General McBridle, laird and clan chief of the mighty Clan Ponaidh [The title of chief of a Scoltish clan is largely a symbolic one, as the clan system had largely broken down in favour of Scoltland's political union with Trottingham and further centralisation and bureaucratisation of the developing Equestrian state following the end of the Nightmare Heresy. Ponaidh is one of the oldest of the highland clans, whose sons and daughters have often served in the 53rd Regiment of the Solar Guard more commonly known as 'The Highlanders'.], might be one of the better generals to have commanded Army Group Centre, or indeed any Royal Guard formation large or popular enough to have been mentioned in mainstream history books. We will never know, however, as just after the events I describe in this portion of this mess of amateur memoirs and just a year since taking over from the disgraced General Crimson Arrow he had taken the choice to retire for the final time, some say under coercion from both the Field Marshal and the Ministry of War over the events I will eventually get around to explaining here. It was a damned shame, as he was one of the very few that I had genuinely liked over the length of time spent running, hiding, and then lying that others called my 'career'. The General was a laid-back, elderly unicorn from the highlands of Scoltland whose well-stocked selection of fine single-malts was sorely missed after his retirement. He was cautious in his approach to war, having served as a commander for the better part of his adult life in Zebrica and Coltcutta; unlike just about everypony else in the Royal Guard aside from myself and a few other select ponies whose brains had not been replaced by chocolate pudding, he recognised that the forces he had been given [At that time, Army Group Centre consisted of the 1st Night Guards, 1st Solar Guards, the 5th Solar Guard, the remnants of the 3rd Solar Guard, the remnants of the 16th Artillery Regiment, a single platoon of Horsetralian Engineers, and the Dodge Junction militia] were simply not sufficient for the tasks that had been assigned to them, and thus he chose not to waste their lives in futile operations that he knew would not amount to anything other than mass graves. I must profess some personal bias in my assessment, for the aforementioned whisky and that he kept his 'opportunities' for me to present my supposed heroism to a bare minimum.
We had taken to spending the occasional 'liaison' meetings, as I had taken to calling them so as to keep up the pretence of actually doing my job, playing chess and sampling his whisky collection, which despite our best efforts never seemed to diminish in quantity. For a general he was quite poor at the game, and seemed to be quite incapable of the sort of planning and adaptation required to succeed, though I had the suspicion he simply didn't care overmuch about winning and simply enjoyed my company. The feeling was mutual, once I had learned to decipher his impenetrable accent and tolerate his tendency to refer to me and just about every stallion younger than him as 'son'.
He was a tough, grizzled old stallion; the sort whose appearance and personality only seemed to get rougher with age. Despite his advanced years of at least seventy, his mind was as sharp as ever; he had, after all, come to the same conclusion that I already had before I boarded the train that brought me here that this war was ill-planned from the start and doomed to a gruelling deadlock at best or defeat at worst. Or, perhaps, it was simply a symptom of that infamous Scoltish pessimism, which is an entirely understandable mindset to have if you've had the misfortune to live in that wet, cold, wild land and attacked constantly by midges. He had a face that had been weathered by years of hard campaigning; tanned, beaten, and scarred by sun, wind, spear, and claw. Despite the wrinkles on his face and the touch of grey marring his fuzzy orange mane, there seemed to be no weakness in the way that he carried himself, and this combined with his tendency to almost wrap himself up in tartan and carry a claymore as long as Princess Celestia is tall exemplified the sense of that rugged noble barbarism that the both the tourist board of Scoltland and romantic poets writing for the benefit of the rest of civilised Equestria have long promoted.
"Damn, son, hurry yourself up and take your bloody turn," he growled at me from across the chessboard. I had been considering my move for what seemed like a few minutes now; by sacrificing my pawns to lure out his knights, bishops, and rooks for easy destruction I had set myself up for a nice, comfortable win in but a few turns, yet somehow I had encountered a strange mental block that seemed to stop me from executing it fully. "While we're still young."
The General's tent lacked many of the extravagant luxuries that most commissioned officers liked to festoon their quarters with; indeed both the quality and quantity of accoutrements such as a chaise lounge, antique writing desk, liquor cabinets and wine racks filled to bursting, paintings, sculptures, assorted other objet d'art, and so forth seemed to be directly proportionate to one's rank. Twilight Sparkle could probably devise a formula for such a thing, were she present and not otherwise pre-occupied with whatever latest research project to investigate something ponies have been doing since the dawn of creation, making friends, had taken her fancy. Indeed, despite his aristocratic bearing his quarters here were positively spartan in terms of decoration; being a large-ish tent in the central courtyard of the fort he selected because of its proximity to the common bivouacs, rather than inside the castle's keep as one would expect. A military cot was in one corner, a wardrobe and a writing desk in another, and a small drinks table in the middle around which we sat in comfortably close proximity to the drinks cabinet. The tent flap was behind me, through which the yellow light of the desert moon mingled with the pale, flickering lights, smothered by the cloying infusion of cigar and pipe smoke from the tobacco that the both of us indulged in with far too great a frequency for supposed role models. The only extravagance allowed in this tent, its barrenness only accentuated by the use of this single item and of the extravagance of the uniform of the pony sitting opposite me, aside from the comfort afforded by the contents of austere wooden box sitting beside us, was an ornamental shield with two crossed claymores and a ragged strip of faded red, green, and blue tartan nailed to a tent pole.
I decided then that whatever plan I had probably wasn't worth it, since neither my heart nor my mind were truly invested in the game that night, and simply pushed forward a rook to check his king. The queen swooped in and took it like a hawk on a field mouse.
"Something on your mind?" he said. His voice had a reassuring, stentorian quality to it, which he had perfected in his youth in ensuring that his orders could be heard clearly above the din of battle. "On any other night ye would have beaten me by now."
"Or maybe you're improving," I retorted, taking a sip from my drink. It went down as smooth as silk, with the burn that accompanies lesser quality drinks replaced with a gentle warmth that seemed to emanate from the centre of my chest. The water of life indeed.
The General snorted and shook his head. "It'll be a cold, cold day in Tartarus before that happens," he said, apparently unaware of the fact that certain parts of that forsaken underworld were in fact cold and wintery, but for some reason that particular tautology persisted.
"I don't know," I said. "Only one of us here wears a sword and a baton on his epaulettes, General, and judging by your losing streak perhaps it should be me."
"Aye, aye, that's true. But when the Changelings are kind enough to arrange themselves out onto alternately coloured squares I'll be sure to call upon your services, but until then I think I'll be general and you continue looking over everypony's shoulders like a disapproving parent." He grinned; it was a rare pony who felt he had the wherewithal to insult me, however jovially, and know that he could get away with it. That he was the rare sort of military pony whose presence I could actually tolerate for some period of time certainly helped, as did the quality of libations that always accompanied our meetings.
"Be careful," I said, grinning inanely. The alcohol was already working its malignant influence on my mind, clouding my thoughts and loosening my lips to a degree that might have been quite disadvantageous to one such as I who lives behind a web of lies. By Faust, I thought, it had been far too long since I could truly relax in the presence of another, even if it was with a stallion old enough to be my grandfather. "We all know what happened with the last general I worked with. I might start making firing them a habit."
McBridle laughed, though it was more accurate to say that he contorted his face, wheezed as though he was suffocating, and writhed in his chair with his hooves gripped tightly onto the hoof-rests for support. As I waited for him to calm down, which he did eventually and seemingly with great difficulty, I could not help but wonder if he was in fact having a heart attack and whether or not I should call for a medic. My inadvertent reference to General Crimson Arrow, my former friend, of sorts, caused a pang of regret in my heart, and I wondered then and there if he still held my decision against me. He kept his rank, by dint of winning a victory of sorts in the siege here, and had been sent to command a small detachment in Zebrica. These thoughts, however, were quickly banished when the pony sitting opposite me had recovered enough for him to be able to speak coherently, at least for a Scoltspony.
"I'm seventy-three years old, son, with a big fat pension that'd make even yourself envious, so do ye think I'm the least bit worried about losing my job? If I'd known they'd send me to this barren shite-hole I'd have never come out of retirement." He arched an eyebrow and pointed a hoof at me, as if, somehow, I was directly responsible for this miserable old stallion's problems. In a manner of speaking, by virtue of the mass of symbols that decorated my uniform, I was at the very least the most visible representation of the authority of the Equestrian state, being a political officer, outside of the book of Princesses' Regulations itself. "I could be in bed with the Missus right now, under a warm electric blanket, and reading a book, to the sound of cows lowing in the fields beyond. Then I could wake up at a respectable time for a respectable breakfast and look forward to spending respectable time with the grand-foals."
"I thought you came here to get away from the 'Missus'?"
"Aye, but a year choking on dust and pouring sand out of my pockets has made me miss the daft old mare," he said, and nodded his glass in my direction in some sort of salute. The orange, bushy caterpillars that seemed to serve as his eyebrows came together to form a frown. "Your little problem, son, it's not a mare, is it?"
I shrugged my shoulders and leaned back in my chair, where the rough wood chafed irritatingly against my back. "Yes," I said, and then raised a hoof pointedly in his direction to halt the smug remark that was just about to leave his lips, "but not in the way you probably think. I hate to talk shop, but it's Commissar Gliding Moth and Rainbow Dash."
"Two mares?" he said, clearly unable to resist grinning inanely despite my warning. "Strictly professional, is it?"
"Yes," I said firmly, nodding my head once. "Strictly professional." General McBridle was one of the very few ponies around whom I felt I could lower my guard down around even by the tiniest of margins; perhaps an over-paid stallion in a white coat and glasses so thick they could deflect arrows could tell me that I was merely seeking some sort of father figure, and I suppose on reflection he would not be entirely wrong on that account, but his relaxed attitude to just about everything, even here, had encouraged me to believe that were I to say something that might reveal me to be the craven bastard that I am he would not tell anyone. If I had a problem, one that I felt I could share for there were things I knew I must keep to myself, I knew that he would listen. [Blueblood doesn't mention it, but throughout the latter part of McBridle's long career his nickname among the soldiers who served under him was 'Daddy', due to his genuine concern for their welfare. Historians note that it was this same concern that brought him into conflict with Field Marshal Iron Hoof, and that perhaps the slaughter that had occurred in Black Venom Pass might have been avoided were he in command of Army Group Centre.]
"I've got two stupid fillies here playing at soldiers," I said, after having downed the remainder of my drink a little too quickly for comfort. I inclined my head towards the cabinet next to the chessboard, whose doors had been opened and bottles contained therein arranged neatly on display like the 1st Solar Guard on parade, to which the General responded with a curt nod. Grateful, I set about pouring myself yet another drink as I explained my unfortunate predicament. "One of them has taken it upon herself to enforce the entirety of Princesses' Regulations and whatever high-minded wishful thinking the Commissariat has taught her on everything that she sees before her, while the other seems to believe that learning from the experience of veteran soldiers is somehow beneath her. Both, however, are going to get themselves and others martyred gloriously for Equestria unless they buck their ideas up."
His grin, however, faded, and he turned his nearly-empty tumbler in his hooves, and his narrowed, downcast eyes stared into the sloshing amber liquid. "Wars used to be such a simple affair, son," he continued, his voice hushed and reverent. I was tired and wanted to go to bed, but I knew better than to interrupt an older pony when he's in the middle of reminiscing, so in an uncharacteristic display of unselfishness I indulged him. "A Coltcuttan prince gets all uppity or a band of missionaries upset the wrong Zebrican tribe or a governor of some colony in the arse-end of nowhere offends the natives and the Royal Guard is sent over to sort out the mess. We march in, shake our spears around, and if everypony stays all nice and calm and sensible nopony gets hurt and we all celebrate our victory with a little parade through Canterlot. The politics was handled by the politicians; no bloody commissars watching our every move and no Wonderbolts thinking the sun shines out of their arses. But now? Faust almighty, this time... this time, between you and me, we can't win, not quickly like before, unless something changes. Give me a regiment of Scoltish Highlanders and I promise ye, we'd have served Chrysalis' head to Princess Celestia on a plate with all the trimmings like a bloody Hearth's Warming Day feast. Instead I've got Canterlot fops and Trottinghamite slum-dwellers to contend with, and not nearly enough of them for the job."
I arched an eyebrow and nodded in understanding; the only campaign I had been on in my earlier career had been as part of an intervention force putting down some uprising in Neighpon, which I had largely spent indulging in the local culture in the pleasant company of geishas before it all blew over and I went home. [I would like to point out that the Bajutsu Restoration, which returned power in Neighpon from the isolationist Shogun to my sister and me, did not simply 'blow over', but came about as a result of a bloody civil war. Equestrian intervention came late, and had missed the worst of the fighting. Blueblood's regiment, the 1st Solar Guard, was garrisoning the capital.] Besides, the presence of a thousand angry stallions wearing plaid skirts and marching to the sound of a ghastly 'musical' instrument, and indeed I use that term in its most liberal sense, that sounds more like a chicken being strangled to death would do wonders in shattering the morale of the Changelings, albeit at the equal cost of our own.
"This politicking isn't helping matters either." Of course, I carefully ignored his blatant defeatism, knowing that under the diktats of the Commissariat even mentioning the idea that the Royal Guard suffer even the most minor of military setbacks would result in a stern talking-to at best and a summary execution at the very worst. That I fully agreed with the General's assessment on the overall prosecution of the war and that I felt that his experience meant that he was in a far better position to make such a judgement, coupled with the fact that I was tired and simply couldn't be bothered, disinclined me from confronting it.
"I thought that was your job," he said. "You deal with this shite and the rest of us can carry on with the proper job of soldiering."
"That's the theory," I said. "Let's not kid ourselves, the Royal Guard has always had this problem with its officers. I'm sure we've lost more to duels over petty insults than to enemy action."
"Aye, son, that's true." He bowed his head gravely and placed his now-empty glass on the table between us. I made an offer to refill his drink using the universally recognised gesture of pointing the bottle at him and wiggling it slightly to make the rare amber fluid within slosh about, but he raised a hoof and shook his head no. "Tell me, have the two of them ever been in combat?"
"No," I said, and then shook my head. "Though, I believe Rainbow Dash was present at the Battle of Canterlot with the other Bearers of the Elements of Harmony."
McBridle scoffed, rolling his eyes as he reclined back in his seat, hooves gripping onto the hoof-rests. "You weren't there, were you?"
"I was detained in Prance on matters of state importance," I said, hoping I didn't sound too defensive. I was, in fact, staying there partially because I was one of the very few ponies who recognised that proceeding with a royal marriage after a direct threat against Canterlot had been made was a very stupid idea but mostly out of an admittedly petulant strop that I had thrown when I learned that my cousin, who, despite being somewhat distant from my part of the sprawling mass that is our Royal Family, was nevertheless the blood of my blood, was to marry an upstart commoner with delusions of grandeur who once picked me up and threw me halfway across the playground when we were foals.
"I was. That wasn't a battle, son, it was an embarrassment. The bulk of the Royal Guard detachment defending Canterlot was off chasing metaphorical butterflies in the Everfree Forest, and without Shining Armour in charge the remainder guarding the marriage ceremony surrendered with barely a proper fight. Anyway, even if we're being generous and can call it a battle, it still doesn't count for Rainbow Dash. The lass never trained and fought as part of a cohesive military unit."
"Aside from the Wonderbolts," I said, "who still don't count."
"Oh, aye, if our new strategy is to dazzle the enemy into surrender with a bunch of pegasi spelling rude words in the sky with smoke then I dare say those show-ponies will be our strongest asset. Back in the real world, however, things aren't that simple. I don't envy ye, Blueblood, but I think I may have just the thing to help with your little predicament."
I tilted my head slightly and took a thoughtful sip of my drink. "Send them back home?" I posited.
McBridle bobbed his head like one of those ornamental nodding dogs some taxi drivers have to decorate their carriages, as though he was considering the issue. "If it were that easy ye'd have done that the second after they arrived. Now you're well and truly stuck, son. No, give them a taste of real battle, and then they'll either straighten up or run home with their tails between their legs."
An icy chill seized my innards, which I then tried in vain to soothe with a too-large gulp of my drink that only served to burn my throat and worsen the sudden wave of nausea that gripped my bowels. I should have known that this quiet honeymoon period wouldn't last, but I had hoped that at the very least the opportunity to make a more permanent exit from this war, preferably to an entirely separate continent where war is rare and mares and wine are plentiful, but alas none presented itself. Naturally, I relaxed my face into the well-practiced mask of quiet, patrician detachment, and despite every component part of my very being telling me that perhaps this old stallion should be put to bed with a glass of warm milk and a biscuit before he starts taking his insane ramblings too seriously, I politely asked him to continue. It would have been rather bad form, I thought, if I was to obey my body's natural instinct by vomiting profusely on the well-used chess set and then fleeing from the room never to return again.
"The Field Marshal is getting agitated again, son," he said, his voice taking on a conspiratorial tone as he leaned close enough for me to smell the whisky on his breath, or that might simply have been mine. "Keeps using that word he likes - 'offensive'. Now he knows as much as I that we're in no position to start sallying forth bravely into the Badlands, but Parliament wants results."
I snorted contemptuously and shook my head. "I take it it's election year again?" That's just what we needed; another batch of politicians through the revolving door of so-called democratic power, with all of the changes and confusion that a new batch of policies and priorities brings with it. Oh, but to return to the constancy of the firm, guiding hoof of Princess Celestia and her chosen hierarchy of nobles! I feared this experiment in self-rule would only serve to be the ruin of Equestria, and would undoubtedly be responsible for the artificial shortening of my natural life. History, of course, would judge me wrong, but in my personal experience historians were never a good arbiter of such things anyway; one only needs to read the numerous biographies about me to see why.
McBridle nodded thoughtfully, and said, "Aye, the Prime Minister and his cabinet have promised Equestria victory before Hearth's Warming, and I don't need to tell ye that's about as likely as an earth pony watchmaker. Luckily for us, and thanks in part to your efforts and Lady Twilight Sparkle's yet-to-be released report, most of the electorate's ire is directed at the War Ministry and the government's handling of the war and not us."
"Luckily," I echoed, and then masked the tense, awkward smirk that came to my mouth with my half-empty tumbler. "Do you really think the opposition would do things any better?"
"The ego of a politician is not worth the life of any soldier under my command." There was steel in his voice that was quite in contrast to the warm, welcoming, and generous tones of his usual Highland brogue, re-affirming that unique trait of the Scoltish accent that a speaker may switch from jovial and charming to threatening and, in cases, downright terrifying and back again all in the time it takes for me to tie a bow tie. My companion shrugged his shoulders, and bowed his head to poke around at the chess pieces still on the board between us. I think that, by some unspoken and mutual accord, we had together called an end to the night's hostilities. At any rate, I was happy to claim a moral victory.
"It's none of my business, son," he continued, "just so long as I get what I need to kill Changelings I don't care who's in power. Whatever it is that goes on over in Canterlot's got Iron Hoof worried; fears his neck will be next on the chopping block of redundancies when Lady Twilight Sparkle's report finally gets published. He wants a victory that'll give him a little stay of execution, even for a little bit."
"After the debacle at Black Venom Pass I think it's safe to say his neck's already well acquainted with the chopping block and is merely waiting for the axe to fall," I said dryly. My drink had finished, and though I wanted more (or needed, I should say, to appropriately brace myself for what the General had planned) I decided not to abuse my host's hospitality any more than I already had.
"Aye, son, but I'll not give him the glorious charge into the lungs of Tartarus he expects, but at least it'll be something the Ministry of Information use to make us look like we're taking the fight to the Changelings instead of sitting on our arses getting sunburn."
From what I presumed was a pocket in his tunic masked by the great swathe of tartan cloth that he inexplicably continued to wear despite the climate not being entirely conducive to wrapping oneself in wool, he produced a folded piece of yellowed paper, frayed and ripped at the edges and covered in scribbles on one side, and opened it up to reveal it to be a crudely drawn map of the Badlands. He dropped it over the board, with the chess pieces propping it up an inch or so above the chequered surface.
"If we were crazy enough to advance further into the Badlands, the sane choice would be to follow this gorge here," he said, pointing to a ragged line that ran from the Macintosh Hills and into the depths of enemy territory. "It would guard our right flank, which is one less flank for us to worry about, and then we can seize the high ground south of this fort to bring one of their hives into range of our artillery and, if we receive the reinforcements we need, force the Changelings to battle. There's one small problem - there's an old bridge crossing over the gorge that would expose our flank. I want it destroyed. Ye can take a few platoons to escort a section of those Horsetralian engineers to blow it up, to give them something to do before they get creative with our supply of dynamite, ye ken? Then Faust willing, we'll both get what we want."
What we want? All I ever wanted was to go home and hide under the generously padded covers of my bed until the help could tempt me out from its womb-like security by plying me with wine and gourmet confections, but here I suppose the opportunity to deflate Rainbow Dash's ego to the point where it might conceivably fit inside Canterlot Castle's main ballroom and drill some common sense back into Gliding Moth would have to suffice for now. As ever, it was not as though I had any choice in the matter, and I was simply resigned to my dismal fate once more.
"I expect you want me to babysit them on this little expedition?" I said, forcing that well-practiced grin to my face.
The grin was returned by its more genuine cousin forming on the face of the stallion opposite me. "That's your job," he said.
It was not until I had left the relative warmth of General McBridle's tent and into the sudden chill of the desert night that I realised just how inebriated I was, as though everything that I had just drunk in the past few hours or so had waited until that exact moment, when the breeze caressed my cheek like a wispy silk negligee, to take effect. The hour was quite late, as I had worked out once my vision cleared to the point where I could make out the numbers on my watch a little more clearly, and there was that strange, eerie calm that always accompanies the very dead of night. Indeed, at that exact moment, with the thousands upon thousands of stallions who call this miserable little outpost of Equestrian civilisation their temporary home wrapped up in bedrolls and asleep in a choir of snores and each dreadfully still, 'dead' was the most appropriate word one could use to describe it.
Still, it was a pleasant night at least, or would have been were I anywhere else but here. The fully glory of Princess Luna's night sky was unmarred by any clouds, and indeed it looked as though she had put extra effort into painting her canvas this night. The moon shone like a chandelier in some grand hall, and the stars themselves were diamonds glittering against the inky black and deepest blue of the infinite void beyond, arranged artfully into whatever designs that my Aunt's fickle whims demanded of her, making this the perfect sort of night for courting an attractive, well-bred mare. It might have been my lingering inebriation as much as the majesty of night undimmed by glare of public lighting, but for the first time in a while I felt a sense of peace and calmness. In my drunken stupor I fancied that Luna might have made this sky just for me, but later, when cold, hard sobriety was once more imposed upon me, I knew that I invariably had to share it with every single living thing on the whole of Equus. At the time, however, it was a pleasing thought.
I clumsily made my way back to the castle keep, which loomed above the courtyard like some kind of vast gravestone over freshly dug earth, picking my way around the bundles of sleeping soldiers. It was fortunate that my special talent, my 'homing instinct', as it were, was somehow not affected by my drunken state, and I reached the great, yawning gates without much difficulty. From there, I made my way through the meandering, illogically laid-out corridors and rooms. Once I'd passed the great hall, packed as the courtyard was with sleeping soldiers arranged neatly in rows, I chanced upon Gliding Moth's quarters. The door was open, and a column of warm candlelight spilled out into the corridor, and when I heard the sound of moans and exertions I could not resist the urge to peek through the gap.
Her room was sparse, as she apparently did not take any personal belongings with her; indeed, being an orphan, she had no such items to bring save that given to her by the Commissariat. There was a bed, a lit candelabra, a writing desk with a few books piled atop it, a couple of beaten old practice swords scattered haphazardly on the floor, and a small bundle of spare uniforms folded neatly in the corner. The mare in question stood in the centre of the room, clutching a thin rapier in her right hoof in a manner that suggested she hadn't had much experience wielding a weapon, and stood in an awkward approximation of the en garde position. I watched, leaning drunkenly against the door post for support, as she made a few experimental swings of her sword, paused for a moment to consult from a book that lay open by her hooves, and then attempt them again.
It was after a few rounds of that she noticed me peering through the door gap like some pervert spying on her, which is not an entirely unfair judgement of me. There was a brief flitter of surprise on her face, which was just as quickly replaced with the more appropriate response of a concerned frown and a slight tilting of her head.
"Sir?" she said, only slightly out of breath from her amateur sword practice. The sweat clinging to her slim, athletic body gave her fur a very pleasing sheen. "Can I help you?"
"Maybe," I said, suddenly aware of my words slurring slightly. "But I think I can help you more."
The frown on Gliding Moth's brow deepened, and she pursed her lips. "You are drunk, sir. I don't see how."
"You might be right about that," I said as I stumbled into her room and shut the door behind me with a small kick of my hind leg, "but I bet you still won't be able to strike me with your sword, even if I am somewhat inebriated."
"You want to spar with me? In that state?" Gliding Moth snorted and shook her head, and punctuated that gesture with a defiant flick of her rapier. Now that I was much closer, I could get a better look at the blade. It was certainly a finely crafted weapon; the point was needle-thin, yet certainly appeared strong and rigid enough to cope with the abuse that a sword must invariably go through, and the guard was decorated with intricate brass sweepings inlaid with delicately marked filigree. It was, as most rapiers are, a work of art as much as a lethal weapon. I wondered how a mere orphan filly could have acquired such a sword, as it certainly was not of the utilitarian design that was standard issue in the Commissariat, and thought perhaps that she had received it as a gift from some wealthy patron or that she had saved up a considerable amount of bits over a long time to afford it.
"I don't want to be responsible for running Commissar Prince Blueblood through with a sword based solely on a drunken bet," she said, sheathing her blade into a scabbard that hung from her dainty waist.
I laughed, which she seemed to be a little insulted by. "You don't need to worry about that," I said as I walked to the pile of practice swords. "Where did you get all of these from? Pencil Pusher is going to apoplectic if he sees you hoarding his equipment."
Gliding Moth hesitated, and chewed her lip slightly as she watched me pick up one of the swords with my hoof; it didn't seem fair to spar with her if I had the unfair advantage that telekinesis brought, and though I knew that a capable fencer would know how to appropriately confront a unicorn opponent [Most combat manuals advocate that earth ponies use their superior strength to swat the opponent's weapon out of the air with a shield or their own weapon, or for pegasi to bait the opponent into over-reaching with an attack and following up with a quick thrust before they have time to correct], judging by the way I had seen her handle her weapon I could be certain that she did not. The weight of the weapon, the slightly awkward construction that made the centre of balance a little too close to the hilt for my personal liking, and the feel of the cheap, rubberised grip around my hoof brought back memories of training with these clumsy things. I write 'training', but I was already familiar with swords and had been for quite some time when I went through what passed for basic training back when the Royal Guard was simply there to look pretty at official functions. If anything, sparring with these weapons with my fellow trainee officers under the tutelage of a half-blind and rather violent retired Germane officer had made me pick up a few bad habits that took longer to shake off than it did to learn them.
"He let me borrow them," she said, "for practice, I mean. I filled out all the forms he wanted. It took me two hours, though."
"I'm surprised he let them out of his sight." I picked up another of the swords with my magic and levitated it over to Gliding Moth, who hesitantly took the awkwardly wobbling weapon with her hoof. "Come on, I'm trying to teach you something so you don't get killed. Just try to hit me."
Gliding Moth looked at me, her expression still quizzical, but with a quiet sigh that she probably thought I couldn't hear she decided to humour me, and adopted her own clumsy imitation of the en garde position. I took up the same position, though my stance was probably closer to what the writers of the fencing manual still on the floor had envisaged. After a few further harmless swipes at the air with her weapon, my opponent made a half-hearted thrust, extending her foreleg and lunging forward one step with the apparent aim to lightly tickle my chest with the dull, rounded point of her practice sword.
I flicked my hoof, deflecting the oncoming thrust with my sword to the left. Surprised by this, Gliding Moth did not attempt to correct, and instead, propelled by her own inertia, stumbled forwards so that her sword struck the ground. I quickly reversed the direction of my sword with another flick of the hoof, which would have bit deep into the side of the mare's neck were I wielding a sharpened sword and had I put any degree of actual force behind it, and a slash to the right would have opened her throat and jugular. Instead, the blow would serve only to wound her pride and give her a rather nasty looking bruise. As I withdrew my sword, and allowed my opponent some time to recover her shock at finding that, despite being more inebriated than a grandmother at Hearth's Warming, my apparent in-born skill with the blade remained undimmed, I was reminded of the rather barbaric tradition popular with university students in Germaney of Mensur, and decided that though a permanent facial scar would be a perfect reminder to never underestimate an opponent it would be a horrid shame to damage her youthful beauty.
[Mensur is a style of fencing popular among student fraternities in Germaney and Horstria, though unlike conventional fencing it is not so much a sport or a duel but a means to build character and personality. The duellists stand more or less still and aim to strike at their opponents' face, with the goal less about avoiding injury and more to do with enduring pain. Facial scarring, therefore, is common and is seen as a sign of bravery.]
Gliding Moth hissed and flinched back from my sword. She seemed rather more embarrassed than in pain, and, after a moment of touching the long, thin bruise forming on her elegant, thin neck delicately with a hoof, she quickly raised her sword above her head and brought it down with the apparent aim of cleaving a great trench in my skull. I raised my blade, catching hers with a dull clatter of metal striking metal. Frozen in surprise she made the cardinal mistake of hesitation, which I quickly took advantage of; another flick of the hoof brought her sword harmlessly to the side, and before she could correct in time to deflect my riposte, I had touched my blade against her breast and then dragged its blunt edge over her tunic.
"If that was a real sword you'd be dead," I said, attempting to sound grave, though the slurring of my words combined with a drunk's tendency to over-enunciate probably ruined that effect. Placing my sword on the ground, I stepped beside Gliding Moth, and I couldn't help but notice her nose wrinkled as I approached, then held her sword-hoof in mine. She recoiled from my touch, and shot me a glare that would have withered a prize orchid within seconds.
"I'm trying to teach you to stay alive," I explained, and then took her hoof again, this time with as much care as my alcohol-addled nerves could manage, and adjusted her grip on her sword handle to one that would allow her finer control over her weapon. "In earth pony fencing it's all in the wrist, so you need to hold it like you're shaking somepony's hoof, not like you're wielding a hammer. See?"
I let go, and she hesitantly swung her sword a few times, then looked to me with the newfound eagerness of a pupil hoping to impress her teacher. I, however, was not overly impressed, but felt a certain pang of remorse when I saw her subdued reaction to the disapproving shake of my head. Once more, I took hold of her hoof, and guided it carefully in executing a few slashes and thrusts. To be so close to a mare after all this time without some sort of monetary transaction having taken place, our bodies all but touching, through the haze that clouded my mind and the grim, gothic touches of our environment, was all rather alluring in a sordid, somewhat creepy manner. "All in the wrist," I continued, "if you raise your sword like you did before, your opponent will work out exactly what you're going to do half a second before you do it. In a duel, that half a second is the thin dividing line between life and death. If you keep your strikes small and quick, like this, your opponent has far less time to react."
Gliding Moth hummed thoughtfully, and when I stepped away from her she attempted to imitate what I had just taught her, with some greater degree of success this time. There was an odd sense of satisfaction that warmed the withered, broken thing within me that some would call a soul as I saw her put the lessons into practice. After a few tries however, she stopped, looked to her weapon with a curious expression, and then back to me.
"It's harder to get any strength behind it like this," she said.
"That's true," I said, then nudged at the rapier hanging from her waist with a hoof. "But with a weapon like that, physical strength counts for very little. In fact, in almost all circumstances, speed wins. All the strength your earth pony physique can muster will be useless if your opponent skewers your heart like a toffee apple on Nightmare Night before you're even ready to strike. Usually, the first pony to be injured is the one who ends up losing the fight."
She nodded her head, and made a few further experimental slashes at the air with her sword. Her control over her weapon seemed to be improving, and she was certainly picking up on the basics of swordplay faster than most ponies I've seen who have not had the benefit of a lifetime of training as I have. Still, I took the necessary precaution of standing behind and what I hoped to be a safe distance away from her; I had seen a number of fencing tutors injured when their students' grip on their weapons was not as secure as they had thought and an errant swing had sent it flying with rather unpleasant consequences. Her sinewy physique, which I mused was likely a result of a lifetime of the orphanage gruel and unpleasant work that overseers seem to think is a fitting punishment for the crime of losing one's parents, also seemed to be perfect for the nimble hoofwork required for fencing with a rapier. Indeed, once I was satisfied that I was safely out of the way I let her practice with her own rapier, and between swigs of water from my canteen in a vain attempt to sober up I called out directions for her to follow as she duelled an imaginary shadow opponent - forward, backward, thrust, parry, riposte, and so on.
It was after a while, when the pleasant, hazy, but incoherent buzz of tipsiness started to give way to the sullen depression and fatigue that must inevitably follow, that she decided to stop. It was getting late, or early, depending upon how one views such things, and high time the both of us were in our separate beds, alone. Nevertheless, I lingered, probably longer than I should have done, as she used a towel to mop up the sweat that gave her lithe body a pleasing sheen. She considered her rapier in her hoof, then eyed the heavier, brutish sabre in the scabbard on my back.
"I don't see how any of this affects fighting Changelings," she said as she sheathed it in her scabbard. "They tend not to use weapons at all."
"True," I said, after a moment of consideration. "But with the Pattern '12 sabre I can afford to hack and slash like an axepony cutting down a tree; it'll tear through Changeling chitin like my father through a disobedient servant's self-esteem. Your dainty little rapier will run a pony through with ease, but against a Changeling you'll have to wield it less like a sword and more like a surgeon's scalpel. Aim for the vulnerable joints in the armour around the neck and the shoulders, and failing that, going for the eyes can be just as effective."
"Blind them?" Gliding Moth arched an eyebrow imperiously, and its more than passing resemblance to a certain facial tic used by Luna when she quietly disapproved of something sent a shudder through me. "That's a little unsporting, don't you think?"
"It depends," I said, shrugging my shoulders as though her protest actually had any sort of weight to it, it being the naive assumptions of a pony who has yet to have her life threatened in any meaningful way and was still under the misapprehension that war is or should be in any way fair. "Blinding your opponent in a professional fencing club is considered bad form, yes, but with Changelings it's just fair game. Get your sword right in there, and turn his brains into raspberry jelly, before he bites your pretty face off."
With that, I walked out of the door with as much gravitas as I could muster, and stumbled back to my room. That I used the word 'pretty' to describe Gliding Moth's face, which it was, I must admit, nagged at my mind, and, in spite of myself and the state I was in, I felt a considerable amount of personal embarrassment, which I had not experienced since my lower teenage years. I did not sleep that night, and it was not entirely the fault of either the alcohol or stress this time, but the last image of her surprised smile and the slight flush of her pale cheeks that I had caught just as I left continued to linger in my mind's eye as I stared up at the barren ceiling. Seemingly always just out of my grasp, this mental apparition taunted me with its misleading proximity. This war was just getting more and more complicated for me.