“The six steeds chosen for the raid, Stormsky, the buckskin, Thundercloud, an iron gray, Stormheart, a dapple gray, Cloudray, a palomino, Shadestorm, another dapple gray, and myself, set out steadily southeast for Jungle Herd’s territory. We had been told to use clouds as cover, be as fast and sneaky as possible, and try as much as possible not to be noticed. Part of the reason we had been chosen for the mission was that we were a few of the warriors in Sun Herd that have relatively drab and camouflaged feathers, so if any Jungle Herd steeds did see us they probably wouldn’t be suspicious.”
“We got there and landed in a small, hilly clearing shrouded in fog. It was surrounded by rainforest trees. Cloudray looked around the perimeter for trails and he found a few.”
“ ‘I found three trails leading off of here, in the direction of their nests,’ he reported. ‘One of them is quite clear, the others are less noticeable. Which one should we take?’ ”
“We decided to take the inconspicuous one to the left. Almost as soon as we set out, Stormheart and Thundercloud started thrashing around, ducking and swerving.”
“ ‘What are you doing?’ the rest of us asked incredulously. They didn’t answer with words, but it was clear to us in a few seconds. A rock about the size of a bird egg came flying out of the trees and took Stormheart straight in the forehead.”
“ ‘Snipers!’ Shadestorm shouted. ‘Retreat to the clearing!’ The Sun Herd steeds still standing raced pell-mell for the clearing. Our speed cleared the fog, and I could see a gray filly with yellow wings and a black mane and tail hurling rocks at us, directing several others. Without thinking, I flew up toward her and managed to get myself behind her without her noticing. I dropped directly down on top of her, covering her face with my wing. My weight cracked the tree, and we both fell. The tree fell down on top of us. The filly was so frightened that she bit my wing. The tree trunk took me in the back, and I guess I blacked out from the pain. When I woke up, the filly had managed to crawl out from under me and was staring at me intently. Ignoring her for the moment, I looked around and behind her. I could see the dead bodies of four of the warriors that had accompanied me.”
“ ‘The buckskin got away,’ the gray filly said, as if reading my thoughts. ‘I told him everyone in his group was dead. I thought so too, but after he left I could feel you breathing on top of me. I would be heading back to the herd with the other snipers, but I am Cloudpepper, the daughter of Jungle Herd’s medicine mare. I believe you are honorable, and I want to help you get back to your herd. Sun Herd, right?’ she asked. I didn’t know if this was a trick, but I was too woozy to care at this point, so I nodded.”
“ ‘Then let’s get this tree off you,’ Cloudpepper said, grinning. She gave me time to recover some strength and then told me to heave my neck up while she slid the tree trunk down my back. I managed to get my neck up, but when I tried to heave with my back, it hurt like crazy. She noticed me wincing and said, ‘Do you think you can do it?’ I managed to shake my head no. She wasn’t surprised and quickly came up with another plan. She managed to take hold of one of the largest branches in her mouth. She strained herself, pulling as hard as she could, and managed to get it mostly off my back. Then she told me to try to stand up, which I did. We started back to Sun Herd on hoof because of my wing.”
“Then there was the whole thing with Nightwing. I thought it best if you didn’t know we were there, because Nightwing could have killed me just because I brought light into someone’s life.” Thunderblaze stopped here momentarily, choked up with anger at Nightwing. He soon resumed the story.
“By this point my wing was healed, and I was part of the next twenty to leave Anok. My group would have made it one hundred and sixty. But that was canceled, so I joined the pegasi that were building the Freedom Tribute. Again, I wasn’t comfortable with you knowing I was there. I’ve been waiting for the right time, and I think that time is now.”
Thunderblaze was astounded by the tale. He had several more questions. “Where is Cloudpepper?” he asked for starters.
“Right back there,” his father answered, gesturing with his wing. Thunderblaze could make out the form of a gray body.
“Come on out, Cloudpepper,” Thunderfrost called. “My son wants to meet you.”