Over the few months following the arrival of Leonidas to the creek herd, he had a significant awakening to the facts of life. The first fact was that bellies go empty. He learned this through the crucible that is winter in the wild, watching soberly as the leaves changed and the wind exchanged its playful ruffling kiss for a bitter bite that cut through fluff and flesh and made bones ache. He watched the tree’s and bushes give their first colors, the fruit in the area around the creek changing from wild berries and soft sweet grass to bare branches and bark. He watched the herd, at first a pack of timid fools in his mind, practice the little they knew of rationing and prioritizing with the dwindling stockpile. He watched the miracle of birth. A soon mumma becoming a feeding momma. No runts or bad colors for that lucky mare, though it meant 4 more chirping mouths to feed. And he learned the lessons of the wild. His teachers were mostly the stallions who gathered food and watched for threats. Leonidas’ already keen eyes became sharper, his ears and nose became tools of survival. He learned how to move swiftly and softly, he learned how to hide his scarlet bulk in the grass and to cover himself with dirt. He learned the patience of a hunter, waiting long enough to catch lizards and bugs. His body lost some of the “built” swelling as his tummy ran hungry. Yet this made him sleek. His strength becoming wiry, his speed snappy and explosive. And his legs grew as he learned to run. Truly run. Not for the short laughing periods in the sun at the park. But for the drawn, all out sprints it took to flee from wings or barkie munstas and the marathon gallops it would take him to return to the herd nest, his fluff laden with food.
He learned discipline. His already laconic demeanor at first souring to a brooding silence during the herd meetings. Then evolving to a sparing wisdom. His words chosen, ever carefully and conveyed with and air of consideration. He was always the first one to leave the nest, always the last to return. Even if he wasn’t the last one back from foraging he made sure to wait outside until the last scout was accounted for and walk in behind them. He ate last. Always. Sometimes his meager share of food would become smaller, or disappear altogether when he would look around and see another fluffy wanting. Those nights he would excuse himself from the herd and take up watch at the entrance, belly empty, but…something…something inside him feeling full and warm.
The winter faded to spring and the chirpy foals began to explore. Many of them clumsy, loud, and clueless. Yet they would all watch as he kept up his practice of playing “pushies” with large rocks or stumps near the creek and nest. They would silence each other to watch him life rocks that weighed as much as their fathers and stack them. He would coo and cheer as he reared on his hind legs, battering his toughened hooves against the base of trees, giving blows of sorry hoofsies hard enough to make noise and skin flecks of bark. They begged him to teach them his ways and his games. And only after the council of elder fluffies in the herd came to him and asked the same did he relent.
Seasons grew, changed, and the days bloomed warm and bountiful again. The weight of guilt and loss of his little brother Clyntius did not fade but as time went on…Leonidas grew strong enough to carry it. He learned after sharing his story with the old scarred, bearded fluffy, named Eepor, (so named as a colt for a joke that no one else was old enough to understand anymore) that courage without cause was the same as “Stuffin’ yoa hed unda wawas and finkin joos a fishie”. He learned that defiance was an idea that “Make fwuff big, make spesha wumps feew aww wamsie…an’ make pwenty of tuffie fwuffs in’na nummies.” Eepor would walk with Leonidas on warm twilights, sometimes quiet, sometimes telling stories of days long gone. But each with their own special wisdom for Leo to dig for, like the wild carrots that grew in the forest around the creek.
Eepor’s granddaughter was the white fluffed, Tiffany blue maned filly who had pressured Leo into remaining with the herd. Her name, Leo discovered very quickly, was…Nike. Leo at first called her “Nicky”…only once though as she had breathlessly paused whatever babbling she had been doing and explained “Nuuu… Nigh-kee, nigh-kee wike sayin hi den keep widdou’ dah ‘puh’. Mumma say she geddit fwom tawkie pitcha bawksie wen shewiddowfiwwyannahoominsfinki’meannagufastiefastfastannaswoop-wikedatandmummahwanNiketubefastiefasfaswunniebebbehsushenamesie…”
Leo’s brain shut off after a while to prevent derping and a nosebleed. The filly didn’t even pause to inhale. It was remarkable. Yet for all her incessant blather, when Nike went out with the scouts she could move silently, and her mother’s desires bore great fruit. She was the fastest filly in the herd, only outstripped by one or two other fluffies, and only on their best days. She was of course left in the dust by Leo when he had good footing, to her everlasting frustration. He favorite pastime seemed to be walking near Leo and filling the air he left silent with white noise. Leo at first was confounded by this contact attention, yet…it grew on him, like waves of talkeroding the face of his stolid demeanor, until he didn’t feel comfortable unless he had listened to her babbling at least once each day.
The herd grew in size and after a long period it was decided by the elders that a new smarty friend was needed to keep everything organized. The vote was taken and Leonidas was nominated and unanimously picked without his knowledge or consent. When he returned from good gathering he tried to refuse, shying away from the job, finally simply ignoring the request, until Eepor pulled him aside and with a mad glint in his eye told Leo that unless he started calling shots, and quick, the elders would start making life very chaotic for everyone. “Ebba see’ wha’ habben wen 5 owd fwuffies dewp dey finky pwaces an poopie pwaces adda same timsie boi’? Ge’ chu poopies togeva an stawp bein whu joo fink joo am, an stawt bein who joo needa be.”
So Leo did. He took everything he knew, and put it to practice. All colts were told as soon as they could walk that they needed to join the other colts in training to be toughies and gatherers, regardless of color, wings, horns, or size. Fillies were told they needed to learn how to gather as well, and fight, but also learn the stories from their mummahs to keep old names alive, to learn lessons in the nest and not in the wild and to care for the young. No preference was shown to any “spesha babbehs” and any baby showing smarty tendencies was quickly corrected. Foals born sickly, runting or misshapen were taken and given a swift death. A far more merciful treatment than starving or dying in the throes of some internal issue. Bad enfies or harming another fluffy was treated as high treason and Leonidas took it upon himself to mete out “foweba sweepies” when the rare situation called for it. “Fwuffy who tawky da wowds, godda be da fwuffy tu gib da hoofsies.” The herd grew and grew strong under his leadership. They fought off an invasion of their territory by a band of ferals, soundly trouncing them by sheer martial prowess. The night of the fight was a celebration and the fluff pile felt extra cozy with many a mare and filly whispering coos to their spesha fwen colts and stallions, extolling their bravery. Leonidas took the watch that night, enjoying the breeze and staring up at the stars. He was joined by a sleepy, well fed, and unusually silent Nike, who stared up with him for a moment, then fell asleep next to him head tucked under his chin. Leo almost moved her…almost…and spent the rest of the vigil with the smallest of grins on his typically impassive face. The herd grew larger and evolved over the course of the year, into the next winter and spring. They stopped calling themselves “herd” and picked up another name, one from Leonidas’ own stories. They used it to refer to each other and the collective. They were…da Spawtan hewd.
Tragedy struck one hot summer day. The herd was about its usual business. The food pile growing, the stockpiled already being sealed in mud in the nest for the cold. A line of young colts strained at each other playing pushies, or gave little tapping boops to the base of a nearby sapling. Fillies chased each other or sat with Mummahs, stroking tangles out of each other’s tails and listening to stories. Leo stood atop a rock, watching the pushing colts and offering a silent prayer of thanks to his long lost friend Oingo for showing him the Pushies Game.
His eyes lifted past the straining colts to the grass hearby. Something…wasn’t right. Why did he suddenly smell cucumbers? The smell set of warning bells in his head and he leapt down from the perch. “Babbehs FAWW BACK TUU MUMMAHS!” He called. A testament to the ironclad discipline he and the other stallions were forging in the colts, the colts instantly broke up their activities and toddled to form a ring around the mares and fillies. None too soon. A straggler in the group was suddenly snatched by a flash of brown and black and lifted, giving a weak “eee” by a large, starved, crazed looking water moccasin. Leo grabbed another straggler by the scruff and turned to sprint away as the bitten foal released a spurt of scaredy poopies and was consumed. The hissing monstrosity made the foal disappear and the lowered its head, dead, doll like eyes searching with greed for more of the easy meal. The mares and fillies were herded by the stallions into the nest where once inside, then as one all of the unicorn stallions braced themselves, heads down and horns out against then entrance, filling it. Earthies and pegasus bracing the unicorn haunches on strong shoulders, pushing them together tightly. This created a spiked wall blocking the entrance that had prevented badgers and dogs from entering, though had cost some ears and scars across heads. Scars that were worn with pride among the herd.
Leo ran up to the wall and flung the colt from his teeth over the top before. With a thump it lander on the soft mass and after a moment, commands were shouted from senior tuffies to pass the foal back and he was pushed to run for his mummah.
Leo turned watching the snake. It’s eyes glittering black as it tried to make sense of the wall of thorns now in front of it. It struck, meaning to sink its fangs into something. It never got to hook its fangs. It only got the tip of an Alicorn’s long needle like horn jammed into its nose, and it recoiled, spinning up to weave its head back and forth. Shivering began to grow in the little barricade, along with small “huhuu” sounds of fright and more than a few of the toughies made scaredy poopies. Leo called down from his spot along the fallen log at the top lip of the entrance “Dangew comes tuu da nestie! Dawkness fawws! Fiwe an bwood!” “Ha-OOH” the stallions chorused. The snake struck with a thud, snapping back with an angry hiss. “Feaw an angew! Honow an couwage!”
“Stawwions fo mummahs, foa’ hewd, tu gwowyyyy!” His answer was a redoubled, steely resolve as the toughies locked themselves tighter and a load roar of
“HAOOH HAOOH HAOOH!”
The leaders among the stallion cried “Push” and the fluffies in the breach grit their teeth. As the snake snapped one final time, fangs outstretched, it was met with a shoving wall of horns, one of which pierced and broke off in the roof o his mouth.
The snake snapped back further. This was a creature made of thorns, with a roaring so loud, this was no meal, it was a threat… easier food could be found among field mice or in a rabbit warren, dark and cool below the ground. Under the sun with its nose being battered and pricked, this was not worth the trouble no matter what bounty one tasty morsel had promised. It could always slink back in the night and-
“Oh awww da nummies dat ewe I shpen’…I-I shpen dem ee-en guud com-pan-e-ees, a-an’ aww not pretties dat ewe I done, a-wass ee’ was tuu nun buh meee”
Nike’s little voice came rolling over the sound of the creek, the hissing. She was coming back from gathering, singing a song she had heard from a tawkie-nu-pitchas box when a group of friends had come down and drank silly wawas and poured out a little boxie filled with grey dirt. It had quickly become her favorite and somehow she had memorized the words the first time she heard it. Leo’s stern focus on the snake turned to paralyzing horror as the monster turned its head and its gaze locked on her white form, unrolling and twisting it’s way towards her through fallen branches and boulders along the creek…