• Published 27th Mar 2024
  • 420 Views, 39 Comments

Parks and Wilderness - stphven



A routine monster hunt goes wrong, stranding a lone guardsmare in the desert.

  • ...
3
 39
 420

Chapter 15 - Cartography

I'm pressed up against Anon, panting and sweating as his powerful muscles pound away rhythmically. His arms are wrapped tight around me. Fingers tangled in my matted blue mane.

I feel light-headed. The two of us have been going like this for some time. His stamina is impressive.

I would be in so much trouble if the PWG caught me doing this. If I didn’t die of embarrassment first!

I’ve known Anon for, what, a few hours? And despite him knowing barely a dozen words in Equestrian, he’s somehow convinced me into such an intimate and vulnerable position.

In my defence, there was nopony else around. I was really desperate.

I am Sergeant Glacier, and I am currently slung backwards over Anon’s shoulder with all the dignity of a sack of potatoes.

I glower down at my bandaged leg, flopping feebly beneath me. The two of us were halfway through our trek across the desert when my damned leg gave out. Could hardly take another step. Through some creative charades, Anon offered to carry me.

So now here I am. Bouncing up and down. Listening to Anon huff and puff beside me. Watching the desert crawl by.

I am not happy with this situation.

For one thing, I must look ridiculous! A grown mare - a Royal Guard, no less! - being carried around like a filly who scraped her knee. I'm just glad Fruit Punch isn’t here to see this!

And another thing, I’d really rather not be in such a vulnerable position. Not only am I completely disregarding my orders to run from any human I meet, but I'm literally putting my life in his hands. If Command ever hears about this, they’ll have a fit!

...Not that I seriously think I'm in danger. Anon’s been nothing but helpful since last night. I'm pretty sure he only tried to hunt me in the first place because he thought I was a wild animal. Not a person. He’s clearly never met a unicorn before.

Despite the rocky start to our relationship, I'm glad to have a friend out here. And I'm super grateful for his help, honest! Buuut… He is kinda sweaty. And smelly. And uncomfortably warm.

Of course, it’s not like I'm any better. My coat is clogged with dirt and sweat. And my mane desperately needs a comb. But between the desert air and Anon’s body heat, I feel like I'm trapped in a sauna. A sauna full of old soaks!

At least I have a little bit of shade. I’d ditched my armour while fleeing Anon last night, and returned this morning to pick it up again. But after sitting in the sun for hours, the metal was painfully hot. Wearing it was out of the question. Instead, I’ve been floating it above my head as an impromptu umbrella. When Anon offered to carry me, I added his spear to my levitating bundle, freeing up his hands.

”Gray.”

Speaking of hands, Anon is tapping me on the shoulder. I squirm around to see what’s up. He raises one arm to point ahead.

”Canteen.”

Wha- oh, thank the Sisters, it looks like we’ve finally arrived!

The long, narrow valley that is our destination lies just ahead of us. Numerous smaller cliffs and ridges radiate out from its centre. A rocky maze, hiding the precious water within.

I notice a few landmarks I’d passed yesterday, and guess Anon is taking me back down to his campsite. Sure enough, after a few minutes clambering down the steep slopes - and Anon almost dropping me - we pass beneath a familiar stone arch and enter into a smooth dusty bowl.

I immediately recognise the sight (and smell) of the camp. Now that it’s daylight, I can properly appreciate the choice of location.

High, overhanging walls provide enough shade to make the chamber noticeably cooler than outside, while still allowing plenty of light. The confined space would also help retain a campfire’s heat overnight. The steep path leading up and the narrow fissure leading down to the pool are the only entrances, both acting as excellent choke points. And most importantly, the pool itself is only a short climb away.

My only problem with the place is the smell. Those rubbish pits full of rotting meat rather stink up the place. Anon’s sense of smell doesn’t seem very well developed, so maybe he just doesn’t notice it. Still, it risks attracting unwanted scavengers.

I take all this in as Anon carefully sets me down, still huffing and puffing. With a sweeping gesture, he grandly announces… something indecipherable. Probably some variation of “Welcome to my humble abode.”

I smile up at him.

“Thanks, Anon.”

I'm not sure he understands “Thanks” just yet, but I don’t want to seem ungrateful for his hard work and hospitality.

He smiles back down at me and gives me a friendly pat on the head. He seems to like giving pats.

Eh, he’s earned it. I indulge him.

Eventually he breaks off and walks over to a section of wall, gesturing for me to follow. I deposit my armour and his spear in a corner before hobbling after him. Tucked against the wall is a motley collection of clay pottery. Mugs, plates, and lidded jars of various sizes. The quality is… well, they look like a foal’s arts and crafts project. But they’re apparently functional. When Anon removes the lid from a jar larger than my head, I see it’s full of deliciously clear-looking water.

Scooping up a mug, Anon dunks it in the jar and offers the precious drink to me.

”Canteen.”

Canteen? Again? That’s not a- Ohhh. “Canteen.” Right.

I’d asked about “canteen” earlier this morning, trying to find out where his pony-made canteen had come from. He seems to have misinterpreted that as me asking where to find water. Oh well. Right now, water is much more interesting to me.

“Thanks.”

I take the cup in my hooves (not willing to risk startling him with my magic), and raise it to my lips.

And hesitate.

Is this safe to drink? I’ve no way of knowing if this has been purified, or if it’s straight from the stagnant pool below. And a small part of me can’t help but wonder: could Anon have put something sinister in it?

I frown at the thought. Surely I'm just being paranoid? It’s not like Anon hasn’t had plenty of opportunities to harm me already. Why go to the effort of rescuing me, patching me up, and carrying me back here, just to poison me now?

I glance up at Anon, hoping he isn’t offended by my delay. Luckily, he seems completely oblivious at the moment. Having filled his canteen from the jar, he’s now greedily chugging it down, determined to finish the whole thing in one go.

Well, I’ve drunk from that same canteen before with no ill effects. If this is where he’s been filling it from, then it should be fine. Right?

With a shrug, I take a mouthful.

It tastes like water. Normal, refreshing, absolutely delicious water. My dehydrated body screams for more! I quickly slam the rest of the drink down, then go back for seconds. And thirds.

Anon follows suit. By the time we’re both sated, the jar is completely empty.

The two of us lean against the wall, sighing contentedly. For a long minute, I just rest there, feeling the cold seep through my core. Since I haven’t immediately doubled over in pain or fallen unconscious, I'm going to assume I’ve not been poisoned. Though after all that sun I'm certainly feeling drowsy...

Anon eventually gets up. Hoisting the now empty jar, he sluggishly makes his way to the crack in the wall leading down to the pool.

Oh, right. The pool. I’d somehow forgotten about that beautiful ice bath just waiting for me. With a stretch and a yawn, I amble after him, eager to get all this gunk out of my coat.

Watching Anon clamber down the steep fissure is entertaining. He’s clearly not a very good climber. With the pot taking up one arm, he almost loses his balance several times, comically flailing about. But his long, noodly limbs are great for reaching distant hoofholds, and he even uses them to brace against the ceiling. It’s like watching a really drunk spider try to squeeze through a gap.

I grin as I easily climb down after him, even with my injured leg. When Anon reaches the bottom, he politely offers to help me with the last few steps. Not that I really need help. But hey, after being carried through the desert like a foal, what pride have I got left to lose?

The two of us emerge into a familiar ravine. Dark, still waters cover the floor, while the smooth walls arch high overhead, almost meeting. It’s much brighter down here than I’d expected. The narrow sliver of sky is a blinding band of blue, while the walls are almost pumpkin orange.

Anon crouches by the water’s edge, filling his jar from the pool. (Oh dear. He did boil the water last time, right?) Placing the jar down, he then starts setting aside his canteen, his shoes, and - oh, hello! - his clothes.

Despite living in a desert, Anon has quite a lot of clothing. Even if it’s mostly tatters. I suppose it’s to protect his bare skin from the elements, the way a proper fur coat does? Though curiously, Anon seems to have more fur beneath his clothes than he does on the parts which were exposed.

He notices my staring. Pauses, pants halfway down.

With a start, I quickly turn away.

“S-sorry, Anon.”

I don’t know much about human culture, but it’s probably impolite to stare at his junk. Even if my curiosity is completely academic.

Besides, the last thing I want to do is give Anon the wrong idea. The two of us have far more important things to worry about than… indulging my curiosity.

Heh. And just think what Command would say! Forget being carried by a human; imagine if they caught me and Anon with his junk in- Wait. No. No no no! Stop imagining that!

With a great splash (and a squeal from Anon), I dive into the icy pool before my thoughts can lead anywhere too dangerous!


Some time later, feeling wonderfully clean and refreshed, the two of us share a meal of wild prickly pears. Anon has a whole jar full of them.

True to their name, the bright red fruits are covered in spines. We’ve been using sharp stones to scrape them off before eating. After living off rations and bugs for the last twenty four hours, their sweet flesh is a welcome treat.

In between bites, Anon is poking at the small fire I helped start. He’s set the big pot of water nearby, so I assume he’s planning on boiling it. I’d rather have waited until sundown before starting a fire, as the campsite is already hot enough. But maybe it’s prudent to fill our canteens sooner rather than later. You never know when something big and nasty might crawl by the campsite. Or, from Anon’s point of view, something big and delicious and worth tracking for hours. Humans seem to be opportunistic hunters, so it makes sense that Anon would want to be ready for the next opportunity. Much safer to go hunting if you’ve got a full canteen.

With one last poke, Anon seems happy with the state of the fire. I watch as he uses a pair of pronged sticks to lift an egg-sized stone from the flames, then deposit it carefully in the waiting jar. The water fizzles and hisses, but quickly subsides. Anon repeats the process, dropping in several more burning hot rocks. With each addition, the simmering lasts longer and longer, as more and more heat is transferred.

It’s an old technique for boiling water without a metal pot. I’d learned about it years ago during a camping trip, but never had a need to use it until now. It’s kind of fun doing it this way.

I notice Anon struggling to fish the now-cooled stones from the bottom of the jar. Still munching on a pear, I wave my horn in his direction. The rocks float out of the pot, briefly startling him, before heading back over to the fire.

”Thangks, Gray,” he says in a passable mangling of Equestrian.

We share a smile, and continue cycling the rocks between the fire and the pot. Soon the water has reached a rolling boil, threatening to spill over the sides. I pull out the last of the stones, replace the lid, then very carefully set the heavy pot aside to cool.

Phew! That’s the drinking water problem solved for the time being. Though that reminds me of something I need to clear up...

“Hey, Anon. Canteen?”

”No canteen,” he replies with a shake of his head. He opens the bottle and holds it upside down to show that it’s empty.

“May I…?”

My cyan aura envelopes the container and gives it a gentle tug. Anon lets go, watching in fascination as it floats over to me. He's still impressed by the simplest of magics.

I take a moment to inspect the bottle. The words “Hoofrest Mining Co” engraved into its side are proof that Anon must have had some contact with Equestria. And it’s not the only clue. I’ve noticed a professionally crafted wooden crate tucked into a corner. Alongside it is a wooden bucket with a metal handle and banding. There’s also Anon’s knife and spear, both tipped with strips of scavenged metal. Corrugated iron, perhaps, smoothed and ground to a sharp edge.

There’s no way Anon has the tools or resources to produce metal. He must have found these items somewhere in the desert. An abandoned campsite, maybe, or perhaps they just washed up in the pool below?

With any luck, he’s happened upon an old shelter or way station; the kind of place a search party may check. And even if that’s not the case, it may still be worthwhile investigating. Given Anon’s unfamiliarity with magic, it’s possible there’s some magical emergency equipment which he’s completely overlooked.

I take a moment to consider how to ask this. Anon waits patiently, finishing off his fruit.

Eventually I point to the gently simmering pot.

“Water.”

I speak slowly, using my explaining-a-new-word voice. Next, I point to the passage leading down to the pool.

“Water.”

Finally, I tap Anon’s empty canteen.

Not water. Canteen.”

I focus, carefully levitating a hooffull of boiling water from the jar. Anon “Oooh”s appreciatively at the minor magic show. Taking care not to waste a drop (or scald myself), I pour the water into the waiting canteen. Replacing the lid, I give it a few taps.

“Canteen, and water.”

I look expectantly at Anon, hoping he’s followed my logic. He still looks a little uncertain, but gives a slow nod. Pointing to the canteen, jar, and fissure in turn, he asks:

”Canteen, not canteen, not canteen?”

I nod and smile happily.

“Yes. Canteen, not canteen, not canteen.”

Anon gives a more confident nod, but still looks curious. He’s probably wondering where I'm going with this.

Shifting a little further away from the fire, I float over my saddlebags and dig out my map. Unfolding it so that we can both see, I gesture to it and ask:

“Canteen?”

Anon scooches around the fire to get a closer look. He picks up the canteen - and immediately drops it, letting out a string of human profanity as the hot metal scorches his fingers. Good thing I put the lid on! Muttering to himself, he picks it up again, this time carefully holding it by the strap. He looks back and forth between me, the canteen, and the map, as if trying to understand the connection.

After a few seconds he slaps a hand to his forehead.

”Ohhh, canteen.”

Leaning forward, he scans the map for a moment before jabbing a finger.

"Canteen," he declares confidently.

The indicated spot is at a relatively narrow part of the Macintosh Range. North and slightly east of us. It would take maybe a half day’s travel to reach the base of the range. But from there it it must be at least another day of climbing to get that deep into the mountains. Having seen Anon’s climbing skills, I’ve no idea how he managed to get up there in the first place.

Anon makes a “hrmm” noise. I look up to see him frowning at the map. Pushing it aside, he starts smoothing out the sand on the ground between us. Once he’s made a large, even surface, he extends a finger and begins scribbling, with frequent pauses to consult the map. Soon he’s sketched a crude, enlarged version of the map, or at least the desert portion. I see the main mountain ranges, the valley containing our campsite, and even a little Stick Glacier and Stick Anon. I smile at them.

”Anon, Gray,” I tap the figures to indicate I understand.

Anon nods, then gestures across the mountain range.

”Mantens.”

He taps a point in the range, north and slightly east of us.

"Canteen."

Then, slowly, wipes away a narrow part of the mountains around it. Leaving a tiny channel running north to south.

”NOT mantens.”

It takes a moment to process what he's just said. Then my jaw drops.

“There’s a gap in the mountains?”