Twilight Sparkle stepped out of the autumn rain and into her home, stopping only to wipe her hooves and shake her coat. She heard Spike talking to someone and the clinking of cups as she stopped to step out of her rubber galoshes and remove her rainhat.
"Spike!" she called. "Spike, do we have guests?" The little dragon came out in the hall holding a steaming teapot.
"Hiya Twilight! Yeah, Luna is here! Come in and sit down and have a cup of tea." He darted back into the room.
"Luna? Princess Luna? Yeah, sure! You're such a kidder, Spike." She laughed at the thought of the Moon Princess turning up in the rain unannounced. Celestia (oh yes, to a degree that unnerved her young student greatly) loved to appear incognito and out of nowhere and cause heart attacks. Princess Luna, however, liked responsibility, thrived on attention, and breathed formality just as much as Twilight herself did, traits that had only grown stronger as she recuperated from her horrible exile.
So Twilight almost swallowed her tongue when she followed Spike and found that the Ruler of The Night Court was indeed there, lying on the couch, sipping tea, covered with a blanket with hearts on it and – Twilight's heart stopped – reading one of Spike's comic books, a box of more comics at her feet.
"Welcome back, Lady Sparkle!" said Luna and smiled as she put down her reading material. "I trust you didn't get too wet!"
Twilight trembled as she bowed, and then stepped up to the Princess of the Night, blubbering.
"Your Highness, I didn't – I wasn't – I – I couldn't..."
Luna made shushing motions with her hooves. "You didn't know I was coming, so you couldn't hurry your errands. You didn't know I was coming because I didn't tell you, Lady Sparkle. So you have committed no error."
"Should I bring you a paper bag?" Spike said as he placed a cup and saucer on the table and poured her tea. "It always helps me when I am hyperventilating."
Twilight caught her breath and bowed again. "It's a pleasure to see you, Your Highness. And thanks, Spike."
"The same – it has been too long!" said Luna. "Please be seated!"
Twilight hesitated. Spike sighed. "It's your table, Twilight. You are allowed to sit at it!"
She bowed again and did. Spike picked up the teacup he had filled and held it in the air. "Now please grab it with your magic, Twilight, or I will drop it and destroy yet more of your mom's china." Twilight was going to protest but thought better of it, grabbed the cup telekinetically and sipped the warm tea. She sighed again, deeply.
"Better now?" Princess Luna asked. Twilight nodded. "Good. How did your errands go? Fine?" Twilight nodded again.
"We've started bringing books to the homes of ponies that can't make it to the library, but still want to borrow them," she said. "It's handled by mail, but there are a couple of elderly ponies who live nearby so I walk to them instead."
"Is this is a much-asked for service?" said Luna.
Twilight grinned sheepishly. "Not many use the public library at all, and most of those are a bit older – or little kids!" she said. "Why do you think they put a graduate student here as a librarian, Your Highness, if not because they didn't think there was much library work to be done?"
Spiked drank from his own cup (he was having cocoa) and said:"Maybe because they figured her assistant would do all the work?"
Twilight glared at him and Luna chuckled very gracefully.
"Anyway, Your Highness, there aren't that many who need it, so I can hardly say no to those who do," Twilight said. "But tell me, are you really here to investigate Ponyville's public library?" Luna smiled enigmatically and sipped her tea daintily.
"Because if you are, I h-have statistics for its use and a report on the economy, and you can compare with last year, Your Highness…" Twilight said anxiously and started to rise to fetch the papers mentioned. Luna shook her royal head.
"No, Lady Sparkle, that's an issue for the Mayor. I am here on a different business." She set down her teacup and rose. Twilight tried to get to her feet as well, but the princess pushed her down. "Oh, remain seated!" She placed her front legs on Twilight's shoulders as she leaned on her and held her muzzle just above Twilight's increasingly nervous eyes.
"I owe you, you and the other Elements of Harmony," Luna said. "Not just for saving me from exile and damnation, but also for helping me after I came back. Of all ponies alive, I can count only on you as friends, not servants or subjects. You showed me the way back to equinity before depression could claim me. For this I am ever grateful – and because of this I trust you deeply."
Twilight blushed and started to feel sweaty under the steady gaze of the Ruler of the Night Court. She knew that during the last couple of years since the Elements of Harmony had defeated Nightmare Moon, they had indeed probably been the only ponies the princess had associated with in any normal fashion. That couldn't be all, though.
"I'm glad to hear it, but I I've heard it before, Your Highness, and while I don't mind praise, or actually I do, because it makes me nervous, so I start babbling and, and don't say anything useful, and I start to sweat a lot, and…" Twilight tried to steady her mind and her mane.
"I am merely explaining my reasoning, why I once again need to ask you a favor that only you can perform, Lady Sparkle," Luna retreated a bit, yet remained standing while Twilight sat. "I am going on a diplomatic mission and need assistance. I want a friend to accompany me, not just some retainer, and out of the Elements of Harmony I think you would be most suitable."
"But I'm no diplomat, Your Highness," said Twilight. I'm a scholar, and haven't even graduated yet! " Luna shook her head.
"I have diplomats aplenty assigned to this mission – and guards and servants, oh yes," she said. "And a whole gaggle of courtiers Celestia insists follow us – I am not sure whether she hopes they will be lost on the way so she gets rid of them, or she just wants them away from court to do less damage there…" It was Twilight's turn to smile at the moon princess, who had started to pace the room with a frown. "I need a confidante I can trust, someone to talk to while making decisions, while digesting impressions."
"But why me of all the Elements?" said Twilight. "Why not all of us? We are all your trustworthy friends."
"Because the journey will take a couple of months. You all have lives and careers to take care of, but yours is the most mobile," said Luna. "You can still study, and even see this journey as a project. Diplomacy is about nations remaining friends, after all. Furthermore, I cannot bring too many as my private entourage, or important nobles will throw hissy fits." She grinned. "And you said yourself the library you manage isn't much used."
"I suppose it would be bad for the winter apple harvest if Applejack just up and disappeared right now… and Rarity said Sweetie Belle was supposed to live with her for the whole school year because of their parents' business travel…" Twilight rubbed her chin with her hoof then suddenly glared at Luna. "You had us investigated to find out our plans?"
"Guilty as charged. I wanted to know before I made my decision. And my decision is that you are most suited to follow me," Luna said and looked somberly at Twilight at first, then pouted, widened her eyes and tilted her head to the right. "Pleaaaaaaaaase come with me! Pleaaaaaaaaase!" Twilight cringed.
"Urgh, you have taken lessons from Rarity, Your Highness!" she said. "Oh, whatever, I'll follow you! Just please, don't look that cute!"
Luna laughed and stomped her hooves on the floor to show her approval. "Oh, thanks so much!"
"It will probably be fun, anyway," mused Twilight. "To travel as Your Highness'… what am I, technically? Friend? Pal? Companion?"
"Companion," snorted Spike, "sounds like you were her coltfriend or something." Twilight and Luna both blushed.
"Formally, you will be my hoofmaiden… that will suit us best when it comes to protocol and such, I think," said Luna.
"What does a hoofmaiden do?" said Spike.
"Uhm, I guess I will be, well, dressing Princess Luna and, well, comb her hair and mane, run errands…" Twilight waved her hoof vaguely in the air.
"Giggle demurely with her behind fans?" suggested Spike, mimicked what he meant, and had to dodge a telekinetically thrown couch pillow. Luna did giggle demurely, but lacked a fan.
"Look," said Spike "we're all missing the most important issue." The two ponies turned to him. "Where are we going on this mission anyway? Because I assume I get to go with you, alright?"
"You can go if it's okay with Princess Luna," said Twilight more or less exactly at the same time as Luna said "You can go if it is alright with Lady Sparkle." They looked at each other and laughed.
"Of course you can come!" said Twilight and nuzzled him. "I'll need an assistant to be able to giggle demurely behind my fan! But where are we going?" Luna suddenly grew far more serious and started pacing the room again.
"We are going to Tarandroland," she said. "I am sure you have heard about the recent pirate raids in the news?" Twilight shook her head and looked embarrassed.
"I often miss the news, unless they're local – and I get the local ones through Pinkie Pie, not the media…" she said.
"Pirates! That sounds cool. But where's Tarandroland?" asked Spike.
Luna sighed and made an almost imperceptible gesture. In the air appeared a floating map of Equestria, made of shimmering aether.
"During the last months, more and more pirate ships from Tarandroland have struck northwestern Equestria, mostly against small coastal villages and single farms," Luna said. The map showed miniature longships, moving over the sea and touching the coast in dozens of places. "The reindeer that live in and rule Tarandroland were once fierce raiders, but that was long ago – back before my exile. In modern times, it is just that the northwestern sea has a little more piracy than other places – up until now, when there has been a huge increase." The map zoomed out, and the ships were clearly shown coming from a large island to the furthest north, which seem to be covered in dark forests, snow and ice. It then zoomed in on one of the longships. It was filled with grim reindeer.
"In those bad old days, they would have carried the villagers away into thralldom, but thankfully that has changed. The raiders simply stole what wares they could find and sailed off again," said Luna. The picture changed to burning villages, with reindeer running with saddlebags full of goods back to their ships.
"I thought pirates carried off gold and gems" said Spike and frowned. Luna smiled grimly.
"I am sure they took that if they found any, but after the first raids ponies saw that if they didn't resist they weren't hurt, so when the ships were coming they simply ran off inland and took their bits and jewelry with them," Luna explained. "The pirates had to settle for refined foods and drink, clothes, machines and electronics. And if no one resisted them the only thing they burnt was the boats – so no one could follow them."
"Wait," said Spike "isn't there a navy? Not here in Ponyville, I mean, but Equestria has one, right?"
"It is very small," Luna sighed. "Its ships are big and decrepit, and the pirates are much more mobile."
"So is Tarandroland… going to war with us?" Twilight was astonished. Equestria hadn't been at war for a very long time, and if she remembered correctly Tarandroland was a small, poor country which had nothing whatsoever against Equestria – not who you think would start a war.
"No – unlike the raids of yore, these are not the housedeer, the sworn bucks of the King of Tarandroland," Luna said.. "They are simple thieves who happen to have their bases on reindeer lands. It's easy to hide in the many fjords of the coast." Luna's magical map illustrated the process. "The King, Ukko, refuses to do anything about them, though. That's the problem." The map disappeared.
"My sister and I don't know whether King Ukko doesn't want to help, cannot help, is forced not to help, or what else is going on," Luna said. "We decided to send this delegation to talk with him and his herd personally." Luna looked down. "I had long begged my sister to be allowed to do work outside Equestria, like I used to, before… but while she agreed for me to go this time, I am pretty sure I am only there as a threat, and she expects the diplomats to do the real work."
"Why is that?" said Twilight. "Doesn't Celestia trust you?" Luna sighed.
"Maybe," said Luna. "Or maybe it is just that it has been more than a millennium since I last visited Tarandroland. I have tried these last years to catch up with pony history. I haven't been doing that for other peoples." She summoned up the map again, its magical animations illustrating her words. "Last time I was active in international politics, the donkeys were just about to establish a sea empire. Both they, us and the camels were still keeping slaves, can you imagine that? The griffons still ate pony meat! The qi-rin didn't let anyone inside their kingdom at all, because they thought other beings were literally poisonous, and a unified hippocampus nation still existed." The magical images which had entranced Twilight and Spike disappeared. "All that is gone now. All changed. Changed forever."
"With 'threat' Celestia means you are an immortal super-pony, right? She wouldn't be so rude as to mean... Nightmare Moon?" Spike almost whispered the last words and looked very worried.
"I hope it is not so, but there more to it than being 'an immortal super-pony' like in your comic books, Spike," said Luna. "In Equestria, anyone who can travel to Canterlot can meet me and my sister, in person – well, after some red tape. We are revered, sometimes loved, sometimes feared, and people can guess the extent of our powers, our divinity… but we are not worshipped as such," Luna said. "It is different in other lands, where our work is visible but rarely we ourselves. There people either think we are a myth – or they worship us. In Tarandroland there are literal temples to my sister and me… more of the former, I suspect, but anyway."
"So Celestia intends for those courtier-guys to say to King Reindeer: 'Look, we have the goddess Luna and we aren't afraid to use her, give us back our stuff?'" said Spike.
Luna smiled again. "Something like that. But the reindeer call me Hrimfaxi."
If you read a tourist brochure for a place like Sarvvik, it will claim that "time has stood still." This is, of course, a lie. When writers use that phrase, it means that they have run out of something to write, at the same time as the pictures they have been given to work with remind them of the foggy memories they have of history from sleeping through class and watching Foalywood costume dramas. What is true is that Sarvvik has more traces of its history than, say, downtown Fillydelfia, mostly because rebuilding stuff costs money. The temple was one such trace.
Originally it had been painted blue and black on rune-covered fir logs that rose above their surroundings, but the paint had been worn away and repainted many times, and then there was no money for repainting it, and sickly-looking lichen and moss crept all over it. The high birch-bark roof had had its beams of wood replaced more times than the birch-bark (any reindeer carpenter will tell you, birch-bark lasts forever) but now all of it was rotten and warped. It's most striking feature, however, were the antlers.
The walls of the temple had an immense amount of reindeer antlers heaped upon them. The oldest ones were still connected to reindeer skulls, such as those hanging from the pillars at the gate. The newer ones, thousands of them, were simply antlers cast-off when the season comes. They were so many that a daring reindeer could have clambered over them up on the roof. Somedeer had probably tried, since they seemed to have collapsed several times. The heap on the back of the temple, facing the river, had fallen down into it, and water ran over it at the end. The old, withering antlers added their own essence to the already rather polluted river, which gave Sarvvik harbor its special color, fragrance and charm.
The temple was not alone on the street, at what had once been the furthest of city limits, but its company was not very pleasant. This quarter only held those business held to be unsanitary (like lichenbrew distilleries, undertakers, and garbage collectors), immoral (like shady bars, gambling halls, and fences), or both (like telemarketers). It wasn't that the temple had been forced to this place for being considered uncouth – it was the temple's presence that had made the place what it was, slowly, slowly, as reindeer feared and avoided this quarter of the city.
The decoration inside, if not the temple doctrine, could make such fear and avoidance understandable. The pillars were carved with not just runes of praise and protection, but with images of various beings – of carrion-eaters like the wolf and the crow, of nocturnal beings like the owl and the bat, of venomous creatures like the toad and the viper. The roof had once been painted gaily to show the heavenly bodies, but the paint had flaked away. Once, great silver and crystal orbs had hung from it together with bones and horn, but the silver and crystal had long been pawned off for direly needed money, and only yellow bone and withering horn now dangled in the draft. The draft came from the temple doors being so warped, that they could not be closed properly.
On the old granite blocks that formed the temple stairs sat a young vaja, a female reindeer, so young she was almost still a calf. She had her first antlers, however, and hence considered herself a "grown-up". Her dress could have made the writers for the theoretical tourist brochure begin babbling about "time standing still" again. While most normal reindeer these days used shawls and scarves in a modern, clearly Equestrian-influenced fashion, this vaja wore a traditional cotton-grass shawl, and she had old-fashioned silver jewelry hanging from her slim antlers and in her ears. Said ears were cut in the old fashion, to show her herd, sire and dam.
The exact design of her outfit was more primal than traditional, however. Her shawl was a deep purple and dotted with stars. In her silver jewelry hung lemming bones and snow bunting skulls. She had painted her face like coquettish vaja did, but not with the common eye-shadow and rouge – no, she had a wide black band across her eyes like an easy-to-carry bandit mask, and black moon-sickles on her haunches (which tended to rub off on the sheets, so she always showered before bed). To further confuse what time period she represented, causing the theoretical writer to toss his quill and parchment and go out for a drink, she was chewing gum and playing a Gamecolt.
Inside the temple, in the Sanctum Sanctorum, the holy of holies, sat a very old vaja in near-darkness, only illuminated by a flickering pale light, and drummed. It was not an energetic drumming, and it did not make music – it was more like her version of the temple-fawn chewing gum. Her rheumy, filmed-over eyes stared as her front hooves tapped on the old rune-covered drum, and from her slightly drooling muzzle came a mumbled chant, like a low drone from a narcoleptic bumblebee. She stopped as it struck her and breathed in deeply and sharply to gain air for a shout of joy. The young vaja looked up from her game at the wild hollering and cantered into the temple, full of worry.
"Gramma? Gramma? Are you okay? What happened?" she said.
"She is coming! She is coming! Nights be praised! Our Lady is coming!" the old vaja shouted and did something very close to bouncing with joy, if you account for her legs.
"Did you have a vision, Gramma? Did you really have a vision again?" The almost-calf was visibly impressed.
The older reindeer stopped and pointed to the flickering screen of the old black-and-white TV in her holy of holies.
"No, no, I saw it on the telly! She hasn't forgotten us! She is coming!" she said.
The temple-fawn tried to catch what her grandmother was talking about, but was too late, on the TV was just a bored buck in a tie that told the viewers: "And now, the weather!" She groaned.
This story is based on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, which is owned by Hasbro, not me. The Sami, Scandinavian and Finnish cultures which I shamelessly ripped off to create Tarandroland don't belong to me either, and despite sharing a town with reindeer herders I own no reindeer whatsoever.
This is a revised and properly proofread version of the first chapter. Thanks to LadyMoondancer for all her invaluable help! I intend to revise all chapters like this, but is of course limited by the time my proofreaders have, if any. My primary goal is to continue with new chapters, as correct as possible from the start.