by Martian

Chapter 1

Breath hissed from between hard-clenched teeth, a cloud of frost haloing his hanging head. Mac's mane was plastered to his neck, wet with snowmelt and brittle from the cold. Hooves felt like they were made of lead. Every step he took hurt, hurt like nothing else he'd ever experienced. The young stallion had been walking through the heavy, wet, knee-deep snow for he didn't know how long. Days maybe, though it had only gotten dark a short while ago… or had it been some time now?

Another step, a feeling of nails being jammed into hooves. The harness of the sleigh about his shoulders creaked from the movement, long since iced. Another step, pull hard, keep the sleigh moving. Ignore the ache, push past the bone-deep chill. Again. Again. Step. One hoof in front of the other. Can't stop. The sleigh felt like it weighed ten tons, felt like trying to drag an entire barn, the entire town.

Macintosh leaned into the harness for another push, but didn't move. He groaned and tried again, putting every bit of will he could muster into lifting his frozen hoof high enough to get through the snow, but instead both front legs buckled. He staggered then sank into the soft, welcoming, strangely warm snow…


They had spent the week at Aunt and Uncle Orange's lavish home in Fillydelphia on invitation. Macintosh had been there before as a young colt with Ma and Pa, but it had been a first for little Applejack. Matter of fact, it had been the first time the four-year-old filly had ever been out of Ponyville. The crowds and bustle and fuss of the big city had been at once terrifying and exhilarating: so many things to see and do, so many ponies for her to meet. The city would leave an impression of energy and excitement in her young mind.

But as things go, so too did the two Apple siblings. Home was calling and the unusually warm January weather was coming to an end, heralded by the darker clouds starting to form on the far horizon. If the two waited too long to leave they might have had to wait days before the roads were clear enough to travel. Mac was feeling confident though, and after an early breakfast and fond farewells, they were off.

The sleigh was nothing much more than one of the farm's smaller carts with the wheels knocked off and replaced with narrow, curling runners. Being a pragmatic family, they'd seen fit to have a small but serviceable wooden roof put up overtop to keep the worst of the weather off little AJ, who rode inside as a little bundle of blonde and freckles at the centre of a pile of quilts and blankets.

Macintosh, just on the tail-end of colthood, was already being called 'Big Mac' by more than half of Ponyville. He stood a full ear taller than stallions twice his age, and was well on his way to developing the heavy muscle to go with it. He was used to pulling carts much larger than his current burden, and those piled near to collapsing with bushels full of apples. One sleigh loaded with one tiny filly who was knee-high to a grasshopper, as Granny put it, wasn't much of a challenge even for a half-day's journey.

The road home was packed snow marked with the passage of few hooves and wagon ruts. The warm weather had made the footing a bit slippery, but the sleigh's runners slid over it easy as can be. Applejack was a source of squeaky chatter, talking about anything and everything that came to her. Being only four, she didn't make all that much sense and often just tried to fib and bluff to try and impress big brother with the extent of her worldly wisdom. Patient, stoic Macintosh would just grin and let her carry on, though at the particularly incredible parts he would point out how, for instance, birds were not known for knocking down trees, nor was all the snow caused by them exploding from eating too much. It is part of a big brother's duty to see that a sibling's head doesn't get too swollen with ego.

The road wound its way through the forest, much of the commented-on trees shorn of their leaves: skeletal frames now pleading with the sky to bring back spring. Their silent desires were taunted: the sky seen through their boughs was a rippling white to match the snowy ground, keeping the warmth of the sun in; the air hovering only just below freezing. It made for a pleasant journey, though the air had a dampness to it that made the cold stick to one's hide. It would have been an easy thing for young AJ to catch a chill from it, but Macintosh was diligent in reminding the filly to stay well tucked under the quilts. The cold was little issue for him: the work of walking and pulling was enough to heat his body from the inside out.

They had made it about halfway home before the snow found them.

Applejack had been singing winter songs in her tiny piping voice, doing her very best to get each note just right, or where she thought it was supposed to be. This had her forgetting most of the words to whatever song she was trying. She'd never make for a good singer, but it wasn't for a lack of heart; her bountiful good cheer even managed to coax Macintosh into singing one of her silly little songs along with, much to her giggling delight. As it turns out, neither of the Apple siblings could actually sing and anyone passing on the road would have had to stop their ears. Their singing wasn't for listeners though, just something between big brother and little sister.

He was still humming the tune quietly to himself when Applejack cooed in wonder at the sight of the fat, heavy flakes starting drifting down. Her green eyes were wide and round, following the first all the way to the ground. She tried to reach out to catch the next one with one tiny hoof, but big brother noticed and gently warned her to keep under the blankets. Macintosh's breath was starting to frost and he could smell the cold starting to build in the air. The night would see the last of the good weather, and all the damp in the air would pull the heat right out of little sister in short order, blankets or no. Big brother's steady pace increased, casting one wary eye upwards to the steel-grey sky as more and more flakes fell to join the first.

In minutes, the world around the two Apples had been reduced to a circle no more than twenty steps across - the rest of Equestria was swallowed by white. Beyond was only a wall of fluttering snow with the barest glimpses of shapes beyond. It was a blizzard, but not the violent thing most imagine the word to mean: there was no wind here, no driving wall of snow, no sound except for the whisper of the sleigh's runners, Mac's breathing and the crunch of his hooves in the new snow - all sounding somehow curiously distant and apart. It was lucky the road did pass most of the way through forest: with trees on either side it would be hard to get lost or turned around. Worrisome was that Macintosh had no real idea as to just what time it was, or how close they were to home. There were no landmarks anymore, no signs on this road, nothing but the winding trail, and it was being quickly covered. The sleigh was suited for the snow of course, but this snow was the wet, sticky sort: excellent for snowballs but clinging just as readily to the runners. The deeper the snow got, the harder it became to pull: Macintosh had to put a bit more shoulder into keeping up the pace.

It didn't let up, nor did it seem like long at all before he was having to take higher steps, the road now ankle-deep. He was already soaked through: every flake that touched his hide became an icy water droplet in half a moment, plastering mane to head and neck and sending creeping tendrils of cold down his sides. The pulling had been keeping him warm, but the damp and the dropping temperature was wicking it away fast - the cold creeping under his skin. He was glad for the little roof over AJ: without it, those blankets would have been sodden through in seconds along with her, and Macintosh didn't want to think about AJ getting sick. He glanced back over one shoulder to reassure himself little sister wasn't doing something dumb, and was glad to see her wisely staying snugly wrapped in the quilts and blankets, just a bit of blonde and freckly nose peeking out, pretty green eyes wide and watching the magic of it all. AJ had never seen a snow like this from anywhere but behind a window with a warm fire close by.

There was no way to tell time, but it was certainly growing dark and snow was making for hard going. Knee-deep, heavy, clinging and wet, numbing his hooves, the cold in the air enough to ice the snowmelt on Macintosh's back and mane. He was breathing hard, sweat stinging his eyes, muscles shivering, aching. The pace had slowed to a crawl. He didn't know how far away home was, how much longer until he found the fence at the side of the road that marked the farm's boundary. Macintosh had thought about abandoning the sleigh and just bundling AJ onto his back in her blankets and making a run for the homestead, but the snow was still falling, was still terribly wet; the sleigh's roof was all that was keeping her safe and dry.

He thought of trying for a fire, but had to dismiss it: the forest was wet throughout, nothing would burn, plus a blizzard like this could last for days. Even if they made a fire, they'd need a proper shelter and someway to keep said fire lit. He had to keep pressing on, had to keep moving. Macintosh couldn't stop...


Something bumped against his head. And again. He felt so warm, like the entire world was a hot bath - every ache forgotten. A third bump, then a sound, bright and piping. Familiar. Applejack. Probably wanted him to get out of bed to play. Macintosh didn't fancy the idea much: he was far too comfortable. He lifted a hoof up to push the littlest Apple away. Tried to lift a hoof. He couldn't move it. Macintosh's brow furrowed into a frown as he tried to stir. A fourth bump, and this one hard enough to warrant getting mad about. He took in a breath to berate little sister and felt agony constricting his chest. His eyes flew open.

Snow. He was laying on his side, heavy white flakes falling all around, the world dark. That piping noise: familiar, tremulous, frightened. Big Mac searched with his eyes and found the source, all blonde and freckles, big round eyes worried and watery with tears. Applejack was in the snow beside him, tiny body trembling, shivering, two tiny hooves on his shoulder now, trying to shake him awake. She wanted him to get up, pleading with him to get up, but Macintosh only wanted to fall back asleep. He felt so warm…

Little Applejack started to cry, trying to push harder at Mac's shoulder as his eyes started to drift closed again, pleading with him not to leave her. Macintosh wanted to hush her gently, to tell her that he just needed to rest a second: a quick breather to get his strength back. He wanted to tell her that he'd never leave her, but something in the back of his mind knew that was a lie, that if he let himself fall asleep he would be abandoning his little sister to the cold.

The shock of that thought hit Macintosh like a sledgehammer, driving a white-hot spike into his heart. He was suddenly struggling, eyes shooting wide open, breath streaming from his clenched teeth in huge gasps. He wanted to scream, he wanted to scream with every iota of his being in absolute rebellion to that thought. He wanted to bellow and rage against the clouds, rage against the night; Big Macintosh wanted to kick down the sky itself for daring to threaten his sister.

He was up again, eyes hot with fury at the world, at himself. He wrenched free of the sleigh's harness with one mighty buck, snapping the wooden shafts like they were pieces of kindling. Applejack was shivering at his hooves, clinging tight, crying, and the sound she made was pure torture in Mac's ears; the sound of her so frightened was nothing he ever wanted to hear, hurt worse than any pain he had ever felt.

Macintosh had her up then, into the quilts and blankets then bundled onto his back. He told her to hold tight, to be brave, then he turned and plunged through the snow like a meteor. Every muscle in his body screamed like there was ground glass under his skin, his joints felt full of sand. Macintosh couldn't feel anything from the knees down, but it wouldn't stop him - nothing would now. The idea that he had been so close to leaving AJ alone drove him on with the energy of a mad thing. Big Macintosh would have walked through walls to keep her safe. He would walk across fire. He would climb mountains at a dead run if he had to.

He would never abandon family.



The world was a blur of snow, time had no meaning. Mac could feel the burden on his back, the tiny hooves clinging tight and that was all that mattered. His world had shrunk to a line, pin-point thin: there was the road ahead of him and the tiny heartbeat pattering against his shoulder. Nothing else mattered.

It hurt to breathe, every gasp was like breathing jagged icicles. He could taste blood on his tongue, but it was distant, unimportant.

There was a fence. A fence. Familiar. Close, he knew he was close.

Big Macintosh didn't remember coming through the gate, didn't remember rightly who he was... there was just the ice cutting him to the bone, that tiny pattering heartbeat, and a small square of hot yellow light just ahead.

Light. A window. He tried to call out, staggering towards that beacon, the promise of heat and safety and warmth for little sister. He could only wheeze, trying to catch his breath and not finding it. He was so cold…

Macintosh had tears frozen to his cheeks, hoarfrost around his gaping mouth. He couldn't feel anything; the world was closing to a point of light. His legs wouldn't listen, everything he could do was to stay upright. He tried to yell, tried to scream for help, but he couldn't breathe, couldn't move…

Bright as a bell and louder than anything in the world, Applejack screamed for their father. Not half a second later, light flooded out into the night, a figure framed in the open door, not ten steps away.

Relief flooded through Big Macintosh, and the snowy ground rushed up to meet him.


Something bumped against his head. And again. He felt so warm, like the entire world was a hot bath. A third bump, then a sound, bright and piping. Familiar. Applejack. Probably wanted him to get out of bed to play. Mac found that he liked the idea. He started to stir, but needle-sharp pain washed through his body and made him gasp, eyes flicking open.

He was in the main room of the homestead, lying on a makeshift bed in front of the fire. He hurt all over, but more pressing was the little bundle of blonde and freckles peering at him with wide green eyes at a distance of roughly half-a-hoof. The intensity in that stare might have made any other pony jump and recoil, but Big Macintosh was made of sterner stuff. He peered back, then, ignoring the grinding pain, lifted one big hoof and ruffled little sister's mane.

Tears sprang to Applejack's eyes and she threw herself against his neck in a hug tight enough to strangle. He didn't mind. He didn't mind the tears washing against his hide, didn't mind the little sobs that held no terror. He didn't mind the tears he felt wetting his own cheeks.


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