• Published 30th Jun 2018
  • 919 Views, 25 Comments

Little Sparrow - Mitch H

She was the greatest warrior of her generation. But her greatest challenge wasn't anything she could fight with hoof or spear.

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The March Up Hill

The first time I saw the little sparrow she was plunging out of the sun in the midst of a rain of javelins, screaming like all the hosts of Tartarus let loose. Centurion Gusty and her squadron of Pegasopolitan exiles were riding to our rescue. The Hammers had gotten our flanks into trouble, ambushed by a particularly clever band of diamond dogs who knew the terrain like they’d built warrens under every single square foot of it, which they had. We wouldn't have gotten ourselves out the trouble we’d found ourselves in, if not for her and her valkyrie scream, and the hard-bitten pegasus avalanche that followed in her wake. The clever diamond dog tribals into whose snare we had trotted would have barbequed our joints over cheery fires in the heart of their shadowy underground towns, and celebrated with a leg of unicorn or a crystal steak, celebrated their victory over the tasty, tasty interlopers and invaders.

We well-earned our risible nickname among the other warbands on that day. The ‘Glass Hammers’ broke like a dropped figurine when Magus Shard Scry fell, his head caved in by a small boulder, flung from the heights overhead by some canine savage. They had us pinned rear and flank, and the rout would have left us in the paws of the tribes for sure. It was only later after the dust had settled and puddled with the blood of dog and unicorn that we figured out that I was the senior most unicorn in the warband, and had inherited command, such as it was. We were headless, unled, and ready to scatter.

And that’s when Gusty the Great appeared. Oh, yes, her. More and more I hear stories about this unicorn heroine, the great war-unicorn, the savior of the west, the beau ideal of the horned tribes… I can’t understand where it comes from. Who tells these stories? Who invented them in the first place? Who ever heard of a unicorn named after a gust of wind? Were we to take from it that she was gassy and had intestinal issues? No, no.

Gusty was a pegasus, like all great warriors are. We unicorns are many great things, clever, intellectual, powerful in magic, in ritual and spell we are without rival. But we’ve always been terrible in the field, in the battle, in the fight. A unicorn under arms is an unbalanced load, a lean-to, a house of cards. One push, and we fall to pieces. No unicorn is ever truly in the moment. In the fray, we are still in our heads, distracted by panic, distracted by thoughts and plans.

If ever we breed a nation of unicorns who can feel like a pegasus, that nation will conquer the far corners of the globe, and sweep all in front of its marriage of power, passion and control. But a nation of unicorns like that will basically be wingless alicorns, and we lesser beasts will by need and right bow our inferior heads before their power and prestige, and that was not the case in the days when Gusty, my little sparrow, was in her prime.

Like that day.

The little sparrow was glorious on that day - like salvation from the skies. Her pegasi hit the ambush-lines like an avalanche, and they didn't hold back one single dog-killing warhead. They expended every single javelin in our defense, and the shock of that steel hailstorm shattered the tribal lines, sent them fleeing ahead of us. Our headlong flight turned into an inadvertent pursuit, and those of us who'd witnessed the attack, the turnabout, the dogs breaking - we found our hearts, and we rallied to add to the enemy's discomfit.

To make them pay.

I found myself fighting with two blood-soaked javelins ripped from some groaning dog's back, slashing with them as if they were foreshortened spears in my red hornglow. I suspect the wild-eyed loss of control that I displayed on that stupid little battlefield was what made the older unicorns accept my seniority afterwards, despite the fact that said seniority had more to do with the deceased Shard Scry having named me to a sergeancy based on a five-minutes-apprenticeship with the famous Star Swirl. Not that I ever misled anyone about the substance of my brief tenure with the great wizard, and how he'd taken one look at my intrinsic magic and turned around on a dime, threatening to banish my monstrous self to Tartarus. In those days, I thought it made me sound like a badflank, dangerous. But then, I was young, and foolish, and more than a little fey from a lifetime of rejection from figures of authority.

The Hammers and the rest of the mercenary warbands with which we had been wandering the badlands had gotten ourselves into that no-win situation by the machinations of the principalities, and the greed of mercenary commanders. But then, that could describe life in the warbands on any given morning of a mercenary’s life, so I can't say that it explains this particular situation properly. Or the campaign in general, if you could be so generous as to call that headlong flight back towards civilization as a ‘campaign’. As I said, in that year a number of the best-situated principalities in the north and west came to the simultaneous conclusion that their interests would be best served with the absence of the major warbands in some distant land. They backed the plans of one Prince Cyril, an Anugyptian exile who was trying to overthrow Pharoah Hisan. Hisan's protector and banner-carrier had disappeared, and left Anugypt unsettled and open to a change in leadership. Cyril made the rounds of the northern and western principalities, and had collected a significant following of discontented Anugyptian nobility and second daughters and the like.

I knew that the Sirespire had paid old Shard Scry a bribe to go and take Cyril's silver stags; later when talking to Gusty, I learned how she'd been encouraged by the council and doge of the Serene Republic of Van Hoover to take her exiles south in the service of the Anugyptian prince. And for a time, it looked like we had hired onto a winning campaign, and we'd swept up every little militia-muster that formed in front of our advance. Our burgeoning host had covered the rolling plains as we moved southward into the medium-sized empire which Hisan had made of his little Somnambulan revival of old Anugypt.

The campaign had seen very few actual bloodlettings on the march, and if Cyril's money hadn't been good, I think some of the mercenary bands might have become restless with the lack of plunder we saw. Those ambitious and bloodthirsty stormcrows got all the distinction their savage hearts desired, though, when Cyril's diplomatic efforts turned suddenly tragic. While we were encamped around a little town built beside an enormous natural salt lick, Prince Cyril met with some tributaries of the Anugyptian throne to bribe them into his following with the usual promises.

Somehow, during the talks, somepony managed to poison our paymaster, the would-be pharaoh. I never did figure out exactly what happened, because the feast turned into a mutual slaughter, and Cyril's shocked, horrified followers struck down his poisoners and indeed, everypony else they could get their hooves on. The initial killing fury subsided quickly, and without a figurehead to lead the herd, they turned on each other. Some of those followers who’d lost their pony to follow were sketchier than the average, as was to be expected even in the best of times. But some were worse even by the standards of those fallen times, and I strongly suspect at least some of those who reconciled with the ruling pharaoh afterwards were the ponies who’d actually put the yewweed distillate into Cyril's mead.

You never know how long the con is, until it pays off, and the robe comes off.

No matter who actually did the deed, we found ourselves no longer the core of a conquering host, but, quite suddenly, a collection of alien warbands in the middle of a fraternal squabble, was in the heart of a hostile country. Every hoof turned against us, and we might have been devoured by the chaos if the commanders of the major warbands hadn't formed an emergency pact and voted for a rapid armed retreat. They called it the Column, and its command rotated between the self-appointed commanders on a daily basis. We didn't offer battle to the various quarreling militia bands, but maintained an armed neutrality, falling back whenever we weren’t directly threatened. We extracted fodder and supplies from the peasantry and the walled towns as we sidled with all alacrity away from the centre of the chaos.

Others have told the story of that great march out of Anugypt, across the central badlands and back north into the pony heartlands. It's been celebrated in song and epic, and Gusty's part in it has been told by better ponies than I. And some quite worse than I, including the increasingly popular variants that paint these bizarre unicorn-hero fables about the little sparrow. I cannot understand how anypony who has ever laid eyes on the towering pegasus could tell afterwards stories of a plucky little unicorn war-leader, but then, I am no bard, no sedate writer of scrolls.

I’m just the pony who was there.

I'm not sure whether the way I barely figured in the popular tales of the March Up Hill is a blessing, or an insult. But admittedly, my leadership role in the March came late in the tale, during the last, desperate scrabbles which saw the heroic destruction of the Stormcrows in another tribal ambush, and the controversial conquest of Cherrywood by the Mustangs and the Little Helm. And I spent that time as the lackey of Gusty, following her lead in every particular, every vote, every hoof-step along the way.

Because I owed that mare my life.

But all that was long after I first met the little sparrow. In the moment, the heated, bloody, moment, in darkness, in danger… I had, to my embarrassed shame afterwards, sort of led our half-panicked, unbalanced pursuit of the routed diamond dogs. Insofar as anypony led the Hammers at that moment of poor judgment and terrified fury, it was I who led some of the Hammers into the entrance-tunnels of the nearest warren-town, where even the most cowardly of dogs would turn and fight for hearth and burrow. I am ashamed to report that I was in the van of this foolish pursuit into the heart of their warrens, and I found myself trapped again, the rest of the Hammers nowhere to be seen, as I and three others who I could find, tried to form up and fight our way back out into the sun.

I didn't have as much trouble as some in the diamond warrens, as my darksight has always been, if anything, better than my sight in the light of day. But the two crystal ponies and the other unicorn who I had been able to form up with were damn near blind in that sudden darkness, and my magic was strained to the utmost as I tried to keep the rankers from being clawed down from behind by sneaking dirty dogs. The crystal stallions were too panicky and confused for our usual focus-chorus methods to have a hope of working, so everypony was fighting on their own hook, less a squad than a gang of soldiers striking out into the darkness. Only I could tell which direction the exit and salvation laid, and I was confused and afraid of my own mistakes, the mistakes which had led us all into trap after trap.

And then into my darkness came a blazing light, and a charge of hooves down the tunnel, and a pegasus holding a burning torch. She was tall, taller than I, and I was large for a unicorn. She stood at least a frog’s length taller than the sharp and curved end of my horn, and she rippled with muscle under that warm tan coat. Her wings were wide and strong, and she habitually wore heavy wingblades with which she carved a bloody path through our enemies. Her brown eyes flashed in her torch-light, and her grin was infectious.

"Hello, boys, did you get lost? How many times do I have to save your flanks before you stay out of trouble?"

The little sparrow trotted up to me, her burning torch held in her left wing in that impossible way that some pegasi grasp their instruments. "Hey there, big boy! You ready to come back out into the light, or do you just like to blend into the darkness? What do I call you, Blackie?"

"B-Black Crystal," I lied.

"Blackie it is! Come on, boys, we have miles to go, and you slackers can't fly ‘em like we can, chop chop!"

And that was the day I met Gusty the Great, the little sparrow, the greatest pegasus, no, the greatest pony of her generation, bar none.

No, not even those upstart alicorn princesses, damn your eyes.

She got us out of the trap we’d found our way into, and helped me recover my ponies one by one, group by group, as we clawed our way back into the fading sunlight. Only a fragment of the foolish Hammers had followed me and a few other sergeants into the dog-tunnels, and we found most of them before they could be added to the canine tribes’ larders.

By this time, the rest of the Column had rallied upon its ambushed segment, and when we emerged into the light with most of the warband intact, we were in the midst of an army under arms. The diamond dogs didn’t come back out to challenge the host’s might, and the other warband commanders decided that we’d lost enough without attempting to sack the impoverished dens of dogs without a bone to pick their teeth with.

The Column moved on.

It wasn’t the only battle of that long march, but it was the one which made the Hammers, and forged a connection between us and Gusty’s Warsparrows. She sort of adopted us in the aftermath, and I clung to her fetlocks like the wetmaned novice that I was.

We weren’t the only warband which cleaved to Gusty’s leadership. The Ironmongers, or Steeljack’s Forge were an earthpony band that specialized in tactical engineering and siegecraft. They and the Warsparrows made for strange stablefellows but Steeljack knew a leader when he saw one, and he was, if anything, more loyal to the little sparrow than I by the time the Hammers came belatedly into the brotherhood.

Ah, the Warsparrows. Gusty's band of former legionaries didn't really have a steady name. They’d once been the third cohort of the VI Legion, and if you asked the little sparrow, she'd have told you they were the III/VI detached. Not that the Cyclone Empress’s armies didn’t have a new third cohort, and an intact VI Legion, but as they began, so Gusty maintained. Even though she was loyal to a long-dead commander, and the pegasus republic which fell with the flight of its last commander. Others called the band of hard-striking pegasus warriors the Warsparrows, and it tended to stick. Gusty didn't like that, any more than she liked being called Little Sparrow, but names in the mercenary trade are given more than they’re taken.

The Column broke apart towards the tail end of the long march, when the Mustangs and the Little Helm rose up against the decisions of the commanders’ meeting, and rode off to become warlords and bandits. Steeljack and I followed Gusty, and our own warbands formed one of the major fragments into which the broken Column scattered.

Gusty the leader of ponies was as impressive as Gusty the pegasus-under-arms had been. She was embarrassed about her tan coat and brown mane, and thought they were plain among the jewel-like coats of her fellow pegasi. Personally, I thought her earthtones made her more distinctive, brought out her perfect physique, her almost impossible stature. She was built like a Saddle Arabian, or a northern elk - half a head taller than the next largest mare I'd ever met, barring those alicorn monstrosities. In a race of small, wiry ponies like the pegasi, the little sparrow was a giant, a roc among budgies. She could fling a bollard like it was a dart, and I once saw her smash a mantlet with her forehoof as if she was crushing an apple on a bar-bet.

The little sparrow was made for war, and leading ponies. Her voice carried for miles, and you could hear her from one side of a battlefield to the other, no matter how much battle-rattle, screaming and dying was going on in between. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the Column, I determined to cleave to Gusty's little legion-fragment, and never let go, not as long as I had two other unicorns to make a spell-chorus.

Gusty made me drill my ponies ruthlessly, and such was my sentiments that I plunged into her discipline with all the fervor of a convert. The Hammers had always been a fractious and foolish collection of smug individualists, and we'd always suffered unsettlingly high casualty rates. Our collective magic made us a terrifying force at the beginning of a fight, but any single distraction or disruption could turn our chorus into a cacophony of useless ponies milling about, or fleeing in terror. She had me train my survivors into six-pony mini-choruses, and those smaller units made us less overwhelming in the attack, but more capable of taking a hit, and more resilient in the face of opposition.

By the time we emerged into the central principalities, we were a well-drilled, cohesive force. Steeljack and my ponies had become Gusty’s ponies.

Author's Note:

Thanks for editing and pre-reading help to Shrink Laureate, Oliver, and the general Company.

And especial thanks to Shrink Laureate for his redesign of the cover art, which is based on a crude and amateurish photoshop mess I made while splashing around in Gimp 2.

This will be a five-chapter story; a bit too long for a short story, a bit too short for a novella. Technically, that makes it a novelette. Except dude, only total nerds write novelettes.

People who read them are cool AF, though, so don't worry about it, man.