• Published 30th Jun 2018
  • 921 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 Long Twilight

Gusty liked to come across like a typically flighty and easy-going pegasus, but she was a legionary, heart and soul, and that ranker’s bluster and boast covered a disciplined heart which was never happy with inaction, sloth, or disorder. She rarely slept, and when she did, not for long. She burned her candle at both ends, and there was an amazing amount of candle to burn, so much so that I rarely if ever saw her exhausted.

Strange Voice made himself the hero of the great march upcountry, and his cronies figured large in his telling of it, but Gusty was the saving of the Column in those long, thirsty days that saw us fight our way across the northern wastes, and Strange Voice to his destiny in Cherrywood and distant Manehattan.

The Column effectively disbanded at the northeastern fringe of the wastes, during that storied council-meeting when Strange Voice and his cronies tried to lure us into his political plans for home. I had already become Gusty's strongest supporter in the mercenary-council, and I suppose that from Strange Voice's account, you'd conclude that I was Gusty's crony. In his telling of it, we were trying to turn the whole band of bands into a conquering army to go back to the northwest and do - I don't know what he thought we were planning. He wrote his March Up Hill long before I became famous for my own activities, so he didn't know to make me, personally, the villain of that council, and he tried to make Gusty that schemer and plotter.

I’d credit him with not having characterized Gusty as a unicorn, but to be honest, I think a lot of those later accounts sprung from his tendency to not talk about the tribes of his contemporaries, excepting in their allegiances and their associations, and he never mentioned Gusty except in the context of her 'pet unicorns'.

As far as I'm concerned, Strange Voice was the villain of our story, the true snake in the garden of the Column. I learned a great lesson from that earth pony with snakes in his head - to make sure I write the histories, so that I can be sure I will be the hero of my own story.

This account is my first installment on that intention, if only I had more time to put quill to parchment…

Gusty took those warbands who followed her lead out of the council that sundered the Column, and the rest went their respective ways. We marched two weeks northwest, and fetched up in a no-name collection of hamlets along the western verge of a crazy dangerous dark forest, where we earned our keep for that season by patrolling the edges of that forest, and trained together. Not all of the warbands who left with us stayed in the Everfrees, but the Ironmongers, the Hammers, and Gusty's cohort stayed, and trained, and began to come together in something approaching a single, cohesive force.

This is where I put into place Gusty's notions of how to organize unicorn battle-choruses, and she helped me experiment with the crystal pony innovations which had been Shard Scry's contribution to warfare and tactics. It's rather ironic that I had nothing to do with Shard Scry's idea, though I had been a unicorn born and raised in the Crystal Empire. But once I’d had it explaind to me, and he’d outlined his theories, I'd taken to it like a duck to water.

The basic idea was that crystal ponies' core magical value laid in focus, direction, and resonance. You can pour magic into, or through crystal ponies, and if they're trained properly, they can enhance your magic, or redirect it, or apply it to work. Loosely speaking, crystal ponies are a subspecies of earth pony, but where earth ponies are active, and work with the deep magic of the land - the soil and the stone - crystal ponies are primarily passive, prisms. They don't produce much more than the average pony, but they have a vast capacity for absorbing, concentrating, and redirecting magic all around them.

If you take a crystal pony, and make her the focus of five unicorns, you can light her up like the sun, fill her full of all the power of those magi, top her off like a battery. Let all of that energy loose via a unicorn’s direction, and you have an energy beam that can blast a hole straight through the thickest wall earth pony magic can erect; a hammer that can shatter the shieldsong of a unicorn chorus twenty or thirty times the size of that six-pony array.

Trying to make an entire battalion of unicorns focus through a couple of crystal ponies was where Shard Scry went wrong. He kept adding additional crystal ponies to the grand battery as if he could make it work better if only he could spread out the burden, but all that ever did was waste our excess energy and it retained the central vulnerability of the grand battery. Once the grand battery was disrupted, the chorus was worthless, and we often burned out our foci in the inevitable backlash.

The Hammers developed a reputation for pony sacrifice and a hard-luck posting for crystal ponies due to our high loss rate when it came to those unfortunates. After a while under Shard Scry, only the craziest and most wildly self-sacrificial crystal exiles would take a contract with us. It got better after I took over, and implemented Gusty’s common-sense adjustments, but we retained that evil reputation for a long time afterwards. To this day, if I had to be honest.

You can be sure my presence in the Hammers wasn't a selling point, either. I’ve always had a reputation in the Crystal Empire. But at that point, I wasn't as infamous as I am today, and mostly what ponies from home remembered was a certain collection of nasty rumors and the general impression that the queens didn't like me all that much. I didn't really go around trumpeting Princess Amore's accusations and prophecies, after all. Well, not after my first few months with the Hammers.

But all that meant that the crystal ponies who did serve with the Hammers were true believers. We had forward-thinkers who believed that our techniques would eventually revolutionize the homeland, that we were making technology breakthroughs, progress - the future! And it is true that Gusty's ‘gang chorus' technique made something other than a great blundering lightshow out of Shard Scry's crystal-focus theories.

If only we had enough crystal ponies to build more than a half-dozen gang-choruses.

Steeljack’s Ironmongers set up as a sort of season-long smithy-market in the Everfrees in those training-days, and supplemented our thin contracts with the hamlets by selling their skills to the locals and the neighboring baronies. It was about this time that the heavenly processions had begun to fail in the skies over Equestria, and that was a particularly thin season for everypony.

Up in New Unicornia, the high chorus that regulated the heavens had begun to fail, and the nights grew longer and longer as the aging hero-princess Platinum struggled to find enough unicorns to feed into the sacrificial maw of that failing institution. I had to drive away Canterlotian recruiters on a number of occasions from our camp, and they didn't want to take ‘no' for an answer. This bad blood between the Hammers and those pious practitioners of actual pony sacrifice lies at the root of my infamous inability to get along with today's Equestrian empire, and the mutual distrust and disdain that stands between me and those damnable Royal Pony Sisters. But they were still fillies in that season, and their apotheosis wasn't until later that winter.

In the meantime, everypony got colder, and some of the crops started to fail. Fishing the streams just outside of, and just inside of, the forest for which the Everfrees were named became a survival tactic. In those days of sunless mornings and moonless twilights, Gusty, I and dozens of other mercenaries spent many halflit hours sitting here and there along the shaded banks. We idled over our rudimentary fishing rods, and occupied ourself talking about training, logistics, families, foalhoods, or where the next meal was coming from.

I told her things about my past that I’d never shared with any other living pony. About growing up in the Empire, what Star Swirl had really been like, and the filly who had been my world before she died of a fever. And in exchange, she opened up over the hooks, the wriggling worms, and those slow-flowing fish-rich waters that trickled out of the deep dark woods uphill from our camps.

I has assumed that a pegasus of her broad, cheerful personality and bonhomie must have come from one of those large, lusty pegasus families, boisterous and quarrelsome and tough. I had been mistaken. Gusty told me during one of those lazy fishing-evenings about the intimacy that she had emerged from, that tight, guarded, happy little home. She'd grown up an only child, her mother's darling filly girl, the center of that mother’s world.

"Until I was six, around about when I got my cutie mark, she got pregnant again," Gusty sighed over her rod, looking back at the sigil of sparrow-wings folded over a small nest and egg. It was the cutie mark which had birthed her nickname, that ironic, nonsensical mark of hers, that destiny which said nothing about war, service, or bravery. The mark of a forester, a homebody, a bird-lover, or something else peaceful. The sparrow’s-dream.

"I'd never understood why we didn't have a full house like the others on the cloudbank. Mom always would say that I'd understand when I was older, but by the time I was old enough, she wasn't around anymore. That pregnancy killed her, Blackie, and I think she knew it would. But she loved her new stallion, and she wanted him to have something of his own. And I saw that look on her face, and I saw something there that blew my mind, that made me want to be - something bigger than what I was. I wanted so much to be a big sister. She looked so proud of me when my mark came in. And then she died… her and the foal, both. I had...

"I didn't have any aunts or uncles, either. When Mom died, I went to a third cousin once removed, but damn if Aunt Claribelle didn't grab hold of me like I was a northbound zephyr. Foals are just too rare in our family. We don't carry well, Aunt Claribelle said, and those that don't miscarry five times out of six, are killed more often than not by difficult births. Mom was one of the latter, and when the foal didn't survive the birthing, either, well...

"S'why I'm still a virgin, Blackie. Twenty-six years old, twenty since my mark, and here I am, a spinster aunt in training. Except I don't have any siblings. Aunt Claribelle was one of the ones who lost all of her youngins to miscarriages, except that last one, who didn't make three summers before the cold and the flu carried him away.

"I'll lead a charge against foam-mouthed diamond dog berserkers, or fly into a darkened cave's mouth, but I'm scared to death of going like Mom did, screaming her life out on a foaling bed, with nothing but a broken little stillbirth to show for it. Terrified of it.

"Ah, damnit, let's talk about something more cheerful, like how we're all going to freeze to death in the darkness. Oh, hey, look! You caught a catfish. We eat well tonight!"

Not all of those conversations were so heavy - there was a lot of competitive lying about our cutie marks, of course, which was a tradition of long standing among mercenaries, and bragging about great feats of magic, also largely composed of falsehoods, and - well, lying about romantic conquests was right out, when it came to Gusty.

Come to think about it, I'd wager that roughly 70% of the niceties among the warbands had to do with the social use of lying. This was, perhaps, the one point upon which the little sparrow came short. If she was not the perfect and absolute paragon of the Equestrian cavalier, it was that she was a terrible liar. It meant that her contracts were generally poorly negotiated, and inequitable to her ponies.

At least until she started letting me do the negotiating. ‘Old Blackie’ was left to do the arguing and the dickering, and suddenly we were getting a good fifth better terms when it came to wages, and more equitable opt-out clauses, and contracts written in something more durable than wind and promises.

Such as blood. I was a strong believer in blood contracting. Spooked off a couple would-be employers, but from the rumors of catastrophe I'd later hear about the warbands which did pick up contracts from those squirrelly city-councils, it was probably for the best. If an employer isn't willing to put her blood and spit on a promise, it isn't worth the blood you'd contracted to spill for it.

But again, that was in the future. In that twilight season beneath the outermost eaves of the dark forest by the Everfrees, the Canterlot recruiters continued to sniff around my magi and my rankers. The recruiters cursed me to my stubborn face, and called me selfish, and stubborn, and a villain. But the little sparrow backed my play, and simply said that they couldn't pay us enough to destroy our ponies upon their thirsty ritual circles.

I theorized to Gusty about what I thought was going on. The world had spun round for time out of mind before Old Unicornia had seized control of the heavens. However they'd broken the skies, they'd done so in such a way that it was wreaking heaven's vengeance upon them, their progeny, their lineage, their posterity. It was my theory that when the last of the Unicornia royal line poured out their heart's-magic upon their ritual floor, the sun and moon would return to their natural courses, and this long gloaming would dawn upon true day, perhaps for the first time in a thousand years.

The nights continued to get longer and longer, until one day, the sun never rose at all.

And while that last night stretched on, and on, and looked like it would never rise again…

Gusty and I eventually came out into the training yards, and sat in the darkness. As we waited for the truant sun, other ponies got tired of their long, cold slumber, and came out one by one and in pairs. They came from the tents, and from the lean-tos, and from the gemlike shacks the crystal ponies liked to conjure out of the bones of the earth, up out of the soil like little faceted remembrances of home. The hardest bitten mercenary ponies on that continent gathered together in milling herds, looking out across the fields and groves, and waited for the horizon to lighten.

Waiting to see if the sun would ever show her face again.

We waited a long time, and I thought about the stories of aged Platinum, the last of the heroes of the Great Freezing, whose little gang-chorus had defeated the windigo menace, had saved the world, or at least, so claimed the Equestrians who revered Platinum and her peers.

In the darkness, I thought about how that brief empire had spread, almost to the edge of my homeland's outermost dependencies. How they'd proclaimed the universal kingdom, union among the tribes, among the different ponies that creation had seeded across this divided continent. Unicorns, and pegasi, and earth ponies, all together, in concert, in union, in harmony. They'd made a religion of that unity, and for a brief season, it had conquered in that sign.

And then Commander Hurricane had wandered off on some quixotic quest, leaving his responsibilities behind, and disappeared from the mortal ken of ponies. Nopony knows where he disappeared to, but in the Crystal Empire we tell tales about the little pegasus warband that followed him, up into the yeti-haunted mountains east of the Yak homelands.

They say Puddinghead ate himself to death. Or that he was poisoned by Smart Cookie, although don't tell that story to anypony from the Earth republics, they take that sort of talk poorly. Smart Cookie had been the oldest of the six, and died of old age not long after taking in Commander Pansy when she was driven out of Pegasopolis by the partisans of the Cyclone Empress. Gusty and her ponies had been followers of Pansy, and had been loyal to the last commander-in-exile until that sad, weak mare died of her broken heart.

They say Pansy was never the same after Hurricane didn't come back; perhaps she'd been a dead pony walking even as they'd seated her on the pegasus imperial throne. It's for certain that it didn't take much to push her out of power, no matter how many loyal ponies like Gusty followed her.

It was never a good idea to bring up the Cyclone Empress in Gusty’s hearing, I've seen the little sparrow kick through an oak table like it was tissue paper at the mere mention of the tyrant who ruled her old home.

Clover was the last but one of the Six to be consumed by the windigoes' curse, if it was a curse. He fought endlessly against the failing of the heavenly magics which was foundation of Unicornian power and prestige. Although everything else failed, Clover and the mayfly choruses he built had kept the dream of a unified Equestria alive. Until he died.

Clover's premature death had begun that season, that Long Twilight which had led, slowly, inevitably, to that last, long, cold morning without a sun. They say that Platinum herself couldn't sustain a chorus without burning out part of the array, sometimes, even often, fatally. Her followers and subjects fled in droves, hiding from her press gangs.

In fact, the Everfree anarchies hid hundreds if not thousands of draft dodgers, a pool of the desperate from which we had been quietly if determinedly recruiting ourselves. When the press gangs and the New Unicornian recruiters came around, we claimed those ponies had been with us before the March Up Hill, and they were carefully coached in the stories they were to tell the recruiters and press-sergeants about how they'd fought through the diamond dogs with the rest of us, and no, ma'am, of course I'm not Unicornian, I'm Sirean. Born and bred in the shadow of the Sirespire!

I have to confess, sitting there next to Gusty, watching for a sun that refused to rise, huddling next to her blast-furnace body-heat, I wavered. I thought about breaking down and taking my best casters up into the mountain, to give in to that pony-devouring magic which might bring just one more morning, one more glimpse of the sun…

Then I felt Gusty's wing wrap around me, and she whispered in my ear that it wasn't my time, wasn't my fight.

"Blackie, if the world wanted to you to burn yourself out to bring back the sun, Harmony would have burned a sun onto your flank. You belong here, with your ponies, with your crystal promises. You exist to hold together what was broken, and keep it shining despite the cracks. Don't worry. Harmony will provide. It always does."

And while Gusty was holding me back, keeping me from giving in and selling my ponies to that old witch on the mountain and her damned curse, there was a glint. A warming on the horizon.

A blooming glow.

The muttering in the crowds around us rose, and became a tumult. A roar. And the mercenaries and deserters and ponies of the Everfrees raised up a joyous shout as the dawn finally broke through the deep darkness, and something great and mysterious spared us from the Unicornian curse. A new sun, a greater sun, stronger and brighter and more colorful. You who live today have no idea how weak and watery the old Unicornian sun was in the days before this first of all days. No idea of how the rays of the dying sun had grown darker and redder, softer and less warm week by week, month by month, until in the end we thought it was just what the sun looked like, just the way things were.

That new sun burned like the hope of a renewed world.

Or so we thought. Turned out, it was just another monster with delusions of sovereignty. Some filly protege of my damnable five-minutes-mentor, Star Swirl. Some weird Harmonist project of his, that created hybrid monsters, not earth pony nor pegasus nor unicorn, but a chimerical blend of all three.

The Sun Tyrant took the anarchies by storm, coming out of the mountains where she had promised salvation to the aged Princess Platinum. The dowager princess, now, who had given up her crown in gratitude to a pony who could replace all of her costly, horrible choruses. To the winged freak who could spare her subjects from the daily decimation of raising the sun and the moon with their own hooves. The Sun Tyrant, Celestia Unconquered, proved that she could move the heavens by her own will, by her hoof alone. And she was all three tribes in one! Harmony in one coat, the union personified.

Tartarus, how much I hated her. Especially when she loomed over Gusty like Gusty loomed over normal ponies. I was so afraid that the little sparrow would bow her head like all the rest, and pledge herself to the new Equestria, that she would fall in line and become just another courtier to the big white mare.

I still don't understand the thought process which made the little sparrow reject the Sun Tyrant's approach, her service, but she did, she did, she told Celestia no. We followed Gusty as she left the Everfrees, which were becoming the heart of the new dominion, and the little sparrow led us out of the central principalities as one by one their princesses bowed their heads to the new Princess of the Sun, and cast their crowns at her hooves.

We marched into the setting sun, to fight in the wars among the republics and warlords of the west.

Author's Note:

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