To just about everypony connected to the armed forces of our nation, there need be no introduction for this daughter of Equestria, this figurehead, this hero as many of my colleagues and, yes even myself, have put into print from time to time. She has graced our headlines, our honours lists and our bookstore shelves with mention of her exploits, her achievements and her valour in service to Princess and Country.
Her name has become synonymous with lands far beyond our own, from the sandy dunes of Camelu to the steaming jungles and savannah of Zebrica. The ancient palaces of Far Ib'xian and mountain strongholds of the Griffin Kingdoms: all have been the settings for the adventures that have thrilled the public of her home city of Canterlot and beyond. Even now, scores of young fillies and colts dream of following in her hoofsteps; drawn ever on by the glamour of adventure, the zeal of serving one's nation and the image that has festooned countless recruiting posters over the years urging on those who are willing to do their part in protecting our green and pleasant land.
But very few know her true story; about the mare behind the cape and the crest, behind the trident and the manticore and behind the propaganda and the rhetoric. As military correspondent to the Canterlot Globe I have had the privilege of documenting her career almost from its very outset: standing by the Fountain of Hippocampia during the “Crystal Maze Incident” (as it has become known to those of a populist bent) all those years ago. Since then I have written of her exploits at great length, even going so far as to take up the role of an adventurer myself at one point (where the black eye I received in that salt bar in Appleloosa was the least of my worries) but I have never recorded anything about her life before she became a living legend among the “Ponies Who Serve” until this point.
The word 'Hero' is a powerful one. It can be a blessing to those who heed the call to take up its mantle, but it can also be a heavy burden. And sometimes it is appropriate to consider the ponies who have to bear its weight in both their graces and their flaws and beyond the burden and glamour that our society places upon them.
So please enjoy as I recount the story of Britannia: officer, lady, hero & friend. For what greater title can we bestow upon somepony than the one of friendship?
-Carbon Copy of the Globe
Every story must begin somewhere: it is the universal law of narrative. Of course, if you go back far enough: back to the very first beginning, every story starts at the same place. So, determining where or when or how a story should begin is rather difficult and very important.
Maybe this story began centuries ago, in a place now lying only as ruins buried beneath the sands of time, where the most learned and powerful ponies of the age set down a plan: a plan to create something that could change the world.
Or maybe it began here, in a clearing on a humid night in the untamed jungle of darkest Zebrica while the Mare in the Moon bathed her silvery light over the forest canopy, eliciting a humming chorus from an innumerable choir of insects. A small encampment was in the process of bedding down: a few zebra guards forming a picket around its boundaries. With bamboo quarter-staffs balanced over their withers, their senses were sharply tuned for any discordance in the music of the forest. Meanwhile their companions, or those who weren't already drifting off to a mosquito-bothered sleep, were sat around the central campfire. The shadows that the mingled zebras and soldier ponies cast upon the canvas of the encircling tents flickered in the firelight, dancing to their animated chatter about the events of the day. All the while, above their heads, a banner bearing the regimental colours of the Royal Equestrian Expeditionary Force hung limply in the still air. These were ponies far from home.
Inside one of the sizeable tents, a middle-aged unicorn stallion with a compass for a cutie-mark and an unruly scarlet moustache was hunched over a trestle table, reading a map by the light of a firefly lantern. Shrouded in mosquito netting, the sleeping form of a manticore cub lay on a bedroll close by. The cuteness of its bewhiskered kitten-like face was nearly outweighed by its furled leathery wings and twitching scorpioid tail. While next to the diminutive predator nestled a young red-haired filly. Her coat was white, her flank was blank and her blue eyes were absorbed in an enormous book resting between her fore-hooves.
Yes, it seems this might be the best place to start this story after all.
"And Clover the Clever raised the Hoof-Grenade up on high, saying:
"O Princess of the Sun, bless this thy Hoof Grenade that with it thou mayest bless thy enemies with the power of Harmony, in thy mercy."
And the Princess did grin, and the ponies did feast upon the hay and celery and carrots and apple pies and orange juice and breakfast cereals and fruit baskets and large muff..."
Britannia sighed and scanned down the page to the good stuff, or at least the stuff that didn't make her hungry.
"Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hoof-Grenade of Amity towards thy foe, who, being unloved in my sight, shall be filled with Love & Tolerance until the proverbial manure be expelled."
An unusual book for a young filly to be reading really; but, then again, this wasn't an ordinary young filly. At her Uncle Living Stone's farmstead back in Woahzambique she had been enthralled as the old explorer had waxed lyrical in his Highland Trots brogue about the Crusade for the Holy Hoof-Grenade: of the Knights of Celestia who braved the wilderness searching for an ancient relic of great power. Then he'd shown her the book, full of its beautiful pictures: the knights with their lances and armour, the awe-inspiring landscapes, the ancient fortresses and temples and the Hoof-Grenade itself.
Its picture had looked so real she could almost imagine herself holding it in her very hooves: a golden orb, encrusted with jewelled bands and topped with the bright red Heart of Harmony. When her uncle had given her that book, the day they'd left, she'd been overwhelmed. It was nothing like any of her dry school books back in Canterlot. Nothing like anything in her life back in Canterlot, really. In the huge echoing chambers of Buckingham Manor it was all about being seen and not heard and keeping up appearances and being a respectable little lady. In the pages of her book, however, among the myths and fables there was colour and mystery and the promise of adventure.
She'd stared at the pictures until she could see them in her sleep and now she was determined to read it from cover to cover, every word. Which was hard going, as there were so many she still didn't quite get, not to mention that there were 2,312 pages of them (plus appendices). She rubbed at her eyes with a hoof. The olden-time language probably wasn't helping either.
But the little pony was determined because she was going to be an explorer some day, and not just any explorer: the greatest explorer. She would be a treasure hunter, and a globe-trotter and a monster hunter and a knight. She would be the greatest explorer because she would be just like her daddy. She glanced up, eyes full of the limitless adoration only a foal could feel, at the stallion stooped over his map. Her father, Major Quarter Mane of the R.E.E.F: the best soldier in Princess Celestia's Army and the bestest daddy in the world.
“Daddy?” she asked. The lilt of her accent betrayed the Buckinghamshire-inspired elocution lessons her Great Aunt, Hyacinth Bouquet, had given her since she was little.
“Hmm?” her father answered distractedly as he magically walked a set of callipers over the map.
“What does 'the proverbial manure be expelled' mean?”
“It means...it means...wait, what?” he blinked as if coming out of a trance then turned incredulously toward his only child. “Where in Celestia's name did you get that from?” Little Britannia clopped pointedly on the Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Antiquities.
“Oh,” he chuckled and shook his head. He'd never have heard the end of it from Hyacinth if Quaghili wasn't the only kind of language her grand-niece had learned on this trip. He knelt beside the little pony, nosed aside the mosquito netting, and began to flick the pages of the weighty tome with his practised magic. “Well, young filly-me-lass, in this case it means that whoever is hit by the power of the hoof-grenade, all their bad feelings go away, see?”
The page bore a triptych: three pictures linked together. The first depicted a scary looking troll of some sort with pony figures running in terror. The second: of the creature being hit by a rainbow coloured explosion centred on a small golden orb. Finally, in the creatures place, the next panel showed a peaceful figure of smiling benevolence surrounded by happy ponies.
Britannia looked up with a very un-foallike arched eyebrow. “Really, Daddy?”
Quarter Mane's own brows rose at the scepticism in his daughter's voice. He supposed he shouldn't have been surprised. For all her passion and youthful exuberance she was growing up. She'd started seeing things on this trip across the world that very few foals from her background would have. Perhaps she was realising that it was unlikely that the world's problems could just be solved with a magical friendship beam.
“Well,” he scratched his whiskers pensively with a hoof, “that's certainly the popular theory. It's said that the Holy Hoof-Grenade was made by ponies in ancient times. A magical device created for protection and to dispel evil from the land, or so the story goes. Some speculate that it was created with the same Fire of Friendship that helped unite the tribes and found Equestria. You remember the story of Hearth's-Warming Eve don't you?”
Britannia nodded. What foal in the whole of Equestria didn't? The Major glanced over the book.
“But, then again,” he said, getting into the flow of his favoured subject matter, “some scholars think there are other possibilities. There's the nature of the artefact itself, f'rinstance. At the end of the day, it's a grenade: a weapon and an explosive one at that. So maybe the proverbial...wossname in question isn't just the bad feelings within the...er...target, but the target itself. So it may not mean changing it from evil to good but...um...”
Quarter Mane broke his reverie and looked at his daughter. She was now looking at the triptych intently, a troubled knot creasing her brow as her eyes flicked from picture to picture as if she was seeing the little scenario playing out in a different light.
Not for the first time, the Major felt a flicker of doubt enter his mind. Was it really the right thing, bringing his daughter along with him this time? Over the years, as duty had called him away, he'd found himself growing even more racked with worry about when he'd ever see her again. It troubled him how different she'd be every time as the cold conformity of Canterlot culture broadened the distance between them. It was certainly a good thing to take her away from that, to see the world beyond the privilege and the tea-parties.
He'd seen her take to the harsh life with the R.E.E.F like a fish to water, just absorbing it and letting it breathe new life into her. She'd wanted to know about it all: the cultures they met, the animals they encountered, first aid, tracking and, yes, even self defence, though that was really just sport for the troops. They got a good laugh out of watching a little filly in pigtails trying to fence and learning how to parry with a quarterstaff. He'd been watching her, though, and she was learning fast.
They certainly hadn't laughed when she'd wandered into camp one day with the bandaged form of a manticore cub draped over her back; the same one that now, despite everypony-else's misgivings, refused to leave her side, loyal as a guard dog. A guard dog with some distinctly unsettling eating habits to any parent who has to explain the concept of the food chain, Quarter Mane thought as the sleeping cub yawned, displaying a reaping machine's worth of little fangs to the world.
No, she was certainly growing up out here, and being able to share that time with her was a treasure greater than anything he'd ever wish to discover. Still, it worried him just what he was making her grow up to be. He unconsciously glanced towards the sheathed sabre on his own bedroll. Everypony in Equestria thought they knew what it was to be a soldier for the Princess: doing their duty and defending the realm for the good of the nation. They called them heroes but tended to forget that, sometimes, it came down to just you, somepony else, and one of you not getting back up at the end of it. That his little filly could so readily jump to that implication gave him an unsettling pause for thought.
“Well, maybe not kill, per se,” he said quickly, brushing the thoughts under the rug for the time-being,“but certainly give it a hard time. Of course, lass, it's probably all just a legend in any case. A myth to help explain what power the magic of Harmony can have. It's what's known as an allegory.”
Britannia rolled her eyes, “I know what an allegory is, Daddy.”
“Good to know those teachers back home aren't a complete waste of time,” he said with a smirk. His daughter giggled causing her pet to flick his ears and roll over in his sleep.
“Well, the allegory here,” Quarter Mane continued, “is that what the Knights were actually looking for was the power within themselves to fight the evil of this world.” Britannia seemed to mull this over for a few seconds.
“But some legends could be based on real things, couldn't they?” she said eventually. Quarter Mane smiled at his daughter.
“Well, my dear. That's why it's my job to separate the stories from reality,” he said. She nodded to herself and looked up at him with a determined expression.
“Well if it is real, I want to be the first pony to find it.”
“I'm sure you will.” he said with a chuckle. “Now, I think that's enough history for one night," and he closed the book with a spark of magic. “We have a long day tomorrow and it's time for all young relic-hunters to go to...” He stopped, ears flicking as something that had been nagging at his brain for a bit finally registered. The ever-present sizzling of the insects had gone deathly silent.
The manticore cub's eyes snapped open and he rose to his feet with a low growl, hackles rising and tail twitching.
“What is it, Roary?” Britannia asked her pet with a quiver in her voice. Quarter Mane's eyes narrowed.
“Something isn't right,” he muttered. As if in answer, the tent-flap was suddenly pushed open, revealing the figure of a zebra. She was breathing heavily, blood oozing from terrible wounds. She leaned upon her quarterstaff.
“Major,” she gasped in pain, “it's...” Before she could finish, a terrible howl emanated from outside the tent; a guttural wail that ended in a piercing squeal making the ponies' pulses quicken with primal fear.
“Asanbosam! Asanbosam!” a voice cried out. “To arms one and all, or else the camp shall surely fall!” The zebra in the doorway sighed and collapsed on the floor, her life's blood soaking into the rush matting. Not losing a second, Quarter Mane hauled her on to his bunk.
“Quick Britty, fetch the first aid kit!” he cried out. “We need to bind her wounds.” Without questioning, the filly grabbed the satchel with its crossed hearts symbol and wriggled out from under the mosquito netting. Father and daughter practically tore the contents from the kit and set about the zebra with gauze and bandage, knowing full well that there wasn't a moment to lose. All the while the howling, and sounds of combat and confusion, filled the air.
A uniformed pony pushed his way into the tent, his spear-point dripping a nasty-looking liquid, “Sir! We're being attacked from all sides. We need you out here!”
Quarter Mane looked from the soldier to the zebra and then to his daughter. Her white coat was stained red as she tightened a bandage with her mouth. She looked up at him with determined eyes.
“Go, Daddy,” she said through clenched teeth. “I know what to do, she'll be okay.” The manticore cub paced around the filly, growling, with ears and eyes flicking in all directions. Quarter Mane gave a brisk nod and, with a flare of his horn, he unsheathed his sabre in a streak of silver and joined his troops outside, leaving his daughter to her task.
Britannia shook as she watched her father rush out into the night, part of her wishing she hadn't told him to leave. But the job she had to do was much more important than how she felt. She grabbed a mouthful of gauze and packed it down on another of the frightful wounds. There was so much blood. The taste of it and the sight of it on her hooves made her stomach turn. She pressed down, trying to stem the flow as she concentrated her magic. Straining, she lifted a bandage and began to wrap it around the striped body, pulling tighter and tighter.
Breathing shallowly, the zebra mumbled in her own language.
“Hu...hush now,” Britannia stammered, her own breathing rapid. “You'll be all right. I...I'm going to fix you right up.” With another concentrated measure of levitation magic she applied some anti-septic spray on the zebras's bleeding flank. The striped equine tensed as the liquid stung and she hissed out a few choice words of Quaghili.
Britannia blushed. She didn't really know what those words meant but she could hazard a guess. “You shouldn't say rude words in front of little fillies,” she said, quoting Auntie Hyacinth. Though really, she thought, if there was a time for rude words this certainly felt like it. Poo. Knickers. Bum. Bloody. Bloody blood blood Oh! There was so much blood! She shook the thought away,
“I'm sorry. It will only sting for a bit, okay?” she said and moved onto another wound. The zebra nodded.
Britannia bit her lip.
“My...my daddy always says you should never let the buggers see you're hurt,” she said, as much to fill the empty space in the one-sided conversation as anything else.
The zebra made a tortured rattling whinny that sounded almost like laughter, “Your father is an unusual pony, little one.”
He's the best pony, the little filly thought. There was less of that horrible wailing now but she could still hear the commotion of battle outside the tent. I hope he's safe. She looked over the zebra. She'd first seen them just as pictures in one of her daddy's books when she'd sneaked into his study when Auntie wasn't looking. Seeing them in real life: these ponies that weren't ponies, she had been really nervous. They had looked and talked so strangely, but there was something nice and comforting about them. Something about the way they sounded and smelled just made her feel at home for some reason. Now, seeing those beautiful stripes torn and bloodied and their owner hurt and helpless, it was like a fire was being lit inside her.
“What's your name?” she asked as she rooted through the satchel.
“Zeneela” the zebra gasped.
Britannia started on the final cut. They were all in regular intervals, like she'd been raked with terrible claws.
“What did this to you Zeneela?” she asked, horrified. “What's out there?”
After arranging her thoughts, the zebra spoke, “Beasts of forests, dark and loathsome. My people call them the asanbosam. High above in the trees they wait, until the chance to strike they take. Upon those unwary they will drop, and until you're dead they will not stop.” Suddenly Zeneela gasped, eyes wide with terrified insight, “Oh, how could I forget my fate? You must flee before it's too late!” she tried to clamber to her hooves, agony twisting her face. Britannia tried to hold her down.
“You mustn't move Zeneela!, you'll tear your bandages!” Behind her, Roary's growling intensified, his tail whipping and winglets rustling as he stared at a looming shape beyond the tent canvas. The zebra, drawing from reserves she shouldn't even have, knocked her diminutive carer aside with a butt of her head.
Her eyes pleaded through pained tears, “Once a victim the monsters choose, their scent and taste they'll never lose,” she rhymed frantically. “Run away I beg of you, before the demons get you too!”
Britannia stood, rooted to the floor in shock, the zebra's words like ice down her spine.
A howl suddenly shook the tent and the occupants stared in horror as claws like huge iron sickles shredded through the canvas. Like a storybook monster come to life, a grey ape-like face with eyes like fiery slits leered in at them. Its gaping, fang-toothed maw bellowed in triumph as the asanbosam slashed its way in and lunged straight for them.
Caught unaware, they would both have certainly been prey to those thirsting teeth. That is, if it wasn't for the mosquito netting. The clinging material checked the creature's trajectory and left it sprawled and scrabbling on the tent floor. As it attempted to rise the manticore gave an impassioned roar and sprung. The asanbosam screeched as Roary, clinging to its face with his claws, plunged his tail wherever he could. The cub's venom wasn't as potent as it would be if he were fully grown but the pain would still be excruciating. Shrieking, the monster stumbled against Quarter Mane's trestle table, knocking its contents to the ground. The firefly lantern smashed, releasing its captive insects and leaving the zebra and the pony blinking in the dark just as another two pairs of glowing red eyes appeared through the rend in the tent.
As the two equines' eyes adjusted to the darkness the new monstrosities lumbered in past their prone companion. Clawed hands swung as their hobbling gait brought them closer. The little filly, her mouth agape, suddenly found herself knocked to one side by a neatly placed hoof.
Zeneela stood unsteadily and faced the beasts, “Behind me, little one,” she said, grabbing her quarter-staff in her mouth and awkwardly taking up the fighting stance of a zebra warrior. The first beast, scenting its quarry, bellowed and charged. Zeneela struck, cracking the beast around the jaw with her staff and following through with an uppercut that sent her foe reeling but certainly not out of the fight. The other creature swung at her, trying to slice her with its claws only to be met by a deft parry of the staff and a kick to the solar plexus.
Britannia lay transfixed; why hadn't she screamed for help? Or for her daddy? Or run like the wounded zebra had told her? But she found she just couldn't. Her body refused to obey what her rational brain was screaming at her to do. Instead she watched as the netted asanbosam finally wrenched the furious manticore off and hurled him across the tent. The little furry shape smashed against a support post and tumbled to the floor with a plaintive mewl.
“Roary!” Britannia made to run to him but stumbled back as the asanbosam snarled. Now freed from both pet and net, it began to stalk towards what it perceived to be the easiest target: herself.
She tried to retreat but felt only the stout canvas of the tent wall against her rump. She was trapped. With no escape and nothing to hoof to defend herself she could only stare as the creature approached. Its fangs were bared and its eyes glared viciously. Her thoughts ran cold, Oh, Celestia! I'm going to die! She looked at her companions: Zeneela, kicking and swinging at the relentless monsters while blood-loss and exhaustion took their toll, and Roary, lying as still as when she'd first found him lost and hurt in the forest.
The evil creature loomed above her, the rotting stink of carrion assaulting her nostrils. It paused, saliva beading between its fangs as if savouring the moment, then it raised its arm back. They're all going to die and there's nothing I can do...
Her eyes shot open, a new gleam at their heart, and she screamed. It was a scream of fear and of desperation and, most of all, of pure, unbridled, rage,
“No!” her horn flared, casting the whole tent in a wash of blue light as she reached out for something, anything. This!
A glimmer of blue caught the corner of the asanbosam's eye as it prepared to strike. It turned to look, only to find all 2,312 pages of the Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Antiquities (plus appendices) shooting, spine-first, at its face. It was difficult to tell, but in the split second the creature had left at its disposal, it might have actually looked somewhat surprised. With a sound like the impact of an artillery pie, the book exploded in a cloud of paper and viscous fluid. The force knocked the creature off its feet and it thudded heavily to the floor at Britannia's hooves. It didn't rise.
The little filly panted. Her heart raced and her horn crackled with magical energy. Paper fluttered around her like it was the Running of the Leaves, covering the asanbosam in a white blanket. On the other side of the tent she watched with relief as Roary began to pull himself to his feet, no worse the wear for his ordeal. It took a lot to take down a manticore, even a cub.
Suddenly a cry of equine pain tore her attention away and towards the fight still raging on the other side of the tent. Zeneela had battled valiantly but she was weakened from her injuries and outnumbered. One of the creatures got a lucky strike in, hobbling her and sending her crashing to an exhausted and bloodied heap at their feet. With a cry of triumph they fell upon her, talons rising and falling in wet slashes.
Britannia didn't even think as she charged at the monsters.
“Get away from her!” She leapt. The monsters turned from their killing blows as the red and white filly fell amongst them, hooves bucking anything they could reach with furious kicks. Taken aback, they fell away from their prey and began sizing up this new threat. Britannia, face twisted in righteous fury, straddled the downed Zeneela while her manticore leapt before her with tail arched and teeth bared. As the two asanbosam spread their claws the filly reached out and plucked up the zebra's fallen staff, holding it ready in a magic haze.
It no longer occurred to her that she couldn't possibly succeed where a seasoned zebra warrior had failed. Such rationale had been drowned in her passion and, now, only instinct seemed to control her actions; a deep, primal instinct rising from blood that once flowed through the veins of blue-painted warriors from the days of her ancestors. No. It wasn't just instinct, it was like she was meant to do this. She was Britannia, daughter of Quarter Mane, and she would see to it these evil creatures wouldn't harm anypony else. The beasts rushed her.
It should have been no contest. She was young, small and fragile. But hidden in her weaknesses there was strength. She was nimble and fast, able to duck and weave from the slashing arms and everywhere she saw a chance she swung and jabbed with the quarter-staff: striking joints and cracking skulls. It was utterly without skill or poise, it was just pure ferocity, like her manticore companion who leaped and clawed and stabbed at anything that came near her. It was like a violent ballet of pony and pet, sting and staff, and mind and muscle.
The asanbosam, once determined and willing to weather any punishment in pursuit of prey even ten times the size of what faced them here, found their resolve and their bodies weakening. Zebras were one thing but this was unicorn magic and it was growing in strength and potency, as if filling from some bottomless well within the little pony. Now, unthinkably to their bestial minds, the hunters had become the prey. The quarter-staff that had been a formidable weapon in Zeneela's mouth and hooves now became a spinning bar of pain in Britannia's magic.
Finally, unable to bear any more, they fled, the manticore chasing them to the edge of the tent and back out the hole they'd come through. Stopping just short he lived up to his name and cried a victorious high-pitched roar after the running figures. Britannia watched, adrenaline running its course as the monsters disappeared back into the forest. She dropped her head in exhausted relief. She'd won! Behind her, the slumped striped figure gave a laboured breath,
“Zeneela!” With a clatter, the battered quarter-staff fell as her magic dissipated. She dropped by the zebra's side, looking with horror at the torn bandages and fresh wounds.
“You...you are safe?” the zebra gasped. “I...saw you fighting off the beasts. Felt sure, I did, that...that...” the zebra's brow furrowed as if she were searching for the correct rhyme.
“Shh...Zeneela, don't speak, I have to stop this bleeding.” Britannia looked frantically for the first aid kit. The moonlight that shone through the gap in the tent revealed the carnage the monsters had left behind. Bedrolls and travel bags were scattered, maps and equipment littered the floor and, everywhere, there were pages from the damaged book. It was like a bomb site. There was no sign of the bandages.
The zebra gave a shuddering sigh and spoke, “I... think... it's too late for that.”
Britannia gasped, “No! I'll stop it! Don't give up, Zeneela!” She scrabbled in the detritus around them, looking for anything: a scrap of gauze, a sticking plaster, anything! With nothing else to hoof she started gathering up paper, pushing it in the wounds, levitating piles of it over to her and holding them against the zebra's neck and barrel. Pages of writing, pictures of artefacts, temples, courtyards, ponies in ancient clothes, a familiar golden orb: she used anything and watched helplessly as each one turned dark with the endless flow of blood.
Tears welled in her eyes, “No!” she screamed. “Please, Somepony help! Help me! Anypony! Daddy!
The frenetic flow of battle had taken the soldiers far from the camp as they'd driven the creatures back. The safety of his daughter had been almost forgotten in the desperate struggle, but when Quarter Mane learned what the creatures were and how they tracked their prey he'd raced back as if Cerberus himself were on his tail. How long had it been since he'd left her? Five minutes? Fifteen? Anything could have happened. Why had he been so careless, so bloody stupid? As unbidden tears of paranoid self-loathing began to stream from frantic eyes, the sight of the dark and torn tent almost stopped him in his tracks. He gasped, like icy claws had gripped his heart and twisted.
"What have I done?" he whispered. Then he heard her desperate cry and simply charged.
Magical light filled the tent as Quarter Mane burst in: his horn incandescent, his sword at the ready and his troops hot on his heels. The profound relief he felt at seeing the little filly alive and well, however, was checked as he saw her tear and blood streaked face pleading from behind the bleeding Zeneela.
“Please, you have to save her. She can't die!”
He sheathed his sword and nodded to a green-coated unicorn mare with a medical saddlebag slung over her back. They both rushed to the zebra's side. While the medic set to work Britannia rushed into her father's eager embrace between neck and foreleg,
“Daddy, I tried my best.” the filly sniffled into her father's coat whilst, behind them, the other ponies and zebras marvelled at the state of the tent.
Quarter Mane looked over to his medic, “How is she, Doc?”
Medical Officer, Lt. Copperhead had moved swiftly, living up to the serpent-entwined rod she bore as a cutie-mark. Zeneela's body was wrapped in fresh bandages while a splint was being tied to her broken leg. The medic looked up at her commanding officer.
“She's lost a lot of blood, Sir, but we got to her in time. We just need to get her somewhere more comfortable," she said after a cursory glance around the tent: its hygiene clearly not up to anypony's standards any more. "Still," she seemed to concede, "quick-thinking of the filly to use paper like that.”
“Paper?” the Major asked and levitated a couple of blood-spattered pages. “Britty, are...are these from your book?”
“I...I had to,” the foal said. “There were so many and there was nothing I could use and it was the heaviest thing I knew I could lift and...” An exclamation from one of the ponies interrupted her and the major turned as the remnants of the encyclopaedia was pulled away from where it had fallen; revealing the slumped grey form of the asanbosam, looking as if something had literally thrown the book at it. Weapons were levelled at it and a zebra guard with more ornate jewellery than the others dropped down beside the creature's body. After a few checks she looked up, eyes wide,
“It is dead.” Shocked murmurs filled the tent from the collected equines.
Britannia was stunned, “Dead? But...but...I didn't mean to kill it.”
The Lead Zebra approached the young filly, “You, did this?” she asked in a deep, ominous voice. Britannia's bottom lip quivered, she felt Roary brush up against her leg, a low growl of warning in his throat as he looked up at the zebra who was scrutinising the filly with unreadable eyes.
“I had to,” the little pony said, “to save Zeneela.” The soldiers and zebras shared a look but stayed silent.
It isn't in a pony's nature to kill. Fight: yes. Defend: of course. But to take a life, even when necessary, was something so unsettling that only the most psychotic or dead to the magic of Harmony couldn't help but feel its wrongness in their hearts. But, on the other hoof, they were the Ponies Who Serve. The ponies for whom doing what they had to, even when the cost was great, was both their calling and their curse.
The soldiers listened with growing amazement as the filly began to babble; recounting what had happened, what she'd felt and what she'd done. When she'd reached the part about throwing the book even Corporal Pin Point, the Expedition's stoic sharp-shooter, whistled through her teeth in wonder. A unicorn Britannia's age with that kind of telekinetic power?
Major Quarter Mane stayed silent though: his mind running a mile a minute. She's going back to Canterlot. I'm calling off the expedition. I'll inform the Zevera Assembly and to Tartarus with the Ministry of Defence! She should never have come here. How could I have let this happen to her? I was a selfish, stupid old fool. Hyacinth must never hear about this. No-pony must ever hear about this. He rested a hoof gingerly on his daughter's neck and gazed down on her,
“Hush now, lass. It's going to be all right,” he soothed. “No-pony's angry with you, we're just...” He blinked, eyes focusing on her flank; at something he'd missed. The words dried up on his tongue. There, almost hidden amid the drying blood, a picture had appeared: a golden orb, decorated in jewelled bands and topped with the red Heart of Harmony. Sweet Mother of Celestia. Britannia looked up at her father,
“Just what, Daddy?” Before he could reassemble his thoughts Lt. Copper Head coughed for attention.
“Hate to interrupt the war stories,” she said while propping up the bandaged Zeneela, “but can somepony lend me a hoof? Miss Zebra, here, isn't the lightest of loads.”
One of the zebras trotted over to her fellow guard's side and took some of the weight upon herself. As she did, Zeneela quietly spoke a few words of Quaghili. The other zebra replied and Zeneela appeared to nod. The other zebra called out and they were swiftly joined by the Lead Zebra. An animated conversation began to take place between the three with the Medic looking lost and a little peeved.
Britannia looked up as, the conversation seemingly completed, Zeneela limped over to her with her bearers at her sides. The zebra dipped her head and nuzzled the filly's cheek.
“Thank you,” she whispered before she and her escort exited the tent. Behind Zeneela the Lead Zebra approached the astonished filly and cleared her throat.
“Sister Zeneela confirms the tale you've told. You, in great esteem, she dearly holds. Please, feel no shame at what you've done. Our boundless gratitude, you have won,” she announced, before bowing her head. “Mpira wa Dhahabu Britannia.” The other zebras followed suit, bowing in unison, leaving the Equestrians to awkwardly wonder if they should do the same. Britannia couldn't help but paw the ground slightly, seeing all those striped faces dipped solemnly towards her. She felt her cheeks grow hot and, instead, looked at the floor. Then, without another word, the zebras filed out with two of them bearing the corpse of the asanbosam across their backs to dispose of as they saw fit.
“What did those words mean, Daddy?” Britannia asked, quietly. Quarter Mane knew they meant a lot of things, for Quaghili is a language of deep complexity and multiple levels of meaning. One meaning in particular ran through his head as he looked again at the cutie-mark his daughter didn't seem to have realised she'd earned yet.
“It means 'beautiful defender, my dear,” he said, using another one, “and it's a title of great respect among the Zebra.” She seemed to let that sink in with a thoughtful expression,
“Am I in trouble, Daddy?” she asked. A smile creased Quarter Mane's face and he embraced his daughter again,
“Of course not, lass, we're all just glad you aren't hurt.” He winced slightly as his daughter brushed his knee. She looked at it with concern, seeing the dried blood and the teeth marks.
“But you are, Daddy.”
Her father smiled sardonically, the image the troops expected of him, “Oh, you know me," he said. "Never let the buggers, etcetera.” He glared at the smirking soldiers. “Now what are you lot doing, standing around like a bunch of mules? Haven't we got a camp to secure? Dismissed, the lot of you.” And the ponies fell out, murmuring amongst themselves and glancing furtively at the bomb-flanked filly.
“Now come along, young filly-me-lass,” Quarter Mane said to his beautiful defender, “let's get you over to the wash tent and clean this mess off you, eh?” Britannia nodded, wiping away the drying tears from her eyes, and the Major watched the little red-haired pony with the manticore cub at her heels as they trotted out together into the war-torn encampment. The Holy Hoof-Grenade cutie-mark on her flank was as bright as a new bit in the moonlight, carrying with it all the connotations of that iconic and ambiguous symbol. It was her coming of age, the most important event of a young pony's life. Her special talent. He wondered how she would react when she realised. And, in turn, how would he react to her.
The stallion sighed heavily. He had a lot to think about.
The Royal Equestrian Expeditionary Force
For the benefit of those not particularly well-versed in the organisation of our nation's armed forces (and there are few who truly have a really concise idea) it may be best to explain exactly what function the Royal Equestrian Expeditionary Force fulfils. My apologies in advance, but to quote from a fellow military writer:
"...If the adage be true that international diplomacy is the application of the correct amount of 'carrot', coupled with the correct amount of 'stick' then, to analyse the make-up of Equestria's military, it might behove us to, instead, think of the 'stick' as a 'sword'.
"The ornamentation of this 'sword', its decoration and engraving, could be likened to the pomp and ceremony that serve to entertain and reassure the public: the changing of the Royal Guard, the Wonderbolt Aerobatic Display Team etc. The strong blade with its well-honed edge would represent the various brigades and regiments that compose the Royal and National Guard: from the elite of Princess Celestia's Own Life Guards to the Royal Artillery, The Royal Air Service, The Royal Naval Service, The Royal Medical Corps and right down to the various Municiple Militias.
"Now the R.E.E.F, in the context of this analogy, could be likened to a grizzled, battle-hardened pony casually sharpening said 'sword' as they are stood behind a figurative Equestrian diplomat, who would be the equivalent of the 'carrot'. The metaphorical pony is in the background; 'he' (or indeed, 'she') is separate from the fine talk of negotiations but they are still, unarguably, there honing 'his' (or, indeed, 'her') weapon. Oh, they aren't doing it in a threatening manner, perish the thought! No, they're just maintaining the tool of their trade. Swords become blunt, you know? This one, possibly, after it had been used after the last representative of a foreign power felt that the lovely terms the Equestrian Government had offered them weren't to their liking. Speaking of which, why don't we have a little chat about these positively wonderful treaty papers we have right here?..." -Forlorn Hope pg.54
This particularly florid and yet rather crude analogy does seem to provide a decent summation, although I feel my fellow writer is showing his colours somewhat in regard to his take on Equestrian foreign policy. To simplify: The R.E.E.F represent the more proactive side to our otherwise reactionary military. They are, as Forlorn Hope arduously asserts, the martial side of the diplomatic and ambassadorial wings of government: there to support Equestrian interests in negotiation with both friendly and unfriendly nations.
As a result of their primary role, they are often the first to the front in the event that any conflict may arise. As these are rare within our recent history, with our diplomats being very skilled in their work and great proponents of the 'Love and Tolerance' approach, the R.E.E.F also finds itself used in less combative roles. Crucial services in a number of fields have found their way into the Force's remit: whether it be exploration, reclamation of various ancient magical artefacts, logistical support and the distributors of aid and relief in extreme environments or during crises.
Its composition has been described as 'rag-tag' by some critics within the high echelons of the military as, at any time, it may count among its number various civilian operatives: scientists, explorers, medical practitioners, scholars, researchers, merchants, engineers, meteorological and meteorologistical specialists, magical technicians, native guides and other assorted field-agents. Also, as well as the R.E.E.F's official command structure (recognisable by the regimental badge and coral-coloured uniform facings) they may also call upon officers and soldiers from other regiments in a form of 'Army Exchange Program' for want of a better term. The use of 'Irregulars' is also present in other divisions of the military but certainly not to the extent found within the R.E.E.F where maybe "twenty to thirty percent" (EMoD figures 960 AC-30 AS), of serving members have been drawn from other regiments and divisions.
The use of such soldiers provides the R.E.E.F with a remarkable diversity that allows it to apply the right specialists to the right areas whenever needed while other regiments are tied up by their sheer logistical size or a lacking in Equine Resources. Not only that but, unlike other Irregulars, soldiers on loan to the R.E.E.F may actually be integrated into the official command structure of the division itself if other suitable personnel can't be found or, quite simply, if they are the best mare or stallion for the job.
So it is less that the Royal Equestrian Expeditionary Force is 'rag-tag' but that it has the mutable ability to be infinitely specialised. Though its 'Colt-of-all-trades' nature does make it less effective compared to dedicated regiments and divisions should a full-scale war be unavoidable; it is a conjecture of mine that the R.E.E.F's poor standing among High Command is less to do with how 'effective' the division is and more to do with the monstrous amount of paperwork generated by its actions and the tangled web of its command chain (which, believe me, makes sense when you get used to it). That and 'taking the fight to the enemy' has always been a tricky subject amongst the more cautious members of the Ministry of Defence.
As a relevant aside: it should be noted that, unlike other divisions, the R.E.E.F maintains a register of 'Camp Followers' consisting of various civilians, family members and other non-combatants that may travel along with active personnel provided the mission in question isn't classified. Major Quarter Mane, as one of the highest ranking officers at the time of the Buckswana Expedition, was clearly able to use his influence to ensure his daughter was able to join the trip, something that would be unthinkable in more stringent divisions of our military; for better or for worse.
Get Your Filthy Hooves Off My Dessert: An Analysis of 'War Chariot Diplomacy' and its Role Within Equestrian Foreign Policy and the Fallacy of 'Love and Tolerance' by Forlorn Hope (Extreme Caution Advised. The author's flagrant torturing of the Equestrian language surely must be a crime under the Charter of Equine Rights- CC)
Equestrian Ministry of Defence Military Records Sections CXVII-CCIIX, Royal Canterlot Archives: Public Viewing Section
Coral in the Veins by Tempest Vortex, former R.E.E.F operative and Squadron Commander, Royal Equestrian Air-force
The Ponies Who Serve: A Brief History of the Equestrian Military by Carbon Copy
I have glossed over the details pertaining to the R.E.E.F’s presence on the Zebrican sub-continent in favour of focusing on the parts that are more important to Britannia’s story as a whole. However, the expedition represented quite an important leap forward in the diplomatic relations between Equestria and the Savannah Confederacy.
Up until that point, relations between our two peoples, though by no means unfriendly, were distant and our interactions were limited to that between occasional travellers and explorers. However, as items of produce, manufacture or scholarly interest began to be exchanged, a growing desire for further trade arose. A fashion for Zebrican exotica became all the rage among the elites of Canterlot during the late '60's and early '70's along with new foodstuffs, medicinal plants and natural resources. A similar desire was felt on the other side and so, with trade becoming more lucrative, it was in the Equestrian government’s interest to open up further diplomatic talks and trade routes.
The expedition headed by Major Quarter Mane of the R.E.E.F and Keongozi (lit. "Senior watcher") Zeonda of the Zevera Assembly was merely the culmination of three years of ongoing talks and path-finding to come to a conclusive plan of action that would benefit both nations and further the bonds of friendship between them. Most of the member states, herds and kingdoms within the Savannah Confederacy agreed to the cause during the Accord of 975 AC that took place at the Zebra "Capital" of Zevera: the great lake and communal water source which is a state of neutral territory between the diverse nations of the Confederacy. Other races who likewise pledged to further the aims of greater reciprocation were the Okapi, the Antelopes, the Giraffes, the Wildebeests, the Rhinoceri, the Hippopotami and the Elephants.
The last holdout, isolated by jungle and treacherous mountains, was the kingdom of Buckswana whose traditional knowledge of certain medicinal plants and potions was of great interest to the Ministry of Health and Well-being. Despite the setback of the night of July 21st. (the asanbosam attack) which left three members of the expedition seriously injured, they pressed ahead. In fact the trials that the party endured may have worked to their advantage as, impressed by their deeds that night, “particularly by (those of) the leader of the Equestrian Contingent’s daughter” -Plumbline Pg.67, diplomacy went better than expected and a plan to build links by rail, road and air from the coast to the interior was agreed upon. Our peoples have largely enjoyed a friendly dialogue ever since.
Paths Less Trotted: Travelling in the land of the Zebra by Capt. Plumbline, Royal Regiment of Engineers (Retired)
Speaking in Rhyme: Life among the Hoofed Peoples of the Savannah by Dr. Living Stone
The asanbosam that the expedition encountered are an example of just one of the many strange and deadly beasts known to inhabit the jungles of Zebrica: a wilderness untamed by ponykind much like our own Everfree Forest only on a much larger and more dangerous scale. Britannia and Zeneela’s impression of them provides an evocative image corroborated by others who have encountered these unsettling creatures “...the hairy Sasabonsam (sic) has large blood-shot eyes, long legs, and feet pointing both ways. Its favourite trick is to sit on the high branches of a tree and dangle its legs so as to entangle the unwary hunter.” -Blood Orchid Pg.435
Their name seems to roughly mean "Smelly hook-clawed blood demon" in Quaghili, proving that the Zebra language can be very specific at times (though raising the possibility of there being other varieties of blood demon purely by implication. This is Zebrica we're talking about here).They are a vampiric beast in nature, said to gorge upon the still-living blood of their victims. This, paradoxically, may explain why it was that Zeneela was able to survive her graphic injuries as severing a vital blood vessel would no doubt kill the victim too quickly for the creature to receive enough of their perverse sustenance.
Another creature of note in this account would, of course, be the animal that took it upon himself to repay Britannia’s caring nature with an undying loyalty and fierce devotion: the Zebrican Jungle Manticore (Panthera scorpius zebricanus) she aptly named “Roary”. Many of my readership will know him as the figure she occasionally finds herself paired with in certain recruitment posters and photographs and there are likely to be many among you who have even seen the beast in full force on the field of battle. As such, you will well appreciate the ferocity of these creatures that seem to combine the body of an enormous lion, the wings of a bat and the poisonous tail of a scorpion.
By nature these creatures tend to be loners in their native land, except during the breeding season when males will fight for the attention of the females. Cubs are usually born in litters numbering two to three and they remain with their mothers for some time until finally forced to fend for themselves by the, no doubt long-suffering, female. Although a winged creature they are unable to achieve true flight, instead using their wings for gliding and for increased height and distance when pouncing or climbing among the crags and cliff-faces that they tend to use as sites for their lairs. Their tail is capable of injecting a powerful venom used to disable their prey and mark their territory as each manticore's individual secretion carries a unique scent, or so magi-zoologists theorise.
Britannia has often speculated about how it was Roary had been injured and abandoned as a cub but came to no real conclusions. Maybe it was a case of uncharacteristic carelessness on the mother’s part or due to an attack by some larger predator (the fact that such things do exist gives one pause for thought when contemplating taking a vacation to the land of the zebra) Another possibility is that the family encountered another lone male who took it upon himself to make the mother go back into season by killing off her young. Such is the sad but all too real truth about life for these predators.
The fact that Britannia has any control over such a potentially violent animal, despite her continued assertions that “He’s just a big softie, really,” must say something for her force of personality or the high regard the apex predator holds her in. One possibility, as conjectured by contacts at the Biology dept. at Canterlot University, is that he thinks of Britannia as some kind of mother figure. As he has never been forced to ‘fly the nest’ so to speak and having no motivation to leave her side (I have it on good authority that rumours of a manticore population being present within the Everfree are unsubstantiated) his loyal and, somewhat, friendly nature may be down to some sort of unchallenged infantilism on his part. Alternatively whatever happened to him as a juvenile may have, metaphorically, knocked a few screws loose. Not having known any other manticores personally (and having no desire to, I might add) this is pure conjecture on my part.
As an aside, one might wonder what she feeds such a large carnivore. By all accounts it’s best not to ask, but, apparently, sardines, milk and large quantities of Kit-e-chow™ are involved to some extent. Military Supply Inventories can make for fascinating reading sometimes.
The Fauna & Flora of the Zebrican Sub-Continent, Volumes I to XVI by Prof. Blood Orchid
The myths surrounding this example of ancient Equestrian apocrypha: its origin, the lack of clarity regarding its purpose and the stories that surround it, are a source of great debate among magical scholars. It has been a part of the public consciousness for centuries, as fashion dictates: through the medium of books, stageplays and even motion pictures. Even the anonymous author of the Daring Do books was inspired to reference it in book 6 of the series: Daring Do and the Sovereign’s Orb. For further insight into these matters, however, please consult the volumes recommended at the end of this appendix.
In regards to how this enigmatic magical device relates to Britannia, as a symbol of her Special Talent, I still have no real idea but you may glean greater insight than I with continued reading of the Unofficial Biography. Her personality and actions at this obscure and very private part of her life are derived from a combination of my own interactions with her and interviews conducted with those members of the expedition I was able to gain an audience with. As for how she reacted when she realised she'd earned such an unusual and iconic mark, all I was able to get from her on the subject during our last interview was, “Like any foal would, I suppose.” a characteristic understatement or, possibly, a true lack of realisation of how unlike other foals she’d been. Mpira wa Dhahabu Britannia indeed.
The Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Antiquities, Vol. IX Canterlot Archives Press
The Holy Fire & The Holy Hoof-Grenade by Dr. Sacred Enigma, Professor of Runes, Glyphs & Symbology at the University of Canterlot
A Catalogue of the Crown Jewels of the Royal House of Equestria by Chief-Warder, Raven Wing of Her Majesty's Guardians Most Extraordinary of Her Majesty's Royal Fortress of the White Tower (Royal Treasure Vault Guards)