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[WIP] Barbarians, part 2 (SPG)

By awf
Created: 11th August 2022 05:40:19 PM
24th November 2022 06:09:14 PM

  1.  
  2. > Mayor Mare looked over her domain and nodded to herself in satisfaction. She hardly ever had to correct or advise the nomad women in their bread baking.
  3. > If she was being honest with herself, some of the girls had already surpassed what meagre skill Mayor had in that area. Gol, in particular, and one of the older women whose name eluded the mare at the moment had things well in hoof. Or rather, in 'hand' as they would call it.
  4. > It was not very practical for every nomad family to drag their own grinding and baking stone into the camp, so Darga had quickly organized a few communal stones, near the large firepit at the center of the camp. Whoever wanted to bake some bread and had grain could simply come and do it.
  5. > Gol and her friend oversaw things and helped when nomads weren't too clear on the exact process, but even those problems were becoming quite rare as the knowledge spread.
  6. > Mayor had stopped there, ostensibly to check on things and make sure everything was going smoothly, but in reality she was hoping to snag a quick crust or two.
  7. > It was widely known that the new invention had been her idea and such little tokens of gratitude had kept Mayor quite well fed over the past few weeks.
  8. > There was nothing ready for immediate consumption, so the mare simply told Gol to keep up the good work and continued on her way. She had been far afield, looking for a particular type of wooden stick.
  9. > It all had to do with her next project, one she had somewhat mixed feelings about. On the one hoof, she had come to enjoy those quiet afternoons while she worked on the new invention with Bakar and his granddaughter. On the other, she didn't really like what she was making.
  10. > A bow. A tool to improve the nomads' success while hunting. In fact, that was part of why Bakar was helping her. He was there because he was a hunter and, as Darga had said, a damned good one.
  11. > Spring was rolling in and the snow was vanishing. The camp was hungry, its winter stores of dried meat and rice exhausted. The men left on increasingly longer hunts while the women began searching for tubers and roots as soon as the ground was soft enough to dig.
  12. > They would move soon, so Darga had told Mayor. There was no real choice if they wanted to give their hunting grounds time to recover.
  13. > Then there was the other reason the old man had been assigned to her project. They didn't talk about it, but he had confided in her one late night, after they had both had a couple of sips of beer. Bakar was too old, and he couldn't run as well as the other hunters ever since his injury, the one where Mayor had saved his life. The fact frustrated the man, since it was an ever-present reminder of his age and frailty.
  14. > He would not be much use on the hunt, so this was a good use of his time and expertise. That made it a little easier for Mayor to help design a tool of killing. It gave one of the few friends she had in the camp renewed meaning, even if the result of their work would ultimately be used to inflict death.
  15. > She liked to pretend that it would only be used against wolves and other vicious, dangerous wildlife, but Mayor had seen cervid skin and horns. Some unfortunate deer would very likely feel the sting of her arrows.
  16. > Well, it would if things went well. Even if her newest idea didn't pan out, Mayor was still happy to give the old nomad some purpose and to distract him from his daily troubles.
  17. > Bows and arrows. It was a form of sport in Equestria, but there was some unpleasant history to it, too. Before the Royal Sisters, bows had been used as weapons by pegasi. Even after, they remained popular with both the griffins and minotaurs.
  18. > While there were no current wars in Equestria, the weapons and the skills to use them were still treasured by cultures which relied on meat.
  19. > It wasn't her finest moment, but after trying to explain writing to Darga and failing to convince her that it would be incredibly useful, Mayor had tried to come up with inventions which would be immediately graspable by the nomads and would help them in their daily lives.
  20. > The big topic of the day was the hunt, so she had one day mentioned that Equestria had technology which could drive an arrow - a small spear - deep into a target from hundreds of paces away.
  21. > Both Darga and Salki had looked at her strangely and the chieftain had immediately asked Mayor if she could create such a thing.
  22. > She didn't know exactly how to go about making a bow, but some supple wood, properly carved, with some tough string should at least demonstrate the principle.
  23. > Bakar had been the perfect partner. He had some small experience with wood, and he was quite capable of making flint knives, which should easily translate into arrowheads. Most importantly, he was unable to join the hunting and it was unthinkable to send him out with the women for gathering, so he had all the time in the world.
  24. > It had taken Mayor a long time to explain, in her rough and patchy nomad, what she wanted. They walked quite far out of the camp in search of perfect branches which would bend, but not break.
  25. > His granddaughter, fascinated by the pony, had been co-opted into making string. She wasn't very good at it, but Bakar was patient with the girl and her technique soon began to improve.
  26. > When the time had come for Mayor to move back in with Darga and Salki, the change was almost an afterthought, so consumed was she with their work. Her incident with the young nomad was completely forgotten.
  27. >...
  28. > She entered the tent and let the bundle of sticks slide from her back. Arrows had to be perfectly straight, without knots or defects, she knew that much.
  29. > It was very possible that the land near the camp didn't have the correct type of bush or tree for it, but she had to do her best. She only needed one or two, for a demonstration. After that others would go out and search for better materials.
  30. > It took her some time, but Mayor worked methodically and pulled shaft after shaft from the bundle, and looked down its length to gauge whether it was good. Most of them were bent, or had defects or knobs, and she tossed those beside the fire to be used as fuel.
  31. > Other branches were more promising, and she set them back down to inspect again later.
  32. > Neither she nor Bakar spoke as they worked, and sometimes Mayor felt like they were hardly aware of the other's presence.
  33. > Her bundle was nearing its end when a small hand patted her side.
  34. > "[Meyermer, here. Stop and eat while it is hot,]" a young nomad spoke to her.
  35. > Her sight was blurry, especially after focusing on the sticks for a while, but Mayor recognized both the voice and the smell of who it was.
  36. "[Saule? Oh. Put it down. I eat later.]"
  37. > The hand vanished from her coat and she was about to focus on the branch again, but the fingers gripped her ear and tugged. "[Mother said now!]" came the chiding reply. "[You must eat!]"
  38. > Mayor Mare couldn't be mad at the young girl and she relaxed. Her shoulders had tensed up while she had been concentrating, and there was a beginning of a headache from all the squinting. A break sounded delightful, and the smell wafting from the wooden bowl the youth was holding was doubly so.
  39. "[Maybe you are right.]"
  40. > She sat on her haunches and held out her forehooves to take the food, but Saule had a little ritual and wouldn't oblige. Mayor rolled her eyes in mock annoyance, but lowered her forelegs so the girl could step closer.
  41. > It had started out almost by accident, a little more than a week ago. Mayor had been so busy with plucking leaves from a likely branch that she had almost completely ignored the bowl of broth Saule had delivered.
  42. > In her determination to get the mare to eat, the nomad had simply held the food under the mare's nose, upon which Mayor had reflexively begun eating.
  43. > Something about the act was so amusing to the girl that she insisted on feeding Mayor the same way each time now. It didn't hurt to oblige her, so Mayor did. Besides, it freed her forehooves so she could put them down and didn't have to maintain her balance on her haunches.
  44. > Her ears flicked toward a sound she thought she heard from the other side of the tent, where Bakar was whittling something. The first few times he had laughed at the sight, but now he took it in stride. Mayor decided she had imagined a quiet, raspy chuckle.
  45. > "[There, good pony,]" Saule said and reached her free hand to brush a lock of pink mane out of Mayor's eyes. The ears flicked forward again to focus on her.
  46. "Mmmphm!" Mayor mumbled in mock protest, and her tail flicked to underscore her mumbled words, but she didn't bother to stop eating.
  47. > They both knew it wasn't a serious complaint.
  48. > Saule went on, her smile fading a little as she began to discuss business. "[I made the rope like you said, Meyermer. Really thin, but many strands. It is strong]"
  49. > "[Good!]" came the voice of Bakar from across the tent. The old man was sitting on an animal skin by the entrance flap, where daylight would allow him to see his work but the tent would provide a bit of lingering warmth.
  50. > "[We will see if it holds this time, or the stick breaks first.]"
  51. > At that Mayor briefly removed her muzzle from the potato and rice broth. Her tongue darted out before she could stop it and licked her muzzle clean before precious gruel could drip to the ground.
  52. "[It will work! You do not believe, but I have seen this. It will work, but we need the right wood.]"
  53. > The man gave a noncommittal grunt. He complained and criticized a lot, Mayor knew, but he was fully immersed in the project. Her description of the - she no longer shuddered to think the word, but it still gave her a slight pause - the *weapon*, had him hooked and he was determined to make it a reality.
  54. > It wasn't that difficult a concept, the nomads had spears and the more observant among them had noticed that some wood could be bent and it would spring back into shape.
  55. > The idea of the bowstring had caused Bakar the most issue so far, but after her repeated attempts to explain he mostly understood.
  56. > "[Throwing spears with wood. It is a strange world we are making, Meyermer.]"
  57. "[No, not with wood! You no listen to me! Wood bent, tied with string, yes? Pull string, wood bend more. Let go, wood goes back, pulls string. String pulls spear.]"
  58. > He held up a hand. "[I understand. Do not worry, I understand how it works.]"
  59. > Mayor relaxed again and dunked her muzzle in the rapidly cooling stew once more. There wasn't a whole lot left and then she could go inspect Bakar's carving.
  60. > She knew it wasn't just a matter of tying a stick into a bow shape with some string. It had to be strong enough not to break, but supple enough to be drawn. A branch wouldn't work, they'd learned that soon after they started experimenting. At least it wouldn't work right with the type of bush they could find around the camp.
  61. > Lately she had become convinced that the bow had to be carved from the middle of a larger piece of wood, so that was what Bakar was trying to do.
  62. > So far there have been only failures. A few of the bows had simply snapped when he tried to draw them, and others lacked any kind of power, even if they did spring back into shape.
  63. > Crucially, the latter worked at least enough to demonstrate the principle to Bakar, and he began to vary his carving. This latest one, he said, would work. He'd carved it out of a bent piece of wood, following the grain and the imperfections.
  64. > It made a natural arc, and Mayor thought that it really did look like a bow she could recognize. In the meantime, Saule had produced tough string long enough to tie on the bow.
  65. > A few more days, she thought, and they would be ready to try it out. Her job, since she couldn't easily wield a flint knife, nor spin rope, was to find good shafts for the arrows.
  66. > Unbeknownst to the other two, she was also trying her hoof at knapping flint. Her first attempts simply split the rock in twain, but recently she had managed to produce sharp flakes.
  67. > It would take more practice, but if she got lucky she might end up with one or two serviceable arrowheads.
  68. > For some reason she had to do this. Bakar had learned woodworking mostly on his own, and Saule had gone around the camp to ask nomads for advice about rope spinning. So far all the mare had contributed had been the idea.
  69. > She had to do a small bit, even if it was something that most nomads could almost do in their sleep.
  70. "[Okay. Show me how it looks. How it bends.]"
  71. > She licked her muzzle clean again, as far as her tongue would reach, while she made her way over to Bakar. A small burp escaped her when she sat down, but none of them commented upon it. Nomads, Mayor had learned, weren't quite so fussy about table manners. Saule had followed her, the empty bowl still in her hands.
  72. > They watched with admiration as the old nomad held his handiwork aloft. It was a slightly curved stick, though it was still lumpy and misshapen in places. Mayor had had to explain that the bow shouldn't be carved already bent. It had to be kept under some tension all the time.
  73. > Bakar gripped either end of the stick with each hand and tried to bend it. Mayor could see his knuckles whiten and the tendons in his arms stand out.
  74. > It barely moved, which she thought was a good sign. Her earlier efforts had snapped all too easily, this bow looked a little stronger.
  75. > Besides, it wasn't fully carved yet. Once he had shaved a few more fractions of its girth, the rod would bend a little more easily.
  76. "[It is good. It looks right,]" she praised.
  77. > The nomad let it go, his breathing a touch faster after the exertion. "[Now if only the string will hold.]"
  78. "[If string break, we will try again.]"
  79. > Mayor saw that Saule gave her a slightly disapproving, almost betrayed look, but the young girl didn't speak up, not to contradict her grandfather. Instead, she changed the subject: "[Grandfather, Mother says you should come and eat. The meat is almost cooked and the 'bred' is fresh.]"
  80. > They both glanced at Mayor at that and it took her a split second to remember that she had introduced bread to them not that long ago.
  81. > "[Your land- you say it is full of wonders?]" Bakar asked quietly.
  82. "[Yes.]"
  83. > "[Will you tell me of them tonight? Will you sit at our fire and share our food and speak?]"
  84. > It sounded pleasant, and Mayor wasn't about to turn down a free meal. Her diet had markedly improved since her 'invention', and the nomads were more willing to give her tidbits from their stores, but she still wasn't exactly swimming in plenty.
  85. "[I will. I must tell Darga, then I will come back, yes?]"
  86. > Bakar simply inclined his head, then addressed his words to Saule. "[Very well, show me this 'bred'.]"
  87. > They both left to join the rest of the family around the fire for their meal. Mayor didn't go with them. She had gotten used to the smell of burnt meat, but that didn't mean she relished it and sought out every opportunity to smell it.
  88. > Instead she glanced back at her potential arrow shafts, but changed her mind and stepped out of the tent.
  89. > The food had reminded her that she was thirsty, and she could swing by Darga's tent to let the chieftain know she would have dinner with Bakar and his.
  90.  
  91. > ~~~~
  92.  
  93. > It was their big day. The culmination of their efforts and ingenuity. Mayor Mare couldn't help but feel that familiar sense of trepidation she had before every public speech or unveiling.
  94. > It hadn't been this acute in years, but that was probably because this wasn't just some public address. It was a demonstration of an entirely new tool. She still refused to think of it as a weapon, even though that was precisely what she and Bakar and Saule had created.
  95. > The old hunter's idea to place a couple of logs and cover them with an animal skin didn't help, but it was a bit of a relief that they had chosen an old wolf skin. That didn't make her weapon any nicer, but it was easier to stomach, especially when she thought back to that night.
  96. > In either case, the *tool* she and Bakar had made was far from perfect. The wood simply wasn't supple enough and Mayor was starting to suspect they were missing some critical piece in preparation. They had gone through several different types of wood and finally honed in on something which almost worked.
  97. > The bow could launch an arrow, although there wasn't enough force behind it, at least when Mayor compared it to what she remembered from the Equestrian Games. Still, the arrow flew, after a fashion, and more often than not it would penetrate into soft wood at least deep enough to stay there.
  98. > Maybe they needed to put the bow in water, or something else, to change the properties of the wood? The mare vaguely remembered a curiosity piece in the newspapers during the Equestrian games week, when sports fever had been at a pitch and all the journalists were trying to feed the frenzy.
  99. > It sounded like the type of article which might have been published. Something like "How Bows Are Made". Unfortunately, despite many days racking her brain for answers, Mayor didn't remember more than the fact that she had once, at some point in her life, read something like that.
  100. > She and Bakar could try and put one of their bows in water and see if anything happened. It certainly wouldn't hurt
  101. > The important thing, however, was that their latest model was good enough to show Darga and the other nomads. It was barely good enough, but that was close enough and Mayor sensed that the nomads were getting a bit impatient with her.
  102. > Spring was almost on them and the entire camp was tightening its belt, or so it felt like. Vegetables had all but run out and if it weren't for Mayor's invention of bread, there would have been hunger.
  103. > Not quite starvation - things weren't that bad and the nomads could always thin their herd of donkeys a little if they had to, but the time would have been a lot less comfortable.
  104. > There were stories circulating in the camp, most of which Mayor had heard through Xuan, of lean years. Springs when the snow simply refused to melt and the animals had been hunted to near extinction.
  105. > By all accounts, this year was not like that, but the camp was still on edge. Perhaps her talent for diplomacy allowed Mayor to sense that mood, even among these strange people.
  106. > Critically, Mayor would have had to eat the last bits of brown, half-rotten straw the younger nomads dug from under the melting snow.
  107. > She became aware of another presence by her side and glanced over at Saule, who had approached almost soundlessly. The girl put her hand on Mayor's head and the touch was reassuring. It probably helped both of them, Mayor gauged by how tightly the nomad was gripping her mane.
  108. > At least, she thought, there wasn't a big crowd. She and Bakar had decided to keep the group small for this first demonstration, so Darga, Salki, Intor and Willow were the only nomads in attendance, other than the ones who had helped with her project.
  109. > Bakar was shooting, of course, since he had gotten some practice during the making of the thing, and Saule was of course there thanks to her incredible contributions.
  110. > The idea to use animal sinew as bowstring would never have occurred to Mayor Mare, but it was proving to be incredibly effective, even while it was utterly disgusting and macabre.
  111. > The string was no longer a problem, at least. All they had to perfect was the bow itself.
  112. > Mayor hadn't asked, but she suspected the sinew came from a cervid species - a deer. Those were the only creatures she knew who had limbs long enough for the size of the bow Bakar had ended up making.
  113. > Another fact Mayor chose not to think about.
  114. > "[Do you think it will work?]" Saule asked in a quiet murmur. They were standing far enough away from the group of observers that they couldn't hear them, but Mayor still preemptively lowered her voice a little.
  115. "[Yes. Believe in uncle. He is good with his hands.]"
  116. > There was no reply, but when Mayor glanced at the girl Saule gave a slight nod and her grip on her mane relaxed.
  117. > Before Mayor could offer any more reassurance, Bakar called for her: "[Meyermer! Come here!]"
  118. > He had been talking with the chieftain and Intor, while their two sons stood beside and stole glances at the target. It was hard to miss; a black mass of wolf fur stretched across some wood.
  119. > Mayor quickly trotted to them and opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, but Bakar spoke first: "[How far did you say your people could shoot this weapon? How strong was the- the wound? How deep?]"
  120. > She had to think for a moment to translate it into nomad experience, since they didn't have the concept of hooves and yards and miles. Mayor looked around for landmarks.
  121. "[See that way? The camp? A pony bow would - um - throw small spear in the camp. Not middle, but inside from here.]"
  122. > She didn't know for sure, but it felt like a good estimate. The image was blurry, but the camp was some five hundred yards away and she thought that sounded about reasonable. The other part of the question was harder.
  123. "[Um, how strong? Here, give me one spear!]"
  124. > Bakar obediently handed her one of the obsidian-flake-tipped arrows. The head was a crudely misshapen lump of stone, but it was incredibly sharp and Mayor didn't think it affected flight too badly.
  125. > The more important bit had been the fletching. She decided to use feathers not so much because Mayor knew it would work particularly well, but because she remembered some of those silly stories she had read as a foal.
  126. > Getting bird feathers hadn't been easy, but as luck would have it Darga had some as part of her chieftain's apparel. She grudgingly allowed them to have a few of the straight ones, only to demonstrate the principle of the bow and arrow.
  127. > They could get more in the summer, when the birds came back, Bakar had assured Mayor. They usually didn't bother hunting birds, because it was incredibly difficult with spears, and the eating wasn't particularly good.
  128. > The easiest to get would be some of the ground-dwelling, flightless birds and they would have a hunt for those in a few weeks, he assured the mare. They would have all the feathers they needed then.
  129. > Mayor inspected their inexpert fletching one last time, to make sure none of the feathers had slipped or gotten damaged. It was all fine, so she turned the arrow around in her hooves and held the point up so the others could see.
  130. "[A good pony bow would put this- the top bit. It would go, um, half into wood.]"
  131. > Once again she was guessing wildly, but Mayor hoped she was at least in the right ballpark.
  132. "[We can't do that. Bow not good enough, but possible someday. We keep trying.]"
  133. > At that bit of information Willow started up, suddenly much interested. "[Drive half of the tip into wood at this distance?]" he asked and snorted in disbelief. "[No man could throw a spear that far!]"
  134. > Mayor smiled because she had anticipated the objection and had an answer already prepared and rehearsed.
  135. "[No spear, but this not spear. It is 'arrow'. Lighter, smaller. It will fly better.]"
  136. > Willow's expression didn't change from one of skepticism, but he didn't say anything else, so Mayor took it as a good sign. On the other hoof, Salki looked mightily impressed. He came closer and tried to examine the bow in detail. Bakar obliged and held the weapon out for the young man.
  137. > Mayor saw that Willow was also surreptitiously craning his neck, even while he feigned nonchalance.
  138. > The women didn't seem too impressed, but they were both politicians and keeping a smooth expression in the face of surprising news was practically the job description.
  139. "[Let's try it,]" she told Bakar. "[Shoot.]"
  140. > That last word wasn't one from the nomad vocabulary, so she had simply taught them the Equestrian one. It did the job and the nomads, or at least Bakar and Saule, had taken it into their language.
  141. > The old hunter took the arrow from her and inspected the back end one last time. One of the biggest problems they had had was the wood splitting and the string jamming itself into the arrow.
  142. > They had tried to carve it differently, so that wouldn't happen, but it still wasn't perfect. Bakar had said he would try tying a bit of bone to the back, and Mayor thought it might work if they could get a tiny piece of the right shape.
  143. > The mere thought sent a shudder down her spine. She was thinking about the shape of bones in an animal for the purpose of using one of them in a weapon. How far she had come...
  144. > Fortunately there was no time for reflection as Bakar lifted the bow in smooth, practiced motion and notched the arrow. He laid it against his thumb where he was holding the bow, which was a technique Mayor had never seen before even among the Equestrian races who had thumbs.
  145. > It saved them having to carve or improvise the shelf for the arrow, which made the whole thing simpler, so she didn't dissuade what Bakar had naturally began to do. He drew the string back, gently at first, but then with more confidence.
  146. > Mayor bit her lip and folded down her ears in preparation of the telling crack as the bow failed. He was bending it further than she had seen him do when they were testing. She hoped it would hold.
  147. > The nomad held the bow drawn for a long moment as he sighted along the arrow. The moment dragged on and Mayor, out of sheer nerves, nearly told him to release. Her lips had already parted when there was a twang and a slap of flesh.
  148. > The string hit Bakar's foreleg, in the same place where there was already a bruise. They would have to figure out some way to protect that bit, since human anatomy was different from a pony's and this was a problem entirely novel to the species.
  149. > Despite that, the weapon worked. Mayor, who knew what to expect saw the flash of the arrow as it flew, and she heard the distant *thwack* as it met the target. The wolf skin had been stretched out so it acted a bit like a strange drum and amplified the sound of the hit.
  150. > The others had little experience with this new type of weapon and remained staring at Bakar, who was holding the empty bow. It took them a moment before Willow shouted and pointed: "[There! In the wolf!]"
  151. > They all looked and Salki, in his excitement, began running. The older nomads walked, trying to retain as much dignity as they could even while they longed to hurry over so they could see.
  152. > Saule was not under any such compunctions and she raced after Salki to go inspect her grandfather's shot.
  153. > Mayor fell in step with Bakar, who was leading both the women over to the target. It pleased the mare a little when she saw that Willow didn't have a clear idea where he should stand, and resolved his uncertainty by simply following his mother.
  154. > "[Impressive,]" Intor said, but kept her voice noncommittal. "[How quickly can you shoot? How do you get the spear back?]"
  155. > It had been Bakar's question as well and Mayor had half-explained, half-guessed at how it might be done. He replied with the assurance of an old warrior who had been fighting with bows his entire life: "[We will make many arrows. Dozens and dozens for each warrior. They are not hard to make and we can teach the youth and the women. Then we can shoot as quickly as you take breath.]"
  156. > This caused Willow's step to falter, doubtless as he imagined the arrows raining down on a group of nomads. He didn't reply before his mother continued, though: "[That is indeed impressive.]"
  157. > "[We can take the arrows back after the battle is over, or we can make more. It will be worth it for this weapon. We can wound and kill the enemy before they can do the same to us. They will not know what is hitting them, or how.]"
  158. > At this point Darga interjected: "[What if they run away with these... 'arrows'?]"
  159. > Bakar opened his mouth, then closed it. He looked over to Mayor and raised an eyebrow.
  160. "[It will not help. The secret is in the bow. Arrow without bow is worthless. We must keep bows safe, that is all.]"
  161. > The answer pleased the chieftain and she nodded to herself in approval, so the mare continued:
  162. "[They will not understand how to make this weapon if they have arrows. They will not be able to use arrows alone. They do not work as spears. Too light.]"
  163. > They had made it to the wolf skin and Willow whistled between his teeth when he saw. Salki and Saule, who had beaten them there, were still staring at the result.
  164. > Bakar's dangerously deep draw on the bow had apparently paid off. The arrow had pierced the animal skin and embedded itself in a thick branch on the opposite side, so that it looked as if it had completely pierced the would-be wolf.
  165. > "[There is nothing but air in this wolf of yours,]" Intor finally remarked. The youngsters hadn't quite realized it - perhaps to Salki and Saule the wolf had been almost real, but Darga nodded in agreement with the other woman.
  166. > Bakar glanced over at Mayor and gave her a sly grin, before he extended his arm in invitation: "[Pull it out then,]" he told the woman.
  167. > She gripped the shaft, mindful not to disturb the feathers, and tugged. Mayor was watching and saw how the woman's eyes widened a little in surprised, before she adjusted her grip and pulled.
  168. > The arrow came out, but it had obviously been stuck in there pretty good. Intor held it up so she could examine the point from up close.
  169. > "[Such power, at this distance?]"
  170. > It was a far shot from the five hundred yards Mayor had promised, but it was still impressive. Darga summarized it well: "[Our fighters will be untouchable. This could be big.]"
  171. > For a moment the women shared a nod and it looked as if they weren't rivals. Mayor could almost believe Intor's profession that she only cared about the well-being of the camp.
  172. "[It is not yet strong like pony bow. We will keep trying. I have ideas. We will make it better. Maybe different wood, or maybe different carving. We will see. Already it works, but I can make it better.]"
  173. > There was some sense in the air, a lightening and a touch of joy. This would help not only their survival, but their struggles against the Rolans and the other tribes. Willow was the first to laugh. "[This changes everything. This will change how we fight. You have done well, Meyermer.]"
  174. > Only then did Mayor realized that she had been talking about the bow as a weapon. That she had been trying hard to sell it to them as such. Worse: she had been talking about it as a weapon to use against other nomads.
  175. > Maybe it was the fact of life for this world, but suddenly Mayor didn't feel well anymore. It was an in-equine thing she had done.
  176. > She had told herself it would be a tool, only used to hunt dangerous beasts. She couldn't hide from the truth.
  177. > It wouldn't be Mayor Mare who used the bow against the gentler creatures of the steppe, nor would it be her who drew the bowstring against other nomads, but it was her invention, at least as far as these people were concerned. The blood would be on her hooves, even if they weren't physically doing it.
  178. > Then again, what choice did she have? She had to give them something and this was a thing she could make with limited resources. It was survival.
  179. > Theirs was a brutal world, she was simply trying to live.
  180. > Darga was speaking: "[Shoot again. Hit that tree there, I want to see how deep it goes.]"
  181. > Intor gave the arrow to Bakar, who smoothly fit it to the string.
  182. "[I- I must go,]" Mayor excused herself as she backed away. "[I have- I have to piss. I will be in the camp.]"
  183. > She hardly made it two dozen hoofsteps when she heard the rustle of grass behind her and guessed, from the quick, light steps that it was Saule who had followed her.
  184. > Mayor glanced back, but none of the other adults seemed to care where the mare or the girl were going. They were intent on exploring just what their new toy could do.
  185. > Mayor was trotting quite fast, but Saule easily caught up to her. The girl was barefoot and Mayor wondered for a moment how her feet were not cold. Nomads had much more sensitive feet, compared to sturdy pony hooves.
  186. > She didn't have time to reflect upon it for too long before the nomad spoke up: "[Are you okay? What is wrong?]"
  187. > Mayor didn't want to lay her trouble on Saule's back. For that matter, she wasn't sure the girl would even understand. She wanted to find Gol.
  188. > She could have a heart to heart with Gol. Gol would understand.
  189. > Despite her silence, Saule kept pace with her and perhaps that helped a little.
  190.  
  191. > ~~~~
  192.  
  193. > Mayor Mare was sitting uncomfortably on a bit of wood and staring into the fire. She had been at it for a while, long enough that the day had turned to evening.
  194. > Her ears were as low as they would go, an expression which hadn't been lost on her friends. Every now and then Xuan patted her side or tried to engage her in conversation, but Mayor didn't particularly feel like talking.
  195. > She had, at first, and she had tried to explain her misgivings about giving nomads new weapons, but as she had predicted Xuan hadn't understood. To her, anything which made the camp more powerful, or made it easier to hunt for food, was a good thing.
  196. > At least she hadn't immediately laughed at the mare's concerns, but had listened to them closely and tried really hard to see her point of view. Unfortunately, stories about a land of different creatures who never fought among each other probably sounded like an absurd fairy tale.
  197. > Perhaps it was her youthful naivete, or perhaps her outlook had been brought on by her condition, but Xuan was far more optimistic than Mayor and assured the mare that the nomads would only use these frightening new weapons in defense against their more aggressive neighbors.
  198. > That would make it slightly easier to swallow and more than once Mayor though about simply taking Xuan's word for it. Unfortunately she couldn't quite forget Willow's eager expression when he had seen how deeply the arrow had penetrated the fake wolf.
  199. > Mayor couldn't lie to herself: the nomads would use bows in anger against their neighbors, if only to drive them out of their lands. On the other hoof, it wasn't her world, nor her people. They had different ways and culture, and maybe it wasn't a pony's place to try and change them. So what if one group gained advantage over others?
  200. > Especially since it was *her* group, which would lead to a better life for the entire camp and that included her. Besides, the nomads were apparently prone to war and violence, a trait which Mayor suspected came from their carnivore nature. She might only have hastened the inevitable a little.
  201. > Who knew if they would have invented something like a bow eventually anyway, or perhaps even something worse?
  202. > Once more she felt Xuan's hand on her withers and was grateful for the presence it implied. Even if the nomad couldn't understand the philosophical quandary Mayor was struggling with, she did understand that her friend was sad and perhaps that was enough.
  203. > Mayor was about ready to turn her head and ask Xuan about her baby, all in an effort to take her mind off the dark thoughts which had been plaguing her ever since the demonstration. She didn't get a chance to do that before something soft and warm poked the side of her muzzle.
  204. > The scent hit her at almost the same time and she involuntarily opened her mouth.
  205. > She hadn't even noticed Xuan baking a yam, but there it was. Hot, lightly salted and sprinkled with a few other spices Mayor didn't immediately recognize. It was good and the loud grumble from her belly reminded her that she hadn't eaten since that morning.
  206. > The sound caused Xuan to giggle. "[I thought that would wake you up!]" she said.
  207. "[No fair! Food is no fair! You know I always hungry!]"
  208. > It just made the young nomad chuckle some more and her hand dug into Mayor's side in a luxurious, welcome scratch. She hadn't intended to lean against it, but just like the nibble when she scented the yam, this reaction was quite involuntary.
  209. > This time she was slightly too heavy for Xuan to support with one hand Mayor flopped into the nomad's lap. She tensed to get up and apologize, but Xuan shifted her grip and held the mare down. "[Stay. You're nice and warm from the fire, it feels good on my belly,]" she told her.
  210. > Mayor noticed that her head was leaning against Xuan's exposed belly. She'd explained some weeks ago that the normal way nomads cut their animal skins for clothes was too narrow this late in her pregnancy and it wasn't worth making new clothes just for a month or two until spring came.
  211. > While that memory flashed through Mayor's mind, Xuan began idly brushing her fingers through her mane.
  212. > "[Your hair is coming in long again. Will you cut to sell?]"
  213. "[Yes. Um, will you do it? I will ask Gol, but...]"
  214. > She didn't have to say more. Xuan understood, at least judging from the slight tightening of her mouth. "[I will, if you give me a few hairs to make a bracelet for my daughter.]"
  215. > It was an easy gift to promise and Mayor quickly nodded. Her muzzle scrunched up in confusion as she grasped the nuance of what Xuan had said.
  216. "[Daughter? You know? How?]"
  217. > It made the nomad laugh and she winked at the mare. It looked a bit unusual from Mayor's angle, but she recognized a secretive wink when she saw one. "[Mother's secret. I will never tell.]"
  218. > Mayor gave her an exaggerated pout and averted her eyes, as if cross with the woman. It just made her giggle harder, but she gave in: "[Fine, I will tell you. I went to see Shaman and he did a ritual. The spirits told him it would be a daughter. Buygra was most disappointed.]"
  219. > It didn't sound very conclusive, but Mayor had noticed that many nomads took the shaman's word as truth, even when he was wrong almost as often as he was right. She decided not to argue with Xuan on this point. Instead, Mayor lifted her head slightly to free her ear so she could open it, then pressed it against the nomad's belly.
  220. > The gesture would be quite inappropriate among ponies, even among close friends, but her values had shifted somewhat since she had come to these people. In particular, she was lying in Xuan's lap, exactly where a pony would have... those, and neither of them minded.
  221. > At least not until Mayor had had the thought. Her eyes strayed up to where Xuan's teats *actually* were, and she saw a faint curve of flesh where her animal skin tunic parted.
  222. > Luckily before she could blush too fiercely she heard a sound she'd been hunting for. Mayor froze, but unfortunately Xuan moved away with a barely suppressed chortle. "[Stop, that tickles! Your ear! Stop!]"
  223. > The nomad had gripped her muzzle and was holding her away from her bare skin.
  224. "[Stay... stop. I heard the baby. Stop. Hush!]"
  225. > This was unusual and shocking enough that Xuan ceased squirming and Mayor could press her ear back. There was some gurgling, but if she concentrated, underneath, she caught the faint, rapid pulsing.
  226. "[Yes. I hear.]"
  227. > Xuan's face was both elated and incredulous at the same time and she stared at the mare with wide, disbelieving eyes. "[What is it? What do you hear?]"
  228. > Mayor realized that she didn't have the word for it, so she placed her hoof on her own barrel.
  229. "[This. It goes 'thump' 'thump'. Very fast because baby small. It is quiet, but I hear.]"
  230. > It didn't seem possible, but Xuan's eyes went wider. "[You hear her heart beating?]"
  231. > That was a new word for Mayor, but she was confident she understood it. She whispered it to herself to make sure, then affirmed:
  232. "[Yes. Baby heart, I heard it. Stay still.]"
  233. > Xuan did as commanded. She still had her hands around Mayor's head, but instead of holding her away, now she was pulling her closer. The mare closed her eyes so she could concentrate better, and after a short while she caught that steady rhythm again.
  234. > She didn't know how long she sat there, listening, but eventually she became aware of a hand brushing the fur on her muzzle and opened her eyes. Xuan was grinning at her.
  235. > "[You should see your face,]" the nomad commented. "[You were smiling. I don't think I have ever seen you smile like this.]"
  236. > For some reason those words made Mayor blush a little and she lifted herself up. This time Xuan didn't stop her, but one of her hands slid down to her withers and stayed there.
  237. "[I'm sorry you cannot hear. Pony ears better, but I also- very faint. Hard to hear. Sorry.]"
  238. > Xuan's fingers tugged on her mane until Mayor turned around to face the woman. She didn't seem upset at this news. "[I didn't need to hear it. The look on your face - it told me everything. Thank you.]"
  239. > Mayor blushed harder and averted her gaze once more. She managed to mumble something generic which sounded at least a bit gracious. Xuan went on: "[Will you stay for dinner? I will make some for you.]"
  240. > Even though she didn't feel as if she deserved it, Mayor Mare decided to say yes. It was hard to stay fed these days, even with her newfound influence and prestige in the camp. The supplies were running out and what little was left was dried up and mouldy more often than not.
  241. "[Thank you.]"
  242. > "[Do not tell Buygra you heard the baby. He will be jealous and will want to hear it too. I don't want to be stuck with his head on my belly for the whole night.]"
  243. > That sounded like something the young nomad might get it in his head to do and Mayor quickly agreed.
  244. "[Okay.]"
  245. > Xuan had ducked into her tent to get the things she needed for dinner, but her head poked back out and Mayor clearly saw the girl wink. "[I want his head elsewhere. Well, his tongue mostly.]"
  246. "Eep!"
  247.  
  248. > ~~~~
  249.  
  250. > The nomads certainly were inventive, Mayor Mare had to give them that. After she had introduced the first, primitive bow to them, they took the idea and ran with it. It was mostly young men who were interested, but it was not exclusive.
  251. > Pretty soon after she saw even young children with makeshift bows and mock arrows. They didn't work, but that didn't stop the young nomads from pretending that they were shooting at each other.
  252. > Meanwhile, the craftsmen began experimenting with different wood types and new ways of treating them. After her tentative suggestion to soak the wood in water prior to shaping it had proved ineffective, the nomads tried other things.
  253. > Some left the sticks in the snow and only worked on them when they were frozen. Others tried shaping bows out of dry wood. Those both proved even worse, but their failure did not dissuade the people.
  254. > They had seen the weapon working so they set out to perfecting it,
  255. > More importantly, the idea was fully attributed to the strange little pony living in their midst, and as a result Mayor Mare's standing in the tribe grew.
  256. > She was still divided on the topic, but the gifts of grain and milk and honey did much to assuage her worry. After all, she told herself time and time again, Darga had assured her that the new weapons would only be used to hunt and to defend themselves from aggressive tribes.
  257. > Life took on a semblance of normality for a while as the snows continued to melt and the first green shoots of young grass poked out of the mud. It promised times of plenty, and of warm sunshine, which helped lift Mayor's spirits.
  258. > She had Xuan cut her mane again, but saved most of the pink strands for when the merchants would come, which the nomads assured her wasn't far off. Now that her dietary needs had been met, Mayor was hoping to get her hooves on other things.
  259. > Salt and more honey would be a favourite, but she also wanted some cloth which wasn't animal hide, and some beer. That was the one thing even her newfound prestige couldn't get her, because the camp simply didn't have any.
  260. > More importantly, she would use her colorful mane to trade for news of Rainy Day. The only other pony in this world was still her top priority.
  261. > Perhaps, she mused sometimes, the bows she had so carelessly given the nomads might yet be useful in freeing her friend from her captors, if it came to that.
  262. > All she needed was word of where Rainy Day had been taken and where she was being kept. To that end, Mayor spent long stretches of time lying on a bit of dry grass just outside of camp and watched the horizon. She was looking for the first hints of a caravan.
  263. > It was there that Salki found her one day. The sky was clear and the sun was like a physical force, pressing down on her back, enough so that Mayor had discarded her coat and had stretched out on her belly. The warmth felt good on her outstretched hing legs and on her ears.
  264. > In fact, she was in serious danger of nodding off and almost didn't hear the nomad approach. He was almost on top of her when her ear flicked and caught the rustle of young grass under his feet.
  265. > She caught Salki's scent and so didn't have to look. It was a trick nomads sometimes found a little unsettling, but had come to accept it.
  266. "[Salki,]" she greeted.
  267. > "[One day you won't guess it's me.]"
  268. > She barked a short laugh at that and finally broke her gaze away from the distant horizon to glance at the young man. Despite the sun, the wind still had a nasty nip, but Salki didn't have his vest. He was less hairy than some of the other nomads, which was a sore point and a source of much teasing among his friends.
  269. > Perhaps, Mayor guessed, the boy thought that walking around bare-chested would encourage his hair to grow.
  270. "[You will must move more quiet. You also smell. You can't hide smell.]"
  271. > Her sentence wasn't entirely correct, but it was good enough for him to understand and that was what ultimately mattered. Salki sat down on the grass beside her and gave her ears a quick scratch. It had become something of a customary greeting between Mayor and her closest friends.
  272. > "[Bah, scent is easy. If I wanted to sneak up on you, I would just come from down-wind.]"
  273. > She angled her muzzle so she faced the direction the wind was coming from. It was almost the same way she had been looking.
  274. "[I will see you from that way.]"
  275. > "[Now yes, but maybe in an hour the wind will change.]"
  276. "[You are still loud. I hear better than you. Pony ears are better.]"
  277. > Salki gave a shrug as if he didn't consider that to be a particularly big advantage. "[Deer also hear better, but a hunter can sneak up on them. Wait until the fresh grass covers the dry. Besides, I wasn't trying to be sneaky, of course you heard me.]"
  278. > Rather than argue some more, Mayor just snorted in amusement and returned her gaze to the horizon.
  279. > Salki followed her stare and laid his hand on her back. Her fur had soaked up quite a lot of warmth from the sun and it felt amazing when he pressed it down against her hide. The mare couldn't quite prevent her soft, luxurious sigh.
  280. > He noticed it and began stroking her back in long, wonderful slides. Despite her best efforts, Mayor's eyes closed and her head lolled a little before she caught herself.
  281. > "[You do know the caravan will not come sooner if you watch for it?]"
  282. "[I know,]" she murmured back, "[I have not other things to do. I am resting and looking.]"
  283. > That admission made the young nomad chortle with laughter. "[Don't let Mother hear you say that. She will find you something to do.]"
  284. > The memory of that made Mayor grunt in displeasure.
  285. "[I have! I already finished work! Bring water, Darga say! Bring wood. Grind flour. I did all, now I am resting!]"
  286. > Salki didn't answer her and his hand kept gliding down her back, even though the warmth had mostly dissipated by then. Instead, his voice became quieter, more thoughtful: "[We will hunt tomorrow. We will use the bows for the first time in a real hunt. Willow is sure they will work well.]"
  287. > That wasn't a cheerful topic for Mayor, but she forced from her mind the image of deer with arrows sticking from their ribs and imposed one with wolves instead.
  288. > "[Darkhan says you were right. About the arrows and feathers. His didn't fly well.]"
  289. > It took the mare a moment to remember that particular discussion. With bird feathers in short supply, the nomads had been looking for different ways to stabilize the arrows during flight.
  290. > They tried shooting them without any fletching, but it hadn't worked, just like Mayor had predicted. Darkhan had the idea to fletch them with something else, and flat bits of wood were just the latest experiment.
  291. "[I said it would not work the same as feathers.]"
  292. > Salki chuckled at a sudden thought. "[Too bad Intor sold your friend, we could have used the feathers from her wings!]"
  293. > The image of Rainy Day, plucked to make arrows, was a painful one and made Mayor Mare grimace in distaste. Salki noticed that and his hand froze on her back.
  294. > "[Sorry,]" he said, his tone subdued.
  295. "[It is fine.]"
  296. > They sat in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds, then Mayor decided to break it.
  297. "[Will you go hunt?]"
  298. > "[Yes! All the men want to go so they can see how the bows work. We do not have enough for all, so only Willow, Buygra and Hisein will have them, but everyone wants to see.]" Salki spoke quickly and his voice rose up, as if in an effort to cover up his earlier blunder: "[We will go to the hills east. Willow thinks maybe the bears have woken up already and have come down from the forest to find food. Or maybe...]"
  299. > He fell silent, but Mayor winced because she knew what he was going to say before he stopped himself. Maybe there would be deer or elk.
  300. > After a few more seconds of uncomfortable silence, Salki finished a little lamely: "[Or maybe there will be wolves.]"
  301. > It took an effort of will not to think about it, but Mayor succeeded and focused instead on his first idea.
  302. "[Bears are dangerous, even with bows.]"
  303. > "[Yes, but a determined hunter will prevail. We hunt bears with spears every year. It will be easier with bows.]"
  304. > If the bows worked as expected, she thought to herself, but didn't say out loud. Instead, she turned her head and pressed her nose against his forearm.
  305. "[Make sure you are safe, okay?]"
  306. > Salki flashed her a grateful smile and patted the side of her muzzle with his palm. "[I will, don't worry.]"
  307. > They sat without speaking for a while, then Mayor returned her gaze to the distant horizon. She squinted a little in an effort to reduce the blur, but it didn't really help. She was quite sure that there wasn't a caravan yet, anyway.
  308. > It was the young nomad who broke the silence this time: "[We will soon have a circle hunt. You can help with that. Mother said you will join the children and the old.]"
  309. > A hunt didn't sound pleasant, and Mayor didn't know what a 'circle hunt' was, but she didn't want to be a part of it. It would be useless to argue with Salki, especially since it was apparently Darga's idea. She would have to go and discuss it with the chieftain.
  310. > "[You will like it. It's not hard and it makes for good eating. Oh-]"
  311. > Mayor didn't need to look at his guilty expression to know that he had just realized - again - that she couldn't eat meat. Her hunch was confirmed when the young nomad continued: "[There's more things than meat from the circle hunt. We will find berries and nuts, and usually there is honey.]"
  312. > That sounded a bit more promising, thought the word 'hunt' still didn't sit well with the mare.
  313. "[Why is it called a circle hunt?]"
  314. > Salki drew an imaginary ring in the grass before him with his finger as he explained. "[The people stand in a big circle, like this. They face inside and walk forward, so the circle gets smaller. You see?]"
  315. > Mayor didn't understand how that would allow the nomads to capture any animals at all.
  316. "[Does that work?]"
  317. > Salki shrugged a little. "[It is few animals, but good for children and the elderly. I think it is more a tradition than a necessary hunt anymore. Maybe if our hunters were not as good.]"
  318. > He shrugged, unconvinced even though it were his own words. "[We've always done it in the spring.]"
  319. > Mayor had a picture of a spring ritual, perhaps even slightly religious in role. The noise and humdrum of nomads stomping about would drive away any animals in the area. She wondered where the tradition originated and what its original purpose had been.
  320. > It probably wasn't a very effective tactic, which calmed her a little, but she would still prefer to have nothing to do with any type of hunt. She would tell Darga that she wouldn't participate.
  321. > While she was trying to imagine the correct words for that discussion Salki stood up with one final pat on her back. "[I will go practice the bow. Will you come watch?]"
  322. > She was about to shake her head and return to her vigil for the traders' caravan, but Mayor changed her mind. Salki wasn't a bad sort and watching him fumble with a bow and arrows would be distracting.
  323. > More importantly, if Darga found her she could easily claim that she was helping her son practice. That would probably get her out of any additional work the woman might want to assign her for the afternoon.
  324. "[I will come. I want to see how good you are.]"
  325. > That was welcome news and Salki smiled a little to himself as she gathered her cloak in a bundle and balanced it on her back. The day was still warm and she considered swinging by their tent to drop it off, but she knew the temperature would drop rapidly as the sun went down.
  326. > In a few hours she would be shivering and grateful for the cloak. It wasn't heavy so it was worth bringing along.
  327. "[Let's go.]"
  328.  
  329. > ~~~~
  330.  
  331. > The traders came while the hunting party was away. Mayor spotted it first and ran to tell Darga, but the chieftain's reaction was underwhelming. The camp had been expecting the caravan ever since the snow had begun to melt, after all, so it was no big surprise that they finally showed up.
  332. > It was still welcome news and the nomads began preparing a feast to celebrate. Mayor Mare deftly avoided being sent out on various chores so she could go and speak with the newcomers as soon as they came into the camp.
  333. > The traders were specifically asking about a talking pony with pink hair. Mayor was on the way to the large firepit in the center of the tents when Saule found her and delivered that bit of news.
  334. > She froze for a moment as her heart sped out of control and her legs began to tremble uncontrollably. It could mean that the travellers had met Rainy Day and she was asking about her friend!
  335. > Upon hearing that, Mayor couldn't hold herself back anymore. She darted forward and ignored Saule's plaintive cries as she left the girl behind. If these people had word of another pony Mayor wanted to hear it right away.
  336. > It took her no time at all to burst into the clearing amidst the tents, where the traders were still milling around and fighting over good spots to display their wares.
  337. "[I am here!]" she shouted, "[Talking pony. Me! Here!]"
  338. > There was a lull in the general hubbub and all heads turned her way. The camp nomads quickly lost interest, but the traders stared with open mouths. Mayor didn't wait for them to get over their shock and simply approached the nearest man, who had dropped one of his bags in surprise.
  339. "[You see pony? Where talking pony? Who you see? Tell me! Other pony with feathers, wings? Tell!]"
  340. > Her barrage of questions went unanswered as the nomad instead reached out his hand to touch her pink mane. "[It's true,]" he said to himself, "[a talking pony. I thought it was just a crazy story!]"
  341. "[Yes, it true! Where you hear about talking pony?!]"
  342. > The man shook his head and, still completely ignoring his wares on the ground, crouched so he could get a closer look at her face. The other travellers were already gathering around her and Mayor felt more than one hand touch her side and tail as they assured themselves she was real.
  343. > "[It's not like any pony I ever saw, but it ... one,]" someone behind her said. Mayor's ear flicked in that direction, but she was still hoping the first trader would answer her.
  344. "[Did you see another like me? Did you hear? Where is she?]"
  345. > At last the question registered and the nomad glanced at his fellows, then addressed her in a halting, hesitant voice: "[You can un- understand me? You speak our language? Oh, I heard from another caravan, they showed me pink hair.]"
  346. > Again he reached out his hand and gave a lock of her mane a slight tug. "[It was just like yours. They said you trade it for beer.]"
  347. > The reminder made Mayor both blush in embarrassment and at the same time lick her lips in eager anticipation. The alcohol would take the edge off. She deserved to feel good every now and then.
  348. > Her thoughts had come unbidden and Mayor sternly told herself she wouldn't get drunk again, but it was a hard battle to fight and it momentarily distracted her from her questions about Rainy Day.
  349. > "[I heard the same, but I did not see any pink hair. I would like to trade for it, though.]" The words had come from somewhere to her side, but Mayor wasn't paying them any mind.
  350. > She finally managed to push the thought of delicious, grainy beer from her mind.
  351. "[My friend! Another pony! Talking pony. Blue like sky. Her hair blue also. She has wings! Have you heard?]"
  352. > Finally the traders gave this question some thought. A few of them murmured with each other and they all looked around the circle, as if searching for answers. At last, the one Mayor had been addressing spoke up: "[Sorry, we have not heard of a talking pony with wings. Only a talking pony with pink hair.]"
  353. > Another added: "[I did not believe it, but now I see it is true. How can you speak our language? How is that possible?!]"
  354. > Her heart sank. The rumours these traders had heard originated from Mayor herself, not from Rainy Day. Her throat constricted and her breath caught, and Mayor felt as if the pegasus had just slipped further beyond her grasp. It felt as if she had just lost her friend once again.
  355. > It felt like a new betrayal, especially after the long winter of quiet hope that some news of her friend might yet reach her. Mayor sagged a little and her head fell, eyes already filling with fresh tears. She shouldn't have been stupid enough to get her hopes up!
  356. > If the traders noticed her mood, they didn't seem to care. More hands felt along her ribs and one of them even lifted her tail. Another nomad's fingers felt around her foreleg, and the man who had answered her cupped his palm under her chin.
  357. > For a moment Mayor thought he was trying to comfort her, but when he used his other hand to pry her lips apart she realized he was just trying to look at her teeth. She suddenly realized they were inspecting her like they would an animal they were thinking of buying.
  358. > Revulsion suddenly rose up in Mayor and she barely prevented herself from bucking the nomad behind her right in his face. She shook herself free and wiggled away between two of them. She was in the relative safety of the camp nomads and she smelled, more than saw, Saule at her side.
  359. > The traders were asking if she was for sale, but Mayor wasn't particularly worried about that. Once again she was grateful that she had given them breadmaking and bows, because now Darga and Intor both considered her a lot more valuable than they had before. Mayor doubted the traders would be able to offer payment enough to make the women sell her.
  360. > They still might though, and the knowledge stung, but Mayor didn't feel like caring, not at the moment. What she wanted was a sink of beer and some quiet so she could get through the night.
  361. > She was trying hard not to think it, but the fear kept coming back. What if Rainy Day was dead? What if some nomad got her and wanted to see what she tasted like? What if the headstrong pegasus had tried to escape and they killed her?
  362. > Worse, what if she did escape and the wolves got her?
  363. > It did not bear thinking about and Mayor felt the beginning of a nasty headache. She needed to stop her mind and she knew only one way to do it.
  364. > "[Come on, let's go and get something to eat. Then we will go to your tent and take your hair so you can trade it, yes?]"
  365. > She could do that, Mayor realized. She could get a lot of beer with the mane clippings she had saved. The camp nomads were getting used to the color and the bright, pink strands were losing their novelty.
  366. > Their value had been rapidly dropping lately, which made it all the more important to trade with outsiders.
  367. "[Trade,]" she said quietly. "[Trade for beer. I want a drink.]"
  368. > For a moment Saule looked unsure, but this particular nomad either hadn't heard, or didn't remember about her faux pas with Salki. The girl shrugged to hersself. "[Okay, but let's eat first. The traders will need time to unpack and Mother made stew.]"
  369. "[Thank you.]"
  370. > "[We are lonely because both Father and Grandfather are on the hunt,]" Saule explained. Mayor remembered that Bakar had gone along despite his age and his injury because he was the best person in the camp to repair bows and arrows if they broke on the hunt. It had been a matter of quite some pride for the old hunter.
  371. > "[We will get your beer after, okay?]"
  372. > Mayor managed a nod and let Saule lead her away. Behind her the commotion of traders setting up and arguing mingled with the voices of the camp nomads asking about the news from the outside world.
  373. > She heaved a sigh and tried not to think about Rainy Day. She needed to make it through dinner and then she would get a drink. That would make it better, at least for a while.
  374.  
  375. > ~~~~
  376.  
  377. > The sounds of celebration were all around her, but Mayor Mare didn't feel very happy. She had retreated to the chieftain's tent while the rest of the camp prepared for the celebration.
  378. > It was getting dark and chilly inside, but she still didn't light the fire. Right at that moment darkness suited her.
  379. > She shouldn't have allowed herself hope, not in this brutal land of harsh winter and harsher people. It was obvious in hindsight that traders would spread rumors of her - a talking pony.
  380. > Rainy Day hadn't even started learning the language by the time she was sold, and there was no guarantee she would have found a nice nomad like Salki to teach her. More than that, it was very possible that Mayor Mare's cutie mark allowed her to master the nomad tongue quicker.
  381. > Other ponies might not have that advantage. Unfortunately there was no way to prove or disprove that idea. Mayor had never considered learning a different language while back home so she had no point of comparison.
  382. > She still hoped her friend was alright, that her wing had healed and she wasn't being mistreated, but sitting there in that dark tent wasn't making it easy for Mayor to stay positive.
  383. > Her thoughts were interrupted when the flap opened and Salki came in. "[There you are. No one knew how to find you! Why aren't you at the fire?]"
  384. > She opened her mouth to try and explain, about the disappointment, and Rainy Day, and the way those traders had inspected her like a piece of furniture to be bought on a whim.
  385. > Mayor looked at the young nomad and closed her mouth.
  386. "[Doesn't matter.]"
  387. > It wasn't as if Salki would understand anyway. Saule hadn't, not fully, and the boy - even if she liked him and he was nice to her - could sometimes be thicker than stone, especially when it came to the elusive worlds of emotions.
  388. > Salki proved her right when he shrugged and took her word for it. "[Okay. Want to come now? They have beer.]"
  389. > That got her attention. Mayor had been planning to get a few drinks. They might take the edge of her frustration and anger and sadness, and allow the mare to forget for a short while.
  390. > She licked her lips as she imagined the bitter, tangy taste of the nearly-flat beverage, and found her mouth incredibly dry. She really did need a drink.
  391. "[O-Okay, but only small drink. I don't want- drunk again.]"
  392. > That particular memory made her fold her ears down and Salki also shifted uncomfortably on his feet. Mayor suspected he was blushing, though it was hard to tell in the gloomy interior.
  393. > She pushed past him into the chilly, night air of early spring and lifted her muzzle up. Scents almost assaulted her nose. Frying meat, and ash, and woodsmoke, but also more pleasant ones. The nomads were roasting at least a few yams, and she could also smell the fresh bread.
  394. > There was no hint of beer, though, but she wouldn't expect that to carry.
  395. > Salki joined her and gave her head the briefest of pats before striding off. "[Come on then,]" he called back.
  396. > Mayor had to hurry or lose the young nomad in the thick crowd. It didn't matter too much, since she knew where they were headed, but she wanted to stay near the chieftain's son in the hopes of snagging some free food and drink. There would be plenty to go around with this celebration, but why take chances?
  397. > They reached the central file and Salki headed over to where some of his hunting friends were sitting. The log was packed and many nomads simply crouched or sat on the muddy ground. Mayor briefly considered going back to the tent to fetch an animal skin, but Salki had his own ideas.
  398. > He simply pushed one of his friends a little and the line somehow compressed just enough to let him sit. That didn't leave any room for Mayor and she half-turned to go away when Salki reached out and patted her side.
  399. > "[Here! Sit here!,]" he told her and shrugged off his vest to lay on the ground before him. She looked at the makeshift rug a little doubtfully, but didn't question it. She sat on it and looked around the bonfire while Salki put both hands on her withers and began to idly stroke.
  400. > The noise became nearly overwhelming and Mayor instinctively folded her ears down to shut some of it out. The reason was soon apparent: Some of the nomad men had started a song, a deep, throaty, rhythmical hum, accompanied with them hitting sticks together, or simply slapping their chests and thighs, but most other people were still trying to have conversation.
  401. > As a result, both groups tried to become louder than the other, most likely without even realizing it. Mayor squinted around, but none of the nomads seemed annoyed at having to shout. They simply ignored the rest of the noise and spoke as loudly as they had to for their friends to hear them.
  402. > Off to one side a group of younger children were dancing, while some of their number tried to imitate the singers. Even Salki and his friends were talking loudly over the din.
  403. > Mayor flicked an ear toward them and listened for a few moments. They were asking Salki how the hunt with bows went, and he was in the middle of an explanation. It was too fast and technical for Mayor to be able to follow it, especially with all the commotion around her, but she didn't much mind.
  404. > She would get the details from both Salki and Bakar tomorrow. She might even get something from Willow and Hisein, since the bow was more or less her invention, at least in the eyes of the nomads.
  405. > There really wasn't much point in trying to follow the discussion and Mayor considered getting up to go look for some food, when a familiar figure approached them. Saule had a clay bowl in her hands, which she held out to the mare.
  406. > It was stew, with all the meat bits carefully picked out. Mayor could see that the girl was still chewing, and she didn't begrudge her, not when it meant the rest of the gruel could be hers.
  407. > There was still an aftertaste of that meat, but unless they cooked it specifically for her, the nomads never made stew out of vegetables only. She had gotten used to it, even if the smell sometimes made her gag a little. Nourishing food was too scarce a resource.
  408. > Unfortunately there wasn't a piece of bread to go along with it, but she could always go and grab some of that later. Mayor thought she saw where the older women were baking it.
  409. > That caused her to pause for a moment and prod Saule with a hoof.
  410. "[Why they making bread here? Traders see, they learn bread. Darga say it will be camp secret. No showing traders.]"
  411. > The girl patted her mane and flashed her a smile. "[It's okay. The women are bringing water-flour. They will not show traders how it is made. They don't know what it is.]"
  412. > Mayor wasn't convinced that would stop any nomad from figuring out just what that dough was, but she didn't want to argue, not particularly.
  413. "[Huh. Okay.]"
  414. > Seeing that there wasn't anything else, Saule went back to staring at Salki. She leaned closer and began running her hand through Mayor's mane as she listened to the young hunter's story about how the bows worked.
  415. > Mayor was hardly paying them any attention, but their hands crept closer and closer until they suddenly touched and froze. She looked around just in time to see the two youngsters staring at each other, before they both flushed and drew apart again.
  416. > Maybe she could do something nice for them?
  417. "[Come! Saule. Here, sit. I will take this back and get beer. Sit!]"
  418. > She graciously offered Salki's vest to the girl, but before she could really get up Salki had jumped to his feet and was waving Saule in. "[No, that's okay. I'll go get some. Sit here, keep Meyermer company!]"
  419. > Before either could object he had hurried off, and Mayor caught Saule's gaze. The girl rolled her eyes and they shared a brief grin, but it quickly faded as the nomad girl nervously looked around for where the boy might have gone.
  420. > She took the spot on the log and Mayor gratefully pressed herself against her chest. The bonfire was keeping one side of her very warm, but it was nice to be able to lean against Saule with her other. The girl put her hands around the mare and drew her closer, too.
  421. > "[Want to come up? It's cold and you're nice and warm. Here, sit on my knee!]"
  422. > Mayor gratefully accepted the invitation and lifted herself up. Only a few months ago she would have been worried about hurting such a spindly creature, but she'd come to respect the nomads' quiet strength while she lived with them.
  423. > In some ways they were much like earth ponies, Mayor supposed.
  424. > She was careful not to muddy Saule's clothes with her hooves, but she easily settled herself on the girl's knee and allowed her to pull her into a hug. It really was nice and warm, and Saule's animal skin coat quickly warmed up against Mayor's fur.
  425. > The other young nomads to either side didn't seem to mind, and went on with their own conversations. Mayor didn't have much to say to them, or to Saule, so she simply went back to staring at the nomads dancing around the fire.
  426. > Salki came back and found them in that position. Mayor tensed for a moment, expecting at least a small jab or joke at how they were cuddling in the chill, but he said nothing like that. If anything, she thought his look was a tiny bit wistful.
  427. > He still didn't have a vest and his was wet and muddy by now, so he was probably quite chilly.
  428. "[Go get new coat,]" she told him as sternly and motherly as she could manage. "[Or you will be sick. Go! Night is cold!]"
  429. > He shook his head and pointed. "[The fire is warm enough. I will be fine!]"
  430. > Mayor shook her head in dismay, but didn't argue. If the young idiot ended up with a cold it would be his own fault. Maybe it needed to happen and it would teach him to listen to her in the future.
  431. > She was wondering where he was going to sit when Salki did his own trick once again and simply shoved into the line. Luckily by that time some of the nomads on that side had gotten up to dance and the rest easily shuffled along to make room.
  432. > He draped one hand around her, very careful not to accidentally touch Saule again, and Mayor felt how icy his skin was against her fur. She was about to shuffle over into his lap, to at least warm him up a bit, but the boy lifted a skin in his other hand.
  433. > "[I got some beer!]" he explained and offered it to her.
  434. > That proved to be the more important bit and Mayor gratefully took it. It was already untied and she could smell the delicious liquid inside. She found the spout with practiced lips and lifted the skin up so the life-giving beer splashed into her mouth.
  435. > At least, she thought, this time she had eaten some stew, so it wasn't going to hit her on an empty stomach.
  436. > Despite that, remembering her earlier blunders, Mayor kept herself in check and only took a couple of small sips before lowering the skin and offering it to Saule.
  437. > The girl followed her example and then passed the drink back to Salki.
  438. > "[Well-]" he began to say.
  439. > "[So-]" Saule interrupted at the same time.
  440. > They both chuckled and then fell silent, unsure of how to continue. At long last it was the boy who spoke next, but he addressed his question to Mayor: "[Did the traders have news of your friend?]"
  441. > The reminder made Mayor's ears droop and Salki, well-versed in pony expressions by now, immediately understood. His hand cupped her muzzle. "[Sorry.]"
  442. > Once again the anger and sadness threatened to swell and Mayor reached for the beer skin. It would make her feel better and help her forget. She swallowed a few mouthfuls of it, then let Saule take it once more.
  443. > This time the girl barely sipped at it before handing it back. "[Here, shift over,]" she told both her and Salki as she nudged the mare off her knee. "[I'll get some bread. Do you want more stew?]"
  444. > The bowl was on the ground, where Mayor had dropped it after she had licked up every bit of the nourishing gruel and it took Saule a few moments to find it while the mare slid over to Salki's knee.
  445. > She felt him shudder as her fur, still warm from where it had been pressed against Saule, met his chilled, naked skin. He didn't even hesitate when she wrapped her hooves round his midriff and quickly reciprocated with his arms.
  446. "[Yes, stew for me please, and bread.]"
  447. > It would be a good idea to keep eating, especially if she wanted more beer. It would soften the blow from the alcohol.
  448. > Saule glanced at Salki who gave a nod too. "[Yes, me too. Uh, thank you.]"
  449. > The girl quickly averted her eyes and murmured something not even Mayor caught, before rushing off in search of the promised food. Once she was gone, the mare took the beer skin from Salki and allowed herself another small sip.
  450. > It was starting to have an effect and she could feel the pleasant buzz in her head, but she had been taking it easy enough that it hadn't yet impaired her thinking, nor was it making her nauseated.
  451. > The group of younglings next to them burst out laughing and Mayor suddenly felt self-conscious. She remembered what others had told her, about the time she had gotten drunk and kissed Salki. When she looked up and caught his gaze, and saw his flushed face, she knew he was thinking the same thing.
  452. > Suddenly even the comfort of sharing warmth didn't seem as nice and she wiggled free from his grasp.
  453. "[Too hot! Fire too hot,]" she explained, even though they both knew it was a lie.
  454. > Salki just nodded.
  455. "[Go get vest!]"
  456. > Again, he agreed. He gave her the skin and hurried off in the direction of Darga's tent. He barely made it a few steps before coming back to pick up his muddy vest from the ground. It had been a noble gesture, Mayor thought, but also a silly one and she would probably end up washing it the next day.
  457. > She put it out of her mind, took the smallest possible taste of beer, then went back to staring at the fire.
  458. > The percussive, rhythmic music was starting to make her sway to the beat. Once you got used to it, she thought, a nomad festival wasn't a bad thing.
  459. > Saule came back with two bowls, both of them full of that same meaty stew. Again, it seemed, the order of the day would be for the nomads to pick out lumps of meat and the mare to finish off the vegetables and rice.
  460. > At least she also had a loaf of fresh bread held under her armpit, out of which Mayor quickly took a substantial bite. It blended very nice with the beer, now that she had a chance to try both at the same time.
  461. > If Saule was wondering where Salki was, she didn't ask it. Instead, she settled herself on the log and nodded meaningfully at the mare. She had a bowl in each hand and she was holding them apart, which allowed Mayor to slip back into the girl's warm lap. Then her arms came back around her.
  462. > They waited until the boy came back and took one of the bowls, which freed up Saule's hands so she could start eating. Mayor alternated between nibbling the bread and sipping the bear while she waited.
  463. > "[Here, let's swap,]" Saule said when she had gotten all the meat out. She took the bread and carefully balanced the beer skin against her leg, which freed up Mayor's hooves so she could hold the bowl and dunk her muzzle in.
  464. > Her coordination was starting to suffer and she smeared a lot of the goop on her muzzle, but it was nothing her long tongue couldn't handle.
  465. > By the time she was done, Salki was already offering her the other bowl and Mayor simply let the first one slide to the ground. It was thick enough so it wouldn't break and someone would find it in the morning.
  466. > The two nomads with her shared what was left of the bread and took a bit of beer. Mayor saw to her dismay that the skin was now empty.
  467. "[Another? Go another bee- beer?]" she asked.
  468. > Her ears wouldn't obey her right and one kept folding down when she tried to perk both of them up, so she gave up and lifted a hoof instead. She paused for a moment as she tried to remember why she had intended to use her ears to point the way, but gave it up as unproductive.
  469. "[Go, go- um, tent. Yes, tent, go, my bed. Hair there, pink. Like this,]" she explained and lifted a lock of her mane. "[Go get and trade. Traders want, get more beer.]"
  470. > She looked at the deflated bag and tried to make an estimation.
  471. "[On- One more. One more bag, yes? One enough. Don't wanna... wanna... you know. Don't wanna- again.]"
  472. > The word didn't occur to her so she simply mimed something coming out of her mouth with a hoof. That nearly caused her to drop the bowl, but luckily Salki saw in time and steadied it.
  473. > "[Are you sure? You know how you get drunk-]"
  474. > Mayor nodded enthusiastically and dipped her tongue into the stew again, as if to demonstrate.
  475. "[Yes. Umm...]"
  476. > She decided to switch to Equestrian to make her point more easily.
  477. "Ya! Ya ya ya! I ate, see? Ate, so beer- it won't as strong. 'm fine!"
  478. > Saule looked over Mayor's shoulder at Salki. "[What did she say?]"
  479. > He thought for a moment, then tried his best: "[Something about food. I think she said she was fine.]"
  480. > Mayor was bobbing her head up and down.
  481. "[Yes! Yes! Fine! Food. Small drink- you will some drink, and you will some drink. I will a little drink, no- no bad, yes?]"
  482. > She pointed a hoof first at one, then at the other. Salki looked a bit uncertain, but she prodded him with a hoof and he stood up.
  483. "[Go!]"
  484. > At last he got the message and walked away. Mayor went back to her bowl of stew and began licking it clean. It was important she finish it, even though if she couldn't quite put her hoof on why. Luckily there wasn't much left and soon Saule took the empty dish from her hooves and dropped it somewhere under them.
  485. > Mayor shifted her weight a little and burped, then settled back down against the wonderfully warm human. She let out a luxurious sight when Saule encircled her in her arms and thus came close enough to share a quick nuzzle.
  486. > They sat in silence and Mayor focused once more on the music. It felt like a physical presence in the air and the mare felt her entire body begin to sway in the rhythm. She closed her eyes and tried to match the singers' throaty hum.
  487. > It wasn't too much longer before Salki returned, or maybe Mayor had fallen asleep a tiny bit. She found herself with a fresh skin of beer in her hooves and she gratefully lifted it up to her muzzle.
  488. > The alcohol tasted even better this time around, and it blended nicely with the aftertaste of her stew.
  489. > Mayor still had enough presence of mind not to gulp down all of it, so she only took one or two swallows, then returned the drink to Salki.
  490. "[That good. Good. I- uh, I like. Good beer.]"
  491. > Her two friends didn't have a comment to that, which made sense. Her logic couldn't be argued, after all. It was watertight.
  492. > More importantly, the world looked a lot nicer and more hopeful. They would find Rainy Day soon enough, and until that happened nopony could blame Mayor for snatching a few moments of happiness where she could find them.
  493. > From her vantage point where she was pressed against Saule's chest, she could see the girl sneaking glances at Salki when she thought he wasn't looking.
  494. > Mayor decided she wasn't the only one who deserved a bit of happiness every now and then.
  495. "[Go. Y-You- and you. Two. Both-you. Go an', an'... uh...]"
  496. > Again words failed her, so Mayor just swept her unsteady hoof around. She had to try again until she could point at least approximately in the direction where some nomads were gyrating near the bonfire.
  497. > The throat-singers had stopped and now another group of nomads - both men and women this time - were shouting some kind of a melody. It hadn't connected with Mayor as deeply as the percussive beat from before, but apparently it was quite popular and a number of people were dancing to it.
  498. > She tried to explain again:
  499. "[Sau- Sal- uh, two-you. Saulki an' and Saulki, go- go do 'dat!]"
  500. > Something was off with their names, but Mayor couldn't quite put her hoof on it. Luckily it didn't matter and they understood. The youngsters both chuckled to show they got it and Saule gave the young hunter a hopeful gaze.
  501. > "[It looks like fun,]" she said. "[Do you want to...?]"
  502. > The reply was a bit more hesitant and Salki took a quick swig of beer to shore up his courage, but he nodded and said: "[Uh, yeah. Let's try.]"
  503. > They both looked at Mayor, who was still clinging to the girl. "[Will you be okay alone?]" Salki asked while Saule freed herself.
  504. > Mayor was a bit sad to let go of her source of warmth, but she didn't want to stand in the way of young people having their fun, especially when it had been her own idea. She slid to the log and took the beer skin from Salki with one hoof even while she waved her other.
  505. > She had intended to use her forelegs, and had succeeded with the skin, but she noticed she was waving her hind instead. It didn't matter, they understood.
  506. "[Go. Fun! Saulki fun!]"
  507. > They didn't argue and went to join the dancers. Mayor had been hoping they would join hands, but instead they just stood next to each other awkwardly for a while. She was about to shout at them when Saule took matters into her own hoof-fingers and began moving.
  508. > It was a simple dance and it mainly consisted of just jumping up and down to the beat while wildly flinging their forelegs around, but it looked like they were enjoying it. A few moments later Salki crouched a little and began copying the girl.
  509. > Mayor took another swallow of beer and found herself mesmerised by the sight.
  510. > The dancing nomads, the reflected firelight on their limbs, the way their hair floated each time they jumped. Their clothes billowed and their hands slapped against their bare thighs in beat with the music.
  511. > She stared at Salki and Saule as they twirled around each other. When he threw himself to the left, she jumped to the right. When he jumped up, Saule was on her way down.
  512. > They were both lit by the fire behind and Mayor could barely recognize them in the mass of limbs and bodies.
  513. > Her eyes weren't the greatest, but she thought she saw Saule's teats jiggle with each jump. Before she could stop herself she squinted at Salki to see if he also jiggled elsewhere, but she couldn't see through his clothes.
  514. > It was a mating ritual, that much was clear. They were courting. If things went well, if they impressed each other, they would probably go to Salki's tent, or maybe Saule's, and... do it.
  515. > The dance, this jumping and almost touching each other was just a prelude, and they would soon be pressing their bodies together for real, in a different kind of rhythm.
  516. > It was making Mayor hot and she felt her muzzle heating up, but she couldn't look away. She couldn't help but imagine their faces pressed together.
  517. > The shapes were different than pony muzzles. She tried to imagine how nomads might kiss. Had she seen it before?
  518. "[Buygra and Xuan,]" she murmured to herself.
  519. > She had seen those two. It was interesting. They had to angle their faces so their noses didn't smoosh together and get in the way.
  520. > As Mayor watched she thought the two dancers were getting closer and closer, almost touching. It was working. The courtship would be successful!
  521. > She had helped make that happen. As a small reward, she lifted the skin again and took another mouthful of beer.
  522. > Its heat coursed down into her stomach and radiated out from there. It was concentrating deep in her belly and the mare shifted uncomfortably on the log. She was sitting on her tail, which was just as well or else it would have been hiking up and away from her, for all to see.
  523. > She wasn't quite drunk enough to stop caring what people thought or saw. She blushed a little in embarrassment and was glad that the log under her was hiding her own wetness.
  524. > Maybe while Saule and Salki were off doing it, Mayor could hide herself somewhere and play a bit with her hoof.
  525. > Celestia knew it had been ages since she'd had either time, or privacy, or the inclination.
  526. > She deserved to feel good for a while.
  527. > Mayor wasn't aware that her hoof had already crept down her belly and was starting to fondle her teats.
  528. > A small moan escaped her, but she covered it up by taking another swig of the beer.
  529. > After a lousy start it was turning into a good night after all.
  530.  
  531.  
  532. > PART THREE: Identity
  533.  
  534. > At least this time, Mayor Mare thought, she didn't feel quite as bad. Maybe she hadn't drunk enough, or maybe she was getting used to the rigmarole. Her head hurt, but not very badly, and the taste in her mouth was only disgusting, not completely foul.
  535. > More importantly, she remembered the previous evening. For the most part she did.
  536. > It had been pure luck that no one seemed to have seen her, or known what she was doing. To the outside world it must have looked like she was just sitting strangely with one forehoof braced between her hind legs on the log.
  537. > Mayor Mare whispered a quiet prayer to Celestia that it had seemed like that, and not what it actually was. Clopping herself off in drunken lust.
  538. > She blinked against the piercing white light of the spring sun, which was trying to force its way into her eyes. She wasn't in a tent. She also hadn't frozen to death, which was significant.
  539. > Perhaps 'spring sun' was correct.
  540. > Not that Mayor wasn't cold. She felt as if her very bones were made of ice, and she wasn't sure she could feel her own hide. One of her hind legs was surely frozen solid, through and through, the way it was poking out from under the fur blanket.
  541. > She was still alive, though, and the day was already getting warmer. Mayor fumbled at the tattered pieces that formed her recollection of the previous night's festivities. She had finished the second beer skin and asked for another, but Salki and Saule had banded together and refused her.
  542. > They made her eat some more bread and she had kept it down, which was, in itself, an achievement, then they sat with her on that log to make sure she wouldn't find more drink somewhere.
  543. > The two had kept talking and Mayor had a nagging suspicion that it was mostly about her. She also thought she remembered them sharing a kiss.
  544. > No, not an actual kiss, that felt incorrect. She had *wanted* them to kiss and had said so, loudly.
  545. > Mayor's muzzle turned approximately the same shade of red she thought Salki's face had been at that incredibly loud proclamation.
  546. > Her ears fell when she recalled how she'd insisted and even pushed the young couple closer with her forehooves. Saule gave Salki the briefest peck on his cheek, just to shut her up.
  547. > They dragged her back to the tent after that, probably afraid of additional mortification at her hooves, and Mayor couldn't really blame them.
  548. > Why was she sleeping outside, then?
  549. > Her first thought was that maybe the two youngsters *had*, after all, decided to fool around a little and needed the privacy. Again, that didn't feel right.
  550. > No, the truth was that Mayor had very nearly vomited after all the jostling and walking through the camp and Darga had proclaimed that the mare would sleep outside, lest she make a mess of her tent.
  551. > Luckily Salki had had enough presence of mind to start a fire and bring her a couple of fur skins to wrap up. He opted to remain with her for a while longer and Saule decided to keep him company.
  552. > Mayor didn't know how long they had remained, nor could she guess how long they had stayed up, talking about the first hunt with the bow.
  553. > She remembered feeling disappointed, which could mean that the weapon hadn't performed quite as well as the hunters had hoped, but that could just as well had been a remnant of how Mayor had felt when the travellers didn't have any news of Rainy Day.
  554. > Doubtless either Salki or Bakar would tell her before long.
  555. > That covered the entirety of the night and Mayor relaxed her shoulders which she didn't even remember tensing up. Nothing bad had happened, she hadn't done anything too embarrassing, and she hadn't drunk enough to feel particularly bad.
  556. > Maybe it really was spring.
  557. > She sat up and pulled her icy hind leg under the warm cover of her fur blanket. She shivered a little now that she had woken up and could feel just how cold she was.
  558. > The fire was long gone, of course, and Mayor briefly considered trying to light it again. She glanced around for some kindling, or at least some firewood, but there was none in plain sight. No doubt Darga would soon send her out to fetch some.
  559. > At least moving would warm her up, Mayor thought. She could relieve herself and get a drink of fresh water at the spring.
  560. > The ground was very nearly dry, too, which meant that the days of slogging through mud were over.
  561. > Her ear caught a faint rustle and she glanced behind her. Salki was standing in front of the tent and watching her. She tried for a quick smile and a wave, but the movement opened up the makeshift fur tent around her body and let in a stab of icy air, so she quickly settled back.
  562. "[Bring- bring my coat please?]"
  563. > For the longest moment the nomad simply stared at her and Mayor felt her ears wilting all by themselves in apprehension.
  564. "[What?!]"
  565. > Salki didn't say anything, but he vanished into the tent and reappeared a few moments later with the bundle of fur which was her coat. He tossed it to her and went to poke at the fire with his foot.
  566. > His behaviour was worrying the mare and she forgot about the momentary chill as she shrugged into the garment. She tried to knot the bits of string at the neck, but her hooves were shaking and uncoordinated.
  567. "[Please? Tie,]" she prompted.
  568. > It looked like Salki would ignore her and she was about to ask why, when the young nomad exhaled and crouched down in front of her. He grabbed the straps and tugged, rather more roughly than usually. He made a simple knot, one she could undo with her hooves, but his movements were stiff and jerky.
  569. > He didn't meet her gaze.
  570. > Mayor made an educated guess why he seemed angry and tried to smile.
  571. "[It is fine! I did not drink many tonight! Just a little! Little drunk, not big drunk!]"
  572. > The language wasn't quite where it should have been, she thought, but it worked well enough to make herself understood. Walking a little would get her blood moving and she would quickly shed the last remnants of the alcoholic haze.
  573. > Salki didn't seem mollified, though. He grunted at her, then stood up. "[You just can't fucking help yourself, can you?!]" he snarled.
  574. > Mayor's ears instantly flattened and she flinched from his tone.
  575. "[What? Why?! I did not get drunk! I had a little fun, that all!]"
  576. > He glared at her again and his fists bunched up, but then Salki relaxed and turned back to the tent. "[Of course you don't remember. You never do. Fucking beast. Just- go. Mother said to fetch water and firewood. Go.]"
  577. > Surely she hadn't drunk enough to blank out! Mayor clearly remembered every moment of the night. Was he angry about her trying to get him to kiss Saule?
  578. "[I'm sorry for saying Saule kiss you. I did not mean it that way. Okay? I'm sorry!]"
  579. > Salki paused as he was holding the tent flap up so he could look back at her. He didn't say anything for a few seconds, then his mother's sleepy voice yelled to close the flap because it was cold.
  580. > He let it drop and came back. "[That?! You remember that, but not what you did after? Why am I not surprised?]"
  581. > Mayor thought forward from that embarrassing moment.
  582. "[After? What after? I say stupid thing, Saule give you small kiss, we come here. Darga said I sleep outside so I not throw up in the tent, you make fire and give me blanket. That is all.]"
  583. > The nomad let his head hang and shook it in sad dismay. "[Just get the fucking water,]" he said quietly. "[I don't want to talk about it.]"
  584. > Mayor opened her mouth to argue some more, or to beg forgiveness, or to ask him again what had happened, but Salki was already stomping away in the direction of the central bonfire. She didn't think he wanted her company at the moment, so she didn't follow.
  585. > Instead she shook herself a little to settle her coat more closely around her midriff and rear, then went in search of Saule. The water and the firewood could wait a bit.
  586.  
  587. > ~~~~
  588.  
  589. > It didn't take long to find the girl outside the tent she shared with her mother and Bakar. The young nomad was on her knees, blowing gently into a smoking pile of tinder.
  590. > Very few other nomads were to be seen. Most of the women had probably already left for the stream, and the men were either out hunting, or sleeping off whatever fun they'd had the previous night.
  591. "[Hey,]" Mayor greeted Saule.
  592. > The nomad glanced up, grimaced, then bent back to the small flame she was carefully feeding with wooden chips.
  593. > Mayor picked up a few of the smaller branches from a nearby pile with her mouth and brought them closer, so Salki wouldn't have to get up to fetch them.
  594. > She didn't get any thanks, but the youth did grab the bits of wood and place them in a rough cone around the fledgling fire. She went back to blowing softly into the middle of the orange glow and was rewarded by new flames licking at the wood.
  595. > There was a lot of smoke and Mayor turned her head away when it billowed right in her muzzle. It stung her eyes, but she simply blinked to get rid of the tears, then went to bring Saule more sticks.
  596. > She was being unusually quiet and reclusive and Mayor's ears splayed as she guessed the reason. She decided to preemptively apologize, even if she didn't know what she had done. The way Salki had spoken, something happened after they had all sat down at the fire to talk.
  597. > Maybe Mayor had said something in her drowsy, half-asleep, half-drunk state.
  598. "[I'm sorry. You know, for last night. I- remember night, but not remember at the tent- at the fire. Did I say something?]"
  599. > At last Saule looked at her, but the expression on her face was unreadable to Mayor. She didn't remember ever seeing it on the young nomad. It looked like a mixture of anger, exasperation, and pity.
  600. "[Please, Saule. I'm sorry. I did not mean it, whatever I said!]"
  601. > The girl blinked in surprise. "[Said?! You didn't say anything.]"
  602. > Mayor sat on her haunches and spread her hooves in a shrug.
  603. "[Then what? I don't remember the fire. I think I went to sleep, we did not talk long. What did I do?]"
  604. > They stared at on another for a while and Mayor felt her ears creeping lower with each heartbeat. She was about to let her head hang and simply slink away in defeat. She could try to talk with her friends again later, when they were no longer this angry.
  605. > Before she could put that thought into action, however, Saule exhaled and threw her head back. "[You dumb pony and your dumb pony ears. It's not fair, you know?! I didn't have ears when I messed up and Mother was spanking me!]"
  606. > Mayor was aware that many nomads found the way she looked cute, but so far she hadn't thought it had ever worked in her favor. Maybe it had, though, and she simply wasn't aware?
  607. > It looked like she was breaking through to her friend, at least, so Mayor made sure to keep her expression downcast.
  608. "[I am really sorry, Saule. I did not mean it. Please believe! I am sorry!]"
  609. > She kept her eyes firmly on the bit of ground just before Saule's wrapped feet. "[You sure looked like you meant it last night.]"
  610. "[Please- what did I do?]"
  611. > The silence stretched for long heartbeats, then Saule grunted and sat heavily on the ground. Mayor considered going to hug the girl, but decided not to. She focused on maintaining that splayed-eared, downcast-eyed, hunched-shouldered look.
  612. > "[I thought I could trust you, you know?]" Saule said, but it sounded as if she was talking to herself. It still made Mayor flinch. Whatever had happened must have been really bad.
  613. "[I'm sorry!]" she cried again, "[what did I do?]"
  614. > Salki sighed again, but at last she spoke: "[You were a little drunk. Well, a lot, but you weren't completely out of it like before. Like Salki said that time.]"
  615. > So far that matched what Mayor herself had thought. She released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.
  616. > "[You remember how you started shouting we should kiss? I did it just to shut you up.]" Saule spotted how Mayor's ears flattened and shook her head. "[That wasn't it. We decided to take you home, but Salki's mother didn't want you in the tent so you wouldn't puke all over it. We made you a bed outside and Salki built a fire. Then we sat with you while you got warm. You were holding my hand to your belly.]"
  617. > Dark suspicion rose up in Mayor's mind and her ears flattened even lower. She began to shake her head, as if to deny what was coming.
  618. > Saule looked around in the sudden silence, then sighed. "[Look, I'm not mad, okay? You're just an animal and you were drunk. It was still disgusting.]"
  619. > Mayor had to swallow several times before she could make her voice work.
  620. "[Did- did I? Push it- your... did I- did I ask you to...]"
  621. > Luckily she didn't have to actually say it, because Saule understood. "[You didn't ask. You just put my hand there. I couldn't pull free, you're too strong. Salki helped me free and then you just fell asleep.]"
  622. > She didn't know what to say to that. Mayor slumped and stared fixedly at her hooves for a while as she tried to come up with some good nomad words. In the end all she had to say sounded lame, and it didn't help that her voice shook and refused to work.
  623. "[I'm sorry. Saule I didn't mean to-]"
  624. > That guilty little memory popped up, of Mayor trying to imagine what human fingers might feel like, and she couldn't finish the sentence.
  625. "[No, fuck, that not true. I wanted to, but it was wrong. I'm, sorry.]"
  626. > She doubted the nomad would want to keep looking at her, so Mayor simply dragged herself to her hooves and left with her head held low. A part of her hoped that Saule would come running after her and tell her it would be alright, but it didn't happen.
  627. > Was there any apology she could make for-
  628. > Mayor swallowed painfully and pushed the thought through. For forcing herself upon the nomad girl? That was basically what it was and she didn't want to hide from the ugly truth.
  629. > It sounded like nothing much had happened, but it was no thanks to Mayor or her self-control.
  630. "What in the bucking Tartarus is ... is... [fucking] wrong with me?!"
  631. > She was drinking whenever she could get her hooves on booze and she tried to force herself on her friends when she was drunk. Mayor wasn't sure she recognized herself as a pony.
  632. > Had this place changed her that much? Maybe these ugly things had always been inside of her and simply hadn't had time or opportunity to come out?
  633. > Maybe the stark brutality of the nomads' world was finally rubbing off on her? Maybe that was what happened to ponies if they were exposed to this life. They became monsters.
  634. > She needed to think and try to find in herself that essential thread of kindness and goodwill. She had to go back to her Equestrian roots. She simply *had* to keep her identity.
  635. > Most importantly:
  636. "I'm...[fucking] never drinking again!"
  637. > She would have to make it up to Saule somehow. Maybe Salki would agree to whip her like an animal. The nomad girl had been right, Mayor had behaved like a beast of the field. She should be treated as one until she learned to do better.
  638. > She recalled something Bakar had said, once.
  639. "[What a fucking mess...]"
  640.  
  641. > ~~~~
  642.  
  643. > Mayor Mare wandered aimlessly for a while, until she found herself at the stream. She didn't feel particularly thirsty, but drank anyway out of sheer habit. There was no one to accost her, so she headed back to the camp.
  644. > She still needed to fetch her clay pots and take water for Darga and Salki, but she didn't think she could face the nomad boy, not yet.
  645. > First she had to process the incident in her own mind. She felt numb, as if it hadn't happened to her, personally, but that was because the full implications hadn't yet worked their way through her shock.
  646. > It didn't *sound* like her.
  647. > Surely she would never, even if she were drunk, do something like that? It was not what a pony - any pony - would do. It was inequine!
  648. > For a while Mayor tried blaming it on the beer, but she kept remembering the eager thrill of anticipation when she'd realized she could get drunk the previous day. Then, she had told herself it was to dull the disappointment after the traders hadn't had any news of Rainy Day, but that was just another excuse.
  649. > She'd wanted to drink because she liked how it made her feel. For a few hours the world wasn't completely bucked-up.
  650. "Only because I'm just as... as [fucked up] as the world," she murmured to herself.
  651. > It still wasn't her fault, not completely. She'd been taken from her home, again her will, and made a prisoner of these people. Sure, she liked some of them more than the others, but they had still foal-napped her.
  652. > Ever since she had been brought to this unfriendly world she had had to see things that no pony should have to see.
  653. > Blood, and violence, and cruelty, and a cold disregard for life and justice, even for the most basic decency. The nomads had rudiments of civilisation, but they were little more than animals.
  654. > Was it really that strange that they'd dragged her down? Could any pony stand up to them and retain her ideals, remain a true Equestrian, in this dark, dismal, brutal place?
  655. > Drinking was a coping mechanism. She did it to keep from going insane.
  656. > It didn't excuse... *using* Saule, but maybe it helped explain it?
  657. > Mayor imagined saying those words to Darga, or to Intor, or even to Mitra, Saule's daughter. Would they understand, or would they punish her?
  658. > What were nomad punishments like? Mayor had seen beatings, but those mostly applied to children. She hadn't seen any of the adults being punished. What would happen to her?
  659. > She wasn't even one of them, maybe the nomads would decide that she was just too dangerous and unpredictable. If they could no longer trust her, maybe it would be easier to just kill her for the meat, or send her out into the wilderness alone.
  660. > Mayor's legs began to tremble and her breathing quickened as she remembered that fateful night she and Rainy Day had tried to run from wolves. She wouldn't survive long on her own, and the end would be gruesome.
  661. > If that were her choice, she would prefer they just ended it quickly. An image of a knife, slowly sliding across her throat made the mare shudder and groan in fright.
  662. > There was no way she could face either of those fates!
  663. > She remembered the thought she'd had when she was running out of the camp, some hours prior. Maybe she could avoid the worse punishment if she acted quickly!
  664. > Mayor suddenly had an important goal and she hastened her hoofsteps back to Saule's tent. After a few moments she broke into a gallop, suddenly afraid that she was already too late.
  665. "Please, don't tell your Mom yet, plase!" she whined under her breath.
  666. > If she could reach the girl soon enough, maybe she could strike a deal. Her and Salki. Mayor would atone, as best she could, as long as it didn't include her having to die.
  667. > She dashed around campfires and missed nomads by inches. Sometimes she didn't quite make it and her side smacked against a thigh, or a rump, so her progress was marked by an occasional angry shout or yell of pain.
  668. > Mayor knew she was knocking some of the nomads to the ground, but they would live and she didn't have any time to spare.
  669. > She shouted apologies, but didn't spare any more breath to say where she was going or why. The only piece of luck was that none of the nomads came after her, either through curiosity or through anger. For that, Mayor was grateful.
  670. > Saule was still tending the fire outside of her mother's tent, but now she had a leather pot of soup stretched on a tripod. It smelled of meaty broth, but Mayor simply ignored it as she stopped in front of the girl.
  671. > She was panting and her entire body was trembling, but luckily she could still speak.
  672. "[Quick! Saule, did you say to Mother? Did you say- about me? Last night?]" Mayor demanded.
  673. > Her sudden appearance and the question were strange enough that Saule replied before she could remember her grievance. "[N-No? Why? What is this?!]"
  674. > Mayor threw herself on her knees, partly out of exhaustion, and partly as a sign of humility.
  675. "[Please! Please no tell anyone! I am saying please! I pay, I promise. You, Salki- you take me and beat me, okay? Punishment, yes. Beating. I will pay, but please no tell anyone! They will kill me!]"
  676. > The mare wasn't entirely certain about that last part, but she wasn't taking any chances and would play on any heartstrings she could to save herself.
  677. > The nomad girl looked stunned and didn't seem to know how to answer her. "[Wha- What? What are you talking about? Beating?]"
  678. > Mayor crawled closer to the girl and lifted her forelegs out of the mud in supplication. Some other nomads had gathered around, so she would have to watch her words, but other than that Mayor didn't care what they saw or thought.
  679. "[Yes! Please, I did wrong and you can beat me. How much you think, I will not fight it. I am really sorry, I will prove it! Just no tell anyone!]"
  680. > That last she said in a lower voice, otherwise the brighter of the onlookers might start guessing at more than Mayor would have liked them to. There were some murmurs, but they were too faint even for her pony ears.
  681. > Meanwhile Saule had stood up, but she wasn't backing away, which Mayor took as a good sign. "[I don't understand. Why would I beat you?]"
  682. "[Punishment. I deserve punishment, no? I want your punishment, not your mother, or Darga. I did it to you, it should be you. Maybe also Salki, but you first!]"
  683. > They were near enough so that there was little chance now of anyone overhearing. The nomads kept their respectful distance and some left, now that the commotion of her crazy arrival seemed to be over, but a few still hung around, curious.
  684. > Saule looked around and seemed to notice their audience for the first time. Her face went beet red and she glared at the mare. "[What are you doing?! I don't want a scene, not after- not today! Get away from me!]"
  685. > She was losing her and Mayor had to force her forelegs into stillness, before they wrapped around the girls legs in a desperate hug. Talking became harder as new fear flowed through her.
  686. > If Saule insisted on telling the adults and left the punishment to them, all the horrible things Mayor had imagined would come to pass.
  687. "[Please, please, Saule! I am your friend, we can fix this! I'm sorry! I'll go away, just promise: no tell anyone and you punish me, no one else. Promise! I will go, okay? I will wait, we will talk later.]"
  688. > Maybe she got through to the girl, or maybe she just wanted the public scene to end, because Saule threw her arms up in defeat and growled: "[Bah, fine! I'll beat you if you insist. I won't tell anyone, just go!]"
  689. > The relief was too much and Mayor reached out a hoof to snag the edge of Saule's coat. She kissed the animal fur and smiled at the nomad girl.
  690. "[Thank you! I'm sorry, thank you! I will wait. We will make it right, I promise. Thank you!]"
  691. > Before the young woman could change her mind Mayor crawled a few steps away and got to her hooves. She was filthy with mud and her coat was caked in it, but all of it was less dirty than she felt inside.
  692. > She did what she had to do to survive, but she didn't feel particularly good about it. Mayor Mare kept her smile in place and her ears firmly down until she was out of sight of Saule, then she went to search for Salki. With luck he hadn't told anyone either, and he might be easier to convince now that Saule was on board.
  693. > Mayor had meant every word: she would pay with every lash. She would let them them beat her until she was blue, just so long as she didn't have to die for her mistake. Maybe she'd never regain Saule's friendship, but she would at least try to get her forgiveness.
  694. > It wouldn't be pleasant, but, the mare thought to herself, the nomads may underestimate how tough her earth pony hide was. Maybe the beating would be quite as as she imagined.
  695. > Even if it was, it would be a thousand times better than feeling one of those jagged stone knives slice into her flesh. A million times better than wolf fangs tearing her belly open.
  696. > She hobbled on three legs for a few steps so she could place a hoof over her midriff. The mere thought made her queasy.
  697. > One of the nomads she had run over in her earlier rush approached and asked something, but Mayor wasn't paying them any mind.
  698. > She blurted out something which hopefully sounded noncommittal and hurried off in search of Salki.
  699.  
  700. > ~~~
  701.  
  702. > The two young nomads actually did it. Salki had found a long, thin, supple branch somewhere and they'd beaten her. Not too harshly, but the whip had left lines of fire across Mayor's rump.
  703. > She'd tried to bear it stoically, but before long she was whimpering and squeaking at each blow. Yet when Saule asked if they should stop, Mayor had shaken her head. She wanted to make things right, so she'd told the girl to continue.
  704. > If anything, Saule's lashes were stronger than Salki's, but that made sense. After all, Mayor had involved her directly, while the young man had only watched the scene.
  705. > She wanted it to be a punishment. It had to hurt, so she would remember, so she could square it away with herself. It was how the nomad world worked; on punishment and pain and misery. Mayor was a part of it now, and the sooner she adapted to their ways, the easier it would be for her.
  706. > Despite her stubborn, earth-pony insistence, she was still glad when her friend proclaimed the beating over. Her legs were weak and trembling, and her muzzle was wet with tears. She was covered with fresh mud from the time her limbs had buckled after a particularly strong lash and she'd flopped down into the dirty slush.
  707. > Perhaps the only saving grace of the whole affair was that they'd done it out of sight of the camp. Mayor had taken her two friends far enough so no one would conceivably come across their unusual activity and ask problematic questions.
  708. > It was done and she was left trembling and breathing heavily. An occasional moan drew itself from her muzzle as her back panged with remembered pain. She raised her eyes to Saule, who seemed worried of all things.
  709. > "[Are you okay?]" the nomad girl asked quietly.
  710. "[Yes. Thank you. I am sorry, you believe now? I prove I am sorry?]"
  711. > Upon mention of her beating Saule looked away, unwilling to meet her eyes. "[You didn't have to do this.]"
  712. "[No, no. What I did yesterday- that was wrong. You had- I had to be punished. Okay? Now it is done and we do not need to tell others.]"
  713. > This last came as a bit of a surprise and Saule looked at Salki in confusion. "[Why would we need to tell anyone else?]"
  714. "[You will not tell Mother? Salki not tell Darga? I am afraid- if Mitra and Darga know, maybe they punish worse. Maybe they say 'Meyermer, you leave and not come back!' Maybe they kill me for meat.]"
  715. > Mere mention of it was enough to make Mayor Mare shudder anew. She had seen a few times how such slaughter was done and the panicky, fear-filled, gargling braying of the donkeys was the stuff of nightmares for her.
  716. > Again both young nomads with her seemed completely bewildered. "[They wouldn't do that,] Salki said, at the same time as Saule blurted out: "[Why would they kill you?]"
  717. > Mayor looked from one to the other and tried to come up with an explanation. It was distasteful, especially with her limited language, but she had to explain it.
  718. "[I did a bad thing! Very bad thing! You are young, Saule, and I- I tried to make you... what I did was very bad. It is a big no in Equestria. They put me- they punish me very bad.]"
  719. > The girl was still lost and she shrugged her shoulders. "[You just took my hand and made me touch you. I was angry because you didn't ask and you made me, but no one else would care. This happens.]"
  720. > She thought about it some more, but Salki seemed to understand a bit better. "[I guess...]" he started and spread his arms in uncertainty. "[Sometimes, some man fucks a woman- a young woman who doesn't want it. If the woman's family, if her brother or father find out, they will get the man and beat him. Is it like that?]"
  721. > It sounded pretty close and Mayor nodded urgently.
  722. "[Yes! It's bad like that!]"
  723. > This just made the two more confused and they exchanged a rapid series of sentences out of which Mayor could hardly distinguish an occasional word.
  724. > "[But- you didn't fuck me,]" Saule said and came closer so she could crouch in front of the mare and inspect her face from up close. "[You're a girl. A girl can't fuck another girl.]"
  725. "[Y-You were angry about it...]"
  726. > To this, the nomad shrugged a little. "[Because you used my hand and didn't ask me. I would also be angry if you grabbed me and dragged me around and not let me go. What did you think?]"
  727. > It was another painful reminder of just how backward the nomad society was, Mayor realized. She vaguely remembered learning about similar sentiment in Equestria's dark, history, far before the three tribes were united. She shook her head firmly, determined to explain, and reached out to place a hoof on Salki's arm.
  728. "[It the same, you see? Even if I am girl and you are too, it is the same bad! It is wrong to do that when you say no! I am the same bad as those men you said!]"
  729. > At this both Salki and Saule laughed uproariously. "[Is that why you wanted us to beat you?!]" Salki suddenly understood. "[Meyermer, it's not the same! A man forcing himself on a woman, or a girl, that is bad. If a girl does it- even if it's with a boy and they actually fuck, that's nothing! No one would care! Even when it's a man, they only care if it's a young girl, and usually only her family!]"
  730. > Mayor's ears lowered and she drew a deep sigh. Part of it was relief. Even if the two had promised not to tell, something could slip out and she'd been afraid that, eventually, someone would learn her secret and punish her brutally for it. She no longer thought that would happen.
  731. > That sliver of relief, however, was almost lost in a sea of self-loathing, precisely because she felt relieved. She'd been so worried about any punishment that she'd completely lost the Equestrian way.
  732. > She had begged and pleaded with these youngsters not to tell others about her abuse. Yes, that was exactly what it was, and she couldn't hide from it any longer. She was an abuser, and a drunk. The kiss with Salki had shown it, and this thing with Saule proved it.
  733. > Even worse, she had gone to such great lengths to twist herself out of the responsibility!
  734. > What even was she, now? She surely couldn't call herself 'pony' any longer.
  735. > Mayor sat heavily down and began to weep openly. The beating, the residual pain from it, and the worse hurt right down in her heart were too much to bear.
  736. > So easily had she lost herself. A mere few months living harshly and she was just as low, conniving, back-stabbing and hypocritical as the worst of the nomads.
  737. > She felt fresh admiration for people like Xuan and Buygra, even for Saule and Salki, who became as good as they were despite living like this their entire lives. Mayor no longer thought she could do it.
  738. > It was easy being an Equestrian in Equestria. It was less easy being one here.
  739. > Maybe a stronger pony would have endured. Rainy Day probably would.
  740. > Mayor keenly felt the pain of loss again, and she wept harder. She was hardly aware of the two sets of warm hands patting the fur on her muzzle, brushing away her tears, and of the two gentle voices saying soothing words.
  741. > She just wept.
  742. > She knew they prodded her upright and pushed her in some direction. She heart one of the hurry away and guessed it was Salki, his heavier footsteps receding on the wet grass. She looked at where he was going, but everything was a watery blur.
  743. > Finally, she just wept from sheer relief. The two wouldn't stop being her friends, even if they had every right and justification to do so. They would forgive her, and perhaps she had atoned a little through her beating.
  744. > If she got a few dozen more like that, she might even believe it herself.
  745. > She wept for her pony soul, slowly withering away in this brutal land.
  746. > Mayor didn't know how much time had passed. Even after her tears had dried, she had kept blindly following Saule until they came to the stream. The girl had taken her leather foot wraps off and had prodded the mare into the cold water.
  747. > At that point she wouldn't mind if Saule was going to drown her.
  748. > Except the girl wanted nothing of the sort. She lifted Mayor's filthy animal skin cloak from the mare and ran her hands through her mane. She lifted handfuls of water and splashed it against the mare.
  749. > It was exceedingly cold, but the day itself wasn't quite as freezing as winter. Mayor shivered, but she felt she could endure.
  750. > The girl was washing her. The icy water felt good on her lashes, even if was making her shudder violently.
  751. > "[There, there,]" Saule kept saying. "[Let's clean you up and get you back to warm up. It's going to be okay, Meyermer. I forgive you.]"
  752. > That last bit made the mare burst out in fresh tears, but this time they didn't last as long.
  753. > Saule splashed around her and Mayor saw her blurry face looking directly into her own. She ran her fingers through the matted fur around her head, then cupped more water with her hand.
  754. > She held it for a while, then brought it up and trickled it down Mayor's muzzle.
  755. > The mare quickly understood. By holding the water, Saule let it warm up from her body heat so it would be more comfortable for Mayor.
  756. > She attempted a smile.
  757. "[Thank you. I do not deserve a friend like you. I'm sorry.]"
  758. > Mayor thought the nomad returned her grin, but it was hard to tell because the next trickle of water made her close her eyes. She remained still and let Saule methodically wash her face clean.
  759. > It felt nice and after a while Mayor forgot the chill and even stopped shivering.
  760. > Her ear was turned back and she heard someone approach. She thought it was Salki and the young hunter confirmed it when the shifting wind brought his scent to her nose. He spoke to Saule: ["I got the cloak, come out before you both freeze to death.]"
  761. > To which the girl replied: "[It's not that cold when the sun is up! Want to come in? You stink too, you could use a wash!]"
  762. > The couple laughed at each other, but Salki didn't take the offer and waited on the bank. Luckily he didn't have long to wait, for Saule wiped the majority of the water from Mayor's face and proclaimed: "[There, that's better. Now let's wrap you up and get you in a warm tent.]"
  763. > She raised her voice to speak to Salki: "[Did you make a fire in Bakar's tent?]"
  764. > "[I told him what we were doing and he made the fire himself. He said we should hurry back before we catch the cough.]"
  765. > Saule just gave an affirmative-sounding grunt as she tugged on Mayor's mane to get the mare out of the stream. Soon they were back on dry land and the two nomads wrapped Mayor in dry, clean animal skin clothes. Soon, she knew, they would warm up with her body heat.
  766. "[I do not know what to say. I'm sorry. You are both kind.]"
  767. > In lieu of a reply, Salki just gave her head a few pats and after a moment Saule did the same. They began their walk back, and then the girl said: "[If you make me touch you again, I *will* break your leg, okay?]"
  768. "[If I make you touch again, I will let you,]" Mayor replied earnestly.
  769. > No more drinking, she promised herself, not for the first time. This time she meant it, however.
  770.  
  771. > ~~~~
  772.  
  773. > Things gradually settled back into routine. Mayor Mare felt as if things between her, Salki, and Saule were a little uneasy, but she didn't bring it up and focused instead on the business of survival.
  774. > Her duties didn't significantly change and she still mostly carried things, or fetched firewood and water, but it was getting easier as the ground dried and her hooves no longer sank into soft mud with each step.
  775. > Aside from those boring, monotonous duties, Mayor spent a lot of time with Hisein's child slaves, whom she was teaching the nomad language. Her own grasp wasn't yet perfect, but it was steadily improving.
  776. > It also allowed her to see that the two weren't being mistreated. The girl, Ning, was the younger of the two and seemed to be adapting to her new life. There were moments when the brother and sister suddenly grew silent and distant, and on more than one occasion Mayor had seen their faces wet, but there were also times when they laughed.
  777. > What had happened to them was definitely wrong, but at least they weren't suffering. At least physically.
  778. > Talking with the two, as they began to grasp the nomad language, also brought a rather surprising revelation. Mayor learned that their people, at least the rich and well-educated, could read and write.
  779. > For the first time since her capture Mayor began to realize that way she had seen these nomads live might not be the only one. There were other peoples in the world, different cultures with perhaps different values. Perhaps there were some who were more civilized, closer to Equestria.
  780. > She'd called their entire race 'nomads', from the little she had seen so far, but perhaps that wasn't a good description. She decided to keep the moniker for the ones she knew, the people who camped and moved, and had few belongings beyond what they could carry. Ning and Fen Ko's people she tentatively dubbed the 'city-builders' in her head, at least until she could find out more about them and come up with a better name.
  781. > Unfortunately there wasn't a lot of detail to learn, because children were too young to have picked up very much of their parents' culture and lore, and their memories were quickly fading into a dim past before their life in the camp.
  782. > Still, they knew about reading and writing, even if they had never actually seen it. When Mayor asked how their parents had kept track of their trades and stock, neither Ning nor Fen Ko knew.
  783. > Trying to get them to remember was unproductive, as memories of what had happened were more likely to drive the two into sad, sullen silence than get any kind of useful response. Remembering was causing them distress and Mayor soon stopped trying.
  784. > Despite that particular setback, Mayor had gone back to Darga and insisted again that reading and writing would be beneficial to the tribe.
  785. > This time she was able to explain it better, or perhaps her inventions had given the mare some credibility, because the chieftain allowed her to try and teach this strange skill, but only to nomads who wanted to learn it.
  786. > Salki was one of them, but he was becoming a critical member of the hunting party so he didn't have a whole lot of time. On the other hoof, Saule seemed willing, but things between her and Mayor were still tense and uncomfortable, and the girl had her hands full with the work her mother assigned her.
  787. > Mayor had tried with Xuan and had gotten the young woman to remember some of the letters, even if she didn't quite understand what they were for, until Xuan's mother had stepped in and forbade this dangerous magic, as she called it, this close to the birth.
  788. > Few other nomads were friendly enough with Mayor to invest hours and hours into a skill with dubious usefulness, despite her assurances that it would be worthwhile.
  789. > Lately Mayor was trying to come up with a way to prove it when she didn't have other duties.
  790.  
  791. > ~~~~
  792.  
  793. "[No, round, like fist, but flat so I can hold it,]" she told Darkhan.
  794. > He was using his fingers to expertly shape a lump of clay into an oblong shape. The bowl part had been easy, although the craftsman didn't quite understand why the vessel had to be so thick.
  795. > Now she was trying to explain the concept of a pestle. She'd started with 'small spear', now she was trying for something a bit more rounded.
  796. "[Like river stone! Round and smooth, yes? One side round and smooth, other side like spear so I hold like this.]"
  797. > She mimed gripping the pestle between her hooves and moved it up and down.
  798. "[I hit- I grind in bowl, like flour! Put plants, then hit them so they- um, so they are like water. Like mud! Understand?]"
  799. > Unfortunately the nomad didn't, and just stared at her strangely. Mayor sighed and pointed a hoof at the lump he was holding.
  800. "[That is almost right. Keep it that, but make this,]" she began and pointed, "[round like river stone. Okay? Only that part round, rest is good.]"
  801. > It wouldn't be too comfortable to hold for her, since the shaft was too round, but it would be good enough to demonstrate the principle. After that Darkhan would probably understand better.
  802. > He shrugged to himself and began smoothing the clay on the side she had indicated.
  803. "[Yes, good. That is good. When will it be done?]"
  804. > The man grunted and looked at the cloud-covered sky to gauge the position of the sun. "[I will put it to bake tonight with some other things. You can come and help build the fire.]"
  805. "[I will!]"
  806. > She had seen the preparation and the effort which went into making sure the fire would burn at the correct speed and temperature, so the clay would be baked evenly. Despite a lifetime of practice, only about every third of fourth batch of pottery came out usable.
  807. > It was likely that Mayor would have to wait longer and fetch more soil and water before her mortar and pestle were done, but it would be worth it.
  808. > Luckily this had been one of her interest in college and it was a topic she remembered well. Not exactly history, but her class on ancient languages had included a very unusual lecture on how ink was made in the pre-Equestrian society.
  809. > Mayor would have to experiment a little with different plants, but she didn't care much if the ink she came up with ended up green, so long as it was usable. She also had some ideas on how to carve basic quill-like pens from bamboo shoots, and she'd gotten Bakar to carve out some smooth, flat bits of wood she could use in lieu of paper.
  810. > What she would write and how she would prove its usefulness still eluded her, but at least having the means would go a long way, Mayor thought.
  811. > She said her goodbye to Darkhan and left him to finish up the rest of the pottery he was making while she went to look for Salki.
  812. > He would probably be with Bakar and Willow out in the fields beyond the camp where they usually set up their archery targets.
  813. > It was a source of quiet amusement to Mayor that Willow had proven to be completely inept at shooting bows. That was why their first hunt with the new tool had been such a disappointment. The 'mighty hunter' had drawn their one bow too hard on his first try and had broken it.
  814. > After that it had been Salki who was shaping to be the tribe's best marksman, something which Darga approved and Intor hated. That was perfectly fine with Mayor.
  815. > Willow had taken to watching Salki practice, perhaps in the vain hope that he might learn some of the talent. The way things were going, Mayor was starting to think that Willow's spot as top hunter was slowly slipping away from him.
  816. > It would serve him right, although a scorned and disappointed Willow could be a dangerous thing. Another reason for Mayor to look in on the practice as often as she could. If the dummy tried to get belligerent she was sure she could subdue him together with Salki.
  817. > After the practice she would bring the pots of water Darga had asked for and wash the animal skins the woman had commanded washed. It was best not to disappoint the chieftain, even with Mayor's recent contributions to the tribe's technological progress.
  818. > There was still plenty of day left, though, and Mayor paused here and there if she spotted a particularly tender young grass. Now that spring was in full swing, her diet was becoming a lot easier to organize, even if plain grass was a bit bland.
  819. > She stopped once to admire a beautiful, five-petaled pink flower of a type she didn't recognize. She gave it a tentative sniff, then took a cautious nibble. Mayor couldn't be sure that it was edible, but most flowers in Equestria were good and she felt curious and optimistic.
  820. > It was slightly bitter, more than she was used to, but nothing about the taste seemed off, so she swallowed. One single petal wouldn't kill her, even if it wasn't exactly edible. At worst she would have indigestion or stomach pains.
  821. > If, on the other hoof, she didn't, she would return the next day to taste more of them. It had been ages since she had a nice, crisp flower salad.
  822.  
  823. > ~~~~
  824.  
  825. > Mayor Mare was on her way to the stream with her large clay pots when Salki caught up with her. She looked at him and pointedly turned an ear in his direction, but didn't otherwise greet the young nomad.
  826. > It didn't seem necessary, not after having just said goodbye to him less than five minutes ago.
  827. > Salki didn't waste time and spoke as he fell in step with her: "[There will be a circle hunt in two days and then we will leave this camp.]"
  828. > The first part wasn't a big surprise, since Mayor had heard others talking about it, but the second thing came as a bit of a shock. On reflection she should have been expecting it, since the tribe had camped in the same spot throughout winter and their hunters had to travel further and further afield to find their prey.
  829. "[Um. Okay? What should I do?]"
  830. > Her friend asked: "[For the circle hunt or for moving?]"
  831. > She had asked about the migration, but now that he'd brought it up Mayor wondered if she should make any special preparations.
  832. "[Both?]"
  833. > "[Nothing for the hunt. Women and children will have clubs, but you don't have hands. You can kick or bite.]"
  834. > Mayor vowed to herself she would do no such thing, even in the unlikely chance that the nomads' clumsy stomping around actually managed to dislodge any of the animals. She had seen a few creatures of this world and they were quick, furtive little critters, who ran away at the first sight of a nomad.
  835. > They had learned, Mayor supposed, that the people were just another predator. Some creatures in Equestria were like that. Animals around the Everfree Forest, and those in the Badlands and the undiscovered West.
  836. > In fact, the mare would be mightily surprised of there were any small critters *left* anywhere near the nomads' camp. That was, she guessed, the reason why they had to move so often.
  837. > It was true: herbivores had it a lot easier. Their food didn't run away and grew practically everywhere.
  838. "[Okay,]" she nodded, "[what about moving?]"
  839. > Salki shrugged, then leaned down slightly to run a finger along the pole she used to balance her pots of water. "[Probably the same as last time. We will tie things in a pack with ropes. Like we did when we went to hunt, that time we fought the Ruslans.]"
  840. > No big surprises, then.
  841. "[Okay. I will carry things for you and Darga?]"
  842. > "[Who else?]"
  843. > Mayor still felt a remnant of guilt over what had happened with Saule the night of the bonfire and her ears lowered despite her effort not to show it on her face.
  844. "[If- If there is not much, I want to help Bakar and Saule. I can carry, I am strong.]"
  845. > There was no reply for a few steps and Mayor glanced at her companion. She thought he had an approving smile, but she couldn't be sure, not with her eyesight. When he spoke his words came out slowly and deliberately, as if he had to think about each one: "[I think maybe me and Mother do not have very many things for you to carry. Maybe you cannot be trusted with beer, or with food. I will speak with Mother.]"
  846. > Mayor returned the smile.
  847. "[Thank you.]"
  848. > After that exchange Salki said he would go practice the bow and left, which allowed Mayor Mare to sink back into her own thoughts. She wondered which campsite the nomads would pick next.
  849. > Perhaps it would be the first one she had seen, the one near the way home. The nomads' shaman had said the way would not open for many decades, but Mayor couldn't quite shed the sliver of hope that he was wrong.
  850. > She determined to ask Salki - to plead, to beg, to promise anything he wanted - if he would take her there. It would mean leaving Rainy Day behind, but Mayor quickly told herself that it wouldn't be.
  851. > All she would do was get help. She would fetch Twilight Sparkle and any of the other Princesses she could get, and as many of the Royal Guard they could spare, and come back to this world in force.
  852. > Mayor imagined her triumphant return, with a force so overwhelming that the nomads would have no choice but to worship and obey them. With a couple of unicorns and an alicorn or two they would have no real trouble finding her missing citizen.
  853. > After that...
  854. > She put the daydream on hold while she filled the pots. The riverbank was full of smooth, round stones and slippery with moss, and Mayor needed all her concentration on her hoofsteps lest she slip and fall into the water.
  855. > It wouldn't be the worst thing, not with how warm the days had gotten, but the stream was still icy cold and she didn't enjoy the idea of slogging back with a wet fur cloak on her back.
  856. > She waded only up to her knees, then carefully lowered the wooden pole with the pots. There were two holes in the river bottom, specially made to fit her clay vessels so she could submerge them deeper and thus draw more water. That bit had been Xuan's idea.
  857. > In any case, the delicate part was over, until she had to lift the full pots out, so Mayor returned to her imagination. Would she insist the Princesses left some guards with her in this world, so she could bring proper, Equestrian culture to the nomads?
  858. > With the right encouragement and some force she could perhaps teach them to leave their violent, carnivorous ways. She could teach them writing and philosophy and law. They could make their lives, and the lives of other creatures in this world so much better.
  859. > Perhaps she would, some day, be hailed as the savior of the nomad race?
  860.  
  861. > ~~~~
  862.  
  863. > It began as any other day for Mayor Mare, except for a vague, unidentifiable sense of unease. Maybe it was because the tent was completely empty, or maybe it was some kind of atmosphere in the camp that she subconsciously recognized.
  864. > Whatever had caused it, Mayor couldn't quite put her hoof on why she should feel that way, so she tried to shove it out of her mind as she dug around her meagre possessions for something to eat.
  865. > Most of her vegetables were shriveled up and on the verge of going mouldy. She could smell that they were definitely past their prime. She'd been saving them for difficult times, but perhaps it was time to rethink that strategy.
  866. > They would be useless to her if they went bad - more than they already had, she mentally corrected herself - so she gathered everything up in one sack with a generous portion of dried rice. With luck it, and some salt, would cover up the flavor.
  867. > Mayor would need to ask Xuan or Darga when the women would start foraging again so she could join them and replenish her supplies with fresh vegetables. Until then it would just have to be young grass and what was left of her rice and grain.
  868. > She wasn't too worried, since she could always count on a bite or two when she saw nomads baking bread. They recognized that the original recipe had come from her and that was still worth a slice every now and then.
  869. > That settled breakfast and quite possibly lunch as well, Mayor decided. If she felt hungry she could always go graze a little on one of her many trips to the stream for fresh water.
  870. > It should tide her over to evening, when the whole camp would have some kind of a spring festival. That was what Mayor could understand of what was going to happen.
  871. > Her friends had tried to explain and she gathered that the nomads would organize some kind of hunting ritual. They called it the 'circle hunt', most likely because it was meant to represent the cyclical nature of the seasons.
  872. > It was a once-a-year event when women and older children joined in on hunting. Mayor didn't expect them to catch much, especially the way Salki had described it. The nomads would stand in a big circle and then walk together. Any animals caught in the middle would be captured.
  873. > Mayor strongly suspected that it was more a ritual than an actual hunting method, so she didn't argue too hard against participating. Salki had brought it up during dinner one day and Darga had agreed. She'd said it would help fix her place in the camp with the other nomads.
  874. > They hadn't talked about it recently, but Mayor wasn't completely sure about her own status. The way Darga and Salki and, sometimes, Intor gave her orders, it seemed like she was still considered a slave, even if it wasn't entirely clear to whom she belonged.
  875. > On the other hoof, she had a large degree of autonomy and freedom about how she performed her tasks, and she was also allowed to indulge in her side projects. Her efforts to create writing materials would soon bear fruit and then maybe she could get Darga to agree to some form of a school, at least for the children.
  876. > Maybe it was time to raise the topic again? Perhaps she had earned her place and, more importantly, her status as a free mare.
  877. > Not that it made much of a difference.
  878. > The thought had come out of nowhere and Mayor's ears sank. Free or not, she was still a prisoner of the camp. She couldn't hope to go anywhere alone, except maybe if she joined the trade caravans.
  879. > The nomads outside of the ones she knew would likely consider her little more than an animal, the same these had when she first arrived. She was just as likely to be butchered out of fear as she was to be enslaved again as a curiosity, if she left.
  880. > Going alone was also out of the question. Mayor couldn't hope to evade or fight of some of the more vicious wildlife.
  881. > As much as the idea bothered her, the safest place for her was in the camp, at least until she had sufficient pull to get a retinue back to the portal. That was another long shot. The shaman had sounded confident when he said it would only open once every eight or so decades.
  882. > Back in Equestria, with modern medicine and a healthy lifestyle she might live that long, out here it was looking more and more unlikely.
  883. > Mayor Mare sighed and slung the sack with her food across her back. Sitting in the tent and moping wouldn't accomplish anything.
  884. > She pushed her way outside and headed to Xuan so they could cook together. It had turned out that fingers were incredibly useful for setting up the strange leather pot and for cutting the vegetables and stirring the stew.
  885.  
  886. > ~~~~
  887.  
  888. > At the very least, Xuan was good company, even if she complained about her feet and her head a lot. In that respect, pregnant nomads were pretty much like any mare in Equestria. It had gotten so bad that Buygra took any opportunity to leave camp lately.
  889. > Mayor was doing her best to knead the woman's shoulders, even though she didn't have any particular skill with massage. Xuan had said it helped and that was good enough.
  890. > "[Yes. Oooh, yeah. Right there. Press harder!]" the woman was saying even as she preemptively pushed back against Mayor's hooves.
  891. > Obliging, she exerted a touch more force and angled her hoof to bring more of the edge to bear. It drew out a low groan from Xuan.
  892. "[I do not know if I do it right. Maybe I hurt you? I don't want to push harder.]"
  893. > Her friend waved a hand dismissively. "[It's okay. You won't hurt me. Just push.]"
  894. > Mayor's ears splayed a little in concern, but she obeyed and leaned into her task. That earned her another luxuriating groan from the woman.
  895. > "[This is so good,]" Xuan murmured, "[don't stop.]"
  896. > It sounded like an entirely different conversation for a much more inappropriate activity and Mayor's tail tucked up in sudden embarrassment. She sought to change the topic as quickly as possible.
  897. "[You will stay in the camp? Are you not worried? Nearly everyone will be gone.]"
  898. > This time Xuan shrugged, which incidentally helped Mayor feel just how tense her neck was. She moved her hooves a little higher and pressed together.
  899. > "[I don't worry. No one will dare attack us. Besides, there is no honor in killing a few old men, and some women, and you won't be that far. Everyone will be back soon after dark.]"
  900. "[It will take that long? I thought we would just get in a circle and shout or something. That is fast, no?]"
  901. > This made Xuan laugh. "[You will shout, but not until later. Just- do what everyone else is doing, you'll be fine. Circle hunt is fun.]"
  902. > Mayor shook a strand of pink mane out of her eye and glanced around. The camp was waking up and people were streaming past them toward the central bonfire. She guessed it would soon be time to go.
  903. "[What if the baby comes?]"
  904. > Xuan turned partially to look at the mare, then smiled. "[Then it would be about time. I've had enough of- of *this*!]" she said, gesturing expansively at her swollen belly. "[I can hardly walk, and I have to get up fifteen times every night to piss. My head hurts all the time and even when I manage to fall asleep the baby kicks.]"
  905. > Mayor rolled her eyes at the familiar complaints, but she shared the woman's smile.
  906. "[You knew what you were getting into.]"
  907. > "[Actually, I didn't. I never talked with Mother or any of the others what it is like. I knew it would be uncomfortable, and the birthing would hurt, but I never knew it would be like this.]"
  908. "[So you won't have another?]" Mayor asked quietly.
  909. > This made Xuan freeze under her hooves, but only for a moment. She quickly replied: "[I didn't say that,]" in a firm tone of voice. "[First we will see how this one turns out.]"
  910. > They both chuckled at that response, then Xuan sighed and went on: "[Don't worry, Kantuta and Mitra are staying with me. They took some convincing, but I wanted someone experienced. I think the baby really will come tonight.]"
  911. > When she said that the nomad placed her hands on her belly and rubbed in gentle circles. She stared off into the distance, thoughtful.
  912. "[They wanted to go to the hunt? How did you convince them to stay?]"
  913. > Xuan twisted again so she could give Mayor a very deliberate wink. "[Easy. I promised them some of your hair when you cut it next!]"
  914. "[What?!]" blurted out and stepped away in shock.
  915. > Mayor only had a moment to look indignant before Xuan's face fell and she lowered her gaze. "[I should not have done that. I am sorry Meyermer, but I couldn't think of anything else and I am really scared about this baby. Please-]"
  916. > As she spoke, the nomad reached out a hand to Mayor in supplication. It was a most pitiful sight and Mayor couldn't resist. Her ears lowered and she came back to give Xuan a nuzzle.
  917. "[It's okay, it's okay. I will help. I was just surprised.]"
  918. > When the woman lifted her face again she was grinning. "[I am good, no? I learned it from you.]"
  919. "[What?!]" Mayor drew back for the second time in less than a minute.
  920. > "[This is what you do to Salki sometimes, no? Sad eyes and a quiet plea. It's good to see it works on you just as well.]"
  921. > It had all been a ruse to garner her sympathy! Mayor flattened her ears all the way and her tail flicked in annoyance, but she couldn't stay mad, not really. What Xuan had said was true; she had often used the fact that most nomads found her cute. Especially when it meant the difference between hunger and a fully belly.
  922. > So it worked best on Salki, that was only to be expected. He knew her better than anyone else and could read her body language pretty well by now.
  923. > Besides, a guilty little thought sprang up, she had done it to Xuan more than once when she'd joined her and Buygra for a meal. The least she could do was repay some of that kindness.
  924. "[Okay, okay, I'm not mad. I will give you hair, but next time ask me like a woman, okay?]"
  925. > In lieu of an answer Xuan just poked her tongue out at her, and they both began laughing.
  926. > "[As much as I like your hooves, I think you should go,]" Xuan said when they'd quietened down. She gestured around and Mayor saw that they were the only two left in that part of the camp.
  927. > Most of the nomads had gathered for the circle hunt, which meant she had to go and join them. She could perhaps hide from it and stay with Xuan, but that would likely mean trouble later. Darga wouldn't appreciate having her command circumvented, and Willow was itching for any excuse to punish her.
  928. > Mayor Mare got up on her hooves and inclined her head to Xuan.
  929. "[Good luck with the baby. I will come find you in the morning to meet your daughter.]"
  930. > The nomad returned the nod, then went to rummage in a bag next to her as Mayor left.
  931. > The air of jubilant excitement was nearly palpable and Mayor couldn't help but pick up on electric buzz in the air. Obviously this circle hunt would be an important festival for the people.
  932. > It would be followed by a bonfire, she knew, and a celebration long into the night. She was both looking forward to it and dreading it a little. She'd promised herself no more beer, but her resolve hadn't proven too strong in the past.
  933. > Maybe she should ask Salki to keep an eye on her, just in case.
  934. > As she made her way through the camp, Mayor saw that there was some commotion near the central firepit, which was already stacked with wood for the bonfire. A lot of nomad children were milling about and some carried crude clubs, made from sticks of wood. Here and there someone had a wooden spear.
  935. > Nothing like the hunters used, Mayor saw, just a bit of sharpened wood, hardened in the fire. She joined the crowd at the rear, but her ears were flattened, both from the overwhelming noise and from uncertainty. She didn't know where to go and what to do.
  936. > Luckily she spotted a familiar face and, despite the fact that she didn't like him, walked over to Willow.
  937. "[What do we do?]" she asked curtly, without any kind of greeting.
  938. > The young hunter looked animated and could hardly keep still from excitement. He tried crossing his arms, but couldn't stay like that for more than a few seconds. His grin worried Mayor a little, though she couldn't put her hoof on why exactly.
  939. > "[Just follow everyone. We have to walk some distance and we need to find weapons.]"
  940. "[Weapons?]"
  941. > He pointed a finger off to one side, where Mayor saw a few of the older hunters passing out spears and axes to the youngsters who didn't have any yet.
  942. > There were a lot of women in the group, too, representing all ages. This circle hunt would practically empty out the camp, Mayor estimated.
  943. > The women, for the most part, had knives or cudgels of their own.
  944. "[I'm not taking a weapon,]" she said firmly.
  945. > She didn't believe the hunt would rustle up many animals, but it might get some, and she would have absolutely no part in killing anything.
  946. > This made Willow bark a rough chuckle and Mayor looked up at his amused grin. "[You don't need weapons, you can kick. You already have weapons.]"
  947. > She glanced down at her own hooves, but all it did was make her tighten her lips in determination. She even flicked her tail in emphasis when she looked back up.
  948. "[I won't hunt.]"
  949. > Willow's smile slipped and his face darkened with his typical quick anger. "[You will, or I will beat you myself after. Everyone has to help. This will be our food for walking through summer, and for fall!]"
  950. "[What? You won't catch that much!]"
  951. > For a moment he didn't seem to understand what she had said, then he waved a dismissive hand at her. "[You don't know what you're talking about. Everyone has to help, you too, or you will be beaten. I will tell Mother and the Chieftain. They will agree with me.]"
  952. > Mayor was about to stomp her hoof and insist, but she instead just turned her head away, released the breath she had been holding, and let it go. With the amount of noise the nomads would make, they would catch nothing. Willow was probably delusional about their catch.
  953. > "[Let's go. You'll stay with me so I can make sure. Let's go,]" Willow said and set off.
  954. > Mayor snorted, but she followed the young man nonetheless. She couldn't tell what Darga might do, but Intor would doubtlessly side with her son and decree that Mayor really is to be punished if she doesn't cooperate.
  955. > Going along was just easier.
  956. > Besides, it wouldn't be his first time to overestimate his hunting ability. She still wouldn't help the hunt, she knew. She would go with them and stand around and whatever they wanted, but they couldn't make her actually chase down and kill other creatures.
  957. > Maybe wolves, Mayor thought, but only in a group of experienced hunters and only if she had no choice. She might fight wolves, and she might even kill them. The knowledge chilled her a little, but she knew she would do it if it meant her life.
  958. > The young nomad was indeed headed straight for his mother. Mayor Mare plodded along, but she kept her eye out for other familiar faces. She recognized some of the other nomads, but all seemed occupied with getting their weapons.
  959. > The ones who already had cudgels, or spears, were busy practice-swinging them, especially among the younger ones. Here and there one of the hunters would correct a youngling's grip, or explain something which Mayor couldn't catch with the din.
  960. > "[Mother, tell Meyermer she is to be beaten if she refuses to help. I said she will join circle hunt, or I will whip her.]"
  961. > This drew Mayor's attention from her surroundings and she looked at what the woman might say. Her ears lowered even before Intor opened her mouth.
  962. > It was pretty much what Mayor had expected. Intor gave a curt nod and said: "[Everyone has to help. We barely have enough people as it is. If she doesn't work, you can whip her.]"
  963. > This verdict quickly brought Willow's grin back and Mayor decided to do the maximum possible to avoid that fate. Not so much because she feared a whipping, but rather so he wouldn't have the satisfaction of winning.
  964. "[Fine,]" she said, but it was nearly a growl.
  965. > "[Find a club for her, or maybe a small spear,]" Intor instructed.
  966. > "[She does not need one,]" Willow quickly replied and pointed at Mayor's hooves, "[she can kick and stomp. It is better than a club. She has four of them.]"
  967. > When Intor looked at the mare again it felt as if she had never really seen her before. She stared and Mayor couldn't help shuffling her hooves a little bit out of sheer discomfort. Finally, the woman nodded to herself. "[You are right. Good thinking. Do what he says!]"
  968. > That last bit was directed at Mayor, who swallowed a lump and gave a slightly shaky yes. She looked down as well, thinking for the first time in her life what it would be like to kick someone with the intent to injure them.
  969. > Not in self-defense, or by accident, but in a hunt. Could she make herself do it? Her ears were already flattened and Mayor forcibly lifted her gaze again. She wouldn't, whatever Willow said. She would join their hunt, but they couldn't make her kill.
  970. > With luck it wouldn't even come up. Mayor forced the ugly images from her head and focused instead on the festival after the hunt. There would be food and drink. She could have one beer, as long as it really stayed at one.
  971. > She would ask Salki to restrict her to one beer only.
  972. > "[Come,]" said Willow, "[we will go up ahead. We will leave soon. It's about two hours walk to the hunting ground.]"
  973. > Walking wasn't a problem. Mayor didn't have an issue with walking, and she wouldn't have minded carrying stuff either, but no one had asked her. She was glad of that and resolved to enjoy a pleasant stroll in the warm afternoon, if nothing else.
  974. > Perhaps the nomads wouldn't move very quickly and she could grab quick bites of young grass on the way.
  975.  
  976. > ~~~~
  977.  
  978. > The hunting ritual began innocuously. Mayor Mare had to stand next to two other nomads, while Willow rushed around from group to group to make sure everything was to his liking.
  979. > She and the others near her were admonished, quite strictly, to be quiet while the rest of the group got in place. Some of the older, more experienced hunters took a line of people in either direction and when Mayor whispered a question to the woman beside her, she was told that the nomads would sneak around in a large circle until they met on the other side.
  980. > The ground was quite flat, and her line of sight was only broken by a few bushes and the occasional spindly tree, so Mayor could keep her eye on the hunters for a long while until they were lost in the blur.
  981. > She still didn't quite understand how this was intended to work, but the sheer discipline of the people fascinated her. Even the children were almost completely quiet. Some held the arm of the adult next to them, while others were gripping their cudgels and sticks with both hands. They all watched the line of people which snaked away through the tall grass.
  982. "[What will happen?]" Mayor whispered to the woman at her side.
  983. > She didn't remember the name, but the nomad seemed familiar. She thought she'd seen her around when they went to dig for tubers in the autumn.
  984. > "[We wait until everyone is in place. Until the circle is complete. Someone will come tell us.]"
  985. > Mayor had gathered that much on her own, and the nomad hadn't really answered her question, so she had to break the silence once more.
  986. "[Then what?]"
  987. > There was no answer right away and the mare thought that maybe she'd pushed her luck too far. She cast a quick glance at the woman, but luckily she didn't seem angry, just slightly baffled.
  988. > "[Don't you know? Didn't anyone tell you what to do?]"
  989. > Mayor just mutely shook her head.
  990. > That admission made the nomad sigh a little, but she lifted her hand where she held a club. "[When the circle is complete, the animals can't escape anymore. They'll come tell us and we'll move forward, so we tighten the circle, right?]"
  991. > The hunt sounded a lot more thought out than just a silly ritual and Mayor's ears wilted. She swallowed a lump through her suddenly dry throat. The woman kept talking: "[We'll move closer together, and then someone will drop out of the line so we can keep going. More and more people will get out as the circle gets smaller, understand?]"
  992. "[Y-Y-Yes...]
  993. > Her companion didn't seem to notice her stutter. "[Good. The animals are hiding, but they will try to bolt when we're too close. Be ready to-]" the woman began, but then noticed that Mayor didn't have a weapon and was, in fact, walking on all four hooves. She gave it some thought, then reached the same conclusion as Willow: "[I guess just kick. That'll work. Try not to let any past you, okay?]"
  994. > "[Of course she wont,]" came Willow's voice from behind her and Mayor nearly jumped in sudden fright. She hadn't heard the man approach at all! She flinched again when he patted her back with his hand. "[Meyermer will hunt with us, or I will beat her after. Mother said she is to stay in the circle until the last!]"
  995. > That dashed the last bit of hope Mayor had been entertaining. The woman had said people would fall out of the line as the circle got smaller, which would have been her salvation.
  996. "[I-, m- I'm not going to kill...]"
  997. > That made Willow chuckle in amusement and he lightly smacked her rump with a spear, which sent Mayor a step forward. "[Get back in line,]" Willow said and Mayor could swear there was a sadistic gleam in his eye. "[You'll do what you're told. The camp is hungry and we need meat.]"
  998. > His insistence was coming from nothing more than a desire to make her uncomfortable or hurt her. He'd guessed that she didn't like hunting and killing, and was making her do it simply because he could. What was worse, he had both Intor and Darga on his side!
  999. > The young nomad's attitude was even making the others uncomfortable, and the woman next to Mayor spoke up: "[Willow, if she doesn't want to, just let her drop out of the line before the animals start running, why does it matter-]"
  1000. > "[Shut up!]" the hunter barked, though he kept his gaze fixed on Mayor until she couldn't help but look away. "[Mother said and the chieftain agrees! She'll hunt with us if she wants to be one of us! We don't have a use for weaklings!]"
  1001. > "[But-]" someone else began, this time on Mayor's other side. It was a male nomad, slightly older, but not one of the hunters. Mayor thought he might have been one of the craftsmen of the camp, she thought she remembered seeing him with Darkhan a lot.
  1002. > Unfortunately even he couldn't dissuade Willow and fell immediately silent when Willow jerked his arm as if to strike the man.
  1003. > "[I'm leading this circle hunt. Do what I say or you won't get any meat today, understand!? Meyermer will hunt with us!]"
  1004. > The two weren't ready to argue. Hunters were held in high esteem, even though Mayor knew for a fact that more than half of the nomads' food came from what the women gathered and the meat they smoked in autumn, and the grain they traded.
  1005. > Hunting was just... revered among these people! The more dangerous the animal, the more exalted the hunter who brought it down. As their chief hunter, Willow commanded significant respect, which he easily augmented with a healthy dose of fear.
  1006. > Mayor licked her dry lips and tried her best splay-eared, vulnerable pony look on Willow. She didn't like him, but distaste and pride were easy to ignore by now.
  1007. "[Please- it is not the pony way. I c-can't.]"
  1008. > "[Get back in line! I'll go with you to make sure you do it right!]" Willow snapped. "[We're about to start.]"
  1009. > He tapped her flank with his stick again to further strengthen his point and Mayor reluctantly stepped back in the line. She kept swiveling her ears from forward to back, and then forward again.
  1010. > The animals would come from up ahead, but Willow was standing uncomfortably close behind her. Her ears just mirrored her inner conflict. She couldn't decide which scared her more: the impending brutality, or the savage glee Willow showed when he could make her participate in it.
  1011. > No one said anything else, despite Mayor's hopes that one of the other nomads might come to her rescue. They didn't like it either and were nervous about what was going to happen. She could hear the woman shifting from foot to foot, and the man on the other side kept switching his cudgel from one hand to the other.
  1012. > No one spoke up and eventually one of the children came running from one side. "[Go! Go! We started!]" he kept saying in a strange kind of whispering shout. Where he passed, the line of nomads began to slowly move forward.
  1013. > The messenger ran past them and Mayor took a small step even before Willow tapped her rump with his spear. She didn't complain about it, because her heart was hammering like crazy and it felt as if her stomach had sunk to her hooves, and she wasn't sure she could trust her voice.
  1014. > All she could do was whisper a silent prayer to Celestia that there weren't very many animals in the circle. There would be no escape, she saw. Already the line of nomads was unbroken and the way they were hefting their weapons said they wouldn't let anything pass them alive.
  1015. > The youngest children, the ones who didn't have any weapons, were pushed out of the line first. Some complained, but others simply walked a short distance behind the main group. A few of the more industrious ones picked up stones.
  1016. > Nothing else happened as the large circle of bodies closed. Mayor looked up ahead, but she couldn't recognize the other side, maybe because of her poor vision, or maybe because of the tall grass between them. It was a pretty large circle, though. She glanced to the left and right and tried to estimate the curvature.
  1017. > "[Eyes front!]" Willow snapped and the stick smacked her side. Mayor growled and considered bucking him, but she knew it would create many problems, especially after the last time Willow had accused her of attacking him. He'd have a field day with her punishment.
  1018. > She could almost *feel* his insolent smirk when all she did was snort and faced the direction they were walking.
  1019. > It went on for a while longer, and Mayor was beginning to hope that the whole thing was bust after all, when there came a cheer from one side. She risked a quick glance, but couldn't see anything out of the ordinary.
  1020. "[What was that?]" she asked the woman beside her.
  1021. > "[I didn't see. Someone caught something,]" she wagered her educated guess. It meant her hope probably wouldn't pan out, and Mayor flattened her ears some more.
  1022. > Soon there was more shouting, from a different direction. A few children squealed in excitement.
  1023. > It was beginning. She thought the circle was getting really small by then, but she still couldn't see the other side. There was still plenty of bushes and grass between them, where a lot of small, furry critters might be hiding.
  1024. > The nomads were beginning to yell almost constantly. Cheering, laugher, wordless shouting. Some smacked their weapons together and a few others were singing.
  1025. > Mayor couldn't understand why, but she soon figured out. The noise, most of it directed into the circle, frightened any animals which were trying to lay low in the grass.
  1026. > Creatures began to bolt in random directions, trying to escape from the nearest source of noise and commotion. Except there was no escape, the circle of bodies was too tight.
  1027. > The nomads stood so close together that they barely had room to swing their weapons.
  1028. > A gray rabbit bolted straight toward Mayor and she flinched away and closed her eyes. There was a dull thud, followed quickly by a smack of Willow's spear on her flank. It stung and she opened her eyes in shock.
  1029. > The rabbit was gone, but the woman to Mayor's side hefted her club and she could see a splash of vivid red at the end. Mayor glanced behind and saw a motionless scrap of gray fur.
  1030. > "[Focus!]" Willow was yelling. "[Don't look away or I'll beat you harder! Hunt, you stupid beast!]"
  1031. > He obviously didn't understand just how idiotic his words were, and Mayor didn't feel like explaining it to him. She had spotted more movement ahead, flashes of brown and yellow fur in the grass.
  1032. > A few ran away from her, but several of the creatures headed toward them. Mayor let out a squeak of fear, followed by a pained whinny as Willow hit her again. This time she hadn't looked away, but he obviously wanted to make sure.
  1033. > The critters had noticed the line and had stopped in fright. They milled around in confusion for a while, then bolted in the other direction. Mayor breathed a sigh of relief, but it didn't last very long. Something else was coming.
  1034. > She didn't know what these animals were called and to her eyes they looked like large rats, or maybe small beavers. They were brown and gray, some with yellow patches and a few with darker fur. There were several different species.
  1035. > She recognized rabbits and marmots just as one of each sprinted toward her. Maybe because she wasn't as tall as a nomad they thought the line was broken in this place? There was not time to guess and Mayor shied away from the desperate critters.
  1036. > Willow was yelling something and she felt the thud of his stick on her rump again, but she hardly noticed it. She couldn't tear her eyes away as the world seemed to slow.
  1037. > The craftsman to her side had leaned forward and was swinging his club down. It inched its way as if the air was made of treacle. The rabbit was in mid-jump and was trying to twist away, but it was too late.
  1038. > She thought she heard a distinct crunch as the weapon crushed the little animal's skull. A few droplets struck her muzzle and Mayor jerked her head away, too late.
  1039. > On her other side, there was another sickening thud and a squeak of such pain and terror that it pierced right into her heart. She couldn't prevent her eyes from seeking it out.
  1040. > The marmot was crawling around in a circle, its hind legs broken and useless. Mayor's stomach heaved and she tried to keep it down, but the woman simply brought her cudgel around again. This time she didn't miss and the squeal was cut short with a definitive crunch.
  1041. > Mayor couldn't help it any longer and her lunch came back up. The bile in it felt like acid on her tongue, but she didn't care. She hardly even felt Willow's thwacks with the stick as he urged her to keep going.
  1042. > In the end he kicked her savagely in the rear and Mayor's legs moved almost without her conscious volition. She walked forward, stepped in her vomit, and was quickly past the corpses of the two animals. The two nomads to each side had slowed a little to keep the line intact.
  1043. > The centre of the circle was mayhem and bedlam. Animals ran here and there, looking for a way to escape only to turn back when they faced the line of cheering, celebrating nomads.
  1044. > It was a slaughter.
  1045. > So much blood.
  1046. > Mayor had never seen so much blood in her life.
  1047. > In every direction nomads held clubs, and spears, and knives, dripping with red gore. Some of them were splatted by it, others had wiped their bloody hands on their tunics, leaving gruesome handprints.
  1048. > There was no time to look as more animals came their way. Mayor wanted to stop, to fall back, but Willow was there, prodding and kicking and hitting her to keep her moving. He was yelling commands and obscenities at her, but Mayor had long since stopped listening.
  1049. > To her side, the woman was silent, aside from an occasional grunt of effort as she swung her weapon. The man on her other side sometimes hummed to himself in rhythm to the larger song some of the nomads were now shouting from all around.
  1050. > Their clubs swung and hit again and again. Not every strike was true, but most of them inflicted injuries. Sometimes a creature, wounded, would slip past them, through Mayor's legs, but she heard the children behind her laugh as they caught it. There was a crowd of them behind her now, happy to kill whatever she let past.
  1051. > A quick glance behind showed just how red in the face Willow was. He was brandishing his spear, but Mayor still couldn't understand what he was saying.
  1052. > She was in shock.
  1053. > Her fetlock was red, and something wet and warm was sliding down the side of her neck. her muzzle was splatted from all the times when the nomads to her either side reached over and hit animals heading for the perceived safety of the smaller pony.
  1054. > She kept walking in a daze, eyes darting this way and that. She watched the orgy of death and tragedy and it was all too much. She couldn't really understand what was happening anymore.
  1055. > The woman clubbed a rat-like thing in front of Mayor, but she missed. The thing squeaked and tried to crawl away, but it was stunned and couldn't make its legs work. It flopped this way and that.
  1056. > Willow's stick hit the side of her head then, and Mayor finally understood his words. "[Kill it! Meyermer, kill it before it gets away! KILL IT NOW!]"
  1057. > Still in a kind of trance she lifted up her hoof and hesitated. She was about to put it down beside the creature, but Willow jumped over her and pushed her down with all his weight. Mayor lost her balance and had to put her hoof down quickly, or she would fall.
  1058. > There was something hard under her foot, but it crunched and became soft. The squeal ended.
  1059. > She stopped and raised her leg to inspect. There was almost no gore, but her frog was covered in blood.
  1060. > Then Mayor looked at the rat-thing. It was no longer moving and its head wasn't the right shape. Blood trickled freely from its mouth.
  1061. > Again the young hunter kicked her rump and Mayor took a step forward. She lost sight of the little animal.
  1062. > There were more. The ground was alive with small creatures, rushing this way and that, panicking. The nomads' clubs and spears never stopped moving. A second circle was starting to form behind the first, because there were just too many escaping critters.
  1063. > Mayor watched a bunny hopping past her. When it was right in front of her, Willow's spear stabbed down from somewhere above and pinned it to the ground through its midriff. It began to squeal in pain.
  1064. > That cry dragged across her nerves like a rusty saw, and Mayor realized she was screaming too. Tears flowed unimpeded down her muzzle.
  1065. > She did the most merciful thing she could, but she didn't look as she stomped. The smaller scream ended, but her own wail rose in pitch.
  1066. > Willow slapped her rump with his hand as he reached over to retrieve his spear. "[That one! Get that one!]"
  1067. > Something snapped inside her. Everything was covered in blood, including herself. None of it meant anything, it was just there.
  1068. > Mayor lashed out with her foreleg and belt bone snap. She didn't look where the thing landed and sought out another.
  1069. > Willow was still yelling, but now he sounded jubilant. He wasn't beating her anymore.
  1070. > She looked for another scrap of brown fur.
  1071. > Swinging clubs and panicking animals all around her.
  1072.  
  1073. > ~~~~
  1074.  
  1075. > Mayor Mare was sitting on the ground near the large bonfire. Nomads kept walking around her, and some even stepped right over her, but she didn't much care. Her eyes were locked on the fire, but she didn't really see it.
  1076. > She felt hollow. Like someone had cracked her open and scooped out everything which should have been inside her.
  1077. > How had she gotten from the hunt back home? She must have walked, but Mayor didn't remember taking a single step. In fact, most of the day after that initial push in the circle was vague.
  1078. > Maybe she should have been horrified, or disgusted, but there was just... nothing. Shock, she suspected, but it was a detached thought, as if her mind was floating a short distance away from her and had nothing to do with the quiet, still pony.
  1079. > Some of the nomads had come at her, grinning and happy, and had complimented her. A few even slapped her back or her shoulders. Each such strike made the mare sway a little, but she neither acknowledged nor rejected the praise. Invariably the nomads were weirded out and left.
  1080. > Mayor blinked her eyes, which were getting dry, and wondered why there were no tears. Had she cried? She thought she should have done, but it was hard to be sure. Her memory simply wouldn't cooperate.
  1081. > She recalled specific moments, instants, frozen in time and without any context to them. A crack of small bones. A splash of hot blood. A wooden spear shaft, striking her flank. Throughout it all, an awful, demonic, inequine roar.
  1082. > Mayor Mare believed the roar had been her. Maybe something dark and evil had possessed her and she wasn't herself? What other explanation was there? It was utterly impossible that a pony - *any* pony - could have committed such atrocities.
  1083. > "[Meyermer?]" a soft voice spoke.
  1084. > She thought she recognized this nomad. It was a young female and made her think of... guilt?
  1085. "[Saule.]"
  1086. > The sound of the name was familiar, but it was hard to associate the creature standing in front of her with anyone Mayor might have known.
  1087. > Saule dropped down to her knees and peered at Mayor's face in the faint, orange light. It flickered and moved, as the nomads around the central bonfire danced and sang. The air was filled with the sound of sizzling and the smell of burning flesh.
  1088. > The nomad girl lifted a hand and reached out, but Mayor flinched away at first. She didn't know why she was frightened. Fingers found her muzzle and carefully turned her back.
  1089. > "[Your face...]"
  1090. > Mayor didn't respond, but she pressed her cheek into the soft, warm palm and closed her eyes. She smelled blood and sweat and grime, but underneath it all was something familiar.
  1091. > When there was no response, the nomad girl continued in a hushed tone: "[You're covered in blood,]" she whispered. Her other hand came near and she traced a line from the corner of Mayor's eye down her muzzle. "[Except here, and here,]" the touch was mirrored on her other side.
  1092. > 'Good,' Mayor thought to herself, still in that detached, unfeeling state, 'I've cried. Maybe there's something still there.'
  1093. > She didn't respond out loud, but her ears jerked as they wanted to flatten.
  1094. > "[What's wrong?]" Saule asked, her voice full of worry. "[Are you hurt? Did someone hit you by accident? Cut you? Did something bite you?]"
  1095. > Mayor almost opened her mouth to try and explain, but thought better of it. It wouldn't do any good. The nomads could not understand that what they had done was wrong.
  1096. > Monstrous.
  1097. > They hunted to survive and they ate the flesh. It was the way their world worked. It was their custom.
  1098. > In the end Mayor just gave her head a single shake, which dislodged Saule's hand from her muzzle. It was just as well. Murderers, such as herself, probably didn't deserve comfort.
  1099. > "[That is good. You're probably tired, but you have to come. She asked for you!]"
  1100. > Mayor let her head hang down and she closed her eyes. She could shut out the sight of all those nomads, cramming bits of small creatures into their mouths, teeth tearing at the flesh, tongues licking up the fat.
  1101. > She couldn't stop the sounds, but if she concentrated on the singing she didn't have to hear the sizzling and the eating.
  1102. > There was a tug on her mane, but she paid it no mind. Others had tried to get her to move, but she was perfectly comfortable exactly where she was. They could walk around or over her.
  1103. > Saule was talking again: "[Come on! You have to come! Get up! You can sleep after!]"
  1104. > The words were punctuated by a slap against her side. It wasn't hard, but her back and flanks were bruised and Mayor jerked aside.
  1105. > However numb and hollow she felt, her body still worked and the reaction to pain, however minor, was automatic. She slipped to her side and allowed her legs to fold, so she was lying down.
  1106. > The ground was muddy, but it wouldn't make her any dirtier she already was. Mayor let her head down and closed her eyes. Maybe the world would make more sense in the morning. Maybe she would remember more.
  1107. > Had she cried? There was nothing left, but maybe by then she would have fresh tears to shed. It was only proper, after all.
  1108. > She heard receding footsteps and relaxed. Saule had gone away, no one would bother her any more. They were too busy eating.
  1109. > Mayor let the rhythm of the singing, the stamping feet, the crackling fire, and the buzz of conversation lull her to sleep.
  1110. >...
  1111. > She woke up when strong arms squirmed under her and lifted her up. Mayor blinked her eyes open, but she recognized Salki and relaxed again.
  1112. > They'd had enough of dealing with her motionless form and now he was taking her to the tent. That was just as well, all she wanted to do was sleep anyway.
  1113. > "[Fuck, you've gotten heavy. How did you get this heavy?]" Salki swore.
  1114. > She didn't answer and simply let her head hang limp. It sounded like his problem, not hers.
  1115. > The poor nomad was breathing heavily by the time they reached their destination. He tried to lower her gently, but his muscles gave out and Mayor landed on a bit of animal skin with a thump which knocked her breath out of her.
  1116. > She growled in frustration and flattened her ears, but then thought better of it. It didn't really matter, they were there. Wherever Salki had wanted to take her.
  1117. > Saule was there too, and some others. Women, for the most part.
  1118. > "[Finally. Here, here. Come and see Meyermer. Meyermer? What's wrong with her?]"
  1119. > That was Xuan's voice and it caused one of Mayor's ears to rise and focus. She hadn't expected that voice.
  1120. > Salki replied: "[The fuck if I know. She's just like this. Limp. Ever since the hunt. I don't know what happened, but Saule says she isn't hurt.]"
  1121. > "[She isn't,]" the girl confirmed. "[Willow said she did well, but when it was over she just stood there. He had to kick her and push her to get her home, and then she just sat down by the fire and wouldn't move. That's how I found her.]"
  1122. > There was silence and then Mayor felt a presence by her side. Xuan had sat down on the same animal skin rug and ran a hand through Mayor's mane. "[Ugh, she's covered in blood.]"
  1123. > Saule answered that too: "[I know, but it's too dark. We can't go to the stream now and wash her, and she doesn't want to walk anyway. I really don't know what's wrong, but the blood can wait.]"
  1124. > Xuan's hand felt around Mayor's back and withers. She moved further down her ribs and when she came to her flanks the mare hissed in pain. The pressure vanished, but a moment later it was back, albeit a lot gentler.
  1125. > "[What's this? She's cut! You said she wasn't hurt!]"
  1126. > Mayor felt something else bump her side and realized it was Saule, who had knelt down beside Xuan to get a closer look. "[I didn't see! She has blood all over, I didn't know some of it was hers! I asked and she said she wasn't hurt!]"
  1127. > Xuan sighed and called to Salki: "[Bring the torch. I don't think it's bad, but here- feel here. You see how tender it is? She was beaten. Willow.]" There was anger in that last word and it had come out muffled, as if Xuan had gritted her teeth. Her hand moved aside and a smaller palm joined hers on Mayor's rump.
  1128. > "[I- I don't know. Are you sure?]" Saule asked in a hesitant, uncertain voice.
  1129. > Xuan heaved another sigh. "[I know what bruises feel like, even on an animal. Willow must have beat her. Salki, tell your mother, she should know.]"
  1130. > There was an affirmative noise from the young hunter, then Xuan continued: "[The cut isn't deep and it's already clotted. We'll leave it for now, but we will have to wash it tomorrow so she doesn't get the fever.]"
  1131. > The nomad woman moved her hands away from Mayor's flank and gripped instead her hind leg. Mayor didn't resist as Xuan pulled it away to extend it. "[Not broken. Hmm...]"
  1132. > She pushed the limb this way and that, then repeated the procedure with the other three. At the end of it Mayor was lying on her side and her eyes were closed once more. They could do what they wanted with her.
  1133. > The nomads left her in peace for a few minutes and she was, once again, starting to drift off to sleep when she was rolled again on her belly. She sensed, more than saw, Xuan sit down, cross-legged right in front of her muzzle.
  1134. > "[Meyermer?]" she asked quietly again. "[Please look.]"
  1135. > There was an odd tone in her voice and despite her misery the mare opened her eyes.
  1136. > Xuan's belly was gone. In its place, held firmly in the woman's lap, was a bundle of animal furs.
  1137. > She scented a new smell, something Mayor couldn't identify, but it made something stir deep inside. Despite herself she lifted her head to see better.
  1138. > This movement made Xuan chuckle and she lifted a bit of fur to show the mare what she held.
  1139. > Mayor saw a bit of pink and blinked her eyes to clear them. It was a face, incredibly small, but unmistakable. There was a faint wisp of black hair above it and a tiny hand curled just below.
  1140. > The newborn was watching her, or at least looking in her general direction.
  1141. > It was Xuan's daughter. Mayor got her hind legs under her and shuffled forward so she could get a closer look.
  1142. > The infant opened her mouth in a small yawn, but then went back to staring.
  1143. > "[I think she likes you,]" Xuan said with a laugh. "[Meyermer, I want you to meet Guuni.]"
  1144. "[Guuni.]" The word had slipped out almost without conscious control.
  1145. > Xuan smiled at this and leaned closer with the bundle in her arms. The infant's arm reached out toward the vivid pink of Mayor's mane, even if it was streaked with brown, dried blood. She grasped, but only caught hold of the mare's ear.
  1146. > Mayor remained perfectly still, almost too afraid to breathe, lest she hurt this tiny, fragile creature.
  1147. > She allowed the child to hold her ear, until the small fingers let go and patted her muzzle before drawing back.
  1148. > "[Go on, go on! Tell her why she's named 'Guuni'!]" Saule burst out impatiently.
  1149. > Mayor transferred her gaze to Xuan, who rolled her eyes a little. "[Fine, fine. Patience!]" she chided gently as she wrapped her daughter in the furs again. "[I wanted to name her after you, but we do not have this word you tell us - Meyer. The closest is 'chieftain', but I couldn't call my daughter that. So I named her after the other part. -mer.]"
  1150. > It didn't make much sense and Mayor had to replay those words to herself in her memory before she grasped them.
  1151. "[M-Me? After me?]"
  1152. > "[Yes. We have a word for -mer - female horse. So I called my daughter 'Guuni', which is short for 'guuni-naiz'. Mare friend.]"
  1153. > Xuan fell silent and gave Mayor an imploring look. "[I hope you will be a friend to my daughter, like you are to me?]"
  1154. > She didn't get an answer. At least, she did not get a verbal answer, because Mayor had laid her head down in Xuan's lap and was weeping again.
  1155. > The strange dichotomy of these people was too much to bear. She could not hold both the cruelty of the past few hours, and the tenderness of this moment, together in her heart.
  1156. > It was tearing her into two pieces and Mayor felt as if her soul was being simultaneously blessed and cursed.
  1157. > She wept because of what she had done. She wept for what she was becoming. She had killed - murdered - with her own hooves, and that deserved her tears too.
  1158. > Then she wept for the beauty. Xuan did not know the words, but she wanted Mayor Mare to be a godmother to her child.
  1159. > Lastly, Mayor wept for what was to come. The guilt and the horror were still being kept at bay by shock, but that would wane. She had done awful things and it wasn't entirely Willow's fault. She couldn't say: "I was forced."
  1160. > She was an Equestrian. Any pony would die before they inflicted such pain and misery upon others, especially upon the true innocents.
  1161. > She hadn't. She had given in to the beating and the jeering and the pain and madness around her. In the end she had caved, and she had killed.
  1162. > Even if the nomads didn't see it as a crime, that didn't absolve her. Mayor was answerable to a higher power.
  1163. > No, not Celestia. She was answerable to herself. To the *pony* Mayor Mare.
  1164. > She doubted that pony would ever forgive her.
  1165.  
  1166. > ~~~~
  1167.  
  1168. > Mayor Mare knew she was a sorry sight as she dragged herself into Darga and Salki's tent. Her fur was still crusty with dried blood, which was beginning to stink awfully, and most of her belly was covered in mud.
  1169. > Her mane wasn't falling in her eyes only because it was matted beyond rescue, and her tail was best not spoken of. She'd considered going to the stream to wash, but decided against it. She needed to sleep first.
  1170. > Meeting Xuan's newborn daughter had been a tiny bit of light in an otherwise impenetrable ocean of darkness and evil that had been her night. Perhaps she slept for a few moments after she'd cried herself out, but eventually her friend went inside the tent with her baby and Mayor was left on her own.
  1171. > She stayed by the slowly cooling fire and listened to the distant sounds of jubilation until even that had faded away. The night was still cold, but Mayor barely felt it, having descended back into some dark, dismal place within herself.
  1172. > Maybe she slept for a few minutes here and there, but the dreams brought her out almost instantly each time. She could never quite remember them, though. Something vague, and awful, and evil. It wasn't a huge surprise, not after the day she'd had.
  1173. > At least, she reflected as she stood on the threshold and the morning sun warmed her back, it was over. The day was bright and cheerful, a true spring once more. Maybe she could sleep now that it was light.
  1174. > "[What's this?]" came Darga's surprised voice from inside. "[Meyermer? You look like crap! Where have you been?]"
  1175. > Mayor didn't deign to answer the challenge and let the tent flap slide off her shoulders. She didn't look at the woman and simply headed to her own cot. At least she tried to, except that Darga's hand shot out and grabbed a fistful of mane.
  1176. > The sudden moment and the painful grip made Mayor squeal in surprise and she twisted around to get her body as far away from the woman as she could.
  1177. > "[You fucking stink! Ugh, go and clean up before you come back!]"
  1178. > Something inside Mayor dug in and she flattened her ears in a clear warning sign.
  1179. "[No.]"
  1180. > The word was quiet, but it carried inside the tent like a curse in a cathedral. Mayor looked up and steeled herself as she stared in Darga's suddenly narrowed eyes.
  1181. > "[What do you mean no? Go and wash up, you filthy beast!]"
  1182. > Mayor didn't know what it was about that particular insult, but it made a low growl rise up from her chest.
  1183. "[No! Fuck you! I'm going to sleep.]"
  1184. > She needn't have explained herself, but it had just burst out - a statement of what she was going to do which broached no argument.
  1185. > Mayor had expected the slap and tried to move her head away, but Darga still had a fistful of mane which kept her pretty much immobilized. The woman hit her across the muzzle with an open hand.
  1186. > "[You do not speak to me like that!]" the woman said in a deceptively calm voice. Her eyes flashed with sudden anger, but her face and tone were icy cold for now. "[Apologize and go wash.]"
  1187. "[No!]"
  1188. > Even Mayor herself didn't know why she was fighting this point, but something deep down in her soul had had enough. She'd been pushed around, ordered this way and that, and all the while they treated her like a servant. Worse! They saw her as even less than a slave, because she was a different shape than they.
  1189. > She'd given them things! She'd shown them how to make food in their lean, winter times! She'd shown them how to hunt more effectively! She helped with the chores, and she'd even learned their language! What more could this- this *woman* want from her?!
  1190. > Right at that moment Mayor wanted some peace and quiet. She yanked back, trying to free herself from Darga's grip, even if it pulled some of her mane out, but the woman's grip was like iron and she kept hold of the thin, but strong hair.
  1191. "[Let me go.]"
  1192. > "[Ungrateful little pony bitch,]" Darga half-growled as she pulled Mayor closer. "[We give you food and shelter, and this is how you act? You say you're an adult, but you're behaving like a child. Children are beaten until they learn. Do you want me to beat some manners into you?!]"
  1193. "[Like that fucking Willow did yesterday?!]" Mayor snapped back and twisted to one side.
  1194. > Her wound was still plainly visible and she noted with some kind of twisted satisfaction the slight widening of Darga's eyes.
  1195. "[Yeah. I wouldn't hunt, so he beat me until I did! I don't owe you nothing, you- you-]"
  1196. > Mayor couldn't think up a harsh enough insult, but she tried to remember what she'd heard Xuan say about some of the others in the camp.
  1197. "[-you fat cunt!]"
  1198. > She wasn't completely sure about that last word, but she knew it was a bad one and Darga's small little gasp proved it. She exploded up from where she had been sitting, cross-legged, and yanked on Mayor's mane.
  1199. > The sudden pull made the mare lose her balance and she flopped down on her belly. She tried to get up, but Darga was already pressing her neck down with her knee, even as she twisted her hand around to grasp more of her mane in an unbreakable grip.
  1200. > Mayor still tried to get her hind legs under her, but before she could manage Darga's palm came down on her rump.
  1201. > "[You don't say that to me!]" the woman said far too calmly for what she was doing. She slapped Mayor's back and flanks several times in quick succession.
  1202. > The hits hurt, especially when they landed on day-old bruises, but Mayor clenched her teeth and remained stubbornly silent. She was still trying to wiggle her legs under her. If only she could get a bit of leverage she would throw this nomad off and show her what earth ponies could do!
  1203. > There was no opportunity. When she failed to draw a reaction, Dargo bunched her hand into a fist and landed a few very solid blows on Mayor's back, completely disregarding the fact that she was punching the poor mare right on her spear wound.
  1204. > That finally proved too much and Mayor began to whinny in pain. She tossed her weight from side to side, but Darga was wiry and incredibly strong. Her knee pressed down harder on Mayor's neck and it was becoming difficult to breathe.
  1205. > The blows kept landing. "[Will you apologize?!]" the woman growled between breathing hard. It was an effort to keep the mare down, but she wasn't about to let go. She went back to her palm for a few more slaps and yanked again on her fistful of mane.
  1206. > Mayor's wail rose from somewhere around her stomach. She closed her eyes, went completely limp and let it bubble up in a harrowing cry of despair and misery.
  1207. > She thought she saw a flash of light and a breath of air, then she heard Salki's voice: "[Mom!? What the fuck are you doing?!]"
  1208. > The weight disappeared from Mayor's neck and her mane was released. She managed to get a hind hoof under her belly and pushed herself urgently away.
  1209. > She saw the blurry scene through a film of tears: Salki had grabbed his mother's wrist and had pulled her away. her free hand was raised as if she would strike him next.
  1210. > Mayor held her breath as she waited to see what would happen.
  1211. > Darga blew air out through her nose and let her hand fall. "[Take this fucking thing of yours away. She's not going to disrespect me in my own tent!]"
  1212. > Salki looked incredulously at Mayor, taking in her dismal appearance, the dried blood on her muzzle and the fresh crimson droplets on her flank where Darga's blows had torn open her injury.
  1213. > He slumped a little and called to Mayor in a shaking voice: "[Come on.]"
  1214. > Mayor Mare didn't need to be told twice and scurried toward him as quickly as she could make her trembling legs move. She gave Darga a wide berth, even though Salki still held his mother's wrist. Just as Mayor was passing within the woman's reach, Darga yanked her arm free and straightened her clothes. The sudden motion made Mayor flinch and hasten her steps.
  1215. > She was outside, but Salki was still in the tent with his mother. She heard muffled conversation, but couldn't catch any of the words through the hammering in her ears. There were some nomads looking at her with fascinated curiosity, but Mayor put them out of her mind.
  1216. > They would have heard the argument, and the insults. Doubtless they had also heard the beating and could guess what might have happened. She would deal with the aftermath later, once she'd had some time to think and get to grips with what had happened.
  1217. > She lowered her head and tried to make her legs stop shivering. Luckily Salki stepped out of the tent again and when Mayor risked a glance upward she saw his face was dark an angry.
  1218. > "[Mother said you insulted her, and you wouldn't listen to her instructions. She said you're like a spoiled child.]"
  1219. > Despite having expected something very much like he said, it still made Mayor sputter and she almost turned back to go and give Darga a piece of her mind. She would have, too, but Salki leaned down and put a hand on her back.
  1220. > "[No, don't. Come on, let's get you cleaned up and you can tell me your side of it.]"
  1221. > At least he hadn't automatically believed his mother, Mayor thought to herself. Maybe that was a kind of progress.
  1222. > Darga was obviously a complete... [cunt], but maybe the son could be salvaged.
  1223. > In that moment Mayor decided to help him become chieftain. The sooner he could do so, the sooner she could stop dealing with Darga.
  1224. > She hurried to fall instep with the young man and gratefully pressed her flank against his thigh.
  1225.  
  1226. > ~~~~
  1227.  
  1228. > The pair were sitting some distance from the camp in a patch of young, green grass, bathed in the warm afternoon sun.
  1229. > Mayor felt clean, and despite the residual pains around her back and flanks, better than she had since yesterday.
  1230. > That whole mess - the hunt and how she'd acted, and what she'd done - that would stay with her for a long while and she would pay for it many times over with sleepless nights and moments of horror when a memory forced itself into her consciousness. She shook her head to dislodge the latest image and went on with her story.
  1231. "[That is what happened. I only wanted sleep. I didn't sleep in the night, but she called me a beast.]"
  1232. > Mayor turned tear-filled eyes on Salki, who hadn't said a word for the last while and was staring thoughtfully at the distant horizon.
  1233. "[It was not fair!]"
  1234. > Her shoulders shook as she repeated it again to herself, in a whisper.
  1235. "[Ponies don't kill! Salki, *ponies don't kill*! It is not what we do! It is wrong! I'm wrong!]"
  1236. > She felt the wail coming back and tried very hard to keep it suppressed, but the pressure released in a series of snorts and sniffles despite her best efforts.
  1237. "[I did those things! I did what pony should never do, Salki! He hit me and he beat me and he yelled! There was death and blood! And I did it...]"
  1238. > Mayor lowered her head and swallowed a lump in her throat.
  1239. "[I'm a bad pony. I'm a- a-]"
  1240. > She couldn't remember the nomad word, so she grasped for another.
  1241. "[-evil. I'm a evil!]"
  1242. > The admission seemed to sap what little strength was left in her and Mayor folded down to her belly. She put her muzzle in the warm grass and sobbed miserably.
  1243. > She was dimly aware of Salki's hand in her mane as he sought for her ears to scratch behind them. He knew it always comforted her, but it wasn't working this time. This time she did not deserve such kindness.
  1244. > "[You're not evil,]" he finally pointed out. "[It was just a hunt. We have to hunt, Meyermer, or we starve! Nomads can't live only on vegetables, we need meat. It was just a hunt!]"
  1245. > Mayor Mare shook her head, which dislodged his hand for a moment, but it came right back, more insistent than a biting insect, but at least far more pleasant than that.
  1246. "[Not for me!]" she wailed, "[I am not- I am not that! Ponies don't kill! I never killed something! I never- until yesterday.]"
  1247. > She knew he had a hard time understanding. For him, and for his entire species it seemed, this was simply the way of life. They hunted, they killed and they ate. It was how their world worked.
  1248. > They couldn't see anything wrong.
  1249. > Perhaps, ironically, Mayor thought, Willow had come the closest to understanding just how revolted she felt about physical violence. How else could she explain his perverse delight in making her hunt?
  1250. > His shouting and the beating the previous day, the confusion of the hunt and his insistence to stay with her, had all been aimed at making her kill. He'd known, or guessed, just how much it would hurt her inside.
  1251. > Mayor wished she could make Salki understand too.
  1252. "[You don't understand!]"
  1253. > "[Then explain it to me!]"
  1254. > She thought about it for a while in silence, while he rubbed her ears. The noise of fingers sliding through fur allowed her to ignore the world for a little while and Mayor closed her eyes.
  1255. "[Saule! Would you kill Saule?]"
  1256. > The scratching stopped and Salki drew a sharp breath in sudden surprise. "[What!? What kind of question is that? You know I wouldn't!]"
  1257. > Mayor lifted her head and treated the young nomad to a piercing glare.
  1258. "[What if Willow beat you? What if he yelled, and beat you, and screamed, and all that? What if he kept doing it, on and on. What if he put a knife in your hand and beat you until you cut Saule? What would you do?]
  1259. > She felt the nomad tense beside her as he imagined this unlikely, yet still horrifying scenario. "[He wouldn't! I wouldn't let him, I'd kill him first!]"
  1260. > Mayor shook her head and laid a hoof on his knee.
  1261. "[No! No! Imagine! Imagine you can't! I couldn't yesterday, I couldn't do anything! He had a spear and I had nothing! What if he beat you and you couldn't fight him, and he beat you and beat you? Imagine!]"
  1262. > Salki was silent for a while and his lips tightened. He went back to staring at the horizon. After a few moments of stillness his fingers began massaging her ear once more.
  1263. > "[I suppose I would be angry,]" he admitted eventually, but it sounded like a guess.
  1264. "[No,]" Mayor insisted. "[Really imagine! You are there now! Men are holding you. Saule is there, tied with ropes! Willow is beating you and beating you. You're tired and it hurts, and you will die if you'd do it. So you strike with the knife! You strike Saule!]"
  1265. > She knew she'd gotten some progress when the fingers fell still once more. His other hand bunch up in a fist.
  1266. > "[Fuck, Meyermer, what the fuck is wrong with you!? That's horrible!]"
  1267. "[Yes! Yes! Think! Imagine! How would you feel?! What would you think about yourself?]"
  1268. > More silence, but she waited until the young hunter exhaled and shrugged: "[Bad. I think I would hate myself, but I would hate Willow more.]"
  1269. "[Exactly! That is how I feel! He made me hurt animals! I hate him, but I hate myself more!]"
  1270. > It seemed as if Salki didn't have a response to that. Mayor watched him in silence for a while, then heaved a sign and lowered her muzzle back down. She was grateful when he slid his hand down to her withers and began rubbing in small, comforting circles.
  1271. > "[Maybe,]" he said at last. "[Maybe I understand. Ponies are not killers. You don't like it. I remember when you were talking about the bow, how your face got sad and your ears got floppy.]"
  1272. "[Yes.]"
  1273. > There was more silence and then Salki shifted uncomfortably. He switched the topic: "[You shouldn't have called Mother what you did. You shouldn't have fought her. She will make it hard for you. Harder.]"
  1274. > She was reminded of that horrible, miserable exchange and Mayor's lip curled back in a sneer.
  1275. "[I don't fucking care!]"
  1276. > This got another sigh out of the young nomad. "[Meyermer, don't. She doesn't understand. Just- apologize when we get back, okay? I'm sure she will let you stay in the tent.]"
  1277. "[I don't care,]" Mayor repeated.
  1278. > "[Please! Where will you go otherwise?]"
  1279. > She hadn't thought about that so she blurted out the first thing she could think of.
  1280. "[I'll live with Xuan! Her daughter likes me, I will help watch the child! I will sleep outside before I apologize! Darga had no right to-]"
  1281. > This statement made Salki draw back with a growl and he interrupted: "[She had every right! She's chieftain and what the chieftain says, goes! You still aren't really one of us, Meyermer, you're a slave! You do what you're told, immediately, understand?]"
  1282. > Mayor Mare opened her mouth to curse him out as well, to spit at him and walk away, but she thought better of it. She couldn't alienate her closest ally in the camp, not when she might need him the most to intercede with his mother.
  1283. > As much as she hated that sneaky little political thought, it was true. She abhorred both Darga and Willow, but she still had to live with them. There wasn't any choice.
  1284. > She closed her eyes and mentally let it go.
  1285. "[I won't apologize. You can apologize if you want, I will not. I know what I am and I know what I bring. If Darga wants more Equestrian miracles she will treat me better! Otherwise I will go to Intor instead.]"
  1286. > Mayor could hardly believe the words her own muzzle was spouting, but she knew they were true. Things had changed so much that she would rather ally herself with Intor than crawl on her belly before Darga.
  1287. > That would mean dealing with Willow, but maybe that could be tolerated. She'd noticed how Intor had been getting annoyed and fed up with Willow's antics, now that the position of top hunter was gradually slipping away from him.
  1288. > The nomad just wasn't any good with a bow, and that counted for a lot when so many others were demonstrating just how useful this new weapon could be.
  1289. > With luck, Salki might soon be eligible for that prestigious title. Maybe Mayor could work with Intor if they both disliked Willow.
  1290. > Neither of them had spoken in a while, so the mare broke the silence.
  1291. "[Fuck,]" she swore quietly. "[Talk to your mother. She doesn't have to apologize, but neither will I. Tell her we can forget it happened.]"
  1292. > It was the most Mayor was willing to do. She knew what an apology to a slave would do for Darga's reputation in the camp. Her grasp on the chieftain's position was tenuous and many nomads were clamoring for a man to lead them.
  1293. > She was, in fact, slightly stronger now that Salki was proving to be an excellent hunter, which was all thanks to the bow and thus came back full circle to Mayor Mare. The woman really should have shown a bit more gratitude.
  1294. > Still, their little spat had been entirely stupid, mostly because Mayor hadn't been in her right mind, so she was willing to forget, this time.
  1295. > "[I'll tell her, but she won't like it.]"
  1296. "[Tough! I don't care. I know more Equestrian secrets. She will accept it if she wants them!]"
  1297. > Salki opened his mouth again, but Mayor groaned in exasperation and headed him off:
  1298. "[I not want to talk about it more! Something else, please!]"
  1299. > He fell silent, then obliged and changed the topic again: "[What did you think of Xuan's daughter?]"
  1300.  
  1301. > ~~~~
  1302.  
  1303. > Nights would be difficult for a while for Mayor Mare. Luckily the camp was celebrating again, their second evening around the large bonfire, and it proved to be a nice distraction from her horrible thoughts.
  1304. > Mayor sat on one of the logs this time, rather than in the mud, even if that meant some of the younger nomads were quite close to her and talking loudly. She did her best to ignore them and focused instead on the merriment around the fire.
  1305. > There was more dancing. First the young men sang their throaty songs while the girls twirled around the center with each other. After a while, most of the singers were snagged away to join the melee in the middle, but the few who remained had good lungs so the song continued.
  1306. > Older men and women took up the melody until it seemed the entire camp was chanting the same words.
  1307. > It wasn't a very good production and the choreography was nonexistent, but the music had a deep, primal rhythm to it and Mayor found herself swaying her entire upper body as she listened.
  1308. > It drove away all thought and she found herself calmed and heartened by the repetitive song.
  1309. > Some of her friends had come to say hi, but had left her when they saw how unhappy the mare was. She couldn't blame them, not while the entire camp was celebrating.
  1310. > She caught sight of Salki twirling one of the girls around. She couldn't remember her name, but they both seemed happy, even if they were red in the face from the effort and sweat glistened on their exposed skin.
  1311. > No one wanted a downer at a party like this. The fact that Mayor still couldn't reconcile all the death and horror she'd seen - committed! - wasn't their fault. This was their world, their society, and their rules. She was the outcast.
  1312. > It still didn't make it any easier to swallow. Letting go of her entire life as a pony wasn't a simple thing, nor was it quick. It was what she had decided to do. She obviously couldn't be a pony in a nomad world, so the only choice was to become a nomad. She couldn't save her soul, but maybe she could retain some of her sanity.
  1313. > The line of thought brought her back to the previous afternoon and Mayor's memory began throwing up those unwelcome images yet again. She shook her head to dislodge the picture, but of course that didn't work. The memory was inside her head. The smell of blood, and the scream of small creatures, and the crunch of bones underhoof.
  1314. "No!"
  1315. > Chatter immediately around Mayor Mare fell silent and the nomads looked at her, some suspiciously, others with a semblance of concern. One - a very young girl - opened her mouth to ask if 'Meyermer' was okay, but the mare pre-empted her and slid from her seat.
  1316. > She didn't explain herself as she simply walked away. She would look for Xuan, who hadn't come to participate in the festivities. She had her hands full with her daughter and was getting very little sleep in these first few days, but the older nomad woman assured Mayor that this was normal.
  1317. > Maybe she could help there, if only to prove that she could do more than take life away. Caring for their young was the same, no matter what species you were, and it was something Mayor could do without feeling dirty.
  1318. > She kept her ears focused backward, to the song around the bonfire, even as she walked into the darkness. She knew the way by memory, but still slowed down to give her eyes time to adapt to the darkness.
  1319. > None of the children had followed her. That was what Mayor had wanted, but it didn't make her feel any less lonely. It drove the point further that she wasn't really one of them. To most, she was still little more than a clever animal.
  1320. > It didn't matter. Mayor drew a deep breath and blinked moisture from her eyes at that revelation. The important people - the nomads she trusted most - knew she was a person and that was enough for now.
  1321. > She tried not to think and focused on her hoofsteps so she wouldn't bring excessive mud, or worse, into Xuan's tent. It worked and she was soon in the right place.
  1322. > There was no way to knock, so Mayor simply pushed her face inside past the tent flap and spoke.
  1323. "[Xuan? M-May I enter?]"
  1324. > Of course the woman wasn't alone and it was Xuan's mother who answered. Mayor sought her memory for a name. It was one of those that twisted not only her tongue, but her brain as well. "[What do you want?]" Ayaulym asked.
  1325. "[Only to visit. Please, I do not want to be alone. Maybe I help with baby?]"
  1326. > There was silence and Mayor feared she'd said the wrong thing. She knew that Ayaulym didn't quite trust the mare and couldn't believe that the pony could be gentle enough with her hooves, but Xuan trusted her which sometimes lead to an argument.
  1327. > No, not quite an argument, Mayor corrected herself. A heated discussion was a more appropriate expression, but it felt like it could devolve into a shouting match at any point.
  1328. > Unfortunately Ayaulym was now a grandmother and no one could keep her from her granddaughter, but at least she tolerated Mayor's presence, for now.
  1329. > "[Come in. Let her come in, Mother!]" Xuan invited, and the mare slipped fully inside the tent. It was nice and warm, which felt good on her fur after the chill in the air outside. It had been okay near the large bonfire, but the walk across the abandoned camp reminded her that winter still had a few of its teeth left, even this late into spring.
  1330. > She made her way to the glowing embers of the fire and sat down on a sleeping bag which was unoccupied. The scent told her it was Buygra's.
  1331. "[Where is Buygra?]"
  1332. > "[At the dance,]" Xuan said and Mayor focused her ears on the woman. There hadn't been a tone of bitterness and envy there, had it?
  1333. "[Are you angry?]"
  1334. > This caused both women to look at each other in confusion and then Xuan laughed. "[What makes you say that? Don't be silly, I sent him away. Poor man isn't sleeping well with the little one crying at all times of the night.]"
  1335. "[Oh. I thought-]" Mayor began, but then shook her head, "[-forget it.]"
  1336. > She let her ears wilt and looked down into the remnants of the fire. It would need more wood soon if Xuan wanted to keep her daughter warm, but it was okay for another half hour or so. Mayor poked it with a desultory hoof, but pulled back before it could singe her frog.
  1337. > "[What is wrong, Meyermer?]" Xuan asked in a quiet voice. She was sitting opposite the fire, but now she got to her knees and, holding her daughter carefully to her chest, shambled around until she sat down with a small 'oomph' beside the mare. Her free hand immediately rested against Mayor's withers.
  1338. "[Nothing.]"
  1339. > "[Liar! Try again.]"
  1340. > The accusation had been made in a playful tone and Xuan's fingers tightened on Mayor's mane for an instant, both of which brought out a smile to the mare's lips, however faint.
  1341. "[Fine. I no can stop thinking about... about yesterday. The animals.]"
  1342. > She could see Ayaulym roll her eyes in exasperation, but at least Xuan took her more seriously and her hand slid further around Mayor's neck. "[I think I understand,]" the woman said. "[You are not used to killing for your food.]"
  1343. > It was perhaps the closest any nomad had come, and Mayor nodded in gratitude. She let out a shuddering breath and tried very hard not to burst out weeping again. It took a lot of will to get a grip on herself and her voice was hoarse and choked up when she tried to answer.
  1344. "[It- It isn't- it's not what ponies d- do.]"
  1345. > Mayor concentrated on her breathing for a while as Xuan's fingers made their way up to her head. Her ears were splayed and twitched at the gentle tickle until Xuan remembered to be more forceful and gave her a harder scratch.
  1346. > There was a faint whine from the bundle in Xuan's arms and the woman quickly retrieved her hand to check on her daughter. "[It is getting chilly, I have to get more wood.]"
  1347. > Mayor stood up to go instead, but a hand pushed her croup down.
  1348. > "[Stay. I will go. Watch Guuni for me.]"
  1349. > The mare barely had enough time to plant her rear firmly on the cot, with her hind legs splayed wide for balance, before the bundle of skins was pushed gently, but firmly into her lap. She quickly wrapped her forelegs around it and made sure she was supporting the infant's head.
  1350. > Human babies were rather more frail than pony ones and Mayor had paid close attention when the older women were teaching Xuan how to properly hold her daughter. She was able to translate most of the advice to her pony anatomy and did her best to make little Guuni comfortable.
  1351. > The baby whined again and it sounded like she was about to cry, so Mayor brought her face closer. Her hooves were full, but she brushed her muzzle against the tiny creature's hand and carefully nuzzled her cheek.
  1352. > Apparently the feel of soft fur was enough to quieten the daughter and she seemed to fall back asleep. Mayor looked up and saw Xuan smiling, even as Ayaulym glared.
  1353. > "[You can't leave your child with this animal,]" the older woman chided, albeit quietly so she wouldn't wake the baby.
  1354. > Xuan glared right back and put a hand on Mayor's head. "[Mother, I trust this *animal* more than I trust half the men in this camp. See how gently she holds her? See how she quietens her? It's as if Guuni was her own child!]"
  1355. > The praise was making Mayor blush and she looked down at the fire even as her ears folded in embarrassment. She heard Ayaulym sigh, but there was nothing more the woman said and Xuan went to the tent flap. "[I won't be long,]" she assured them, and left.
  1356. > Mayor really didn't have much to say to the older nomad, so she focused her gaze on the child instead. Guuni was sleeping, quite comfortable in hooves instead of arms. Mayor leaned closer once more and touched the small cheek with her muzzle. It was nice and warm, but she believed Xuan that the fire needed more wood.
  1357. > By the time the child's face would be noticeably cold it would be too late. When she looked up she saw that Ayaulym was watching her closely. At least she wasn't tensed up to snatch the baby away at the first sign of trouble, but the woman still looked uneasy.
  1358. > Mayor decided to try and break the ice, at least a little bit.
  1359. "[She is beautiful. I think I see Xuan in her face.]"
  1360. > All that earned her was an affirmative-sounding grunt, but perhaps Ayaulym's glare softened a bit. Mayor plunged on.
  1361. "[You are proud of your daughter? She is a good mother.]"
  1362. > This time the old woman went as far as to nod.
  1363. > Mayor left her in silence for a while and went back to examining the tiny creature in her hooves. It was perhaps the closest she could come to being a mother herself. It brought back those bitter thoughts, full of regret and recrimination for not having done it while she'd had the chance, but at least this was something.
  1364. > After some time the older woman cleared her throat. "[You really are good with her. I think- maybe...]"
  1365. > She fell silent and Mayor looked up with an eyebrow raised inquisitively.
  1366. > "[Maybe you can help Xuan. This isn't easy for her and I can't be here all the time.]"
  1367. > It was encouraging and Mayor made sure to smile, even if she didn't quite feel like it yet.
  1368. "[Thank you. I am happy I help.]"
  1369. > That earned her another nod, and then they each went back into their own thoughts. Mayor was focusing on holding the child still and had to fight against drowsiness which was beginning to claim her. She did not want to fall asleep, especially not with the baby in her hooves and such a high likelihood that she would have those awful dreams.
  1370. > The mere thought of what she might do in her delirium brought her more fully awake than a cold shower. She also realized that the tent was getting quite chilly.
  1371. > Something was wrong!
  1372. > Xuan should have been back by now! The pile of wood the nomad youngsters had gathered during the afternoon was less than five minutes' walk away!
  1373. > Mayor straightened up and Ayaulym shot up at the same time. "[Where is Xuan?]" the woman demanded. "[I will go look. Something may have happened to her! I always told that idiot child she shouldn't strain herself so soon after birth!]"
  1374. > Mayor shook her head.
  1375. "[No. You take little Guuni. I go look. Here, make her warm.]"
  1376. > The old nomad studied her, but only for a second before she nodded and even flashed a tiny smile. "[Yes. Good. Go and look. Shout if there is trouble!]"
  1377. "[Yes. I will be back soon!]"
  1378. > She stood on slightly unsteady legs after being still for so long. Mayor had to stretch her limbs before she could trust them, then she pushed out of the tent. She would have a far better chance of finding Xuan in the dark anyway, thanks to her sense of smell. Maybe.
  1379. > Mayor lifted her muzzle and sniffed the chilly spring air. There was a light breeze, so Xuan scent hadn't lingered. Shame, Mayor thought to herself and headed over to the communal wood pile. It was near the edge of the camp because there simply wasn't enough room among the tents.
  1380. > With luck this would have an innocent explanation. Maybe Xuan had run into a friend and was simply chatting away.
  1381. > Something told Mayor that she was wrong though, and the fur on her withers tried to stand on end as she walked into the darkness.
  1382. >...
  1383. > She soon found the pile of wood, but there was no sign of Xuan. Mayor walked closer, nostrils flaring as she sought for any clue the scent might bring her. Her hoof crunched on something she she automatically froze with a small whimper.
  1384. > Luckily it was just a dry branch. She lowered her head and saw that a whole bundle of sticks had been strewn haphazardly on the ground. Her gut wrenched, even though she couldn't quite imagine what had happened. It felt wrong.
  1385. > She could smell very faint traces of nomad on the wood and quickly identified the person.
  1386. "[Xuan!]"
  1387. > It felt as if her insides were turning to ice. Xuan had gathered an armful of firewood, then had thrown it down. Why? What had happened to her?
  1388. > Mayor's ears were as flat as they would go and she debated with herself whether to go and look for someone, or whether she should try searching around.
  1389. "[Xuan!]" she called, louder.
  1390. > There was a rustle behind her and a nomad seemed to rise up from the ground. She didn't see his face, but it was definitely a man. He had a spear in an upraised arm.
  1391. > "[It talks!?]" he gasped. His accent was strange, not one Mayor had heard in the camp and she took an involuntary step back.
  1392. > A second shadow appeared beside the first. "[Forget it! Get it before it brays and people hear!]"
  1393. > The two jumped forward and Mayor whinnied in sudden fear. These weren't men from the camp. They were outsiders! They wanted to kill her!
  1394. > She twirled and kicked off, her speed surprising both her and the pursuers. A spear thudded into the ground by her foreleg and slapped her side. A hoof-width over and it would have skewered her!
  1395. > Mayor dodged to one side and the other spear sliced against her hind leg. It was a searing line of pain and she screamed at the top of her voice.
  1396. > There were no words in it, but as she sped away she began to bellow.
  1397. "[HELP! ATTACKERS! HELP! KILLERS! COME! COME! STRANGERS!]"
  1398. > She thought she heard some answering shouts from nearby tents and the men running after her cursed. They slowed, but she kept on running to the bonfire. Most of the men would be there, she knew.
  1399. > Mayor had to save her breath for running, but she repeated her cry of alarm every few dozen steps. The camp was waking up around her and she heard a few fights break out. Spear clattered against spear. There were yells of pain and anger.
  1400. > She redoubled her effort and finally burst into the clearing, where the song had abruptly ended and the nomads were milling around in confusion.
  1401. > Mayor spotted Willow and ran over. This was not a time for hatred.
  1402. "[Come quick! Attackers! Strangers! They come from the south! Get the men and the bows! Hurry!]"
  1403. > She wanted to tell him that they'd probably gotten Xuan, but the hunter reacted quickly and sped away, already shouting for his men. They hurried off to fetch their weapons.
  1404. > Mayor spotted a more welcome face and ran over. She put herself in Buygra's path, panting.
  1405. "[You have to come!]" she gasped. "[They have Xuan! Xuan is gone! We have to go find her!]"
  1406. > This made the hunter hesitate. He looked after Willow and the others and jerked his body as if to follow them. Mayor butted his thigh with her head and he took a step back.
  1407. "[Come! Xuan! There is no time!]"
  1408. > She pranced in place until the man cursed and began to ran toward his tent. She breathed a sigh of relief and followed.
  1409. > It occurred to her that Buygra would be outnumbered, but he was a good shot with the bow and that would surely even the odds. Besides, her plan was to sneak around the groups of attacking men and try to follow Xuan. They would have taken her out of the camp as directly as possible, she guessed. Maybe they could head them off.
  1410. > She had to be in time! She simply had to! She wouldn't let Guuni lose her mother!
  1411. >...
  1412. > It wasn't long after that she stood, trembling, by Buygra's side as he held his bow, drawn. Four men had tried to rush him and the first one fell with an arrow through his eye. It had been a lucky shot, but the others didn't know that.
  1413. > They'd stopped and were milling around in confusion. Mayor wondered whether they would charge again, when one of they, barely older than Salki she gauged, turned and ran.
  1414. > One of the others twisted to yell curses after his escaping comrade and Buygra released his arrow.
  1415. > It wasn't as accurate as the previous one, but it hit the man in the belly and he went down with a bloodcurdling scream. He kept yelling and thrashed around on the ground, but he wouldn't fight anymore, so Buygra aimed his next shot at the last man.
  1416. > His opponent, suddenly alone, dropped his spear and ran. The arrow missed him, but Mayor didn't think he would be back. The fear in his eyes had been all too real. She remembered that this was an entirely new, frighteningly effective weapon.
  1417. > Buygra went forward, giving a wide berth to the fallen warrior who was still screaming as he clutched the arrow protruding from his belly. Mayor tried not to look and pressed her ears as flat as she could to tune out the pained cries as she followed.
  1418. > More of the camp's nomads were now awake and fighting the intruders. Most of them had spears, since bows were quite rare and the skill to shoot them rarer still. There was shouting of several melees nearby and Mayor nudged Buygra's thigh with her muzzle to guide him away from the worst fighting.
  1419. > A few times they came across a scrap and the young hunter dropped arrows into the strangers. The men thus freed from fighting hurried off to find their friends and families, despite Mayor and Buygra's shouts for help.
  1420. > They were almost at the edge and Mayor couldn't wrap her mind around how many attackers had come. It felt as if the entire camp was involved in the little war. She couldn't see any direction that was safe.
  1421. > The only piece of luck was that most of the women and children had been at the bonfire, well away from the outskirts. Otherwise the slaughter would have been much worse.
  1422. > Oh, and Guuni and Ayaulym were fine. The fighting hadn't spread that far by the time she and Buygra had made it to their tent, and the young man told his mother in law in no uncertain terms that she was to take the child directly to the bonfire.
  1423. > Mayor had acquired a torch and lit the scene she'd found earlier. The spear which had missed her was gone, as was the one which had scraped her flank, but the sticks were still where she'd found them.
  1424. > "[Here! Bring the light here!]" Buygra said, studying the ground intently. Mayor obliged with the torch and the young hunter furrowed his brow.
  1425. > She tried to see what he was seeing, but the ground didn't look any different to her. Same well-trodden mud as everywhere in the camp.
  1426. > Eventually Buygra pointed. "[Here, I think. There was a struggle. They must have grabbed her and dragged her away. See the furrows where she kicked and dragged?]"
  1427. > Mayor tried again to see, but she might as well been trying to read tracks in water for all that she could identify.
  1428. "[No. Sorry.]"
  1429. > She tried to bend down and sniff the ground, careful not to smother the torch in her mouth, and thought she caught a faint whiff of Xuan. Unfortunately it was hard to be sure whether it was real or just wistful thinking.
  1430. "[Sorry,]" she said again.
  1431. > Buygra crept closer, still intently watching the ground and she followed close after him. They were both so engrossed in the trail that neither of them noticed the stranger.
  1432. > Mayor heard him first as the warrior ran for them, his spear arm already pulling back to strike.
  1433. > All she had time for was yelp, which caused her to drop the torch. Buygra began to turn and fumbled for his bow, but it would be too late.
  1434. > The warrior glanced at her and their eyes met. He dismissed her and turned his attention fully to Buygra.
  1435. > That gave Mayor a chance. She didn't think and, fueled by fear and adrenaline, twisted her body around. She dug her forehooves into the soft mud and lashed out blindly with her hind hooves.
  1436. > Their attacker hadn't been expecting that and couldn't change his direction in time. Her hooves connected and there was a sickening crunch.
  1437. > The spear clattered harmlessly against Buygra's half-raised bow and the stranger went flying back.
  1438. > Mayor was an earth pony and she hadn't held back. Her muscles had been toned with months and months of gruelling physical labor. Even as he fell, the man sprayed blood from his mouth and nose.
  1439. > When he landed with a dull thud he didn't move again.
  1440. > Mayor stared with wide eyes and panted. Then she began to shake. She saw a bubble of red blood grow from the fallen man's nose, then pop. All was still. His chest didn't move.
  1441. > He was dead.
  1442. > She'd killed him.
  1443. > "[Fuck, well done,]" Buygra said with a noticeable tone of admiration in his voice. His hand gave Mayor a quick pat on her head, but she didn't move. She was staring at the trail of red blood down the fallen man's face.
  1444. > She'd killed him with her own hooves.
  1445. > Her life had been in danger! Hers and Buygra's! The man had attacked them. He was coming at them with a spear.
  1446. > She'd killed him and now he was no longer a threat.
  1447. > Was she really any different from the nomads? Maybe it had only taken a bit of time for her essential barbaric nature to shine through. Maybe she'd always been a monster - a murderer - and it had simply been buried under all that paperwork and bureaucracy?
  1448. > Some ponies were born evil. Sombra had proven that.
  1449. > Was she one of them and simply hadn't known?
  1450. > A tug on her ear brought her back to the present and she turned to Buygra, who had picked up the torch. "[Here! Take this, I need both hands for the bow. Come on, we have to go!]"
  1451. > She followed in a kind of trance, the moment replaying in her mind. Her hooves connecting. A split second of firm flesh under her frogs, then the crunch as the man's chest caved in.
  1452. > The spray of blood.
  1453. > That last bubble of air escaping his ruined lungs.
  1454. > She felt nauseated and bile rose up, but Mayor fought it down. She concentrated on the feel of the wood between her teeth and hurried her steps to keep up with her friend.
  1455. > He suddenly stopped and she nearly ran into him. Only when she looked past his legs did she see why.
  1456. > Xuan was there, lying on the ground with blood on her head. A stranger was lying partly on top of her, a flint knife sticking from the back of his neck.
  1457. > This time she couldn't stop it and Mayor dropped the torch again as she vomited onto the mud. She was dimly aware that Buygra had pulled the attacker off his wife and was bent down to listen to her chest.
  1458. > Mayor was already weeping, even as she dry-heaved.
  1459. > "[She's alive! Help me! We have to get her to the shaman!]"
  1460. > The words instantly snapped Mayor from her wallowing misery. Her friends needed her. The conflict and the disgust and the shock had to wait.
  1461. > She could follow orders.
  1462. > Once again she picked up the torch, which luckily hadn't gone out. The wooden stick tasted of her foul vomit, but she ignored it. Instead, Mayor went to stand beside the fallen woman and waited as Buygra lifted her onto her back.
  1463. > He slapped her flank and exclaimed in surprise when he felt sticky, drying blood. "[You're hurt!]"
  1464. "[I'm fine,]" she reassured him, her voice utterly emotionless.
  1465. > To prove it, she began to walk back into the camp, while Buygra took up his bow again.
  1466. > Xuan was alive. That was all that mattered. She had to take her to get help and make sure she stayed that way.
  1467. > Guuni needed a mother.

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