called a beam of lightning down on himself, and for an instant the dell was blue. There was a jolt. A punch in the air. The force put me down on one knee. Deer and minotaurs alike stumbled, howling, with hooves and hands to their eyes. If not for having my arm up, I’d have stumbled with them. Even with my face shielded that flash was blinding.

I stood, blinked my way forward, hearing nothing but a shrill whistle and my own pulse. The pronghorn’s stump was scattered in every puddle for fifty yards, and its roots were torches stuck in a crater. I stepped over a wight-hare, its long ears gone and fur burnt black. Couldn’t smell a thing but that pungent ozone stench, one eye full of afterimages.

The pronghorn could barely stand, one leg dragging limp, smoking crispy all over, and breathless scared. No, not scared. Desperate. Crackling blue jumped off those distinctive tuning-fork antlers. He saw me, jumbled backwards on three hooves, mouthed something like, “I said back!

I put my head down and charged him, eyes screwed shut, hooves pounding, shout swelling in my throat until it hurt. Lightning shot me through the chest. The dark blazed white behind my eyelids. Muscles all over froze hard as rocks, teeth crushed together, tail out straight behind. It had the effect of slowing me down not at all.

But it did make my fingers crush that much tighter when I grabbed him by the horn.

“Gonna take a lot more’n that,” I bit out through a locked jaw, and yanked the pronghorn into the air. It took effort to open my eyes.

He yelped and lashed out with three hooves, which accomplished nothing more than pawing my nose ring.

“Quit kicking,” I warned him. With the other hand, I brought my axe up under his face, right where he couldn’t help but see it. Raindrops sizzled on the steel.

He stopped flailing.

“Good catch, Bismuth,” came Asterius, looming out of the night, half of him orange in the firelight. His voice buzzed. He blinked hard and rubbed at eyes red with smoke. “Your horns are on fire.”

My hands were full. Asterius reached up for me and pinched the red-hot tips. They hissed faintly between his fingers.

The blazing oak toppled in half across the dell. A pillar of flames cut loose from the pile. The other minotaurs crowded around it, embers howling in their faces, hands outstretched. I felt the warmth from afar.

Haughty Hart strode up with mud still on his face and a murderous glint in his eyes. Or maybe that was just the fires burning.

“Foolish refugees!” His antlers gleamed. The mud caking his armor and fur vanished, leaving not a stain.

“Foolish wight-hares,” I corrected him, rubbing a knuckle in my half-blinded eye. “Can’t they learn to discriminate?”

The Hart fixed me with a glare, then turned back to the pronghorn dangling from my fist. His magic shield renewed itself with a shimmer. Within moments his armor and fur were dry.

He shouted, “What were you thinking, you witless little fool? We are dying for your people, and you attack us? What did you expect?” He snarled the last words.

The pronghorn was more mud than fur, and threadbare as an old rug. Faint rasping noises echoed in the hollow of his ribs. Blood trickled down one front leg. I expected whimpering. Instead, he only struggled for breath.

Then he said, “You… help us?

I hadn’t realized until he spoke how ancient the pronghorn was. The remnants of a white beard still sizzled on his chin. He looked the Hart in the eye and spoke in the voice of a glacier. “You have... destroyed… our home. Poisoned the… earth. You hunt us… with… monsters.

He drew in a long, shuddering breath. “What did you expect?

I was already mad. Mad from months in the dark, mad from the rain, mad from not being able to fight. I’d spent blood, lost friends, all in the name of people like him. For people everywhere. For Antilocapridus and a hundred other nations, none of which stand today. The pronghorn’s words… He broke something inside me. So I shook him until he rattled, and held him up to eye level.

I told him, “The Enemy destroyed your lands! Not us! Not the Alliance. Do you see any black deer among us?” I gestured with a sweep of my axe to the fires burning, to the deer licking their wounds. “But you. You did this.

I don't know why I said that. Probably more for myself than for his benefit. He didn’t care.

The pronghorn told me, and his eyes were just sad, “You… have… no... idea.”

And he was right. Little did I know.

It was difficult to get a read on Haughty Hart’s face, but I’d guess the pronghorn’s words set him off too, because I heard his teeth grind. He said something dismissive.

Asterius just stared at me.

“Captain!” Another deer materialized at a run between us and the fire. She slid to a halt with one hoof already up in salute.

“Adjutant.” The Hart sighed, eyes closed. I half expected him to berate her for the interruption, but if anything he seemed more annoyed at the use of teleportation in enemy territory.

She said, “We pursued the refugees as you ordered, milord, but…”

Her eyes flicked to me, then to Asterius. That glance breathed worry into my heart. The pronghorn must have felt the same. He sagged a little heavier.

“Well?” the Hart drew the question out far longer than was necessary. “Did you not find them?”

“No, sir, well, not exactly. Milord…” The scout looked back over her shoulder. “You must see this.”

“I appreciate the air of mystery, faron, but you waste air. Speak simply.”

“Alliance dead, milord.” She drew in a breath, paused overdramatically, then let it out. Now she refused to look at Asterius. “It appears to be auxiliaries.”

I almost dropped the pronghorn. The bottom fell out of my stomach.

“A full patrol at the least,” she added.

Asterius caught my eye and shook his head. As if that would calm me.

"Where?” he asked in that cold, granite voice.

She responded, “Two minutes south by southwest. The trail leads there directly.”

Haughty Hart worked his tongue over his teeth. His eyes shone like suns and pierced into the night. After a moment he shook his head. If his scrying spell had seen aught, he did not tell us.

“Set the pronghorn down,” he ordered.

I told him what I thought of that. Something like, “All due respect, but I’m not letting this one run off.” I squeezed tighter on the forked horn. My other fist strained around my axe till the knuckles burned, fingers clenched so tight it felt like it’d hurt more to unclench them.

“Bismuth,” said Asterius. “Look at him. He won’t be going anywhere. Not on that leg.”

The Hart telling me to do something was one thing. But Asterius telling me was another. I let the pronghorn fall, after I made it very clear that I’d rip his horns out if he zapped me again. My whole hand still tingled with pins and needles. Pronghorn antlers are like blades, and the sharp new crease through my palm was enough to hurt. Had to unfold the hand a few times to remind it how to work again.

“Surprised he had that much fight left in him,” said Asterius, pointing to the zapped spot on my chest.

Smoke twisted from a scorch mark just here, over my heart. The lightning might have killed a deer. As my anger waned, and the battle flooded out of my blood, pain and worry left my whole body clenching and shivering by turns.

“My name is Renald Risarin," said the pronghorn. His chest heaved. He looked up at us with the makings of defiance. "I am of the Jovai.”

Asterius’ eyebrows went up just enough to put tiny furrows through the star on his forehead.

Haughty Hart had the Jovus restrained. The pronghorn didn’t resist while one of the deer cast an immobilization spell around his hocks. Crystal chains sparkled in the firelight.

“I do not care what you do with me,” said the Jovus. “I have already bought time for my family to escape.”

“And in the process, doomed them.” The Hart stalked away. He turned to his scout, told her, “Adjutant, seeing as you have demonstrated such a fondness for teleportation, you shall escort the refugee back to our lines.”

The hind saluted one final time. An instant later she was gone, and the pronghorn with her. They vanished from sight without so much as a sound. All they left was a hole in the rain, and that was instantly filled.

I have no idea what became of him.

Nimrais,” said the Hart, meaning Asterius. “Get your kin ready to move.”

“Fall in.” Asterius looked over his shoulder. Every minotaur peeled away from the fires where they'd gathered, and came slogging to us. Asterius shrugged. "Done."

Tercáno,” said the Haughty Hart. His herald snapped to attention. “Relay our position to Cáno Restarin.”

“Yes, Captain!” The stag’s antlers shone with faint motes of green.

As he turned away, the Captain muttered, “There has been a change of objectives. We shall pursue those refugees.”

We marched in defilade along the trail of the escaped pronghorns. That is to say, the minotaurs went in front and the deer used us as cover. Behind them dwindled the dying fire of the dell, to which I admit casting more than one longing gaze. Asterius led the way, axe on his shoulder, with horns up and silver bands faintly gleaming. He had a compass, one that always pointed south, but he never used it. I swear he navigated by the constellations, even when the rest of us had forgotten the sight of stars.

“Should have brought that adjutant along,” I said to the back of his head. He grunted in reply.

It was easy to follow the tracks, despite the rain. Things in flight are seldom careful, and the runners tore deep scrapes and gouges in the mud. The rain had yet to fill them. But there was something odd about one particular set of tracks.

“Those aren’t rabbit footprints.” Asterius noticed it too. He knelt and traced the outline of a print.

“Not prong tracks either,” I said back. They were too round. And too big. Almost big enough to fill my own hoofprints. But they weren't cloven. I’d never seen such a hoof before.

"Horse, maybe." He sounded unsure. "But any horse that size would make deeper prints."

The butt of a spear impaled the track. I followed the shaft of it up to a deer's leg, then her armor, and finally her shadowed eyes.

"Is there a delay?" she asked in a sour tone. "What's this talk of horses? Are you tired? Do you wish for pack animals to carry your aching feet?"

"Only a course correction," Asterius told her, and his tone was a warning. He stood and unfolded high over her antlers. She backed away and returned to her master.

We kept moving, the puzzle of the mystery tracks quickly forgotten. We would find it soon enough. There was worse to worry over.

It wasn’t far to the place where the scout broke off her pursuit. We kept the ever-burning west horizon on our right. The ghosts of trees passed us by, flesh hanging from their bones.

Asterius found the corpses first.

The Alliance dead were auxiliaries, indeed. Worse, my fears were confirmed. They were minotaurs, every single one. The slain sprawled in a fen that might have once been a field, some submerged and others half-hidden in the tall grass. Armor and weapons alike lay shattered, their cloaks falling apart in sticky layers. Scrapes and ruts and hoofprints ravaged the earth all around, engorged with standing water. They’d gone down fighting. The fresh stench of death hid any leftover magic.

But not a single slain foe was to be seen.

“Bismuth.” Asterius beckoned me. His voice was quiet. The lines on his face cut deeper than ever.

He stood over a corpse all too familiar.

All I could say was “Oh…”

I knelt by my friend, and my heart sank. The corpse before us had unmistakable straight horns. One stuck out unbent from his temple. Its twin was snapped off in the mud. His long-handled knife was still sheathed under the remnants of a cloak rent to ribbons.

There was no doubt. It was Tung. I…

…I hope you never know how I felt.

Haughty Hart peered down, part of his invisible bubble sheltering Tung’s head.

“A friend?” he asked.

He was my brother. Not by your standards, maybe, much less a deer’s, but a brother in battle was a brother in blood. I cradled the knife in its warped scabbard.

Haughty Hart moved on without another word. The knee-deep water retreated ahead of him. In the cavity within his bubble there sank vast and ragged footprints. For his part, the Captain’s feet scarcely left marks at all. He strode from one body to the next, then in widening circles around the battlefield. The sickly grass that filled the fen had been savaged by whatever slew my kin. Entire swaths of it lay crushed beneath the water.

Tung’s vast sword was buried in mud under his crushed hand. The blade was badly stained and pockmarked, but what caught my eye were the fresh notches gouged in its edge, where some form of pulp still lingered. Wood fibers. I rolled some between finger and thumb, and knew instantly what had killed him.

“Only one of them did this.” The Captain had observed the signs and reached the same conclusion. “Some warrior stock you are.”

There was a time when a minotaur was a force to be reckoned with. But, truth be told, that time was brief. We were never completely resistant to magic, and the deer could always make stronger spells. We were obsolete, outdated, the bottom rung of a hierarchy of bigger and bigger fish. And with every passing day we fell lower on the ladder.

The war, as I have said, had escalated. The Hart was only twisting the arrow in the wound.

Asterius struck him with a glare that spelled murder.

“I could beat your hide with the antlers off your sorry head.” He gritted the words out slow, shook his head slower still. The star on his brow furrowed down over dead gemstone eyes.

“And you would be a cow-hocked fool to try,” replied the Hart. I saw the folded bow on his flank shimmer golden.

A trickle spilled from the blade of Tung’s knife, suddenly naked in my hand. I don’t remember drawing it. My head raced to catch up on just how fast things had gone deadly serious, while the rest of me worked out how best to stick that knife in Haughty Hart’s jaw.

“Captain!” The voice of the tercáno broke the spell. Every tine of his antlers shimmered green.

Haughty Hart didn’t take his eyes off Asterius. He asked, “What is it?”

His subordinate didn’t so much as glance at us. “A message. I believe it is from the Cáno, milord. Urgent.”

“Relay it.” The Captain forgot us in an instant.

I slammed Tungsten’s blade back into the scabbard and tried to decide whether I was relieved or disappointed.

The tercáno focused. His eyes went empty, and his mouth slack. Deer magic isn’t usually bright or pretty, not like your people's magic, but there are exceptions. This was one of them.

And that meant it was serious.

Beams of light intersected above the herald's head to form a bright square, all green. Then the square changed and was suddenly a hue of crimson. The fen took on the color of blood. Within the square, an image of a deer even taller than Haughty Hart flickered into being. The image held a pose of effortless grace. His spectral antlers stretched well beyond the square’s borders. The red lines of his armor glimmered around him. You could’ve seen the light show for miles, if not for the wards cast around us by other deer.

“Captain Hastur,” said the image of the Cáno. The commander’s voice was both clear and a whisper. It spoke in your head. “We have received your request for a change of orders. That request is denied. Rest assured that we hold the matter of the refugees to be noble. However, grave reports have just come to my attention.”

The image stuttered, paused, and seemed to wrestle with words that would not fit the proper shape.

“The Elken King is dead.”

The reaction was instantaneous. To the last, each deer lost all sense of composure. Even Haughty Hart had that startled-wide look in his eyes.

Asterius drew his head back just a fraction.

“We have also received reports that—” The Cáno paused mid-word. His head turned to a voice we could neither hear nor see. When he spoke again, there was a new urgency to his message.

“Hastur, retreat to the nearest picket line. Do you hear me? That is an order, Captain! Fall! Back!”

The image folded in on itself and vanished into glitters of green. The tercáno was crying. Several of the deer cried with him.

The Hart trembled. For a moment he was a lost fawn. Abandoned.

All I felt was numb. I looked to Asterius. He looked to us, his minotaurs. His people. We were lost, too. I don’t know that anybody ever felt so afraid and broken as we did right then... As every soldier in the whole of the Last Alliance must have felt. More than that, we felt forsaken.

Gil-Galad, the Elken King, had been defeated.

We were defeated.

At some point, I looked down. I looked down at Tung, I think. At his great sword, sawtoothed and full of wood pulp. And at that moment, a ripple washed through the fen. This was not the thousandfold little pitters of rain, but something more. Then it rippled again. The leading edge of the water lapped at my ankles.

It took a moment to register what I was seeing.

The third ripple passed through every soldier. Blades flashed from scabbards, and bows strung in the air around us. Asterius pressed his shoulder to mine, and everyone knotted together with shields overlapped. Nobody breathed.

The Hart's gold gaze shone with another scrying spell. His ears flipped up and his head whipped to one side. We strained to hear what he heard. This time I felt the ground shake. The tall grass swayed without wind. My lesser ears only barely caught the heavy tread of vast feet, somewhere distant at the edge of hearing.

Have you ever heard of a treant? Picture a tree, the largest tree you can imagine. Only make it bigger. Give it arms, legs. Now picture it with the will to move, to destroy. The smallest ones, the first ones, were little more than wooden golems. Some had deer wrapped up inside them. Trapped inside, really. We could fight those. But the things coming our way… They were something else. Something more.

We could take lumber bears. Most of us could face an ogre. Asterius was more than a troll's match. With the deer, we might’ve even slain a treant. Just one. But in that hour, staggering under that loss, we didn’t stand a chance.

The orders flew like arrows. Asterius rounded us up in marching formation. He bellowed at the top of his lungs to get it done. Haughty Hart must have felt overshadowed, because he did his best to shout even louder. It was chaos.

But I wasn’t going anywhere. Not yet.

I caught Asterius by the shoulder and said, “We can’t leave them.”

Asterius frowned. Then he nodded. “We won't leave them.”

Haughty Hart stopped shouting long enough to sputter, but Asterius’ glare would brook no argument. For once, the Captain respected that. He glanced into the dark, jaw tight, and ordered his deer to maintain the perimeter.

There were enough of us to go two to a corpse and still have some hands left over for rearguard. Asterius made sure of that. We made litters out of axes. Tung was carried out on shields.

Didn’t leave us ready for battle, but we didn’t plan on fighting.

“There might be others nearby,” I said. It was asking without asking. I squeezed Tung’s knife a little tighter.

“Might be more than that nearby,” growled Asterius. But it was plain he understood. He called over the last few of us not carrying our fallen, and told them, “You lot are with Bismuth. You’re our rearguard. Check east, check west, north. South. Make sure we’re not leaving anyone behind. Make sure we're not followed.”

He gripped a handful of my cloak. Tendons flexed against the skin. “You have one minute. Then we move.”

I put the burning horizon behind me and slogged east, to search further out over a nearby dike. That was the excuse, anyway. Wasn’t going to take long. Had my axe, but that wouldn’t save me if a treant or a vine was slouching out there in the dark. Most I could’ve done then would be to scream and give the others a chance. But I needed this. Needed a moment.

The grass other side of the dike was balled up on itself, grey and rotting, but still knee-high. I stopped there, out of sight. Stopped, and held Tung’s knife hard in my fist, so hard the scabbard squelched in the rain. Let the pain wash over my shoulders. Felt it cut red-hot down my spine. Just let it hurt, and let myself cry. Let it overcome me where no one could see. The rain ate the tears.

No telling how many times Tungsten saved my life. There was the one time in the changeling tunnels, deep down in the center of the hive where the black trees grew, when I thought for sure we’d never make it out. Tung didn't waver. He roped us together and he never let go. Then there was the time on the walls of the Hidden City, when the enemy’s armies filled the valley, and Kosomot came with ten thousand fires to wipe us away. Seemed a fool's hope to think we'd get out of that one alive. But Tungsten stood resolute, as graven as stone. He shouted his defiance from the parapet, and we shouted with him.

Asterius once said there was nobody in the world who had your back like Tung. He was right. I wish you could have met him. I wish it had been me in his place. And I wish all the harder now, because he was the one minotaur who would have known how to handle what came next.

In my grief, I almost didn’t hear the pony’s sobs.

Funny how you can ignore a sound if you’re not listening for it. Maybe her sorrow sounded too alike to mine. I don't know. It took me a minute to hear it, to realize I wasn't alone.

She huddled in the dark just five steps away, half-hidden in the tall grass. The source of the mystery hoofprints. She sat looking down, shoulders shaking. At her hooves lay the corpse of a quiet-eyed pronghorn. A white arrow sprouted from the pronghorn’s neck. It was an arrow she could only have caught fleeing the dell.

No telling how they gave the wight-hares the slip. All in vain.

The pony looked up at me, and the mud on her cheeks was cut by her tears. She was a little thing, peach-colored, hair all matted down and stained. She had a bow in her mane. I don’t remember what color that was. She was little, shivering and tired. Huddled up in the grass, all alone. But most of all she looked like... Like there was no fear left in her.

I didn’t know what to think. Guess she didn’t either. We just stared at each other for a time, trying to work out what to do. How to react. What to say. That was the first I’d ever seen a pony. She wasn’t half as colorful as I’d come to expect from the stories. She wasn’t even one of the "interesting" ones we'd all heard about. No horn, no wings. Just… Plain. Normal. It made her seem so much smaller, somehow.

Finally, she opened her mouth, and in the tongue of the pronghorns she asked a tiny, trembling: "Why?"

I tried to speak. To open my own tongue and let spill everything I knew. Every reason, every fact, every truth. But in that moment I realized that I didn't know. In that moment my tongue seized. Half-formed answers clogged in my throat and choked me down. All I could think of were questions.

Who smashed the moon?

Who locked the sun over Ungulos?

Who first turned weather into a siege engine?

What was a pony doing with pronghorns? Was she their ward? The Jovus’ favored pet?

How must I have looked to her, huge and horned in the dark, with an axe in one hand and a knife in the other? Did she see we shared our pain? Did she care?

Why war?

Why death?

Why, why, why?

The pony sniffled. Her eyes flicked to something over my shoulder.

The Hart’s voice shocked me. He said in my ear, “Don’t just stand there.”

I turned, half-opened my mouth.

His bow snapped open, long arms like blades. He pulled an arrow to a string of magic gold. Before I could move, while I still thought he saw a threat behind the pony, he bent that bow and shot her. It went snap.

She didn't protest. She didn't even look surprised. She fell back, mouth twisted open, cried a little sound like a whimper. The flights fluttered in the rain, pinned to her chest.

All I could do was gape and stare. She barely so much as writhed, eyes wide open. Opened her mouth to breathe and couldn’t do it. Just a tiny squeak and a tremble.

Less than a sob.

“Why!?” I lashed out at him, but only with that one word. My arms were lead, too heavy to move. Just flapped around and shouted. And with a start, I realized I'd merely passed on her question.

“What, would you have me leave it to wander in the dark?” The Haughty Hart frowned. He frowned confused. “It would have given away our position. Under torture or out of hate, it would have. It would have.”

It.

“I could have carried her,” I pleaded. I could have saved her.

“Then carry it!” he said. As if he was justified. As if it didn’t matter. His eyes stabbed into the dark east, then cut back to the ever-burning west.

The pony opened her eyes, and rain pooled in them. A high, thin sound came out of her. In an instant, my arms and legs came unstuck. Axe and knife dropped forgotten to the mud. Time skipped and I was at her side, lifting her gently in one hand, cradling her head in the other. She tried one more time not to breathe. She shuddered. A trace of a whimper. It hurt her so much.

The Hart hissed, impatient to flee. “Well? Put the thing out of its misery!”

She was no more to him than a wight-hare. Just an animal in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the only cure he could offer for her suffering was death. I didn’t know how to respond. All I could do was stare at him, at his wide, callous eyes full of fear, and then at her.

Her eyes tore right through me. All that was there was resignation. She clenched them tight again, teeth gritted against the pain, and trembled. Did she even notice my face? Did she care? I wanted to say something. But what words did I have? She wriggled in my arms, just barely, as though trying to get comfortable. I cupped her to the scorch mark just here, out of the rain. She was so light. If nothing else... I could provide some pale measure of warmth, ere the end.

Too late. She never moved again.

The Haughty Hart lifted the pronghorn from a distance, her mud and fur alight with that thin gold sheen. The body floated to him and he looked down at her, a heavy sigh on his lips. The ground shook beneath us, harder now, enough that I probably heard it some way or other. But I didn't care.

“Where are you going?” I snarled after him. My throat was stuffed with coal.

He just frowned again. And he said, and these words I will never forget, he said:

“The Cervidae and the Antilocapridae are as the minotaurs. We do not leave our own behind.” He didn't even hear the irony in his words, but for the first time there was a sadness in his voice. "I said I would find the pronghorns. At the very least, the Jovus should be able to bury his daughter."

He glanced once more into the east. Then he turned and was gone.

I wanted to kill him. I wanted to run after him and take an arrow from his quiver and jam it in his neck. I wanted to. But I didn’t. It was too late. The dead were dead, and I saw no point in making more.

In that instant it dawned on me. Suddenly I knew. I saw the facts and I saw the truth. The war… We all told ourselves we fought for the right side. The just side. The side of the ivory towers, and the beautiful deer, and the Elken King. We lied to ourselves. Dark fortresses or white towers, it didn't matter. We all played our part to destroy this world. We ripped it apart. The black deer and the elk, the red and the white, the minotaurs, and everyone else.

The harder we fought, the more we sacrificed, the more like our Enemy we became. The dead were dead, and the blood was on my hands, too.

That’s what still haunts me. Not the fact that I let the Hart live, but that I let him kill. My inaction. That is my greatest guilt. It sleeps in my skin. It lurks in every memory.

I... Somehow we made it away that night, under cover of spells and darkness. It was a near thing, but Asterius saw us through. He saw us all through.

He helped me bury Tung. He helped me bury her.

That was the last I ever saw him. Asterius left ere the cold dark dawn, to call a Moot of all the elders and chieftains of our kind. Where they met was secret even to me, but they were betrayed. Wiped out, sealed away. Killed to the last. I must have followed him into hell at least a dozen times… But I couldn’t follow him then.

It all fell apart in the end, the Alliance. Those who lived to see victory would, in time, see even their closest friends as foes. That was the Enemy's last, cruelest victory. The minotaurs, those of us who survived, were cast to the four winds. A few now live among you. Some have taken your names. Others sail the seas. Most, like myself, were asked to secret away objects of great power and stand watch over them, from now until the end of our days. But for centuries I truly thought I was alone. The last. And the deer, for their part, retreated from the world.

We’d find out later just how the Elken King fell, how the Enemy tore us all down when he tore off the King's antlers. There were dark times before, and there have been dark times since, but none can compare to that news in the fen or the tragedy it accompanied. That long night with no end in sight. That year of floods and fires, and the years that followed. Even when the peace was finally brokered, the sun returned, the moon remade, it all seemed too little too late.

It was lifetimes after the war when I last saw a deer. Midnight Castle rose and fell. The Crystal Demesne was granted in allodium. The long winter came and went. With Tungsten’s knife, I’d hacked out a home for myself in the woods not far from here, where your Clover the Clever later found me. Saved me.

This was spring, and the trees were alive. The day was bright, the air was warm. It seems a little thing even to you, such weather. But I lived through the days when the sun wandered lost and the moon was a broken plate. Believe me when I say it took generations for the green to come back to the earth, for the trees to blossom again. For warmth to return. Even after the weapons of war were put away, even after the weather was tamed, it took so long. So much work.

Ponies know that better than most, I'd say. So much of that work was theirs. Yours. This world would be so much less without your new brand of magic, your weather, your planted seeds.

The deer. Forgive me, little ones, for being so old. I’m trailing off. Put another log on the fire, will you?
It was in the meadow on the way to the village that… Well, the village isn’t a village now. It’s a town. But it was a village then, and I was on my way to check up on it, to watch from afar and see that all was well. I stepped into a meadow and there he was… The most magnificent hart you ever saw, just a few yards away. A red deer, full in his prime, with ribbons of moss strung in his many-tined antlers. Nothing else on him but mud and ticks and his coat of fur.

We stopped. He saw me, and I saw him. He had flowers in his mouth, and he chewed them while we watched each other.

I looked for any trace of gold in his eyes, for the faintest spark of recognition. But there was nothing there.

Only black eyes. Empty, aimless.

When I stepped forward, he fled. His tail shot up and he was gone, bounding into the forest without a sound. And even then I felt the urge to kill him.

The deer destroyed more than nature, little ones. They destroyed their allies, and they destroyed themselves. All they built, they tore down, and all they left behind were hurts and wounds. Few remain that are not broken. Fewer still would have dealings with you or I. That is the harvest of war. Ask your teachers what I've told you, and they will not deny it.

When your people found me, I was broken too. My days were sick and lonely, my nights poisoned by the memory of the Haughty Hart... And my lack of action. But you fixed me like you fixed the world. You rose to the challenge. You learned from our mistakes. You struggle and strive, and you have made so much. You gave me this beautiful quilt of so many colors, and these beautiful friendships.

You gave me peace.

When we made war, the only heirlooms we left were monsters and dangerous artifacts. Some will threaten you, one day. I cannot grant you that which I guard. But there is one thing of value I can give to you. One thing for you to inherit. Keep it ever with you for as long as you both live, and I believe you will live long indeed. Longer than your teachers. Longer even than I. Pass it to your subjects, and on to their children, and to their children's children. It goes like this:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Your Clover the Clever told me that. He came by the quote from a different Starswirl. And I know it’s true, whether or not the words are his.

Now swear to me. Swear on the crowns you've been given. Swear on the lessons taught by all your other teachers. Swear by the sun, and the moon, and the stars. Swear to me... Even if you must fight... Even if the hawks outnumber the doves... That you will never forget those words.


Author's Note:

Infinite thanks to my proofreaders and friends, whose eyes are exhausted from reading it, and discussing it, and editing it. Special thanks go out to Grub, who might as well be credited co-writer. And to Levy, whose brains and fresh eyes were the key to crafting the final version of this story. To Dec, for taking the time to read it and provide his thoughts (they helped). And to Ad and Travis, who put up with MLP for no good reason and were always there to provide advice. And finally to Jetfire, for making the glue that stuck so many of us to this fandom, and inspired this story.

And if this story is still garbage, it isn't through any fault of theirs.

Final quote from Martin Luther King Jr. Those words were the seeds that planted this story. Never forget them.

Comments ( 31 )

That must have been the 4th time I've read this, and each time you've added enough to make it feel fresh, at least to me. After all the revisions, I have to say it finally feels complete, though you probably feel it could be more.

It now fully reads like a story being told, which was something I had a problem with before(not being consistent, I mean). Also, the climax is far more personal now, which I love. I couldn't quite place the pony's age, whether or not she was supposed to be a filly was unclear, but you did a good job with Bismuth's emotions here. IT made me feel things, and I like being made to feel because my rock of a heart don't feel much anymore. Need an artificial fix.

My only complaint(give it time, I may come up with something else) would be Bismuth's... almost rambling at the end. He goes off on one or two tangents, only reeling it in at the end. It fits, for the most part, but it irks me.

Over all, though, I liked it. People should read this. It's good, yo

I liked this, and it only affirms my opinion that you should write more like it, in a world of your own. Write of minotaur and deer, but in your own world, free from the My Little Pony universe. It an even be similar, but write it. You are extremely skilled at writing, and every story I read from you is enthralling enough to read to the end.

This one was no exception. The story moved from one scene to another with a smooth pace. The way it shifted between the character telling the story and the story taking place in the "present" weaved together well enough that I would say it isn't a bad thing that tenses shifted slightly.

As for the characters themselves, i felt I could know the main character, though Alterius and the Haughty Hart were somewhat carciature-like as the honorable commander and the set-in-his-ways, contemptible commander, respectively. There wasn't anything that really stood out away from those archetypes, save perhaps the Hart's decision to take the body of the pronghorn beside the pony he killed. Though when I read that part, I wasn't entirely sure of his character. Was he trying to sympathize with our main character? Or was it something else? I'm not sure, and I don't think it was very clear why he did pick up the body and carry it with him.

I did like the moments when the main character referenced memories of Tungsten, and by extension, Alterius in the slight aside. That gave the three minotaurs more character, even if it was only for a bit. Though, of course, it's a double edged sword, as aside from those three, there were not any other characters of note in the minotaur band. Of course, as this is a personal story, perhaps that's not necessarily needed in a short piece like this. The others are just nameless soldiers fighting in a war they don't really have a stake in.

I didn't find anything wrong in the grammatical department, aside from one moment where you had two sentences separated with a comma, but no coordinating conjunction. But, since it's your style, and every time I point it out, you say it's not necessary to be completely grammatical, I'll refrain from pointing it out specifically.

Overall, the quality is one I expect from you. I'm curious about the minotaur and what part he has to play. I also wonder at his telling of such a dark and violent story to "little ones", as he mentions in the beginning. I'm not entirely sure it's appropriate, especially to little ponies, since they seem more innocent than most of the worldly creatures in the MLP-verse.

I enjoyed it, Wiz, and I reiterate that I would also enjoy a brand new universe of your own detailing, perhaps, this minotaur's band in similar conditions. Stuff like Dragonlance. You'd do well at it, as evidenced here. This alternate universe that you have here already is enough to create dozens of books while not being completely fan fiction if you decide to sell it.

If you'd like me to say anything else, or if you have any questions, let me know and I'll answer them. I may not have gone over everything you want me to for the story.

I love the emotions in this story. The pain, the sorrow, the fear, the hope... they bleed like bright ink through the words. You handled the narrator's sensations wonderfully. The reconciling of the sapient deer with the pet deer from "Filli Vanilli" was also smartly handled.

And of course, as the originator of the lore you're drawing on, I'm honored to see it handled with such love and care. Thank you.

This is a very well-written story, from beginning to end. I like the tale and the idea of a world before Equestria, when deer and minotaur served as fantasy-esque progenitor races of sorts. I enjoy the depth of emotion you've displayed here, and identify with Bismuth quite well. I think the storytelling angle, putting him as the narrator, also made it easier to attach to it emotionally. I feel like more could have been gleaned from the story had I read any of the previous material in the lore, but I'm trying not to get too engrossed until I start writing my own stuff. And in any case, I feel like this was self-contained, and didn't require much pre-reading to get through. I don't want to seem insulting or demeaning to anyone, either, but there is a lot of less than stellar quality in writing on this website, and I'm glad to say this rises above at least common fanfiction.

5615584

Thanks! Those were all bulletpoint goals I was aiming for, so... it's a big relief to know the story succeeded there, at least. And really there is no previous material, besides references to Lord of the Rings (and those probably don't count? not sure).

Again, thanks for the review. If I may ask, were there any aspects of the writing you saw that I could improve on?

Comment posted by LemonPeanut12 deleted Feb 12th, 2015
Comment posted by LemonPeanut12 deleted Feb 12th, 2015

5616569

I'm not quite sure I'm a good enough writer to comment on that. Maybe someday.

How does this only have eight replies? Seriously, the brands in the dark. A moment that you look, see, hear, and understand that war never should be an answer. You don't have to say anything, but its shown so clearly that only broken items remain. Bravo on a harrowing saga told well.

Interesting, but it does feel like it would work better if it were a bit more original... either in terms of the fantasy, or even the setting.
I mean

Gil-Galad, the Elken King, had been defeated.

Cringe.

6214731 No, I feel you. I love fanfiction, but it is to original work what McDonald's is to... I dunno, maybe upscale, one-of-a-kind restaurants with long waiting lists.

In defense of that particular cringe moment, though, this story was written as an homage to Dangerous Business by Jetfire, which was the main reason I got into My Little Pony at all, and which featured several LOTR references (the main one being the use of the Gil-Galad name in a song). I used the name because it seemed a half-measure to declare The Weak an homage without having at least one explicit reference, and the only time I spoke with Jetfire, we talked about the elken king.

Thanks for the comment, and I sincerely hope you missed any other cringe-y moments.

Well this story was a surprise to read. Your descriptions were beautiful, and their evoked emotions spot on. Pacing was excellent, but I had expected a larger action as the climax that brought on his revelations on violence and war. Still, there's beauty and impact in simplicity, and perhaps it was its contrast with my expectations that made it resonate so well. The ending felt rambly, but it wrapped up well and kept in line with the almost-framing story you blurred into the narrative so perfectly.

This story made my day. You have earned yourself a new follower.

I faved this so hard I made my mouse explode.

6256852

This comment made my day. Thank you for it. Huge relief every time a story works exactly as intended and finds its target audience!


6256915

RIP mouse, its sacrificew ill be rembered.

Seriously though, I had to do a doubletake when I saw your avatar here. No notifications whatsoever. Thanks, and super glad you enjoyed the story!

PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

Wow, this was brilliant. I was hesitant, because I've yet to read Jetfire's stories, but I needn't have worried. Excellent work, all around!

This is the best pony fic I have read in ages, and certainly good enough to stand side-by-side with its influences.

6909429

Thank you greatly and muchly, especially since I now have some reading to steal from your bookshelves.

6832024

Thanks, P.Perfecto. And BTW, "Tolkien-after readers" can only be one of two things: fans of Thomas Covenant, or fans of Sword of Shannara. And if somebody is both, well, that's why we invented witch hunts.

While this is a great story, the only thing important I took from this was that Clover the Clever is a displaced MLK, Jr.

The smell I remember clearest. It was the smell of magic, sharp in the air, wrought of cruelty. The cloying ash, the smoke of burning hair.

I don't believe that's what "cloying" means. If something is "cloying," it means that it obviously appeals to emotions in a tired, clichéd way. Synonyms of "cloying" are "maudlin" and "saccharine."

7064739

You're very close, but "cloying" mainly disgusts or sickens (usually through the sappy and the overly-dramatic, though). I tried to use the word artistically here to put readers in Bismuth's head, because to his nose those smells would be some of the most tired cliches in all of history.

It is a enthralling story. I will check everything you've written so far, hoping to find more of such ;) I'm not a writer, and lack a will to comment every aspect but know that I admire your work. It fits perfectly to the atmosphere after reading Schemering Sintel a day before yesterday and I am grateful for a chance to read this.

7332012

Thank you! That's the first I've heard of Schemering Sintel, but it's definitely caught my attention with that synopsis. Funny that you should come straight from a story about Spike to my stories... I'll definitely have to give this a read.

A well-written and somber read.

9329755
Thank you. BTW, the quote at the top of your FIMfic user page was my brother's favorite.

9342874
It is a quote worth remembering.

7064739
It took three years for me to take your advice. But it led me to my new favorite word of archaic definition. Thank you.

Magnificent, haunting work, doing so much to explain Equestria as we find it in the show amid an atmosphere of tarnished ideals and the horrors they birthed. Thank you for it.

At long last, there's a minotaur tag if you want to add it to this gem.

10013087
Will do, thanks for the heads up.

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