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[WIP] Barbarians (SPG)

By awf
Created: 16th July 2021 09:31:33 PM
11th August 2022 05:41:28 PM

  3. > She was known among her people as 'Thistle'. Thistle, for its mixture of beautiful flowers and spiky thorns. It was a hard-won badge of honor and she wore it with pride.
  4. > It wasn't her real name, though. Now, in this place, looking at this sight, she remembered her real name.
  5. > Once, she had been the mayor of the town before her. Everyone had called her 'Mayor Mare', but she had left that identity behind her long ago. She'd changed.
  6. > To her left and right were her new people, a sort of strange, furless, two-legged apes. That was wrong, though. They had four legs, but their forepaws were unsuitable for walking. They called them 'hands'.
  7. > These hands allowed the people to manipulate objects with incredible accuracy, which could only be matched by the most skilled unicorns. They didn't have magic, nor writing, yet the dexterity of their 'fingers' allowed them to make useful tools and thrive in lands far less hospitable than Equestria.
  8. > Before, in her old life, Thistle would have called them 'primitive' and uncultured, thought of them as nothing more than mindless brutes.
  9. > She had come to learn otherwise. She'd learned some of their language and even taught a few of the people her own. She'd sat with them around the fire and listened to their stories and their songs. Even though they couldn't write, the people had a rich oral tradition which the elders passed on to the young ones.
  10. > In a small way she was now part of that - their 'deep song', as they called it.
  11. > Thistle had been immersed in their culture for so long that she had to work now to remember her own. How long had it been since she'd seen her old town? Would her once-neighbors and friends even recognize her now?
  12. > She wore her mane short these days, less chance for it to fall in her eyes or get tangled in a bush. It was back to its original pink, further justifying her new name. Thistle, like the flowering plant.
  13. > She'd chosen it to make a clean break from her past. A new name, for a new land, before she had found the way back to Equestria. It had been useless to dwell on what couldn't be.
  14. > Her grip shifted around the thick, wooden spear she was holding in her wrist. All the people had these crude, stone-tipped weapons. She'd tried to explain metalworking to them, but the nomadic tribe hadn't yet come far enough to understand.
  15. > That was okay. They survived without modern inventions just fine so far, and these new things could wait for their children to grasp what the parents could not.
  16. > Thistle glanced to her side, where a young man was watching the town with a grim expression. She leaned the spear against her shoulder, pushed her wolf skin cloak out of the way and laid a hoof on his calf.
  17. "Relax, Wind, it will go well, I promise."
  18. > She saw his knuckles whiten around the shaft of his spear, but then the young warrior relaxed. He gave her a nod and went back to staring at the distant buildings. She could sense he was afraid of what he thought of as an unnatural place.
  19. > All the people were wary of the town. They had never seen anything like it.
  20. > Well, luckily they had her to guide them.
  21. > She had come home. She'd come back a different mare than she left. What would the ponies think of her now? At least that much she would soon know.
  22. > Her nose wiggled as she caught a scent of blood and death. The humans didn't have fur and so they had to wear clothes made from animal skins. That had revolted her at the start, but then came that first, harsh winter in the new land, and Thistle had been forced to reconsider.
  23. > By now she was hardly ever bothered by the fact that she wore a skin of some dead creature. She didn't really need it, but it helped her fit in and made her one of the people. Just as the lines she'd drawn on her face in charcoal and ochre. She was thinking about piercing her ears to wear bits of bone like some of the other humans, but she hadn't decided yet.
  24. > They hadn't gotten off to the best of starts, but with effort she had made it into their inner council. She was a valued and important member of their tribe.
  25. > It had become her home.
  26. > Her gaze strayed back to Wind, who looked increasingly impatient to be off. Beyond him was his mother, the clan's Chief. Thistle, with her unique skill for leadership and diplomacy had attached herself to their household. Or maybe it was 'tent-hold'?
  27. > That had been the obvious choice. Her kind was still seen as animals to these nomads, so only with the protection of the Chief and her family was Thistle truly safe.
  28. > Her new association meant she had to pitch in. Work was easy, especially for an earth pony such as her, but there were some distinctly unpleasant bits.
  29. > Thistle had had to join the humans' hunts. They couldn't graze so meat was their best chance of survival, especially in the cold of their own world. The women went out each day to gather nuts and berries and roots, but the game which the men hunted down with their spears was an integral part of their diet.
  30. > She'd had to learn how to hunt and how to kill. It went against her pony nature, but what had to be endured, had been endured. Thistle had also learned how to clean their prey and cook it. She'd had to get her hooves dirty with blood.
  31. > All of it was unimportant now. Funny, she thought sometimes, how a pony could get used to almost anything. Besides, better some rabbit or a bird than her. Perhaps not now, but in the early days of her capture Thistle would have been eaten with no remorse if her usefulness as a meal outweighed her worth as a pack animal.
  32. > She had carried her burdens, done her work, fitted in. She made herself useful and she curried favor. She'd done it all to stay alive and, more importantly, feel safe in the strange, new world wherein she had found herself.
  33. > She had done a lot of unsavory things to feel safe again.
  34. > Ever since that day when her life had changed so abruptly and so completely.
  35. > Funny, she hardly ever thought of it lately. Not since she'd chosen a new name. That had been the point when she had let go of her past.
  36. > Seeing Ponyville again was bringing up all kinds of old memories.
  37. > How long ago had it been now?
  39. > PART ONE: Prey
  41. > Mayor Mare was out on a simple morning walk to stretch her legs and clear her head. The sky was still dark, despite summer being in full swing. She often went out for her daily trot at this hour, before the heat of the day pressed down too oppressively.
  42. > Celestia loved summer, but sometimes her preference was a tad uncomfortable for other ponies, Mayor thought to herself. Summer was fine, in her opinion, but they could do with less heat and more rain.
  43. > She was sweating even before the sun came up and already dreading another day in the stuffy and poorly-ventilated town hall. Perhaps she could postpone the repairs on that side street and instead get one of those new, magical air coolers?
  44. > They were all the rage in Canterlot and with good reason.
  45. > If she couldn't get the money, perhaps a petition to the Princess asking her - politely, of course - to ease up on the sun a little this year? If that failed, perhaps she could write to Cloudsdale and ask the Weather Chief to send some rain their way. Who was the Chief these days?
  46. > A quick search of her memory yielded up a name: Fluffy Clouds. She- no, wait, it was a he. He'd visited Ponyville on official functions but Mayor didn't know him personally. That didn't matter. As one government official to another she could still ask for a favor.
  47. > The Mayor was lost in her thoughts when she noticed dark forms pushing out of nearby bushes. At first she thought they were ponies and wondered who else was crazy enough to get up before dawn just for some exercise. She walked toward them to greet whoever it was. Perhaps she'd get a trotting partner.
  48. > She realized something was wrong when the forms straightened up and balanced on their hind legs. Minotaurs? This many, in Ponyville?
  49. > Mayor frowned a little to herself and adjusted her glasses, but of course she couldn't see more than indistinct blobs, not in this poor light.
  50. "Excuse me? Can I help you?"
  51. > The figures drew back in sudden alarm and spoke to each other in a tongue Mayor didn't recognize.
  52. > She was about to repeat her question when the smell hit her and she nearly gagged. Unwashed bodies, sweat, curdled milk and all of it mixed with... manure?
  53. > Her hooves took an involuntary step back at the unexpected stink. It wasn't manure. Or rather, it was, but not like she'd ever smelled before.
  54. > Sudden fright gripped her heart and Mayor took another step back.
  55. "Um, I'll just- If you'll excuse- EEK!"
  56. > Without warning, without provocation, one of the figures took a step forward and hurled something at her. She'd been tensing up to flee, but the attack happened too quickly and thick strands of some kind of rope landed on her.
  57. > She squealed in fright and tried to run, but her hoof got tangled in the mess and she tumbled to the ground.
  58. > There had to be an edge to the- net! It was a net they tossed over her! Mayor Mare ran her hooves down the coarse strings, her panic making her whole body shake. She had to hurry. She had to-
  59. > Something heavy landed on her and the stink of the unwashed body nearly overwhelmed her. Powerful claws grasped for her hooves and she kicked with all her might. The net impeded her movement, but she felt the solid impact and the pressure on her lessened for a moment.
  60. > The creature bellowed and the roar of pain and rage made Mayor's spine turn to water. She failed to seize her chance to wiggle free and screamed in pure terror. She panicked and tried to land another kick, but the other monsters were already on top of her.
  61. > One of them was pinning her hind legs down and the other was trying to grab her around the throat.
  62. > She suddenly realized they meant to kill her and her struggles ceased as if somepony had hit her on the head with a brick. There was no way to fight them off. The net had entangled her soundly by now and two of the creatures were holding her down.
  63. > Maybe if she didn't struggle they'd make it quick and painless.
  64. > There was a trickle and quiet splashing as her bladder released without her conscious control.
  65. > One of the things growled something and shifted away, but it still kept her legs pressed to the ground.
  66. > "Hey! What's happening over there!"
  67. > A pony voice!
  68. > Sudden hope sprang up in Mayor Mare's heart. Help was on the way! The will to live suffused her entire body and she struggled to turn her head and look.
  69. > Ironically, the net which was preventing her escape was also making it hard for the creatures to grab her head.
  70. > They shouted in alarm and the one on top of her barked something which sounded like orders. Another of their members ran to the newcomer, already swinging its net around its head.
  71. "No! Run! Get help! Run!"
  72. > The moment of confusion was enough and the beast threw the tangle of ropes. The new pony - it was a pegasus mare - squealed and tried to bolt, but it was too late. By hesitating she had made the exact same mistake as Mayor Mare.
  73. > Her legs got tangled up and she fell. Before she could recover the creature was on her.
  74. "Nooo- oof!"
  75. > She had started struggling again and the monsters simply smacked her head. Her vision swam and her glasses crunched at the blow. Mayor closed her eyes protectively to keep the glass shards out of them, but that meant she could no longer see.
  76. > Powerful limbs gripped her forehooves and she tried with all her strength to tug them free. She twisted her whole body and tried to kick with her hind legs. She even tried to bite at their claws, anything to break their hold on her.
  77. > She nearly succeeded, but the creatures were immensely strong and there were two of them. Running steps receded as another went to help with the other pony.
  78. "Please! Sto-"
  79. > Another hit landed right on her muzzle and Mayor groaned in pain as she bit her tongue.She tried to free her forelegs again, but they were expecting it by now and simply pressed them to the ground.
  80. > The weight on them was immense and for a moment she was worried her bones would snap. She wouldn't be able to do anything, for herself or for the other mare, if she was injured.
  81. > It was hard, but Mayor relaxed and stopped struggling. She was panting hard, nostrils flaring with each breath and sweat already trickling down her sides, but she made herself go limp.
  82. > Her only, slim hope was that the creatures wouldn't kill her immediately. She'd caught glimpses of evil-looking spears in the pre-dawn light and a moment's rational thought told her they would have stabbed her by now if they wanted her dead.
  83. > If she died, it would be all over. If they left her alive, she could escape later. It was her only chance. She opened her eyes and tried to focus on the blurs around her.
  84. > They kept their hold of her hooves and one of them peeled away the net. She tensed, but the nearest brute raised up its claw and she relaxed once more. If she tried anything they would just beat her into unconsciousness.
  85. > All she could do was wait as they tied all four hooves together. She remained perfectly still and hoped they wouldn't tie the knots too tightly. Maybe she could wiggle out of them.
  86. "Why are you doing this?"
  87. > Her words were unexpected and the creatures nearly cringed away. One of them shouted something at her and brandished a spear. The meaning was obvious: they didn't want her to talk.
  88. > The net was pulled away, rolling her on her back, and something sharp pierced her skin. Mayor Mare grunted in pain and twisted to look.
  89. > It was just her broken glasses, shattered and jagged. A trickle of blood ran down her side when she flopped away.
  90. > She didn't get far because one of the brutes simply grabbed her ankles and hoisted her up. Despite the threat of their spears, Mayor couldn't keep quiet and squealed in alarm as the thing lifted her bodily up and laid her across its shoulder.
  91. > They were simply going to carry her away!
  92. "No, wait! Please-"
  93. > This time the spear was thrust right at her face. She flinched and closed her eyes, but the stab never came. By the time she dared look again, the creature who had threatened her was on its way to the other group.
  94. > She couldn't see clearly, but the sun was starting to peak over the horizon and a mess of colors resolved into a couple of the minotaur-things lifting up a pegasus mare.
  95. > The one carrying her went over and Mayor tried to keep her head steady enough to see who it was.
  96. > There was a bag, ripped open on the ground and a bunch of white squares spread around. One of the creatures was poking through it, but it didn't show a lot of interest and soon left it alone.
  97. > A gray-coated mailpony. That meant either Muffins or Rainy Day. Mayor's heart constricted at the thought of either of those falling into these monsters' claws.
  98. > She wanted to ask if the other pony was alright, but she didn't dare speak again. She could see those cruel, sharp spear heads in the morning sun. They didn't gleam like metal, but Mayor had no doubt they could easily pierce her. She didn't want to be stabbed by one of them, so she kept her muzzle shut.
  99. > There was no way to prevent tears from leaking down her cheeks, though.
  100. > The world swirled around as the creature wheeled on its two legs. Mayor Mare caught a glance of Ponyville, its multitude of colorful roofs just starting to catch the sunlight in the distance.
  101. > She longed to be there. She wanted nothing more than to be among her people.
  102. > There was a lurch and they began walking away from Ponyville and safety.
  103. > All she could do was cry silently. By the time anypony found that mail bag this far in the woods, she'd be too far away.
  105. > ~~~~
  107. > The walk went on and on. Soon they passed from the familiar fringe of the Everfree forest and entered the slightly cooler and darker thick of it. The canopy above them made the world feel constricting and oppressive.
  108. > For the most part Mayor Mare hung limply, slung across the creature's shoulders as she was. Her view rocked and swayed as the thing walked, easily balancing on its hind legs like a minotaur, or one of those bipedal dragons.
  109. > She tried to catch a glimpse of the mailpony, but if she struggled too much to turn her head the ape-thing simply slapped her side. The best she could do was swivel her ears and try to catch any sound which would tell her that the other pony was still alive.
  110. > Those noises brought her both relief and fresh pain. A few times the mail-mare spoke up, but her words were cut off by angry yells from the creatures and a dull thwack.
  111. > Mayor hoped they weren't beating her on the head to keep her quiet, but there wasn't a whole lot she could do about it. The one time she tried to yell back to the other mare to keep quiet, she got a good smack herself.
  112. > Mainly she heard whimpers or shallow, panting breathing. Her companion, whoever it was, hadn't been killed yet and all Mayor could do was hope that she would stay that way.
  113. > Maybe once they reached whatever destination these people-
  114. > Her face twisted with distaste, but there was no denying it. They had a language, they had spears and nets, and they walked with purpose. These were not animals, but people of some kind. A creature never before seen in Equestria, perhaps something from the dark heart of the Everfree forest. Perhaps something entirely new.
  115. > Mayor glanced at the spear her captor held in its paw and gulped. It was incredibly sharp, but the edge was jagged and uneven. It was just a piece of flint, broken off so that it made a razor-like edge, and tied to a wooden shaft with some kind of thin, white rope.
  116. > Primitive, but no less deadly for it. If anything, she imagined it would hurt even worse if they stabbed her with that.
  117. > They also had flint knives with strange, off-white handles and what looked like wooden clubs. A few of the people had saddlebags, but they kept them slung over their shoulders. Of course, walking upright would make it impossible to carry their burdens on their backs.
  118. > Mayor Mare had plenty of time to think and after a while her fear receded a little. If they had meant to kill her, they would have done it long ago. The creatures had put entirely too much effort in carrying the two ponies through the Everfree forest to simply murder them at the end of the march.
  119. > At least so she could reassure herself.
  120. > What could they want with them?
  121. > Maybe they were doing something nefarious around Ponyville and Mayor Mare had simply stumbled upon them? If they couldn't afford to leave behind a witness it would explain why they brought her with them.
  122. > If so, whatever their plot, the Elements of Harmony would unravel it and save them. It wouldn't be the first time.
  123. > The thought gave Mayor some comfort and she decided to focus on staying alive. She'd cringe, and bow, and promise anything they wanted. She'd make herself compliant and useful.
  124. > At the first opportunity she would escape, but if that never presented itself she'd wait for the Elements, or for Royal Guard, or the Princesses themselves. Somepony would come and save them.
  125. > The people stopped suddenly and Mayor tensed up as the one carrying her shifted its grip on her legs. She was hoisted up and deposited unceremoniously on the hard ground. The landing drew a grunt from her, but this time they didn't mind her making noise.
  126. > There was a squeal beside her and a thump as the other pony landed next to Mayor. She could finally get a good look at them.
  127. > Rainy Day, the gray mail-mare.
  128. > "Mayor! Mayor, you-"
  129. > The nearest creature barked something at them and jerked its spear in their direction.
  130. "Hush!"
  131. > Luckily Rainy Day fell silent, but her eyes showed a lot of white at the sight of that spear and she crawled closer to Mayor. She was trembling and there was sweat pouring from her coat. She seemed fine otherwise, so Mayor Mare focused on the creatures again.
  132. > They had walked a short distance away and were grunting and gargling their crude language, punctuating their argument with angry gestures of their limbs. They kept glancing back at the ponies, but otherwise weren't paying them much mind.
  133. "Are you okay?" Mayor asked in as near a whisper as she could manage. "They don't want us talking, so be as quiet as you can."
  134. > "I think my wing is broken!" Rainy Day whispered back.
  135. > Mayor glanced at her side and saw that the limb was hanging at a weird angle. She understood the sweat and the shivering, the pegasus was probably in shock. Her muzzle was dripping with snot and tears.
  136. > "Mayor, I need to get to a hospital. If we don't set it the bone won't heal right! I won't be able to fly!" She choked back a sob and the sound made the creatures fall silent and turn in their direction.
  137. "Quiet."
  138. > It was stern and not very comforting, but Mayor didn't want to push the beasts too far. She flicked her eyes between Rainy Day and the group until she heard them going back to their discussion.
  139. "Okay. Sorry, just keep it down."
  140. > The pegasus nodded and let out the breath she had been holding. "I need a doctor, Mayor! Please."
  141. "I can't! I'm sorry. We'll try to escape tonight, if the Elements don't find us first!"
  142. > "The Elements of Harmony? They're coming?"
  143. > Sudden hope dawned in Rainy Day's eyes and Mayor didn't have the heart to crush it. She sighed and nodded.
  144. "I hope so."
  145. > The mail-mare closed her eyes and took deeper breaths. She didn't seem as panicked anymore. "Okay. I hope they come soon."
  146. > It was possible, Mayor guessed, but very unlikely. Maybe by this time they had noticed them missing, or maybe even found the discarded mail bag, but it would be some time before anypony organized a search party.
  147. > Would they figure out they'd been foalnapped and dragged into the Everfree forest? There might be tracks where they were attacked, but was anypony in Ponyville skilled at reading such things? Maybe one of the Apples, Mayor hoped.
  148. > No, the best way would be to escape themselves, and with the news of Rainy Day's broken wings one of Mayor Mare's plans died. She'd hoped she could free them and then send the pegasus up in the sky to find the shortest way out of Everfree.
  149. > In a worst-case scenario, she could fly back to Ponyville and bring help while Mayor Mare hid somewhere.
  150. > Now it looked like they'd have to run the whole way. She just hoped Rainy Day wouldn't be too sick with pain. There was no way Mayor would leave one of her citizens behind.
  151. > Her thoughts were cut short when the creatures returned. They were still jabbering away in their lingo, but they seemed more determined than before.
  152. > A few of them with saddlebags took them off and passed them to others, then a couple bent down to pick up the ponies. Not the same ones as before, Mayor was sure.
  153. > They probably needed some rest after carrying them all that way.
  154. > She didn't resist being grabbed, but Rainy Day whinnied when they roughly nudged her injured wing out of the way. The creature reaching for her jerked away, then bunched up its paw and swung it at the pegasus.
  155. > It connected with her muzzle and made her head snap back with the force of the blow. The mare cried out and took a breath to scream, but the brute lifted up its bunched paw in a very threatening gesture. It'd do it again if she wasn't quiet.
  156. "Please, just be quiet!"
  157. > Mayor Mare received a slap on her head herself, but at least it worked and Rainy Day clamped her mouth shut.
  158. > Then the world whirled around as the thing settled her on its shoulders and turned. Mayor Mare lost sight of her pegasus friend, but she saw some of the creatures' faces.
  159. > They were just so alien, with bare patches of skin above their scruffy beards and that strange, almost completely vertical muzzle. Their eyes were small and the whole thing seemed dominated by the weirdly-shaped nose.
  160. > Still, Mayor thought she saw fear in there. They looked afraid of her, which made no sense. She was completely in their power.
  161. > She filed that fact away to think about later and focused on her breathing. This new creature held her differently and its shoulder was digging into her ribs. It took more effort to draw breath.
  162. > Hopefully they'd reach their destination soon, or it would shift its grip, because Mayor didn't think she could take this position for very long. Already her breath was labored and she was starting to sweat from the combination of the heat and the effort.
  164. > ~~~~
  166. > The sun was just starting to peek above the trees on its way across the sky when the band of people stopped again. The hunters, Mayor had begun calling them in her mind after she'd thought a little on their spears and nets.
  167. > She was, once again, dumped unceremoniously on a patch of dirt and shortly after Rainy Day landed beside her with a grunt of pain. The poor mare just slumped, breathing in short, ragged pants. Her face dripped with sweat, and she seemed to have trouble focusing.
  168. "Stay with me!" Mayor ordered.
  169. > It was probably shock, or some reaction to it, Mayor Mare thought, but she didn't really know much about this stuff. Medicine had never been an interest. What she did know, however, was that Rainy Day needed a doctor pretty badly.
  170. > Even forgetting about setting her wing to allow it to heal properly, there were all kinds of complications which could occur from a broken bone. Not to mention that this was no ordinary bone, but a pegasus wing bone, which was extra complicated.
  171. > Rainy Day focused on Mayor for a moment, but then her head lolled back and she closed her eyes. She would have to do something.
  172. > They weren't tied up, but a couple of the hunters were squatting near them and watching them warily with their cruel spears in their claws. Mayor very carefully got to her hooves. She didn't trust these brutes even a tiny bit, but she had to work with them.
  173. "Can you understand me?"
  174. > At the sound of her voice they tensed up and looked at one another, but at least this time they didn't immediately threaten her with a spear. They spoke briefly to each other, then one of them extended its claw toward Mayor.
  175. > It mumbled some words to her, but she couldn't understand any of them.
  176. "What? I'm sorry, I don't understand what 'yari' means!"
  177. > "Yari!" The shorter of the two hunters repeated, growing visibly excited. He - she decided it looked like a male - sprang up to his hind legs and took a step closer. He babbled some more at her and Mayor Mare tried hard to pick out at least a few more words. She didn't know what they meant, but appearing to speak their language might make the things less likely to simply butcher her and Rainy Day.
  178. "Yes! Okay. Yari morrey or whatever. Morrey. We need some help, understand?"
  179. > She thought the hunter was young and perhaps that meant less mean. She saw that some of the others were grinning, almost derisively at his attempts at communication.
  180. > He repeated the words more slowly and she did her best to emulate him.
  181. "Mori. I'm sorry, I don't know what it means!"
  182. > The hunter kept repeating those two words and she did her best to match his pronunciation. The closer she got, the more excited he was and kept waving and jabbering at his fellows.
  183. > A few seemed to be slightly interested, but they were pretty winded and preferred to save their energy.
  184. > She could smell their sweat, and the way they panted told her this forced march had been hard on them.
  185. > Beside her Rainy Day groaned again and reminded Mayor of her task.
  186. "I need some help. I need a branch and some rope. Can you give me rope? Rope!"
  187. > She felt silly, of course they wouldn't know the word, but she saw an end of it dangling from the young hunter's bag. She took a tentative step forward and he tensed up and redoubled his grip on his spear. His knuckles whitened and Mayor stopped.
  188. "Look - yari mori or whatever, I just need to show you, okay?"
  189. > Another careful step brought her within hoof's reach. The hunter was still pretty tense, but he hadn't actually threatened her yet. She reached up her hoof with excruciating slowness until she was touching the end of the rope.
  190. > Luckily the creature stood perfectly still, only tracking her with his eyes.
  191. "This. Rope! I need this!" she said and hooked her ankle around the string.
  192. > She gave it the most careful of tugs, but one of the other hunters suddenly spoke up and she froze.
  193. > Once again she caught the two words she already knew, and she thought she made out another. "Ols," the older hunter had said. Maybe it meant rope?
  194. > The whole pack laughed at his words and the young hunter stepped away and lowered his spear. Mayor Mare's ears fell and she took an involuntary step back.
  195. "Please, I need that. Ols. Does that mean rope? Please let it mean rope!"
  196. > She felt a moment of elation when the hunter grabbed the rope with his claw and pulled more of it out of his bag. "Ols?" he repeated. She didn't catch most of what followed, but she caught 'mori' and 'uyakh'.
  197. > 'Ols' had to mean rope, she was certain of it! She went back to Rainy Day and lowered her head near her ear.
  198. "I'm sorry about this, but I have to make them understand!"
  199. > The pegasus whimpered when she gingerly lifted her wing.
  200. "See? It's broken! I need the rope - ols - to tie it up! Please?"
  201. > It was working! The young hunter had pulled the entire length out of his bag and held it in the air before himself.
  202. "Yes! Please!"
  203. > She stepped closer and he dropped the rope down on the ground between them. Mayor was only too happy to grab it and take it back to Rainy Day. All she needed now was a stiff branch.
  204. > There was a hazelnut bush very near and she made a careful step toward that.
  205. > Immediately some of the hunters jabbered and the youth who'd given her the rope hurried to block her path. His spear was aimed directly at her face and Mayor stopped.
  206. "Come on, I'm so close! You have to understand I need a branch for a broken limb?!"
  207. > She flattened her ears and crouched slightly. Her tail was already as far between her hind legs as it would go. Surely they'd understand submission?
  208. "Please?"
  209. > It took long seconds before the hunter relaxed and Mayor made another tentative step. He kept pace with her, seemingly ready to jab her at the first sudden move. Mayor sighed to herself and walked very slowly.
  210. > Luckily it wasn't far. She reached the bush and quickly spotted a good, thick branch. She looked back at the hunter.
  211. "I need to break it off, okay? I'm not running away and I'm not making a weapon, please understand that!"
  212. > Maybe her voice was pleading enough to translate across their cultures, but the young hunter relaxed a little and the point of his spear lifted up, at least part way. This was enough of a sign that she could proceed.
  213. > Mayor grabbed the branch she'd chosen in her teeth and bent it down. She pushed it further with her leg, then brought her other foreleg against it. Her hooves were hard enough and, combined with her earth pony strength, sharp enough to snap the branch off near its base.
  214. > She dragged it back to Rainy Day to prove to the hunters she wasn't trying to escape.
  215. > By now, all of them were standing and watching her with curiosity.
  216. > It made her feel self-conscious, but she pushed past it and went to work stripping the leaves and smaller branches. The former she simply ate and the latter she spat out.
  217. > Another clean break gave her a usable length of pretty straight and quite sturdy branch.
  218. > The next bit was going to be difficult and she was already wincing as she thought about it. She didn't know exactly what she was doing, but even the general idea sounded very unpleasant for the poor pegasus.
  219. > She nuzzled her and pushed a bit of discarded wood in her muzzle.
  220. "Here, bite down on this. I gotta straighten your wing and tie it to the crutch. I'm sorry, but it's going to hurt!"
  221. > There was no time to be squeamish. Mayor didn't even know if Rainy Day had heard, but the pegasus took the wood in her mouth and held it there. Her ears went completely flat and she tensed up her muscles.
  222. > She understood and didn't object, which gave Mayor a bit of confidence that she was doing the right thing.
  223. > For a few moments she wondered how to grab Rainy Day's wing, then sighed and took hold the furthest wing-finger with her teeth. She tried to be as gentle as possible, but she needed to straighten it out and that required a firm hold.
  224. > Taking it slow would only prolong the suffering, so Mayor pulled the wing out quickly, doing her best to ignore her citizen's pained moan. She tugged to make sure it was fully outstretched then pressed it to the ground with her hind leg. It had to stay in place and she needed both hooves and mouth to tie the branch.
  225. > The limb jerked under her grasp as the poor pegasus began to thrash.
  226. "Not much longer! Stay still, please!"
  227. > It helped and Rainy Day stopped moving, though she was crying loudly by now. Her voice was only slightly muffled by the wood she was gripping in her teeth.
  228. "I'm sorry!"
  229. > There was nothing but to proceed. Mayor laid the branch on top of the bone - humerus, it was called if she remembered her equine biology back in college. She thought it looked straight, but there was no real way to tell for sure.
  230. > It was awkward to have to keep gentle pressure on Rainy Day's wing with her hind leg while she worked the rope with her forehooves, but somehow Mayor got the stick wrapped. The rope cut through the feathers and looked pretty uncomfortable, but it was the best she could do.
  231. > Once she'd tied a simple knot she caught the wing in her mouth again. She had to fold it back, but Rainy Day was keeping it extended even while she whimpered and groaned.
  232. "Fold it!" Mayor commanded.
  233. > The pegasus shuddered, but she allowed her limb to be pushed back against her barrel. It didn't fold right, not with that piece of wood against it, but it was pretty close, Mayor thought.
  234. "Hold it there, please. It's almost over!"
  235. > Rainy Day nodded and her entire body was trembling with the effort while Mayor lifted her up and passed both ends of the rope around her barrel.
  236. > She worked as fast as she could now and wrapped all the rope around her friend to press the wing and the branch as tightly against her as she could. It might make it harder to breathe, but it was important to keep the bone from moving.
  237. > Soon she tightened the last knot and slumped down on her haunches. Both she and Rainy Day were soaked in sweat and shivering.
  238. "There. I- I'm sorry. I think it'll hold. I don't know what else to do."
  239. > The mare lifted up her head and shook her sodden mane out of her face. "It's al- alright. Thanks. Burn Celestia, but it hurts!"
  240. "Nothing we can do about it. It should stop soon."
  241. > That last was pure guesswork, but it was the best she could do.
  242. > She suddenly remembered their audience and their predicament. Some of the creatures were gone and the others were hefting their bags once more.
  243. > Mayor tried to guess which one of them would carry her next, but several of them walked up with more rope in their claws.
  244. "That's fine, we don't need any more. Um, no ols. No ols. No more."
  245. > She shook her head and held up her hoof to try and get the message across, but the hunters just ignored her and reached out.
  246. > For a moment she thought about bucking them and making a run, but she was surrounded on all sides and she knew they wouldn't miss with their spears if they wanted to take her down.
  247. > Rough claws grasped her mane and Mayor shut her eyes even as her nostrils flared with sudden panting. She had to work to contain her panic, especially as one of the hunters wrapped the piece of rope around her neck.
  248. > They tightened it, but not so much to cut off her breathing. One of them - their leader maybe, jabbered some orders and she caught 'ols' and 'mori'. Maybe that meant to tie her down with the rope?
  249. > It was what they were doing. The rope tensed and Mayor danced a few steps to keep it from choking her. She opened her eyes and saw that Rainy Day was being treated the same.
  250. > They tied both of them on the same rope, around their necks, and the other end went to the young hunter who had helped her.
  251. > He gave the string a tug and both ponies were forced to stumble forward.
  252. > Some of the other creatures laughed and one of them patted the young hunter's shoulder. He said something back to them, then looked at the ponies and his face relaxed. He seemed happy to be in charge of their prisoners and out of the whole bunch Mayor trusted him slightly more than the others.
  253. > He had taught her a word and given her the rope, after all. She followed easily when he began to walk and Rainy Day did the same. They didn't have a lot of choice, anyway.
  254. > In her mind, Mayor Mare named the youngling 'Willow'.
  256. > ~~~~
  258. > Now that there had been time for the fear and adrenaline to recede somewhat, the trek became little more than drudgery. Mayor was aware they were dragging them deeper into the Everfree forest, but with the constant shade it was hard to tell in which direction they were travelling.
  259. > She wondered how these creatures could have remained hidden in there. She had never heard of anything like them. Upright, mostly hairless, with dexterous claws and small, forward-facing eyes. Predator eyes.
  260. > Now that she wasn't being carried like a sack she could watch these strange people. Every little bit of information might help her escape.
  261. > Willow was the youngest one among them, by far, if she could believe her intuition. The other ones bore a number of scars on their limbs and she thought a few of them were missing fingers. One of them had lost part of an ear.
  262. > They were mostly naked, with only a light fuzz covering their chests, legs and arms. They had manes and most of the creatures had beards, but both looked unkempt and dirty.
  263. > The thing that frightened her the most was the fact that they were wearing animal skins around their midriff. It confirmed that they weren't squeamish about killing other creatures.
  264. > Here and there, when one of them spoke, Mayor thought she saw canines, which could mean they were meat eaters and further reinforced her 'predators' hypothesis. That didn't bode well for her and Rainy Day.
  265. > Perhaps the reason they hadn't killed them yet was that it was easier for meat to walk itself to wherever they were going. Probably a town or village. Maybe this was a hunting trip.
  266. > Those spears certainly said so, and the attackers had been well prepared to catch ponies with their nets and brute strength.
  267. > They were obviously smart, even if Mayor Mare couldn't understand their language. They moved and worked with intent and they made and used tools. How was it possible for an entire species to have gone undetected?
  268. > Everfree was large and mysterious, but not *that* large.
  269. > There was a tug on the rope around her neck and Mayor realized she had slowed down. Willow looked back and yanked her forward again.
  270. > He might have been the youngest in the group, but he had a spear just as sharp as the others and Mayor had no doubt he would be capable of killing her if he wanted.
  271. > Maybe there was a touch of softness in his face, but the way he looked at his elders made Mayor think he was trying to prove himself to them. Maybe it was his first hunting trip.
  272. > With luck, if they stopped for the night, she could work on his youth and get him to let them go. It'd be hard without the language, but she would do anything to escape! She filed this plan along with the others.
  273. > The hunting party came to a clearing in the forest and stopped. The people milled about and jabbered in their language, but Mayor could hardly catch a word here and there.
  274. > She thought she made out 'neelt' and 'ger', but they didn't mean anything to her. She kept her ears and eyes open anyway.
  275. > Something odd caught her eye. There was a large rock in the middle of the clearing and it looked really strange. She couldn't put her hoof on it, but the shape seemed wrong.
  276. > There was a fallen, moss-covered log right next to it.
  277. > It was hard to see because there was a shimmer in the air, such as she'd sometimes seen above distant roads on extremely hot days.
  278. > Maybe some kind of a natural hot spring or something? There didn't seem to be any steam. It could also just be her bad eyes combined with exhaustion.
  279. > Mayor slowly pulled back as far as the rope would allow before she put tension in it. This brought her close to Rainy Day, who was breathing hard and looking at the ground. The mare's head was hanging down and she seemed completely defeated.
  280. "Hey, you okay? I'm sure they'll give us water soon..."
  281. > An ear turned her way, but Rainy Day didn't look up.
  282. "I need your help. Look that way - that rock. Does it look okay to you?"
  283. > At this the mare looked up and her breath caught. "It's sheared right through!"
  284. "Huh?"
  285. > "Like somepony cut it vertically. The side facing us is perfectly smooth!"
  286. "What does it mean?"
  287. > Rainy Day managed a shrug. "Dunno. I've never seen anything like it. Maybe a lightning strike?" A moment later she shook her head. "Where is the rest of the rock then?"
  288. > Mayor didn't know what to think of it, not yet. Maybe she'd understand in time. She risked pulling on the rope a little and gave her friend a quick nuzzle.
  289. "We'll get out of this. Rest up, I dunno how much further they'll take us today."
  290. > The other mare gave her a nod and let her head fall once more. Sweat dripped from her chin to the ground, proof of just how tired she was.
  291. > Mayor felt fine so far and she wondered if she could explain to her captors that she wanted to carry her friend on her back for a while.
  292. "Can you go on? I'll carry you..."
  293. > Rainy Day shook her head. "I'm fine. Just let me breathe for a bit."
  294. "Okay, but tell me if you..."
  295. > "Thanks. I will."
  296. "Maybe it's not much long-"
  297. > Her word was cut off by a sharp tug in the rope. When she looked back Mayor saw that the people were moving on and Willow was pulling them along. There wasn't a lot she could do, but Mayor looked back and considered running.
  298. > Most of the creatures were already well into the clearing and Willow was the nearest one to them. If she gave a strong tug she could probably yank the rope out of his claws.
  299. > Her gaze went to Rainy Day, who despite their respite was still breathing hard. She didn't look in a good shape for a gallop.
  300. > Would she leave her behind after all?
  301. > Mayor's ears flattened at the thought. It would reduce the number of captive ponies, but she'd be leaving Rainy Day to an unknown, potentially gruesome fate. By the time she found her way out of Everfree all trace of these creatures might be gone.
  302. > Besides, there was no certainty she'd get out anyway. They were very deep in the woods and even if she lost these hunters, there were other dangerous creatures in the forest.
  303. > The rope went taught again and Mayor had to shift a hoof to keep her balance. That broke her indecision and she heaved a forlorn sigh as she followed the young hunter. A moment later Rainy Day fell in step behind her.
  304. > Perhaps it had been an opportunity, but it would certainly result in a chase, something Rainy Day wasn't up to.
  305. > There would be other chances, Mayor told herself. The creatures would grow complacent and she'd escape. Maybe tonight, when they slept. Without pursuit she and Rainy Day could make it, she was sure of it!
  306. > For the moment, however, she followed Willow to the middle of the clearing and watched the rock. They were soon close enough for her to see that Rainy Day was right. The rock was cleanly split in two and the side facing her was smooth and vertical.
  307. > It might indicate some kind of stonework, but why only this side?
  308. > Something else was strange in that place and Mayor only noticed when she nearly stumbled. There was a crack on the ground, as if the earth itself had split and sheared.
  309. > She had to step up as she walked.
  310. > Strangely, the split in the ground went from the broken rock, past the fallen log and toward the trees at the edge of the clearing in a straight line, or as straight as she could estimate.
  311. > Perhaps more importantly, the forest ahead of them seemed to be thinning. Surely they hadn't travelled clean through the Everfree this quickly, had they?
  312. > Another strange detail caught her eye. The moss-ridden trunk on the ground had been cut diagonally! It was old, so the line was jagged, but something told Mayor that the break had been just as smooth as the rock.
  313. > She looked around to try and find where the log had come from and saw a lopsided tree which might have had a split in its trunk at some point.
  314. > Strangely, it too would have lined up with the crack in the ground.
  315. > It had to mean something, all of it put together. There was a line where things got sheared in half and the hunters were dragging it right into the middle of it.
  316. > For an instant Mayor's blood froze in terror and her hoofstep faltered. Was this some weird, wild magic which cut things in half? Were they going to use it to make butchering the ponies easier?!
  317. > She very nearly panicked and pulled back, but Rainy Day was already passing her and Willow was yanking on the rope again. She was standing in the middle of the line anyway, so Mayor nearly jumped forward to get away from that place.
  318. > Her breath came in short pants and her friend lifted up her head to look at her in concern. "You okay?"
  319. "Y-Yeah... it's just- never mind. I thought-"
  320. > "What?"
  321. > They couldn't say anything more because Willow yelled something and gave the rope a strong pull. Mayor stumbled and nearly fell flat on her muzzle, but the yank got her moving again.
  322. "It's nothing. We're past it anyway."
  323. > She forced herself to take a long, deep breath, then felt her ears fold down flat without her conscious control.
  324. "Did it just get cold?!"
  325. > "Yeah, but remember were we are..."
  326. > That made sense. Everypony knew there was a lot of dangerous, wild magic in Everfree. A section of it that was chilly when the whole of Equestria was burning up? That wouldn't be out of place here.
  327. > Mayor Mare chuckled to herself at her sudden thought that she should move her office here during the summer. Nervous laughter, she realized. Her mind was seizing onto anything to distract her from her fear of magical butchery.
  328. > She looked back at the rock, the log and the tree, but Willow gave her rope another pull and she hurried to catch up. At least walking was a bit easier in the cool air. She hoped it would last for a while before they came back to the sweltering heat.
  330. > ~~~~
  332. > Another hour passed in nothing but mindlessly walking after the pack of those strange bipedal creatures. It was still cold and Mayor Mare thought it was getting chillier.
  333. > Surely that wasn't right? An uneasy feeling was taking hold over her and she kept glancing back.
  334. > They had been travelling for most of the day, but surely they shouldn't have come all the way through the Everfree yet?
  335. > The forest was mostly gone, with only the occasional tree they passed, and the horizon looked pretty empty. There were distant mountains, but everything else seemed quite flat.
  336. > This wasn't terrain Mayor recognized and she was getting scared. She wasn't the best navigator, but even if they did come all the way through the forest, they should be seeing the plains of Appleloosa, right?
  337. > Were those mountains in the distance Macintosh Hills? Moreover, it was far too cold for the middle of summer!
  338. > There was no real choice but to keep walking, but her legs were beginning to tremble as she took each hoofstep. More than once Mayor thought about voicing her concerns and maybe get some reassurance from Rainy Day.
  339. > Pegasi were good navigators and she would undoubtedly spot some landmark which would tell them where they were. But the other mare seemed lost in her own, tiny, dismal world. Every now and then she whimpered, or hissed if she jolted her injured wing.
  340. > She kept her head down and her gaze on the ground before her. More than once Mayor had to tug the rope to keep Rainy Day moving.
  341. > No, she couldn't dump any more on the poor mare, especially if her vague, unspecified dread turned out to be warranted.
  342. > Up ahead the hunters were spreading out a little and Mayor wondered if they were coming near their destination. Where in Tartarus could they be living?
  343. > Surely if they weren't in the thick of Everfree they would be known to Equestria? Surely they didn't walk in all the way from the Badlands, or further?
  344. > Maybe they have? That would mean they'd have to return through heavily pony-populated lands, which would mean help or opportunities to escape. She could deal with why nopony knew of these creatures after she was back, safe in Ponyville.
  345. > Mayor looked around once again, trying to see something familiar. They were moving almost directly west and the setting sun was limiting her vision, even where her poor eyesight wasn't.
  346. > Her step faltered and Willow nearly fell as the rope grew taut. He turned around with an angry growl and tugged, but Mayor was staring.
  347. > It couldn't be sunset yet! The whole day was fuzzy in her memory, but surely not more than about six hours had passed?
  348. > Her internal clock said it would be about lunch time, which was proven by the distinctive emptiness in her stomach.
  349. > The young hunter pulled on the rope again, but she had dug in her hooves and wasn't moving. It was just too much and she was overwhelmed.
  350. > It was too cold, it was too late in the day, the land was all wrong and the creatures who had foalnapped her hadn't been seen in Equestria before.
  351. > Maybe, Mayor Mare thought, it was all just a weird nightmare.
  352. > She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to will herself awake.
  353. > "What are you doing? Come on, we have to keep moving," Rainy Day said as she stopped next to her.
  354. > There were more shouts from up ahead and Mayor could hear the hunters coming back, no doubt to see what all the commotion was.
  355. > "Come on, Mayor. They look pretty angry!"
  356. "It's all wrong!" she whimpered.
  357. > Mayor wanted nothing more than to curl up in a ball and put her hooves over her head and pretend none of this was happening until it became true.
  358. > There was a gasp by her side and Mayor opened her eyes. Rainy Day was sitting on her haunches and staring, wide-eyed at the sky. She looked pale and her muzzle was hanging open.
  359. > Before Mayor could follow her friend's gaze, Willow gave a mighty pull on the rope and she lost her balance. She toppled over and smacked her muzzle in the dirt.
  360. > Maybe that broke her stupor, or maybe the sudden pain reminded her she wanted to live. She got to her hooves and took a step, which forestalled another mighty pull. The other hunters gathered around Willow and were muttering something to him.
  361. "Come on. Let's go on."
  362. > Rainy Day shook her head as if to clear it of bad thoughts, then stood up. When she looked at Mayor her eyes were nearly all white. Then she looked around.
  363. > "Mayor? I don't think we're in Equestria anymore."
  364. "What?! What are you saying?"
  365. > She jerked her head up. "Look at the stars."
  366. > Mayor did so, but while she could imagine that a few of the glittering jewels were becoming visible, she couldn't see more than a deep blue blur without her glasses.
  367. "I can't. My glasses..."
  368. > Before Rainy Day could answer there was another tug on the rope around Mayor's neck and she began walking. Her friend fell in step beside her and went back to looking at the ground.
  369. "What did you see?!"
  370. > Rainy Day drew in a long sigh and then let it out. It made her shiver, and not just from the deepening cold. Mayor was about to ask again, but Rainy Day spoke up: "That's not our sky. Mayor, I don't know how far we would have to go so I wouldn't recognize any of the constellations, but we're there."
  371. > Surely they hadn't walked far enough for that?!
  372. > Then she remembered.
  373. "The place in the woods! The- the shear! That rock, remember? As if it was cut in half!"
  374. > Rainy Day looked up and blinked. "Do you think-" she began, but didn't have the proper words to express the sudden, scary thought.
  375. "I'm afraid you're right. This isn't Equestria. That must have been some kind of a portal. Maybe it took us all the way to the other side of the world!"
  376. > Mayor looked up to Willow, who was walking backward to make sure they were following. The others had gone ahead once more, but a few lingered nearby in case she would give them further trouble.
  377. "None of them have horns. If it was magic, it didn't come from them. Maybe it's something natural in Everfree."
  378. > "Why does it matter?" Rainy Day asked.
  379. "If it's something natural, then we can find our way back!"
  380. > "Oh. You're right."
  381. "We just have to get away from them. Do what they say. We'll try and escape tonight when they're sleeping. I think I remember the way back."
  382. > All her looking around and behind them would pay off. Mayor Mare was fairly certain she could find their way back to the woods. All they had to do was sneak away while the hunters slept.
  383. > This new discovery also explained why nopony had heard of these creatures. Maybe they lived somewhere in the Frozen North, judging from the chill? In any case, the portal was probably their only way back.
  384. > More importantly, the chance of rescue by the Elements was now very remote. They'd have to get themselves out.
  386. > ~~~~
  388. > It was late in the night and Mayor was beginning to flag. Her legs felt like they were made of lead and for the past half-hour she had let her head hang, not much interested in her surroundings.
  389. > Her mouth was as dry as Saddle Arabia and her tongue felt like sandpaper. She feared if her captors didn't give her some water soon she would collapse.
  390. > There was a tug of tension on the rope around her neck, but it wasn't coming from Willow. Mayor Mare looked behind and slowed her steps to wait for Rainy Day.
  391. > The other pony was standing still and looked about ready to fall over. How much further were these creatures going to drag them? A quick glance ahead showed Mayor that her captors hadn't noticed that she'd stopped.
  392. > There was still a bit of slack in the rope, but pretty soon Willow was going to yank on that damned thing again. Already her neck was chafed and the loop of string felt like it was cutting off her breathing.
  393. "Come... on," she gasped to Rainy Day. "Just a little further."
  394. > The pegasus shook her head, but didn't want to spare any air for answering. She stood on trembling legs, her nose very nearly resting on the ground. Her breathing was labored and droplets of foam were dripping from her open mouth as she panted.
  395. "Come on, just a few more steps and then we'll be on the top of the hill. It's nice and downward from here on."
  396. > This time there was no response.
  397. > Mayor felt a tug at the rope and she glanced back up to see Willow looking back at them. He jerked on his end of the string as she watched, a wordless command to follow.
  398. "Please?"
  399. > She wasn't going to leave her friend behind. A few hours ago she would have offered to carry the other mare, but that was no longer a possibility. Mayor wasn't entirely confident her legs could hold her own weight, let alone that of Rainy Day.
  400. > There was only one thing she could do, however detestable. She grabbed a bit of rope in her teeth and pulled. The sudden jerk made Rainy Day stumble and look up in surprise.
  401. "I won't ask you again! Keep moving!"
  402. > It was too dark to see faces, but Mayor didn't need light to perceive the hurt in Rainy Day's eyes. It went straight to her heart, but she didn't have any choice.
  403. > She had thought she was completely numb, but there were still a few fresh tears which ran down her cheeks like twin lines of fire.
  404. "Move it!"
  405. > Her voice was harsher than she had expected, but it did the trick. Rainy Day lowered her head again and took a tentative step, followed by another.
  406. > Shortly she was caught up, but didn't look at Mayor Mare.
  407. > The important thing was that she was moving and Mayor fell in step with her. That placated Willow and he turned back to look over the hilltop. At least he wasn't immediately moving away, Mayor found a bit of gratitude in her heart for that.
  408. > She hadn't understood any more of their captors' language, but she thought he had been telling the others to slow down through the afternoon. Without that, perhaps, the ponies would have proven too much of a burden to the older hunters and who knew what they would have done.
  409. > A few more laborious steps took them to the top of the hill and Mayor glanced over the crest at whatever Willow was looking at. She stumbled and nearly fell before she caught herself.
  410. > There were lights. Campfires, so many of them!
  411. > She could see blurry shapes around the flames and it took only a few seconds to make sense of the scene. It was a large camp of the same creatures that had captured them.
  412. > "It's their nest," Rainy Day said dejectedly. "We're never getting out of there..."
  413. "We'll find a way," Mayor replied, even though she couldn't drum up a lot of conviction for her words.
  414. > "Yavak!" Willow barked in what sounded like a command, which he accompanied by a slap across her rump with the rope. The meaning was pretty clear. He wanted them to keep moving.
  415. > Mayor took a deep breath and started walking again. At least she hadn't lied to Rainy Day when she said it would all be downhill.
  416. "Looks like about a mile."
  417. > "Mile and a half," the pegasus corrected. Of course, she had better eyesight and an innate ability to gauge distance.
  418. "We can do it. Then we'll rest."
  419. > Rainy Day snorted and swished her tail, but she didn't voice her thought. Instead the pegasus let her head hang again and began walking. Maybe the end being in sight gave her her second wind. Or third wind.
  420. > Whichever wind it was by that point, Mayor steeled her resolve and followed her friend. A moment later the hunter began moving as well and quickly overtook them. He apparently wanted to be up in front.
  421. > Mayor began to whisper a prayer to Celestia they weren't walking the last stretch to their own cook pots.
  423. > ~~~~
  425. > There was a lot of commotion in the camp when the ponies arrived, mostly from the children who came to point and jabber in their strange language. Many small claws grabbed for Mayor's mane, but Willow slapped them away and led them deeper into the camp.
  426. > It was a small mercy after foalnapping them and dragging them to another world like animals, but Mayor was nevertheless grateful for it.
  427. > Many of the adults also stared, but they seemed to control themselves a little better. A few mothers gathered their children close, or pushed them into a tent.
  428. > Mayor had almost no energy left for curiosity, but she forced herself to look. If they were going to escape, she'd need every detail.
  429. > The people lived in tents made of some thick, brown fabric, held upright by gleaming white wood. It had been polished pretty smooth, but Mayor Mare didn't get more than quick glimpses through tent flaps.
  430. > The whole place stank, that was the most powerful impression. She could identify the same pervading milk and sweat stench from the hunters, but there were also less savory ones. Excrement and urine, but also the smell of rotting meat, wood smoke and a few she couldn't identify.
  431. > Buried underneath it all was the occasional whiff of boiling vegetables, but even those were tainted by the meat smell. It looked as if the people ate stew with dead flesh as an ingredient.
  432. > Any hunger Mayor might have felt from their long walk quickly evaporated and it was all she could do not to heave. There was nothing inside her and her last meal of the few rapidly stripped leaves of that hazelnut branch was long gone. She still felt like throwing up.
  433. > The people themselves were dirty, with grime and mud smeared on their bodies and their animal skin clothing, such as they wore. Most of the children were naked and some of the younger adults were severely under-dressed, especially for the night's chill. Although, they offset that by huddling around the fires or sitting in their tents with the flaps nearly closed.
  434. > Willow and his two captives traversed most of the camp and it looked like all the people lived in this strange squalor. Mayor was glancing around for perhaps a larger tent, or maybe even a building. If she could identify the people's leader - provided they even had one - she could start working on some diplomacy.
  435. > That was her secondary plan if escape proved impossible. The language barrier would make it very unlikely to succeed, but she wasn't about to give up on a task just because it seemed hard.
  436. > She wasn't able to see anyone who might be a leader and another new scent caught her off-guard as she searched.
  437. > Manure! It smelled like a farm, which was a very welcome change from the stench of the hunter-people. There were ponies, or maybe one of the other equestrian races there!
  438. > "Hey! Help! Can you help us! Please!" Rainy Day cried out.
  439. > Her voice caused many of the nearby people to look over in shock and there were signs of agitation.
  440. "Hush!" Mayor hissed.
  441. > She didn't want the mass of hunters to turn on them like they had in the forest. Apparently hearing them talk was causing the people significant distress and they needed some time to get used to the idea.
  442. > Pretty soon she spotted why Rainy Day had yelled, though. There were Equestrians in front of them! Donkeys, but Mayor had never been so glad to see those permanently grumpy faces! They stared at the newcomers with dull, disinterested eyes.
  443. > Something felt wrong and Mayor suddenly didn't want to be there.
  444. > The donkeys were filthy and they stank. They kept staring, but there was no glimmer of recognition, no word of greeting, not so much as a smile or a nod.
  445. > They almost seemed like...
  446. "They're dumb..."
  447. > It was barely a whisper, but enough for Rainy Day to hear and whimper in sudden fear.
  448. > How was it possible? Every creature in Equestria could talk, or at least understand pony speech. These were either completely apathetic, or somehow reduced to even less than animals.
  449. > The herd lost interest in the new arrivals and some of them bent down to try and crop the last bits of grass under their hooves. As Mayor watched she saw one of the jennies casually lift her tail and let out a stream of thick yellow urine.
  450. > It splashed not a hoofstep away from another donkey, but neither of them seemed bothered by that fact.
  451. > As she watched the little scene unfold Willow dragged her past the group. She came within touching distance of a jack and dug her hooves in to stop for a moment.
  452. > She peered into his face from up close, where the lack of glasses didn't impede her vision.
  453. "Can you understand me? Come on, there has to be something left!"
  454. > The eyes that looked back were dim, uncomprehending. Her heart skipped when he opened his mouth, but all that came out was a faint, grass-smelling burp. Then the jack bent down to try and get at some more greenery.
  455. > There was no intelligence there and barely any sentience.
  456. > A slap on her rump brought her out of shock and Mayor stumbled forward. Willow was holding the makeshift rope collar on her neck and dragging her off to a nearby patch of grass.
  457. > She glanced back, wondering why the donkeys haven't moved to eat the fresh grass, but saw that they all had rope around their necks. Tied up like animals and lacking even the intelligence to free themselves from something that simple.
  458. > For a moment all she could feel for those miserable creatures was scorn, but then there was a glimmer of hope. If they tried to do the same to her and Rainy Day, they'd be out before the morning!
  459. > They could sneak away while the people slept. It had looked as if they were heading into their tents and she could hear the voices of the females, presumably calling their children and the males to bed.
  460. > Escape might actually be easy, Mayor thought to herself with renewed hope. She gave a silent thank you to the donkeys.
  461. > Another of the hunters joined Willow in the small grass clearing and she thought she recognized him as one of the pack that had captured her. They exchanged some words and the newcomer lifted up a coil of rope in his claw. He held a misshapen bag in his other, but he simply dropped that on the ground and Mayor paid no more attention to it.
  462. > They really were going to just tie them to something. Mayor nearly laughed with relief.
  463. > Her joy suddenly withered when Willow bent down and grabbed her legs. Before she could really react, he hauled and sent her falling to her side. The sudden move made her squeal in fright and caused Rainy Day to jump sideways in alarm before the other hunter did the same to her.
  464. > "Oof! No! Wait! Don't-"
  465. > Her words were interrupted by a smack, followed by a pained whinny as the fall jolted her injured wing.
  466. > Surely they weren't about to butcher them now?! Mayor scanned their claws, but they didn't have any of those stone knives.
  467. > She thought about struggling, but by then Willow was deftly sitting on her belly and she couldn't get any real purchase on the ground with her hooves. He tried to grab around her fetlocks and she yanked her legs free, but that just resulted in a strong slap to her muzzle.
  468. > "Nam gum!" he growled and lifted up a bunched fist. It was a threat and Mayor forced her limbs to stillness. That allowed the young hunter to grab her fetlocks and bring them together. He began looping the rope around them and suddenly Mayor understood.
  469. > Her heart sank. Of course they had seen she could manipulate rope. They weren't stupid. They were going to tie them up fore- and hind-legs to keep them from escaping.
  470. > Willow pulled the rope tight, then lifted himself and grabbed her hind fetlocks.
  471. > Pretty soon all her limbs were tied together and she could barely move them at all. When the hunter let her go, she flopped to her side, breathing heavily after the ordeal. She saw that Rainy Day was in no better shape. The only small mercy was that she wasn't lying on her injured wing.
  472. > Perhaps the only small mercy was that Willow had untied the rope around her neck. It felt good to be able to breathe normally once again. Beside her, Rainy Day got the exact same treatment.
  473. > They looked at one another in disbelief as the two hunters stood up. The older hunter walked away, but Willow only went a few paces and rummaged in the grass. He lifted up the strange bag from before and approached them once more.
  474. > Mayor watched him with a mixture of pure loathing and fear as he fiddled with the thing in his claws. There was a dribble and she smelled water.
  475. "Wa-" she choked, but her throat was too dry and she coughed.
  476. > The young hunter knelt beside her head and poked his strange bag at her muzzle. She realized with horror that it was just some animal skins, sewn together and filled with water. It stank of death and stale water and mold, and she turned her head away in disgust.
  477. > Willow wouldn't have any of it and his free claw gripped her muzzle. She should have been able to fight him off, even bound as she was, but a day of walking and hunger and thirst had made her weak.
  478. > He tilted his dead bag and a trickle of water splashed into her mouth.
  479. > It was warm and stale, and it stank of old meat, but it was also the most refreshing and delicious thing she had ever tasted. Despite her revulsion, Mayor stopped struggling and opened her mouth wide.
  480. > Swallowing in that position, on her back, was tricky and she drank more air than water, but she persisted. Mayor closed her eyes and gulped as Willow trickled the life-giving fluid into her mouth.
  481. > It stopped too soon and she followed it with her head as he lifted the bag away. She was about to beg for more, but heard the urgent whimpering of Rainy Day and remembered that she wasn't the only pony in distress.
  482. > "Plea-h, water..." the pegasus was mumbling and trying to wiggle closer to them. Luckily Willow went to her and knelt down.
  483. > Rainy Day gagged and Mayor remembered her own reaction.
  484. "It's okay! It stinks, but the water is good!"
  485. > A moment later there came the slurping and swallowing as the hunter watered the other mare. It didn't take long and when he stood up the bag looked empty. He slung it across his shoulder and walked a few paces away while they recovered.
  486. > Mayor wiggled across the grass until she could lean her side against Rainy Day's. Her head was free, but all she could manage was a weak nuzzle.
  487. "You okay?"
  488. > "My wing hurts, but it's not too bad. Uh, thanks for binding it up. I think that helped..."
  489. "I don't know if I set it right. I'm not a doctor. I'm sorry if it never- if you-"
  490. > She couldn't say it out loud, but Rainy Day understood. "It's okay. It's not your fault. I just hope we make it out of this alive."
  491. "We will!"
  492. > Mayor looked around to see if the people were annoyed with them talking, but there was only Willow, sitting on the ground a short distance away and staring at them.
  493. > He was going to watch them to make sure they couldn't free themselves.
  494. > Fresh, hot tears dribbled down Mayor Mare's cheeks as she realized they weren't going to escape, at least not soon. Not until the people grew complacent. Having had that hope snatched away really stung.
  495. > She squeezed her eyes shut and silently promised herself she would never again underestimate these people.
  496. > There was a sniffle and a moment later Rainy Day's whisper: "They aren't coming, are they Mayor?"
  497. "What?"
  498. > "The Elements. You lied. They'll never find us here."
  499. "They m-might. Pegasi can fly to the Frozen North."
  500. > The other mare just shook her head. "You still don't get it, do you?"
  501. "Get what?!"
  502. > Rainy Day took a deep breath, then turned her head away to look at the stars. "I don't recognize the stars. Not *any* of them, Mayor. When I said we're not in Equestria anymore..."
  503. > Her heart sank as Mayor Mare anticipated her friend's words. Were they even further away from home than she thought? Clear on the other side of the world?
  504. "Princess Luna will-"
  505. > "No. Mayor, we're not in Equestria anymore. We're not even on our world, do you understand?! Whatever this place is, nopony can find us here."
  506. "We'll just have to escape ourselves. Don't give up!"
  507. > Rainy Day didn't say anything, so Mayor sough to give her more hope.
  508. "I kept looking back. I know the way back to that portal or whatever it is. We just have to keep our heads down until they grow bored and complacent, then we'll sneak away and go home, okay? We can do this, just don't give up!"
  509. > There was no reply, but after a few seconds Rainy Day closed her eyes. Mayor did the same. They were both exhausted by the walk and the ordeal. She listened to the noise of the camp around her - people talking, an occasional shout or laughter, or a fart from the nearby donkeys. The crackle of fire.
  510. > It didn't seem as if she would be able to sleep in all the cacophony, but it wasn't long before she drifted off.
  511. > Her last thought was that she would only sleep a few hours. Surely Willow couldn't watch over them the whole night. They might be able to escape if they woke before dawn.
  513. > ~~~~
  515. > Mayor Mare felt incredibly stiff as she was waking up. The air was very cold and her muscles were on fire. She wondered for a moment if she was coming down with a fever or something and tried to find the blanket to wrap herself up more tightly.
  516. > Her legs didn't work, which was the first shock. Straining brought on the ache of muscle fatigue.
  517. > She opened her eyes and let out a small, involuntary groan. Her breath caught when she realized that she was outside and lying on some damp grass.
  518. > "Mayor?" came a voice from beside her.
  519. > Another body was pressed against her side and it felt like the only source of warmth in the entire world.
  520. "So it wasn't a dream?" Mayor asked as memory rushed back.
  521. > Their capture and the forced march to this place. This... not-Equestria. The world of tall, hairless hunters.
  522. > Rather than answering her, Rainy Day just drew in a deep breath and let it slowly out. She didn't have to say anything.
  523. > All her legs were still tied firmly together, but at least the rope hadn't cut off her circulation, Mayor thought. Maybe she could free herself.
  524. > It was near dawn, but the camp was still pretty quiet. As Mayor Mare looked around she spotted a shadowy figure moving around here and there, but Willow was gone and none of the creatures seemed to be watching them.
  525. > Stupid, she thought to herself. Their first night, while the hunters were still wary of them and didn't come close had been the best chance of escape. Maybe she could still make it.
  526. > Some struggling let Mayor flop over, but she couldn't bend enough to reach the rope with her teeth. All four legs tied together was apparently extremely crippling to a pony.
  527. > At least a slightly pudgy, unfit earth pony who spent most of her time in an office.
  528. "Rainy Day, can you get yourself free?"
  529. > "I can't bend!" her friend complained. "My wing hurts if I try."
  530. > Maybe there was another way.
  531. "Can you untie my legs?"
  532. > Mayor wiggled closer and, ignoring the chill dew soaking into her fur, brought the bundle of rope around her ankles close to Rainy Day's face. She waited patiently as the pegasus picked and tugged at her restraint.
  533. > It seemed to go on for a while, then Rainy Day groaned. "It's no use! The rope is too thin and I don't understand this knot. It's too small!"
  534. "Keep trying! We don't have a lot of time!"
  535. > She kept still, even though her legs ached as she held them up in the air so Rainy Day could work. Would they even be able to walk? She glanced around to find a good direction with fewer tents and maybe some cover nearby, but the land was almost perfectly flat and from what she could see Mayor assumed they were in the middle of this makeshift village.
  536. > Any direction would be as bad as the next. They'd just have to sneak out and hope none of the people spotted them. They both had plain colors, so that should help.
  537. > To one side the sky seemed a little lighter and Mayor guessed it was the East with its impending sunrise. How long before it popped up?
  538. > Did this world have a sun princess too? Maybe she looked more like these bipedal creatures.
  539. > "Ugh!" Rainy Day groaned again in frustration.
  540. "Just bite through!"
  541. > "I'm trying!"
  542. > Her bound legs jerked this way and that with more force as Rainy Day tugged and nibbled at the rope. There was a slight pop and some of the pressure around her ankles released.
  543. "Yes! You're doing it!"
  544. > Mayor could move her legs a bit more freely, but she didn't try to rip them free while Rainy Day was still working on the rope. She only needed to weaken the rope enough and Mayor, being an earth pony, would be able to snap it.
  545. > The leverage wasn't quite right and the muscles she could bring into play like this weren't her strongest, but it should still work.
  546. > Perhaps it would have worked, but she spotted a familiar hunter coming their way and her heart sank.
  547. "Stop!" she hissed urgently and pulled away. "Stop! Pretend you're asleep!"
  548. > Maybe they wouldn't notice the bite marks on the rope? They shouldn't have tried this when they knew they didn't have enough time!
  549. > Mayor swore under her breath and flopped over so she could hide her legs beneath her. Maybe Willow would check on them and leave, and they could finish escaping.
  550. > Rainy Day spotted the young hunter as well and grunted under her breath. "I think you can break the ropes. Do it Mayor and kick him, he won't be expecting it! We can escape!"
  551. > For an instant she was tempted, but Mayor wasn't sure her legs would obey her fast enough. She was incredibly sore and she'd seen how strong and fast these people were. Trying to escape and failing would probably end badly. They might still decide it's less trouble to just butcher and eat them.
  552. "No, we're both still tired. We'll pretend we're asleep tonight and then we have more time!"
  553. > Rainy Day closed her eyes, but she gave Mayor a nod. She'd defer to her leadership.
  554. > Willow was standing above them and watching for a few seconds, then he crouched down and reached his claw carefully toward the ponies.
  555. > The gesture didn't look threatening, but Mayor still tensed, ready to bite him hard if he tried anything violent. She was expecting him to grab her, or maybe hit her if he noticed the damaged rope and she glared back in challenge.
  556. > It didn't come and his claws brushed carefully, almost gently down her nose. "Taivan, taivan," he murmured, "taivan mori."
  557. > Mayor didn't think he was speaking to them. His tone felt more like he was talking to himself, but it was a good opportunity. She was a diplomat, so maybe it was time to let her cutie mark lead the way.
  558. "Yes," she cooed quietly. "That's right. Taivan."
  559. > The young hunter froze and stared at her. Maybe he'd forgotten they could talk? Mayor seized the opportunity and dredged her memory for all she could remember.
  560. "Um, ols! Ols mori! We're tied down, see? We didn't escape, you should trust us!"
  561. > He talked at her then, but the words came out too quickly and Mayor couldn't be sure she caught any of them. She listened intently, but it was just a bunch of nonsense to her.
  562. "Slow down. I can't understand you, slow down!"
  563. > They watched each other without any glimmer of comprehension, then Willow just pushed her to her side and grabbed her legs. Mayor froze, hoping against hope he wouldn't figure out they'd fiddled with the ropes.
  564. > She needed to distract him while his claws did the work!
  565. "Yori, no- yari! That's another one. Ols yari mori, um, taivan! That's what you said, right?"
  566. > It was working, even if Mayor couldn't be sure what she'd just said. It was probably wrong, but Willow's mouth quirked up in a smile. Pretty soon he had the knot untied and he just let the rope slip to the ground.
  567. > Good, he hadn't noticed the damage! As soon as he let her go, Mayor rolled to her belly and concealed the piece of string under herself.
  568. "Thanks! Thank you! It was pretty uncomfortable."
  569. > The words almost made her grimace in distaste. Thanking him for releasing her after he had been the one to tie her up in the first place. She couldn't let any of her anger or disgust show.
  570. > It was way too fast, but maybe these people weren't sophisticated enough. Maybe they'd believe she and Rainy Day had given in this quickly. If so, perhaps they wouldn't tie them up as strongly the next day.
  571. > She had to get them to trust her, at least a little, so Mayor didn't make any sudden moves. She got her legs on the ground under her and started to slowly lift herself up.
  572. > Willow's hand slapped down on her rump and he barked: "Doosh!"
  573. > It'd be best to stay still, but the moment was lost. Willow had been about to untie Rainy Day, but now he reached under Mayor and searched for the piece of rope. He found it and pulled it out.
  574. > Mayor held her breath, hoping against hope, but this time there was no missing it. Part of the knot was still holding it together, but the string was clearly broken.
  575. > "Urakh," he murmured to himself and Mayor guessed it meant that the rope was torn. She nearly panicked and glanced for a way to run, but then a sudden flash of inspiration struck her.
  576. > The stupid thing had been in her ribs the whole night, maybe it could be useful now.
  577. "Yes! It got torn- see?"
  578. > She shuffled and fished under herself with a hoof until she dragged out a large stone. It wasn't one of the sharp ones the hunters used on their spears, but it was irregular and might explain how the rope got torn.
  579. "I must have rolled around on it when I slept, see?"
  580. > Mayor tried to mime this, sticking her legs together and wiggling around on the ground.
  581. "See? Urakh ols, right? It got torn. It's not my fault!"
  582. > "He's never going to buy that, Mayor," Rainy Day commented. The pegasus was watching the whole scene with some interest, but didn't seem overly optimistic it'd work.
  583. > Except it was working, Mayor was sure of it. She gave Willow her biggest, most innocent grin as he picked up the stone and rubbed the rope against it.
  584. "Yes! That's it! Urakh, urakh!"
  585. > He shrugged to himself and tossed the stone away. Then he let the shorter length of rope fall and reached once more for Mayor. She stiffened, but all he did was loop the string around her neck the same way he'd done the previous day.
  586. > The other end remained firmly in his hand and only then did Willow move on to Rainy Day. He obviously didn't want them running away, even if they were in the middle of a dense camp. The sky was getting bright and the people around them were waking up.
  587. > Already children were crying, youngsters were shouting and laughing as they played and the males were yelling as they looked for their fellows. Trying to run would get them pierced by spears within a few hoofsteps.
  588. > Rainy Day grunted as Willow tugged on the rope around her own legs, but Mayor held up a hoof.
  589. "Just go along with it. They gotta think we're okay with this, right? Maybe they'll be less vigilant tonight."
  590. > The pegasus seemed doubtful, but she didn't struggle and kept quiet as her own rope was tied around her neck. Pretty soon Willow had them both tied and began walking. There was nothing to do but follow him.
  591. > Mayor found herself hoping they weren't going to a cooking pot after all.
  593. > ~~~~
  595. > Mayor Mare shared an apprehensive look with Rainy Day as they were being led through the camp and onward. On the one hoof, they didn't know what Willow planned to do with them, but on the other if they went sufficiently far there would only be the one hunter to deal with.
  596. > She glanced back to see if any of the others were following, but it was hard to tell. The camp was quite chaotic and there was a lot of noise and activity now that everyone was waking up.
  597. > A few of the younger members of the tribe were doing something with the group of donkeys and there was a lot of braying and snorting, but other than their activities were inscrutable to Mayor. For all she knew, this was what regular life looked like for these people.
  598. > Already fires were being lit and some of the children were put to work carrying things. A few groups of older males had gathered and were laughing uproariously at something.
  599. > Mayor stumbled and nearly fell, which reminded her that she was being dragged by a rope around her neck. She faced forward again and watched the ground in front of her hooves, but she kept her ears turned to the camp behind them.
  600. > "Where do you think he's taking us?" Rainy Day asked in a quiet voice. Her wing seemed to be giving her fewer problems this day, but maybe that was just because she'd gotten used to the pain.
  601. > Other than still being tied firmly to her side, Mayor couldn't see any change in the appendage. Maybe, if they had some time to themselves she could untie it and see how it felt.
  602. "I don't know, but I hope it's not another whole day of walking."
  603. > "Me too."
  604. > There was another problem developing and Mayor Mare lowered her head, determined to keep it to herself. Unfortunately Rainy Day had sharp eyesight and asked: "What's wrong?"
  605. > She thought about refusing to answer, but all it would do was worry the other mare.
  606. "I need to- to go to the little fillies' room."
  607. > "What- now?"
  608. > All Mayor could do was nod.
  609. > "Okay, just go. I'll walk in front. I know we've both done it yesterday."
  610. > Once again Mayor Mare nearly stumbled, but this time in shock.
  611. "You saw?! B-But you don't understand! This time it's number two!"
  612. > "Oh." Rainy Day was thoughtful, then looked ahead and jerked her head that way. "We're almost there, I think. Just hold it a little longer."
  613. "Almost where? How do you know?"
  614. > She gazed up ahead and saw a blue-green blur and a line of trees. She soon recognized it.
  615. "A river!"
  616. > Rainy Day smiled. "Mhm! I guess hauling water for us is a lot of work, so why not lead us to the river so we can drink?"
  617. "Good thinking."
  618. > They fell silent as Willow glanced back and gave their ropes a quick jerk to make them move faster. This time Mayor was only too glad to oblige and after a rest Rainy Day could keep up with ease.
  619. > A few more minutes brought them to the bank of the river where the young hunter approached what looked like a dried-out tree trunk. There were no branches and the trunk was stripped of bark and had deep grooves cut into it.
  620. > Before Mayor could figure out what it was for, Willow looped her lead rope around the thing and tied it. The groove made sure it couldn't slip over the top.
  621. > Unfortunately the rope wasn't long enough for her to reach any of the nearby bushes to do her business.
  622. "Hey! No, you can't just- look, I need to go. I'll be right back, okay?!"
  623. > Of course he couldn't understand her and by now he was used to them speaking so he simply ignored it. Instead, he was leading a startled Rainy Day to the river.
  624. "Wait!"
  625. > The other mare dug in her hooves and looked back. "Mayor?! What is he doing with us?"
  626. > It didn't help for long. Willow braced himself against the ground and pulled on the rope. A pegasus couldn't resist that kind of strength and Rainy Day was forced to take a step.
  627. > Her ears were flat and she looked like she was choking on the rope. "Hel- Mayor! Help!" she gasped out.
  628. > She'd injure herself, or the young hunter would do something drastic if she didn't calm down. Mayor was sorry for her own panic which had started this whole thing.
  629. "Relax!" she commanded. "He's not gonna drown you, Rainy Day! He just wants you to drink!"
  630. > Mayor hoped with all her heart she wasn't lying. Rainy Day gave her a wide-eyed look and she nodded with as much of a smile as she could muster. She couldn't help noticing that Willow had stopped hauling on the rope when she'd spoken to the pegasus.
  631. > He grinned to himself when Rainy Day took a tentative step closer. When she hesitated he gave the string a tug and the mare allowed herself to be led away.
  632. > They both waded into the water until it reached Rainy Day's belly, then Willow just stopped, watching her expectantly.
  633. > She quickly figured out what he wanted and it was something she needed to do anyway, so Rainy Day lowered her muzzle into the water and drank.
  634. > Just watching it was both making Mayor's mouth water and the pressure in her bladder increase.
  635. "Hurry up, for Celestia's sake," she grumbled to herself, stepping from hoof to hoof.
  636. > It was quiet enough so that not even Rainy Day could hear.
  637. > A new sound pressed upon her consciousness and she became aware of the growling, snorting and braying mass of donkeys approaching from the camp. Obviously they were going to be watered as well.
  638. > She looked back and saw that several of the older children were leading the group. They didn't have rope, like her and Rainy Day, but the bipeds had long, supple whips in their forepaws.
  639. > Whenever one of the donkeys started to stray from the group a youngster was there to administer a quick strike and drive the beast back.
  640. > The beast, Mayor thought to herself. It was appropriate, even if it pained her to admit it. In this land, she, Rainy Day and the hunters were the thinking creatures and the donkeys were the animals. Perhaps even less than animals.
  641. > Soon enough the herd was on the beach and rushed to the river to drink their fill. They pushed and jostled each other and Mayor could see that their young didn't get any special treatment. They were either ignored, or outright shoved away.
  642. > One particular foal tried to nurse as Mayor watched and its mother just pushed it away so she could drink in peace.
  643. > No thought there.
  644. > Luckily it seemed the children, all of whom were younger than Willow and seemed to hold him in awe, kept their herd away from the two ponies. Even better, perhaps, was the fact that they took station downriver.
  645. > When it was her turn to drink Mayor wouldn't have to taste donkey in the water.
  646. > Rainy Day had had her fill and was coming back out of the water. Willow didn't have to drag her this time and she hurried until she was at Mayor Mare's side again.
  647. > They waited while he tied her to the stump and untied the other rope, but then Mayor resisted his tug.
  648. "Sorry. I need to use the bush, okay? I'll be back right away."
  649. > She tried to walk in that direction, but the rope tightened and she stopped. She gave the hunter a pleading look.
  650. "Please? I'll just be a minute! Understand? Uh, poop. I need to poop!"
  651. > The only way to make him understand, however embarrassing it felt, was to demonstrate. She crouched a little with her hind legs and lifted up her tail.
  652. "See? Poop. I need to do it and I need some privacy!"
  653. > He tried to understand, Mayor could see that. He leaned his head to one side and frowned in concentration. She mimed her position again and gave him a hopeful smile, then pointed a hoof at the bush.
  654. "Poop," she repeated.
  655. > "Poop?" he mimicked her word.
  656. "Yes! Exactly! Come on!"
  657. > She tugged on the rope on her side and it worked! The hunter walked after her and followed her the short distance to the bushes. It gave Mayor Mare hope that they might yet come to reach some understanding in time.
  658. > The shrubbery rustled as she pushed her way in and then shook wildly as Willow followed. Mayor stopped and held up a hoof.
  659. "No, you wait here!"
  660. > She mimed pushing him away, but he only gave her a blank stare. When she took another step in the bush he went right along with her.
  661. "Come on, the rope is long enough! Ols. You have enough ols to wait out there!"
  662. > The pressure was almost unbearable and the hunter didn't understand what she needed. Mayor felt like growling in frustration, but he might take it the wrong way and hit her, fearing an attack.
  663. "Please? Just a little privacy?"
  664. > It came out as a whine, but of course he didn't understand her words.
  665. > There was no more choice. She swiveled her rear away, took a step back and crouched. Her ears went flat and her muzzle colored deep red at the ensuing sounds as her business plopped on the ground behind her.
  666. > By pure luck she had gotten her tail out of the way in time.
  667. > A moment later, unable to be stopped, a stream joined the noise.
  668. > Perhaps the only mercy was that Willow just stood there and didn't follow any further. He finally understood what she was doing and was waiting patiently for her to finish.
  669. > It didn't take long and Mayor looked around for a large leaf or something to clean herself. Unfortunately as soon as she relaxed the young hunter turned and tugged on her rope.
  670. "Wait, I didn't- gah!"
  671. > That was all the patience he was willing to afford her, it seemed. In her embarrassment Mayor didn't think to fight him and just followed as he dragged her rope to the river.
  672. > She'd have to clean herself later, it seemed. For now she suddenly realized just how dry her throat was and hurried after Willow to get her drink.
  673. > Surely if they were watering her and Rainy Day that meant they wanted to keep them alive. They weren't going to kill and eat them. What they wanted them for was still a question, but at least it didn't seem like it was food.
  674. > Mayor Mare relaxed a little and lowered her muzzle to the water. It was very cold, but also clear and fresh. A lot better than the stale mess they had poured down her throat the previous night.
  676. > ~~~~
  678. > The next part of their captivity was a little confusing at first. By the time Mayor had had her fill of water, Willow shouted something and one of the younger creatures ran up from the donkey herd and gave him his switch.
  679. "What are you-"
  680. > "Hyah!" Willow shouted and flicked the thin branch across her rear. It didn't really hurt, but it stung and the surprise of it made Mayor jump away.
  681. "Ow! Hey! You can't- eep!"
  682. > The second flick also caught her by surprise and she backed away as far as the rope would allow her. She faced the hunter with her ears pinned back and an angry twist to her lips.
  683. "Stop that! I'm not your beast of burden!"
  684. > Of course he didn't understand her words and he had a different plan. One wherein, Mayor Mare feared, what she thought or wanted didn't count for much. The whip whistled as it narrowly missed her muzzle and she flinched back.
  685. > There was only one choice if she didn't want that thing to hit her right in the eye and Mayor walked backward out of the water. Willow kept pace with her, occasionally swishing his branch to her left or right to direct her careful retreat.
  686. > He was controlling her by the means of a rope and a switch and the shame of it all was quickly driving Mayor to her limit. She bared her teeth at the insolent hunter and reared up to flick her forehooves at him.
  687. > Of course he was too far for her to connect, but it did stop him for a few seconds and he eyed her warily.
  688. > "Ugu!" he yelled and brandished his whip at her. He feigned a lunge and swished the branch through the air, but Mayor was past caring. She charged at him, intending to either bite him or give him a swift kick to the gut.
  689. > Nothing lethal, just something to make him stop and regret his actions for a bit. To her dismay Willow was laughing as she jumped for him. He found this *fun*?!
  690. > Before that fact had time to fully register, the whip came around and slashed a line of fire across her shoulder and back. She flinched away and it was enough to miss her bite.
  691. > Willow was ready for that too and jumped out of her way, then hauled on the rope. The loop around her neck tightened painfully and Mayor fell to her side with a painful grunt.
  692. > While her vision swam the whip came down twice in quick succession across her flank.
  693. "OW!"
  694. > She struggled to her hooves and turned to Willow again, red rage flooding her vision. She barely heard Rainy Day yelling something to her as she charged again.
  695. > This time she was aiming her head to Willow's midriff. If she could knock him down he'd be prone to a well-placed stomp.
  696. > Her mistake was lowering her head too much so she didn't see Willow's face. Mayor braced her neck for the collision, but it didn't come. Something slapped the top of her head and she realized the hunter had *jumped*.
  697. > She reared up to get at least one good kick in at his legs, but the creature was too fast and already out of reach. Even as he landed lightly back on his feet behind her, Willow was hauling on the rope and Mayor nearly did a somersault.
  698. > This time she landed on her back and the whip came down on her belly, just once but infinitely more painful on the soft flesh there. She squealed in agony and rolled to protected her vulnerable spots.
  699. > Willow was still laughing and delivered another couple of lashes to her rear while she was scrambling to her hooves. By this point she hardly even felt the sting. Once again Mayor charged and this time she wasn't holding back anymore.
  700. > Her fear and anger and hatred of these people, these *monsters* who had tied them up and dragged them to this miserable world, came bursting out. She screamed her defiance at Willow, since he was the nearest target of her frustrations, and her breath came out with flying spittle.
  701. > This time she was watching his eyes and saw a flick to his right. He was about to sidestep and Mayor almost grinned to herself. She planted her forehooves firmly in the ground and flicked her entire body to the left.
  702. > Her hind hooves shot out at chest height with deadly, crushing force.
  703. > All she hit was air. Her only warning was a blur on her right as she flew through the air. She had overextended herself, fully expecting an impact which didn't come. There was no recovery from that and Mayor fell down her belly, hard.
  704. > The air was driven from her lungs and her muzzle impacted the ground with enough force to make her vision swim. All she could do for the next couple of seconds was lie there and focus on getting her breath back.
  705. > It was then the whipping really started. Somehow, Mayor didn't know how, Willow had dodged left instead of right. It had been a feint and he was unharmed, laughing as he beat her.
  706. > Each time there was a swish of air, followed by another line of bright fire across her back. For the first few all Mayor could do was choke, but then she finally managed to breathe in, only to squeal in agony.
  707. > She tried to roll away from the blows, but that just enabled Willow to whip her belly a few times and she quickly turned back. Pretty soon she was curled up in a ball of misery as she sought to minimise the amount of hide Willow could hit.
  708. > There was no stopping her sobbing screams now.
  709. "Stop! AH! No! Please! I'm sorry! PLE- GAH! OW!"
  710. > It went on for long minutes and she was reduced to incoherent babbling, but the whipping ceased and Mayor was left alone to cry. She was grateful that it was over, but she hated that it happened. She absolutely despised the ease with which this young hunter had defeated her.
  711. > Maybe a pegasus could match his reflexes, but not his strength. It'd have to be a very athletic pegasus, too.
  712. > Mayor closed her eyes and wept in sheer frustration and impotence. Until now she'd been counting on her strength to beat down her captors if there weren't many of them, but that notion was now thoroughly dispelled.
  713. > The rope around her neck tightened and Mayor opened her eyes in surprise. Willow was still grinning to himself, proud of his achievement. He still held the whip and now he was jerking her rope, wanting her to stand.
  714. > She refused and put her muzzle firmly down in the sand.
  715. > A single lash blossomed across her rump, making all her previous strikes flare with fresh pain. She choked off a squeal, but not before it escaped her lips.
  716. > The rope jerked again, stronger this time and when Mayor looked she saw Willow raising his arm for another strike.
  717. > He'd just keep beating her until she obeyed, Mayor realized with a sinking feeling in her gut. He wanted something and he was going to get it from her one way or another. She placed a forehoof down and pushed. The lash didn't come, but Willow kept his whip up as he barked some unknown command at her.
  718. > Another tug on the rope made it clear. He wanted her up on her hooves and so Mayor obeyed. She stood on shaking legs and her breath caught as she pulled at her tender skin. It didn't feel broken, but she would certainly have bruises.
  719. "There! I'm up! Buck you!"
  720. > Willow clicked his tongue and tugged on the rope. She didn't know what he wanted, but the young hunter landed a light slap of the whip on her rump and Mayor took a step.
  721. > He kept up that clicking noise and tugged at her rope again and she began to walk. It wasn't clear where he wanted her to go, but Mayor didn't want another beating so she walked.
  722. > Pretty soon she reached the limit of the rope and slowed, but a tap of the whip on her rump made her pick up her pace once more. Since there was no other option, she angled herself and ran in a circle around Willow. It was as far as the rope would allow her.
  723. > That seemed to be the right answer and Willow shouted something which didn't sound as angry. Realizing that he was probably encouraging her made Mayor flush with fresh embarrassment, but she kept up her slow canter.
  724. > After a few rounds willow clicked his tongue again and swished the stick through the air. Mayor instinctively sped up, which turned out to be the right answer.
  725. > It was a thoroughly stupid and demeaning exercise, but there wasn't much choice if she wanted to avoid further whipping. Mayor kept her head down and ran in that Celestia-damned circle while Willow laughed and shouted more encouragement.
  727. > ~~~~
  729. > By the time it was over Mayor Mare was panting heavily and trying to control the trembling of her limbs. Every muscle burned with the combination of the previous day's walk and this latest, involuntary exercise.
  730. > Willow had finally tired of driving her in a circle and tied her back to the tree stump, where she simply slid into the ground and let her muzzle rest in the dirt. Trickles of sweat ran down her sides, tickling as they went.
  731. > Rainy Day was to be next and the hunter led her to the same patch of sand where Mayor's hoofsteps traced a nearly perfect circle.
  732. > Mayor forced herself to look, but her pegasus friend was being put through the same paces as her. She had an advantage though. Having watched what it was Willow wanted from them, Rainy Day didn't have any troubles interpreting his commands, even if they were just wordless shouts and clicks of his tongue.
  733. > Here and there he tapped her side with the whip, but it was in no way a strike.
  734. > Mayor found her ears lowering and her lips tightening as she considered the unfairness of it all. She'd have avoided punishment too, if she'd seen a demonstration of what to do beforehoof!
  735. > An instant later she felt guilty for such thoughts and silently admonished herself. Rainy Day was injured, so it was actually better that Willow had picked Mayor as his first victim.
  736. > Who knew what a beating might do to Rainy Day's already broken wing? Even if there had been no choice on her part, Mayor Mare had still done the right thing, both as a friend and as a government official.
  737. > She still couldn't help the tiny flash of envy as Willow laughed and cheered Rainy Day on. At least it sounded like cheering. Mayor didn't understand the words.
  738. > In the end she laid her head down and focused simply on getting her breathing under control. The fire in her legs had faded to dull heat, which would leave her sore by the afternoon. All she could do was hope that the hunter didn't have any more 'training' in mind for her.
  739. > A swish drew her attention, but it was just Willow waving his whip to get Rainy Day to change direction. She turned almost on her heels and resumed her circle.
  740. > "Sain! Sain mori! Sain mori!" Willow shouted, smiling.
  741. > Mayor's ears perked up. She'd heard that word before, back when they first put the rope around their necks. Why would he be talking about tying them up?
  742. > Maybe the meaning of the words shifted depending on context? It'd make learning their language all but impossible, at least without help or active participation from the people.
  743. > So far, Willow seemed to be intent on treating them like dumb animals, even though he knew they could talk and reason. He was a bit strange, that one and Mayor couldn't quite guess at his motives.
  744. > She glanced longingly at the water, wishing she could get a drink. The exercise had served to dry her out and her mouth felt both sticky and full of sand, impossible as that was.
  745. > Hopefully Willow would realize he had to water them.
  746. > Mayor's stomach growled and she mentally corrected: feed and water them. She didn't have to like that he treated them like beasts of burden, but at least that'd mean he had to feed them, right?
  747. > Luckily the 'training' of Rainy Day went smoothly and they were soon done. The mare was breathing heavily, but she wasn't sweating as much as Mayor had been. Obviously he'd gone lighter on her, perhaps because she hadn't tried to attack him.
  748. > Mayor Mare got to her hooves as they approached, even if she was unsteady and her muscles screamed in protest. She gritted her teeth and kept her level gaze on the hunter. Surely he wouldn't trying anything more, would he?
  749. > Rainy Day caught her gaze, but looked away when she saw her expression. It felt as if there was some kind of tension between them now and Mayor let out a sigh.
  750. "You did well. He didn't beat you."
  751. > "Only because I was watching you," Rainy Day murmured back. "Look, I know it probably looked like I was submitting, but he'd make me do it anyway. This way is just easier. B-But I'm not giving in, okay? We're getting away as soon as we can!"
  752. > Mayor Mare asked herself whom Rainy Day was trying to convince, but she didn't say it out loud. The shameful truth was that if their roles were reversed, she'd have used what Rainy Day learned just the same. She couldn't fault the other mare for making it easy on herself.
  753. > She was injured, after all. She couldn't afford to be beaten and possibly rolled around on the ground.
  754. "Yeah, yeah. Don't worry about it. We have to pretend like we're going along with what they want so they let their guard down."
  755. > Rainy Day gave her a puzzled look at that statement and Mayor could almost read the retort in her eyes. If she wanted to pretend they were submitting, why had she attacked the hunter?
  756. > Fortunately she didn't ask it out loud because Willow had untied her rope and was tugging them after him away from the river. Mayor cast the water a longing glance, but then focused on putting one hoof in front of the other.
  757. > They didn't talk as he led them, but it wasn't far before he dropped to his knees and rummaged in the grass before him.
  758. > Mayor watched with dull curiosity as Willow muttered to himself and searched around. The ropes were short enough that they had to follow him here and there, until he found what he was looking for.
  759. > He pulled the grass away to reveal a thick stake which had been hammered in the ground. It had a groove, similar to the stump near the river and Mayor quickly understood. He would tie them up there.
  760. > Her pulse quickened. If he intended to leave them alone while they browsed on the grass it might prove their chance to escape. She needed a minute of them not looking and she could bite through their ropes, or pull the stake out if it wasn't too deep.
  761. > She looked around and decided on the best course of action. If they could make it to the river, They could use the sparse trees as cover and if the crossed, or swam it, the water would hide their tracks.
  762. > It would give them enough time before the pursuit that they might make it back to the portal!
  763. > Mayor kept her expression as neutral as she could, but Rainy Day noticed and lifted up her ears in question. Luckily she didn't comment.
  764. > Pretty soon they were tied to the stake and Willow stood up, looking pleased with himself. He was going to leave them, Mayor thought excitedly.
  765. > He leaned down to grab a fistful of fresh grass. He was about to hold it out to Mayor, but changed his mind and offered it to Rainy Day instead. Probably afraid she would bite him, Mayor thought with grim satisfaction.
  766. > He jabbered something in his tongue as he brought his claw closer.
  767. > Rainy Day looked at Mayor Mare, who gave her a shrug and a nod. It wasn't like the grass was poisoned, not when he'd just picked it in front of them.
  768. > With that the pegasus reached her muzzle forward and pulled a few stalks out of his claw. She made a show of chewing it and then smiling in appreciation. "Mmmm. It's good!" she said.
  769. > Mayor nearly rolled her eyes at the forced friendliness, but Willow just said some more things, gave Rainy Day a friendly-looking pat on her back, then took a step away.
  770. > This was it! He was going to go!
  771. > He watched them for a while and Mayor realized he was probably waiting to see them both eat. She quickly dropped her head and started cropping the nearby grass.
  772. > It was fresh and edible, though she wasn't a big fan of plain grass or hay. Ponies could live on it in a pinch, but she'd have to eat a lot of it not to starve.
  773. > Still, this seemed to satisfy Willow and he turned away. Mayor kept her head down, but she tracked the young hunter with an ear and an eye, waiting for her chance to enact their escape.
  774. > He suddenly let out a shrill whistle, which made both mares jerk in surprise. They looked at him, but Willow was holding up his claw with the whip and staring back to the river.
  775. > "What's he doing?" Rainy Day asked.
  776. "I'm not sure. Maybe he's-"
  777. > She fell silent when she heard the trampling of grass and the short, rapid breaths of a younger member of their tribe.
  778. > Nomads, Mayor Mare decided. She couldn't keep calling them 'creatures', or 'hunters'. Those tents looked like the village moved a lot, so 'nomads' would do until she either learned a better word or came up with one.
  779. > It was one of the children who had driven the herd of donkeys to the river. He was sun-bronzed, and wore fewer animal skins than any of the hunters who had captured them. All he had was a strip of some kind of hide around his waist.
  780. > The two nomads spoke for a while, then Willow pointed at the two mares and gave the newcomer his whip. The youth smiled at them and kept sneaking glances, even as he was being given what sounded like strict instructions on how to deal with them.
  781. > Whatever responses he gave were apparently the right ones, because Willow cast another glance at Mayor Mare and Rainy Day, then walked back to the village.
  782. > It wasn't too hard to reason our. He'd put them under the watch of the youngster while he went to do his own things. Maybe he was going to eat as well, or maybe he had some other work besides 'training' the ponies.
  783. > Her spirits slightly lowered, Mayor began laying new plans for escape. Maybe the younger nomad would be easier to trick, or disable. Maybe he wouldn't be as fast or as strong. He still had that whip, but maybe she could take it from him.
  784. > While she watched him and plotted, the youngster came slowly closer, wide-eyed and excited. He reached out his forepaw, but then paused and pulled it back. Instead he said some words, too quick for Mayor to make them out.
  785. "Sorry, I can't understand you."
  786. > The reaction surprised her. Rather than shock, or fear, like the older nomads sometimes displayed, this one almost squealed with joy and clapped his claws together. His next question came out even faster and Mayor shook her head.
  787. "Slow down. I can't even make out what you're saying!"
  788. > This time he was puzzled and repeated what he'd said, but it was no better. Mayor sighed and decided to take the matters into her own hooves. She sat on her haunches and beckoned with her hoof. Maybe that gesture would translate.
  789. > The child took a step forward, but didn't sit. It was the best she'd get, Mayor figured.
  790. > Start with the basics, she thought to herself.
  791. > She placed a hoof over her barrel and looked directly at the youth.
  792. "Mayor Mare," she said slowly.
  793. > She tapped her chest a few times and repeated her name, making sure to enunciate it properly. Then she pointed a hoof at Rainy Day, who was chewing a bit of grass and watching with interest.
  794. "Rainy Day."
  795. > The nomad looked confused, but that was to be expected. She repeated their names a few more times, tapping either herself, or waving her hoof at the other mare as appropriate. Then she pointed at him and raised her eyebrows.
  796. > There was nothing, so she went through the motions again. Tap on her own chest.
  797. "Mayor Mare."
  798. > Point at her friend.
  799. "Rainy Day."
  800. > Shift her hoof to the nomad and wait in polite silence.
  801. > "S-Salki?" he ventured.
  802. > It sounded right and Mayor smiled in triumph. This time she didn't lift her hoof from the ground and repeated what she hoped was his name.
  803. "Salki?"
  804. > He nodded, which meant that at least that gesture was the same.
  805. "Good. Now we're getting somewhere!"
  806. > She thought to try something and lifted up her hoof to the string around her neck. She hefted the loose rope and said what she'd guessed the name was.
  807. "Ols."
  808. > This made the young nomad - Salki - clap his forepaws again. "Ols! Za! Za!"
  809. > Combined with his nodding, Mayor added that word to her mental dictionary. 'Za' was probably 'yes'.
  810. > She wondered if he'd be willing to learn some of her words, too.
  811. "Rope," she intoned, hefting the piece of string again.
  812. > He blinked in confusion, and she clarified.
  813. "Rope. Ols. Ols. Rope."
  814. > Salki managed a pretty good impression of the word. "Rope?"
  815. "Yes! Um, za! Rope!"
  816. > At this point, Rainy Day drew in a breath. "Oooh, I see what you're doing! Wow, that's clever!"
  817. > Mayor didn't feel as if she'd done something spectacular, but she still allowed herself a smile of pride.
  818. "Well, yes. How else can we learn their language? We have to start with basic words, and it easiest with physical objects we can point or hold."
  819. > Salki was watching them both with interested, glittering eyes. He let the whip drop from his paw and came to sit in front of Mayor Mare, eager to learn more of the strange words she had to teach, and to share some of his own.
  820. > Of course, she was only too happy to oblige. With luck, if Willow stayed away long enough, she might be able to ask for food and water by nightfall.
  821. > In her excitement she completely forgot her tentative plans to overpower the youth and sneak away. Somecreature was willing to listen, to communicate. Maybe to negotiate. This was what she was born to do.
  823. > ~~~~
  825. > "You should eat something, Mayor!" Rainy Day suddenly spoke up and it took Mayor Mare a moment to mentally switch gears.
  826. "Huh? Oh."
  827. > She was still sitting on the ground with the child Salki and she'd added some very useful words to her vocabulary. She'd be able to ask Willow for food and water. It would have been nice if she could ask him for a rest, but that was a surprisingly difficult concept to mime.
  828. > Her stomach growled and Mayor realized it was getting late in the day and she hadn't eaten anything since her capture.
  829. > It was making her weak and she scurried to get on her hooves. The young nomad watching them also jumped upright and she saw how he gripped his whip. That realization made her ears wilt slightly. He was curious about her and seemed willing to teach her the language, but he was still charged with watching her.
  830. > Mayor had no doubt that if she or Rainy Day tried to escape he would use that stick on them. It was a painful reminder of their station, but she pushed it out of her mind. They'd escape soon enough and even if not, she was working on another, more diplomatic plan.
  831. > She looked around for some edible, young grass, but the only fare was that tough, winter fodder. It was all but tasteless, but she still welcomed getting something in her stomach, at least.
  832. > Out of the corner of her eye she saw Salki relax when she began eating. He looked around, probably to see if Willow was coming back, then sighed and approached Rainy Day.
  833. > The pegasus froze and her ears pinned back.
  834. "It's okay. He's... he's not as bad as the others," Mayor tried to calm her.
  835. > Rainy Day didn't relax, but she allowed the youngster to approach her. She flinched when he reached out his claw, but all Salki wanted apparently was to feel her mane.
  836. > Mayor focused back on filling her belly, so she didn't see what happened next. There was a click of teeth, a shout from Salki and a thwack of his whip. Rainy Day whinnied and jumped, then backed away until the rope tying her to the stake was completely taut.
  837. "What happened?!"
  838. > The youth was glaring at the mare and she was showing her teeth.
  839. > "He grabbed my lip!"
  840. "What?! Why?"
  841. > "How in Tartarus am I supposed to know? He's lucky I didn't really bite him!"
  842. > Rainy Day say on her haunches and used a forehoof to rub her rump. "Didn't have to bucking smack me like that! It was just a warning!"
  843. > Suddenly Mayor understood. Salki had thwacked her with the stick when she tried to bite him. Even now he was watching her warily, probably wondering if he can trust her at all. In a moment he'd raise his whip again and punish her.
  844. > Mayor needed to do her job and de-escalate.
  845. "Hey! Salki? Come here. Uh, irekh, irekh."
  846. > She punctuated her request by beckoning with her hoof and the youth approached, though he still kept glancing at Rainy Day, who was staying resolutely at the end of her rope.
  847. "Show me. What were you going to do to her? Here," Mayor urged.
  848. > He didn't understand, but she carefully reached out her hoof and pulled his paw to her muzzle. His fingers smelled of wood and ash and dirt, but she ignored it.
  849. > Luckily Salki figured it out and crouched. He said something to Rainy Day, something Mayor didn't catch, but then he focused on her. His fingers poked at her lips and she remained perfectly still, with her ears splayed but not pinned back.
  850. > She had a feeling these people understood some of the pony facial expressions.
  851. > Salki felt around her mouth for a moment, then pried her lips apart. He held her jaw firmly in one claw while he used the other to lift her upper lip. It suddenly clicked for Mayor.
  852. "Feefh!"
  853. > The youth let her go and she could talk again.
  854. "Teeth, Rainy Day. He just wanted to look at our teeth."
  855. > Contrary to her expectations, that didn't make the other mare relax. If anything, she pulled the rope a little harder. "What? Why?"
  856. "I guess-"
  857. > Mayor thought back to the dumb donkeys.
  858. "I think they wanna make sure we're healthy. I guess they'll put us to work or something."
  859. > "What work?"
  860. > This time she nearly growled in frustration, but held it in check.
  861. "Look, I don't know. I'm just guessing here. Willow had us run around on his command. They're feeding and watering us. If they wanted to eat us, who go through all that trouble? So the only alternative is work."
  862. > It made sense and Rainy Day slowly nodded. "Fine. Not that it matters, we're getting out of here tonight, right? When they're all asleep."
  863. "Yes."
  864. > Mayor Mare was forced to sit down and scratch at her neck. She'd rolled around on the sandy bank of the river, then sweated through it when Willow worked her. It was itchy.
  865. > That one thing reminded her just how uncomfortable she was. Parts of her were too hot where the harsh sun was hitting, but other bits were chilly, still damp from her sweat and the river. Her mouth was sore from the unaccustomed, rough grass, and her legs still hurt from the forced march and the unwelcome training earlier.
  866. > To top it all off, she was very thirsty. At least that one she could now deal with.
  867. "Salki? Can you take us to the river? Uh, what was it again. Us. Thirsty. Us. Water!"
  868. > "Us what?" Rainy Day added, confused.
  869. "No, not us as in the pronoun. Their word for water sounds just like that."
  870. > Salki brightened up when he understood what she wanted and he stood to look around. He scanned the horizon, then dashed to the steak to which they were tied. It took him some time to work Mayor's knot loose, but then he grasped her rope firmly in his claw and began to work on the other.
  871. > Rainy Day took a step closer to put some slack in the string, which would make it easier for him, but she was staring right at Mayor. "We could escape, you know?"
  872. "What?"
  873. > "He's just a youth. As soon as he's untied my rope, just push him down... and..."
  874. "And what? Kick his head in? We're not like them, Rainy Day!"
  875. > The mare had the decency to look embarrassed. "Well, no, obviously don't kill him. Just, I dunno, knock him out? One good buck to the stomach and he'll stay put for a few minutes, long enough for us to run."
  876. > Mayor shook her head, though she was tempted to do what Rainy Day said.
  877. "Can't run. I still hurt all over, don't you?"
  878. > "Well, yeah. We'd just need to get across the river and into those woods up there. We could lose them in the forest."
  879. > Mayor followed her gaze, but the thicket didn't look nearly large enough to hide in, not from several determined hunters in broad daylight. She shook her head again.
  880. "No, too risky. We'll only get one shot at this. Besides, there's others at the river, with the donkeys, remember? If Sa-"
  881. > She froze and looked at the youth, who had finally untied her string. If she said his name, he'd know they were talking about him. She didn't want to risk it.
  882. "If he shouts or something they'll be right on top of us. You've seen how fast they can move on those two legs, right?"
  883. > Rainy Day hung her head and sighed. "You're right. It'll be safer tonight."
  884. > They both followed Salki to the river, but Mayor kept wondering whether she was being too careful. Maybe Rainy Day was right? It'd only take one well-placed kick from her powerful hind legs to put the young nomad out of commission for a while.
  885. > The other children seemed busy with the herd of donkeys, which wanted to spread out over the grass and needed constant taps with the whips to keep them together.
  886. > She half-tensed to do it, but a sharp ache in her hind leg warned her of an impeding cramp if she tried, and Mayor hurriedly relaxed. She hobbled strangely for a few steps to loosen her leg and nodded to herself. She was in no shape to make a run for it, even if Rainy Day was.
  887. > Now that she thought about it, she couldn't help noticing that the pegasus was breathing heavily and walking with her head lower than usual.
  888. "You okay? Rainy Day? You don't look so good."
  889. > The other mare just shook her head, but she felt something more was expected so she added: "Fine. Tired from yesterday, I guess. I'll be okay."
  890. > Mayor Mare shrugged to herself. They were there, anyway, back at the carved stump on the river bank. She saw the scuffed sand where Willow had ran her and Rainy Day in a circle, but resolutely looked away. Instead, she followed Salki to the stump and waited while he tied Rainy Day's rope.
  891. > It looked like she would be first this time, and it was a relief. Mayor gratefully walked into the river, even if it was chilly.
  892. > She drank her fill, then started scooping up water with her hoof and washing out the grit and sand from her mane.
  893. "I'm gonna be a while, sorry!" she yelled back to Rainy Day.
  894. > There was no reply and when she looked, the other mare gave her a small nod and a smile. She was already lying on the sand under the stump and looked comfortable enough.
  895. > Mayor focused on her mane again. It was slow going in the shallow water, but she didn't want to go any deeper if she didn't have to. The river looked fast towards the middle. More reason that them trying to escape could end badly. They were in no shape to swim that.
  896. > There was a faint splash and she looked around. Salki had stuck his whip in the mud and dropped her rope, and now he waded out to her.
  897. "What are you doing?"
  898. > He didn't understand, but his intention was made plain when he scooped up some water in his paws and poured it over her back. It was so cold it stung, but it also seemed to wash some of the ache away.
  899. "Oh. Thanks!"
  900. > He didn't know the word, but he understood the tone and grinned at her. He lifted up more water, but this time his claws dug into her back and brushed through her fur there. It was a remarkably efficient method of washing and Mayor's esteem of the youth grew.
  901. > Maybe they weren't all merciless hunters. If she could speak their language maybe she could negotiate for her and Rainy Day's release, if it came to that. They didn't have a real use for gold and gems, but she had seen one or two of them wear a bit of shiny crystal on a cord around their necks.
  902. > She filed that thought away for later and focused once more on her mane while Salki washed her back. By the time she stopped pulling sand and twigs and dirt out he was done and patted her rump. She looked back and he spoke and gestured, but she didn't understand him.
  903. "Yes, thanks! That's fine!"
  904. > An involuntary squeak escaped her mouth when Salki simply grabbed an ear and pulled her around.She was forced to follow until she ended up facing him. He simply ignored her glare and scooped up more water.
  905. > Mayor closed her eyes as he splashed it in her muzzle. She was about to complain, but got a mouthful of water instead. While she sputtered and blinked until her vision cleared, Salki was using his claws to gently rub the dirt from her face.
  906. > The touch could be very soft and precise, Mayor noted. Her complaint died on her lips and she simply waited until he was done. This was a lot more efficient than she could be with her hooves. More than that, it felt nice.
  907. > She closed her eyes and, despite the sudden guilt, let herself enjoy the touch for a moment.
  908. > He finished by running his wet claws up to her ears and down through her mane, to make sure there was no filth left in it. He lingered for a while on her withers, but soon continued down her barrel to her forearms.
  909. > She'd soaked long enough to be clean and now Mayor was starting to shiver in the chilly water. She nudged the youth with her muzzle.
  910. "Come on, let's get out of the river, okay? Yavak, yavak. Let's go."
  911. > He stood up, but had to bend once more to fish for her rope in the water. Then he flashed her a tiny smile and turned to lead her out to the stake.
  912. > Mayor realized she wouldn't be able to lie down, or else she'd get her wet coat full of sand once more, but she was okay with standing for a while until she dried.
  913. "Your turn, I guess," she told Rainy Day as they approached.
  914. > "I'm fine. I didn't roll around on the ground all wet and sweaty, remember?"
  915. "You should still drink, at least."
  916. > The mare shrugged, but she got up to her hooves. She waited patiently as Salki tied up one rope and released the other, then followed him to the river.
  917. > If only, Mayor Mare thought, he could be their...
  918. > Her mouth twisted up in distaste and her ears laid back, but she had to think it. There was no way around it, at least not until that night.
  919. > If only Salki could be their owner, rather than Willow.
  920. > Speaking of him, or rather thinking it, seemed to have summoned the nomad. He strode to the river and frowned at Salki who was watering Rainy Day. He wasn't too pleased about it, but he didn't say anything.
  921. > He came to a stop next to Mayor and waited until the younger nomad brought his other pony back.
  922. > Mayor just hoped it wouldn't be more training.
  924. > ~~~~
  926. > Salki seemed too engrossed with Rainy Day as he led her back. He must have noticed that Willow was back, but he wasn't paying the older nomad any mind.
  927. > That was a stupid thing to do, even Mayor Mare could see it. Willow was none too pleased that the ponies he'd left in Salki's charge had been moved without his permission. He was glaring at the youngster and Mayor didn't particularly like the look on his face.
  928. > She wondered if there was anything she could do to warn him, but her meagre vocabulary wasn't yet up to the task. More importantly, whatever she said Willow would hear. In the end there was nothing to do but stand there and hope for the best.
  929. > Salki was finally out of the water and seemed to notice Willow's expression for the first time. His smile slipped away and his step faltered.
  930. > Even before his elder could ask the youth began to explain. His speech was too rapid, but Mayor thought she made out 'us' - water - and 'mori' - tied down. He was reassuring the older nomad that everything was under control.
  931. > Willow still didn't say anything, but he held out his forepaw for Rainy Day's rope. This seemed encouraging and Salki came forward to hand the mare over.
  932. > The slap was so sudden it made both mares jump, and so forceful it made Salki stumble back with both his claws on his face. A thin wail left his mouth and his eyes quickly filled with tears as he looked at the hunter in shock.
  933. > Willow didn't shout, not exactly, but he spoke heatedly and it sounded angry, even if Mayor couldn't understand any of the words. He pointed at the ponies and then tapped his own chest with a claw.
  934. > The meaning was clear. They were his and Salki didn't have permission to do anything Willing didn't explicitly command or allow.
  935. > It went on for a while longer, with that same firm tone punctuated by more pointing at the ponies and even hefting of the spear at some point. Surely he wouldn't kill the younger nomad over this, Mayor Mare thought.
  936. > Eventually, though, Salki nodded, spoke something which sounded like a promise and hung his head. Willow held out his hand again and the youth placed the whip in it, before turning to go.
  937. > He cast a sad look at Mayor, one which she returned with as much sympathy as she could portray, then he was running back to the herd of donkeys and the other children, some of which were watching curiously from the distance.
  938. > Mayor Mare hoped they hadn't overheard. Undoubtedly they would tease Salki if they knew he'd been berated.
  939. > She put the antics of the young out of her mind when Willow untied her rope from the stump. He was holding both his spear and the whip in one claw, and their ropes in the other. This time he didn't tug them to get them moving, but rather took a step and clicked his tongue at them.
  940. > It wasn't hard to guess the meaning. They were to move at his command.
  941. > A flare of defiance sparked up in Mayor Mare, but the memory of her earlier beating was still too fresh. Rather than disobeying, she decided to remind the hunter she was a sapient creature.
  942. "Yes, I get it. Za! Yavak, yavak! Let's move."
  943. > This was unexpected enough to give him pause and he couldn't help staring at her in surprise. Mayor felt a tiny bit smug, but at the same time exasperated. He knew they could talk, and he had seen them learn words of his language.
  944. "Yes, we can listen to you and learn, you numbskull," she said through gritted teeth which he might mistake for a smile if he wasn't watching too closely.
  945. > "Yari mori?" he asked and shook his head in bemusement. "Irek..."
  946. > He spoke some more, but Mayor had recognized enough. This time he'd *asked* them to come, rather than just clicked his tongue at them. She began moving away from the river, not entirely sure which way, but certain he'd make it clear.
  947. > Indeed, a few steps later he laid his whip against her side and she turned. It looked like they were going back to the camp.
  948. > "Wow, you can talk their language already?" Rainy Day murmured as she caught up to Mayor.
  949. "No, not yet. I know a couple of words, but they're the important ones. I hope he'll let Salki watch us again so I can learn more."
  950. > "He's the child, right? That's his name?"
  951. "Yes."
  952. > Rainy Day turned to look back to where the donkeys were making a snorting, growling, braying commotion. "He maybe isn't as bad as the rest of them," the mare admitted, but then she spotted something and her step faltered. Her muzzle turned bright red and she quickly brought her gaze back to her hooves and where she was stepping.
  953. "What? What did you see?"
  954. > Mayor tried looking herself, but at this distance the herd was just a mess of grayish brown. She could make lighter blobs of the children here and there, but no details.
  955. > "They're-" Rainy Day began, but then coughed and shook her head. "I guess they really are animals. They're just... b-bucking, right there in the open!"
  956. > The news made her own muzzle color a little, but it was none of their business so Mayor put it out of her mind. There'd be no help from the donkey herd so their antics didn't really matter.
  957. > They'd make their escape that night anyway. She carefully tested her muscles by tensing her hind legs as she walked and found the ache slightly less than on their way to the river. There was no impeding cramp, this time.
  958. "I just hope he doesn't have more training in mind..." she murmured, mostly to herself.
  959. >...
  960. > It turned out Willow didn't have training for them, but there was something else. Mayor became apprehensive when he lead them to a small clearing in the midst of tents and she spotted a jumble of rope on the ground.
  961. > Rope and... something else.
  962. > She slowed and her ears pinned back when she caught the scent of it, but the nomad simply yanked on her lead rope and she took the last few tentative steps.
  963. > Rainy Day looked just as apprehensive when she caught her eye. "Mayor, what is that?"
  964. "I think... it looks like leather."
  965. > It wasn't a material ponies used, mostly because it was so macabre, but stories spread about what the minotaurs and griffins got up to. Mayor had never seen any up close and she had no idea how it was produced.
  966. > She just knew what it was: dead skin.
  967. > On the one hoof she shouldn't have been surprised, not after seeing the nomads wear animal fur for clothes, but there was something frighteningly different between the fur vests and loincloths and this- naked, dead skin.
  968. "Hey, whoa! Wait! What are you doing with that?!" she gasped and backed away from Willow.
  969. > He had picked some of the tangle up and tried to toss it over her back, but she dodged it and backed away as far as her rope allowed. Willow was standing on the end of the string and she considered for a moment simply yanking it.
  970. > With luck he would lose his balance and fall, and then-
  971. > There were a lot of other nomads around them, some watching with curiosity, others with obvious hostility. Many of them had spears. Any ill-intent would be swiftly and brutally punished.
  972. > Mayor swallowed a lump and locked her knees in place in an effort to stop her legs from trembling.
  973. "It's gonna be fine. M-Maybe they just want us to wear the same thing they do."
  974. > "I'm not wearing that!"
  975. > Mayor nearly rolled her eyes at her friend. If Willow decided to put that on them they didn't have a lot of choice. A glance at the faces around her made it clear enough. Either obedience or the cook pot.
  976. "Just do what they say. We're getting out anyway, remember? It's just for a little while."
  977. > Willow pulled on her rope and Mayor walked forward, head low and ears folded. She got a smack with the whip on her rump for her earlier disobedience, but she hardly flinched.
  978. > Once again the young nomad let the stick fall, stood on her rope and picked up the mass of rope and leather.
  979. > She nearly bolted again when the material touched her back, but it didn't burn or anything. Somehow, a part of her had half expected it.
  980. > It wasn't that much different than cloth, except for the weight.
  981. "It's fine. It's fine!"
  982. > Perhaps it was to reassure Rainy Day, but Mayor suspected her words were intended for herself as well as the other mare.
  983. > She remained still while Willow bent around and passed a couple of the straps around her barrel and belly. He fiddled with the rope for a while, then straightened up and pulled.
  984. > She whimpered at the unexpected feeling of being gripped by leather, but it wasn't painful. The whole getup fit her pretty snugly. She still danced a few steps out of sheer nerves until Willow slapped her back with the palm of his hand.
  985. > He barked some orders she didn't even try to understand, but luckily they weren't for her.
  986. > Some of the other young nomads came closer with sacks in their forepaws. Mayor stared at them in confusion, but she understood when Willow placed the first one on her back.
  987. "Oh! Oh! I get it..."
  988. > She looked at Rainy Day and made her voice as calm as she possibly could.
  989. "This is just so they can put stuff on us so it won't fall off. I guess they don't realize we can balance things."
  990. > The pegasus still looked very uncomfortable at the sight, but she visibly relaxed. "Okay, so you were right. We'll just be pack ponies to them?"
  991. "I guess. That's not too bad, right?"
  992. > Rainy Day shrugged. "Won't matter. We're running away tonight."
  993. "Yeah, I meant just in case we have to stay a bit longer."
  994. > "What do you mean 'we have to stay a bit longer'?! You said we're getting away tonight when they're asleep!"
  995. > Mayor Mare once again nearly growled in frustration. She told herself that Rainy Day wasn't stupid, she was just scared and hurt. Pegasi were known to be flighty at the best of times.
  996. > She very nearly smiled at her own little joke.
  997. "If they watch us the whole night we won't be able to, Rainy Day. Trust me, sooner or later they'll grow complacent. We just have to endure till then."
  998. > Mayor glanced around the circle of faces and fell silent. By now, she guessed, the entire camp knew they could talk, but some of the nomads still looked decidedly uncomfortable about the fact.
  999. > Luckily this new information made her friend rather subdued and she didn't say anything else. Mayor also kept her muzzle shut, rather than antagonize them further. Some of them *had* to be wondering what the two of them were talking about!
  1000. > Soon the loading up was done and Willow stepped away from her. He looked pleased with himself and jabbered something to his kinsfolk while pointing at her.
  1001. > Mayor flexed her muscles and tested the balance of her burdens. The bags on her back were securely tied and weren't going anywhere, which was good. There were some things tied to her flanks, but they felt pretty even on both sides.
  1002. > She shifted her hooves, but the burden was secure. She could walk with it and not have to worry about it falling off.
  1003. > The hunter wanted to prove that too and he tugged on her rope, very gently. Mayor took a cautious step, but the load hardly shifted so she sped up.
  1004. > Once again Willow had her trot in a circle and she guessed that was what all the training that morning had been for.
  1005. > Her muscles still ached from overuse, but the weight on her back was nothing to an earth pony and she could easily trot. After a lap or two she sped up to a canter, partly to test the balance of her burden, but also to show off a little.
  1006. > She didn't fully understand why exactly, but something in her wanted to put at least a tiny bit of awe into these bipedal primitives.
  1007. > There were murmurs and even one or two laughs as she pushed herself, but Willow wasn't amused. He yelled at her: "Zog! Zog! Zog!"
  1008. > The meaning was pretty clear, but Mayor set her lips in grim determination and continued at her current pace, if only to show him he didn't have as much control over her as he thought.
  1009. > He yelled louder and struck with his whip. Her back was protected by the burden, but her buttocks were exposed and she whinnied at the sudden, sharp pain.
  1010. > Stupid! Mayor thought to herself. You've got nothing to prove!
  1011. > She slowed and then came to a stop, while some of the nomads around laughed. One glance at Willow's face proved she'd just embarrassed him.
  1012. > Idiot. He wasn't going to do anything right now, Mayor thought, but punishment would come later. She lowered her ears and looked down at her hooves.
  1013. > Still, on the other hoof, that answered her question. He did believe her to be intelligent. Surely he wouldn't expect a dumb beast, like one of the donkeys, to perform well after one single training session?
  1014. > He'd been counting on her and Rainy Day's intelligence to show to the others just how good of a trainer he was. They'd proven him right that morning when they'd learned what to do from watching each other.
  1015. > Except now she'd gone and embarrassed him in front of what looked like the whole tribe.
  1016. "Sorry."
  1017. > He didn't understand the word, but maybe he would recognize the tone. She stood stock still as he came closer to inspect the load on her back. She didn't even move a muscle, except for breathing.
  1018. > Willow found everything to his satisfaction and stood up, talking rapidly, pointing and tugging at some of the ropes. There were appreciative murmurs from the crowd and he seemed better pleased with himself.
  1019. > Maybe this would offset his anger for her disobedience, Mayor hoped.
  1020. > The nomad beckoned and a few younger members of the tribe came forward. He quickly set them to work removing her burdens. Mayor didn't remember if they were the same ones who strapped it on, but it seemed likely.
  1021. > In any case, she just had to wait while they completed their tasks.
  1022. > Meanwhile Willow went over to Rainy Day. Her rope was just lying loose on the ground, but now he took it and dragged her closer to the center.
  1023. "There's nothing to it, Rainy Day," Mayor said, risking provoking more fear from the nomads. "Just stay still, it's not very heavy."
  1024. > There was just one problem, though. As soon as Willow dropped the harness on Rainy Day's back she whinnied in pain and reared up to shake it off.
  1025. > "My wing! Ow ow ow! No, I can't do this!" she cried.
  1026. > Mayor nearly slapped herself in the muzzle. Of course, she'd gotten so used to seeing the rope around Rainy Day's barrel that she hadn't thought about it.
  1027. > There was no way they could harness her and load her up.
  1028. > Willow tried again, hauling on the rope until the mare was dragged back to him. He barked some orders and a couple of the older hunters came forward.
  1029. > At his command, they grabbed Rainy Day, one around her neck and another gripping her rump.
  1030. > She whinnied and tried to buck the one behind her, but he dodged and yelled something out. Another nomad rushed forward and together they were able to hold the pegasus down.
  1031. > Her panting was interspersed with little whinnies of panic and her eyes showed almost all white. "Help! Mayor! Hel- OW! No! Get off me! NO!"
  1032. > She couldn't help herself and Mayor Mare rushed forward. The youngster holding her rope had no chance and she simply yanked it out of his hand. The partially untied sacks on her back fell and spilled their contents, but she paid them no mind.
  1033. "I'm here! Relax! Stop fighting!" she called.
  1034. > It wasn't working so Mayor hurried around until she was in Rainy Day's field of vision.
  1035. "Look at me! Look. It'll be fine. Stop struggling!"
  1036. > Perhaps it was her words, or maybe there was no more fight left in the other mare, because her wiggling stopped and she went perfectly still, except for her panting. Drops of spittle fell from her open muzzle and her her eyes rolled as she tried to see what the nomads were doing.
  1037. > Willow had his claw on her broken wing and gave the rope a tug, which resulted in a pained whimper. He poked at it, eliciting the same response, then grumbled something.
  1038. > A few of the other members of the tribe began to speak all at once.
  1039. > Mayor didn't know what they would do and she was getting worried. If Rainy Day couldn't work they might well decide she wasn't worth the trouble of keeping her alive.
  1040. > Maybe if she cooperated they'd be inclined to let her heal.
  1041. "Listen. Listen to me! I know it hurts, but don't try to buck them or bite them, okay? Just- I dunno, whinny if it hurts. They have to understand injuries, right? They'll leave you alone so you can heal."
  1042. > Mayor Mare wasn't sure whether her promises were any good, but it was the best she could offer her friend. Fighting the nomads would just result in them thinking she was more trouble than she was worth.
  1043. > Judging from all the skins they wore, the meat they cooked and the leather, Mayor had a sinking feeling they would easily find a different purpose for a recalcitrant mare.
  1044. "It's our only chance! Just grit your teeth and endure until we can escape!"
  1045. > Rainy Day took a deep breath, but her ears went from pinned back to merely lowered and she nodded. "Okay. Okay, I'll try."
  1046. > She hadn't been struggling for a while and the three nomads holding her were starting to let go. They stayed nearby, ready to grab her again, but Rainy Day began to breathe a little more easily when they took their paws off her.
  1047. > There was another small commotion in the crowd and Mayor looked to see the press of bodies part to let through a very old nomad.
  1048. > He looked different than the others. His skin was marked with blue and red paint in places. There were a few feathers stuck in his hair. He wore something almost like a robe, except made from fur.
  1049. > Rabbit skins, Mayor guessed with some disgust, dozens of them.
  1050. > He also had a long, thick stick with some kind of a bulb at the top. Something rattled inside each time he thumped it on the ground as he walked.
  1051. > The other nomads watched him with obvious respect, even reverence, and Mayor's spirits lifted.
  1052. > A leader! It was unmistakable! This person yielded significant power and influence among the tribe. This would have to be her target if they couldn't escape.
  1053. > He paused nearby to examine them and Mayor inclined her head in a polite bow when he looked at her.
  1054. > If her deference, especially in something he probably thought of as an animal, surprised the old man, he didn't show it. He walked closer and leaned down to examine her. A bony hand shot out and gripped her muzzle, but Mayor didn't resist.
  1055. > She kept her smile, even if it turned a little glassy, while the elder examined her muzzle, her eyes, even her ears.
  1056. > He had leaned the staff against his shoulder and was using his free claw to tug at her mane. He spoke something which made Willow hurry over and grab her mane as well.
  1057. > They both tugged at it this way and that, and Mayor had a hard time staying still.
  1058. > Eventually their interest waned and they let her go, still talking. She couldn't understand any of the words, except perhaps 'mori'. That made sense - part of the harness was still around her barrel. The elder was probably telling Willow to finish untying her, because the hunter did exactly that.
  1059. > Meanwhile the old nomad traced a finger around her cutie mark. It tickled, but Mayor tensed up her muscles to keep her leg from jerking. She didn't want to appear ready to kick.
  1060. > When that was done, the old one stood up with the help of his staff and went toward Rainy Day.
  1061. "It's okay," Mayor said just loudly enough for her friend to hear. "He just wants to examine you, same as Salki earlier. Just stay still, okay?"
  1062. > The other mare gave her a slight nod, but she spread her hooves a little as if worried she might get tackled.
  1063. > It was pretty much the same thing as with Mayor, except this time Willow didn't come over to help. The old nomad poked at Rainy Day for a bit, muttering to himself, then focused on her wing.
  1064. > He put his paws on it and the mare tensed up, but he was obviously gentler than Willow and she slowly let her breath out. Every now and then she grunted in pain, but it didn't look too bad at all.
  1065. > The elder took a stone knife from somewhere in his robe and cut the rope binding Rainy Day's wing. She whimpered as it was released from its position and the stick clattered on the ground.
  1066. > A sudden flash of inspiration struck Mayor.
  1067. "It's okay! Maybe he's like a doctor!"
  1068. > It would explain why they had called him and why he was being so careful with Rainy Day. The rest of the nomads hadn't seemed particularly worried about hurting her.
  1069. > "Okay. That's good," Rainy Day said.
  1070. > She whimpered some more at the prodding, but didn't lash out or try to pull away as the old nomad stretched her wing out. "It hurts!"
  1071. "Just bear it a little longer!"
  1072. > It didn't help. The examination must have turned rougher, because the mare whinnied loudly and jerked away, pulling her wing out of the elder's grasp.
  1073. > The other nomads stepped closer and grabbed her again, just as Mayor raised her voice.
  1074. "Calm! Remember! He's trying to help!"
  1075. > It worked and this time she didn't fight them. Her breathing quickened and she was trembling, but her captors didn't have to struggle with her.
  1076. > Once again the doctor took her wing, but he was a little more careful. It still made Rainy Day moan and weep.
  1077. > Then he did something strange and Mayor just stared in confusion. The elder straightened up and grabbed his staff. He held it so the bulbous part was just above Rainy Day's broken wing.
  1078. > He began to shake it and the things inside rattled loudly. Mayor wasn't sure what this was supposed to accomplish, but she suddenly became aware that some of the nomads around were stomping their feet in time with the rattles.
  1079. > Then...
  1080. > The closest thing she could think of was singing. The old nomad began to sing, though there didn't seem to be words in it. It consisted of groans and grunts and moans, but it was definitely rhythmical and in time with his rattle.
  1081. > Some kind of ritual? Some strange nomad magic?
  1082. > Mayor watched closely, but there was no glow as with unicorn magic.
  1083. > It didn't seem to hurt Rainy Day in any case, so they both just waited until it was over.
  1084. > Mayor wondered what else they would do. These customs were strange to her, but it was an entirely different world and she was trying to keep an open mind.
  1085. > The elder rummaged in his robe once more and brought out a large, green leaf. He held it against the spot where the wing was broken, which brought out a fresh round of whimpering from the mare.
  1086. > He kept it in place while he reached for the support stick once more and laid it against the wing on the other side.
  1087. > Then he barked some orders and Willow picked up the cut rope. Mayor thought she caught 'ols' in there, which made sense.
  1088. > Under the older nomad's directions Willow re-tied the support stick, which had Rainy Day crying and whinnying. She might have thrashed or tried to escape, but the hunters were holding her still and she had no choice.
  1089. > Soon it was done and her wing was tied to her barrel once more. She was released and hurried away from her tormentors to hide behind Mayor Mare.
  1090. > She was sweating heavily and her muzzle was sticky with tears, but Mayor paid all that no mind and put her hooves around the poor mare.
  1091. "There. It's okay. Maybe that leaf will help it heal. Maybe they have some kind of magic. Maybe that's what that was."
  1092. > Rainy Day nodded against her, smearing more of her snot and tears on Mayor's coat.
  1093. > The elder was leaving, but many of the people followed him, asking questions judging by their tone. Probably about the ponies. If he was their leader, they'd turn to him for answers.
  1094. > Meanwhile Willow whistled and Mayor couldn't keep herself from smiling when Salki ran up. The youth was still wary around the older nomad, but he looked eager as he took in whatever instructions he was being given.
  1095. > He hurried over to Mayor and Rainy Day and grabbed both their ropes. He spoke to them and Mayor understood several of his words. He was being careful to enunciate them clearly, for which she was grateful.
  1096. "Um, that was 'yavak' and 'us'. He's taking us to the water again!"
  1097. > Rainy Day nodded and got to her hooves. She still looked dazed from her ordeal, but she kept close to Mayor Mare and followed in step with her as they were led out of the camp.
  1098. "Salki? Thank you."
  1099. > He furrowed his brow as he looked at her in confusion. He didn't know those words yet. "Fankoo?" he tried to repeat.
  1100. "Thank you."
  1101. > "Fank you?"
  1102. "Close enough. Za."
  1103. > He said it to himself a few more times, but he still looked uncertain. She'd get him to understand in time, Mayor was sure.
  1104. > If they had time. Maybe they would be unguarded that night and they could make their escape.
  1106. > ~~~~
  1108. > Salki turned out to be a bit more cognizant of their privacy, but not by much. He let them both go into the bushes to do their business, but he kept hold of their ropes which meant he was pretty close by.
  1109. > It was undoubtedly the result of Willow's berating earlier, Mayor Mare thought. He was afraid to let them far out of his sight, even if he was inclined to trust them slightly.
  1110. > Not as jaded as the older nomads, at least that was how it seemed. She was beginning to understand a little.
  1111. > These people lived without much comfort and worked more or less constantly just to survive. This land was hard and unforgiving, which in turn made them even harder.
  1112. > It still wasn't fair, but Mayor understood a little bit. Seeing the other creature's point of view was part of diplomacy, after all.
  1113. > Her musing was interrupted when they finally made it to the river. Given the chill in the air, Salki opted to stand on the shore while the two mares waded in a little bit to get at the non-muddy water.
  1114. > With the sun nearly gone and twilight on the way the water felt even colder than she remembered and Mayor wanted to be out of it as soon as possible. She drank quickly, then returned to the shore.
  1115. > Rainy Day, however, stayed in the river, deep enough for it to splash against her belly every now and then.
  1116. "Are you okay?"
  1117. > The other mare wasn't drinking, even though her head was hanging low and her muzzle was nearly touching the water. She flicked an ear in Mayor's direction, but didn't look. "Give- give me a minute. I need to catch my breath."
  1118. > She sounded particularly defeated and it sparked a nagging worry in Mayor Mare.
  1119. "Isn't it chilly? Come on, drink and get out before you catch a cold or something," Mayor pleaded.
  1120. > "Yeah. It feels-" Rainy Day began, but lost her train of thought and took a sip. "It's nice."
  1121. > That sounded extra worrying and Mayor made a decision. She plunged back, gritting her teeth to keep them from clattering, and waded out to Rainy Day. She was a little shorter than the other mare and that meant her belly was thoroughly soaked by the time she reached her.
  1122. > The icy cold of the river felt like knives plunging into her flesh.
  1123. "Come on!"
  1124. > Lacking any other options, she grabbed Rainy Day's rope in her teeth and gave it a gentle pull. Just an encouragement.
  1125. "Come! Let's get out!"
  1126. > "No, no," Rainy Day said dreamily. "Just a minute longer. I need to cool off!"
  1127. > Mayor grimaced and stepped closer so she could press her muzzle against Rainy Day's. The poor thing was burning up!
  1128. "You've got a fever. We need to get you out and keep you warm. Come, please!"
  1129. > Unfortunately her friend wasn't listening. She'd lowered her head once more to take another sip, but now her legs were buckling and she simply laid down in the river. A sigh of relief escaped her.
  1130. "No! Get up!"
  1131. > Mayor had lost the rope and it was now under water. It was too dark to see it, so she just went around Rainy Day and tried to nudge her upright. She heard Salki calling from the bank, but she ignored him for now.
  1132. "Get up! Up! On your hooves and out of here!"
  1133. > Even her most commanding tone did nothing. She couldn't physically lift Rainy Day, not with her hooves alternatively sticking and slipping on the muddy riverbed.
  1134. "Salki! Salki! Pull us out! Pull! Um, uh-"
  1135. > Mayor sought for a combination of words which may add up to what she needed to tell him. Maybe if she told him to come and go at the same time, and threw 'rope' in there as well? Surely he'd figure out what she wanted, because he probably wanted the same thing.
  1136. "Um, irekh, yavak, ols!"
  1137. > His quick reply was obviously a confused question, probably asking her if she lost her mind. In desperation, Mayor stood up and lifted her own rope on a hoof.
  1138. "Pull us in! Ols, irekh! Make us come with the rope! Come on, you're not stupid!"
  1139. > Finally something clicked and Salki called out: "Tatakh?"
  1140. > He didn't wait for her confirmation and dug his feet into the sand. The pressure around her neck was suddenly very welcome and Mayor scrambled with her hooves in the river mud to help push her friend too.
  1141. > It nearly toppled Rainy Day into the water completely, but the pegasus instinctively stood to stay upright. "Hey!"
  1142. "Come on. We're going out!"
  1143. > After the water Mayor winced as the faint breeze in the air cut through her sodden coat. She was shivering and she could hardly feel her hooves, but she kept one leg around her friend to guide her.
  1144. > Salki's pulling on the rope really helped, especially with Rainy Day, who had let her head hang down once more and didn't seem to much care what was happening to her. At least, Mayor thought, she kept walking.
  1145. > Pretty soon they were on the bank and now they were both shivering.
  1146. "B-B-Buck... we need to g-g-go back! Um..."
  1147. > She didn't know the word for fire, nor one for warmth, but surely Salki could see the state they were in?
  1148. "Salki? Yavak, yavak! We need to go!"
  1149. > He answered with something, but began to move. It took a bit of pulling on her lead rope and a few gentle prods to her rear to get Rainy Day to move, but eventually she did.
  1150. > Mayor stayed at her side and nuzzled her every now and then to get her moving, even as her mind raced.
  1151. > If she had a fever that bad it could be one of two things: her broken wing was getting infected, or she'd caught some strange, new disease from this unfamiliar world.
  1152. > The later was unlikely, since they'd been through pretty much the same things and Mayor felt fine. Maybe her earth pony constitution was to thank for that, but she didn't think so.
  1153. > Her wing was the more likely culprit and the realization sent fresh chills down her spine, chills which had nothing to do with her wet coat and biting wind.
  1154. > Rainy Day needed a doctor. A proper medical professional. The nomads' magic was obviously ineffective, at least on ponies. Her friend needed a hospital.
  1155. "Buck, this is b-b-bad..."
  1156. > She clamped her mouth shut to keep her teeth from chattering. At minimum, she needed help and right now there was only one person who could give it.
  1157. "S-Sa-Salki? What was that word you used? Um, before. Tak-tak? Ols, tak-tak?"
  1158. > He chuckled and said: "Tatakh." To prove his point he gave her rope a little demonstrative tug.
  1159. "Ah, tatakh. Okay. Got it."
  1160. > Each new word was useful, but this one not immediately so. She needed to ask for blankets and a fire, but didn't know how. She didn't even know how to tell him they were cold.
  1161. > Hopefully, he saw. If not, if he still thought of them as animals, maybe he wouldn't immediately give them over to Willow when they reached the camp. Perhaps she could mime it to him.
  1162. > Mayor Mare tried to think up some gestures to convey what they needed even as she kept nudging Rainy Day along. Each touch of her muzzle on the other mare made her worry a little bit more. She was burning up despite her wet coat.
  1164. > ~~~~
  1166. > Eventually, through great effort, Mayor Mare got her friend back to the nomad camp and the place they had spent the previous night.
  1167. > The air kept gradually cooling and both of them were shivering violently by the time Salki tied their rope to what appeared to be a new stake hammered into the ground.
  1168. > Much to her relief, Mayor couldn't see Willow anywhere and the rest of the people were mostly ignoring her. Very few of them were out of their tents anyway.
  1169. > It was promising and if Rainy Day weren't so weak this would have been the perfect opportunity to escape. Mayor still considered it, but a single glance at her friend disabused her of that notion.
  1170. > Rainy Day was sitting on her haunches, with her good wing wrapped as far around her as it would go, but to no avail. She was trembling and pressing against Mayor Mare's side.
  1171. "Wait!"
  1172. > Salki stopped and looked back.
  1173. "Please. You have to give us something. Blankets? Fire? We're freezing to death!"
  1174. > If only they had some warmth for a short while, Mayor thought, so their coats could dry off. Their fur would protect them, even if it wouldn't be very comfortable. Rainy Day's delirium in the river might have cost them their lives.
  1175. > The young nomad didn't understand her words and his reply was mostly unintelligible to her. She caught 'nam gum', but it wasn't a phrase she knew.
  1176. > Then Salki left them alone, ignoring when she called after him. It felt like a betrayal and Mayor had to remind herself that he wasn't their friend. He was one of their captors.
  1177. > She shouldn't let herself get blinded by small kindness when they'd foalnapped them and dragged them off to this chilly world. Even if he was the nicest of the nomads, he was still one of them.
  1178. > There was nothing else to do; Mayor put her hooves around Rainy Day and tried to keep the other mare warm with her body. Their wet fur meshed together unpleasantly, but she endured, hoping it would dry out before they died.
  1179. > "It's c-c-c-old," the other mare complained as she sought around Mayor Mare's neck with her muzzle. "Oh, Celestia, it's cold!"
  1180. "I know. I'm sorry, but we'll just have to endure."
  1181. > The sun was well under the horizon now and the shadows were deepening. Mayor thought she could see stars beginning to show above, but it was hard to tell with her blurry vision.
  1182. > Night would be long and dangerous. She looked around for any grass or hey, or something to cover them at least a little. There was nothing. What little grass there was, it had been cropped short by the donkeys.
  1183. > The donkeys!
  1184. > Maybe they could mingle with them and get some warmth! It was rude, awkward and distasteful, but perhaps it was their only chance. They might get kicked, or bitten, but she was willing to take her chances.
  1185. > Unless...
  1186. > Mayor Mare looked around at the rest of the nomad camp. Most of their fires were going out, untended as the people retreated to their tents, but she could see faint glows of dying embers.
  1187. > Maybe those would last long enough for their fur to dry?
  1188. > She inspected the stake to which they were tied, but it was much like the one in the field. A young tree trunk with a groove cut into it for the rope and hammered into the tough, packed dirt.
  1189. > With her normal strength she could probably pull it out, but her legs still hurt from the unaccustomed exercise and she was feeling weak from the poor fodder they were given.
  1190. > It'd be easier to chew through the rope. All she needed was for some more of the nomads to go to sleep. Soon. There might be punishment in the morning when Willow found what she'd done, but at least they'd make it till then.
  1191. "Just hold on for an hour, Rainy Day. I'll get us some warmth when they've gone to bed, okay?"
  1192. > She couldn't tell if her friend nodded, or if it was just her shivering, but whether Rainy Day had heard or not, there was nothing they could do until the camp quietened down some more.
  1193. > Mayor closed her eyes and tried to relax. The shivering wasn't doing her poor muscles much good.
  1194. > A nearby rustle made her lift her head and look. A shadow was approaching them, but it was smaller than most of the nomads. Mayor sought around for the scent and almost smiled when she realized who it was.
  1195. "Salki!"
  1196. > The youth was coming back and the reason she hadn't recognized his outline was because he was carrying something big in his forelegs.
  1197. > He came to them and deposited his burden on the ground beside them. As she inspected it, Mayor's relief withered away and she almost gagged.
  1198. > Animal skins, somehow treated so they didn't rot, but still stinking of death and dried blood.
  1199. "What? Why did you bring this?"
  1200. > Rather than answering a question he probably didn't understand, Salki picked up one of the pieces from the pile and spread it out. It was grotesque with the flaps which must have been legs at some point and a stub of a tail.
  1201. > Donkey, Mayor thought in horror and revulsion. If she had been able to lie to herself up to now, this would have disproved it. These people ate animals and used their skins as clothing.
  1202. > Rainy Day looked up and her breath caught as she gagged. For a moment Mayor was worried she might throw up, but luckily it didn't come. The other mare focused her eyes on the ground and swallowed a few times as she tried to keep control of her stomach.
  1203. > Salki was saying something as he brought the thing closer and both ponies shot to their hooves to get away. This reaction seemed to surprise him and he stopped.
  1204. "Look, I know what you're- gah!"
  1205. > She'd forgotten her belly was still completely wet and pressing it against the ground had actually managed to warm it a bit. Now, the night air cut like a steel knife, making both mares draw air through their teeth.
  1206. > "Buck that's cold!"
  1207. > Maybe they didn't have a choice? Her stomach nearly turned, but Mayor let her head drop.
  1208. "We have to..." she murmured.
  1209. > "What?"
  1210. "We don't have a choice. We might die if it gets much colder, Rainy Day. We're wet and we're not drying out fast enough."
  1211. > The other mare pulled away and exposed another bit of wet fur to the elements, which only served to reinforce Mayor's determination. "You're crazy! That's somepony's skin! They killed a donkey and *took their skin off*!"
  1212. > Mayor Mare swallowed a lump at the unfortunately vivid image in her mind. She was starting to shiver badly once again and Rainy Day didn't look much better off. Her pegasus fluff and feathers didn't help now that she was wet.
  1213. "It's either that or we die too."
  1214. > That shut Rainy Day up and she stared at Mayor in abject terror. "D-Die?"
  1215. "You're sick, Rainy Day. I think your wing is infected. You have a fever and you're soaking wet, and it's night. It feels like winter."
  1216. > She drew a deep breath and then said the hard truth:
  1217. "If you don't do this, you'll probably die before morning."
  1218. > Mayor Mare suddenly realized she'd said 'you', not 'we'. Was it true? She focused inward, on her own body. It was shivering, but she wasn't quite as wet as Rainy Day. She hadn't wallowed in the river, so it was mostly her legs and belly.
  1219. > It would be cold as Tartarus and she'd be miserable, but she'd probably live. She'd likely catch a horrible cold, which might eventually turn to pneumonia. Untreated, left in this cold every night, Mayor didn't like her own chances over the long term either.
  1220. > Rainy Day already had a bad fever and her broken bone was probably infected. She was in serious danger if she didn't get warm soon. Mayor could see that even without being any sort of a doctor.
  1221. "I know it's gross and wrong, but we don't have a choice. Come on."
  1222. > There was no reply, but Rainy Day slumped a little and Mayor saw it for what it was. Defeat. She'd go along.
  1223. > When she approached Salki, her friend came with her.
  1224. > He grinned at them and nodded in encouragement. He placed the skin on the ground, fur side up, then patted it for them to walk on it.
  1225. > It felt incredibly wrong, but Mayor put a hoof on the awful thing. It was eerie, feeling fur very similar to that of ponies, except rougher, but no warmth. It felt like touching a corpse.
  1226. > She made herself walk forward and gave Rainy Day an encouraging smile.
  1227. "Think of it like a weird rug, okay?"
  1228. > The other mare nodded, closed her eyes, and walked forward. They stood, shivering from a mixture of cold and disgust, until Salki patted the skin again and spoke something.
  1229. "Kev-tekh?"
  1230. > "Za! kevtekh, za!" he replied and patted the ground a few more times. He sat, completely unconcerned with the macabre nature of his impromptu carpet.
  1231. "That's probably 'sit', or 'lie down'. I'll try to remember."
  1232. > She doubted she would, not preoccupied like this, but committing a new word to memory was a welcome distraction and Mayor repeated it to herself a few times.
  1233. > Rainy Day whispered: "I'm sorry," and simply folded down. After a moment Mayor realized she must have been talking to the previous owner of the skin. Both of them were still shivering and she tried to follow her friend's example.
  1234. > She couldn't quite make herself lie, but she sat, pressing as close to Rainy Day as she could.
  1235. > In moments Salki was back with another skin, which he swung and draped around them. Mayor's own flesh felt as if it was trying to crawl away from touching it, but she made herself sit still.
  1236. > Very soon their cover trapped some heat and she felt a lot warmer. As her limbs woke up from their cold-induced numbness she began to shiver in earnest.
  1237. > Rainy Day wasn't doing any better and finally Mayor folded down to cuddle her ill friend as best she could.
  1238. > Weird how, after a few minutes, after the warmth started to creep in, the disgust faded. She still hated what they were doing, but she no longer wanted to throw up.
  1239. > Salki was saying something, but Mayor couldn't focus well anymore. She was concentrating on keeping herself as still as possible, so her shaking didn't lift the- the 'blanket', she decided to call it, and let in cold air.
  1240. > The skin pulled up and she reached with a foreleg, thinking the wind had picked up. It was only Salki and he settled down with them. His foreleg went around her barrel and he gasped as her wet fur pressed against bare skin.
  1241. > He persisted though, and soon his warmth began to penetrate to her freezing core. Mayor couldn't hold back a sigh of relief.
  1242. > She turned her head so she could look at her nomad saviour, but it was dark and all she could see was the lump of his head and the mess of his mane.
  1243. "T-T-Thank y-you."
  1244. > He replied something and she pushed her nose to touch his.
  1245. > One more day of rest, she decided. No river before bed. If the nomads left them alone with that flimsy rope and hasty stake, she'd get them free in a snap and they'd sneak away the next night.
  1246. "Rainy Day?"
  1247. > "Mm?"
  1248. "Rest and try to get well. We're in no shape to escape tonight, but it looks like they won't guard us. We can get away tomorrow night, okay?"
  1249. > "'kay. What about him?"
  1250. > Mayor thought about it. Would she be able to kick Salki down? Knock him out, maybe kill him? In exchange for her freedom?
  1251. > Maybe it wouldn't come to that.
  1252. "He only came back tonight because he saw we were suffering. He'll leave us alone tomorrow too. We're just novelty and they are already growing bored of us. Business as usual."
  1253. > "I h-hope you're right."
  1254. "Me too."
  1255. > What Mayor didn't talk about was her fear. Maybe Salki had come back because Willow had set him to watch the ponies overnight. She was also aware of a few other nomads walking around the camp, even though it was dark now.
  1256. > Did they post guards? Given their warrior-like nature, it wouldn't be much of a stretch.
  1257. > Maybe they seemed complacent because they were sure they'd catch them in an escape attempt. After all, the donkeys weren't really guarded and from what Mayor had seen, they weren't even tied down.
  1258. > She'd keep her eyes open. The important thing was that Rainy Day got better. With luck, her fever would break and her body would fight off the infection. She had to, or else there was no way she could walk all the way back to the portal and then cross the Everfree forest to Ponyville.
  1259. > Once again she thought about leaving her behind. Maybe if she ran away alone, she could bring back help in time?
  1260. > Only as a last resort, Mayor Mare decided. She closed her eyes and sought sleep. She'd need her strength in the coming days.
  1262. > ~~~~
  1264. > Mayor Mare woke up with a small gasp as cold air intruded into her little bubble of warmth between Rainy Day and Salki. She reached blindly for the covers and found nothing.
  1265. > She had to blink her eyes a few times to clear her vision, but then she saw what was happening. The young nomad had slid away. He was sitting on the edge of their... carpet and stretching out his arms.
  1266. "Salki?"
  1267. > He reached out a forepaw and patted her muzzle. She didn't understand what he was saying, but she understood there was some urgency in his tone. He pointed at her, then at Rainy Day and gestured with his arms.
  1268. "What is it?"
  1269. > Eventually he got an idea to grab the edge of the hide under them and tug it, still talking in hushed tones. He jumped to his feet, extended his arms and kept on talking.
  1270. "Slow down, I don't understand you!"
  1271. > That much was clear to him and he dropped back to his knees beside her. He tucked his claws under her head and tried to lift her up. This she understood. They had to get up, even if she didn't know why.
  1272. "Fine. What was that word? Bos?"
  1273. > He nodded emphatically and jabbered some more, but he also repeated the word. "Bos! Bos! Nam gum! Bos!" All the while he kept gesturing up with his arms.
  1274. > Mayor turned a little and got her hooves under her. She braced herself for more cold air, but her coat was dry and it wasn't too bad, even in the pre-dawn chill.
  1275. > She sought out her friend with her muzzle and gave Rainy Day a good nudge.
  1276. "Wake up. Something's happening. Rainy Day?"
  1277. > The other mare didn't even stir. A momentary spike of panic leadened Mayor's limbs, but she saw her chest rise and gave a gasp of relief. For an instant she had been afraid Rainy Day had died in her sleep.
  1278. "Wake up! Come on!"
  1279. > More cold air enveloped them both as Salki simply lifted their blanket. He crudely folded it a couple of times and dropped it on the short, dew-laden grass next to them.
  1280. > At long last Rainy Day stirred, but all she did was flick her ear and groan. Mayor pressed her muzzle to her friend's.
  1281. "Dear Celestia, you still have a fever. Buck, we need a doctor. What do I do?"
  1282. > Dark despair threatened to overwhelm her and for a moment Mayor Mare was ready to give up. Things just kept going wrong and getting worse.
  1283. > She sat on her haunches next to her friend and let her head hang down.
  1284. > Salki's tug on her mane brought her out. "Bos!" he said, followed by something she didn't get, then a word she knew: "yavak!"
  1285. > He wanted them up and away. Her breath caught. Was he getting them to escape?!
  1286. "Yavak?" she repeated.
  1287. > Salki spoke and gestured some more and her heart sank.
  1288. "Oh, *you* have to go away."
  1289. > It was probably a good idea. He didn't want Willow to find him, or see that he had helped the ponies through the night. She couldn't understand why Willow was so intent on proving he could be heartless, but that was how it was.
  1290. > If she wanted to keep getting Salki's help, she'd have to return the favor and keep him from getting caught.
  1291. > There was still the problem of Rainy Day's fever. An irrational hope gripped her and Mayor took Salki's arm with her hooves.
  1292. "Here. Feel. Here."
  1293. > She pulled him closer and he didn't fight her as she laid his palm on Rainy Day's head.
  1294. "Feel that? Damn it, I don't know the word for hot. Here, now come here!"
  1295. > He remained passive as she shifted his touch to her own muzzle.
  1296. "Feel the difference?"
  1297. > She moved his paw between them a few times to make sure he would notice the difference, then pointed at Rainy Day and mimed coughing.
  1298. > A look of sympathy crossed Salki's features and Mayor Mare knew he understood.
  1299. "Yes! She's ill. We have to do something!"
  1300. > The silver lining of the moment was that the other mare was roused from her deep sleep by all the touching and prodding. She opened one eye and sought around until she focused on her friend.
  1301. > "M-Mayor? I'm c-cold..."
  1302. > She was already shivering and Mayor lay down to press her flank against her friend's. It wasn't much, but it was the best they could do.
  1303. "Sun will be up soon. It'll get warmer. Come on, you have to stand. Salki needs to take the- the blankets."
  1304. > Rainy Day looked down on the surface underneath her. She blinked and her breath caught as she recognized it, but then she sagged. "Oh. Yes. I remember."
  1305. > Her disgust probably helped and she struggled up to her hooves. She wasn't too steady, but with Mayor supporting her she was able to make those few steps. Her legs trembled a little, but she was stable.
  1306. > "Mayor? I'm- I'm sorry," she began, but Mayor shushed her up.
  1307. "It's not your fault! You have a broken wing and it's probably infected. If anything, I'm sorry. I don't know how to help."
  1308. > Rainy Day shook her head, but that nearly unbalanced her and she froze. "No, no... not that. I'm- mmmph!"
  1309. > That last was a sigh of relief, followed by splashing of liquid on grass. It was coming from behind Rainy Day and Mayor suddenly understood. Her face heated up a little, but she couldn't find very much embarrassment.
  1310. "It's fine. Don't worry about it."
  1311. > Despite her encouragement, Rainy Day kept on talking: "I c-couldn't hold it. I don't think I could make it to the bushes. I'm... Mayor, I'm tired."
  1312. > It was probably the fever. Thankfully, the stream stopped soon after. Even more importantly, it missed the blanket which Salki had picked up and folded with the other.
  1313. > He already had the bundle in his arms and was telling them something, but Mayor didn't understand so she just nodded at him.
  1314. > It was enough and the young nomad left in a brisk walk.
  1315. > As he was leaving, Rainy Day let her head hang down until her muzzle nearly touched the ground. It looked as if she would simply fold back down.
  1316. > The good news was that they were both dry and day wasn't too far off. The better news was that there was no dew on the grass which had been covered with the blanket, so lying there would be uncomfortable but no longer dangerous.
  1317. "No, not here. It's wet!" Mayor reminded her.
  1318. > She led Rainy Day a few steps away and picked a patch of what looked like slightly thicker grass which was still dry. They didn't have a lot of range with the rope around their necks, but there was some choice at least.
  1319. "Here. Lie down. Rest. We'll explain to Willow you can't work today. Maybe they'll call their doctor back."
  1320. > "The- the one with the rattle?"
  1321. "Yeah. It wasn't too effective, but maybe he has some other stuff he can try."
  1322. > Rainy Day twisted her neck to look more closely at her wing. "He gave me a leaf," she mumbled.
  1323. "I saw. I guess it didn't do the job. Maybe their magic doesn't work on ponies or something."
  1324. > Her friend didn't have a response to that and just went to lay her head down on her forelegs, but she paused and scrunched her muzzle in concentration. She was staring directly at Mayor Mare.
  1325. "What?"
  1326. > Rainy Day blinked, then shook her head. "Nothing. It's just- it's not important."
  1327. "Tell me."
  1328. > Making her talk was waking Rainy Day up. She seemed more lucid by the minute and Mayor wanted to keep it up. With luck, her friend would feel well enough to walk to the river for a drink and maybe to crop some grass.
  1329. > She needed to keep her strength up and it would take a lot of that low-quality food.
  1330. > "I guess the Foal Free Press was right. You do dye your mane."
  1331. "Huh?!"
  1332. > Rainy Day shook her head again, but now there was a small smile on her lips. "Your roots are showing, Mayor. I guess you'll go back to your natural color."
  1333. > She'd completely forgotten in the bustle! Mayor tried to cover her head with her hooves, but of course there was no use.
  1334. "Oh!"
  1335. > She remembered the previous day when their nomad doctor and Willow were so interested in her mane. They must have seen it too!
  1336. > Mayor was mortified. Nopony had seen her with her natural mane color in years! It was such a vivid color, too! Completely unbehooving a government official!
  1337. > She closed her eyes and forced herself to take a deep breath. It didn't matter. She wasn't in Ponyville and she didn't really care that much what her foalnappers thought. Why was this so embarrassing?
  1338. > "It's okay. It doesn't matter," Rainy Day was going on. "Actually, I think pink would look good on you. It'd go well with your eyes. You should consider keeping it when we get back."
  1339. > Mayor Mare let her breath out and slumped.
  1340. "You're right. It doesn't matter."
  1341. > She still blushed a little while Rainy Day kept looking. She was about to say something, but Salki came hurrying back.
  1342. "Salki?"
  1343. > He mumbled something and waved. He didn't have his bundle of skins, but Mayor saw he had more on his body. He obviously felt the cold more keenly than them.
  1344. > She watched as he sat on the ground near them and settled down for what looked like a long wait.
  1345. "Why are you here? I thought you didn't want Willow to find you."
  1346. > Of course he didn't understand and just stared at her blankly for a moment. Then he said: "Ay aw you?"
  1347. > It didn't sound like the nomads' speech and Mayor leaned her head to one side in curiosity. What was he trying to say?
  1348. > Salki shook his head and repeated: "Wai ar you?"
  1349. > She suddenly realized he was trying to imitate her own words! That was interesting, but unfortunately she had no way yet to explain pronouns and a question like 'why'.
  1350. "No, no. Um, ugu. Let's try something else."
  1351. > Rainy Day talking about her mane had reminded her and she decided to get the words for a few body parts. It might come in useful later.
  1352. > She sat up, held out one leg and tapped her free hoof against it.
  1353. "Leg," she said as clearly as she could pronounce it.
  1354. > "Lek?"
  1355. "Leg."
  1356. > "Leg."
  1357. > She smiled and nodded, then gave him what she hoped was a questioning look. She tapped her hoof against her leg again, but this time didn't speak.
  1358. > Salki understood. He said: "Khol".
  1359. "Za! Leg. Khol. Good!"
  1360. > A vocabulary would help. Mayor didn't care if her grammar was completely crap. If she knew enough nouns, she could communicate with them. Salki was willing to both teach her and learn her own language, which was an added bonus.
  1361. > She was still tired from all the activity over the past few days and her muscles still ached with fatigue, but her excitement masked all the discomfort.
  1362. > Beside her Rainy Day murmured: "Wake me up when we have to go."
  1363. "Sure. Rest. Hopefully your fever will break."
  1364. > Then she looked at Salki again and lifted both hooves to the sides of her head.
  1365. "Head."
  1367. > ~~~~
  1369. > The good news was that Willow didn't intend any training that day. In fact, to Mayor Mare's surprise, the young hunter seemed almost pleasant to Salki when he came to check on them that morning.
  1370. > He even smiled and said some things which sounded downright encouraging. In response, Salki jabbered something back, bowed his head, flashed the ponies a grin and ran off. It was confusing until Mayor realized he'd probably been set to watch them all night by himself.
  1371. > After that Willow spent a bit of time fussing around Rainy Day, during which he prodded at her wing. When she whimpered and drew away he stopped, obviously giving up on it.
  1372. > There was no punishment, though. If anything, he seemed excited and preoccupied, which was why Mayor had worried he had some weird new training in mind for them.
  1373. > She had been wrong. Willow took them to the river to drink, then to the patch of grass to feed. He stood nearby, at ease, while he waited.
  1374. > Once or twice Mayor tried getting him to teach her a new word or two, but despite showing some slight surprise that she knew a few words of his language, he didn't seem inclined to help her out.
  1375. > Mayor couldn't spend a lot of time on that anyway. The all-grass diet was starting to hit her and she felt lethargic and depressed. She'd have to eat a whole lot of it to make up for the rich, Ponyville diet to which her body was used.
  1376. > Worryingly, Rainy Day didn't seem hungry at all. She nibbled at some of the softer-looking grass, but it wasn't nearly enough for what her body needed, especially with her fever.
  1377. > Rainy Day simply said she was tired and wasn't hungry. She lay down in the sun to rest and ignored Mayor's urging to eat. It wasn't good, but other than asking Willow to force feed her friend, or doing it herself, Mayor didn't see any way to make her.
  1378. > She put that notion aside as a last resort and focused on herself. She filled her belly as best she could and tried to ignore the slightly bitter taste of old grass.
  1379. > That took about an hour and more than once Mayor Mare wondered why Willow was being so patient with them.
  1380. > Only when the sun was a hoofs-width above the horizon did the nomad untie them from the stake, shouldered his spear and led them back to the camp. Mayor Mare wondered idly what would go wrong that day. So far it hadn't been too bad.
  1381. >...
  1382. > Her intuition proved correct when they drew nearer to the tents and she saw the bustle of activity.
  1383. "Huh? Why are they taking them down?"
  1384. > Rainy Day looked up and blinked in surprise. "What's happening?"
  1385. > Mayor glanced at Willow, but he didn't seem surprised by what the people were doing. He'd obviously known about it. She glanced around and saw a sight which instantly made her uncomfortable.
  1386. "They've tied the donkeys together and they're loading them up!"
  1387. > The harness of the previous day was starting to make sense. Mayor even began to understand why Willow had rushed so quickly with their 'training'. He must have known they would move.
  1388. > They passed groups of nomads dismantling their tents and Mayor Mare's step faltered. She'd caught glimpses of the inside before, but the white things she had assumed were some kind of wood weren't all wood.
  1389. > She was sure some of those curved pieces were ribs, although the animal they came from must have been huge!
  1390. > Hopefully Rainy Day wasn't paying close attention. She was still very uneasy about the skins, even after last night, so learning about this new horror was something Mayor wanted to spare her friend, at least for now.
  1391. > Willow led them to the back of the line of donkeys and got some youngsters to hold their ropes while he left, presumably to see to his own tent.
  1392. > This gave Mayor some time to observe. The nomads, their name seeming more and more appropriate, built tents out of slim branches and bones to provide structure, and leather or animal skins as the main material.
  1393. > The inside was relatively simple, with a pit dug in the middle and surrounded by stones for the fire. There was an opening in the roof directly above so the smoke could go out.
  1394. > Other than that, the tents were cluttered with various items - stone and bone tools, pieces of hide and leather, and weapons. The beds, as far as Mayor could see, were just animal skins, sometimes with some dry grass underneath to make them more comfortable.
  1395. > Coming from a civilized place like Equestria, the conditions seemed like utmost squalor to her.
  1396. > The important fact about their lifestyle was that it was simple to pack up and go. Seeing how they lived, their meat diet and the fact that they used animal skins and bones, Mayor guessed they had to move often to follow the wild herds of whatever it was they hunted. Some of it was pretty large, too.
  1397. > She wondered for a few moments why the animals didn't simply band together and put a stop to this nomad menace, but then she remembered the donkeys. Maybe all the animals on this world were mindless?
  1398. > Another thought occurred to Mayor. She'd have to keep watch on their surroundings and remember the way back. Chances were the nomads would move in a direction away from the portal and she had to be able to find their way back home.
  1399. > On the plus side, maybe the general confusion and commotion of the big move would enable them to slip away more easily. She turned to Rainy Day and brought her face closer.
  1400. "How are you feeling?"
  1401. > Her friend didn't reply immediately, maybe taking stock of her own body and the fever. Then she shook her head. "I'm tired, Mayor. So tired. My wing hurts bad. I'm sorry."
  1402. "Nothing to be sorry for," Mayor reassured her. "Maybe we'll be able to slip away in the confusion. It looks like the nomads are moving house."
  1403. > Rainy Day glanced around the rapidly vanishing camp and nodded. "I'll try. I'm with you. If I can't- just leave me and go, okay? Save yourself."
  1404. > It was a noble gesture, but Mayor firmly put the thought out of her head.
  1405. "No. We're going together or not at all. We're both going to make it, Rainy Day. I promise."
  1406. > She got a grateful smile in return and a quick nuzzle. "Thanks. I don't wanna die. I think- maybe I'm getting better. The fever isn't as bad as last night."
  1407. > If so, it was good news, but Mayor wasn't too sure. It was hard to tell without a thermometer, but Rainy Day felt about as hot as last night. At least she wasn't delirious, so maybe that was a good sign.
  1408. > The main reason she felt better was most likely because the day was warmer.
  1409. > Their time for talking was over, because Willow was back and he had plans for them. He took the ropes and tied Rainy Day's to the loop around Mayor's neck. That meant he only had to hold the one in order to lead both mares deeper into the bustling camp.
  1410. > Mayor noticed that most of the curiosity about them was gone, especially with how busy they all were. Even the children were set to work, untying the ropes which held tent struts together, or folding skins, or packing various small items into leather bags.
  1411. > Most of the crude dwellings were already reduced to small piles of material. All that was left was trampled, muddy ground, dotted with fire pits. She noted that the encircling rocks were left behind.
  1412. > It made sense. There was no real reason to haul heavy stones across the land if they were easy to find. Maybe the nomads would return here, or another group would, and they would just use the same stones again. Maybe even the same pits.
  1413. > Willow stopped them in front of a torn-down tent and she saw two other nomads working on the materials. Both of them were female, but one of them was older and the other about Salki's age.
  1414. > The older one was probably Willow's mother, or maybe his grandmother. Most likely not wife, Mayor decided. The younger one might have been his sister or his daughter, although if that was so, there were no signs of her mother, Willow's wife.
  1415. > Guessing at these nomads' ages was hard. The older female didn't yet have any white in her hair, but her face was hard and wrinkled. Maybe past her middle years, but not yet a grandmother. The younger one was smooth-faced, thin and about as tall as Salki.
  1416. > Mayor Mare watched as the three of them spoke and then the child began tying their bundle of skins together with rope. Willow went to gather up the wooden sticks and the bones which made up the framework for their tent, while the older female finished packing strips of what looked like dried meat.
  1417. > Both mares grimaced at that, but none of the nomads seemed to notice.
  1418. > Pretty soon Willow dug out the same harness Mayor had practiced with the previous day and brought it over to her. It was a small relief to see that he only had the one. He wasn't going to make Rainy Day carry a load, not with her broken wing.
  1419. > She caught a few glances Willow cast at the other mare and if she had to put an emotion to them, Mayor would call them 'cross'. He wasn't too pleased that one of his beasts of burden wasn't able to work.
  1420. > Unfortunately Mayor didn't yet have enough of their language to apologize on Rainy Day's behalf, so she just stood there and waited as calmly as she was able while the young hunter wrapped the leather around her and tied it together.
  1421. > Soon she was harnessed and all three nomads began to load their gear on her back. The bundle of sticks came first and they spent quite some time to make sure it was balanced and secure.
  1422. > After that came the bones and it was at that point Rainy Day noticed and whinnied in alarm. "Are those... Mayor, those are rib bones! Mayor!"
  1423. "Hush. I know. It's okay."
  1424. > Unfortunately Rainy Day couldn't calm down and she kept backing away until her rope went taut and jerked Mayor's head to the side. That made her sidestep to keep her balance, but a bundle of skins wasn't yet tied securely and flopped to the ground.
  1425. "Stop! For Celestia's sake, stop panicking!"
  1426. > It was too late. The slight mishap brought out Willow's anger at Rainy Day's broken wing and he grabbed the first thing he could find; a thin strip of leather.
  1427. > "No! Wait! What's he doing? Stop! AAH!"
  1428. > A slap sounded as Willow hit the mare on the rump and several of the nearby nomads glanced over at the noise. None of them seemed particularly interested and they went back to their work.
  1429. > Rainy Day was trying to back away some more, but that was dragging Mayor aside. In the end she simply had to dig her hooves in and stop.
  1430. "Rainy Day!" she called out to her panicking friend. "Stop or it's going to get worse! Just- stop."
  1431. > Willow hurried around to the other side and delivered another good smack with the leather. It had the desired effect and Rainy Day scurried away from him and ran to Mayor's side.
  1432. > She wanted to catch her friend in her hooves and comfort her, but if she sat her burden might slip and that would earn them both further beating. The best Mayor could do was press her side to her friend's and nuzzle her, much as a mother would her foal.
  1433. "Hush. It's okay. Just relax. I know, they use bones and skins and eat animals. It's bad, but panicking won't help!"
  1434. > It finally got through to her and Rainy Day sagged a little. Unfortunately Willow was on his way and he still had that angry look in his eye.
  1435. "He'll hit you again. Just- take it, okay? If you fight back or try to run, you'll just make it worse!"
  1436. > Rainy Day tensed up and her ears went completely flat, but she gave Mayor a nod as she braced herself.
  1437. > Luckily Willow just wanted to land one last slap, which elicited a quiet whinny from the mare, then he was satisfied. He grumbled something and his mother answered, then they went on with the business of loading Mayor Mare with their possessions.
  1438. > There was too much stuff for her, so they divided some of it up between themselves. It looked practiced and they were used to carrying all their belongings like that. Mayor guessed that was how they did it before Willow had captured her and Rainy Day.
  1439. > Maybe they were too poor to have donkeys? A quick glance around showed that many of the people had to carry their stuff on their backs.
  1440. > There weren't enough beasts of burden for them all, it seemed. Maybe that was why they had invaded Equestria. Would they go back for more ponies?
  1441. > Mayor Mare's throat constricted. She didn't want any more of her people taken like that!
  1442. > The problem was that she had no way of stopping it, other than to escape and go warn them. It made it all the more important for them to get free.
  1443. > It also made her think once more about the decision to leave Rainy Day behind. With how jittery and panicky the other mare was, it would only be a matter of time before Willow killed her in a fit of rage.
  1444. > Was Mayor Mare willing to abandon one of her ponies to death so she could save others?
  1445. > The decision was too much for her. She couldn't make that call! She needed an alicorn.
  1446. > Unfortunately there wasn't one, not on this whole world probably. It was up to her.
  1447. > Maybe Rainy Day's fever would get better during the day. Maybe they'd be able to slip away that night.
  1448. > She had to remember the way back.
  1449. > Mayor looked around and committed the landmarks to memory. Those hills, lightly covered by forest were the way to the portal. The river marking the other side of the flat valley. The firepit-dotted ground where the nomad camp stood.
  1450. > She had to remember which way they left. Mayor glanced at the sun, which was on its way up. It was still near the spot it had risen from. That way was East. She fixed the direction in her mind.
  1451. "Rainy Day?"
  1452. > She spoke as quietly as she dared, but the other mare was standing a few steps away, pushed there as the nomads were loading Mayor up. "Yes?"
  1453. "Look around. Remember the landmarks. When we escape, we have to remember the way back. I know where to go from here to the portal, but I'll need your help. Okay?"
  1454. > To her relief, Rainy Day began looking around the horizon with a look of concentration on her muzzle. "Okay, I think I got it."
  1455. "Good. Keep looking. Remember the direction we're travelling. We'll need that famous pegasus orientation to get back."
  1456. > "Okay, okay. I'm on it."
  1457. > It seemed that giving her something to do was a good thing. This way Rainy Day had things to focus on; useful things, rather than her fears and worries.
  1458. > The loading was nearly done and there was nothing left on the ground. The younger female took Mayor's leading rope and she peered curiously in her eyes when she came near. Mayor Mare tried to give her a smile and the child grinned back.
  1459. > Maybe she was more like Salki than Willow. Maybe she'd talk with her when they stopped to rest.
  1460. > Most of the nomads were already underway and Willow's family joined the procession. They didn't move very fast, which was a relief, but Mayor knew first-hoof they could keep going for a long time. The burden wasn't too heavy, but it would wear her strength down over hours and hours.
  1461. "We're getting away tonight," Mayor promised herself quietly.
  1462. > It would be their best opportunity in the chaos of setting up their tents back up, especially if the nomads didn't have some assigned order to their camp. There would be some confusion, she knew that from her years of experience organizing events.
  1464. > ~~~~
  1466. > The weight piled on her back wasn't too heavy, Mayor Mare thought, but the trip was still nightmarish. There was no road to speak of, so the ground was uneven and full of hidden rocks and holes.
  1467. > In some places there was mud, which sucked at her hooves and threatened to topple her if she wasn't paying attention. The sun,which had started pleasantly warm was now too hot and she was getting unbearably thirsty.
  1468. > Alongside all those difficulties, there was Willow walking near her with the whip always at the ready in his paw. If ever she stumbled or slowed down, he was quick with a sharp command or a smack.
  1469. > The younger female, who Mayor Mare was convinced was Willow's sister, had her lead rope but she was no problem at all. While not exactly pleasant, the walk would have been a lot less aggravating with just the two females.
  1470. > Her hoof found a hidden stone in the grass and Mayor had to shift her weight quickly to keep her balance.
  1471. > *swish* *thwack*
  1472. "I swear to Celestia, smack me again for tripping on a rock and I'll buck your knee, consequences be damned!"
  1473. > She kept grumbling for a bit longer, but quietly so Willow wouldn't hear. He wouldn't understand the words, but he would surely pick up on her tone, especially with how she held her ears pinned down and had a permanent scrunch in her muzzle.
  1474. > Mayor kept her head down and plodded on, waiting for the trip to be over. She hoped it wasn't too much farther.
  1475. > She kept her eye on Rainy Day, who was walking beside her and was apparently lost in her own little world. The mare wasn't doing all that well, even without any burdens, and she had felt Willow's whip more than once when she failed to notice they'd changed direction.
  1476. "You still okay?" Mayor asked.
  1477. > Rainy Day didn't respond. She kept her eyes on the ground in front of her hooves and trundled on.
  1478. "Rainy Day?"
  1479. > "Huh?" she looked up after hearing her name and focused on Mayor. "What was that?"
  1480. "I asked if you are okay."
  1481. > There was a moment of silence, then Rainy day gave a slight nod. "I'm fine. You have the stuff. I'm not carrying anything except myself," she said, but she didn't sound completely convinced.
  1482. "You've got an infected break. How's the fever?"
  1483. > Once again Rainy Day had to think about it and her ears focused back where Willow was laughing over something with one of the other hunters. "Fine, I think. Walking helps."
  1484. "Good. You tell me if gets worse, and I'll-"
  1485. > There was the slightest hesitation in Mayor's words and Rainy Day smoothly cut in: "You'll nothing, Mayor. They don't exactly listen to us, remember?"
  1486. "I'll think of something..." she muttered.
  1487. > "I'll be fine. We're getting out tonight, right?"
  1488. "Yes."
  1489. > Rainy Day gave her an approving nod, then went back to staring at the ground. She had been doing that quite a lot and Mayor worried that finding the way back would fall entirely on her, with her earth-pony's sense of direction and blurry vision.
  1490. "You remember the way back, right?"
  1491. > At that, the other mare snapped her head up and peered around them. She glanced up to gauge where the sun was and her good wing twitched at the sight of open sky.
  1492. > "Yeah, I got it. I know which way we're going," Rainy Day assured her.
  1493. "Thanks. I didn't see any forests, so we'll be out in the open. We'll have to hurry."
  1494. > Her friend shook her head and lifted a hoof to point. "There were some thickets East of us about an hour ago. I'll keep an eye out for others in case we need to hide."
  1495. "Good plan."
  1496. > That little bit of encouragement was enough to put a spring in Rainy Day's step and she began to pay closer attention to the landscape. Mayor nodded to herself in satisfaction. Having something to focus on would take her friend out of her misery, at least a little.
  1497. > She glanced at the sun as well and estimated it was just past noon. Despite the chill she was sweating, but it wasn't too bad. The slow walk was actually helping with her muscle fatigue.
  1498. > Were it not for the fact that they were captives and Rainy Day was injured, and her burden was slightly less, it would have been a pleasant day.
  1499. > There was a swish and a brief flash of pain on her flank. Mayor realized that Willow's sister had angled them slightly to walk around a group of slower nomads, something she hadn't noticed during her discussion with Rainy Day.
  1500. > Of course she'd never walk into other people, but that dummy Willow obviously thought she needed constant correction. She gave him a brief glare and went back to quiet muttering.
  1501. > It *would* have been a pleasant day, were it not for their captivity, Rainy Day's injury *and* Willow's whip, Mayor thought to herself.
  1502. > She glanced back again, but the young hunter was once more in conversation with one of his friends. There was nothing else to do, so she tried listening in. It was good practice.
  1504. > ~~~~
  1506. > By the time the sun was going down the horizon Rainy Day's strength began flagging. At first it was hardly noticeable and Mayor Mare didn't think much about it until Willow swished his stick around and said: "Yavak!"Yavak!"
  1507. > 'Go.'
  1508. > At that point she looked more closely at her friend and became very worried. Once again Rainy Day was walking with her head held low, but she wasn't paying much attention to the way and she dragged her hooves.
  1509. > Her sides were heaving with laboured breath and her good wing occasionally slipped and brushed the ground before Rainy Day brought it under control again.
  1510. "Don't give up," Mayor urged quietly, "it's not much further!"
  1511. > She got a narrow-eyed look in response. "That's a lie."
  1512. "It's getting late in the day, they have to stop for the night."
  1513. > The other mare didn't have an argument for that and she kept up for a few minutes, but then she stumbled and nearly fell. Mayor stopped at her side even if it risked Willow's ire. The hunter simply had to see Rainy Day was in no state to go on.
  1514. > Of course his first solution was the whip, and it worked to make Rainy Day move for another few minutes, but then her hind legs simply folded up and she sat on the ground. "I'm- I'm sorry. It's too hard. I can't. I can't," she said, partly to Mayor and partly to Willow, even though he couldn't understand. "I- I need a minute."
  1515. > The entire family stopped at this and both females came back to check what was happening. Willow was already raising his arm to deliver a good whipping, but his mother stepped up and took his wrist.
  1516. > She spoke something which made him tighten his grip on the stick, but he didn't hit Rainy Day. He argued back, at which his mother sighed and the plucked the whip right out of his paw. She said something which sounded pretty final and Willow visibly wilted.
  1517. > In the meantime, the younger nomad was checking Rainy Day. She peered into her eyes and felt around her muzzle, murmuring to herself. After her discussion with Willow, her mother joined and they spoke in hushed tones.
  1518. > Mayor thought she caught the words for 'head' and 'leg' and 'sit down', but their speech was rapid and it was hard to distinguish the alien sounds.
  1519. > The older nomad went to feel around Rainy Day's bound up wing, which finally got a reaction out of the mare. She whinnied and slid away, but the female would take no nonsense and pulled her head back by an ear.
  1520. > "Ow! Ow! No let me go!"
  1521. > Mayor would have wagered that both females understood the gist of that, even if they didn't know any of the words, but they didn't relent in their examination. The younger one took Rainy Day's muzzle and scratched the fluff on her cheeks while she murmured something which sounded soothing.
  1522. > Her mother untied Rainy Day's wing and plucked away the leaf their nomad doctor had pressed there. She inspected the herb, then crushed it in her claw and scoffed.
  1523. > She obviously didn't think much of the doctor's cure, Mayor guessed.
  1524. > Then the nomad carefully felt around the break, making the poor mare whimper and whine, and shift her hooves. The daughter held her firmly enough while her mother finished her examination.
  1525. > Mayor considered drawing their attention to give Rainy Day some relief, but the nomad was being gentle enough as far as she could see. She wasn't hurting the mare intentionally.
  1526. "It's okay, they're trying to help."
  1527. > "It bucking hurts!"
  1528. "I know. Hold on, please?"
  1529. > The older female let the wing go and took Rainy Day's rope from her daughter. She gave some orders and the youth dashed away. Mayor Mare wondered what that was about. Maybe she had sent her to fetch something?
  1530. > While they waited, the mother spoke with Willow again, who had stood by and watched all this. Mayor could almost have called it 'sulking'.
  1531. > Now he gestured some more, pointed at the ponies, then his chest, and even smacked the ground with his whip in what looked like impotent rage. He was asserting his authority over the pair.
  1532. > It seemed like he couldn't argue with his mother, because eventually she raised her voice, after which Willow threw his spear down in disgust and stomped off, sent on some other errand. Mayor was starting to feel respect for the old female, who obviously knew how to keep her children in line.
  1533. > Much to her surprise, the nomad began to untying Mayor's burdens and stacking them to the side. The rest of the nomads simply flowed around them, most glancing at the little spectacle, but not one of them interfering.
  1534. > Willow came back first, leading Salki and some other youths. Mayor Mare's heart lifted at the sight of the only nomad she considered anything close to a friend and she smiled at him.
  1535. > Salki waved back, but then looked at the older female who was pointing at the bags and bundles and giving some instructions. Some of the children looked doubtful, but Salki spoke to them and they seemed to reluctantly agree.
  1536. > Mayor was still wondering what was happening, but then the youngsters began to pick up her load and slung it around their shoulders and she understood.
  1537. > Well, she got the 'what' but not the 'why. Why would Willow's mother ask the children to carry Mayor Mare's burden? It was the other pony who had a problem, and she wasn't carrying anything.
  1538. "What are you doing?" Mayor asked the mother.
  1539. > Something in her expression must have translated, because the nomad answered something and patted her head. It didn't help, but it was encouraging to have her intelligence acknowledged.
  1540. > The reason for Willow's anger soon became apparent when he picked up some of their belongings and stomped off after the people. Most of the nomads had already passed them by and only a few stragglers were left.
  1541. > Most of the children went with him, but Salki stayed behind, apparently preferring to remain with the ponies.
  1542. > Willow's sister came back then with a piece of wood held in her forepaw. Mayor wondered what that was for, while the mother took it and brought it to Rainy Day's muzzle.
  1543. > "Wha- mhp! Bleh!" The mare spat the dirty wood out of her mouth. "What are you- mmph!"
  1544. > The nomad just forced the stick back into her muzzle and clamped it here. She said something which sounded like a command and her daughter came to hold the mare.
  1545. > "Mmph?!"
  1546. > Mayor didn't understand either, but she found she somewhat trusted that female. She seemed competent and sure in her actions.
  1547. "Just go along with it. I think she knows what she's doing."
  1548. > That helped and Rainy Day stopped trying to spit the wood out. At that, the mother nodded to herself and put her hands on the broken wing again. Suddenly Mayor understood.
  1549. "Rainy Day! Bite down on the wood! Do it!"
  1550. > It was just in time and the poor mare set out a muffled roar of pain as her broken limb was twisted.
  1551. > Mayor could only watch with horror. Her first assumption was that they were simply going to tear it off, since it was causing Rainy Day such problems. Maybe that would work, but the resulting wound could easily kill the weakened pegasus.
  1552. > The nomad female pulled, which made Rainy Day's scream rise in pitch. The mare shook her head, but the wood was lodged firmly between her teeth. She tried to tear free, but she didn't have the strength and the younger female and Salki easily kept her still.
  1553. > It just went on. The sound made Mayor's hackles rise in fear and she couldn't tear her eyes away from Rainy Day's tear-stricken, wide-eyed expression of horror.
  1554. > Only about a minute later - a minute which felt like a small eternity even to Mayor Mare - the old nomad relaxed and the scream tapered off, replaced by a mixture of panting and sobbing.
  1555. > Snot dripped from Rainy Day's muzzle as she drew lungful after lungful of air through her nose, each breath punctuated by a moan.
  1556. > The mother picked up the stick from the ground, the same one Mayor had bitten off back in the Everfree forest what seemed like a lifetime ago. She pressed it against Rainy Day's wing bone, making the poor mare whine louder, and tied it down.
  1557. > She wasn't going to tear it off, Mayor realized even as relief flooded her and her legs sagged. She'd just set the bone so it could heal properly.
  1558. > The whole procedure looked practiced. This wasn't the first broken limb that female had dealt with. She'd even known to put something in the mare's teeth to stop her from hurting herself or biting her own tongue off.
  1559. > There was just one problem left. When she was released, Rainy Day had simply folded to the ground, trying to curl up into a ball and whimpering in residual pain. There was no way she'd be able to walk any significant distance.
  1560. > Mayor wondered if they would simply camp where they are, but the older female spoke some commands to the youngsters and all three of them grabbed the injured mare.
  1561. > Rainy Day whimpered more loudly when they jostled her wing, but they carried her the few steps to Mayor and slung her over her back.
  1562. > Mayor Mare was so stunned she barely remembered to lock her knees in place before she collapsed under the weight of her friend. She began to understand the rest of it.
  1563. > The mother had gotten Willow and some of the children to take Mayor's burden so that Mayor would be free to carry her friend.
  1564. > It was perhaps the most considerate thing any of these nomads had done for them, except maybe for Salki. Mayor gave her pegasus friend a nuzzle and stood still while the nomads used her harness to tie Rainy Day securely in place.
  1565. "It's gonna be fine. I'll carry you. Just rest, okay?"
  1566. > If the mare understood she gave no sign, but the piece of wood dropped from her mouth. There were teethmarks on it and in two places the stick was nearly bitten through.
  1567. > Mayor shuffled her feet and twisted a little to settle the load into a more comfortable position for them both. Then she waited until the two children finished tying their ropes.
  1568. > They needn't have bothered, but apparently they didn't realize just how good earth ponies' balance was. Mayor didn't mind. She wouldn't have to concentrate as hard, freeing her to keep track of the scenery and the way they were going.
  1569. > Soon it was done and the nomads went to pick up the remaining bags on the ground. It wasn't a light burden, Mayor knew that first-hoof, but they didn't complain as they hefted it to their shoulders.
  1570. > The younger female picked up Mayor's rope again and said: "Yavakh!"
  1571. > It was a simple one: 'go'. She was only too happy to oblige. Their little group had fallen behind the rest of the nomads, but it wasn't hard to follow the trampled grass and occasional bit of refuse.
  1572. > The mother set a faster pace than before to catch up, but that was fine. Rainy Day was actually lighter than her previous load.
  1573. > Salki fell in step beside her and reached over to scratch Mayor Mare's ear.
  1574. "Thank you!"
  1575. > "Thank you!"
  1576. > Mayor chuckled at his repetition and shook her head.
  1577. "No. Ugu. Thank you - you're welcome. That's what you say. Okay? Thank you - you're welcome."
  1578. > He seemed to understand, so she tried again.
  1579. "Thank you."
  1580. > "You're elhom?"
  1581. "Close enough. Good. Uh, sain. Good."
  1582. > "Goot?"
  1583. "Za. Sain."
  1584. > The youth smiled at her and they walked in silence for a few steps. Then Mayor Mare looked up ahead where the two females were talking softly and she got an idea. It depended on whether she could explain it to Salki without falling behind, but it was worth a shot.
  1585. "Salki?"
  1586. > He looked over.
  1587. "Mayor Mare," she said and stopped so she could pat her own chest with a hoof.
  1588. > Then she touched Rainy Day's leg, which was slung over her shoulder.
  1589. "Rainy Day."
  1590. > She pointed at him.
  1591. "Salki."
  1592. > Then the moment of truth. She swung her hoof toward the younger of the two females and gave Salki a questioning look.
  1593. > He understood. "Gol," he said and pointed at the daughter. Then he switched his claw to the mother and said: "Intor."
  1594. > It was helpful to be able to put names to the two. Mayor repeated them silently to herself as she put her leg down and hurried after the pair.
  1595. "Okay. So maybe they aren't all jerks. It was just my luck with Willow."
  1597. > ~~~~
  1599. > The slog eventually came to an end as their little group caught up to the rest of the nomads. A makeshift camp was already established, but Mayor Mare could see that many of the people didn't bother with tents and simply set down animal skins around fires.
  1600. > The going had been easier after they changed her burden for Rainy Day and Mayor felt less tired than she'd been expecting. Her friend was also doing better.
  1601. > For the past hour or so, after the pain had faded a little, Rainy Day had come out of her personal shell of misery and began talking quietly with Mayor. She had apologized more than once for her weakness, but Mayor shushed her each time and told her to rest.
  1602. > That night would be their best chance of escape. As she'd predicted, the move was disorganized and chaotic, the nomads didn't know who was where and she saw more than one instance of what looked like arguments over locations.
  1603. > Even more importantly, the people were tired after lugging the whole camp all this way and they would probably sleep more soundly than on any other night.
  1604. "How are you feeling?" Mayor whispered. "I say we sneak away tonight. You think you can manage that?"
  1605. > There was a moment of silence from the mare on her back, but then Rainy Day spoke in a firm voice: "Yes. Let's do it. I don't care if you have to leave me along the way, let's bucking get out of here!"
  1606. > She nearly snarled that last part.
  1607. "I'm not leaving you-"
  1608. > "Yes you are! If I can't keep going, you're leaving me and going home, got it?"
  1609. "I'll carry you first!"
  1610. > The pegasus gave an exasperated growl, but then she took a breath to calm herself down. "It's gonna be fine. I rested and my wing feels a lot better. I'll keep up."
  1611. > That sounded better and Mayor made up her mind that they would escape. Whatever it took.
  1612. > She glanced at the sunset, where about half of the sun was still visible above the distant horizon. Another half hour until twilight, she guessed, but it was hard to tell exactly. The land was incredibly flat and were her eyes better she could see for miles and miles.
  1613. > As best as she could discern, Mayor Mare could see no forests anywhere on that vast plain. Their best chance of finding cover were the few patches behind them. It wasn't the best plan, since the nomads would likely guess which way they had gone, but maybe they could get far enough away to lose them by morning.
  1614. "Okay. Hopefully we have time to eat a little."
  1615. > She fell silent as Gol and Intor stopped up ahead. Since they had fallen back and arrived late, it looked like their camp would be on the outskirts. It suited Mayor just fine and the hope of their escape grew a bit stronger.
  1616. > Things were aligning for them. This was their chance, she knew it.
  1617. > The females came back and called Salki over to help unload Rainy Day. They began unstrapping her, but then the mare simply slid off by herself and stood on hooves which were only slightly unsteady.
  1618. > Mayor saw how Intor smiled to herself in satisfaction even as her daughter patted and scratched Rainy Day's head.
  1619. > Salki took the opportunity to approach Mayor and began untying her harness.
  1620. "Thanks," she whispered to him.
  1621. > "You elhom," he replied smoothly.
  1622. > The process was easier than harnessing her and soon Mayor was freed from the bundle of leather straps and rope, except for the one around her neck. She stretched out her legs, trying to gauge how tired she was, but it felt mostly fine.
  1623. > Either she was growing used to this much work, or the almost leisurely stroll through the afternoon had helped rest her. The effort had been enough to keep her blood flowing, but not too strenuous; a perfect combination.
  1624. > She was feeling positively optimistic when Willow came back from somewhere and dumped his burden of sacks and bundles on the ground. He spared a glare for the two mares, who unconsciously stepped closer together, then he barked a few words to his mother.
  1625. > The reply came in a sour tone, but the way the older female waved her paw made Mayor think she was giving some kind of permission, or blessing.
  1626. > Indeed, the young hunter hurried off and Mayor Mare turned to look where he was going. There was a group of other nomads, all approximately his age, who greeted him with laughter and slaps on his back.
  1627. > A sleepover, or something, Mayor guessed. Stallions' night out, if she was lucky. They'd go in the other direction than her escape if she was extra fortunate.
  1628. > She turned her attention to the rest of Willow's family, but the younger female was already gone while the mother was searching for things among their belongings.
  1629. "Salki?"
  1630. > The youth looked at her. He didn't seem in any kind of hurry to leave, which was just as well.
  1631. "Gol. Where is she? Where Gol?"
  1632. > He frowned in confusion, then pointed at the older nomad and said: "Intor."
  1633. "No, I know her name. Um...", Mayor tried to think of a way to put it with the words she knew in his language.
  1634. > It would probably sound horribly wrong, but maybe she could get her question across.
  1635. "Okay. Yavakh Gol," she said and swept her hoof around to indicate the mentioned nomad wasn't around. "Yavahk. Where?"
  1636. > The word meant 'go' or 'move', as near as she could tell. She was hoping that pointing out the young female was gone would get Salki to explain.
  1637. > He glanced around and asked: "Gol?"
  1638. "Za! Gol, yavah, where?"
  1639. > She didn't catch most of his speech, but he repeated two particular words a couple of times.
  1640. > Mayor did her best to enunciate them the same way he did.
  1641. "Chulu Gal? Is that some sort of conjugation?"
  1642. > Of course there was no way she could ask him that, even if he knew what conjugation meant. She was still curious, though.
  1643. "Gol? Gal? Gol?"
  1644. > This made the young nomad burst out laughing and he shook his head. "Ugu," he said, then got an idea and dashed away. Mayor sat down on her haunches to wait and Rainy Day came over to sit beside her.
  1645. > "What was that all about?"
  1646. "I tried to ask him where the young female went- Intor's daughter, I think. I guess I said something nonsensical, the way he laughed."
  1647. > Luckily the young nomad was back soon and he had a couple of items in his forepaws. He held up a splinter of wood and said: "Gal."
  1648. > Mayor noted that the end of it was smoking, as if he'd plucked a burning sliver of wood from a fire. Then he lifted up the other thing and she saw it was a smooth, round stone. "Chulu," he said.
  1649. "Okay, that second thing is probably 'stone', but I don't know if 'Gal' means wood, or splinter or what."
  1650. > Luckily the youth was not done. He mimed putting the stone down, then lifted it and dropped it again. Mayor looked blankly as he apparently beat the grass down.
  1651. "Mulching?" she ventured.
  1652. > "No," Rainy Day pointed out. "He's making a circle, see? I think it means fire-pit or something."
  1653. > Mayor Mare still didn't know what any of this had to do with the daughter, but she kept watching. Salki put the stone down a few more times and said: "Chulu. Chulu," each time. Then he dropped the smoking splinter in the middle of his imaginary circle and said: "Gal!"
  1654. > It suddenly clicked.
  1655. "Yeah, firepit. Stones - chulu in a circle, then Gal is the fire in the middle, right?"
  1656. > Mayor pointed with a hoof and rain it in a circle. "Chulu?"
  1657. > Salki nodded, excited about the little lesson. He picked up the bit of wood again, but it had gone out and was no longer smoking. Despite that, he put it back in the middle.
  1658. "Gal. Okay, I understand. Um, thank you. But what has that got to do with Gol? Um, Gol, yavakh?"
  1659. > Once again the youth hefted up the stone and repeated his phrase. It had all three words in it: 'Gol', 'Chulu' and 'Gal'.
  1660. "Oh! She went to fetch stones for the fire pit. At least that's what I think it means."
  1661. > "I guess we'll see," Rainy Day muttered. She was sitting with her tail curled around her hooves and seemed better than earlier that day.
  1662. "Here, let me feel you."
  1663. > Mayor leaned over and pressed her muzzle against Rainy Day's.
  1664. "You still have a fever. How do you feel?"
  1665. > The other mare shook her head. "Like dung, but I can deal with it. I think it's better. I think that one set the bone in my wing," she said and pointed a hoof at Intor.
  1666. "It's still infected, probably. You still need a proper doctor."
  1667. > "Yeah, yeah, but it's better than it was. I'll manage. We're escaping." She looked down at the ground and her ears fell. "I just hope it's soon enough so they can save my wing. Set or not, I won't ever fly again if I leave it like this. At best it'll keep me from dying."
  1668. > She shook her head and looked up with a look of determination. Her eyes nearly sparkled in the dying light as she glared at Mayor. "All the more reason to escape!"
  1669. > Perhaps it was just the hope of freedom and going home which gave Rainy Day this energy, but Mayor was still glad for it. If optimism helped them escape, she would use it and hope it lasted long enough.
  1670. > They fell silent as a group of youngsters came forward, but Mayor relaxed when she saw it was just their impromptu haulers. They brought back the stuff Intor had had them carry and placed it all in the pile under the older female's watchful gaze.
  1671. > When she was satisfied that everything was back, she spoke to them in what sounded like grateful tones, then rummaged in one of the sacks and took out a few strips of something.
  1672. > She passed those around and the children quickly stuck them in their mouths. Some kind of a treat or something, Mayor guessed. Everyone of the youngsters got one, including Salki.
  1673. > The children jabbered something, Intor replied and they dispersed. She didn't look too happy about handing out her store of food and there was a frown on her face as she looked at the ponies.
  1674. > They'd better be worth it, her gaze seemed to say.
  1675. > Despite herself, Mayor felt her ears splay out and her head bow. This nomad had been fair with them and they were planning to run away. It was only a minor tinge of guilt before her rational mind took over once more.
  1676. > These people had taken them as slaves, or worse - livestock. Of course running away at their earliest opportunity was the right thing to do! If they stayed the best they could look forward to was a life of hard work, followed by slaughter when they were no longer useful.
  1677. > Salki came back to them, chewing on the piece of whatever the female had given him.
  1678. "Salki? Can I see?"
  1679. > Mayor pointed a hoof at his paw and he held it out for her to inspect. One sniff was enough.
  1680. "Eugh! No. Gah- bleh!"
  1681. > "What? What is it?" Rainy Day asked even as she preemptively leaned away from the thing.
  1682. "Meat," Mayor choked out. "Dried or something. Ugh."
  1683. > Salki chuckled at their expressions even as he stuck the loathsome thing back in his mouth. Then he reached over his free forepaw and patted her head and went away. Probably to find his own family, Mayor thought.
  1684. > She worked on getting that awful stench out of her nose when the younger female, Gol, came back, panting and huffing.
  1685. > "You were right, it seems," Rainy Day commented.
  1686. > When Mayor looked up she agreed. The young nomad had her arms full of stones which she dumped on the ground near them. She exchanged a few words with her mother and then began placing them in a rough circle.
  1687. > She didn't seem to notice that one of the rocks had been there before, the one Salki had left behind.
  1688. > Soon the firepit was ready and after talking with her mother again Gol left once more.
  1689. "Probably getting the firewood," Mayor made an educated guess.
  1690. > In the meantime, the older nomad had found bundles of animal skins and she was laying them down around the fire. It looked like she wouldn't bother with a tent. Very few people did, Mayor noted. They mostly relied on the fire and their unpleasant blankets to keep them warm.
  1691. > She wondered briefly where they would sleep, but didn't really care. Intor's fire was near the edge of the camp, facing the way they had come. It suited Mayor very well and as long as they didn't make too much noise she thought they could sneak away undetected.
  1692. > An idea occurred to her, making her blush at the brashness and crudeness.
  1693. "Um..."
  1694. > Rainy Day looked up. "What?"
  1695. "Um, do you have to go?"
  1696. > "Go where?"
  1697. "No. Go, as in- um, number two? Like that- go?"
  1698. > "What?! Why?" the other mare drew away in disgust. "Do you?!"
  1699. "Maybe. I hope so."
  1700. > This didn't make much sense to Rainy Day and she scrunched her face up in distaste. "You *hope* so?" She peered at Mayor's face more closely. "You sure you don't have a fever too, Mayor?"
  1701. "Hear me out. I'm thinking if we- well, do it here, they might not like that and move us a bit further away. It'll make it easier to escape."
  1702. > Rainy Day blinked in shock, opened her mouth to argue against it, but had to admit the logic of the suggestion. In the end she settled on: "That's still gross."
  1703. "If it helps us escape more easily?"
  1704. > The other mare lowered her ears and looked at the ground. "I- I suppose. Uh, b-but I don't think I can. I wasn't- wasn't hungry."
  1705. > She was right. With her fever and her wing, Rainy Day had hardly eaten over the past few days. It wasn't a good sign.
  1706. "Tartarus," Mayor swore. "Okay, okay, you have to eat, Rainy Day. You'll need your strength! You have to eat before we do anything else. There won't be time when we're running!"
  1707. > Luckily the plain was covered with thick grass and it wasn't hard to find a patch which the nomads hadn't yet trampled. She prodded Rainy Day in that direction.
  1708. "Eat! You have to."
  1709. > "You too."
  1710. > That was a fair point and Mayor was suddenly aware of her own empty belly. They'd both need all the strength they could get, whatever little plain grass could provide.
  1711. "Okay, okay. We'll both eat while we wait for them to sleep. I guess they want to tie us up or something, we'll see how that goes. Deal? Oh, and we'll- um, go, but only if they try to keep us near the fire."
  1712. > "Deal."
  1713. > Intor looked when they stood and she tensed up, preparing to chase after them. Mayor held up a hoof.
  1714. "We're just going to feed a little, alright?"
  1715. > She kept her eyes on the nomad and bowed her head down to bite a tuft of grass. She straightened back up as she chewed. Next to her Rainy Day followed her lead.
  1716. > This made Intor relax and she walked over to them. She found both their ropes, which were still tied around their necks and led the two mares to some taller, unsullied grass.
  1717. > Once there, the nomad sat down where she could keep an eye on her little camp. She left plenty of slack in the rope for the two mares to browse.
  1718. "I guess this is as far as she's going to trust us right now. I wonder what she'll do when they go to sleep."
  1719. > Mayor was hoping Intor wouldn't set some kind of a rotating watch on them. The best outcome would be to tie them to something, like a tree stump or a stake in the ground.
  1720. > Even if she tied their hooves together, like that first night, Mayor was pretty certain she could escape with a bit of time.
  1721. > What if she really did set someone to watch them? One of the younglings maybe, or Willow. If it were Willow, Mayor didn't think she'd have a problem kicking him unconscious. That one richly deserved it.
  1722. > Others, though... Salki, in particular...
  1723. > Her face set in determination and her ears pinned back.
  1724. > She would. Whatever it took. Even Salki, if he couldn't be convinced otherwise. Mayor took one glance at Rainy Day, who was forcing herself to eat the tasteless grass, and made her decision.
  1725. > They were getting out. This night would be the best opportunity they might ever have and she intended to take it.
  1726. > These people had foalnapped them right out of Ponyville outskirts. They were brutal and ate the flesh of animals. If she didn't escape and bring warning to the Princesses, they might go after ponies again.
  1727. > Mayor Mare closed her eyes and took several deep breaths to steady her resolve. She *would* do whatever it took to escape.
  1728. > Still, she hoped it wouldn't be necessary.
  1730. > ~~~~
  1732. > The night started out pretty badly for Mayor Mare and Rainy day. After their feeding, Intor brought them right back to their camp, gestured at a patch of grass near her fire, and spoke, but it was too quick for Mayor to pick up anything.
  1733. > She didn't need the words to understand what the nomad wanted. The gestures of her paws were surprisingly clear, especially the way she waved up and down, as if patting the air.
  1734. > Mayor was proven correct when she sat down and Intor seemed satisfied. She whispered to Rainy Day to do the same and then they watched what the nomad was doing.
  1735. > There was no sign of Gol yet. They'd seen her from a distance as she brought the firewood and lit the fire, but then she grabbed a few of the bags from the pile and left once more. Intor didn't seem surprised, so Mayor guessed that the daughter had some further instructions to fulfill.
  1736. > Intor kept hold of their lines, but it barely reached the pile of her belongings. It looked a little awkward for her to rummage with one paw only, but she found what she was looking for and came back to the ponies with a new length of rope.
  1737. > Almost instantly and entirely without her conscious control Mayor's ears fell as she guessed the nomad's intention. They were to be tied up, fore- and hind leg like their first night to keep them from escaping.
  1738. > Mayor was certain she could get out of that, so she forced herself to relax as Intor came and began tugging at the rope around her neck.
  1739. > She glanced at Rainy Day, thinking to preemptively warn her to stay calm and quiet, but the other mare didn't look afraid. They shared a glance and Rainy Day lifted an eyebrow, to which Mayor gave a single nod.
  1740. > They understood each other: no fuss, no drawing attention. Their escape was still on. If there weren't a nervous twitch in Rainy Day's ears, Mayor would have thought her friend completely unfazed. It was still excellent self-control, especially considering her recent episodes.
  1741. > The loop around her neck fell away and for a brief moment Mayor Mare felt free. She hadn't even realized just how much of a weight that crude collar had been. She took a deep breath, but the sensation didn't last because Intor tied the new rope just under her jawline.
  1742. > It was tighter than the last one, but aside from a little discomfort it didn't interfere with her breathing, so Mayor just bore it as stoically as she could. She watched the old nomad, wondering how she'll tell her to roll on her back.
  1743. > Will had simply yanked her legs from under her, but his mother was more considerate.
  1744. "Huh?!"
  1745. > The exclamation escaped Mayor when Intor simply stood up and went over to Rainy Day. She had been expecting a prod to her side, or some words and gestures, so the nomad doing none of that came as a bit of a shock.
  1746. > She watched closely as Intor repeated the procedure on her friend. She untied her rope and replaced it with a new one, looped higher on her neck and tighter than before. Then she inspected Rainy Day's wing, pulling it open a little and feeling the break, both of which made the mare whimper.
  1747. > It didn't seem too bad, but the nomad pursed her lips and frowned a little at what she found. When she let the limb go, she murmured something soft and almost gentle, and patted Rainy Day on the head.
  1748. > Affectionately, Mayor was surprised to note!
  1749. > Then Intor went back to where she had prepared the simple cots for herself and her two children, and sat down beside the fire. Both ponies watched her in confusion.
  1750. > "So," Rainy Day said at last, quietly enough to keep Intor from hearing it, "she's not going to tie us up? I thought she would."
  1751. "Yeah, me too. I hope she doesn't plan on watching us all night."
  1752. > Unfortunately it looked like that was exactly Intor's intention. She stirred the fire, rummaged among her sacks and bundles until she found a strip of meat, then began industriously chewing it while keeping her eyes one the ponies.
  1753. > Mayor tried giving her a smile, one of her most reassuring, but the nomad didn't even react to it.
  1754. "She has to sleep sometime!" she murmured.
  1755. > They watched each other for a bit longer, then Mayor Mare made a decision.
  1756. "I'm going to do it. Maybe she'll move us further away."
  1757. > "What?" Rainy Day was confused for a moment, then she remembered their earlier conversation. "Oh. Really? Right here, in front of everypony?"
  1758. > It wasn't a pleasant thought and Mayor already felt her muzzle heating up with embarrassment, but she was determined to get away and if this was what it took, it would be a small price to pay.
  1759. "Needs must. Can you go too?"
  1760. > Rainy Day's gaze glassed over for a moment as she focused inward, then her ears folded down and she shook her head. "No. At least not, um that. I- I think I can pee."
  1761. "Good enough. Get up."
  1762. > They both climbed to their hooves and Intor stopped eating. She quickly put her strip of meat back in the pile and braced her forepaw on the ground. She looked ready to spring if they tried anything.
  1763. > It went against everything Mayor had been taught, and against her instincts, but she turned around so she was facing away from the nomad. Then she concentrated and lifted her tail.
  1764. > Maybe it was easier not looking at Intor's face. Beside her, Rainy Day took a breath, held it as she focused, then let it out in a rush along with a stream of liquid.
  1765. > Both of them avoided each other's eye, even after it was done.
  1766. > Mayor wished she had a means of wiping, but there was nothing around except for grass, which would just mean her hoof got dirty. She was almost painfully aware of the slight dampness under her tail as she lowered it back down.
  1767. > Needs must.
  1768. > They turned back slowly, muzzles burning in shame.
  1769. > "What the-?" Rainy Day began, then growled in annoyance. "These people are crazy!"
  1770. > Intor was still watching them intently and it looked like she hadn't even glanced away while they were doing their business. She also had her strip of meat once again and was chewing once more.
  1771. "Buck me..."
  1772. > Rainy Day shuffled away from the damp patch of grass. Luckily the rope was long enough for that. "What now?"
  1773. > Mayor couldn't think for a moment. She couldn't come up with a good plan. Rainy Day was right, the nomads were either insane, or completely shameless.
  1774. "I- uh, M-Maybe we just wait. She'll have to sleep sometime."
  1775. > "And if not?"
  1776. "We lure her here and I'll buck her. We're getting out tonight, no matter what!"
  1777. > That statement brought a grim, but determined smile to Rainy Day's muzzle. She gave Mayor a nod and settled down on a dry patch of grass, as far away from their 'business' as the rope would allow.
  1778. > Intor didn't seem to mind them moving further away, so Mayor joined her. Her own rope was slightly longer, but she laid down next to Rainy Day's good wing and leaned against her friend to share some body warmth.
  1779. > The night didn't feel quite as freezing cold as the previous one, but this time they weren't wet which probably helped.
  1780. > Mayor glanced at the sky, where the first stars were just starting to poke through. The sun had set and most of the light now came from nomads' fires.
  1781. > They unconsciously shuffled a little closer to each other and settled down to wait.
  1783. > ~~~~
  1785. > About an hour later, as near as Mayor could judge, Gol came back from wherever she had been sent, apparently struggling with carrying her burden. She had what Mayor had thought were sacks, tied up in pairs and slung over her shoulders and back.
  1786. > Now that she was closer, she could see how the things bulged and hear the sloshing of liquid inside.
  1787. > Gol had been sent to fetch water and the realization reminded Mayor of how thirsty she was after the day's walk. Their fresh grass meal had helped a little, but she still looked at the water sacks longingly and licked her lips.
  1788. > The sound of dribbling and Intor loudly swallowing just served to exacerbate the problem and Mayor was seriously considering approaching them and asking for some water.
  1789. > She was about to do it, but after the older female had had her fill she gestured to the mares and her daughter came over. It wasn't hard to guess, she was to water the ponies.
  1790. > "Thank Celestia," Rainy Day murmured.
  1791. > Gol approached them with a sewn-together skin, bulging with water and Mayor mentally prepared herself for the meat stink. It was just water, she reminded herself.
  1792. > The young nomad grabbed the sack under her forearm and tilted it forward. The water splashed into her cupped forepaw, which she held steady just in front of Mayor's muzzle.
  1793. > She quickly understood. It felt a bit strange and gross to lap up water from a nomad's paw like that, but Mayor was too thirsty to give it much thought.
  1794. > Gol's skin was a bit salty, but the water quickly washed that away. It stank of death from the sack, but it wasn't that powerful and she could ignore it.
  1795. > Some of the water escaped, but Mayor Mare did her best to lap up all of it, knowing that Gol must have walked quite far to get it judging by how long she was gone.
  1796. > At one point she looked up and saw that the young nomad was smiling in a mixture of excitement and pride at the way she was providing for her 'pets'. It caused Mayor to stop in embarrassment for a moment, but the water running down her chin and neck reminded her and she quickly licked Gol's paw once again.
  1797. > Soon she was done and moved her muzzle away, which the young nomad understood and stopped pouring. She went over to Rainy Day next.
  1798. "It's okay. Her forepaw is clean- well, now it is, at any rate. The bag stinks a little, but the water is good," she reassured her friend.
  1799. > Rainy Day didn't lose any time and put her muzzle in Gol's palm even before she began pouring. Mayor did her best to ignore the lapping and slurping sound, which seemed to go on and on forever.
  1800. > The dribble of water finally stopped, but the other mare kept licking Gol's forepaw to get the last drops.
  1801. > When Mayor looked, she saw that the skin was empty.
  1802. "Was it enough? We can try and ask them for more."
  1803. > Rainy Day shook her head. "It's okay. I'm good. We'll drink on the way home anyway."
  1804. > The young nomad reached down to pat Rainy Day's head, then moved her paw around to scratch her chin. She murmured something and smiled, then went back to sit beside her mother.
  1805. > Intor gave a satisfied nod and spoke. Mayor caught 'us' - water, and 'kevtekh' - lie down, but the rest was unknown to her. She watched as the younger nomad grabbed a full skin and drank from it, then went to one of the other cots and lay down.
  1806. > She wrapped herself up in a bundle of animal skins and rested her head on her foreleg. She stared at the fire and at the ponies, but eventually her eyes began to droop and Mayor knew she would fall asleep soon.
  1807. > On the other side Intor took a stick and poked at the embers before tossing a few more pieces of wood in. She was sitting and it looked like she intended to keep it up.
  1808. > Mayor Mare gave herself about two hours to see if Intor would nod off, otherwise she'd start working on a plan to knock her out.
  1809. > She could slowly sidle up to the female, perhaps pretending to be a pet who wants some scratches. Then, once she was close enough-
  1810. > Whatever it took.
  1811. "You try and get some sleep. I'll stay up and wake you when it's time," she told Rainy Day.
  1813. > ~~~~
  1815. > Mayor Mare was having some trouble staying awake. The nomad camp was quiet and Intor's fire kept away the worst of the chill. She was almost comfortable on a patch of lush grass, pressed against Rainy Day.
  1816. > The work of the past few days was catching up to her and her eyelids threatened to close. More than once her head nodded and Mayor jerked awake with a start.
  1817. > If Intor was wondering why the mare refused to sleep, she didn't show it. The nomad herself didn't have any such issues. She had things to do with her claws which kept her occupied and wakeful.
  1818. > For a while Mayor watched her weave some kind of long plant stems into the crude rope the nomads used. Even with her blurry visions she could see how delicate and precise the movements of her claws were. The weaving was surely as intricate as only the best unicorns could manage and watching her work was almost hypnotic.
  1819. > Eventually she had to look away and Mayor transferred her gaze to Gol, who was fast asleep. She flicked her eyes between mother and daughter and thought she could see some resemblance there. It proved that they really were related and that nomad genetics worked pretty much like pony ones, at least superficially.
  1820. > The young female was lying on her side and her mouth was slightly parted. She was resting her head on her foreleg and used her other paw to hold her skin blanket closed around her neck.
  1821. > Here and there Mayor thought Gol's eyes were moving, but she decided it was just the dancing shadows from the flickering firelight. She wasn't close enough to confirm either way without her glasses.
  1822. > Eventually Mayor was having real trouble keeping her eyelids open and her head up. She was about to wake up Rainy Day when she heard a rustle to one side. Her ears focused on the spot and she tried to see, but she'd been looking at the fire and her eyes weren't adapted for the dark.
  1823. > Intor looked up with a small start as Willow came to the campsite. He looked slick with sweat and if Mayor was any judge of nomad facial expressions yet, pleased with himself.
  1824. > He and his mother held a whispered conversation, which sounded as if it was getting heated until Intor pointed at Gol and hissed something which sounded final.
  1825. > The hunter turned around to look at the ponies, but his eyes held almost none of his earlier hostility. Mayor returned his gaze calmly, hoping he wouldn't try to take out his grievances of the day on them.
  1826. > Intor stood up and untied their ropes from her foreleg in the meantime. She murmured something else to her son and passed the lines to him. He shrugged and nodded, accepting the duty so his mother could sleep.
  1827. > Mayor held her breath, almost not daring to hope. If one of the nomads was going to get a buck to the head, she'd much prefer to do it to him.
  1828. > Yes! Intor went around the firepit and paused to drop a few more branches in it before taking the cot next to her daughter's. She was soon bundled up, but Mayor noticed the old nomad slept facing away from the fire.
  1829. > Maybe she liked her back warm.
  1830. > Willow sat down in the same place his mother had been and stared at the fire. It didn't look like he would do anything else, which gave Mayor hope that he might nod off.
  1831. > Her own heart was beating faster in excitement and all traces of sleep were gone from her mind. He was exactly the person who overestimated his abilities. Intor had known she had to keep busy to stay awake, but Willow apparently thought he could do it through will alone.
  1832. > He glanced at the mares every now and then, but dismissed them as unimportant. He hadn't even tied their ropes around his foreleg like his mother had done. He'd just draped them across his lap.
  1833. > As Mayor watched what he would do, the young hunter returned his gaze to the fire and his his face relaxed in an inward smile.
  1834. > It was confusing, until she saw him slide his paw down his belly and under his animal skin clothes. He let out a sigh and closed his eyes, even as his grin widened.
  1835. > Suddenly it clicked. He'd gone away in the evening and came back late, sweaty, but pleased with himself. Now he was remembering something and smiling to himself, even as he touched down between his legs.
  1836. > He had a special nomad out there, one he'd visited that night.
  1837. > Mayor smiled to herself, not because it sounded cute, but because she knew stallions tended to get extra sleepy after sex. Having him watch them was the best possible outcome!
  1838. > She didn't have to wait long before Willow began yawning and stretching. He shifted his position every few minutes, but his eyes kept closing and he had to shake his head each time to wake himself up.
  1839. > It wouldn't be long now. Her own tiredness had washed away with the expectation and Mayor was fully alert and focused on the nomad. She didn't doubt it; he would fall asleep any moment now.
  1840. > Willow managed to stave off unconsciousness for a few more minutes when he got up to feed the fire again, but then he had nothing more to do. He glanced at the ponies a few more times, but they hadn't moved so he looked back in the fire.
  1841. > Not long after that he yawned, stretched and lay down on his cot.
  1842. > This was it!
  1843. > The young dummy still hadn't tied the ropes to his limb, but kept them in his forepaw, pressed to his chest! It wouldn't have made a difference anyway. He still underestimated their intelligence, which would give them the opportunity.
  1844. > Mayor Mare almost couldn't believe her luck. She watched Willow closely, until his breathing was nice and regular. He was probably already out, but she decided to wait a little longer just in case.
  1845. > Her patience was rewarded when the hunter stirred a few minutes later and his foreleg shot out, seeking. He found a bundle of skins and pulled them over himself to ward off the chill in the air.
  1846. > Mayor couldn't help grinning to herself. It really was that easy!
  1847. > She waited another fifteen minutes, as best as she could judge, but their little camp was completely still and quiet, other than occasional soft snoring from Willow.
  1848. > It was time.
  1849. > A quick nuzzle woke up her friend, who lifted up her head and stared at the fire in confusion for a while. She had to blink her eyes a few times, then she sought out what had woken her up.
  1850. > "Mayor?"
  1851. "It's time. They're all asleep."
  1852. > The other mare stiffened for a moment, then nodded. "I understand. What do we do?"
  1853. > Mayor examined the ropes leading from them and under Willow's blanket. He was probably holding them, even in his sleep. She didn't dare risk tugging them.
  1854. "Hold on."
  1855. > She rose smoothly to her hooves and came a bit closer to give the line enough slack. Then she stepped on it, so it wouldn't move and alert the young hunter. She examined the crude rope and saw it was exactly like the one Intor had been weaving earlier. Dried plant fibers, probably flax or some local equivalent.
  1856. > It would prove no difficulty. Mayor took the rope in her mouth and simply bit through it. Earth pony strength came to her aid.
  1857. > Her teeth ached after that, but she ignored the discomfort and looked for Rainy Day's line as well. Another quick bite and that was also severed.
  1858. "There. Quietly, now," she whispered.
  1859. > They moved their hooves cautiously and kept to the thickest grass. There was slight rustling as they walked, but it was lost in the background noise of the night.
  1860. > At first Mayor kept a close eye on the fire and the nomads around it, but soon her blurry vision betrayed them.
  1861. "Rainy Day? Look back. Watch them. Let me know if they move, okay? I can't see without my glasses."
  1862. > "On it!"
  1863. > They kept moving, away from the pinpricks of light which was the main nomad camp. Mayor kept her ears focused to catch any noise, any movement. Maybe the nomads had posted guards, she reasoned.
  1864. > There was a place where they had to pass between two nearby fires, but they were down to mere embers and didn't cast too much light. Mayor still stopped them and listened.
  1865. > She caught an occasional snore, or a sigh, but nothing which would tell her if some of the nomads were sitting awake and watching the night.
  1866. "Rainy? This way- do you see any of them awake?"
  1867. > She tapped her friend with a hoof, then gently nuzzled her head in the right direction. She had to wait while Rainy Day observed.
  1868. > "Hmm..."
  1869. "What?"
  1870. > Rainy Day sounded worried. "I see five of them asleep around the fires, but there's one empty cot.
  1871. "Buck. They probably have guards. Do you see anyone walking around?"
  1872. > More silence, then Mayor felt her friend shake her head. "Sorry."
  1873. "Okay, quietly. Nice and easy. Keep your ears open."
  1874. > The crept forward, staying as far from both fires as possible, painfully aware that they were visible to anyone with good eyesight. Mayor didn't like the feeling of being that exposed so she hastened her steps, even if it made slightly more noise.
  1875. > After a few steps, Rainy Day caught up beside her, but she didn't comment on the change of speed.
  1876. > They hurried away from the camps, grateful for the deeper shadows out there.
  1877. > "Hold!" Rainy Day hissed and pressed her head against Mayor's side. They both froze and held their breath to hear better.
  1878. > Mayor felt her friend nuzzle her and turn her in a specific direction. "There," she said in a whisper right into her ear.
  1879. > There it was. Footsteps in the grass. As she continued to listen, Mayor was sure she heard breathing.
  1880. "Is it coming this way?"
  1881. > Rainy Day wrapped a wing around her, probably to keep her still. "No, stay here. It will pass in front of us."
  1882. > They tracked the progress of the nomad as he slowly circled the camp. It was probably a he, Mayor thought. She'd noticed that most of the hunting and fighting was done by the males in the camp, while the females cooked and cared for the children.
  1883. > The footsteps receded into the night and the mares allowed themselves to breathe a bit more deeply once again. Mayor lifted a hoof, but the wing around her tightened. "Not yet," Rainy Day warned.
  1884. > Mayor obediently froze in place and kept listening for the guard. Once again Rainy Day nuzzled her head, but this time she turned her back to the camp. "There. See?"
  1885. "Sorry, I don- oh."
  1886. > It was still a blur, but Mayor saw the blob of shadow moving. The guard was going back to the campfires, probably to check if everything was okay. A terrifying thought occurred to her.
  1887. "He might notice us gone!"
  1888. > "Okay, let's go!"
  1889. > The two hurried as best they could in the dark without making noise. Their hoofsteps were muffled by the grass, but there was still an occasional stone they hit with a dull clop.
  1890. > She kept glancing back, but the nomad camp was receding into the darkness, the dim fires merging into a faint patch of light.
  1891. > The night was extremely dark and there was no moon to be seen. Mayor nearly stumbled a step in shock.
  1892. > Moon? Did this world have a moon as well? She searched her memories, but couldn't really recall. She hadn't been paying attention.
  1893. "Rainy Day? Did this world have a moon?"
  1894. > There was silence for a few hoofsteps, then her friend answered: "I think it does. I saw it the other day. I think I did, at least."
  1895. "Piece of luck it's not up yet. I wonder who raises it here. I guess they aren't as diligent as Luna?"
  1896. > "Probably. You're right, it's lucky."
  1897. > The stars alone gave off hardly any light, but now they were away from the firelight, Mayor found her eyes adapting some more. She began to see the general shape of the land. It was mostly flat, but she thought she detected some hills in the distance in front of them.
  1898. "Are we going the right way?"
  1899. > Rainy Day slowed down and stopped so she could look around. "I- I think so. Hold on."
  1900. > Mayor sat on her haunches to rest for a moment while her friend twirled in place. She even rose up on her hind hooves, using her good wing for balance, to get a better vantage point.
  1901. "Need me to lift you up?"
  1902. > "No, it's fine. Yes, I see the trail. It's this way."
  1903. "Trail?"
  1904. > As far as Mayor was aware, this world didn't have roads, not even dirt ones. She didn't remember anything like that from their walk earlier on the day.
  1905. > "Trampled grass, mostly. It's a bit messy, but most of them walked in a clump. That leaves a trail."
  1906. > It made sense and once again Mayor had to marvel at pegasi eyes. Even were her own eyesight perfect, she probably wouldn't be able to spot something like that in the night.
  1907. "Ah. Okay, lead the way."
  1908. > So far Rainy Day was doing well. She had rested and seemed perfectly fine. Mayor remained hopeful her strength would last until the morning, or at least until they found some kind of shelter.
  1909. > She followed the swift pegasus and soon they came upon the wide track left after the nomads' passage. Up close she could see it too, a swathe of land trampled by the passage of many feet and hooves.
  1910. > This close she could smell the lingering stink of unwashed bodies and animal hides.
  1911. > "This way," Rainy Day said and headed off. "We have to make it to one of those forests."
  1912. "Agreed."
  1913. > Maybe the moon would yet make an appearance, once its keeper realized it wasn't up? Mayor was grateful for its lack earlier, which aided their escape, but now it would be useful to help them see.
  1914. > She didn't mind too much. They'd had a series of incredible luck that night.
  1915. > The important thing was that they were free. They still had the loops of rope around their necks, but those could wait until they stopped for rest.
  1916. > They were out of the nomads' captivity and running for home!
  1918. > ~~~~
  1920. > The air gradually became colder and the sweat which was pouring off both mares from their exertion felt chilly. It kept them cool, but Mayor was beginning to worry about stopping.
  1921. > Rainy Day, in particular, still wasn't fully recovered from her fever and subjecting her to such cold could turn disastrous.
  1922. > Her immediate concern, however, was the way their strength was already flagging. Muscle fatigue came back with a vengeance and Mayor's legs told her in no uncertain terms that they were far from fully rested, despite the relatively light effort of the previous day.
  1923. > The way Rainy Day ran with her head held low and her breath coming in increasingly ragged wheezing was also a source of concern.
  1924. > Mayor knew they would simply collapse in a lather if they kept their pace up for much longer, but she kept stubbornly putting one hoof in front of another in as near a canter as she could manage.
  1925. > Her friend also didn't want to show weakness, at least judging by her angry scowl. These first hours would be crucial. If Willow or Intor woke up and saw they had escaped, the nomads might try and chase after them.
  1926. > Mayor suspected ponies were faster over short distances, but she remembered the hunters' fearsome endurance from the day they'd caught them. These people worked hard every day of their lives and were hardened to travel across this strange, inhospitable land.
  1927. > Perhaps some of the more athletic ponies could outrun the nomads, but not office workers such as Mayor Mare. Rainy Day could easily have escaped if she could fly, but since she wasn't an active athlete, her endurance when running on the ground wasn't all that much better than Mayor's.
  1928. > There was no use. However much Mayor told herself that they'd rest once they made it back to the nomads' previous camp it didn't help. Her heart was about to bust out of her chest, she was nearly choking on her tongue and sweat was pouring off her.
  1929. > Even her vision was beginning to dim, and since she had noticed that in the dark night, it probably meant she was almost unconscious.
  1930. "Ha- sto- stop," she managed to wheeze out.
  1931. > The mares came to a gradual halt and Mayor spread all her four legs further apart to make standing easier. Her limbs twitched as all her muscles burned with fatigue.
  1932. "Res- we- we... rest."
  1933. > Rainy Day understood and nodded, before simply flopping over on her side, barrel still heaving as she dragged at the air. Mayor watched in numb fascination as white, foamy spittle flew out of the mare's mouth and wetted the grass.
  1934. > She wanted to lie down herself, but she wasn't sure she'd be able to get back on her hooves if she did.
  1935. > Mayor tried talking again.
  1936. "Five- five minutes."
  1937. > Rainy Day focused her eye on her, but didn't otherwise reply. She was lying on her good wing, of course, but her injured one twitched and she shivered.
  1938. > They were both overheated from their exertion, but the ice in the air was already making itself known. The chilled sweat had felt nice for a minute or so, but now it was clammy and uncomfortable.
  1939. > Eventually they would need a fire, Mayor realized. She tried to think back to her Filly Guides days where older ponies had tried to teach the youngsters these essential wilderness skills.
  1940. > If she could find some flint- no, that would require metal. Bits of dry wood could work, but Mayor didn't think she'd have the strength to rub them together fast enough.
  1941. > There was one hope, even if she didn't really like the idea. It was a long shot, but their only chance.
  1942. > The nomads' old camp. She'd seen that some of the fire pits were quite deep, there was a chance, however slim, that a small ember might have survived, buried under ash. If not that, maybe they had left a blanket behind.
  1943. > Maybe it was worn and damaged and the people didn't deem it worth carrying. Mayor Mare would take anything to keep them from freezing. It was the only chance she could see.
  1944. > Once they stopped moving for the night they would have to stay warm, or else the combination of cold and muscle fatigue wouldn't let them move faster than a slow trot the next day.
  1945. > They were free, however, and Mayor was making plans. That was good. She hadn't been beaten by the nomads and she sure as Tartarus wouldn't be defeated by their inhospitable landscape. She would get herself and Rainy Day out of there!
  1946. > Her panting was nearly under control. Her uncontrollable jitters had stopped. In a short while they would have to move again, but maybe they didn't need to run quite as hard.
  1947. > They had both paused to listen a few times, although that had been practically useless for the past hour when all they could hear was their own ragged breathing or thumping heartbeat. There hadn't been any sign of pursuit.
  1948. "We should go."
  1949. > Rainy Day drew a breath, but she began moving her legs to try and get them underneath her. "Gimme a second."
  1950. "I think we can slow down a bit. Maybe they didn't notice us gone that quickly. Heh, maybe they still don't know."
  1951. > The other mare looked doubtful, but she nodded anyway. "Slow canter?"
  1952. "Fast trot. We have to conserve our strength."
  1953. > Rainy Day snorted, but she didn't say anything. Unfortunately Mayor could easily read her face because she was thinking the same thing: 'What strength?' She hauled herself upright mainly through a force of will, and looked around. "This way. We'll be there soon."
  1954. "What's- oh. Good luck, looks like," Mayor pointed out as she caught a glimmer of light in the distance.
  1955. > "Huh?" Rainy Day turned her head to follow her gaze, then nodded. "Looks like whoever guides their moon has finally gotten around to it."
  1956. > In the distance, off to their side, a thin sliver of that pale, white orb was rising above the flat land. For the moment it just cast deeper shadows among the grass, but when it got a bit higher on the sky it would help them see.
  1957. > For some reason Mayor Mare was cheered by its presence. Maybe it was an omen of good luck. The moon had been absent to cover their escape and came up now to light their way. Perhaps somepony on this world really was looking out for them.
  1958. "Okay, let's go."
  1959. > Taking that first step was an agony in itself, but Mayor pushed past the pain and exhaustion and moved her hoof. Her hind leg followed automatically out of lifelong habit and she was walking.
  1960. > There was rustling beside her as Rainy Day caught up. They shared a glance, then Mayor leaned forward and forced her tired limbs to obey.
  1961. > Trot was the best she could manage, but she felt she could keep it up for a while before she had to stop again.
  1962. > The cold sweat permeating her coat was making her shiver, but she knew she'd warm up again soon. Already her breathing was picking up and her nostrils weren't enough. She opened her mouth to get the air she needed.
  1963. > It was worth the effort to escape. They had to warn ponies of this new danger. They had to get back home. They could rest after.
  1965. > ~~~~
  1967. > The nomads' trail suddenly spread out and became messy and impossible to follow. Mayor Mare slowed and then stopped in confusion, but even before she could ask Rainy Day said: "We're here."
  1968. > Now that she looked at it in moonlight Mayor saw that she was right. The trampled grass gave way to packed dirt, dotted with fire pits. If she focused and drew air through her nose, she could smell the stink of the camp that had been there.
  1969. > Once more Rainy Day collapsed to the ground while Mayor stood and allowed her poor, abused legs to rest.
  1970. "Good- good," was all she could manage for the moment.
  1971. > There was no real way for her to gauge how long their trip had taken, but her rough guess was about five hours. That left them some three or so hours until sunrise. If they could find some blankets, or animal skins, or even a glowing ember, they could take turns sleeping and be off at first light.
  1972. > Mayor cast her eyes around the landscape and while it looked eerily different in the night, she recognized the shape of those hills, the sparse forest covering them. She knew which way to go. She remembered the landmarks.
  1973. > They wouldn't move very fast, but she could find their way back to the portal into Everfree.
  1974. > The only thing she didn't know was how long it would take. Their weary trip to this place had become a blur of misery in her memory and Mayor couldn't put her hoof on how far they had walked.
  1975. > Less than a day at a slow trot, she cautiously estimated.
  1976. "Okay, we have to find either a burning ember, or something to cover ourselves to keep warm."
  1977. > Rainy Day's muzzle scrunched up in disgust at the mention, but Mayor made her voice firm.
  1978. "No, we don't have a choice. We're overheated now and we're soaked with sweat. If we don't get warm, we'll both have a fever in the morning!"
  1979. > She shook her head and debated internally whether she wanted to say it, but then decided that Rainy Day deserved to know the truth.
  1980. "We're weak from hunger and you're still ill. If we can't get home soon- well, I don't like our chances. They'll probably come after us, so we have to move fast and we can't do that if we both have a cold!"
  1981. > That clinched it and Rainy Day's ears dropped. She looked back, the way they had come, then returned her gaze to Mayor and nodded. "Okay. I understand." She began to pick herself up once again.
  1982. "Good. I'll go this way. Meet on the other side of the camp, then we'll look for somewhere to sleep."
  1983. > "Okay."
  1984. > They spread out and at first Mayor Mare didn't entertain much hope she'd find anything useful. She made her way around some of the fire pits and paused at each to carefully dig with her hoof.
  1985. > None of them were even slightly warm.
  1986. > She found pieces of bone, or places which stank of piss. She avoided both of those and her stomach nearly turned despite the fact there wasn't much in it.
  1987. > They could graze while they kept watch, Mayor decided. They'd go drink from the river in the morning. She didn't dare risk falling in the water in the dark.
  1988. > She spotted something odd on the ground and pawed at it with a hoof to examine the thing. It was a bit of animal skin, but the fur was very nearly stripped off.
  1989. > Mayor recognized it as that bit of tough hide she saw some of the nomads wrap around their hind-
  1990. > What could she even call them? Hind hooves, but they didn't have hooves like minotaurs. They looked like a stockier, shorter version of their forepaws. Some of the people wrapped bits of tough hide around those, either to keep themselves warm or to make walking easier over rocks and shrubbery.
  1991. > In any case, it was too small to offer any kind of cover, but her spirits rose despite it. The nomads did leave things behind. There was hope she'd find at least a tattered blanket.
  1992. > The next couple of fireplaces were just as cold and then Mayor found a broken spear, its stone tip still tied securely to the splintered wood. She briefly considered trying to take it, but the shaft was too short for her to wield it effectively even if she knew how to fight.
  1993. > Mayor Mare left it and continued her search. She soon came across a patch of trampled grass and her nose told her it was where the donkeys had been kept. There probably wasn't anything useful there, so she just gave it wide berth.
  1994. > It continued like that and she was starting to shiver in the cold. Every little breath of the wind felt like icicles stabbing into her flesh. Mayor increased her pace, aware of the droplets of freezing cold sweat still sliding down her sides and legs.
  1995. > Her mane was plastered to her neck and even her tail felt damp as she swished it experimentally. Rainy Day probably felt even worse and the ordeal was likely to exacerbate her illness.
  1996. > They really needed to get some warmth!
  1997. > She hurried to the next firepit and put a hoof on it. Her breath hitched when she felt a trickle of warmth radiating from the ash. She carefully dug with her hoof, pausing to feel with the flat of her frog.
  1998. > Before she unearthed the ember, if it even existed, Mayor froze and thought better of it. If she exposed it to the chill air it might die almost instantly. She needed kindling! She very carefully pushed the ash back to keep the tiny spark safe.
  1999. > Mayor looked around to memorize the spot, then hurried to the nearest edge of the camp. The grass looked dry and there were dead bushes dotting the landscape where she could gather some twigs. She'd need that anyway if they found a remnant of fire.
  2000. > It took fifteen minutes of stumbling around in the dim moonlight before Mayor had a satisfactory pile of hay and sticks. She hobbled on three legs so she could take her treasure back to the firepit.
  2001. > The kindling she laid carefully, almost reverentially beside and felt around again. Her breath left her in a sigh of relief when that same warmth met her hoof. She lay down on her belly to free both hooves and bring her face closer, then she began to dig once more.
  2002. > She uncovered bits of blackened wood, but she could feel their heat on her nose. Mayor quickly covered them with the dry grass, then cupped her hooves around the precious ember and blew as gently as she could.
  2003. > There was a tiny glow and a stalk began to smoke! It was working.
  2004. > Controlling her breathing was hard and more than once Mayor had to turn her head away and gasp for air, out of fear she would blow the tiny flame out with her panting. Her heart thumped as hard as it had when they were running.
  2005. > Again she blew on the ember and was rewarded by an orange glow. She pressed the grass more closely against the tiny little thing.
  2006. "Please, for the love of Celestia," she prayed.
  2007. > One more breath, but this time her stomach clenched together in fear. The glow wasn't as bright as before. Her time was running out!
  2008. > Mayor desperately gathered her dry grass and worked her hooves as tightly around the ember as she could to ward off the wind.
  2009. > She took a shaky breath and blew, the grass stalked smoked some more and tickled her nose, but there was no flame. Out of desperation Mayor tried to blow harder.
  2010. "No! No, don't do this. No..."
  2011. > With a last, beautiful flicker, the ember died. It still smoked and Mayor blew on it again and again, but the fuel was spent and her grass had been too fresh to catch. She sighed and let her head drop, which plunged her muzzle into the ash but she didn't care.
  2012. > She picked herself back up a few minutes later. If there had been one ember, there would be others. Maybe Rainy Day had already found a better fire pit and was right this very moment fanning the flames.
  2013. > Mayor stood up and looked around, hoping to spot a flickering light but seeing only shadows. She took a breath and closed her eyes for a moment to gather her resolve once more.
  2014. > They would survive, even the cold. She took a step, then another. Then she came back to pick up her carefully gathered kindling. Maybe she would get another chance.
  2015. > Her muscles twinged with little bursts of pain as she hobbled on three legs once more, but Mayor ignored them and went back to searching.
  2016. > A torn animal skin. Only a few days before she would have been horrified to be searching for something that macabre, but now it could save their lives. Funny, she thought, what necessity made ponies do.
  2017. > She wondered if this hard life was what made nomads that cruel toward animals. Would she have become like that if she remained in this land?
  2018. > Surely the pony nature was better. She was a citizen of Equestria and she would stay that, no matter what happened!
  2019. > Soon she came across a larger piece of hide which turned out to be a water skin. For a moment Mayor was pleased with her discovery, as being able to carry water with them would make their trek less onerous, but upon closer examination she saw the thing was ripped.
  2020. > No doubt the reason it was left behind.
  2021. > She dropped her load of sticks and grass for a moment so she could examine the water vessel. It was stitched together out of two pieces of hide so that all the stitches were on the inside.
  2022. > The thread wasn't that crude rope, a piece of which still adorned her own neck, but something tougher and thinner. A white substance, which reminded her slightly of spider silk.
  2023. > Mayor stuck her hooves in through the rip and pulled apart. The hide tore soundlessly, but the sheer feeling of pulling it apart made her stomach lurch and she nearly vomited.
  2024. > This had once been the skin of some creature!
  2025. > She nearly tossed it away, but a gruesome thought occurred to her and Mayor let her head hung.
  2026. > It wouldn't be much cover, but it was the most she had found so far and she couldn't afford to leave it.
  2027. > She put her hooves back in the hole and pulled, even as she swallowed. Her own saliva tasted foul for some reason as the material split completely. What she ended up with was a flap of skin, sewn together in the middle, which she could use as a small, makeshift blanket.
  2028. > It wouldn't cover even one pony, but maybe combined with a few more things it would keep a little warmth.
  2029. > Mayor turned and went back to search for that discarded hoof-wrapping she'd found earlier. It was another scrap.
  2031. > ~~~~
  2033. > Mayor Mare was shivering badly and her teeth were chattering in the cold as she waited and looked for her friend. She was cold, despite the few pieces of tattered animal hide she'd draped over her back.
  2034. > They helped a little, but she was still covered in sweat and the night would be long and miserable.
  2035. > Some of the fire pits she'd inspected were slightly warm, but there hadn't been another living ember and she'd dropped her bundle of sticks and grass. If Rainy Day had found anything, she could go fetch it.
  2036. > Mayor saw the other mare working her way to her as she stopped and inspected each fire pit. In the dark it was hard to tell if Rainy Day had found any pieces of hide or fur. Maybe they had enough, if they huddled together and the pegasus covered them with her good wing.
  2037. > The combination of chill and their exertions was making Mayor's limbs jerk so she decided to double check some of the nearby fires, if only to take her mind off the discomfort.
  2038. > She felt the ash in the nearest circle of stone, but there was no warmth. Just in case she dug out a few hoof-fulls. Nothing.
  2039. > Then Mayor got an idea and headed to the edge of the camp. Maybe the nomads tossed trash outside, so as not to litter what passed for streets between the tents? She hadn't thought of that. Maybe as their next step, she and Rainy Day should circle the camp and search the grass for discarded pieces of clothing.
  2040. > A faint sound, distant and barely at the edge of her hearing made Mayor pause and listen.
  2041. > She wasn't sure if she even heard it, but the sudden fear made her insides clench almost painfully. She held her breath to hear better and swiveled her ears around.
  2042. > It had only been her imagination, she told herself. The effort and the stress of the past few days made her think-
  2043. > This time there was no mistaking it. The sound was coming from far away and she only caught it because she was focusing, but there was a howl.
  2044. > A wolf howl.
  2045. > Sudden dread leadened her legs and fresh beads of sweat broke out all over her skin. For a few moments she was unable to move or think.
  2046. "No, no no no no," she whispered to herself.
  2047. > Maybe if she didn't move, they wouldn't sense her. Which way had the howl come from?
  2048. > Mayor Mare slowly turned, both dreading and hoping there would be another. At least it would give her a direction.
  2049. > There! The sound made her shiver anew and her breath came in shallow, rapid pants. When she lifted her leg it shook badly and she placed it down, unsure if she could walk. Her stomach was a tiny ball of ice and felt as if it was dropping down to her hooves.
  2050. "Shit shit shit!"
  2051. > Pure, overwhelming terror made it impossible to think or act. She was looking toward the source of the howl, across the nomad camp.
  2052. > The way they came from.
  2053. > The wolves were on their trail.
  2054. > "Mayor?"
  2055. > Her friend spotted her and joined her, but she froze to the spot when she saw her stance. Rainy Day looked in the direction Mayor was facing and her ears folded down. "What's wrong?"
  2056. > A vision of gray muzzles, pointed into the wind as they speeded across the plain played in Mayor's mind. She saw themselves running, but it would be futile. They were already tired and the pack would soon drive them to exhaustion.
  2057. > She couldn't see a way out. They'd catch them and-
  2058. > Teeth. Yellow fangs, tearing into her skin, ripping.
  2059. > It was going to be a horrible, in-equine way to die. They couldn't escape it, not in their condition.
  2060. > "Mayor?"
  2061. > Rainy Day was right beside her, looking increasingly concerned.
  2062. "L-L-Listen..."
  2063. > The other mare did so, falling silent and controlling her breathing so she could hear better.
  2064. > There was nothing.
  2065. > "Mayor, I don't-"
  2066. "Hush!"
  2067. > Once again Rainy Day obliged and concentrated.
  2068. > Another howl sounded and Mayor imagined it was slightly nearer.
  2069. > There was a whimper beside her at the same time as Mayor felt warm liquid run down her hind legs. She'd lost control over her bladder, but she didn't care in the slightest.
  2070. > Maybe if she found that broken spear piece again!
  2071. > There was no way for her to wield it, but-
  2072. > Mayor Mare closed her eyes and hot tears ran down her face. It'd be a cleaner way to go, at least for one of them.
  2073. > "Come on. We have to run! Move!"
  2074. > Rainy Day was butting her flank with her head. The jolt nearly unbalanced Mayor and she almost fell, but her hind leg moved out of sheer, unconscious reflex.
  2075. > That brought her out of the state of terror.
  2076. > Her heart was hammering like crazy and she was physically incapable of drawing a deep breath, but she could move her shaky limbs.
  2077. > "Go! GO!"
  2078. > Rainy Day butted her again and began stumbling through the grass, away from the camp. Mayor followed and her painstakingly gathered pieces of skin slid from her back without a second thought.
  2079. > She wouldn't need them, after all.
  2080. > She was still cold, her core felt frozen, but it wasn't from the chill.
  2081. "We- w-w-we won't make it. It's t-too far!"
  2082. > Rainy Day glanced back and they shared a look full of terror and understanding. They both knew the truth of the matter, but they still had to pretend for each other.
  2083. > "We have to try," the mare said and increased her pace.
  2084. > They were at a fast trot already and Mayor wanted to push faster. She wanted to gallop with everything she had, but she knew that way she'd drive herself into the ground in a few minutes.
  2085. > She had to conserve what little endurance she had left. She had to make it last to the portal!
  2086. > At least, she thought, with her ragged breathing and thumping heartbeat, with her clumsy crashing through the grass and bushes, she couldn't hear the howling.
  2087. > It meant she couldn't gauge how quickly the wolves were catching up, but it let her lie to herself.
  2088. > She knew it for a lie, but she told it to herself anyway.
  2089. "We'll make it. We'll make it. We can do this. We have to do this!"
  2091. > ~~~~
  2093. > Her hammering heart. Her rasping breath. The flaring pain in her legs. Mayor Mare's world had shrunk in on itself until nothing was left except the effort and the terror.
  2094. > Sweat ran in little rivulets down her sides and foam dribbled from her gaping muzzle. There was no destination, not anymore. No hope of Equestria or rescue. There was just running as fast as she could, until she couldn't.
  2095. > Beside her, Rainy Day sounded no better off. She had stopped whimpering in fear a few minutes ago, opting instead to save her breath.
  2096. > It wouldn't be long now.
  2097. > Mayor could hardly lift a hoof anymore and the stumbling, jerking gait they could manage was too slow. Even a full gallop would have been too slow, but what else could they have done except try?
  2098. > She found herself thinking longingly of the nomads' camp. It meant fire, and people, and safety. Even if they were her captors, Salki and Intor, even Willow wouldn't tear her apart and eat her alive.
  2099. > Lately even imagining that fate was losing its power to make her legs move.
  2100. > Rainy Day stumbled and Mayor slowed to let the other mare catch up. It wasn't much of a respite, but every little bit helped.
  2101. > Her throat hurt from the lungfuls of air she forced down it. Her muscles felt like steel cables, taut and unyielding, painful to move. Her insides were stitched up as every last drop of blood was forced toward running.
  2102. > In moments she would collapse.
  2103. > Another howl sounded and it was near. Very near. Mayor could hear the yipping of the pack members as they chased after them. She thought she heard snapping of powerful jaws and the occasional growl.
  2104. > All she could do was enjoy these final moments before those teeth clamped around her throat.
  2105. > If she was lucky they'd go for her throat. That would be faster than the alternatives.
  2106. > She and Rainy Day couldn't fight. Two ponies without weapons or magic couldn't have fought off a pack of wolves in the best of times. All they had was a sick, injured pegasus and an out of shape, exhausted earth pony.
  2107. > Mayor Mare caught her friend's gaze and saw there reflected the same mortal terror she felt in her own heart. The very same knowledge that they wouldn't see the sunrise. That they would die soon.
  2108. > Once more, even though it was hopeless, she glanced around for a way out.
  2109. > There were some trees, but they were spindly and the lowest branches were too high up to reach. If Rainy Day could have flown, she could have saved herself, but Mayor was certainly doomed.
  2110. > Maybe, though.
  2111. "Tree!" she gasped and angled toward it.
  2112. > Rainy Day didn't answer, but she followed, dumbly. Sweat was pouring off her and there was a stink of urine. Mayor didn't remember when that had happened. Probably during one of the blood-curdling howls the wolves made as they hunted.
  2113. > She saw a way out. It was for one of them only, but that was better than neither of them surviving. It might just prolong the inevitable, but so had the past hour or so of desperate running.
  2114. > Mayor held her breath for a split second to listen for the wolf pack. She could hear their sharp panting and the rustle of grass as they ran. Maybe a minute?
  2115. > She aimed herself at the tree and twisted sideways. Her flank smacked against the trunk, but Mayor ignored the pain and welcomed the support.
  2116. "Up- me- up!"
  2117. > The words barely came out with her gasps for air, but Rainy Day understood. The branches were too high to jump, but with Mayor giving her a boost, the light pegasus could perhaps make it.
  2118. > Only one of them, but that was better than zero. Mayor forced herself not to think about her own fate and instead concentrated on her friend. She'd be safe in a tree. Maybe the wolves would leave after they had their meal.
  2119. > Most importantly, she would have hope.
  2120. > Rainy Day was shaking her head, horrified at the thought.
  2121. "Go!"
  2122. > Her friend didn't move and their time was running out.
  2123. "GO!"
  2124. > Mayor put her heart and soul into the command. The fact that she wouldn't have to watch Rainy Day die, that she wouldn't see her choking on her own blood with fangs around her throat was the only positive thing in the entire situation.
  2125. > There was no disobeying her tone, borne out of her years as a leader and a source of authority as much as out of her mortal terror.
  2126. > Her legs nearly buckled under her when Rainy Day climbed up on her back and they both almost toppled over. The pegasus quickly regained her balance and stood on her hind legs.
  2127. > Mayor tried to lift herself as high as she could, praying to Celestia that the extra hoof or so would be enough.
  2128. > The weight vanished from her and she heard hooves scrabbling on bark as Rainy Day lifted herself onto the lowest branches.
  2129. > "Jump! I'll pull you up!"
  2130. > Sudden hope flared and Mayor reached as far up the trunk as she could. She forced her hind legs to strengthen and stretched out her torso.
  2131. > Rainy Day was hanging from her midriff, with her good wing outstretched for balance. Their hooves touched.
  2132. > It wasn't enough.
  2133. > "Jump!"
  2134. > Mayor tried, letting fear fuel her abused muscles. She crouched and pushed with all her might.
  2135. > Her hind legs simply folded up under her. There was no strength left there.
  2136. > "No! Try again!"
  2137. > It took Mayor several long seconds to get on her hooves once more and she knew it was useless. Her limbs simply didn't obey her anymore, not after the effort she had forced herself through.
  2138. > Her time had run out anyway. A low growl sounded from many throats and Mayor turned around to stare into gray, furry death. She pressed against the tree and if there had been anything left in her bladder it would have released.
  2139. > There was no thought in those eyes, no mercy and no pity, just hunger.
  2140. > They weren't Timber Wolves, but no less frightening even with their smaller size. Mayor saw six in the pack as they spread out to encircle her.
  2141. > She was a new type of creature to them and they were being cautious. That was perhaps the only reason she was still alive. They had preferred to chase the ponies to exhaustion, rather than pounce on them at the first opportunity.
  2142. "GO AWAY!"
  2143. > There was almost no breath in that yell, but Mayor gave it her best. The wolves cringed momentarily and a few looked around in surprise, but most of them kept coming.
  2144. > Long forgotten instinct rose up in her and the mare kicked her hind leg at the tree behind her. It was feeble and her muscle screamed in protest, but she had to show these predators that she would fight.
  2145. > It didn't deter them.
  2146. > "Leave us!" Rainy Day shouted from the tree. "Go! Run!"
  2147. "Buck you! Go away!"
  2148. > Their combined efforts stayed the attack for a few more seconds as some of the smaller wolves looked at the larger specimen in the middle. The pack leader barked and jumped a hoofstep closer.
  2149. "NOOO!"
  2150. > Mayor had put all she had in the scream and it felt as if her larynx was tearing.
  2151. > She heard Rainy Day yelling something and hitting the wood with her hoof to make more noise.
  2152. > If only they had fire, Mayor thought. She glanced around for any kind of a weapon and spotted a small stone by her hoof. She picked it up and hurled it as best she could in one, swift, fluid motion.
  2153. > Her aim was bad and the strength wasn't there anymore, but it hit one of the wolves in its side, making the beast yelp and jump away. Mayor looked for more stones, but none of the remaining ones were large enough.
  2154. "Shit!"
  2155. > She suddenly realized that the wolves had almost completely encircled her. She considered running again. Maybe she could lead them away from Rainy Day.
  2156. > Her head shook in denial almost by itself as soon as she had the thought. The best she could hope for would be a stumbling gait and the wolves would be on her in seconds. They had almost lost the last bits of wariness toward this new type of prey.
  2157. > The pack leader snarled and dashed forward, and all choice was taken out of Mayor's hooves.
  2158. > She twirled around, but it was too slow. There was no time to plant her forehooves well enough for a buck. Maybe if she caught the bite on her rump she would buy herself a split second to deliver a good kick.
  2159. > Mayor closed her eyes and braced for those fangs to tear into her back.
  2160. > Rainy Day's scream seemed to go on and on.
  2161. >...
  2162. > Time rushed back into the world. There was a surprised yelp and sudden shouting. The voices were the most welcome thing Mayor Mare had ever heard in her life. They were nomad voices.
  2163. > She turned and saw upright, fur-clad hunters as the fell on the pack of confused and panicking animals with spears.
  2164. > The nomads had come!
  2165. > How they had managed to catch them she would never know. How they could have sneaked up on a pack of wolves was another mystery. Perhaps it spoke to their skill as hunters.
  2166. > Perhaps the ponies' shouting had distracted the beasts.
  2167. > She looked down at the large wolf on the grass by her hooves. It was thrashing and snapping its jaws as dark liquid poured out of its mouth.
  2168. > The beast was pierced clean through its chest by a spear and the shaft was sticking up into the air like a grotesque limb. The gray fur was already stained by blood.
  2169. > As she gazed, dumbstruck, into the wolf's black eyes, Willow ran into her field of vision and jumped. He stabbed mightily down and pinned the creature to the ground with another spear.
  2170. > It didn't cry out in pain, but the sound it made was even more horrifying. Mayor Mare knew she would remember it for the rest of her life.
  2171. > The last breath left it, gurgling and liquid as it choked on blood. The eyes didn't close, even as the wolf stilled, and it kept staring right at her in death.
  2172. > Mayor was vaguely aware of noise around her, of shouts, and barking, and stabbing, bloody spears. She later recalled also the screams of pain from the nomads. The contest wasn't completely one-sided and the wolves fought back.
  2173. > At the time, all she could do was gaze into the eyes of death, forever sightless. At the dribble of rich, blood, black in the moonlight, as it pooled on the grass under the creature.
  2174. > At Willow's hand, still holding the spear which had pierced the wolf.
  2175. > She glanced up at the young hunter. His face was alight with excitement and joy. He delighted in that kill. He grinned fiercely at her as he put his hind hoof on the dead wolf and jerked his spear free.
  2176. > It came out covered in blood, which dripped freely down on the body of the beast he had killed. However dark it was, to Mayor that blood was the most vivid red she had ever seen.
  2177. > Blood and death. This was his world. This was a game to him, a contest of strength and skill.
  2178. > He liked to kill things.
  2179. > He had saved her life. Her and Rainy Day's.
  2180. > Darkness overtook her and Mayor felt, more than saw, the ground rush up to meet her.
  2182. > ~~~~
  2184. > Perhaps it was lucky that she didn't dream, for whatever her mind might have conjured up would surely turn into nightmares.
  2185. > Mayor had time to think that one clear thought before the agony made itself known.
  2186. "Ooow!"
  2187. > Her head was swinging loosely and her muzzle smacked into bronze nomad skin. An arm held her hind legs in place and an elbow dug into her ribs. More importantly, every muscle was pure fire.
  2188. > Each step the nomad took sent jolts of fresh pain into her limbs. She had a pounding headache and her legs refused to move.
  2189. > They were carrying her back. It took extreme effort, but Mayor managed to turn her head and looked around. She saw Rainy Day slung across another hunter's shoulder in much the same position as she herself. The other mare was still unconscious.
  2190. > Mayor wished she could slip back under. The way she was made to stretch as she hanged down from the hunter's grip was pulling her poor, abused muscles beyond their endurance.
  2191. "Ahh, ah, please! Ow!"
  2192. > She tried to twist, but the nomad who had her shouted something and slapped her rump with his other paw. Mayor didn't even register that pain and she continued to struggle.
  2193. > At last the hunter growled something which sounded unpleasant and simply tossed her over his shoulder. She landed on the grass with a thump which knocked all breath out of her lungs.
  2194. > Her vision swam and Mayor curled up into a ball, as she waited for the agony in her muscles to lessen. Her limbs shook and jerked uncontrollably and she gasped for air now that her barrel was no longer restricted.
  2195. > Above her, an argument was taking place. The hunter who had carried her was shouting something, but she didn't even try to understand. He pointed at her and slapped his paw on the knife at his waist.
  2196. > Willow was there too, arguing back. Mayor noted that he had a wolf carcass slung across his shoulder. It wast the big beast, the pack leader and its blood was smeared all over the young nomad's arms like gruesome paint.
  2197. > After some more heated discussion, Willow thrust the animal at the other hunter, who took it, put it on his shoulder and walked off.
  2198. > They were changing their burdens, undoubtedly because of her struggling. Willow didn't look too pleased with the development. He grabbed the bit of rope around her neck and shouted at her: "Irekh! Irekh! Yavak!"
  2199. > She knew what he wanted. She would have, even if Mayor hadn't recognized the words for 'come' and 'move'. She did her best to stand up, but even placing a hoof flat on the ground proved too much.
  2200. > The flaring ache made her whimper and there was no strength in her limbs.
  2201. "Please. I need to rest. Just a bit, please!"
  2202. > The headache made it hard to think, but she grasped for the correct words.
  2203. "Kevtekh!"
  2204. > Willow looked after his friends, who hadn't stood around to wait, and growled a little to himself. He decided she was being truthful and grabbed the poor mare. He lifted her easily and put her up over his shoulder.
  2205. > That was apparently how the nomads carried their burdens. It made sense to Mayor, since their backs went straight up due to their bipedal nature, but it certainly didn't make it pleasant.
  2206. > It wasn't comfortable, but it was better than hanging down by her hips. She couldn't suppress a whimper of pain as, once again, her muscles were forced to stretch.
  2207. > Willow didn't pay her any mind and began to walk.
  2208. > She tried to turn her head enough to look ahead, at where they were going, but Mayor didn't have the strength for that. Instead, she watched the landscape behind them. It was flat and featureless. She didn't recognize any of it.
  2209. > How much further to the camp? Would the rest of the tribe have waited for these hunters to bring back two escaped mares?
  2210. > Probably not, Mayor decided. They must have moved on and Willow's band was catching up to the rest. Had they already passed the nomads' second camp? How much longer until they found the rest of the people? She needed Salki, she needed to talk to him.
  2211. > She needed to learn to talk to him.
  2212. > Escape was impossible, especially for two lone mares. They were prey animals in this land and she had no doubt there were worse things out there than wolves.
  2213. > It would have to be plan B. Diplomacy. Her only remaining option.
  2215. > ~~~~
  2217. > The sun had nearly set and still they hadn't caught up to the main camp. After her little episode Mayor had tried to gauge the nomads' speed. The hunters were moving slowly, probably because they were carrying several of the wolf carcasses as well as the two mares and their own leather packs.
  2218. > They had stopped at a small stream and while both Mayor Mare and Rainy Day had been able to stand enough to drink, they hadn't made it more than a few steps before the pegasus' legs cramped up and she fell to the ground, crying and writhing in pain.
  2219. > The hunters argued a little, but one of them picked her up again.
  2220. > Mayor made it several hundred hoofsteps before she couldn't go on. She didn't get the cramps, but there was simply no strength left in her hind legs and they folded underneath her.
  2221. > She tried to ask Willow for a few minutes' rest amidst her panting, but the young nomad quickly lost his patience and grabbed her once more.
  2222. > It was unpleasant for both of them. Willow was smeared with the wolf's blood and greasy from his own sweat, both of which proved nearly impossible for Mayor to ignore. She actually wished he would wear his clothes made of animal fur, just so there would be something between her and his body.
  2223. > Some of the other hunters had wrapped up as the day wore on, but most of them were bare, except for a scrap around their waist. Their bodies glistened in the setting sun, slick with sweat which she simply couldn't get out of her nose.
  2224. > She wasn't exactly fresh herself, especially after the way she had peed herself in terror the night before, but Mayor was willing to bet she didn't stink as badly to them!
  2225. > The trip didn't last much longer, however, and as soon as the sun was fully down the nomads stopped and began discussing something. They tossed their wolf carcasses down on a pile and one of them hurried off in a strange, bent-over walk. The rest of them searched a small area and tossed away any stones they found.
  2226. > Mayor was sitting on the grass and watching them in confusion as she tried to figure out what they were doing. Rainy Day was leaning against her side and she welcomed the pegasus' warmth.
  2227. > It felt as if her fever was coming back and the mare had slept throughout the day, but now she was up and alert.
  2228. > "I hate this."
  2229. "Mm?"
  2230. > "This," Rainy Day said and stretched out a forehoof toward the nomads. "They saved our lives, but they're taking us back. I bucking hate it!"
  2231. > Mayor agreed. Her own emotions about being rescued from a gruesome and certain death by these nomads were a tangle she wasn't yet ready to unravel.
  2232. "At least we're still alive. We'll try again."
  2233. > "You think they'll ever leave us unwatched ever again?"
  2234. "Yeah, they will."
  2235. > Rainy Day was silent for a moment as she stared at Mayor in shock. "Huh?! What?" She suddenly had a thought and shrugged. "They don't care right now because they know we can barely walk. As soon as we're better, they'll tie us back up and set a watch."
  2236. "No, I don't think so. They know we won't try to run away again, not with wolves around the place."
  2237. > "But we are?"
  2238. > Mayor shook her head firmly.
  2239. "No. I'll learn their language and convince them to take us back. There's no other way. I'm sure we can barter. Equestria must have plenty of things they might want!"
  2240. > If the other mare had any faith in this plan, Mayor couldn't tell. Rainy Day just stared off at the slowly fading glow in the west.
  2241. "We're alive and that's what matters. Focus on resting. You should eat something."
  2242. > That last made the pegasus mare bark a laugh. "So should you, Mayor."
  2243. "I'm not hungry."
  2244. > "Neither am I."
  2245. > Both mares shifted slightly to press more tightly against each other. The sun had gone down and the chill of the night was already making itself felt. Mayor was mentally preparing herself for a cold, unpleasant night and the suffering that would cause with her muscle fatigue.
  2246. > The hunter who had hurried off earlier came back with his forelegs piled up high with bits of wood. Most of it was just thin branches from nearby bushes, but he'd gathered a lot of it. Maybe enough to last through the night, Mayor guessed.
  2247. "At least it looks like we'll have a fire."
  2248. > She wondered how the nomads would light it. She hadn't seen their technique at their last camp since Gol had simply gone to their neighbors to fetch a burning stick to start hers.
  2249. > Her question was answered soon when an older hunter fished out a small rock from his pack. He struck it against his spearhead and the stone produced a lot of sparks. It only took him a few hits to get a small flame going and soon he had a cosy fire.
  2250. > If only she had known, maybe she could have stolen. It was flint, Mayor guessed, and she was sure she could have started a fire with that the previous night. She could have fended off the wolves.
  2251. > Except- the nomads would still have found them.
  2252. > The other hunters gathered around the campfire and sat in a loose circle. They grabbed pieces of dried meat from one of the packs and began to tear at it with their canines.
  2253. > There didn't seem to be a place for the ponies in that group.
  2254. > It wasn't yet cold enough to be really uncomfortable, but Mayor was aware how Rainy Day was shivering beside her. The fever was coming back, no doubt thanks to the previous night's exertions. She had known it would, but Mayor had hoped they'd be in Equestria by then.
  2255. > She'd simply have to swallow her pride and beg, if only for the sake of her friend.
  2256. "Come."
  2257. > "Where?"
  2258. "You need the fire. You're ill. Come."
  2259. > Rainy Day didn't argue and followed her.
  2260. > The nomads were babbling in their strange language, but fell silent when they noticed the mares approaching. Willow glared at them, but didn't make any gesture or said anything.
  2261. "Please?" Mayor said. "Um, zog, kevtekh, gal."
  2262. > "What was that?" Rainy Day murmured.
  2263. "I just said 'stop', 'lie down' and 'fire. I hope they'll understand."
  2264. > The hunters just watched. By now they all knew the ponies could talk and even say a few words, but Mayor didn't know if they actually understood they were fully sentient, or just thought them clever animals.
  2265. > Out of desperation, she moved aside and nudged Rainy Day a bit closer.
  2266. "Stand."
  2267. > The mare obeyed and her legs noticeably trembled with the effort. After a moment her head lowered.
  2268. "See? Kevtekh, gal. Please."
  2269. > They could surely see how cold and weak Rainy Day was. Mayor reached for the nearest nomad, who thankfully didn't resist as she took his paw and placed it on Rainy Day's head.
  2270. "She has a fever. We need the fire."
  2271. > Explaining it in Equestrian was probably useless, but saying words at least showed the nomads that there was something to be understood.
  2272. > When she released him, the hunter kept his paw on Rainy Day and patted her a few times, then pulled back. He spoke some words she didn't understand and Willow answered. A few of the others chimed in, and then the two nearest nomads shuffled aside.
  2273. > The gesture was clear. They were making room around the fire for the ponies and Mayor flashed them all a grateful smile.
  2274. "Thank you! Drat, I didn't ask Salki how to say it in nomad!"
  2275. > She showed her gratitude in a more physical way and leaned over to brush her muzzle against the nomad's forearm. She ignored the smell, the grime and the piece of meat in his paw.
  2276. > The two mares sat by the fire and Rainy Day soon folded down to the ground. She was still shivering a little, but the radiant warmth from the flames was helping. Combined with their fur and tails, which they wrapped around themselves, it was almost pleasant.
  2277. > Rainy Day eventually fell asleep and became still, but Mayor remained awake and watched the hunters talk and eat. Perhaps she could pick up a fresh word or two.
  2279. > ~~~~
  2281. > Mayor Mare woke up before everyone else. The fire in the middle had gone out, but the sun was already up and warming her. She still felt the remnants of the night's chill in her bones, along with the lingering ache of muscle fatigue, but it wasn't as bad as she had feared.
  2282. > Once she stretched and moved she would be fine, as long as they didn't drive her too quickly, Mayor thought.
  2283. > She looked around at the hunters, who were all sound asleep. The exertion of the past few days must have tired them out, she guessed. It would have exhausted anypony, even Equestria's top athletes, to say nothing of the bite wounds some of them had suffered from the wolf pack.
  2284. > As far as Mayor could tell, none of them were awake yet. A few of them were snoring, but for the most part Willow and the others slept soundlessly.
  2285. > Rainy Day was also still out, curled up in a ball of fur and feathers and wedged under Mayor's chin to capture as much warmth as she could find. The first rays of sunlight were starting to brush the pegasus' coat and made her glitter with a myriad pinpricks of light.
  2286. > The sun caught tiny droplets of dew caught in her fur and turned them into softly glowing gems, everywhere except where Mayor's head had been lying. Rainy Day's fur was dry in that spot.
  2287. > She had to resist the urge to wipe the water away, since all she would achieve would be to soak that water through their fur. If she left it alone, the dew would evaporate quickly in the sunlight and they'd end up dry.
  2288. > Mayor decided to lie there, as still and quiet as she could for as long as they would let her. She wouldn't move until the nomads got up and made her. The day would probably be hard and tiresome enough without looking for extra exercise on her own.
  2289. > It didn't look as if the hunters would wake soon, which gave Mayor some more time to simply rest.
  2290. > She thought back to the previous couple of days and shuddered. By all rights she should be dead and Rainy Day probably too. In her mind's eye, the wolf was even bigger and its teeth even larger as it leapt for her.
  2291. > Mayor began to shake as the full realization cemented in her brain. She had been perhaps a hoofstep away from a painful and gruesome death.
  2292. > She had never been in danger of dying before in her life. Equestria was safe. Ponies could not usually get hurt, unless it was an accident. Even the crazy monsters which had plagued Ponyville lately had never actually injured anypony.
  2293. > This world, though...
  2294. > There was death at every hoofstep. Even beside the threat of predators and the nomads' hunger, she could easily starve to death in this barren landscape. Grass would only get her so far.
  2295. > It had been a long time since her university days, but Mayor remembered bits of her biology lectures and knew modern ponies couldn't subsist on grass indefinitely. Their ancestors could, but that was before they discovered fire and began adapting to a more varied and cooked food.
  2296. > She could extend her life up to a point with an all-grass diet, but sooner or later she would need to find fruit or grain to supplement the nutrients her body needed. It didn't look like there was anything like that in this nomad world.
  2297. > As ironic as it sounded in her head, if they couldn't find a way home, Mayor and Rainy Day would have died of malnourishment with their bellies full of grass.
  2298. > In fact, that might still happen, now that they were stuck with the nomads. Unless she could convince Salki and Willow, or perhaps Intor, to give them more varied food, the two were still in danger of that insidious type of starvation.
  2299. > That was another reason she had to learn their language.
  2300. > They would also need salt. Perhaps there was rock salt in this world, or seas of salt water, hopefully not prohibitively far away. The nomads likely needed salt too, so maybe they would give the ponies some.
  2301. > Aside from their dietary requirements, Mayor knew they would need warm clothes for the winter. It was fine to walk around in nothing but a shawl in Ponyville, where a warm house was never more than a few hoofsteps away, but this landscape was too unforgiving.
  2302. > Maybe she could share the nomads' fire, especially if the previous night had been any indication, but there was no fire while the nomads moved from one camp to the next. It looked to be late autumn or early winter in this strange world, which meant she could expect snow and freezing temperature soon.
  2303. > Mayor avoided thinking about it, but her ears still laid flat when she glanced over the hunters' animal skins.
  2304. > As detestable as it was, it was either that or freezing to death. They didn't seem to have cotton, or even wool.
  2305. > Those were the immediate needs she could identify. Who knew what else would go wrong over the long term. They didn't have access to doctors, not even so much as a dentist. Mayor felt around her mouth with her tongue. They'd have to find ways to clean their teeth to keep them healthy as long as possible.
  2306. > Maybe it wouldn't be a problem, especially if she learned enough of the nomadic language to bargain with the people and offer them riches from Equestria in exchange for taking her back.
  2307. > After her recent brush with the very real possibility of death or injury in this land, Mayor was less inclined to be optimistic about their escape. She would have to think of the long term.
  2308. > Luckily her friend stirred as the sun reached her eyes. It saved Mayor from being alone with her depressing thoughts.
  2309. "Morning, Rainy Day."
  2310. > The mare blinked in the light, but she didn't move. "Mayor? Where- oh..."
  2311. > Her realization of where they were and what had happened flattened Rainy Day's ears and she squeezed her eyes shut. "So they're taking us back?"
  2312. "Quietly. Let's rest for as long as we can. I think they'll make us walk today."
  2313. > The other mare just gave a nod.
  2314. "Look around. Do you recognize anything? Did we reach the nomad's camp from the other day yet?"
  2315. > This made Rainy Day move and chilly morning air brushed the warm patches she had been covering on Mayor's coat. She didn't complain and waited until her keen-eyed friend glanced all around them.
  2316. > "Sorry," she finally said, "I don't recognize anything. I think we're beyond where the nomad camp was."
  2317. "I didn't see it yesterday. I was looking out for fire pits."
  2318. > "Maybe this group took a shortcut or something."
  2319. "Yeah, maybe."
  2320. > There was no telling how much further until they caught up to the rest of the people, but Mayor hoped it wasn't too far. The pace these hunters would set would undoubtedly be faster than what the whole group could manage.
  2321. > Rainy Day settled back down, careful to take the warm and dry spot she had occupied before. The grass around them was full of dew.
  2322. > Mayor had intended to lie and rest for as long as possible, but thinking and talking had woken her up fully and she felt like she needed to be doing things.
  2323. "We should eat before they wake up. I don't think they'll wait for us."
  2324. > "Okay."
  2325. > They stood up as quietly as they could and walked a few paces away. Mayor glanced back to make sure they hadn't woken up any of the nomads, and found herself looking directly into the eyes of one of them. Her ears immediately flattened without a conscious thought.
  2326. > He didn't raise an alarm, but just to be sure Mayor waved a hoof vaguely around herself, then pointed at her open mouth.
  2327. > Maybe the nomad understood her gesture, or maybe he simply didn't care, because he still didn't move or speak. He kept watching and the mare shrugged a little to herself and joined Rainy Day, who was already browsing for the youngest, tenderest grass.
  2328. "How are you feeling?"
  2329. > Her friend lifted her head up and finished chewing while her eyes unfocused. After she swallowed she shrugged. "Tired. Everything hurts."
  2330. "Your wing?"
  2331. > "That hurts too. I guess it's healing, but it's hard to tell."
  2332. "Fever?"
  2333. > "Dunno. Here, feel," Rainy Day offered and took a step closer so they could brush their muzzles together.
  2334. > Mayor felt around her friend's face, even took one of her ears between her lips to try and guess at her temperature. She felt warm, but it was hard to tell without a point of comparison.
  2335. "I can't really tell. I wish we had a thermometer or something."
  2336. > "Here, let me feel you," Rainy Day suggested and went ahead without waiting for Mayor's agreement. She felt around her muzzle, doing mostly the same things Mayor had done earlier.
  2337. > "I dunno. Maybe you have a bit of a fever too?"
  2338. "Wouldn't surprise me, not after last night."
  2339. > "Anyway, I can walk, I think. My legs hurt, but I'll be fine."
  2340. > It was the same for Mayor Mare. Standing and stretching was helping, even if it made her muscles burn with residual fatigue. Her limbs shook and jerked if she moved too fast, but she would be fine after she ate and warmed up.
  2341. > They both went back to cropping the grass. Mayor decided that Rainy Day's appetite was a good sign. She would beat her infection.
  2342. > A sound caught her attention and Mayor glanced back to the cold fire pit. Another of the nomads was awake and sitting upright as he stretched out his arms. The first one she had spotted was already standing.
  2343. > Time for feeding was growing short and Mayor bent back down to stuff as much of the tasteless, low-energy grass into her belly as she could. She heard one of the hunters walk over, but she ignored it other than tracking him with her ear.
  2344. > The burly, animal-skin clad body walked past her a few steps, then stopped. Mayor was wondering what the nomad was doing, when she noticed her was fumbling with the strap of fur around his midriff.
  2345. > She heard a splashing sound at the same time as the nomad let out a sigh.
  2346. > Oh.
  2347. > Even before the smell reached her Mayor turned around and continued her feeding in the other direction. She didn't want to risk chancing upon that particular patch of ground.
  2348. > On the plus side, the grass she was taking in was full of dew, so it also served very nicely to slake her thirst. That was one advantage the ponies had over the nomads, who had to drink from their smelly water skins.
  2349. > She took another quick glance back at the group and saw that most of them had woken up. One particular hunter, Mayor thought it was the one who had carried her the previous day, was crouching down at the opposite side of the fire and staring straight ahead with a look of fierce concentration.
  2350. > Good thing he hadn't come to do that near her, she thought. The others dispersed to do their various business and the nomads who were finished took out strips of dried meat from their pack and began to tear into them with their teeth.
  2351. > They would be moving on pretty soon, she was sure of it.
  2352. >...
  2353. > Before much longer the ponies had fresh ropes around their necks. Again Rainy Day was tied to Mayor, whose line was being held personally by Willow. It was about what she had expected, but it wasn't any less demeaning than the previous time.
  2354. > She was ready to get on with it, but the nomads were having a small argument over the wolf corpses. The best Mayor could read from their tones and facial expressions, most of the nomads wanted to leave them behind. Willow and a few of the younger hunters insisted they lug the beasts all the way.
  2355. > The debate was getting quite heated, with raised voices and angry gestures of their forelegs. It looked like the faction who wanted to leave them was winning though. That was just as well. Mayor wouldn't have to look at the gruesome trophies and be constantly reminded of how near she had come to dying.
  2356. > In the end the argument reached some kind of a conclusion and Willow apparently lost. He was frowning in annoyance as he beckoned to one of the older nomads. Mayor watched as the hunter came closer. She remembered it was the same one who had lit the fire the previous night. He was probably the most experienced among them.
  2357. > He pulled out his stone knife and Mayor suddenly had a bad feeling in her stomach, especially when two of the others rolled the biggest wolf carcass on its back.
  2358. > There was half-chewed grass in her mouth, but Mayor almost forgot about it as she watched in horror. She should have looked away, but something about the spectacle held her attention like a vice.
  2359. > The old hunter plunged his knife into the wolf's neck. She could hear the sickening sound, a 'schlick' unlike anything she had experienced before. Then the nomad began to saw at the wolf's hide as he dragged the knife down the chest and belly.
  2360. > Mayor remembered her mouthful and forced herself to swallow, though she had lost all semblance of appetite. She glanced over to Where Rainy Day was facing away with her head down in the grass. Hopefully she wouldn't turn around.
  2361. > Once that cut was done, the hunter lifted his knife up. Dark, oily blood dripped from it, already viscous and congealed. He stuck it back and cut along the inside of the wolf's foreleg.
  2362. > It still didn't make sense to Mayor. She couldn't understand why they would do this and what they hoped to achieve, but she also couldn't quite tear her eyes away. Her stomach was starting to feel very queasy and she swallowed her spit several times in an effort to calm it down.
  2363. > The nomad worked quickly and efficiently with the others helping him by holding the carcass in place. Pretty soon the incisions were complete and he put his knife down.
  2364. > Maybe it was just some kind of a ritual, Mayor thought. Perhaps they would do something similar to the other wolves, then bury them or something.
  2365. > Her breath caught as the old hunter stuck his claws into the new wound and gripped. He pulled the skin away with a slick, tearing, utterly sickening sound.
  2366. > Bile rose up from Mayor's stomach and she barely stopped herself from throwing up everything she had just eaten. She focused her stare at the ground and concentrated on breathing.
  2367. > She kept swallowing her saliva as she slowly forced the grass back into her belly.
  2368. > Then she made a mistake of looking up again.
  2369. > The naked body of the wolf was just *so red*. The nomads were simply peeling the skin away and she saw the muscle, the ligaments, even bits of bone. Most of its hide was already loose, but it was still attached on the back and around the neck.
  2370. > Perhaps the most gruesome sight were the paws, which were still covered with fur and looked like some kind of grotesque boots.
  2371. > They were undressing it as if the wolf had been wearing a coat.
  2372. > There was no stopping it and Mayor's stomach turned. She twirled in spot so she wouldn't accidentally see any more, but her breakfast came up and spewed from her mouth.
  2373. > "Mayor?! Are you okay?!" Rainy Day asked in surprise and rushed over. The only blessing was that the other mare was so concerned with her friend that she didn't pay any attention to what the nomads were doing.
  2374. > Her vomit ended with a couple of dry heaves, then Mayor threw a leg around Rainy Day to keep her facing away.
  2375. "Don't look! Don't look!"
  2376. > "What?" Rainy Day exclaimed and began to turn despite Mayor's words. Luckily she wasn't strong enough to overpower an earth pony.
  2377. "I said don't! They're- It's bad. Just look this way."
  2378. > She could feel the pegasus trembling in her hooves and her ears focused back. Her curiosity would be her downfall, but Mayor did her best.
  2379. "It doesn't matter. It's fine. We knew they eat meat and wear animal skins, I just wasn't ready for it. Still, don't look. It's better not to know."
  2380. > Her words struck home and Rainy Day stopped trying to twist. She went completely stiff and lowered her head. "You're right, I don't wanna look. You can let me go."
  2381. > Mayor did so, and they moved away from the puddle of her vomit. She'd lost any benefit she might have had from a meal, but Mayor didn't care. She wasn't hungry anymore.
  2382. > It took an effort of will, but the foul taste in her mouth helped and she bent her head down once more. She wanted to run away far from the place, but she was already near the limit of what her rope would allow.
  2383. > Of course Willow was watching the horrific spectacle with deep interest, which meant she and Rainy Day couldn't go very far from it. Perhaps the only piece of good news was that the butchery was happening downwind from them.
  2384. > She needed to wash the taste of bile out, so Mayor licked at the grass. Most of the dew had evaporated, but if she turned the stalks over she could get some trapped moisture. She had to clean her mouth and at least get some water in her for the march ahead.
  2385. > Her belly kept twisting and she had to pause several times to concentrate, as the image of that poor, mangled body kept forcing itself back into her mind's eye.
  2386. > It took serious effort, but Mayor managed to ignore the sounds which were coming from behind them. Rainy Day kept listening and her face was looking decidedly green, but at least she managed to hold on to her breakfast.
  2387. > They soon reached as far as the rope would allow and Willow gave her a warning tug. Mayor stopped there and sought for more dew to lick up.
  2388. > Suddenly she was looking forward to walking away from that place.
  2390. > ~~~~
  2392. > By the time the hunters were ready to leave their camp, Mayor Mare was anxious to go. She and Rainy Day had managed to keep from looking at the nomads' butchery, but the sounds and smells from their gruesome work were making it very hard to retain the contents of their stomachs.
  2393. > It was already too late for Mayor, but Rainy Day still had a chance to keep her breakfast down and the poor mare kept her gaze focused on the distant horizon and her ears as flat as they would go in an effort to keep from seeing and hearing any more.
  2394. > Unfortunately she couldn't block her nose and Mayor could see her friend desperately swallowing and holding her breath.
  2395. > At long last the group of hunters began to walk and the two mares were only too eager to follow.
  2396. > Except, only a few hoofsteps later Mayor reached the end of her rope. Willow was not moving! She risked a glance behind and saw the young nomad rolling up those bloody pieces of skin and tying a string around them.
  2397. > She quickly turned away and luckily it was less bad than seeing the naked corpses of the wolves. This way she could almost convince herself it was just a bundle of some strange fabric over which somepony had spilled red paint.
  2398. > The horror became more abstract.
  2399. > Rainy Day had gone ahead and Mayor couldn't really fault her. She too wanted to be as far away from that horrible sight in the grass. The nomads hadn't bothered to bury the remains after all.
  2400. > To her relief the loop around her neck slackened and she heard Willow walking over. She tried to take another step, but her captor tugged on the rope to bring her to a halt again. He obviously wanted her to walk behind him.
  2401. > There was nothing she could do but stand patiently while the hunter caught up to her. Mayor waited for him to walk past, but he stopped at her side and fumbled with his burden.
  2402. > She kept her ears turned to him, but didn't want to look in case she saw something disgusting. Unfortunately that meant she was completely unprepared when a soft and squishy thing flopped on her back with a wet thud.
  2403. > Mayor squealed as she realized what it was and jerked her rear to dislodge the horrible bundle. It slid off and Willow shouted something in anger. His paw came down to slap her flank and he yelled at her: "Zog! Mori zog! Zog!"
  2404. > She knew both words. She had to stop fidgeting or he would tie her down. Mayor couldn't help low whimpers from escaping her muzzle as Willow bent down and retrieved his roll of skins. She trembled, but stood her ground while he tossed it across her back once more.
  2405. > Her stomach twisted alarmingly, although there wasn't much in it and Mayor was able to keep from throwing up again.
  2406. > She still didn't look, but the mere thought of freshly removed skins on her back was utterly disgusting. The fur touching hers felt a little like another pony leaning against her, but the knowledge of what it was made all the difference.
  2407. > Willow took a fresh length of rope from his pack and tied the burden to her as tightly as he could. The crude fibers of the string dug into her soft belly and pressed the skins tightly down.
  2408. > It wasn't heavy, not in the least, but Mayor would have exchanged it for all the hunters' packs if it meant getting pieces of dead wolves off her.
  2409. > Unfortunately there was no choice. She understood implicitly that Willow would simply beat her until he got his way. Maybe it was his way of taking at least *some* kind of revenge since he couldn't beat her while they were walking.
  2410. > He suddenly moved and gave her leading rope a slight tug. Mayor fell in step slightly behind the nomad and they were off.
  2411. > Perhaps the walking would eventually take her mind off the terrible pack on her back, Mayor thought. She kept her eyes on the grass under her hooves and focused on her steps. Falling over and smearing that dead skin against herself would be thoroughly unpleasant, not to mention the beating she would be sure to receive if she damaged Willow's prize.
  2412. > Yes, she believed he would beat her for that, even if he then had to carry her back.
  2413. > She wondered why he had wanted the wolf skins so desperately that he had his group carry those carcases all the way yesterday. She also didn't know why they would have left them behind now.
  2414. > Perhaps they were too heavy and the hunters had rebelled against carrying them, so Willow convinced them to just take what he really wanted?
  2415. > Why skins, though? She knew for a fact they had plenty of them back at the camp. They were just as gruesome, but at least those were dry already and weren't dripping with blood. She could *almost* get used to the idea of sleeping in a pile of animal skins if her life depended on it, but Mayor hadn't wanted to see how they were made.
  2416. > She had to focus on her hooves. She didn't want to fall, especially with how close beside her Willow was walking.
  2417. > He held her rope with only a short length between them. Perhaps he was worried she would try and dislodge his precious skins. As if she didn't know he would beat her for that.
  2418. > Whatever, Mayor thought. Let him walk beside her, at that point she just wanted to get back to the camp and to the relative safety of Intor's protection against the impatient and hot-tempered young hunter.
  2419. > At least, she thought grimly, the skins tied to her back helped warm her up.
  2421. > ~~~~
  2423. > They caught up to the rest of the nomad camp in the late afternoon, while the large group was settling down for the night. By that time, both Mayor and Rainy Day were completely exhausted and struggling to put one hoof in front of the other.
  2424. > Their limbs trembled and their breath, as they gasped for air, was ragged. Mayor found herself almost happy to see the place of her captivity, if only because her effort would end.
  2425. > As soon as they were spotted, the people raised up a cheer for the band of hunters and Willow rushed over to her. He shrugged his animal-hide pack off his shoulder beside her and simply dropped her lead rope.
  2426. > Then he impatiently cut the string tying the bundle of wolf skins to her and lifted them above his head with a triumphant shout.
  2427. > The burden had been hardly noticeable, but Mayor still couldn't help sighing in relief as the weight was lifted from her. A few steps ahead she saw her friend slump to the ground. Rainy Day's tongue lolled out and she tried to lick the spittle from her muzzle. "Thank... Celestia," she panted.
  2428. > She couldn't rest just yet, but Mayor sat beside the downed mare so they could catch their breath. All her muscles felt as if they were on fire and she swayed as she tried to remain upright.
  2429. > While the nomads gathered around Willow and the others with what looked like questions about their adventure the two mares were almost forgotten. Almost, but not quite.
  2430. > Salki rushed up to Mayor Mare and jabbered at her in his strange tongue and he put his arms around her head. She found herself relieved and happy to see him again.
  2431. "Please- water," she murmured. "Us. Salki, us. Water."
  2432. > He quickly understood and dashed away. Mayor let her head lower as she waited, but she noticed two more nomads approaching them. Intor and Gol came over and the young female quickly fell to her knees so she could pet Rainy Day.
  2433. > Her mother crouched down beside Mayor and grabbed her muzzle. The mare didn't resist as the nomad pulled her head this way and that, and peered into her eyes and mouth. She grabbed her foreleg around the fetlock and tugged, and Mayor allowed Intor to lift her hoof.
  2434. > Intor poked a finger at her frog, inspecting for any damage, Mayor guessed. She wanted to make sure her livestock was unharmed, and while it reminded the mare about her position, she didn't mind too much.
  2435. > Next, the older female bent down to Rainy Day and repeated her examination. The pony was so exhausted that she didn't resist and hardly even grunted with pain when the nomad poked at her injured wing.
  2436. > Everything seemed to be in order and Intor stood up and began pushing her way to her son. Gol opted to stay behind and went to scratch affectionately behind Mayor's ears. She was murmuring something, but the words blurred together and Mayor couldn't understand a single one.
  2437. "Yeah, I missed you too," she replied on a whim.
  2438. > They would survive, even if they were still captives. They had escaped an ugly death and their hard journey was over. Mayor found a strange kind of euphoria filling her and she smiled.
  2439. "I'm glad to see you, Gol. You people are better than the wolves."
  2440. > Presently, Salki returned with two skins of water and Mayor pushed her muzzle at one even before he could untie the nozzle. Luckily Gol grabbed the other skin and knelt down next to Rainy Day to water the pegasus.
  2441. > Soon the life-giving liquid splashed into Mayor's throat and she gulped it down greedily, hardly even noticing the unpleasant stink from the bag. She didn't stop until the skin was completely empty, then she burped and heaved a satisfied sigh.
  2442. "Thanks. Thank you."
  2443. > The youth grinned at her and responded: "'ellhom!"
  2444. > She was about to try and ask him how to say 'thank you' in his language, but Salki exclaimed in alarm and shuffled around to her side. Mayor turned her head to follow and saw him pawing at her back.
  2445. > His paw came away with dark red stains on his brown skin and he showed it to her. She didn't understand his question, but she interpreted the tone and his anxious expression: 'Are you hurt?"
  2446. "Oh. No, I guess the skins must have leaked."
  2447. > The wolf blood on her back would have bothered her a few hours ago, but Mayor was too tired to really care. She would wash it off later. She had nearly gotten used to the coppery smell of blood and it wouldn't keep her from sleeping.
  2448. "It's not mine," she told the distressed nomad. "See?"
  2449. > She ran her hoof down her stained flank to show him she didn't hurt anywhere. Despite that, Salki poked at her back some more until he reassured himself that there was no wound. When he looked at her questioningly she pointed her hoof at Willow, who was holding the biggest skin up above him to show his admiring public.
  2450. > The youth seemed to understand and relaxed. He wiped his paw clean on the grass and stood up to gaze adoringly at Willow.
  2451. > Mayor didn't like the way he seemed to fawn over the hunter, but she couldn't begrudge him. Apparently killing savage wolves bestowed great honor and esteem among the nomads. From what she had seen of their lifestyle Mayor could kind of understand that.
  2452. > Hunting meant survival and the wolves competed for the nomads' prey. Naturally they would be viewed as enemies and proof of their death would be a badge of honor. That would also explain why Willow had wanted the skins. They were buying him a lot of prestige.
  2453. > Salki kept staring at his new hero, but he stayed with Mayor and his paw sought out her ears to scratch. She leaned into his touch and watched the antics of the returning hunters and their admiring fans.
  2454. > It looked as if they were telling the story of how they had rescued the mares. Willow pointed at the two ponies and then mimed running on all fours. He panted and stuck his tongue out in an exaggeration of exhaustion, and the people laughed and slapped their thighs.
  2455. > Then he went back, picked up the wolf skin by the scruff of its neck and 'followed' the mares. He kept stopping and sniffing the air, as if wary.
  2456. > Mayor suddenly understood. The wolves could have been on them at any moment during that night, but they let them run, harried them, kept howling, so that they would exhaust themselves.
  2457. > It was a clever, if simple trick and she was suddenly angry with herself for having fallen to it. Equestrian ponies were a new thing, and judging from the way Willow pretend-sniffed the air, the wolves hadn't quite known what to make of them.
  2458. > That kept them following until the two of them had been nearly ready to fall over from sheer panic and exhaustion.
  2459. > She glared at the wolf skin and almost felt glad that it was dead and skinned. That simple beast had outsmarted two Equestrian citizens!
  2460. > Presently Willow tossed the skin back down and picked up his spear. This time he bent his legs and half-crouched, half-ran the same bit of grass again. He put one of his claws to his lips and blew some air past it at the watchers. He crept behind the imaginary wolves, pausing to let them move ahead.
  2461. > At the end of his short journey, Willow explained something she didn't quite catch, then roared while pointing at the wolf skin. He added some falsetto girlish voices, which Mayor instantly understood were a parody of herself and Rainy Day.
  2462. > The notion was further confirmed when many of the nomads looked back at the mares and laughed. Then Willow yelled and jumped forward. He swung his spear and stabbed it mightily into the ground next to the discarded wolf skin.
  2463. > He was a pretty good actor and for a moment Mayor was forcibly reminded of how he had pinned the lead wolf down with a single thrust of his spear. He stood still for a moment, breathing heavily, then yanked the spear out and finished his story.
  2464. > There were ragged cheers from the crowd and other nomads came forward to clap him on the back as the young hunter beamed with pride.
  2465. > Someone shouted something, which was probably a question because Willow turned in that direction and began talking once more, gesturing expansively with his forelegs and the spear.
  2466. > The main part of the story was over, however, and the nomads began to disperse. The other hunters were escorted off and given food and water, and Willow grudgingly accepted a hug from his mother and a skin of water. They talked in hushed tones and she inspected him for injuries.
  2467. > Then the female nomad picked up the discarded wolf skin and took it away, and Willow headed back to the mares. He seemed pleased with himself, but his grin slipped when he saw Mayor Mare and Rainy Day.
  2468. > She suddenly didn't like his look and her ears folded down in apprehension. Why was he angry with the ponies? Why now?
  2469. > He stalked over and Salki's grip around her neck tightened for a moment. He had seen it as well and the youth stood up. He tried to say something, but Willow barked a command and pointed a claw away.
  2470. > Salki cast Mayor a despairing look, but hurried off. Willow spoke again and Gol left as well.
  2471. > Mayor wondered what it was about and what the hunter wanted from her. As she watched, Willow bent down to where he had dropped his pack. He rummaged for a moment then took out a length of rope. He held it up, close to her face.
  2472. > She suddenly saw it was the piece she had bitten through to escape. Why had he kept it?!
  2473. > His words were angry and he shook the chewed rope, flicking it against her muzzle as punctuation to his words.
  2474. > Mayor understood. He was angry they had escaped. He had been angry about that, but hadn't done anything until they were safely back. Now it was time for punishment. She swallowed and stood up on shaky legs.
  2475. "It was my idea, okay? Um, ugu Rainy Day, za Mayor! Understand?"
  2476. > She pointed a hoof at her downed friend, who was watching them both warily. "Mayor, what's-"
  2477. "Shush."
  2478. > Mayor Mare kept her hoof at Rainy Day and firmly shook her head.
  2479. "Ugu. Ugu!"
  2480. > Then she put her hoof on her own chest and nodded. She even went as far as to click her teeth together at the rope.
  2481. "Za! It was my fault!"
  2482. > "Wait, don't- no, Mayor! We both came up with it! You don't have to-"
  2483. "Hush! You're hurt! Shut up and let me do this!"
  2484. > If Willow understood or not was hard to tell, but his eyes glittered angrily and he held the bit of rope in a grip so tight it made his knuckles white.
  2485. > He backed away and hauled on the string around her neck, which nearly sent Mayor falling. She stumbled, but remained on her hooves as the hunter dragged her a few steps away. She wondered what he would do.
  2486. > Surely he wouldn't kill her? Not now that he'd brought her back to the nomad camp? Surely if he were angry enough for that, he would have done it sooner and not bothered with leading the mares back?
  2487. > Her answer came when the nomad suddenly swung his foreleg. He still held the bit of chewed rope and it slapped across her back with a sharp smack.
  2488. "Ow!"
  2489. > She was both frightened at his rage and relieved he only meant to beat her, not actually murder her. The rope swished again and a new line of dull fire appeared on her rump.
  2490. "Buck!" Mayor yelled and hissed through her teeth on her inhale.
  2491. > She didn't get to say anything else before more blows rained down.
  2492. > He was angry and she guessed it was because they had slipped away on his watch. He blamed his own laziness on the mares. He had fallen asleep and they left, which made him feel as if he wasn't in control.
  2493. > The boy was nothing more than a bully, but he was growing up in a culture where bullying was a good thing. A land where brutality was rewarded.
  2494. > Despite knowing all this, Mayor couldn't help hating him for his blind and pointless revenge. She pressed her teeth together and tried to keep from yelping as he beat her.
  2495. > It didn't work for long and soon she was whinnying with each strike.
  2496. "Enough! Please!" she gasped. "You've- AAH! You've proved- OW! -your point! Please!"
  2497. > She saw Rainy Day clambering to her hooves. The idiot pegasus would come valiantly to her rescue and get beaten herself.
  2498. > Mayor opened her mouth to tell her to stay away, but just then the rope landed on her withers and it made her scream in agony.
  2499. > A new voice sounded out, sharp and loud and angry. The next blow didn't come and Mayor lifted her head.
  2500. > There was a female standing a few paces away, but she didn't look like the other nomad females in the camp.
  2501. > She had strips of red and white paint on her face, and she held a staff with some kind of animal skull attached on top. There were feathers in her mane and what looked like bronze bracelets around her forelegs.
  2502. > Everyone was staring at her and Willow's hand with the rope lowered.
  2503. > The female spoke again, in a deep and strong voice. She pointed a claw at Willow and jerked her limb the other way.
  2504. > He cast an angry look at the mare, but stepped aside. Only then did Mayor notice that Salki was standing beside this new type of nomad. He wrenched his forepaw from hers and rushed over to put his arms around her head.
  2505. > Mayor could see streaks his tears had left in the grime on his face.
  2506. "I'm okay. I'm okay. Who's that?"
  2507. > He didn't answer, because he was telling something to the newcomer. He gestured and pointed, first at Mayor, then at Rainy Day and finally at Willow. It went on for a long time.
  2508. > At last there was silence and it seemed every nomad nearby waited to hear what the new female would say. She tapped her terrifying staff on the ground and said a few words in what Mayor began to think as her 'commanding voice'.
  2509. > Willow growled in disgust, threw his piece of rope on the ground and stalked off. Salki seemed pleased with the developments and Mayor was relieved there was to be no more beating. She was still breathing hard and her back was a mass of fire, but now it was over.
  2510. > The young nomad tugged at her rope and she walked a step.
  2511. > "Mayor? What's happening?" Rainy Day asked.
  2512. > Unfortunately she didn't quite know the answer.
  2513. "I'm not sure. J-Just- rest. Stay with Gol. I'll- I'll come back when I can."
  2514. > The new nomad was walking off with a steady, stately stride and the other nomads made way. She nodded at some of them, but didn't stop to talk. Salki tugged on Mayor's rope to make her walk faster as he followed.
  2515. > Her best guess was that the new female was some sort of a leader. Maybe something like their doctor she had met the other day. He had been the only other nomad to carry a staff.
  2516. > Maybe Salki knew the leader and had gotten her to intervene on Mayor's behalf. If so, she owed both him and the female a debt of gratitude. Who knew how long Willow would have kept beating her.
  2517. > She followed wherever Salki was dragging her. Surely it was better than Willow's pointless punishment. Before they were out of sight she twisted her neck to look back at Rainy Day.
  2518. > Good, Gol was with the mare and was petting her once more. They would keep her safe from Willow, Mayor hoped. At least if this new protection extended to her friend as well.
  2519. > It wasn't like she could do anything about it, but Willow had gone off with his hunter friends and perhaps he wouldn't be back before Mayor.
  2520. > She focused forward again so she wouldn't trip and went back to examining the strange new female.
  2522. > ~~~~
  2524. > It turned out that Salki and the strange new female lived in a tent. Mayor Mare didn't yet have a good eye for nomad tents, but that one seemed larger and somehow more luxurious than the few she had seen so far.
  2525. > She hadn't been inside one yet, so when Salki held the tent flap open for her Mayor didn't quite know what to do.
  2526. > The first bit of strangeness was the fact that almost none of the people had set up tents, since their camping ground was so temporary. The second bit of weirdness was the interior itself.
  2527. > Mayor immediately scrunched up her muzzle in distaste as the smell hit her. There was the customary hole in the middle of the roof to let out smoke, but despite that there was a stink of sour milk, stale sweat and a scent she had come to associate with burnt meat.
  2528. > The source of it was obvious: a fire pit had been hastily dug in the middle and there were chunks of animal flesh sizzling among the embers.
  2529. > Salki soon gave up on waiting and simply reached over and tugged Mayor inside by the rope around her neck. She flattened her ears, took a deep breath, and entered the gloomy tent.
  2530. > The female sat on a cot opposite the entrance and Salki took another to the side. The rest of the floor was just grass, but Mayor didn't mind that. She took a spot by the fire opposite the female so she could watch her.
  2531. > Her first order of business, it seemed, was to take out the feathers in her mane and the bracelets from her forelegs. As she did that, the nomad spoke a few words and Salki answered, but Mayor Mare couldn't understand a single thing. She still listened intently, though.
  2532. > This was diplomacy. Her cutie mark was clear on it. Understand or not, she had to pay attention to the female and show her respect. She obviously had some important position in the tribe, especially if the way she had ordered Willow about was any indication.
  2533. > Mayor focused her ears on the lady and tried hard to understand.
  2534. > The next bit surprised her with how familiar it was: Salki extended a claw toward the mare and pronounced pretty well: "Meyermer."
  2535. > It was the closest he had been able to say her full name. He was making an introduction and Mayor immediately bowed her head. She knew from the youth that it was a sign of respect among nomads, just as it was among ponies.
  2536. > Then Salki switched his paw to indicate the female and said, while looking at Mayor: "Darga."
  2537. > It could not be clearer. Mayor made herself smile as politely as she was able and greeted the nomad:
  2538. "Hello, Darga. Thank you for stopping Willow."
  2539. > She wanted to say it better and cast an imploring look at Salki.
  2540. "Salki? Thank you?" she asked and pointed a hoof at the female.
  2541. > He understood and gave her the words she needed: "Bayar-lalaa."
  2542. > Just to make it clearer, Mayor Mare shifted herself sideways and patted a hoof on her back, where the welts from Willow's impromptu whip were quite visible on her tan coat.
  2543. "Darga, bayar-lalaa."
  2544. > The female didn't respond, but Mayor had been watching her face closely and caught a slight widening of eyes at this display of linguistic proficiency. The mare felt proud of herself and settled back down, hopeful that they could establish some kind of rapport.
  2545. > Salki spoke once more, but Mayor didn't understand his word: "Eey. Darga eey Salki."
  2546. > He pointed between the two, but the gesture with his claws didn't make sense to the mare, so she leaned her head to one side in confusion. The youth thought for a moment, then his face lit up.
  2547. > "Gol? Intor?" he said and Mayor glanced around in surprise, wondering if the two had come to fetch her. The tent was still empty and she could hear no one outside the flap. Salki wasn't finished, however. "Intor eey Gol," he pointed out, then did his paw-gesture again between himself and the female: "Darga eey Salki!"
  2548. > Mayor considered this and her eyes roamed the tent as she thought what might be a parallel between Intor and her daughter, and Darga and Salki. She glanced at the cot the youth was sitting on, as well as the one under Darga.
  2549. > Suddenly it clicked.
  2550. "Oooh, she's your *mother*! The same way Intor is Gol's mother! That was a clever way to put it! Um, thanks- bayar-lalaa!"
  2551. > Salki smiled at her and jabbered something else, but it was too rapid for Mayor to catch. He was still just as excited to teach her words as before, which was quite alright with Mayor Mare.
  2552. > She looked at his mother, who seemed content for now to simply watch the mare and listen to her picking up the language. She hadn't said a single word since she had spoken to Willow.
  2553. "Okay, now we got that, let's see if we can turn it around," Mayor murmured to herself."
  2554. > Salki stopped talking at her raised hoof.
  2555. "So - Darga eey Salki. Okay?"
  2556. > By now the young nomad understood some of her words and nodded at her question.
  2557. "Salki hmm Darga?"
  2558. > Luckily he was quite smart and understood what she was asking. He gave her the word: "Khue. Salki khue Darga."
  2559. > It was either the word for 'son', or for child. Mayor had a way to find out which. She prompted:
  2560. "Gol khue Intor?"
  2561. > At this the nomad burst out laughing and even his mother's lips quirked up in a smile. Salki shook his head and corrected: "Okhin. Gol okhin Intor!"
  2562. > Mayor grinned happily to herself and closed her eyes for a moment to commit these new words to memory. They might slip away and she wished she had paper and quills to write her vocabulary down, but in lieu of tools she just had to do the best she could with her brain alone.
  2563. > Besides, it wasn't as if there were many other things to focus her mind on. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she could dedicate all her mental effort on this one, single task.
  2564. "Okay, we're getting somewhere. Let's see what else we can learn..."
  2565. > Mayor looked around the tent for useful objects she could point out and get their names. Once she knew more words it would be easier and easier to learn new ones.
  2566. > Suddenly she was not in the least bit tired or sleepy, despite the awful couple of days she had had. Thinking about this new problem, getting excited about the prospect of establishing a proper relationship with these people, made Mayor's heart speed up and drove any remaining fatigue away.
  2567. > She shuffled her legs to bring them under her and make herself more comfortable. The female took a stick and prodded at the meat in the fire. It obviously wasn't ready to come out yet, because Darga just turned the pieces over and left them.
  2568. > Even a new gust of that awful smell didn't dampen Mayor's spirit. She kept glancing at the bronze bracelets. These people *did* value shiny things, after all. If she could entice Darga, or maybe their medical nomad, whichever of them was the leader, they might take the mares back to the portal and to Equestria.
  2569. > Gold and gems were so easy to come by that even the poorest pony could probably buy their freedom.
  2570. > Then- perhaps it was too soon to think of that, but Mayor couldn't stop herself from fantasizing, she would get the Princesses, perhaps all of them, to look at that place in the Everfree where the worlds met.
  2571. > She was still convinced it had to be closed. Salki was nice, but in general these nomads and their entire world were an awful place for ponies.
  2572. > Since her eyes were already on the grotesque lumps, Mayor decided to try for it. She pointed a hoof at the sizzling meat and looked imploringly at Salki. She would ask about something less disgusting next.
  2574. > ~~~~
  2576. > Salki was leading a rather tired, but pleased with herself Mayor Mare back through the camp. She was looking forward to sleeping off the residual ache in her limbs and to mulling over the new information she had gleaned.
  2577. > From what she could understand, it seemed that Salki's mother was some kind of a leader among the nomads. That meant Mayor had already befriended the chief's son, which was good progress.
  2578. > She had also added a few more words to her growing vocabulary, which would make dealing with the chief a little bit easier. It should also help her with Intor and Gol, and perhaps even Willow.
  2579. > That thought made Mayor wince and she hoped she hadn't abandoned Rainy Day to a beating by the angry hunter. It wasn't as if she had had much choice, but she would still feel guilty about it.
  2580. > The youth led her by the rope around her neck, but Mayor made sure to keep plenty of slack in it to show Salki she trusted him. They wound around dying campfires and the occasional tent.
  2581. > Despite the chill in the night, Mayor guessed that most of the nomads didn't want the hassle of putting their simple shelters up just to tear them down in the morning. That part told her that they hadn't yet reached whatever destination they were heading for.
  2582. > At last Salki stopped and Mayor looked around for the few people she could recognize. She spotted Intor sitting on a bundle of animal skins at one of the fires. Opposite her was another cot with Gol, but there was no sight of a pony and Mayor's stomach clenched up in fear.
  2583. > She was about to ask the young nomad about it, but then she spotted a skin-covered mass beside Gol. Mayor walked closer and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw it was Rainy Day.
  2584. > The mare was apparently curled up on a cot, but her head was in Gol's lap and the nomad was slowly brushing her claws through Rainy Day's mane as she stared at the fire.
  2585. > Both Intor and her daughter looked up at the new arrivals and Salki held out Mayor's leading rope to the older female. He gave Mayor a quick pat on the muzzle, then left back for his mother's tent.
  2586. > That left Mayor Mare with her captors, although Willow wasn't present much to her relief. She walked over to Gol and looked down at Rainy Day. Her friend was more than half asleep, but her eyes opened fully when she spotted her.
  2587. > "Mayor? You were gone so long!"
  2588. > It was a challenge to keep the scorn from her voice when she saw the other mare's position, but Mayor remembered her own excitement while she had been chatting with Salki and his mother.
  2589. "I see you made yourself comfortable."
  2590. > Rainy Day caught a hint of disgust in her voice and her ears lowered. "You're one to talk. Where have you been?"
  2591. "I've been learning their language so I can get them to take us back."
  2592. > The other mare closed her eyes as the young nomad idly scratched her muzzle. "Well, it was either this or f-freeze do death. The fever's back."
  2593. > Mayor Mare was immediately sorry for her tone and she lowered her head to nuzzle her friend. Why should she begrudge her from taking what little comfort she could after their harrowing ordeal?
  2594. "I'm sorry. How are you feeling?"
  2595. > Rainy Day shifted her head to glance briefly at Intor. "She gave me some weird plant paste. It smelled like Aloe. I guess I'll see if it works."
  2596. > It didn't sound as if it would hurt, so Mayor just shrugged to herself and sat down beside Gol. The night's chill was starting to make itself known on her fur, but the fire kept the edge off it.
  2597. "Where's Willow?"
  2598. > "He left with some female," Rainy Day said. "I dunno what it was about, but it looked like she and Intor had a row. Actually, all three of them had."
  2599. "Maybe he'll stay with his, uh, let's call it special some-nomad," Mayor said in almost a pleading tone.
  2600. > She didn't want to see how angry the irritable and unpredictable hunter would be when he saw her. It was true that the tribe's chief had stopped Mayor's beating, but Willow probably couldn't take his revenge against that powerful female, so he would undoubtedly settle for punishing the mare some more.
  2601. > In either case, there was little the ponies could do about that, so Mayor settled down in the grass with a sigh.
  2602. "We should get some sleep. I don't think they're at their destination yet, wherever that might be."
  2603. > Mayor caught Gol's eye and decided to put some of her newfound skill to a test.
  2604. "Gol? [Walk, camp, walk?]"
  2605. > The young hunter blinked in surprise, but shook her head. "Untakh," she replied simply, but it wasn't a word Mayor knew. The mare considered how to rephrase her question, but she hadn't gotten far enough with Salki yet to be able to ask about the future, so she gave up.
  2606. "Okay, [thanks]."
  2607. > Perhaps the thanks was inappropriate, but it couldn't hurt to be civil, the mare thought. Gol shrugged a little to herself, then went back to scratching behind Rainy Day's ear.
  2608. > The fire's warmth and the stillness around them was starting to take a toll on Mayor. Her head swayed and her eyes wanted to close. She had to fight to keep them open and more than once she found herself nodding.
  2609. > There was no reason to fight it and the mare let her head lower down on her forelegs. It would be a hard day of walking when she woke up and she needed as much sleep as she could get.
  2610. > She roused briefly when she felt something settle around her, but when she saw it was just Gol covering her with a blanket Mayor smiled and closed her eyes once more.
  2611. "[Thanks.]"
  2612. > The blanket was an animal skin, but at that point Mayor didn't care anymore. It would keep her warm.
  2614. > ~~~~
  2616. > Mayor woke up briefly in the night when Willow came back, but the nomad just glanced at her and Rainy Day, then searched Intor's bags for a few animal skins and made himself a cot near the fire. He looked more sleepy than vengeful, but Mayor Mare kept her eye open until the hunter had settled down and drifted off.
  2617. > After that she slept without further interruptions until morning, when Gol stood up and brushed against her. Mayor stretched, pleased with how quickly the residual ache was fading from her limbs.
  2618. > Thanks to the effort of the past week or so she was becoming stronger than she had ever been in her life, even if it wasn't something she would have chosen to do voluntarily.
  2619. > She stood up and looked for Rainy Day. Her friend was awake, but she was still curled up and bundled in animal skins. Mayor walked over to check on her.
  2620. > It wasn't good. The pegasus was noticeably shivering and when Mayor pressed her muzzle against her she was burning up.
  2621. "This isn't good! Rainy Day?"
  2622. > Rainy Day focused briefly on Mayor, but then she returned her gaze to the fire as if wishing it were lit. "S-S-Soo c-cold!"
  2623. "Your fever is back. Dung! You need a proper doctor!"
  2624. > "There isn't one. I'll- I'll b-be fine."
  2625. > Mayor looked around for potential help, but Gol and Intor were discussing something quietly and Willow was still sleeping. She didn't want the hunter's help in any case. There was only one real choice.
  2626. > She folded up her own animal skin blanket as best she could and took it to the two females. They fell silent and watched her as Mayor approached.
  2627. "[Please, water?]"
  2628. > The mother said something and pointed a claw at where some of her bags were stacked on the ground. Gol went there and picked out a water skin. She untied the nozzle and cupped her paw for Mayor to drink, but the mare shook her head.
  2629. "[No.] Rainy Day?" she implored and pointed a hoof at her shivering friend.
  2630. > Gol understood and went to the poor pegasus. She repeated her trick with her paw, although she had to lay it almost on the ground to make it low enough for Rainy Day to reach with her muzzle.
  2631. > Around them the camp was waking up and Mayor Mare could see nomads dismantling their tents. Others were lighting or reviving fires and some were walking off into the plains. They didn't have bags so she guessed they were only going to relieve themselves.
  2632. > While Gol was watering her friend, Intor stood up and began gathering the things. She kept glancing at Mayor and Rainy Day, thinking hard about something. When she paused for a moment the mare spoke up:
  2633. "Intor?"
  2634. > Once she had her attention she pointed a hoof at Rainy Day, then patted her own back as best she could reach.
  2635. "I'll carry her. Like the other day. Please?"
  2636. > She repeated her gesture a few more times, but couldn't tell whether the nomad understood or not. Her expression was neutral and difficult to read. She kept looking at Mayor for a bit longer, then she bent down and patted Willow on his cheek to wake him up.
  2637. > They exchanged a few words, then the hunter stumbled off for the nearby low bushes.
  2638. > Gol was apparently done with her mare patient and lifted what was left of the water skin to her own lips. Soon it was empty.
  2639. > Mayor wondered what she and Intor would drink, but Gol just went to pick up a few other empty water bags and headed off. She was probably going to fetch more water.
  2640. > Intor was saying something and when Mayor Mare looked up the old nomad was staring right at her and pointing at her retreating daughter. She made shooing motions with her other hand.
  2641. "You want me to follow her? Uh, what was it... [Mayor Mare Gol Water?"
  2642. > The nomad nodded to that: "Za! Za! Yavak!"
  2643. > She would get some water and she'd be able to relieve herself, so Mayor didn't argue and hurried after the younger female. She caught up pretty soon and fell in step beside her. Gol looked at her curiously, but didn't speak, nor did she pick up Mayor's rope and it simply dragged behind them.
  2644. > It wasn't particularly far and the two soon came to a babbling stream. Mayor looked up and down the direction of the water, but she couldn't see where it was coming from, nor where it was going.
  2645. > The water looked clean and some of the other nomads were already gathered around it to drink and, in rare cases, wash.
  2646. > The first order of business was to slake her thirst, so Mayor dunked her muzzle into the freezing cold water and filled her belly as best she could. It took the edge off her hunger, but it was a stopgap measure at best. Hopefully she and Rainy Day would have some time to graze before their walk started. Surely Intor and Gol and Willow would have some breakfast?
  2647. > After that she just waited while the young nomad dipped the skins into the stream one by one until they were full. Mayor saw they had a larger opening on the opposite side from the nozzle. Once they were filled, Gol dutifully tied them back up and stacked them on a pile.
  2648. > The rope she had used to tie their necks was longer and would allow Gol to hang the bags from her shoulders and arms. That would make it easier for her to carry that many. Mayor got an idea when she saw that and walked over to the pile of filled water skins.
  2649. > If she tied two of them together and made the rope very short, she could hang them across her back so they remained in balance. They weren't overly heavy and that way Gol wouldn't have to carry all of them.
  2650. > The young nomad exclaimed when she saw Mayor Mare fiddling with the bags, but when she saw the ones on her back she fell silent and simply stared in wonder.
  2651. > "[Thank you.]"
  2652. > She had understood that! Mayor smiled happily to herself. Her vocabulary was limited and her grammar was nonexistent, but she understood some things.
  2653. "[You're welcome.]"
  2654. > In the end Mayor Mare carried all the filled water skins and Gol simply walked beside her, lightly gripping her leading rope in her forepaw. Other than that simple pleasantry Mayor couldn't yet say anything more substantial, so they simply went in silence.
  2655. > They soon came back to Intor's fireplace, where the older female had packed their belongings into bags. She had even collected Rainy Day's blankets and the mare was standing on shaky legs with her head lowered.
  2656. "You okay?"
  2657. > "I'll- I'll m-manage."
  2658. "No you won't. Come on, get on my back. Maybe they'll understand I need to carry you today."
  2659. > Mayor had slipped most of the water skins to the ground near where Intor was preparing their pile, but she kept a couple. They weren't overly heavy and she could at least carry the water for herself and her friend, if she couldn't haul other things.
  2660. > She was feeling charitable now that the nomads had started actually talking to her, rather than just beating her like a beast of burden. Well, Intor and Gol had, Willow was still bad in that regard.
  2661. > Their best hope was to attach themselves to the older female for whatever protection that afforded them while Mayor learned enough of the language to convince the Chief to take them back.
  2662. > When Rainy Day didn't move fast enough Mayor went to her friend and crouched a little.
  2663. "Come, get on!"
  2664. > The pegasus opened her mouth to argue, but shut it when she couldn't come up with anything convincing. She managed to lift one foreleg over Mayor, but then had to stop for breath.
  2665. > Their fur, where it was pressed together, felt decidedly warm to Mayor and she began to worry. The fever was worse than ever.
  2666. "You need to eat."
  2667. > "I'm not hungry."
  2668. "Try anyway."
  2669. > Rainy Day was silent for a bit, then she said: "I n-need, um... I need to go."
  2670. "Me too. I'll carry you and we'll eat as much as we can."
  2671. > The only problem was explaining it to their nomad owners. Mayor cleared her throat and sought for words.
  2672. "Gol? Intor? [Go food water come.]" she tried.
  2673. > At their blank looks, she bent down and nibbled on a grass stalk, then pointed a hoof away from the camp.
  2674. "[Food. Go. Food. Come.]"
  2675. > Intor was the first to understand and she spoke rapidly to Gol. The younger nomad picked up Mayor's leading rope again and began to guide them out of the camp. Of course they weren't trusted to do it alone, but this suited Mayor just fine.
  2676. > "You- you're getting g-good with th-the language," Rainy Day commented.
  2677. "I don't have a choice. It's the only chance we got."
  2678. > She saw that the young nomad was taking them to a patch of thicker grass and Mayor's mouth began to water. She still needed to find a way to supplement their diet, but one problem at a time.
  2679. > First she needed to nurse her friend past her fever and her broken wing. Maybe Salki would understand and help her find something else to eat.
  2680. > Hopefully he would walk with them, or take her to his mother's tent once more to teach more of his language.
  2681. "Eat as much as you can," she told Rainy Day, "even if you're not hungry. We're gonna need it."
  2682. > She felt the other mare nod and crouched to let her slip off. Rainy Day was quite wobbly on her legs, but she locked her knees in place and lowered her head to pick at the coarse steppe grass.
  2683. > After seeing Rainy Day eat, Mayor bent down as well. A few moments later she heard the splashing of liquid and quickly guessed what it was.
  2684. > Weird how quickly shame was going away when it came down to survival. Mayor flattened her ears to shut the sound out, then lifted her own tail. Might as well get it over with.
  2686. > ~~~~
  2688. > Though the journey was not exactly pleasant, it was still better than Mayor Mare had feared. She was recovering well and after the first few minutes her muscle ache had gone away. Rainy Day wasn't too heavy to carry, so the day ended up being a pleasant stroll rather than the forced march she had been anticipating.
  2689. > Most importantly, Willow was nowhere to be seen, which had caused Intor to grumble and complain while she loaded up Gol and Salki with their belongings. At least Mayor assumed that was what the female had been muttering about. She hadn't recognized any of the words.
  2690. > The long snake of nomads wound through the flat and featureless terrain and more than once Mayor wondered what could be so important to drive these people on such a journey. As far as the eye could see there was nothing but grass with an occasional bush or spindly tree. Behind them she could just barely see the hills where they had come from.
  2691. > She kept looking back often and those slight, blurry bumps on the distant horizon felt like her only connection back to Equestria. The portal was somewhere in those hills, her home and her friends and everything she had ever known.
  2692. > Mayor Mare felt that if she lost sight of that place, that when the hills vanished from her sight, her link to home would be severed and she would truly be lost. Her heart yearned above all to head back there, but even if she could have escaped again, she didn't dare.
  2693. > Not after the last time.
  2694. > All the mare could do was look into the distance, strain her eyes against the blur, and promise herself, silently, that she would somehow return.
  2695. > Another day, perhaps, she estimated, and the horizon behind them would be just as flat as in front. She had to fight back tears at the thought.
  2696. > Were her friends looking for her? Was there a search?
  2697. > Even if they guessed she had been taken into Everfree there was very little chance anypony would find the passage into this strange world. Even if they did, there would be no way to find her in all this vast, empty landscape.
  2698. > Perhaps her friends had already given up? Would the citizens of Ponyville soon chose a new mayor? She couldn't blame them and the town needed leadership, but the knowledge still stung.
  2699. > Being taken away by the nomads felt almost like death, except it was slower.
  2700. > Mayor shook her head to try and dislodge those thoughts and forced herself to listen to Salki. He had really begun teaching her the language and he pointed out everything around them and named it.
  2701. > She repeated the words after him, but without a way to write them down Mayor was certain she was forgetting most of them. That was okay if a few important ones stuck. Luckily Salki didn't mind repeating himself when she asked.
  2702. > Mayor lifted her head and brushed her muzzle against Rainy Day's ear. The mare had been silent most of the day and Mayor hoped she was sleeping. She felt very warm and after her asking him several, times Salki had understood and gotten her one of the animal skins to cover the pegasus up.
  2703. > That made Mayor too hot and sweat tickled down her legs, but she didn't care about the discomfort. Rainy Day couldn't die! Not on her watch!
  2704. > The wing looked like it was starting to heal, or at least that's what Mayor had guessed from Intor's expression when the lady had examined her friend. If she could push past the fever she would be- Mayor caught her thought and corrected it: she would live.
  2705. > She had been about to say Rainy Day would be fine, but of course that was a lie. Neither of them would be fine and the pegasus least of all. She would likely never fly again, even if they got back to Equestria.
  2706. > Outward Mayor feigned hope, said that the new medicinal magic could do remarkable things these days, but a wing which had been broken, set improperly, and infected this badly, didn't bode well.
  2707. > That knowledge, of the other mare losing such an important part of herself, piled on top of everything else...
  2708. > Mayor paused for a moment and lifted her foreleg so she could wipe away the tears with her fetlock. Salki noticed and stopped talking for which she was grateful. Sometimes it almost felt as if he understood that they didn't belong in his world.
  2709. > Gol also glanced back, but Mayor resumed walking and the young nomad filly didn't give her a second glance. She was apparently deep in discussion with her mother. Was 'filly' the right word there? Gol wasn't a pony.
  2710. > They had barely taken a few steps when Mayor's stomach growled quite loudly. She had been determined to ignore her hunger, but her body disagreed.
  2711. > The efforts of the past few days, of the past week, were taking their toll. Already the gnawing hunger was an almost physical pain deep in her belly. She was losing weight and grass wasn't cutting it.
  2712. > She would have to do something about it. There was no time to cry. There were problems to be solved.
  2713. "Salki?"
  2714. > The youth gave her an inquiring look.
  2715. "[Food, eat.]"
  2716. > She would have to guide him to the right question because she didn't know enough words yet to ask it directly.
  2717. > The nomad cocked his head to one side, then said: "Meyermer, [eat grass]." He said some other things, but Mayor didn't understand those words.
  2718. "[What?]"
  2719. > He thought for a moment and then tried something simpler: "[Stop. Sleep. Eat grass.]"
  2720. > She understood. He was telling her they would stop soon and then she could feed.
  2721. "[No eat grass. Eat. No grass.]"
  2722. > He seemed confused and bent down to tear off a few blades of the coarse steppe foliage. "[Pony eat grass.]"