At just before noon, the preparations were finally completed. The whole town was decorated, tents with delicious foods had been placed all over, and various bands dispersed throughout filled the air with cheerful music. By this point, everyone had gathered in the town square and were eagerly awaiting the arrival of their honored guests. Eagerly, but silently, as an unusual hush fell over the crowd, their anticipation suppressing revelry for the moment.
Then, suddenly, Apple Bloom, from her perch atop her sister’s shoulders, called out:
“Hey, I thee thomething!”
Off in the distance, a tiny cloud of dust advanced towards Ponyville. As the dust cloud grew closer, along with it came the rhythmic thumping of hoof beats. The cloud grew closer, and soon the people could make out the forms of five riders quickly approaching the town. Finally reaching the first buildings, the five riders came galloping through the town streets before rearing their horses to a prancing halt in front of the crowd.
There they were, the marshals, and looking exactly as the people had imagined. Each of the riders sat atop a massive war stallion clad in gleaming plate armor. Each rider wore a matching crimson cloak with burnished steel shoulder pads adorning the left shoulder. And of course, each rider wore pinned to their chest, a glittering silver badge.
The Winged Shield. The insignia of the marshals, that badge stood for everything these soldiers represented. As the elite of the guards of Equestria, by pinning on that badge, they vowed to travel as they were called and crush evil wherever it stood, defending the lives and freedoms of Equestria’s citizens with every fiber of their being.
To do this, they carried with them the final mark of their station. Over the right shoulder of each of the marshals peaked the glittering silver barrel of a spell gun. Functioning somewhat like a wand, the spell gun had the added benefit of focusing and amplifying the power of whatever magic was cast through it. Powerful artifacts, these men had the right to use them however they needed in their quest to defend the people.
Yes, these indeed were a group of Equestria’s finest: the royal marshals.
“Greetings, gentlemen,” a distinguished, bespectacled lady with prominent white hair said as she approached the group. “As mayor of Ponyville, I would like to be the first to welcome you to our fair town: we can’t tell you how much we appreciate you coming out here. Now, I’m sure you’d like to see your accommodations and get settled in, but we’re just so excited to have you here, that we wanted to throw you a party and welcome you in the traditional Ponyville style.” She stood back and gestured to the festive grounds set out behind them.
The leader of the party, a giant bear of a bearded man with brown hair and beard and blue eyes, trotted his horse forward, slowly surveying the town square. The people waited anxiously: his face was impassive, stoic and unemotional. Was something not to his liking? Oh no, he couldn’t be… was he upset? Angry? Had something gone wrong?
Apparently not, because the marshal leader then broke into a smile.
“Well then,” he said, “let’s party.”
An enormous cheer went out through the crowds, and the party did in fact begin.
An hour or so later, the party was in full swing. People were dancing, singing, eating, and of course, drinking. With so many fine apples around, Ponyville had no shortages of delicious brandies, cordials, and ciders to go around. For the adults, of course: the young ones stuck to juice.
Twilight made her way through the grounds, her studious nature compelling her to make sure that everything was going according to plan. Still, that didn’t stop her from munching on a delicious apple crumble and humming as she walked.
Just a little ways from the center of the square, Twilight spotted her friends Rarity and Rainbow Dash sitting at an open table. The athlete idly munched on a plate of cookies while the fashionista stared intently off into the distance, a quill and blank piece of parchment in front of her.
“Hey girls, having–”
“SHH!” A sudden hiss from Rarity cut Twilight clean off.
“What’s with Rarity?” Twilight asked, leaning in closer to Rainbow Dash and whispering.
“Not sure,” the colorful flier replied in an equal hush. “Something about, ‘inspiration’. She’s been staring like that for a good twenty minutes.” Turning and following the direction of Rarity’s gaze, the sweater-vested librarian found that her friend was staring at the table where the five marshals were sitting. They were laughing uproariously, clanking tankards of cider together, and seemingly having a grand old time.
“Oh, it’s no use!” Rarity wailed as she threw down the quill in despair. “No matter how I try, I can’t! I just can’t!”
“What’s wrong, Rarity?” Twilight asked, only mildly concerned considering how often her friend flew into fits of histrionic woe.
“It’s these marshals,” she gestured. “You know how I’m trying to launch a new line of men’s clothing, yes? Well, I thought that these traveling soldiers would provide the perfect creative spark I needed to get going. But it’s simply not working, Twilight. Not. At. All!”
“Why, what’s wrong with them?” her friend asked.
“Everything!” Rarity wailed. Twilight simply looked at her askance.
“Really. Everything?” the sensible girl asked, her voice heavy with skepticism.
“But of course,” Rarity replied, oblivious to her friend’s tone. “I mean, they’re simply not what I was expecting. I thought that the marshals would be more heroic. Now, I certainly wasn’t expecting them all to have Adonis-like statures, but these men are simply… uncouth.”
“Uncouth?” Twilight turned to look the marshals again. “Come on Rarity, really?” Now it was Rarity’s turn to look at her friend with incredulity.
“Twilight, of all people I expected you at least to pick up on the details.”
“Details?” the sweater-vested scholar asked, now starting to get curious. “What details?”
“Yeah, what’re you talking about?” Rainbow Dash asked, spraying the remnant crumbs of her last cookie as she spoke. Rarity took a moment to frown at the tomboy before she continued.
“The one on the left for example,” the pretty seamstress began, using her quill as a pointer, “looks like he hasn’t had a decent shave in days.”
“Maybe he’s trying to grow a beard?” Twilight offered.
“Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it should be unkempt in the meanwhile. Furthermore, the one next to him seems to have spilled food onto his cloak more than once.”
“How can you tell?” Rainbow Dash asked, her face scrunched in confusion as she stared in complete incomprehension. The fashionista just rolled her eyes.
“Please, darling, there are stains, and there are stains. And let’s not forget the gentleman on the right, who looks like he’s been enjoying himself at the dinner table a little too much of late.” A little more scrutiny from Twilight revealed that indeed, the man’s midsection was much larger than it had once been as it strained at his shirt and noticeably bulged over his belt.
“Come on, Rarity. It kind of makes sense, if you think about it. I mean, they’ve probably traveled a long time, so maybe they just didn’t have the time to take care of that stuff.”
“That may be true,” Rarity agreed, “but what about their behavior? Travel wear, I can understand, but the way they act…”
Twilight leaned over once more, narrowing her eyes in concentration. She really didn’t see what had Rarity so riled up. I mean, sure, they were getting pretty loud, but it was a party after all. Okay, so maybe a couple of them were getting fairly red in the face, but that was understandable considering the circumstances, right? People drink at parties, and some get flushed when they do. And so what if the snippets of conversation drifting over were somewhat more mature than one might expect in polite company? Not everyone has the same sense of humor… right?
“Okay, maybe they’re a little rough around the edges,” Twilight acquiesced. “But don’t you think you’re being a little hard on them? After all, it’s a party: they’re probably just relaxing after a long trip.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Rarity conceded with a sigh as she slumped to the table. “It’s just that… well… they’re marshals. I just expected something more.”
“Aw, now you’re just being silly,” the bookish girl said, giving her friend a pat on the head.
“No, I think she’s right Twi,” Rainbow Dash interjected, now sipping from a cup of cider. “I don’t really get what Rarity’s talking about, but I agree: the marshals really should be cooler.”
“Cooler?” Twilight asked, confused. “How?”
“I dunno,” the young aviator shrugged.
“Like, their clothes, or something?” Twilight continued.
“No, the clothes are fine.”
“Is it their spell guns?” she prodded once more.
“Those are fine. They should just be… cooler. Like, twenty percent cooler, or something. Maybe more.” Now both Twilight and Rarity were looking at Rainbow Dash oddly.
“How do I put this,” the colorful one frowned as she pressed knuckles to her forehead in concentration. Suddenly, her eyes lit up and she turned to her violet-haired friend. “I got it! They should be more like that guy I brought over!” Immediately, Rarity’s sapphire eyes flashed with illumination as well.
“Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Guy? What guy?” Twilight asked, not understanding.
“The gentleman I brought over to the library,” Rarity answered. “You know, the one I left with Spike?” Now it was Twilight’s eyes that sparkled with understanding.
“Oh, that guy,” she nodded, having finally caught up.
“Yeah, that guy was cool,” Rainbow Dash continued. “Old man cool.”
“Old man cool?” Twilight and Rarity both asked.
“Yeah,” Rainbow explained, using her hands to make odd gestures as if gesticulations could somehow help define what cool was. “It’s not a normal cool, like me. It’s more like, what old guys should be like. You know, that thousand-yard stare they get after they’ve seen it all. That kind of cool.”
“I guess I see what you’re saying,” Twilight said. Strangely enough, she sort of did. “Like a rock.”
“A rock?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“Yeah, a rock. Like, nothing’s gonna move him or surprise him. He’ll just be the same no matter what happens.”
“Right!” the athletic girl exclaimed. “That’s it! I mean, he was kinda built like a rock too. I musta been going like, mach three when I crashed into him. Barely left a scratch."
“He certainly was rather impressive,” Rarity agreed. “Now there’s a man I could find inspiration out of. Broad shoulders, excellent proportions, those dusky grey eyes... Ooh, idea!” she sang, and instantly began sketching away at a furious pace.
“Yup,” Rainbow Dash nodded smugly. “Those marshal guys have their fancy clothes and those fancy spell guns, but I still think that guy was way cooler.”
“Who was he anyway?” Twilight asked. Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to answer, but suddenly stopped.
“You know, I don’t really know,” she said, sounding rather surprised. “I actually don’t think I ever got his name.”
“Me neither,” Twilight said. “He dropped off a letter, but he didn’t stick around long enough for me to ask.”
“What was in the letter?” Rainbow Dash inquired.
“That’s just it. There was nothing: it was completely blank.”
“Wait,” Rainbow Dash said as she raised her hand for pause. “You’re saying that he spent all morning running around town to deliver you a blank piece of paper?”
“It seems like it,” Twilight agreed.
“There, finished,” Rarity said, holding up a complete sketch of a man’s waist coat. “Oh, this is going to be simply magnificent.”
“Hey Rarity,” the librarian began. “Dash and I were talking about that guy, but neither of us really knows anything about him. We don’t even know his name. Did he tell you anything?” The young beauty’s eyes lost focus as she came to the same realization her friends had.
“My goodness, no,” she said, covering her mouth in mild shock. “I was so busy with his clothes that I forgot to ask.”
As the friends were about to continue discussing the mysterious traveler, a rather worn out Applejack plopped down at the table and joined them.
“Land sakes,” she said as she flopped down on the table. “I like a good nip every now 'n then, but those marshals jess got me plum tuckered out.”
“What do you mean, Applejack?” Rarity asked.
“Okay, so yeh know how we brought out the good stuff for the marshals, right?” the young cowgirl said, leaning in conspiratorially. “Granny’s got some of 'er special zap apple brandy laid away for jess such occasions. Well, not some twenty minutes later, they all but finished it, so they go and send me back to the farm for some more. When I get back, it’s all gone in ten, and they send me back for some more. Again.”
“Wow, you had to run back twice?” Rainbow Dash asked in amazement.
“Three times. Jess got back from my last trip," Applejack sighed wearily. “Don’t get me wrong, I like providin’ hospitality for our guests, but this is a little much.” Grabbing Rainbow Dash’s cup, she drained it before continuing. “Maybe if they was more like that nice feller who came by this mornin', I wouldn’t be so worn out.”
“Oh yeah,” Rainbow Dash said, perking up. “We were just talking about that guy. He went over to Rarity’s, who sent him over to Twilight’s, but none of us got his name. He tell you anything while he was at the farm?”
“Gosh, I reckon he didn’t,” Applejack murmured in wonder. “Shoot, he helped me and Apple Bloom load up all them apples, and I didn’t don’t even know his name.”
“Ooh, ooh, are we playing a guessing game?” Pinkie Pie called out as she bounded over to the table. “Lemme try, lemme try! Is it something tasty? Is it chocolate cake? Ooh, it’s chocolate cake, isn’t it?”
“Simmer down, Pinkie Pie,” the freckled blonde laughed as she stuffed a cookie in her friend’s mouth. “We was jess talkin’ about this new guy in town. It seems we all met him, but none of us know his name.”
“Bhhm ggmm wuh bwnnn hoa ah hah?” Pinkie Pie said with a mouthful of cookie.
“Er, come again?” Rarity asked. After she swallowed, Pinkie Pie repeated.
“Big guy with a brown coat and hat?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” Rainbow Dash remarked, sounding quite surprised. “How’d you know?”
“He stopped in for breakfast this morning before I told him to go to your orchard to find Twilight. I like him. He ate a whole pie by himself. A whole pie! Now that takes some doing, lemme tell you, ‘cause–”
“Did he mention his name?” Twilight asked. Pursing her lips, Pinkie Pie leaned on her chin and thought. Hard.
“Gee, I guess he didn’t,” she gasped. “Golly, you’d think I’d ask the name of a guy who could eat a whole pie by himself, but I was having so much fun getting ready for the party, I totally forgot about him, which is a shame, because anybody who likes pie has to be a great guy. I guess that’s why I don’t like the marshals that much. Oh sure, they must be great and all, but I haven’t seen them eat anything yet, and if you don’t eat pie, then there must be something wrong with you…” Pinkie Pie continued, but her friends started to tune her out: you had to do that from time to time to be friends with Pinkie Pie.
“Um… excuse me girls,” Fluttershy said softly as the five girls jumped: they just realized Fluttershy had already joined them at the table. While normally quiet, the timid one became even more so in public settings, to the point where she was practically invisible in plain sight.
“What’s up, sugar cube?” Applejack asked after she got her heart rate under control.
“Oh, I’m sorry to interrupt,” Fluttershy apologized, “but I was just wondering if the person you’re talking about was the one Rainbow Dash brought over earlier?”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” Rainbow Dash said. “I took him from Applejack’s to Fluttershy’s before he went over to Rarity’s.”
“You met him too?” Pinkie Pie gasped. “Omygosh, that’s so weird!”
“Did the feller tell you anything?” Applejack asked.
“No,” the quiet girl said, sounding crestfallen. “It’s such a shame: he seemed like such a nice man, I thought he might...” but with a sudden squeak, Fluttershy trailed off.
“What’s the matter, Fluttershy?” Rarity asked, looking at her friend.“Is there something on your mind?” The timid girl looked around nervously, seemingly very conflicted about whether or not she should speak. However, seeing her friends’ looking concernedly at her motivated her to talk.
“Well, it’s just that… he seemed really nice, so… I was thinking that... maybe… he could talk to the marshals…”
“Why, what’s up with them?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“It’s nothing really,” Fluttershy insisted. “It’s just that, well… their horses still have all that heavy armor on. I know they’re strong, but it looks so hot, and I was wondering if maybe… the marshals had forgotten…” Ah, that explained the hesitation. The only thing that could equal Fluttershy’s love of animals was her desire not to hurt anybody’s feelings. “So, I was going to ask him if he might… you know… talk to them.”
The five other girls stared for a moment in quiet amazement. Fluttershy almost never asked for favors: she hated to be a bother. So the fact that she intended to ask a person she’d just met for help must mean that he was a very, very nice person. Or maybe he was just really good with animals.
“Well, it doesn’t seem like he’s around here,” Twilight said, scanning the town square. "But if that’s it, I’m sure the marshals will listen to reason. I’ll go over there and ask them right away.” With that, Twilight stood up headed towards the noisy table.
“...How did he do it?” Rainbow Dash asked in exasperation as their bookish friend left. “I mean seriously, how?”
“What’re you talking about, Dashie?” Pinkie Pie asked.
“Think about it. This guy went from Pinkie Pie’s to Applejack’s, ran into me, stopped by Fluttershy’s, paid a visit to Rarity, and then headed over to Twilight’s place, and none of us even know his name! How does that happen?!” She didn’t even notice herself steadily floating higher as her agitated tirade continued.
“Uh, maybe because none of us asked?” Applejack suggested.
“Oh. Right,” Rainbow Dash said, settling back down in her seat.
“But what if,” Pinkie Pie interjected, carrying on where Rainbow Dash had left off, “What if, he’s a spy?!” Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened into twin violet disks: she hadn’t thought of that.
“Oh please,” Rarity scoffed. “A man like him? Of course he’s not a spy.”
“Maybe he’s a really good spy. Like, a super spy!” Pinkie Pie replied.
“Yeah!” Rainbow Dash retorted as she started to float again, “I mean, the people here are like, the nicest ever. How else could he get around without getting us to ask about him?”
“Maybe, we were so caught up in different things, like getting ready for the party, that we forgot to be nice to him?” Fluttershy murmured.
Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash were about to retort, but both of them froze as they thought over what Fluttershy had just said. The eyes of all five girls widened as they realized that that may have been exactly what had happened.
“Wow,” Rainbow Dash said solemnly. “We… are terrible people.”
“And how,” Applejack agreed.
“Now now, girls,” Rarity smiled, standing up and putting away her parchment. “Just because we made a mistake doesn’t mean we have to let it continue. We’ll find this gentleman and show him a true Ponyville welcome. How about it?”
“Yeah!” Pinkie Pie agreed, jumping up. “The party’s just getting started! Let’s–”
The rest of her statement was cut off as a sudden shriek came from the direction of the marshal’s table. The girl’s stared at each other in surprise, then began running towards the sound as fast as they could.
The shriek had sounded an awful lot like Twilight.