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[WIP] Barbarians, part 3 (SPG)

By awf
Created: 2024-02-08 20:32:30
Updated: 2024-07-04 20:00:29
Expiry: Never

  1.  
  2. > The ride through a dark forest was tense and unnerving. They weren't going as fast as that mad gallop through the pasture, but Thistle was still in a precarious position and in danger of falling off. Not to mention that being unable to see more than a few paces around them made the trip more frightening than it should have been.
  3. > She took comfort in the steady breathing of the mare which carried them, and in Hisein's strong hand on her back. Even without a saddle, the nomad was completely stable as he guided their mount between sparse trees, and he wouldn't let her fall.
  4. > Thistle didn't know how Hisein knew the way, since neither of them had been in this part of the forest before, but he never hesitated and only stopped when he waited for the other horse to catch up to them.
  5. > Every now and then they all halted to exchange a few murmured words. Each time, Hisein asked the other two nomads about their pursuers, and Salki always assured him they had fallen far behind.
  6. > "[I think we got away,]" Hisein finally concluded, "[but we must leave this land quickly. They may come after us.]"
  7. > "[They will not catch us,]" Salki said with youthful bravado.
  8. > Thistle wanted to agree, but when Hisein didn't respond, she glanced up, trying to see his face in the night's gloom.
  9. "[We can outrun pursuit, right Hisein?]" she asked.
  10. > His hand patted her back a few times and then slid up to her neck, where the hunter twined his fingers into her mane. "[Perhaps. We must try. We cannot fight this many.]"
  11. > Hearing that the old, experienced hunter wasn't fully certain was like an icy shower and it made her heart beat faster with worry. Of course, they had a few donkeys who would not be able to move very fast, not with all the gear they would carry. More than that, they had Janus and his hand-pulled cart.
  12. "[Janus?]"
  13. > "[Partly. Let's keep going, we are close to Bulat and Temir.]" With that, Hisein expertly dug only one of his heels into the mare's flank, and she obediently turned. When she was facing the right way, although Thistle couldn't recognize any sign that it was so, the nomad ordered: "[Yah!]" and the animal began to walk.
  14. > Only when they were on the way did Thistle voice her idea.
  15. "[What if we make Janus' cart so I could pull it? I am stronger than he is.]"
  16. > There was silence for long moments as Hisein thought about this proposal. At last, he asked: "[What about the things you will carry?]"
  17. > She didn't know, and her ears wilted. The nomad must have seen this, because his hand came back to rest on her withers.
  18. > They rode in silence, except for both horses' hoofsteps. Thistle craned her neck to look at the sky. She couldn't be sure, not with her eyes, but she thought there were fewer stars visible. Perhaps it would be daylight, soon.
  19. > Their slow creep to the villagers' stable already felt like a lifetime away. The anger which had propelled her was gone, replaced by cold fear. There was no doubt they would all be killed if the villagers caught up to them. The nomads would have to fight. She would have no choice but to join them.
  20. > There had to be a way! She thought furiously for a solution.
  21. "[The tents!]" she spoke up and jerked upright, nearly unbalancing herself.
  22. > Hisein reacted quickly and shifted his grip to her rump, to keep the mare in place. "[Stay still!]" he ordered her.
  23. > For a moment Thistle flattened her ears in shame, but they sprang up immediately after, as she rushed to tell him her idea.
  24. "[Leave the tents! We can keep the leather and sticks for two tents and make from them a big tent. We will only need it in the mountains, the rest of the way is warm enough. We can sleep outside!]"
  25. > She didn't expect the methodical, thoughtful man to respond immediately, so she hurried on with her explanation.
  26. "[If we don't bring all the tents, I will not have a load on my back. I can pull Janus' cart! Surely he can make a harness quickly enough!]"
  27. > "[We will see,]" Hisein finally replied.
  28. "[It will work! I will pull the cart. We have four horses. Temir and Bulat are light, they can ride the gelding. Zaur and Salki can take the stallion. You and Janus can ride a mare each.]"
  29. > His hand patted the side of her barrel. "[And you? You will run the whole way, pulling a heavy cart?]"
  30. > Thistle experimentally flexed her legs. She had come far from the fat and lazy bureaucrat. She remembered that escape attempt with Rainy Day, when she had pushed her feeble limbs far beyond what they could handle, until her legs had turned to water.
  31. > She was no longer that filly. She had become stronger. Her hoof went to her foreleg and she felt the hard muscle and sinew underneath.
  32. > The mare gave Hisein a firm nod.
  33. "[I can. We will not run the whole way, only until we are out of this land. When we start climbing the mountain, we can slow and let the horses rest. I will rest then, too.]"
  34. > Wordlessly, Hisein pressed his fingers into her coat. From him, that was worth more than praise from the others, and some of the icy dread which suffused her veins melted away. Thistle even managed a tentative smile, as she turned her muzzle into the light breeze.
  35. > They weren't going fast enough to have her mane stream in the wind, and it wasn't long enough for that in any case, but she could feel the air moving through the fur on her face.
  36.  
  37. > ~~~~
  38.  
  39. > Thistle's plan had quickly been explained, and the nomads agreed to put it into action. Zaur, the best among them with needle and thread, was ripping apart one of the tents and fashioning it into loops of leather, as Janus had instructed. Temir had followed the blacksmith into the forest to find a couple of long, willowy branches to serve as shafts. In the meantime, Salki and Hisein were going through their possessions to decide what to leave behind.
  40. > There was little for Thistle to do, so she went to help Bulat with their remaining donkeys. He was untying their burdens so they could re-arrange the load after the other two had picked what was necessary and what could be left behind.
  41. > "[Leave it,]" Thistle's sensitive ears caught Hisein speak. "[We will hunt for what we need. Only bring enough until the mountain.]"
  42. > She didn't hear Salki's response, but when she glanced back she saw the young man emptying one of the leather sacks into a nearby bush. Doubtless some small, hungry animal would have a very lucky day, soon after they'd left.
  43. > Thistle smiled to herself at the thought and focused again on the work she was doing with Bulat. He'd already unloaded two of their five remaining beasts, and he was about to untie the ropes from a third.
  44. "[Wait. Those two, that is Hisein's tent and someone else's?]"
  45. > She pointed with a hoof and the nomad followed her gaze. "[Yes, Hisein's and Temir's.]"
  46. "[Where is your tent?]"
  47. > Bulat glanced around, and patted a pile of cloth on the ground. "[Here.]"
  48. "[Okay. Leave Hisein's donkey. It has the weapons and his tent, we will need all of that. I will unload this one when you have loosened the knots, and you can go to the last one.]"
  49. > The nomad gave her a single nod and went back to untying the ropes which fastened the bundles to the animal's back. He was soon done, and Thistle, although having to stand awkwardly on two legs, began tossing the sacks and bundles from its back.
  50. > Luckily by now the animals were used to her, and no longer reacted with fear when she did things like this and acted how normally only a nomad would.
  51. > She was soon done, and went to pick up Bulat's tent. She hoisted it up with her teeth and slung it across the donkey's back. The animal danced a few steps at the sudden load, but Thistle clicked her tongue and the beast stilled.
  52. > The mare had to walk around and bump the package from that side to center it a little better, then she looked around for other cargo.
  53. > Salki was walking to her, his hands full of various items, which he dropped near her.
  54. "[Good. Tie that on. I will bring you the other things. We are taking Hisein and Bulat's tents, they are the biggest.]"
  55. > The young man grunted something affirmative, then bent down to pass a strap under the donkey's belly. Soon the tent was secured, and Thistle lifted another bundle for the nomad. It wasn't difficult work, and very soon the animal was properly loaded, with all the cargo securely tied with ropes.
  56. > Next to them, Bulat and Hisein were doing the same with one of the other beasts.
  57. "[What else?]"
  58. > Salki pointed with his finger. "[That pile of stuff.]"
  59. > Despite his choice of words, there wasn't very much of it, and Thistle thought they might be able to move a few items from the already-loaded donkeys to the remaining two, so as to make all their burdens slightly lighter. That would enable them to move faster.
  60. "[Come on, let's get it done. Janus and Temir should be back soon, and I should go see if Zaur has made the harness.]"
  61. > As they walked over to the gear they'd decided to bring, Salki asked in a quiet voice: "[If we sleep in the same tent, we will not be able to-]"
  62. > For an instant Thistle's ears flicked down, and a blush threatened to take up residence on her muzzle, but she shook her head and managed to avoid it, even if it was a close thing.
  63. "[No, I guess not. We don't have a choice, the villagers will be looking for us. They saw who took their animals. You and Hisein shot some of them with a bow! They will come, and we must escape. We must move fast.]"
  64. > The young nomad heaved a sad sigh. "[We haven't- not since we came to this village.]"
  65. "[I know,]" the mare said, her tail flicking as she, too, felt the need. "[We will, when we are back.]"
  66. > At that, Salki patted her mane. They bent down to pick up the gear, but Zaur called for her.
  67. "[I think he is ready. I will go.]"
  68. > "[Yes.]"
  69.  
  70. > ~~~~
  71.  
  72. > Thistle was trying very hard to sleep in the open air with three snoring humans nearby. She had gotten used to Salki's, and she thought she could eventually fall asleep despite Janus, but adding in Hisein made it almost impossible.
  73. > On top of that, each time she nearly fell asleep, a gust of wind, or a hoot of an owl in the forest, would bring her back to full wakefulness. If was not that, it was one of the nomads getting up to go and relieve himself, or going to take the next watch, which also meant that someone would be returning very soon.
  74. > She was tired enough, and needed the rest, there could be no doubt. Thistle felt the matted and sticky fur around her barrel and down her legs, where rivulets of sweat had run during the brisk pace Hisein had set away from the foreign village. Both she and the horses had worked hard, and it promised to be no easier the next day.
  75. > That, combined with a sleepless night before, should have been enough, no matter the snoring, or the noises of the forest.
  76. > The final nail in her coffin was the worry. More than once that night Hisein had slipped from his horse and fallen back to check on possible pursuit. Each time he came running back, his face dark and worried. He conferred quietly with Salki, but neither of them had gone to tell Thistle what was happening.
  77. > She understood the news wasn't good, because after each such discussion, Salki kept glancing back behind them for a long while.
  78. > They couldn't move any faster, she had been pretty clear on that when the two nomads had asked her. Not without leaving behind the blacksmith's tools she was lugging, and not without risking the horses. Those were the two most important things the group had, so her warnings had been heeded.
  79. > She wondered now, in the dark, if perhaps it might have been better to go just that slight bit faster and further.
  80. > Surely their pursuers had to rest, too, hadn't they?
  81. > The mare groaned in dismay and flopped to her other side. The blanket with which she had half-heartedly covered herself slipped down until it was barely covering her hips, but the night was warm and Thistle didn't care enough to pull it back.
  82. > She shut her eyes tightly and tried to clear her thoughts. Once, a lifetime ago, some of her friends had taken her to try that new Neighponese fad, yoga. She hadn't liked it, but she recalled there was an element of getting your mind to stillness. Or perhaps she was getting it wrong and it was meditation she was thinking of.
  83. > It was no use. She heard footsteps approaching and lifted herself into a sitting position. One of the nomads was coming from the watch, which would mean another session of waking someone else up, shuffling in and out of sleeping cots, and the new watcher stomping off.
  84. > She might as well listen to their exchange and perhaps get some reassurance that all was well in the night.
  85. > It was Temir, and she recognized him mostly by scent when he came closer. To her eyes, he was little more than a darker shadow against the faint, blurry stars. She tracked him with her ears as he went to Hisein, and heard the slight rustle of animal furs as the older hunter was shaken by his shoulder.
  86. > He woke instantly, without the slightest sound. Temir must have seen Hisein's eyes open, because he began whispering immediately.
  87. > It was just slightly too low for Thistle to understand, so she shrugged her blanket off and walked over to them.
  88. > "[... went the other way, but maybe they'll come back. Bulat will stay near and send Zaur to warn us, but maybe-]"
  89. > Her heart began to beat faster, and before Thistle could ask the youth to repeat himself, Hisein lifted himself up and interrupted: "[Wake everyone. We have to go.]"
  90. "[Why? Are they coming this way?]"
  91. > She kept her voice to a whisper in a subconscious attempt not to wake the others, despite Hisein's words to the contrary.
  92. > Temir repeated his message: "[They are near. I don't know if they know where we are, but what else could it be? They just missed our camp, it looks like they're going too much to the south.]"
  93. > "[They plan to circle us while we sleep and wait for us on the path.]"
  94. > "[How? If they knew where we are, why not attack us at night?]"
  95. > Hisein shook his head as he began rolling up his sleeping mat. "[They don't know where we are, but they know we will take the road. We can't move as fast with horses in the forest. Some of them are going ahead. The road curves south, remember?]"
  96. > He fell silent for a while, deep in thought, or perhaps recollection, then continued: "[They will find the road again in the south and wait there. The others will follow our trail. They must know they are getting closer.]"
  97. "[They are getting closer?!]"
  98. > Thistle had expected as much, but having it confirmed still clenched her gut in a grip of sudden fear.
  99. "[How can they be so fast?]"
  100. > Rather than answer her, Hisein turned to Temir. "[What did you see? Tell me,]" he ordered.
  101. > "[Some men, walking in the dark. They have long metal blades, but no fire. The moon was enough, as it was for us.]"
  102. > "[Horses?]"
  103. > "[No,]" Temir replied, shaking his head.
  104. "[What does that mean?]" Thistle asked.
  105. > Hisein leaned down to run his fingers through her mane. It was far more comforting of a gesture than it had any right to be, and for a moment Thistle closed her eyes and simply enjoyed the warmth of his touch.
  106. > "[They left the horses with the other group. They will go ahead and wait in ambush by the road somewhere. The rest will keep following us. We are slow in the forest, and they faster. They do not ride double, remember? If we take to the road, the first group will attack us with bows. It is what I would do.]"
  107. > It sounded hopeless, and Thistle's ears wilted in the dark.
  108. "[What do we do?]"
  109. > The hunter was silent for a few more moments, then bent down to pick up his cot. "[We show them who they are messing with!]"
  110. > "[Attack?!]" Temir exclaimed, his voice at the same time eager and frightened. The thought also occurred to Thistle, and she swallowed a painful lump even as her tail tried to creep further between her legs.
  111. > "[Almost, but no,]" Hisein said. "[There is a river a hands-width away. I remember the road crossed a wide, shallow bed. It must get deeper to the north-east. We will go there.]"
  112. "[Will crossing the river throw off the pursuit?]"
  113. > Both Temir and Hisein chuckled at her question, and the older nomad went to pat her mane again. "[No, they are not as stupid as that. Which is why we will wade in the middle of the river, and we will go back to the south-west.]"
  114. "[What? Why back?]"
  115. > At the same time, Temir pointed out: "[What about Janus' cart? It will sink in the river. We will not get it through the mud.]"
  116. > That stopped the conversation for a moment as Hisein thought. "[We will load the things on the horses, and we will walk. We only need about a thousand, maybe two thousand paces.]"
  117. "[Then what?]"
  118. > "[Then we will catch those sons of donkeys from behind.]"
  119. "[There are more of them than us!]"
  120. > Hisein gave a shrug. "[We are better at hiding. Only some of us will go, without horses. We will hit them with arrows and escape. They will be in a confusion. Maybe they will think someone else is attacking them from behind. They will believe they have two enemies.]"
  121. > It sounded doubtful, but there was a growing urgency, an eagerness behind Hisein's words and Thistle knew she wouldn't be able to convince him otherwise. She also saw Temir nodding, and the glint of his teeth in the moonlight as he smiled at whatever glorious battle he was imagining.
  122. > For a moment she considered trying to argue them out of it, but before a single word could escape her mouth she clamped it shut. She didn't want these foreigners to kill her, or Salki, or any of the others.
  123. > Despite that existential fear, she couldn't quite suppress a small flame of anger.
  124. "[This wouldn't have happened if you and Salki didn't kill some of them with your bows yesterday!]"
  125. > "[We didn't,]" Hisein said.
  126. "[What?]"
  127. > "[I told Salki to aim at their feet. We only wanted them to drop the torches. They were not wounded very badly.]"
  128. > Thistle didn't have a reply to that, so she simply snorted softly to herself and went to pick up her things. On the way, she could wake up Salki and explain what was happening. She heard the other two moving to Janus.
  129. > It would be an early start, and with luck, the next night she would be so tired and exhausted that'd she'd have no trouble sleeping, despite the snoring and the forest and the worry.
  130. > Then again, if Hisein's plan went off the way the nomad expected, perhaps the worry would be less, too.
  131.  
  132. > ~~~~
  133.  
  134. > It was down to Thistle, Janus, their remaining donkeys, and the four horses. Guided by Hisein's expertise, they'd hidden in a dense copse of trees, so at least it was shady. Unfortunately, the fact that they had waded through the river's mud, meant they all stank.
  135. > Thistle had thought she was beyond caring about such mundane matters, but a combination of pony, human, and horse stink was testing her stoicism. It didn't help when the beasts simply made dung where they stood.
  136. > They were not to move, unless their lives were threatened, those had been the instructions. The nomads had all gone with their bows to attack.
  137. > True, neither Hisein nor Salki had called it an 'attack', but that was what it was. They would sneak up behind the group of men who were chasing them down. Doubtless, according to Hisein, the enemy would split up to search the banks of the river, having easily guessed the nomads' intentions to hide their tracks.
  138. > That gave him and the hunters an opportunity to harass a smaller group of villagers.
  139. > Some people were sure to get killed, and Thistle really hoped it would be none of her friends. They were expert at this kind of thing, after all. Even so, the awareness of the inevitable conflict still left a bad taste in her mouth, but at least the villagers were the ones pursuing them.
  140. > In a small way, they deserved it, especially if Hisein had told the truth that he and Salki had only lightly wounded a couple of people that other night. They should not have chased them so hard, and so persistently, over a couple of stolen horses, not when one of theirs had tricked the nomads into buying a gelding in the first place!
  141. > No, in this situation the nomads were in the right, and if they could have evaded this senseless pursuit, they would have. Hisein and Salki would only fight because they had absolutely no other choice.
  142. > It irked Thistle that they all seemed to relish the prospect, and that even the younger three hunters had brightened up at the news. That was something she would have to work with Salki to change. Violence should be avoided whenever possible.
  143. > "You think they win? No dead, you friends?" Janus suddenly broke the silence.
  144. > The mare swished her tail, as much in annoyance at being disturbed from her thoughts, as to swat away a few pesky flies on her flank.
  145. "Yes. Hisein is our best hunter, and Salki is probably second best. They will be fine."
  146. > She wanted to go on and explain that it was the younger three she was worried about, but she couldn't bring herself to engage in another lengthy, complicated explanation.
  147. > Thistle was spared having to make up some excuse when one of the mares gave a shrill whinny and reared up. Something was wrong!
  148. > She hurried over, but the blacksmith was faster and had the horse's halter in his hand. He put himself between the mare and the other animals and spoke a word of command.
  149. > Soon he had the problematic mare backed a short distance away. Thistle followed them.
  150. "What was it?" she asked.
  151. > The little outbreak had happened when she wasn't looking, and she could draw no parallels from her experience with the donkeys. It was obvious they were quite a different kind of beast than these foreign horses.
  152. > The ironic part was that the horses' body language felt more familiar to her, even when it made no sense. Interacting with them was right in the middle of the uncanny valley.
  153. > Janus waved his hands expansively, indicating the mare and the other horses. "Mare fight mare," he said. "Maybe soon, they soon-"
  154. > He switched to his native word and it was so complex that Thistle had no chance of trying to decipher it. She wasn't sure she could even repeat it, but she tried anyway:
  155. "Sugar-verve-el?"
  156. > Her splayed ears and raised eyebrows told Janus exactly what she wanted to know. His brow furrowed as he, in turn, tried to come up with an equestrian word.
  157. > "Zugarvorvel. You know? This," he said and indicated with his hands. Thistle watched the gesture for a while as he repeated it. His thumb and first finger touched and formed a kind of circle. The third finger of his other hand was passing into the loop and out repeatedly.
  158. > Suddenly she understood and her face grew red.
  159. "Make small horse?" she ventured.
  160. > "Yes! Soon, maybe, mare want make small horse. Other mare no want. They fight." He gave an exaggerated shrug, and said: "Horse, you know?" as if that would explain everything.
  161. > That was good news for Thistle and the nomads. If one of the mares would go into estrus soon, that would mean their heard would grow quite soon. However, right at the moment it was an inconvenience. If the mares were prone to fighting under the influence of all these hormones, they would have to be handled more carefully during this, already tricky, time.
  162. > Maybe it would be simple, and all they had to do was to keep the mares a short distance apart. Thistle hoped so, but it was too hot, and too stinky, and she was too sweaty to work this out through Janus' broken equestrian just then. It could wait until the evening.
  163. > After the hunters were back, they would probably have to hurry, and the animals would be too tired to fight.
  164. > As if her thoughts had summoned them, Thistle heard the sound of hurrying footsteps, trampling through the thick forest underbrush.
  165. > Her ears perked up and swiveled, and Janus immediately realized something was up. His hand went to the mare's nose, in an effort to keep the animal calm and silent.
  166. > There were multiple people approaching, and Thistle couldn't immediately identify if they were her friends. She mentally reprimanded herself. She should have paid more attention to how the nomads' soft leather boots sounded in the forest!
  167. > She tensed up and experimentally dug her forehooves into the ground. If it was the enemy, she would only get one chance to buck, so it better go to the right place!
  168. > As the people drew nearer, her muscles tensed and her ears laid flat against her head. She crouched a little, so as to be ready to spring at a moment's notice. Behind her, she heard a soft rustle as Janus drew his knife from his belt.
  169. > She wished she had realized the danger sooner, so she and the blacksmith could have taken spears from one of the nomads' packs. It was too late now.
  170. > "[Thistle?]" came Hisein's call.
  171. > The mare nearly folded down in relief, and she hurried toward the sound.
  172. "[We're here. We're waiting!]"
  173. > His footsteps came nearer and the big nomad burst into the bushes, followed closely by Zaur, Bulat and Temir.
  174. > Her heart nearly stopped, and the sudden stammer in her voice barely allowed her to speak.
  175. "[S-S-Sal- Salki?!]"
  176. > For a moment Hisein looked at her strangely, then his face cleared. "[He is fine,]" he told her, and for the second time in as many breaths Thistle's legs nearly gave way. "[We were separated. Zaur is wounded. We have to go.]"
  177. > Only now did she notice that the younger hunter's leg was covered in bright, red blood.
  178. "[What happened? Are you okay?]"
  179. > She hurried toward him, but Hisein put his hand in her way and stopped her. "[Not now. No time. Get the blacksmith things, get the horses and ride north. Temir knows the way. Salki will meet you!]"
  180. "[And you?]"
  181. > Hisein's face grew grim. "[I will give you time and lead them the other way.]"
  182. > Without conscious control, Thistle's head began shaking in a firm no, and she threw her forelegs around his thigh.
  183. "[No! No, Hisein! There has to be a different way!]"
  184. > He put his hand on her mane for a moment, then cupped her muzzle and lifted it so she was looking at his face. His grin was confident. "[Don't worry. I am not so stupid to get killed by these donkey-sons. I will shoot arrows at them, and lead them back to the river. Then I will lose them and come find you. Salki will know where to go, we will meet there.]"
  185. > Despite the bravado in his voice, Thistle was worried sick.
  186. "[Please be fine!]"
  187. > Only now was she realizing just how much the stoic, calm nomad really meant to her. At first he had just been the hated Willow's friend, but now she saw him for who he really was. A moderating influence on a stupid boy whose mother had much political clout and who might become a chieftain someday.
  188. > Pretty much what she was trying to do with Salki.
  189. > Over the past few weeks, Thistle thought, they had become fast friends. She would need his experience and the esteem the camp showed Hisein. With his and Salki's help, they could start building a real society.
  190. > The man's grin just widened. He gave her an insolent wink, then patted her cheek and pulled his leg free of her grip. She let him go.
  191. > "[Go now!]" he said and pointed.
  192. > Zaur was already sitting on the mare, supported by Temir. He looked a little pale, and his face was drawn into a grimace of pain, but he gave the mare a smile and a nod.
  193. > On the other side, Janus had climbed onto the mare he had calmed. That just left Bulat, who was sitting on the gelding and held the stallion's lead rope in his hand.
  194. > "[Shame we do not have time to put the blacksmith things on the horse, so you could move faster,]" Hisein said. "[The ropes are too small, they will not be able to pull it. You will have to do it, Thistle.]"
  195. > She very nearly gave the man a salute, but realized in time he wouldn't understand it.
  196. "[I'll do it. You make sure you get there alive, too!]"
  197. > "[That's the plan!]"
  198. > Thistle didn't say that his last plan hadn't panned out the way they wanted, either. She raised one hoof in a wave, and then the nomad was gone, running back through the undergrowth in the direction they had come from.
  199. > Everyone was waiting on her and she still needed to get the harness on!
  200. "[Bulat, help me with the ropes!]"
  201. > The youth passed the stallion's rope to Janus, then slid down from his horse to do just that.
  202. > It had happened so quickly, and so differently from all the scenarios she had imagined, that Thistle could only stand there, shell shocked, as the nomad did his work.
  203.  
  204. > ~~~~
  205.  
  206. > There was neither sight, nor sound of any pursuit, so Temir and Bulat assured Thistle. She couldn't tell on her own, not with veritable rivers of sweat pouring into her eyes and her rattling, thumping heartbeat filling her ears.
  207. > They'd set a gruelling, relentless pace after Hisein had gone back to buy them some time. Despite her earth pony strength, and the months of work which had hardened her muscles, Thistle wasn't sure she could take much more.
  208. > More than once she peered back, shaking her head to fling sweat from her eyes, to check whether the little cart she was pulling still had wheels. It felt as if the heavy anvil was biting into the soft ground, like an anchor.
  209. > The crude harness of ropes and leather strips was digging painfully into her chest and shoulders, and droplets of blood, mingled with sweat, left traces down her forelegs.
  210. > They had been trudging through the thick underbrush for what felt like hours, although it couldn't have been more than two, judging by the position of the sun, which was beating down on her back nearly vertically.
  211. > Some of the way was in the shade, which offered brief moments of respite, but that merely rendered the heat harder to bear when they returned into the open.
  212. > Through it all, Thistle kept stubbornly placing one hoof in front of the other. It would be worse if they got caught.
  213. > Eventually, she had no more to give.
  214. "[Stop,]" she croaked.
  215. > Without waiting to see if the others would do so, the mare slowed to a halt and hung her head. Her lungs strained for all the oxygen they could get, and her tongue, fat and sticky, lolled out of her mouth.
  216. > She'd had the presence of mind to stop in the shade of a big oak tree, and the ground felt marginally cooler than the air when Thistle sat. All her limbs were twitching, sending small jolts of pain from her otherwise numb muscles.
  217. > Thistle wasn't aware of much around her, but she felt a strong hand lift her muzzle up, and fingers poke something leathery through her lips. Moments later, warm, stale water splashed onto her tongue and she nearly inhaled the first mouthful.
  218. > Swallowing was a reflex, painful with her raw throat, but necessary to preserve her life. The second mouthful was easier.
  219. > Someone was talking, in a language she thought she understood. Thistle forced her eyes up and sought out Temir's face. "[...die on us!]" he was saying. "[Fuck, you should have said sooner!]"
  220. > He was scolding her, and Thistle's ears splayed out of sheer reflex. She let them, too busy concentrating on the life-giving water she was gulping down. Her muscles and tendons felt tight, and both her hind legs were starting to cramp. Thistle tried to relax them.
  221. > She concentrated on her midriff and imagined a plane across it, like the surface of water. It was cool and soothing as it moved down. One of her legs spasmed and kicked out, which tossed her hindquarters to one side, but Thistle kept herself upright on her forelegs. She pulled away from the water skin for a moment to breathe.
  222. > Something warm tricked down her thigh, and she looked, half expecting to see a rivulet of blood from where the harness had broken her skin.
  223. > It was yellow. She hadn't really felt her bladder loosen, and once she saw it wasn't life-threatening she ignored it and clamped her mouth on the little leather spout again.
  224. > "[Wait, I will get another bag,]" Temir said. The sack in his hands was limp and nearly empty, but despite that Thistle sucked down a few more mouthfuls.
  225. > On her other side she became aware of a different, larger presence. Janus, she recognized him by his smell, shared between the man and his little cart she'd been pulling along.
  226. > "There water not far," he said and pointed. His outstretched hand indicted a direction very nearly where they had been going before she had made them stop. "Water. Drink. Rest. Only small go, yes?"
  227. > Temir was giving the man a curious glance and Thistle translated.
  228. "[Water, near. Short distance, that way.]"
  229. > The young nomad gave a nod. "[Can you go further?]" he asked her.
  230. > Thistle tried to get her hind legs under her once again. She'd stopped peeing, and after a few false starts she stood up. She took a step, but the harness bit into her shoulders and she whimpered in pain.
  231. > At that, Janus jumped closer to inspect the crude leather and rope affair. His face looked grim as he peeled the straps away from her, and soon after he pushed on her head. "Back," he ordered her, and the mare took an obedient step.
  232. > That allowed the blacksmith to lift the harness from her body.
  233. > "[Fuck,]" Temir said.
  234. "[What?]"
  235. > She twisted her head down to see. There were ugly, purple lines down her chest, jagged edges in a few places leaking blood.
  236. > "No pull," Janus said firmly. "No more or pony die."
  237. "We don't have a choice. We have to keep going."
  238. > He shook his head and took the wooden poles firmly in his hands. "I pull now. You no pull."
  239. > He was probably right, and when Thistle jerked her head to try and nod, her vision went blurry and the world spun around her. She had to brace her forelegs firmly on the ground to stay upright. Once again her gaze went down, to the faint, diluted streaks of blood matting her fur.
  240. > If she tried to keep going, even at a slower pace, for much longer, she would die of heatstroke, or perhaps her heart would simply give out.
  241. > Temir seemed to agree with the blacksmith, having understood the general gist of it even if he didn't know the actual words. "[Come here,]" he said and grabbed a tuft of Thistle's mane to gently urge her forward.
  242. > She glanced at the blacksmith's cart, but then lost interest as Temir led her to the horses. Zaur was still sitting on the mare, his hand pressed against his thigh.
  243. "[Where is Bulat?]"
  244. > "[He went to look for Salki. We should be close to where Hisein said to go if we got separated.]"
  245. > Thistle shook her head in confusion.
  246. "[How? You don't know this land!]"
  247. > "[We know enough. We came through here on the way in. There is a bend in the river and the bed is shallow. We can cross, and head through the forest to that dead village.]"
  248. > The mare shrugged to herself a little. It seemed the nomads' navigational ability was bordering on what some of the best pegasi could do. Perhaps it made sense, since their life was spent moving through the landscape, following their old paths and finding their accustomed camping grounds.
  249. > She focused on the important bit:
  250. "[Salki will be there?]"
  251. > "[I hope so, in the clearing past the river.]"
  252. > Before she could ask any more questions, Temir put his arms under her barrel and lifted. His elbow pressed into her tender, bleeding skin, and the mare hissed in pain. The nomad muttered something apologetic, and then she was laid across the large mare's back. Zaur placed one hand on her back to steady her.
  253. > "[You are okay to ride like this? We will not go very fast,]" Bulat asked.
  254. > Thistle opened her mouth to say something, but Zaur beat her and she realized the question had been intended for the injured hunter, not her.
  255. > "[I will manage.]"
  256. > Bulat gave Thistle's flank a friendly pat. "[I will take one of the other horses. Janus will pull his cart. We can make it across the river.]"
  257. > At this, Thistle gave a small nod, then let her head hang. It wasn't a particularly comfortable position, and her raw skin was pulled uncomfortably, but it allowed her to fully stretch all four legs, which was nice.
  258. > Her belly was also full of water, and already the precious liquid was clearing up the fog in her head. Her hearing was back, now that her heart and her breathing had slowed down. She didn't even have to pee, thanks to the earlier accident. She thought about trying to wipe herself clean, at least with a hoof, but decided against it.
  259. > She could always wash her fur in the river. Some of it dripped down the big mare's barrel, but Thistle didn't think she would mind very much. If they found Salki, their escape would be perfect.
  260. > Correction: If they found Salki and then Hisein caught up with them.
  261. > Thistle heaved a sad sigh, fearing for the big nomad's life.
  262.  
  263. > ~~~~
  264.  
  265. > Somehow the jolting and rocking of the mare under her lulled Thistle into a gentle stupor. Her muscles didn't burn anymore, and the cuts on her chest and shoulders didn't throb. Even the air felt less like an oven. It was quite pleasant, actually.
  266. > A few times they stopped so that the nomads could confer, but other than flicking a lazy ear in their direction, Thistle didn't join the conversation. She kept her eyes shut and enjoyed the steady rhythm of the horse's gait.
  267. > She woke up from this reverie when she heard running water. A glance around showed her that they had found the place where the river could be forded, but the glint of sun on the shallow waves blinded her and she hurriedly closed her eyes.
  268. > It was too bright out!
  269. > Even with her eyelids tightly shut, she still saw the red and purple afterimages of the blazing white sky. Thistle grunted in annoyance and pressed her face into the large mare's withers. This nearly unbalanced her, and she had to scrabble with her hind hoof to keep herself steady. The movement made her whimper as her sleeping muscles became red-hot lines of fire for a brief moment.
  270. > Zaur's hand on her back pressed her down, conferring some support and stability, and Thistle relaxed again.
  271. > "[It is not much longer now,]" he told her. "[If Hisein was right, we will find Salki in the clearing where we camped before.]"
  272. > She opened her eyes again to look at him, and saw the lines of pain and worry on his face before she had to avert her gaze from the bright, burning sky.
  273. > In an effort to keep the terrible sun out of her head, Thistle wrapped her forelegs over her head.
  274. > It helped.
  275. >...
  276. > Almost immediately after that, at least in her perception, she felt Zaur's hand shaking her. "[Wake up,]" the nomad was saying. "[We're here.]"
  277. > For a few seconds she didn't know what the words meant, but when she drew in her breath in a half-yawn, Thistle got a noseful of horse. She remembered that she was being carried by the mare they had stolen.
  278. > She opened her eyes carefully, keeping her head pointed toward the ground, so the impossible glow in the sky wouldn't hurt as much.
  279. > This time there was no blazing light, no splitting headache. Thistle blinked a few times and saw that the sun was barely past its zenith. They hadn't travelled far. Had she really slept?
  280. > She didn't remember anything after the river.
  281. "[How long? How long back was the river?]"
  282. > Zaur lifted a hand to shade his face and looked at the sun. "[Maybe a hand? Not more.]"
  283. > Half an hour or so, Thistle estimated crudely. She didn't have a very good feel for how fast the sun moved, nor did she have a clock to really measure it, so translating it into hours and minutes was just a bad, imprecise crutch for her equestrian mind.
  284. "[I- slept?]"
  285. > "[I didn't want to wake you. You looked like you needed it. Here, turn this way,]" Zaur said and guided her face toward him with a few fingers under her chin. When she obeyed, he took his hand from her back and cupped her cheeks. His thumbs brushed through her fur, and he picked out bits of... something.
  286. > All she felt were tiny tugs on the sensitive hair around her eyes. She couldn't see what he was pulling out. It was quite pleasurable, though.
  287. "[Mm, what are you doing?]"
  288. > He was silent while his fingers brushed through her fluff a few more times, then he let her go and answered: "[I don't know. Dust? Maybe tears, or sweat. It was dry.]"
  289. "[Oh.]"
  290. > "[We will have to wash your wounds. I don't know how we will pull Janus' anvil now. I hope Salki is here, so he can decide.]"
  291. > At those words Thistle remembered why she was in so much pain and covered with welts and cuts.
  292. "[Janus? Where is he?]"
  293. > "[He is fine, although he curses a lot. He sweated more than you did, and he only pulled the cart a short way.]" The young hunter chuckled as he said it.
  294. "[Salki? Is he-]" she began, but the sudden thought made her swallow an unexpected lump.
  295. > This time Zaur was silent for a while, and his hand went back to stroke her back, before he replied: "[I don't know. I don't see him. I can't get off. My leg.]" He scanned their immediate surroundings and raised his voice: "[Temir! Temir. Come help Thistle down!]"
  296. > The other nomad hurried to them. His hands wiggled under Thistle's belly and barrel. He brushed her teats, but she hardly even realized it.
  297. > Temir wasn't as tall, so it proved to be a challenge for him to lift the mare. Zaur helped keep her steady, but in the end she nearly fell and the poor lad barely caught her in time. The jolt made her hiss in sudden pain, as her limbs were forced into movement, and her skin tugged at the wounds around her withers.
  298. > Slowly, Temir lowered her to the ground, but Thistle's hind legs simply folded up underneath her. She couldn't make them do anything. Luckily, she was able to remain sitting, braced on her forelegs.
  299. "[I'll be fine. Thank you. Did you see Salki?]"
  300. > Temir shook his head mutely, and Thistle tried once more to get her hooves under her. This time she was able to move her legs, even if they wouldn't yet support her.
  301. > All she needed was to keep working at it, stretch her poor, abused muscles, and she would be fine.
  302. > There would be Tartarus to pay in the morning, but at least they'd escaped. Well, she assumed they did. The other nomads wouldn't be so calm if they were still in danger.
  303. > She was staring at the ground, focusing on working one of her hind ankles, when Zaur shouted: "[Salki! Bulat has him!]"
  304. > The words nearly got her upright, but in the end Thistle simply flopped to her other side so she could gaze in the direction Zaur was pointing.
  305. > It was as if a heavy rock had rolled from her heart. There was no mistaking that tall figure, leaning on Bulat as they hobbled closer.
  306. > Hurt, but alive. It couldn't help but bring a smile to her face.
  307. > "[I found him leaning against a tree,]" Bulat said. "[Small cuts, nothing serious. The enemy was dead. Three men!]"
  308. > At those words, the other two nomads raised their voices in a boisterous cheer. Even Janus joined in, although he didn't understand what they were saying.
  309. > Thistle thought she saw Salki flash them a grin and raise his hand, as if to modestly ward off the praise.
  310. > "[It wasn't hard,]" he said, "[they were farmers, not warriors. I just needed a small rest. Hisein said to wait for you here. Where is he?]"
  311. > The mood immediately dampened, although not as much as Thistle had expected. "[He went back to buy us time,]" Bulat said, the first one to break the silence.
  312. > Salki thought for a moment, then his face cleared up. "[He will be fine. We will wait here. Bulat, let me down and make a fire. Temir, take care of the horses. Zaur-]"
  313. > Only then did he notice the youth, still sitting on the mare. "[Are you hurt?]"
  314. > "[Not badly,]" Zaur quickly said, "[only a scratch. I will be fine tomorrow.]"
  315. > This gave Salki pause, and he looked to the blacksmith. "[You still have the things. Oh, what happened to you?]" That last bit was directed to Thistle, who had dragged herself closer to where Salki was sitting.
  316. "[Nothing. Tired.]"
  317. > At her modest words, Bulat came closer and patted her back affectionately. "[Don't listen to Thistle. She dragged the blacksmith things from where we left them, to the river. The sun was not yet highest in the sky when we found the river!]"
  318. > That earned her an admiring, nearly disbelieving look from Salki. "[Wow!]" he said, sounding for all the world like the young boy she'd met when she first came into the nomad camp.
  319. > It was making her blush and she had to avert her eyes.
  320. > "[Okay, Bulat, help Zaur down. Watch for enemies. Temir, scout around in the circle, make sure there is no one on our trail. When you're back, you and Bulat will take first watch. Me and Janus will take second. Then you in the early morning. We will wait for Hisein until evening tomorrow, then we will leave in the night.]"
  321. > The others considered this plan, and seemed to find no fault with it. Salki sounded decisive, in charge, and seemed to know what he was doing. It filled Thistle's heart with pride.
  322. > "[Do you think they will still search for us? We bloodied them this morning, and when the ones you killed don't come back, they will know we are no easy prey. No doubt Hisein will take some more.]"
  323. > Salki gave this a moment's thought. "[You are probably right, but we should not lose our care. We will leave in the night and head for the mountains. Hisein knows this - if he doesn't find us before then, he will follow us and meet us ahead.]"
  324. > His reasoning was good, but Thistle couldn't help lowering her head in sadness. She couldn't shake the feeling that Hisein's mission had been a suicide one, and that the big hunter had known it.
  325. > Part of her wanted to go back and look for him, even while the rest of her know just how monumentally stupid that would be.
  326. > In this matter, she thought, she would have to fully trust Salki's judgement. His hunter's instincts were apparently serving him well.
  327.  
  328. > ~~~~
  329.  
  330. > A hand shook her awake in the darkness and Thistle groaned in pain as she turned away from it. Her eyes were sticky, but even when she finally opened them, she was surrounded by gloom.
  331. > There was no moon, and the only light came from a torch.
  332. "[Bulat?]"
  333. > "[Wake up. We are moving,]" the nomad told her.
  334. > They'd discussed this when they met up with Salki, but Thistle couldn't believe it was time already. She felt as if she had barely lain down a few minutes ago, but her limbs were stiff and when she tentatively stretched her hind legs, quick bursts of pain shot up her nerves.
  335. "[Ow! I don't think I can...]"
  336. > The nomad watched her in silence for a few seconds, and she could not read his expression in the dark. Her ears folded and Thistle mentally braced herself to force her poor legs to work and climb to her hooves.
  337. > Bulat's hand came down to ruffle the short fur on her side. "[Take your time, I will pack your things.]"
  338. > True to his word, the nomad began gathering up the few animal fur blankets she'd unpacked in the afternoon, not so much because it was cold, but so she wouldn't sleep on the itchy grass.
  339. > Thistle slid off the makeshift cot and began to carefully work her limbs, testing just how far they could bend without her tendons feeling like they would snap. She rolled to her back and gripped a hind leg with both hooves so she could pull it against her belly.
  340. > The pain made her wince, but after the first jolt it became bearable. She thought, as she moved and warmed up, that it was getting better and her joints moved a bit more freely.
  341. "[What- hah- what about Janus' cart?]" she asked.
  342. > Her nomad friend didn't answer until he'd finished tying her cot into a roll, then waved a hand in the direction of the others. "[He is making it so the horses can pull it. We will not go as fast now and we can walk. Only Salki and Zaur have to ride.]"
  343. "[Huh. That's good. I'm glad we don't have to leave it behind.]"
  344. > She suspected the crafty blacksmith would have been able to make himself another anvil sooner or later, but that, along with a few bronze ingots, would give him an important head start. Bronze, or perhaps it was brass? She couldn't quite tell the metals apart, not from a quick glimpse she'd caught when Janus had shown them the contents.
  345. > There was probably suitable ore in the nomads' lands, but it would have to be found and dug up, and smelted, which would take a lot of time and effort. If the blacksmith could immediately produce a few useful items and, perhaps, a few weapons, his place in the nomad camp would be cemented.
  346. > She'd told him as much, and Janus had agreed. He'd offered to start forging weapons for the nomads while they were on the way, but she'd declined, especially once she understood that he'd first have to make coal, or they'd have to steal some from the next village they passed.
  347. > That meant there was little choice but to lug the heavy thing over the mountains and pray to Celestia its wheels didn't break until they were well clear of danger.
  348. > If that happened...
  349. > Hisein had said they would use the donkeys and the horses to carry the contents, and the rest of them would walk. They were used to it, after all.
  350. > As these thoughts rushed through her quickening mind, Thistle finished her stretches and tried tentatively to put some weight on her limbs. It was uncomfortable, and her legs had a tendency to buckle, but with some concentration she could stand.
  351. > A test step proved that she would be able to walk on her own, which was a relief. Being carried by one of the horses was both uncomfortable and humiliating.
  352. > She glanced at the bundle of furs which had been her bed, and considered trying to get it on her back. She crouched for a moment to test how stable her legs were, and nearly fell flat on her muzzle as, at the crucial moment, her muscles gave way.
  353. > There was little choice: she wouldn't be able to carry any significant burden and her ears were already wilting as she cleared her throat to admit this to Bulat.
  354. > The words died in her throat when the nomad hefted the package onto his shoulder and walked off in the direction of their animals. Lacking anything else to do, Thistle clamped her mouth shut and followed him.
  355. > Her other friends had already loaded up the donkeys and one of the horses. The remaining three beasts were at the centre of some activity.
  356. > On two of them, she saw, Salki and Zaur were already sitting, while Janus was explaining how to use the makeshift reins he'd produced out of an old tent. This involved much repetition and arm-waving, but the two were holding the loop of leather in both hands in what at least looked like a proper grip.
  357. > Thistle had no personal experience for this, but since the reins connected firmly to each horse's halter, she guessed it would work to help direct the animals' heads wherever the nomads wished to go.
  358. > The third horse, she saw, already had a crude collar made of quickly chopped branches, wrapped with a ribbon of leather to make it smoother.
  359. "[Where did all this leather come from?]" she asked no one in particular.
  360. > Bulat, who was standing next to her and watching the proceedings, answered: "[Janus had them in his pack. I think he cut up one of the tents we left behind.]"
  361. "[Clever.]"
  362. > The others became aware of her presence, and the lesson in horseback riding came to an abrupt end. Janus hurried closer and crouched down next to the mare. "You well?" he asked. "Let me look. You hurt from cart. Let me look."
  363. > He motioned to Bulat, who lowered his torch so it lit up Thistle's coat. She blinked in the sudden light and averted her face, lest it completely ruin her night vision.
  364. > A hiss escaped her as the blacksmith poked and prodded around her shoulders, examining the cuts where the harness had bitten into her flesh.
  365. > "Not good," he murmured. "You need water. Clean water. Otherwise it will give you heat."
  366. > The particular choice of words made Thistle's ears jump forward, and she took an involuntary step back.
  367. "Heat?"
  368. > "You know!" Janus said, punctuated by more arm waving. "Not feel well. Weak. Heat."
  369. "Oh. Fever. Yes, I know."
  370. > She hadn't thought of it until this moment, but he was right. She would have to clean her wounds and hope they wouldn't get infected. She'd tried to explain to her nomad friends once why wounds would get infected if not cleaned, and sometimes even despite it, but she doubted they had believed her.
  371. > The important part was that they knew the simple cause and effect: wounds had to be kept clean, or the person would contract a fever and possibly die.
  372. > Unfortunately, 'clean' was a relative term, and some of the camp nomads used some very questionable materials and methods. She'd seen more than one child with river mud plastered on their skin.
  373. > She shook her head of these thoughts for now, and looked at Salki.
  374. "[We will need to find a stream. I must wash my wounds.]"
  375. > He gave it some thought, then asked: "[Bulat? Did you see a stream when you scouted around?]"
  376. > "[Yes! That way, maybe two thousand paces,]" he replied immediately and held out his arm.
  377. > "[We will go and fill our water skins, and let the animals drink. Then we will turn north-east and head for the mountains.]"
  378. > He was forgetting a very important detail, and Thistle's ears wilted.
  379. "[What about Hisein?]"
  380. > There was an uncomfortable silence, until Salki broke it at last: "[We cannot go back. It is important we get these horses and Janus back to our people. If Hisein is alive, he will catch us. He is our best tracker, and he will be able to move faster than we.]"
  381. > The mare closed her eyes, then gave the tiniest of nods. She hadn't expected anything else, and a part of her wanted to argue. They should go back and look for him.
  382. > What if the man was lying in the forest, wounded and unable to get up? But for an hour's walking, they might find him.
  383. > What if he was dead?
  384. > Salki had beaten his pursuers, but who was to say all their enemies were simple peasants? If they had only a couple of hunters in the other group or, worse, warriors, then Thistle didn't think even Hisein could hold his own for long, not if he was trying to slow them down to give her and the others time to escape.
  385. > She let her head hang low for a few moments, burdened by these dark, sad thoughts, then she straightened up and heaved a sign. Ponies hoped, perhaps even more so than nomads. She would hold on to that hope, at least until they reached the mountains.
  386. > If Hisein was able, he would find them before then.
  387. > "[Okay, let's go,]" Salki said.
  388. > As if on a pre-arranged signal, Bulat hurried to the front, accompanied by Temir, who held his bow with an arrow nocked. Janus went to the donkeys and got them moving, and Salki and Zaur spurred their two horses forward.
  389. > The moment Thistle thought that word she looked at their feet, but of course there were no metal spurs attached to their soft, leather wraps.
  390. > She wondered for a moment if she should introduce that ancient Equestrian cruelty to Earth. Maybe they already had it? For all she knew, Janus would whip up some shiny, bronze spurs for them as soon as they came home.
  391. > Despite the danger, and the worry over Hisein, she wondered what it would be like if Salki got a pair and used them on her.
  392. > Her tail flicked a few times and she chased that image out of her mind before it made her blush like a first-year school filly.
  393. > Thistle snorted, half in self-derision, half in amusement, and began to walk. Moving was helping her stressed muscles, and exercise would soothe the ache, as long as they didn't go too fast. There was also cool water to look forward to.
  394. > As they left their clearing, she glanced back and tried to pierce the gloom under the trees. It would have been better if Hisein had caught up with them.
  395.  
  396. > ~~~~
  397.  
  398. > The pain came and went in waves, but to Thistle's relief it wasn't debilitating, and seemed to be getting better as the day progressed. When it became too bad, and she couldn't go any further, one of the hunters lifted her up to Zaur's horse so she could rest her legs.
  399. > That was utterly embarrassing, and quite uncomfortable, but it was the only way they could keep moving. Their progress was slower than before, which was to be expected, but despite their wounded and the exhaustion they must all have felt, the group made good distance toward the white-capped mountains.
  400. > They stopped only for a short, cold lunch and Thistle did her best to eat some of the unpalatable grass while the nomads attacked their bits of dried and smoked meat. She knew they still had a whole bag of grain somewhere, but no one had wanted to go look for it and she hadn't insisted.
  401. > The grass would be enough to stave off the worst hunger until that evening, when Salki promised they would cook. That was important. Thistle knew she would have to pull Janus' little cart as soon as she was able and over the mountains, and she would need all the calories she could get for that trip.
  402. > It was just barely possible to get the horse to pull it, but the harness was unfit and the animal kept trying to shake, or brush it off. More than once the cart had gotten stuck on a tree limb or a thick bush stem, and the horse had nearly panicked, clearly unused to this type of burden. As it was, Janus had had to put in nearly as much effort in controlling the thing as he would have in dragging it himself.
  403. > On a few occasions Thistle had found his antics funny, but made sure he didn't see her grin. It was unseemly. Soon, she hoped, her wounds would heal, at least enough for her to resume the job she'd agreed to take.
  404. > Of Hisein, there was no sign. Thistle kept looking back, both when she was riding the mare, and when she was walking, although during one of those times she'd tripped on a creeper vine and bloodied her nose. That taught her to stop before turning her head back, or at least make sure the path before her was clear.
  405. > The old hunter would have laughed at her little accident, and he would doubtless have turned it into a small lesson on paying attention.
  406. > It was late afternoon and Bulat had gone ahead to look for a suitable camping spot when Janus fell in step with Thistle and cleared his throat. She glanced at him, but then back to make sure she wouldn't trip again.
  407. > "Pony land go longer than mountain?" he asked, raising his hand to indicate the distant peaks.
  408. "Yes. It is far. It is not pony land, but the land of the nomads. Salki and his people."
  409. > "Good, good," he replied thoughtfully. He seemed to be struggling with some idea and Thistle waited patiently for him to spit it out.
  410. > When it didn't happen for a while, she gave him another, longer gaze, and asked:
  411. "What is it?"
  412. > "Um. Hmm," Janus mumbled, picking words with care. "There many mare in pony land?"
  413. "Mare?! No, just me," she said, confused by his question. "Why?"
  414. > The answer was very different from what the blacksmith had been expecting, and his mouth fell open. He turned and walked sideways so he could stare at Thistle. "No mare?!" he exclaimed. "No mare for Salki? No mare for Hisein and Bulat and Zaur? How small nomad? Where nomad not all dead?"
  415. > For a moment Thistle thought he'd found her secret and all the blood in her body rushed to her muzzle, leaving her slightly lightheaded. Only after forcing herself to take a breath and think did she understand.
  416. "Oh! You mean women. Not mare, woman. Mare is pony, woman is nomad. You understand?"
  417. > Janus nodded eagerly and his face cleared up as the misunderstanding passed. "Yes, wo-man. Many wo-man in nomad land?"
  418. "Yes, there are many women living in the nomad camp. Why?"
  419. > He fell back in step with her, but would no longer meet her gaze. Instead, the young man looked in a different direction and refused to answer.
  420. "Well?" she prodded after a few steps.
  421. > His words came out quietly, as if Janus wasn't sure he was allowed to say them: "Wo-men for Janus?"
  422. > This time the blush made it to Thistle's face and she also looked in a different direction. How should she even answer? Was Janus only going with them for the promise of a- of a *marefriend*? Well, marefriend, but for nomads. Woman-friend? Wife?
  423. "M-Maybe?"
  424. > He twirled back and went on to explain eagerly: "Janus only, understand? No woman, only Janus. Want woman, but no-" he made a little circle of his fingers and moved his hand rapidly up and down in a gesture Thistle didn't quite grasp. Seeing her blank look, he did the same, except near his groin.
  425. > This clicked and with her gasp of indignation Thistle accidentally inhaled a bit of spittle, which sent her into a coughing fit. She had to stop walking as she tried to hack up the fluid from her larynx. Even when it was done, she remained standing still, not sure what to tell Janus. He was standing beside her, red in the face, but also looking at her with concern.
  426. > She saw he'd already raised his hand to slap her on the back, but she shook her head.
  427. "I'm fine," she croaked.
  428. > "Okay."
  429. > After taking a few halting, uncomfortable lungfuls of air, Thistle though she was well enough to continue and began walking again. Janus took this as a sign that they could continue their very inappropriate conversation. "So, nomad land woman for Janus?" he prompted.
  430. > Her thoughts went to Ning and Thistle wondered if Hisein would have given the girl to Janus in exchange for becoming the tribe's blacksmith. She feared the answer was yes, and her muzzle scrunched up in distaste. She liked Hisein after having gotten to know him, but he was still a savage in many ways.
  431. > For that matter, so was Salki, but at least he was younger and she thought she could guide him in a better direction. He wasn't yet set in his ways like some of the older nomads.
  432. > She stopped thinking about it and considered Saule. Would she be interested in someone like Janus? Her grandfather had been good with his hands, and Saule had spent a lot of time helping Bakar and Thistle with their bow project.
  433. > Would the nomad girl find the broad-shouldered man attractive? Thistle gave his face a closer look and tried to decide.
  434. > Janus kept his facial hair trimmed a little shorter than the nomads, who only chopped their beards off as a thing of practicality, rather than style. There were a few in the camp who shaved, at least partially, but it was not the norm.
  435. > Janus was a little shorter than most of the nomad hunters, but he was undoubtedly strong. He was also a blacksmith, and Thistle was certain this skill would bring him much prestige.
  436. > Knowledge of that nature wasn't genetic, but some nomads might think so and his children, when he had them, would probably learn the craft, whatever their disposition. If he really could find the ores he needed, and produced the weapons and tools like Janus claimed her could, he could become a very powerful man indeed.
  437. > Since he only knew how to speak Equestrian, that would give Thistle herself a degree of added respect and influence, since she would be the one teaching him the nomad language, and translating for him as needed. True, Salki, Hisein, Bulat, and Temir could speak the language to varying degrees, but the mare was still the best person to translate.
  438. > She noticed that Janus was still watching her hopefully, and she gave him a bright smile.
  439. "I think many women will want to be with you in the camp. You will be the only blacksmith."
  440. > That cheered him right up, and the young man rubbed his hands together in eager anticipation.
  441. "You will need to learn the nomad language. Only Salki can speak Equestrian, and the others a little. Even Salki is bad at it."
  442. > "Yes, I learn!" Janus assured her and kept his eyes on her expectantly.
  443. > Thistle realized he meant *right now*, and after a moments' surprise, she shrugged to herself. It would pass the time.
  444. "Okay, I will teach you some words, first. Repeat what I say," she began, and cleared her throat. "Pony. [Pony.] Nomad. [Nomad.]"
  445.  
  446. > ~~~~
  447.  
  448. > Thistle sat a little ways from the fire, with her back turned to the feeble orange glow. Something was sizzling on a stick above it, a critter Bulat had killed with his bow while he was scouting ahead. She hardly even noticed the smell of burning meat anymore.
  449. > They'd made the firepit small, the flames barely hot enough to char their dinner a little. It was in a hole, dug into the ground, so it couldn't be seen very far. The nomads had also waited for the sun to go down and the dark to fall, so any smoke rising into the sky from their hidden camp would be invisible.
  450. > Those were all good precautions and Thistle agreed with them fully. There was only one problem: if they made themselves impossible to find, how would Hisein catch up with them?
  451. > On some level she knew this particular hope was irrational, but another part of her still held on to it. Until they reached the mountains, she'd promised herself. After that she would accept the big hunter was dead.
  452. > She wanted to be alone for a while, away from the others, so she could try and sort her thoughts out. Why was she *this* concerned over Hisein? Sure, she liked him, or at least thought she did, when she overlooked his tendency to punish any slight, not to mention the larger personality flaw of keeping slaves, but he wasn't Bakar, nor Salki, nor Saule. He wasn't one of the nomads she'd formed friendships with.
  453. > Or had she?
  454. > The mare shook her head in dismay. Whether she and Hisein were friends would entirely depend on what *he* thought of her. Friendship was something mutual, not a one-way thing. Now that he was gone, she couldn't really resolve it. She really hadn't spoken with him enough to know.
  455. > Her ears flicked back when she heard footsteps, and the faint breeze brought her the familiar scent of Salki, even if it was tainted by the lump of meat he carried. She didn't turn to help him, even when she heard his limp.
  456. > Moments later he stopped beside her, and Thistle was just about to look when Salki sat down. He draped his arm around her withers, which sent a tiny jolt of pain through her as he touched her wounds, but Thistle didn't react. A hug was nicer than the discomfort, and just what she needed. "[Why are you sitting here alone?]" he asked her.
  457. "[Thinking.]"
  458. > "[About what?]"
  459. > She didn't answer immediately and Salki made a guess: "[Hisein?]"
  460. "[How will he find us?]"
  461. > That question earned her a little chuckle from the nomad. "[Easily. He is one of our best trackers. Do not think yourself so stealthy that Hisein could not follow you. Not to mention the horses.]"
  462. > His words made sense, and Thistle's heart lightened a little. There was still the fact that Hisein hadn't caught up to them yet, and that boded ill, but at least she didn't have to worry about him missing them.
  463. > "[Do you want some grain broth?]" Salki asked. "[I made some. I have taken the meat out.]" He waved the lump in his hand as he said, as if to demonstrate, then put it in his mouth.
  464. > Thistle shook her head, but her stomach betrayed her with a loud gurgle. She pressed her forehooves over it, but that did nothing for the continued grumble.
  465. > Salki patted the side of her barrel and pressed the mare against himself briefly as he chewed and swallowed. "[Come, let's join the others and you can eat.]"
  466. > She didn't move, but Thistle placed a hoof over Salki's hand to keep it in place.
  467. "[Soon. Sit with me a little.]"
  468. > He'd tensed to stand up, but now his body relaxed and Thistle was happy to sense him lean against her. At least he no longer doubted her strength. "[What do you want to talk about?]"
  469. "[Janus asked me something strange earlier.]"
  470. > "[What?]"
  471. "[He wanted to know if any nomad women would be interested in him.]"
  472. > Salki gave this some serious thought, then his shoulders shot up in a shrug. His hand jerked a little under her hoof, but he didn't remove it. "[Probably. I don't know.]"
  473. "[I said that some would be interested because he is our first blacksmith.]"
  474. > "[Oh! That's probably true. Yeah, I guess.]"
  475. > It was nice to know she hadn't inadvertently lied to the newest member of their group.
  476. > They sat in silence for a while longer and Thistle felt Salki begin to fidget. His foot began to twitch up and down, and he played with the fur on her barrel with his fingers. He would want to get up very soon, so she tried to think of another topic to keep him still for at least a few more seconds.
  477. "[What is it like to ride a horse the whole day?]"
  478. > That question made Salki laugh heartily. His free hand slapped his back and then his thighs. "[Everything hurts. I would have been easier to walk, I think! Everything here, and here,]" he patted his belly and his groin, "[is numb. If you straddled me right now, I would not feel anything.]"
  479. > She couldn't help but chuckle at the mental image, and her mood lightened at the way Salki was joking, even at his own expense.
  480. "[Perhaps we should do that before we are together. You might last longer.]"
  481. > Her voice was low, but Salki roared with more laughter. Thistle heard the conversation around the fire stop, and she could clearly imagine everyone turning their way, curious what was so funny. Her muzzle colored and she was glad she was still facing away, not to mention that it was dark.
  482. > "[That is good! I will show you how long I can go. When we are further away, I will be on watch in the night. Come and find me.]"
  483. > It sounded tantalizing, and just thinking about it was making Thistle's body wake up with suppressed need. Salki had been right, and they hadn't done it in a long time. She'd gotten used to it every night on the way over, and now she missed the intimacy, the release, and the mindless pleasure of it.
  484. "[M-Maybe,]" she promised uncertainly even as she hunted for excuses. "[Shouldn't you be watching while you are on watch?]"
  485. > "[Bah, why did you think I said 'when we are further away'? I will tell you when it is safe.]"
  486. > Thistle imagined herself sneaking through the dark forest, tail already hitched up, the cool mountain breeze keeping the warmth under control. She would leave droplets of her essence behind, but that was fine and no one would notice. She would find Salki, a short distance away from the tents.
  487. > Tent, she corrected herself.
  488. > She would have to clean herself well after, or the other nomads might smell something.
  489. > When had she decided she would do it?!
  490. > The mare hung her head and gave in. Salki was insatiable, and she wasn't far behind, not when he was so exotic, and so malleable to her training. Maybe, soon, she would teach him how to use his tongue.
  491. > She had to stop these thoughts or she would begin to leak right now!
  492. "[Let's go back. I'm hungry.]"
  493. > Salki stood slowly, and she remained still to allow him to lean on her back. Unfortunately it was too low for him to use while hobbling back to the fire, but she stayed next to him for moral support, of nothing else.
  494.  
  495. > ~~~~
  496.  
  497. > Thistle felt increasingly weak on her hooves, and her muscles could do less and less with ever passing hour. She'd tried to dismiss it at first, and had ascribed the weakness to extreme fatigue, but when she woke up in the middle of one night, covered in sweat and shivering, there was no denying it. She had a fever.
  498. > When she told the nomads, they let her ride on the big mare that whole day so she could rest, and Salki even cooked a grain broth without meat to try and tempt her. Thistle had no appetite, but she forced herself to eat, even when it threatened to come back up on more than one occasion.
  499. > Despite the day's heat, she made sure to bundle herself in furs, especially during the times when sweat liberally poured of her. It helped that they were gradually beginning to rise up into the mountains and the air was getting cooler.
  500. > It had to be her wounds. Despite the care she and Janus had taken to bathe them in fresh water and her best efforts to keep them clean, one might have gotten infected. The only other explanation was a sudden cold, but with how hot the weather had been it was very unlikely. It could also have been the stress of the fighting and their mad escape, or the sorrow at losing Hisein.
  501. > Once Salki could walk a bit more easily she led him to the small, clear stream on the mountainous slope near their quick camp, and had him check and wash all her wounds. The water was icy, and even a slight dribble on her slowly-healing flesh caused jolts of pain which made her hiss.
  502. "[Does it smell bad?]" she asked Salki.
  503. > Her own sense of smell had gone almost as soon as the fever appeared, and besides, some of the wounds were in places she could not easily reach or examine herself.
  504. > Salki gently poked his fingers at her tender skin and brought them to his nose. She watched his face closely. "[I think so. Maybe? It smells strange, but I don't know how wounds are supposed to smell. I'm not the shaman!]"
  505. > The mare thought quickly. If the fever got any worse she would be in serious danger. She didn't have access to advanced Equestrian medicine, and the band of nomads with them had no idea how to even attempt to treat her illness. Hisein might have known something, purely by word of mouth, or perhaps through his long experience, but he had still not caught up with them.
  506. > Thistle remembered her decision to give up hope when they reached the mountains and her ears lowered. It was time to accept that Hisein was gone.
  507. > Lacking any other options, she tried to remember what she knew of medicine. Admittedly, it was not much. It hadn't featured in her political science curriculum.
  508. "[Okay, wash all my wounds, okay? Wash them well, even if it hurts. We must get them clean, and then they must stay clean.]"
  509. > Salki gave her a long look, and his brow furrowed, but he didn't say anything and eventually bent to scoop water up in his hand.
  510. "[No. Wash your hands first. Scrub them with the sand and wash them!]"
  511. > He looked at her again, strangely, but obeyed, and used the fine sand on the stream bank to scour the skin on his hands until it was nice and pink. Only then did Thistle let him begin washing her.
  512. > The pressure on the wounds around her withers was especially painful, and she guessed one of those was likely infected. She grit her teeth and bore the occasional agonizing stab as her skin tore a little where it was not yet properly knitted.
  513. > Unfortunately they didn't have any cloth to make bandages, so keeping her wounds clean would be hard. It was lucky that most of them were on the top, so she wouldn't have to grind them against the dirt and sweat of the large mare's back.
  514. "[Salki? Can we follow the stream up the mountain?]
  515. > "[Why? We can fill water skins.]"
  516. > Thistle shook her head.
  517. "[No, you will need to clean my wounds every day. The water has to be fresh!]"
  518. > He seemed doubtful and glanced up toward the peak, as if trying to gauge the best way up the mountain. "[I don't know. The ground isn't very easy to walk on, it will be hard to get the horses up.]"
  519. "[We have to try. We can go an easier way, but we must find a clear stream every evening. If we do not keep my wounds clean, I will get more sick. Maybe die.]"
  520. > "[What? No,]" Salki said with a dismissive wave. "[No one dies from a small wound like this!]"
  521. > She shook her head and resolved to ask the older people in the nomad camp. Surely they would know about wounds bringing on a fever. Even Janus had known, she remembered. It had been the blacksmith's advice to wash her wounds, but it seemed they hadn't been thorough enough, and now she was paying the price.
  522. > Already her teeth were beginning to chatter, despite the heat of the sun on her back. The cool water trickling down her forelegs wasn't helping, but she forced herself to stillness, clamped her mouth firmly shut, and bore it like an earth pony.
  523. "[Please, Salki. It's important. We will have to wash them again before sleeping. We should stay near the stream,]" she insisted.
  524. > Salki gave this some thought and turned to the peaks again. They were following roughly the same way they had come, and would traverse the same mountain pass. Maybe Salki was worried that they'd lose their way? Thistle laid a hoof on his thigh.
  525. "[We can find this stream when we stop each day. You're good at finding our way, right?]"
  526. > How the nomads could navigate so well, Thistle had only the vaguest of ideas. At least it sounded reasonable, from the tidbits Hisein had taught her. Landmarks, excellent memory, and a good sense of direction. It really was as simple as that. She would have to really master that skill.
  527. > Salki brushed his hand through her mane and said: "[We will try, okay?]"
  528. "[Thank you.]"
  529. > Perhaps someone in the camp would agree to continue teaching her, now that Hisein was gone.
  530. > Thistle was barely aware of the hot, sticky tears dripping down her nose and into the stream below.
  531.  
  532. > ~~~~
  533.  
  534. > The weather cooled as they ascended and Thistle bundled herself in more furs. She was feverish and weak, but she thought it wasn't getting any worse, at least. The nomads accommodated her, but it slowed them down a lot. An extra pair of hooves would have come in handy to control the horses, let alone manage Janus' little cart.
  535. > She could see it in Salki's face, each time he came to check on her. He was both worried, and annoyed at their slow pace and the many times they had to stop so Janus could untangle his cart and turn it upright.
  536. > It seemed no matter how closely they watched the horse, it always overturned it. They were walking without a road now, making their way over treacherous, rocky ground.
  537. > Their few remaining donkeys fared a little better than the horses and the nomads, in their desperation, had tried hitching the cart to one of them. It was better, but the beast tired much faster, so they had to keep stopping and shuffling all the cargo around.
  538. > Now that it looked like the fever wouldn't get any worse, Thistle really wanted to be done with her illness so she could help and they could finally get back to the camp. It was the closest thing she had to a home.
  539. > Her wounds had mostly closed, although she insisted they wash them every day in a miserable ritual of freezing cold water and the occasional sharp jolt of pain. Soon, she thought they would no longer be bound to the stream so tightly. Even better, Thistle thought she felt a bit less sore, her head a little clearer each day, her fever a little reduced.
  540. >...
  541. > When her appetite returned, everyone took it as a very good sign. For the first time in over a week, Thistle sat with the nomads around the fire, rather than slept, bundled in fur blankets. She'd taken a few remaining tubers they had in their packs and buried them in the embers to cook. Salki even brought their last bag of grain, and Thistle felt well enough to make some crude bread. That and the roasted tubers made for a very nourishing meal.
  542. > Even the others were enticed by the smell. There wasn't much left, but she didn't mind sharing. Soon they would descend from the mountains and she could graze again, which would see her to the nomad camp. The bag only had to last a few more days.
  543. > After that, they simply sat and talked. The biggest topic was, of course, Hisein, and the nomads reminisced about the man. Even Thistle shared some of her anecdotes as he'd taught her to mind her steps, or how to find water on the steppe, or how quickly he'd picked up Equestrian from her teachings.
  544. > The atmosphere was getting melancholic, and Thistle wondered if she could excuse herself and go to sleep. It felt rude to Hisein's memory, so she stayed, staring into the fire, munching on what was left of the bread, and absentmindedly listening to the stories.
  545. > A hand passed her a strange, clay pot, and the mare accepted it almost without thinking. There was something so familiar in the gesture that she lifted it to her muzzle almost before she'd smelled what it was.
  546. > Alcoholic and strong. It smelled of honey, going stale, and some kind of fruit. Thistle's nose wiggled in surprise and she lowered it to stare at the container. It put her in mind of a flask, except it was pottery and quite heavy. She stared around the fire.
  547. "[Where did this come from?]"
  548. > Temir pointed with his finger. "[Janus had it in his cart.]"
  549. > She examined the neck, which was only slightly thinner than the jug itself. There was a rim, caked with a hard, brittle substance. When she poked it with a hoof, it crumbled, and she brought a piece up to her nose. It was wax.
  550. "Where did you get this?" she asked the blacksmith.
  551. > He looked at her strangely for a moment, then shrugged. "Got from village. Man sell. Bad water." he explained, then grinned at the mare. "Drink!" he urged her.
  552. "Man from where? Where did the man come from?"
  553. > Janus gave a shrug as he answered: "Don't know. Man trader, came from away. Sell bad water. It is good."
  554. > Thistle shrugged a little to herself and lifted the jug, but then paused and lowered it again.
  555. "Do you know how to make this?"
  556. > Her hoof tapped the jug carefully for emphasis. Janus shook his head. "No. It is a secret. Janus no tell man how to blacksmith, man no tell Janus how to make bad water."
  557. > That was reasonable and not a huge surprise, but Thistle balanced a bit of wax on her hoof and held it up.
  558. "What about this? This comes from bees. Do you know how to keep bees?"
  559. > Unfortunately, Janus did not know the word. Thistle pushed the jug at Salki, climbed to her hooves, and proceeded to mimic buzzing around. She used her forelegs as best she could to indicate wings, and emitted quintessential bee noises.
  560. > The nomads watched her in shock for a while, then laughed at her silly performance.
  561. "Bees!" she said, ignoring the laughter in her elation. "Bees fly around flowers. You know?"
  562. > Janus still looked blank, and shrugged apologetically to her. Thistle put him out of her mind and went to Salki, instead.
  563. "[Do you know this animal? It is small and like a fly. It likes flowers!]"
  564. > The nomad nodded and said a word. Thistle eagerly repeated it.
  565. "[Bees! Yes, bees! We will keep bees!]"
  566. > She hugged the surprised nomad, then sat down beside him again, the last remnants of her fever and ache forgotten in the sudden excitement. Only a slight ache in her muscles, and lack of oxygen still reminded her that she was not yet fully healed. It would pass.
  567. > More importantly, why hadn't she thought of it before?
  568. > Her mind was racing, making plans. They had to find a wild bee nest. They would build a wooden box for a hive and put it nearby, with something sweet inside to tempt the bees. If that failed, some nomad could wrap himself in thick leather and pick apart the wild hive to find the queen.
  569. > Thistle didn't know a lot about beekeeping herself, but she'd seen some and could conjuncture the rest. It was a lot less complicated than things like linen, or blacksmithing.
  570. > She smiled as she imagined this new source of both food and, provided she could figure out how to ferment honey, beverage. It would further increase her standing in the camp!
  571. > Again, Salki passed her the jug, and this time Thistle lifted it up and drank.
  572. > The mead was strong, and the berries in it left a distinct, pleasant aftertaste. It was a lot more palatable than nomad beer, and she couldn't help smiling when she passed it on to Temir at her other side.
  573. > The warmth was solid and pleasant in her belly, and already she could feel it spreading outward.
  574. > Perhaps it was the way Hisein would want to be remembered - in merriment. She would drink to his memory and say goodbye to the stoic nomad.
  575. > Then - the night was young and full of promise. They were far from their pursuers. She leaned closer to Salki and whispered in his ear:
  576. "[Are we far enough yet? Is it safe?]"
  577. > He gave her a startled look and she laid a hoof on his leg, indecently high up, as she grinned back.
  578. "[When is it your turn to guard?]" she went on.
  579. > "[Last watch. Before sunrise.]"
  580. "[I will wake up,]" Thistle promised, then motioned to Zaur, sitting across from her, to pass the jug along.
  581.  
  582. > ~~~~
  583.  
  584. > The mountain pass was cold, even in the midst of summer. The nomad party's breath steamed in the air, and each night they had to build their large tent. Even with that, the men wrapped themselves in all the animal furs they had as they slept.
  585. > Thistle and Salki had it a little easier. Despite strange looks cast their way the first time they'd done it, Salki pressed her comfortably against his chest each night, and that helped keep them both just that little bit warmer. After the second time, the other nomads paid them no mind.
  586. > Sleeping in the common tent meant that Thistle had to listen to all their snoring, and other little noises the nomads made each night, but after pulling the blacksmith's cart uphill she didn't have any trouble falling asleep.
  587. > Her wounds had healed, and her fever was gone. Now the mare wanted nothing as much as simply to get home. She missed her friends! Xuan, Saule, even Buygra and young Ning, and she missed the sheer luxury of not having to walk endless miles every single day.
  588. > It would be easier going downhill, but that was still a couple of days away at their present pace.
  589. > The nomads were all walking after Janus had warned them that the horses may break a leg on the shifting, uneven, rocky ground. That had been a doozy to translate, but through a combination of hand gestures, miming, and broken Equestrian, he'd managed to get his point across to Thistle.
  590. > It had only gone on to confirm the need for him to learn the nomad language, and Janus spent much of his time walking beside the mare and repeating the words she taught him. He didn't retain many, but he sat with the nomads around the fire each evening and the times when he looked up and said a word or two in their conversation were becoming more and more frequent.
  591. > Even better, his contributions were starting to make some sense.
  592. > For her part, Thistle went back to cleaning and cooking their dinner, partly because she'd gotten used to the work, and so had the nomads, and partly because it was what Hisein would have wanted. It felt like the right thing to do, to honor his memory in her own, strange way.
  593. > The grain she had was running out, but there were plenty of young conifers on the mountain and Thistle had acquired a taste for the green buds at the end of the low branches. There were not many deer or goats around, she guessed, so that particular food was plentiful.
  594. > It wouldn't sustain her indefinitely, but the taste was nice and it went a long way toward filling her stomach, especially if she supplemented it with a bit of grain broth.
  595. > Once they descended into the valley beyond the mountains she would be forced to switch to grass, but that would keep her for the few more weeks they needed to get home.
  596. > Unfortunately Janus didn't have any more mead, so that one taste had been their last, but Thistle was already making plans in her head to teach the nomads bee-keeping and fermenting.
  597. > A few times one of the scouts found a wild bird's nest, and the eggs were a nice supplement which lent both flavor and substance to her plain, boiled grain.
  598. > She suspected she was still losing weight, but with how hard they were working, that was to be expected.
  599.  
  600. > ~~~~
  601.  
  602. > It was a particularly cold night, and Thistle anticipated to see snow on the ground in the morning. It had been raining for most of the day and the entire company was wet and miserable, despite the large fire the nomads had built in the evening.
  603. > The ground felt like ice, even through three layers of blankets and her own fur, and Thistle saw that Janus, the nearest to her, was also shivering with the cold. She could hear his teeth chattering!
  604. > Salki was out, keeping watch, so there wasn't even his belly to keep her back warm. However hard she tried to wrap the animal furs more tightly around herself, a cold draft always found its way under the covers and down her neck, to stab at her back.
  605. > After a while Thistle had enough. She got to her hooves as silently as she could, and dragged her makeshift cot closer to Janus. Even before she had done it, the blacksmith had sat up and was watching her. She could see a line of light across his face, coming from a crack around the tent flap from the fire just outside.
  606. > It would have been better to put the fire inside, but there was no room with six of them, even if the tent had been sown together from two smaller ones.
  607. > Because she had fur, and because she slept cuddled with Salki, the other nomads had pushed Thistle's cot to the far end, away from the fire's warmth. Janus, as the outsider, was only slightly closer.
  608. > Surprisingly, Salki had agreed with that reasoning, which Thistle thought was very mature of him, and showed good leadership. It was true, in either case, when Salki was with her, they didn't feel as cold.
  609. > "What you doing?" Janus whispered to her.
  610. "Quiet. Move, we will put all blankets together. Move. Make room!"
  611. > He didn't fully understand her words, not yet, but the gesturing of her hoof got him to recognize what she wanted and the man shuffled a slight distance away.
  612. > Thistle overlapped their cots, making sure to leave the combined bed large enough for Salki, when he returned from the watch, and flopped down.
  613. "Come. Here. It will be warmer," she murmured quietly and patted the cot next to her.
  614. > After a few moments' pause, Janus scooched closer and lay down beside her. He was shivering even more than before, and Thistle quickly rolled so her back was to him.
  615. "Closer. I will keep you warm and you will keep me warm."
  616. > It was purely pragmatic, she told herself. Neither of them could afford to get sick due to sleeping cold. It wasn't like her and Salki, this was just a practical concern.
  617. > Those deliberate thoughts worked and she easily pushed herself back until she was pressed against Janus' belly.
  618. > He was wearing all his clothes, and she had her cloak, of course, and thanks to their shuffling around any residual warmth had gone, but Thistle knew they would warm up soon. After a moment, Janus reached over her and arranged the furs to fully cover them both. Then he withdrew his hand under the blanket again.
  619. "On me," she told him quietly. "Put arm on me. It will be warmer."
  620. > His breath caught at the proposition, but Thistle waited until, eventually, he obeyed and his strong arm encircled the mare, if somewhat gingerly. His hand ended up meshed in her chest fluff, and Thistle closed her eyes with a deep sigh.
  621. > He smelled different than Salki, of course, of rock, metal, and leather. His shape was different too, and for a while Thistle was acutely aware of it, until she got used to it. A small, naughty thought asked whether she was 'cheating' on Salki this way, but she pushed it down ruthlessly.
  622. > There was nothing even the slightest bit sexual about the situation, so she didn't feel any urge to *do* anything. It was purely for warmth.
  623. > It was working!
  624. > Already her back was nice and comfortable, and the sneaky cold draft wasn't attacking her vulnerable neck anymore! Instead, there was Janus' warm breath.
  625. > She thought he was shivering less, and his teeth no longer clattered, so it was benefiting both of them.
  626. > If Salki didn't like it, he could sleep alone, although Thistle would have preferred him next to her. Being warmed by two bodies would be even better!
  627. > Besides, it was only for a few more days, until they descended this tall, chilly mountain, and returned to summer.
  628. > Soon, they wouldn't even need the tent anymore. Soon, it would once again be warm enough for her to sneak away and find Salki during the night, while he was on watch, alone.
  629. > The last time she'd barely gotten a taste of it, and he'd finished so quickly that it only left her hungry for more.
  630. > Yes, their descent couldn't come fast enough for Thistle.
  631.  
  632. > ~~~~
  633.  
  634. > The landscape changed rather quickly as they descended from the mountains. Part of that was because they were going rather faster than on their way up, but that wasn't the whole story. Thistle did her best to examine the land from the heights as it lay spread below them, whenever a break in the treeline allowed her to see.
  635. > The forest cover thinned once the land flattened out, and although she couldn't see well herself, the way the other nomads described the horizon led her to believe it turned to steppe before it was out of sight.
  636. > The mountain range must therefore work as a barrier to winds and weather. It was a bit like the effect Macintosh hills had, splitting the land between the fertile Appleloosa and the barren Badlands.
  637. > In that case, Thistle thought, volcanic activity and natural magic also played a big part, and as a result the transition was a lot sharper and more dramatic in Equestria. In this nomad land, the difference was from a thickly-forested area, to a sparse forest, and then to a steppe with occasional clumps of trees.
  638. > It meant they were coming home. It wasn't that much further and she was looking forward to the journey's end.
  639. > A new problem had appeared as they crossed the mountain pass, though. The blacksmith's cart had gone from dragging her back, to pushing her forward, and the latter was definitely worse.
  640. > If she wasn't careful, any unevenness caused it to suddenly lurch against her, which would easily have twisted her ankle or broken a leg but for a moment's inattention. There had been a lot of luck involved for her to have remained unhurt.
  641. > Over time she'd learned to watch out for such treacherous terrain, and she had gotten quite good at predicting what the strange, heavy little cart would do, but it was still extremely annoying.
  642. > On a few occasions, she had gotten lost in thought on a relatively easy and flat part, only to realize that she was practically at a canter to keep ahead of the madly-rocking cart. Slowing down from that speed, on a slope, was difficult without loosing her footing, even when there wasn't loose, shifting shale underhoof!
  643. > Thankfully Janus stayed near her after the first few near accidents, and several times he'd grabbed one of the wooden poles connecting her to the cart and helped her stop it.
  644. > They'd spent a lot of time talking, and the blacksmith was picking up the basics of the nomad language. He was at a point where he could have whole conversations with one of the others, without Thistle having to translate. His sentences were broken, and his grammar was horrible, but it was enough to get along.
  645. > Thistle was at the same time proud that she'd taught him so well, and a little disappointed, as it seemed Janus wouldn't rely on her translating for him quite as much as she'd hoped. That wasn't too bad, though. The man still held her in high esteem, and paid very close attention to whatever she said, despite the fact that she was both female, and not his species.
  646. > It dismayed her to hear that the human females were treated even worse on the other side of the mounts compared with the nomad lands. She knew that Darga was probably an exception, but nomad women had *some* agency, if only on account of how fierce they were. Where Janus came from, nothing like that would have been allowed to happen, even if it meant the tribe would disband without a leader.
  647. > The fact that Darga was pulling it off spoke volumes of her sheer stubbornness and determination.
  648. > Then again, Thistle herself was aware of the mutterings and the push for someone else to take the reins. Salki was a good candidate, if a little young, and Willow was another.
  649. > If Thistle had any say in it, it would be Salki. Luckily, now that she and Salki had brought them horses and a blacksmith, it wouldn't be so difficult to make that case.
  650. > Speaking of the young man, Thistle could tell he was also impatient to get home. He'd told her so every day. He also began to talk about Saule, and she figured he missed the young woman.
  651. > For that matter, Thistle missed her too. It would be good for them to reunite, and it wasn't out of the question that Salki would soon make his own tent, away from his mother.
  652. > How their little 'family' would function with the three of them Thistle didn't know, but she liked both Saule and Salki, and she was convinced they could make it work.
  653. >...
  654. > Not just Thistle, all members of their group breathed a sigh of relief when the land flattened out. Of course, that by itself didn't say much, since there had been plateaus and valleys in the mountains, but when the way remained flat for the rest of the day it was a promising sight.
  655. > They could see the peaks standing tall behind them, with none in the front, and the nomads agreed that they were most likely done with the climb. It meant the cart she was pulling behaved more reasonably, and it took a lot less effort to handle.
  656. > Everyone remembered the strange, warrior-like people living in this area, and for the next few nights Salki posted double guards around their encampment. The nomads all kept bows near to hand, and their scouts ranged further than usual.
  657. > Even Thistle kept her ears up and listened for every unusual sound, however slight. The strangers hadn't attacked them the last time, but there had been tension, and this time they had no one who spoke their language.
  658. > On the other hoof, they no longer had all those donkeys, so it might look as if they didn't have that much worth stealing. Unless the others grew curious about the horses, but with only four of them that might not be tempting enough.
  659. > Their fires in the evenings were subdued, and the scouts didn't hunt for prey, so the meals were somewhat poorer. Everyone bore it stoically, though, and Bulat, who was one of their best navigators after Hisein, reckoned they would be out of reach of these strange people in another two days.
  660. > It wasn't much further to home from there.
  661.  
  662. > ~~~~
  663.  
  664. > The night was extremely bright with the nearly full moon, and Thistle had no trouble finding her way. It was quite warm, although not as stifling as on the other side of the mountains. Thistle had foregone her coat and the nomads had stopped putting up the tent and simply slept on their cots, covered by one or two animal furs.
  665. > It also meant she could no longer justify cuddling with Salki, or Janus, if Salki was on guard, but it wouldn't be much more until they were back, and as long as she had these night-time encounters that was fine.
  666. > She had gotten good at sneaking away quietly, at least on grass, and through soft, forest undergrowth.
  667. > It was toward the end of Salki's watch, and Thistle hoped to have a bit of quick fun with the man before he went back to wake up the next nomad to watch over them sleeping.
  668. > Already, as she walked, her tail was hitching up in anticipation.
  669. > She didn't know which direction to go, but any heading was okay because Salki would find her. He was good at watching their camp as they slept while he, himself, remained unseen. Sometimes she couldn't even hear him follow her!
  670. > This time she caught the sound of faint footsteps, approaching from the side, and Thistle smiled proudly to herself. Despite that, she kept going in as straight a line as she could, to put the maximum distance between them and the rest of the gang, who were, hopefully, fast asleep, back near the embers of the fire.
  671. > Soon Salki was padding beside her, still making surprisingly little noise, and his hand found her mane to give her head a quick pat.
  672. "[All quiet?]" she asked him.
  673. > "[Yes. We didn't see anyone following us, and no one has tried to sneak up while I watched. There are no people in this land. The nearest, I think, are those strangers who live under the mountain.]"
  674. "[That's good. If we can't resolve things with Ruslans, we can come here, no?]"
  675. > Salki's hand in her mane stopped, and then he pinched her ear. "[Don't talk like that,]" he said in a near growl. "[We're not giving our land to Ruslans! We'll fight until we kill them all, if we have to! Maybe *they* can come live here!]"
  676. "[Why is that land so important? It's not like you- it's not like we farm! The donkeys can graze here just as well as there, and we would find more game in the forest!]"
  677. > They walked in silence for a while as Salki considered the answer to her question. Thistle glanced at him, but other than a faint glimmer of moonlight, reflecting from his eyes, she didn't see his expression clearly enough to tell what he was thinking.
  678. > At long last he responded: "[It is *our* land. Our fathers, and fathers' fathers fought to keep it. No true nomad would leave the land they were born in.]"
  679. "[You do realize how silly that sounds, don't you? You- we move all the time.]"
  680. > If her snide comment upset him, Salki didn't show it. "[We move from one camp to another, in our land. We will not leave it completely.]"
  681. "[Strange, but I figured as much. So at least now we will have weapons, and soon we will have horses.]"
  682. > "[Yes,]" Salki said, his voice growing lighter in anticipation of a glorious future. "[Ruslans have horses too, but they don't have bows.]"
  683. "[The others have bows. We saw in that land to the west. It is only a matter of time before Ruslans get them, since they already got horses.]"
  684. > "[True,]" Salki said, his voice becoming troubled once again.
  685. > Thistle gave this some thought, even though she was not a strategists, and had never really taken any interest in matters of war. She was a pony, for Celestia's sake! A diplomat and a bureaucrat!
  686. > The best she could do was take ideas from someone else and take them to yet another person. An exchange of ideas, which resulted in agreements, treaties, policies.
  687. > Paperwork.
  688. > At her very peak, a few times, she had been able to combine other, already existing ideas, to make something of more value.
  689. > Actually...
  690. "[I got it!]" she exclaimed and twirled around to jump in front of Salki.
  691. > Her tail swished around in excitement and she pranced a bit on her hooves, all the day's weariness forgotten in an instant.
  692. > "[Got what?]"
  693. "[I know how we can keep an edge over Ruslans!]"
  694. > Salki gave a small snort, not taking the placid, un-warlike pony very seriously when it came to matters of tactics and fighting. It smarted a little, and Thistle had hoped he would place more weight on her ideas after the bow, and after finding Janus, but she gritted her teeth, flattened her ears, and poked the young nomad in the shin with a hoof.
  695. "[Don't laugh at me, Salki! It's a good idea!]"
  696. > "[Okay, let's hear it, then.]"
  697. "[Bows, *on horses*!]"
  698. > "[What?!]"
  699. "[We train our people to shoot bows while they are riding horses. You see? The biggest problem for a bow is when the enemy comes closer. What if, instead of dropping the bow and picking up a spear, you could simply go away from them?]"
  700. > There was a moment of stunned silence, during which Salki only stared at the mare in dumb shock.
  701. "[Well?]"
  702. > He reached out his hand and laid his warm palm against her cheek. "[That's- yeah. Maybe.]"
  703. "[Maybe?]"
  704. > "[Is it possible to shoot a bow from a horse? They jostle around a lot.]"
  705. > Thistle shook her head to dismiss the worry.
  706. "[If we make saddles, that should keep you more steady. With- uh, I don't know how to call it. There are bits of rope with loops at the end hanging from the side, Janus told me. You put your feet in, so you can stand up. If you stand, you will keep your hands more steady.]"
  707. > She gave it a bit more thought and then shrugged to herself.
  708. "[For that matter, you could get the horse to stop and stand still so you shoot, and then kick it to run away, then stop and shoot again. You don't have to shoot while moving!]"
  709. > "[Yeah, that could work. Okay,]" Salki said, rubbing his scraggly beard with his hand in thought. "[We will try it. We can practice. That would allow a few of us to attack a lot of Ruslans. First, we shoot the ones with horses, then we can shoot the rest, and if they come close, we run away.]"
  710. > He smiled, and his teeth almost shone in the pale moonlight. "[That's clever!]"
  711. > Thistle beamed too, proud of her idea. She couldn't wait to get home and see it put into practice.
  712. > Her tail flicked left and right a few more times, and she realized that she was dripping.
  713. "[Now shut up and take me,]" she muttered and lifted her muzzle up.
  714. > Salki obliged her with a quick kiss, and then she twirled around again to present her rear to him. It had been a while and she really needed it.
  715.  
  716. > ~~~~
  717.  
  718. > The group pushed themselves harder as they neared their goal. They woke up a little earlier each day, and got underway sooner. They walked later into the fading light, and most nights they did not make a fire.
  719. > There was no point to it, anyway. The nomads ate their dried strips of meat, and Thistle had run out of grain to cook. None of the scouts hunted, nor did they range very far afield.
  720. > Thistle herself wasn't sure, but Salki said they had returned to lands which were familiar to him. In her eyes, it was unremarkable steppe, but the others were getting more and more excited as the day of their return approached.
  721. > The camp, Salki had told them, would not be where they left it. The others would have moved to another spot just as the summer started, one he and his mother had agreed upon before the expedition had left.
  722. > When they reached the place and didn't find anything, the nomads were surprised and more than a little worried. For long hours they scoured the ground, looking for any trace of recent nomad passing.
  723. > There was nothing.
  724. > Even to Thistle's inexpert eyes, the ground looked untouched at least since the previous summer. There were still a few places with barely any grass, where nomad feet had trodden the mud. A bit of digging in some likely places turned up remains of old fires.
  725. > Bulat and Temir found bits of bone, and broken flint knives. There was no doubt this was the right place, but no one had visited it, at least since the previous autumn.
  726. > The group made a camp in one of the old fireplaces and, for the first time in weeks, roasted some fresh meat on a crude spit. It didn't help with Thistle's growing hunger, but the fire gave her some comfort and reminded her that the nomads would be able to survive, even if it took longer to find their kin.
  727. > Her own diet would suffer, but the grass was plentiful and it would keep her going for a little while yet, especially if they didn't rush so madly toward a distant goal.
  728. "[What will we do?]" she asked into the silence.
  729. > Even Janus looked dejected, and he didn't even known anyone in the camp.
  730. > Rather than replying to her, Salki muttered: "[Something must have happened. Mother said they would come here. Could they be somewhere else? Why?]"
  731. > "[We go look,]" Janus replied. He swept his arms around him. "[Nomad no here. Nomad other place. Go look.]"
  732. > He sounded very matter-of-factly, but the steppe was huge, and if they didn't have a good idea which way to go, they could wander for weeks and not find anyone. Worse, they could run into their enemies, instead.
  733. > Having thought of that, Thistle stared at the fire and wondered if it had been a good idea to light what was essentially a beacon.
  734. > "[Janus is right,]" Temir said. "[We can go back where the camp was when we left. Maybe they hadn't gone yet.]"
  735. > That was a good suggestion and Thistle nodded to it, even if she didn't voice her opinion out loud.
  736. > Bulat tossed a small stone into the fire and spoke: "[Should we send one of us to look?]"
  737. > "[We should not split up,]" Salki said firmly. "[We stay together.]"
  738. > "[Then we all go there,]" Temir concluded.
  739. > There was silence and all eyes turned to Salki. "[Yes,]" he said, at last. He idly reached for the stick and turned the hunk of meat around so it would cook on the other side.
  740. > Thistle hadn't seen what animal they had caught, and the nomads had butchered it themselves while she and Janus were digging around, looking for clues.
  741. > "[We will go in the morning. We will move carefully and we will send scouts ahead.]"
  742. > Without having to say anything, Bulat volunteered: "[I will go.]"
  743. > Salki flashed the youth a smile, then looked around, as if his eyes could pierce the near-total darkness beyond the cozy glow of their fire. His gaze settled on Janus, at last. "[Can we use horses for this?]"
  744. > "[Use for what?]" Janus asked.
  745. > "[Use horses for scouting?]"
  746. > The blacksmith gave Thistle a pleading look, and she translated: "Go quickly and see what is there and come back to tell."
  747. > "[Oh,]" Janus replied. He tried the new word, just to fix it firmly in his mind: "[Scouting? Yes, horse fast. Horse scouting. No far, yes fast.]"
  748. > It had come as a bit of a surprise to Thistle, but the larger horses didn't seem to share her stamina as an earth pony. They could move faster, thanks to their long legs, but they needed rest more often. It would still have been a quicker pace than nomads could keep on foot, especially if their slow, plodding donkeys hadn't been holding them back.
  749. > The real value of the horses would prove in combat, Salki had determined, where a small group could strike quickly and retreat to a safe distance.
  750. > After her suggestion, Salki had tried shooting his bow from a horse, but the results had been uninspiring so far. She had encouraged the young nomad to keep trying, but he appeared doubtful it would ever work.
  751. > Salki was one of their finest bowmen, but Thistle still couldn't wait to get the horses into the camp to see if perhaps someone else would show more aptitude for combined riding and archery.
  752. "[I will go and sleep. We will move quickly tomorrow again,]" she announced and stood.
  753. > She caught Salki's eyes with their silent question, but Thistle shook her head slightly and he returned his gaze to the sizzling meat. They hadn't had the energy, nor the opportunity for their night-time fun in the last few days, and she didn't think it was a good idea to try now.
  754. > It would have to wait until they were back in the camp.
  755. > She moved a short distance away and found where they had dropped their packs on the ground. Their donkeys were tied to a wooden stake Janus had hammered into the ground near their fire, and the horses were tethered to another, nearby. She could hear the rustling as some of the animals still cropped the fresh grass, and the occasional grunt or snort from the ones resting.
  756. > It was a matter of moments for the mare to unroll her cot and wrap herself in a single fur blanket. The nights weren't as hot as in the lands to the west, but they were warm enough so she didn't need anything more.
  757. > Perhaps Salki would join her, although without the excuse of cold they hadn't really been able to cuddle through the night, so Thistle didn't get her hopes up.
  758. > She rolled over with a forlorn sigh, pulled the blanket right up over her ears, so that only her nose poked out, and closed her eyes.
  759. > It was disappointing and worrying that they hadn't found the camp, but she had faith that they'd reunite with their friends sooner or later. All four nomads with here were tenacious and resourceful, and even without Hisein, they knew this land like the back of their hands, as their expression went.
  760.  
  761. > ~~~~
  762.  
  763. > Dragging Janus' little cart was easier on the steppe than it had been in the forest, but the wheels still tended to snag on bushes, or fall into small holes, and each time it took effort to get them free.
  764. > Thistle was learning what to watch out for, but it was still slow and hard going, especially now that the blacksmith himself was no longer walking beside her and helping. He was able to communicate, however rudimentary, in a combination of broken equestrian and even worse nomad, so he spent all the time he could with either Temir, Zaur, or Bulat, mostly talking about the young women of the camp.
  765. > His reasons for coming were starting to crystallize in Thistle's mind. She had a feeling the blunt and sometimes awkward youth hadn't had much luck with the ladies back in his home town, and was hoping that a unique skill and being from exotic, far away lands, would afford him better opportunities here.
  766. > Thistle didn't mind, although she couldn't help but roll her eyes whenever one of the young men said something inane, or made a claim about the nomad women which was patently absurd.
  767. > She didn't intervene, though. It was something Janus would have to figure out for himself. At best, she'd decided, she would introduce him to Buygra and ask the hunter to offer some friendly advice and guidance.
  768. > Her belly growled, unsatisfied with the plain grass she'd given it, however tender it had been. If she had to keep up this diet, Thistle would need to spend a lot more time grazing every day. What the fodder lacked in calories she would have to make up in volume.
  769. > For now, however, she hoped that Temir was right and the nomads were still at the old camp. She didn't know how far that was, but believed Salki when he had quoted two days of travel.
  770. > It was later afternoon on the second day, and they still hadn't seen any sign of other people. Thistle had been thinking about asking Salki to stop, so she could graze until nightfall, but hadn't quite made up her mind.
  771. > She became aware that their procession had ground to a halt, so she did the same, making sure the wagon wheels were on firm ground so they wouldn't sink into mud.
  772. "[What is it?]" she asked the nearest nomad.
  773. > Zaur was staring into the distance, with his palm up to shield his eyes from the setting sun. "[Bulat is coming back on his horse,]" he said.
  774. > That meant they would wait for him, and then they would discuss what he'd found, or - more likely - hadn't found, Thistle decided. She scrambled with her hooves around her shoulders and squirmed out of the harness after a brief struggle with the knots.
  775. > The donkeys and the other horses had had the same idea and their heads were already to the ground. Thistle followed suit, although she kept an ear turned in the nomads' direction so she wouldn't miss anything important.
  776. > At first all she could hear were galloping hoof steps coming closer, followed by the horse's panting. Salki and Temir murmured to each other, but she couldn't catch the actual words.
  777. > Eventually the rider approached and slowed. She heard the thump as Bulat dropped heavily down from his mount.
  778. > "[Nothing,]" he said, even before Salki had had a chance to ask.
  779. > Thistle's heart fell and she lifted up her head even as she continued to chew.
  780. > "[Nothing?]" Salki asked, his voice flat and low with dismay.
  781. > "[There was a camp, but it has been gone for weeks.]"
  782. > "[Damn!]"
  783. "[Did you see which way they went?]" Thistle asked, with her mouth half-full of grass.
  784. > That reminded Salki and he pointed a finger. "[That's right! Was there any sign?]"
  785. > There was a momentary silence as Bulat gave it some thought. "[I don't know,]" he finally admitted.
  786. > "[We will go and check in the morning,]" Salki said. "[There will be tracks, we will know which way they went. When we know which way, we will know which camp site. We will find them.]"
  787. > That was as good a plan as any, so Thistle turned back to the patch of tender, fresh grass before her. Food was more important at the moment, and they would look for their friends the next day. One more night wouldn't make a lot of difference, and she knew it would be easy to miss any tracks or signs in twilight.
  788. > What was worse, blundering about in dark could lead to some incautious nomad to ruin traces of the other's direction.
  789. "[Salki? Unpack my roll, please? I have to eat.]"
  790. > "[Okay,]" the nomad said. "[Bulat, Zaur, go and see if you can shoot some game. We are almost out of dried meat.]"
  791. > The two he'd named rushed off and Salki pointed at the remaining two: "[Janus, Temir, gather some sticks for a fire. I will prepare the fire pit.]"
  792. > These, too, obeyed without question. In a way, Thistle was proud of Salki's tone of quiet command. He'd come some way from the demanding and petulant youth from only a few weeks ago. She knew he still had a ways to go, and he had a tendency to fall back into those habits.
  793. > More importantly, sometimes he made bad decisions, and when the others pointed that out, Salki usually decided to stubbornly dig his heels in and refuse to budge more often than not. Thistle had been guiding the young nomad to know when to give in and accept advice, but it was an uphill battle and it would take time.
  794. > Eventually, she thought, he would make a solid leader. Thistle couldn't help smiling a little to herself as she munched on the grass. A good leader, trained by her.
  795.  
  796. > ~~~~
  797.  
  798. > The new day brought more confusion, but at least there was some hope. They examined the remains of camp, and the refuse left behind. Thistle tried to imagine where the tents had stood, the impromptu 'streets' and places where the nomads had gathered.
  799. > Here and there she recognized a sight, but most of it was alien to her, inscrutable without the people, and their cooking fires, and their tents. Mere shapes on the ground.
  800. > Things had been left behind. Bits of leather and bone. Flint tools, and a few broken ceramic pots. In one place, there was the frame of a tent, mostly intact, but uncovered. A few fireplaces still had a dark, ashy mud, and one had the wooden tripod with the leather cooking pot.
  801. > Thistle couldn't guess what it all meant. The nomads were never this wasteful when they moved. It was certain they had gone, and all the hunters with her agreed on which way the tracks led. If the camp had been wiped out, Salki argued, the bodies would have been left for the wild animals. They would have found remains. Bones, and clothes, and tools.
  802. > It was obvious to them, if not to Thistle, that the camp people had left in a hurry. They hadn't had time to pack everything.
  803. > There was little else to do but follow them.
  804. > She went back to pulling Janus' blacksmithing cart, and the man himself walked beside her, but they didn't speak. Their group travelled in heavy, oppressive silence, each nomad lost in his own thoughts. The only change came when one of the scouts returned on a horse, changed it for another, and rode off again.
  805. > At least, Thistle thought, she wasn't very hungry anymore. She was too worried to think about that. What if something had driven the people off, and they would never find them? What if, whatever it was, had followed them and simply finished the job in another place?
  806. > What would become of their small group?
  807. > She kept her mouth shut and didn't speak of her worries, but whenever one of the other nomads came near her, she saw the same questions reflected on their faces, too.
  808. > The day gradually turned to evening, and when it was too dark to follow the trail, Salki called for a halt. Again he sent the others out, this time to hunt so they could keep up their strength.
  809. > Whatever they would catch wouldn't help Thistle very much, so she went off to crop the untouched grass to the side with the donkeys and the horses.
  810. > She kept going until it was fully dark and her belly was full, if not exactly satiated. When she came back to the fire, the cooking was already done, and the nomads sat, grim-faced and silent, around the flickering flames.
  811. "[How much further?]" she asked.
  812. > Her words were perhaps the first which broke the silence since Salki's quiet and subdued orders some hours ago, and the two youngest nomads jerked up in surprise at her sudden voice.
  813. > "[We don't know,]" Salki said. "[We will keep going until we find them.]"
  814. "[Where are they going? Is there a camp site this way?]"
  815. > Rather than replying, the nomad just gave her a troubled look and shook his head.
  816. "[Maybe some new, big animals showed up? Maybe they couldn't fight them off without you?]"
  817. > Even as she said it, the reasoning sounded dumb to Thistle. Salki flashed her a momentary smile, then shook his head again. "[No. It must be the Ruslans. They drove our people off with horses and numbers. We do not have many fighters.]"
  818. "[And some of them were gone.]"
  819. > It was the only reasonable conclusion they could make, and despite the fact that Salki didn't confirm it, Thistle felt it was the truth as the other nomads looked at one another.
  820. "[We will find them. Everyone will be alright, you'll see. Then we will fight back. We will have weapons.]"
  821. > At this, Janus spoke up, confident and boisterous: "[Yes, weapons! I make. Good weapons. Strong!]"
  822. > His claims helped lighten the mood and the nomads relaxed a little. The night seemed a tiny bit less dark, and the faces weren't quite so grim. Even Thistle felt a little better about lugging the blacksmith's tools and the few bars of bronze he had stolen from his old village. It wasn't much, but it would mean a few metal spears, and perhaps a couple of knives while they searched for ore.
  823. > She shuffled closer to Salki and leaned against his side in a show of silent support.
  824. > After a few moments, Salki's arm went around her back and Thistle rested her cheek on his shoulder.
  825. > She allowed the dancing flames to capture her imagination.
  826.  
  827. > ~~~~
  828.  
  829. > The sun was as high as it would get on the second day, when something changed. The nomads were still following the faint trails of the others' passage when Bulat rode back from his scouting run.
  830. > "[People!]" he said, pointing ahead of them.
  831. > "[How many?]" Salki asked.
  832. > "[Two! I saw spears! They saw me!]"
  833. > The others immediately drew closer together. Salki turned to the mare. "[You and Janus, stay back and protect the horses. We will fight them off. We can take two, easy.]"
  834. > Thistle tried to unbuckle herself from the harness, but her hooves shook with sudden nerves and she couldn't quite manage the knots.
  835. "[Janus? Help?]"
  836. > The blacksmith stared at her in confusion for a moment, then hurried over and untied her. They left the cart where it was and Thistle ran to herd the donkeys to the back. Zaur wordlessly passed her the rope to the lead jenny, and the other beasts smoothly followed when Thistle clicked her tongue at them.
  837. > Meanwhile, Janus waited for Bulat to dismount, so he could gather all the horses and join her. They stood together and stared at the distant horizon, trying to see the attackers.
  838. > "[Down! Don't show them how many we are!]" Salki said. He looked at the horses and his face darkened when he realized he couldn't quite hide them, but he didn't comment and joined the other four nomads lying in some tall grass.
  839. > At his words, Thistle flattened herself on the ground, making sure to keep her hoof on the donkey's rope.
  840. > The others had their bows in their hands, and arrows already knocked. Thistle knew they wouldn't be able to shoot from that position, but she also remembered how smoothly the hunters could rise up from cover and loose. It was a maneuver they practiced while hunting some of the more skittish animals of the steppe.
  841. > She swallowed a lump and forced her ears upright so she would catch any other instructions Salki might give her. She kept looking from the nomads to the distant horizon, but with her eyesight she couldn't really see much.
  842. > The group waited in tense expectation.
  843. > Temir was the first to whisper: "[I see them!]"
  844. > At his words, the others shuffled around and Salki partially lifted himself to peer above the clumps of grass. "[I see them too,]" he confirmed. "[They are coming this way. They saw the horses.]"
  845. > Thistle strained her eyes, but all that did was make her vision even more blurry with tears, which she had to wipe away with a hasty fetlock. She looked up at Janus, instead.
  846. "What do you see?" she asked him.
  847. > The blacksmith had the good sense to whisper, even though he hadn't lain down when Salki commanded it. Maybe that was good, she thought. If the enemy thought he was alone, if they didn't recognize that the person on the horse had been someone else, they may approach incautiously.
  848. > "Two men," Janus said, shading his eyes with his hand. "Spear. Bow. They walk to us."
  849. > Thistle's breath caught. A bow could only mean one thing, unless the Ruslans had beaten her tribe, in which case it didn't really matter.
  850. "[Salki!]" she hissed. "[They have bows! They have to be ours!]"
  851. > He glanced back briefly to give her a nod, but he also placed his finger on his lips. He didn't move from his prone position, unwilling to take the risk. "[Do you recognize them, Temir?]" he asked.
  852. > The silence stretched as the youth strained his eyes. Eventually he slumped down. "[I don't know,]" he admitted.
  853. > They waited, but the two strangers stopped some distance away. Temir said they might be talking, but he wasn't sure. They were obviously afraid of Janus, but also intrigued by the horses they could undoubtedly see.
  854. > "[One of them is going!]" Temir exclaimed. "[The way they came!]"
  855. > "[Shit! Going for more men,]" Salki swore. "[We have to attack! Come on!]"
  856. > He began to crawl closer on his belly.
  857. > There had to be a better way! Thistle thought quickly. The stranger was out of range of their bows, which meant they were also safe from him. Perhaps she could help them determine if the lone man was dangerous?
  858. > The answer was obvious.
  859. "[Wait!]" she said. "[I have an idea.]"
  860. > Salki and the others stopped and looked back at her in surprise. She gave them a nervous smile and rose to her hooves.
  861. > "[No! Get down!]" Salki hissed, but she ignored him and walked forward. When she was beside the prone nomads, she turned to one side, presenting her distinct profile to the stranger.
  862. > Her ears caught the faint shout, but she could not make out words.
  863. > There was a gasp from Temir. "[He raised his arm! He is waving!]"
  864. "[See? They are *ours*! They recognized me!]"
  865. > Salki remained silent for a few more seconds, but then Zaur said. "[I think he is coming closer. His bow is lowered.]"
  866. > That all but proved it. Salki gave her a quick glare and said: "[That was stupid, but I guess it worked.]" He stood up, followed soon by the others.
  867. > Soon after Temir exclaimed: "[It's Usman! Thistle is right.]"
  868. > By the time their friend reached the group, they were all smiling. He ran up to Salki and clasped his hand, even as he stared at the four horses. "[You're back!]" he exclaimed. "[You're back and you have horses. This is good!]"
  869. > "[Why did you look like you will attack us? Why did the clan move this way? You should have gone to South-East, like we agreed!]" Salki said.
  870. > At that, Usman's face darkened and he hung his head.
  871. > "[Oh, you don't know,]" he said sadly. When he looked back up, his face was somber.
  872. > "[We are at war with the Ruslans.]"
  873.  
  874. > ~~~~
  875.  
  876. > It was less of a triumphant return than Thistle had expected, but it still sparked off an impromptu celebration. The camp looked decidedly poorer than she remembered, with the tents clustered closer together, and hardly anyone drying animal hides, or smoking meat. The bonfire at the center was just an afterthought, and there were no fallen logs for benches around it.
  877. > The nomads she remembered were thinner, with sunken cheeks and sullen expressions, and even her closest friends barely mustered smiles when they saw her. Despite that, there was an aura of relief when Salki and the others came in.
  878. > Many stared at Janus in mistrust, although he was the one leading the horses and that helped break the ice. Thistle knew what the nomads thought of outsiders, so she stayed close to the man.
  879. > Almost immediately as they arrived Darga sent out a group of hunters to go get some big game, so they could have a good roast and celebrate. There would be no beer, but it felt as if everyone cheered up a little at the prospect of a good meal. For Thistle herself, there would be bread and tubers, and even a bit of grain that was left over.
  880. > There wasn't much of it, for the traders hadn't come back ever since the day their expedition had set out, and everyone blamed the Ruslans. No doubt they were waylaying the trading caravans and keeping them from getting to Darga's camp.
  881. > Pretty soon, the dark and gloomy atmosphere, and the bits and pieces of rumours Thistle heard, had soured her mood, too. The Ruslan tribe was larger than theirs, she learned, and they had more men. They were able to gang up on small hunting parties, and they'd even attacked the women when they went to gather yams and other roots.
  882. > Even the donkey herd had to be guarded at all times to keep them safe. It was impossible to go any distance from the camp in the dark. The enemy was harassing them and chipping away at their numbers with sneaky, underhanded tactics.
  883. > Her closest friends - Saule, Xuan, and Buygra, were alive, although Buygra had been injured during some recent fighting. Others Thistle remembered were mostly okay, but there were missing faces in the crowd, even if she couldn't immediately recall names.
  884. > It was only the nomads' proficiency with bows which kept them safe, but recently even that was not enough. The Ruslans had gotten wise to the weapon and were trying to make their own, with varying degrees of success. Now that they had seen it in action, perfecting it for themselves was only a matter of time.
  885. > Thistle wanted to tell everyone that they would have a blacksmith, but Salki had ordered her to remain silent until they'd had a chance to discuss it with Darga.
  886. > With that, all she could do was wander aimlessly from one friend to another, saying hello, and grudgingly accepting what little morsels they could give her. She wanted to say no to the mouldy bits of bread, or stale yams, but her own supplies had run out long ago and she desperately needed the calories.
  887. > At least with some, like Xuan, Thistle was able to forget their troubles for a few minutes. The woman was one of the few whose smile wasn't diminished, and who was really enthusiastic about the mare's return. Her daughter, Guuni, was not yet half a year old, but had grown visibly since Thistle had last seen her. The child stared at her with wide, curious eyes. She didn't speak yet, but some of the noises she made felt like they would become words in good time.
  888. > "[You will tell me about the things you've seen,]" Xuan had told her almost as soon as they met. "[Come, I will make tea,]" she invited.
  889. > There wasn't much else to do, not while Salki was explaining pretty much the same thing to his mother and the others were with their own families. Only Janus, who had nowhere to go, was standing awkwardly behind Thistle and looking bewildered at what he was seeing. She looked back at him, then gave Xuan a pleading look.
  890. "[He can join us? He is my friend.]"
  891. > Xuan glanced at the stranger, then shrugged her shoulders. "[Fine.]"
  892. > Thistle patted the edge of the rough animal skin Xuan had in front of her tent.
  893. "Janus, sit. We will talk."
  894. > He did so, giving Xuan a nervous grin and a head bow. "[Thank,]" he said, in fumbling and broken nomad. "[Thank for sit. Tired. Rest.]"
  895. > Xuan's eyebrow rose at the words and she looked at the mare. "[He doesn't speak our language?]"
  896. "[A little. He speaks more my language, Equestrian.]"
  897. > This was a reveal Thistle had been looking forward to, and she watched Xuan's face very closely. The woman tried to control herself, but for a moment her eyes widened and her mouth hung open. "[Your language?!]" she said, her voice calm, but with barely suppressed incredulity. "[How is that possible?]"
  898. > Thistle was silent for a few seconds as she thought about whether Darga may want to keep that information hidden. In the end, she asked:
  899. "[Will you keep this a secret?]"
  900. > Xuan gave an immediate nod. "[From everyone, except Buygra. We do not have secrets. He will not tell anyone, I will see to it.]"
  901. "[Okay, good. Janus knows Equestrian because my people were here, in your world, a long time before.]"
  902. > The woman gave the blacksmith a new, appraising glance. "[Really?]"
  903. "[Yes! They taught Janus' people the language, and the ways of making metal things, and they have been passing it down all along. The language is very bad now, but they are good with metal! They call themselves 'blacksmith'. It means someone who can shape metal.]"
  904. > Again, Xuan was shocked, but this time her gaping mouth became a gleeful smile. "[So you are this metal-shaper? The 'black-smith'?]" she asked Janus directly.
  905. > "[Yes,]" he replied, simply.
  906. "[Janus agreed to come with us and be our blacksmith. He will teach the clan how to find metals and how to make them into tools and weapons.]"
  907. > "[That will be useful,]" Xuan said. "[The Ruslans have been pushing us very hard. Some people have lost hope.]"
  908. "[I think I saw that,]" Thistle said sadly. "[What happened?]"
  909. > The woman just shrugged. "[They begun attacking our hunting parties. Always more men than ours. They killed some of us, and we killed some of them, but they have more men to lose. They began to draw closer at nights, attacking cowardly from the darkness and ambush!]"
  910. > Xuan spat, just barely missing the animal skin on which they sat. "[The dogs do not have the courage to face us head on, so they sneak around and pick us off one by one.]"
  911. > She reached out her hand to encompass the whole camp. "[Darga had us move here, because it is easier to defend. The grass is short, and there is a fast river, which is difficult to cross in the spring. It will be running low as the summer continues.]"
  912. > Thistle's ears were already splayed, and she swallowed a lump. "[How many people died?]"
  913. > "[I don't know,]" Xuan said. "[Many. Hunters, some women who went out to pick yams, a few children who were watching the donkeys.]" She spat again, and her face twisted into a grimace. "[Those dogs have no honor!]"
  914. > They were attacking the defenceless, and the children! Thistle realized her muzzle was scrunched up in a hateful snarl and shook her head, as if to try and dislodge those un-pony-like thoughts. She couldn't quite help being pleased with the aid she'd brought the clan, though.
  915. "[Janus will make us metal weapons! We brought some bars of metal, so he can begin right away! Arrows tipped with metal points! That will show them!]"
  916. > Even though he didn't understand most of what was said, the blacksmith's face was somber and serious. At Thistle's words he thumped his chest and said: "[I make weapons! Good weapons!]"
  917. > "[That is good to hear,]" Xuan said, a faint, sad smile returning to her lips. "[We need a good thing. I saw you also brought horses, but only four is not enough to ride into battle.]"
  918. "[Oh, that reminds me! Xuan, we need Buygra to try riding a horse and shooting a bow! Salki is not very good at it. If we can do that, we will have better and faster bowmen than Ruslans!]"
  919. > For the third time in a single conversation Xuan gaped in shock. "[Men with bows riding horses? Can it be done?]"
  920. "[Yes! Salki could do it, but he couldn't hit the targets. He needs more practice!]"
  921. > "[Hah!]" Xuan laughed. "[That will let us strike back at the cowards with impunity! This is good, really good! Is that what the people on the other side of the world do with horses?]"
  922. > Thistle shook her head and her ears perked up with pride. She even began to smile a little.
  923. "[No! It was my idea!]"
  924. > The woman reached across and tousled Thistle's mane. "[It is a good idea!]" She transferred her gaze to Janus. "[What do you need to make weapons? Darga will get you everything.]"
  925. > He didn't understand the question, but Janus understood the offer. His grin turned lecherous and he rubbed his hands together. "[Women for Janus? No lonely?]"
  926. > Thistle rolled her eyes at his youthful, hormone-induced lust, but Xuan just laughed it off. "[Is that all? There will be many who will want metal-shaper blood in their families. It will not be a problem.]"
  927. > It was the mare's turn to be shocked and she looked absolutely scandalized, at least until she remembered what she and Salki had been doing pretty much through the entire trip. After that, she just blushed and lowered her ears. Despite her own debauchery, she thought, Janus didn't have to look *that* pleased with himself. At least he could have given Xuan a serious answer.
  928. "[He will need- I don't know your word. It is wood which has been burned, but not completely burned. It is like the black bits of wood that are left in the fires.]"
  929. > "[Why? What use is half-burned wood?]" Xuan asked.
  930. "[If it is made correctly, it will burn much hotter than normal wood. We will also need a- a *thing* for blowing air. It is two bits of wood and leather, sown into a big water skin, with a small hole.]"
  931. > Xuan leaned her head to one side, but then nodded. "[I think Darkhan will be able to make something like that easily. What else?]"
  932. > The mare gave it some thought, but couldn't come up with anything. She looked at Janus, but decided against trying to make a comprehensive list just yet. No doubt Darga would want to know the same things, and they could go through it then.
  933. "[We have the rest. We brought his metal base, and his tools. We have some metal, but he will teach the hunters what to look for, to find more metals in the ground.]"
  934. > "[That is good!]" Xuan said, smiling openly by now. "[We will show those Ruslan dogs! They won't push us around any longer, not now that Salki and the others are back, and we have a metal-shaper!]"
  935.  
  936. > ~~~~
  937.  
  938. > A tent for Janus was found and erected right next to Darga's. A few of the others had to move to make room for him to set up a very temporary smithy. At last, all the effort Thistle had put into dragging his little cart across half the world was paying off.
  939. > The anvil, for which the nomads didn't have a word, was little more than a heavy wooden block, topped with bronze. The rest of the tools looked somewhat familiar - tongs, hammers, chisels, even the occasional rasp. Although they were suited for human hands, many of them had obvious Equestrian ancestry.
  940. > A more difficult problem was fuel. Thistle knew the rudiments of making charcoal, and Janus knew a lot more, but that would need a lot of wood. Besieged by the Ruslans, as they were, made it difficult. An alternative she'd thought of was coal.
  941. > From what she'd seen, this world was very similar to Equestria. There was a good chance it would have coal on the surface in places. When she mentioned this to Janus, he had agreed, and the two interrogated all the hunters and scouts.
  942. > Once they had a few potential leads, Darga sent out parties of three and four nomads to find these places and bring back the 'brittle black stones'.
  943. > Plain wood could be used, according to Janus, but it would take a lot of fuel, and they'd need to have the bellows. Thistle was able to describe exactly what they wanted to Darkhan, who promptly set off to work.
  944. > With luck, it would all come to fruition in a few days, and Janus would have earned a permanent place in the camp.
  945. > Many nomads were skeptical. Darga made it very clear that she would only believe it when her hand held an iron dagger, but at least she was letting them try. Despite their guarded attitude, after the news had spread Thistle could feel the mood of the camp shifting. More people smiled at her, and crowds congregated around the central fire pit, and Janus' tent. Still others were entranced by the horses and there was no shortage of helping hands when it came to caring for the beasts.
  946. > There were no fresh Ruslan attacks, which was thanks, in part, to the increased guard the nomads had set around the camp. Despite that, no one left the safety of the tents alone, and the nomads went in groups even to relieve themselves, and fetch water.
  947. > Thistle fell back into her old routine, and helped with fetching water, firewood, cooking, and washing. The transition had been surprisingly smooth, and soon their trip began to feel like a dream, compared with the realities of the life in the camp.
  948. > The biggest snag came on the morning of the third day, when she had gone to find Saule. The two had been spending time in the evenings to talk about Thistle's adventure, and the mare decided to take breakfast with Saule and her family, since there wasn't much to do around Darga's tent, or with Janus.
  949. > She had to ask for directions, thanks to the completely new layout of the small village of tents, and she soon found the young woman setting up her cooking fire.
  950. "[Good morning, Saule!]" Thistle chirped happily.
  951. > Saule cast her a glance, and her face darkened. "[Go away,]" she said, sharply.
  952. > The sheer, cold anger in her voice nearly sent Thistle reeling.
  953. "[What's wrong?]"
  954. > "[Don't ask me what's wrong! Just leave!]"
  955. > Thistle decided to ignore the command and came closer. She saw that the young woman's cheeks were marked with twin trails of fresh tears.
  956. "[Saule! Your face! What happened?]"
  957. > Her face was a grimace when Saule rounded up on the mare. She held her wooden mixing stick up high, as if she was going to beat Thistle with it. "[What happened? *You* happened, you mongrel bitch!]"
  958. > It wasn't language Thistle had ever heard from the normally soft-spoken nomad, nor did she expect to hear it! The name stung more than a slap with that stick would have.
  959. "[Why?! What did I do?]"
  960. > Thistle mentally replayed their previous conversation, but she hadn't said or done anything which could have justified this reaction. She hadn't been drunk, or anything!
  961. > "[I'll tell you what you did!]" Saule spat. "[You were fucking with Salki all the time you were away! That's what you did!]" At that, the young woman spat, narrowly missing Thistle's hoof.
  962. > The mare shrank back in the face of that incandescent rage, and her ears crawled to the back of her head.
  963. "[What? I- We just- Saule-]"
  964. > "[Shut up! I don't want to hear it,]" Saule replied and turned her back on Thistle. She picked up one of the long, straight sticks for her leather pot, and jammed it into the ground with such force that she nearly broke it. "[Salki is mine, you understand?! Keep your whore ass away from him!]"
  965. "[But Saule, I thought we were friends!]"
  966. > Saule whirled back around and smacked Thistle's side with the stick. It left a stinging line of fire across her ribs and the mare jumped back, yelping in pain.
  967. "[Saule, what the fuck?!]"
  968. > "[He's *mine*!]" the nomad repeated, growling the word so deeply that it made Thistle think of a wolf. "[Stay away! You're not going to turn him into an animal fucker! He doesn't like you!]"
  969. > Already there were tears flowing freely down Thistle's face, and she reached out a plaintive hoof.
  970. "[We can talk about this! He can l-love both of us! Don't do this!! We can work it out!]"
  971. > The angry woman raised her stick again, and Thistle took a hurried step back. "[There's nothing to talk! You stay the fuck away, or I'll tell Darga you seduced her son and made him fuck you. She'll skin you alive!]"
  972. "[I can't stay away, we sleep in the same tent.]"
  973. > Saule's face had been red already, but now it darkened to near purple. "[Not for long you wont! Move in with Janus, I don't care. You can fuck him all you like! Me and Salki will be together! I'll be chieftain's wife, and you'll just be a whore nobody!]"
  974. > Thistle placed her hoof on the ground in front of her, but Saule tightened her grip on the wood and lifted her arm again. She would hit her again, if the mare came within reach.
  975. > There was no talking to her, not in this mood.
  976. > Feeling like a coward, Thistle turned tail and hurried away, hot tears dripping freely from her muzzle.
  977.  
  978. > ~~~~
  979.  
  980. > Salki was avoiding her. Thistle had sought him out after her disastrous encounter with Saule, but he said he was busy and left. She considered following and demanding answers, but ultimately decided against it.
  981. > There was no one else she could talk to, either. If she told any of the other nomads what had happened, they would brand Salki an 'animal fucker', and it would severely damage both his, and his mother's reputation. Thistle wasn't certain who would become the chieftain after that, but Willow was an obvious candidate and that would end poorly for her, and likely for her friends.
  982. > She couldn't even confide in Xuan! The woman would probably understand, but this was in no way a certainty and Thistle didn't want to risk losing perhaps the only other ally she had in the camp.
  983. > Telling Janus was also out of the question. Even if she managed to explain it in a mixture of broken Equestrian and Nomad, he would be just as disgusted as all of the others. For most of them, it was unthinkable. It was one thing to do it with a captured Ruslan, who was an enemy and could be humiliated in revenge, but a rumor like that about any of the camp nomads was a far more serious accusation.
  984. > A simple drunken kiss had nearly turned Darga against her!
  985. > All Thistle wanted to do was go somewhere she could be alone, where at least she could have a good cry, but even that was to be denied her. Soon after her altercation with Saule one of the older girls sought her out and told her that she was needed at Janus' tent.
  986. > The mare collected her wits, set her face into an impassive mask, and made her way there. The reason was soon obvious. Darkhan had produced the rudimentary bellows, and some of the camp women had gathered a large pile of wood. Janus had dug a firepit and lined it with stones. A small, but fierce fire blazed in it while the man fiddled with his anvil.
  987. > Thistle had to push her way through the crowd which had gathered to watch this marvel. She was in no mood to apologize, or even talk, so she simply butted legs out of the way with her head, and didn't care of she stepped on toes. There was some cursing, and a few ineffectual slaps on her back, but she made her way to the center.
  988. > Almost immediately Janus spotted her and waved her over. "Come, come!" he spoke in Equestrian. His words were a lot surer in that language when it came to his craft, and he didn't even try with Nomad. "Come, you put wood on fire! You use bellows. I say when! Come!"
  989. > Even though she wasn't really in the mood for something so public and complicated, Thistle was very likely the best person for the job. Out of all of them, she at least had a vague idea what smithing looked like, and she was the only one who really understood the language.
  990. > Salki and the others could also speak it a little, but when she looked around the crowd Thistle couldn't see them. The important people were there: Darga, Intor, Kantuta, even Darkhan. But none of the young men who had accompanied her to the foreign lands. Either they were following Salki's example and avoiding her, or they had gone out to hunt.
  991. > She resigned herself to the task and went over to stand by Janus. At least, she thought bitterly, it would raise her esteem in the eyes of the people.
  992. "What do you need me to do?"
  993. > "I say already! Put wood, use bellow. I say when," Janus replied, a little irritably at having to repeat himself.
  994. > Thistle sat herself on a patch of dry-looking dirt and waited her cue. She watched the blacksmith unpack his tools and lay them out, close to hand. He pulled several lumps of yellow metal from his cart. She recognized them as bronze, although they didn't shine like the objects she remembered from Equestria. Then again, those had been largely ornamental, and they'd been finished products, whereas this was raw metal. Perhaps it was not meant to look nice.
  995. > Janus held his hand over the fire, then turned to her. "More wood," he told her. "Wood, then bellow."
  996. > She went to the large pile of dry twigs and branches. It must have taken a lot of effort to gather and drag over, and Thistle was secretly glad they hadn't sent her on that particular errand, at least. Compared to collecting the fuel, it was simplicity itself to toss some of the larger pieces into the fire.
  997. > After that, she looked for the makeshift bellows Darkhan had constructed. It was made of two wooden paddles, sown into several pieces of leather to make a sack. It opened at the thin end, but there was nothing which would prevent it from smoldering.
  998. > She would have to be careful and not stick it directly into the fire. Perhaps Janus could make a nozzle for it in time, but until then the little leather spout couldn't be allowed to get too near the heat.
  999. "Help me move this," she said to Janus.
  1000. > The contraption was large and unwieldy, cumbersome to move with hooves. It wouldn't have been too bad to get into place before the fire was lit, but now the two handles flopped every which way and they could end up in the coals all too easily.
  1001. > Janus quickly saw her problem and hurried over to help her move the thing. It was easier for bipeds who had two five-fingered hands, and in a matter of moments the bellows was set just right. Janus had left out one of the stones in the top ring, so that air could be blown right into the heart.
  1002. > She experimentally lifted up one handle, but had to hurriedly step on the other one to keep it in place. It would be awkward work, and Thistle began looking at the crowd to find a volunteer after she'd demonstrated the principle.
  1003. > Without springs, a bellows was a complicated object for a pony to use, especially one this large. Still, she made do, and when she pushed the handle back down, a large gust of air blew right into the flames, which leapt and crackled with fierce intensity. She could feel the heat on her muzzle.
  1004. > Satisfied with the results, Janus selected a small lump of metal and simply dropped it into the fire.
  1005. "Won't it melt?"
  1006. > He looked from it, to the mare, then back, before laughing. "Fire not hot enough. It will go soft. I will take out when soft, and hit with hammer."
  1007. "Oh."
  1008. > "Keep bellow air!"
  1009. "Sorry."
  1010. > She fumbled with the handle to lift it again, then pushed another good blow of air into the fire. She cast a quick glance at Janus, and he nodded and waved his hand up and down, so she did the same thing once more.
  1011. > After the first few minutes, it became a routine, although she still had to wrestle a bit with the unwieldy wooden stick. If she was going to do this often, Thistle thought, she would have to get Darkhan to make some kind of a strap for her hoof.
  1012. > For now, it seemed to be a satisfactory performance and she heard faint murmurs from around them during the few quiet moments while the bellows were either full, or empty.
  1013. > She saw the people were talking excitedly, and a few were pointing at the fire. The bronze was gradually, almost imperceptibly, changing color. She tried to watch it for a while, but her eyes began to water from the heat.
  1014. > "More air," Janus said, needlessly. He hurried over to the wood, browsed through it for a few larger branches, and tossed those on the top, one by one.
  1015. > Gradually, with the combination of heat and exertion, Thistle began to sweat. It wasn't too bad, and the moisture dried almost as soon as it appeared, but she was starting to get thirsty. She scanned through the crowd again for a potential replacement so she could rest for a bit.
  1016. > Her attention was diverted when Janus selected some tongs and pushed the glowing embers apart a little. She held the bellows fully extended, but didn't push it down while he checked on his metal.
  1017. > "Little more," he told her and stepped away, so she could give the fire a few good blasts of air. After that she stopped once more, and he went back to inspect it.
  1018. > This time he found what he wanted and pulled the glowing lump of bronze out. It went to the anvil, where he held it with one hand, while he plucked a large hammer from his belt with his other.
  1019. > He hit the metal with a resounding clank, a small shower of sparks and, a moment later, an exclamation from the observing nomads.
  1020. > It was also Thistle's chance to rest, since there was nothing left in the fire. She let the bellows fall to the ground and went to sit down a little distance away to cool off.
  1021. > She'd almost forgotten Salki's anger, and now she kept a curious eye on what Janus was doing. It was hard to see from her vantage point, but he hammered at the metal with quick, sure strikes. There was nothing primitive about his craft, even if his tools were rudimentary.
  1022. > Perhaps the strangest thing was how the people watched, mostly in silence. A few of them spoke, or pointed, and there were ragged cheers every now and then when Janus made particularly many sparks glitter through the air. Darga and Intor were conversing, but it was too quiet for Thistle to hear.
  1023. > "Come. More fire," Janus said at last, and held up the lump. It had more of a shape, elongated and rounded, rather than lumpy, but Thistle couldn't guess what he was making. Crucially, the bronze had cooled so it barely glowed, and there were black flecks crumbling from it.
  1024. > Janus put it back in the fire, and motioned her to the bellows. With a small sigh, Thistle returned and fumbled to grip the handle once more.
  1025. "What are you making?" she asked, mainly to pass the time.
  1026. > "Small knife and arrow."
  1027. "Just one arrow?"
  1028. > If so, it would be a waste of metal, unless the nomad who had it made very sure to always retrieve it.
  1029. > "Many arrow!" Janus explained. He prodded the metal in the flames again, but then began to look around the crowd. She saw him smiling and followed his gaze, to where a few of the older girls were standing it a group. Their faces held open admiration.
  1030. > Thistle rolled her eyes and focused on the bellows.
  1031.  
  1032. > ~~~~
  1033.  
  1034. > The first blade had gone to Willow. Thistle had thought it would belong either to Salki, or his mother, but there was a big argument and in the end they had to give it. After all, Salki had brought a knife from the foreign lands, and Darga didn't go out on hunts. It was war time, so there was no room for extravagance.
  1035. > The arrow tips were a different matter. Salki was still one of the best with a bow, so it made sense to give him the best weapon.
  1036. > Despite the row that evening when Janus had finished and dunked the metal objects into a clay pot of water, the atmosphere in the camp was jubilant. Someone had brought a skin of old, stale beer from somewhere, and a few of the women began making bread. A donkey was killed, and the people decided to have a little festival.
  1037. > It was quite badly needed, especially after the tension and worry Thistle had sensed in the air ever since they'd returned. Times were hard, and the future was uncertain, so a night to forget it all would help everyone.
  1038. > Salki was still avoiding her, and the few times she tried to talk to him, the young man just turned around and pretended she wasn't there. It was infuriatingly juvenile and soon her teeth hurt from grinding them in impotent rage. Even worse - no one wanted to give her any beer, so Thistle was stuck with a few crusts of rough bread and a couple of toasted yams. Those were nice, but they didn't help her relax.
  1039. > In the end she gave up on the situation, at least for the moment, and went to see how their new horses were doing. Bulat and Zaur, who had the most experience with the animals, had become their unofficial keepers, and it wasn't strange that they were with their small, new herd, rather than enjoying the party.
  1040. > They offered Thistle friendly nods as she joined them, but continued talking about the four horses.
  1041. > "[Janus said the mare will be in heat soon. Did you see how she fought with the other one?]" Bulat was saying.
  1042. > Zaur, on the other hand, just spread his arms helplessly. "[Janus said that when we were still on the other side of the mountains. Neither of the mares have gone into heat yet!]"
  1043. > At that, Bulat pointed a finger. "[It will be soon. See how she lifts her tail?]"
  1044. > The statement just made his friend snort with laughter. "[Pah,]" Zaur shot back, "[she only does that to take a shit. They are the same as donkeys, only bigger.]"
  1045. > For a moment the two glared at each other, then they both turned to Thistle, who was staring in shock at their conversation.
  1046. > "[Thistle,]" Bulat said, "[what do you think? Will the big mare go in heat soon?]"
  1047. "[How am I supposed to know?!]" she squeaked, face coloring slightly.
  1048. > The nomad looked uncertain for a moment, but then wheeled his arms in a helpless gesture. "[I don't know! Can't you smell it on her or something? I thought animals can smell this kind of thing!]"
  1049. "[Ugh. No!]"
  1050. > Both men looked at her with blank expressions and Thistle felt something more was expected.
  1051. "[Look, maybe donkeys can smell it on donkeys. Maybe horses can smell it on their mares! We ponies can't-]"
  1052. > Her ears folded down and she looked away from them, even as the red in her face deepened.
  1053. > "[What is it?]" Zaur insisted.
  1054. "[Well, we can't smell it before it happens. We can smell it when it's happening.]"
  1055. > "[Well, horses are like big ponies. Try!]"
  1056. > Thistle looked from one nomad to the other in shock. Surely they weren't serious? Unfortunately, the pair were looking at her with expectant, eager faces, and even stepped aside to clear her way to where the horses were tied up.
  1057. "[They're a different species! I've never even seen a horse in heat!]"
  1058. > Zaur's grin softened a little, and he came closer so he could put his hand in her mane. His fingers pried one of her ears up a little so he could scratch what he knew to be her favourite place. "[Come on, just try. We won't mind if it doesn't work!]"
  1059. > He gave her his most winning smile, and Thistle let her head hang. She couldn't believe she was even entertaining the idea.
  1060. > "[Yes. Please?]" Bulat added.
  1061. > She grumbled under her breath, but walked between the two nomads and approached the horses. She just wanted to get the silly pantomime over, so she could go back to-
  1062. > Back to where? The party was crowded and loud, and she would run into Saule and Salki, both of whom were giving her dark looks, or ignoring her completely. She could instead stay around Darga and Intor and Willow, and listen to their argument about who should get metal weapons next.
  1063. > Buygra was out on patrol, and Xuan was with her daughter. The rest of them, she didn't know very well, so the best Thistle could hope for was awkward conversation, especially if they'd heard she and Saule had had a falling out.
  1064. > Luckily none of the camp people knew what had happened, or else she and Salki would be in deep trouble, but rumors abounded in the small community and by now every nomad in the camp knew that they were fighting over *something*. Salki would *have* to speak with her, if only so they could get their stories straight!
  1065. > Thistle let out a sigh.
  1066. "[Do you have any beer?]"
  1067. > The two nomads looked at one another, then shook their heads, almost in unison. "[No, sorry,]" Bulat answered for both of them. "[There were no traders. No one has beer.]"
  1068. "[Someone had a skin, back there,]" she said and pointed a hoof.
  1069. > "[Yuck, if it was from the spring, it must be gross by now.]"
  1070. "[It's not about the taste.]"
  1071. > Thistle dragged herself forward until she was right by the smaller of the mares. The horse watched her with slight curiosity, but seemed as if she was ready to go to sleep. That was good, and it meant Thistle probably wouldn't get kicked.
  1072. > She cast a quick glance back at Bulat and Zaur, both of whom nodded at her and made shooing motions with their hands. Thistle signed again, and went behind the mare. She wondered what she was supposed to do. Wait until the creature peed, then sniff it? Stick her muzzle right in the other mare's bits? Poke with a hoof and then smell *that*?
  1073. > Thistle rolled her eyes in exasperation and lifted her head. As if on cue, the mare flicked her tail, awarding her a good view of her dirt-encrusted backside.
  1074. > It just stank of horse urine and their grass-filled poop, nothing else. Not pleasant, but also not particularly bad.
  1075. "[Nothing, like I said!]" she told the two nomads.
  1076. > "[Try the other one!]" Bulat suggested.
  1077. > Thistle stomped an annoyed hoof, groaned to herself, but nevertheless obeyed. The other mare was more alert, and snorted at her when she approached. Her tail flicked more often, and she leaned her head down to sniff at the smaller pony.
  1078. > It was different enough that Thistle began to think it might mean something. She tried to walk around, but the mare followed her.
  1079. "[Bulat, come and hold her halter.]"
  1080. > The man sprinted over and grabbed the bit of leather around the mare's head. This finally allowed Thistle to get behind.
  1081. > She didn't have to wait long. She saw the same set of *bits*, the same dirt, the same smells.
  1082. > Except...
  1083. "[Wait. Zaur, come here,]" she said.
  1084. > The other nomad was by her side in a few moments.
  1085. "[Grab her tail. I can't see, she keeps swishing it too much!]"
  1086. > He caught the fine hairs and pulled them aside.
  1087. "[Huh.]"
  1088. > "[What is it?]" Zaur asked.
  1089. > Thistle pointed a hoof.
  1090. "[See? There is liquid on her- on her- there. Did she just piss?]"
  1091. > To her surprise, horror, and a sudden, unexpected burst of red hot excitement, Zaur stuck his finger right in the other mare's parts, then brought them to his nose. A moment later he lowered them for Thistle to also smell.
  1092. > She did it.
  1093. > It was not urine.
  1094. "[I guess that's it then?]"
  1095. > "[See?]" Bulat said happily. "[I told you you can do it! I guess we keep her away from the other mare, and together with the stallion.]"
  1096. "[Yes.]"
  1097. > The two nomads let the mare go, and Zaur patted Thistle on her back. "[This is good!]" he exclaimed. "[We will have baby horses!]"
  1098. > Despite herself, she was excited, too.
  1099.  
  1100. > ~~~~
  1101.  
  1102. "[Salki, stop and listen to me!]"
  1103. > Thistle hurried after the young nomad. She'd chosen her ambush well, and thanks to the crowd it wasn't that easy to simply evade her. Before long she had the man with his back to the bonfire and surrounded by impenetrable walls of happy, partying nomads. The noise was deafening, but that just meant their conversation would be essentially private.
  1104. > Salki looked around, but the only way through would be to physically shoulder people aside, and she would easily follow him through that. His arms slumped and he focused a glare at her.
  1105. > "[What do you want?!]"
  1106. > Her ears splayed at his icy tone. For a short while she couldn't meet his eyes and she simply stood there, examining a patch of dirt in minute detail, but then she pressed her lips together and forced herself to look at the man.
  1107. "[We have to talk about Saule!]"
  1108. > It was Salki's turn to study the ground between her hooves. Once more he looked around, but there was no place to go. The bonfire was a popular spot in the cool, summer night, thanks in part to all the food which was being cooked. The easiest way to leave would be right through the mare, where the crowed thinned a little in deference to the smaller pony.
  1109. > Salki's shoulders went up and down, but Thistle couldn't hear his sigh above the general din of conversation, laughter, and singing. He took a step closer and said: "[Fine, let's go to the tent.]"
  1110. > Was he trying to run away? She watched him warily as he shuffled around her and began to push through the crowd of people. It was still possible for him to make a break for it once he was clear. Despite his words, Thistle didn't fully trust Salki, not after the way he'd avoided her.
  1111. > There was no trick, however, and she followed him the short distance to a tent near his mother's, on the other side from Janus.
  1112. "[What is this? Whose tent is this?!]" she asked, bewildered.
  1113. > She couldn't remember if it had been there in the morning. Salki hadn't slept in his cot the previous night, and she'd assumed he was either with his friends, celebrating the expedition's success, or with Saule, catching up. Now she began to think that he'd moved out already.
  1114. > The young nomad glanced back at her, then gave a small shrug. "[It's mine. Mine and Saule's.]"
  1115. "[But she was at her mother's tent this morning!]"
  1116. > Salki grunted a non-answer and ducked into the relative calm and quiet of the inside. She pushed through the tent flap and let it close after her. It was dark, but her eyes soon picked out a faint red glow from the few remaining coals in the center.
  1117. > She sat down near the entrance, not bothered very much by the bare ground. It was dry and well-stomped, and in late summer it wasn't cold.
  1118. > "[Saule will live here soon. Mother and Mitra are talking about it.]"
  1119. "[Why your mother and Mitra?]"
  1120. > "[I will be Chieftain, and Mitra is friends with Intor, who wants Willow to be Chieftain. Mother says we must get Mitra to agree that Saule will marry me, not Willow.]"
  1121. > It came down to politics, and Thistle began to wish she'd paid closer attention to the social undercurrents. She saw Salki sit opposite her, and she slid down so she was lying on her side. It felt like it would be a lengthy conversation.
  1122. "[Look, I'm sorry Saule is mad. I thought we- us three- You remember that night before we went away? When the traders came?]"
  1123. > Salki gave her a curt nod. "[Me and Saule fucked for the first time.]"
  1124. "[I thought all three of us would!]" Thistle said, with a slight whine to her voice.
  1125. > She prodded at a bit of charred wood with a hoof and pushed it into the embers.
  1126. "[We were all- there. Remember? We were kissing. You played with my- you put your finger- *there*! I thought we liked each other.]"
  1127. > The sliver she'd pushed began to burn with a bright little flame in the darkness of the tent, and it illuminated Salki's thoughtful gaze as he stared into it. "[I remember. I think Saule thought I was hers, after we laid together.]"
  1128. "[Well, I'm sorry. I thought we would share, all three! I liked- I like Saule. I thought we were friends. I thought she saw me as a friend, too! That we could be more.]"
  1129. > "[I think that's the problem,]" Salki replied pensively.
  1130. "[What do you mean?]"
  1131. > He gestured at the mare with his hand. "[You're like a woman. Saule thinks you're trying to steal me away from her. She thinks I will marry you, and then you will be Chieftain's wife.]"
  1132. > Thistle's mouth fell open and her ears folded back in shock.
  1133. "[What?! But everyone else will outcast you if they knew! They'd call you 'animal fucker' and your mother would disown you!]"
  1134. > It was Salki's turn to play with a dry twig he'd picked up from the ground near the fire. He wouldn't meet her eyes as he spoke: "[Yes, but Saule doesn't think that way! She doesn't think of you as an animal.]"
  1135. > The mare was stunned speechless for a short while, and her heart gave a painfully strong thump. She stared at Salki and leaned her head to one side in incredulity.
  1136. "[Really?]"
  1137. > Salki gave her a single nod in response.
  1138. "[We have to make up. I'll tell her I'm sorry. We can work this out!]"
  1139. > "[No, Saule won't talk to you.]"
  1140. "[Why not?!]"
  1141. > Salki tossed his twig into the embers and let out a chuckle. "[Because we fucked while we were away. She thought her and I were promised after we had lain together. She hates you.]"
  1142. "[Well, you have to talk to her. I don't want to be enemies with Saule! I really thought we were friends.]"
  1143. > The young man looked doubtful.
  1144. "[Promise you'll talk to her!]"
  1145. > "[She said I shouldn't see you any more.]"
  1146. > It felt as if one of the few people who really saw her as a person, not just a useful animal, or a resource, was slipping right between her forelegs. Over something stupid, too!
  1147. > She'd never expected to supplant Saule, but she'd really hoped they could stay close. She had never wanted to get between the two, but as the only pony in this world, did she not deserve a bit of love in her life? Thistle slammed her hoof on the dry, packed dirt by the fire.
  1148. "[Salki, that won't work! We have to help each other! You'll need me when you are Chieftain, and I want to help the camp! We'll have to talk!]"
  1149. > Salki kept his large, dark eyes on her face for a long time, before tossing another small branch into the fire. "[I'll try,]" he said, but his voice was rather faint. He didn't believe it would do any good.
  1150. "[Thank you. Just- Just get Saule to talk to me. I'll apologize. She can beat me if she thinks it will help. Whatever it takes.]"
  1151. > Perhaps, Thistle thought, if she offered some sacrifice. She closed her eyes, swallowed, and continued in a weak voice:
  1152. "[Tell her- tell her I promise we won't fuck again. I just want me and Saule to keep talking to each other! I want to keep talking to you!]"
  1153. > Without her guidance, Salki wouldn't last very long as a leader. He was too direct, too honest, and too inexperienced. Intor and Kantuta would eat him for breakfast, especially if he couldn't rely on his mother for advice.
  1154. > Darga did want her son to take up the mantle, but only because the people were getting restless and did not want to have a woman for a leader any more. It was a stupid and backward point of view, but unlike pony culture, the nomads didn't trust their females with a lot.
  1155. > For that matter, it wasn't just the nomads. She'd seen something similar in the lands to the west. Thistle wondered if it was true for all the peoples of this world.
  1156. > Salki and his mother didn't always see eye to eye, either. They fought often enough, and if they fell out, the others would take advantage. Intor still wanted her son to become the chief, and she would not be easily deterred.
  1157. > It would take very careful hoofwork to tread the middle path, to appease all the factions in the camp just enough to keep them working together, and guide them all through this crisis with the Ruslans, and through any future problem they might find themselves in.
  1158. > Things would get easier now that they had their own metalworker, and once their herd of horses became larger, they would be able to move faster than with donkeys.
  1159. > The clan *had* to retain control over their lands, if Thistle wanted any chance of finding her way home to Equestria.
  1160. > Thistle realized they'd been staring at the fire in silence for a while, and let out her breath. She gave Salki her best, most winning smile, together with her widest, shiniest eyes, and ears folded completely flat.
  1161. "[Please Salki, I want us all to be friends. I'll make it up to Saule, and I'll swear to her I won't touch you again, we just have to talk for a while. You can convince her to do that, can't you?]"
  1162. > It worked on the young man and he soon averted his gaze from her weaponized cuteness. "[Fine,]" he said, and hurled a bit of wood into the fire so hard it made sparks fly. "[Fine! I'll talk to Saule, but I can't promise anything!]"
  1163. > Thistle had an idea. A good one, but also one which sent a pang of sharp pain through her very centre.
  1164. "[Tell Saule that you and she have something special you and me can't ever have. You can have children.]"
  1165. > The young man looked at her, and even in the red glow of the dying fire, she thought his face was flushed. "[I- I guess,]" he mumbled.
  1166. "[Tell her she will marry the Chieftain, and she will have the Chieftain's son, who will be a Chieftain, too, one day. Tell her I will help you to do this.]"
  1167. > "[I'll try,]" he repeated.
  1168. > Thistle thought for a while, but couldn't think of anything else to say. If she forced it, things would become awkward. She pulled herself up to her hooves and turned to leave, but paused before she touched the tent flap.
  1169. "[By the way, I think one of the mares is going into heat. We will have baby horses soon.]"
  1170. > Salki visibly perked up and even flashed her a brief smile. He didn't stand up just yet, but he braced the palm of his hand on the ground, ready to lift himself. "[Really? That's good!]"
  1171. "[Yes. With luck, the other mare will be in heat soon, too. We only have one stallion and we-]" she began.
  1172. > This was difficult to explain with the nomads' lack of even rudimentary Equestrian education.
  1173. "[We have to make sure the blood mixes well. We will need more horses, soon. We have to make another expedition next year.]"
  1174. > "[We don't have anything to trade,]" Salki said.
  1175. > Thistle had been thinking the same thing, and her ears lowered as she said her next words.
  1176. "[We will have to steal some more.]"
  1177. > This made Salki smile, and he quickly got to his feet and walked over to her. His hand patted her side and he said: "[Good. You're starting to think like us.]"
  1178. > She didn't know if she should be proud, or ashamed, at this praise. Thistle decided to pick the former, and gave Salki a smile.
  1179. "[Let's go and see if there's anything left to eat. Tomorrow you, and me, and your mother have to sit down and figure out what to do about the Ruslans.]"
  1180. > "[Fine.]"
  1181. > Thistle was about to push through the flap, but drew back and folded her ears down in apprehension.
  1182. "[Um, go first and check that Saule doesn't see us together. You should talk with her first. I'll stay away until then.]"
  1183. > "[Good idea,]" Salki replied. He sucked out of the tent and held the flap up in his hand while he glanced around. "[It's safe. Come on.]"
  1184. > Thistle leapt through the opening, brushed her muzzle on Salki's thigh, and hurried back toward the central bonfire. She was feeling a little better about the future, and realized she was quite hungry. Some more bread, and a couple of baked yams would be a nice end to this miserable day.
  1185.  
  1186. > ~~~~
  1187.  
  1188. > Things between Thistle and Saule did not change much. She hadn't expected a miracle, but the young woman's unwillingness to even see the mare hurt. At least she'd convinced Salki that they needed to keep talking, but even that was causing tension between the couple.
  1189. > There wasn't much Saule could do, however, especially since it was Darga's command that the mare be included in discussions. Janus had continued to produce small blades and arrow tips from his rapidly diminishing stock of metal, and the big question in air was who would get these new weapons. There Thistle's previous life had proven somewhat useful.
  1190. > The final arbiter of these decisions was still Darga, but thanks to Salki having a quiet word with his mother, Thistle had been allowed to sit with them when they were deciding. It wasn't a council, or a committee, or any kind of official governing body, but the circle who allocated this important new resource included the most powerful members of the tribe, or at least the ones with the most influence.
  1191. > Darkhan and Willow, of course, and Rinat, all three of them sitting together and as far away from Darga as possible. Closer to the current chieftain were Salki and Thistle, although no one paid the mare much attention, thinking her little more than Salki's pet at these hearings. There was also Usman, but only because he was filling in for Hisein, who would have sat opposite Darkhan.
  1192. > The fact that their places around the central fire were so strictly determined was a surprise to Thistle, but after listening in on their first session, she understood it. The Chieftain wanted to have her friends near her, and her opposition in front of her, where it would be easier to keep her eye on them. That put Darkhan and Usman between the two groups, as some kind of a neutral party.
  1193. > It also allowed the mare to keep a very watch over the nomads she most disliked - Willow and his father, Rinat.
  1194. > She had come a long way over the past year and now that she'd gotten used to them, she could read a lot from expressions on their faces. For one, she could tell immediately that the three people sitting opposite the Chieftain didn't want to be there, but dealing with her was the only way to get some of these shiny new weapons for their own faction.
  1195. > That told her that the blacksmith was, at least in the eyes of the influential, firmly Darga's property, or at least that the fruits of his labour were nominally hers to give away. That followed, Salki had explained, from the fact that Darga's expedition, led by her son, had found the man.
  1196. > Furthermore, Thistle noticed with some surprise, Darga did not unfairly grant these new weapons exclusively, or even *mostly*, to her own friends. Despite her distaste - and it was plain to see on her face, even to the mare - she granted the tools to their best fighters and hunters.
  1197. > It made sense. They were at war, after all, and the clan's survival had to be their top priority.
  1198. > That fact gave Thistle an idea, and after the second such hearing had ended, and everyone was standing up to disperse, she laid a hoof on Salki's knee to keep him in place.
  1199. "[I want to talk to you. Stay.]"
  1200. > He gave her a puzzled look, but settled back down while the others filed out of Darga's tent. The Chieftain left, too, and the two of them were finally alone.
  1201. > "[What is it?]" the young man asked.
  1202. "[You and Darga are giving weapons to people you don't like. To Willow and some of his friends.]"
  1203. > It was a statement, not a question, and the young nomad scowled at her. "[Mother says we have to, because they are defending us against Ruslan attacks.]"
  1204. "[She is right.]"
  1205. > For a moment Salki's mouth hung open, but then he shut it and glare darkened. Thistle raised a hoof to forestall his outburst.
  1206. "[Listen to me. It's the smart thing to do, but you can- you can make it better for yourself and your mother.]"
  1207. > His eyes narrowed in suspicion, but he didn't speak.
  1208. "[Let's meet with Darga, and Darkhan, and Usman before the others come. We will discuss who is best to have the new weapons each time, and we will propose them to Willow and Rinat.]"
  1209. > "[Why? They will demand the weapons go to their friends anyway, why make it easier for them?]"
  1210. > The mare rolled her eyes, but despite her exasperation at Salki's lack of political acumen, she smiled a little as she delved into what her cutie mark was telling her.
  1211. "[There is an important difference. Let me try to explain. Imagine that you are hungry, and you come to the central bonfire, where Intor is making bread. She is giving it to Willow, and Rinat, and Kantuta. Then she gives it to Tashi, and Yasin, but you are still hungry.]"
  1212. > Salki gave a shrug, as if he had been expecting nothing less. "[That's right. She is a bitch and will feed her friends first.]"
  1213. "[Exactly. So then you approach her, and ask for some bread because you are starving. She glares at you, and tears off a small piece, and tosses it into the mud at your feet.]"
  1214. > Despite the fact that it was only a story, Salki was glowering and his hands were bunched into fists. "[Yeah? So what. I wouldn't take it, not from her! I'd rather starve to death!]"
  1215. > Thistle laid a hoof back on his leg and gave the young man a rueful smile.
  1216. "[Okay, now let's try that again. Let's say it's a different day, and once gain Intor is making bread, and you are hungry. You come to the central bonfire, and Intor sees you. She smiles at you. Willow has his hand out for a piece of bread, but she shakes her head to him, and gives it to you instead. She says: 'Here, Salki. You are hungry. Have this, and I will make more for everyone.']"
  1217. > He blinked in confusion at the mare, then said: "[Intor would never say that!]"
  1218. > Thistle grunted in annoyance and patted his thigh firmly with her hoof.
  1219. "[Just imagine. Do you see the difference in the two stories? The result is the same: you get some bread to feed your hunger. Yet they are not the same.]"
  1220. > The nomad looked blank, and she waited for a few minutes to see if he would understand. When he didn't speak, Thistle took a breath and continued:
  1221. "[It is not only about the result. Intor's friends will get the weapons because they are the best fighters, and we need them to fight better than the Ruslans. If we decide who gets the weapons beforehand, and propose it ourselves, it will not feel to Willow and Rinat that they have to argue with us to get weapons. They will feel respected, and in turn they will respect us.]"
  1222. > Salki's hand had found its way to her foreleg, and his fingers wrapped around her fetlock. Thistle glanced down for a moment, and her tail swished with sudden longing, but she dragged her mind back to the task at hand.
  1223. "[This is what we have to tell your mother. Distribute the weapons fairly, to men who will make best use of them, but begin with those on Intor's side, and then those who are undecided, and give to your friends last. Show them that being one clan, together, is important to you and your mother.]"
  1224. > He still seemed undecided, and his fingers gave her leg a squeeze. The touch was so familiar that Thistle's ears flattened and her tail twitched upward without her conscious control. She had to bite her lip to stop herself from letting out a needful sigh.
  1225. > "[I don't know. Maybe.]"
  1226. "[Talk to your mother. Tell her what I said. She will understand.]"
  1227. > He leaned his head to one side and stared at her face, and while he thought, Salki put his other hand against the side of her muzzle. His thumb gently brushed her nose. "[I will talk to her, but I don't think she will say yes.]"
  1228. "[Tell her it is important the people in the clan become friends, even Intor and Willow.]"
  1229. > Saying that left a foul taste in her mouth, but the times being what they were, they couldn't afford a civil war or more mistrust between them. They faced a very serious threat, and needed everyone to pull together.
  1230. "[We have to be friends and look out for one another, otherwise we will not survive. Only together are we strong.]"
  1231. > To that, at least, Salki gave a nod. "[Together we are strong,]" he repeated. "[We will beat the Ruslans. They do not have metal weapons.]"
  1232. "[We do not have very many,]" she pointed out. "[We will have to go look for metal rocks, like Janus said.]"
  1233. > That was a more palatable topic of conversation, and Salki quickly grasped it in lieu of what they had just been discussing. "[Yes. Mother says we will move. We'll go to the camp near the forests. It is a long way, and perhaps Ruslans will not pursue us. We will take our lands back when we have better weapons.]"
  1234. "[Why there?]"
  1235. > "[The forest will give us wood to make this burned stuff Janus needs for his fire. There are also rocks in some places, and maybe there are metal rocks. We will search for them.]"
  1236. > This made a lot of sense, and Thistle's ears flicked up in sudden curiosity.
  1237. "[Wait! If these lands are far away and safer, why did the people not go there before?]"
  1238. > Salki patted her muzzle, then withdraw his hand and released her hoof. It slid off his leg as he stood up. "[Because they had to wait near here for our return. If they left, the Ruslans would capture us and they would have the horses, and also a blacksmith, even if Mother didn't know we were bringing one.]"
  1239. "[Oh. That's right. That's good. But we can leave now?]"
  1240. > "[Yes. We will wait for Janus to make a few more arrow tips, and then we will move. There will be easier hunting in the forest, but there are more wolves, so we will have to send larger hunting parties.]"
  1241. > The mention of wolves made her ears fold down flat, but the mare gave a slight nod to all that and followed the nomad outside. For a moment the mid-day brightness of the late summer sky nearly blinded her, but her eyes quickly adapted and she hurried to catch up to Salki.
  1242. "[Good. Oh, by the way, the horses have mated. The larger mare went into heat and she has mated with the stallion. She will have a baby in the spring. I think the other mare will be ready soon, too.]"
  1243. > Even talking about it was making her tail hitch up, and Thistle had to focus and firmly clamp it down. She hadn't had a release in some time and sorely needed it. Unfortunately Salki was now off-limits, and no one else in the camp would consider it.
  1244. > She wondered if Janus could be convinced. He seemed horny enough himself, despite all the young women who had been visiting his tent on most nights. Thistle had heard them, even through the thickness of two leather layers.
  1245. > It helped his cause, she thought, that he'd taken to smithing without his shirt, which went a long way to show off his muscular chest and wide shoulders. Celestia, it was even doing something to *her*, and she wasn't even a nomad!
  1246. > Salki had said something and was looking at her expectantly. Her ears went flat and her face went even more red than it had gotten in her quiet excitement.
  1247. "[Sorry. What did you say?]"
  1248. > "[I asked if we can mate one of the donkeys with the horses. What will happen? They look similar.]"
  1249. > Thistle swallowed and averted her eyes. There had been rumours floating around Equestria, even though neither she, nor anypony she'd known had ever seen such a thing for themselves.
  1250. "[I- I think they can have children, but those children will not have any more.]"
  1251. > "[So we can get more horses, but they will not produce more?]"
  1252. "[Not horses. I'm not s-sure what they will be, but not horses, and not donkeys. Something in between.]"
  1253. > Salki took this under consideration, then shrugged. "[We will try. Some of the donkeys will go into heat soon, we can pair them with the stallion. I don't think he will mind. If we get larger, stronger half-donkey, half-horse, that will still be useful.]"
  1254. > The mare swallowed a lump and a tiny squeak escaped her. When Salki looked, she gave him a nod, but quickly averted her gaze.
  1255. > "[Good. I will go tell Bulat to try it. Come on.]"
  1256. > Again, Thistle bobbed her head up and down, then followed the nomad with her tail firmly, consciously pressed between her legs.
  1257.  
  1258. > ~~~~
  1259.  
  1260. > Thistle lay on her side and tried to focus exclusively on breathing. Each heave of her barrel sent a fresh tinge of pain through her hide, but she didn't quite care. Little white lights swam through her vision, and veritable rivulets of sweat dripped on the dry grass.
  1261. > She managed to lift her head enough to look at the gash on her flank. It was bleeding less, which was a good sign, but she was still worried. It had to be cleaned and bound, but none of the nomads could help her, and she wasn't sure she could do it herself.
  1262. > A Ruslan spear had grazed her. The man would have killed her, but he'd grunted at the wrong moment, and her pony hearing had saved her life. She'd flinched at the unexpected noise and the stone tip aimed at her heart merely struck her side.
  1263. > Her mind still spun with the torrent of images and noise. Angry, yelling people. The wailing of women and children. The screams of the wounded. The clash, and the twang of bowstrings. The braying of donkeys.
  1264. > The attack had come from two sides!
  1265. > Everyone had seen the Ruslans coming from behind. In fact, Darga and Willow had anticipated an attack. A camp was at its most vulnerable when it was moving.
  1266. > Their own fighters had responded quickly and rallied in the way of the attacking force to fend them off. Perhaps they were a tad too confident because of their new weapons and the bows. None of them had noticed that the attack was mostly young men, weak and inexperienced. It had been a feint.
  1267. > Once their own warriors had been drawn out, and away from the main group, the other Ruslans rose up from the tall grass ahead of the caravan and attacked.
  1268. > True, they were immediately seen on the open plain, but in the sudden panic and confusion among the non-fighters in their tribe, they couldn't get word to the hunters time.
  1269. > The fake attack broke and ran then, which drew most of Darga's fighters in gleeful pursuit. The few of the more thoughtful soldiers, who had the experience or the smarts to realize something was wrong, weren't enough on their own.
  1270. > The Ruslans had done a lot of damage among their most vulnerable before they'd been driven off. It was only their new, shiny, metal weapons, and the bronze-tipped arrows which had prevented complete disaster.
  1271. > The clan, and by extension, Thistle herself, had come very close to dying. Everyone was shaken, and that was only partly because of all the carnage.
  1272. > A lot of them were wounded, and many - too many - were dead. Thistle didn't know which of her friends were hurt, not even which were still alive. She hadn't had time to think about it, much less look for survivors. After her personal brush with death, she'd ran with the other nomads until they stopped, and then she'd collapsed.
  1273. > The bags she'd been carrying were strewn on the ground, somewhere, probably lost. She had had to take care of herself, first, so she'd shaken the burdens off to run faster. Perhaps, after she'd made sure her friends were alright, they would go look for the things they'd left behind.
  1274. > It wouldn't be for a while, though. Her side hurt like bucking Tartarus! Once again she lifted her head to look. It was barely past noon, judging by the position of the sun, and even with her poor vision she could see the slash was deep and an ugly, angry red.
  1275. > It went right across her cutie mark, too! She idly wondered if it would heal properly, if it would still be recognizable after. Would she bear the scar for the rest of her life?
  1276. > The nomads near her were rushing about, some tending to the wounded, others looking for lost family members and friends. No one paid her any attention.
  1277. > Her panting had abated a little, and her vision began to clear. Her muscles burned with the effort, but the exertion hadn't been debilitating and she could use her legs. She pushed herself up to a sitting position.
  1278. "[OW! Ow!]" she whined at the sudden pang. "[Fucking... fuck!]"
  1279. > Swearing in nomad worked a lot better than Equestrian, that much she'd learned in all her time with them. It was more satisfying.
  1280. > She reached a hoof to her wound, but stopped when she saw the dirt on it. All she'd do was get an infection. She needed water.
  1281. > Celestia damn it, she needed rubbing alcohol, local anaesthetic, and a suture needle, but she didn't think she'd get it. She'd have to settle for water and, if she was very lucky, some kind of fabric for bandages. Even leather might work, if she cleaned it thoroughly.
  1282. > The mare rose all the way to her hooves with barely a whimper of pain escaping through her gritted teeth, and went to look for someone she knew.
  1283. > She stumbled into Buygra first, and was glad to see the young hunter was unscathed. There was blood on his hands, and his quiver was nearly empty, but he was alive and unharmed.
  1284. "[Buygra!]"
  1285. > He looked at her, saw the slash, and winced in sympathy. "[What happened to you?]" he asked.
  1286. "[Man with spear. I think they were going for the donkeys and thought I was one.]"
  1287. > "[Did you kill him after he gave you that?]"
  1288. > At first she was about to shake her head and snort in amusement. She was a pony, she wouldn't kill. Even after all this time, that instinct was still very deeply ingrained.
  1289. > She couldn't shut out the memories, though. Thistle stared, her eyes wide with shock. She'd done it without thinking. The force of his strike had pushed his stone-tipped spear into the soft ground, where it had stuck, at least for a moment.
  1290. > While the man had been trying to pull it out, Thistle, in a thoughtless, pain and fear fueled rage, had lashed out with her hind hooves, right into the small of his back.
  1291. > She was pretty sure his spine had snapped, but she hadn't stayed around to check. She'd run, as much from the confusion of the battle as from the pain in her side.
  1292. > Her rush had taken her between some of the friendly hunters, who were going the other way. If the man had survived her kick, they would have finished him off.
  1293. > Thistle let her head hung down and held her breath, fighting to keep her crazy emotions under control.
  1294. > The man had been trying to kill her, and all her friends. She hadn't had much of a choice. If she hadn't done it, he would have freed his spear and come at her again, and the next time he wouldn't be fooled by an involuntary flinch.
  1295. > She'd done the right thing.
  1296. > It just felt as if a piece of her soul died, and Thistle wasn't sure how many of those she had left.
  1297. > She only became aware that Buygra had cupped her chin in his palm when she wondered, idly, why her tears were dripping on his hand.
  1298. > He lifted her face up. "[You did good,]" he told her. "[You probably saved your life, and someone else's too. We wouldn't have gotten there in time.]"
  1299. > Thistle closed her eyes and gave him a weak nod. She knew he was right, but she couldn't stem the flow of tears. She was grateful for the moment of human contact.
  1300. > Eventually Buygra spoke: "[You're hurt. I'll help you.]"
  1301. > She gave another nod and opened her eyes. His fingers withdrew, and he walked around to examine her wound.
  1302. "[Don't!]"
  1303. > His hand froze, almost touching.
  1304. "[We need to wash it. You have to wash your hands, first, otherwise I will get a fever.]"
  1305. > Some of the nomads had scoffed when she'd explained, but Buygra took her seriously. His hand dropped and he looked around the landscape. "[There is no water near here.]"
  1306. "[Then leave it. The bleeding has stopped. We should leave it until we can get water.]"
  1307. > The nomad looked uncertain, and he kept looking around. "[Should we all do that? No one will wash the wounds with water. We don't have enough.]"
  1308. > Thistle closed her eyes and tried to remember her lessons in first aid.
  1309. "[If it's bleeding, it has to be stopped. That is the most dangerous. Bind wounds with clean cloth or leather, but only to stop the bleeding. If the wound is not deep, or it stopped on its own, like mine, leave it.]"
  1310. > She wasn't sure if that was right, and shook her head to try and jog her memory.
  1311. "[If there's dirt in the wound. I don't know. We have to clean it. Use water, even if we don't have enough to drink. We will find water!]"
  1312. > While she waited for him to think this over, someone off to one side moaned loudly in pain. Thistle glanced that way, and her ears flicked down in commiseration, but she returned her gaze to Buygra.
  1313. > Buygra inclined his head. "[I'll go and tell people, but I'm not sure they'll listen.]"
  1314. > Another, horrible thought occurred, and Thistle winced as it popped up into her head.
  1315. "[Tell Janus to start a fire. Find someone for the air sacs. Get your knives hot, so they glow.]"
  1316. > "[What?! Why?]"
  1317. "[You can use glowing hot metal to stop wounds from bleeding. It will also clean them.]"
  1318. > Buygra looked incredulous. "[Really? That sounds like it will hurt. A lot.]"
  1319. "[It will hurt like all fuck. What if it's a choice between this, or dying?]"
  1320. > The nomad swallowed a lump, then gave a slightly shaky nod. "[I guess. I don't know if we have time to make a fire. We need to move. It is too easy to attack again on this land.]"
  1321. > "[They won't attack,]" another voice sounded behind her, and Thistle nearly smiled with relief. It was Salki!
  1322. > He walked around her and repeated: "[They won't attack again today. We have beaten them too badly. They didn't know we had metal weapons.]"
  1323. > The young hunter sounded confident, and his voice was light, all things considered. Thistle almost didn't dare to ask, but she gathered up her courage and spoke anyway:
  1324. "[Are any of our friends dead?]"
  1325. > "[I've seen Saule, and both Bulat and Temir are okay. Zaur was with us. Mother is fine, too. Janus wanted to fight with us, but Mother made him stay back. He is too valuable.]"
  1326. > Thistle sagged with relief at those news, but then she looked up at Buygra.
  1327. "[What about Xuan and Guuni?]" she asked.
  1328. > The nomad just waved his hand in dismissal. "[Both are alive and well. Xuan killed a man with her knife. You know you don't have to worry about her.]"
  1329. > She couldn't help the wave of relief, so Thistle just let it bubble up. She went and pushed her face against Buygra's waist, and he scratched behind her ears. This time her tears were borne out of relief, rather than pain.
  1330. "[Good. That is good. I'm glad. Salki, what will we do now?]"
  1331. > "[Mother is talking with Willow and Intor. We have to move and we can't stop until we've reached the camp site.]"
  1332. "[We've lost a lot of things in the fight. My bags-]"
  1333. > "[We'll leave them!]" Salki interrupted. "[Some of the men will go look for weapons and metal-tipped arrows. We can't let the Ruslans have those. We'll leave everything else. The rest of the fighters will stay with the people and move fast.]"
  1334. "[Why? You said they won't attack again.]"
  1335. > "[No, but we have to build the camp and set up defences before they do. It's a long way, still.]"
  1336. > The mare let her head drop, but she lifted it back up almost immediately. Their very survival was at stake, and if she wanted a chance to ever see her home again, she would have to pitch in.
  1337. > As many of the wounded had to survive as possible.
  1338. "[I can carry someone. I've done it before,]" she pointed out. "[We can also use the horses. Are they okay?]"
  1339. > "[Yes,]" Salki confirmed. "[Bulat and Temir defended them. The Ruslans didn't know we had horses, so they weren't looking for them.]"
  1340. "[Good. They can carry some of the wounded, and the donkeys can carry the rest. We'll move faster that way.]"
  1341. > Salki gave her a pat on the neck. "[Yes. Let's go and organize it. We may have to leave some tents behind, but we'll share until we can make new ones. There is plenty of game in the forest, we will make more leather.]"
  1342. > He straightened up and looked into the distance, in the direction they had come from. "[Then we will find the metal rocks, and we will make bigger spears, and knives, and arrows. We will kill every last one of those donkey-fuckers!]"
  1343. > Thistle's muzzle scrunched up in distaste, but she gave a slow, hesitant nod. They'd attacked without provocation, and they'd gone for the women and children, and for their animals.
  1344. > Perhaps there was no other way?
  1345. > A part of her still wished to try diplomacy, if only she could get a few Ruslans around the fire with Darga and Salki, and talk with them. What was left of her pony soul wanted that.
  1346. > If it were possible.
  1347. > Salki went off to organize things, and she followed Buygra to find his wife and child. Perhaps seeing them well would calm the turmoil inside a little.
  1348. > All around them were the bewildered, frightened people, clustered in small family groups. There were a lot of injuries, a few grave. The sounds of crying, or whimpering, were especially poignant to her ears, even above the occasional scream.
  1349. > They found Xuan tending to an older man, as she was pressing a blood-soaked bundle of cloth against his side.
  1350. > "[Bastard got me with his knife!]" the elder was muttering through clenched teeth, "[but I showed him! I pulled it right out and gutted him like a rabid wolf!]"
  1351. > He fell silent as Xuan looped a long strip of leather around his midriff and tightened it. The man's face was pale, and he hissed in pain, but he didn't complain.
  1352. > "[There, it will stop the bleeding,]" Xuan said. "[You tell your son and your daughter they'll have to help you walk.]"
  1353. "[We can use the horses and the donkeys,]" Thistle pointed out.
  1354. > Xuan turned around and smiled at the mare, but it slipped from her face when she saw her side. "[That looks bad!]" she said and hurried over.
  1355. "[Don't touch! It looks worse than it is. It stopped bleeding.]"
  1356. > "[What did you say about the horses?]" Xuan asked.
  1357. > Buygra answered instead: "[Thistle said we can use the horses to carry the wounded. Salki agrees. We'll leave some of the tents and things behind. We can always make more.]"
  1358. > His wife gave a thoughtful nod. "[True enough. It is summer, we can sleep without tents for a few more weeks. We have to bring all the food. It will take time to settle in the new camp.]"
  1359. > "[Agreed. Where is Guuni?]"
  1360. > Xuan turned and pointed in some direction. Thistle followed her gaze, but a hand on her withers brought her attention back. It was the old man. "[I heard what you did for old Bakar. Will you carry me to safety, too, little pony?]"
  1361. > She looked at where blood had dripped down his clothes, and gave a hesitant nod.
  1362. "[I will, if you can't walk, and if there is no horse to carry you.]"
  1363. > "[I saw you kick that bastard who gave you this,]" he said and pointed at her flank. His raspy laughter became a grunt, and then a curse of pain. Despite that, the man continued: "[Good job, there. And good job bringing the blacksmith. We'll beat those damned Ruslans yet!]"
  1364. > Thistle gave the man a nod, but then heard the happy little gurgle of Guuni and turned around.
  1365. > The child was being carried by Ning, and the mare felt a pang of shame for not having thought of the two children before now.
  1366. > She'd made sure they were being taken care of, but other than that she'd hardly paid them any mind ever since they'd returned from the expedition.
  1367. > It was good to see they were both alright and she went over to give them both a quick nuzzle. Their little hands patted her head, and she closed her eyes for a moment.
  1368. "[I'm glad you're alive.]"
  1369. > Fen Ko looked sullen and humphed. When Thistle gave Ning a curious look, the girl explained: "[He sad he no let fight. Xuan say no fight. Xuan say: take baby. Hide behind me. She say Fen Ko no weapon, no fight.]"
  1370. "[Good. You're too young for fighting.]"
  1371. > The boy stuck his tongue out at her, which proved that his understanding of the nomad language had grown, even if their ability to speak it was lagging behind.
  1372. "[Xuan? What will happen to them now that Hisein is-]" her voice hitched for a moment, but she forced herself to continue: "[is dead?]"
  1373. > The woman shrugged, which made Gunni giggle with delight in her arms. "[I don't know. We will have to ask Darga what to do. Maybe Intor will take them in, or maybe-]"
  1374. "[No!]"
  1375. > Thistle stepped protectively in front of the siblings.
  1376. "[I will take care of them. I'll speak with Darga.]"
  1377. > She felt Ning's hand on her back, and turned her head to see the girl smiling.
  1378. > It was one good thing she could do, at least. Surely she had enough pull in the camp to make it happen. She probably couldn't return the children home, but she could make sure they wouldn't sold, and that Ning wouldn't be used by some malodorous, twisted nomad in exchange for some skins of bear.
  1379. > "[We'll have to talk with the Chieftain,]" Buygra repeated after his wife, but he gave the mare an approving nod.
  1380. > "[Here, Ning. Take Guuni and stay with Thistle. I will go help the others. We'll have to move soon.]"
  1381. > The child switched hands once more, and the mare got an idea.
  1382. "[Here. Put her on my back. Don't worry, I won't let her fall.]"
  1383. > Ning did so, but she kept her arm around the child, who was, of course, too young to sit up by herself. That was fine with Thistle, since it only meant that the girl would stay by her side. She needed someone close to her, so she wouldn't think of the man she'd killed.
  1384. > Buygra patted the side of her neck. "[I'll go and help the other hunters to find all the weapons and arrows. Stay near Xuan and watch over my girl.]"
  1385. "[I promise!]"
  1386.  
  1387. > ~~~~
  1388.  
  1389. > Thistle grunted a little as she stood up from the cool stream. The wound in her side wasn't particularly deep, but it was long and hurt like blazes. Not to mention that it had bled as if the spear had pierced her through and through! Once that stopped, and she brushed the dried blood from her coat, it wasn't quite as bad.
  1390. > The important thing was that they'd arrived without further incident, and the preparations to defend their new camp were on their way. Thistle had brought Ning and Fen Ko to a brook, which ran from the distant hills, through the sparse forests, and right beside the camp. It would mean the nomads would always have clean, drinking water.
  1391. > The mare lifted her forehoof out of the water, but it was caked with mud she'd disturbed. She glanced back and considered sitting on her haunches. It would submerge her rump, and the summer was still pleasantly warm, so that wouldn't be so bad. Unfortunately, it would also put her wound right into the dirty water.
  1392. > Then she would have to twist around awkwardly to reach the cut with her hooves, and without something to lean against, would likely result in her flopping down into the water in any case.
  1393. > She would have gone into deeper, cleaner water, but there was none. The little stream was barely deep enough to reach her ankles even in the center.
  1394. > Thistle let out a perfunctory sigh even as she looked for her companions. Buygra was on the bank, holding his bow and peering in all directions. He was expecting a Ruslan attack at any moment. Fen Ko and Ning, having drank their fill, were splashing playfully downstream of her. A few of the other women had set up on her other side and were filling water skins.
  1395. > A sack she'd brought with her was at Buygra's feet, its contents too important to risk getting wet.
  1396. "[Ning? Come here, please,]" Thistle called.
  1397. > The girl looked over, which her brother used to send one last handful of water at her face. It resulted in both of them squealing, one from laughter and the other in shocked surprise. Ning dipped her hand to return the favor, which would undoubtedly result in a new water fight, one for which they didn't have time.
  1398. "[Ning!]"
  1399. > Her voice was like the snap of a whip, and Thistle was immediately sorry. Her ears flattened and she gave the youths an apologetic grin.
  1400. "[Come here, please.]"
  1401. > They both approached her, a little apprehensively at first, but when she kept her ears down they forgot her sharp tone and hurried over. "[What?]" Ning asked.
  1402. "[Help me wash my cut. My side. See?]"
  1403. > She twisted around to hover a hoof above the slash on her flank.
  1404. "[First wash your hands. Scrub them well, understand?]"
  1405. > Fen Ko looked at his sister and gave a small shrug. Ning asked for both of them: "[Sorry, Thistle. What is 'scrub'?]"
  1406. "[Like this,]" she said and demonstrated with her hooves.
  1407. > She couldn't really mimic nomad hands, but she rolled one hoof around the other, then vice versa. Ning understood and murmured something to her brother in their native language. A moment later they were crouching and splashing around with their hands in the water.
  1408. "[Good. Yes. Rub between fingers. Make your hands very clean.]"
  1409. > At her instruction, the pair scrubbed their hands until they were nice and pink. Only when they were both shivering a little from the cold water was Thistle satisfied.
  1410. "[Good. Don't touch your clothes. Don't touch mud. Keep hands clean, understand? Now, Ning, come here. Grab some water.]"
  1411. > Again, the mare demonstrated with her hoof, even if the position of her limb was completely untenable. The important thing was that Ning grasped the idea and captured a bit of water in her cupped hand.
  1412. "[Yes. Wash my side. Wound. Gently.]"
  1413. > After she'd nodded at her side, Ning approached. Their grins had faded, and the prospect of washing the mare's ugly wound was making both children somber and nervous. Just before she poured her handful of water on her side, the girl looked at Thistle for reassurance.
  1414. > She gave her an encouraging nod and braced herself. The cold water splashing at the edges of her wound sent a new shock of pain, which made her grunt, despite her best efforts to maintain a stoic face. Ning rapidly drew away.
  1415. "[It's okay! I'm okay. It stings a little, but it's fine. Again. More water. You too, Fen Ko.]"
  1416. > The children conferred in their language again, and this time they both cupped water. Thistle stopped the boy with a hoof on his forearm.
  1417. "[No. Clean water, not mud. Understand. Here, take it here. Wash your hands again.]"
  1418. > She pointed at a patch upstream of where she was standing, and Fen Ko hurried to cup both hands where the stream was still clear. This time she gave him a nod.
  1419. > As he trickled the water on her flank, she couldn't quite hold back a hiss of pain, but at least this time the children didn't flinch as much.
  1420. "[Keep going. More water. Ning, brush the dry blood away. Make it clean.]"
  1421. > By now, Buygra was watching them with interest, even though he still kept glancing around for danger. He kept his bow in hand, arrow nocked and ready. When he caught her eye, he gave her a shrug and a wince in sympathy, and Thistle inclined her head in a mute thank you.
  1422. "[Good. Brush slowly. Don't put your fingers in the wound, but clean all around it, okay? Let the water run through it.]"
  1423. > Not for the first time Thistle wished she had some antiseptic, or at least some strong alcohol. As it was, all she could do was hope that the water from the stream was cleaner than the caked-on dirt and blood. It was a risk, but at least this way she could bind the wound with leather straps around her midriff, which would maybe keep it from tearing open each time she bent her body.
  1424. > She had to coach the children in how to run their fingers through her fur until the grime and dried blood was washed away. Then she had to instruct them to keep pouring clean water over the wound, until the worst of it was washed.
  1425. > Only then, and very gingerly, did Ning agree to run her fingers through the cut itself, to pick out and remaining dirt.
  1426. > It stung like Tartarus, and her vision swam from the pain. Thistle had to bite her tongue to keep from whimpering pathetically, but she bore it, more for the girl's sake than her own. She could see how Ning was wincing at her pain, and how her hands shook each time a little squeak or grunt escaped her.
  1427. "[I'm okay. It has to be clean,]" she kept repeating. "[You are doing well.]"
  1428. > Once she was satisfied the job was done as best as they were able, Thistle led them out of the water to Buygra. Her hooves were immediately caked with mud and small stones, but she paid them no mind. Instead, she inclined her head to the sack.
  1429. "[Open it. There is clean linen.]"
  1430. > Ning did so, and stared in amazement at the soft fabric. The camp didn't have much, but Thistle had appropriated all of it for bandages for the wounded. It hadn't been easy, either, despite Darga's orders, and she suspected some people have held out even so.
  1431. > There was enough of it, though, and under her direction, the women had washed it in the stream, and then dried it near the fires.
  1432. > She could only save a few small patches for herself, and the rest went to the people who were more badly hurt. It would be barely enough to cover the lenght of the slice on her flank, but at least it would be cleaner than just leather.
  1433. "[Put it on the wound.]"
  1434. > The cut had filled with fresh blood, now that it was no longer being washed away. Already small, watered-down droplets were sliding down her wet flank. Thistle paid it no mind. The bleeding would stop soon after they'd bandaged the wound.
  1435. > Cool water had numbed her a little, and Thistle barely grunted as Ning pressed the fabric against the raw wound. The sting quickly faded to a dull throb.
  1436. "[Good. Fen Ko, take the strips of leather and tie around my- around my waist.]"
  1437. > The boy had to ask his sister for a translation, but then he quickly went to his task. While Ning was holding the cloth in place, he wrapped the long strips around her midriff and tied them with a clumsy, but workable knot. A few times she had to direct him to untie it, and tighten the strip a bit more, but by the end he understood and finished his task well.
  1438. > Once it was done, they both took a step aside and looked at her. Ning couldn't help giggling. "[You look funny!]" she told the mare. "[Like you have skirt!]"
  1439. "[How do you know what a 'skirt' is?]"
  1440. > All the two siblings wore were some bits of leather, which they'd tied crudely around their waists, their feet, and - in Ning's case - around her chest.
  1441. > "[Xuan tell us,]" the girl explained. "[She show skirt. Now it torn up.]"
  1442. > Thistle hadn't even known that Xuan had such a thing, and she was sorry it was now gone. A few of the women in the camp had some item of clothing, mostly crude linen, but there were a few silk things among them. Thistle remembered the haul of fine fabrics they'd gotten from Ning and Fen Ko's wagon.
  1443. > Most of it had gone to the traders, in exchange for beer and grain, but some of the low quality pieces had remained in the camp.
  1444. > Undoubtedly most of those were now being used as bandages, but none of the camp people had complained. Survival was more important than fashion, or even riches.
  1445. "[Oh. Well, thank you for this. You did a good job. Someday you could be a healer, Ning.]"
  1446. > The youth beamed at her proudly, but her brother just shrugged. "[What healer?]" he asked. After Ning had explained, he looked almost disgusted. "[No want healer,]" he said with a pout. "[Want hunter, like Buygra, like Willow. Me good hunter!]"
  1447. "[Someday, yes.]"
  1448. > Her approval made the youth grin in delight and he immediately launched into some fanciful tale, judging by the gestures and the fierce expression on his face. His only public was Ning, unfortunately, and the girl looked bored. No doubt she had heard the same story many times by now.
  1449. "[Come, let's get back,]" she urged them.
  1450. > Nearby, the women looked like they were almost done with their water skins, and Thistle trotted over to help them carry the burden back to the camp. Buygra followed her, while Fen Ko picked up the empty sack Thistle had brought.
  1451. > It was the last bit of cloth they'd had, and they'd have to return to the stream later to wash it. In a day or so she would have to change her makeshift bandages, and with luck her wound would be at least healed enough that she could bandage it with the crude burlap. She'd have the children wash the bits of linen, and the cycle could repeat almost indefinitely.
  1452. > Linen or burlap, she'd have to keep a close eye on the wound to make sure it wasn't getting infected. Not that she knew what that felt, or looked, or smelled like, but Thistle was fairly sure she would be able to sense it.
  1453. > What she'd do if it happened, she hadn't the faintest idea. She'd think of something if she had to, though. She could always think of something.
  1454. "[Buygra,]" she called, "[we are meeting with the hunters to talk about how to defend, right?]"
  1455. > The hunter looked at her with disapproval, then pointedly glanced around to make sure no one was listening. He stared at the children for a few seconds, but then decided they were alright, especially if they were Thistle's slaves. "[I'm not sure most of them would welcome you.]"
  1456. "[I'll be there anyway! I'm with Salki. I still think we should try diplomacy, at least once.]"
  1457. > The man spat. "[Those dogs have no honor!]"
  1458. "[I know, but we have to try it. How would we do it?]"
  1459. > Buygra grimaced, but he did look thoughtfully at the horizon for a short while. Eventually he gave a shrug and answered: "[I don't know. We have better bows than they. They saw us using them, and they are trying to make their own, but they are not nearly as good. And now we have metal tips which go right through leather! Just let them come to us!]"
  1460. > None of that was particularly helpful, so Thistle tried to reverse her thinking.
  1461. "[What if we go to them?]"
  1462. > Buygra opened his mouth to ask, but she raised a hoof to silence him, even if she had to hobble awkwardly on three legs for a few steps.
  1463. "[Listen to me. They don't know where we went, right? Salki said the hunters stayed behind to hide and watch, and they didn't see anyone follow us. So they don't know where exactly we are?]"
  1464. > "[Maybe.]"
  1465. "[If so, they will have to search a large area. We should post some men, hidden, to watch for their scouts. We should try and catch one.]"
  1466. > "[Okay, and then what?]"
  1467. "[We give him a message for their leader. Say we want to talk. Then we let the man go back.]"
  1468. > The hunter gave her a fierce glare. "[What's to stop him from telling them exactly where we are?]"
  1469. "[Good point. We don't bring him to the camp, that's fine. He only has to deliver the message.]"
  1470. > "[Then what?]"
  1471. "[We tell him to come back to that place with someone who can talk for the Ruslans. It has to be somewhere we can hide people with bows.]"
  1472. > At these words, Buygra's face lit up and he smiled in evil delight. "[Aha! So if they come, we shoot them full of arrows!]"
  1473. "[No, because they will have their own fighters close to hand. We talk to them. Maybe we can stop this stupid war! We can come to some understanding!]"
  1474. > Already Buygra was shaking his head. "[No, Darga will never do that, and neither will anyone else in the camp. We can't talk to those curs. There is no talk with the bastards. Either we will kill every one of them, or they will do the same to us!]"
  1475. "[It doesn't have to be that way!]" Thistle said, stomping a hoof in anger.
  1476. > "[What other way is there?]"
  1477. "[What if we tell them about the villages? What if we join together, and go back to the villages, and steal more horses? They have metal weapons, jewels, fine cloth! We know the way, and we know how to fight them. Together, we could be strong!]"
  1478. > This, at least, gave Buygra some pause, and he turned it around in his mind a few times, before doubtfully shaking his head. "[I'm not sure. I still don't think Darga will go for it. Even if she does, what is to stop the Ruslans from attacking us as soon as we tell them where to go?]"
  1479. "[We have to try and trust them, and they have to trust us. It has to start somewhere!]"
  1480. > "[That's how it works in your magical pony land. This is the real world,]" he answered doubtfully, but his gaze was thoughtful and he didn't look as if he was going to spit any more.
  1481. > They walked the rest of the way into the camp in silence.
  1482.  
  1483. > ~~~~
  1484.  
  1485. > Her wound was healing well, but physical exertion, especially walking, made it itch like crazy. More than once had Thistle torn the edges of the cut open again by excessive scratching. It was pure luck she hadn't gotten an infection.
  1486. > On the plus side, she didn't have to do a whole lot of hard labor today. She'd accompanied Salki and Buygra to a nearby copse of trees to watch for Ruslan scouts sneaking closer to the new camp.
  1487. > It wasn't that the two particularly needed a pony, since they travelled light, nor could Thistle contribute a whole lot to the endeavour with her poor eyesight, but she had needed a day away from the camp and, after some convincing, Salki had agreed.
  1488. > Part of it was that she wanted to get away from Saule, who still gave the mare the stink eye each time they met. Another part were the two slave children.
  1489. "[Mmmm, no...]" she murmured.
  1490. > "[What?]" Salki asked. He didn't look at her, and kept his eyes on the distant horizon.
  1491. "[Nothing. Talking to myself.]"
  1492. > She shouldn't think of Ning and Fen Ko as 'slave children'. That was a bad, un-equestrian habit to get into. Unfortunately it was just so easy! The two youths followed her everywhere she went, and did everything she asked. It was helpful, up to a point, and then it had become a burden.
  1493. > Food was the problem. Now that they were her responsibility, it was up to Thistle to keep the pair fed, not to mention clothed. Her pink mane and tail, despite the fact that they'd grown, were no longer interesting to the camp people. The color had become part of their everyday, and uninteresting.
  1494. > There wasn't enough food to go around, despite the hunters' best efforts, and the ceaseless toils of the women. The people had already thinned their donkey herd as much as they dared under the threat of the looming winter, and now their options were limited.
  1495. > What little game and forage was brought in each day, was divided among the people. Thistle got her share, and she could supplement it by grazing, but the two foreign children, whom most people considered to be slaves, were very far down the priority list.
  1496. > They looked to her to provide for them, like she had promised. They never left her side, and each mouthful of food she got was subjected to pleading stares. Thistle just didn't have the heart to deny them.
  1497. > It was exhausting.
  1498. > Something would have to be done. Thistle knew that Salki and Darga argued about it most nights. Even her own suggestion to try and ally with the Ruslans and invade the lands to the west was considered.
  1499. > Well, it was refused, but at least they talked about it for a short while. Were their situation not so dire, they would have rejected it out of hand.
  1500. > The way things were going, they had only two real options: they could retreat further into the mountains, and hope that the Ruslans would not find them. Game would be more plentiful, and Thistle's suggestions to plant and grow their own grain were being considered.
  1501. > On the other hand, Darga had suggested to go north-east and lie in wait. Travellers often walked there, passing between the lands in the west, to the far east, where there was a rich kingdom. If they chanced upon a caravan, their needs would be met for a while.
  1502. > There was also a third option, but it was very unlikely to work. Thistle lifted her head and looked to the south. Somewhere in that direction, she thought, was the hole between the worlds where they had brought her from Equestria. If they went that way, perhaps they could find it.
  1503. > The camp's old shaman had told her it wouldn't open again for many decades, but perhaps he was wrong.
  1504. > Unfortunately the man had been killed in one of the Ruslan attacks while she and Salki had been away, so there was no way to ask him again.
  1505. > It would be worth looking. If they could get into Equestria, even in the middle of the Everfree forest, the people would be able to survive. She would be able to help them, somehow.
  1506. > Neither Darga, nor Salki would hear her proposal.
  1507. >...
  1508. > There was a rustle of grass and Thistle opened her mouth to warn Salki, but then she caught the familiar scent and relaxed. It was only Buygra, back from his scouting run.
  1509. > Pretty soon Salki heard the man, too. He grabbed his bow, but he didn't notch an arrow. "[Anything?]" he asked, when the other had shown himself.
  1510. > "[I haven't seen any trace. Maybe they don't know where we went?]"
  1511. > "[Possible. We still have to watch.]"
  1512. > Buygra jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "[Should we go further?]"
  1513. "[No,]" Thistle said. "[The land is flat, except for this hill. We can see farther from here.]"
  1514. > The hunter gave her an appraising look, which made the mare blush and lower her ears. She'd asked the same question while Buygra was gone. She sneaked a glance at Salki, but he just smirked and didn't say anything, letting her take the credit.
  1515. > "[Good thinking,]" Buygra finally replied. He went to lean against one of the spindly trees, and stared into the distance. "[We will need to figure out something with food,]" he finally said.
  1516. > Salki sighed and shot the other man an annoyed look. "[I know. Mother keeps saying it.]"
  1517. > "[What does she say?]"
  1518. > "[The same as always. We go east and look for a trading caravan. Maybe the two children from the last one remember where they travelled.]"
  1519. "[No.]"
  1520. > Both hunters stared at the mare, who had her ears pressed completely flat. "[What do you mean, 'no'?]" Salki asked.
  1521. "[They won't help, not with that. Salki, their parents were killed! Willow did it!]"
  1522. > To his credit, Salki looked a little uncomfortable, but Buygra just shrugged. "[So what? They'll help if they want to eat.]"
  1523. "[No. It's wrong. We shouldn't hurt other people just to survive. We can go further south. I'll teach you how to grow food!]"
  1524. > At the suggestion, Salki's face darkened and he spat. "[I won't spend my life looking at a cow's ass!]" he growled. "[I'd rather go fight the Ruslans!]"
  1525. "[It's not that bad!]" she insisted. "[It's not a bad life, and everyone can eat! You saw how many people were in those villages!]"
  1526. > "[So, we go steal from them. We know the way. We can move the whole clan.]"
  1527. > At this the mare shook her head in a mixture of emotion. It was her suggestion, albeit one she'd come up with just after a Ruslan attack, when she was still in pain and shock at her injury. The people in the west *had* tried to trick them with the horses. They had chased them, and attacked them. They had killed Hisein.
  1528. > Would it really be that wrong? Attacking a caravan meant killing people, but stealing from the villages did not necessitate that. They could rob them without really hurting them. At least, that was a lie she could almost believe.
  1529. > "[We could attack the Ruslans,]" Buygra said.
  1530. > The other two stared at him. "[What?!]"
  1531. "[What?!]"
  1532. > "[Think about it. We have better bows, and Janus can make us metal tips. We will have spears with metal points. If they don't know where we have gone, we can take a group of hunters and sneak close to their camp. We'll wait until their women go to gather food-]"
  1533. "[No, not the women,]" Thistle said immediately.
  1534. > It had been one of the most abhorrent news she'd heard when she came back. The enemy were attacking those who couldn't defend themselves. They were systematically weakening the clan.
  1535. > "[She's right. We're not such sons of donkeys as them.]"
  1536. > Buygra held his hand up, palm out. "[Fine, not women. We can hide and wait for their men to go hunting. They will never see us.]"
  1537. > "[They have a lot more men than we do,]" Salki pointed out.
  1538. > "[We have better weapons. If we strike from an ambush, we can even the odds.]"
  1539. > They went back to watching the horizon in silence. Eventually, it was Salki who spoke: "[No, that would only work once, and maybe not even once.]"
  1540. > Buygra shrugged expansively. "[Then what do you suggest?]"
  1541. > There was no answer. Thistle watched Salki for a while, but then lowered her gaze to her hooves. They really didn't have any good answers. If only she could ask some of her friends back in Equestria, they might have some useful advice.
  1542. > If it had been Twilight Sparkle, instead of her, who was taken, she would have all these warring tribes in an allegiance by now.
  1543. > Would that work?!
  1544. "[Wait! Salki?]"
  1545. > "[Hmm?]"
  1546. "[Are there any other tribes? Us, the Ruslans. Anyone else?]"
  1547. > Salki looked strangely at her, but then shrugged. "[Ruslans are the nearest. We've always been fighting for hunting lands.]"
  1548. "[Yes, but are there others, even if they aren't near?]"
  1549. > "[I think there are Arashi to the north, but they keep far away. The traders talk about the Sagsai, and the Ulan-Zuk.]"
  1550. "[Do you know how to find them?]"
  1551. > Salki fell silent and thoughtful, but Buygra looked almost annoyed. "[Why? What use is this?]"
  1552. "[We need friends! Fine, we can't be friend with Ruslan, not after what they've done, but maybe we can find other friends to help us!]"
  1553. > At that, the hunter barked a laugh. "[Thistle, we've fought with every one of those at some point or another. Our grandfathers probably fought their grandfathers.]"
  1554. "[That was long ago! Now we have something they want!]"
  1555. > Salki snapped his fingers and began to grin. "[The blacksmith! We have bows and arrows, and we have a blacksmith!]"
  1556. "[Exactly! We can find these other tribes and talk to them! They help us deal with Ruslans, and we give them metal weapons and bows. We become friends.]"
  1557. > "[Do you think it could last?]" Salki asked. "[Why won't they just attack us after we've dealt with the Ruslans?]
  1558. "[It's a chance,]" she admitted, "[but so we think ahead! Once the Ruslans are sorted out, we go west like we talked. We go back to those villages and take more horses.]"
  1559. > Her words gave both the men a lot to ponder. They went back to scanning the distant landscape, but Thistle saw Salki's lips move as he considered her idea.
  1560. > It could work! If the fighting was far enough in the past that no one living actually remembered it, other than through stories, then an alliance might be possible.
  1561. > After all, it was the pony way.
  1562.  
  1563. > ~~~~
  1564.  
  1565. > Her heart was hammering as Thistle was being led through the strange yet familiar camp. It wasn't her people, but the similarities were staggering. She'd forgotten just how used the nomads had gotten to her presence, a stark contrast from how these strangers were staring at her now.
  1566. > Her ears were already completely flat, and her tail would have pressed against her belly, if it had any considerable length to it. She'd had Salki chop it off, along with what little her mane had managed to grow.
  1567. > To this new clan, her pink hair would be a novelty. Perhaps they could trade, even if they couldn't gain their help.
  1568. > Now that she was among them, she wished she'd at least remembered to tie donkey hairs onto her dock, like they'd done in the lands to the West. As it was, she felt entirely too exposed, and it was far too hot for her coat.
  1569. > A wave of murmurs followed the little group as they passed between the tents. Men and women and children pointed at her and murmured to one another.
  1570. > She took refuge in Salki's solid, reliable presence, and made sure to brush her muzzle against his hand as often as she could manage. On her other side, Buygra walked with one hand on his bow, and his other on the large sack on Thistle's back.
  1571. > They were lead to these people's chieftain. He was an imposing man, flanked by two bare-chested, burly individuals stood in their way, and their escort stopped. One of them, a thin nomad with a pencil-thin moustache, spoke: "[These come from Darga's clan.]"
  1572. > At the words, the big man, whose poise and calm, attentive demeanor confirmed to be the leader, scowled. "[That old witch is still alive? I thought she'd be killed by now. Pah-]" he spat on the ground, "[a woman Chieftain. Who ever heard of such a thing?]"
  1573. > He was about to turn back, and his people were casting increasingly dark glances at the party. Buygra's hand slipped from the pack and he carefully lifted his bow. Unfortunately there wasn't an arrow nocked.
  1574. > "[Wait,]" Salki called. "[I will be Chieftain after my mother. I already lead. She is helping me with advice.]"
  1575. > Thistle stared in slack-jawed amazement at this bold lie, and even Buygra glanced over in surprise. It worked, though, and the other Chieftain paused. "[You are barely a man,]" he barked and looked like he was about to spit again.
  1576. > "[I have been far West. We travelled to the people who work the land and raise animals, and we stole their horses. I also brought back a blacksmith.]" With that, Salki pulled his knife from his belt.
  1577. > They didn't need to know that he'd actually gotten it in the foreign lands. Surely, once they'd found some metal ore, Janus would be able to forge weapons of equal quality.
  1578. > "[We have many new wonders to offer.]"
  1579. > The man looked at the blade with eager, hungry eyes. He scanned their little group and pointed at Buygra. "[I do not know what that piece of wood is for. I do not know this creature you have with you. Perhaps you really have travelled.]"
  1580. > He looked at his companions and jerked his head. The two stepped aside, and the Chieftain turned. "[Come. I will offer you hospitality and hear what you have to say. If I like what I hear, perhaps I will let you walk out of here alive.]"
  1581. > His cronies chuckled at this threat, and even Salki and Buygra managed weak grins. Thistle's muzzle remained scrunched with worry. She wondered if they hadn't made a mistake in coming.
  1582. > They followed the huge man to an equally grandiose tent. He held the flap open and barked some orders, which sent several young women scurrying out. Only then did he duck inside.
  1583. > Thistle's companies looked at one another, but then followed. Salki held the flap open for her, but the voice of their host boomed from within: "[Leave your animal outside!]"
  1584. > "[She is important. You will see,]" Salki said. There was no objection, so Thistle swallowed and gingerly stepped into the warm, engulfing darkness.
  1585. > The tent stank of soured donkey milk, sweat, and piss. It was both different, and hauntingly familiar to the nomads back home. Thistle waited until her eyes adjusted to the gloom a little, and then took her place and sat on her haunches next to Salki. The pack slid from her back and Buygra pulled it closer to himself.
  1586. > In the center was a fire pit, but it was dark. The only light came from the opening above, which would let out smoke to keep the occupants from suffocating.
  1587. > "[My name is Adilet Ilu. I am Ulan-Zuk. My father was of the Saka, and my grandfather before him.]"
  1588. > Taking his cue, Salki cleared his throat and spoke in as deep a voice as he could must, albeit not nearly as booming as their host's: "[I am Salki of the Borchi-Quin. This is Buygra, of the Borchi-Quin.]"
  1589. > The unknown word made Thistle's eyebrows rise, and her mouth fell open in shock. She'd never heard of the clan refer to themselves in this way, and she'd never asked by what name they were known to the outsiders. Perhaps it was stupid, but since they were the only people she really interacted with, they'd always just been 'us', or 'the clan'.
  1590. > Unsurprisingly, Adilet was more knowledgeable than her, and the grunted in dismissal. "[The Borchi-Quin died with your father. We will see if you are worthy of the name.]"
  1591. > "[I am!]" Salki almost growled. "[I've been to far-away places and seen incredible things! I will bring back the name of my father and my grandfather!]" he said, and turned to the mare. She tensed, preparing for the role she had to play. Salki went on: "[This is Thistle, who comes from a land of magic, far away.]"
  1592. > "[Its hair is a strange color, but it is just a donkey runt,]" the Chieftain said and idly plucked at the edge of the leather mat he was sitting on, thoroughly disinterested.
  1593. "[I am not.]"
  1594. > The inside of the tent fell deathly silent and she could have sworn the temperature lowered a bit. To his credit, Adilet controlled himself admirably, and only a slight hitch in his breathing betrayed his surprise. "[You've taught it to speak? How?]"
  1595. > "[Thistle taught herself our language. She has her own. She brought my clan many secrets.]"
  1596. > At that, Buygra drew the pack open and pulled out something wrapped in burlap.
  1597. > "[Try,]" Salki urged as his friend held out the bundle. Already the smell of bread filled the tent, at least covering the less pleasant odours slightly. Adilet reached out and took it. "[It is food made from grain. It is better than broth.]"
  1598. > They watched in silence as the Chieftain broke off a piece of the small loaf and put it in his mouth. He chewed it for a while, then swallowed. "[If that was poison, your people will regret it,]" he said, and burst out laughing again.
  1599. "[I will have some and prove it is not poison,]" Thistle said.
  1600. > At those words, Adilet tossed her the bundle and she scrambled to catch it with her hooves. She kept her eyes on him and took a big bite.
  1601. > "[She also taught us how to make new weapons. We will show you how effective they are. Like I said, we have a blacksmith, and we have horses.]"
  1602. > As he spoke, their host leaned back on one hand and began to pick bits of crushed grain from his teeth with his other. "[If you are so mighty, why do you come here? Do you only wish to show off?]" he asked.
  1603. > Salki patted Thistle's side to signal she should proceed. They'd agreed she would take over negotiation, but now that they were faced with the large and imposing man, she wasn't as sure. Despite that, she managed a weak grin.
  1604. "[Our people need some time to breed the horses and craft metal weapons for all. We are at war with the Ruslans, and there is more of them than us.]"
  1605. > She took a breath to continue, but Adilet held his palm up to forestall her. "[Let me guess. You want us to drive the Ruslans away. What have they done to me that I should fight them?]"
  1606. "[We will share these secrets with you. You can send people to learn how to make bows, and to learn from our blacksmith. More than that - you will have allies in us.]"
  1607. > Adilet watched them with a beginnings of a derisive sneer on his face, but at least he didn't flat out refuse.
  1608. > "[There is more,]" Salki said suddenly, drawing a surprised look from Thistle. "[I know the way to the lands in the West. They are fat and rich. They have jewels, and metal weapons, and horses. Together, we can go and steal from them. We will get more than from any careless caravan which enters our lands unaware. You will need bows to fight them, because they have them too.]"
  1609. > At the mention of plunder and foreigners Adilet leaned forward, his eyes gleaming with interest. "[Hmm,]" was all he said.
  1610. "[I have more wonders from my land which I will share for you. The shaping of metal came from there, many years ago. It was my kinsmen who visited your world and shared such secrets.]"
  1611. > She hurriedly searched her memories for things which may be appealing to the nomads. She knew they weren't interested in farming, but perhaps some adjacent skills?
  1612. "[I will show you how to prepare milk and make it into a solid food. I will show you how to herd bees and make honey, and strong drink from honey.]"
  1613. > His eyes left the mare, and Adilet began to idly clean his fingernails, apparently not much interested. "[What else do you have?]"
  1614. > Thistle's mind raced as she invented rapidly.
  1615. "[My people can fashion metal into a suit. It is impervious to most of your weapons. I will teach our blacksmith! We can make machines of wood and metal which will throw a large rock into your enemies from a distance!]"
  1616. > At that, both her friends let out small gasps and stared at the mare with wide, incredulous eyes. At their intense scrutiny, Thistle's ears folded completely flat and she blushed. It has only been a bit of folklore from ancient Griffin stories. She wasn't sure if she could build a catapult, but perhaps with some of the cleverer nomads they could figure it out, like she'd done with Bakar and the bow.
  1617. > "[Interesting,]" Adilet broke the silence at long last. "[I will think about this. First, show me what your little wooden stick can do. If I am impressed, we will talk some more.]"
  1618. > Salki and Buygra leapt to their feet, although they kept turning strange looks at the mare. She stood up more slowly, and followed them out in a slight daze. Surely her purpose on this world wasn't to come up with new and terrible weapons for these poor nomads to use on one another, was it?
  1619. > At least it looked like they might get an alliance, or at least something similar to it. Perhaps the Ulan-Zuk would help them hold off Ruslans.
  1620. > She followed the men outside, where Buygra was already explaining that they needed a large, open space. When they set off, joined by a few more of Adilet's men, she walked after them, hardly seeing where she was putting her hooves. All her attention was focused inward. Could she really help these people devise a working catapult? Did she have the skills? She wasn't an engineer. Was an Equestrian education well-rounded enough for such a thing?
  1621. > More importantly, could she establish a pact with them? That was more up her alley, but these people were strange, despite living among them for so long. Their values were not her values, a fact she was consistently reminded of even among the people she knew well.
  1622. > Thistle shook her head and hurried to catch up and press her muzzle again into Salki's hand. At least he'd be there with her.
  1623. > Explaining the lies he'd told Adilet to his mother would be interesting, though. That was one place her skills could really help him.

Something, at least (SPG)

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