Once upon a time in the magical land of Equestria...
The sun rose slowly over the vast expanse that the ponies called home. In a small town far to the south, a pegasus stretched in his bed as he awakened. As Gallant Bulwark’s eyes opened, he could see the light growing on the horizon in shades of gold and red, the beauty of it a testament to Princess Celestia’s handiwork. His eyes then fell to the mare that lay next to him. Twinklestar still slept soundly, as was her nature. The stallion allowed himself a moment just to look at her in total contentment.
As if beckoning him to work, a twinge of pain worked its way up his left hind leg. The stallion crept from the bed as gently as possible and donned his leg brace. The accident that had ended his career as a city guard in Canterlot had left that lasting impairment. The brace, which was little more than a hinged splint, made him able to walk on it, though it did nothing to alleviate the frequent pain.
When morning rituals were completed, the floor creaked under Gallant Bulwark as he left the bedroom and went down the stairs. The house was completely quiet, but for his clumsy ambling. He headed into the kitchen, resigned to the eventual need to awaken his oldest daughter. She had inherited her mother’s love of sleep.
Gallant Bulwark reared back in fright before recognizing that he wouldn’t have to wake Sparklefly; she was sitting at the kitchen table with a book.
She smiled, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s a small matter,” he shook off the feeling. “I didn’t hear you moving about.”
The small firefly lantern by which she’d been reading was indistinguishable against the morning light. She set the book down.
“I woke up early,” she shrugged. “I didn’t want to be late again, so I came down and started reading about an hour ago.”
“And what is it this time? More history of Equestria?”
His daughter shrugged as she pushed the book toward him.
“The Forgotten,” Gallant Bulwark read from the cover.
“It’s about a mare who is so sad about her special somepony breaking up with her that she goes into a complete despair. She is found that night by some magical butterflies that guide her to an enchanted tree that feeds on sadness and takes the memories away.”
“So, what happens to her?” he asked as he began the ritual of brewing his morning coffee.
“Well, she was so sad, that they accidentally took away all of her memories.”
“Huh, careful what you wish for...”
“Oh, that’s just the beginning,” Sparklefly added, “That happens in the first chapter. The book is more about what she does after that.”
Gallant Bulwark felt himself smile, “Maybe I’ll try that one when you finish.”
Sparklefly frowned, “I don’t think there’s going to be any action.”
“It’s a small matter if not. I read more than just war stories.”
His daughter gave him a look of disbelief that made the stallion chuckle. He returned his attention to the coffee and poured some for himself when it was ready. His custom was to take it black. There was a small amount left over after he’d filled his mug, which he put into a mug and presented to his daughter. They sat in silence for a moment before he began to drink. Sparklefly’s face contorted when she tried the bitter brew.
“Still don’t like it?” her father asked.
The daughter shrugged, “I guess not.”
“You have to get used to it. It’s an acquired taste.”
Her head tilted to one side in thought as she asked, “But if it’s an acquired taste, who would have bothered to acquire it in the first place?”
He chuckled at the question, “That is one of life’s great mysteries.”
She frowned at the answer, but didn’t press the point. After a light breakfast of honeyed oats and dried apple slices, the pair left the house and crossed the small town. They were the first pegasus family to move to Apple Loosa since it had been founded. The primary crop was apples that grew in the vast orchard. In a sense, this gave them job security in weather control. When more or less rain is needed, pegasi are the best ponies for the job.
“Aren’t we going to bring some rain today?” Sparklefly asked.
“Yes,” the stallion replied. “I want to show you something first.”
They continued walking until they were deep in the middle of the orchard. Apple trees surrounded them as far as the eye could see. Green grass grew everywhere underneath, except for a wide stampede path that ran through the middle of the apple tree forest. Buffalo had roamed the southern plains long before the ponies founded their town, and the stampede path was a compromise to which both sides had agreed.
“I know you understand about moving clouds,” Gallant Bulwark began, “but there’s more to it than just that.”
“It’s about the why,” Sparklefly added the next line.
Her father smiled, “Okay, so you’ve heard this speech before.”
“A few times,” she grinned back before she continued reciting, “We are stewards of the land. It has been here before us and will be here when we are gone. We should always try to nurture and care for it, for in so doing we take care of ourselves and each other. As such, it is important to be at the right place at the right time. Otherwise the trees will get too much water or not enough. If the trees die, ponies go hungry.”
He smiled again and teased, “You don’t have to be so smug about it.”
He snorted a laugh, “Come on.”
The pair stretched their wings and shot up into the sky. The pain in Gallant Bulwark’s leg always seemed much less when he was in the air. The two of them got to work gathering smaller clouds and making larger ones out of them. From their vantage point above, they could see the other workers down below, the wingless earth ponies, working their jobs to tend the orchard. By midday, Gallant Bulwark and his daughter had covered half of the orchard with the vaporous blanket.
Clouds may be thought to be lightweight due to their natural ability to float on the air, but this is a common misconception. They actually can easily have several tons of water in each one. They are, however, not incredibly dense, and buoyancy allows them to maintain their position in the sky. Due to that fact, pushing them around can be exhausting work.
"That’s good," Gallant Bulwark said as Sparklefly brought another small cloud into the group.
"Okay," his daughter replied, breathing heavily.
She wiped sweat from her brow.
"Now we make it rain," he said with a smile.
The pair flapped their wings and gained the altitude needed to come on top of their day’s work. They then began stomping on it from one end to the other. Packing the cloud even tighter increased the density. Before long, drops of water began to fall out of it. Rain poured from the bottom of their cloud to water the trees below. The pair stopped, their work now completed. Gallant Bulwark sat down on the cloud for a moment. He loved the smell of the rain. His daughter flung herself down beside him.
”Are you already worn out?"
"No, sir," she panted.
The older stallion chuckled to himself.
"It’s a small thing if you are, but you know, this is easy work. It’s good work," he looked out to the horizon.
Memories of his former life, some twenty years before, came to mind. He had been a royal guard in the Equestrian capital city of Canterlot. He never served in the palace itself, but the training that his company had received was equally strenuous. As if responding to the memory, his braced leg began aching. He rubbed the pain out of it. While his injury hadn’t been life-threatening, it was enough to get him discharged from his duties. He had returned home to Cloudsdale to settle down. He later married and the family moved to Apple Loosa shortly after it was founded to help the earth ponies with the weather.
Something caught his eye. It was almost more of a feeling than anything else. The hair on the back of Gallant Bulwark’s neck stood up. He rose and strained his eyes to see. His daughter noticed his change in disposition, also standing to look.
"What is that?" she asked about the movement they saw on the horizon.
"Timberwolves," he replied.
While Gallant Bulwark had seen them before, he had little experience with the beasts. They had never been sighted in Apple Loosa.
"Come on," he said.
The pair took flight, zipping back into town. The wind rushed in the stallion’s ears as he considered their options. If his eyes were correct, there had to have been dozens of the beasts coming from the north. Glancing over his shoulder confirmed it. The large pack of timberwolves were heading for town. He turned to his daughter.
"Go to the sheriff and tell him that we need to evacuate the orchard," he said. “He needs to raise the alarm.”
"Yes, sir," she said, her voice wavering.
"It’s okay to be scared," he said as gently as his adrenaline would allow. "But you do not have permission to panic."
"I mean it. Panic gets you killed. Focus, analyze the problem, work through it."
His daughter nodded.
"Go to the house as soon as you’re done, that’s where I’ll be."
The pair separated, and Gallant Bulwark was home within moments. He entered the house and darted up the stairs. His wife began shouting after him.
“I know you are not stomping through this house, Gallant Bulwark!"
He ignored the comment and continued into the bedroom. Opening the chest at the end of the bed, he found what he needed. The armor he had worn years before lay waiting, as did the spear he had been issued. The stallion quickly began donning the musty-smelling equipment. Rust had begun to take its toll, but there was still plenty of strength in the metal. The town bell began ringing.
"Wha... what’s going on?" his wife stood behind him; her tone had softened with fear.
"Gather up the children. We’ve got dozens of timberwolves heading straight for town."
He pulled the straps, tightening his armor into place. It didn’t fit nearly so well as it once had. He was in need of losing some weight. He turned, seeing his wife still standing there. This caused a fair amount of anger, but he knew it wouldn’t help. He swallowed it and turned his attention to his wife. Looking directly into her blue eyes, he tried to convey the severity of the situation.
"They might not hit town, but if they do, you and the kids will be safe in the house.”
"You’re going to fight them," Twinklestar said; it wasn’t a question.
“I might be able to lead them away from the orchard."
Tears welled up in her eyes. He shushed her.
"Hey, we don’t have time for that now," he pulled her close in an embrace. "You know I love you. I need to know you’re safe."
Thundering hoof steps worked their way up the stairs. It was Sparklefly.
"Dad, I told them it was timberwolves. The sheriff and his deputy are headed to the orchard to get everypony out.”
"Thank you," the stallion said. He let go of his wife and turned to face his oldest daughter. "I have to protect the town." She returned his gaze, but said nothing. "I need you to do my job here. You are a grown mare now. You help your mother look after the family until I get back."
“Yes, sir,” Sparklefly replied.
"I’ll rejoin you as soon as everypony is safe. Now go find your brothers and sisters and get them inside.”
Sparklefly nodded and darted away. The stallion looked again at his wife. They didn’t have to share any words to know what the other was thinking. Long years of marriage had caused a blending of spirit. She wanted him to not go, but he had to. Sounds of near panic in the streets broke their connection. Gallant Bulwark kissed her, and then returned to his armor chest. He fastened on the grieves that guarded his hooves and finally his helmet. Taking up his spear last, he turned to exit the room. Twinklestar had gone.
The stallion left his house and found that a bit of chaos had erupted in town. A train whistle blasted in the distance. Gallant Bulwark took flight and shot like an arrow across Apple Loosa and into the orchard. The downpour that he had started began to soak him through as he flew deeper. Near the other end of the orchard, he landed and assessed the situation. Workers were fleeing toward town, and he could hear howling as the beasts approached. Getting his spear ready, the stallion ducked behind a tree and waited.
Fat drops of rain fell in heavy sheets. Peering around his concealment, he could see the magical wooden beasts were snarling as they came. He gripped his spear tightly as they closed on his position, apparently unaware that he waited for them. Moments became like years as he anticipated their arrival. Adrenaline coursed through Gallant Bulwark’s veins as he sat like a coiled cobra, ready to strike. He ignored the rain that ran down his face, tickling his nose.
The savage beasts would have run past him, but like lightning, the stallion shot out, his spear bursting through one of the creatures and felling it where it stood. He sprang back as the rest of the pack lunged hungrily at him. Side-stepping around a tree, he struck another of the beasts with the butt of his spear, spinning it around just in time to impale another. Growling met him as their numbers closed around him.
Gallant Bulwark spun, the lethal tip of his spear singing through the air, and cutting another timberwolf like a knife through warm butter. They pressed even tighter, having him surrounded on three sides. Backing away, he struck blow after blow, fending off teeth and claws that relentlessly pursued him. His initial count had been wrong. Their numbers continued increasing. Now there had to be no fewer than fifty that pressed the attack.
He had already killed three and maimed several others, but they grew thick and pushed him farther back toward town. His hind left leg ached from use, the pain pulsing with the beating of his heart. He slashed and stabbed at the timberwolves, but by the time Gallant Bulwark realized he was in trouble, they had completely surrounded him. Claws raked against his armored back, scraping metal.
Shifting his weight, the stallion slapped away the timberwolf with the back of his spear before thrusting into a lunging beast that knocked him off balance. Sharp pain shot up his braced leg as it gave way and he fell to the soggy earth. Regaining his hooves, there were teeth and wicked eyes all around. The spear was lost, so Gallant Bulwark smashed the nearest timberwolf with his fore-hooves. He let kicks fly, but it was a losing battle, and the stallion knew it.
He was pushed aside as a beast leapt onto his back. It bit at him as Gallant Bulwark hurled himself into a tree, smashing the timberwolf against the bark. Another one was in his face, jaws about to clamp down into an unprotected throat. The stallion rammed his head down, smashing the ravaging mouth with his helmet and giving himself a bloody nose in the process. With another half spin, he managed to clamor up the tree just far enough to extend his wings and take flight.
Jaws snapped in the air in a vain attempt to get at his hooves as Gallant Bulwark soared above the orchard. From his new vantage point, he could see many more ferocious timberwolves running through the orchard. There had to be hundreds of them. weaponless, he turned and flew back toward town. Sweat and rain stung his eyes, and his leg ached.
The stallion was surprised to discover that the citizens were still not all inside. They seemed to be heading for the train that had arrived. Nearer the orchard, pony soldiers had set up a defensive perimeter and were already engaging the first small packs of timberwolves that had reached the edge of town. He thought it strange that soldiers would have arrived so quickly. The nearest would have been hours away by train. The pegasus spit out the taste of blood and changed course to intercept the fight.
Spears skewered the beasts, and claws raked against armor. The ponies were outnumbered, but they were trained warriors. Several were already wounded when Gallant Bulwark arrived. His rusty armor was quite a contrast to the golden polished gear that the soldiers wore. Timberwolves got around the flank and hit the force from two sides.
Gallant Bulwark grabbed up a spear from the ground and sped into the middle of the fray. He impaled one of the beasts and then side-stepped a massive clawed paw that swiped at his head. He deflected another with the butt end of his spear before coming around striking another. He threw his hind legs in a kick that knocked over another, which sent a stabbing pain through is old injury.
Shouting, snarling, and screaming filled the air, as did the putrid stench of timberwolf breath and the unmistakeable scent of spilled blood. Minutes stretched on, but there was no end to them. For every one that Gallant Bulwark cut down, two more seemed to spring up. Another soldier killed a timberwolf that was about to come down on the rusty armored stallion, then a timberwolf killed that soldier. Gallant Bulwark kept fighting. As the numbers of the foul beasts swelled, the pony warriors began pulling backward into the town.
Using the buildings as a bottleneck, they were able to prevent themselves from being hit on their flanks again. Everything became a blur of fangs and blood as a kind of giddiness took over the stallion. He wasn’t quite so spry as he’d once been, but he hadn’t lost his skill with the spear. He fought alongside the other soldiers, ripping the beasts to bits one after another.
It ended with the remaining ponies out of breath, all having expended a great deal of strength to accomplish this goal. Gallant Bulwark’s lungs burned, screaming for rest and more air than he was able to take in.
"Who are you?" one of the soldiers asked.
"Gallant Bulwark," the stallion panted. "I live here. Who’s in command?"
The soldier looked around and said, “Both captains are dead. I guess I am."
A great sound of howling went up as the raincloud drifted into town from the orchard. Glancing back further into town, there were still civilians evacuating.
“You need to get to the train.”
Gallant Bulwark took a breath and gripped his spear tighter, “We’re about to have more incoming, and the civilians aren’t all out yet."
The commander simply nodded and began redeploying his force into a stronger position. A quick count revealed that they had already lost about a third of their soldiers. The stallion in the rusty armor joined the formation that they made. All they had to do was keep from getting surrounded. They could keep the timberwolves coming up the main street and the buildings would slow their advance.
‘Just a little longer,’ Gallant Bulwark thought, ‘just hold out a little longer and they’ll be safe.’ He’d nearly caught his breath, and the most of the pain had subsided from his leg. As he prepared for the next wave of timberwolves, the pegasus stallion felt more alive than he had in years...