Go West, Young Mare

by JohnPerry

Chapter 1: Go West

The mustard-yellow pegasus sat on a hard metal bench, her back to a large glass window as she looked around at the gleaming airport terminal surrounding her. Past the window, the field behind her was alive with activity; earth ponies pulling baggage carts and pegasi in orange jumpsuits moved to and fro beneath the rows of airships looming over the terminal. Painted in bright primary colors and prominent brand names, each of the massive blimps were tied down by cables to tall masts that looked flimsy in comparison. And as she took in her surroundings, Daring Do mentally noted that thirty years ago she would have considered this impossible.

What airship travel had been in Daring’s youth was very different from what it was today. Her mind flashed to memories of airship trips past, where each journey was a struggle for survival. Perhaps she would be out in a storm trying to do an emergency patch job on the balloon envelope, cursing the fierce wind and torrential rain as she tried not to get struck by lightning. On some flights there was also the danger of succumbing to hypothermia in the thin, chilly air of high altitudes, fighting off sky pirates over the Barbary Mountains, or trying desperately to bring her ship under control before the air currents sent it crashing into the jungles of Mahaysia. Airship travel was once risky, with every trip posing new and unique threats to life and limb.

Now as she sat in the brand new terminal building, Daring watched smartly dressed pilots and stewards trot past colts and fillies eagerly pressing their faces against the windows or elderly ponies dozing in their chairs, who would be awoken from their slumber by the loud announcements piped in over the speaker system. Regular travelers sat in their seats, frowning at the newspapers held within their hooves and occasionally glancing at their watches. Each gate to the outside held the name of a different Equestrian city, and even a few outside of Equestria; all of the world’s destinations at one’s choosing, and all you had to do was pick a door. Airship travel was safer, cleaner, more convenient, and far more accessible to the average Equestrian today.

Daring Do also couldn’t help but feel that some of the charm had been lost.

She turned her head from side to side, loosening a crick in her neck. There was a pop, a noise she was becoming increasingly used to as of late. She tried to stretch her wings, too, and winced when the joints beneath her feathers flared with pain. She quickly retracted her wings, willing herself to ignore the pain.

“Welcome to Fillydelphia Skyport,” the overhead loudspeaker announced. “For your safety, please do not leave your personal belongings unattended. The time is now eight-fifteen. The local weather is clear skies with no wind; perfect conditions for flying.”

Daring slumped in her seat, resting her cheek against her hoof. This time tomorrow, she would be either sitting in her office at Canterlot University or lounging around her apartment. Whichever it was, she knew she wouldn’t be there for long; the capital city never held Daring’s interest. The university was always more than willing to send their star archaeologist to a conference or some excavation.

She pictured herself entering her office tomorrow, greeted by her assistant Pencil Pusher. As always, he would give her that awkward grin and ask her how her trip went before offering to take her bag. Depending on her mood, Daring would either politely decline or wordlessly drop the bag on the desk in front of him before collapsing on the sofa.

As always, Pencil Pusher would take it all in stride. He’s not half-bad looking either, she mused, stroking her chin before sitting up with a start. Good grief. What are you thinking, Daring? He’s barely even half your age!

She groaned and placed a forehoof to her face, pressing against the bridge of her muzzle and then rubbing at her eyes. Two hours she had spent in this forsaken terminal, and she still had three more to wait until her connecting flight departed. At one time, she might have just ripped up her ticket and started flying to Canterlot herself. But she couldn’t do that now.

Or maybe she could. Maybe her wings were just acting up earlier. If she stretched them again—

Ow. Nope, that’s not happening.

“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”

Snapped out of her thoughts, Daring looked up into the smiling face of a mare about her own age, gesturing at the empty seat besides the pegasus. Despite her graying mane and thin wrinkles, her eyes sparkled with an energy presently lacking in Daring.

“Oh, no, go ahead,” Daring mumbled, scooting across the bench to allow the mare more room.

The stranger sat down and gave Daring a pleasant smile. “Long trip, eh?”

Daring placed the mare’s accent from northern Equestria; it had that folksy, singsong quality that conveyed pleasantness and charm, a far cry from Daring’s weary mood.

“Huh? Oh, yeah,” Daring answered, rubbing her eyes. “Business trip.”

“Yah, you look it. So where’s home for you?”

“Home is…” Daring paused. “Uh… Canterlot, I guess. But I don’t spend much time there.”

“I was going to say, you don’t really have a Canterlot accent.”

“Yeah,” Daring said with a wry grin. “I move around a lot.”

“Oh yah, I can sympathize with that,” the mare answered. “My husband and I travel so much it seems like I never see him these days.”

“That sounds rough.”

“Well, I suppose, but it’s nice to know that no matter where we are, we still have each other,” the mare offered. “Like my husband always says, home is where the heart is.”

“Hmm,” Daring murmured, staring down at the floor. No more words were exchanged as the stranger opened her bag and occupied herself with a ball of yarn and a pair of knitting needles. Daring didn’t look up, resting her cheek on her forehoof and imagining the scene that would play out tomorrow.

“Hello, Professor Do,” Pencil Pusher said, grinning up at Daring from behind his desk. As always, he wore a button-up shirt and tucked collar, rising to his hooves as he went on, “How was the conference? Do you want me to take your bag?”

Daring dropped her bag on Pencil’s desk without a word. She had eyes only for the plush couch in the corner, collapsing into its soft, yielding form. She groaned as her limbs sank into the cushions.

“The conference was dull, the trip was boring, and I’m still sore all over,” she grumbled, absentmindedly rubbing at her joints. She glanced over at Pencil Pusher, who was carefully hanging Daring’s canvas bag on a rack behind the desk. “And before I start sounding like an old, ungrateful mare, let me thank you for taking my bag.”

“You’re not old,” Pencil replied, sitting back at his desk and flashing Daring a quick smile.

“I’m old enough,” she muttered, throwing her head back on the cushion and glancing over at a mirror hanging on the opposite wall. An exhausted looking mare, wrinkling around the eyes and with thinning mane, looked back at her. Her once grayscale mane was nearly white in places, dull and lacking the vibrancy of youth. “When you start reminiscing for the days when you could leave town without feeling like a sack of bricks, you know you’re old.”

“Some mail came for you while you were gone,” Pencil said, wisely sidestepping the conversation at hoof. “You got a couple of newsletters from the department–“

“Toss ‘em on my desk. I’ll read them later.”

“A package from the Saddle Arabian ambassador, which has a letter of appreciation for your services at last month’s archaeological dig, as well as some Arabian cooking spices…”

“Put the spices in my bag and send him back a thank you note.”

“An invitation to a formal party at the Blueblood mansion–“

“Oh good, an excuse to leave town.”

“Uh, let’s see… there was a little filly who sent a letter saying she’s your biggest fan, she included a cute drawing of you and her exploring a temple, and she wants to know if you’ll sign her copy of Daring Do and the Griffon’s Goblet.”

“Pencil, we’ve talked about this,” Daring replied, turning towards her assistant and giving him a level stare. “No autographs without cash up front. Five bits at least.”

Pencil was silent for a moment, his mouth just slightly agape. “…Uh, I…”

“I’m just messing with you, Pencil.” Daring cracked a smile for the first time since entering the room. “An old mare’s gotta get her kicks somehow. Leave the book on my desk; I’ll sign it when I get the chance.”

Pencil remained smiling as he rolled his eyes. “And lastly, you got… actually, I’m not sure what this is. It smells kinda funny, so I didn’t think I should open it.”

Daring glanced over at Pencil to see him delicately holding up a brown package for her to see. She rose from the couch and walked to the desk, taking the package into her hooves. She lowered her head and took a sniff, picking up a sweet aroma from the package.

“I know this smell…” Daring murmured. “But where have I–“

She stopped as something in her mind clicked into place. Sand. She distinctly remembered sand. There was warmth. A vast sky. The touch of coarse fur. The taste of dust on her tongue. Smoke. Not thick, choking smoke, but sweet and soothing. Great expanses of small, scrubby bushes upon the sandy earth…

“That’s sagebrush!” Daring exclaimed. “Good grief, I haven’t smelled this stuff in ages. Who would be sending me this?” She glanced at the top of the package, seeing only the print of a very wide, cloven hoof where the return address would normally be.

She gripped one end of the package between her teeth and tore it open before emptying the contents onto Pencil’s desk. A few bundles of sagebrush, tightly wrapped with string, tumbled out. With them was a woven band, folded on its side with the root of a long eagle feather woven into the fabric so that it stood out of one end. Daring stared at the band, slowly unfolding it on the table to reveal a note hidden within the fold of the fabric. She snatched it up and began to read.

After a long, silent moment, Daring lowered the note, revealing a somber expression to her assistant.

“Professor Do?” he asked in a wary tone. “Is everything alright?”

“Pencil, could you let the department know I’m going out of town for a while?” She was already turning away from her assistant, throwing the note and the feathered band into her bag before pulling it off the rack.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“West,” Daring answered, striding out the door.

As Daring stepped off the train, the first thing that struck her was the dryness. Santa Hay, one of the oldest settlements in Equestria’s vast western reaches, was nestled between a range of tall, deep blue mountains on one side and the rolling hills of desert scrubland on the other. Compared to Canterlot, the air here was thin, light, and arid. Daring inhaled deeply, picking up the faint scent of sagebrush on the breeze.

Where Canterlot’s shining spires stood tall, in defiance of the sheer cliffs and the precarious perch on which they sat, the buildings of Santa Hay seemed to hug the earth. Short, humble structures of wood and dried mud dotted the valley, reaching up into the foothills of the mountains to the east. But even here there were signs of recent outside influence: stately structures of stone, brick, and wood crowded around the train station, standing tall over their older, adobe-clad counterparts.

The station itself was little to speak of; a long, bare platform stretched along the tracks, with the station building being a small adobe structure with a covered porch beneath a slanted roof of red shingles. In the shade of the porch, protected from the harsh sun, a group of ponies, mules, and buffalo sat on the floor. Spread out before them were blankets and rugs covered with jewelry, clay pots, decorative feathers, and other trinkets, which were soon exchanged for bits to the tourists who now crowded around them.

Daring lifted a forehoof and tugged at the collar of her green vest, trying to air out the sweaty coat beneath her clothes. Daring glanced around, shifting her weight from one hoof to the other. Alone with a heavy bag slung over her shoulder and in a town she barely recognized, feelings of doubt began to creep into her mind.

“Daring Do!”

Her concerns evaporated the instant she heard her name. She turned, expecting to see a familiar face, but there was none to be found. It took her a moment to notice the buffalo pushing through the crowd towards her.

“Hello, Daring!” the buffalo said warmly. From the high pitch of the buffalo’s voice, Daring could tell it was a female. She was of average size, with an orange, bushy coat, and wearing the typical headband of the local buffalo tribes, with two eagle feathers sticking prominently out the back.

“Err, hello,” Daring said, raising a hoof to shake the buffalo’s. “Sorry, have we met?”

The buffalo’s smile only grew wider. “Daring, it’s me! Little Strongheart!”

“Little–“ Daring started as the buffalo before her suddenly came into recognition, her features jogging her memory: the shape of her face, the way she held herself, the sparkle in her eyes. “Good heavens, it is you! Sorry, I didn’t recognize…” She paused before grinning and pulling Strongheart in a tight hug. “Look how much you’ve grown!”

“Heh, I don’t think I had all this fur last time you saw me,” Strongheart said. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”

Daring’s smile faded. “How’s Thunderhooves?”

Strongheart began leading Daring off the platform, her eyes downcast. “He’s… he’s holding on, but he’s definitely nearing the end. All we can really do is try to make it as painless as we can.”

“I see… and why does Thunderhooves want to see me?”

“You should ask him that.” Strongheart pointed a hoof towards the rolling hills on the horizon. “The camp is about a day’s trek to the west of here, although you can probably fly it much quicker than that. I could show you where it is on a map, if you like.”

Daring paused, looking back at her wings as she spread them, slowly extending the feathers on each appendage to their full length. Though the gesture didn’t hurt this time, there was still a soreness in her joints. She grimaced and quickly retracted her wings. “Err… no, that’s okay. I’d rather walk.”

“Are you sure?” Strongheart asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Positive.” Daring strode forward, leading the way off the platform and onto the nearest street, with Strongheart soon falling in step beside her.

The pair walked down the street in silence, with Daring glancing around to take in her surroundings. Despite the street being narrow, it was crowded with traffic; simple wooden carts loaded with supplies, covered wagons, and elaborate carriages moved to and fro among the many ponies, mules, and buffalo walking in the street. Daring watched as a small herd of buffalo, four or five strong, cleared a path in the middle of the street by virtue of their size. The space behind them was quickly filled in by street traffic.

“I don’t remember Santa Hay being this crowded,” Daring noted.

Strongheart nodded. “All the pony settlements in these lands have been growing. With so many newcomers, it gets harder and harder figuring out where all these ponies can build houses and farms. And then come the businesses, and the schools, and then more ponies, and more houses and farms to support them, and on and on. We try to hang on to our old stampeding grounds as much as possible, but it’s difficult. Some of the younger buffalo are even giving up the old ways and taking up the pony life.”

“Are they, now?”

“Well, I can’t say I blame them. There’s a lot of opportunity and excitement in the cities. Though we have some mixed feelings about the things they bring.” She pointed at something in the distance.

Daring followed the direction of her hoof and started at what she saw. On a slope overlooking the city was a huge blotch of sickly green, in sharp contrast to the yellows and tans of the scrubland surrounding it. It looked to Daring like some kind of mold, spreading across the landscape like an infection.

“What the hay is that?!

Strongheart offered Daring a wry grin. “That is what I believe you ponies refer to as a ‘golf course.’”

Daring, mouth agape, glanced between the buffalo and this alien feature on the landscape. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

Thunderhooves’ tribe was, by its nature, a nomadic one that typically lived in teepees. So when Daring and Strongheart crested a hill and looked over into the isolated valley where their camp was, it was to Daring’s surprise that some semi-permanent structures had been erected. In the middle of the small village, surrounded by teepees and a few small adobe buildings, sat a large, circular earthen hut with a thatched roof. Smoke billowed from a hole in the top, while the dark forms of buffalo lumbered between the structures. A small creek ran by one side of the village, while a tall mesa of red rock towered over the settlement on the other side.

The desert seemed to stretch out forever around them, with the trees growing along the creek forming a thin ribbon of green in a sea of red rock and sand. Flat-topped mesas punctuated the landscape, rising high above the rolling hills and plains. In the distance, a ridge of mountains glowed pink in the light of the setting sun. A stiff breeze raced across the desert, and Daring felt her mane whipping at her face and tasted dirt on her tongue. In the vast expanse surrounding her, no sign of pony settlement lay in sight.

Daring and Strongheart slowly wound their way down the slope towards the village. As they approached, many of the buffalo below took notice and waved, some calling out Strongheart’s name in greeting. The closer they got, the more aware Daring became that she was an outsider here, perhaps the only pony around for miles. She instinctively moved closer to Strongheart, feeling the curious looks of the villagers on her.

Strongheart glanced sideways at the pegasus before chuckling. “The way you act, it’s as if you’ve never met buffalo.”

“I haven’t been here for a long time. As far as most of you are concerned, I might as well have never been here in the first place.”

“I don’t know, Daring. To hear Thunderhooves talk, it sounds like you were almost one of us. I think the tribe’s gonna look up to you.”

Daring stiffened. “I’m not sure I deserve that kind of respect.”

She followed Strongheart across the shallow stream, where a group of young buffalo were laughing and splashing in the water. At the sight of the newcomers, they ran up to Strongheart and started whispering excitedly, stealing glimpses at Daring. The pegasus grimaced and continued into the village, keeping her head lowered and her gaze on Strongheart’s hooves just ahead of her. Her heart began pounding in anticipation of what she knew lay ahead.

After a while, the hooves of Strongheart suddenly stopped and Daring nearly crashed into her. She looked up to find herself standing before the earthen hut in the middle of the village. A thick woolen blanket, woven in an intricate pattern, hung over the entrance. Strongheart turned to look at Daring, silently gesturing towards the blanket and nodding.

Daring tensed, steeling herself for what lay within before pulling back the blanket and stepping inside. The coarse fibers of the blanket brushed against her skin as it fell back into place, and she inhaled the sweet, fragrant scent of burning sagebrush. The interior was dimly lit, with only a thin shaft of light from the smoke hole above cutting through the darkness. Daring felt soft earth beneath her hooves and could see smoke drifting in the shaft of light. As her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, she could also begin to make out the form of something massive lying on the floor across the room.

“Speak softly,” a voice suddenly spoke. Daring whipped around to see another buffalo sitting on the side of the room, sitting on the floor and surrounded by various bowls of herbal concoctions. His tone was gentle, but in the stillness of the hut his rumbling voice seemed booming. “He is resting.”

The buffalo grabbed one of the medicine bowls within his mouth and carried it over to the still form of Thunderhooves. Daring slowly approached, watching his form slowly rise and fall with his heavy breathing. “How is he?”

“Hmmm… he is very weak, but still of sound mind,” the buffalo rumbled, tipping the bowl to sprinkle a yellow powder over Thunderhooves’ hide. “This is the most dangerous time for him. Much like vultures, the evil spirits circle, waiting for death to come. They must be warded off or the soul will be taken.”

“My spirit is strong, old friend. I will not be taken so easily.”

Daring started at the sound of Thunderhooves’ deep, gravelly voice. She looked down to see his form slowly shifting on the blanket he lay upon. Daring slowly walked around him to face his front, and gazed into the stern, wizened face of the buffalo chief. The corner of his lips curled upward upon seeing her.

“Hello, Daring Do.”

Daring put on a brave smile and nodded. “Hello, Thunderhooves. It’s good to see you again, though I wish it had been under better circumstances.”

His grin became wry. “Ah, you must excuse me. I would stand up for you if I had my old energy. It would seem that my age has finally caught up to me. But you… as ever, your beauty betrays your wisdom.”

The pegasus snorted. “And as ever, your politeness betrays your stubbornness.”

Thunderhooves chuckled, a deep, mirthful sound that came to an end all too soon. “I’ve missed you dearly, Daring Do. I’m grateful you were able to make the journey here.”

A small smile crept across Daring’s face. “Thunderhooves, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”

“Are you kidding?! I wouldn’t miss this for the world!”

A young mustard-colored filly, her messy mane jet black and her face alit with enthusiasm, led a young buffalo through a steep, narrow red rock canyon. The buffalo, a bulky young male with a feathered headband, followed her at a distance, looking warily around at the canyon walls.

“Daring, I’m not sure this is safe,” the young buffalo mumbled. “Talltail always told me that buffalo shouldn’t go near those ruins. He says angry spirits live there.”

“That’s what makes it so thrilling!” the filly exclaimed, practically squealing. “Come on, you’re with me!” She hopped over to the buffalo, wrapping a forehoof around his neck and gesturing at the narrow canyon with her other hoof. “Daring Do and Thunderhooves, adventure extraordinaires, on an epic quest of danger and discovery!”

Thunderhooves glanced sideways at her. “Are all ponies as strange as you?”

“Oh, hush,” Daring muttered, propping her hoof on his shoulder and pushing herself away from him. “Come on, we can be treasure hunters! We’ll explore old cities, just like in my stories!”

Thunderhooves cocked an eyebrow at Daring as she continued up the canyon, occasionally scrambling over a huge boulder. “What kind of pegasus spends more time underground than in the air?”

Daring threw a look over her shoulder at him. “Well, how many pegasi have you met?”

“Uh… well, there’s you, and… uh… your father, and… uh…” Thunderhooves rubbed the back of his neck. “I think I saw one at the trading post once. And… that’s it.”

“Exactly,” Daring said, sticking her tongue out at the buffalo. She then turned around and hopped down the other side of the boulder, disappearing from sight. Thunderhooves stood in place for a moment before snorting in frustration and galloping around the boulder, clambering across the rocky streambed. The sharp sound of his hooves impacting stone echoed off the steep canyon walls, ringing in the still air.

He rounded a bend in the canyon, spying a clearing ahead where the canyon widened and the light of the sun managed to reach the ground. “Daring!”

“Up here!” she shouted back. Thunderhooves looked and saw the dark yellow speck that was Daring standing atop a tall boulder in the clearing. “Look!”

Thunderhooves stepped into the clearing and turned in the direction Daring was facing. It didn’t take long for him to spot what had grabbed her attention: half-way up the cliff, on a narrow perch protected from the elements, was a section of stone wall jutting into the air, clearly worn down from the ages. A couple of ancient wooden beams protruded from near the top of the wall, the only remnant of the roof it had once held up.

“The ruins of an ancient civilization!” Daring exclaimed. “We found it!”

“All I see is a bunch of stones,” Thunderhooves said. “I thought there’d be more.”

“We probably have to excavate it first. That’s what mom said the archaeologists at her school do when they find a new ruin.” She began flapping her wings, gently rising up the cliff. “Come on!”

The buffalo frowned at the steep, narrow path – more of a sandy wash than a trail – that wound up the slope. He started climbing and narrowly avoided slipping on the smooth rock. “I don’t understand how buffalo were even supposed to live here.”

“I know! I bet they had to be really nimble to get up here.”

A few moments passed in silence as Thunderhooves slowly made his way up the shallow hoof holds in the rock face while Daring quietly waited for him above. After a while, the buffalo spoke. “So which tribe do you come from?”

“Oh, I’m not from a tribe,” Daring answered. “Ponies don’t really have tribes. …Well, not that I know of, anyway.”

Thunderhooves took a moment to process this. “Then where is your family from?”

“Um…” Daring waved her hoof around in the air, as if indicating multiple directions at once. “Here and there. I think my dad was born in Cloudsdale, but I’ve never lived there, I’ve only seen it.”

“Where are you from?”

“Well… my parents have studied a lot of cultures, so we’ve moved around a lot. So… lots of places?” She landed atop a small perch and put a hoof to her chin. “I guess I don’t know.”

Thunderhooves glanced down at his hooves as he continued climbing. “My tribe moves around a lot, but we always go to the same places. And we always stay together.”

“I’d like to be in a tribe,” Daring said. “It’s always just me, mom, and dad. I usually never have anyone to go adventuring with.”

The buffalo looked up at the pegasus. “Well… do you want to be in my tribe?”

“Yeah!” Daring exclaimed, grinning down at Thunderhooves. “That’d be great! We could go on adventures together all the time! After all, explorers should never work alone!”

Thunderhooves was now smiling himself. He looked up and found himself just below the perch where the stone wall sat. With a couple quick bounds, he was able to clamber up the path and pull himself over the edge where Daring stood. Both of them were now standing in the shadow of the cliff, looking up at the crumbling stone wall looming over them.

“Wow… I bet no one’s seen this in centuries!” Daring exclaimed, her voice echoing off the cliff walls. “Just think, we’re probably the first ones to set hoof here since it was abandoned!”

“I just can’t believe I fell for Talltail’s stories,” Thunderhooves added. “’Angry spirits,’ my–“

There was a rustle from behind the stone wall, loud enough that both Daring and Thunderhooves jumped and quickly backed away. A few moments passed before there was another rustle and the sound of something scraping against the stone. The two waited in breathless silence, frozen in place and never for a second tearing their eyes away from the wall. The scraping resumed, louder than ever.

“What is it?” Daring hissed. Thunderhooves, for his part, appeared to be too terrified to speak.

There was a sudden flurry of motion atop the wall, causing both Daring and Thunderhooves to let out a cry of alarm and dive for the ground. When they looked up, they saw what seemed to be a mass of black and white feathers glaring at them.

“Wait, it’s an eagle!” Daring yelled. Both of them climbed to their hooves, looking at the bald eagle that now stood atop the wall, its piercing yellow eyes scanning them, its feathers ruffled, and its wings outstretched to their full length. It stared down at the pegasus and buffalo before it, letting out a loud squawk.

“It sounds angry,” Thunderhooves added. “Maybe this is its nest.”

“It’s just a bird,” Daring scoffed. “What can it–WAH!” Without warning, the eagle dove at the pegasus, letting out a series of shrill squawks as it did so. Daring tried to duck under the nearest available cover, which in this instance was Thunderhooves. The buffalo was knocked off balance, leaving both rolling on the ground and exposed to the bird’s wrath.

What followed was a confused haze of scrambling, running, tumbling, squawking, yelling, and feathers. When it was all over, Daring and Thunderhooves found themselves back at the bottom of the cliff, now covered in scratches and trying to catch their breath. The eagle had retreated back to its nest within the ruin, leaving the pegasus and the buffalo alone in the canyon.

For a moment, the two only stared at each other, silent save for their heavy breathing. Thunderhooves glared at Daring until he noticed that she had gotten the worst of it; her scratches were more numerous, she had bruises from when she had tripped over a rock in their rush to escape, and there were many feathers, pegasus and eagle alike, clinging to her coat.

Yet despite her injuries, she was vibrating with excitement. “That… was… incredible!” she squealed, her enthusiasm literally lifting her spirit as her wings carried her off the ground. Several feathers became dislodged from her coat and floated to the ground. “Oh my gosh, did you see that?! It was just like in my stories! There was a lost city, and an angry guard, and lots of running! And Thunderhooves, that was amazing when you jumped up at that eagle and the eagle went ‘squawk!’ and backed off so we could escape!”

“That happened?” the buffalo mumbled. “I don’t remember doing that.”

“It was amazing!” Daring landed in front of Thunderhooves and grinned broadly. She then looked down at the ground, her smile fading. “Too bad there wasn’t any treasure though. I wish I had something to show mom and dad.”

Thunderhooves put a hoof to his chin, frowning slightly as he looked down at the feathers lying on the ground. After a moment, he reached out with a forehoof and picked up a long eagle feather, easily the largest of those on the ground, and smoothed it out. He then stepped up to Daring, who was watching with interest, and stuck the feather in the back of her mane so that it stood straight up. Daring reached up with her hoof to feel where the feather was, realizing it mirrored the long feather in the back of Thunderhooves’ headband.

Thunderhooves beamed. “There’s your treasure.”

Daring’s eyes flew open, though it took her a while to place her surroundings. She was lying on her back, looking up at the conical form of the teepee around her. The canvas seemed to glow a pale blue, illuminated in the pre-dawn light, with the hole in the roof revealing the morning twilight. A pair of stars still shone in the clear heavens above, despite the brightening sky. Her ears twitched, catching the multitude of chirps, squawks, and songs of birds that rang through the still air, announcing the coming of the new day.

She rolled over onto her side and found herself staring at the old headband with the eagle feather, now sitting atop her canvas bag. Daring pulled her forehooves out of her sleeping bag and took the headband, feeling the loose, frayed weaving of the fabric between her hooves. She held the band close, her eyes recognizing the familiar, sloppy work of her own inexperienced hooves.

Daring rose out of her sleeping bag, taking the headband in her mouth as she stood up on her hooves, and walked out of the teepee. She stepped out into the cool morning air and looked around, spotting the smoldering embers of a pit fire still glowing orange in the dim light. Loud snoring rumbled from within a nearby teepee, mingling with the birdsong. Daring stretched her limbs, unfolding her wings to their full extent for a second before trotting towards the stream at the edge of the village.

The stream was narrow, easily narrow enough to jump across without getting one’s hooves wet, where the water babbled as it passed over a rocky streambed. A short ways further on, however, it widened into a shallow pool where the water was more still. Daring gently set the headband on a nearby boulder and walked up to the pool, slowly placing her forehoof in the water and feeling a shock of cold go up her leg. The pool was shallow, the water barely reaching past her fetlock. She stood in place, watching the ripples distort her reflection before stepping in fully, shivering from the chilly water.

Daring took a deep breath and thrust her face into the water, soaking her mane thoroughly before immediately pulling her head back out, gasping from the cold. She jumped around in the pool, splashing water on her coat, then quickly leapt back onto the shore. Daring hurriedly shook the water off before extending her wings and turning to face the eastern horizon, closing her eyes and feeling the warm rays of the rising sun on her feathers.

She breathed deeply for a few moments, inhaling and exhaling slowly, before finally opening her eyes and flapping her wings to shake off the last few droplets of water. The headband still awaited her where she had left it; Daring sat down beside it on the boulder, picking the band up in her hooves and examining it closely again. The old eagle feather was worn and dusty, its color faded from the years. Daring lifted it onto her head, pulling the band over her mane. She looked down at her reflection in the surface of the pool, trying to adjust the band so that the feather was centered in the back.

Below the band? she thought, messing with her bangs. No, above it. That’s how I wore it as a filly. She pulled her bangs out so that they hung in front of the band. But that just looks sloppy… now I see what mom was fussing over.

“Good morning!” someone called out from behind Daring. She turned to see Little Strongheart approaching, smiling broadly. “Looks like the rising sun has been kind to you today.”

“That concoction you gave me has been kind to me.” Daring extended her wings again, stretching out her limbs. “I haven’t felt this good in ages.”

“That’s what we’ve been giving Thunderhooves, to help him with the pain,” Strongheart answered, stepping into the pool with ease despite the chilly water. “I love the headband, by the way.”

The pegasus shrugged, waving a hoof towards her headwear. “Oh, you know… When in Roam, right? Honestly, I had forgotten this thing existed. Thank you for hanging on to it.”

“You should thank Thunderhooves; he’s the one who kept it safe.” Strongheart stepped out of the pool, her shaggy coat now dripping wet. “It looks good on you. Though I admit, I was expecting you’d be wearing that white hat you wore last time I saw you.”

“Oh, the pith helmet? Pfft, I lost that thing years ago. Wouldn’t you know, it survived countless adventures, yet it was a trip through the baggage handlers that did it in. I never even bothered trying to replace it.” She reached up and pulled off the headband. “I don’t tend to get attached to objects. I just give them to museums.”

Before the stampeding, every member of the tribe climbs to the top of the mesa. There, they give thanks to the land for gifting them with food, water, and the means for shelter, and ask the winds to safely guide them on the journey to come.

The importance of the stampede to the buffalo is difficult to overstate. In these arid lands, a buffalo tribe must cover a wide area in order to find enough sustenance to survive. The stampede can act as a sign of force to predators or enemies, and serves to unite the tribe and engender a sense of community. But beyond the practical benefits, the stampede also holds spiritual and cultural significance to the buffalo. It is commonly believed amongst buffalo that the stampede drives the wind and replenishes the soil. In many stories, it was a stampede that created the universe, and buffalo who don’t stampede turn to stone. The thought of a stampede being impeded, even partially, is a terrible one for a buffalo to consider. They are used to the wide open expanse of the western lands, where seemingly nothing contains the mighty stampede.

“What do you think?” Daring asked, looking up from the notebook she had been reading from. Now a young adult mare, her mane had faded from the jet black of a filly into a spectrum of grey. But it was as messy as ever, dancing in the wind despite the feathered headband sitting atop it.

“It’s… fine,” Thunderhooves rumbled, shrugging. He too now showed the signs of adulthood: he now sported a thick, shaggy coat, and the tips of what would surely one day be two massive horns had begun growing out the sides of his skull. The two of them were sitting at the edge of a steep red rock mesa, overlooking a village of teepees below.

“Fine? Just… ‘fine?’ What’s wrong with it?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” the buffalo said hurriedly. “I think it’s quite good.”

“Well, something must be up,” Daring insisted. “Come on, I’m trying to finish mom and dad’s research here. I need to know what’s wrong.”

“There’s nothing wrong. Everything you wrote is true. It just… It still doesn’t quite capture what a stampede means. It’s difficult to put into words.”

“Well, I did say that the importance is difficult to overstate.”

“Then I suppose that will do. I wish I could help, but you know I’m not good with words.” Thunderhooves paused, rubbing a hoof over his chin. “The stampede is something you have to feel. You have to be a part of it to know what it truly is.”

“Well, it’s not like that’s going to happen, being a pony and all,” Daring said with a shrug.

They watched as down in the village below, several buffalo pulled down the big teepee of the chief and folded it away. From the mesa, Daring and Thunderhooves could see the rolling hills of the landscape stretch out seemingly forever, until only the curvature of the planet impeded their view. The sun hung low over the western horizon, slowly sinking behind the mountains in the distance.

“It’s hard to believe it’s finally coming to an end,” Daring mused. “This time tomorrow, I’ll be heading back to Canterlot and you’ll be stampeding west. I was starting to think I’d be here forever.”

“Would that be so bad?” Thunderhooves asked.

Daring cocked an eyebrow at the buffalo. “What do you mean?”

“I mean…” Thunderhooves frowned. “You’re leaving home. It may be years before we see each other again. Why is this something to celebrate?”

“Home? I was only here in the first place because my parents wanted to study buffalo. I was never going to stay once the research was done.”

“I would have thought you had come to think of this place as your home.”

This place?” Daring scoffed, gesturing to the landscape. “There’s nothing here for me. Why would I stay here when there’s a whole world out there to explore?”

Thunderhooves stomped a hoof on the ground, snorting. “So you live with buffalo, write your notes about buffalo, and then give them to a university and leave at the first chance you get?”

“Why are you angry about this?” Daring cried, leaping to her hooves. “Every time I try to talk to you about my research lately, you get like this! This is an incredible opportunity for me! Everyone else is happy for me, why aren’t you?”

“Why should I be happy when I am losing you?” Thunderhooves retorted. “You turn your back on the tribe just to go on adventures–“

“Don’t you bring the tribe into this! No one else in the tribe acts this way, only you!” She jabbed a hoof into the buffalo’s chest to emphasize the point. “You, and you alone!”

Thunderhooves was silent, his mouth hanging open for a moment before he closed it and swallowed, turning his gaze to the ground. “I have not been able to say what I truly feel. You know I’m not good with words.”

He reached out and took one of Daring’s forehooves in his own. “I hoped that you felt the same way about me that I do about you.”

Daring stood in silence, her eyes widening and her words caught in her throat as she let Thunderhooves hold her hoof. She bit her lip, looking down at his hoof gently cradling hers as realization slowly washed over her.

The sun set behind the horizon with the two remaining in place, not moving save for the buffalo’s gentle embrace. Eventually, Daring pulled her hoof out of his. She opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Without glancing up at him, she turned and began walking down to the village, leaving Thunderhooves alone.

“I still sometimes think about that day on the mesa,” Daring said, sitting beside Thunderhooves in the smoke-filled hut. She was looking down at her hooves, tracing circles in the earthen floor. “Do you still remember it?”

“Hmm… indeed I do,” Thunderhooves rumbled. “I regret my words that day. I was a selfish child, unworthy of my horns.”

Daring looked over at him, her eyebrows raised. “I was actually going to apologize for what I did. I must have broken your heart, and I was too wrapped up in the idea of getting out and exploring the world to even care.”

Thunderhooves shook his head. “Hearts mend, given time. But it was wrong for me to assume you were happy where you were. The thought that I wanted you to be unhappy, just for my benefit, sickens me now.”

“I think you were right about something, though.” Daring bit her lip, looking back down at her hooves. “I left home that day. In fact, I didn’t just leave home, I gave up a home that day.”

Thunderhooves frowned, looking intently at Daring. “I don’t understand. Did you not find what you were seeking? Didn’t you wish for a life of adventure?”

“The funny thing about adventure is that it sounds really neat in the abstract,” Daring answered. “But it’s no way to live your life. Oh, there were fun times, and treasure hunting was a hoot when I started, but… I can’t say I was happy doing it. Eventually it became a chore. I had to do it, or some mythical creature of the ages was going to enslave a kingdom or take over the world. And heaven forbid I run into one of my fans.”

She sighed and rested her cheek on her forehoof. “Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had chosen to stay.”

“I imagine the world would have been dealt a great disservice. Every buffalo and pony alike owes you a debt of gratitude for the many deeds you have done.”

“Still, in all my traveling you’d think I would have tried to at least make some friends on the way. But nope, I always had to do it alone. That was me: too restless to stay in one place, too stubborn to accept any help.”

“It sounds like you are more a buffalo than a pony,” Thunderhooves said with a chuckle.

Daring cocked her head to one side, giving her old friend a bemused smile. “How do you mean?”

“My father once told me that ponies are like trees. You plant them, and they set down roots and refuse to leave, and get sick if you try to move them. But buffalo… buffalo are like the wind: always moving, always pressing forward. We are like the storm, thundering across the land. Our presence is always felt.

“And much like the trees in the wind,” he went on, now grinning, “ponies tend to make a lot of noise when we show up.”

Daring laughed, sharing in Thunderhooves’ good spirits. An easy silence fell between the two of them as Daring slowly inhaled the fragrant smoke that filled the hut. “You know, after everything that happened between us, I’m surprised you still invited me back.”

“Well, I must admit that my intentions were not entirely pure. Even while I knew it was impossible, I never entirely gave up hope that you would adore me as I adore you.” Thunderhooves smiled, his eyes twinkling. “A fool’s hope, I am aware, but as you so well know, I am stubborn.”

Daring shook her head, smiling all the while. She reached out and took one of Thunderhooves’ forehooves into her own, stroking it tenderly as the buffalo fell asleep.

“Welcome home, Daring Do.”

“You’re looking well, Chief Thunderhooves.”

Night had fallen on the desert plains. Daring, clad in an olive green vest and wearing a canvas bag over her back, stepped forward within the circle of buffalo closely watching her. The village, a moment before stirring with activity, had become still at the arrival of this newcomer. As they watched, Daring pulled off her pith helmet and set it in her bag, replacing it with the feathered headband. Thunderhooves smiled at the sight.

“This pony,” he announced to the assembled villagers, “is a friend to all buffalo. Treat her like one.”

Many of the villagers nodded or made grunts of approval. Thunderhooves turned and stepped inside the big teepee behind him, followed shortly by Daring.

“I hope the patrol treated you well,” Thunderhooves rumbled.

“Well, once you got over the surprise of being ‘captured,’ they were quite amicable. That Strongheart is a nice kid; she even seemed apologetic for the whole thing.”

“Have you been sent here to try and stop me from waging war? I’m afraid you will not find me easy to convince.”

Daring shook her head. “I come here at my own choosing. This isn’t a diplomatic mission, and no one sent me.” She took a step forward. “But I am here to try to convince you not to do something incredibly stupid.”

Thunderhooves snorted. “Do not think I make this decision lightly. But these ponies insist on continuing to block our stampeding grounds. We have no other options.”

“Thunderhooves, this isn’t going to work. If you declare war on the settlers, you’ll make an enemy out of Equestria. And that is not a safe place to be.”

“And what other choice do we have? The ponies will not listen to reason! They take our stampeding grounds as their own and expect us to accept it? Never!” He stomped his hoof on the ground with such force that it caused the teepee canvas around them to shake. “If they see fit to take what is ours, we shall take what is theirs! We shall raid their iron carriages! We shall take the trees they defile our land with!”

“Thunder, I’m on your side here!” Daring yelled. “But nopony is going to take kindly to raids on a bunch of stupid farmers who don’t know what they’re doing.”

“If you are with us, then join us.” Thunderhooves’ tone grew gentler. “The ponies admire you for your deeds. They may listen to you where they ignore us.”

Daring frowned. “You say ‘the ponies’ as if I am not one.”

“You are of this land, are you not?”

“I’m not ‘of’ anywhere,” Daring growled. “I don’t work for anyone, and I’m not going to be a warrior in someone else’s cause. And I’m sorry you were always too thick to figure that out.”

Thunderhooves glared at the pegasus for a moment, then closed his eyes and sighed. “You came all this way. Are you sure you will not help us?”

Daring reached up and pulled off her headband, tossing it on the floor in front of Thunderhooves. “I’m sorry.” She pulled out her pith helmet, placing it on her head before looking up at the buffalo, giving him a stern look. “But Daring Do works alone.”

Daring’s eyes opened to the increasingly familiar sight of the inside of a teepee. The canvas glowed orange in the light of the rising sun. She rolled on the hard sleeping mat, now lying on her back. Through the hole in the top of the teepee, Daring could see only one star still shining in the brightening sky above.

She heard movement outside. Daring sat up, staring through bleary eyes at a shadowy form moving just beyond the teepee’s opening. She blinked, then saw the figure of Little Strongheart slowly come into focus.

“Morning,” Daring mumbled, rubbing her eyes. “What is it?” She looked up to see a somber expression on Strongheart’s face. Suddenly, Daring felt far more attentive despite the early hour.

“He’s passed on.”

Daring sat at the edge of the mesa. The morning sun hung low over the eastern horizon. The canyons still lay completely in shadow, while the hills and sparse trees cast long shadows across the landscape. A brisk wind swept across the plains, causing Daring to shiver. In the village below, the teepees were being disassembled and the earthen hut emptied.

She turned to see a few buffalo, Little Strongheart among them, standing in the middle of the mesa around a small earthen mound. Thunderhooves’ feathered headband lay atop the mound. Daring watched as they arranged turquoise gems in a careful pattern around the headband. As Strongheart placed the last gem, the buffalo who had been tending to the chief sprinkled something upon the mound.

Their work done, the buffalo began walking back to the village, save for Strongheart, who approached Daring. The pegasus stiffened and turned her gaze back to the view from the mesa.

“Are you alright?” Strongheart asked, speaking in a hushed tone.

“Hmm,” Daring grunted, nodding curtly. She then felt a hoof on her shoulder, and looked to see Strongheart sitting beside her, offering her a gentle smile.

Daring looked over at the small mound of dirt, its turquoise gems glittering in the morning sunlight. A sudden pang went through her heart and she bit her lip, but couldn’t help letting out a choked sob. She quickly placed a hoof over her mouth and closed her eyes. “Sorry,” she mumbled, sniffing as she put on a weak smile. “Heh, I used to think the only funeral I would ever attend would be my own. I don’t know how you stay so collected.”

“We’ve had a while to come to terms with what was going to happen,” Strongheart answered, wrapping a foreleg around Daring. The pegasus slowly accepted the embrace, resting her head against the buffalo’s chest.

There was a pause before Strongheart spoke again. “Have you ever seen a funeral stampede?”

“I’ve heard of them,” Daring murmured. “But I don’t really know anything about it.”

“When a chief passes on, it’s custom to carry their soul to the land of our ancestors. In life, Thunderhooves led us, so in death we shall return the favor by leading him.” Strongheart pointed a hoof out towards the western horizon, across the great stretches of sand and rock. “We’ll stampede to the great canyon, right to the rim, so that he may be with the great chiefs of old.

“Would you…” Strongheart paused, finding her voice. “Would you like to join us?”

Daring lifted her head, looking up at the buffalo. “Join… in your stampede? I…” Her mouth hung open for a second before she closed it, taking a moment to find her next words. “Are you sure that would be proper? I’m not exactly a buffalo, you know.”

“Thunderhooves once told me that you were a buffalo in all but appearance. And coming from him, that’s the highest compliment he could offer.” Strongheart offered Daring a smile. “Please, come with us. I know he would have been honored to have you lead him.”

Daring glanced back at Thunderhooves’ grave, now feeling the sting of tears. She looked back at Strongheart with shimmering eyes and gave a silent nod.

Daring gasped, her lungs aching for air. She could feel her legs burning, could taste dust on her tongue, and could feel a twinge of pain flare across her side. But she kept running, gritting her teeth and clenching her eyes shut as her hooves pounded against the ground, joining the many others of Thunderhooves’ tribe as they thundered across the land.

Daring had long since lost track of how long they had been stampeding. She guessed that most of the day had passed, but it was hard for her to tell; the world was a haze of bodies and dust around her, the galloping and heavy snorts of the buffalo filling her ears. Tears streamed from her eyes, but they were from the pain of galloping endlessly, not of sadness. There was no energy to spare for mourning; every bit of her willpower was needed just to keep moving.

And yet, Daring didn’t want to stop. In spite of the pain, or perhaps even because of it, she felt a smile creep across her face. Something within her had awoken, something she had not felt in years. She could feel it roaring in her chest and reaching out into every one of her limbs, pushing her on. Daring panted for air, fueling it with every breath she took. Whatever this was, it had come too far and had been buried for too long to stop now.

She looked up, squinting through watery eyes to see the ground simply give away in the distance. Daring blinked, expecting the ground to reappear through the wavy lines of a mirage, but nothing had changed. As they crested a small hill and came down the other side, the dust cloud around the herd cleared enough to reveal steep red rock cliffs far off on the horizon. Daring started, shocked at the scale of the vast canyon before them.

The canyon rim came nearer, and Daring could feel the herd shift direction around her, turning to the left so as to run alongside the rim. Daring, however, would not follow them. Whatever was pushing her on was telling her to press forward. She shoved by the buffalo running past her, breaking out of the thundering mass of the stampede and into the open air. She felt her wings extend, her feathers catching the air as her hooves carried her across the ground towards the rim. She could hear Strongheart calling her name, but she would not be deterred now. If she was to carry Thunderhooves to the canyon, she would give it her fullest or die trying.

A small perch at the edge of the cliff was now all that separated Daring from empty air. In the moment before she reached the end, it occurred to her that she had not flown in years. But there was no turning back now, though, and she ran off without a second thought, suddenly feeling nothing beneath her hooves even as her legs kept galloping.

Her heart caught in her throat as she began to fall, her extended wings doing nothing to stop her. The roaring fury in her chest was suddenly overshadowed by an icy pang through her heart and down her spine as the familiar taunt of death gripped her soul.

And then the wind came.

A fierce gust, so sudden it almost knocked her off-balance, caught her wings and lifted her into the air, sending her gliding high above the rim of the canyon. Daring gasped, fighting the urge to retract her limbs lest she plummet from the sky. The canyon opened up before her, its vastness on full display for Daring to admire. The wind gently carried her forward, letting her soar on its current. Below her, the buffalo herd galloped alongside the rim, the dust from their thundering hooves drifting into the canyon’s depths.

Daring laughed, feeling lighter than she could ever remember. In front of her, the rim turned to the left and curved out of sight, following the bend of the great canyon. Where it turned, there was a huge rock outcropping: a thin spire hundreds of hooves tall, jutting out of the cliff and reaching up nearly to the height of the rim. Daring banked to the right, then the left, letting the wind carry her towards the ground. The outcropping loomed in front of her as Daring swiftly approached. She gritted her teeth, bracing herself as the spire quickly came closer, the wind delivering her flight to an abrupt end.

The landing was hard, but aimed perfectly; all four hooves hit the very top of the thin spire. Her knees buckled from the impact and her wings flung down to her sides, hanging limp for a moment as they brushed the sides of the rock spire. Daring gasped for air, suddenly realizing how fast her heart was pounding. Her legs felt weak below her, but she pushed herself to stand up to her full height, lifting her head to see what lay before her.

The canyon stretched out for miles, an emptiness so enormous that entire cities could be swallowed up in its vastness. Great cliffs and spires of red and orange rock reached up from its depths, gleaming in the light of the sun. A thin band of blue snaked along the bottom of the canyon, reflecting the color of the wide open sky above.

Something glinting in the sunlight caught Daring’s eye, and she turned to see something spread out near the base of the cliff on the opposite side of the canyon. A mass of tan and red, carved into distinct shapes, was spread out below her. She blinked, slowly realizing what it was she was looking at. A city, empty and still, sat below an overhang in the cliff which protected it from the elements. The buildings, hewn from stone and stacked atop each other in tall ascending towers, were devoid of activity but looked pristine. The shining city of the canyon still served as the land of the ancestors.

The wind rushed past Daring, sending her gray mane and tail fluttering in the breeze and tickling her coat. To her left, the buffalo herd thundered along the rim, their hooffalls echoing through the canyon. She inhaled deeply, and then smiled.

Daring Do was home.

Author's Notes:

Kudos to RTStephens and CouchCrusader for proofreading. The cover image is the marvelous "Another Days End" by Tsitra360.

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