“Tha’ wasn’t necessary, ya’ know.”
“I’m sorry, really.”
“It was an accident.”
The two paused, waiting for a line of carriages to move past before crossing the street. They moved single-file in either direction, traveling across the uniform sets of wheel marks in the road like rails. Most of the carriages were simple one-pony wagons, hauling precious goods from one place to the next. Up and down the street, on the sidewalks and in the shops, ponies walked, talked, and worked. A short way down the road was a blacksmith’s workshop, open to the outdoors. The smith pounded away at a slab of red-hot metal, making the area reverberate with a steady, metallic clang. Behind them, a mare was arguing with a vendor at a vegetable stand, pounding her hoof on the counter as she declared a price to be unfair. A few ponies across the way sat at restaurant tables under an exterior canopy, pleasantly chatting as they ate their lunch.
It was midday in Canterlot. The sun was high in the sky, blessing the white city with a pleasant springtime heat. It was always busiest this time of day, as the good citizens worked, shopped, ran errands, or did some combination of the three. All of the activity made for a riotous symphony, boldly attesting to the industriousness of Canterlot. In any other circumstance, it would have been a familiar ambience, ordinary, and perhaps even comforting. In the ears of Apple Crumble, it was obnoxious and grating.
Crumble took an opportunity in their brief pause to move a hoof to his forehead, gingerly rubbing in a small circle just above his left eye.
“Ohhh, my skull,” he moaned, taking a moment to lower his head. His eyes were shut tight, and his ears laid flat. “I think yeh’ve cracked it…”
Celestia frowned and reached towards him. “Let me see it.”
Crumble’s wings lightly fluttered in protest, and he pushed her hoof away, turning to distance his head from her. “Yeh’ve done enough damage already, sunshine,” he grumbled. Behind them, an angry mare continued to argue with a hapless salespony. It was beginning to get on his nerves.
Celestia recoiled. There was truth to his words, of course, but they stung all the same, and the nickname he had taken to calling her only drove the needle deeper. It made her feel like a foal in front of him, and being mocked for it on top of that.
Underneath her black, hooded cloak, in one of the interior pockets, she felt the carpenter’s hammer she had kept lightly tap the left side of her ribcage, as if to remind her of her deed. She had not meant to actually hit Crumble, just scare him, but once again, her lack of magical discipline had caused unwanted damage. The hammer had slipped free from her control, and though she had closed her eyes to avoid watching it, Crumble’s pained howl had been enough confirmation. She turned away from him, craning her neck low to the ground and glancing away.
“…accident…” she mumbled. She bit the edge of her hood, and pulled it close to better conceal the shame in her eyes.
Crumble raised his head and opened his squinting eyes. “C’mon, now,” he grumbled. “Don’t be like that, sunshine. I’m only teasin’ yeh.” She did not respond.
“Oh please, don’t flatter yerself, Celestia. Yeh think this is the first time I’ve been rapped on the noggin? Believe you me, I’ve had worse.”
At a particularly loud shout coming from the argument behind them, Crumble’s ears twitched, and he winced as a wave of pain hit his head. His headache was not improving with all the background noise.
Celestia raised her head a bit, but her hood still concealed her eyes. “I’m sorry for hitting you on the head with a hammer.”
“Apology accepted, sunshine,” he chuckled, trying to conceal his pain. “But honestly, there’s no need. Look at this.” Hoping to lure Celestia into meeting his gaze, he slowly removed his hoof, revealing a small, hammerhead shaped bruise on the left part of his forehead, just above his eyebrow.
Her curiosity got the better of her; Celestia looked towards him, letting a single eye become visible from behind the black shroud.
“Yeh see? Barely even a blemish.” He motioned to the mark, brushing his mane aside. It was indeed small and difficult to see, the discolored skin easily concealed by the red of his coat, and the blonde of his mane. The only clear evidence of its existence was an unnatural lump jutting forward just a fraction of an inch. Satisfied, Crumble lowered his mane.
“Jus’ keep the hammers pointed towards the bad guys,” he joked, lightly punching Celestia in the shoulder, “an’ I’ll forgive yeh.”
Celestia weakly smiled. She raised her head, not removing her hood, but still looking at Crumble, who smiled back. At another outburst from the nearby dispute, she saw him cringe, and lightly touch his head. His face was briefly screwed up with anger. After a moment, he took a deep breath, and Celestia saw his features slowly relax.
“One moment,” Crumble said, putting a hoof up and motioning for her to wait. Celestia watched curiously as he turned towards the arguing mare.
“Oi!” he shouted, his wings coming to an aggressive half-deployment. Both the mare and Celestia jumped at the sound. “Yer voice sounds about as pleasant as a dying animal on a Sunday mornin’!” Even through all of the city noise, his booming voice echoed off of the buildings. “Jus’ pay the poor fellow his bits and shut yer blasted mouth!”
The mare stood completely still, leaning away, frozen in a startled half-retreat. Her mouth noiselessly stuttered to form an insulting response, and found none. Celestia was in a similar pose. Crumble, stared into the mare’s eyes. His thick brows were furrowed, and his lips were pressed into a grimace that was on the verge of becoming bared teeth. As a complete reversal from the gruff cheer he had had only moments before, he suddenly seemed twice as large and thrice as intimidating. His eye twitched, and the mare flinched in reaction.
Eventually, Crumble broke their eye contact, tilted his head to the side, and spat. “Hmph.” He folded his wings, snorted, and turned away, apparently not interested in her reaction, only satisfied at her silence. Celestia watched her stand motionless for another second. Eventually, she turned to the vendor, threw some bits on the counter, and hurried away, half trotting, half galloping. Her goods lay forgotten on the counter.
Celestia turned back to the street, eyes wide. She decided then and there that she would never, ever be in Crumble’s bad graces.
Coming back to her senses, she noticed the traffic in the street had briefly relented, and looked towards Crumble, who was already a few steps ahead of her.
“Oh lordie, does my head hurt.” His tone was as mellow and conversational as it had been before. He beckoned to her, swinging his arm forward. “Well? C’mon, sunshine, we haven’t got all day.”
Startled, Celestia hurried to his side and matched his speed. For such a large pegasus, Celestia noticed his pace was very quick. She glanced over the length of his body. He was by no means overweight, or unfit, especially for a stallion as old as he. On the contrary, Crumble was as fit as he could possibly be; certainly, he was the healthiest stallion of his age she had ever seen. Celestia did not have the courage to ask his age, but judging by the stray hairs of grey in his mane, as well as the way his coat was beginning to take on an aged, faded color, it was obvious that he was far past his prime. Was he in his forties? His fifties? She was not sure, and she wondered why such a seasoned veteran might be second-in-command, especially when his superior was as young as Lucky.
Regardless of his age, Celestia had yet to see a pegasus larger than he. His mass seemed to be the product of natural bulk and rigorous training, a cross that would have given him the air of unrivaled intimidation, were it not for his usual down-to-earth friendliness. The long strides he took were akin to a military march, which, as she thought about it, was probably exactly what they were.
It was strange, Celestia thought. Pegasi were usually thin and flexible, with an athleticism that lent itself to agile flight. They were, on average, lighter, and, as some would say, more fragile than their earth pony or unicorn brethren. Not so for the sturdy pegasus that lumbered next to her, standing at least a full head above her own height.
His cutie mark made no sense to her either. This was the first time she had seen Crumble without the thick plate armor he usually wore. On his flank was an apple, huge, ripe, and yellow; a golden delicious, if Celestia was not mistaken. It was improper to assume the profession of a pony through their cutie mark, vague as many of them were, but even still, Celestia could see no possible connection between being a Lieutenant-Commander in the military, and apples.
Crumble noticed Celestia’s gaze playing over him, and raised an eyebrow. She swiftly brought her head forward, face hot with embarrassment.
“How far is the barracks, Lieutenant-Commander Apple Crumble?” she asked, trying to ease her embarrassment through conversation. Beneath her hood, her cheeks were a soft red.
Crumble chuckled. “Please, lass. Call me Crumble.”
Celestia blinked in surprise. “Oh, okay then. How far is the barracks, Crumble?”
They stepped onto the far side of the street, and continued down the sidewalk. “Only another few blocks. It sits jus’ outside of the palace, almost opposite of Clover’s observatory.”
“The palace, huh?” Celestia murmured. She glanced at the landmarks around her, and saw that they were indeed heading away from the tower, but not away from the palace grounds. The streets they traveled were only just outside it. Her gaze slowly moved upwards, and to their right she saw dual stairways of the main entrance hall, a building she now recognized to be next to the palace garden. She unconsciously drew her cloak a little tighter.
Still marching forward, Crumble eyed Celestia suspiciously out of the corners of his eyes. “What’s yer problem, sunshine?”
Celestia did not look back at him. She kept her gaze straight forward, walking with purpose. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“Rubbish,” Crumble snorted. “Yeh know exactly what I mean. You an’ that cloak are somethin’ like the best of friends.”
Celestia did not respond, except by making a minute adjustment to her cloak, shifting it slightly to one side so that there was more fabric in between her and Crumble. He kept his silence as well, but did not move his gaze. Eventually, Celestia spoke.
“Why do we have no guard to escort us?”
“Heh.” Crumble lightly smiled. “I’m not guard enough?”
“No, no…” Celestia shook her head. She looked helplessly at Crumble. “You know what I mean.”
“Hmm,” he rumbled, stroking his beard. “I ‘spose I do. It’s Lucky. He’s been the one arranging the guard for yeh fer yer whole stay in Canterlot. Except now…” He trailed off.
“Now?” Celestia motioned for him to continue.
“Now that yer trainin’ with the 21st, he says it’s time yeh jus’ get used to it. The attention. Ponies starin’ at yeh, an’ all.”
Celestia’s indignation flared. She looked away from Crumble, and towards the palace, as if Lucky were in a distant window, mocking her. Her features hardened.
“He would… why would he…? Just to spite…?”
“I agree with him.”
Celestia misstepped, stumbling over a piece of cobble that caught her hoof. She shot him a surprised look.
“You do?” she asked.
“Well, yer gonna have to interact with ponies other than Cotton and Clover. Yeh’ve gotta learn to talk to ponies.” They stopped at another intersection, and waited for a pair of carriages to go past. Crumble patted Celestia on the shoulder. “Don’ worry ‘bout it. Treat ‘em right, and they’ll do the same.”
Celestia was silent. She nodded, only vaguely registering the gesture in the back of her mind. Most of the townsfolk were too busy to pay her any mind, though she had attracted some attention along the way. Her pink mane and white coat gave her away, even from behind the cloak. Still, they did not seem hostile, at least for now. Just curious.
Her previous indignation made her realize something: she had begun to dislike Lucky Break. Before, she had simply bemoaned her circumstance. Now, as she had begun to overcome that obstacle, on the other side she saw another, one in the shape of a very specific pony. No longer was he the savior and champion of her first waking moments, and neither was he rough but well-meaning knight of when they had first walked together. He was not even the embodiment of terrible persecution, like she had thought of him their first night in Canterlot. No, he was simply a mean pony, who did mean things. Patriotism and military accolades aside, Lucky was rude and cruel. Was she still scared by it? Perhaps. Did she resent him for it? Absolutely.
She scowled at a sudden memory. Even his apology, which at the time had seemed sincere, if not very lackluster, was likely a ploy to gain her cooperation.
Still, Apple Crumble seemed kind enough, even if he was a little frightening at times. If he thought it was a good idea to travel without a guard…
Celestia was reminded of the first night she had stayed at Cotton’s house, and she could almost feel an ephemeral hoof poking her in the chest. You must feel good about you.
She looked up. In a moment of bravery, and before she could think too deeply about it, Celestia gave her head a quick jolt, flicking her hood back. She ran a hoof through her pink mane, brushing it to one side, letting it fall free from her cloak. The sensation of vulnerability instantly set in, as if the hood had been the last line of defense between her and certain peril. She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, trying to make herself be at peace with the exposure. After a while, she reopened them and looked around, cautiously sweeping the street with her eyes.
Her fear turned to surprise. The workers and errand-runners had simply continued to work and run their errands. Ponies walked up and down the street, going about their business, either unaware or unconcerned with the actions of a single, peculiar mare. Her wandering gaze eventually met Crumble’s, who looked at her with a small, satisfied smile. She returned it, sheepishly shrugging her shoulders. He nodded his approval, and they continued on.
After a minute of silence, she heard Crumble softly chuckling beside her.
“What?” she asked defensively.
“Oh, nothin’” he said, a touch of mischief in his voice. “Jus’, if yer still feelin’ guilty over the bruise, I wouldn’t worry ‘bout it. Yer bound to collect a bruise or two of yer own, ‘specially with the trainers yeh’ve got.” His chuckle grew a little louder.
Celestia’s confidence immediately shrank. She had, after all, hit Crumble fairly hard. If he thought that was nothing, what would she be expected to endure? She cringed as her imagination took hold, and a number of frightening scenarios started to play out before her mind’s eye. She saw herself being chased by across the training ground by hammers. “They’re… not going to hurt me, are they?”
“Ah, no, ‘course not,” Crumble assured. His posture shifted, and he tapped his chin as he reconsidered his statement. “Well, not intentionally, anyways. Though, I can practically guarantee yeh’ll be in pain at the end of the day.”
Celestia tried to hide a whimper from Crumble. She wanted to put her hood back up. She reached for it, but her hoof was swatted away.
“Oi! None of that, sunshine,” he scolded. Celestia gingerly rubbed her hoof.
“I’m jus’ bein’ honest with yeh. I promise, yeh don’t need to fret. They’ve all been hoof-picked by Lucky ‘imself. The whole lot of ‘em are from the Maiden’s Battalion, so of course, they’re the most professional trainers yeh could hope for.”
“What do yeh mean, ‘late’?”
“I mean, he’s late, Crumble. Captain Garde is late.”
Crumble rubbed his temples, and sighed. “Yes, I know that. Why is he late?”
Lucky Break shrugged, his expression blank and disinterested. “How should I know? I told him to be here.” His eyes narrowed, squinting at the telltale signs of a battle wound. “And what happened to your forehead?”
Crumble involuntarily glanced at Celestia, who looked high into the sky, suddenly and intensely interested in a flock of passing birds. Lucky raised a questioning eyebrow.
“It doesn’t matter.” Crumble stepped in between Lucky and Celestia, breaking his curious gaze. “Look, can yeh find another swords trainer?”
Lucky’s eyes shifted back from Celestia to the burly pegasus in front of him.
“No,” he said simply. He shifted his weight from one side to the other, coolly regarding him. “Nearly everypony is on leave in the city. Those who are here are busy.”
The barracks did indeed seem to be busy. Celestia, craning her neck to see over Crumble’s shoulder, saw it in full view. It was a large, L-shaped building, constructed with the same gleaming white stone that the palace, and indeed, most of Canterlot seemed to be built from. In the corner, where the two structures met, stood a tall guard tower. It all came together to be quite sturdy, and if needed, very defensible. However, though the building was impressive, it was no more so than the countless other structures that stood in Canterlot. What really caught Celestia’s eye was what lay outside of it.
In front of the barracks, encompassed by a low wooden fence on two sides, and the stone of the building on the other two, was a great courtyard, one which was far from decorative. Soldiers positively dominated the space. The whole training grounds, from the massive center of the field, to the tiniest corner, was occupied by some type of activity or another. Ponies of every race ran in a looping, quarter-mile track around the yard, glistening with sweat and panting with exertion. Earth pony soldiers bucked straw training bags with powerful hind legs, vigorously responding to their drill sergeant, who barked numbers in rhythm. He was currently on number one hundred and ninety two. None of them showed signs of stopping.
Sudden flashes of bright light caught Celestia’s eye. She turned to see a group of unicorn mages, directing bolts of fire, lightning, pure energy, and gods knew what else, at hard targets on a stone wall. The once white Canterlotian cobble had been completely blackened, charred from constant burning. They practiced against each other as well, throwing up shields against spells meant to stun, deflecting them and retaliating with their own almost faster than Celestia could keep track of.
Far above them, pegasi flew in every which direction, maneuvering through hoops, swerving between pillars, and diving into targets. All of it was made from semi-permanent cloudstuff. Most of them trained their agility, but some were simply flying in a large loop in the pattern of the track below. Others engaged in impressive aerial combat with one another, swiping and diving at each other with hoof-mounted switchblades.
In the center of it all was an elevated, circular platform, constructed from wood. It was only five yards wide, and had no railing to protect from the four foot drop off of the side. She saw two ponies atop it, an earth tribe and a pegasus, both biting down on swords and eyeing each other with fierce scowls. There was a brief moment of inaction before the pegasus jumped forward, swinging with brutal intent. The earth pony raised his sword, and they met with a loud metallic clang. It was followed with many similar sounds as they engaged each other in aggressive swordplay.
“Really, Lucky? There’s not one pony in this whole barracks,” Crumble said, sweeping his arm across the clamorous scene in front of him, “that can take the time to teach ‘er?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Yeh know, I seem to recall one pony who has the whole afternoon free.”
Lucky’s eyes narrowed. “Really? And who would that be?”
Crumble rolled his eyes. “Oh, I’m sure yeh know ‘im. The two of yeh are very close.”
Lucky leaned forward, staring into the eyes of his subordinate. “No, Lieutenant-Commander” he growled, allowing the timbre of authority to creep into his voice. “I don’t think I do.” He broke his gaze and turned away, walking towards the training ground gate.
“Return in one hour,” he called, not looking back. “I’m sure the captain just lost track of time. When he shows, I assure you, he will be hearing from me. Until then, just get her doing something else. In fact…”
He paused, and glanced back. “Until then, why don’t you supervise her training, Lieutenant-Commander? You seem to have a vested interest in her growth, I’m sure she would be very appreciative.”
He shook his head in chagrin. “Is that an order, sir?” he sullenly muttered.
Lucky turned his head forward. “Yes.” Without another word, he continued walking, and entered the training ground, eventually disappearing into the barracks itself. Crumble groaned, and gingerly rubbed his head.
“That colt’s about as pleasant as the south end of a northbound donkey, sometimes…”
“What?” Celestia called from behind him, tearing her gaze away from the training yard.
“I’m sayin’ he’s bein’ an’ ass.”
“Oh. Well…” Celestia murmured, stepping beside him. “At least I have another hour to prepare?” It was less of a statement, and more of a question as to what they would do next. She looked at him expectantly.
“Yeh sure do…” Crumble sighed. Instead of examining the training ground like she expected him to, he merely walked towards the gate. “C’mon, we’ll do some flyin’.”
“Oh! R-really?” Celestia lowered her head, avoiding Crumble’s gaze as he paused to look back at her. “Because I was thinking I could… that we could, I mean…” She looked up at the courtyard. A flash of light caught her eye. “I was thinking I could practice magic some more! Over there!”
“Er, Celestia, I can’t train yeh in magic.” He lifted his wings, and gave them a flap.
“Oh, right.” She shifted her gaze towards the earth ponies bucking the straw training bags. “What about those?” She pointed at them.
“A big, strong soldier like you,” Celestia said, rearing to her hind legs and punching the air with her forehooves, “You probably know all about bucking, huh?” She turned towards him, and punched him in the shoulder. It was like punching a wall of stone.
“There’s no room,” Crumble said, dusting off his shoulder. “All the bags are taken. You okay, sunshine?”
She gingerly tested her forehoof against the ground, as if she expected her punch to have hurt something in her leg. “What? I mean, uh, yes! Why would I not be?” She smiled, and weakly laughed.
“I see.” Crumble’s eyebrows furrowed, and he stroked his beard. “Well, let’s get to flyin’ then.” He turned around, and spread his wings. The sudden motion made Celestia jump in surprise. If he had been large before, the sheer span of his wings now made him seem like a veritable giant.
He crouched, his wings poised higher in the air.
He jumped into the air, and simultaneously gave a huge push with his wings.
Crumble turned in midair to see Celestia, still grounded and wings inert, hoof outstretched towards him. “Yes, sunshine?”
“What was that?” He descended the five feet he had flown, and landed on the ground with a clop. He put a hoof to his ear. “Couldn’t quite hear yeh.”
“I can’t fly!” Celestia shouted. She averted her gaze, casting a hard glance downwards and stomping a hoof against the stone.
“Of course not,” Crumble muttered. “Not with that silly cloak, yeh can’t.” He craned his neck towards her and, before Celestia could react, snapped his teeth at the clasp around her neck, catching it and pulling it free. The cloak became loose and fell off of her shoulders. Crumble yanked it away, and folded it over his own back.
“Hey!” Celestia cried in protest. She swiped at Crumble, who easily dodged it. “Give that back!”
“If yeh want it,” Crumble said, pushing off of the ground and becoming airborne, “Come an’ get it.” He hovered a mere ten feet above the ground folding his arms and waiting.
“You…!” Celestia jumped and swiped furiously at Crumble. She felt only the air, as he casually hovered a little higher.
“I can’t believe you would…!” She jumped again. Amidst wild flailing, she was able to tap one of Crumble’s lower hooves. He raised an eyebrow, unimpressed.
“You’re no better than…!” A leap and a miss. The last jump had been a reckless one, and she landed incorrectly, tumbling to the ground upon impact. She drew herself to her hooves, and looked angrily at Crumble.
“Fine.” She huffed through her nostrils, and crouched low. Slowly, cautiously, she extended her wings. It was a long three seconds before they were fully spread. They quivered in the air like atrophied muscles, like those of an elderly pegasi who had not flown in years, or perhaps those of a filly, who had yet to even try. A few of her snow white feathers drifted to the ground.
She was still unused to her wings, and the unexpected shift in weight forced her to steady herself. She dragged one hoof across the ground, readying for a charge. Crumble closed his eyes and yawned in response, tapping his hoof to a mouth wide open. Her eyes widened. That single action of apparent disinterest set her off, suddenly and violently. She sprinted forward and pushed off of the ground, flapping her wings in unison.
Crumble’s eyes had time to open only a small ways before he felt a pair of arms wrap around his torso, tackling him out of the air. He let out a deep, wheezing groan as all of the air was forcibly pushed from his lungs.
Things seemed to move in slow motion as he looked down at his belly. Wrapped around his waist as tightly as could be was Celestia, eyes shut tight, mouth open in a furious shout. Her expression was half determined, and half flinching in fear and anticipation. Her wings were indeed deployed, and she was indeed ten feet in the air, on the same level he was. Except they would not be for long. Celestia’s reckless midair tackle put them on an imminent collision course with the ground.
Reacting with a pegasus’ reflexes, agility, and innate awareness of space and position, he rolled in the air, instinctively attempting to put Celestia in between himself and the ground. He only had time for one wing movement before they closed the distance. He grunted, and twisted his wings in a motion that would throw them into a barrel roll. It was not enough. They both hit the ground, landing on their sides at the exact same time. Experience took over as Crumble recovered from the crash, rolling back to his hooves and taking off again. Celestia lay still, stirring in pain.
Crumble chuckled, and then coughed. “Heh, nice try, sunshine,” he said, laughing hoarsely. He stifled another cough. “I may be old, but I still… know how to…” He trailed off, and his laughter died down. He turned a circle in the air. “Where did…?”
Celestia shakily rose to her hooves. She clutched at her chest, teeth bared, hissing in pain. Her wings hung limply at her sides, before she slowly retracted them. Beneath her left wing, pinned in between her hoof and aching ribcage, was the black cloak, covered in dirt and hopelessly torn across the back.
Crumble chuckled, shaking his head. “Well I’ll be damned.”
Celestia looked up at him, and then down to herself. She brought her hoof forward, examining the dirty cloak as though it might have been a figment of her imagination. She looked back up at Crumble, who stroked his beard, regarding her with a subtle smile. Celestia held the cloak towards him, as if to say, Are you seeing this, too? Crumble descended to the ground, and trotted to Celestia. Instinctively, she withdrew her hoof and held it away from him. Crumble merely laughed.
“Congratulations, sunshine.” He nodded towards her side. “Yeh’ve just earned yer very first bruise.”
Celestia looked down and ran a hoof along her coat, brushing away some of the fur. Sure enough, some of the skin underneath was a tender red. She looked back to him, and back to her bruise, beaming with delight, regarding it as though it was a badge of honor.
“An’ may it be the first of many,” Crumble chuckled. Celestia did not notice him. Neither did she notice the dozens of onlookers, all having stopped their activity on the training ground to watch the curious happenings outside the wooden gate. Curious pegasi hovered above, and across the field, mages and soldiers alike had wandered in their direction, craning their heads to get a better look. The whole field had fallen suspiciously silent as nearly everypony looked towards them.
“Alrigh’, back to work, the lot of yeh!” Crumble shouted. Celestia swiveled her head towards the training ground, suddenly becoming aware of exactly how many ponies had been watching her. They immediately obeyed Crumble’s barking order, but they did double takes and sideways glances, walking or flying slowly back to their stations. The cacophony of training gradually resumed, but it was slow to regain the same vigor it had had before.
“C’mon, Celestia,” Crumble said. He walked to the wooden gate, bidding Celestia to follow suit. “Let’s teach yeh to fly proper.”
Celestia tried to throw her prized cloak over her shoulders, and felt it sliding off. The clasp had been broken, and the tear down the center made it impossible to actually wear. She frowned.
“You comin’?” Crumble called. Her hoof twitched. She loosened her grip on the cloak, just a little. She regarded it with concern; it was useless, so why not throw it away? It fluttered precariously in the breeze. Her gaze shifted towards the battalion soldiers. Some were still giving her curious looks. She clasped the cloak tighter, and brought it to her chest, shaking her head.
Maybe somepony could sew it up later. Throwing it over her back, she trotted towards Crumble, staring straight forward to avoid the inquisitive gazes. Together, they traveled across the courtyard, and to the tower beyond.
“As far as I can tell, Celestia, yer wings are jus’ like a normal pegasus’, but if yeh have a question, jus’ stop me.”
Celestia nodded. “Uh huh.”
“These feathers are your primaries, and these are your secondaries.” Crumble tweaked the end of his wings with a hoof, showcasing the feathers on the outermost tip. “They catch the most air, and’re very important for sustained flight, so take good care of ‘em.”
“An’ when yer wings are stretched open, yeh’ll see these.” He raised his wing higher, and motioned to an inner part, closer to his body. “These are yer coverts, primary and secondary.”
A stiff gust of wind blew past them. It was a moment before Celestia answered. “Uh huh.”
“Tucked behind those, yeh’ve got yer marginal coverts, and yer axillaries… Celestia, are yeh even listenin’?”
Celestia nodded. “Uh huh.”
Crumble raised an eyebrow.
She rapidly shook her head, coming to attention. “I mean, yes! Yes, of course!”
“This is important stuff, sunshine,” Crumble scolded. “Flight school one-oh-one.” He pointed an accusing hoof at her. “Yeh told me that yeh knew nothin’ about flyin’, right?”
“Then pay attention!”
She flinched. “Okay.”
“Righ’. Where was I?” Crumble tapped a hoof to his chin, pacing away from Celestia. “Ah yes!” He deployed his wings again. “These are the marginal coverts…” Another gale went by, drowning out his voice. He patiently waited for it to pass before continuing. “…and these are the axillaries.”
“Okay!” Celestia burst. “I do have a question!”
He turned back to see Celestia, on the ground and hugging the floor for dear life. Her teeth chattered and her body shook. Crumble knew it was not from the cool breeze that circulated around them.
“Mm hmm?” he asked.
“Why do we have to learn about this stuff-” she was cut off by another gust of wind. She shut her eyes as it blew past her, violently whipping her pink mane back and forth behind her. “Why do we have to learn about this stuff on the top of Canterlot’s highest tower?”
Crumble seemed unconcerned. “Oh, please,” he said, rolling his eyes, “this is only Canterlot’s fifth highest tower. Or was it second?” He shrugged. “I dunno. An’ it’s how every pegasus learns. Yeh’ve gotta learn to pair yer anatomy with the currents of the wind.”
“But on a tower? On the side of a cliff?” Celestia hugged the floor even tighter. Her teeth were grit together, and her face was stiff with worry. Every time even a breeze rolled by, she would clamp her eyes shut, and wait for it to pass.
She had not realized it before, but the Canterlot barracks were situated on the cliff edge of the city. Specifically for training pegasi, Crumble had told her. Celestia had tried to be brave, but to no avail. They had reached the top floor of the barracks guard tower, and she had thought it secure enough. It was enclosed on all sides with a railing, and had a medium sized balcony on the cliff facing side. However, she took one look over the balcony railing, and the sight of that horrible, tumbling, mile-long drop had paralyzed every function in her mind and every muscle in her body.
“Yes,” Crumble said, “on the side of a cliff. Ain’t yeh ever heard of how baby birds learn to fly? Momma bird pushes ‘em out of the nest!”
Her eyes went wide with fear. “You’re not going to push me, are you? Don’t push me, Crumble!” Celestia pleaded. “I’m not a baby bird!”
“But yeh sure are a baby,” he mumbled.
Celestia did not hear him. Crumble put a hoof to his face, and shook his head in minor frustration. He raised his voice. “No, yer not a bird. Yer not even an alicorn. Righ’ now, at this moment, yer a pegasus. So start actin’ like one.”
She nodded her shivering head, but still did not move. Crumble sighed. It did not happen to pegasi very often, but he recognized it plain as day when it did; Celestia had a deathly fear of heights.
“Listen, sunshine. We won’t do anythin’ you don’t want to.” He walked to Celestia, and nudged her shoulder. “If yeh don’t wanna fly today, we don’t have to. We’ve only got half n’ hour left, anyways.”
Celestia opened one eye, and peeked up at him. “Really?”
Celestia exhaled. “Okay.” She raised herself on quaking legs, and shifted around until she could work the shiver out. It did not quite leave, but it had subsided as much as she figured it would. “Okay, I’m ready.”
“Good.” Crumble walked to the edge of the balcony, putting one hoof on the railing to steady himself. “C’mon out here.”
Celestia remained frozen. She eyed him suspiciously.
“I’m not gonna push yeh, I promise.”
She did not move. “Have I ever lied to yeh, Celestia?”
Grudgingly, she shook her head, and took tentative steps towards him.
“See?” Crumble said as she reached the railing. “Yer jus’ fine. Now, spread yer wings. Yer gonna practice getting a feel fer air currents.”
Celestia nodded, stony-faced, then hesitantly unfurled her wings, the rest of her body as stiff as a board.
“Good, good. Now, wait fer the next breeze, and then angle yer wings like this.” He grasped her wings, and moved them down at such an angle.
She nodded, and waited for the next gust of wind. It came, and she moved her wings.
“No, no… loosen up a bit. Yeah, like that. Feel that pressure? Pushin’ yeh downwards?”
Celestia’s posture loosened, and her stone mask became a bit more animated. “This isn’t so bad…” she muttered.
For the next twenty minutes, Apple Crumble and Celestia worked together, performing simple exercises meant to give Celestia a feel for flight. She felt like a foal and a coward. On the contrary, Crumble seemed to be enjoying himself, relishing the opportunity to pass on knowledge. He was certainly not as patient as Clover, nor did he teach with the same skill, but their lesson was pleasant enough. Eventually, in between gusts of wind, they began to small talk.
“I’m tellin’ yeh, Cotton’s candy is just too sweet.”
“I think it’s delicious.” Celestia licked her lips. “In fact, I wouldn’t mind some right now.”
“It’s pure sugar! That’s literally all it is!”
“It sure is.” A gust of wind blew by, and Celestia bent her knees, angling her wings to slice through it. By now, she had gotten the hang of it. She tried not to feel happy about overcoming a simple exercise meant for foals, but she could not help but feel a twinge of pride.
“Heh. Well this old pegasus likes a little meat on his bones.”
There was silence, as the two stopped talking and the wind ceased its movement.
“What is wrong with Lucky?” Celestia suddenly asked.
Crumble blinked. “What’s… wrong with him?”
“I mean, why is he so ill-tempered? I know he doesn’t like me.” Celestia was surprised at how at-ease she felt, given the weight of her question.
It was Crumble who seemed to have the most difficulty with it, as he stroked his beard in silent contemplation. “Well,” he began, but he cut himself off to rephrase his words. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before actually responding. “Well, that’s a difficult question, Celestia. Lucky Break ain’t ever been full o’ sunshine an’ rainbows.”
Celestia fought the urge to roll her eyes. Isn’t that a surprise?
“He’s had a hard life, that one. ‘Course, all of us have, with this infernal war goin’ on. But Lucky…” He shook his head, and growled. “Ahh, I told yeh it was a difficult question. Yer right, the colt is ill-tempered, but he was never… he was never this cruel. I’d bet my horseshoes it’s ‘cause of her death.”
“Her?” Celestia retracted her wings, and leaned forward in interest. “Who?”
“That’d be Daylight.”
“Daylight? The old commander?”
Celestia took a couple steps back, away from the cliffside balcony. “I suppose so… but that still doesn’t seem to me like a valid excuse. She was everypony’s hero, after all, but even then-”
“No,” Crumble interrupted. “Not a hero. Not fer Lucky.” Crumble walked to the far side of the tower, and peered over the edge at the barracks courtyard.
Celestia was silent. After waiting for a while and feeling no breeze, she walked towards Crumble, and took a place beside him. Following his gaze to the training grounds below, she saw Commander Break, walking rounds amongst his troops, inspecting their progress and making corrections when needed.
“Daylight was the closest thing he ever had to a friend,” Crumble murmured. “Oh, you can bet she gave her all to her country, her soldiers, and her ponies back home. Lucky did the same. The thing they cared most about was their Equestria. Neither of ‘em had time fer ‘petty’ things like friendship.” He sighed, and Celestia wondered if he was quoting an actual conversation between him and Lucky.
“There’s a certain camaraderie between soldiers, make no mistake. I’ve known Lucky fer a long time now- in fact, I joined the Maiden’s Battalion when it was still just a group of rookies, as did he. ‘Course, I was a lot older.” Crumble laughed. “Colt could barely put on his own horseshoes when I first met ‘im.” He allowed himself a smile, but after a few more chuckles, it faded away, turning into a deeper frown than before.
“But there’s a difference between… it’s not the same as…” He trailed off, grumbling beneath his thick beard. “Let’s just put it this way. All that fightin’, an’ all that war, an’ all that death, it puts a grim perspective on things. Do yeh act the same way towards a pony who, tomorrow, might not be alive?” He shook his head. “There’s a difference between livin’, and livin’ like yer dyin’. An’ Lucky was undoubtedly dyin’.”
“I don’t understand,” Celestia said. “What do you mean, he was dying?”
“Hrmph.” Crumble took another moment to think. His beard was actually becoming less groomed, the more he stroked it. Stray, wiry hairs stuck out intermittently.
Below, Celestia saw Lucky talking with one of his captains. They were making agitated motions to the circular dueling platform. Were they arguing?
“It’s jus’ what happens when yer a soldier, ‘specially in a battalion whose success rate is only rivaled by its death toll. Take Daylight fer example. She relished every moment, held every pony dear, but she never invested herself into one pony too dearly; she loved everypony, but, before Lucky, she only really had a single friend, and it certainly weren’t nopony in her battalion.”
Celestia opened her mouth to question, but Crumble continued before she could speak. “Lucky was the extreme opposite. He was so… so above it all.” He tapped his temple, thinking of the word. “So aloof. He didn’t love anypony. By the way he acted, it seemed like he didn’t even like anypony. I was able to crack open that hard shell o’ his, but believe you me, it took a great many years, and many, many tries. It really says somethin’ that our standard greetin’ is an insult match.”
The exchange between the captain and Lucky began to escalate. He started making grander motions, and the captain shrank back just a bit, weakly protesting to whatever it was Lucky was saying.
“He had, and still has, a very sound mind. He’s a very clever tactician. Perhaps not as much as Daylight, but he has knack for predicting outcomes, figuring probability… and jus’ bein’ damn fortunate. Yeh could almost say it’s his special talent. It supplemented Daylight’s plans quite well, and it’s the reason why he was Lieutenant-Commander, and not meself.”
Celestia put both hooves on the railing, and leaned forward, watching the development of Lucky’s argument. She heard Lucky shout, and though she could not discern what was said, it was clearly in anger. She saw him point towards the barracks. The captain sullenly walked past him and towards the building, shooting him a dirty look when he was not looking.
“It certainly wasn’t because he’s friendly with the troops.” Crumble walked away from the side.
Celestia watched Lucky for another moment. He started walking towards a training station, and, to Celestia’s surprise, stopped, and looked up at the tower, straight at Celestia. She tilted her head, not actually able to see his expression. They locked gazes for a few moments, before he turned his head and resumed walking. She pushed off the railing and turned to look at Crumble, who had returned to the balcony.
“C’mon, sunshine,” he said, beckoning to her. “The wind’s picked back up. Let’s get to it.”
She trotted over to him, deployed her wings, and assumed a ready stance. “I still do not understand,” she said, catching a breeze with her wings. “If Lucky is so aloof and uncaring, why would Daylight’s passing affect him like that?”
“Tha’s just it. He began to thaw out.” Celestia tilted her head, and he continued. “‘Uncaring’ is the perfect word. He’s got bruises n’ scabs n’ scars… even that ear of his, the one that’s ripped in half. Yeh know why he’s marked up like that? ‘Cause he jus’ didn’t care. He’d go into battle, chargin’ like a madpony, doin’ stuff none of the rest of us dared to. Don’t tell him I said this, but these old eyes of mine, they saw righ’ through him. He held loyalty for Equestria, an’ that was it. No love fer nothin’ else. Not fer the places, or the ponies themselves. It was more like… like a principle than an actual emotion. An’ the battalion? The battalion jus’ gave ‘im direction, and the battlefield, a place to vent.
“But eventually, he began to change. On the down time between meetins’, and in between missions, yeh could see it. He an’ Daylight, they started actin’ like… well, like friends. They didn’t treat each other like dead ponies walkin’. Fer years this went on, and their grim camaraderie grew into somethin’ else. Somethin’ better. It was like true friendship. It gave ‘im direction, somethin’ to protect, an’ she was the only pony that ever did that fer him. He stopped bein’ so uncarin’, and was just… happier.”
“What about you, Crumble?” Celestia asked. “You were his friend, right?’
“Oh, sure I was. Still am. But I don’t quite have the same effect on ponies, n’ certainly not Lucky. Ruggedly handsome as I may be.” He chuckled, stroking his beard with pride.
Celestia frowned. “And so when she died…”
“When she died,” Crumble continued, “he was very sad. Sadder than a pony should ever have to be. For a while, he jus’ lost it. Was jus’ angry n’ fumin’. One day, he left the battalion by ‘imself. After a short while, he came back, an’ when he did, he was jus’… gone.”
“Gone. Emotionless. Completely uncaring. The anger had left, and with it, the happiness. After that, he volunteered for what everypony thought to be a side mission at the time. Said he had to get his mind off of things. Then he came back with you. He’s gotten a little better since then, believe it or not, but he still isn’t the same.”
“So why does he hate me? I’m sorry for his loss, but I had nothing to do with this.”
“I know, Celestia. I know. An’ I think he does, too. Remember what you were told, though, what we were all told. The magi brought you here to ‘replace’ her. He jus’ hates that idea, the thought that she could be ‘replaced’ by somepony. It’s not the same, we all know, but the way they phrased it to him jus’ really set him off. He doesn’t hate yeh. He just hates the idea of yeh.”
Celestia frowned, and looked away, her ears flat against her head. “I see…”
Seeing her dismay, Crumble gave an apologetic smile. “Ah, don’t worry, sunshine,” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “He’ll come around.”
“I hope so,” Celestia muttered. Hearing about Lucky’s past did not raise her opinion of him, but it might have allowed some sympathy to creep in. She considered how she would feel if the ponies that had been her friends died, and had to wonder where she would be without Clover’s patience, or, gods forbid, Cotton’s laughter. Celestia shuddered at the thought. Imagined as it was, it was a pain she would not wish upon anypony, not even Lucky. Then again, she might change her mind once she saw him again; their encounters never did end well.
“I am curious…”
Crumble was distracted, picking at a loose feather on the end of his wing. “Yes?”
“When you said they had become friends,” she began, “do you mean they fell-”
Celestia’s words were forced back into her throat as an enormous blast of air ripped through the balcony. They felt the tower sway to one direction, pushed by the strongest breeze seen yet. The gale force winds ripped and tore at Celestia’s wings. She panicked, unable to angle herself correctly and retract them. She narrowed her eyes, and her pink mane whipped wildly in the breeze. She stretched out a hoof and tried to call out to Crumble, but to no avail. He was busy bracing himself against the wind, all four hooves planted square on the ground, head bowed into the wind and eyes closed. Even if he had been able, it was no use; her voice was swept away with the current. Soon enough, Celestia was swept away as well, as the wind dragged on her wings and pulled her over the balcony railing.
She flailed her hooves forward, scrambling in vain to grab the railing in a last ditch effort. She felt her hind leg tap the stone. It was her last contact with the tower, and for a long, horrifying second, she hung motionlessly in the air. Through a screen of adrenaline that made the world seem to move slower, she saw Crumble lurching forward, one hoof extended towards her. He was squinting into the wind, and his teeth were bared in exertion. He caught himself on the rail, and stretched as far as he could. He swiped at Celestia’s hind leg, and missed by a hair’s breadth.
If he shouted, Celestia did not hear. Her weightlessness transformed into vertigo. She felt her heart lurch from her chest to her throat, and her insides squirmed in protest as the wind ceased to carry her, and left her plummeting off the side of the tower.
A scream tore itself from Celestia’s throat, but it was immediately lost to the rushing air. Furious wind ripped through her mane and swept by her ears, creating a terrifying sensory overload of which every sensation signaled her imminent demise. She dared to open her eyes, and was immediately punished for it. They were whipped by strands of pink hair and dried by the wind, and she had to squint. Even through the tumbling chaos, she could see the rapidly approaching ground below, and with it, her death. She yelped in pain as she lightly hit the cliff wall and was drenched by one of the Canterlot’s waterfalls. She bounced away from it and back into the open air, leveling out into a straight dive.
This was it. Only a few moments before she hit the ground. She wondered if they would find her body. She wondered if Lucky would be happy to be rid of her. She closed her eyes, steadied herself in the air, and let it happen…
…and then she felt it. The currents in her wings, the slipstream blowing past her mane. It was not angry, it was not howling. It was simply there. And she was riding on it.
Yes, simply riding on it.
She opened her eyes.
She was riding it straight to the ground.
Frantically, she set her wings straight. They sliced through the air, exactly how she imagined they should. With all her might, she titled them upwards, doing her best to make her body follow suit. In a moment of relief, she realized her trajectory was slowly correcting itself. In the same beat, she realized it might not be enough. The ground was approaching far too quickly.
Fifty feet. She could make out individual leaves on branches.
Twenty five feet. She prayed to the gods, that they would be make her death painless.
Five feet. Her teeth were grit, and her eyes closed at the sight of the earth, rapidly rising to meet her.
Except it never came. Cautiously, she opened her eyes, and saw the ground below her, still in motion, but not coming at her. Her hooves hovered inches above it.
Her jaw hung open, letting out a few rapid pants. She could barely comprehend the trees racing past her, the wind rushing by her, the earth moving below her. The preservation of her own self. Her panting became quicker and louder, until she realized something strange. She was laughing. She was filled with adrenaline and euphoria and life, and she was laughing. In an insane moment of joy, she shouted at the top of her lungs, happy to be alive. She beat her wings and ascended.
Celestia heard a second pair of wingbeats, just beside her. She looked over to see Apple Crumble, a huge grin on his face.
“Now that’s how yeh do it!” he shouted over the rushing wind. She grinned right back, and maneuvered left and right, testing her newfound ability. This was not hard at all!
“Don’t overdo it, sunshine!” Crumble shouted, trying to stay out of Celestia’s path. She barely heard him as she dodged through the forest, swerving between trees and ducking under branches. Her mane and coat, though still wet from the Canterlot waterfall, were being dried from the rushing wind. Her eyes narrowed in fierce, determined focus, and she ascended a ways, twisting to perform a midair backflip. It was so easy! Laughing with heartfelt exhilaration, she looked back to see if Crumble had noticed her trick.
“Yes, yes, very good. Now that’s enough- Celestia!” He pointed forward. Still grinning, Celestia turned forward, and barely had time to register a large tree trunk, directly in her flight path. She heard a scream that was probably her own. She felt a splitting pain that was definitely her own. A flurry of stars passed in front of her eyes before the world faded to nothing.
Her next waking moments were of aching and disorientation. She groaned, clutched her head, and realized she was lying on her back. She rolled onto her side and gave a few pained coughs. At the sound of hoofsteps she looked up. Crumble hovered above her, his lips twisted sideways into a half-concerned, half-amused smirk.
“Congratulations, sunshine.” Crumble put a hoof forward, offering to help her up. “Yeh’ve just earned yer second bruise.”
Lucky paced back and forth across the grass. Where were they? He had said an hour, had he not?
He anxiously adjusted his commander’s jacket, fiddling with a button on his cuff. He hated wearing the thing. It was uncomfortable to begin with, but its design held little consideration for the departments of flexibility and maneuverability. Simply put, it did not allow him to fight. He looked wistfully at the sparring ring. Two earth ponies fought, blunted swords rapidly changing between mouth and hooves, meeting together with furious clangs. He wished he was in there. He wished someone would challenge him to a duel, or insult his honor deeply enough that he was justified in fighting, or something.
Of course, as a commander, he was much too busy for things like that. He had to train himself at very specific times, especially in Canterlot, when dealing with all the tedious bureaucracy. Besides, nopony challenged him anymore, and if anypony dared to insult him, it was always with a clear escape route in mind.
“’Ello, yeh pig-snouted mongrel.”
Well, except for him.
Lucky heard a thud from the ground behind him. He turned to see Crumble, still folding his wings after landing.
“Hello, you clay-brained…” Lucky trailed off, and looked around. “Where’s Celestia?”
Crumble smirked and nodded toward the sky. Lucky looked up to see Celestia, slowly descending, steadily beating her wings until she came to rest, just beside Crumble. Lucky tilted his head in questioning; Celestia’s coat was damp and glossy, and her mane and tail were slick with water. She took a brief moment after landing to shake herself dry, using her torn black cloak as a towel.
“Oh, good. You can fly.” Lucky dusted his jacket sleeve, as if it the fact was supremely disinteresting. “Nice to see you’re making actual progress.”
Celestia’s brows furrowed, and an irritated spark jumped across her eyes. “Yes, it is.”
Lucky lifted a hoof, nearly taking a surprised step backwards. “Uh, yes, well.” He cleared his throat. “Captain Garde has graciously decided to show up, so your combat training may begin.” He motioned to a spot on the field where stood an earth pony captain, the same one he had been yelling at before. There was a set of practice armor and an assortment of weapons sitting next to him.
Celestia only nodded, and trotted off to meet him. Lucky noticed she still had her black cloak, but it was only laying across her back, and torn down the middle.
“What happened?” Lucky asked, looking at Crumble.
His friend only smiled in response.
“So, uh, have you ever held a sword before?”
“I don’t think so…”
“Oh, uh, well, that’s okay. Here, this is a standard length. Hold it like this.”
“Rike dis?” Celestia murmured, a clutching a sword hilt in between her teeth.
Captain Garde gave her a curious look. “Uh, no. That’s, uh, that’s too low.”
“Yeh shurr?” she asked, teeth still bared. “Dis feel bedder. More comferble.”
“Well, uh, there are some styles that use that as a base stance, but they’re, uh, they’re harder to learn. Trust me, hold it a little higher.”
Celestia regarded her trainer with suspicion. He was an average-sized earth pony with a dark red mane and a turtle green coat. She snickered at her own comparison; “turtle” was likely the perfect word to describe Captain Garde. He was timid, quiet, and very withdrawn. Even looking at his cutie mark, she saw it was an oddly patterned oval that was either a shield or, indeed, a turtle shell. How he could be a warrior in the Maiden’s Battalion, Celestia did not know, but he had been spoken highly of by Clover, and hoof-picked by Lucky. He must have had some merit to his name.
“Weww, if you shay sho.” She stood a little taller, and craned her neck higher. It was difficult to move in her practice armor, and her coat, still slightly wet, rubbed against it uncomfortably. She supposed she just would have to get used to it.
“Good. That’s better. Now, uh, we have some targets set up over here. Why don’t we start with those?” He walked over to a series of straw dummies, each made in the rough shape of an enemy sinisteed. He picked up his own sword with a hoof. “Uh, like this.” He threw his sword up, caught it in his mouth, and in the same motion, gave a powerful, downwards swipe. It cut a good six inches into the torso of the dummy, even though the blade was blunted. He gave the sword a strong pull, and it came loose.
Captain Garde spat his sword into a sheath, and licked his lips. “Now you try.” He stepped away and motioned to the target.
Celestia awkwardly shuffled forward. She was quite aware that Captain Garde was not the only one watching her. Curious eyes had been drawn from all around the courtyard, as mares and stallions slowed their training or even stopped it completely to get a better at their newest member. Celestia’s black cloak fluttered in the breeze a little ways off, pinned underneath a rock. She cast a longing glance in its direction, feeling exposed without its cover. Looking around, she caught the gazes of several ponies. It was always her that looked away first.
“Uh, whenever you’re ready, Celestia,” Garde said. His tone was patient, but anxious as well, and he watched her intently. Celestia could tell even he wanted to see what she could do.
She shook her head. Now was not the time for this. She stepped forward to the target, and reared back for a swing, twisting her head and clenching her teeth.
“Wait wait wait,” Garde suddenly said, stepping in between her and the target and throwing his hooves up. Celestia’s hooves fell unceremoniously to the ground.
“Uh, that’s too low. Your neck is craned too deep.” He walked toward her and touched her neck, prodding it upwards. “It’s okay, just try again. Remember, chin up!”
She impatiently nodded, and held her neck higher. He stepped out of the way, and she drew back for another swing.
“No! No!” the captain exclaimed, once again stopping Celestia. She canceled her momentum, and looked at him. “Uh, too low. Again. Chin up!” He patted his own chin and bobbed his head high in reminder. Celestia sighed, and once again, raised her head.
“Little higher,” the captain implored.
She raised her head.
She raised her head again.
“Uh, a liiiiittle bit higher.” The captain delicately flicked upwards with his hoof.
She raised her head until it felt like all she could see was the sky.
“Perfect!” he exclaimed, clopping his hooves together. “Now, give it a swing.”
Celestia, determined to stay in the perfect stance, even if it was uncomfortable, reared back, keeping a stiff neck. She swung forward, twisting her neck horizontally. “Hyyaah!” She must have missed the target, because her swing carried through, and her high, rigid stance threw her off balance. She spun a half circle and lost control, falling back to her haunches.
“Good, good!” the captain exclaimed. “That was excellent!”
Celestia’s pupils spun in her eyes. She put a hoof to her head, and steadied herself. The captain was in front of her, already propping her back up. He pushed on her flank, brought her to a stand, and spun her to face the target again.
“That was a good try. Your stance was perfect.” Celestia groaned, but Captain Garde continued. “Give it one more try, and uh, just aim lower this time. But not too low. Oh,” he added, patting Celestia’s chin up, “and keep that head high!”
Crumble guffawed, huge, jovial bellows of air shaking his bulky frame. “Yeh should’a seen it!” he cried. “I’m jus’ sittin’ in the garden, mindin’ my own, when suddenly… heh heh, suddenly, this huge metal roof, just… just whoosh!” He swept his hoof through the air. “Flies righ’ over my head! An’ into Lord Pick’s dinin’ table in the garden no less! Ah, lordie! His face was deeper ‘n a red delicious durin’ buckin’ season!”
Lucky chucked absently, his gaze, and attention, drawn elsewhere. “I never did like Lord Pick.”
The two sat side by side on a wooden deck that was open to the courtyard, where commanding officers could review the progress of their troops. It was constructed to connect to the second floor of the barracks, but had stairs that went straight to the training ground. On it were several tables and comfortable chairs. Crumble lounged in one, and Lucky sat stiffly in another.
“Heh heh, why do yeh think I’m tellin’ yeh the story?” Crumble chuckled, bobbing his eyebrows at Lucky, who failed to notice. “Never did like him meself. Neither does most of the nobility. He’s a right bugger, sometimes. But he’s a big cap’n of industry, so they keep him around.”
Lucky only nodded, and Crumble continued. “An’ so later, I gotta go grab Celestia, and so I go to the observatory, righ’?” He did not wait for confirmation to continue. “And so, I walk in, an’ she’s sittin’ there, nailin’ a board to the roof, with a face like foal who’s flyin’ fer the first time. An’ she does it, and is jus’ so proud of herself! Oh, and get this,” he said, nudging Lucky’s arm, “When she actually does get around to flyin’, I find out she’s afraid of heights. And so what else does she do? Jumps off the bleedin’ tower, of course.”
Lucky turned to him with sudden interest. “She jumped off?”
Crumble tilted his head, and gave a half shrug. “Eh, well, fell off, more like. Big gust of wind. An’ right then and there, she learns to fly. Good thing, too. Otherwise, she’d be a mess of blood n’ bones at the bottom of Canterlot Cliff.” Crumble sighed, and gave a half smile. “Real piece of work, that one.”
“Yeah,” Lucky murmured, slowly turning his head back to the training ground. “Real piece of work.” He closely observed the training of a very specific soldier. She seemed to be having a hard time. Maybe he should go and help…
“I’ll be back,” Lucky suddenly said, hopping off of his chair. “So long as we’re just sitting here, I want to discuss our redeployment with you. I’m going to go find a copy of the plans.” He headed toward the barracks door.
“Sure, sure,” Crumble said, waving him off.
“Captain Garde?” Celestia called.
“I don’t think this is working. Are you sure there isn’t something else I can try?”
“Well, uh, this is how all new recruits are taught. I’m sure you’ll get it eventually.”
Celestia sighed, and stuck the point of her sword into the ground. She kept one hoof on it and leaned against it, panting with exhaustion. “We’ve been at this for an hour now,” she protested. “I’ve only hit the target correctly a few times, and even one of those was because I let it slip out of my mouth.”
“Just, uh, just one more time.”
Celestia hung her head in defeat. By now, most of the battalion members had given up on watching, deeming the show to be uninteresting. They had returned to their own training stations, and she did not blame them for it. Celestia’s progress was slower than slow, and she felt like a failure. The stance that Captain Garde insisted she stay in was much too stiff. It may have been the soldier’s standard, but for Celestia, it simply was not working, and every time she tried to swing the weapon in a way she saw fit, he would stop her. Once, she tried to simply ignore him, and he rushed in front of her attack, deftly blocking it and subsequently disarming her. And then he had apologized. She sighed.
Garde saw her dismay and walked towards her and away from the target, intending to encourage her to try again.
Celestia glanced up. He was away from the target. Now was her chance.
She suddenly sprang up, simultaneously yanking her sword out of the ground. She tossed it forward, caught it with her mouth, and rushed towards the target, with nopony in her way to correct her stance or stop her attack. She reached it, skidded to a stop on all four hooves, and gave a low, rising strike. She caught the straw dummy in the neck, and cut right through it, slicing the head clean off. It flew a wide arc in the air, and hit the ground seconds later, rolling in a small circle.
Celestia looked at her handiwork and nodded, pleased with the results. “Shee?” she said with the sword still in her mouth. She released it into her hoof, and pointed it at the severed head. “Would it not be better if I did that instead?”
“Uhhh, well…” Captain Garde walked over to the straw head and picked it up, rotating it in his hoof. “I still don’t think…” He was cut off by an exasperated sigh from Celestia. “Well, uh, okay, how about this. We’re technically not supposed to do this yet but… uh, why don’t we use the sparring ring? It’s a little more exciting than straw dummies.”
Celestia’s head rose and her ears perked up in renewed interest. “You want me to spar with you?”
“Uh, sure, I guess. Only to teach you the proper technique, and to show you why it’s better.”
“Well...” Celestia took a step back, and rubbed at her elbow. The captain may have been uninteresting, and their training tedious, but she doubted she could duel him and put up a real fight. He was the sword trainer, after all, and what little of his ability she had seen had been impressive. Crumble’s warning about unintentional bruises came to mind.
She glanced at the training dummy. Anything had to be better than this. She took a step forward. “Yes, okay.” She looked toward the sparring ring. “Shall we go, then?”
“Oh, uh, one moment. I must don my training armor. One cannot be too careful, you know.” He spun in a circle around himself. “Now, uh, where did I put it…?”
Celestia scowled and slapped a frustrated hoof to her forehead. Eventually, the captain retrieved his armor, and after a slow, agonizing process in which he put it on and made sure everything was in absolute perfect condition, they walked toward the ring. There were already two ponies sparring inside, a unicorn stallion and an earth pony mare. The earth pony seemed to have the upper hand, swiping in quick, powerful motions that not even the unicorn’s telekinetically held sword could keep up with. He had been knocked to the floor, and was making last ditch efforts to fight back.
“Uh, excuse me,” Captain Garde said as they approached the ring. The ponies ceased their fighting and looked at him. “Me and the new recruit are going to practice. Uh, if you would be so kind….”
“Sure!” the stallion said, nodding eagerly. He rolled off the platform and grinned triumphantly, postponing a match that was sure to end in his defeat. The mare rolled her eyes.
“I thought sparring wasn’t allowed on the first month.”
“Special case,” Captain Garde replied.
She looked from him, to Celestia, and back. “Hmph.” She hopped off of the platform, and walked over to her sparring companion. He flashed a jeering grin at her. She punched him in the shoulder, and responded in kind.
Captain Garde motioned towards the platform. Celestia jumped up onto it, and he did the same. Glancing to the side, she saw the two previous fighters were still lingering, watching with curiosity. A few other ponies had wandered towards the ring as well. They murmured amongst each other. Was this allowed? Was the alicorn supposed to be fighting yet?
Celestia tried to pay them no mind, and she turned to Captain Garde, who had already assumed his stiff fighting stance.
“So, uh, we’ll just go the first round doing a normal spar. One touch to the torso or head, or three to the legs. Are you ready?”
Celestia spread her hooves, and stood low, putting her sword in her mouth. She looked at the ring, and then her opponent, mentally preparing herself. Beyond him was the barracks. Something caught her eye. Her brows furrowed, and the captain fell out of focus. She peered past him, squinting at the large double door that served as the main entrance to the building. Above it, she saw a collection of words, inscribed into the stone. The lettering was bold, but simple. Celestia took a step forward, trying to see what they were. In her occupied mouth, she murmured what she read.
“Victory in battle, and Harmony after.”
She murmured it aloud only once, but it repeated in her head many more times after that. Victory in battle, and Harmony after. Victory in battle, and Harmony after. Her heart seemed to skip a beat every time she heard it.
Victory, Harmony, Victory, Harmony, Victory, Harmony…
Her jaw went a little too slack, and her sword clattered to the ground. Her eyes snapped back into focus, and she gave a tiny gasp. She shook her head. Some of the onlookers let out quiet chuckles.
“Uh, Celestia? Are you okay?”
She looked back to him. Funny, he seemed concerned. She wondered why. She was more than okay! Her heart burned with a strange emotion, one of both exhilaration and peace.
“I am okay!” Celestia announced.
“Are, uh, are you ready?”
Celestia looked around. What were they doing again? Her gaze caught the sword on the ground. Oh yes, they were sparring! Good! She relished a chance to stretch her muscles. She bent over and picked up the sword in her mouth, crouching back into a ready position.
The captain hesitantly resumed his fighting stance. “Uh, okay. Go.”
Lucky absently shuffled through a stack of parchment. He cursed his misfortune; the redeployment agenda was a single page amongst a stack of hundreds. Finding it would take forever. It did not help that the room had no windows and only a single gloomy magelight in one corner.
He sighed, and set the parchment down. It was not in this stack. He opened another drawer, retrieved another stack of papers, and began shuffling through it.
Lucky’s ear twitched as he heard a sound. He ceased his searching, setting the papers down and staying quiet. It was a series of heavy hoofsteps, the kind that could be none other than Apple Crumble’s. He tilted his head in curiosity. It sounded like he was galloping. Sure enough, seconds later, the door burst open, and through it came his Lieutenant-Commander, still carrying his galloping momentum.
“Oi!” he shouted. “You…” He stopped, taking a moment to catch his breath. “You need to see this!”
“See wha-” Lucky was cut off as Crumble grabbed his collar, and pulled him out of the door. Lucky pushed his hoof away, but still followed him as he hurried downstairs, and threw open the door to the second floor balcony.
Lucky galloped through it, and allowed himself a moment to breath. He lowered his head to the floor. “What is so important,” he asked, looking up, “that I… have to…” He was unable to finish. His mouth hung slightly open as he looked at the center of his training field.
Celestia, their sensitive, timid, cutie-markless Celestia, was in the dueling ring, a sword grasped tightly in her mouth. Her wings were aggressively deployed, and her teeth were bared and growling. She crouched low, professionally poised in a stance that most ponies did not find natural to use. Even across the distance, Lucky could see her eyes, clear as day, lit with a blazing fire of determination. Across from her, another soldier, an earth pony who was clearly not Captain Garde, stood with a sword in his hoof, standing ready to fight. They circled each other dangerously.
To make his bewilderment complete, every single one of Lucky’s troops that were training had completely abandoned their posts, and stood in a cheering circle around the ring, excitedly stomping their hooves and rooting loudly for the combatants.
“What do yeh make of that?” Crumble asked, pointing incredulously at the dueling ring. Lucky just slowly shook his head, not taking his eyes off of the scene.
“How did this happen?” he murmured.
Crumble nervously chuckled. “Well, heh, I may have fallen asleep at some point.”
Lucky scowled at him.
“What? I was tired! Teachin’ that mare’s a right bit of work, it is! But when I woke up, well…” He swept his hoof in front of him. “This was happenin’.”
“I see…” Lucky muttered. The earth pony dashed forward, taking an overhead swing at Celestia. To Lucky’s surprise, she sidestepped it.
“Yeh’ve gotta do somethin’!” Crumble said.
“No,” Lucky calmly replied. “I don’t.”
“Wha-? She’s gonna get clobbered in that ring!”
Lucky held up his hoof towards his lieutenant. “Just wait.”
“Jus’ wait?” Crumble protested, throwing his hooves up. “Wait fer what? Fer her to get the livin’ daylights beat outta her? Ya gonna be happy then?”
Lucky did not respond, but watched the match intently.
“Yeh dog, I’ll jus’ go stop it myself!” Crumble extended his wings, and started to take off.
“Oh, would you hold your horses!” Lucky cried. “Look!” He pointed at the ring.
Crumble looked, and saw Celestia attacking the soldier, retaliating with an even greater ferocity. He blinked. Was this actually happening?
Celestia never relented. Stroke after stroke, she switched between teeth and hoof to deliver vicious blows that were both powerful and precise. Her sword was a blur in the air, and it was all the earth pony could do to deflect the endless barrage of incoming attacks. It was only a matter of time, and he made a mistake. Celestia saw an opening in his defense and immediately exploited it, spinning the sword out of his hooves and subsequently stabbing forward, catching him in the chest. The blunted sword tip pushed against his practice armor, and shoved him back. Celestia’s thrust had been powerful, enough to make her opponent stumble to the floor and drop off of the ring. He landed at the hooves of his comrades below.
The crowd of soldiers erupted into a frenzied cheer. Celestia dropped her sword, and let her head fall low to the ground. Her lungs visibly expanded and contracted as she took deep, panting breaths. She looked up, wiped the sweat from her brow, and sheepishly grinned at her audience.
Another earth pony, who Crumble recognized as Lance Corporeal Allez, climbed up into the ring, and triumphantly held Celestia’s hoof in the air. “Who’s next?” Allez cried, with all the audacity of a coliseum announcer. “Who can take on the mighty Celestia?”
Crumble motioned incredulously to the ring. Lucky saw him, but paid it no mind. His features were even and unmoving, but he noticed an intensity in Lucky’s gaze that had not been there before. Crumble growled and flew closer to the ring, leaving him behind. He saw Captain Garde on the outskirts of the crowd, and landed next to him.
He tapped him on the shoulder, and the captain turned towards him. “Would you mind tellin’ me what is going on here? Why is yer sister asking for challengers? Why is Celestia duelin’ in the first place?!”
Allez called out again. “Anypony? Anypony at all?”
Garde swallowed. “Uh, it wasn’t my fault, sir! That mare is… she’s amazing with a sword! She beat me! The only ponies better with a sword than myself were-!”
Crumble cut him off. “So you let her duel?”
His voice was tiny. “Uh…yes, sir…”
“How many?” Crumble demanded. “How many opponents?”
The captain mumbled an unintelligible response.
“Come again, Captain?”
“And how many victories?”
Crumble just stared at him.
Meanwhile, on the platform, Corporeal Allez was still calling for a challenger. “C’mon, you yellow-bellied dogs!” she yelled. “Somepony come up here and show us how it’s done!”
“Actually,” Celestia mumbled, “I think I want to be done now…”
Allez did not hear her. “Who’s going to be lucky number thirteen?”
A shout came from across the crowd. “I will!”
They all instantly knew who it was. The soldier’s excited chattering died down into a whisper, and then, into silence. The crowd parted on one side to reveal the newest challenger. Dressed in practice armor, and with a sword sheathed across his back, Lucky Break stepped towards the ring.