• Published 13th Jan 2016
  • 1,567 Views, 66 Comments

The Old Country - Astrarian



Spike's been here before. He's sure of it. Except... he hasn't. The northern border of Yakyakistan is so far from Ponyville it might as well be another world entirely. So why does it feel like he's already home?

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Part One

‘Worm.’

The insult jolted Spike from his daydream of bubble baths and gem banquets back to bitter reality.

“Excuse me?” he demanded of Twilight, whirling around to face her.

Twilight Sparkle also jerked out of a reverie. “What?” she replied, eyes wide.

“Didn’t you – call me –?”

An icy gust of wind silenced Spike. As it hit, he realised the wind had changed. All day, it had nipped the tips of his scales from below. Now it came from above. It broke over the ridge-top like a wave, complete with white spray, then blasted down the hill and drenched him.

The gust stole his breath and left him shivering, just like a wave of water would. It also filled his mouth and nose with a strong, musky smell. It was so intense that for a few moments, Spike could do nothing but wallow in it, stirred to think of darkness, and flowers, and snow, and –

“Spike?”

Twilight stared at him in dismay, shivering with cold. Spike’s incredulity cooled. Twilight wouldn’t insult him.

A shaggy-shouldered yak plodded up behind her. Finding the path blocked by Twilight and Spike, he grunted questioningly. Twilight apologised, as Spike realised they’d lost ground in the trekking party.

“I thought I heard you say something,” Spike said, turning back to the path. “It must’ve just been the wind.”

He meant it as an excuse, but another frozen flurry brought the voice with it again, stinging his inner ears. ‘Worm,’ it sighed, nothing like Twilight’s voice, or anypony else’s for that matter. The unique smell filled his nose again: earthy, woody, almost sweet.

With each forward step his knees cried out for rest. The path turned steep again, so he took a deep breath, expecting the cold to snatch it away. To his surprise, the tightness seeped out of his chest, and his knees felt less sore. He could breathe properly for the first time all day, and took another cold, aching lungful.

Spike looked up from the uneven ground for the first time in hours, wondering where the smell came from. He couldn’t see any new types of plants, just the same old bleak view of grey mountains and grey sky and grey snow.

Outer Yakyakistan, the mountain range that formed Yakyakistan’s northern borderlands, was an inhospitable place. No-pony lived here, not even the yaks themselves, although they claimed their enemies did. As if. It was too wild and dangerous – and so cold! Twilight kept gushing about its ‘natural beauty’, but Spike hadn’t seen any yet.

Several times a year, the yaks sent a special Royal patrol to Outer Yakyakistan. They did this to ensure their alleged enemies weren’t trespassing in their country. Twilight, against Spike’s wishes, had chosen to join Prince Rutherford on such a patrol.

So at first, Spike resented Outer Yakyakistan just because he didn’t want to be there. That he didn’t think the yaks were worth knowing didn’t help. Then he disliked Outer Yakyakistan because whenever the sun came out the glare on the snow hurt his eyes. The yaks still weren’t worth knowing, and by then he was pretty sure they didn’t like him either.

It had been five days, and the path now lacked the common decency to stay even and just head straight uphill. The constant rise and fall of the track as it zigzagged up the side of the mountain drove Spike mad. Uphill was hard work, while downhill made his knees ache. And he could never catch his breath.

His frustration with the terrain came to the forefront again once his strange burst of energy faded. At least the path had become sheltered from the fierce wind by an outcropping above. Maybe Twilight had enough energy to carry him. He looked over his shoulder, meaning to drop back, but Twilight had dropped back to talk to the last yak.

Spike couldn’t hear what they were saying. It was sure to be boring, since yaks were terrible conversationalists. Yet Twilight suddenly laughed, her giggle pealing through the air. Spike frowned for a moment, until he realised she was probably just laughing politely.

Spike beckoned her forward. With what looked like a spring in her step, Twilight joined him.

“How much farther are we gonna walk?” he asked.

“We’ll stop when the yaks are ready,” Twilight answered.

“So never, then,” Spike said. He glanced at Twilight’s back, covered by a thick woollen coat that trapped her wings. Although the coat was a gift, the yaks insisted Twilight wear it at all times.

Spike and Twilight both expected Rarity to be appalled by the coat’s artistic design as soon as she saw it. Apparently the coat depicted a famous duel between a yak prince and a deer prince. What it actually did was make the fight look like two brown potatoes trying to beat each other into mash.

Looking at the coat made Spike wish Rarity was here. Rarity would be far more sympathetic to Spike’s frustrations with the hike. She wouldn’t be leaving him alone so she could talk to the yaks either.

He also wished Rainbow Dash was here because she’d pester Twilight into flying. Spike could understand why Twilight wouldn’t teleport, but not her refusal to fly. Flying would make her journey so much easier, and Spike’s too by association. He was so light that she wouldn’t even feel him on her back, and they’d been hiking for four days too many for Spike to care what the yaks would think of him if Twilight gave him a lift.

Except that wasn’t entirely true. A question from his past mocked him whenever he wished that Twilight would use her wings: “You fly in on your mommy’s back during the migration?” At least this way, the yaks had no particular reason to think of him as weak. But that didn’t make the pain of hiking much easier to endure.

Furthermore, another part of him was glad their friends weren’t here. Spike rarely spent quality time with Twilight these days. She was so busy with her Princess duties that she even spent her free time working. This adventure had at least given just the two of them the chance to spend quality time together. Or it would have if Outer Yakyakistan hadn’t turned out to be so grim.

Ahead of them, Prince Rutherford reached a sharp turn and shouted something. Since yelling was Rutherford’s main virtue, Spike couldn’t tell if the prince was happy, sad, or frothing with classic yak rage. He didn’t care, either. A minute later, though, the sound of falling rocks did make him look up again. Prince Rutherford had vanished, but he soon reappeared on the ridgetop above them.

“We camp here,” he declared in a voice so loud Spike worried he’d cause an avalanche. “View beautiful.”

Twilight grinned at Spike. “Not far now,” she urged.

The track led into a steep and narrow gully. It looked difficult to climb. Fortunately, each time Spike reached a spot that had looked tricky from below, he saw there were many footholds available.

Yet knowing the day was almost over somehow exhausted him completely. He dragged himself up the last few chilled rocks, claws slipping against ice and loose stone. With the lip of the ridge in sight, he grinned to himself.

Twilight chose that moment to lift him up and over the final rock with her magic.

Irritation flared inside him. If you’d just fly you wouldn’t have to help me in the first place, he thought.

All around Prince Rutherford, the yaks were establishing camp with astonishing speed. Spike tottered forward into the wind breakage provided by one of the yaks’ traditional tents – gers, he reminded himself – and threw his bag down. He flopped down on top of it, since it was too cold to lie on the grass.

“At last,” he moaned. “I thought we’d never stop.”

Completing her climb, Twilight gasped. “Oh, wow, look at the view!” she cried. “Spike, isn’t that amazing? I think this is the prettiest camp so far.”

Rolling his eyes, Spike began to rub his tender feet. “Whatever. I’m so ready to go home. There’s a spa session with my name on it. I bet Rarity’ll come with me once she sees the state of my claws.”

Twilight nuzzled him, but apparently the view was so wonderful she couldn’t keep her eyes off it for long. “I know you’re fed up, Spike,” she said, trotting a few steps away. “But I’m glad you came with me. I couldn’t have negotiated this trading contract without your help. And don’t you think it’s been exciting accompanying Prince Rutherford? Seeing the yaks in their homeland really helps me understand their culture.”

“I’d rather be in my homeland.”

‘Home,’ moaned the voice again.

Spike jumped. He glanced around, seeking the voice’s source, but no-pony was even paying attention to him. Some yaks were raising the wooden frames of their gers. Others covered such frames with decorated felt and canvas.

“Something wrong, Spike?” Twilight asked.

Spike turned her way. “Didn’t you hear that?”

Twilight levitated a small journal and a quill out of her saddlebags, her back turned to Spike. Her purple coat gave much needed colour to a landscape that, on first glance, was beyond dreary. But upon a second look, the view behind Twilight held Spike’s attention.

The lands north of Equestria weren’t just a massive frozen wasteland. In the last couple of days, as they moved north, the wind had blown away most of the deep snow, exposing icy shrubs cowering close to the ground. Now the mountains themselves gave way to a grand expanse of sky. Below, a narrow band of alpine forest clung to the other side of the ridge. Beyond, a snowy steppe spread to the horizon. Like water around an island, rippling grass flowed around a lonely mountain, which jutted towards the grey sky.

It wasn’t a beautiful view. But it was captivating. Spike stepped out of the ger’s protection, entranced. The wind scraped his face, filling the air with herbaceous perfume once more, and also hushing Twilight’s response.

A grey scar slashed the side of the distant mountain. A spot of darkness within the scar drew Spike’s eyes like a magnet. The hole must be an entrance to a cave. The longer Spike looked at it, the surer he became.

A sense of familiarity grew inside him, spreading through his body in a chill. He’d smelled this fragrance long ago. He’d seen this view before too, and not in a painting or a photograph. His bones began to ache as what he saw with his actual eyes and what he saw in his mind’s eye fused together.

Somewhere inside that mountain, ancient forces had carved out a great natural cathedral. Thousands of alabaster spikes, stalactites, hung from the ceiling. Bright gemstones glittered in the walls. The floor was covered in white sand, deep enough to hide invaluable treasures. . . things so precious no pony or centaur or dragon could afford them, though they were never for sale.

Wait. What?

Spike had no time to dwell on such a strange thought. Water poured into the massive chamber above him and rushed past his body, pushing at his arms and legs, encouraging him to join the flow. But he resisted, like always. The water roared on, continuing its journey to places unknown.

Something woke up. A great presence shifted. Far below the surface of the black, black water, two eyes kindled. Huge bubbles floated up to the surface and burst, glinting with green fire. Emerald eyes stared into emerald eyes.

‘Worm,’ the disembodied voice sighed again. Only it wasn’t a sigh, it was a gale that rushed out of the dark into the light. ‘Home,’ it called, blasting towards him, dank and strong, and yet so, so lonely.

“Spike!”

Spike cringed at the volume of Twilight’s voice. She was standing right beside him.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Spike struggled to swallow. The woody fragrance coated the back of his dry throat. Comparisons to cream and smoke and other thick things ran through his mind. None of them were right – above all else, the aroma was unique.

“Spike!”

“I don’t know,” Spike said quickly. The sound of his own voice helped to steady him. “I keep hearing a voice, like someone’s talking to me, but there’s no-pony there.” Spike paused. “And I feel like I’ve been here before.”

“Like déjà vu?”

Spike shook his head again. “I mean I have been here before, Twilight. I can feel it in my bones.”

“But how could you have been? Neither of us has been to Yakyakistan before.”

“I don’t know. I just have.”

“Maybe you dreamed it,” Twilight suggested. “We did spend a month planning this visit.”

“Maybe,” Spike conceded, frowning. “But I just know there’s a cave over there in that mountain.” He pointed to the far-distant hole in the mountain. “I know there’s a big cave underground with a. . . a river, and there’s a beach – well, not a beach, but there’s sand. . .”

He scratched his head. A few seconds passed.

“Maybe it’s something else,” Twilight said. “I wonder if the yaks know anything about that mountain. Come on. Let’s ask.”

They walked over to Prince Rutherford, who was kindling a campfire in the lee of a half-built ger. Wisps of rising smoke masked the sweet, earthy smell on the wind.

“Ponies,” he greeted loudly. “Ponies like view?”

“Very much,” Twilight said.

“Yaks save best view for last,” Rutherford said. “Tomorrow we go back home, to Ulaanyakyak.”

“Not that way?” Spike pointed at the mountain, which was becoming a silhouette in the gathering dusk.

“That not Yakyakistan.”

“It’s not?”

“Snow not perfect.”

“That’s why it’s not part of Yakyakistan?” Spike curled his lip. “Not that it’s too far away or too cold? Not everything has to be the same as Yakyakistan.”

“It might be like Equestria,” Twilight agreed.

“Not like pony home,” Rutherford disagreed. “No friends there.”

Twilight chewed her lip for a moment. “Do your enemies live there?”

“Smelly deer live here,” Rutherford growled, as the other yaks muttered to one another.

Spike barely contained his scoff. Twilight gave him a look that told him he was failing to keep his disbelief off his face.

“You mean the musk deer live here, in these mountains?” Twilight asked Rutherford.

“Yes.”

Spike rolled his eyes. They hadn’t seen any living souls other than themselves for the entire trip. Musk deer didn’t exist, except as a sign of yak narrow-mindedness.

“So you don’t have an enemy who lives on the steppe,” Twilight clarified.

Rutherford snorted. “Dragon dangerous,” he said.

Those two simple words obliterated Spike’s contempt and made Twilight gasp. “You’ve seen a dragon down there?” Spike exclaimed.

“Me not see.”

“Then how do you know there’s a dragon?”

“Yaks know.”

“That’s not good enough,” Spike objected.

Twilight nodded. “I’m sorry, Prince Rutherford,” she said, “but just saying that you know isn’t exactly satisfying.”

Rutherford flung one hoof out as though he was making a grand speech. “Yaks explore many moons ago. Perhaps make land part of Yakyakistan. Or make smelly deer live there.”

One yak stamped his hoof. “Uh-huh!”

“Yaks go far, out of sight,” Rutherford continued. “Yaks wait and wait here for friends. One night yaks endure bad storm. Ground shake. Sky on fire. Then yaks see dragon on mountain. Soon, one yak return home to Yakyakistan. Other yaks gone. Very hard trip.”

Prince Rutherford shook his head and dropped his hoof. “Not like Yakyakistan.”

The other yaks murmured appreciatively or harrumphed in agreement. Spike waited for Rutherford to keep speaking. He didn’t. Well, for a yak, that short speech was quite grand.

“Do you know what happened to the other yaks?” Twilight asked.

“Maybe dragon eat yaks.”

“Dragons eat gems,” Spike protested. “I-I mean, among other things. But not yaks. You can trust me on that.”

Prince Rutherford remained silent.

“Seriously,” Spike said. “I mean, I am a dragon.”

“Yaks still gone,” said Rutherford.

Spike glanced at Twilight. He didn’t need to: she was already nodding at his unspoken request. It might be dangerous for them to investigate, but they had to, and Twilight wasn’t about to let him go alone. After all, she was almost as interested as he was in his origins.

She turned back to the yaks. “Prince Rutherford, we’ve had a wonderful time here in Yakyakistan,” she said. “We’ll be trading partners as well as friends for a thousand moons.”

The yaks cheered.

“But I think Spike and I have to leave you here.”

The cheers transmuted into mutters. “Yaks not understand,” Rutherford said, frowning.

“Spike?” Twilight said, and a dozen hairy heads swung to stare at him.

Spike swallowed. “Eh-heh. . . Um, I don’t know if you actually noticed, since you keep calling me a pony too, but I’m actually a dragon. Obviously. Uh, the thing is, I don’t know anything about where I come from.

“I tried finding out more about dragons once. It didn’t go so well. I mean, I learned that what I was born as isn’t as important as who you want to be, but I didn’t learn anything about my past. But I feel like I’ve been here before. There’s a cave over there and I know what it looks like.” He pointed with his claw, and the yaks looked at the faraway mountain as one.

“Maybe this is where I came from,” Spike said. “Maybe I’m remembering something that I only saw as an egg. All I really know is that I want to go see for myself. I think. . . I think I need to.”

Some of the yaks were sniffling. “Story sad,” Prince Rutherford said.

“Yeah, I guess.” Spike sighed. He looked down at the pale steppe, following it with his eyes to the solitary mountain. “Maybe it won’t be any more if we find something out there.”

“Yaks help,” Rutherford said.

Shock dropped Spike’s jaw. He stared at the yak prince. “Huh?”

“Yaks go with ponies. Make story not sad.”

“Prince Rutherford, you don’t have to,” Twilight said. “This isn’t official Equestria business. We don’t want to interrupt your patrol.”

“Ponies and yaks friends,” Prince Rutherford answered firmly. “Yaks help. Maybe yaks find lost yaks.”

Spike didn’t know how to answer. He’d never expected such an offer and felt altogether off-balance. Combined with his certainty that being here was the most important thing to have happened to him all year, there was a weird combination of feelings bubbling in his stomach.

“Thank you,” Twilight said for them both.

The group of yaks grunted at one another. “Yak party?” one rumbled.

Prince Rutherford gave a guffaw that reverberated in the earth. “Tomorrow we go. Tonight, we show you yak party. Always party before adventure. YAK PARTY!”

In a boisterous flurry of noise and excitement, the yaks returned to their tasks around the camp. Prince Rutherford well-nigh bounded away to help complete the construction of another ger.

Twilight sat down beside Spike. “Uh, what just happened?” Spike asked. The herbaceous smell came and went depending on the strength of the campfire’s smoke.

“I think we’re about to see a traditional yak party,” Twilight said, grinning. Then she changed the subject. “Just think, maybe by this time next week we’ll be able to tell everypony back home where you come from.”

“I hope so,” Spike replied, his eye wandering back to the cave. For the first time since the great dragon migration, he wondered whether Ponyville was actually his home.

“We should probably send a letter to Princess Celestia to tell her what we’re doing,” he said. “Princess Cadance too.”

“Good idea. We should send one to the girls too.”

Spike was ready with quill and scroll before Twilight had decided how to phrase such a letter. She laughed. “Wow. That was fast.”

“Old habits.” Spike began to write on the parchment, quoting, “Dear Princess Celestia –”

“PONIES!”

Rutherford had somehow sneaked up on them despite his size. Spike and Twilight both yelped in fright. Only Twilight’s quick reflexes prevented the quill from blowing away.

“You have Yakyakistan cake,” he barked, pointing at said cake, shaped like an overly tall yak helmet. “Not yak party without cake.”

Given the amount of hair over his eyes, it was hard to pinpoint Prince Rutherford’s exact mood. He seemed more than pleased, though.

“Has the party already started?” Spike muttered, rubbing his ears.

“We’d love to try some cake, Prince Rutherford,” Twilight said diplomatically, recovering her senses.

“What about the letters?” Spike asked.

“We can finish them later,” Twilight said, standing up. “Come on. I never actually got to try any yak food in Ponyville.”

“Because they were too busy smashing it?” Spike said in a low voice.

“Spike.”

“I’m just saying.”

“How do you find the right balance of vanilla extract?” Twilight asked Prince Rutherford politely.

“Vanilla extract expensive,” Rutherford answered.

For some reason, Twilight seemed to find this non-response particularly fascinating. “Maybe you can try it back home, Spike,” she said. “Spike’s a great cook,” she told Rutherford.

“Not like they’d know,” Spike muttered under his breath. Twilight glared at him.

It was quite scary when Prince Rutherford swung to face Spike and leaned forward, since the yak’s head by itself was as big as Spike’s body. Spike braced himself.

“Dragon try first,” Rutherford boomed. “Vanilla extract balance perfect. You will see.”

Off Twilight’s expectant nudge, Spike said, “Er, right. I guess it’d be cool to know what traditional Yak cake tastes like.” In a quiet aside to Twilight, he murmured, “I bet it’s not as good as the one the Cakes made.”

He shouldn’t have, for he had to eat his words (much to the yaks’ confusion when Twilight drily remarked so). Yak cake was just as good as any ever made in Sugarcube Corner, particularly when drizzled with honey. The yaks swore the vanilla extract balance above all else made the difference. But since Spike had never gotten to try the one the Cakes had made, he couldn’t be certain they were right.

Still, it was fantastic to have food in his belly, and the fire soon dispelled the chill in the air. After an hour or so Spike’s poor temper vanished.

Fire and food seemed to improve the yaks’ moods too. Laughter and singing resounded through the camp. Rutherford made a lot of scornful comments about musk deer parties, but if yaks and deer were enemies, why would they be going to each other’s parties? Just more evidence the deer weren’t real. The remarks did turn every positive thing he said about Ponyville into a glowing commendation, though.

The mentions of Ponyville didn’t make Spike feel homesick that evening. In fact, his life there began to feel like another world, one he couldn’t quite remember without thatched houses and apple orchards and certain friendly voices to remind him. Twilight had been with him his whole life, after all. She didn’t remind him of Ponyville as much as she reminded him of being alive.

Late in the evening, in need of sleep, Spike yawned and stood up. “I’m kinda tired,” he told Twilight. “I think I’m gonna hit the hay.”

Twilight chuckled. “I don’t blame you. It’s been a great party. Well, good night, Spike.”

Spike had been ready to agree – the party was definitely one to remember. But now he hesitated. “Aren’t you coming?” he asked.

“No, I’m going to stay. Marsden’s telling me about his daughter. She’s an herbalist. I’ve never even heard of half the potions she makes.” Twilight directed an eager smile at the yak beside her. Then her smile turned kind as she looked back at Spike. “You did have fun tonight, right?”

“Yeah. I had fun. G’night, Twilight.”

The low sounds of conversation around the fire followed him almost all the way to the door of the ger he shared with Twilight. He paused, glancing back towards the party.

‘Home,’ murmured the wind. It whistled past his ears, gentler and more refreshing than it had been all day, yet more haunting. That musky plant smell tickled his nose. Snowflakes whirled through the night air on the breeze. He spun around slowly, following their flight with his eyes.

The wind lifted the snowflakes up and away into the night sky, like migrating dragons far beyond his reach. He watched until he couldn’t distinguish them from the jewelled stars above anymore. The sky was full of stars, in fact. The solitary mountain on the horizon was only visible thanks to the way it blotted them out.

Something more than simple loneliness pressed down on him, chafing against the scales all over his body, especially on his back. A snatch of rumbling laughter from the party sent a pang of jealousy through him. He wondered if he somehow missed Twilight, even though she was right here with him.

Except she wasn’t. He would have asked her to carry him to the mountain in a heartbeat, if she was. Though the darkness hid the cave from sight, his feet could still take him there right now, if he let them. His bones knew the way, as sure as his heart knew how to beat.

Didn’t that mean he’d finally found home?