• Published 13th Jan 2016
  • 1,568 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 Two

The Cutie Map showed the full extent of how much Equestria knew about the lands beyond its borders. Princess Celestia actually wrote back saying she’d never realised there were lands beyond Yakyakistan. Not until now.

Surely Spike didn’t come from beyond the northern edge of the most thorough map in Equestria. It didn’t make sense. Did many dragons live so far north? How did his egg end up in Equestria in the first place? If he came from an arctic land, why was he fireproof? He regretted wasting all his time on the great dragon migration trying to impress jerks, instead of finding the answers to those questions.

That experience with other dragons proved he didn’t actually need to know anything about where he came from. Ponyville was his home, and Twilight (and the others) were the best friends a dragon could ask for. If other dragons couldn’t understand why, that was their loss, not his. He wasn’t lonely. Nope. Life in Ponyville was great.

These thoughts and his aching knees almost made him call off the whole trip several times. Every time, the pull of the mountain – and of finally finding answers – grew stronger. Like a breath of fresh air, Twilight’s voice distracted him from the one whispering in his ear. But his thoughts returned to the underground grotto regardless, birds migrating home against a persistent north wind.

They descended to the steppe via an old, zigzagging path which passed through the band of forest visible from the ridgetop. The path was pitted by holes just the right size for Spike and Twilight to twist their ankles in. So many of the holes were hidden by snow and pine needles that Twilight got fed up and finally decided to use her wings to avoid them.

She cut a couple of crude slits in her coat so that she could fly while wearing it. Her bird’s-eye view made her spirited amazement even greater – as in, it got more annoying. In particular, the herbaceous scent that overpowered all other smells kept attracting her attention.

Spike felt he should either marvel over the unique setting too or resent everything he saw. But neither happened. His surroundings were completely unremarkable. He wouldn’t have even noted his disinterest if it weren’t for Twilight’s gushing.

Familiarity was the only thing that explained his behaviour. It felt like he was walking home after buying supplies in Ponyville. He didn’t need to pay attention to the actual town. He just had to check for rocks on the road.

Unfortunately, there were far more rocks and holes here than in Ponyville. Twilight landed beside Spike after what felt like his hundredth stumble. She lowered one wing. “You want to hop on?”

He ground his teeth. Fine time for her to ask that. “I’m okay,” he said.

“Are you?”

“Of course.” With effort, he smiled at Twilight. “It must be nice to have wings.”

“Yeah. Flying really makes a journey like this easier. I guess that’s why Rainbow Dash always flies everywhere.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Well, if you change your mind, I’d be happy for you to fly with me for a while. If you’re. . . finding it hard or anything.”

“Uh huh,” Spike said, glancing at his wingless back.

The forest thinned out until they left the trees behind. The organic woody smell grew fainter, replaced by the crisp smell of snow. The path grew less steep, sloping towards the final landmark before the steppe: a large eroded stone.

They made camp beside the megalith, and everyone went to bed early, wearied by the long descent. Yet Spike found it hard to get to sleep, and he wasn’t the only one. Throughout the night the wind whistled eerily, causing the fretful yaks to grumble.

Drifting off towards dreams, Spike imagined a reunion, a retreat, and a disappointing non-event. Then he pictured himself flying south over snowy, cloud-covered mountaintops. Twilight hurried ahead towards sunset, beckoning him onwards. But he couldn’t catch up. The sun disappeared, but the moon didn’t rise, and the singing voice at his back grew louder.

Clattering pots woke him up. Breakfast smells like boiling milk and steaming dumplings bid him good morning. For a few moments, he felt as good as he did when he woke up to rain. There was something wonderful about being half-asleep in a warm sleeping bag when the world outside was freezing. For a moment, nothing could touch him.

Then the wind moaned, and the feeling passed.

They broke camp under a cold blue sky, reflected bright and sharp by snowdrifts. All the way to the horizon, blades of grass poked through the snow, shivering in the wind. A fine spray of snow blew from every crest. The rising sun made tiny glints everywhere, stabbing Spike in the eyes.

Everyone bent their heads as they began to cross the steppe. Aside from Spike’s breathing, the only sounds in the world were hooves crunching on hard snow and Twilight’s light wingbeats.

With no warning, Prince Rutherford went down in the snow, bellowing in shock. Everybody in the trekking party shouted in alarm before hurrying towards him.

Rutherford flailed and yelled, rocketed into a state of incendiary anger by his predicament. Every wild thrash caused him to sink deeper until only his snorting, snow-flecked head stuck out of the snow, level with frosted heads of grass.

As the other yaks got close to Prince Rutherford, the snow broke under their hooves too. Yelling, they plunged into the snow too. Spike broke into a run.

“Be careful,” Twilight called. She hovered beside Rutherford, then began to flit around him. She didn’t have to be careful herself, on account of her wings.

Clenching his jaw, Spike forced himself to slow down, testing each piece of snow before he stood on it. “Is everyone okay?” he asked once he reached the wallowing yaks.

Rutherford roared over the din. “No, no, no!”

“Are you hurt?”

“Yak smash!” Rutherford hurled himself towards Spike, wounded pride translating into terrifying strength. All around him the snow broke, though, keeping him trapped in the icy grass. His enraged floundering threw glinting specks of ice through the air.

“Prince Rutherford, calm down, you’ll hurt yourself,” Twilight pleaded. But Rutherford continued to bellow and thrash in wordless rage.

“Did you see what happened?” Spike asked Twilight.

“It must be the grass,” she replied.

“What do you mean?”

“The snow looks hard but it’s just air and grass underneath.” As if she was going to land, Twilight pressed her hooves against the snow. It crumbled beneath her weight, revealing a grassy pocket of air. “See? It’s not strong enough to support us.”

“I’m fine.”

“You must be light enough not to break the snow.”

“I’m not sure about that,” Spike muttered, lifting one of his feet. Cracks had formed around his footprint. The snow creaked when he put his foot down, a harmless sound that now filled Spike with dread.

“Maybe you should stay there where you’re safe,” Twilight said.

It took a lot of effort to take the frown off his face. “I’m fine,” he repeated, gingerly moving to a different spot. “You were right. I don’t weigh a lot. So don’t worry about me.”

Twilight didn’t respond. He realised she’d returned her attention to the hampered, threshing yaks.

“Don’t worry about them either. I’m sure they’ll be out in a flash once you use magic.”

“I don’t think I’m powerful enough to help them all.”

Once again Spike hid his frown. “You won’t know until you try.”

“I’m going to lift you out with my magic,” Twilight told Rutherford. “Could you – excuse me, Prince Rutherford? Please, can you listen – can you hear me? Prince Rutherford!”

“No!” Prince Rutherford shook his shaggy head.

“You can’t hear me?”

Rutherford harrumphed. “Yaks don’t need magic.”

“Prince Rutherford, I know you’re upset, but I can help you much more quickly if I use magic. Honestly, I’m not sure how else I can help.”

“Yaks no need help.”

Spike pulled a face. “No offence, but I think you do.”

Rutherford roared in disagreement and Spike backed off. He decided to leave Twilight to argue with Rutherford, and investigate the terrain.

The steppe was deceptive, the snow hiding swells and hollows in the grass. In some spots the wind had blasted the grass flat and scoured the snow to a shallow layer that barely covered the ground. In others the snowdrifts were packed hard and firm. Both of these were solid places to tread.

But in other places, thin crusts of snow were held up by nothing more than grass stems and air. Sometimes loose snow filled a deep dimple in the grass with nothing to show for it. The former wasn’t even strong enough to support Spike’s weight, let alone a yak’s. Meanwhile, to get out of the latter, he had to combine the acts of wading and scrambling. It wasn’t a fun way to move.

Still, at least he could get out of such a predicament. The yaks remained trapped, rejecting each of Twilight’s suggestions just for involving magic. Each time they rebuffed her, she got more agitated. The yaks’ thrashing hooves and horns, outright dangerous, made Spike grit his teeth.

He wished he knew how to help. But he was too small, and his magic was the wrong sort. He briefly remembered being big enough to hold Rarity in his tail, and saving the Crystal Empire. Then he shook the memories out of his head. Being small and light meant he could identify solid places where the entire trekking party would be able to walk. That would be helpful.

They’d have to retreat to where Prince Rutherford had been walking before he fell. He managed to find a solid drift of snow that led from Prince Rutherford’s wallow back to safe ground.

When he pointed it out to Twilight, she looked thoughtful. Inspired by the solid snow, she came up with a magic-free method of helping the yaks. By wallowing down in the snow in front of Prince Rutherford, tramping back and forth, over and over, she packed it firmly enough for him to stand on it without it breaking. Then Spike directed him (from a safe distance) onto the solid snowdrift.

Even with the cumulative help of each freed yak, the process was far more time-consuming and tiring than a simple magical technique. Twilight’s expression became more haggard after each yak. Once every yak stood on safe ground again she flew into the sky to survey the steppe, and even her wingbeats looked slow and exhausted to Spike.

The yaks themselves didn’t look particularly tired. But Spike noticed one lie down, while the others hung their heads. Spike wondered how many expressions their hairy faces hid.

Twilight dropped back to the ground, shivering. The clouds made it impossible to tell whether midday had arrived. Spike decided it didn’t matter.

“Maybe we should camp here and make lunch. We can carry on later,” he suggested.

Twilight nodded.

“Food good,” Rutherford grunted. “Yaks tired,” he admitted after a moment.

It seemed crossing the steppe to reach the solitary mountain was going to take a greater toll than any of them had expected.

Despite Spike and Twilight’s combined efforts to scout out solid footing, each yak fell many times. Each fall caused their short tempers to fray a little more, until the slightest niggle could set off a tirade about the imperfect steppe.

The wind never stopped blowing; Spike’s hat did nothing to keep it out of his ears. It even managed to pierce the ger’s defences at night. Even though he wrapped himself in his sleeping bag, he couldn’t block out its bitter voice, sometimes a moan, sometimes a howl. He slept fitfully, shivering.

Two such nights passed before they reached the foot of the mountain, where the steppe yielded to bedrock. The incline was far steeper than it had looked from Yakyakistan. The black cave entrance far above was so far above that he almost fell when tilting his head back to look at it. He didn’t seem to have moved when he looked at Twilight, though.

As they climbed, the woody fragrance returned. When Spike stopped to catch his breath, the aroma gave him the energy to tackle the next scramble. He turned down Twilight’s wordless offers to ride on her back, but his resentment formed a tight ball in his chest, exacerbated by the cold and the effort of climbing such a steep slope.

By lunchtime it was clear the ground was too uneven for them to pitch a camp any closer to the cave. Rutherford sent the majority of the yaks back downhill to establish a base camp. Two particularly large and tough-looking yaks remained. Spike wondered if they had specific skills, or were just hairier than their compatriots and thus able to endure the cold for longer.

The next time Spike paused to catch his breath – maybe for the umpteenth time – one of the yaks indicated his back. Spike shook his head until Twilight sighed. Scowling, Spike pulled a little too hard on the yak’s fur as he climbed onto his back, and the yak snorted. Strike one.

As they closed on the summit of the mountain, the cave entrance disappeared from sight, hidden by a rocky outcropping. Spike gripped the yak’s fur tightly, eliciting another snort. Strike two. But he didn’t care. The strange magnetic feeling that had pulled him this far couldn’t fail now. He directed the yak right, below the base of the outcropping.

But he couldn’t find the cave entrance. After blundering into yet another featureless gully, Spike jumped off the yak.

“Where cave?” Rutherford barked.

“I don’t know.” Spike wrung his claws together. The gully contained grubby snow and tiny pink flowers, but no cave.

“We could try going to the top and looking from there,” Twilight suggested.

“It should be here.” Spike clenched his fists, fighting the urge to punch a boulder. In a battle of earth versus dragon, he was still far too small to win.

Rutherford pawed the ground and characteristically suggested, “Yak smash.”

“No.” Twilight swooped down from above, looking alarmed. “We don’t want to cause an avalanche or a rock fall.”

Spike kicked the icy ground in frustration, scuffing the earth around the base of one of the flowers.

“Spike, calm down. We’ll find the cave. We just need to be patient and thorough.”

To Spike’s shame, tears filled his eyes. He turned away, and then kicked at the flower again, exposing a brown clump of entwined roots. The herbaceous fragrance filled the air. As before, it energised him, and incensed him enough to demand, “Ugh, what’s that smell? I smelled it before and it’s driving me crazy!”

“Spike –” Twilight started.

“Musk root,” Prince Rutherford said. He crushed the mass of roots beneath his hoof, intensifying the scent. “Special plant. Good medicine. Strong smell.”

“You got that right,” Spike said. He drummed his claws against his arm and pulled a face. “Okay, fine. Let’s climb to the top. I didn’t come all this way to be beaten by a stupid mountain.”

“Not perfect like yak mountains!”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” Spike said under his breath.

Fortunately his disillusionment blew away at the mountain’s summit. They could see all the way back to the snow-covered mountains of Yakyakistan. The wind rippled across the pale steppe, their progress marked by smudges of dislodged snow. From this angle the view felt even more familiar. Spike took a deep breath so that the smells of the mountain filled his nose, clearing his thoughts, and closed his eyes to let instinct guide him.

“Over there,” he said, pointing at a valley to their left.

Twilight flew over to check his intuition and returned after just a few minutes. “It’s there,” she called, wings beating furiously to fend off the cold. “And we can walk there from here, too. It looks easier than approaching from below.”

Within half an hour Twilight guided them to the hole in the hillside. It didn’t look like a quintessential fairy tale cave. The entrance was much smaller than Spike had expected for a landmark visible from so far away. Patches of grass did their best to grow wherever sunlight struck the ground. The same tiny pink flowers clung to the earth in the crevices between rocks.

They peered inside. A dirty bank of snow, dimpled by water dripping from the ceiling over many years, slanted into a chamber of broken boulders. In his heart Spike knew that there was more to the chamber than met the eye, even though he couldn’t see any way out other than the entrance they stood in.

Rutherford and Twilight both looked up at the sun, sinking through the sky. “We return tomorrow,” Rutherford said.

“But we just got here,” Spike argued. The feeling that the answers to all his questions were right under his feet far outweighed the small part that wanted safety.

Twilight put her hoof on his shoulder. “It’s too late for us to go in now.”

“How can it be too late? It’s always dark underground. It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night when we’re in there.”

“Let’s be sensible about this, Spike,” said Twilight. “We can get a good night’s sleep now and come back fresh tomorrow with supplies. We’ll be better prepared. And it’s better for the yaks to wait for us during the day.”

He pushed her hoof away. “You’re just scared.”

“I’m not scared. Um, I mean, not much. But I want to be as prepared as possible. We haven’t had much time to research what alpine caves are like, or how to stay safe underground.” She glanced at Rutherford and then said in a low voice, “I trust you, but we don’t even know if the dragon’s still here.”

How could he argue with Twilight when she was voicing his fears out loud? But turning away felt like turning away from a whole tub of ice cream: impossible, until he’d done it. As if she sensed that he needed her help, Twilight escorted him away from the cave.

“I want to find out if this is where you come from as much as you do, Spike,” she said as they walked away. “I just think that since we’ve waited this long we can wait a little bit longer to make sure we’re ready.”

“I get it,” he sighed. Still, he kept looking back until the cave disappeared. Even then, he felt like there were caves in every crevice, all waiting for him to make a move.

That night in the ger he and Twilight shared, Spike fidgeted. In his mind he stared at the cave, and the cave stared back, flickering with green fire.

Twilight sighed. “How can you not be tired?”

“Sorry, Twilight. I’ll try to keep it down.”

“It’s all right. You can talk to me, if you want.”

Spike sat up and lit a candle. Only Twilight’s hooded eyes and her muzzle peeked out of her sleeping bag, snug around her head.

“Are you really not scared?” he asked.

“Of the cave? I’m a little bit scared. But the advice Princess Luna sent us from the Equestrian Speleological Society is super helpful. The only thing I’m worried about now is helmets. . .” She yawned. “I don’t think yak war helmets will help. All we really need now is a good night’s sleep. You should read the scrolls yourself.”

“I don’t think reading about going into a proper cave is going to help me.”

Twilight half-heartedly levitated the scrolls to him anyway. “I think it’s better than nothing.” She closed her eyes for a few seconds, and said, “I was thinking about the musk root, too.”

“Why?” Its fragrance was so strong Spike could still smell it, although their coats hung on the other side of the ger.

“The way Prince Rutherford described it, it really is a special herb. I’m wondering if the yaks used to trade it with us, back before they closed their borders with Equestria. Maybe that’s how your egg came to Equestria. I’ll ask Princess Celestia.”

“We should’ve asked her ages ago. Twilight, do you. . . do you really think I’ll find out where I come from?”

“I hope so,” Twilight said through another yawn. “I’m sorry, Spike, I know it’s hard but I really think we have to get some sleep. Good night.”

Spike watched her roll over. She immediately began to snore, air whiffling through her lips. He sighed and started to read the scrolls, tugging his sleeping bag up around his shoulders for warmth.

He didn’t understand a lot of the words, made worse by the way they got progressively harder to read. He looked up, blinking, and noticed the flame of the candle had grown smaller. No wonder he could hardly see the words on the page.

He leaned towards the candle. A moan outside made him freeze in sudden terror, and the door of the tent flapped. A chill gust, pungent with musk root, forced its way through the small gap between door and wall. The flame wavered and then went out.

Spike shoved the scrolls off his lap and pulled his sleeping bag over his head, teeth juddering.


Twilight’s sleeping bag rustled as she shifted. He glanced at her, a smudge in the darkness inside the tent. He imagined huddling in the mouth of the cave, snow falling from the clouded sky. Stars twinkled purple above. He breathed in sweat and musk and earth and prepared to step out into bright moonlight. But a cold claw dug into his back, pulling him back into soundless blackness.

A long time passed before he fell asleep.

At dawn, the five of them trekked out of the camp with full bellies and steaming breath. Twilight carried two saddlebags bulging with canteens of water, a rope, and a couple of traditional yak trekking cakes.

A large horn, embellished with silver rings, hung around Prince Rutherford’s neck. The horn piqued Spike’s curiosity, though not enough to actually convince him to start a conversation. After this trip, Twilight better not still think of him as antisocial in the morning. To say the yaks weren’t fabulous talkers at the best of times was obviously an understatement, but their attitudes were even worse in the morning.

Spike understood that, though. His own ger called him back to bed.

They hiked through the morning. Snow lingered on the scrub, making the rocks treacherous. The sunlight peeping through the clouds never grew strong enough to melt the ice.

Still, they reached the cave without incident, and ate an early lunch of trekking cake, cheese, and dumplings. Fortified by lunch, Spike finally felt confident enough to ask about the horn Prince Rutherford carried.

“Horn summon yaks,” Rutherford answered. He lifted the horn to his lips and with one blow let loose an almighty braying sound.

Twilight flinched. “Won’t that summon them now?”

Rutherford shook his head. “Three blows summon,” he said. An equally harsh bray filtered through the morning air. “Ha,” Rutherford barked, satisfied.

Twilight began to adjust her saddlebags far more slowly than usual. The cold wind arrowed inside Spike whenever he breathed in, aggravating a mixture of fear and exhilaration in his gut.

Whatever they found inside the cave, the yaks were probably too big to help them. Furthermore, several hours of hiking separated Rutherford and his companions from the yaks at base camp. If something bad happened, he and Twilight would have to figure it out by themselves.

What if there was nothing here? That was almost a worse thought. If this adventure proved to be a phenomenal waste of time, every member of royalty in two nations would be disappointed in him.

He hopped from one foot to another, itching to either get going or call the whole thing off. He couldn’t take much more uncertainty.

“We can do this,” Twilight said to herself, low enough so that only Spike heard her.

“Ready,” Rutherford said. His tone didn’t quite reach the inflection of a question.

“We’re ready,” said Spike. “Aren’t we?”

“Right,” Twilight said, fiddling with one of the straps of her saddlebag again.

“Good luck,” Rutherford said. His eyes shone, perhaps with concern. But they were hidden behind his unshorn fringe too quickly for Spike to be sure.

Twilight flew down to the bottom of the snowy slope. Spike picked his way down to join her, listening to the occasional smack of dripping water, breath fogging in a cloud around his head.

A passage in the left wall, just a few metres wide, lead into the mountain’s hidden depths. He glanced back up at the entrance, angled high enough above him that he had to crane his neck. Though the sunlight was weak, it dazzled. When he squinted he could see three horned heads gazing down at him. Spike wondered what Rarity would think of his urge to run back to them.

He guessed she’d forgive him, even though the yaks were rather unkempt. This was a unique situation, after all.

He looked at Twilight. She gave him a weak smile. Heartened by her confidence, Spike headed towards the continuation of the cave.

The passage immediately curved to the right. As they entered, their bodies blocked the majority of the light from the outside world. Grey shadows ahead melded into looming black.

“Hold on,” Twilight murmured. Pink sparks cast faint shadows on the potholed floor. Then the ball of light at the tip of her horn settled, her spell providing dim yet constant illumination.

Spike hesitated. He wasn’t sure where to step. Jagged darkness lurked in every crack.

“Come on, Spike,” Twilight said. Her magic surrounded him, much like a warm, tingling blanket. She paused, though, and so did he.

It made sense for her to carry him, so that his body wasn’t blocking the light of her horn. But it felt more important that her expression was hopeful when he looked at her. Every time he rejected her help, just like the yaks had, he’d hurt her. But would he rather be by himself right now? Definitely not.

“Let’s go,” he said, nodding.

Twilight placed him on her back, which was still covered by the thick travelling coat lent to her by the yaks. Then they walked into the cave, leaving light and life behind, except that which they brought with them.