Ironhooves hated the rain. He’d spent the day in the mine, magicking gold and gems out of the rocks and then loading them into carts, and the shock of coming from the warmth of underground into the cold soaking rain was making him shiver, chilling him right to the tip of his horn. He wanted nothing more than a warm blanket and a hug from his Mama, but that was impossible.
He’d kept his rations for her, though, and he moved quietly through the rain, too tired to magic himself dry, sneaking all the way to the cage where the dragons were keeping her. At least they’d bandaged her wing, though the cage offered little protection from the elements. She was curled up on some dry hay, her head bent, her good wing tucked tightly against her body.
“Mama?” asked Ironhooves, shaking his rain-soaked fringe out of his eyes.
She stirred. “Ironhooves?” she asked, getting to her feet. “What are you doing?”
“I got you an apple,” he said, nudging the apple in through the bars. “I thought it might help you feel stronger.”
She took it and ate quickly — both of them knew that if the dragons caught them, they’d take the apple and punish them both.
“Thank you, little one,” said Mama, and Ironhooves smiled, despite the fact that rain was soaking through his mane, dripping into his eyes and making him shiver.
“I’m a fully grown stallion, Mama,” he said, pushing his muzzle through the bars of her cage. “I’ll get you out of there, I promise.”
She kissed his forehead, very gently. “You won’t endanger yourself for me,” she said.
“I will,” said Ironhooves. “If I have to. I’ve nearly got the collar off, look…”
He concentrated, and the thick metal collar that tied him to this place shivered.
Mama nickered. “Little one,” she said. “If you can get that off, you don’t wait for me. You run to Canterlot and tell people what’s happening here. Princess Celestia will come and save us, I promise.”
“I’m not strong enough,” he said, and she rubbed his muzzle gently.
“Try again,” she said. “You’re the bravest, strongest pony I know, and I know you can get free. And then you run down the beach and around the fence, and get help.”
“But what about you?” he asked.
“They won’t hurt me,” she said. “They need me to look after the foals. I’ll be all right until you return. Just try for me.”
He tried again, his head aching with the magic. He could feel himself failing, but then his Mama kissed him and whispered I believe in you, and the strength for one last push, one last breath, sizzled through him and the collar broke off with a snap and tinkle of metal.
Immediately, alarms sounded. Ironhooves panicked, his heart beating fast as dragons appeared from nowhere, flaming fury and bearing down on him. He took one last look at his Mama.
“I have to go,” he said.
“Fly!” she whispered. “Run like the wind! Go to Canterlot; you’ll be safe there!”
“I love you,” Ironhooves replied, and he wished, he wished he was powerful enough to break open her cage and take her with him. He hated fleeing, but he knew that fighting against such overwhelming odds was useless, so he bit the sneaking dragon that was trying to catch him, and he ran down along the beach and then into the forest, out, far around the horrible fences that would fry his skin off his bones, brambles tangling in his tail, catching and scratching, until he was so far away that it had stopped raining and the moon hung high in the air above him. Ironhooves stopped and caught his breath, sides heaving, blood on his flanks from the brambles.
“Mama,” he said, and because even the biggest and bravest of stallions still need their mamas sometimes, he struggled not to cry. He looked up, and swore by the moon: “I’m going to rescue her. I promise. I promise.”
The moon heard him, but she said nothing, only smoothed his path before him like silk. He finally broke through to a road and found a signpost, his heart sinking when he saw that Canterlot was more than a hundred miles away. At least he was going in the right direction, Ironhooves thought, but it was going to be a long walk, and his shoes were old and worn.
Tired, lonely and sore, he tucked himself under the welcoming branches of a weeping willow, and went to sleep, his head tucked against his flank, his heart aching for somewhere warm and safe that he could escape to, somewhere that all of the ponies on Dragon Ranch could go, where no-one made them work or clipped their wings or forced them down the mine. Ironhooves slept the sleep of the exhausted, his dreams stuffed full of his hopes for somewhere that he could call home.
Oxford Blue loved Canterlot. He loved everything about it — its high and shining towers, its beautiful waterfalls, and the mist over the mountains in the early mornings. He’d studied there; first, as a young, untried colt, and then as a student of Celestia herself, drawn in under her wing. He’d modelled his own school on hers, but instead of building it between the tall spires of Canterlot, he situated it in the forest. The big city was no place for youngsters who couldn’t control their magic.
Still, Oxford loved being able to visit, and when he’d got the invitation, he’d leapt at the chance.
Princess Celestia was waiting for him in the Throne Room, and she offered him a warm, gentle smile when he trotted in.
“Oxford,” said the Princess. “It’s good to see you.”
“My lady,” said Oxford Blue, bowing low. “The feeling is mutual.”
“You should visit more often,” she said. “I miss your impromptu lectures at state dinners; they’re so boring without someone commenting on the chemistry of the food and the many uses of magic.”
He felt himself blushing, but a smile still rose unbidden to his face. “I feel you’re teasing me,” he said.
“I would never,” she said, eyes sparkling. “Come and walk with me.”
He followed her out to the balcony. “I wish I could come more often,” he said, “but my students need me. I’ve left the older ones in charge of the school under Destiny’s watchful eye, but if I leave them too long, there’ll be some kind of disaster.”
“Twilight Sparkle told me about your school,” Celestia said.
Oxford laughed. “She and her friends raised a ruckus,” he said. “It was refreshing for my young ones to see that even ponies in control of their abilities can cause trouble.”
“Raising a ruckus seems to be the specialty of some young ponies,” said Celestia, gently nudging Oxford. “I seem to recall a unicorn who lost control of his telepathy and frightened a whole garrison of the Royal Guard.”
“I’ve got much better control now,” said Oxford. “And that’s why I opened the school; so that unicorns who were having trouble controlling their magic could learn how to. And then I sensed using my Marvellous Magnifying Machine that there were others who needed us too — pegasi who have trouble flying, and I’ve got two simply marvellous earth ponies who just want somewhere that they can safely practise science, and—“
“Oh, my Oxford,” said Celestia, bending her head to press her cheek to his. “I called you here today to give you my blessing and my aid for your school. There are unsettling things afoot — rumours of feral ponies, and dragons who want to use ponies as slave labour.”
He closed his eyes, breathing in the soft scent of her mane. “Thank you,” he said; the little ones would be so excited to have Celestia’s blessing. “Feral ponies?”
“I want you to find out if this is true,” said Celestia. “And if the wild horses are real, I want you to offer them any assistance we can. A pony does not choose to become feral.”
“I understand,” said Oxford.
“Do you?” she asked. “This has come in from Ponyville.” She unrolled a scroll in the air in front of them. It was a Wanted poster, the picture on it of a unicorn. Given that the unicorn was on a wanted poster, Oxford expected him to look rough and scowling, but instead there was something noble in his expression. Actually…handsome, if he had a bath and a good brush.
“What was his crime?” asked Oxford.
“Biting,” said Celestia. “And he stole some apples.”
“Is he still on the run?” asked Oxford, examining the image. “Wait, is his cutie mark…?”
“I can’t quite make it out,” said Celestia.
“I think it’s a chess king,” said Oxford.
“Perhaps,” said Celestia, “but that would be quite a coincidence, wouldn’t it?”
“My goodness,” said Oxford, stepping back in shock. His own cutie mark was a chess king; he’d never heard of anypony else who had anything like it. “How?”
“I do not know,” said Celestia. “I get the distinct impression that not all is as it seems.”
“We can find him,” said Oxford. “We’ll find him, and help him. No stallion would bite if they had their wits about them.”
Celestia touched her horn to his. “Oxford,” she said. “Understand that I cannot interfere. This is a matter for the guard.”
Of course; but Oxford knew that . “Would Destiny’s supervision be acceptable?” he asked.
Celestia smiled. “Of course — she’s one of the best of the best. Her platoon miss her terribly.”
Oxford was smart enough to know what Celestia was planning, and the thought of another pony who so perfectly matched himself was fascinating. Was it a king? Or was it something blurred by the bad picture? He wanted to know what had happened — Oxford had got his cutie mark when he’d learned that his sister was more important to him than winning. Surely a similar mark meant a similar story? A similar personality? And why, then, would a fellow intellect stoop to biting?
All right, perhaps his curiosity was spiced with some hopefulness — Oxford had heard the old stories that if two ponies had matching cutie marks then they were made for each other, in the very best kind of way. Celestia must have, too; there was a reason why she’d called in Oxford instead of sending the Royal Guard straight away.
How, though, would he find this pony? Of course. The Marvellous Magnifying Machine. Oxford had to stop himself practically bouncing to keep pace with Celestia — a stallion bouncing wasn’t exactly dignified.
“I’ll do everything I can,” said Oxford. “And then some more.”
“I knew I could count on you,” said Celestia. She paused. “You do know I hate to ask you to place yourself in danger.”
“I know,” said Oxford. “But I’m perhaps stronger than you think.”
“I hope you are,” she said. “Now. Stay for tonight and dine with me; you can be my companion to the Bridler’s Ball. I’ve missed a good dinnertime lecture.”
“Your wish,” said Oxford, following her. “But then I will really need to get going; lost ponies don’t find themselves.”
Ironhooves shook from mane to tail, trying to shift the stiffness from his back and the leaves out of his coat. It was a bright, cool morning, and his breath steamed in the air. At least it wasn’t raining. He’d had enough of rain. The rain had left him with a persistent damp cough, and a chill that he couldn’t shake no matter how hard he ran.
“All right,” he told himself, checking his reflection in a puddle. “Fifty miles today. You can run fifty miles.”
He’d given up trying towns for help; the last few places he’d stopped, ponies had called the guard, and if he was locked up — or worse, sent back to Dragon Ranch — he’d never be able to help his Mama and everypony he’d left back there. One tall pony had told him a list of all the bad things he’d supposedly done, and he’d realised with a sinking feeling that the dragons had got a rumour out that had run ahead of him into the towns. There was even a WANTED poster stuck up all over the place, his face nailed to trees and buildings and making it very, very hard for him to seek help.
He wished he had someone with him. Even the company of Diamond Bright, who would probably complain about sleeping out of doors and not having any food, would be better than trying to do this on his own. He stretched, shaking again, and then broke into a trot, quickly gaining speed to hit a canter. Running was a joyous thing after so long spent down the mines and confined in the barns, and he let his muscles work and stretch, only stopping when his lungs hurt and his legs threatened to give out. He clopped shakily along the road, wheezing for breath, grinning despite himself, because he’d been running. Running. If he found some windfalls that weren’t too wormy, life would be as perfect as it ever got.
He nearly tripped over his own hooves when he heard somepony’s voice in his head.
All right, so either he’d gone mad or somepony was hiding in the bushes and playing tricks on him.
“If you’re hiding and trying to trick me, that’s a foul thing to do,” he said, fierceness building up behind his teeth.
I’m not hiding — I’m just a long way away from where you are, said the voice. I’m using a machine — it’s really rather fantastic — to throw my thoughts your way.
“Why?” asked Ironhooves, still searching for a tell-tale rustle of bushes.
Because I want to help you.
“Who are you?” he asked. “Why do you want to help me? How do you even know who I am?”
I want to know why you’re running.
“I’m running because I have to get to Canterlot,” said Ironhooves. Was the voice stupid, or was it trying to help him even though it knew nothing about him? Come to think of it, that seemed pretty stupid, too. “I have to ask Princess Celestia to help me save my Mama.”
I can help you. The voice sounded gentle, and he wanted to trust it, but Ironhooves knew a lot about trust and how it could be broken. Princess Celestia knows there’s a wild pony in the outer towns. She’s asked me to look for you.
“She knows?” asked Ironhooves, his heart feeling like it was shattering in his chest. If she knew about the dragons, then…
What is it, my friend? asked the voice. Why are you upset?
“Because if the Princess knows about the dragons, then no-one can help me,” said Ironhooves, stopping by the side of the road. It seemed unreal, it seemed too horrible to be true.
No; you’ve got it wrong. She knows you need help, but not why. Come to me, and I’ll help you get to her.
“Why would you help me?” asked Ironhooves.
Because you deserve it, said the voice. Keep on down the road to Canterlot, and turn at the West Forest. My house is hard to miss.
“How do I know you aren’t trying to trick me?”
Why would a pony try to trick another pony? The voice sounded truly astonished at the thought. Come to me, and let us explain face-to-face — if my help won’t be enough, we’ll go to Canterlot together.
“Promise you won’t try to put a bridle on me,” said Ironhooves. “Or ropes, or anything else.”
A bridle? Never.
“Then I’ll come,” said Ironhooves. “But if you can’t help me, you have to let me go.”
I promise, said the voice. If I can’t help you, I’ll take you to Canterlot myself.
The voice vanished with what felt like a sudden drop in pressure — Ironhooves had to wiggle his jaw to even out the funny feeling in his ears. What had he just agreed to? What was going to happen to him? He was too tired to run, so he walked instead, trying to catch his breath and thinking about what he’d do when he got to the West Forest.
Diamond Bright had talked in his head once, when there’d been a rockfall in the mine and she’d been trapped on the wrong side of it. The dragons had been going to leave the ponies, like they had the time that Ironhooves had been the one trapped, but Diamond had told Ironhooves that there was a huge vein of gold behind the rocks, so the dragons had let them excavate the cave-in. He’d never been more happy to see her grubby face; she hadn’t been lying about the gold, either, so none of them had been punished.
But Diamond had said that her talking mind-to-mind only worked at short range, and there was nopony about at all. Strange. Very strange.
Ironhooves looked down the road, and his heart sank a little when he saw dark clouds gathering on the horizon. Still. He had to press on, and if this voice in his head was evil, then he had to deal with that when he got there. It hadn’t felt evil. It had felt warm and kind, like sleeping in a sunbeam. And it had genuinely seemed astonished at the thought that a pony would try to trick another pony. Maybe he’d be lucky.
At the next crossroads, he stopped. Canterlot, 40 miles in one direction. West Forest, 15 miles in another. Ironhooves shivered as the wind rustled through the treetops and thunder growled overhead. He didn’t have a chance of making it to Canterlot before dark, but he might be able to make it to the West Forest, and he could hope that the voice wasn’t lying.
“Voice, are you there?” he asked.
A massive crack of thunder that shook the whole world replied. Flattening his ears, Ironhooves picked up his pace and turned into the West Forest, hoping against hope that he hadn’t made the wrong decision.
Oxford lit every lamp in the mansion, even the ones down by the gate, only flinching a little when the thunder cracked overhead.
“Hopefully your pony’s bunked down in a barn for the night,” said Data Bite, when Oxford came down to check on how the lab was holding up in all the thunder. Last time they’d had a storm, the roof had leaked.
Oxford was very fond of Data — he was an extraordinary intellect, and he didn’t like magic, preferring science. It took all types to make the world, but Oxford rarely found someone so devoted to chemistry when magic could do anything one wanted quick as blinking.
“Can we try the machine after dinner?” asked Oxford. “I want to check.”
“Twice in one day? You’ll hurt yourself,” said Data.
“If he’s out there in this weather…” said Oxford. “I led him here. I don’t want him to drown on my account.”
“Dinner, then we’ll try,” Data said. “I’m starving; I could eat a dragon.”
Oxford sat through an uneasy dinner, nosing his food around his plate, only taking a few bites. Maybe if he concentrated, tried to extend his range, then he could find the pony? He should have asked the pony for his name. He should have told the pony to go to the nearest town, and then come to fetch him from there. Stupid, stupid, Oxford thought. He was going to end up doing more harm than good.
He and Chameleon followed Data down to the lab after dinner, and together they re-set the machine.
“You’ve really got your tail in a twist about this pony, haven’t you?” asked Chameleon. “Relax; he’ll be fine.”
“I can’t relax until I know that he is,” said Oxford. “I should have warned Blueberry to keep an eye out for him.”
“Last thing we need is more Blues wandering around biting their hooves about a pony who is probably tucked up nice and warm in an inn somewhere,” said Chameleon.
“Humour me,” said Oxford, as the door burst open.
“Oxford, Oxford, come quickly,” said Angel Wings. “There’s a stranger at the door!”
“And problem solved,” said Chameleon, as Oxford trotted up the stairs. “We’ll just shut everything off down here, Prof.”
“Did you let him in?” asked Oxford.
“No. I’m not sure about strangers,” said Angel Wings. “Haven’t you always told me not to talk to strangers?”
Oxford nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “But this is a stranger who needs our help. He means us no harm. We’re just lucky he made it to us.”
Oxford practically cantered to the front door — of course, he shouldn’t get his hopes up, he had lit every lantern in the house, and on a wild night like tonight anypony might try to seek sanctuary from the rain and the wind. The stranger was shivering, still standing on the porch, the porch light illuminating brownish fur just a few shades different to Oxford’s.
“Hello,” said Oxford.
“Hello,” said the stranger, and Oxford felt a chill run down his spine. The stranger was dripping wet, and oh — oh — he had a horn. He was a unicorn. It had to be him. Even the voice was familiar.
Oxford smiled. “How do you feel, my friend?”
“Like I just ran the Kentucky Derby underwater,” said the stranger — hardly surprising, because he’d knocked on the door in the middle of the worst rainstorm in the history of Equestria. “Where am I?”
“You’re at the Blue House,” said Blueberry. “In the West Forest. Not far out of Canterlot by the back roads.”
“Canterlot,” said the stranger. “I made it.”
“You did,” said Oxford, excited by the stranger’s honest delight.
And then he saw it. It was rude to stare at someone’s cutie mark, and Oxford had been brought up to be polite, but he stared now. It was a chess king. A red chess king. He felt his heart flutter like a pegasus’s wings; he’d thought he was prepared for this moment, but no, he hadn’t been.
“What?” asked the stranger, shifting under Oxford’s gaze. “Am I not welcome here? You invited me, didn’t you? I heard your voice in my head and you said that you could help me.”
“Oh my friend,” said Oxford, barely able to breathe. “You are so welcome.”
He felt a little like he’d cheated, because the pony had come to him rather than the other way around, but he was so happy to see this stranger.
“I’m welcome?” asked the stranger. He coughed, a horrible wheezing hack that saw him struggle for breath for a frightening few seconds.
“You’re very welcome,” said Oxford, wanting nothing more than to bundle him up in a warm towel and get him dry. “And now, new friend, tell me your name.”
“Ironhooves,” said the stranger, bowing his head so low and shamed that his magnificent chestnut mane practically brushed the floor.
“Ironhooves,” repeated Oxford. The name was vaguely familiar. “I’m Professor Oxford Blue.”
“Ironhooves?” asked Blueberry, from behind him.
“Ironhooves?” asked Angel Wings.
“IRONHOOVES?” asked Sonic Boom.
“I heard you kicked someone!” said Blueberry.
“I heard you bite!” said Angel Wings.
“I heard you stole everyone’s sandwiches,” said Sonic Boom.
“Now wait,” said Oxford. Ironhooves looked devastated. Good grief, who had they all been talking to? Where was this information from? “Wait! You haven’t even asked him if these things are true! You mustn’t judge a book by its cover!”
“A pony doesn’t change its cutie mark, Professor,” said Angel Wings.
“And we’re not judging him by his cover, we’re going by the contents,” said Red Rocket.
“It’s all right,” said Ironhooves, looking down at his feet. “I’ll go. I should have known that I’d never be welcome anywhere.”
“But my friend!” said Oxford.
“I’m not your friend!” said Ironhooves. “I think you just made that very clear.”
“Good riddance!” said Sonic Boom. “I don’t want anyone getting into my sandwiches!”
“Please,” said Oxford. “Ironhooves, tell us about yourself; let them know that you’re not a biter.”
“I have to go,” said Ironhooves, and he galloped back out into the storm, leaving the door open behind him to swing and bang in the wind.
“No!” Oxford called. “Ironhooves, come back! Come back!”
“No, Oxford!” said Blueberry. “He’s bad news.”
Angel Wings scuffed her hoof on the rug. “I knew talking to strangers was bad for you.”
Oxford ran out into the garden, but he couldn’t go further — he’d need to organise a foalsitter for the littler ponies if he was going to go out and rescue Ironhooves. He couldn’t leave the young ones to take care of themselves for the evening, especially not with Red Rocket at home. Chances were he’d rocket into something and break it — again.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, into the night. He sighed, the rain soaking through his mane and tail. “Come back, Ironhooves; I’m sorry.”
Nothing answered him but the splat of water and the rush of the wind through the trees. Somewhere in the distance, thunder growled, and Oxford gritted his teeth. There was no way he was going to leave things here.
He sent everypony up to bed without any supper, except for Data Bite and Chameleon, both of whom grumbled about having to re-prep the Marvellous Machine. Oxford took the grumbling in his stride — he had to find Ironhooves. The rain was coming down so hard that it was likely Oxford would have to swim to find him, but he had to.
“Ready,” said Data, when Oxford trotted up and looked over his shoulder.
“Is it recording?” he asked.
“It is now,” said Data, nudging a few keys. “Go for it.”
Oxford gathered his wits, and cast a spell. He encouraged all of his young ones to specialise — he’d discovered early on that specialising in magic could help to control unruly and tempestuous spellcasting — and he had specialised in telepathy and telepathic magic. The Marvellous Machine could amplify him for miles.
He could feel all of the other ponies in the Blue House — poor Blueberry felt awful, both about making Oxford upset and making the stranger run off; he’d have to talk to her later. And Red Rocket and Sonic Boom were talking about it — clearly Oxford’s chat to them about their duty to help others had been effective.
He cast wider, and wider, feeling every squirrel and deer in the forest, until — there. Oh, there. There was a pony, a lonely, lost pony. Oxford reached out to him, and felt despair dripping from him like the driving rain — he’d tried to shelter under a tree, but he’d already been wringing wet, and the ground was boggy. Oxford leaned forward, letting the machine shut off.
“Right,” he said. “Data, Chameleon, can you and Destiny keep an eye on the mansion?”
“They’re old enough not to need a foalsitter,” said Data, a little doubtfully. “And Blueberry likes looking after the younger ones.”
“I know,” said Oxford. “But I’d prefer not to return to another pony party in the kitchen.”
“Can do, Professor,” said Chameleon, as Oxford jumped down from the platform. “You’re not going to find this pony now, are you?”
“Of course I am,” said Oxford. “Why else would I ask you to look after things?”
“You can’t,” said Data. “I mean — it’s raining cats and dogs out there.”
“That’s precisely why I should go,” said Oxford. “Ironhooves came to us for help, and we turned him out into the storm. I owe it to him to help.”
“At least take a raincoat,” said Data Bite.
Oxford took two raincoats, one for himself, and another for Ironhooves, once Oxford had found him. He knew where Ironhooves was — the little clearing near the river, where the others liked to have picnics in the summertime — and set off into the storm, galloping over the wet grass. Oxford loved to gallop. He’d been a steeplechaser when he did his studies, and alongside his books he’d earned awards for his speed and the incredible height of his jumps. He bounded over fallen logs, skidding in some mud, but kept going — the river was rising, and Ironhooves probably had no idea how close his shelter was to the dangerous torrent.
It was a short, satisfying run to the willow tree, and Oxford cast a light spell for himself to see by, sticking his head through the fringed curtain of the willow. Yes, there was Ironhooves — soaked to the bone and curled up against the broad trunk of the tree. He sneezed.
“Hello?” asked Oxford Blue.
“Hello,” said Ironhooves, looking at the light.
Oxford approached him cautiously. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” Ironhooves replied, putting his head down.
“You’re not,” said Oxford.
“I don’t need help from people who are going to judge me before they even get to know me,” said Ironhooves. He shivered, and sneezed again. “I promised I’d save my Mama, and I can do that without you.”
“Oh, my friend,” said Oxford. “I’m so, so sorry. I never meant for you to feel unwelcome — I’ve spoken to the young ones, and I promise that if you return with me, you’ll be welcome and safe.”
“How do I know that I can believe you?” asked Ironhooves.
Oxford touched their horns. “Unicorns’ honour,” he said. “And anyway, it’s my house.” He leaned a little closer, pressing their cheeks together in a gesture of friendship. “What happened to you, my friend?”
“Why do you keep calling me your friend?” asked Ironhooves.
“Because you are,” said Oxford. “Well, I want you to be my friend.”
“No-one on this side of the fence wants to be my friend,” said Ironhooves.
“What fence?” asked Oxford. “Why are you here, Ironhooves?”
“I need to help my Mama, but she’s—” He trailed off, his voice catching. “She’s in prison.”
“In prison?” asked Oxford.
“She hurt her wing, so she couldn’t work,” said Ironhooves. “I came here to get help.”
“She’s in prison for hurting her wing?” asked Oxford. “That’s not right; ponies don’t go to prison for being hurt.”
“I know,” said Ironhooves. “But no-one will believe me; everywhere I stop, I tell them my name and they want to call the local guards.”
“Have you done anything that would warrant calling the guards?” asked Oxford.
“I ran away,” said Ironhooves. “I belonged to the Great Dragon and I ran.” He swallowed. “I did bite a dragon, but he was trying to bite me.”
“But you’re a pony,” said Oxford. “Nobody in Equestria belongs to anyone.”
“I don’t understand,” said Ironhooves. “I’ve belonged to the Great Dragon since I was a foal.”
“Right,” said Oxford, sticking out his chin. “You’re coming home with me. Here; I brought you a raincoat, and it’s not far to walk. You’re not safe here, anyway — the river will rise during the night, and I couldn’t bear to think of you being swept away.”
“You brought me a raincoat?” asked Ironhooves.
“I’ll even help you put it on,” said Oxford, with a smile. He gently fastened it around Ironhooves’s neck, as Ironhooves gazed at him with a wary expression. “Come on. It’s not far to the house.” Ironhooves didn’t look any less wary. “Please. I promise you’ll be under my protection.”
“No matter what I’ve done?” asked Ironhooves.
“Everyone deserves a chance for forgiveness,” said Oxford. “Come on.”
Ironhooves stumbled as they walked, and Oxford wondered how long he’d been running for. Oxford helped him over the logs and through the mud, catching him when he skidded and nearly fell.
“I’m tired,” said Ironhooves, a little gruffly. Oxford could see the lights of the house, and he hoped that Ironhooves made it there okay. He projected a message to Destiny and Blueberry, asking them for blankets and to make sure that the fire in the guest room was stoked high.
“Come inside,” said Oxford. “You can have something to eat, and a warm bath, and we’ll talk in the morning.”
He took Ironhooves to the kitchens first, Blueberry and Data looking around the doorway in terrified curiosity as Ironhooves ate like he’d been starving for days, quickly and guiltily.
“If you get hungry during the night, come down and help yourself,” said Oxford, because Ironhooves looked like he was afraid Oxford was going to confiscate the food before he’d finished. Chameleon brought over some more apples, discreetly tipping them into the bowl.
“I’m not a thief,” said Ironhooves.
“I know,” said Oxford. Ironhooves was filthy, and they were both dripping onto the kitchen floor. “Blueberry, bring me that towel you’re holding, please.”
She tentatively trotted into the kitchen, giving Oxford a towel to dry his mane with, and passing another to Ironhooves with her magic.
“I’m sorry we were nasty to you earlier,” said Blueberry. “I’m Blueberry.”
“She’s my sister,” said Oxford, as Ironhooves finished the last apple and then looked forlornly at the empty fruit bowl.
“Hello,” said Ironhooves, looking up at her. “Thank you for the blanket.”
“That’s a towel,” said Blueberry. She frowned. “Haven’t you ever seen a towel before? Were you raised in a barn?”
“Yes,“ said Ironhooves, and Oxford’s heart skipped a beat. Where had Ironhooves come from? What was his story? Ironhooves looked around at everypony’s astonished expressions, and his own face fell. “I said the wrong thing again, didn’t I?”
“No,” said Oxford, gently. “Don’t worry about it; come upstairs, and we’ll get the thorns out of your mane so that you can sleep easier.”
Ironhooves followed Oxford up to the bathroom, where Destiny had run him a bath.
“I haven’t had a bath since I was a foal,” Ironhooves said, climbing in. “Why are you all being so nice to me?”
“Oxford’s being nice to you because he’s the nicest pony in the history of Equestria,” said Blueberry. “The rest of us…”
“Feel guilty?” asked Ironhooves. “That’s not a good start.”
“We’ll make a better one tomorrow,” said Oxford, as Ironhooves closed his eyes.
Destiny beckoned Oxford over to the vanity.
“He looks dreadful,” she whispered, when Oxford went rummaging for his comb. “What happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” said Oxford. “But I think the Princess was right — there’s something going on here that’s bigger than one rogue pony.”
Destiny pressed her cheek to his. “We’ll get to the bottom of it,” she said. “In the meantime, at least he’s safe.”
Ironhooves fell asleep in the bath, and Oxford used the time to comb the sticks out of his mane, Blueberry peering over his shoulder. Ironhooves had an odd patch of fur at his throat, thin and scratchy, like he’d worn a tie there, or a…no, no pony would ever wear a collar.
“Who is he?” she asked. “Not that you don’t go out of your way to help everyone, but this time it feels…different. And don’t lie, I heard you talking with Destiny.”
“I spoke to Princess Celestia only a few days ago,” said Oxford. “She told me to keep an eye out for a rogue pony. It looks like he found us, rather than the other way around.” Ironhooves stirred. “There, friend. Do you need help to get out of the water?”
“I can do it,” said Ironhooves, but he said nothing when Oxford dried him off with a warm blast of magic; he only swayed a little on his hooves.
Once Ironhooves was clean and dry, Oxford bundled Ironhooves into a soft blanket in front of the fire, sitting close to his back to help protect him from draughts. Although Oxford didn’t intend it, they fell asleep like that, warm and close, by the crackling heat.
Ironhooves had fever-dreams, and all the way through them there was a gentle, insistent voice talking to him, telling him that he was safe — that everything was all right, that he’d be all right. Someone stroked his mane and pressed a cool cloth to his forehead, and tucked up blankets over his aching body until he’d slept off the fever.
When he woke with a clear head for the first time in what felt like years, he was alone, tucked into a warm bed, a fire blazing in the grate. He’d never been anywhere so fine, and for a few seconds he thought he’d died from the fever.
Calm your mind, said the same gentle voice that had nursed him through his exhaustion and pain. I’m on my way.
He heard hoofbeats clattering in the corridor, and the most enchanting unicorn he’d ever seen opened the door. The unicorn had huge blue eyes and a tousled mane, his expression one of delighted concern.
“Ironhooves,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
“I don’t remember very much,” said Ironhooves, because he felt like he should know this pony.
“Do you remember that I’m Oxford Blue?” asked the pony, moving to Ironhooves’s bedside. “You were running away from something terrible, my friend, and it just so happened that you ran to my door.”
“I remember what I was running from,” Ironhooves said. He could remember Oxford, now that his brain was waking from the fuzziness of a long sleep. And there were others — Blueberry, Data Bite, Chameleon, ponies who’d watched over him as he slept. “You’ve been very kind to me.”
“You’ve had a very rough time,” said Oxford, gently. “You talked in your sleep.”
“Oh,” said Ironhooves. “Did I say anything…terrible?”
“Nothing that is unforgivable,” said Oxford. “You’ve become quite the celebrity in the outlying districts — Princess Celestia asked me to find you, but you found me instead.”
“Oh,” said Ironhooves, his heart sinking. “Is this a prison, then? You talked to me in my head to bring me here to prison?”
“Does this look like a prison?” asked Oxford, his brow furrowing. “Oh! Oh no, no, I’m not to punish you. I want to clear your name.”
“Why would you do that?” asked Ironhooves. “Why would you help an outlaw pony?”
“Because I don’t think you’re an outlaw,” said Oxford. “You stole food because you were hungry, and that’s how things worked where you came from. No-one actually saw you bite anyone — Destiny has called in favours from all the districts, and they said that they’d heard you’d bitten people, but no-one saw it. I don’t think you bit anyone, and anyway, why would an intelligent pony bite? When the foolish young ponies here were cruel to you, you ran away.”
Ironhooves’s head was spinning. Oxford didn’t think he was an outlaw. Oxford was going to clear his name. Oxford didn’t even know him, but he seemed utterly determined to help. He’d never met anypony like this before in his life.
“Why?” he asked, again.
“I think we’re meant to be friends,” said Oxford, and he turned, exposing his cutie mark. Ironhooves stared.
“Is that a chess king?” he asked.
“It is,” said Oxford. Ironhooves’s heart felt like it was going to burst from his chest.
“I thought I was the only one,” said Ironhooves.
“So did I,” said Oxford, and for a few seconds, his eyes were extra-shiny, like he was blinking away tears. Ironhooves tentatively leaned forward, offering Oxford his horn. Oxford touched his horn to Ironhooves’s, and Ironhooves closed his eyes.
“This is a little embarrassing,” he said. “But where are we?”
“At my school,” said Oxford, not moving his horn away. “It’s a special place for foals who have trouble controlling their magic, or their flying, or if they just don’t fit in.” He pressed his cheek to Ironhooves’s before pulling away. “I’ve been using the information I gathered while you were delirious to start them looking for the dragon who has your Mama. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Mind?” asked Ironhooves. “That’s why I came to Canterlot.”
“Good,” said Oxford. “Now that you’re awake, we can start looking properly — I’ll need all the information that you can—”
“PROFESSOR!” The shout came from outside. “PROFESSOR, PROFESSOR, PROFESSOR!”
“Oh no,” said Oxford, leaping to his hooves. “I’m sorry; I have a feeling that Sonic Boom and Red Rocket are—”
“I’ll come with you,” said Ironhooves, and together they ran out and down the stairs to where one young colt was stuck in a tree, and another was stuck in what seemed to be a crater. The colt in the tree was squirming, trying to free his tangled wings from the branches.
“Stay still, Sonic!” called Oxford. “Rocket, are you all right?”
“I don’t like my chances of climbing out of here,” the pony in the hole replied, just as the branch under Sonic Boom cracked and he tumbled out of the tree. Ironhooves acted before thinking — he caught the young pegasus with his magic, gently setting him on all four hooves.
“Woah,” said Sonic Boom. “That was cool.”
“We don’t often see people in control of their magic here,” said Oxford, trotting to the side of the crater. “Rocket, move to the side. I want to show you how to get out of here without using magic.”
“Good. I tried using magic and it made the hole deeper,” said Rocket, as Oxford jumped gracefully into the crater.
“Now,” he said. “I used to be a steeplechaser when I was your age.”
Ironhooves peered over the edge of the crater. It wasn’t that high — if he worked at it, he could probably jump it — but he wouldn’t like to have to. Red Rocket looked horrified at the thought of jumping, especially when Oxford jumped out and then back in again.
“But what if I fall and discharge my magic?” he asked. “I’ll hurt one of you.”
“We’re all fast enough to get out of your way,” said Oxford. “All right. One…two…JUMP.”
It took a little scrabbling with his hooves, but Red Rocket wriggled his way out of the crater, followed by Oxford, who then immediately checked them for injuries, making Sonic Boom stretch out his wings to look for loose feathers.
“I didn’t know you were up,” said Sonic Boom, looking at Ironhooves. “You’re taller than you look.”
“Yes,” said Ironhooves, a little bemused.
Sonic Boom grinned. “Thanks for saving me. I’d hate to break a wing.”
Ironhooves thought of his Mama, and he nodded. “You would,” he said. “I have it on good authority that you would.”
Oxford didn’t seem to be the type of pony who would be angry if one of his proteges broke a wing, but Ironhooves had spent a lot more of his life in the Great Dragon’s company, and the thought of a serious injury — and of the punishment that would follow — made him shudder despite himself.
“You’re being a worrywart,” said Red Rocket, as Oxford checked his hooves for damage.
“You made another crater,” said Oxford. “I’m allowed to be a worrywart. Do you know what went wrong?”
“I think so,” Rocket replied. “I was tired, so I lost focus; I could feel it, it was like my brain was all fuzzy.” He bowed his head. “I just want to be able to get it right every time.”
“And you will,” said Oxford, very gently. “It’s all right, both of you. Go and lend a hoof in the kitchen, if your minds aren’t on training.”
“Thanks, Professor,” said Rocket. “Thanks, uh, Ironhooves.”
“Yeah, thanks,” said Sonic Boom, and Ironhooves watched them go, bumping their shoulders on the way in, chatting happily.
Oxford laughed. “They’re going in to gossip with Blueberry,” he said, turning to Ironhooves. “That was really quite extraordinary magic there, my friend. You saved Sonic from a nasty fall.”
“You would have done the same,” said Ironhooves.
“I would, but not many ponies could,” said Oxford, meeting Ironhooves’s eyes. “Will you…show me?”
“Show you what?” asked Ironhooves.
“What you can do,” said Oxford. “Magic is my passion; I’ve been interested in it since I was a tiny foal. I’d love to see your magic. My specialty is telepathy; all the ponies here specialise.”
“There is one spell I know that I’ve never seen anyone else do,” said Ironhooves. “I can turn things to metal.”
Oxford trotted to his side. “I’d like to see that,” he said.
“What would you like me to turn?” asked Ironhooves.
“Turn one of the trees,” said Oxford. “I’ve been looking for a nice tall launching tower for Sonic Boom and Angel Wings; if you pick a big one, they’ll be able to flutter up there and launch.” He paused. “Wait, you’re still on the mend. Change one of the daffodils.”
“No, I can do it,” said Ironhooves. “I’ve always been able to do it.”
Before Oxford could protest, he chose a tall, solidly built tree, and then he concentrated. He heard Oxford slowly approaching him as the very tips of a low-hanging branch began to turn to metal.
“Ironhooves,” said Oxford. “Oh, my friend, that is extraordinary. It’s wonderful. Look at it!” He trotted in a happy circle. “Look at how powerful you are!”
“There,” said Ironhooves, as the last leaves went silvery and hard.
“Teach me,” said Oxford. “You’re wonderful. Teach me.”
“I don’t know how to teach anyone,” said Ironhooves. “I’ve never been taught magic — I just learned it myself.” He ducked his head. “I just think about metal, and then…I turn things.”
“Fascinating,” said Oxford. He tapped the tree with a hoof, and it clanged. “This is entirely metal. You’ve completely transmogrified it. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Oh,” said Ironhooves, feeling stupid. He desperately wanted Oxford to like him as a friend, not to want to study him. When the dragons had found out that he could make metal, they’d tied him up and tried to force him to make gold, but he could only make iron. It had been a long time before he’d convinced them that he couldn’t make gold.
“What is it?” asked Oxford, immediately. “Did I say the wrong thing?” He trotted around the tree. “No, but really, this is extraordinary.”
“You’ve already said that,” said Ironhooves.
“I get excited,” said Oxford, blushing. “Am I being rude? Blueberry always says I’m rude.”
I made him blush, thought Ironhooves. Maybe Oxford didn’t want to study him.
“You’re all right,” he said, scuffing a hoof. “I just don’t want you to think of me as an experiment.”
“Oh,” said Oxford, blushing even harder. “You’re definitely not an experiment. I was rather hoping you’d be a very good friend.”
“A very good friend?” echoed Ironhooves.
“Well,” said Oxford. “I don’t know many ponies my own age, and you’re really rather wonderful, and our cutie marks…it’s almost fate, isn’t it?”
Ironhooves was about to tell Oxford that he’d never really had a very good friend before unless you counted Diamond Bright (and he suspected that Diamond didn’t count herself as anyone’s friend), let alone a very good friend, when Sonic Boom’s voice echoed over the grounds.
“Follow me,” said Oxford. “And please don’t be offended at the table manners of the younger ponies.”
“As long as you promise not to be offended by mine,” Ironhooves said, as Oxford took one final happy look at the metal tree before trotting inside.
Ironhooves sat close to Oxford at dinner, and Oxford resisted the urge to lean against him and cuddle through the first and second courses. His resolve was starting to wane. Really, Ironhooves was making it very hard — his extraordinary magic, his dry wit, his absolutely gorgeous eyes and his shapely flanks and soft mane and…
“Apple pie?” asked Destiny.
“Mmm?” asked Oxford.
“Where is your brain tonight?” asked Destiny. “Come on, have some pie. You too, Ironhooves, I want to know if Red Rocket is getting any better at cooking.”
“I don’t need to get better at cooking,” said Red Rocket, from across the table.
“Unless you want to eat all of your food raw once you’ve graduated and moved to Canterlot, then you do,” said Oxford.
“Raw food isn’t too bad,” said Ironhooves. He took a mouthful of pie. “This is better.” His eyes widened. “Much better.”
“So where are you from?” asked Chameleon. “I was born in Ponyville, and I was living there until Oxford asked me to come and help at his school.”
“I grew up on Dragon Ranch,” said Ironhooves.
“Dragon Ranch?” asked Angel Wings. “I’ve never heard of that place.”
Oxford hadn’t either, but given Ironhooves’s fever-dreams, he had some ideas about what it might have been like.
“It’s not like this place,” said Ironhooves.
“Is it true you were born in a barn?” asked Sonic Boom.
Oxford could stop them, but he didn’t — he wanted to see what Ironhooves did or said. Ironhooves raised his chin.
“Yes,” he said. “Not everypony lives the way that you do here. You’re very lucky.”
“But where’s your family?” asked Blueberry. “Oxford and I lost our parents when we were younger; was it the same for you?”
“My Mama is still there,” said Ironhooves.
“And we’re going to get her out,” said Oxford, lest Ironhooves think he’d forgotten.
“You left your Mama?” asked Red Rocket.
“I had to,” said Ironhooves, looking suddenly miserable. “I…thank you for the food. I think I should go upstairs.”
“Wait,” said Oxford, because surely Ironhooves wasn’t going to bolt every time he felt uncomfortable? “Wait; I haven’t said anything to the foals about where you’re from.”
“We’re not foals,” said Blueberry, but Oxford ignored her.
“Ironhooves left his Mama because she was imprisoned there,” he said. “Sometimes ponies have to make very difficult decisions; if he hadn’t come here, then he would have had to fight the dragons on his own.”
“Somehow I don’t think I’m going to like where this is leading,” said Data, quietly.
“So we’re going to help?” asked Chameleon.
“We are,” said Oxford, and he caught a grateful look from Ironhooves. “We’ve been training to help anypony who needs us, and it’s time to put that training to good use. I’ll use the machine tomorrow to pinpoint the exact location of Dragon Ranch, and we’ll gather supplies.”
“How can you not know where the place you grew up is?” asked Red Rocket, his eyes narrowing. “Prof, I’m not saying that Ironhooves isn’t being truthful, but how do you not know something like that?”
“All I was thinking about when I left was running,” said Ironhooves. “By the time I found a road, I wasn’t sure where I was.”
Red Rocket frowned. “But surely you went on holidays, or school trips…?” he began.
“Rocket,” said Destiny. “Come and help me with the washing up.”
“But—“ said Rocket, but it was too late — Ironhooves had fled.
Oxford sighed; he only hoped that this time Ironhooves hadn’t gone too far.
“You idiot!” said Blueberry. “He’s been kept prisoner on that ranch his whole life; of course he doesn’t know where it is. This is the first time he’s been out in the world.”
“Excuse me,” said Oxford, into the stunned silence that filled the room and threatened to drown him. “I’m going to go and see if my friend is all right.”
He knew that Rocket would be feeling terrible — Rocket himself had spent several years in self-imposed exile because he couldn’t control his magic and he was frightened of hurting someone — so he brushed against Rocket’s mane before he left.
“I didn’t realise,” said Rocket.
“I know,” said Oxford. “You can apologise in the morning; I’m going to make sure he’s not doing something silly, like trying to run away again.”
Ironhooves was sitting on the porch, looking out at the night sky. Oxford clopped up beside him, nudging his shoulder.
“You can’t run away every time they say something stupid,” said Oxford. “You’re stronger than that. I know you are. Besides, you’d be running every five minutes if you did.”
“I left my Mama in that place,” said Ironhooves, his voice quiet. “I didn’t even try to break her out.”
“Do you mind if I have a look?” asked Oxford.
Ironhooves turned to him. “Have a look?”
“I don’t think you would have left your Mama unless you had to,” said Oxford. “And my specialty is telepathy — if you let me, I can see your memories.”
“You’re too kind to see my memories,” said Ironhooves. “You’re kind and caring; you’ll just be tainted by my thoughts.”
“I won’t be, though,” said Oxford. “A burden shared is a burden halved, and I don’t think you would ever deliberately hurt anyone.”
“How can you know that?” asked Ironhooves. “If I could, I’d bite those dragons.”
“I know it because we’re more similar than you might think, you and I,” said Oxford.
“Just because our cutie marks match…” said Ironhooves.
“Don’t you believe in fate?” asked Oxford.
“Fate has never been very good to me,” said Ironhooves. “Go on. Look at my memories and see what a coward I am.”
“Come upstairs where it’s warm,” said Oxford. “I’ve got some cider in my room that I can heat up for us.”
“Cider?” asked Ironhooves.
“You’ll love it,” said Oxford, leading Ironhooves indoors.
The others were sensible enough to stay out of Oxford’s way as the pair made their way to Oxford’s room. Oxford locked the door with his magic, bringing Ironhooves a cup of warm cider. Ironhooves had settled by the fire again, and Oxford made a mental note to get Ironhooves a nice warm housecoat next time he was in Canterlot.
“Here,” said Oxford, giving Ironhooves the cider. Ironhooves took it. “This will warm you up, I promise.”
“Is that a chess set?” asked Ironhooves, looking up at the set on Oxford’s low table.
“Do you play?” asked Oxford.
“I do,” said Ironhooves. “We could play, if you want me to beat you.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” said Oxford. “I’m very good.”
Ironhooves’s eyes had a distinct twinkle to them. “I’m the best player this side of the…wait, the other side of the fence,” he said.
“You are?” asked Oxford, never one to resist a challenge.
“I am,” said Ironhooves.
Oxford’s curiosity got the better of him. “Where did you learn?”
“My papa taught me,” said Ironhooves. “He made pieces out of clay and he taught me when I was a foal.” He smiled. “That’s a better memory. Let me show you that one.”
“All right,” said Oxford. “Bring it to the front of your mind.”
He touched his horn to Ironhooves’s, and concentrated. Yes, there was the memory. Ironhooves’s papa was taller than anyone that Oxford had ever met, and his fur was warm brown, a little darker than Ironhooves’s. He had the same sharp eyes, though, and he used his magic to shape a little figure out of clay.
“That’s the king,” said Ironhooves’s papa. “He’s the most important in the game, but until the endgame is near, he’s one of the weakest pieces. It’s only when things get their most dire does he have the chance to shine.” He nudged the piece. “He can only move a few ways, but when he works with the other pieces, then he’s a force to be reckoned with.”
Papa’s cutie mark was a spark of glowing metal, and Oxford knew through Ironhooves’s memory that his papa’s name was Cast Iron, but the memory was fading, being replaced by something else, sadness, longing…and then by the room coming back into view, and by Ironhooves’s hopeful expression.
“Shall we play?” asked Oxford.
“I’d love to,” said Ironhooves, and Oxford set the board.
Three games in, Oxford was forced to concede that he’d found at least his equal, if not his better, and Ironhooves was smiling, radiating happiness. It was only when Ironhooves began to droop from exhaustion that Oxford reluctantly packed up, unlocking the door and sending Ironhooves back down the hall. Ironhooves paused in Oxford’s doorway.
“I think I might have been wrong,” he said.
“About what?” asked Oxford.
“Maybe we are more similar than I thought,” said Ironhooves. He touched his horn to Oxford’s. “Goodnight, my friend.”
A thrill ran down Oxford’s spine at being named friend, and he rather suspected a horribly goofy grin had made its way to his face.
“Goodnight,” said Oxford. “Sleep well, and in the morning, we’ll start searching.”
Ironhooves woke early the next morning and lay in his bed, looking at the ceiling, completely unsure of what he should do next. Breakfast at Dragon Ranch had been heralded by the ringing of a bell and then slop being thrown to the ponies, but here — here, there had been no dinner bell, and they’d eaten at a table. He hadn’t had a bed at Dragon Ranch, either, just a warm spot in the hay. In the end he got up, combed his mane with his magic, and ventured downstairs.
“Good morning!” said Blueberry, as soon as he peered around the kitchen door. “Do you like pancakes? Oxford said that you deserved pancakes.”
“I didn’t do anything,” said Ironhooves. “I mean. To deserve pancakes.” He wasn’t quite sure what pancakes were.
She looked at him critically. “Sonic Boom said you caught him with your magic when he was plummeting to his death,” she said. “And besides, I haven’t seen Oxford this happy in years.”
“Years?” asked Ironhooves, his heart hurting at the thought of Oxford unhappy, especially for a long time..
“Yes,” Blueberry said, frowning at the pan.
“I’m sorry he’s unhappy,” said Ironhooves.
“No, no,” said Blueberry. “Here, can you use your magic to flip these? I’m never very accurate. He’s not unhappy. He’s just happier now that we’ve found you.”
Ironhooves flipped the bread that Blueberry was cooking. It made a satisfying sizzle when it hit the pan.
“As long as he isn’t unhappy,” said Ironhooves.
“Good morning everypony!” Oxford announced as he walked into the kitchen.
Blueberry caught Ironhooves’s eye. “Trust me,” she said. “He isn’t unhappy.”
“Pancakes!” announced Sonic Boom upon his arrival, Red Rocket and Angel Wings following in his wake. “Yes! We need strangers to show up every week if it gets us pancakes!”
He seemed to have entirely forgotten about the spurious claims of Ironhooves stealing sandwiches; Ironhooves was grateful, but a little hurt. Was it so easy to forget being cruel? He flipped another batch of the pancakes, his stomach growling in anticipation at the smell.
“I seem to recall you believing that this particular stranger was going to steal your food, not provide you with treats,” said Oxford drily.
Sonic Boom looked away. “I…uh. Sorry, Ironhooves.”
“I understand,” said Ironhooves. “I believe there will be enough pancakes for everypony to have seconds, and thirds if they so wish.”
“Ironhooves can flip them without getting batter everywhere,” said Blueberry. “Can we keep him?”
“That depends on what he wants,” said Oxford. “I’m not being a party to ponynapping. But he’s welcome to stay for as long as he wants to. I’d like him to stay.”
Ironhooves felt a little uncomfortable being talked about like that, but the invitation sat warmly in his heart. He could stay for as long as he wanted in this place where there seemed to be ample food, soft beds, and best of all, companionship. He hadn’t played a chess game like that since before Papa died.
“Flip please,” said Blueberry, gesturing to the pancakes. “This is the last lot.”
“Sorry, I slept in,” said Data, joining them as Blueberry carried the plate of pancakes to the table.
“Ironhooves, come and sit and have breakfast,” said Angel Wings.
Blueberry swished her tail. “Why don’t I get an invitation?” she asked.
“Because you’re not a tall and handsome stallion,” said Red Rocket.
Angel Wings rolled her eyes. “Yes, Rocket, that’s the reason why I invited our guest — who last time I checked wasn’t on the cooking roster — to come and sit at the table.”
“Wait. Data,” said Oxford. “Wasn’t it your turn to cook this morning?”
“Er,” said Data.
“I offered,” said Blueberry, quickly. “And Ironhooves wanted to help.”
“Thank you, Ironhooves,” said Oxford, meeting Ironhooves’s gaze with his own. His eyes were very blue. Very, very blue.
“It was fun,” said Ironhooves, still staring at Oxford.
“Good,” said Oxford, softly, and then he was silent.
Blueberry coughed. “If you two don’t eat up, your pancakes will be cold,” she said, and Angel Wings giggled.
“Oh. Right. Yes,” said Oxford, breaking eye contact. “Pancakes.”
Ironhooves quite enjoyed the pancakes, but he enjoyed even more Oxford’s conversation, which seemed to range from the contents of pancakes to the derivation of magical theorems to the chemistry that was seemingly at play in Ironhooves’s metal spells to what his favourite book was. Ironhooves bathed in friendly attention — Oxford wanted to know his opinions, wanted to ask him questions, wanted to listen.
After breakfast, Oxford took him to the lab. Data Bite joined them; Ironhooves bit down on jealousy when Oxford bumped shoulders with Data and offered to race him down there. Obviously they were friends; obviously someone so lovely as Oxford had more friends than just Ironhooves.
“And now, close your eyes and I’ll lead you through,” said Oxford. “Data, go and turn it on; I want Ironhooves to see this in all its glory.”
Ironhooves hated closing his eyes, but he trusted Oxford not to lead him astray. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and followed Oxford. The sound of their hooves reflecting against the walls changed abruptly to an echoey noise — clearly, the room that they’d moved into was much bigger than anywhere else in the Blue House.
“And open,” said Oxford, close to Ironhooves’s ear.
Ironhooves opened his eyes and discovered that he was in a round chamber, the walls lined with bright lights and metal. In the centre was a machine; it was all wires and computers. Ironhooves was torn between fascination and terror.
“What—what is it?” asked Ironhooves, trotting around the huge machine. Data had made his way to the control panel, and Oxford jumped merrily onto a raised plinth. It was a high jump — clearly, he hadn’t been exaggerating about being a steeplechaser when he was studying.
“It’s called the Marvellous Magnifying Machine,” said Oxford, as a cap that looked rather like a metal bowl covered in spiky lights descended onto his head. “Data Bite invented it, and I perfected it — it’ll magnify anyone’s magic above and beyond what they could usually do.”
“So you’re going to use your magic to find out what’s happening to my mother?” asked Ironhooves.
“Yes,” said Oxford. “I use it to find new students for the Academy; I should be able to use it to find your mother. I used it to find you when you ran away from us. Now that I’ve got more information about Dragon Ranch, I think I’ll be able to pinpoint it.”
“That’s how you spoke in my head the first time, isn’t it?” asked Ironhooves.
“Yes,” said Oxford. “It’s really wonderful. Watch!”
“Initiating,” said Data, and he turned to Ironhooves. “Don’t freak out.”
“Why would I—?” Ironhooves began, and then his heart threatened to stop when Oxford threw his head back and light streamed from his eyes — no, not Oxford, not lovely, kind-hearted Oxford, who’d come and found him and nursed him back to health.
“That’s why,” said Data.
“Is he all right?” asked Ironhooves, resisting the urge to jump up there and wrench the machine off his head; the light streaming from Oxford’s eyes looked painful, not benign.
“He’s fine,” said Data. “He enjoys it.”
“How?” asked Ironhooves.
“It doesn’t feel like it looks. It makes you a bit wobbly, but nothing permanent,” said Data. “Oxford says it feels like galloping for a hundred miles but not getting tired.”
“Data, I’ve got it. I’ve got it!” said Oxford. “Take the readings.”
“Doing it,” said Data. He grinned at Ironhooves. “See? He’s fine.”
“Oh my goodness,” said Oxford.
“Oxford,” said Ironhooves, because he couldn’t bear it anymore. “Don’t hurt yourself. Not on my behalf.”
“Be quiet!” said Data. “He needs to do this!”
Ironhooves sat, feeling helpless, and he watched Oxford’s lips move, but he couldn’t hear what Oxford was saying. If Oxford was hurt, he’d never be able to forgive himself.
“Shut down,” said Oxford, after what felt like an age. Data clicked a few buttons, and the lights flickered, turning off one by one. “That was marvellous.”
“That was terrifying,” said Ironhooves, as Oxford jumped from the plinth, and then stumbled.
“I know where she is,” he said, and then tripped a little and fell against Ironhooves’s side.
“Lean on me,” said Ironhooves, because offering a shoulder was the least he could do, really.
“Thank you,” said Oxford. “I— it’s like flying, really. Sometimes I get so caught up in it that I forget how to walk when I come down.” He grinned, leaning heavily. Ironhooves didn’t mind. “I know where your mama is. Data will be able to pinpoint the ranch on a map, I think.”
“Is she all right?” asked Ironhooves.
“Yes,” said Oxford. “They haven’t made her work with a broken wing, so she’s chained in the barn; she’s looking after all the little ones while their parents are forced to work carting goods on and off the dragon’s ships. I was able to touch her mind for long enough to let her know that you’re all right.” He huffed out a breath. “Dragons.”
“Not all dragons are bad,” said Data, clopping up to them. “I’ve plotted the co-ordinates. We’ll be able to go as soon as we hatch a plan and Ironhooves confirms the location.”
“Good,” said Oxford.
“Ships?” asked Ironhooves. “They’re using ships?”
“I think they’re hauling gold,” said Oxford. “They seemed to be loading up something very heavy onto ships.” He shook his head. “Those poor ponies — we owe it to them to get out there as quickly as we possibly can.”
“They had us mining gold,” said Ironhooves. “Maybe they decided that it was time to take it to wherever dragons take gold.”
“They hoard it,” said Oxford. “These ones must have a cave somewhere that they use to hoard the gold in.” He stumbled.
“You were on the machine for too long that time,” said Data, sternly.
“I’m fine,” said Oxford, dismissively.
“You’re not,” said Ironhooves. “Come and sit down for a while, and Data and I can work out the details.”
He resisted the urge to kiss Oxford’s mane, but he did give Oxford a quick hug before hopping up and following Data Bite.
“Right,” said Data. “Can you read a map?”
Ironhooves stole a glance at Oxford, who seemed fine now that he was sitting and not wobbling horribly. “I can,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
Oxford called a meeting for six, right before dinner, because he wanted everyone on the same page before they settled for the evening. This wasn’t going to be easy. He, Ironhooves, and Data had spent the day going over maps and working out a plan of attack; it felt horrible to say that it was fun, but it was fun — Ironhooves had a sharp mind and he was good at seeing potential problems and weaknesses in a plan. No wonder he was good at chess, Oxford thought.
Red Rocket had brought them sandwiches for lunch, and he’d asked to speak to Ironhooves, alone. Dubious, Oxford had let them, but he’d kept a gentle watch over them with his magic, leaving them be when he realised that Rocket was apologising.
Oxford smiled to himself as everyone filed into the dining room, looking in awe at the maps on the table and all of the plans.
“This is hardcore,” said Sonic Boom, approvingly.
“You’re serious about breaking in there, then,” said Angel Wings. “All to save one pony?”
“No,” said Oxford. “There’s forty or fifty ponies there; not just adults, foals, too. And not all of the foals have parents; not unlike many of you. But even if it was to save one pony, I’d still do it. Nopony is more important than anypony else.”
Ironhooves appeared in the doorway, clearly unsure of where he should take his place at the table.
“Come and sit by me,” said Oxford, hoping that Ironhooves would.
Ironhooves settled at Oxford’s side, flank-to-flank, his body warm wherever it touched Oxford’s. “Hello,” he said. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Indeed,” said Oxford, his heart fluttering most inappropriately for what was effectively a council of war.
Data and Blueberry dashed in together, looking decidedly rumpled.
“Sorry,” said Data.
“Sorry,” said Blueberry, blushing bright cerulean. “It was my fault.”
Chameleon raised an eyebrow at Oxford, and Oxford chose not to respond to it as the pair took their places.
“All right,” said Oxford. “From what I saw, I think that the ponies are being kept behind a magical fence. Angel Wings, Sonic Boom, do you think you can fly over and disable the power box?”
“The box controls the collars and the fence,” said Ironhooves. “It’s usually guarded by one of the dragons, but if you’re quiet, you can catch him sleeping; nopony is kept in the camp during the day, so he’s not as vigilant then.”
“Sure thing,” said Angel Wings. “And Sonic can keep an eye out for anyone coming after us.”
“I’ll keep all of us connected in those initial stages; I’ve got a powerful spell for that,” said Oxford. “Ironhooves, they know you; once we get them out, you’ll need to help them to understand that we mean no harm.”
“I can do that,” said Ironhooves.
“Good. You and I are probably also the strongest fighters — Red Rocket, don’t even start — so we’ll take on any trouble. Destiny, you’re backup. Blueberry and Data, I’ll need you to be ready to receive the ponies once they’ve been freed — from what I saw, there’s several who will need medical attention.”
“Not fair,” said Red Rocket. “You’ve been training us to help others, and you want all the fun?”
“Precisely,” said Oxford. “Until you get over the idea that fighting is fun, you’re not on the front line. You’ll be helping to get ponies out once we knock out the fence and these collar things.”
“And if I so happen to meet a dragon, I’ll take it out,” said Rocket, with a fierce grin.
“No,” said Ironhooves, and his voice was quiet but authoritative. “I won’t have you placing yourself in that kind of danger. These aren’t the kind of dragons that sleep in mountain caves and occasionally roll over to eat; these are dangerous. They’ll flame you.”
“I’m fast,” said Rocket.
“You’re not fast enough,” said Ironhooves. “Oxford is probably the only pony here capable of outrunning a dragon, but even he would tire long before the dragon did. You will be of great use to us if you take out the power box — the collars have kept the ponies trapped for a long time, and the fence keeps everything else out. It’s too high to jump, and touching it will fry you like a pancake.”
“Urgh,” said Angel Wings. “Thank you for that mental image.”
“There was a rebellion a few years ago,” said Ironhooves. “My papa died fighting the dragons. I will not have any of you hurt like that.”
Oxford thought of the lovely, warm memory of Ironhooves’s papa, and he reached out a soothing thought to touch Ironhooves’s mind. To his surprise, Ironhooves responded, settling closer to Oxford, letting Oxford wrap their surface thoughts together.
“All right,” said Chameleon, into the silence that followed that revelation. “Data and I can work on making fireproof vests for everypony. It won’t be much, but it’ll be something. And we’ll all stay out of the way. We’ve just got to trust that we’re better than the dragons.”
“We will be,” said Oxford. “We’ve got our magic, and we’ll be working together. And once we get the ponies free, then they can join us.”
“Do you think they will?” asked Destiny.
“I know they will,” said Oxford. “And we will succeed.”
Ironhooves flinched when the kitchen timer went off, the noise of it clanging down the corridor — clearly Blueberry and Data had set it to running while they joined the discussion. Oxford had set up the loud bell because he’d been sick of eating slightly burnt food every time whoever was on dinner duty got distracted.
“Dinnertime,” said Oxford. “And then everypony needs to have an early night — we’ll be leaving at six.”
“Six?” asked Sonic, looking utterly miserable. “That’s the middle of the night!”
“Only when you stay up until three,” said Oxford. “Come on.”
They didn’t talk about their plans at dinnertime; Oxford had brought them all up better than to discuss battle manoeuvres at the table. Instead, they talked about getting their cutie marks; Blueberry’s not-very-subtle way of trying to work out how Oxford and Ironhooves had ended up with matching marks.
“I got mine when I came here,” said Rocket, when it got to his turn. “I guess I’d never known what I was going to be before I got here.”
“I got mine the first day we turned on the Machine,” said Data.
Oxford laughed. “I remember that,” he said. “You were this awkward colt, all hooves and mane, and you’d been so excited by the prototype for the machine, and that we’d finally made it.”
“I’d resigned myself to never getting a cutie mark by that stage,” said Data. “I was way too old to be unmarked.”
“I was older than I’d expected, too,” said Ironhooves.
“Tell us your story,” said Angel Wings.
“It’s not a very nice story,” said Ironhooves, looking to Oxford for…what? Reassurance? Confirmation that he could tell a not-very-nice story? “There was a rockfall in the mines, not long after Papa had died. Some ponies and I were trapped on the wrong side of it, and the dragons weren’t going to get us out.”
“What did you do?” asked Blueberry.
“I lay down and decided to die,” said Ironhooves. “Because all I could see in my future was more of the same, and I thought it was better to die rather than to live like that.”
“Oh, Ironhooves,” said Angel Wings. “But you didn’t die.”
“No,” said Ironhooves. “I heard somepony crying in the darkness, and I made a light. One of the foals had snuck down to be with his papa, and he’d got stuck on the wrong side of the rockfall. I couldn’t leave him down there; I realised that I couldn’t leave anypony down there. So I hunted for a way out, and eventually we made it to the surface.” He smiled sadly. “I’d been rather hoping we’d make it to the surface on the other side of the fence, but honestly it was just so good to see the sun again. When the dragons used our collars to capture us, I had my cutie mark.” He turned expectantly to Oxford, who was the only one still not to go.
“You’re the bravest pony I’ve ever met,” said Oxford, for want of anything coherent to say that wasn’t “oh Ironhooves, collars?”
“Tell us your story, doofus,” said Blueberry.
“Mine is comparatively boring,” Oxford grumbled.
“Great, so saving my life is boring,” said Blueberry. “He was such a bookworm until he went to Canterlot, and then he got into steeplechasing and he got really competitive.”
“Frighteningly so,” said Data, with a nod.
“And then on the day of the biggest race in the history of Canterlot…blah blah, I lost,” said Oxford, not really wanting to revisit this story.
“Losing’s not so bad,” said Ironhooves, and he winked. Oxford nearly laughed — of course, Ironhooves had beaten him three wins to Oxford’s two last night.
“He lost because I was running alongside the track to cheer him on and I fell,” said Blueberry. “I’d got too much momentum up, and I was going to roll right under the hooves of the other racers when something grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. Oxford left the race to make sure that I was all right; without him, I’d have been crushed for sure.”
“Noble of him,” said Ironhooves, and Oxford felt silly — a race was nothing compared to what Ironhooves had lived through. He’d never quite get his dream of being the best steeplechaster in all of Equestria back, but at least he’d had the chance to follow it in the first place. And Blueberry’s continued existence was a pretty good consolation prize.
“Man, my story seems a bit weak now,” said Chameleon.
Oxford shook his head. “It’s not a competition,” he said. “You got your cutie mark because you did something that was important, that set the direction you would go in for your life. We’ve all got different stories because we’re all different ponies, and I wouldn’t have you any other way.”
They retired earlier than usual, Oxford leaving the younger ones to do the washing up while he walked Ironhooves to his room.
“Thank you for sharing your story,” said Oxford.
“Thank you,” said Ironhooves. “I’m…I’m glad I didn’t give up, when I was caught in that cave in.”
“I’m glad you didn’t, too,” said Oxford, willing Ironhooves to lean just a little closer.
“I’m sorry you never won your big race,” said Ironhooves, instead. “Could you go back to it?”
“I’m too old,” said Oxford. “But it’s all right. There are other things I want more.”
“You’ll have to tell me what those are, when we get back home,” said Ironhooves. He yawned. “We should sleep.”
“We should,” said Oxford. “Big day tomorrow.”
Ironhooves nodded. “Very.”
“Goodnight,” said Oxford, wishing he had an excuse to linger.
“Goodnight,” said Ironhooves. He smiled. “Thank you. For everything.”
“My pleasure,” said Oxford, because he really was enjoying everything that he and Ironhooves did together.
He was finding himself daydreaming, embarrassingly enough, about Ironhooves deciding to stay, and helping him run the school. It was a pleasant dream, and Oxford hoped he wasn’t wrong about the signs — Ironhooves was interested in him, Oxford was sure. Oxford didn’t have a special somepony — not even anyone on the horizon, before Ironhooves crashed into his life — and Ironhooves made him feel all fluttery and warm inside.
He made his way to his own room, allowing himself to get lost in a daydream of what might happen if he was brave enough — foolish enough — to say something to Ironhooves. Oxford enjoyed daydreaming; he enjoyed thinking about Ironhooves waiting for him in his room, and curling up close to Ironhooves’s strong chest, touching horns and listening to Ironhooves tell him everything, everything about himself. Oxford desperately wanted to know.
Oxford stretched, shaking out his mane, the heaviness of tomorrow’s rescue mission hanging on him along with the exhaustion from using so much magic today. He trotted over to his bed, and he was about to twitch the sheets back with his magic when he saw something on his pillow. He lifted it carefully into the air with a gentle flick of his horn.
A daffodil, made out of metal. Oxford knew the meanings of flowers, and he knew that daffodils were the flowers of new beginnings — also of love, regard, fondness — but that they had a darker side. Unrequited love. There was only one pony in the house who could turn a flower into metal, and Oxford desperately hoped that Ironhooves didn’t think that his affection was unrequited.
He placed the metal flower into a vase, and then quietly clopped back down the hall to Ironhooves’s room, tapping on the door with one hoof.
“Who is it?” asked Ironhooves.
“It’s me,” said Oxford. “Can I come in?”
“Please,” said Ironhooves, so Oxford entered.
Ironhooves was curled up by the fire instead of in bed, and he got to his feet when Oxford walked in.
“I got your present,” said Oxford.
“Did you like it?” asked Ironhooves. He looked away. “I’m still learning how things work out here, but I trust you got my meaning.”
“You’re marvellous,” said Oxford, gently steering Ironhooves’s gaze back to him with his horn. “I loved it, but I wanted to check what you were trying to say.”
Ironhooves swallowed. “I…I would like to be more than just friends.”
“More?” asked Oxford, his heart beating fast.
“I want you to be my—” Ironhooves smiled from under his mane. “I want you to be my very special somepony.”
“Oh, my friend,” breathed Oxford. “I want that too.”
Their first kiss was hesitant, an accidental knocking of horns before they got it right, and then when they got it right, it was so right. They ended up by the fire, Oxford’s head tucked under Ironhooves’s chin, bodies warm against each other, enjoying each other’s company.
“I never believed in love at first sight,” said Ironhooves.
“I did,” said Oxford. “I just didn’t think I would be fortunate enough to find it.”
“I wish we didn’t have to go and fight,” said Ironhooves. “I wish we could have found each other when Mama is safe and sound.”
“I wish your Mama was free, but if you have to fight this, I’m glad I’m here,” said Oxford. “You shouldn’t have to go against the dragons on your own.”
Ironhooves nuzzled Oxford’s mane. “I feel like I’ve known you forever,” he said. “You make me feel like I’m not alone.”
“You’ll never have to be alone again,” said Oxford, kissing him. “I promise.”
The rest of the conversation fell by the wayside as Ironhooves kissed Oxford, and Oxford kissed back, and they snuggled in front of the fire until the big clock in the hall boomed out that it was 11pm, and well past time for all ponies to be asleep. Oxford reluctantly left Ironhooves’s room, his heart light and happy; nothing could stop him now.
Next day, they used magic to zip along the roads to Dragon Ranch — once Oxford had taught the spell to Ironhooves, Ironhooves used his frankly extraordinary reserves of magic to make the carts move quickly, far quicker than a pony could run. Angel Wings stood on the very top of the cart, letting the wind blow through her feathers and keeping a sharp eye out for any trouble, and Sonic fluttered between their cart and Chameleon’s cart.
Ironhooves curled up next to Oxford, but quickly turned to Red Rocket, explaining carefully and quietly how to take out the fence. Oxford smiled the third time he heard Ironhooves stress that Rocket could make as big a crater as he liked, just so long as he didn’t touch the mechanism with anything but his magic. Soon, they could smell the sea; that sharp salt-freshness that filled all of their lungs.
Beside him, Ironhooves shuddered. “We must be getting close,” he said.
“Not according to the maps,” said Data. “We’ve just come down near the coast.”
Oxford sighed. It was easy to forget how little of the world Ironhooves had seen — he was going to need to take Ironhooves out traveling as soon as they were able to go. Summer break, he decided, they could do a grand tour of Equestria — he had friends in many of the villages, and he could take Ironhooves camping, and show him the wilderness. He drifted and daydreamed as Ironhooves chatted gruffly to the others — oh, the places they could go. If Ironhooves wanted to go. Oxford dreaded the thought that once everypony at the ranch was safe, Ironhooves might not want to stay.
“What are you thinking about?” asked Ironhooves, breaking into Oxford’s reverie.
“Summer holidays,” said Oxford. “I’m thinking about going camping, and apple picking, and out to visit all the outlying villages.”
“Oh,” said Ironhooves, sounding less than enthused.
“If that doesn’t sound like fun, we don’t have to…” said Oxford. “I just thought it might be fun to explore Equestria, just you and I.”
“You want me to come with you?” asked Ironhooves.
“I wouldn’t go without you,” said Oxford.
Beside them, Sonic Boom did a very convincing impression of a pony throwing up.
“Sonic,” said Blueberry. “Remember that conversation we had about tact?”
“That is being tactful,” said Sonic.
“Hey, I think we’ve got something!” Angel Wings called, leaning down from her perch on the roof. “Ironhooves, come up here.”
Ironhooves scrabbled up to the roof, while out of the corner of his eye, Oxford saw Blueberry kick Sonic. Sonic mouthed what? at her, and Blueberry rolled her eyes. Oxford decided that it was best not to ask questions.
“Oxford!” Ironhooves’s voice carried down to the cart. “Come up here; I think we’re getting close.”
Three ponies balanced precariously on the roof of a speeding cart wasn’t exactly Oxford’s idea of safety, but he at least popped his head out of the skylight. The cart was slowing — Ironhooves’s control was wonderful — and Oxford could see a tall fence.
A crackling hum split the air, and Oxford realised with a sinking feeling that the crackling noise was coming from the fence. Ironhooves had been right; the fence was impassable.
“I’m going to go and see what I can see,” said Angel Wings.
“Be careful,” said Oxford.
“I always am,” she replied, and she took off, flying high over the fence.
“This is it,” said Ironhooves. He gestured to a cluster of tall, tumbledown buildings. “That’s where most of the ponies live, but during the day they’ll be in the mines.”
“Right,” said Oxford, feeling anger rise within him. He’d known it academically, but until he saw it, he hadn’t let the full force of the revelation hit him. The dragons had kept the ponies in a barn. In a barn. A draughty old creaking barn. Only carts and hay were kept in barns. He concentrated, sending his thoughts to the others. “Sonic, I need you to stun any dragons you see. Angel Wings, have you located the ponies?”
“They’re by the beach,” she replied. “They’re loading heavy cases onto a ship — it looks like the foals are being held hostage on the ship while their parents work.”
“Right. Ironhooves, the ponies know you,” said Oxford, still broadcasting. These were his ponies, he knew how to read their minds. “Once Rocket brings down the fence, we need to move and get you to the front of the herd. Destiny, are you all ready?”
“Ready as we’ll ever be,” she replied.
Oxford grinned. “Rocket, go!”
There was a tremendous bang and flash over by the edge of the fence, and Oxford reached out momentarily to brush Rocket’s mind and make sure that he was all right before jumping clear over the fence. Alarms wailed out into the still air, and Oxford winced. So much for sneaking in.
Ironhooves danced a little, back and forth, and then he pushed through the fence with a roar, Destiny and Chameleon following him.
“Are there more fences?” Oxford asked.
“Only that one,” said Ironhooves. “They keep us in line with magical collars, but if Rocket took out what I told him to, then the collars should have stopped working when the fence went down. That’s what the alarm must be for.”
“Talk later,” said Angel Wings, from above them, wheeling away and over the ranch. “Follow me!”
“Race you,” said Oxford, looking over his shoulder at Ironhooves, who grinned and galloped like a thoroughbred down a rocky path to the beach. Oxford followed him, keeping his footing on the slippery ground, not even gasping until he got to the shoreline and saw the ponies.
There were probably close to twenty ponies, all colours of the rainbow, all lugging huge crates towards a ship, supervised by four huge dragons. Each pony wore a heavy metal collar, their heads bent low and miserable, not even looking up to see what had caused the alarm. Oxford stared as one pony stumbled, and a dragon shot a jet of flame at her hindquarters, nearly catching her tail.
Right, that was it. He’d seen enough.
So, apparently, had Destiny, because she was marching up to the dragons and oh, Oxford knew she was going to try to arrest them.
“In the name of Celestia and the laws of Equestria…” Destiny began, and Oxford was only just quick enough to get down to her side and shove her out of the way before a jet of flame turned the sand where she’d been standing into glass. Destiny shook the sand out of her mane. “Right. That’s enough.”
“Too right that’s enough,” said a dragon. “It’s not often we get volunteers for the pony line.”
“Ironhooves?” asked a pony from the line.
“Ironhooves?” asked another pony.
“I’ve brought some ponies to help us get free,” said Ironhooves. “I suggest you cover your ears.”
Oxford looked up and yes, there was Sonic, speeding faster and faster in a circle until an ear-shattering boom echoed up and down the sand. One of the dragons was clearly stunned, but the others had got their talons to their ears in time.
“My friends,” said Oxford. “If we all work together, then—“
“We’ve tried that before,” said an old pony, his mane grey and his face wrinkled. “Don’t you think we’ve tried that, you foolish young stallion? All that you’ll achieve is to give them more workers for the mines.”
“We’ve told the Royal Guard to come looking for us,” said Oxford, deftly dodging another bolt of flame. He glared at the dragon, gathering his power and focussing it all in one fierce blast. “Go to sleep.”
The dragon crumpled into a heap of scales and smoke, and the ponies on the ground scattered so as not to be crushed under it.
“That won’t work twice,” said one of the remaining two.
“It doesn’t need to. We’ve taken out the collars,” said Ironhooves, and he charged the dragon.
“Ironhooves!” Oxford couldn’t help crying out; it felt like it was wrenched from his chest. Ironhooves was tiny going up against a dragon, and he was surely going to lose.
“Tie them up with the ropes from the carts!” Ironhooves called, as he hit the dragon hard enough to make it stumble. “Help me, all of you!” Of course. Oxford whipped the ropes free with his magic, and turned — the pony line had broken ranks, and ponies were yanking off each other’s collars with gleeful whinnies while others ran to Ironhooves’s aid, pinning the dragon. “There’ll be more dragons, there’ll be—”
“There’s one more!” Destiny cried, leading a charge. The ponies who’d broken ranks joined her, running for the other dragon, catching it right as it was about to flame. Oxford concentrated on knots, tying the dragon secure but not so tight as to cut off the bloodflow, as Ironhooves distracted the dragon, trying to get something over its head.
Chameleon’s dragon hiccoughed when the wave of ponies hit, sucking the flame into its belly, and Chameleon turned around and kicked it right in the middle of its chest. Winded, the dragon went down, and was tied like its companions, firmly with ropes and then muzzled so that it couldn’t flame.
Red light erupted from up at the ranch proper, a huge boom tearing over the fields, and Oxford’s heart stopped, even as he tied the dragon.
“Rocket!” He desperately tried to touch Rocket’s mind as he checked the knots.
“I’m fine,” said Rocket, from far away, his thoughts feeling oddly pleased. “I’m fine, Prof, I promise. I just took care of the dragon who came to check on the alarm.”
In the meantime, Ironhooves had managed to muzzle their dragon with a broken collar, even as it wriggled and struggled.
“Be still,” said Ironhooves, and, extraordinarily, the dragon was.
“Ironhooves,” said a pony. “How did you get out? Why did you come back?”
“My mama,” said Ironhooves, moving from pony to pony. “Do you know where she is? Have any of you seen her?”
“She’s on the ship,” said the greying old stallion. “They wanted us to have some motivation not to sink the darned thing, so they put all the little ones on there, and your mama to take care of them.”
“Is she all right?” asked Ironhooves.
“She’s fine,” said the stallion, with a smile.
“All right,” said Destiny. “Come with us, everypony; we’ve got carts and medics up at the top of the farm.”
“But the fences…?” asked one pony.
“They’re gone,” said Ironhooves, and Oxford could feel his joy. “The fences are gone.” He looked around. “There’s more ponies missing; come on, we need to get to the ship.”
The ship was moored further down the beach, and Oxford’s hooves sank into the soft sand as he ran. He couldn’t imagine lugging any weight on this surface. He looked up, and the ship seemed…more mobile than it had before. It was wobbling, starting to move…oh no, starting to move away from them.
“The ship is leaving!” yelled Ironhooves. “Someone’s cut the mooring lines!”
“No it’s not!” Oxford replied, and he bolted down the beach, faster than he’d ever run before, and he leapt into the air. For a few sickening moments, it felt like he wasn’t going to make it, but then he made contact with the railing around the deck, bounding onto the deck of the ship, tumbling but making it back to his feet in one smooth movement.
“Right,” said Oxford. “Turn this ship around.”
He looked around. All right, so there was nopony about on the deck to hear his authoritative command. He was going to have to work out how to turn the ship around on his own.
“That was an impressive jump,” said a warm, friendly voice. “Do you think you could see clear to getting us out of this cage, before the ship leaves shore for good?”
Oxford looked for the owner of the voice, and found a honey-gold pegasus, surrounded by young ponies. The littlest foals were cuddled up to her, tucked under her left wing. Her right wing was swathed in greying bandages.
“You’re…” Oxford suddenly realised that he’d never heard Ironhooves call his mother anything other than Mama. “You’re Mrs Ironhooves.”
The pegasus laughed gently. She had the same smile that Ironhooves had, and her mane was coppery-brown, falling elegantly over her shoulders.
“I am indeed,” she said. “But most people call me Shining Song. And you are Ironhooves’s friend, the one who spoke to me in my mind?”
“I am,” said Oxford. He bowed. “Professor Oxford Blue, at your service.” The ship creaked worryingly. “Although I would suggest that perhaps we wait on any other formalities until we’re off this floating wreck. Do you know where the keys to the cage are?”
“The Great Dragon doesn’t use keys,” she said. “He melts the lock together with his breath.”
“Oh, wonderful,” said Oxford, looking at the lock. “All right, I’ll need to try to unmelt it, then.”
He reached out for Ironhooves, even though the ship was slipping away from the shore too quickly and he normally wouldn’t be able to grab onto somepony’s mind like that. Ironhooves must have been waiting for him, because he twined his thoughts with Oxford’s as quickly and comfortable as blinking.
“I’ve found your Mama,” said Oxford. “I need your help with the lock.”
“Is she all right?” asked Ironhooves.
“She’s all right,” said Oxford. “I need to know how to break this lock.” He sent a picture of the lock to Ironhooves.
“Let me think,” said Ironhooves. “Try this.” The spell wasn’t able to be expressed in words; it was feelings, and the taste of metal in the back of Oxford’s mouth. Oxford concentrated, and the lock popped off with a clatter.
“We’re moving,” said a tiny filly. “Mama Song, why are we moving?”
“Are we ever going to get back to shore again?” asked a little winged colt.
“Are we going to have to work in the mine?” asked a unicorn. “I don’t want to work in the mine.”
“Is this pony your friend?”
“Yes,” said Shining Song. “This pony is my friend. He’s friends with Ironhooves.”
“Ironhooves doesn’t have any friends,” scowled a little pegasus.
“He most certainly does,” said Oxford. He looked at Shining Song. “Where are the dragons? Why were you just left here?”
“The dragons knew that our families wouldn’t attack the boat while we’re on board,” she said. “The Great Dragon set the boat adrift before he flew ashore when all of our collars stopped working.”
“Hmm,” said Oxford, looking up at the rapidly receding shoreline. He could see Ironhooves, now a brownish dot, standing right at the edge of the breakers, looking for all the world like he was going to try to swim after them. “Stay on the beach!” he told Ironhooves, wincing when he realised his own mental voice was starting to become a bit ragged. “I’m going to bring the boat back.”
“You’d better,” Ironhooves sent back, before Oxford cut the connection.
“All right,” said Oxford. “Little ones, we’re going to play a game. I need all the unicorns on board who know how to use magic to come over here. Pegasai, I want you to fly back to the shore now that you’re out, and to tell anyone with magic back there that we’re going to try to shift the whole ship and then moor it with our magic.”
“What about earth ponies?” asked a brash little pony with bright green fur.
“You’re going to be manning the tiller,” said Oxford. “All right, unicorns. I need you to think about the beach.”
“Don’t we get to cast a proper spell?” asked a unicorn, her pure white mane falling in her eyes.
Oxford took a few seconds to be profoundly glad that his young ponies were a little older than this crew. He smiled.
“This is part of the spell,” he said. “You think about what is waiting for you back on that beach, and about safely landing back there.”
“But there is nothing for me,” said the unicorn. “I don’t have a mama or a papa, and I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“Oh,” said Oxford, kneeling. “You can come back with Ironhooves and I; I own a school that’s only a few miles out of Canterlot.” He sent her a picture of the Blue House. “You can have your own room and everything.”
“Can I come back with you too?” asked a little pegasus, who’d been trying to get lift-off and failing.
“Of course,” said Oxford. “You’re all welcome.” He lurched, when he felt a wave hit the boat. “Now, think of the shoreline!”
One by one, he felt their magic boost his own — one little pony was thinking of her parents, another was thinking of being able to run free, another was thinking of Oxford’s offer to go and stay with them. Oxford thought of his friends, waiting for them on the beach — he couldn’t fail them. He couldn’t fail any of them, especially Ironhooves, who’d tried so hard to save everyone.
The boat lurched as Oxford took control of the spell. Wishing, he knew, was one of the most powerful things in the universe, but most ponies got it wrong. You had to wish knowing exactly what you wanted, and you had to use everything in your power to get it.
“We’re moving!” cried the green earth pony.
“Everypony make sure you’ve got something stable to hold onto,” said Oxford. “When we hit the shore, we’re going to hit the shore.”
The boat hadn’t drifted far; it made its way back to the dock with speed, and then kept going a little further with the strength of the unicorns’ magic.
“Enough, enough, stop concentrating,” said Oxford, with a grin, when they’d crunched along the sea-bed. He hoped the boat was still seaworthy — he didn’t think anything had been damaged, and it wasn’t like they could sink any further once they were lodged in the sand. “Foals, find us the gangplank!”
“There’s a whole huge one,” said the white-haired filly. “I can show you!”
She practically bounced across the deck, and Oxford laughed with relief. He was exhausted — utterly, totally exhausted — but happy.
“That was very brave of you,” said Shining Song, kissing his cheek. “I’m proud that you’re a friend of Ironhooves’s.”
“We should get down there,” said Oxford. “There’s someone who really wants to see you.”
Shining Song smiled. “And I really want to see him,” she said.
“Then shall we, Ma’am?” asked Oxford, following the excited foals, who had managed to set up the gangplank. He could see Blueberry down on the shoreline, and Destiny, and Ironhooves, who had frozen to the spot.
“Your cutie mark,” said Shining Song. “I— I’d say I’ve never seen one like it, but you know that’s a lie.”
“I was just as astonished as Ironhooves was when we discovered each other,” said Oxford, as they made their way down to the sand together. Ironhooves was already galloping toward them.
“Mama,” said Ironhooves, throwing himself at her. They cuddled close to one another, Shining Song whispering something quiet to Ironhooves, who had closed his eyes. “I’m so sorry I left you, I’m so sorry…”
“You’ve been so brave, little one,” she said. “You had to go, or we’d never have been freed.”
Ironhooves buried his face in her neck, and she wrapped him in her wings. Oxford looked away; he couldn’t bear to intrude upon the moment. Blueberry was trotting in his direction, so he went to her side instead.
“You foolhardy, foolhardy stallion,” she said to him, beaming. “What if you hadn’t made the jump?”
“Is everypony making their way to the carts?” asked Oxford.
“Yes,” said Blueberry. “Is that Ironhooves’s mama?”
Oxford looked over at Ironhooves and Shining Song. “Yes,” he said, happiness filling every part of his body. “We did it, didn’t we?”
“We did,” said Blueberry. “We absolutely did.”
Sonic Boom landed beside them, his wing-tips a little singed, but otherwise none the worse for wear. “We’ve almost loaded the carts,” he said. “But there’s a problem — we’re missing a dragon.”
“What?” asked Oxford.
“The ponies we’ve been helping say that there’s one dragon that all of the others answer to — they call him The Great Dragon,” said Sonic, looking over the beach. “Oh wow, are those foals?”
“They were on the ship,” said Oxford. Oh, look, some of them were pouncing on the hogtied dragons. He was going to have to do something about that. “Some of them have parents at the carts, but those who don’t, I’ve promised they can stay with us.”
“Good,” said Blueberry. “What are we going to do about this—”
“DRAGON!” yelled a foal, and the little ones scattered.
“Prof,” said Sonic, as a dragon’s wings cast a deep shadow on the beach. “Is that, or is that not the biggest dragon you’ve ever seen?”
The dragon was immense, its scales bright red and shining in the sunlight as it swept in to land, kicking up sand into Oxford’s eyes. He could hear a foal crying somewhere to his left, and the dragon turned its huge head, snakelike, seeking out something — or somepony — in particular.
“Ironhooves,” said the dragon. “Little Ironhooves, come out to play.”
Oxford watched as Ironhooves stepped away from his Mama, well away enough that if the dragon flamed, she wouldn’t be caught in the blast.
“You’ve been defeated,” said Ironhooves, steadily. “There’s ponies coming from Canterlot to take your minions away; no pony is going to work your mines ever again.”
“Sending me more pony treats, then?” asked the dragon. It took a few steps toward Ironhooves, its huge bulk swinging. No wonder the boat was so huge, thought Oxford — even then, the dragon would barely have fitted onto it.
“No,” said Ironhooves. “I’ve spent my whole life afraid of you, and you’re nothing but an overgrown bully.”
“And if I were to eat you, little Ironhooves, what then?” asked the dragon.
“Then I would stand up to you,” said Oxford, from behind the dragon. “And so would my friends.”
“It’s a shame you’ve chosen to defy me,” said the dragon, ignoring Oxford. “You always were one of my favourites.”
He flamed, and Ironhooves darted out of the way like a shot. Oxford charged the dragon, biting its tail, trying to draw its attention away from Ironhooves, trying to keep Ironhooves safe. He could hear Blueberry calling out his name, but he kept going, even when the dragon flicked him off and he skidded in the sand.
“And what, you’re supposed to keep me occupied?” asked the dragon, drawing in a breath to flame him.
Oxford was frozen to the spot; his legs just wouldn’t move. He didn’t know which way to go — closer in towards the dragon’s talons, or left, or right? Which way would the dragon flame?
“Pathetic,” said the Great Dragon, as Oxford tried to work out which way to go.
“No!” Ironhooves cried, and he threw himself at Oxford.
They tumbled over on the sand, and Oxford cried out when his leg caught awkwardly. A cracking sound wrenched through the air as Oxford was winded by the sudden stab of agony that ran right from his shin to his thigh. Beside them, right where Oxford would have been, the dragon’s flame flared, melting the sand where it hit. Panting, Oxford looked up at Ironhooves, right into his eyes.
“I can cast a spell to hold him,” said Oxford, his leg thrilling with pain. “If you can turn him to metal.”
“I can try,” said Ironhooves, getting off Oxford. Oxford didn’t stand; he dug in with his good hooves, and gave the last of his power to holding the dragon.
“NOW!” yelled Oxford, and Ironhooves’s horn glowed so brightly that it hurt to look at. The Great Dragon roared and Oxford could smell its sulphurous flames sparking, desperately trying to break Oxford’s hold. He kept a tight mental grip on it, but he wouldn’t be able to hold on forever.
And then Ironhooves’s magic took effect, and Oxford felt his control slip as the metal traveled up the dragon’s leg, scale by scale. He willed Ironhooves to go faster — if Oxford let go, it would be a disaster.
“You would kill me, Ironhooves?” asked the Great Dragon, as Oxford’s control waned.
“This won’t kill you,” said Ironhooves. His voice was strained, as if he were carrying a heavy load. Oxford could barely manage — the dragon was strong and fierce, and Oxford was in pain — and he marvelled at Ironhooves and his strength. “But it will stop you until I break the spell.”
“I’ll kill you the moment that you do,” said the dragon, and Oxford felt it push against Oxford’s hold. “And your little friend can’t hold me forever. I doubt he can even hold me until you finish your spell.”
“Ironhooves will finish the spell,” said Oxford. “He’s brilliant at magic. He’s brilliant and amazing and he’s going to stop you because he cares about everypony, not just himself.” Oxford heard Ironhooves draw in a breath. “He’s braver than anypony I know; he came back here to defeat you and free his friends, even though he would have been safe back in Canterlot with me.”
“Did he?” asked the dragon. He laughed. “So why did you step forward, little creature? Why help Ironhooves, when I can see it breaking you apart just holding me here?”
“Because I love him,” said Oxford, and Ironhooves’s spell started to zip along, the scales quickly becoming hard and stiff. “And I don’t want to live in a world where you hurt my friends.”
The dragon started to laugh. “Such idealism,” it said. “You’ll never…” The spell reached its jaws, and it was silenced.
“Ugh,” said Oxford. “I’m glad it didn’t finish.”
“We’ll have to send the guard to come and get him,” said Ironhooves. “He must be made to answer for this. For all of this.”
“He will,” said Oxford, getting unsteadily to his feet and limping to Ironhooves’s side. “I promise.” Ironhooves looked away, and Oxford nudged him. “What is it?”
“You love me,” said Ironhooves, blinking rapidly. “I…I don’t know what to say.”
“You could tell me you love me too?” Oxford suggested.
“I love you,” said Ironhooves. “Never doubt it.”
“I need to sit down,” said Oxford. “Let me deal with my leg, and then we’ll work out how to get everypony back to Canterlot.”
“Sonic, Angel,” said Ironhooves. “Can you please lead everypony up to the carts? Data can deal with anyone who is injured, and we’ll deal with the ship.”
“Can do,” said Sonic. “All right everypony! Follow me!”
Oxford knew a few spells to deal with headaches, and he applied the same principles to his leg, sighing in relief when the pain was dulled. It was still there, but it was manageable. He turned to Ironhooves.
“We should get the gold off the ship,” said Oxford. “The ponies know you — they’ll respond well to you. I don’t want any chance that pirates or any more dragons come for the gold — the ponies here mined it, and it belongs to them, fair and square.”
“But your leg—“ Ironhooves began.
“Data will have a look at my leg. I’ll be fine,” said Oxford. “I promise.” He swallowed. “You should do it. Just don’t leave for Canterlot without me.”
“I won’t,” said Ironhooves, and he kissed Oxford; a soft, brave kiss.
Blueberry ruined the moment by whooping, and Ironhooves smiled shyly, trotting off up the gangplank.
The ship was full of gold. Ironhooves had never seen so much gold and gems in the one place — he’d known that they’d taken a lot of rock out of the ground, but he’d never seen it piled up like this.
“Ironhooves,” said a voice behind him. “You’re back.”
“I am,” said Ironhooves. He turned to see Sharpie, one of the biggest stallions in the whole herd, staring at him. Sharpie had been chained down, and Ironhooves quickly moved to his side. He didn’t have much energy left, but he had enough to free his friend. “There’s ponies here to help us take all this back to Canterlot; we’re going to be free.”
“And what happens to the gold? Does it go into Canterlot’s coffers?” asked Sharpie.
“No,” said Ironhooves. “It gets split between us. We worked for it, we’ll keep it. I promise.”
“He’s right,” said someone else, from the top deck. Destiny. “We’re going to split it between all of the adults, and put some into trust for the orphaned foals. Will you help us?”
“Yes,” said Sharpie, gruffly. “But there’s still ponies down the mine. Focus on them first.”
Ironhooves’s heart sank when he realised who he hadn’t seen. He hadn’t seen Diamond Bright anywhere. Diamond was…annoying, at the best of times, but she’d been his only companion for years. She must be in the mine; oh no, she must be in the mine.
“Right,” said Ironhooves. “Destiny, I’ll take Rocket to the mine; you take over here.”
“Will you be all right?” she asked. “You’re swaying on your hooves.”
“I’m fine,” said Ironhooves, even though he felt a little shaky. “It has to be me, or the other ponies won’t believe it’s real. I told Oxford to get lost when he first contacted me — I thought he was playing a trick.”
“He’s right,” said Sharpie. “Go on, then. We can take care of things here.”
Ironhooves climbed back to shore, spotting Red Rocket making his way across the beach.
“Destiny told me to come down here once we were done with the farm,” said Rocket, when Ironhooves ran to meet him. “Is everything okay?”
“There’s ponies in the mine,” said Ironhooves. “If we don’t get them out, they’ll get left behind.”
“There’s not much room left in the carts,” said Rocket. He sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“What for?” asked Ironhooves.
“For everything,” said Rocket.
Ironhooves shook his mane. “That’s all right,” he said. “Come on, down the mine.”
Ironhooves was too tired to make magic, so he picked up a lantern from the wall instead, holding it in his mouth as they made their way down the treacherous tunnels. Rocket kept bumping into him.
“It’s so mucky,” he said. “How did the dragons keep everypony in line for so long?”
“No-one here ever uses their magic,” said Ironhooves, around the lantern. “Did you see the collars everypony was wearing? They were designed to hurt you if you tried to use your magic to escape. Eventually, ponies just stopped trying.”
They came around a corner and were faced with a huge wall of rock; boulders, the quartz in them shocked with dragonfire, filled the passage. It was impassable. Worse, he had no way of knowing if the other ponies had been under the rocks when they’d fallen.
His heart thudded in his chest — the Great Dragon must have brought the rock wall down before going to challenge Oxford and Ironhooves. Please let them be safe, thought Ironhooves, please let no-one be crushed by the wall.
“Diamond?” he called, his telepathy too wobbly to use.
“Ironhooves?” she called back, from the other side of the rocks. “Everyone thought you’d run away.”
“I did run away,” said Ironhooves. “But I came back with reinforcements. Is everypony all right on that side of the rocks?”
“We’re all okay, but the air won’t stay good forever,” she replied. “We’re trapped in an alcove — there’s no way out.”
At least when he’d been trapped, there’d been another way out. Ironhooves was stumped, but then he looked at Rocket, and lit upon an idea.
“Get everypony to stand against the walls,” said Ironhooves. “I’ve got a friend here who can blast through the rocks, but I don’t want anyone to get hit with debris.”
“Ironhooves, this is an enormous rockfall,” Rocket whispered. “I don’t think I can get through it.”
“I think you can,” said Ironhooves. “Oxford has told me many times how wonderful you are.”
“Oxford is too enthusiastic,” said Rocket. “Besides, I’ve used a lot of magic today.”
“You made that huge crater,” said Ironhooves. “You can do this.” He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Red Rocket, both of them looking at the boulders that blocked their path. “All right. EVERYPONY AGAINST THE WALL!”
Rocket coiled like a spring, a red blast of light spreading from his body and hitting the wall like a cannon. Ironhooves felt it riccochet, and the ceiling rumbled ominously above them, a few stones plink-plinking out of the wall.
“Close,” said Ironhooves, looking at the wall. “More power.”
“The more power I use, the less control I have,” said Red Rocket. “I might hit you.”
“That’s a risk we’ll have to take,” said Ironhooves. “Everypony back again! We’re going to try it with more power!”
Ironhooves pressed himself flat against the ground, tucked up against the rough mine wall. If it all came down on their heads, he thought, at least they’d tried. And at least Mama and Oxford were safe, at least Dragon Ranch was no longer going to be a place of pain and misery for ponies.
This time, Rocket’s blast melted the rocks in place, filling the room with heat and the glow of rapidly cooling stone. There was enough of an arch made for a pony to climb through, and Ironhooves stood, rejoicing when he saw Diamond Bright’s familiar face peering through the archway.
“You had to make an entrance, didn’t you?” she asked. “Come on, let’s get out of here before this whole thing comes down on our heads.”
“Where are the dragons?” asked Whirlwind, tucking his wings in so that he could climb through the arch.
“Tied up on the surface,” said Ironhooves.
“Er, except for one,” said Red Rocket. “It sort of…exploded.”
“Good lad,” said Whirlwind. “That’s the kind of thing we’ve all been waiting for.”
“I can’t believe you got out of here and then came back,” said Diamond. “How stupid are you?” She hugged him, covering him with dirt in the process. “I’ve never been happier to see you.”
“Me either,” said Ironhooves.
“Good thing you did come back,” Diamond said, as more ponies limped through the arch and headed out to the surface. “I overheard the dragon’s plans; they were going to take us down the coast and start all over again. And who is your friend?”
“This is Red Rocket,” said Ironhooves. “He’s good at exploding things.”
“A useful talent, when applied properly,” said Whirlwind.
Ironhooves didn’t have to use his lantern to see that Rocket had probably gone even redder than usual. Soon, he didn’t have to use the lantern at all, the greyish light in the tunnels telling them that they were almost at the surface. They broke free to soft afternoon light, the sun starting to set over the sea. Whirlwind whooped and dashed forward, followed by Rocket, who seemed to have gotten caught up in the happiness of it all.
“So where to now?” asked Diamond, standing close to Ironhooves. “If you’ve really honestly stopped the dragons, where do we go from here?”
“We’re all going to be safe,” said Ironhooves, looking across the sand to where three ponies were already running down to the shore. “There’s this amazing pony — his name’s Oxford, and he has a school, and he said that any of us can stay there…”
“I don’t know that I want to stay with anyone right now,” said Diamond. She paused. “What’s it like out there in the world?”
“It’s big,” said Ironhooves. “And there’s so many things to see, and there’s soft beds to sleep in, and the food is — the food is amazing.”
“Trust you to be thinking about sleeping and eating,” she said, bumping her shoulder with his. “It’s good to see you; I was worried you’d had some sort of terrible accident, or you’d died, or something awful like that.”
“Come back to the house with us,” said Ironhooves. “Just for a few days.”
“No,” she said. “I want some time on my own. But when we get back, introduce us. I’d like that.”
She shook out her mane and then galloped up the beach, stretching her legs. Her coat sparkled in the afternoon sun — Ironhooves always rather suspected that was why her parents had called her Diamond — and she pranced with joy around the huge metal statue that had been the Great Dragon.
They’d done it, he thought. They’d really, really done it. He let himself stretch, work out the aches in his back and dream, for just a few seconds, daydreams that he’d never thought he’d be able to have. He’d never been one to torture himself with hope, but he did now — they could go back to the Blue House, and Oxford would let him stay forever, because Oxford loved him and everything was right with the world.
In the meantime, Oxford slowly made his way up to the wagons, checking on ponies as he went, helping a few more off with the now-useless collars.
“We’re going to use magic to get home, even though with the extra weight we’ll have to go slower,” said Data, when he got there. “I don’t want to make anypony have to pull a cart. Are you able to give us a few spells?”
“I think so,” said Oxford. “Data, can you have a look at my leg while I prepare them? It’s aching like nopony’s business.”
“All right,” said Data. “Here, concentrate on the rear cart.”
Oxford tried to cast a spell, he really did, but it fizzled out before he could manage to get anywhere with it. He closed his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t think I can.”
“Relax,” said Data. “You’ve done a lot today. Can you stretch out your leg for me?”
“It hurts,” said Oxford, blinking away tears when Data helped him to stretch. “Ow, Data, Data, let me…”
“Can you move it at all?” asked Data.
“No,” said Oxford. “It feels like you’re poking hot needles into my leg.”
Data let go, and Oxford curled up protectively around his injury.
“I think this is broken,” said Data. “You’ve got to go back to Canterlot — they can set it there, and with magical bandages, they might be able to stop it from affecting your gait.”
“I can’t leave Ironhooves,” said Oxford. “I promised him that I’d stay.”
“This friendship with Ironhooves is serious, isn’t it?” asked Data.
Oxford nodded. “Very,” he said. “He’s…we’ve promised to…” He blushed. “You know.”
“Then he’d understand if you had to go,” said Data.
“He would,” Oxford conceded. “But he’d be hurt. Too many people have broken their promises to him. I won’t be one of them.”
“I’ll have the Royal Guard send their fastest steeds,” said Data. “And a medic; this is only going to get more painful as the afternoon wears on. Destiny sent a message to Canterlot before we left, and if we’re lucky, the Guard might arrive today.”
“Good,” said Oxford, because honestly, he had no idea what to do with six dragons, four of which were hog-tied, one of which was made of metal, and the last of which had been exploded all over the farm buildings when it had surprised Red Rocket.
“Here,” said a gentle voice. “I know some tricks to help you feel better.” Shining Song trotted up to one of the trees that lined the road, pulling off a strip of bark. “Chew this — it will help with the pain.”
“Thank you,” said Oxford, taking the bark.
“Oxford,” said Ironhooves’s Mama, stretching out her wings. “I’m so glad that my son found you.”
Oxford felt a blush starting. “He could have found anypony; he’s so wonderful that anypony would have fallen over their own hooves to help him.”
“You’re not just anypony,” said Shining Song. “And I think you know that.” She smiled. “I’d never thought that Ironhooves might find a special somepony so well matched to him.”
“You…you don’t mind?” asked Oxford. She raised an eyebrow, making an expression that was very reminiscent of her son. “Ah. Understood.” He cleared his throat. “In case Data and Blueberry haven’t said, you’re all welcome to come home with us; there’s plenty of room, and it’s sort of a school, so any foals who’re orphaned can…stay. If they’d like a place to stay.”
“Blueberry said as much,” said Shining Song. “And she said that you’d be happy to have me there because your own Mama left you alone when you were still a colt.”
“That’s not the only reason,” said Oxford, scandalised, but he let her draw him under her wing. He could shake Blueberry later.
“Carts are full!” called Chameleon. “Come on, Oxford, let Mrs Shining Song onto the cart so we can go home!”
“Will you be all right?” she asked him, looking pointedly at his leg.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. She looked doubtful. “I promise. And Ironhooves will take care of me.”
She climbed onto the cart, and Oxford waved them off, all the foals waving at him from the back window of the cart. It lumbered along the road, wallowing slowly compared to the speed of that morning, and Oxford waited until it was out of sight before he sagged.
Oxford was tired, so tired. He limped painfully down to the beach where he knew Ironhooves would be — he was helping to unload the last of the gold, and making sure that he freed anyone else who was still in the hold of the ship.
“Oxford!” Ironhooves called, when he reached the sand.
More ponies were stretched out on the beach, laughing and running, jumping into the surf to wash dirt from their coats. Oxford smiled — this must be the last lot, then, the ones who’d been down the mine. Someone had made a pile of the gold that hadn’t fitted on the carts, and several tough-looking ponies were guarding it.
“We’ve put everyone we could fit into carts on the way back to Canterlot,” said Oxford, the soft sand too hard to walk in limping on three legs. He gratefully sank to his knees.
“Why are you still here, then?” asked Ironhooves.
“I couldn’t leave you,” Oxford replied. “Are you finished here?”
“How bad is your leg?” asked Ironhooves, joining him. “And yes, that’s the last of it. We’ve just got to wait now for the Canterlot guard.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” said Oxford. “I think my leg is really hurt; Data managed to bandage it, but I’m going to need help to get back home.”
“This is all my fault.” Ironhooves looked devastated. “It’s all my fault. If I hadn’t pushed you…”
“Hush,” said Oxford, tucking Ironhooves against his chest, resting his chin on Ironhooves’s mane. “Hush. It’s not your fault. It’s no-one’s fault. If you hadn’t pushed me out of the way, I’d have been burned.”
“But if your leg is broken, you won’t be able to gallop like you did before,” said Ironhooves.
“I know,” said Oxford. “But if I hadn’t taken the risk and drawn his attention to me, I might have lost you. I’d much rather have you than galloping.” He curled closer to Ironhooves.
“Oxford?” asked Ironhooves. “Are you all right?”
“I’m tired,” said Oxford, honestly. “And my leg hurts. Will you watch over me until the others get here?”
“I will,” said Ironhooves, brushing a brief kiss against Oxford’s mane. “You can count on me to be here.”
Oxford eventually fell asleep, long before help got to them. The next thing he knew, there were ponies everywhere and…goodness, it looked like Destiny had brought her whole platoon to help Oxford and Ironhooves get back home.
“Up you get,” said Destiny. She looked tired but proud; there was sand in her mane, but she was smiling.
“I can’t,” said Oxford, because he felt so weak and shaky inside that he didn’t think he could move.
“Lean on me,” said Ironhooves, and another pony trotted up and bolstered Oxford’s other side, and together they dragged him up the hill and to a cart with a large red cross painted on the side.
“We have to get you back to Canterlot right away,” said the medic, examining him. “Take these for the pain, dear. You’re going to need to have that leg set, and goodness knows what other injuries both of you have. Come on, you settle down here, and your friend can travel in the other medical cart.”
“No,” said Ironhooves. “I’m not leaving him.”
“Love, he’s just going to be sleeping,” said the medic.
“I’m not leaving,” said Ironhooves. “I promised to watch over him.”
Oxford smiled as he swallowed the pain tablets. “Please?” he asked, only just stopping short of fluttering his eyelashes. “I need him.”
“Oh, all right,” said the medic. “Just you make sure he stays warm, young stallion. He’s going to get cold and feel bad once the heat of the battle wears off.”
Ironhooves tucked both of them under the same blanket on the way back to Canterlot, and Oxford drifted happily in and out of consciousness as the cart rocked him to sleep. Ironhooves stroked Oxford’s mane as he drifted.
“There,” said Ironhooves, softly. “You watched over me; now I’ll watch over you.”
“Mmmm,” Oxford replied, snuggling closer.
Ironhooves chuckled, cuddling Oxford against his chest. “Sleep. I’ll wake you when we get to Canterlot.”
If Ironhooves had known what an embarrassment introducing his mother to his special somepony would be, he possibly wouldn’t have done it. Oxford had to spend time in bed while his leg recovered and the magical bandages had time to work, and he seemed quite happy to spend that time bonding with Ironhooves’s mama. She’d told him stories that Ironhooves didn’t even know about Ironhooves’s childhood.
Ironhooves huffed about it, but he was too busy to come up to Oxford’s room during the day and stop Mama from going on with the most humiliating of the stories, like the one where he’d painted on a cutie mark and tried to pretend he’d really had one, long before his chess king had appeared. There was a lot to do getting the ponies settled into Oxford’s school — Mama had come with them, and some of the others were going on to Canterlot, but Oxford had promised sanctuary to anypony who wanted it. The place was full of foals, dashing about and getting stuck up trees and doing all of those things that excitable foals did when they had a whole mansion to explore.
There was also the matter of the dragons. While Destiny and Diamond Bright took over the management of the gold, the other guards were looking after the dragons; Ironhooves was told, but he didn’t get to see, that Princess Celestia herself had broken his spell on the Great Dragon and banished him and his fellows from Canterlot forever more. Ironhooves wasn’t sorry about that — the Great Dragon shouldn’t be allowed near ponies ever, ever again.
It was with some considerable relief that Ironhooves spent his evenings in Oxford’s company and in Oxford’s company alone. Oxford’s presence was soothing, and he liked to use his telepathy to calm Ironhooves’s mind after a long day, the two of them gently touching horns and flanks, finding comfort in each other. After the sixth time they fell asleep in front of the fire together, Ironhooves started sleeping in Oxford’s room.
As soon as Oxford was well enough, he took them all to Canterlot for a gala dinner; Mama, and all the foals, and everypony else who had decided to stay with Oxford. Diamond Bright hadn’t stayed — she’d gone to Canterlot with a lot of the others. Ironhooves didn’t blame her — Canterlot was beautiful, and Diamond had always wanted to get out and explore the world. Ironhooves had planned to help his Mama look after the foals when they got to Canterlot, but he was in for a surprise — when they got there, a group of young ponies galloped up to them, one of them latching onto Oxford as soon as she saw him, and the others spreading out and introducing themselves to the foals.
“Hello, Fluttershy,” said Oxford, hugging his young companion. “It’s lovely to see you; you’re up from Ponyville?”
“Twilight Sparkle got an invitation from Princess Celestia to help out with the gala,” said the yellow pegasus. “And we thought…we were wondering…we’d heard that there were foals in the group of ponies that you saved from Dragon Ranch, and Canterlot is a fun place for foals, and we’re all very good foal-sitters…”
“We’d like to take these young’uns off your hooves for the day, Professor,” said another pony. “Twilight’s brother is the Captain of the Guard, and he’s said he’ll get the guard to look out for us. We want to show them how much fun y’all can have in Equestria.”
“I would be delighted to accept,” said Oxford. “Ironhooves, this is Applejack and Fluttershy. Fluttershy, Applejack, this is Ironhooves.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Applejack.
Fluttershy squeaked in terror, looking up at Ironhooves with huge eyes. “H-hello,” she said.
“She thinks you’re dreamy,” said Applejack, helpfully.
“Oh,” said Ironhooves. “In that case, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Oxford waited until the young ponies had led the group of foals off before laughing and nudging Ironhooves.
“I’d better keep a tight rein on you,” said Oxford. “If you’re dreamy.”
“You have no need to fear,” said Ironhooves. “Besides, you were the one getting cuddled.”
“Fluttershy is a kindred spirit,” said Oxford. “She’s gentle-hearted.” He sighed. “I’m glad that they’re looking after the foals; your Mama needs a break.”
“I get plenty of breaks,” said Mama, joining them. “Everypony back at the Blue House has been just wonderful with the foals.”
“Yes, but we’ve got a mission,” said Oxford. “Blueberry told me that there’s a gala dinner tonight, and we’re expected to be there as guests of honour. So we need to go and get you and Ironhooves kitted up for it.” He paused. “My treat.”
“Oxford, we’ve got plenty of gold…” said Mama.
“Which is still being sorted out by the Guard,” said Oxford. “And besides, I want to get Ironhooves some warm coats; he feels the cold terribly.”
“I do not,” said Ironhooves, miffed.
“Oh, darling, you do,” said Mama. “You always have.” She smiled. “And if our shopping trip so happens to take us to all the sights of Canterlot, then I won’t complain.”
Ironhooves, who had never owned clothing other than his own fur, was overawed by all the choices. He wanted everything. Sleek suits, warm turtleneck jumpers that garnered the most extraordinary reaction from Oxford (sneaking into the changeroom, pushing him up against the wall and kissing him to within an inch of his life), and a housecoat that Mama said made him look dignified. Oxford’s strength waned after a while — his injury had really been very serious — and so they went to a restaurant in one of the tall towers and had lunch, a world away from Dragon Ranch.
Well, a world away, but ponies stayed the same, he thought, as they passed the foals from the ranch swimming in a decorative fountain, two of Oxford’s young friends trying to control them and a third, rainbow-maned pegasus swimming in there with them.
That evening, Ironhooves slid into his formal jacket, and Oxford insisted on wearing a bowtie, which was so frankly adorable that it made Ironhooves want to just stay in and appreciate the view. He didn’t particularly want to go and spend the night being lauded for accidentally being a hero. He knew what he’d done; he didn’t see why other ponies needed to comment on it.
Oxford stood firm, and Ironhooves was glad that he had when they went to escort Mama from her room; she’d put on the necklace that Oxford had insisted she get, and her wing had finally healed. She was beautiful; Ironhooves had never really thought of her as anything other than Mama, but tonight, she was beautiful.
“You smooth talker,” she said, when Ironhooves told her so. “Look at this, I have two handsome colts to escort me to dinner.”
“Stallions, Mama,” said Ironhooves.
Oxford laughed. “Come on,” he said. “It’s a nice evening — let’s make the most of the last of the light.”
Fine carriages were pulling up outside the palace as they walked up; Ironhooves was glad that they hadn’t got a carriage, because he wouldn’t have known where to hide if they had. They were attended as soon as they walked onto the red carpet, though, and Ironhooves had to stop himself from trying to hide behind Oxford; he hated scrutiny, he hated eyes on him. For so long, being different, being looked at, had been a terrible thing. He gritted his teeth and puffed out his chest. No, he wasn’t going to hide. He was Ironhooves.
Oxford spoke quietly to a pony at the top of the stairs, and then held Ironhooves there. “Wait,” he said. “We have to be announced.”
“Announcing Professor Oxford Blue of the West Forest, his companion Master Ironhooves, and the Lady Shining Song,” said the pony, and the ponies in the hall turned to look at them all, a quiet rustle of voices accompanying their progress in.
“Professor! Professor!” It was one of Oxford’s young friends; this one was bright, bright pink. “Come and look at the cake we made you. It’s amazing.”
“Very well,” said Oxford. “Ironhooves, Shining Song, would you like to come?”
“I’d like to go and see how Emerald Charmer is doing,” said Shining Song, waving to her friend across the hall. “You two behave yourselves.”
The cake was indeed amazing. It was…enormous, and very pink, and rather terrifying. Ironhooves, who’d had exactly two slices of cake in his life, both of them the product of Red Rocket’s continued horrible attempts at cooking, had never seen anything like it.
“Do you like it?” asked the yellow pegasus who had stammered at Ironhooves earlier in the day.
“It’s wonderful,” said Ironhooves, just as Oxford said, “Simply marvellous!”
“I did all the icing!” said the pink pony, as Fluttershy beamed proudly.
“I’ve never seen a cake so fine,” said Ironhooves, which wasn’t actually a lie.
“And there’s a surprise baked into the middle,” said the pink pony.
“Pinkie-pie, you’ll ruin it!” said a purple haired unicorn. “I apologise for my friends, Mr Ironhooves, Professor.”
“That’s perfectly all right, Twilight,” said Oxford. “Ironhooves, this is Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie Pie. Fluttershy you met this morning.”
“Are you going to dance later?” asked Pinkie Pie. “I can show you how to dance, if you like!”
“Only if he saves the last dance for me,” said Oxford.
The voice of the announcer drifted out from the other room. “Announcing Miss Blueberry, of the West Forest, and Captain Destiny, of the Royal Guard.”
“Excuse us,” said Oxford. “I need to go and see my sister.”
Ironhooves stuck close to Oxford’s side; he wanted to see Blueberry too. Blueberry looked beautiful — she had curled her mane, and she was wearing a necklace that had the same seal as was on all of the stationery and things at the Blue House. Ironhooves took in the room — everypony was here, all of his old friends, even ponies like Whirlwind and Sharpie, who had scrubbed up surprisingly well and seemed to be fending off most of the eligible fillies of Canterlot.
“Look at you two!” said Blueberry, delightedly. “Ironhooves, how did you get him to wear a bowtie?”
“He wanted to,” said Ironhooves, confused.
“I wanted to look my best,” said Oxford, primly. “Anyway, Miss I-Don’t-Do-Sparkles, look at you.”
“I do sparkles,” Blueberry protested. “Sometimes.”
“And announcing Miss Diamond Bright,” said the pony at the head of the stairs.
Ironhooves looked up and saw Diamond, her coat clean and shiny, her mane gently curled.
“Diamond Bright!” said Blueberry, nudging Ironhooves. “She is so glorious. Look at her mane; if you want sparkles, that’s sparkles.”
Ironhooves watched Diamond make her way across the hall; it seemed every pony who was somepony was trying to chat to her. Ironhooves, who had known her since she was a filly, was amused.
“She’s just like everypony else,” he said.
“No she’s not. She’s beautiful,” said Blueberry.
“As are you,” said Oxford.
“I’m blue,” she said.
“And very beautiful,” said Ironhooves. “I’m very fond of the colour blue.” He met Oxford’s eyes.
“Can you two stop being soppily in love for even just a few minutes?” asked Blueberry. “I’m very happy for you, but my brain is breaking thinking about my brother having a special somepony. Especially when you turn complimenting me into being hopeless about each other.”
“Come here,” said Oxford, tucking his chin over Blueberry’s forehead. “If you go and ask Data for a dance, you won’t have to put up with me being soppy.”
“Data?” asked Blueberry. “He isn’t interested in…” She trailed off. “Wait, you think he’s interested in me?”
“Could be,” said Oxford, winking. “But I think you’ll have to be the one who asks for the dance.”
He let her go, and she nonchalantly approached Data, who almost trod on his own glasses in his eagerness to accept. Ironhooves smiled; it was pleasing to see his new friends enjoying themselves. Mama was dancing with four of the littler orphaned foals at once; quite an impressive feat. Diamond caught his eye, and she came to join them.
“Hello, heroes,” she said, kissing Ironhooves’s cheek. “Everypony in town is talking about you.”
“I hope it’s all good,” said Oxford.
“So this is your Professor,” said Diamond, looking Oxford up and down. “He’s adorable; I’ll give you that.”
“Oxford, this is Diamond Bright,” said Ironhooves. “Diamond, this is Oxford.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Oxford, shaking her hoof. “Will you be coming to live with us? There’s plenty of room.”
“I don’t know,” said Diamond. “I think I might travel for a while. It’s a much bigger world than I thought it was.”
“It is,” said Oxford. “I was hoping to take Ironhooves to the mountains for a few weeks, if you’re interested in coming too.”
She laughed. “I think if I got in between you and Ironhooves, Ironhooves would kill me.”
“Not kill you,” said Ironhooves.
“Oh, don’t be silly, you know I love you best,” said Oxford. “You’d adore the mountains, Diamond; they’re so green and spacious and…”
“And I would have to put up with you two in the next tent over,” said Diamond. “I’m sure you’re a wonderful pony, but I just don’t think I could do it.”
“We’re not that bad, are we?” asked Oxford.
“You’re wonderful,” said Diamond. She smiled, a rare, brilliant smile. “I’m glad that Ironhooves has found someone to keep him in line.”
“I don’t need keeping in line,” Ironhooves grumbled. “If I’d stayed in line we wouldn’t be free.”
“True,” said Diamond, turning to look over her shoulder. “I’m going to go and see if that lovely guardsman will dance with me. You two have fun.”
She trotted off, her tail swinging behind her as she made her way across the room. The guardsman wasn’t going to know what had hit him, Ironhooves thought. Equestria wasn’t going to know what had hit it. He turned back to Oxford, and felt warmth bloom in his chest; the only way to deal with it was to step closer to Oxford and kiss him.
“Oxford,” said Ironhooves, nuzzling his neck.
“My love,” said Oxford, with a soft smile.
“Get a room!” said Sonic Boom, rather more loudly than Ironhooves would have liked.
“Leave them be; they’re in love,” said a gentle voice. Ironhooves looked up to see Celestia, the Celestia, standing next to them. “Hello, Oxford. And Ironhooves, I believe.”
“My lady,” said Ironhooves, bowing as Oxford said a cheerful hello.
“Ironhooves, the bravest pony in all of Equestria,” she said, and Ironhooves blushed. “I hear you have been helping at Oxford’s school. Red Rocket speaks highly of you.”
“He does?” asked Ironhooves, because this was news to him.
Oxford nudged his shoulder. “We all love you,” he said. “Especially me.”
Celestia laughed. “I’m glad,” she said. “Everypony deserves to be loved.”
A crash sounded from behind an ornate curtain, and a voice hollered “Pinkie-Pie!”
“It wasn’t me!”
“Then who was it?”
Celestia shook her head. “Excuse me — I need to go and see to my own young proteges. Given the kind of things that usually happen when the girls get rowdy, I’ll tell you this now — you have my blessing, when you need it.”
“Thank you,” said Oxford.
Ironhooves was too stunned to reply, but he bowed again. Beside him, Oxford chuckled.
“Come and dance with me,” he said. “If I know Twilight Sparkle and her friends, we won’t be seeing dinner any time soon.”
“They’re not good cooks?” asked Ironhooves, as Oxford led him to the dancefloor, his limp still noticeable in his gait.
“Oh, they’re excellent cooks,” said Oxford. “But if I ever met a group of ponies with a trouble magnet attached, it would be them. They’ve probably just discovered a secret message in the alphabet soup.”
Ironhooves smiled. “All the more time for us to dance, then,” he said, as the songpony sang something about true love, and Oxford rested his cheek against Ironhooves’s. “I’ve had enough of adventures to last a lifetime.”
It was then that Chameleon and Destiny cantered across the reception hall, followed by Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie-Pie, dragging the cake between the four of them before launching it off the ornate balcony. The resulting splat was rather large and viscous, and a fountain of cake flew into the air, covering the whole side of the building. Something fishy was definitely going on. Ironhooves wondered if all this had something to do with a baked-in surprise.
“One more adventure couldn’t hurt, could it?” murmured Oxford.
Ironhooves kissed him. “One more,” he said, and together they trotted up to the balcony and four cake-covered ponies, ready to embark on their next adventure side by side.