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The first step north

By Wingnut
Created: 2022-06-12 23:34:43
Expiry: Never

  1. >Mountain Blood looked around the large room he found himself in.
  2. >The sight was disheartening.
  3. >The ponies were still sitting straight and firm, but you could see the effects rationing had on their bodies.
  4. >Their coats were patchy, and the once-bulky ponies were now noticeably thinner.
  5. >The unnatural winter was taking it's toll on even the hardiest of them.
  6. >No one was talking.
  7. >There wasn't anything left to talk about. The weather and the sunlight were in the hooves of pegasi and unicorns, respectively.
  8. >And they either refused or truly were unable to do anything about their predicament.
  9. >What little their clan could accomplish was already done.
  10. >Now, they were waiting for news.
  11. >Desperate times call for desperate actions, after all, and they were considering all sorts of plans.
  12. >They were waiting for the results of one such plan.
  13. >While they couldn't push around clouds or do other fancy magic themselves, other tribes could.
  14. >And despite all their protests, no one completely believed that the unicorns or the pegasi were completely helpless against the eternal winter.
  15. >Someone had to know something.
  16. >Even if the average, low-ranking pony didn't know anything, he was sure that someone did.
  17. >And so, spies were sent to the snowed-in wizard towers of their neighbors.
  18. >They hoarded so much knowledge and books that they likely didn't remember even half of what they even had, let alone what was written in those books.
  19. >And a report came in that one pony had found something.
  20. >*knock knock*
  21. >Right on time.
  22. >"Come in," he said.
  23. >All eyes in the room were on the door.
  24. >A strapping young stallion stumbled inside.
  25. >It wasn't possible to tell much about him, as he was wrapped from hoof to ear in cloth.
  26. >Shaking himself off, he unwrapped his face, revealing a rust-red mane and a gray coat.
  27. >"Chief," he spoke respectfully. "Forgemares and stallions. Honored ta be here."
  28. >Mountain Blood waved him off.
  29. >"No need for that. You've been hanging around the unicorns for too long."
  30. >The stallion chuckled.
  31. >"Too true. Gotta appeal ta their sensibilities, senseless as they are, you know? Sometimes I think they spend half their lives measuring out their social ranks against one another."
  32. >A few snorts came from the assorted ponies.
  33. >Most looked impatient, though.
  34. >Sensing the mood, the stallion's expression turned more serious.
  35. >"Righty-ho, on ta business. So, I'm sure you all know that us merchants and other ponies that deal with unicorns and pegasi were ordered ta keep an ear and an eye out for anything about this damned winter. And, well, after digging - a LOT of digging - through dozens - nay, hundreds - of dusty tomes and scrolls in this old wizard's tower, I think I found something. Something big. Take a looksee."
  36. >He dug under his clothes, pulling out a tome.
  37. >"Arcane Beings, Beasts and other Bothers, by Starswirl the Bearded".
  38.  
  39. >Cracking open the book to the right page, the young stallion passed it to Mountain Blood.
  40. >"Here, see for yourself."
  41. >"Hrrrmmm... Windigoes."
  42. >There was a picture of an ethereal, ghost-like equine creature that could, perhaps if you were properly drunk, be called a "pony".
  43. >Or "pony-like", anyway.
  44. >"Spirits of winter..."
  45. >Murmurs broke out through the entire room, ponies leaning in to get a closer look.
  46. >All ears were up and tired eyes were now sharp and alert.
  47. >This sounded exactly like something that could cause the endless winter that was tormenting them.
  48. >Mountain Blood read on.
  49. >"They feed on hate and fighting. The more hate ponies feel, the colder the world around them becomes."
  50. >"Tests were carried out. Many fire and other kinds of spells were tried, to little effect. There seem to be few options in dealing with them except for separating whichever ponies are causing the most discord and grief around them."
  51. >Almost everyone in the room was frowning or gritting their teeth.
  52. >Those were not good news.
  53. >"Right," Mountain Blood spoke, breaking the silence. "I already got the gist of it from your first report. How did your sortie go?"
  54. >An old mare raised an eyebrow.
  55. >"What sortie, Mountain?"
  56. >"Well, I had to know for sure if these "Windigoes" truly were the cause of this winter. And Rust here was sharp enough to think ahead and borrow something else from our unicorn friends," he said, nodding to the younger stallion.
  57. >He grinned at their raised eyebrows.
  58. >"Nothing much. Just nicked one of their telescopes."
  59. >Half a dozen ponies made various exclamations of surprise.
  60. >"What?!"
  61. >"Risky. Was it worth it?"
  62. >"You sure they didn't put some kind of hex or tracking spell on it?"
  63. >Rust waved them off.
  64. >"Relax. It was a small one, and it was packed and forgotten in a corner of some storage closet. With the constant snow and cloud cover, the hornheads pretty much forgot all about their telescopes. They literally won't know it's gone. Anyways, the reason... I thought that some kind of confirmation would be nice, instead of just blindly trusting the information of some old mage even other unicorns don't seem to know about. So I thought I'd drag the telescope up the side of the mountain, and try to find those "windigoes" for myself.
  65. >"And.... I did."
  66. >Dead silence fell across the room.
  67. >"I assumed it would be hard, or maybe even impossible, since the pegasi would have seen them when they tried to fight the clouds, right? Well, either they did and didn't tell anyone, or those things were clever enough to hide. Still, after climbing above the clouds, I set the thing up and got to looking."
  68. >"Took a damn good few hours and my tail froze solid, but eventually, I saw them moving around the blizzard clouds in the distance. Just... going in circles, round and round, snowflakes falling around them and the cold winds chilling my bones even from that distance."
  69. >The same old mare raised an eyebrow.
  70. >"Are you sure what you saw was real, and not just a cold-induced hallucination? Since you already climbed that mountain to look for them..."
  71. >Rust laughed and shook his head.
  72. >"No, no... I didn't freeze that badly. I wasn't the only one up on the mountain, either. The telescope was heavy, you know? So they assigned a guide for me, to help get it up there and make sure I got down safely. Goatstep, I think was her name? Odd one, but she lives up to it. She was hopping on the rocks like it was a walk on the plains."
  73. >"Anyway, I showed her the windigoes, just to make sure I wasn't dreaming. She never saw the passage about them in the book, either. Could see 'em just fine, though. She said she needed a warm drink after what she saw. I could go call her, if you like?"
  74. >Mountain Blood shook his head.
  75. >"No need. You're clearly not some frost-addled fool that got pulled out of a snowdrift. I'll trust your word on what you saw."
  76. >He let out a long sigh.
  77. >"Now... Is there anything we can actually do against these... Winter spirits?"
  78. >There was an uncomfortable silence as the gathered ponies all glanced at each other.
  79.  
  80. >Eventually, a few ponies spoke up.
  81. >"We can't even reach the damn things, and even if they landed on the ground, I don't think we can do much against spirits with our hooves or weapons."
  82. >"I remember my grandma telling me that you can keep out vengeful spirits if you ring your house in salt, but that was supposed to be for pony spirits..."
  83. >"I didn't even think any kinds of spirits were real. Just tales to scare foals."
  84. >"Can't we just sic the pegasi on these things? It's high time they actually provided the "protection" we pay their "glorious warrior tribe" for. A creature made of blizzard clouds sounds like something that'd be right up their alley."
  85. >Mountain Blood sighed.
  86. >"For all their bluster, the pegasi are prideful to a fault. I believe they really did try to break up this weather the best they could, if not for the other tribes, then for their own injured egos. You should have seen the mare they sent to our meeting the week before. All frostbitten, with a haunted look in her eyes, no matter how hard she tried to play tough. I don't think we can count on them to do anything."
  87. >There was a moment of silence again.
  88. >The old mare from before looked around, rolling her eyes.
  89. >"Alright you idjits, are you just being dense on purpose? The solution is right there in the book. Stop being such whiny pansies about the other tribes and this'll go away."
  90. >The ponies stared at her, before breaking into laughter.
  91. >A few shook their heads.
  92. >"Do you realize what you're asking here? It's not just us that has to stop the infighting. You're asking the PEGASI and the UNICORNS to suddenly start acting like civilized ponies," one mare said with a chortle.
  93. >"Yeah, and how much do you want to bet they'd just double their tribute demands in exchange for pretending to be nice?"
  94. >The old mare grumbled a little, but didn't object.
  95. >"And other earth pony clans, too," Mountain Blood added. "Our clan may be more tolerant of the other tribes, but only because of our unique situation. Even if we suddenly start being friends with them, there's the rest of Dream Valley to consider. And the news I've been hearing from the messengers are not pretty."
  96. >He reached for a pitcher to pour himself some water as others waited for him to continue.
  97. >"I'm sure you've heard of lone pegasi raiders making off with pieces of firewood or trying to get into food stores here and there. Their legion commanders are trying to keep discipline up, but even the harsh punishments they dish out aren't discouraging deserting and looting from any more. And a few days ago, down south in Brightfield, the ponies apparently got so angry at their unicorn neighbors demanding more food that they raided their outpost, broke into their wizard lord's tower, and made off with everything flammable to be used as kindling, including all their precious books."
  98. >There were a few gasps. This was slowly turning from a famine into an outright war.
  99.  
  100. >One stallion in the crowd grumbled.
  101. >"That's Fern Leaf's city, though. I have some distant cousins there. They always said he was a fair leader."
  102. >Mountain Blood shrugged.
  103. >"Honestly, I don't think he has much of a grip on the situation at all any more. Likely, the ponies just snapped, and made a spur of the moment decision. Either way, this is our situation. The tensions are so high right now that even if we took that book and ran around all the cities and tribes showing it to them, we likely wouldn't make enough of a difference before something really bad happened. Maybe if we had this knowledge during the grand summit a week ago, but it's likely too late by now."
  104. >"The summit... I was busy with my assignment during that time. Can you tell me what happened?" Rust asked.
  105. >Mountain Blood snorted, shaking his head.
  106. >"It was painful to watch. The entire thing didn't even last an hour. What am I saying, I don't think it lasted more than a few minutes. The Chancellor, the unicorn Princess and the pegasus Commander just screamed at each other for a while before turning around and leaving. Puddinghead demanded that the other two tribes stop it with their magics making everything freeze, and they replied with the usual protests that it wasn't them doing it. That's literally all that happened."
  107. >More ponies shook their heads. Things were looking grim.
  108. >After waiting a few more minutes with no one else coming forward, Mountain Blood tapped a hoof on the table, getting everyone's attention.
  109. >"Well, I think it's time to say what we're all thinking. We're not stupid, and I know most of you must have realized the same thing. Hard as it is for an earth pony to uproot themselves, our only option is to flee."
  110. >Some ponies sighed sadly, while others grumbled angrily. No one objected, though. The large stallion continued on.
  111. >"And we're not going to be the only ones to come to the same conclusion, I bet. So, let's start preparing the best we can. Start packing everything that can be packed and carried. Break down any empty grain stores for fuel. Same for any other empty buildings. We won't be needing them any more, so we can go a little wild-"
  112. >*knock knock*
  113. >"Come in."
  114. >An unfamiliar mare came through the door, eyeing the ponies in the room.
  115. >"Oh good, you're already having a meeting. Excellent timing. You're the mayor here, yes? Moutain Blood, was it? Message from the Chancellor. 'Ere ya go," she said, passing him a scroll from a satchel.
  116. >"Thank you. We'll get to it post-haste. Go get some rest."
  117. >The mare nodded, walking out as the stallion unrolled the scroll.
  118. >"To the Mayor of Cliffton, Mountain Blood... Hope this letter finds you well, at least as well as you can be in these trying times. The summit, as you know, went badly... blah blah blah, useless pegasi, arrogant hornheads, blah blah... Ah, THERE we go," he chuckled.
  119.  
  120. >"The situation is unsustainable. Even if the other tribes manage to get their heads out of their rears, it'd take months to thaw out a land so badly frozen, and our farmers all say that we either start planting now, or there will be no seeds left to plant any more. We must find a new land, one that's not covered in ice. As such, I hereby order you to gather all your ponies and prepare to move. Given that we will certainly need lots of tools and materials in the new location, you should endeavor to take as much metal with you as you can possibly carry, to aid us in constructing and building our new cities. We will send you the details as soon as we find a suitable location to move in to."
  121. >"Sounds more like a tribute demand than a letter from our own kin," one pony muttered.
  122. >A few dismissive snorts accompanied that statement.
  123. >Mountain Blood shook his head.
  124. >"Right. Forget the food, just get us tools and trot on empty stomachs for hundreds of miles. And what then? How much do you want to bet those windigoes are just going to follow them wherever they run?"
  125. >Rust's eyes went wide, along with a few other ponies. Clearly, they didn't even consider such a possibility.
  126. >"No. I'm not letting that happen. Not on my watch. We are going to move, but NOT anywhere near where those fools are going. Someone go get our maps. All of them. We're going to find our own little safe haven, away from this madness."
  127. >A few ponies got up, galloping out of the room.
  128. >A few more went off to the kitchens to get some refreshments and whatever meagre rations they could scrape up.
  129. >Before long, maps were covering the entire surface of the meeting table, various ponies studying them.
  130. >Most were looking at geographical maps, but Mountain Blood was intently examining the schematics of old mines, for some reason.
  131. >A good hour was spent on it, until everyone was staring at the stallion, expecting some kind of explanation.
  132. >Without raising his eyes, he spoke.
  133. >"I'm quite certain that you all came to the same conclusion, didn't you? Dream Valley is ringed by mountains all around. The only way we can go is south, which means we're stuck in a rather bad place."
  134. >Rust nodded, frowning.
  135. >"We're the northernmost group of ponies there is. Which means we'll be trailing behind everyone else, not ta mention our journey would take the longest. We'll be exhausted or worse by the time we reach any kind of safe location. And it'd make it much harder ta slip away unnoticed, too."
  136. >Mountain Blood gave a wry grin.
  137. >"Aye, but what if we went north?"
  138. >Everyone looked at the stallion like he suddenly grew a second head.
  139. >A few ponies scratched their heads in confusion.
  140. >"Assuming you want ta go north, which tends to get colder..." Rust ventured forth carefully.
  141. >Mountain Blood nodded, still sporting his grin.
  142. >"There's the "small" issue of Mt. Everhoof being right in the way, you know? The one even the pegasi call "The unconquerable mountain"?
  143. >Mountain Blood laughed.
  144.  
  145. >"No one says we have to go over, or even around it. Some of the old miners followed seams of ores or crystals so far that they cut right through the mountains and came out on the other side. Those mines have been closed for a while, but the maps are still here," he explained, tapping the table in front of him.
  146. >A number of ponies reached for said maps, examining them with renewed interest.
  147. >Rust shook his head.
  148. >"North, though? To someplace even colder?"
  149. >"Not necessarily. Tell me, did the winters feel even half as cold before this one? After this magical cold, I bet a normal northern winter is going to feel like summer."
  150. >Rust opened his mouth, before closing it without a word.
  151. >No one else seemed to find fault with his logic either.
  152. >"We're not going to go in blindly, of course. We'll send some scouts first. I'll get some ponies to carefully poke around the mines, see if they're still stable. While they're busy with that, let's get to packing. We'll meet here tomorrow, same time. Let's get to work.
  153. >Everyone was far more motivated, now that they had a goal to work towards.
  154. > With a spring in their step, everyone left the meeting hall to get to their tasks.
  155.  
  156. >It was the day after.
  157. >The meeting hall was full of ponies again.
  158. >While they all looked more tired than yesterday, everyone was smiling.
  159. >Finally, they felt like they were actually doing something instead of waiting for a miracle.
  160. >Mountain Blood cleared his throat.
  161. >"I'm not going to ask you how the preparations are going on your side. I trust you all enough, and I'm sure you're all eager to hear just what our scouts found out. So..."
  162. >He turned towards a mare sitting next to him. >It was impossible to tell if she was just gray-coated, or if it was the rock dust covering her from hoof to ear.
  163. >A common sight among miner ponies.
  164. >"Right. Interesting little jaunt you sent me and my girls to. That tunnel's a couple decades old, so it's not too bad yet. There are some mines that have been in operation for far longer than that, and their walls are still as good as new. We could run our whole clan through there and it should hold, I'd say."
  165. >Mountain Blood looked pleased.
  166. >"And... The other side... What was it like?"
  167. >The mare's nonchalant expression turned serious.
  168. >She opened her mouth as if to speak a couple times, before closing it again.
  169. >Everyone leaned in, holding their breaths.
  170. >"It's... I'm a rock smasher, right? Not so good with flowery words. But... When I bucked the ice away from the exit and stepped out on that mountainside, it was like... Like I stepped out of a mine with poor ventilation. I saw the sun again, in... I don't rightly know. It's common for us, you know? Get up in the morning, spend the day in a dark mine, get out when the sun's setting. We'd still see a few glimpses, though, not just the snow clouds we've been seeing for months."
  171. >"But there? The sky was clear. Not a scrap of cloud, with the Sun lighting everything up for miles. Damn near blinded me, actually. And the cold... I thought it was just the shock of feeling the sunlight on my face again, but after standing there for a time, I was sure of it. It's not near as cold up in the damned mountains as it is right here, down in the valley."
  172. >Mountain Blood smiled triumphantly, while the others stomped their hooves in approval.
  173. >"You heard the mare. Keep preparing. I will send out more ponies to find a safe path through the mountains. Who knows? With some luck, we might just find another whole Dream Valley on the other side, just for us. We have, hm... Let's say, five days. Five days to get everything in order, and then we move out to claim our new home. In fact, I think I'll go have a look at those mountains myself. Let's go."
  174.  
  175. >Mountain Blood flexed, testing the range of motion he could achieve with the snowshoes.
  176. >It wasn't something he had to use before himself, but the mountain-dwelling earth ponies he led often had to resort to such contraptions to get around the huge snowdrifts that formed in winter.
  177. >Especially this winter, when the snow kept falling and falling. The farriers certainly kept busy making enough snowshoes for almost everyone.
  178. >Which was a stroke of luck, considering the trek they were all going to undertake.
  179. >He looked outside, trying to tell the time.
  180. >Some time past noon, if his rusty skills were accurate. It's been a while since he last saw the Sun.
  181. >"Ready to go, chief?"
  182. >"Aye... Let us see what we can find."
  183. >He was currently at the end of the mineshaft that went underneath the mountain.
  184. >A dozen ponies were with him, serving various roles.
  185. >Quick and springy scouts to trot ahead and carry messages. Big, bulky stallions like himself, wielding spears and clubs in case they met a yeti or something similar.
  186. >They all set out that morning, as soon as there was enough light to see by.
  187. >The journey through the mine was uneventful. The mineshaft really was as stable as the scout confirmed.
  188. >He sent a pony back with orders to rustle up some miners and smooth down the floor a little, so that ponies could pass through with carts easier.
  189. >Or sleds. Carts would likely be useless in the terrain they were about to take on.
  190. >With one last breath, he stepped outside, the others following.
  191. >He only managed to take a few steps before stopping again, though.
  192. >Seeing the Sun again was amazing, but the feeling of...
  193. >It wasn't warm. The mountainside was certainly chilly.
  194. >It was something on a deeper, spiritual level almost.
  195. >He stood there for a moment, feeling... Giddy? Energetic? Like a burden was lifted from his back.
  196. >The others seemed to be having the same feelings, looking around with wide eyes.
  197. >Mountain Blood cleared his throat.
  198. >"Well... If this isn't a sign that we're going in the right direction, I don't know what is."
  199. >His proclamation was met by smiles.
  200. >He set off again, squinting against the glare of the reflected sunlight.
  201. >One of the ponies, a mare, went slightly ahead of him.
  202. >"We're really doing this, huh? Running off into the wilds, with no idea what's going to be at the end?"
  203. >She seemed to be thinking out loud rather than addressing anyone in their group, but Mountain Blood chose to answer anyway.
  204. >"We're the ones who are going to find out what's out there. Don't think that I'm dead-set on this course of action. If we truly find no place worth settling, we'll go with the Chancellor's orders. If we do, though... Do you want to take a trip through here, or through the windigo-infested valley?"
  205. >A few ponies shuddered.
  206. >It was rather obvious which option they would pick.
  207. >The mare nodded, moving ahead.
  208. >They were making their way down the mountainside, moving towards a smaller mountain ahead.
  209. >A few scouts poked around here and there over the years, but no one went too far.
  210. >So, no one knew what was behind the next mountain.
  211. >With luck, it would be a beautiful valley, eternally warm, with fertile land, and lots of natural resources they could exploit.
  212. >Yeah, right. Heh.
  213. >Still, the mountains had to end somewhere.
  214. >The hills would give way to plains, as was everywhere in the world. The quality of the plains was the main concern.
  215. >Keeping their eyes peeled, the group slowly circled the mountain.
  216. >The snowshoes slowed them down a little, but the sturdy earth ponies ate up the distance with their steady gaits.
  217. > The mountains themselves were empty of life. Nothing but snow and rock greeted them, which was fine.
  218. >The destination was what mattered.
  219.  
  220. >It took a good part of the day to curve most of the way around the mountain.
  221. >In the darkening twilight, the group examined the sight before them.
  222. >They weren't surprised to see even more mountains ahead.
  223. >The size was the important part, though.
  224. >The one they circled was far smaller than Mt. Everhoof, and the ones ahead were smaller still.
  225. >Eyeing the obstacles, Mountain Blood fished out a spyglass from his saddlebags.
  226. >The things were damn expensive, but well worth it, in his opinion.
  227. >The unicorns making them jacked the prices up for the other tribes, but their usefulness was undeniable.
  228. >It was also one of the few things the crafty earth ponies were unable to replicate themselves.
  229. >Maybe one day.
  230. >"Anything interesting?"
  231. >That was the same mare that spoke in the beginning of their journey.
  232. >Goatstep, as he later found out. The same one who accompanied Rust on his mission.
  233. >"Well, it's hard to say, but... I think there's a good pass between the mountains to the west. I think I can see the sky."
  234. >That earned him a raised eyebrow.
  235. >"So that means there's no more mountains in the way after these ones? Let me see."
  236. >He passed her the spyglass.
  237. >After fiddling with it for a moment, she looked towards where he was pointing.
  238. >"Hrn. Interesting. That looks a bit steep, but... No, there's another path there..."
  239. >She swung the spyglass back and forth, muttering under her breath.
  240. >Mountain Blood bit his lip nervously.
  241. >During their trek, he'd seen her climb sheer walls like it was nothing. He'd hate to see what she considered "a bit steep".
  242. >After a few more minutes. she nodded, passing him the spyglass.
  243. >"Alright, if you want to head that way, I think I found us a pretty solid path."
  244. >"Solid path for you, or for all of us? Remember, we need to find a way for hundreds of heavily-laden ponies, not just ourselves."
  245. >She opened her mouth, before closing it again. Tapping her chin, she considered her answer.
  246. >"Yeah... I think so, yes. There might be a few points where the miners would need to smash some rocks to make a more even surface, but that looks manageable."
  247. >"Alright... Let's see if the others found a suitable camp site."
  248. >Goatstep nodded, following along.
  249.  
  250. >They followed the trail the others made in the snow.
  251. >Descending a while, they found where the rest of the group set up.
  252. >It was a relatively flat spot, mostly cleared of ice.
  253. >They even had a tiny fire going.
  254. >One stallion saw Mountain's surprised look.
  255. >"Some of the scouts descended lower and found some trees under the snow. Guess it gets a lot warmer here during the summer."
  256. >"Good. If trees can survive here, then we can, too. Even if we're going further north, it doesn't look like it gets that much colder than back home. And it should be warmer yet when we get down from the mountains."
  257. >The stallion nodded, returning to setting up his tent.
  258. >Mountain Blood and Goatstep both shrugged off their packs, doing the same.
  259. >After confirming their sleeping arrangements and setting up a watch, the group of explorers warmed up some rations on the fire before going to sleep.
  260. >Most were asleep as soon as they closed their eyes.
  261. >The shadows lengthened, turning the twilight into night.
  262. >The night went by quietly, with no beast nor windigo bothering them.
  263.  
  264. >*yawn*
  265. >Mountain Blood stretched, feeling unusually content.
  266. >He hadn't slept so deeply in a few months.
  267. >A faint crackling of a campfire reached his ears.
  268. >Right, the expedition.
  269. >Wiping the crud from his eyes, he stepped out of the sleeping bag, rolling it up.
  270. >Moments later, he stepped out of the tent, turning to dismantle it.
  271. >As he busied himself with the task, he glanced around the camp.
  272. >Around half of the group were already awake, the rest stirring in their tents.
  273. >Most looked somewhat disheveled, but there wasn't a single frown among them.
  274. >It looked like the trek was doing wonders to raise morale.
  275. >Usually, a trip into the wilderness, away from their homes and hearths would be an annoyance rather than something to enjoy.
  276. >However, after spending weeks with nothing to do but huddle down and try not to freeze to death, everyone seemed happy to be actually doing something.
  277. >The lack of the unnatural cold likely had something to with it as well.
  278. >Nodding to himself, he took a bowl of porridge from Goatstep.
  279. >After swallowing a bite, he turned to the mare.
  280. >"The mountains... Their size can make distances seem deceptive. It seems like you can just reach out and touch them, but it can still take days just to circle a single one. How long do you think it would take to reach that pass we saw yesterday?"
  281. >She chewed away for a time, before shaking her head.
  282. >"The whole day, at least. Non-stop marching save for short breaks to eat something."
  283. >Mountain Blood ran the numbers.
  284. >He'd given the others five days to prepare. They already spent a day. Another day to reach the pass, potentially another one or more to reach whatever was behind those mountains. He had a day and a half until he had to turn back, to meet his own deadline.
  285. >There was no reason the others couldn't go on while he turned back, though.
  286.  
  287. He weighed his options as the others slung their packs on their backs and prepared to move.
  288. >There wasn't all that much time to spare.
  289. >While he would have liked to scout out the area properly, that would have taken weeks, if not months.
  290. >His people didn't have months. He wasn't sure if they even had weeks. They had to move now, or they'd have to march through the mountains on empty stomachs.
  291. >Not a pleasant prospect.
  292. >Securing his gear, he set off, others following in his wake.
  293.  
  294. >Snow.
  295. >Blinding, sparkly, shiny, snow.
  296. >It never seemed to be that bad when they lived next to the mountain, but being between several of them meant the light was reflected from all directions.
  297. >"Ugh..."
  298. >Several ponies grumbled, but forged on.
  299. >Trying to ignore the light, they focused on putting one hoof in front of the other.
  300. >A few sang some marching songs here and there, helping to pass the time.
  301. >The sun came and went, moving it's way across the heavens.
  302. >Eventually, they stood at the base of the pass, as Goatstep promised - the shadows bathed the land, the last rays of the sun glistening on the mountain peaks.
  303. >Mountain Blood was all fired up, however.
  304. >With a challenging grin, he turned towards the group behind him.
  305. >"I'm no spring chicken anymore, but I could march the whole night and keep going, if need be. I want to scale this pass and see what's behind these peaks, even if in moonlight. Think you yearlings can keep up?"
  306. >There were a few boos and jeers from the group, but they were all smiling.
  307. >Goatstep snorted, hopping from rock to rock.
  308. >"Keep up? Try not to lose us, old stallion!"
  309. >Mountain Blood laughed, setting off after the mare, the others galloping along.
  310. >It was time to see whether this was all worth it or not.
  311. >They still had to climb at an incline, and the whole thing took at least an hour.
  312. >With their excitement, though, it felt like mere moments until they were standing at the highest point, trying to make out the details of what lay before them.
  313. >For once, the shininess of the snow worked in their favor.
  314. >They could faintly see more spiky outlines, though these couldn't really be called "mountains" any more.
  315. >Hills, at best.
  316. >And there was a lot more life, too.
  317. >All they could see were trees lining the foothills, but where trees thrived, other life followed.
  318. >And beyond the hills, they could see a plain, stretching out far as they could see.
  319. >Mountain Blood took a deep breath.
  320. >"It looks..."
  321. >His companions waited a minute, before offering their own suggestions.
  322. >"Wild?"
  323. >"Untamed?"
  324. >"Spacious?"
  325. >He laughed.
  326. >"Yes, all of it. Also, unclaimed. Not a single light out there. Imagine if we moved somewhere only to find that it's already taken. No telling how fertile that plain is, but soil can be improved, with hard work and dedication. It's still a risk, but so is moving south. Come on, let's get lower and camp for the night."
  327.  
  328. >"We'll probably have to split up. Most of you will scout ahead, while I'll have to return home and coordinate things from there. Do your best to find any good foraging locations first and foremost, but be careful. No idea what kind of beasts might lurk in those forests."
  329. >The ponies nodded along as they carefully clambered down the mountainside.
  330. >Well, most of them were careful. Goatstep just hopped from rock to rock without a care in the world, as usual.
  331. >Mountain Blood shook his head, though he was smiling.
  332. >That mare was something else.
  333. >Focusing on where he was putting his hooves, he thought about exactly what he was doing here.
  334. >It took a while for the sheer magnitude of the act to truly hit him. The fact he was days away from home likely contributed to it.
  335. >This wasn't some temporary expedition or sightseeing trip. He wouldn't be going home after this. Not for long, anyway.
  336. >This place was to be their new home Vast, cold, and empty.
  337. >All their homes, farms, the foundations they built over uncounted generations...
  338. >Gone.
  339. >They'd have to start from zero.
  340. >...
  341. >No.
  342. >They had generations of knowledge, and as long as the ponies survived, they'd set down new roots, build new homes, and create new stories.
  343. >Yes, uprooting and moving all of his people was no easy task, but it was a task he had to do regardless. The only choice was the direction.
  344. >North, to mystery, cold, and untamed lands...
  345. >Or south, to mystery, cold, untamed lands, windigoes, pegasi, unicorns, and other earth ponies, some of which were as crazy as the other tribes were.
  346. >He knew the Chancellor thought she was being clever. That she could simply spirit away their entire tribe in secret, and the others would be none the wiser.
  347. >But the other tribes weren't THAT dumb. More than likely, they were already either making or enacting similar plans.
  348. >He did not want to be in the middle of it when those plans collided with each other.
  349. >Reaching a flat spot, he helped in clearing the snow, glancing towards the distant plains.
  350. >"It will do," he muttered under his breath. "We'll survive, one way or another. No, to hay with that talk. We'll live, and we'll thrive, come what may. One day, these plains are going to be swarming with our descendants, or my name isn't Mountain Blood."

Collected Lichen greens

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The First Fish

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Veteran Guardsmares in RGRE

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The first step north

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Windigo poem

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