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[WIP] Barbarians, part 2 (SPG)

By awf
Created: 2022-08-11 17:40:19
Updated: 2023-11-30 20:31:40
Expiry: Never

  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.
  91. > ~~~~
  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.
  191. > ~~~~
  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!"
  248. > ~~~~
  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.]"
  329. > ~~~~
  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.
  375. > ~~~~
  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.
  532. > PART THREE: Identity
  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.
  587. > ~~~~
  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...]"
  641. > ~~~~
  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.
  700. > ~~~
  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.
  771. > ~~~~
  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.
  791. > ~~~~
  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.
  823. > ~~~~
  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?
  861. > ~~~~
  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.
  886. > ~~~~
  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.
  976. > ~~~~
  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.
  1073. > ~~~~
  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.
  1166. > ~~~~
  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.
  1226. > ~~~~
  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?]"
  1301. > ~~~~
  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.
  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.
  1469. > ~~~~
  1471. > They got the unconscious Xuan to the shaman's tent, but Mayor couldn't get inside. A woman whose name she didn't know came out to help Buygra move his wife and the mare was told to wait.
  1472. > She pushed her way forward despite that, but they simply shoved her back by her muzzle. When she tried again, Mayor got a glimpse of the controlled chaos inside. Several of the camp's women and both of the shaman's apprentices were busy with the injured. Mayor saw at least four people lying on the floor and a further two sitting upright by the central fire.
  1473. > Everyone was talking loudly and one of the injured was keening in pain.
  1474. > "[Get the fucking pony out of here, there's no room!]" someone complained and Mayor didn't see who it was.
  1475. > She cringed back as Buygra herded her away. He crouched, put both hands on her face, and stroked her fur with his thumbs. "[Please, Meyermer, wait here. There's no room in there. They're even giving me the stink eye!]"
  1476. "[B-But- Xuan?]"
  1477. > The grip around her muzzle tightened momentarily, then Buygra stood up. "[I'll ask and come right back to tell you, okay?]"
  1478. > His tone and the expression in his face brokered no argument and Mayor simply nodded in silent obedience. Buygra gave her one last pat and hurried back into the tent.
  1479. > She listened to the moans, and cries and the arguments inside. It felt like hours, but couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes before the hunter came back. Mayor thought he looked relieved and she relaxed a little.
  1480. > "[She's fine,]" Buygra told her, "[they just hit her on the head. No other wounds. She's sleeping now and the shaman says she's breathing normally. She'll wake up and she'll be fine.]"
  1481. > It wasn't the absolute best news in Mayor's opinion. Blows to the head could be more dangerous, or have longer lasting effects, but there wasn't much she could do. Even if they let her inside the tent to examine Xuan herself, she wasn't a doctor and Xuan wasn't even a pony.
  1482. > There was absolutely nothing she could do for the woman and Mayor would simply have to trust the nomads' own medicine, as primitive as it was. She simply had to believe.
  1483. > Buygra watched her for a moment longer, then went back in the tent. He paused with the tent flap in his hand. "[I will send someone to find you when she wakes up, okay? The shaman says I will be able to take her home in a while.]"
  1484. "[Should I- do you need me to wait?]"
  1485. > The young man shook his head. "[Someone will help me. Go and get some rest, you look like you need it.]"
  1486. > Mayor wanted to argue, but his words reminded her just how exhausted she was. She hadn't slept the previous night and it was probably past midnight. With the lack of sleep and the sheer physical exertion during the hunt, and during the attack, she suddenly felt ready to simply fall over.
  1487. > Maybe, as tired as she was, she would sleep and not dream. Mayor gave a slow nod and turned to go back to Salki and Darga's tent. Even the chieftain and her jabs and insults wouldn't bother her tonight.
  1488. > She saw a familiar, lone figure standing right in front of her and Mayor froze in place. She must have walked right past Saule on their way in. The girl was so still that she hadn't noticed her until now.
  1489. > Saule was pale, and she stared at the shaman's tent with wide, fearful eyes. Her face was dirty with grime, except where tears had scoured two pink trails down her cheeks. Her expression told Mayor that something terrible has happened.
  1490. "[W-What's wro- wrong?]"
  1491. > Even as she asked, Mayor Mare's heart sank and her hind legs buckled under her. She had to grit her teeth to prevent herself from screaming in frustration. Just when she thought the worst might be over, just when Buygra had come out of the shaman's tent and told her that Xuan would be alright...
  1492. > This nomad world kept kicking her, again and again.
  1493. > Saule didn't answer. Mayor wasn't even sure the girl had seen her, so she forced her tired limbs to work and stood up on unsteady legs. She walked over and brushed her muzzle against Saule's clenched fist.
  1494. > Her hand relaxed and Mayor nuzzled the fingers apart in a silent show of comfort, or at least in an attempt to get some kind of a reaction.
  1495. > Saule looked down. Her unseeing, haunted expression shrivelled Mayor's insides some more. The girl kept jerking her head from side to side, as if trying to deny whatever she was thinking.
  1496. > Her palm slipped away, but came back to close around Mayor's ear. The grip was tight, almost painful, but Mayor didn't try to pull free of push the hand away. She let Saule take what comfort she could.
  1497. > Instead Mayor leaned in and closed her eyes. For a while she could focus on being nothing more than Saule's friend. It was as if her own troubles paled in comparison to whatever was wrong with the girl.
  1498. > Mayor opened her mouth to ask again, but Saule released her ear and sat down on the muddy ground. She put her arms around her knees and hid her face.
  1499. > It looked really bad. Was she hurt? Mayor moved aside to let some torchlight shine on Saule. Her forearms were covered in blood.
  1500. "[Are you hurt? We need to get you some help!]"
  1501. > Mayor pried Saule's arms apart so she could check her for injuries. Her face and head were fine, and despite all the blood there didn't seem to be any wounds on her arms.
  1502. "[Where does it hurt? Where did they hit you?]"
  1503. > Saule shook her head and pushed the inquisitive mare away. She came right back, trying to undo her tunic to make sure she wasn't bleeding from her chest or belly, but Saule shoved at her muzzle again. "[I'm not hurt!]" she yelled.
  1504. "[Then what? You are covered in blood!]"
  1505. > There was no reply and Saule buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook as she began to sob.
  1506. > Mayor Mare tried to make her voice as gentle as she could.
  1507. "[Why are you walking around alone? It's not safe! Where is your mother? Where is Bakar?]"
  1508. > That last question got a reaction and Saule began to weep in earnest. It began as a soft, almost melodious wail, and quickly turned into loud, hiccuping sobs.
  1509. > Mayor's belly went cold and she realized that the blood on Saule's arms was sticky, almost dry. It wasn't her blood.
  1510. "[Saule? Where is Bakar?]"
  1511. > All the girl could do was shake her head and she began to cry louder.
  1512. > It could only mean...
  1513. "[Is he hurt? D-Dead?]"
  1514. > All Mayor could think to do was sit beside the nomad girl and press her side against hers. At least it would tell her that she wasn't alone.
  1515. > Saule suddenly unwrapped and threw both arms around the surprised mare. She buried her face in her mane and wept.
  1516. > "[Bakar-]" the girl sobbed, but couldn't say anything more.
  1517. > She didn't have to. Mayor's felt her own tears well up in her eyes. Almost without conscious thought she wrapped her forelegs around Saule. At that moment she couldn't tell which of them was clinging to whom, not that it mattered.
  1518. "[Is he d-dead?]" she asked again, quietly.
  1519. > The answer came in the form of a nod against her neck, followed by a fresh wail. Mayor closed her eyes and tried very hard not to begin sobbing herself. If she started, it would all come out.
  1520. > There would be time for that later, once she'd seen to Saule and made sure the girl was okay. She had to find Mitra, Saule's mother, but even that could wait for a bit. The first thing she could do for her friend was simply be there.
  1521. "[I'm sorry. I'm-]" she tried, but didn't know nearly enough words.
  1522. "Oh, sweet Celestia..."
  1523. > The foreign words didn't seem to register with Saule, or at least she didn't comment on them.
  1524. "[He- he was my friend. It's not fair! I'm sorry...]"
  1525. > Another nod and a fresh bout of tears. Once again Mayor had to concentrate on her breathing lest she begin weeping too. She held her breath for a moment and then let it out. A shudder passed through her, but she thought she could keep it under control, at least for a while longer.
  1526. "[Come on. Come, we need to find someone. Your mother? Where your mother?]"
  1527. > Saule gave a slight shrug. When Mayor tried to pull away to look around for help, the girl squeezed her as if she never intended to let go. The message was clear: it was not yet time.
  1528. > Mayor settled back and did her best to pat Saule's back with a hoof.
  1529. "[It's okay, it's okay. I'm not going. I will stay with you, okay?]"
  1530. > There was another nod and the death grip relaxed a little. Mayor looked around to see if any of the nomads could help, but she couldn't see anyone. Buygra had gone back into the shaman's tent, and Mayor still heard multiple voices arguing in there. Even if Buygra came out, he would have his hands full with his wife.
  1531. > The shaman was the closest the nomads had to medicine, so it would why Saule was there. Maybe, Mayor thought and her ears folded down at the horrible idea, maybe Bakar had been alive only a little while ago. Maybe Saule had helped him get to the shaman's tent.
  1532. > Mayor Mare bit her tongue and silently called herself a foal. It wasn't doing her any good to speculate! She would get the whole story eventually, for now she had to focus on the girl, rather than work herself up into uncontrollable weeping.
  1533. > Maybe that helped her put her own trouble aside, or maybe what Mayor had gone through simply paled in comparison. After all, neither Buygra nor Xuan were dead.
  1534. > Salki!
  1535. > Mayor tensed up for a moment when she remembered that all the hunters had gone with Willow to drive the intruders away. She'd heard someone say that they were giving chase.
  1536. > Salki could get hurt!
  1537. > She realized she was gripping Saule too tightly and forced her legs to unclench a little. The girl didn't remark on it, but the last thing Mayor wanted was to inadvertently hurt her.
  1538. > Her jaw set and Mayor forced those thoughts away, too. They were just speculation and fear, and she really didn't need them while she was trying to help Saule.
  1539. > She pulled back a little so she could inspect the young nomad's face. It was a little cleaner, where she'd rubbed the dirt off into Mayor's mane, but it still glistened with tears.
  1540. "[It's going to be okay,]" she said.
  1541. > For a moment it looked as if Saule was angry at the lie, but then she let her breath out and looked down.
  1542. "[Come on, we have to get you someplace warm. Come on.]"
  1543. > It took some prodding to get Saule to stand up. Even when she finally looked around, the mere sight of the shaman's tent made her tense up again. Mayor put herself in the way and gave Saule a stronger push to turn her around. Only then did she take the girl's side.
  1544. > Her hand landed gently on Mayor's withers.
  1545. "[Here, hold on to my mane, okay? I'm not going anywhere without you. Come on, let's go home.]"
  1546. > Saule obediently gathered a fistful of Mayor's pink mane. That made it a lot easier to lead her, even if the grip meant the occasional sharp tug. Mayor ignored the discomfort and simply made sure she walked at Saule's side.
  1547. > The night wasn't as chilly as some, but it still wasn't pleasant and there was a distinct cold patch where Saule's tears had made Mayor's fur wet.
  1548. > A few nomads passed them, but they hurried on their own errands and didn't stop. Mayor called to the first few she could recognize, hoping for a helping hand with Saule, but they just excused themselves and ran off.
  1549. > The attack had left the camp in a disarray and women were looking for their husbands and sons. The hunters weren't back yet, it seemed.
  1550. > Luckily it wasn't far and the pair soon came to Bakar's-
  1551. > Mayor shook her head sadly. It wasn't his tent anymore. She guessed it would go to Mitra, or maybe even to Saule.
  1552. > She saw a flat stone and a flint knife beside the firepit. She saw wood chippings and stripped bark and a few straight sticks which Bakar had been making into arrows. A few were in the firepit, burned through.
  1553. > They had caught them all by surprise, it seemed. An attack in the night.
  1554. > Saule was looking at the scene again, and she was making a strange sound in her throat, as if she wanted to both growl and sob at the same time. Mayor remembered herself and pushed her side against the girl's thigh.
  1555. "[Come on. Your mother's tent, let's go inside.]"
  1556. > It was right beside Bakar's and Mayor thought she heard the crackle of fire inside. If so it meant there were people and they could help.
  1557. > She took a step and pulled. Saule was still gripping her mane in a fist. It resulted in a painful tug, but it was enough to get the girl moving again. In a few more steps they were at the entrance and Mayor simply pushed the flap aside.
  1558. > Nomads didn't knock.
  1559. > The interior of the tent was warm and lit by a bright, orange fire in the middle. Several dark shapes were sitting around and conversation stopped when Mayor stepped inside.
  1560. > "[Saule!]" Mitra gasped in relief when she saw the girl. She jumped forward and physically yanked her daughter inside, and wrapped her in an embrace. "[We were so worried! Where were you?! We thought- the attack...]"
  1561. > Saule didn't say anything and Mitra went on: "[Tashi was taken! We thought you-]"
  1562. > She didn't finish the sentence.
  1563. > They didn't know yet, Mayor realized. Saule had taken Bakar to get help and he had died. None of the others knew. Saule would have to tell them this painful bit of news.
  1564. > Mayor didn't think she could watch. The kind thing to do would be to tell them herself, since Saule was in no shape to talk, but Mayor simply couldn't bring herself to do it, not after everything that had happened.
  1565. > She backed away and slipped out of the tent while no one was looking. Her conscience twinged and she paused for a moment, utterly undecided. She should go back and tell them. Maybe she could bring Saule some comfort. It would be the pony thing to do.
  1566. > Mayor folded her ears down and let her head lower in shame as she began to walk away from the tent. All she could hear was her own heart, hammering in her chest as she made her escape.
  1567. > She couldn't watch another little tragedy, not this night. She couldn't cause Mitra and her family this pain.
  1568. > A hand on her back stopped her and she nearly jumped in fright. She twirled around, her mind already painting a last, lone, desperate attacker out to get revenge for his friend she'd killed.
  1569. > It was only Zaur. He'd seen her leave and followed.
  1570. > "[Thank you for bringing my sister back,]" he said. "[You should come back so Mother can thank you.]"
  1571. > Mayor mutely shook her head. Unfortunately Zaur saw her expression and his smile faded.
  1572. > "[Something's wrong. What happened? Did they- did-]" he began, but had to swallow before he could continue: "[did they *hurt* Saule?]"
  1573. > The thought was absolutely horrible and Mayor hissed in unpleasant surprise. She shook her head, as much to dislodge the sudden mental image as to say no.
  1574. "[No! No! Nothing like that...]"
  1575. > "[Then what?]"
  1576. > She let her breath out and lowered her gaze to the ground.
  1577. "[Bakar is dead. Killed, I think. Saule took him to the shaman, but he died.]"
  1578. > There was a few seconds of silence, then Zaur gave a grunt. "[Fuck!]" he swore quietly. "[Fuck those Ruslan bastards! Sons of whores!]"
  1579. > He stood up and it looked like he would simply run after the attackers to try and make them pay. Mayor could see how tightly he'd bunched his fists and his the veins on his neck stood out.
  1580. > She placed a hoof on his leg and he looked down in surprise.
  1581. "[No. No, go back. Saule- your sister. Your mother. They need you. Go back.]"
  1582. > It was a struggle, but in the end rationality won through. Mayor Mare was right and the young nomad knew it. He slowly let his breath go and his shoulders slumped.
  1583. > "[Fuck!]" he swore again. Then, without another word, he turned and went back to the tent.
  1584. > Mayor was grateful he hadn't insisted she join them. She'd done her duty. She'd brought Saule home, safe with her family, and now she could go somewhere and...
  1585. > What?
  1586. > Have a good, solitary cry?
  1587. > Stomp about in impotent rage?
  1588. > She wanted to do both, but she was also worried for Salki.
  1589. > Should she try and follow the hunters? They could be hurt, maybe they needed her. She could help carry back the wounded.
  1590. > Which direction had they gone? She would never find them in he dark, out in the wild, even with her sense of smell.
  1591. > She wanted to be alone for a while.
  1592. > She wanted a drink. At least it would take the edge off for a little bit, and she could deal with the mess of emotion and fear and anger in the morning.
  1593. > Maybe they had beer at the celebration. Maybe they dropped it when the panic started.
  1594. > She headed to the bonfire.
  1596. > ~~~~
  1598. > Mayor Mare held the half-full, grubby skin of beer and stared into the fading embers of the central bonfire. She'd gotten her treasure from the ground, where a lot of it had spilled out after someone had dropped it, but the smell coming from the thing was stale and unappetizing.
  1599. > It had probably gone bad a while ago, but someone had held on to it because beer was precious and expensive, and the alcohol would soon mask the bad taste. They weren't wrong, but the odor was giving Mayor second thoughts.
  1600. > She'd sat herself down on one of the logs near the pit, where the dying fire still radiated some heat. A few of the people had walked past, but none of them paid her any mind. She heard shouts in the distance as families sought each other.
  1601. > Again Mayor lifted the skin up to her mouth, and once more the old, spoiled beer smell nearly turned her stomach. Maybe it was a sign of some kind? She knew she shouldn't drink, not after the last time, yet...
  1602. > It *would* give her some respite from the awful, horrible, brutal night. Maybe she would forget for a while and sleep. Celestia knew she needed it, badly. Her sides till throbbed where the spear had grazed it and her legs ached from the effort and excitement.
  1603. > The fading adrenaline had left in its wake that dull, leaden feeling, and Mayor wanted nothing so much as to sleep it off. The only problem was that every time she closed her eyes unwelcome images forced their way to the front.
  1604. > Mayor let out an agonized whine and brought the beer skin back up with renewed determination. This time she didn't inhale but simply put the neck in her mouth and lifted the thing up before she could change her mind.
  1605. > The liquid gushed onto her tongue and for the first few seconds it was almost okay. She gulped down several urgent mouthfuls before she truly became aware of the taste. The beer skin nearly fell from her hooves and she had to scramble to steady her hooves so she wouldn't spill any of the precious drink.
  1606. > That only left the problem in her mouth. Every instinct told her to spit it out and already her stomach was trying to turn and bring up what she had managed to get down. Mayor shut her eyes, folded her ears down, and forced herself to swallow.
  1607. "Eugh! Urk-"
  1608. > Again her insides felt like they had just done a somersault and Mayor urgently held the skin at arm's length. If she had gotten one more whiff of the beer it would have been too much. As it was, she concentrated on her breathing until the nausea subsided.
  1609. > Once it was done and she no longer felt like vomiting, she blinked her eyes open and looked at the embers once more.
  1610. > She hadn't eaten much the entire day and it wouldn't take long for the alcohol to override her senses. Despite that, she took a gasp of air and tipped another mouthful of the foul liquid down her throat. The taste made her gag and once again Mayor had to calm herself and concentrate on holding it down.
  1611. "Why!?" she half-cried to one in particular. "Why the- the [fuck]!? I p-promised..."
  1612. > She could stop. A few sips of the beer would make her dizzy, but not leave her senseless. She really didn't need to put herself through this ordeal.
  1613. > Except she had already started, and the alcohol was starting to spread its seductive, warm feeling outward from her belly. It would help her sleep, Mayor focused on that important part. She would finish the skin, then hurry back to Salki and Darga's tent and get in her bedroll.
  1614. > With how tired she was there would be no real time for her to do anything stupid when she was drunk.
  1615. "Just this once. Just this-" she blubbered to herself. "I have to. I can't- No more. Never again, okay?"
  1616. > She wasn't sure to whom she was making these promises. Maybe to herself, or maybe to Celestia, or at least the image of Celestia in her mind. She really meant it. Today was an exception. It had been horrible and her friend had died.
  1617. > She'd killed a nomad with her bare hooves.
  1618. > Mayor Mare needed a respite, even if only for a single night. Doubtless the images would haunt her for a long time to come, but first she had to make it until morning.
  1619. > Her muzzle set into a determined grimace and she lifted the skin up again. She held her breath as she guzzled as quickly as she could. The spout was long and let her miss most of her tongue, so all she really felt was the bitterness deep in her mouth.
  1620. > It allowed her to get a substantial amount of the foul beer down her throat until she made the mistake of exhaling through her nose. Her throat constricted and she quickly pulled the beer away, but not before she automatically spat out a mouthful.
  1621. > Her insides churned and gurgled and bile rose up until she could almost taste it. Mayor swallowed again and again, trying to work up some saliva.
  1622. > After some minutes of this she won and the contents of her stomach settled once more. The beer skin was nearly empty and most of it was inside her. Mayor slumped down on the log once more and stared into the fire as she waited for the alcohol to work.
  1623. > Her thoughts were starting to go a little fuzzy and the warmth had spread throughout her body. Some nomads walked past and said things to her, but Mayor wasn't paying any attention and only gave them the most half-hearted of replies.
  1624. > It seemed to suffice and no one came to bother her. More importantly, it was working and the pain gradually lessened.
  1625. > She wasn't as drunk as she remembered in the past. Mayor forced herself to drink the remaining few dregs in the skin and then tossed it down when it was empty. It was easier going, but still unpleasant.
  1626. > Maybe the beer had lost some of its potency because it was old, or maybe she'd built up a tolerance. It would help her sleep in any case, and it was probably a good idea she didn't get completely smashed.
  1627. > Those thoughts made her feel a bit better. The horrors of the day were slipping away and thoughts of Bakar being dead no longer hurt as much. It was better than nothing.
  1628. > No nomad could blame her, not when they drank themselves stupid at every opportunity too!
  1629. "Jus' wanna feel good," Mayor mumbled to herself.
  1630. > Besides, nomads had each other and she had no one. All her friends were pairing off, but there were no ponies in the world besides Mayor. Buygra and Xuan, Saule and Salki, even Celestia-damned Willow had a special some-nomad!
  1631. > It just wasn't fair!
  1632. > Maybe it was the beer, but Mayor suddenly felt cold and lonely. The chill penetrated right through her bones and she began to shiver in earnest. Maybe the fire was dying out?
  1633. > She got to her unsteady hooves and walked closer to the pile of embers.
  1634. > It helped a little, but her legs were still shivering like twigs in a breeze. Luckily Mayor retained enough presence of mind that she knew going further would be a bad idea. She could lose her balance and fall into the fire. It was nearly dead, but still hot enough to burn her badly.
  1635. > Instead it would be a smarter idea to get her cloak. Her head swung around until she found the direction she wanted and Mayor stumbled off. It wasn't far to Darga's tent. Of course the chieftain would be close to the center.
  1636. > The entire world was swinging around gently as Mayor walked and the motion lulled her into a kind of stupor. It was pleasant, in a way, not to think about anything in particular and just keep moving.
  1637. > The workout, even a light one, was warming her up and the movement emphasized the dizziness she felt as the beer took hold.
  1638. > She passed the tent she wanted and just kept going. It wouldn't hurt to make a tour of the camp and the exercise would tire her out a bit more.
  1639. "Mak- Makit easy to sleep."
  1640. > She increased her pace into a very light canter and lowered her head so that her mane streamed a little. At least that's how Mayor imagined it. She lifted up her tail to mimic that classical galloping pony pose.
  1641. > Pretty soon she was breathing more heavily, but Mayor kept running. A few nomads looked at her strangely, but she was hardly aware of her odd glances. Maybe she was smiling.
  1642. > It felt as if she'd left all her troubles behind, at least for a while.
  1643. > Soon she was hot throughout and her muscles were burning with effort, so Mayor slowed down. She thought she'd circled the entire camp and wasn't sure where she was. She looked around, but that made the landscape tilt and swirl dangerously, so she stopped before she fell on her muzzle.
  1644. > She was pleasantly drunk, but still sober enough to know it. Somehow she'd gotten the dosage perfect. Maybe she didn't have to deny herself beer if she drank responsibly, like tonight, Mayor thought.
  1645. > Unfortunately she wasn't sure exactly where she was, but she had a vague sense of direction and knew which way would take her back to the bonfire. She was ready to fall asleep, so Mayor headed that way.
  1646. > A few drops of sweat fell from her sides, but she paid them no heed. She was nicely warmed by her exercise and by the beer, and the cool breeze felt nice against her overheated flanks.
  1647. > She hiked up her tail to allow the air to circulate better. The chill was unfamiliar on her exposed parts, but not unpleasant.
  1648. > Her thoughts went back to Saule and Salki. They hadn't acknowledged their relationship yet, not even to each other, but it was plain to see it budding. The two youths had the hots for each other, even Mayor, unfamiliar with nomad body language and courtship could see that.
  1649. > In a way that stung a little. Sometimes she thought she and Salki would-
  1650. > Her hoof faltered and Mayor nearly fell flat on her muzzle as she suddenly stopped.
  1651. > She'd never thought about it directly, had she? About Salki like twigs in a breeze?
  1652. > He was a male, and a few accidental, surreptitious glances had confirmed they would likely... 'fit', but he was a nomad and she was a pony.
  1653. > Then again, there had been that time when she was drunk and kissed him. Was her isolation making her go native? Was she attracted to nomads?
  1654. > Her bits began to feel decidedly hot and Mayor flicked her tail a few times to cool herself off. How much of it was just pent-up need? She'd never been the most promiscuous of mares, but that didn't mean she was frigid.
  1655. > It really wasn't fair that she couldn't get *that* kind of fulfillment in this world.
  1656. > Her muzzle scrunched up into a sneer when she thought about Salki and Saule again, and her ears splayed out.
  1657. "Wha- Why bucking everybody ex- eggscept me?! How- how izzit fair?"
  1658. > She stomped the hard mud and snorted her annoyance. Why could she never feel a lover's touch again in her life?! It was all a big pile of crap!
  1659. > To further compound her misery, these thoughts were making her all hot and bothered. She felt herself wink, *down there*, and the feeling sent a shudder through her body.
  1660. > Maybe if she got Salki drunk? Really drunk?
  1661. > No, even in her inebriated state Mayor knew that was a monumentally bad idea. If Darga didn't kill her when she found out, she would surely throw her out of the camp.
  1662. > Was there anyone else? Mayor began walking again as she thought about all the nomads she knew. She swayed a little with each step, partly because she was dizzy, but mostly because she was subconsciously trying for a more seductive and suggestive gait.
  1663. > She placed her hind legs a little closer to her center, which made her hips swing from side to side in a way no stallion would be able to ignore. A tiny part of her was glad no one saw her, but the beer had pushed Mayor beyond caring.
  1664. "[Dammit]" she swore in nomad, "Ima- I- I'za mare! Dezzerve t- Deserve t- to [fucking] love! [Fuck!]"
  1665. > The foul language helped make her feel a bit better. It was a useful nomad invention, profanity. It didn't do much to quell the fire between her hind legs, though.
  1666. > A weird new scent registered in her nose and Mayor stopped again. Manure, urine, and the unmistakable stink of the donkey herd.
  1667. > She knew where she was, and it explained the lack of nomads. The herd was kept inside the camp at night, but there was a bit of a gap between the stump where the animals were tied and the nearest tents.
  1668. > It gave her an idea.
  1669. > She was drunk enough to consider it, even if it made her ears flatten in shame.
  1670. > It wouldn't be *love*, but maybe that wasn't what she needed *right now*.
  1671. > Her tail hitched up higher and another wink made her shudder. The alcohol in her mind took care of chagrin and inhibition.
  1672. > It wasn't as if she would be *hurting* them. The donkeys were milked and slaughtered to provide food for the nomads, that was infinitely worse.
  1673. > Her heart was hammering and her head lowered with the magnitude of what she was contemplated, but her bits were on fire and she needed to put it out before she went crazy and did something unforgivable with Salki or Saule.
  1674. > She slunk forward.
  1675. "S'not... It's not- I'ma- I'm not gunna hurt 'em. It'll feel good, okay?"
  1676. > The herd was still and quiet, most of the animals lying on the ground asleep after the recent commotion. A few of the jennies were standing upright and trying to crop what little grass they could find.
  1677. > A jack was standing a short distance away from the others, dully looking at some distant point on the horizon. It looked young, which suited Mayor just fine. The donkeys were only slightly larger than her, but they were quite strong and she didn't want to risk injury, either to herself or to the beast if she had to fend it off.
  1678. "Hey- uh- you," she murmured to it.
  1679. > The donkey lifted up its ears at the words and watched her uneasily. The herd didn't really know what to make of Mayor, who was shaped almost like a donkey, but could talk like the nomads. For the most part they seemed to ignore her, but they obeyed when she gave any of the commands the nomads had taught the beasts.
  1680. > This time there was no command for what Mayor wanted, but she hoped the jack's natural instincts would do the trick.
  1681. > She came close to it, but the donkey shuffled away, uneasy.
  1682. "Izz- Izz okay, 'kay? Not gonna- gonna hurt you, 'kay? Promi- promishe."
  1683. > The world was spinning harder now and her thoughts ran in sluggish circles. The beer was taking full effect, but that was okay. Mayor didn't need to think for the next bit. She turned around and waved her tail around to send the scent in the right direction.
  1684. > When she glanced back over her croup the beast was standing still, watching her warily, but hadn't made any move.
  1685. "Stupid don- donkee! C'mon. C'mon, y'know y'wannit! C'mere..."
  1686. > She backed herself closer to it, then a flash of inspiration struck her. They were incredibly smell-oriented, she knew, but maybe a mare was too different for the jack to make the connection. Maybe she needed something else, something she'd seen the jennies do.
  1687. > It only took her a moment of relaxation. Hot urine dribbled down her hind leg and Mayor wasn't sure she'd gotten her tail out of the way in time. It didn't matter, she would wash later.
  1688. > She heard a rustle as her efforts finally got a reaction from the donkey. It had lowered its ears and taken a step closer. It was sniffing the air. She backed up a little more.
  1689. > The donkey showed her his teeth, but it wasn't a threatening gesture. It was just what these beasts did sometimes. More importantly, there was an... 'elongation' happening under his belly. She was having the desired effect and Mayor smiled to herself at this small victory.
  1690. > If nothing else, it proved she was still a mare!
  1691. > She tensed her hind legs in anticipation and her button winked out again, yearning for contact. Luckily she didn't have to wait long. The donkey came closer and grunted as it rose to its hind legs.
  1692. > She took his weight, but his scrabbling forelegs grazed her spear wound and made Mayor whimper. The pain brought a momentary sobriety and she realized just what she was doing.
  1693. "B-Buck- maybe this wasn't- GAH!"
  1694. > Before she could have reacted the jack's member pushed against her. It missed, but the pressure, and what it meant, was enough to cloud her mind with sudden desire. Wrong or not, she needed a release.
  1695. > The tip slid a little as the donkey readjusted, then it entered her in one long, swift lunge. There was no gentle easing, nothing loving or sensual about it.
  1696. > It was a violation and it made Mayor gasp in sudden pain. It felt as if the beast was splitting her apart with its long and girthy cock.
  1697. "No! No! Ow! [Fuck!] Stop!"
  1698. > She tried to wiggle free, but the jack was incredibly strong and it had good leverage around her midriff with its forelegs. It scrabbled to get a better grip and its teeth clamped down on her neck.
  1699. "OW! Let me go! OW!"
  1700. > It didn't help, not when the jack was embedded so deeply in her warmth. It thrust, urgently, desperately. The cock pushed further in and her body responded by itself, despite the sudden fear and revulsion Mayor felt.
  1701. > She came, almost instantly and her wetness became a flood. It squirted out around the jack's thick shaft and stained its balls and hind legs.
  1702. "Aaaah!" Mayor yelled in a mixture of ecstasy and pain.
  1703. > Her hind legs nearly buckled but something in her made her lock her knees and bear the weight.
  1704. > The donkey pulled back, then rammed himself in her once more. That was all it took and she felt his tip flare out. The thought of what was about to happen filled Mayor with fresh revulsion and she tried to buck the insistent jack off. She pushed up with her hind legs, but the donkey was heavy and the little hop did not dislodge him.
  1705. > It was too late anyway, the beast gave a grunt and his teeth on her neck clamped tighter, like a vise. His forelegs scrabbled against her sides with renewed strength as the jack fought to stay inside her.
  1706. > Mayor held her breath and tried to make her mind work again. It was reeling from the shock of the sudden, brutal union and her thoughts ran in a tight little circle.
  1707. > 'This isn't happening! This isn't happening! This can't be happening!'
  1708. > The fact that she was still climaxing burned with shame each time her insides clenched.
  1709. > She felt the pulse travel up the jack's cock just before his heat poured into her. It filled her up, pump after pump, and the feeling of his seed that deep inside her made her moan involuntarily.
  1710. > The jack went still, but it was breathing heavily and it still had her neck in his teeth. Mayor couldn't do much more except wait for it to be over.
  1711. > Luckily it didn't take long. A few more spurts and the jack had spent himself. He let her go and slid back.
  1712. > Mayor's treacherous opening tried its best to clench and keep the cock inside her, but despite the bulge of his flare the jack pulled free.
  1713. > The mixture of their fluids gushed out from her suddenly gaping hole, a warm flood down her hind legs. It splattered on the ground.
  1714. > For a few seconds Mayor simply stood there, unsure whether her legs would work if she tried to walk. She was trembling wildly, both from the remnants of her orgasm, as from the sheer horror.
  1715. > At long last she was able to turn her head and look back. The jack was watching her, but it didn't seem too interested. His cock, flaccid but still dangling outside, dribbled the remnants of his seed and her fluids.
  1716. > She made herself take a step. She didn't want to wait for it, or any of the others, to try again. As it was she felt dirty, both inside and outside. She wanted to blame the beast, she wanted to hit it and yell for the way it had taken her, but that would be a lie.
  1717. > She'd wanted it. She had known how quickly and violently these beasts mated. If she'd imagined a slow and gentle lovemaking, that had just been her idiot fancy overriding her better sense.
  1718. > It was her fault.
  1719. > Mayor wanted to be away. She had to get clean.
  1720. > She was still dizzy, but she no longer felt drunk. She took another stumbling step, then another. More warm fluid leaked from her aching and abused opening, and the sensation made her wink again.
  1721. "[Fuck!]"
  1722. > Fresh tears were only now starting to leak from her eyes.
  1723. > How could she had been this stupid!? What did she *think* was going to happen?
  1724. > She deserved it. She wanted to take advantage of a poor, stupid animal, and she deserved what had happened. She'd gone asking for it!
  1725. > It took a lot of effort to hold her sobs in, at least while she was still in the camp. Luckily the herd was near the edge and it wasn't far to the stream. She broke into a full gallop, hoping the sound of her hooves would mask her weeping.
  1727. > ~~~~
  1729. > Mayor Mare waited just outside Salki and Darga's tent and focused her ears on the heavy leather fabric. It was quiet, which meant that they were either still gone, or asleep.
  1730. > It was probably the former, since there were many nomads still up and about, despite the early hour. Mayor had seen that they had gotten the large fire in the middle going again. The atmosphere looked much more subdued, but she heard the occasional loud, angry exclamation.
  1731. > It would make sense for the chieftain and her son to be there. Salki was becoming a prominent hunter and warrior so he was sure to be included in something that important. Mayor didn't have a lot of say in the matter, so she simply slunk into the empty tent and flopped down on her cot.
  1732. > The inside fire was nearly dead, but the air still had a bit of warmth. It felt positively scalding on her aching, cold legs. Her teeth began to chatter as she flopped around to wrap the animal skins around herself.
  1733. > She tried to relax, but her limbs spasmed and her hooves twitched as her body began to warm up. The familiar ache was already making her wince, but Mayor gritted her teeth and curled up into a ball.
  1734. > It would pass, she would dry and warm up, and maybe she would even sleep. She was weary enough after everything that had happened.
  1735. > Her breath hitched and Mayor fought back fresh tears. What a stupid mare she'd been. She'd acted worse than an idiot filly in her first rut who went around the more unsavoury bars in Canterlot and looked for trouble.
  1736. > Mayor squeezed her eyes shut and folded her ears down, although neither helped in shutting out her memories. Those were on the inside.
  1737. > A particularly strong convulsion made her gasp, but she just gathered the skins more tightly around her body and laid her head down once more. She was already beginning to warm and she thought she was getting some feeling back in her legs.
  1738. > Splashing around in the stream was chilly at the best of times, and it was positively dumb during a cold spring night. She should have gotten out ages ago, but Mayor had felt dirty. She still did, for that matter, but at some point her better sense had overruled her disgust. She had to get out and warm up, or she would have passed out from hypothermia.
  1739. > Mayor Mare closed her eyes and tried to take a deep, calm breath. The muscles in her belly - her diaphragm, she thought it was called - hurt from all the choked-off sobbing and panting. Her nose and sinuses felt like a snot-filled lump of ice, and her throat was raw as if she'd swallowed a pineapple larger than her head.
  1740. "It's g-g-going to p-p-pas."
  1741. > She had to believe it. At least, Mayor hoped, the world could throw no more low kicks in her direction. Surely this was the rock bottom of her life.
  1742. > Surely?
  1743. > She was wet and shivering from cold, her side hurt from the spear wound. She'd killed both animals and nomads, and she'd gotten herself... used.
  1744. > Her tail tucked more tightly against her and she unclenched her legs for a moment so she could gather it up against her belly. She still felt the gaping ache where the jack had... gone in.
  1745. > The mare sniffed as she tried to hold back a new bout of sobs and she clutched her tail as tightly against her chest as she could. Luckily it was just barely long enough.
  1746. > She was still shaking with cold, but it was less bad than a few minutes ago. It would pass, all she had to do was bear it for a while longer.
  1747. >...
  1748. > A breath of chilly air tickled her nose and a glimmer of bright light pierced right through her closed eyelids. Mayor batted an annoyed ear and moved her head out of the way.
  1749. > "[Oh, look who's awake,]" came a familiar voice.
  1750. > Mayor blinked a few times and tried to see, but smell told her a lot more than her eyes ever could.
  1751. "[Oh-]"
  1752. > She had tried to greet Salki, but her throat was full of phlegm and she began to cough. It felt and sounded as if her lungs were full of liquid and the young nomad leaned closer and put his hand against the side of her face.
  1753. > "[Shit, are you okay Meyermer?]"
  1754. "[Ye- gack!]"
  1755. > Mayor hacked a few more times, then took a breath and tried again.
  1756. "[I'm fine,]" she finally managed to say, even if it sounded hoarse and unconvincing.
  1757. > "[We couldn't find you last night. We thought you were taken too, but then Mother found you in the tent. You were sleeping so we didn't wake you up.]"
  1758. > The concern in Salki's voice was touching, but something he'd said alarmed Mayor.
  1759. "[Wait. Too? Taken too? Who was taken?]"
  1760. > There was some silence as the young man looked at the tent's entrance flap. Mayor followed his gaze, but the fabric was shut. She wondered how the sun had managed to shine on her face. The faintest sliver was visible at the bottom, where the cloth had gotten caught on the ground and hadn't closed very tightly.
  1761. > She was about to ask, but Salki spoke up first: "[Bakar and Temir were killed in the attack. A few of the hunters got hurt when we went after them, but they escaped. Hisein said he saw them sitting on horses.]"
  1762. > It wasn't the whole story, but Mayor didn't interrupt. She tried to remember who exactly Temir was, but she couldn't recall the face. Not one of the hunters, maybe one of the older craftsmen?
  1763. > Eventually Salki continued: "[They took Tashi and they almost got Xuan too, but Buygra tells me you helped save her.]"
  1764. > Salki was smiling as he said it, but Mayor didn't feel any particular pride. She couldn't believe that had only happened last night. It felt like ages ago.
  1765. > Her head was throbbing a little, but it wasn't too horrible. She remembered drinking from the stream after she'd bathed, which must have helped with her hangover.
  1766. > She'd gotten drunk. She'd done something stupid.
  1767. > Unfortunately she remembered all of it this time. No alcohol-induced amnesia, which she'd been hoping for when she fell asleep.
  1768. > "[What's wrong?]" Salki asked.
  1769. "[N-Nothing!]"
  1770. > It was an obvious lie and the nomad reached out with his hand again to pry her ear away from her head. "[I can tell something's bothering you. This gives you away, you know?]" he asked as he tugged gently for emphasis. "[Come on, tell me. Is it about last night? We'll get Tashi back.]"
  1771. > That name was more familiar than Temir and Mayor hazarded a guess, partly to make sure she was thinking of the right person, and partly to avoid answering Salki's questions. "[She is related to Intor, right? Her... niece?]"
  1772. > The nomad was shaking his head. "[No, not Intor. She's Kantuta's niece.]"
  1773. "[Oh. Intor's friend. I remember.]"
  1774. > Mayor had met the woman often enough while she'd been in Intor's service, but she hadn't interacted much with her family. They'd all been in awe of the talking pony and the younger ones ran away every time Mayor had tried to talk to them.
  1775. "[What will you do?]"
  1776. > Salki shrugged and his eyes went to the cold ashes of the fire. His hand had moved from tugging at her ear to scratching behind it and Mayor silently pressed her head closer. "[I don't know,]" he finally said. "[If Hisein is right and they are sitting on horses, they could be very far by now. They will be hard to track. Willow says we should give chase, but Mother doesn't want to leave the camp undefended. She says we will move tomorrow.]"
  1777. > It wasn't too surprising and Mayor had been expected a migration for some time now. The nomad had settled this land because that was what they always did in the winter. Someone had explained to Mayor that it was because the stream of water didn't freeze completely, even in the worst snow.
  1778. "[Okay,]" she said, unsure what else would be appropriate.
  1779. > "[We will see what happens. Maybe we'll send some men to try and save Tashi. No one likes the thought of what those Ruslan beasts will do to her.]"
  1780. > It made Mayor shudder because it hit slightly too close to home. Except that in her case, Mayor had done it to herself.
  1781. > She had to get out of the tend and find something to do, otherwise she would start thinking about it, and about the circle hunt, and about the fight among the tents, and it would just drag her down.
  1782. > With a weary sigh she kicked the animal skins off and lifted herself up on her forelegs.
  1783. > "[Did you sweat in the night?]" Salki asked suddenly and put a hand on her flank. "[No, you're dry. Why is your fur like that?]"
  1784. > Mayor followed his gaze and saw that her coat was indeed dishevelled and matted from her nighttime bath. She thought about a reasonable excuse, but Salki hummed and reached lower.
  1785. > "[What is this?]" he asked and touched a darker stain in her tail. His finger grazed a spot which was still bruised and sensitive and Mayor's breath caught. "[Why are you wet like this? It's not blood. Ponies don't have blood like nomads. Are you sick?]"
  1786. > She opened her mouth to say something, *anything*, but the young nomad put his fingers to his nose and sniffed. He looked at her in wide-eyed shock. "[What is this, Meyermer? It smells like- Did you *fuck* last night?!]"
  1787. > Even before he'd finished talking she was already shaking her head.
  1788. "[No! No! I s-s-swear! No! It's...]"
  1789. > Unfortunately she didn't have any idea how to excuse what Salki had so clearly identified. Mayor wondered how he knew to recognize the scent, but she didn't have time to consider it for long.
  1790. > "[Don't lie! I know what this is. Someone fucked you last night and now you're leaking his... his *seed*. What happened?]"
  1791. > She'd been so sure she'd washed it out of herself. She should have known that there was too much of it, that the jack's dick had been long and had put it deep inside her. She should have remembered that the stuff had a tendency to *leak* in the morning!
  1792. > It was probably still inside her. For an ice-cold, bone-chilling moment Mayor thought it might lead to pregnancy, but she quickly remembered that she wasn't yet in the season. They were different species, too. She'd never heard of an Equestrian donkey successfully mating with a pony and these were creatures from an entirely different world.
  1793. > She let out a breath, glad that at least one of the problems wouldn't rear its ugly head, even if the foul, stinking, donkey semen was still inside her.
  1794. > Salki watched the series of expression which passed her face and his initial shock softened into concern. He wiped his hand on his tunic and cupped her muzzle with both hands.
  1795. > "[It's okay, it's okay. I'm not mad, I promise. I was just surprise. I thought you-]"
  1796. > His touch slipped and the young man looked away for a moment. He stayed still for a second, then let his breath out. When he continued, his voice was somehow more flat: "[Tell me what happened?]"
  1797. > She couldn't tell him the truth. Even thinking about it made her face flush with dark red embarrassment and Mayor lowered her head and focused her gaze on her forehooves.
  1798. "[I- I had some beer-]"
  1799. > The slap as Salki hit his own leg with the palm of his hand made her jump a little in fright. "[I fucking knew it. You got drunk again and then you went out and fucked someone. Who was it?! Tell me! When mother finds out...]"
  1800. > He didn't even know how to finish that sentence and had to concentrate on his breathing for a moment. Mayor cleared her throat and opened her mouth to tell him the truth. Maybe he would be less upset if he knew it wasn't one of his fellow nomads?
  1801. > Except she couldn't. She couldn't tell Salki that she'd waved her tail in some donkey beast's face until it mounted her, like an animal. She pawed at her animal fur cot, scraping away an imagined bit of dirt.
  1802. "[I was drunk. I got lost and I- I ended up where- I- at the donkey herd.]"
  1803. > Salki looked back, incredulous, and his eyebrows rose in shock. "[What? What are you saying, Meyermer?]"
  1804. > She took a deep breath and turned her face again. She didn't have to fake the tears because they were real. She tried to keep her voice level, but it came out shrill and pained.
  1805. "[I didn't want to! I was drunk and dizzy and- and the world was spinning. I stopped for a moment and it-]"
  1806. > She glanced up to see whether Salki understood, which might mean she wouldn't have to actually say it. He looked more confused than before, so she swallowed a lump and finished in a small, quiet voice:
  1807. "[It jumped on me! I didn't- I didn't know. It was too quick and then it bit me and I couldn't get away! I didn't mean to do it!]"
  1808. > At these words Salki's face had darkened into black, furious anger. Mayor shrank away from the sudden fire in his eyes. "[One of the fucking beasts *raped* you?! Come here!]"
  1809. > He gripped her mane in a white-knuckled fist and pulled her up to her hooves. Mayor yelped in pain, but she didn't resist as Salki dragged her out of the tent. She didn't ask where they were going.
  1810. "[What are you- ow! What are you doing?! Ow! Let me go! OW!]"
  1811. > He didn't listen and simply strode off in the direction of the donkey herd. Mayor had little choice but to follow, unless she wanted her mane pulled out. She saw glimpses of the camp, of staring nomads, but she paid them no mind as she concentrated on keeping pace with the furious Salki.
  1812. > What was he going to do? She was frightened. She'd never seen him that angry.
  1813. > He refused to answer her questions or her pleas as he dragged her.
  1814. > They came to the donkey herd, where a few nomads were moving around, but they all stopped and looked in surprise when the two appeared.
  1815. > Only then did Salki let her go. "[Which one was it?!]"
  1816. > Mayor managed to stand on her own hooves, but she was trembling in fear and shock. When Salki saw that he shifted on his feet and clasped his hands together. "[Fuck. No, It's not- I'm not gonna hurt you. Just tell me.]"
  1817. > She still wasn't certain, not after that raw, primal anger she'd sensed in him. The young man crouched down and put his arm around her withers. "[It's okay, shh,]" her murmured. "[I shouldn't have reacted like that. I'm sorry.]"
  1818. > His free hand went under her chin and tipped her head up and around until she was looking at his face. The fire had died down a little, but his eyes still flashed in fury despite the strained smile on his face. "[It's okay. Point which one did it.]"
  1819. > One of the other men had come close and asked: "[Who did what, Salki?]"
  1820. > The young hunter stood up and let out a small growl. "[One of the beasts attacked Meyermer last night. It bit and- it bit and kicked her. We won't have that.]"
  1821. > The other nomad agreed and quickly stepped to one side so Mayor could see the herd.
  1822. > "[Which one?]" Salki asked again.
  1823. > There was little she could do, so Mayor looked at the beasts before her and quickly picked out the young jack she'd 'met' last night. She raised a shaking hoof.
  1824. "[Tha- That smaller one. Y-Young.]"
  1825. > "[Right,]" Salki said with a note of grim satisfaction in his voice. He plucked his flint knife from his belt and strode forward.
  1826. > Only then did the full realization of what he was intending strike Mayor. Shock, and fear, and self-loathing had taken too much for her to understand until now. Her body went rigid with horror and she couldn't tear her eyes from that wickedly sharp blade.
  1827. > It was going to die. Salki was walking over to the poor animal to cut its throat. Mayor already saw the gush of vivid red blood in her imagination, especially after she'd preemptively closed her eyes.
  1828. > 'It's only an animal,' a part of her thought. It couldn't think. It wasn't a person. The nomads would have killed it sooner or later anyway. She didn't have to care what happened and it would give Salki the satisfaction of revenge. It would allow them to put the incident behind them.
  1829. > Mayor Mare nearly kept quiet.
  1830. > Nearly.
  1831. "[No! Stop!]"
  1832. > Salki did and turned back in surprise. "[What? Why?]"
  1833. "[It- it was my fault,]" Mayor said weakly.
  1834. > It really was all her fault. She'd abused the poor animal, even if she'd gotten the worse end of the deal for it. If Salki killed the jack, its blood would be on Mayor Mare's hooves. Another life cut short because of her.
  1835. > Her voice shook with the effort and her eyes slid away from the young nomad's face. She glanced at the others and tried to find a way to say it, but not betray the truth. She would die of shame if more people knew.
  1836. "[I provoked it. I- I was drunk and I came to- to b-bother it. I-]"
  1837. > She took a quick glance and the look of disgust and betrayal on Salki's face went straight to her heart. She couldn't hold it back any longer and began to weep.
  1838. "[I'm sorry! I'm- I'm s-s-sorry!]".
  1839. > Mayor saw through her tears that Salki still held his knife out. His glare flicked from her to the animal, and his mouth tightened as once more jealousy flashed across his face.
  1840. "[Please!]"
  1841. > After that word she devolved into low, wailing keening. Her rump hit the ground and then she folded up on herself. She buried her muzzle between her forelegs and let the tears come. She'd told him, and it wouldn't be enough. The donkey would die because of her.
  1842. > Even worse, Salki would surely hate her now. Maybe there could have been something, she realized too late. He had liked her. He was clearly jealous about the whole thing. Jealous enough to slaughter the creature. Mayor didn't even have to look.
  1843. > An unexpected hand on her back nearly made her jump.
  1844. > "[Fuck, Meyermer,]" Salki said quietly beside her. "[Why do you do these things? What the fuck is wrong with you?]"
  1845. "[I d-don't knoo- kno- knooooooow!]"
  1846. > Salki wiggled his hands under her chest. "[Come on, I'll take you home. We'll talk, okay?]"
  1847. > She managed a small nod, but it was lost as she was gently picked up.
  1849. > ~~~~
  1851. > "[I really don't understand you sometimes, Meyermer. What were you thinking?]" Salki asked.
  1852. > The remark caused Mayor Mare to glance away and fold her ears down, or at least try to. It worked on her left ear, but her right was being scratched by Saule, who had remained quiet throughout the exchange.
  1853. > She didn't respond, but she shuffled her folded legs a little, which made the young grass under her body rustle. Mayor had made herself as small as possible and tucked all four hooves under her when the nomad had put her down.
  1854. > "[Well?]"
  1855. "[I- I wasn't. I was drunk-]"
  1856. > She knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left her mouth. Salki grunted and flicked his wrist. The pebble he'd been holding flew far into the grass. Despite herself, Mayor flinched at the sudden gesture, unable to stop herself even if it made her feel silly afterwards.
  1857. > Salki hadn't struck her yet, even though she would probably deserve it sometimes.
  1858. > She let her head fall forward and exhaled, which rippled the grass around her muzzle and tickled her fur.
  1859. > Saule spoke next, after it became obvious that Salki didn't have a good reply "[You have to stop doing this, Meyermer,]" she said. "[You're stupid when you are drunk.]
  1860. > The statement hit close to home and Mayor jerked upright to stare at the girl.
  1861. "[I know! Don't you think I know?! I-]"
  1862. > She squeezed her eyes shut and let her head drop once more.
  1863. "[I know,]" she repeated more quietly. "[I'm broken. I-Inside. I'm-]"
  1864. > There was a hoarse rattle as Mayor released her breath. The other two just watched her silently. Salki's face was dark and distrustful, but Saule raised her eyebrows and gave a slight nod of encouragement.
  1865. "[Who am I? What- What am I? I don't think I am pony anymore. I- sometimes I do not remember what is pony.]"
  1866. > Saule's hand found Mayor's ear again and she didn't pull away as the girl pried it up so she could get her fingers to that special spot. Despite her attempt to remain stoic, Mayor pushed a little against the gentle pressure.
  1867. "[I think- I think I am drinking because- because-]"
  1868. > She looked from one nomad to the other, seeking encouragement, but they both looked blank to her. Whatever sympathy had been in Saule's eyes was gone, and her scratching had stopped, even though she hadn't removed her hand.
  1869. > Mayor swallowed and averted her gaze. She'd been about to make up some kind of an excuse.
  1870. "[I don't know. It hurts. Everything hurts! What I do, what I see... It doesn't hurt so much when I am drunk.]"
  1871. > She became aware of how sore she was... *back there*. It had been a constant reminder through the day. She bared her teeth and let out a low growl.
  1872. "[So what?! Everyone drinks here! All nomads drink when they can get beer! You drink too, Salki!]"
  1873. > Her accusing glare wasn't lost on the nomad and he had the decency to look down at his hands. Once again Saule answered instead of him: "[He doesn't touch me when he's drunk! He doesn't make people kiss him! Fuck, Meyermer, he doesn't go and *fuck* a donkey when Salki's right!]"
  1874. > It was true and the flame of anger died almost as quickly as it had appeared. Mayor shuffled her hooves once more, trying to get them that tiny bit further under her body.
  1875. "[I hate this,]" she whined. "[I hate what I become. I- I thought I was- I thought ponies were better than nomads, but- but I killed.]"
  1876. > Memories tried to force their way back, but she shook her head and pressed forward.
  1877. "[I killed them because Willow beat me, and because I was scared and confused. I killed him because he was attacking me. I thought I was better, but- but I'm not different. I just didn't want to know...]"
  1878. > If the other two could follow any of her explanation they didn't show it on their faces. The young nomads glanced at each other and then Saule cleared her throat. "[Meyermer, everyone has to hunt, if they can. Everyone hunts in the circle hunt, or they don't eat. Everyone defends the camp, or we all die. Don't you understand that?]"
  1879. > She did, now. Tears filled her eyes and Mayor nodded. She didn't know if she was crying in resignation, or in gratitude that they didn't think of her as some kind of monster.
  1880. "[I am still thinking like a pony! Saule- my whole life... They said killing was wrong. They said I must not hurt anyone. Not pony, not other creature. It was- *is* the pony way. It is how we are.]"
  1881. > "[I know,]" Salki said and his voice sounded rusty and choked, "[you explained to me. Meyermer, it is a beautiful dream, but that is not how life works here. We can't survive like you do in Equestria. We either fight, or we die. We kill or we don't eat. Do you understand?]"
  1882. > Mayor kept herself from nodding, but her ears turned back and her muzzle scrunched up as if what he'd said was utterly unpalatable. It was a bitter truth, but one she had to swallow.
  1883. "[I can't- I can't be pony anymore]" she whispered to herself.
  1884. > There was a quiet snap and Mayor looked to see that Saule had plucked a pink flower bud from the young grass. The girl noticed her stare and brought her fingers closer, right to Mayor's nose.
  1885. > The scent was weak, but very recognizable. This flower was the same in Equestria, a delicacy if properly prepared and quite painful to eat if not. The stems had thorns.
  1886. > Saule had plucked a bud without them, however, and Mayor opened her mouth to accept the morsel.
  1887. > It kissed her tongue with a delicious mixture of tart and sweet. She held it there for a few seconds before swallowing the flower whole.
  1888. > "[It is pink like your hair,]" Saule commented and ran her fingers through Mayor's mane.
  1889. "[What do you call it?]"
  1890. > Mayor knew the Equestrian name for it. It bloomed in spring and colored the fields with a lovely pink flower. She'd always enjoyed seeing that in Equestria, back when she had still been dyeing her mane. It reminded her of what was underneath.
  1891. > "[Thistle,]" Saule replied softly. Her fingers went back to Mayor Mare's ear and she began to scratch again.
  1892. > They sat in silence for a short while, then both Salki and Mayor spoke at the same time: "[Look, I don't-]"
  1893. "[I can't keep-]"
  1894. > They fell silent and the nomad gave a slight chuckle.
  1895. > "[You first.]"
  1896. "[You say fi-]"
  1897. > This time it was Saule who laughed. Her fingers clamped around Mayor's muzzle and she patted the young man's thigh with her other hand. "[Go.]" Mayor lifted up her ears and focused them on the young man so she wouldn't miss anything.
  1898. > Salki's eyes flickered down to where she was touching him, then he looked away and picked through the grass between his legs. His fingers closed around another small pebble. "[I was going to say, Meyermer, I don't blame you for- for...]
  1899. > He couldn't finish the sentence, so Saule took an educated guess: "[For fucking a donkey?]"
  1900. > Mayor winced and saw Salki's lips tighten in distaste at the same time. Maybe he wasn't entirely convinced of what he was saying?
  1901. > "[Yes,]" he said and threw the stone. It flew in an arc and hit the ground with a low, distant thud. "[You were drunk- and- and- I guess I can understand lonely. If you want to do it again, it's fine. I won't tell anyone.]"
  1902. > Even before he'd finished talking Mayor tried to shake her head, but Saule still held her muzzle in a firm grip. The nomad girl kept her hold for a little longer, until she was convinced there was nothing more Salki wanted to say. Only then did she let go. "[Okay, now you.]"
  1903. > Mayor took a deep breath and voiced her thought.
  1904. "[I can't keep going forward like this. I can't be a pony. It hurts too much.]"
  1905. > "[Meyermer, maybe we can-]" Salki began to reply, but Saule shot forward and placed her palm on his mouth to make him shut up.
  1906. > "[Shush!]" the girl commanded. "[You talked, now let her talk.]"
  1907. > Mayor hadn't really had anything more, but now that they were both looking at her expectantly she had to continue with something. Her ears splayed.
  1908. "[I think- Maybe I must... become like you. Like nomads. Maybe I can't be pony anymore, not pony inside. I have to be stronger.]"
  1909. > Now that she was voicing this uncomfortable truth her words were speeding up, as if she couldn't contain them any longer.
  1910. "[I have to l-leave Equestria behind. It is not right for this world. It does not belong. I must be nomad. I must change, or I will die.]"
  1911. > Her vision was entirely blurry and Mayor closed her eyes to shut out the sting of tears.
  1912. "Oh, merciful Celestia, why does it feel like I'm saying an eulogy for myself?"
  1913. > The other two blinked in confusion, but they didn't interrupt or ask for a translation. They both knew her well enough to realize that this was difficult and important for her.
  1914. "[I have to leave myself behind. I can't be Meyermer. Meyermer will not survive.]"
  1915. > She put her muzzle back down in the young grass and mourned for that innocent, naive pony she had been.
  1916. > "[Who will you be, then?]" Saule asked. She slid her hand into Mayor's mane, but didn't begin to scratch. It was a gesture of comfort and it gave the mare the connection she needed.
  1917. "[I will be- I will be...]" she began and opened her eyes.
  1918. > For a moment she thought her mane had slipped into her eyes, but then she realized it was another flower bud.
  1919. "[My name will be Thistle.]"
  1920. > None of them spoke. Mayor - Thistle - looked up to see their faces. They were both solemn, but there was a hint of a smile on Saule's lips, while Salki gave the tiniest of nods in approval.
  1921. > "[It's a beautiful name,]" Saule finally said.
  1922. > Mayor looked back down at the flower that was to be her namesake. It was pink and, perhaps, beautiful, but it also had thorns. Did that describe her? Did it matter? She hadn't been trying for any symbolism, she'd picked it purely based on its color.
  1923. > "[We should go back. Mother will be angry if we do nothing, and I have to go with the men. We will try to get Tashi back.]" When there was no reply, he cleared his throat and went on: "[Meyer- sorry, Thistle, did you have something like that back home? In- in Equestria?]"
  1924. "[Something like what?]"
  1925. > "[Some of the men said they saw the Ruslans sitting on horses. They could move very fast like that. We've only seen horses used to pull carts. They are too dangerous to sit on.]"
  1926. > Thistle thought back to the two unfortunate beasts who had come with that traders' wagon. They had been slaughtered for meat, luckily away from her eyes, and the wagon itself had been broken apart and burned.
  1927. > Something about that bothered her, but she'd been preoccupied with the two orphaned children, and then with her forced servitude to Intor.
  1928. "[No. Ponies would give rides to- to their children, or to others. Ponies pulled carts. You should not have burned that one, remember? The traders with the horses and cart? The children came with it: Fen Ko and Ning?]"
  1929. > Salki shrugged and flicked another stone across the field. "[the camp people are uneasy with new things, so they burned it. Mother said it would make our people weak. Maybe if you explain. They know you bring new things.]"
  1930. "[It wouldn't make you weak. It would let you bring more things and more food when we move. It could carry children and the old, and the sick.]"
  1931. > "[True. You should explain to Mother. Maybe she will accept it if you say it.]"
  1932. > He pushed himself upright and looked around, unconsciously scanning the horizon for threats.
  1933. > Saule repeated his question: "[Can we sit on horses? How are Ruslans doing that without being kicked and trampled?]"
  1934. "[You will have to train them. I-]"
  1935. > Her conscience flared up and Thistle closed her eyes in a vain effort to ward off images of ponies being subjugated. They wouldn't be. There were no real ponies in this world, and the equine creatures here were only dumb beasts.
  1936. "[I will show you with donkeys. You can train animals to do what you say. I think that is what Ruslans did with horses. You already make donkeys carry things when you move, all we need to do is make them carry nomads too, and to obey and go which way the nomad wants to go.]"
  1937. > "[That would be useful. Why did Ruslans do it with horses? Horses are hard to get and they eat too much. Donkeys are easier.]"
  1938. > Thistle set her face in a grim, determined scowl. They were just beasts, and she had to become harder.
  1939. "[Horses are faster and can carry more. Your strongest warriors will be too heavy for donkeys to go fast. We will need to find some horses.]"
  1940. > "[We can steal the ones from Ruslans when we get our people back. We can shoot with bows well enough so we don't hit the animals,]" Salki said.
  1941. "[Perfect.]"
  1942. > Thistle rose up to her hooves and stretched until her back popped. This would be her next important invention she would give the nomads. Mayor Mare would not have been able to do it, but that pony was dead.
  1943. > She had to be a different person to survive among nomads. She couldn't keep drinking herself into a stupor. She couldn't keep feeling sorry for herself. She had to become harder.
  1945. > ~~~~
  1947. > They buried Bakar at sunset. Saule had said only his close family would be there, but she asked Thistle and Salki to come as well. It was at the same time flattering and heartbreaking.
  1948. > He had been one of her first real friends, other than Salki, Thistle remembered. He'd been nice to her and she'd learned a lot about nomad tool making from him. More than that, she'd been able to talk with Bakar about Equestria and her past life and he'd never called her a liar.
  1949. > She told herself that she had to be strong and stoic, to embrace her new self and the place she would carve out for herself in nomad society, but Thistle couldn't keep all the tears from her eyes. A few escaped and ran in cold twin streaks down her muzzle.
  1950. > The ceremony was simple, which made it easier. Some of the men dug a hole and Bakar was lowered into it. His body wasn't wrapped in any cloth, so the ugly red wound on his chest was plainly visible. It made Thistle shudder and she averted her eyes before she could be sick.
  1951. > There weren't any prescribed words, nor any kind of prayer. The men laid Bakar's spear and his axe at his side, and then the women placed a sack at his feet. Thistle couldn't make out their faces, but she saw how slumped Saule was where she stood, and she noticed how her hands were hanging limply by her side.
  1952. > She'd been crying, probably even while Thistle was presenting herself to that beast. She hadn't stayed with her friend. Instead, she'd wanted to get drunk and then get herself well and truly... [fucked].
  1953. > Was she selfish? These weren't her people and they'd foalnapped her from Ponyville, but some of them were still her friends.
  1954. > Thistle sought for something else to think about and saw how Saule darted forward and pushed her hand into the sack at Bakar's feet. She didn't see what she put in there, or maybe took out. She bumped Salki's thigh and whispered, hoping they were far enough away so it wouldn't carry.
  1955. "[What is in the bag?]"
  1956. > His hand found its way to her head and he briefly pressed her side against himself. "[Food. Some dry meat, probably. Honey, if Mitra had any. Oh, bread, I guess. Maybe some milk and fat. Saule just put in a small bag of salt.]"
  1957. "[Why?]"
  1958. > This time she looked up at the young nomad, who met her gaze. "[It's to see him on his way. The same reason men gave him new weapons.]"
  1959. "[On his way?]"
  1960. > It sounded like some kind of mythology and Thistle concentrated on listening. It was better than dwelling on the fact that her friend was gone, and much better than thinking about that donkey beast.
  1961. > Salki took a few moments to search for the beginning of his story, then shrugged a little to himself.
  1962. > "[Where he is going after death,]" he finally explained. "[Don't you know? Where do ponies go after they die?]"
  1963. > Thistle opened her mouth to explain, then shut it. The question didn't have an easy answer and she was vaguely aware that there had been a lot of debate on the topic in Equestria. Not even the Princesses had been able to definitively answer it.
  1964. > Unfortunately she'd been busy with her life and her job, and hadn't really thought about it that much. Both of her parents were still alive, and her grandparents had died when she was still too young to really understand.
  1965. > All Thistle could do was try and guess.
  1966. "[We- we don't really know. It's complicated. Bad ponies- bad creatures go to a bad place, but good people... I guess they are resting. Gone.]"
  1967. > "[Just gone?]"
  1968. "[Well, not really gone. They are dead, but not dead - not completely - while other ponies remember them. They are in peace.]"
  1969. > It was strange to Salki and he remained quiet for a while as he considered her words. Thistle looked back at the small group and had to squint against the sun which was rapidly sinking into a brilliant sunset. She could make up dark shapes standing around the grave, two of them pushing the dirt back in with what she knew were pieces of large bones.
  1970. > She would have to 'invent' shovels, she thought to herself, but then shook her head and flicked her ears in annoyance. For that, she would first have to teach the people about metalworking. It would be hard, since she knew next to nothing about it herself.
  1971. > She looked back when her friend patted her head to get her attention and asked: "[Who decides if a pony was good or bad?]"
  1972. > Thistle had already forgotten what they'd talked about and her muzzle was left hanging open. She shut it when she realized.
  1973. "[What do you mean? I- I don't- I don't know.]"
  1974. > Salki smiled in triumph and held a finger up. "[Or- Or- What if a pony is bad in secret? Like- like he steals things but no one else knows? What if he is killing his own tribe and no one knows when he dies? Who decides?]"
  1975. > Thistle was already shaking her head to say that such things didn't happen, but she couldn't deny it, not even to herself. It was rare, especially in Ponyville, but she'd sat in judgement too often to believe crime was unknown in Equestria.
  1976. "[I- I don't know. Maybe the Princess does that? Some creatures who were bad, even ponies, the Princess sent them away, to- to-]"
  1977. > She didn't know how to translate 'Tartarus', so she shrugged and finished lamely:
  1978. "[To a bad place. Somewhere they can not escape.]"
  1979. > "[So your Princess, uh, Celista, judges people when they die?]"
  1980. "[Celestia,]" Thistle repeated automatically. "[I don't think these creatures are dead when she sends them there.]"
  1981. > This only served to further confuse both Salki and herself. He spread his arms and raised his eyebrows at her. "[Then what? What happens to you when you die?]"
  1982. "[I- We really don't know. I didn't think about it. Ponies just die. They are gone, but we remember them. I didn't think there was anything more!]"
  1983. > Her frustration was starting to show in the way she flicked her tail and flattened her ears. Thistle stopped herself from actually pawing the ground, but it was a close run thing indeed. She forced herself to take a deep breath and closed her eyes.
  1984. > "[Okay, it's fine. Well, for us- we go to the dark hunting ground where it is always night. We give our people weapons and some food, so they are prepared when they arrive.]"
  1985. > It sounded like superstition, Thistle thought, but at least the nomads had *something*. She thought back to those campfire stories about ponies coming back from the dead, or about ghosts. There was some magic, forbidden perhaps, which would allow someone to speak with the dead, wasn't there?
  1986. > In a way she was grateful when Bakar's family turned and came toward her and Salki. It was a distraction and she could put thoughts of death and what came after aside. She would talk about it with her friends once she'd gotten her own thoughts in order.
  1987. > Most of the mourners passed them by, but Saule stopped in front of them. Her face glistened with shed tears and she was ineffectually trying to wipe them away with the back of her hand.
  1988. > Thistle sat on her haunches and spread her forelegs wide in a universal gesture. The girl didn't object and fell to her knees so she could accept the offered hug. Her nose pressed against Thistle's neck and she sniffed.
  1989. "[It is okay.]"
  1990. > Perhaps it was a lie, but it was a comforting one and the youth nodded against Thistle's fur. "[We gave him plenty of food. Father made him new a new spear and axe. He will be okay.]"
  1991. > Thistle caught Salki's expression. He looked worried and put his finger on her lips, a gesture she knew meant he wanted her to keep silent. She understood and extricated herself partly from the hug.
  1992. "[That's right, sweetheart. Bakar is strong, he will be fine. We will miss him, but-]"
  1993. > She didn't know how to continue that sentence and glanced imploringly at Salki who no longer seemed concerned and was nodding appreciatively. He laid a hand on Saule's shoulder and smoothly continued: "[We'll see him again when it's our turn to go to the hunting grounds.]"
  1994. "[Yes. Maybe it won't be soon,]" Thistle said, wishing fervently she was right, "[but someday.]"
  1995. > Saule gave her a tiny nod and even flashed her the briefest of smiles. "[Thank you. It is just- I was close with him. He minded me ever since I was little, and- since he stopped hunting I saw him more than Mother and Father.]"
  1996. > Thistle knew that for a fact. She'd gotten to know the girl mainly while she was working with Bakar on the bow.
  1997. > "[I have to go,]" Salki said suddenly. "[Mother and Willow are having a council of war. We need to strike back and avenge ourselves.]"
  1998. > The words made Saule glare and she climbed to her feet. Her hand went to the flint dagger tucked in her belt. "[I want to come!]" she growled.
  1999. > Before Thistle could object Salki held up his palm and shook his head. "[Sorry, only hunters. We will move fast and strike at them at night, like they did. It is not a place for women.]"
  2000. > "[But they took Tashi! She is my friend!]" Saule insisted.
  2001. > Salki sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. "[Yes, we will bring her back if she still lives.]"
  2002. > With that he turned and began to walk back to the camp. Saule watched him go, then turned her despairing eyes on Thistle. "[Can't you talk to him?! He will listen to you! I want to go with. I can fight! I'll gut that spineless Ruslan bastard who killed Bakar!]"
  2003. > Thistle didn't like the idea, but she understood her anger. Those others had sneaked into the camp at night, while most of the tribe was at the festivities. They tried to grab people, especially young women, and killed the old and the confused in their way. It had been a cowardly attack and it made even her pony blood boil with anger.
  2004. > She was glad her people had bows, which had already proven a huge advantage in the struggle and would doubtless do so again.
  2005. > Saule hadn't waited for an answer and was hurrying after Salki. Thistle had to canter to catch up to both of them.
  2006. "[Saule, no. It will not be safe. Let the men go, they- they are hunters, they know how to fight.]"
  2007. > The young woman looked at her with something approaching betrayal in her expression. She parted her lips as if to speak, but then pressed them together into a thin, determined line. She increased her speed and slipped ahead of the mare.
  2008. > Once again Thistle had to hurry. She ran forward and placed herself in Saule's path.
  2009. "[Listen to me! Listen to me, Saule! Stop!]"
  2010. > The nomad would have simply walked past her, but Thistle hopped to one side and blocked her again. Saule had no choice except to stop, or trip over her pony friend and fall.
  2011. > "[What?!]" she demanded. "[I want to take revenge! I'm better with the bow than anyone except Salki! I can run as long as he can! I'm going!]"
  2012. "[But- you're a girl!]"
  2013. > Saule leaned down and pushed a clenched fist right under Thistle's muzzle. Her cheeks were already red and her eyes flashed in anger. "[So what?! You are, too, and you went with them to fight once! Now it's my turn!]
  2014. > Thistle didn't have a reply for that. She had technically gone on a hunt, but only as a pack animal, not as a hunter. She ended up carrying Bakar home and saving his life, but she hadn't actually participated in the fighting. Somehow she didn't think Saule would believe her, or care even if she accepted the explanation.
  2015. > Her head fell and she let her ears splay.
  2016. "[Okay, go and ask. They're going to say no, you'll see.]"
  2017. > She didn't look at Saule as the nomad huffed and walked around her. She broke into a run to catch up with Salki and after a while Thistle turned and followed. Doubtless her friend would need some consoling when her demand was rejected.
  2019. > ~~~~
  2022. > There was an argument going on in front of Salki and Darga's tent. Thistle nearly bumped into Saule's legs when the girl in front slowed and abruptly stopped.
  2023. "[What is happening?]"
  2024. > She settled on her haunches beside Saule and squinted at the scene in front of them. A moment later the girl put her hand on Thistle's head, but didn't respond.
  2025. > It looked as if all the hunters were there, along with a lot of the women, but Willow himself was absent. Thistle could hardly understand their rapid speech, but she knew they were angry. They talked over each other and some of the hunters punctuated their quick, sharp words with raised spears or fists. Most of the women looked frightened but determined, and some were trying to tug their husbands or sons away.
  2026. > Darga herself looked extremely red in the face and her eyes bulged out in obvious fury. If she had any kind of weapon, Thistle gauged, she would be waving it in the air, if not outright using it on unruly mob. As it was, it looked like she was about ready to jump on the nearest nomad, fists swinging.
  2027. > Salki had also stopped a few steps ahead of them and Thistle nudged Saule with her head to get her to move. They joined the young man.
  2028. "[What is happening?]" Thistle hissed to him from the corner of her mouth.
  2029. > He looked down, then at Saule, before giving a weak shrug. "[I think- Um, I think they want Mother to step down, uh, and name someone else to be Chieftain.]"
  2030. "[What?! Why?]"
  2031. > He spared her another glance, then turned his attention back to the rapid argument. Most of it went over her head, but Thistle got the gist that they were unhappy with the Ruslan attack and the fact that their sworn enemies were drawing nearer.
  2032. > Her guess was confirmed when Salki murmured: "[They want to move the camp. They're saying we're too close to the enemy. We should have driven them away the last time.]"
  2033. > Darga shouted over everyone else, which at least made them shut up for a few moments. Thistle understood some of what the woman was saying, but she was rushing through her speech and a lot of it came out garbled because she was grimacing so much.
  2034. > There was something about the old chieftain, Darga's dead husband, and Salki. She also mentioned fighting and Thistle was sure she heard her talking about bows.
  2035. > She seemed to be winding down when another of the hunters yelled right over her. His voice was clearer, but a few others agreed loudly even while he was speaking so Thistle only got the basic idea. He was unhappy that they had a woman for a chieftain and blamed the recent Ruslan incursions and attacks on that fact.
  2036. > Thistle suddenly felt cold and a shiver ran down her back. It sounded like the camp was ready to revolt against Darga, which could mean a fight between the two factions. It would further destroy morale and potentially split the people into two smaller, independent groups.
  2037. > Splintered like that, they could not survive for long.
  2038. > Thistle invented rapidly. She had a lifetime of politics to draw on, even though most of her experience was with diplomats who weren't calling for blood. She knew what the nomads wanted: revenge. Most of the men in the camp, and some of the women wanted to take bows and arrows and go rain death down on the enemy. Saule herself was proof of this.
  2039. > It wasn't something ponies would do, but then again this wasn't Equestria. Thistle bit her lower lip and her ears flattened, but then she came to a compromise. Saving a hostage would be universal. She could get behind that.
  2040. "[Crap, we have to stop this,]" she said urgently to Salki. "[Get up there!]"
  2041. > He wasn't as quick on the uptake and looked at Thistle in bewilderment. "[Me!? What am I supposed to do?]"
  2042. > The mare placed her hoof on Salki's thigh and gave him a strong push forward.
  2043. "[Get up there and stand beside your mother! She will know what to say. You'll know when the time is right. Say you will lead the hunters! Say you will bring back the girl who was taken.]"
  2044. > "[What?! But I'm not- Willow should lead-]"
  2045. "[Willow is not here!]" Thistle growled. "[You'll be the next chieftain, don't you understand?! Your mother can't hold position forever, you will have to take it. Soon!]"
  2046. > By now the youth was shaking his head and he held up his palms to ward off this sudden responsibility. "[No, no Meyermer, I don't want to!]" he leaned against her push, unwilling to move.
  2047. "[Then your mother has to step down and you know Willow will take it. Do you want him with that kind of power?]"
  2048. > "[N-No.]"
  2049. > Thistle increased the pressure against his leg.
  2050. "[Me neither! Your mother won't step down and there will be a fight! Do you want people in camp to fight each other?!]"
  2051. > He blinked in shock and a grimace of fear passed across his face. "[What? Who would fight? No one would fight! Why would they?]"
  2052. > He really couldn't read the room and Thistle growled a little in exasperation. She also didn't have time to explain. At least, she thought smugly, he had her experience to guide him, if only he would obey!
  2053. "[Look, you don't have to become chieftain tomorrow, but you have to show people you're going to, yes? Do you understand? The will let your mother do it for now, if they know you will take over soon.]"
  2054. > Thistle had to glance away as the guilty thought flashed through her mind. If Salki took over as chieftain of the group he might be able to change the camp for the better. She could give them more of Equestrian values. She would advise him - she would *have to*, if the boy was to have any hope at doing a good job of it - and maybe she could at least reduce the constant bloodshed and brutality, if not quite remove it.
  2055. > She poked him with her hoof again.
  2056. "[Go there and give your mother support!]"
  2057. > He looked uncertain, but he moved. As soon as Darga saw him, she beckoned urgently and raised her arm. She began to shout again, pointing urgently to her son. It was quick, but Thistle understood it, partly because she had expected it.
  2058. > Salki would take over after his father and Darga was only keeping order until that happened. He was a strong fighter and their finest bowman, the chieftain said. She told the group that they would make a stand against the enemy, and that her son would lead it.
  2059. > At that everyone looked at the young man, who looked especially uneasy. He sought out Thistle and she gave him a smile and an encouraging nod.
  2060. > Salki swallowed and spoke. His words were steady, but Thistle couldn't help thinking how young he sounded. She half expected his voice to break, like that of an adolescent. "[Yes. Yes, I will lead the rescue. We will get Tashi back and, uh, revenge Bakar, and Temir, and- and the rest!]"
  2061. > There were a few moments of pregnant silence, then some of the hunters began to walk away. They grumbled, but by the relief on their wives' faces Thistle guessed they would accede, for now. She sagged a little in relief and brushed her fetlock over her face.
  2062. > A few remained and demanded that they get going as soon as possible, and Darga loudly promised that the part would depart before it was fully dark. They would travel through the night and strike at Ruslans at dawn.
  2063. > One or two of the men cheered at that, and the dissenters seemed satisfied, even if they looked reluctant to Thistle. She breathed out and allowed her shoulders to un-hunch.
  2064. > "[Good. I'm going with them,]" Saule said, reminding the mare that she was still beside her. "[Good call sending Salki there. Most of the camp doesn't want a woman chieftain, but they'll accept it if Salki takes over soon. Do you think he will do it?]"
  2065. "[I hope so.]"
  2066. > The young nomad gave Thistle's neck a pat, then walked forward.
  2067. "[Wait! You can't go with!]"
  2068. > Unfortunately Saule wasn't listening. She had a determined look in her eyes and was striding directly to Salki and Darga. As she walked her hand went to the flint knife she had tucked in her belt.
  2069. > Thistle didn't have much choice but to run after her.
  2071. > ~~~~
  2073. > It was late at night and the column of warriors moved silently across the landscape. Thistle was with them, not so much by her own choice as by request. Once it had become clear that Saule would be allowed to go, Mitra, had asked Thistle to go along and keep her daughter safe.
  2074. > The only reason Saule was allowed, Salki had told them, was because she was a good shot with the bow and the group needed every advantage they could get. It was easier for Thistle, both because of her past experience with a hunting expedition and because she could carry things.
  2075. > Aside from them, there was Willow as the leader of the attack, but also Salki, who was supposed to be second in command. Out of the rest, Buygra was the only one Thistle knew well, and a few she didn't know even by name.
  2076. > She and Saule walked near the end of the line, trusting the people in front to guide them safely in the dark. There were no torches and the only light came from a crescent moon. It was barely enough for the mare to distinguish the faint outline of the figure in front of her.
  2077. > They hadn't taken any of the donkeys, so she was carrying their tents and provisions. None of the hunters wanted to give her his weapons.
  2078. > Thistle glanced behind her and saw the first hint of pink in the eastern sky. Nearly dawn, which meant they were nearly upon the enemy camp. A few of the fastest runners had gone ahead to look for the Ruslans, but Thistle didn't know if they had returned yet.
  2079. > She hoped they would find the camp soon, otherwise they would lose the cover of darkness. Darga had given them instructions to hide and wait for the next night if that happened.
  2080. >...
  2081. > "[Wait, stop,]" Saule said suddenly and laid a hand on Thistle's side through the thick fur of her cloak. At almost the exact time the nomad in front of them also stopped.
  2082. "[What is happening?]"
  2083. > "[Hush!]" Saule warned and lowered her voice to a whisper. "[One of the runners is back. Can you hear what he's saying?]"
  2084. > Thistle swiveled her ears around and even walked to one side so she could get a clear line of sight, but other than a faint murmuring she couldn't guess at what was being said. She thought she recognized Willow and Salki, but she didn't know the out-of-breath nomad who was talking between taking huge gulps of air.
  2085. > She was about to return to where Saule had stopped, but the girl was suddenly beside her. Thistle hadn't heard her move. "[Well?]"
  2086. "[Sorry. Too far.]"
  2087. > The young woman strode purposefully forward, no doubt to ask what was going on, but the large hunter in front of them stepped in Saule's way. "[Wait here. Don't break the line!]" he commanded.
  2088. > Thistle heard the faint sniff of annoyance and she could imagine Saule's grimace at the command, but the girl didn't argue and returned to where Thistle was standing.
  2089. > The wait dragged on and she glanced back again, to where the pink was more pronounced and the sky was turning gray.
  2090. "[We don't have much time, maybe we should hide and camp,]" she told Saule.
  2091. > "[No. We're near, I can feel it!]"
  2092. > It was neither of their decisions, and Saule fussed with her bow and the bundle of arrows on her back, checking that they were lose and ready to hand. After making sure that her weapon was in order, she reached out and grabbed Thistle's ear for a quick scratch.
  2093. > The pleasant tingle dispelled some of the tension and the mare pressed her head against Saule's palm.
  2094. > There was a stir ahead of them and the nomads began to move, faster this time. Thistle jerked into motion, but a shadow seemed to rise up out of the grass in front of her. She recognized Salki by smell, rather than by sight, and stumbled to a halt again.
  2095. > "[It's near there, just over the ridge. Thistle, stay here with our things. Put them down, so you can kick if you have to. You, Saule, stay with her and guard.]"
  2096. > "[What?!]" blurted the girl. "[No way I'm waiting behind! You need my bow!]"
  2097. > Thistle felt her legs suddenly trembling, but she made her voice as steady as she could and spoke up too.
  2098. "[I'm going with. M-Mirta said I have to stay close to Saule!]"
  2099. > The three of them were silent for a long, tense moment, then Salki let his breath go and grunted. "[Fine. Leave the stuff here, we'll hide it under branches and leaves. You can help carry Tashi if she can't walk. You-]" he pointed at Saule, "[Stay near me. We let Willow and Hisein go ahead and look for her. We'll stay near the edge and wait, understand?]"
  2100. > "[But-]" Saule began, undoubtedly to demand a chance at revenge, but Salki headed her off: "[Shut up. There'll be plenty of fighting when they realize we're there. You'll stay with me, or you'll wait here, even if I have to tie you up!]"
  2101. > The girl slumped a little, then nodded. "[Fine.]"
  2102. > "[One more thing,]" Salki said. "[Make sure who are our people and who the enemy, so you don't shoot the wrong one. If you're not sure, you don't loose, understand?]"
  2103. > Thistle heard the girl swallow before she nodded wordlessly.
  2104. > Salki stepped closer to Thistle and began untying the gear strapped to her back. Bags and bundles slid noiselessly into the grass until the mare was free. She had kept her animal skin cloak, because the night was still chilly, even this far into the spring, and because it would be at least minor protection against weapons. She decided not to remove it for that exact purpose.
  2105. > A few other men came over and after a quick whispered conversation with Salki they helped him pile leaves and grass on their stuff. Thistle couldn't judge how well it was hidden, because the ground was still largely shrouded in shadow. She could see the outlines of people against the sky, and she thought there were no more stars visible, but it was still quite dark. She hoped it would last long enough.
  2106. > "[This way,]" Salki said and began walking. Thistle and Saule followed. "[Quietly!]"
  2107. > It wasn't easy with hooves, but the thick grass muffled her steps at least enough so that Salki was satisfied. Thistle couldn't be as quiet as the two nomads and she felt a newfound admiration for their delicate, two-legged mode of walking. She decided she would try and learn to be at least as stealthy as some of the worst hunters.
  2108. > Unfortunately she didn't have much time to practice and she soon began to smell smoke, and meat, and filth. It was a nomad camp, almost indistinguishable from their own.
  2109. > She heard a quiet exclamation ahead, followed by a thump. When they moved closer she saw the shape of someone lying on the ground. She stepped into something wet and a shudder ran through her.
  2110. > Up ahead she could see the looming shapes of the first few tents. The camp looked silent and everyone was asleep.
  2111. > Foolish of them, Thistle thought. They'd attacked Darga's nomads, so they should have been expecting a counterattack. She would have to ask Willow and Salki why there hadn't been more of a guard.
  2112. > "[Here,]" Salki said. "[We'll wait here.]" He held Saule's forearm, perhaps worried that she might try to slip away and alert the enemy to their presence. He hunkered down and patted the ground while looking at Thistle.
  2113. > She understood and plopped down on the patch he'd indicated. A few other men crouched or sat around them, while most of their group slid quietly into the tents. They were the best trackers and hunters their tribe had, and before they were more than a few steps away Thistle had already lost track of them. They stayed low to the ground and moved from shadow to shadow, until they blended away into the scenery.
  2114. > The rest of them waited in silence, although Saule kept shifting from leg to leg, which made her animal furs rustle faintly. Thistle could understand her nerves. She herself was trying to keep her own legs from trembling in anticipation, and her ears swiveled this way and that as she waited for some outcry, or an alarm.
  2115. > Once again she looked to the east, where the patch of brightening sky promised a sunrise very soon. She swallowed a lump and prayed quietly that the hunters would find Tashi soon.
  2116. > Maybe they could get her and go with minimum fuss and bloodshed. It would be the best outcome, she thought. She caught a noise and tensed up, but soon recognized it as snoring. The Ruslan camp was still fast asleep.
  2118. > ~~~~
  2120. > The waiting was excruciating. Thistle had closed her eyes and was concentrating on absorbing any and all sound. She kept her ears up, hoping she would sense the approach of anyone who might discover them.
  2121. > She batted Saule's hand away with a hoof when the young nomad had started to nervously slide her fingers down Thistle's mane.
  2122. "[No,]" she murmured without opening her eyes, "[I'm listening. Quiet.]"
  2123. > It took a bit of concentration to filter out the sounds of her immediate group: the raspy breathing of the hunters, the occasional clearing of a throat, even the rustle of animal leather against skin.
  2124. > The wider camp around them was waking up, but Thistle still heard the Ruslan men snoring. There was a baby crying in the distance, and one or two nomads walking around. She thought both of those were women, because they were usually the first awake in her own camp.
  2125. > She could no longer hear hunters from her own group, not once they'd moved any distance at all. The men were good at tracking keen-eared prey and could move almost silently. The Ruslans were in their own camp, so they did not particularly try to mask their own noise.
  2126. > Thistle listened to the crackle of a new fire, and the sizzle of damp twigs it was being fed. Somewhere else, there was the splashing of water as one of the nomads relieved herself behind a tent.
  2127. > They didn't have a lot of time and Thistle opened her mouth several times to tell Salki that, before changing her mind and snapping it shut. Her muscles were painfully tense and she found herself gritting her teeth in anticipation.
  2128. > Saule said it first. The girl whispered and the string of her bow twanged softly as she played with it. "[Maybe we should go and come back tomorrow. It will be bright soon!]"
  2129. > Salki held up a hand to quieten her. When he looked back, Thistle could see his face was slick with sweat. "[We can't go without the others! We have to wait!]" he hissed back.
  2130. > He was right, of course. He and Saule were the best they had with bows and their skill may prove invaluable if the group had to beat a hasty retreat. If they left, they'd be abandoning their friends in a very dangerous situation.
  2131. > Thistle caught a sound which caused her heart to skip a beat: hurried footsteps, coming their way. There was an occasional scraping sound, as if something was being dragged in the dirt.
  2132. > Enemy? She jumped to Salki's side and took a breath to raise the alarm, but another noise caught her attention. There was a low moan. A girl in pain, and it had come from the same direction as the hurrying footsteps. There were several people, she thought.
  2133. > A Ruslan hunters would have no reason to rush and would be shouting for an alarm, and a woman wouldn't be hurrying toward them, Thistle reasoned. She still placed a careful hoof on Salki's side and he turned to her.
  2134. "[People coming, from that way. I think- a woman.]"
  2135. > His face lit up with sudden hope. "[Tashi?]" he asked, loudly enough for the rest of their little party to take notice.
  2136. > Saule jumped forward and laid a hand on Thistle's back. "[You heard Tashi? What's happening?]" she asked, her eyes glinting with sudden hope.
  2137. "[I don't know. Maybe. They will be here very soon!]"
  2138. > Luckily they weren't all given to outbursts of optimism and Zaur placed a finger on his lips in a nomad sign for quiet. "[Hush! Bows at the ready!]" he said, and a moment later Salki gave an affirmative nod.
  2139. > They gripped their weapons and both Salki and Zaur notched their arrows. After seeing that, Saule did the same.
  2140. > Thistle crouched down beside the girl and tried to imagine what she would do if it turned out to be the enemy. She'd plant her forehooves in the dirt, like *so*. Then she'd flip her body around, like-
  2141. > The mare turned herself slightly to the left, half-practicing the movement. She'd look over her right shoulder to aim, then- As she imagined kicking out her hind legs twitched in anticipation. She made herself still and quiet, and tried her best to control her erratic breathing.
  2142. > Almost. The footsteps were almost upon them. She stared into the darkness, ears perked up and focused on the patch of sound. She thought she saw some shapes.
  2143. > Just as she was about to warn Salki, one of the newcomers spoke and she recognized Willow: "[Where are you!?]" It was barely above a whisper, but with how hard Thistle had been concentrated it felt like a shout.
  2144. > "[Here!]" Salki replied and stood up.
  2145. > The group joined them and hunched down in the sparse grass. Thistle tried to listen for pursuit, but her heart hammered too much and she couldn't be sure. There was no outcry, at least, no alarm being raised, which was a good sign.
  2146. > Saule had hurried forward when she realized the new people were friend. She gave a slight exclamation: "[Tashi!]"
  2147. > This name made Thistle hurry forward. The girl was indeed kneeling in the grass and she looked up at the rescue party with wide, disbelieving eyes. "[Is- is it really you?]" she asked, as if she couldn't believe the evidence before her. She fended off Saule's attempt to hug her and reached out to touch first Zaur, then Salki. "[You came.]"
  2148. > A deep, shuddering breath tore itself out of her throat and the girl slumped. She sniffed and it looked like she was about to break down and cry any moment. That would surely give away their position.
  2149. "[We have to go!]" Thistle said urgently.
  2150. > "[No,]" Willow objected, "[we must wait. Usman and Bulat are still missing. We wait for them.]"
  2151. > It was one of those rare moments when Thistle agreed with the man, even if she cursed under her breath in Nomad over the missing men. She had no intention of leaving any more people in danger, but Tashi was a ticking bomb who would cause them a lot of problems if she really started weeping.
  2152. > The mare hurried over to where the girl had collapsed to her knees. That was a bit of luck because it meant she could put her hooves around the poor creature and press her cheek against hers in a desperate attempt to comfort her.
  2153. "[Hey, it's okay. You're safe now! Stay quiet, okay? We'll go very soon. You're safe.]"
  2154. > At first Tashi stiffened and her breath caught, but Thistle's clipped and rushed words helped. Maybe it was the effect of her furry body, but Tashi wrapped her arms tightly around Thistle and held on as if she never intended to let go.
  2155. > Her shoulders began to shake, but she was controlling her sobs and only letting out small whimpers against Thistle's neck. They were safe, so the mare relaxed and patted the girl on her back a few times.
  2156. "[It's okay. I'm here. You're safe,]" she kept repeating in as gentle a tone as she could muster.
  2157. > In front of her, behind Tashi, Willow spat on the ground and took his flint knife out of his belt. It was covered in blood and Thistle could see some of it had dripped down his thigh. "[Fucking beasts,]" he swore quietly. "[I stuck the pig on her, but who knows how many-]"
  2158. > At first Thistle didn't fully understand his words, but then realization struck and her ears folded down in horror. She stared at the man imploringly, wishing he would say something else and prove her guess wrong, but he caught her look and his lips tightened.
  2159. > He gave a solemn nod and crouched down to wipe his knife on the grass.
  2160. > Thistle squeezed the poor girl even more tightly.
  2161. "[It's going to be okay. We'll get you home to your mother. You're safe now.]"
  2162. > She hoped none of her words were lies.
  2163. > The day was starting to get really bright and the hunters were getting restless. They kept glancing to the east and Thistle saw how tightly some of them were gripping their weapons. Even Saule was shuffling from foot to foot as she tried to look in every direction at once.
  2164. > There was the rustling of grass and hurrying feet and Thistle identified two people running toward them, but from the side. She tensed up and sought out Willow's gaze again.
  2165. "[That way! Two people!]" she hissed and jerked her head in the direction.
  2166. > The nomad gave her a single nod and seemed to relax. "[That will be Bulat and Usman I told them to go around when they lose the cover of darkness. The enemy would be screaming, they wouldn't be running quietly, and there would be more than two of them.]"
  2167. > It made sense, but the nomads kept their weapons ready as the footsteps drew nearer. She could heard ragged breathing from exertion and the occasional slap of a stone knife against thigh, or a thud of a spear butt on the soft ground.
  2168. > Willow turned out to be right and the two missing hunters nearly trampled over their friends in their haste. One of them, Thistle thought it was Usman, began to say: "[Sorry, we didn't find her. We had to move quickly and we couldn't search-]" He spotted the girl hugging Thistle and fell silent. "[You got her? Good. We should go!]"
  2169. > Everyone agreed with that and Thistle began the laborious process of extricating herself from that urgent hug.
  2170. "[We're going, Tashi. Come on, you have to let me go and then we'll get you home, okay?]"
  2171. > She had to fight to keep her tone calm and patient, especially when the others around them shuffled uneasily, or checked their weapons. Willow walked a few paces, but then came back, breathing heavily through his nose as if he was trying to keep himself from shouting.
  2172. > Eventually it worked and the girl loosed her death-grip on the mare. She looked bewildered, but at least it didn't seem as if she was about to burst into tears any second.
  2173. "[Here. Put your hand here. Grip my hair, I'll guide you, okay?]"
  2174. > She waited for Tashi to get to her feet. The girl tried to stand, but collapsed back down to her knees, whimpering and clutching her hands to her crotch. "[I can't! It hurts!]"
  2175. > Thistle was confused and opened her mouth to point out she'd gotten thus far, out of the camp, but Willow spoke up in an uncharacteristically quiet voice: "[I believe her. We had to practically carry her between us.]"
  2176. > Upright, and with the gray down bleeding back into the world, Thistle could finally see the damage. Thistle had a ragged leather cloth wrapped around her torso, but she was naked otherwise. The inside of her thighs were coated with blood and her legs had large, purple bruises.
  2177. > There were more dark patches on her belly, partially hidden by her makeshift garment, and on her arms. Her face was swollen on one side and her hair was matted and sticky. It looked like her nose had been broken, but it wasn't bleeding for the moment.
  2178. > "[I- I'm sorry,]" Tashi whimpered.
  2179. > Thistle had to close her eyes so she wouldn't have to look at the evidence, but her breath caught and her blood boiled. She understood why the nomads called these Ruslans 'monsters'.
  2180. > What had been done to the girl was horrific. She felt a flash of satisfaction that Willow had gotten one of the beasts, and she fully agreed with his choice of words. Anyone capable of such bestial cruelty didn't deserve the name 'nomad'.
  2181. > She stepped closer to Tashi and turned sideways.
  2182. "[Come, I will carry you. Get on. Come. Saule, walk with me. You'll keep her steady.]"
  2183. > Tashi was shaking her head in dismay. "[I c-can't! I can't sit! They- they-]" her words were choked off in a sob and Thistle nearly hoofed herself in the face. Obviously the girl couldn't sit, not with what had been done to her.
  2184. "[Okay, lie over me. On your stomach. Come on. Saule- wrap her feet in leather so they don't get scraped!]"
  2185. > She remembered dragging Bakar like that and knew that even if Tashi was much smaller, her feet would still drag on the ground.
  2186. > "[Yes, good idea! We may need to fight, we can't spare men to carry her. Let's go!]" Salki said. "[Here, use this,]" he said and handed Saule his vest. It left his chest bare, but he didn't seem to feel the night's chill.
  2187. > Following his example, Zaur also took off his cloak and draped it around Tashi's shoulders to keep her warm.
  2188. > It didn't take long for the nomads to load the stricken girl on Thistle's back. She hardly even felt the weight, but still walked carefully so as not to jostle the poor creature too much.
  2189. > That finally allowed the group to leave and they hurried away from the Ruslan camp under the cover of darkness.
  2190. > With luck, they would escape undetected. They could think about revenge later on and Thistle would make sure they don't forget. She wasn't a vindictive pony, but each jolt made Tashi moan a little, right by her ear, and she felt the beginnings of a deep and dark rage building up in her belly.
  2191. > They'd came in the night and took the girl from her home. They'd dragged her off to their tent and then... had their way with her. Celestia knew how many times they-
  2192. > Her own group wasn't perfect, Thistle knew that very well, but despite having taken slaves - the boy and the girl - they weren't subjected to *that*!
  2193. > She wasn't aware that she let out a tiny, faint growl each time Tashi moaned or sobbed. She also didn't feel just how flat her ears had gotten. All she knew was that mental image of the girl, slouched over, hand covering her privates and blood oozing down her thighs, coloring her bruises.
  2194. >...
  2195. > They were too near when the shouting began. There was commotion and anger and the Ruslan camp stirred like a disturbed anthill. At least, that was how it felt to Thistle. She couldn't see very well and a hasty glance back only showed her a blurry mass of torches.
  2196. > The ground sloped up, which made it harder to run and carry Tashi, but at the same time it would allow her group to see what was happening.
  2197. "[Salki! Salki! Look back! What is happening? How many?]"
  2198. > He stopped for a few heartbeats to watch behind them, then sprinted to catch up to the group. "[It's good! I don't think they know which way we are going. Everyone is just milling around and shouting.]"
  2199. > Usman heard their exchange and added: "[You shouldn't have killed one of them. They must have found the body!]"
  2200. > "[It wasn't me!]" Salki hissed back. "[Willow killed the one who was-]" He didn't finish the sentence, but Thistle saw him jerk his head in her direction. The others understood and Usman didn't have a reply, other than an approving grunt.
  2201. > The group had hastened their step when the commotion behind them began and Thistle concentrated on her breathing. She was stronger than she had been before she'd come to this world, and she could run farther. Tashi wasn't heavy, but she still had to control her breathing, lest she work herself into a lather.
  2202. > Willow stopped suddenly just ahead of them and Thistle nearly ran into the legs of the nomad in front, so focused had she been on running. She stopped in time and let out a small, angry growl.
  2203. > "[Here. Pick up the things. Go! Hurry!]" Willow barked and Thistle realized they'd come to the place where they'd stashed their gear. She had almost forgotten about that and for an instant she considered telling them to leave it.
  2204. > The Ruslans would undoubtedly find it, though. She did not like the idea of giving those monsters even the few provisions and tents.
  2205. > The only problem was- there was no way she could carry it, not with Tashi draped across her back. It was a flaw in their plan which none had considered. They had all just assumed that the girl would be able to walk.
  2206. > Those same thoughts must have gone through Willow's head too, because he looked at her and his lips pressed together in annoyance. For a moment it looked like he would demand she carry the stuff despite, but luckily Salki spoke first: "[No use. Meyermer has Tashi, each get your own food. Zaur and me will take the tent, someone take our packs!]"
  2207. > His voice carried some of his mother's authority and the certainty of his tone helped organize the men without protest. Willow flashed him an evil stare, but no one paid him any mind as they distributed the burden among themselves.
  2208. > In the end, even Willow had to carry a bag slung across one shoulder. "[We can't run all the way home like this!]" he said.
  2209. > "[No,]" Salki agreed and glanced around in thought. "[There! There is a thicket, about an hour's walk. The Ruslans don't know which way we are going. Thistle will hide with Tashi and we will make a-]" he finished with a word Thistle hadn't heard before.
  2210. "[What is that?]" she asked and tried to repeat it. "Dam-nyurga?"
  2211. > "[Let's move! We can talk while we walk!]" Willow commanded, no doubt trying to keep a semblance of control over the group. They all began moving again and Salki fell in step beside Thistle, while Saule walked on the other side and helped hold Tashi in place.
  2212. > He sought for words for a moment, then tried to explain: "[We will cut two young, tall saplings. Two long sticks, with shorter sticks tied to them so, and so.]" He mimed something with his hands, but Thistle couldn't quite grasp what he was getting at.
  2213. > "[Then we stretch leather across it. Two men can hold it and still walk quickly and one man can lie on it.]"
  2214. > That finally clicked and the mare gasped. "[A- A-] stretcher!" she said, using the Equestrian word. "[Dam-nyurga. Carry an injured or ill person- two nomads, one in front' one in back?]"
  2215. > The device would be even simpler than the ones she knew, Thistle realized. The nomads had two hands, they could hold the long poles directly, they didn't need to rig up straps or ropes to rest them on a pony's back!
  2216. > "[Yes!]" Salki confirmed. "[We can build it quickly and use the skin from the tent. Two of us will carry Tashi and you will carry our things!]"
  2217. "[Yes. That could work!]"
  2218. > As an added bonus, stopping for a few minutes while the nomads crafted a stretcher would give Thistle a much-needed rest. After that she was confident she could trot all the way back home, even after the previous day's forced marching and the night's tense rescue.
  2219. > She could sleep when they were safe.
  2221. > ~~~~
  2223. > The hunters helped Tashi to the ground and piled their packs nearby. Willow gave a few orders and sent Usman back the way they came to watch for the enemy. The rest of them would spread out and look for sufficiently long and sturdy trees.
  2224. > They were in a small thicket, but it was mostly filled with bushes which wouldn't work for a stretcher.
  2225. > While they discussed Thistle lifted the unfortunate girl up and slid a couple of bedrolls against her back, which allowed Tashi to rest more comfortably. Saule sat on the soft grass on her other side, breathing heavily. She had gotten winded during their rush to escape.
  2226. > For that matter, Thistle herself was panting and droplets of sweat ran down her coat. She began to shrug out of her animal skin coat, but Salki's hand grabbed her hoof. "[Leave it,]" he told her, "[or you will get ill. You are hot and sweaty, but the air is still cold.]"
  2227. > She stared pointedly at his own exposed skin and quirked her mouth up into a wry smile. Unfortunately he didn't notice, so Thistle rolled her eyes and spoke up.
  2228. "[What about you? You are naked too. It is cold.]"
  2229. > He waved a dismissive hand. "[I'll be fine. Tashi needs it more.]"
  2230. > The mare grunted in annoyance and pointed with a hoof.
  2231. "[We have coats! Take one from the pack!]"
  2232. > Her tone could not be disobeyed and Salki went to do exactly that, even if some of his friends tittered at how she had berated him. Thistle glared at them and the hunters fell silent.
  2233. > At last they were organized and ran off in different directions. Saule would stay with the mare and Tashi to guard them with their bow, which left the nomad girl in a foul temper. They all knew it was a meaningless task, especially after Willow had assigned lookouts to watch for any sign of pursuit.
  2234. > None of the enemy could get to their rescued girl without detection, which suited Thistle just fine. She had fully agreed with the decision to leave Saule guarding them. In a few more moments the three of them were alone.
  2235. > Thistle glanced at the injured girl and saw how she was holding her arms around her belly.
  2236. "[Are you cold? Tashi? Tashi. Are you cold?]"
  2237. > The girl hadn't seemed to notice her until Thistle raised her voice, and then she simply shook her head. Despite that denial, Mayor went to the pile of hunters' things and dug out an animal skin coat. She dragged it back and covered Tashi as best she could.
  2238. > After a moment, the young nomad relaxed a little, but she kept staring off into the distance. For a while Thistle thought about engaging her in conversation, but couldn't think of any good topics. All that kept racing through her mind were the memories of how Tashi had been beaten and abused.
  2239. > She couldn't forget the blood on her legs. It was making her bare her teeth and flatten her ears in impotent rage.
  2240. > The crimes against the poor nomad were absolutely heinous and the man Willow had killed fully deserved it.
  2241. > After all, the bastards had come in the night, killing and capturing. It was pure luck that they hadn't taken anyone else, but even one was too many. Tashi had been out to relieve herself, when she was grabbed and dragged off.
  2242. > A shadow of what was done to her was in the girl's face and Thistle couldn't help but see it every time she looked at her. A haunted, frightened look. A distrust of everyone and everything.
  2243. > Something important had been stolen from Tashi and she could never get it back. The beatings and the pain were the least part of it, Thistle suspected. She sat on the ground and her own hooves went to her belly.
  2244. > Her mind turned back to that awful night she'd gotten drunk. It wasn't nearly as bad as Tashi, but maybe, in a small way, Thistle could imagine what the nomad must have felt. What she still felt.
  2245. > She slid closer to Tashi, who didn't seem to notice, and pressed her muzzle against her forearm through the thick coat. There was no reaction, so the mare reached out and wrapped a foreleg around Tashi's shoulders. She gave her face a careful nuzzle.
  2246. "[It is okay now. You are going home. Your mother and your father are waiting for you, okay? They will be happy to see you again.]"
  2247. > All the reply she got was a slight whimper from the girl, but Thistle persisted, even if her position was awkward to maintain and placed additional strain on her burning muscles.
  2248. > She let out a sigh and closed her eyes as she did her best to cuddle the stricken girl. A moment later she felt movement and looked to see that Saule also had a hand on Tashi's shoulder, touching Thistle's hoof there.
  2249. > "[We'll get you through this, Tashi, okay? You have friends. It's going to be fine.]"
  2250. > That voice finally got through to her and Tashi glanced over at the other nomad. She tried to speak, but all that came out was a strangled croak. She cleared her throat and tried again: "[You have a bow now? Are you a man?]"
  2251. > Saule jerked her arm away and gripped her weapon with both hands. She looked confused, as if she couldn't decide whether it was a joke, or she should be offended.
  2252. "[Saule wanted to come find you too, Tashi,]" Thistle explained quickly. "[She is one of the best with a bow in the whole camp.]"
  2253. > There was a moment of further tension, but then Tashi's head sagged and she murmured: "[Thank you. I appreciate it.]"
  2254. > Her breath caught as if she was about to say more, but the girl just let it out and closed her eyes. "[I'm tired. They- They didn't let me sleep a lot.]"
  2255. > Thistle nodded against Tashi's neck, but it seemed that Saule thought a step further and offered: "[Are you hungry? We have food. We have water. You need to get your strength back.]"
  2256. > To that the resting nomad shook her head, but didn't reply. The three descended into silence again and Saule began scanning the thicket around them. She settled down on her haunches and gripped her bow more tightly, as if expecting an imminent attack.
  2257. > Thistle also had to let go. She was half-sitting, half-crouching over Tashi and her hind legs were killing her. She could have leaned against her, but she didn't want to put any weight on what could be painful injuries. Luckily there wasn't any kind of a reaction when she moved and Tashi simply kept her eyes closed and her breathing regular. She was probably worn out, Thistle thought.
  2258. > Tired from all the men grunting over her, hitting her, and worse. Once more a growl threatened to burst forth from Thistle's throat and she turned away to hide her grimace from the other two.
  2259. "[I have to go piss. I will be right back!]"
  2260. > They didn't question her and she walked deeper into the undergrowth, where a couple of large bushes were between her and the girls. There wasn't any danger, to any of them, not with Willow and his men circling around. Thistle idly wondered how long they would need to find appropriate branches, and if it wouldn't have been a smarter idea to keep going as they had.
  2261. > She could have carried Tashi all the way home, but it seemed the other hunters weren't used to the amount of gear they had brought. Thistle scrunched her muzzle up in disgust. They knew they'd have a pony with them, so they overpacked. She would have to have a talk with Darga. Good old 'Meyermer', there to save the day and pick up the slack!
  2262. > The men should only ever bring what they could carry themselves.
  2263. > The mare humphed under her breath and stomped a hoof in annoyance. She twirled around and backed against a thick brush. She didn't really have to go and her words to the other two had been more an excuse than anything else, but since she had gone she might as well do it. The way home would be long and arduous and the nomads may not appreciate if they had to stop soon after for a break.
  2264. > Of course, being a pony, she could probably go as she walked, but Thistle really didn't like the idea of them watching her do it. True, she walked around naked sometimes and she would probably do that more as the weather warmed, but there was still something about bodily functions. It put her too close to what the donkey beasts did.
  2265. > She almost felt their eyes on her rump as she lifted her tail away and the icky feeling made her back further into the bush. The leaves and sparse branches easily bent out of her way and she flicked her tail a little to make sure the stream wouldn't splash right back on her.
  2266. > Not that she would mind, much. She would need a good, long scrub in the stream when they were back anyway, if only to wash off Tashi's blood.
  2267. > She was being too dramatic, the mare knew. There probably wasn't any blood on her fur, but she *felt* as if they ought to be. She felt dirty because of what was done to the girl.
  2268. > As she relaxed her bladder there was a sudden noise behind her, something she couldn't recognize.
  2269. > Were there dangerous beasts in the small forest?! The sudden thought first made her limbs go leaden and the mare froze in panic. Only the trickle of her urine kept going, something she suddenly couldn't stop.
  2270. > It only lasted a moment before she got herself under control and leapt away with a yell. Maybe loud noise would scare away whatever creature had sneaked up on her.
  2271. > To her shock Thistle saw not a beast of the forest bolt from under the bush, but a nomad. He was young, wearing simple animal furs. His belt sported a flint axe and knife, and he held a spear in his hand.
  2272. > Most importantly, she didn't recognize him.
  2273. "[Help!]" she yelled for her friends.
  2274. > The fact that she could speak seemed to shock the hunter and he let his spear drop in surprise. He fell backward on his rump in his haste to get away from the mare, then flipped and picked himself up.
  2275. > An enemy spy! Thistle reacted without thinking and leapt after the young man. She was already standing and he had to sort out his legs, which gave her the split second she needed. Thistle landed on the nomad and scrabbled to get her hooves around his legs, to pin him down.
  2276. > He screamed and began to bash at her muzzle with his fists, but Thistle didn't let him go and snapped at his hands with her teeth. She didn't hit him, but he stopped trying to slap her and began wiggling desperately to free himself from her grasp. His hands sought for something to grab to pull himself away.
  2277. > It was pure luck that he was inexperienced and panicked enough so that his first thought was to escape. Had he been thinking clearly, the youth could easily have grabbed his knife and cut her.
  2278. > Thistle realized that first and threw her weight around so she pinned the nomad on his side and he ended up lying on his own weapons. That would make it impossible for him to grab them, even if he thought to.
  2279. > By then he was whimpering and wailing as he struggled to get free. Unfortunately he was succeeding, as his smooth, sweat-slicked skin slid through her forelegs. Thistle thought about relaxing her grip for just a moment so she could shift and cover him more completely, but she heard running footsteps behind her and Saule's welcome voice.
  2280. > "[Stop! Stop moving or I will kill you!]"
  2281. > Both the mare and the struggling hunter looked back at the girl with the bow. She had it drawn and even though the arrow tip weaved a little, there was no mistaking the threat. The young man went completely still, his eyes so wide at the sight of the weapon that they bulged.
  2282. > "[No! No, please! Not the spear-thrower! Please!]"
  2283. > He didn't know what the weapon was called, but he obviously knew what it was. This further proved that he wasn't one of their camp and was most likely a Ruslan, since they were the only other tribe in the area who had had occasion to see a bow used in anger.
  2284. > Saule kept the weapon drawn and aimed at the boy as she approached, while Thistle kept her hooves tightly around his legs and her weight on him. She didn't want him to get any heroic ideas about his axe or his knife.
  2285. > The three looked at one another in silence for a bit, then Saule jerked the bow. "[You! Thistle! Tie his hands together!]"
  2286. > There was a tone of command and the mare found herself gingerly releasing the hunter. She watched his legs closely, ready to pounce on him again if he tensed up to flee. It seemed Saule had a similar thought.
  2287. > "[You! Ruslan! If you try to run I will shoot you in the back. You know what this is?]" she asked and hefted the bow again.
  2288. > The boy gave a fearful nod. "[Yes. Spear-thrower. The- The men spoke about it! A new kind of weapon! We tried-]" He fell silent and snapped his mouth shut.
  2289. "[You tried what?]" Thistle asked.
  2290. > He just shook his head and looked down at the ground. He remained prone on his side and it didn't look as if he would try to escape. Thistle relaxed a little.
  2291. "[I don't have rope,]" she told Saule.
  2292. > The nomad girl gave a slight nod and crouched down without letting the bow go slack. She kept it pointed at the young man. "[Here, in my bag. There is rope. Take it out and tie his hands and feet together.]"
  2293. > Thistle did as commanded and tried not to jostle Saule as she rummaged in the bag the girl kept slung across her shoulder. It was a small pack and only held a bit of food, a water skin, and the rope. Perhaps later she would ask Saule why she always carried some rope with her, but now was not the time.
  2294. > The mare went over to the Ruslan boy and pushed him fully to his stomach.
  2295. "[Hands!]"
  2296. > He obeyed, though his arms shook as he presented them to her. "[You are a horse, how can you talk?!]" he asked, his voice a mixture of awe and fear.
  2297. > "[Never mind that!]" Saule snapped. "[What were you doing around here?! How did you get past the hunters?!]"
  2298. > There was no reply and Thistle didn't wait for one. She tied a simple knot around his wrists, then pulled the rest of the rope down and tied it around his ankles. He didn't struggle against her, even if his limbs jerked away whenever she touched him with a hoof.
  2299. > At last it was done and Saule relaxed a little. She lowered her bow and gradually released the tension, then jerked her head at the lad. "[Turn him around. I want to see him!]"
  2300. > There was a definitive note of triumph in her voice and a grim, satisfied smile on her lips. Thistle pondered that as she rolled the Ruslan hunter around.
  2301. > She saw why he had given himself away. His face was wet and stank of her pee. He must have been hiding in the exact bush and she'd backed away right to him when she went to relieve herself. He'd gagged at the stench and that was what she'd heard. She could place the sound now that she had some idea what caused it.
  2302. > "[Well?! What are you doing here? How did you get past the hunters?]" Saule repeated.
  2303. > The boy looked at her face, then returned his gaze to his own feet. "[I don't- I don't know.]"
  2304. > Saule spat on the ground in disgust. "[Have you been following us?! Tell me, or I will cut you a little!]"
  2305. > Thistle automatically opened her mouth to protest, but then she remembered Tashi and clamped it shut. His camp, *his people* had done that to a young girl. Maybe he deserved whatever he got.
  2306. > The boy believed Saule and his eyes grew wide. He shook his head urgently. "[No! No! I swear I wasn't following you! I was just-]" He gave a slow, self-deprecating sigh before continuing: "[It was a bet. I lost a bet and I had to sleep out of camp for one night. I hid in the bush there,]" he jerked his head in the direction of the shrubbery where Thistle had found him. "[I heard your hunters and I was scared, so I stayed hidden. I hoped you would leave and then I could sneak home.]"
  2307. > Saule gave Thistle a questioning look and the mare shrugged her shoulders.
  2308. "[I think I believe him. I found him when- when I-]"
  2309. > That got a different reaction out of the young man and he glared at the two females. "[Your stupid talking donkey pissed on me!]"
  2310. > His indignant anger, and the sudden flush on Thistle's cheeks proved too much and Saule began to laugh. She slapped her thighs and chortled in amusement. "[You hide from some of our best hunters and then Thistle finds you by pissing on your head?]"
  2311. > When put like that it did sound utterly ridiculous and the mare couldn't help but make a few snorts of amusement herself. The boy just glowered darkly at them, but he didn't dare say anything else.
  2312. > "[So he's just an idiot who happened to be here by chance. What should we do with him? I can, uh, cut his throat]" Saule offered, but the hesitation in her voice put a lie to her words.
  2313. "[No.]"
  2314. > "[Do we let him go?]"
  2315. > Thistle considered it. The Ruslan boy was there by happenstance and obviously didn't know that they'd sneaked to his camp and rescued their captive. If they let him go, he was liable to run straight back home and tell his people exactly where Thistle and her group were.
  2316. > They'd be long gone by then, but there was always the possibility that the boy could run into their pursuers, which could prove problematic.
  2317. > Besides, the Ruslans had taken Tashi, maybe it was only just that they take one of theirs in return. Thistle didn't think the nomads in her camp would kill the boy, nor was he likely to get the same treatment as Tashi, but it would be a little bit of justice, maybe.
  2318. > She made her decision.
  2319. "[We'll take him back and wait for the others. Salki can decide what to do with him.]"
  2320. > Her voice was dark and ominous and the young nomad whimpered in fear again. Thistle turned and glared at him.
  2321. "[Shut up! It won't be nearly as bad as what you did to Tashi, so just shut up!]"
  2322. > He obeyed and lowered his head.
  2323. > "[Good idea. Come on.]"
  2324. "[He can't walk with his feet tied together,]" Thistle pointed out.
  2325. > "[Let him crawl, or you carry him. I don't care. We'll tie him to a tree and I'll watch him until the others are back. They shouldn't be long.]"
  2326. > Thistle sighed prodded her prisoner with a hoof.
  2327. "[You heard her. Hop or something. It's not far.]"
  2329. > ~~~~
  2331. > By the time the rest of the hunters came back with branches for their stretcher Thistle and Saule had their prisoner tied to a spindly tree. He had complained about this treatment until the nomad girl threatened him with her stone knife, after which the captive had subsided into sullen silence.
  2332. > His demeanor changed when the men came back and he began to realize just how bad his situation was. The way they watched him, some with calculation, others with outright disgust made the boy go pale and draw in on himself. Even Thistle felt uneasy when she saw some of the dark glances thrown his way.
  2333. > Unsurprisingly, Willow looked absolutely murderous and might have killed their captive right there and then, had Salki not placed himself in the way. Thistle was proud of her friend for that, since it couldn't have been easy to face down a furious Willow.
  2334. > The Ruslan boy, Salki had argued, had to be taken home and presented to his mother. They would question him and find out how their enemy was able to ride around on the backs of horses. He would also tell them why they had attacked the other night.
  2335. > Those secrets would help them, especially information about their enemies' strength and numbers. After that, Salki had said in a flat, disinterested voice which sent chills down Thistle's spine, Willow could have him.
  2336. > The pronouncement made the captive whimper in fear.
  2337. > His argument worked, if not on Willow, at least on the other hunters. They seemed to agree that the prisoner should be questioned. When his support dwindled, Willow reluctantly accepted the verdict and backed down, though he kept glaring at the captive and fingering his belt knife.
  2338. > Thistle relaxed after the crisis had been averted and the others began to prepare their stretcher. It wasn't complex and all it took was the branches, some thick animal skins, and a lot of rope. Soon two of the hunters were able to easily carry Tashi between them at their normal walking speed.
  2339. > The others strapped their packs to the mare, who stoically bore this, even if she wasn't too happy about the arrangement. She stomped her hooves a few times to settle the burden more evenly on her back, then went to check on Saule, who was trying to get Tashi to lay down on the stretcher. It took some comforting murmurs, but the injured girl was soon bundled up and two of the men lifted her up. A small whimper escaped her at the sudden movement, but she soon got used to it and relaxed.
  2340. > They were about to set off, but Thistle noticed a commotion with their captive. She went to look and watched as Salki untied his legs so he could walk. His hands remained bound together behind his back. Salki made a loop of rope and fastened it securely around his neck.
  2341. > The sight of that made Thistle feel better about her own situation. She told herself sternly that the boy probably hadn't had anything to do with Tashi's abuse or foal-napping, but it was hard not to see an enemy in his unfamiliar face.
  2342. > Then Salki turned around to look for the mare and brightened up when he saw she was already there. "[Come here,]" he told her and beckoned with his hand.
  2343. > Thistle wasn't sure what he wanted, but she obeyed and approached, keeping a wary eye on the prisoner.
  2344. > She let out a surprised squeak and jumped back when Salki bent down and passed the rope under her barrel.
  2345. "[What are you doing?!]"
  2346. > He looked at her strangely, then lifted up the rope he was holding as if to show her it. "[I'll tie him to you.]"
  2347. "[Why?]"
  2348. > "[You're the strongest. He won't be able to pull you, Thistle. That way I can walk right behind him in case he tries something stupid.]"
  2349. > He glanced at the Ruslan boy as he said the last few words and the prisoner hurriedly shook his head, silently promising that he would behave.
  2350. > Thistle still didn't like it and she held her foreleg in the air, ready to fend Salki off if he tried anything with the rope.
  2351. "[No! I don't think I can. It's- It's too much responsibility!]"
  2352. > The hunter came closer, but he let his hand holding the rope relax so Thistle didn't immediately back away. Salki used his free hand to cup her muzzle. "[You're the one who caught him, no? You'll be fine. Me and Saule will be right beside you, okay?]"
  2353. > The mare opened her mouth to suggest someone else, but then fell silent. Usman and Bulat would carry the stretcher, and Willow hated what their captive represented and she didn't trust he wouldn't try and do something to him on the way. That left Saule, Tashi, or Salki himself. Of those, Thistle would have preferred that both Saule and Salki kept their bows in hand, since they were the best shots in the group.
  2354. > She was forced to admit that Salki had a good point. Her ears flattened and the nomad, familiar with her facial expressions as he was, grinned in triumph. He held up the rope again and Thistle approached and allowed him to tie it around her barrel.
  2355. > It was a bit uncomfortable, but she told him to tighten it until there was no risk of it slipping. Then she gave their captive the stink eye and growled as menacingly as her pony voice would allow:
  2356. "[You try something stupid, I kick you, understand?!]"
  2357. > She walked closer to the boy, who took a step back and tried to put the spindly tree to which he had been tied between them. Thistle turned around and lashed expertly out with her hind hoof.
  2358. > The resulting crack was most satisfying and it tore a sizeable chunk of wood from the tree.
  2359. > It had the intended effect and the Ruslan boy paled. He had to try several times until he could swallow and he couldn't quite take his eyes off her hind hooves. "[I p-p-promise!]" he finally gasped out.
  2360. > He probably wouldn't try anything, Thistle decided, but she was still uneasy about him walking behind her. When they started she kept her ears trained back, listening for any small sound which would warn her that their prisoner was about to attack. She also felt better about the packs strapped to her back.
  2361. > The boy didn't have a weapon, but the thick bundles of cloth and meat would stop a knife, or maybe even a spear. As illogical as her fear was, the comforting bulk on her did ease her anxious feeling.
  2362. > It would still be a long trek back home, but Thistle was surrounded by several nomads she trusted, and a few others who probably had no particular intention to hurt her. They'd achieved their goal and freed Tashi, even her experiences would haunt the mare for a long time to come.
  2363. > Thinking of the girl, Thistle hastened her steps until she was walking beside Usman and could look into the stretcher he carried. Tashi was lying on her back and staring at the sky with large, unmoving eyes. She seemed calm, but the worst was probably yet to come. Thistle only hoped they would get her home and to her family before her dam broke fully.
  2364. > Surrounded by her mother and sisters and brother, Tashi could begin to heal, both physically and otherwise.
  2366. > ~~~~
  2368. > By the time their group reached home, Thistle was thoroughly exhausted. The sleepless night, the adrenaline, and the heavy slog back had taken their toll. She was dimly aware of the excitement and jubilation at their triumphant return, but her top priority was to hand over her prisoner, get rid of the packs she was carrying, then sleep, in that order.
  2369. > The first was easy, since a captured enemy was of great interest to Darga and the senior hunters of the tribe, and the boy was led away almost as soon as they had entered the camp.
  2370. > He looked pale and uneasy, and cast a pleading look in Thistle's direction, but she ignored it and went to dump her other burdens near the central firepit. Their owners could sort out what belonged to whom when they were done being congratulated.
  2371. > Unfortunately her hooves were too clumsy to untie some of the more finicky knots, so Thistle sought out Saule and enlisted the help of her nimble fingers.
  2372. > That done, she slipped away in all the commotion to go hide in Darga's tent, where she flopped heavily on her welcome cot and closed her eyes. Some time later Salki showed up, but he only brought her a water skin, which she emptied gratefully, then he left her to sleep.
  2373. > The sounds of excitement were still going when Thistle woke up and she wondered if she had slept any time at all. She crawled closer to the entrance and lifted the tent flap. The sky outside was dark, but she could see a faint glow from the bonfire. It looked like the camp would celebrate their little victory.
  2374. > A busy hour later found the mare sitting at one of the smaller fires, well-fed on bread and rice, and with a nearly empty skin of beer in her hoof. She wasn't sure about that last part, but there wasn't a whole lot of it left and Thistle figured she deserved a little reward after the previous night's work.
  2375. > She hesitated a little and hefted the skin, trying to decide just how drunk she might get from it. Then her hoof went to her belly, full of warm bread and a few licks of honey she'd been given by Tashi's grateful mother. It would probably be okay. The mare shrugged to herself and emptied the skin in a single, long swallow.
  2376. > It was quite fresh and left a pleasant aftertaste on her tongue. She let the skin drop by the log she was sitting on and waited for the pleasant effect of the alcohol, while around her nomads talked excitedly.
  2377. > She'd tried to find Salki and Saule, but the two were surrounded by admiring and congratulating crowds and Thistle didn't like the idea of pushing her way to the middle of all that commotion. The girl in particular was having a rough time of it, caught between a group of younger tribe members who praised her capture of the cunning enemy, and the older, more conservative group who were saying a girl should never have gone to fight.
  2378. > Thistle didn't feel particularly inclined to get involved in that mess and she was grateful they hadn't turned on her instead. After all, it had been *Thistle* who had really captured the boy. Her ears flicked down at this blatant thought-lie and Thistle hastily corrected herself: It had been about fifty-fifty, probably.
  2379. > Her head was starting to feel pleasantly light, making her hooves itch to walk around a little and socialize. Thistle jumped from her log, pleased to note that the world wasn't spinning around her, and that she didn't have any particularly warm feeling in her nethers.
  2380. > She was tipsy, but not drunk, which was perfect. The mare went in search of company. She didn't know whom she wanted to talk to, but her steps took her to the cluster of tents which included Intor and Kantuta. The latter was Tashi's mother and Thistle told herself she wanted to check in on the girl.
  2381. > That part of the camp was a little quieter and the mare breathed more easily, away from the crowd of merrymakers. She stopped in front of the tent and listened for any movement inside. She wouldn't want to barge in on people trying to sleep.
  2382. > There was a soft murmur of conversation, occasionally interspersed by a faint sniffle, and Thistle walked forward. The tents didn't have a way to knock, so she simply pushed her head in through the tent flap.
  2383. > Tashi was alone with her mother. They were sitting on the opposite sides of the fire and the girl was staring into the glowing embers. Both looked up when they heard the flap move.
  2384. "[Uh, hi. I wanted- I came to see if Tashi is well. Can I come in?]"
  2385. > While Kantuta didn't particularly trust Thistle, she had obviously heard the story of her daughter's daring rescue, so she slid to one side and made room in wordless invitation.
  2386. > Thistle sat herself on her haunches and looked at the girl, who was staring back blankly.
  2387. "[Hey.]"
  2388. > After a moment Tashi blinked and shrugged a little to herself. "[What do you want?]" Her voice was guarded and the question was sharper than it could have been. It made Thistle's ears splay.
  2389. "[N-Nothing. I came to see if you are well.]"
  2390. > "[I'm not-]" Tashi began, her hands going to her midriff, but Kantuta straightened up and her daughter cringed in sudden fear.
  2391. > Their eyes met for a moment, then Tashi went back to staring at the fire and her mother answered in her name: "[She is fine.]"
  2392. > "[Mother-]" Tashi said pleadingly, but Kantuta raised a hand and the girl flinched and fell silent.
  2393. > "[She is fine! She is slightly bruised, but nothing is broken,]" she insisted. Her eyes went back to her daughter and she addressed her: "[You may rest tomorrow, but after that you will work again. We will go and look for roots, that is not too hard.]"
  2394. > Thistle was gobsmacked at this attitude and closed her gaping muzzle with a click.
  2395. "[But- But she was- she's been-]" she couldn't bring herself to say it. "[You can't just dismiss it like that! She needs time! She needs to talk to someone!]
  2396. > The girl cast her a dark glare with a strange mixture of hope and loathing, which effectively shut up the mare. On her other side, Kantuta seemed unperturbed.
  2397. > "[Nothing was broken!]" she announced again in a tone that would broke no argument. "[Where they beat you, you will heal. You will forget. We don't have room for another Neha!]"
  2398. "[Who is Neha?]"
  2399. > Neither of the nomads seemed obliged to answer them, Tashi lost in her own little world of misery and Kantuta stern and foreboding, not even considering any compromise.
  2400. > Thistle didn't have the necessary words, but she tried to explain anyway:
  2401. "[You can't be serious, Kantuta! You can't just tell Tashi to forget about- about what's happened! She is- she will be hurt, in here!]"
  2402. > She pressed her hoof to her barrel at those words, trying to convey a sense of emotional trauma.
  2403. > The woman gave her a thoughtful look, then pressed her lips together into a thin, displeased line, and faced the girl once more. "[Is this true? Are you hurt- inside?]"
  2404. > Tashi gave her a look which reminded Thistle of nothing so much as a bunny, frozen in terror as a nomad was coming to club it to death. Tashi opened her mouth, but could barely stammer out a reply: "[I d-d-dunno, Mother. They- The Ruslans, they used me. I don't know how- how many men...]"
  2405. > "[Bah. That is nothing!]" Kantuta dismissed the plea with a wave of her hand. "[You're not special, girl. Do you think you are the first who was fucked against her will? It happens. You bear it and go on. Life goes on. You won't be any less hungry for it and the work will not do itself.]"
  2406. > Her attitude sounded completely impossible to Thistle and she couldn't even formulate a reply to that. Tashi beat her to it and placed both hands on her belly: "[What if- what if I'm with child?]"
  2407. > "[Were you bleeding before they took you?]"
  2408. > Tashi mutely shook her head.
  2409. > "[Then you most likely aren't. If you are, your father will beat it out of you and that will be that. You will heal. We will not be raising a bastard Ruslan in this tent.]"
  2410. > It was too much. Thistle couldn't prevent a small squeak from escaping her at the brutal command and she hastily excused herself and left.
  2411. > Once outside, she stood stock still for a few minutes while she tried to get her legs to stop trembling. She heard Kantuta's voice raised behind her, but Thistle purposefully folded her ears down so she couldn't understand the words. She also heard Tashi sniffling again, and replying in a low, pleading voice.
  2412. > The nomads were crazy, or maybe it was just Kantuta.
  2413. > Thistle didn't know where to go or what to do. A part of her wanted to seek out Darga and tell her about the encounter. Maybe the chieftain would be on her side. More worryingly, she might be firmly on Kantuta's side. Her drivel about forgetting and moving past such a traumatic experience sounded very much like something Darga herself would embrace.
  2414. > Maybe she could get some sympathy and help from Salki and Saule, but the two youngsters wouldn't have any significant influence over how Kantuta treated her own family.
  2415. > Thistle would still try. She couldn't do nothing and let the poor girl suffer. She should go back in the tent right now, if for no other reason than to give her support against her overbearing mother.
  2416. > Except the mare couldn't make herself go back in there. Thinking of what Tashi had suffered was bad enough, but seeing how it was being casually dismissed by her own mother was too much.
  2417. > The mare felt filthy for having seen that and she decided to go wash. She still stank of stale sweat, besides, so she needed a bath anyway. It was dark outside, though, and things may lurk beyond the ring of fire light.
  2418. > Thistle decided to find Saule and get her to come. She would explain what had happened and enlist the nomad's help. Surely her newfound fame at her daring capture of a dangerous enemy hunter would help, no?
  2419. > If nothing else, Saule would bring her bow, which would make Thistle feel safer.
  2420. > She really needed to wash. It gave her something to focus upon, a definitive, achievable goal.
  2421. > She would help poor little Tashi after she was clean.
  2423. > ~~~~
  2425. > Thistle woke up late in the morning the following day. The tent was empty, but she thought she remembered snatches of incoherent lucidity as Darga and Salki moved around. They hadn't woken her up and she was grateful.
  2426. > She lay on her cot, wrapped up in the warmth of her animal fur blanket, for a while, thinking about what to do. She wanted to help Tashi and Saule had agreed with her the previous night. If they could get Salki on their side that might be enough to convince Kantuta and get the girl some help.
  2427. > There was also their captive and Thistle, with a pang of guilt, remembered that she hadn't even asked what they were going to do with him. Presumably they would question him and if the boy was smart, he would tell what he knew. Once that was over, maybe they could let him go.
  2428. > After all, they had gotten Tashi back, even if she had been beaten and mistreated.
  2429. > Her mind was starting to race and Thistle disentangled herself from the blanket. Her joints were a bit stiff and she felt her muscles ache after the exertion of the past few days, but a quick shake got her circulation going and she felt able to leave the tent and face the world.
  2430. > She thought about breakfast for a moment, but decided to check in on Tashi first. She took the longer way, which took her past Xuan's tent, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. That was a disappointment, since Thistle had been hoping to at least see her friend and her daughter.
  2431. > She swished her tail in annoyance as she tried to decide whether to wait a little for them. The fire was burning and the tent flap was wide open, so Xuan likely wasn't too far. Thistle approached the tent and peered inside, but it was empty.
  2432. > Perhaps, she guessed, Xuan had taken Guuni for a walk?
  2433. "[Later,]" Thistle murmured to herself.
  2434. > She turned and continued on her way, but her tail flicked a few more times as she walked. It had been too long since she had checked on her friends. She'd been too wrapped up with the aftermath of the Ruslan attack and the rescue.
  2435. > No matter, Thistle angled herself toward the edge of the camp and weaved her way between mostly deserted tents. A quick glance showed that the sun was nearly halfway up the sky. She really had slept too long, Thistle silently chastised herself. Her ears wilted and her head lowered in self-deprecation.
  2436. > Who knows what could have happened while she was sleeping, unaware!
  2437. > A few nomads were about, but they looked busy and hurried to their work, so Thistle didn't bother them. Here and there she saw one of the older men sitting in the sun and knapping stone, or a woman tending the fire, or stirring something with a piece of wood.
  2438. > Life, it seemed, was proceeding quite normally. In a way that was a relief. It gave the world at least an illusion of stability.
  2439. > Thistle exchanged the occasional friendly nod, or a word of greeting, but she hurried to her destination in as short a path as she could. Hopefully, Tashi would be in the tent, and with a bit of luck, Kantuta would be out, doing chores.
  2440. > From a distance, the place looked deserted. Thistle decided it was a good sign. She approached the tent and gently placed an ear against the leather tarp. Nothing.
  2441. > She walked around to the flap, conscious of how loud her hooves rang on the packed mud. There was no way they hadn't heard her, if anyone was inside. It was as good as a knock, she decided and simply pushed her head inside.
  2442. > Luck! Tashi was alone!
  2443. > The poor girl was sitting on her cot, with her arms hugging her legs and her face pressed against her knees. She didn't seem to be crying, but it wasn't a happy pose.
  2444. "[Um. Hey.]"
  2445. > Tashi jerked in surprise and looked up with wide, fearful eyes. She recognized the mare and her shoulders slumped. She didn't reply.
  2446. > Thistle briefly considered asking permission, but then decided the situation warranted a bit of presumption. She slipped completely inside and came to sit in front of the nomad girl. Tashi watched her in silence, not greeting her, but also not cringing away.
  2447. "[How are you?]"
  2448. > For an instant it seemed as if Tashi would just clam up. Her eyes went back to her knees and she began to lower her head, but then she changed her mind and drew in a deep breath.
  2449. > "[They said I will have to work today,]" she answered in a quiet whisper that even Thistle's pony ears could barely pick up. "[Grandmother came to see me. She-]"
  2450. > Her eyes unfocused and Tashi sook her head. "[She said I am fine. Nothing is broken, or- or-]"
  2451. > She fell silent and Thistle waited patiently for her to speak again. It looked like Tashi was getting lost in her own thoughts again, so the mare reached out and laid a careful hoof on her shin.
  2452. "[Or?]"
  2453. > "[Nothing is torn,]" Tashi finished. Her hand went to her belly and she swallowed. "[She- Grandmother- She checked.]"
  2454. > Tashi's haunted look was making Thistle fold her ears down in sympathy.
  2455. "[Checked?]"
  2456. > The girl shook her head and grunted. "[She felt. With her hand. It hurt, but she said I'm fine. She said I can work today.]"
  2457. "Sweet Celestia, some of these people," Thistle grumbled under he breath.
  2458. > It was too loud and Tashi looked at her with curiosity. "[What is that language?]"
  2459. > At least it was a distraction, so Thistle didn't feel too bad about her outburst.
  2460. "[It is the pony language. From Equestria.]"
  2461. > "[Will you teach me? It-]" her words failed her and Tashi drew a shuddering breath. She was fighting sobs as she finished: "[It sounds g-gentle...]"
  2462. "[Of course I will teach you.]"
  2463. > Tashi flashed her a momentary smile through her tears and asked: "[What did you say just now?]"
  2464. > A language lesson hadn't been how Thistle had thought the chat would go, but it was focusing Tashi's attention away from her situation and her awful parents, so Thistle slid down to her side, into a more comfortable position. The girl hadn't really moved, but her grip on her legs was perhaps a tad less tight.
  2465. "[I said- hmm, it was like a...]" she began, but couldn't quite explain. "[Look, do nomads sometimes, maybe when they are said, whisper to people who- who are not there?]"
  2466. > All she got was a quizzical look, so Thistle tried another angle.
  2467. "[Like- maybe someone you love is dead, but you talk to them. They do not answer, but you feel a little better. Like a- a-]"
  2468. > Tashi interrutpted her: "Khues-shivneh?"
  2469. > It was a new word, but Thistle thought she recognized the root of it.
  2470. "[Whisper? Whispering?]"
  2471. > Tashi nodded with more animation that the mare had seen that entire morning. "[Yes, a kind of whisper. It is when you whisper for something and maybe someone is listening. Someone dead. A friend.]"
  2472. > It sounded close enough and Thistle repeated the word to herself. It was probably the nearest she would get to 'prayer' in the nomad language, since they didn't really have religious beliefs.
  2473. "[Yes, I said something almost like a prayer. I called for our- um, pony chieftain and asked her to watch over us.]"
  2474. > It was a lie, but Thistle didn't want to tell the truth of what she'd murmured. Tashi didn't need more negativity right at the moment. A language lesson could be a useful diversion, especially with how interested the girl looked.
  2475. "[Do you want to learn more words?]"
  2476. > Tashi gave a nod, but then froze and lowered her head to her knees. "[I can't. Mother said I have to go gather wood for the fire. She said I am not hurt enough for that.]"
  2477. > The mare didn't even have to think and she placed a hoof right back over Tashi's bare foot.
  2478. "[How if I go with you? We can go get wood together and I will help you carry. I will tell you words from pony language, okay?]"
  2479. > Tashi looked almost happy at the suggestion, but frowned when she thought of a potential problem: "[Won't Darga be angry? You have your own chores. You are still her slave, no?]"
  2480. > Smiling, Thistle was suddenly glad that she'd overslept. They hadn't given her any instructions that morning, so she technically didn't have any jobs to do.
  2481. "[No, it will be okay. I will help you. Salki and Darga will understand. Can you walk?]"
  2482. > It had been only a day ago, Thistle remembered, when Tashi was so weak she had to be carried home.
  2483. > As if to answer her, the girl climbed carefully to her feet. "[I can walk. It- Things hurt, but I can walk. Mother said I will work, or she will beat me so hard I won't have to worry about being with child.]"
  2484. > Another threat instead of concern and care from her very parent, Thistle thought. It made her want to growl, but she carefully controlled both her voice and her expression. She would really have to get Salki and possibly also Darga on her side in this matter!
  2485. "[Are you- um, sorry, I shouldn't ask-]"
  2486. > Tashi stared fiercely at her feet and her hands went automatically to her belly. "[I don- don't know,]" she said haltingly. "[I h-hope not. I will not know until some weeks, when I will bleed. If I do not bleed, then-]"
  2487. > A sob wrenched itself from her throat and Thistle pressed her flank against Tashi's calf. She'd chosen the wrong side and the nearly forgotten cut on her side flared up with fresh pain, but the mare grit her teeth and bore it.
  2488. "[It's okay. Maybe it didn't- maybe you aren't, no? You weren't in rut?]"
  2489. > Tashi's hissed intake made the mare look up and saw the girl's eyes flash dangerously. "[What did you just say?!]"
  2490. > Thistle didn't understand her sudden anger. She'd heard the word from some of the nomads while tending to the donkeys, but she may had misunderstood it.
  2491. "[I'm sorry! I maybe used wrong word. Rut, like the donkeys, when they, when they make more donkeys!]"
  2492. > Luckily Tashi seemed to be calming down. She reached her hand to Thistle's mane and scratched. "[You didn't know. It's okay. People don't go into rut, Thistle. We have blood every four weeks. Only animals have rut one time every year.]"
  2493. > That accidentally lumped the mare together with what nomads considered beasts, but Thistle ignored the jab, since it was almost certainly unintentional, and gave Tashi a nod.
  2494. "[I apologize, I did not know. I did not know about bleeding. It happens every four weeks? You can get with baby every time this happens?]"
  2495. > Again Tashi put her hands on her belly as she nodded. "[It is what Grandmother says. When a woman bleeds from down there- that week before she will get with baby if she is with a man.]"
  2496. "[I- see.]"
  2497. > The concept horrified Thistle. It sounded like nomad women basically went into heat every single month, and the mere thought made her shudder. Her own time was approaching, now that she thought about it, and the mare *was not* looking forward to that.
  2498. "[When did you, um, last time?]"
  2499. > Tashi let her breath out. "[I think- two weeks. I- I forgot.]"
  2500. "[Then that means...]"
  2501. > "[I am probably not with child.]"
  2502. "[I hope so too. I will teach you how a pony would pray. We can say it together, okay?]"
  2503. > Tashi's smile was back, even if it was faint. "[I would like that.]"
  2504. > She didn't wait for the mare to move and left the tent. For a few moments she stood still, while her eyes adjusted to the brightness, then Tashi stood aside and let Thistle exit the tent too.
  2505. > The camp was still quite deserted as the two headed off together.
  2507. > ~~~~
  2509. > Thistle heard the hushed conversation in the tent, but walked in anyway. The two occupants looked at her, Salki with curiosity, his mother with an annoyed pout to her lips.
  2510. > Before she could even ask what was happening, the chieftain blurted out her question: "[Did you know about this? Did the Ruslan boy say anything on the way back?]"
  2511. "[Say what? Know what?]"
  2512. > Rather than explain herself, Darga simply motioned to her son, who turned to Thistle with wide, fascinated eyes. "[Remember the night the Ruslans attacked us? Some hunters went after them, but they said the Ruslans rode on large beasts. On horses.]"
  2513. "[Oh. No, he didn't say anything on the way back. He was quiet.]"
  2514. > "[We know how they did this,]" Darga suddenly exclaimed and her lips parted with her sudden eagerness. "[This is useful. We have to do it, too. They don't have the bow, this is good. They don't know how it works.]"
  2515. > Some thought occurred to the woman and her face suddenly darkened and she pointed a trembling finger at Salki. "[They must not find out! Thistle is not to go out of the camp by herself any more.]"
  2516. > Salki shook his head. "[No, Mother. They don't know Thistle gave us the bow. The boy was surprised to hear she can even talk.]"
  2517. > "[Then they can't be allowed to find out,]" Darga concluded, slapping a fist against her palm. "[We will not send the boy back. He has seen Thistle speak.]"
  2518. > At this idea Salki seemed dubious and his fingers intertwined while he sought for a respectful way to raise the issue. "[Mother, they will come for him, like we did for Tashi. M-Maybe we should send him back. We don't want a full war.]"
  2519. > Darga just spat on the ground at this unbecoming display of cowardice. "[Bah! Let them come. We have bows and soon we will have horses. They can't fight us and they know it. That is why they attacked at night, like cowards!]"
  2520. > Even before she had finished talking Thistle was already shaking her head and she was heartened to see that Salki mirrored her gesture. War was never to be embraced, even with heinous people like the Ruslans. Too many would die in needless fighting.
  2521. "[Darga, what if we leave? You said we will leave soon, to the summer camp. We will be away from them and we don't have to fight.]"
  2522. > Once again the chieftain didn't give any indication that she'd taken Thistle's words seriously. Her gaze was on the leather side of the tent, but she was looking far into the distance.
  2523. > "[We can hold our own. We'll have more guards at night so they can't attack us again. We'll find out from the boy how they are able to ride horses,]"
  2524. > Salki heaved a sigh. "[I wish we hadn't slaughtered those two from the foreigners.]"
  2525. > His statements made Darga look up sharply and focus on her son. "[What? What two? What foreigners?]"
  2526. > "[Hisein's slaves, the girl and the boy. Their parents had a strange wooden thing, pulled by horses. The animals bit and kicked, so they were slaughtered for meat. Maybe we should have tried harder.]"
  2527. > Even without having witnessed that particular cruelty the words were enough to send a nasty shiver down Thistle's back and she had to look away from the nomads. She was reminded how close she herself and Rainy Day had come to such a gruesome fate when they were first captured. Her stomach twisted and Thistle tried to swallow a few times in an effort to keep it steady.
  2528. > Salki noticed her discomfort and put a hand on her withers. It worked and Thistle leaned into his touch and gave the boy a quick, grateful smile.
  2529. > "[We will find more,]" Darga decided. "[The boy will tell us where Ruslans got their horses and we will do the same. He will tell us how they have tamed them.]"
  2530. "[Maybe we can ask Fen Ko and Ning? Maybe their parents taught them about horses.]"
  2531. > The chieftain snapped her fingers and pointed at the mare. "[Good thinking,]" she said, finally acknowledging that Thistle had spoken. "[Go and talk to Hisein, and then see what his slaves know.]"
  2532. > Thistle gave one nod and began to rise, but Darga leaned over the central fire pit and simply nudged the mare's muzzle to unbalance her and push her back down to her haunches. "[Wait, I am not done yet,]" the woman said sternly.
  2533. > Her voice had a disapproving tone and such authority that Thistle's ears automatically folded down, as if she had been scolded.
  2534. > Darga continued: "[Salki, you will go and find Willow. Tell him he is not to repeat anything the boy has said, and that no one is to talk with him unless I say so. Most importantly, he should not learn about bread, or about bows, understand?]"
  2535. > "[Yes, mother,]"
  2536. > Darga gave an approving nod. "[When you've done that, find Buygra and, hmm, yes, Bulat. They will go East, as far as their supplies will let them. They are to look for traders and ask them about horses. The Ruslans could not have bred the animals themselves, they had to get them from somewhere. All traders come from East.]"
  2537. > Salki's hand, which was still resting on Thistle's withers, tightened around her mane as he cleared his throat. He looked at his mother's face, but then returned his gaze to the dead fire pit in the middle. "[A-Are you sure, Mother? Just two of them?]"
  2538. > The chieftain took a breath, no doubt to order him to obey, but she held it for long moments before replying. "[Maybe you are right. They are both young. Thistle, tell Hisein to go with them. You will be in charge of his slaves while he is gone. Make sure you learn everything they know about horses, understand?]"
  2539. > Her decision was so unexpected that all Thistle could do for long moments was stare in shock.
  2540. "[M-Muh- Me?!]" she finally managed in a breathless whisper.
  2541. > She stood up, this time without interference, if only to take a few steps back. Salki's hand slid off her, but the mare hardly noticed.
  2542. "[I c-can't! I can't have slaves!]"
  2543. > Darga was already shrugging in dismissal. "[They are not your slaves, you will just mind them while Hisein is gone. Unless you would rather I give them to Willow instead?]"
  2544. > The threat made Thistle flinch, as if she'd been struck a physical slap. She remembered Willow, his rage-filled face as he shouted at her during the circle hunt. She remembered how viciously he'd beaten her with his spear.
  2545. > He was no longer the top hunter and his temper was starting to fray. Thistle didn't want to imagine what he would do with the two children without the firm and reasonable presence of Hisein.
  2546. "[N-No...]"
  2547. > "[Then it's settled. You will mind them. They will be your responsibility. If they run away, or if something happens to them, you will pay their value to Hisein, understand?]"
  2548. > The mare swallowed a sudden lump. She couldn't trust her voice, so she just nodded and luckily it was sufficient for Darga.
  2549. > Owning actual slaves, even if only temporarily. What would it make her? Was she really destined to become nothing more than a brutish nomad pony?
  2550. "[Maybe, uh, maybe Salki, instead-]"
  2551. > She was interrupted and Darga's sharp, impatient tone brokered no argument: "[I said it's settled! Now off, both of you. I must speak with the shaman.]"
  2552. > Woman or not, Thistle saw how Darga had been able to gain chieftainship, and how she was keeping it. The woman would not take no for an answer and simply bullied everyone into doing what she wanted.
  2553. > There were grumbles, but so far her leadership had been successful enough so the complaints were quiet and rare.
  2554. > Thistle caught Salki's pitying eye, but neither of them dared speak as they filed out of the tent to go about their errands. He still had heart, she thought. He could still change, become wiser and kinder than his mother.
  2555. > Her Equestrian influence could help him build a better society, one that wasn't mired in cruelty and barbarism. If only he would step up and wrest the power from his old-fashioned mother, soon.
  2556. "[Salki?]"
  2557. > Her voice was quiet, so that Darga wouldn't hear it inside the tent. Despite the thick fabric between them, Thistle still hurried away, pausing only to make sure the young man was following.
  2558. > "[What?]" he asked when he'd caught up to her.
  2559. "[I should teach you the pony language again. We stopped when you began training, but I think we should continue.]"
  2560. > The nomad just shrugged a little, not convinced.
  2561. "[You have to learn the- the-]"
  2562. > She hadn't come up with good nomad words for writing and reading, so she used what Salki had once called them.
  2563. "[The speak-signs. They are really useful, you must believe me!]"
  2564. > Salki held both hands up, palms toward her in a gesture of submission. "[I believe you. It's just that I didn't have any time. Mother says I have to be a better hunter than Willow, so I have been practicing the bow.]"
  2565. > Thistle inclined her head in deference to this bit of wisdom, even if it came from the unlikable Darga. Above all things, Willow should not become chieftain. The mare was sure his mother would be the actual power, ruling from behind her son, but the idiot was stupid enough to start a major war with the Ruslans, or send the hunters into reckless danger on a whim.
  2566. > Not to mention that he would make life infinitely worse for Thistle herself, and possibly for Hisein's slaves, too. Right now Willow was almost tolerable on a good day, but power and ego would undoubtedly go to his head.
  2567. "[I will teach you,]" she repeated.
  2568. > The boy just sighed. He didn't agree, but he also didn't outright say no, which Thistle took as a good sign. She was about to walk off, but remembered why she had sought him out in the first place.
  2569. "[Oh- we must do something about Tashi. Her mother is sending her to work and threatening to beat her if she is with child.]"
  2570. > Salki looked uncomfortable at the topic and wouldn't meet her gaze. "[I don't know.]"
  2571. "[We should do something. It isn't right. It's hurting her.]"
  2572. > "[Kantuta said she was fine. Nothing was broken.]"
  2573. > The stubborn insistence she kept hearing all around her made Thistle growl in exasperation.
  2574. "[Idiot!]" she swore. "[Not hurt her body! Stupid! She is hurt here- in here!]"
  2575. > The mare sat on the ground and thumped her barrel with her hoof.
  2576. "[She hurts because what they did to her! It is a different wound, a different pain! It is like being sad, but a dozen times worse! A dozen-dozen times worse! She needs help. She needs people who are kind to her!]"
  2577. > The boy still looked unsure. "[I don't know,]" he repeated. "[Mother says we shouldn't interfere. It is Kantuta's family, she will deal with it.]"
  2578. > It was nothing more than a cop-out. Salki wasn't good at dealing with emotion of any sort and he just wanted to avoid the whole problem by hiding behind his mother's idiot policies.
  2579. "[Fuck your mother, and fuck Kantuta!]"
  2580. > As soon as it was out Thistle felt bad about saying it. Despite it all, despite their disagreements and the way Darga sometimes treated her son, she was still his mother. Salki grew pale at the swear and took a step away.
  2581. "[I'm sorry.]"
  2582. > He didn't acknowledge her apology. "[I- I'll go find Buygra and Bulat, like Mother said.]"
  2583. > Thistle closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath. The mention of Buygra gave her an idea.
  2584. > She would do what Darga had commanded and seek out Hisein. It was one thing to avoid the woman so she couldn't give her chores, but another to blatantly disobey her. Thistle had a lot of autonomy in the camp, but at the end of the day she was still Darga's property.
  2585. > She would find Hisein and deliver the message, but then she would go and look for Xuan. A new mother would understand that a child who has been hurt needs support and understanding, not beatings.
  2586. > Xuan would side with her and help Tashi. With her, and with Saule by her side, Kantuta would have to take them seriously, even if Salki wouldn't.
  2587. > Thistle got to her hooves and went to search for Hisein and his two slaves.
  2589. > ~~~~
  2591. > Thistle sat on a dry patch of ground next to Hisein's tent and watched the two children before her. She didn't know what to say and her ears were splayed out uncertainly as a result.
  2592. > Fen Ko and Ning sat opposite her and stared with undisguised curiosity. They were aware of her, and knew that she could speak, of course, but they hadn't interacted all that much in the past.
  2593. > Th