Just somepony who likes words
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Chapter 08: Downpour
Captain Aurora Borealis relished the quality time she was spending with her family now that Thunderhead was in the infirmary. She wasn’t glad he was injured, not exactly, but she was delighted to have her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter on base every day. This afternoon she was in Thunderhead’s room, sharing a meal with her son, her granddaughter, and the reindeer who was now more like a nephew than ever before.
She allowed herself a contented sigh before Aster chuckled and made an observation that promised to ruin the rest of her afternoon.
“Oh, my. Yon Spitfire appears to be having spirited words with a young stallion. Is this... courtship?”
Aurora hastened to the window. Spitfire’s disagreement with Diamond Dust appeared to be over whether or not he should be forced to eat the parade grounds. She swore. “No. That’s a fight. And a problem.”
She wrenched open the window, then paused and turned to her granddaughter. “Sergeant Dinky! You stay here with Sergeant Daddy and Uncle Aster! I’ll be back soon, and if I’m not, Sergeant Mommy or Sergeant Moonglow will be, OK? And don’t use bad words like I just did!”
The filly saluted. “Aye aye, Captain Gramma!”
Aurora pushed herself through the window and alighted on the parade ground. A Flight was helping Diamond Dust to his feet. Soarin’ had Spitfire pinned to the ground, and she was sobbing uncontrollably into his shoulder. Stargazer and Red stood guard over their comrades, eyeing A Flight suspiciously, daring them to start something.
She marched over to her sons.
“What happened here, Stargazer?”
“Wish I knew, Mom. Just got here.”
She snorted and pushed through to where Soarin’ and Spitfire lay.
“Northwing Seven, report.”
She heard Soarin’ whisper something to his wingmate. The young stallion released his grip and turned to face his mother. There was a challenge in his eyes.
“Nothing to report, ma’am. Bit of a tumble. Everything’s fine.”
She shook her head, disappointed. “Bullshit. Step aside, Soarin’.”
Soarin’ set his hooves. “No, ma’am.”
“You want to be the first member of this family kicked out for insubordination?”
“No, Soarin’. No.” The voice was a hoarse whisper, barely audible over the buzz of the crowd. Slowly, shakily, Spitfire clambered up off of the ground. She made no attempt to stand at attention; she kept her head and her ears down. She trembled slightly.
“Fighting, Spitfire? I thought you were better than this.”
“Captain, he said he wanted a rematch. I guess I shouldn’t’a provoked him. He came at me, and I got angry, and... I lost my temper. Ma’am.”
Aurora rubbed her forehead. “Why don’t you be a bit more specific, cadet?”
“H-he was angry about last Saturday. I mouthed off, said we could do a rematch any time. He said he picked now.”
Aurora grimaced. “Northwing One, Northwing Seven, get cleaned up and meet me in my office. Ten minutes.”
Spitfire stood on the outside of Aurora’s office door, listening to half of Big Shot’s dressing-down. The stallion’s voice came through as a low, unintelligible rumble through the door but the whip-crack of the captain’s voice came through loud and clear.
“Are you aware, Cadet, what the difference is between an unofficial sparring match and an illegal fight?”
“That’s because there isn’t one!”
“Given the gravity of the situation that cancelled the Corps Relay, don’t you think it’s a bit soon for a rematch?”
“I don’t think you fully appreciate the gravity of the job you’ve signed up for. Why the hell are you here, kid?”
“Is that so? Why don’t I believe you? Is it the hair? It’s probably the hair.”
“No, no. Getting your flank handed to you is punishment enough. But, if I hear word one that you’ve taken it upon yourself to decide who is and isn’t fit to be wearing that uniform you’ll find yourself on a train to Canterlot before you can even utter the word ‘stain’! Now get the buck out of my office and send the other reprobate in after you!”
Big Shot stormed out of the captain’s office, sucking on his split lip. He glared at Spitfire and jerked his head back into the room before disappearing down the stairs.
Slowly, silently, Spitfire crept into the office. Her memory flipped through the multitude of times she’d been in just this situation: called into the principal’s office for fighting. Called a menace and a freak, a bully and a problem. This wasn’t school, though; this was the Corps. Beating the tar out of another cadet wasn’t going to land her in detention.
Spitfire straightened to attention and fixed her gaze on the wall above the captain’s head.
“Turn around, cadet. Any fresh bruises on you?”
Spitfire did as instructed. “No ma’am.”
“Did he lay a hoof on you?”
“Only when I let him.”
“And did you know ahead of time that he’d be unable to touch you unless you let him?”
Spitfire gave the captain a startled look.
“Oh, don’t look so surprised. I saw you toying with him last weekend. Were you, or were you not, confident in your ability to evade his every attack?”
“Yes, ma’am, I was.”
“And were you confident in your ability to subdue him in whatever manner you saw fit?”
“So. You knew that you were the superior combatant. You knew that by offering this re-match you were only offering him the opportunity to get his ass kicked, you knew that it was not a fair fight, and that he would be completely at your mercy -- and you offered it anyway?”
Spitfire shrank and lowered her head. “Yes, ma’am.”
Aurora’s voice took an icy edge. “Why?”
“Because... he... I...” Spitfire sighed. “No excuse, ma’am.”
The captain snorted. “I’m glad you recognize that. Explain anyway.”
“He’s been picking on me and bullying me since day one, and I’m sick of it! When Shifty came and offered the challenge, I guess I... I couldn’t believe he was thinking of that at a time like this! I agreed before I even knew what I was doing! Then, when he called me out, I was still gonna just dance around him, show him he couldn’t touch me, just like last time! Then he said some things... some things about my friends and about my sergeant, and I just couldn’t take it any more!”
“So you decided to dish out a little frontier justice.”
The captain rubbed a hoof against her temple. “Help me understand. On Saturday, you deliberately chose not to strike him. Today you struck him. Repeatedly. With no small amount of alacrity, from what I saw.”
“Last time I ignored him better.”
“What was different?”
“This time, he said I should teach T-Bone how to dodge.”
Aurora arched an eyebrow. “And that’s when you decided to rip his throat out?”
Spitfire lowered her gaze. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Why do I think that if you’d really wanted to do that, he’d be dead?”
“Soarin’ stopped me.”
“Hmph. You should thank him for that.”
After an uncomfortable pause, Aurora continued. “I can’t allow you to participate in standard self-defense drills. I think you know that.”
Spitfire only nodded.
“Of course, you can’t be a SAR pony without combat training.”
She nodded again.
“This leaves me with only one alternative.”
Spitfire cringed against the dismissal she knew was coming.
“I’ll have to teach you myself.”
Spitfire locked up from head to toe. What??
Aurora cracked a small smile and heaved a sigh of relief. “Cadet, you don’t know how happy I am to have finally found you.”
“There aren’t many of us, you know: Harmony’s warriors.”
The older mare fixed her with a penetrating stare. “Fighting excites you, doesn’t it?”
Spitfire’s eyes widened, she shook her head in fear.
“Sure it does. It thrills you. It completes you. You can’t live without it and you’re terrified that you’re some sort of hideous monster.”
“No!” The word was a whisper, more an exclamation of disbelief than of denial.
Aurora smiled. “Nonsense! I can see it written all over your face! Reminds me of myself at your age!”
Spitfire sat down lest she fall over from shock. “You?”
The captain’s smile softened. “Cadet, you didn’t think you were the only one, did you? There are many farmers in Equestria, many street sweepers. Many surgeons. It stands to reason there would be many soldiers, as well.”
Spitfire stared. Truth be told, she had thought she was the only one. It had been drilled into her, by teachers, coaches, family members, friends, that fighting wasn’t cute and being marked for it was not and could not be normal. If there were others...
If there were others, then there was hope. She eyed the captain suspiciously. “How do you handle the beast?”
Aurora laughed. “‘The Beast’? Is that what you call it? My dear, that’s the natural desire to be yourself and use your talents! Find another outlet for it! Compete. Wrestle. Race. Win. I’d wager you’ve been so scared of it for so long you’ve never tried indulging it in a non-destructive way! For my part... well. For my part, I’d leap on Bastion’s back and shout, ‘Tame me!’ And wouldn’t you know it? He always would.” Her eyes twinkled. “I wouldn’t suggest you try that with my Soarin’, at least not until after training. He’s always been such a good, obedient boy. Though he did stand up to me for your sake out there. Don’t think I didn’t notice, young lady.” The twinkle turned mischievous. “At any rate, if you do try, be sure not to tell the captain about it, hey?”
“I’ll, ah... I’ll keep that in mind?”
“Good! Walk with me, kid. And bear in mind that out on the parade ground you’re still in big trouble so be a dear and act suitably subdued.”
On the way back to the infirmary, Aurora filled her in on the real business of the week: investigating the cause of the winter wolf attack. Thunderhead had reported personally slaying two alpha wolves. Aster claimed that his father had dispatched another. As they entered the infirmary, Aurora turned her questions on Spitfire.
“Tell me, cadet: what does all of this say to you?”
Spitfire took a deep breath. “Well, ma’am, I don’t know much about winter wolves, just what I’ve looked up since the attack. From what I saw and what you’ve said, they should never have come down from the icefields at all, for starters. And two or three packs should never have been in the same place at the same time. And they didn’t leave a trail back to where they came from, and they attacked like they were in a frenzy...”
She shook her head as they came through the door to Thunderhead’s room. “Captain, none of it makes any sense at all!”
Aurora gave her a thin smile. “None of it makes sense as a random event, you mean. Try again.”
Spitfire just shook her head, unable to come up with an explanation.
Aster offered the opinion that Aurora was waiting for. “An attack, miss. An attack.”
“How is that even possible?”
Thunderhead passed his daughter off to the captain. “Our best guess is that someone, and boy, would we love to know who, went up to the icefields, and either drove the packs down into the rutting herd, or somehow tamed them, transported them there, and sicced them on the herd.”
Thunderhead nodded. “Exactly. And which why, because I can think of at least two: why attack the reindeer in the first place, and why use winter wolves to do it?”
Spitfire thought a moment, then cast an apologetic glance toward Aster. “What if you hadn’t got away? What would we have found? And when?”
Aurora whistled. “Even odds on an icy red patch -- we’d have known it was winter wolves but not why or how many -- or just a wet patch of chopped corpses... in which case we’d only have a mystery.”
“So,” said the reindeer, “if they let me go, they want you exploring the icefields for clues. And if I escaped, they merely wanted my family to die.”
Aurora mused on that. “Hmm... want us in the icefields... keep that in mind, son: I’m putting you in charge of the investigation. Let me know what you need, delegate, and for Harmony’s sake be careful.” She turned a glowing smile to her granddaughter. “Sergeant Dinky, do you think you can take this cadet back to her quarters for me?”
As they arrived back at quarters, the unmistakable sound of Soarin’s singing voice drifted into the halls of the north wing. Spitfire winced; Sergeant Dinky perked up. “Unca Soarin’s home,” she whispered, “follow me!”
Sergeant Dinky charged into the room and pounced on her uncle. “Unca Soarin’! I order you to submit to tickles and share your snacks!”
Soarin’ wheeled around, mock-panic on his face. “Ambush! Spitfire, help!”
“Do not help him, Spitfire! Help your sergeant and tickle him!”
Spitfire laughed and deployed her wingtips menacingly. “Sorry, big guy. Orders are orders.”
Outnumbered, outgunned, and betrayed by his own wingmate, Soarin’ quickly succumbed to the ruthless assault. Between howls of laughter, he said, “Okay! I surrender! I’ll share, I promise!”
Spitfire looked to her sergeant for guidance. “Well, ma’am? Should I accept his surrender?”
Dinky considered him thoughtfully. “Nope. He doesn’t look surrendered enough.”
Soarin’s torment resumed until his pleas for mercy tugged at his captors’ hearts.
“Sarge, I think he’s had enough.”
The gleeful little unicorn nodded. “I think he has. Now kiss.”
“You heard me. Kiss. That’s an order.”
“It is, huh? I’m not so sure you can...”
“Hey! Don’t gimme no lips! Give him the lips! Right now! Go!”
With a shake of her head and a roll of her eyes, Spitfire planted a light peck on Soarin’s forehead. A chorus of boos rang out from the doorway. Startled, Spitfire tripped over Soarin’ and spun to see Wedge, Red, and Dee all crowded at the door.
Red looked positively scandalized by how un-scandalous the kiss had been. She shook her head. “Oh, Sunshine. You’ve gotta do better than that. Here, like this, hon.” She took Wedge in a sudden tackle and lip-locked him against the door frame. Wedge’s eyes snapped open, then fluttered closed.
Spitfire’s and Soarin’s jaws hung open. Dinky only nodded approvingly. “Yeah. Like that.”
Dee swept into the room and snatched up her little sergeant. “I think that’s enough orders for today, Muffin. What do you say to some nice dinner, and then a nice bedtime?”
The sergeants left the room to the smaller one’s protests of “but Mom! When Daddy tickles you, it ends in kissing! They weren’t playing right!”
Several long moments passed. Spitfire and Soarin’ shared an uncomfortable glance. When Red finally came up for air, Soarin’ rolled his eyes and said, ‘I’d tell you two to get a room, but you already have one. And it’s next door.”
Red flashed an impish grin. “Plenty of time for that later.” Her expression turned serious as she turned her eyes to Spitfire. “Honey, we came up to check on you. That was some episode earlier. I gather from tickle time there that things didn’t go too poorly in the captain’s office; care to share?”
Spitfire flopped over on her side. “Well, no... things didn’t go too poorly. Bad news first: I’m not allowed to participate in self defense on account of I’m too dangerous.”
“Yup. Too dangerous. Don’t know my own strength and all that. Need to have private combat lessons with the captain herself.”
As one, the brothers threw their heads back and laughed.
“After all these years, Mom finally found her fighter,” said Wedge. “Suddenly, everything makes a lot more sense.”
“We’re idiots,” said Soarin’, “especially me.”
Spitfire rolled over to glare at both of them. “There a problem, boys?”
Soarin’ chuckled. “Just that if we’d known about this weeks ago we could have saved you a lot of trouble, that’s all.
Spitfire made a frustrated sound. “Why is it everyone in the whole world thinks this is entirely normal after I spent my whole life thinking I was a deviant freak?”
Soarin’ patted her knee. “We grew up with Mom, and surrounded by Guards. Of course it seems normal to us. Heck, we were all kinda shocked when none of us got it.”
Spitfire gave a disconcerted nod. “Yeah... she said as much. I... can’t say I understood why.”
Soarin’ laughed. “Now you do. Did she say anything else?
“Well, we walked over to the infirmary and talked about the wolf attack. She and T-Bone think it must have been deliberately instigated by someone.”
The brothers fell silent. “This is big,” said Wedge.
“Huge,” said Soarin’.
“Yeah, I mean, does this mean Comet was assassinated? Or...”
Soarin’ waved her off. “No, not that. That’s big too. Bigger really. But what we mean is... Mom invited you into one of her planning sessions? Do you know what that means?”
She blinked and shook her head.
“It means she likes you. And it means she trusts you. And while that’s great news, it also means she’s gonna push you as hard as she’d push herself.”
Spitfire gave a solemn nod. Wedge turned to Red. “And, since Mom knew she’d tell us everything that happened and she’s usually super secretive about camp business, it means she trusts you, too, Red.”
Red pumped a hoof in triumph. “Yes! I’m in!”
Thursday morning, a knock at the door startled Spitfire out of bed hours before roll call.
“Seven. Eight. Infirmary. Five minutes.”
Aurora was already down the hall, delivering the same message to the top half of B Flight.
A grim-faced, half-awake group gathered in Thunderhead’s infirmary room. A single candle struggled in vain to light the room; dawn was still hours away. In addition to B Flight and Thunderhead, Aurora, Dee, Firelight and Coriolis were in attendance. Aster’s bed was empty. Firelight cleared his throat.
“Some time during the night, Aster was poisoned. I’ve moved him to intensive care, where the entire night shift is monitoring his vital signs. Having studied the evidence, I am prepared to offer the following hypothesis: one of our cadets is responsible.”
Murmurs of disbelief ran through the room. T-Bone waved an irritated hoof. “Tell ‘em what you told me, Doc.”
Firelight nodded. “Here’s what we know. Somepony gained access to the pharmacy, assembled a cocktail of pharmaceuticals in precise doses sufficient to kill a pegasus, and added them to Aster’s IV drip. The young reindeer may thank his lucky stars that he’s more resilient than we are.
“So. Why conclude a cadet? First, he or she knew enough about medicine and the infirmary to gain access to the pharmacy and choose these medications in these doses. I can rule out my orderlies because -- forgive me for saying so -- whomever it was, they botched the job. My people would have known the proper doses for a reindeer and would have disposed of the evidence.”
He straightened up and began counting off the possibilities. “So. An orderly? Too amateurish an attempt. An officer? More likely than an orderly to botch the job, but still unlikely to do so. An outsider? How would an outsider get in?”
Aurora shook her head. “And that leaves one of my cadets. Bucking hell.”
“This all but confirms somepony had it in for the herd,” T-Bone said. “That makes it imperative we investigate the icefields. But there’s nopony we can spare.”
Aurora shook her head again. “Firelight, Thunderhead, you two can split the day-to-day running of the camp between you. We can spare me for a week or two.”
“But who can we spare to send with you? Moonglow? Dee?”
“Nopony. You’ll be stuck in this room -- you’ll need them to be your eyes, ears, and hooves.”
T-Bone rose halfway out of his hospital bed. “No. Absolutely not, Mom. You are not going up there alone.” Wedge and Soarin’ joined him in his protest.
Spitfire stepped up before the captain. “Whatever happens, I’m going with you.”
Aurora fixed her with a withering glare. “Is that so, kid?”
She shrugged. “Combat drills next week. Drills I’m not allowed to be in, remember? If I don’t go with you, I’m on my ass in my bedroom again. I’ve had just about enough of that, ma’am.”
Her friends stepped up beside her. “Mom, it’s a good idea,” said Wedge. “If somepony on base is connected to this, we don’t know who to trust. You gotta figure we’re okay, but who else?”
Soarin’ lowered his head. “Besides, if you leave without us, we’ll follow you anyway.”
Aurora looked at Thunderhead, who shrugged. “It’s as good an idea as any. We can’t spare the officers, we can’t trust the cadets, they might not quite be up to Corps veteran standards... but you know they’re a cut above the average cadets. And if you leave without them, I will send them after you with orders to drag you back.
She nodded her assent and turned to Firelight. “Captain, we saw firsthoof that the slingspades aren’t rated for cold duty, and we need to go loaded for ice monster. Got anything in the vaults for us?”
“I suspect I do. Check back this afternoon?”
“Make it evening. We’ll plan this little excursion to kick off tomorrow morning. B Flight? Take the day off. Go to town. Get us all some cold weather gear. In white, preferably. Corps-issue gear’s a little too high-visibility for this. And boys? Bring me receipts, please?”
Soarin’ rolled his eyes. “Yes, mother.”
Their chores done for the day, B Flight followed Soarin’ back down the mountain to Glimmervale. The Whitecrowns’ unpredictable Autumn weather had brought in a thunderstorm. Rain poured out of the sky in sheets, filling the air with white mist that shrouded the forest past the nearest trees. The gutters beside the cobblestone path ran like twin rapids, twisting and shooting muddy brown water down the hillside.
Spitfire shouted to be heard over the downpour. “So, big guy, what’s the big secret? Where we going, out in this mess?”
Soarin’ laughed. “It’s a surprise, Spit. You’ll see.”
Wedge cinched his raincloak tighter. “This isn’t like you at all, little brother. What gives?”
Soarin’ skipped ahead and turned, spreading his wings, revelling in the rain. “Not telling, and I’m six weeks older than you!”
As he turned back, Red shouted, “Tell us or I’ll tell everypony the lyrics to that song you were working on the other day!”
Soarin’ whipped around and turned pleading eyes to Red. “You heard that?”
He hung his head. “I may have made dinner reservations for four at the Chateau tonight.”
Red clapped her forehooves together with glee. “Date night! Whee!”
Wedge laughed. “Straight-laced Soarin’s putting a double date on the critical mission supplies bill? What’s gotten into you?”
Soarin’ shrugged and turned around. “I guess I just... I just... hang on, guys.”
Seven cloaked ponies appeared out of the mist. They stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking the path at its narrowest point.
As B Flight approached, Soarin’ stepped up to the pony in the center of the group. “Something I can do for you, gentlecolts?”
The pony ignored him and put back his hood. Spitfire realized with a start that he was the
‘Wild Sky’ street preacher from before. “Sorry for the inconvenience, ladies. We’ll be taking these two half-breeds down to the lake for a long walk off a short pier. You can go on back to camp; we have no quarrel with true pegasi.”
Soarin’ shook his head and flared his wings at the wild-maned stallion. His voice dripped with incredulity. “Look, pal! Wings! Me, pegasus! Him, pegasus! I don’t know if maybe you found some of the funny mushrooms in the forest, but maybe you oughta go lie down for a while.”
He turned to roll his eyes at his friends and the preacher reached up and cuffed him in the face.
“Shut up, hornspawn! Come along with dignity, so your mares don’t have to see you scream.”
As Soarin’ took a step back, Wedge stepped up beside his brother. “Seems you’re misinformed, boys. I’m only a quarter-breed on my mother’s side.”
As Spitfire and Red joined their wingmates, B Flight cast aside their raincoats. Spitfire said, “And as it turns out, we’re rather fond of these mongrels. Guess you’ll have to go through us, first.”
In one fluid motion, the six largest assailants threw back their cloaks and brandished Corps-issue swingspades.
Red burst into laughter. She paced in front of the bandits. “What, did you practice that? Is this an ambush or a stage show? You should try again, the little one on the end didn’t get the memo. Go ahead, put your cloaks back on. We’ll let you start again. Maybe fumblehooves can get it right this time, and you can begin your musical number properly.”
Spitfire looked down the line. Sure enough, the smallest attacker hadn’t brandished a blade and was instead inching toward the treeline. Good catch, Red.
“Now, if you wanna talk surprises, you should ask my boy Stargazer, here. He’s the best. Why...”
Spitfire scanned the bandits. Each and every one of them had his eyes fixed on Red and her distracting rant. Idiots. She faded back a step behind the rest of B Flight and crouched, spreading her wings.
“... in fact, he’s so good at surprises, he’s not even the pony I was talking about!”
Whoop! That’s my cue!
A manic grin crossed Spitfire’s face as she leapt into the rain and dashed at the assailant at the end of the line. Just what is it we weren’t supposed to see you do, buddy?
Spitfire took the small bandit in the head with both forehooves, sending him crashing into a tree. A quick glance told her that he was in fact a she, and she looked an awful lot like one of the cadets in Blue squad. Her heart sank.
It sank farther when she saw the rain-slick museum piece weapon in the grass that she’d been going for.
The sound of battle tore her away from the unconscious traitor. Spitfire wheeled around to see Soarin’ and Wedge engaged with three armed assailants apiece, Red trying in vain to peel off one of Wedge’s attackers. She hesitated for a half-second and shifted left, looking for a better angle.
Both brothers danced on the defensive, barely staying ahead of three blades apiece. Soarin’ took a hoof to the gut, and the victorious attacker laughed.
Spitfire smiled and let the beast off the chain. She flew in a fluid, spiraling arc, snapping a vicious kick into first one knife leg, then another. As each knee shattered under her hoof, she let out a joyous whoop. Her arc carried her forward, and she smashed her forehead right into the teeth of the laughing stallion.
Blood, teeth, and rain sprayed out of his mouth. He stopped laughing.
“Nice kick! My turn!” She twisted and drove him to the ground under all four hooves, putting his soft midsection between them and the hard cobblestone path. As he screamed, she turned a wild glance to Soarin’ to make certain he was alright. The two broken-leg assailants were still doggedly attacking him with their good legs, but he was acquitting himself much better now.
Satisfied that the odds were even, she looked to Wedge and Red. She saw Red dancing with a single partner and Wedge flanked by two. She charged.
She swivelled in midair and took one from above with both rear hooves. His chin slammed on the paving stones and he was out. She bent her knees and sprang back into the air, taking Red’s assailant in the knife leg. She grabbed the blade and yanked it free, dislocating the limb in the process and flinging the blade into the back of one of Soarin’s attackers. That one staggered and the other turned to flee.
She took a split second to get her bearings, and she saw that Wedge’s partner was the preacher. She tapped him on the flank. “Dibs on this one. Help Red.”
Wedge flicked his eyes at her, and bowed out.
The wild-maned preacher sized her up. “Should have stayed out of this, little lady. Viceroy had big plans for you. Was gonna give you the pick of all the stallions in the land to breed up the next generation of warriors for the Return.”
“Charming. This ‘Viceroy’ got a name?”
He sneered and lunged. Spitfire snarled and licked her lips. In a flash she brought up her hooves and caught his bulky blade between them. She smiled at him.
“Whatcha got there beneath that cloak, little stallion? A fruit tree? A cloud? What were you before you became a bandit? A sculptor? I wasn’t; I was born to fight. I live for it. Do you really think you can touch me with this thing?”
The preacher’s eyes filled with fury. “Neither my slave-brand nor yours is relevant! I have the might and right of the Storm on my side!” He struggled and pulled, trying to free his blade from her vice grip.
She smiled and released it. His knife leg swung back wildly and he staggered right, suddenly off-balance.
Quick as lightning, Spitfire’s right hoof took him in the throat. The fury in his eyes faded, replaced by fear and surprise. He fell to the ground, unable to breathe.
The thrill of the hunt faded from her own eyes as she watched him thrash. Still flush with victory, a part of her felt he deserved it. He’d spoken of drowning her friends for their ancestry. He’d left a deep cut in Wedge’s face. Those thoughts offered very little comfort as she watched him die.
She looked up, too numb to speak. Four assailants lay on the ground, some writhing, some still. Wedge and Soarin’ had the last one cornered, and Wedge dealt him a blow to the ear that laid him in the mud beside his cohorts. To her great surprise, the escaped attacker was trudging back up the hill with Bigs and Shifty at his back.
“Hey! B Flight! You lose somethin’?”
Wedge tensed at the sight of the big white stallion. “Hey A-holes. What brings you out here?”
“Aww, Five, is that any way to treat your brother-and-sister-in-arms? We saw you having your little scrap and we were just about to lend a hoof when this one made a break for it. We figured we’d save you the trouble of running him down.”
Soarin’ eyed them suspiciously. “That’s uncharacteristically kind of you. What gives?”
Bigs dropped his customary sneer and glared at Soarin’. “I may not like you guys, I may especially dislike your bugfuck crazy little madmare over there, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let these buckin’ townies attack a fellow member of the Corps. You’re welcome. Asshole.”
From the side of the trail, Shifty cursed. “Oh holy buckin’ hell, Bigs! It’s Blue Two!”
Bigs’ eyes bugged out of his head. “What? Okay, are the other six all down for the count? Five you’re bleedin’ real good there. Go get that looked at. We can take these in.”
“Right... Thanks, One. So, team: what say we get cleaned up and make another attempt at dinner?”
Spitfire found her voice at last. “We can’t.”
“Why not, Spit?”
“‘Cause mine’s dead.”