• Published 15th Dec 2011
  • 5,169 Views, 295 Comments

Wild Sky Yonder - Mysecsha

Basic training turns into a harrowing adventure for Spitfire and Soarin'.

  • ...

Chapter 06: Struck Down

Chapter 6: Struck Down

This is humiliating.

Spitfire was hog-tied and hanging from the top of a lodgepole pine. This was her part in phase one of the relay. She’d be stuck here like this until Wedge found her and Soarin’ carried her back to camp. After that, Red would poke, prod, splint, and wrap all six of her appendages, after which it would finally be her turn to participate in the game as something other than baggage.

By that time she’d be just itching to tear Diamond a new one.

She looked over to the next hilltop, where she could see him hanging like a Hearth’s Warming ornament just as she was. No, she wasn’t itching to fight him. In fact, she was dreading it. Not because she thought she’d be hurt -- she had complete confidence in her abilities. She was afraid she’d lose control, and then she’d be picking little bits of Red One out of her teeth for weeks.

She let herself fall slack against the ropes. Somewhere, presumably not far away, Red Twelve was in a similar predicament. The rules of the game dictated that the last flight to return from each squad lost the race: there was always the hope that either A or B flight would be the last red flight to return, and then she’d either fight Twelve or not fight at all.

Slim chance of not fighting: Wedge was the best tracker in camp. She thought back to this morning, wishing she’d had the courage to say something. Red knew her worries and had offered her support, but she hadn’t been able to tell the boys about it. They’d both been so excited for the game -- Soarin’ in particular seemed energized and eager. If she backed out now, she’d let him down.

Worse, she’d be showing weakness to a bully. He would be worse than ever after that.

She glared at T-Bone, who perched a few feet away.

“Why are we playing this game, anyway? We haven’t even started first aid or self defense!”

T-Bone turned and flashed his most insufferable grin. “That’s it exactly! Everypony who’s been in a schoolyard scrap thinks she knows how to fight. And everypony who thinks that is dead wrong. But why try to tell you that you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing when we can just let you prove it?”

She groaned. “Is there any good reason I have to be tied up for this part?”

T-Bone winked at her. “Don’t underestimate the value of practicing your knots.”

Spitfire made a frustrated noise. He was the undisputed champion of the infuriating non-answer.

“Aw, look on the bright side, Seven: you’ve got me to talk to. I’m a brilliant conversationalist.”

“If you do say so yourself”

“And I do! Know what else I say? I say you’re the last of my little worker bees without a nickname. What say we rectify that?”

“Last one? What about Soarin’?”

“Short for somethin’.”

“Really? What?”

In his eyes flashed the impish gleam that Spitfire was coming to recognize as if you do what I say next, you’re asking for it. “Ask him. He’d be delighted to tell you.”

Perplexed, she dropped the topic. “What if I don’t want a nickname?”

“Then we can talk about your love life.”


“My love life?”


“Sit in silence, then?”

“Okay fine!”

“Fine... your love life?”

She glared at him.

“Calm down, Buttercup. Only kidding.”

“Buttercup?” She scowled and poured incredulity into her voice.

“Daffodil? Goldenrod? Dandelion?”

With each suggestion, her scowl deepened.

He chuckled. “No flowers, then. How about... Fireball? Hot Stuff? Fireflier? Flames?”

She slumped. “I’m tired of this game.”

T-Bone snorted. “What, already? No fun, Seven. No fun at all.” He sighed and scanned the skies. “Buck up, kiddo: I think I see your extraction team coming over the next hill.”

Spitfire swung to look in the direction he was facing. In the distance two large specks slowly resolved themselves into stallions. It certainly appeared to be Wedge and Soarin’, but they were headed in the wrong direction. She watched, confused, as the two stopped to chat over by Diamond Dust and Coriolis.

It was another fifteen agonizing minutes before they approached. Happy as she would otherwise be to see her wingmate in such high spirits, Spitfire was in no mood for their cheerful grins.

“Hey, Spit! Fancy meeting you out here!” said Wedge.

“Yeah, what’s up? Just hangin’ out?” said Soarin’.

“What was that all about?” she demanded, jerking her head towards the two ponies in the distance.

The two brothers grinned at one another. “Oh, Cori’s got a sister on the Glim High hockey team. We both played on it, so we thought we’d catch up.”

Spitfire began to protest. T-Bone cut her off. “Oh really? How’s my Chargers this season?”

Soarin’s face fell into a mock frown. “Not good. Looks like this isn’t our year, T-Bone.”

“Really? Damn. I thought they looked pretty good this year.”

“They did... but their starting goalie’s down for the count,” said Wedge. He smiled and gave Soarin’ a brotherly slug on the shoulder. “Looks like your save record is safe another year.”

Spitfire steamed as the brothers pointedly ignored her.

T-Bone chuckled. “Aw, ‘bout time somepony broke that record, if you ask me. All right, give me the worse news: if it’s not our year, whose is it?”

Wedge grimaced. “Guess.”

“Oh no, not them? Not again?”

His younger brothers nodded solemnly. He groaned.

“Seven, you didn’t go to Nimbus Academy, did you?”

Spitfire only glared at him.

“Did you play?”


“Anything to add? Anything at all?”

Spitfire’s eye began to twitch.

“Well, aren’t you just a ray of sunshine today? All right, boys. Looks like the patient requires immediate evac. Get ‘er down, Soarin’.”

With a smile and an uncharacteristic wink, Soarin’ deftly untied the bindings on her legs and eased her off of the tree and onto his back. T-Bone gathered up the excess rope as he and Wedge prepared for their own, separate departure.

“Okay, see you kids back at camp. Good talk, Sunshine!”

Spitfire sulked on the flight back to camp. Or rather, she tried to sulk. Her wingmate was doing a surprisingly good job of preventing her.

“You know I usually charge twenty bits for a ride back to camp, but you seem like a real nice girl, so how’s about I let you ride for free?”

She smiled in spite of herself. “Bet you say that to all the girls.”

“No, just... just you.”

As the words left his mouth he tensed up, embarrassed. They flew on in silence for a moment. She gave his shoulders a light squeeze. I’m not upset. Don’t go away again.

To her relief she felt him relax. “So... ‘Sunshine,’ huh?”

She buried her face in his back. “UGH.”

“I like it. Sunshine and Soarin’, Soarin’ and Sunshine. The bold hero and the mysterious amazon, out saving the world.”

She snorted. “Not so fast, mister. We can save the world when I’m talking to you again. Which I’m not right now. Not after that stupid hockey stunt back there.”

He craned his neck to scowl at her. “Hey! Hockey’s not stupid.”


“It’s not! It’s fast and strategic and you gotta have real quick reflexes, and...”

“You know that’s not what I meant. You left me hanging for like twenty minutes! What was that about, anyway?”

“That was about you being a part of the family. You know we all tease. It’s what we do. It’s tradition. Besides, it’s not any different than you guys giving me trouble for my singing last week, or you and Red laughing at us last night when we did your laundry out of the goodness of our big, generous hearts.”

“Well... that was all in good fun!”

“So was this!”

She gave an indignant harrumph. After a moment’s pause, she asked, “So... are you really the best goalie they ever had?”

His ears perked up; she could hear the pride in his voice. “Nopony better!”

“That’s... really cool, Soarin’.”

“So, did you play?”

“No... Dad wanted me to play lacrosse, Mom convinced me to stick with track and field instead. And gymnastics. Dancing...”

He really perked up at that. “Dancing? What kind?”

Her face colored; she was glad he couldn’t see her. “Hey! I thought I wasn’t talking to you!”

“Yeah, you said that. Funny thing, though: you’re not very good at sticking to it. Must be on account of how I’m so charming.”

Spitfire couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh you are, are you?”

“Hey, I’m as surprised as you are. Thing is, it must be true. Why else are you having such a hard time keeping your hooves off of me?” At that moment Soarin’ fluttered his wings, dropping abruptly into a steep turn. Spitfire gave a yelp and wrapped herself more tightly around him. “See?”

“You did that on purpose!”

“What’re you talkin’ about, Spit?”

She snatched the strap of his goggles in her teeth and snapped it against his head. “Don’t you play dumb with me! What’s the big idea?”

She could feel him chuckle. “Maybe I just wanted a hug.”

She laid her head along his mane. “Well, you got one. Thanks, Soarin’.”

“For what?”

“Keeping my mind off this sparring match. I’m not looking forward to it. Any chance C Flight beats us back?”

He shook his head. “We saw ‘em heading in on our way out. Apples freaked out and called it off. The C’s are D-Q’d. Pears is pissed.”

She swore. Red Twelve, Apogee, was the youngest cadet: a sweet, small stallion whose timidity left Spitfire unsurprised that he’d reacted poorly to playing the payload in today’s game. She wondered why they would have chosen him as their fighter. Spitfire had known of his older cousin Perigee back home; she’d been undisputed champion of a half-dozen track and field events, Spitfire’s personal bests had never touched Pears’ records. At camp Pears doted on Apples like a big sister, and sometimes bullied him like one, too. It would have made much more sense for her to be C Flight’s brawler.

Now that there was no doubt she’d have to face Diamond Dust in the ring she could think of little else.She grew quiet as the camp came into view. Presently T-Bone waved them in to the parade ground, where Red was waiting with a big roll of gauze.

Spitfire tugged and squirmed her way out of the gauze wrappings, looking for all the world like a freshly unearthed mummy. Red helped, deftly cutting through the bandages when she could get Spitfire to stay still enough.

“Full marks, Red. Color me impressed”

Red shrugged. “My mama’s an ER nurse. I looked after her when she got sick, plus lots of rambunctious little tykes in the old neighborhood always showin’ up with some manner of minor catastrophe... guess I just picked up a few things.”

She smiled at her friend. “Red, you’re being modest. Is something wrong?”

Red returned a thin-lipped, worried smile and gestured to the left.

Spitfire looked over and groaned. A Flight’s extraction team was just returning with their loathsome package. Diamond Dust’s petty grudge had caused problems for his team: he was the biggest member of the flight and by all rights should have the payload carrier rather than the payload itself. A Flight had shuffled all of its roles just to back him up in his desire to fight Spitfire. Red Two, Shifty, was an able tracker but she was also petite: unlikely to be able to help carry a big stallion like Diamond Dust. Three and Four -- whose nicknames, for reasons known only to A Flight, were Buff and Wax -- were stronger and had therefore drawn the unenviable task of finding One and lugging him back to base. The two mares looked exhausted.

Shifty set about poking, prodding, and bandaging her wingmate with what seemed to Spitfire to be a bit too much alacrity. She certainly went at it with much more enthusiasm than skill.

Hmph. Maybe somepony oughta check up on those two after lights out.

That was probably just wishful thinking: if Wedge and Red could keep themselves out of trouble, the arrogant big shot and his little sidekick could surely do the same.

Throughout the display Cori hovered and corrected, teased and cajoled. It seemed that despite their shuffling of duty assignments, A Flight was about to pass through the third stage with flying colors.

Spitfire sighed as Red peeled away the last of the bandages. She trudged over to the center of the parade ground, where T-Bone waited beside a painted ring in the grass. Diamond Dust and Coriolis joined them, a savage smile on the stallion’s face.

T-Bone cleared his throat and drew their attention to the ring. “OK, you two. You’ve made it this far. Time for your first official sparring match. The rules are simple. No blows to the face or wings. The field of play is the airspace above the parade ground. If you exceed the height of the barracks, you are out of bounds. If you leave the parade ground laterally, you are out of bounds. For round one, if you touch the ground outside of this ring, you are out of bounds. Win by forcing your opponent out of bounds. For rounds two and three, I will select one of you as the aggressor. The aggressor has two minutes to touch the flagstone in the center of the ring. Failure to do so awards the round to the defender -- though the judges may deny points to the defender if the aggressor spends a significant amount of time inside the ring even if he or she fails to touch the flagstone.”

Diamond Dust snorted. “That doesn’t sound much like combat at all.”

T-Bone fixed him with an unamused stare. “No, it isn’t much like combat. Should you find yourself in the protector role in an honest-to-goodness rescue situation, the goal -- the only priority -- will be to keep any and all predators away from your charge. By any means necessary. Doing harm to any creature, no matter how vile, is an unfortunate side effect of this goal. Is that clear?”

Diamond Dust mumbled acquiescence. Spitfire paid very little attention. Something in the rules had set her mind ablaze with possibilities. She could win two rounds out of three without laying a hoof on him! She’d have to keep her anger in check: if she didn’t, she wouldn’t want to keep her hooves to herself.

The two combatants squared off on either side of the ring. At T-Bone’s signal, the match began. Neither combatant made the first move, each daring the other.

After a long moment, Diamond Dust laughed. “Please, I insist. Ladies first.”

“What’s the matter, big shot? Too timid to lead this dance?” Spitfire immediately regretted saying anything: keeping her mouth shut was the surest way to keep her temper in check. Still, the comment had had the desired effect: Red One took to the air and circled, watching her for an opportunity to strike. She eschewed the use of her wings, dancing lightly on her hooves precariously close to the paint of the ring.

C’mon, big shot. Look, I’m right on the edge. All it takes is a little shove. C’mon! She hopped to and fro, trying to maintain a careless, casual mien.

One took the bait. He swooped down, hooves cocked to deliver a staggering blow. Spitfire fell to her knees and shielded her body with her wings. One veered away at the last second.

“Time! Seven, if you intentionally draw a wing strike he won’t be penalized!”

One swept up into his lazy orbit, laughing. “Nice try, Stain. Won’t work next time. Still, you found my tender, compassionate side. I’d never hit a lady where she’s wounded -- even if she’s a conniving, freeloading waste of space who’s long overdue for a washout.”

Spitfire let the comment wash over her. If she put her mind to it, it wasn’t terribly difficult to ignore his insults. In truth he wasn’t very good at them. Now, Uncle Sprite: there was an insult artist. She imagined the despicable old drunk and the cocky young cadet trading barbs with one another. In her head, Diamond was reduced to tears almost instantly. She chuckled.

One set up another dive. She held her ground until the last moment, then vaulted over his head. She spun in the air and landed with a dancer’s grace several feet behind him. Frustration crept onto his face. She smiled. He snorted.

“Don’t wanna fight, don’t wanna fly? Guess I’ll have to get my hooves dirty.”

He landed in the ring and reared back on his hind legs. His boxer’s stance looked unpracticed and amateurish even to her untrained eyes. He waded in and made a few experimental jabs with his hooves. As it had every time since adolescence, instinct took over: she didn’t know quite how she did it, but wherever his hooves were, she wasn’t. Effortlessly flowing between his blows, leaving his hooves to strike at empty air, she turned all of her focus on the herculean task of resisting the urge to hit back.

Around and around the ring they went, dancers to a savage silent tune. Each missed blow brought Red One closer and closer to losing control of his temper entirely. Eventually, breathing heavily, One abandoned close combat in favor of more swooping dives and ringing blows. When he did so, Spitfire knew she had him. She improvised, pretending to be a bit more tired and sluggish with each pass. She dodged dive after dive until after one prodigious leap she slumped down, panting, just inside the painted edge of the ring.

Winded himself, One gave a triumphant Whoop and threw caution to the wind, diving at full speed lest she recover before he had the opportunity to tip her out of the ring. She spared a split-second to shoot him a malicious grin, then hopped to the side. He barreled straight into the turf, undeniably outside of the ring.

T-Bone laughed. “Point, Seven. Nice try, big shot. Why don’t we take a two-minute breather, then you’ll be the first aggressor.”

Moments later a commotion at the camp gate caught his attention. A look of fear and confusion washed over his face. “Never mind, round two cancelled. B Flight wins,” he muttered, and he dashed off.

A fire ignited in Diamond’s eyes. “What? Bullshit! You cannot be serious. This isn’t...” the remainder of his protest died in his throat as he turned and saw the bloodied, wild-eyed newcomer at the edge of the parade grounds.

One of Comet’s reindeer had stumbled into camp, bleeding and pale as death.

Spitfire gawked about as seemingly every pegasus in Camp Solar flew in formation toward the mouth of the valley. Comet’s son Aster had brought word that a pack of winter wolves had come down from the mountains and set upon his father and brothers and their harems. What should have been a time of life and celebration had become a slaughter.

Despite his protestations, Aster had been in no condition to make the return journey. While every cadet and sergeant had scrambled on the rescue mission, Aster had stayed behind in the care of Doctor Firelight.

The cadets had been briefed, but much had been left unsaid. Two words circled about the assembly in hushed tones. Those two words brought a shudder to even the most experienced SAR officer: recovery operation. Those words meant there would be no rescue. Those words meant they expected to find corpses, not survivors.

None of the officers said the words. None of them had to. The doctor had stayed behind. Thunderhead was grieving. After an initial scramble, presumably while T-Bone and Aurora had spoken to Aster, Coriolis had taken her time making sure the cadets knew their parts in this assignment. In short, the urgency had dissipated.

So it was a grim, quiet formation that made the short trip to the mouth of the valley. Out in front a flight of four training officers coursed ahead: Northwing Squadron’s three sergeants plus Moonglow, dressed in their garish red and yellow duty fatigues instead of their tan training uniforms. That left the twelve Red cadets under Aurora’s direct command.

Every officer in the formation wore an ugly black blade on his or her right forehoof. A cross between a large garden trowel and a machete, with a hinge that allowed it to fold up flush against the leg, the slingspades were the modern descendants of the gravity blades Spitfire had seen in the museum - though they were intended more for digging, cutting, and clearing vegetation, they had clearly been brought along on this mission in case the wolves were still about.

The formation cleared a low ridge and were greeted by a white patch in the forest, frozen despite the early autumn weather. Soft rime coated the trees and a thick white fog hung low over the forest floor. In twos and threes the cadets and their chaperones landed at the edge of the frosted patch, each squad taking its compass point as they’d been instructed.

In other circumstances the borders of the frosty thicket might have been described as a winter wonderland. Delicate, hoary ice crystals grew from every branch and needle. The ground was smooth as glass and fit for skating. Everywhere the crystals caught the sun and the scene shone and twinkled with a clean, friendly light. It looked like a Hearth’s Warming card brought to life.

The four officers in the vanguard plunged in. In those first, silent moments the cadets and remaining officers exchanged glances. No sound. Not so much as a whimper. A single, choked sob was heard: T-Bone’s voice. Recovery Op.

Then the air shattered in a crystalline roar. More than a dozen lupine throats chilled the air with their howl. The fog danced and scattered as wolf after wolf burst forth, their icy paws freezing the ground beneath with each stride.

Aurora leapt into the air, shouting to be heard over the din.

“Cadets! Up and at ‘em! Minimum height twenty feet! Green, let’s clear that fog! Gold, hit the ceiling! Get me some eyes in the sky! Blue, perimeter, eyes out! Watch another pack doesn’t join the party! Sergeants D through L, box ‘em in! Vanguard, hunt ‘em down! Red, you’re in reserve. On me! Flight leaders, if any one of your peers is below the deck it’s your flank!”

A mad scramble ensued as fifty ponies tried to be in a hundred places at once. Soarin’ doggedly tried to stay with his mother and Spitfire doggedly tried to stay with him. As they whirled through the maelstrom of fliers she saw Wedge and Red rise into place beside her. Then the fog lifted.

If the rim of the frozen glade was a serene holiday scene, the center of the thicket was a twisted nightmare. There, the ice was red. There, hunks of frozen, gnawed reindeer carcass lay strewn about like so much refuse. There, amidst the frozen ichor, stood the vanguard: three mares in a defensive circle around Thunderhead, who knelt in the snow beside the corpse of an old friend.

Thunderhead touched his hoof to Comet’s cheek. The sign of affection, so unthinkable in life, seemed perfectly natural in death.

“You always said you’d go out fighting, pal. I laughed. I didn’t believe you.”

He looked around. “I bet you took a few of them with you, you tough old bastard.”

Tucked in among the ruined corpses of his dear friend’s family he counted one, two, three, perhaps as many as nine or ten misshapen, vaguely sinister hunks of ice.

“Hah. Buck yeah, you took some with you.” Thunderhead straightened, flared his wings and flicked his slingspade to full extension. “What say I send you the rest as a going away present?”

A single, wing-assisted leap brought him alonside Coriolis. “How many?”

She shrugged. “Call it fourteen? What’s the plan?”

“You’re the boss.”

“Yeah, but you’ve done this before.”

He leapt a half-dozen feet in the air, scanning his surroundings. The pack had re-formed, their sinuous, looping paths of frost converging to the northeast and turning back on the only four targets they could still reach.

They were still hungry. Good.

He smiled. “Two by two. Carve one off and carve it up.” He turned to look at the gentle violet and yellow mare behind him. “Moonglow, look at me. These are not your uncle Archie’s cute little beagles, OK? These are demons. They only look like dogs. If we could talk to ‘em we wouldn’t be out here, right?”

She nodded. A hint of determination crept into her eyes. He hoped it’d be enough.

“Right. Go.” He was off like a shot, leaving Coriolis cursing in his wake. Hoof extended, he took the lead wolf at full speed, driving the thick black blade up into its mouth and out the back of its head, which burst apart in a spray of ice. The decapitated alpha wolf tumbled and pranced, insensate but not incapacitated. He twisted and cut into another wolf, and another, slashing one across the neck and stabbing deep into what would have been the other’s ribcage, if it had one. As the metal sank into the ice monster’s core he felt it warp and sing, the bitter cold reaching as far back as the bracket that secured it to his leg.

Those would be his last easy strikes. The baying pack responded, curbing its charge and wheeling around to face the aggressor in their midst. Behind him one of the beasts loosed an unearthly howl as it pounced at him. He spun, flailing wildly with his blade. He sheared the monster’s paw off at the wrist, shoulder-checked it out of his way and set his hooves for the next challenger.

That was his first mistake. Full body contact with the winter wolf chilled him to the bone, sapping his strength and his concentration. Another wolf pounced. He drove his hoof up under its chin and the cold-brittle blade shattered. The blue-white light in the wolf-beast’s empty eye sockets went out in a puff of smoke as its momentum carried it past, the majority of his slingspade still lodged in its head.

Seizing a half-second’s respite, he saw Cori dispatching the wolves he’d wounded, and Moonglow and Cloudburst carefully isolating another member of the pack. Turning, he found himself hemmed in by four more of the creatures. The beast at the fore towered over the others; where they were sleek and featureless it was a hulking mass with a shaggy coat of hoary ice crystals. It bared its teeth at him, its white, frosty breath swirling out around its translucent fangs.

An alpha. Same as the first he’d killed.

Two alphas? That doesn’t...

He never had time to finish that thought. The alpha snarled and leapt at him, its massive paws upraised. He jammed the remaining shard of his blade deep into one of its eye sockets, tearing through the straps as he turned. The second wolf landed full upon his back, as did the third, and the fourth. So quickly did his temperature drop that he didn’t feel the bite upon his flank.

The one on his neck, though, that one he did feel.


Spitfire whipped her head around at Wedge’s startled cry. She didn’t see her sergeant, just a pile of three snarling, writhing ice-monsters. She turned a frightened face to Aurora.

Aurora was already in motion. Seeing her son’s blade fail, she discarded her own.

“Sergeants: targets of opportunity! Cadets: Stay! Up!”

In the span of an eyeblink Aurora crossed the distance to her son. Spitfire would later swear she’d seen just a glimpse of green and pink light around the captain as she moved: the “Northern Lights” that had been her signature trick as a Wonderbolt. The force of her impact incapacitated all three of the wolves, each forehoof taking one in the head and both hind legs dashing another in half at the waist. She made a terse hoof gesture for Cori to see to Thunderhead and set off after the rest of the pack.

All around the glade the sergeants had the remaining wolves on the run. Quickly, methodically, as dispassionately as a gardener trimming a hedge, she chased down and ended each in turn: a green flash, a savage blow, one less winter wolf, until there were no more.

One by one the sergeants folded their spades. Cadets and officers alike exchanged looks. Those who had seen combat before silently reassuring those who hadn’t, yes, that just happened. That was real. An hour ago, training had been all fun and games. Now they’d all seen five of their officers slay fourteen beasts in a matter of moments, before a backdrop of frozen gore, and for all they knew they may have seen one of those officers die.

Aurora spread her wings and dashed over to where Cori was tending to her son. In a voice that sounded decades older and more brittle than it had mere moments before, she said, “Good work, everypony. B Flight, your sergeant needs a medevac. Everyone else... Coriolis has command of the recovery from here.”

Gingerly, Spitfire and Stargazer loaded Thunderhead’s shivering form onto Soarin’s back. Moonglow accompanied them in silence as they took their stricken sergeant back to camp. Spitfire took one last long look at the scene. Aurora stood in the midst of the frost. The captain appeared to be intoning a last rite, though she couldn’t say what kind. Cadets and officers wandered grimly through the thicket, gathering the frozen bodies for identification and burial. Here and there a cadet retched. Spitfire blinked in surprise: Shifty appeared to be weeping bitterly, and Diamond Dust was comforting her. His own face was grim and serious. He met her eyes and looked away; she saw none of the challenge she expected. A thoughtful frown crossed her face, and she turned to rejoin her friends as they bore Thunderhead to the infirmary.