When I saw it I thought it was a damned shame to demolish the bridge. It was hardly a feat of engineering brilliance on par with the one that connected Equestria to Griffonstone, being a simple and rather inelegant stone structure that looked as though the rock and dirt either side of the gorge had somehow grown across to meet in the middle of that great chasm, but it had served its purpose admirably as a means of crossing from one side to the other for longer than the Equestrian flag has flown from the tallest spires of Canterlot without much fuss or acknowledgement from the wider world. And now we were going to blow it up. I wondered about the long-dead civilisation that inhabited this once-fertile region of the continent, and of the unremembered masons and slaves who actually built this thing, if they had any inkling that this simple little structure would endure for far longer than the dynasties that ruled them and the false idols that they worshipped.
It was about wide enough for two stout ponies to walk side-by-side without much difficulty, and arched over a gorge that must have been about forty or fifty feet across and hundreds more deep. There was a single pillar that rose from the cold, dark depths of the chasm to support the bridge under the very apex of its arch. Peering over the very edge of the sheer cliff revealed only a great cleft that was unlikely to have been formed through purely natural means; the walls were far smoother than what I had seen in the other such interesting geological features that I had fought and bled over in this seemingly eternal conflict, as though they had been deliberately carved and shaped by those same long-dead artisans who had built the bridge which spanned the gap. The surfaces were by no means as smooth as Canterlot marble, but one got the sense that millennia ago they had been and that the inexorable tendency of the universe towards entropy had roughened the once-sleek rock like the lines in the face of a once-beautiful mare. The path of this chasm too seemed as though it had been planned, for to my eye it seemed rather too straight with too consistent a span for it to have been otherwise. All of these features added up to invoke a subtle sense of quiet anxiety that, once again, nothing in this benighted, desolate portion of the world was what it seemed. Despite Celestia's sun ever shining brightly above us, at that moment I felt that we couldn't be farther from her light.
We had approached from the north-east, and as we drew closer to our objective the terrain had become rougher until we were forced to navigate our way between and around strange large, monolithic stone structures and outcroppings of rock that seemed to emerge from the barren earth like an archipelago in the South Luna Ocean. Navigation had become rather difficult, though my special talent guided us in vaguely the right direction. That the Wonderbolts seemed to consider the vital role of pegasi soldiers of spotting for the benefit of the rest of us earth-bound ponies to be somehow beneath them hampered our progress more than it would have otherwise been. Either that or neither their Wonderbolt training nor Captain Blitzkrieg's lessons had imparted the importance of that most vital task upon Rainbow Dash. Indeed it was rather difficult to tell whether or not her arrogant bluster was simply an unwarranted sense of self-importance or some sort of psychological defence against the very concept that she might not be as utterly amazing and astounding at being a pegasus as her boisterous, daredevil image presented. The truth was likely some combination of the two, but already I had mentally concluded that her attitude thus far had earned her a one-way train ticket back to Equestria. I almost envied her for that.
It was around mid-day, with the sun almost directly above us so as to cast our shadows as puddles of darkness beneath our hooves, when we reached the north-eastern part of the bridge. The march had been long, tedious, and exhausting, and my thankfulness to Faust that we elected to stop for a much-needed rest and lunch was beyond the capacity for any language of mortals to describe. The soldiers had erected a number of makeshift gazebos by planting their spears into the ground like stakes, and stretching out rolls of canvas with which to provide some modicum of shelter from the fury of the sun. The time I had spent here had, at the very least, encouraged me to take pleasure in the simpler things in life, for the chance to sit down on the hard ground under the shade cast by what might as well have been tissue paper for all its effectiveness in blocking the sun, stuff my face with bland, tasteless oats, and wash that down with water that still tasted faintly of metal and chlorine after what amounted to a very long walk in clothes not the least bit suited for the climate had brought me such happiness that former pleasures as fine food, fine wine, and fine mares seemed to pale in comparison.
Rainbow Dash, however, was apparently unimpressed with this humble but very useful little structure. "Is that it?" she said, landing next to me with an almost disdainful flutter of her wings.
"What in blazes were you expecting?" I said.
She shrugged her shoulders and snorted. "I don't know," she said, sounding profoundly disappointed, "something a bit bigger, I guess."
"That's what she said," said Cannon Fodder, probably repeating something he'd heard the other soldiers say. We chose to ignore him.
The smell of burnt gunpowder, cheap beer, and singed fur alerted me to the arrival of Lieutenant Southern Cross next to me. He made a quiet, thoughtful humming noise in his throat as he surveyed the bridge in question, and tapped his hoof against his chin. Behind him, the sappers of the Royal Horsetralian Engineers platoon had parked their wagons and started unloading their equipment, which I eyed warily, knowing that an errant spark or flame would result in my mortal remains having to be collected with a dustpan and brush and placed inside a shoebox for internment in my home's basement along with the rest of my ancestors. Despite its inevitability, I very much wished to avoid spending the remainder of eternity with that collection of incompetents, decadents, sadists, and rogues that infested my family tree like a blight. [Blueblood is describing the Crypt of the Blood, which is actually a mausoleum built adjacent to the Sanguine Palace. It is connected to the extensive network of catacombs that lie beneath Canterlot, which, despite prior history, unsubstantiated claims of haunting, and occasional illegal use by live-action role players looking for an 'authentic dungeoneering experience' are now open to the general public for viewing. All entrance fees go to the maintenance of the Crypt and charities which Blueblood himself might not have agreed with, but I suspect he would have wished to have been seen in favour of.]
"Oh, don't you worry," he said, grinning wider as he pointed to barrels marked with so many bright and colourful warning signs that it looked as though it had been wrapped with one of those quaint and rustic patchwork quilts that rural peasants are so peculiarly fond of. "We're still going to make a really big 'ka-boom'. The ponies in Dodge Junction will hear it."
The promise of something exploding in a spectacular fashion seemed to placate Rainbow Dash for the time being, though I hadn't the heart to tell her that the explosives used by Royal Engineers, and indeed most competent demolitionists, were of the variety that did not detonate with a large and impressive fireball as one might expect; it was best to spread out her disappointment as much as possible, thought I. With our hasty lunch concluded, the officers of our little expedition met beneath one of these improvised tents to finalise the plans before bringing our mission to a very final conclusion: it was agreed through a number of meetings and briefings prior that the sections of the unicorn and earth pony platoons were to split to form two mixed platoons of equal composition, each commanded by one of the two lieutenants, to guard each end of the bridge while the Engineers laid their explosives and maintain at least one avenue of retreat should the enemy take notice and object to our unadvertised demolition. Rainbow Dash's Wonderbolts were to be our sole aerial support, and those of you who have been paying the amount of attention required to keep up with this clumsily written narrative that I have scribbled here will have discovered a certain discrepancy in the ratio of the earth-bound ponies to pegasi. To those readers I ask why in the blazes could you not have been around to point that out to the general staff planning this operation? One might say that I, or another, more competent, pony should have been able to do that, but at the time I and the relatively saner of my colleagues had made the grievous error of assuming that the planners of this operation had the sufficient collective mental capacity to, as the long-dead and much-revered von Pferdwitz had put it, 'maintain harmony' in our force make-up. At any rate, it was too late to complain and there was very little else I could do but accept the situation and mentally compose a letter of complaint to write should I survive.
[Minutes and documents from the planning of this operation demonstrate that a great deal of discussion on the subject of the order of battle did take place. Blueblood was either unaware or had simply forgotten that it had been agreed that a smaller force would better avoid notice, and that due to both the Changelings' weaknesses in aerial combat and the disproportionately higher attrition rates suffered by the pegasi in their frequent aerial patrols into enemy territory a much smaller contingent of airborne soldiers was needed. There was a degree of political lobbying from Captain Spitfire and other notable citizens of Cloudsdale to allow the trainee Wonderbolts to contribute in a more direct manner to the war, and it has been rumoured, but not adequately verified, that General McBridle had ordered them to be sent without support from regular pegasi troops out of a fit of pique.]
Our meeting took only half an hour, and much of it was simply Lieutenant Southern Cross explaining to us in very pedantic but disturbingly enthusiastic detail the manner in which he planned to lay the explosives and blast this millennia-old relic into ignominious dust. I found myself inadvertently exchanging glances with Gliding Moth, who sat next to me and, aside from the occasional coy smile, maintained a rather more professional demeanour throughout the proceedings than I had.
As of late I had been seeing rather more of her, as my initial drunken attempt to turn her into a more competent fencer had somehow impressed her to the point where she demanded regular training sessions from me. I started to look forward to my time tutoring her, and while it was very probable that she was cynically exploiting my slowly-blossoming attraction to her to maximise her chances of both succeeding as a commissar and surviving combat, she seemed to genuinely enjoy my company; I noticed a faint blush to her cheeks and a faint upwards twitch of her lips each time I moved close to her, our sweat-soaked bodies in tantalisingly intimate contact as I adjusted her stance and guided her through the various hoofwork exercises as mandated in her fencing manuals. And after we had sparred we would rest, exhausted and bruised, and while away the remainder of the evening together in the relative solitude of her chambers, simply chatting with one another about matters both trivial and grave over a few glasses of a moderately agreeable white wine. We talked about the war, about swords, history, and the rich, mouldering tapestries that were our lives. I confess that my interest in her was not limited to strict platonic friendship, despite her very much not being 'my type', as it were, in terms of both looks, personality, and social class for either a relationship or just a brief fling. The implication of her connection with Princess Luna, regardless of how distant or close, gave enough reason for me to hold back; indulging my libido, however long it had been since I had seduced and bedded a mare (the whores in Dodge Junction don't count), wasn't worth the potential violence that would be visited upon me should she find out, and she would. Gliding Moth had placed a great deal of trust in me, despite having failed to live up to her unrealistic expectations, and in defiance of my previous modus operandi of seduction, sex, then simply leaving, for some peculiar reason I found the very idea of using her in such a manner to be rather distasteful.
Her skill with her rapier had improved faster than I had anticipated, and her desire to master the weapon, if one could truly 'master' one, accelerated faster than both her capacity to learn and my ability to teach. I was hardly a good instructor, and I could only impart the techniques that I had honed over a near lifetime of stabbing things with swords for fun, but hopefully I had taught her enough to keep herself alive. For a joke, I told her that to unscrew the pommel of one's sword and hurl it with force at one's opponent was both a valid and effective combat manoeuvre. I was surprised and rather disturbed to find that when I had organised a sparring match with Captain Red Coat that she believed me and that it worked, though I think only because her opponent was confused by a sword's pommel bouncing off his protective mask, which was then exploited admirably. [This 'technique' made it into the fencing manual published as 'Commissar Prince Blueblood's Sword Secrets', later re-published as 'The Sword Secrets of the Commissars', and then 'Secrets of the Sword' after numerous legal battles between the Commissariat and its anonymous author and one challenge to a duel. There is a theory that Blueblood himself was the author, but his statement that he had 'far more important things to do than write this insipid little waste of paper that will get ponies killed if they attempt anything written inside it' is to be trusted. The mysterious author can be narrowed down to one of the ponies who witnessed the sparring match.]
Mercifully, Lieutenant Grim Cathedra, the moody commander of the Night Guards' earth pony platoon here, whose face was disfigured in some sort of alchemical accident with odd black and white patches of fur that made him look like a depressed panda, had grown as bored of listening to Southern Cross explain the intricate differences between nitro-glycerine and mana-enhanced TNT as the rest of us and told the Engineer to just get on with it. The meeting then broke up with the sappers embarking on their task with a foal-like enthusiasm normally seen in juvenile dragons just starting to collect the first gold coins and shiny gems that would one day become a vast hoard. The other officers peeled off to carry out their orders, leaving Gliding Moth and I together with that peculiar sense of privacy that comes with being completely surrounded by scores of ponies all far too busy doing things to pay attention to us.
"You know, you can undo your top button if it's too warm," I said to Gliding Moth, indicating the offending article. Her neck was starting to turn an alarming shade of red where the stiff high collar that had been starched to be as rigid as the proverbial stick up Princess Luna's rear end rubbed against her skin.
She moved a hoof to touch the polished brass button, but then stopped and shook her head. "That's not what the regulations say," she said churlishly.
"I'm sure some allowances can be made here of all places, "I said. "We are a long way from Canterlot, and if we are to fight on its behalf then we might as well be comfortable."
She pursed her lips again, as she always did when I pointed out the absurdity inherent in attempting to follow Princess' Regulations to the letter, then apparently saw the wisdom in both avoiding heatstroke and in not cutting off the flow of blood to one's brain, and unbuttoned her collar. The heat had become intolerable hours ago and was rising rapidly to the downright lethal regions of the thermometer, and despite having lived here for what felt like most of my life thus far I still had yet to get used to it. I wondered if the native ponies here ever did, and if we could ever establish a working relationship with them would they tell us their secrets of coping with this damnable climate, though I assumed it might have something to do with not wearing elaborately decorated wool tunics or heavy plate armour in the desert.
Gliding Moth rubbed her hoof over the inside of what was very likely a sweaty collar and rolled her head from side to side as she enjoyed her newfound open-necked freedom. Still, her face bore the expression of slighted pride, as though encouraging her to allow herself to be more comfortable had caused her offense. "Would it not have made more sense to do this at night?" she said.
"The risk of ambush is too great," I said, shrugging my shoulders a bit. "Besides, I prefer to see what's trying to kill me."
She snorted, removed her cap to fan herself with it, and said in a tone that was only half-joking, "I'm beginning to think those risks might be worth it. At least it won't be the heat that gets me."
The topic of conversation had gotten rather too morbid for my liking, and I was already struggling to suppress my anxiety to the point where I could at least pretend to execute my duties with something resembling competence. Fortunately, by that point the sappers had gotten themselves organised, and a damn sight quicker than their usual relaxed attitude both on and off duty would otherwise imply, with the barrels of explosives unpacked from the cart and arranged to Lieutenant Southern Cross's specifications just next to the bridge and precariously close, I thought, to the edge of the chasm. The additional equipment they had brought, among them picks, hammers, bolts, ropes of varying lengths, a rats' nest of colourful electrical cables, and an assortment of strange and peculiar tools that looked as though they could be nightmarish marital aides from the Middle Ages as much as engineering equipment, was arranged neatly atop a stretched sheet of canvas close by.
The infantry, however, took a little while longer to get themselves sorted despite the split into two equal formations; the Night Guards under Grim Cathedra knew what they were doing, having rehearsed the procedure with the original Solar Guard platoon, but Lieutenant Scarlet Letter's platoon, though well-drilled, professional, and overall competent despite the very best efforts of their commanding officer and his obsession with his own self-aggrandisement, were not privy to weeks and weeks of arduous preparation endured by the unit whose deployment here they had usurped. The delays were, in the grand scheme of things, relatively short, and looking back on these events I do not think they contributed to the disaster that followed, but more on that later.
Nevertheless, the presence of not one but two commissars (one-and-a-half to be more accurate) watching the proceedings carefully each with one hoof resting on the pommels of our swords [from this we can infer that Blueblood had swapped the impractical back-mounted scabbard for a more conventional one attached to a belt around his waist, otherwise striking that pose would likely have the opposite effect to the one intended] certainly helped to speed things along, as it often did, and within the hour the two mixed platoons had taken up their positions guarding one side of the bridge each, and after a brief argument that to my regret was resolved by acquiescence on my part it was decided that Scarlet Letter's unit with the Royal Colours would guard the far end and Grim Cathedra's would form the rearguard. The armchair generals amongst my readers, who, I might add, are merely the military equivalent of the sort of sports enthusiasts who berate their favourite team when they lose and insist that they could have somehow done better than the group of trained professional athletes, will likely point out that regimental colours are, by tradition and basic common sense, to remain to the rear of the formation while lined up for battle to provide an easily identifiable rallying point. They would be correct, under normal circumstances, as much as any combat operation can be considered 'normal', however, the colours were also required to stand with the highest ranking officer of the 1st Solar Guard. I had also hoped that the presence of the flags would inspire something approaching competence in Scarlet Letter.
I had elected to accompany the one guarding the side closest to Equestria for reasons so obvious that I shall not insult the intelligence of whomever reads this by explaining it. Gliding Moth could be trusted to keep Scarlet Letter in check on the far side, and if the worse came to the worse then he could either flee into the desert alone and be of no harm to anypony or find some moral fibre with a little assistance from the pointy end of a rapier.
I still felt horribly exposed; the terrain close to the bridge was a little more open, though we were still flanked by shallow ridges and clusters of rocks. A broad length of flattened land weaved its way around these obstacles, indicating the faded remnants of what might have been a busy road a few thousand years ago. Lieutenant Grim Cathedra had arranged his mixed platoon into a semicircle around the end of the bridge in the vague direction of friendly territory with the earth ponies at the front and the unicorns just behind; the idea being that should a Changeling horde crest over the horizon to swarm us our formation would tighten up with the earth ponies forming a close-order phalanx and the unicorns providing a continuous barrage of fire over their heads, thus providing at least a few moments of resistance before everypony is mercilessly slaughtered. In case of an aerial attack, the platoon could be brought into a square formation in a matter of seconds, which should, in theory, at least let me survive long enough to regret ever being born in the first place.
I am sure that the Horsetralian Engineers worked as fast as the strictures of minimum safety requirements would allow, but here in this tiny isolated pocket in the middle of nowhere it felt as though they were dawdling just to spite me. My main focus was on the great expanse of bugger all, as the lower orders had so eloquently put it, that stretched out seemingly into infinity beyond the more geologically interesting landscape that immediately surrounded the gorge like two slices of bread around a particularly depressing cheese filling, but every so often, just to alleviate the toxic mix of crushing boredom and cloying anxiety that seemed to make time drag to a veritable standstill, I would look back to check on the sappers' progress. Only four of the ten, excluding Lieutenant Southern Cross who had elected to join me, were actually working on the bridge itself: two of them worked together to secure the barrels of explosives around the central supporting pillar, the other two seemed to act in some sort of supervisory role, two worked on the detonator on our side of the bridge, while the remaining four busied themselves transporting barrels, tools, and equipment as needed from the home side of the bridge to where it was needed.
As for the Wonderbolts, don't you worry, I haven't forgotten about them. Indeed the sordid mess that was to follow was in part, and it was a rather major part, due to the gung-ho attitude that I and Captain Blitzkrieg had together been trying and failing to stamp out of them. In accordance with the plans the pegasi continuously circled a couple of hundred feet or so above the bridge in a vague figure-of-eight pattern, thus providing the all-important aerial support and long-range spotting. More importantly, it kept Rainbow Dash's ego and her complaints about the lack of anything interesting happening out of earshot. Indeed, it was this lack of anything interesting happening that was keeping all of us alive. Of course, it was not to last.
I don't know how long it took for everything to start taking on the profile of pear fruits, but by my guess it was probably about an hour after the Horsetralian Engineers had started their work. An argument had broken out on the bridge about a technical issue with the wiring, or something, I'm not sure, but it looked very heated and required the intervention of Lieutenant Southern Cross. The delay was frustrating, for I wanted nothing more than to return to the safety of the four stone walls of my office with a nice drink and a good book. But as I observed the sappers trying to demonstrate the efficacy of their respective ideas on the finer details of bridge demolition by way of waving their hooves around and aggressively pointing, Cannon Fodder alerted me to something much more interesting occurring elsewhere by tapping me a little too roughly on the shoulder to leave a rather heavy dust and grease stain on my already filthy tunic.
My aide pointed at something in the sky to south. At first it looked like nothing more than a cluster of flies buzzing around, but the somewhat rigid formation they held as they wafted lazily through the sky and their positions relative to the few lonely clouds up there betrayed their true nature - Changelings. It was not the sun-blotting swarm that assaulted Canterlot, nor the chitinous tide that had almost swept away the tiny fortress that had been home for over a year, but instead seemed to be merely a patrol, albeit a rather large one. This sight had, at least, brought a quick and decisive end to the engineers' squabbling; a small flight was unlikely to cause much concern to us, as the Wonderbolts should be able to take care of them and they had not the sheer mass of numbers required to overwhelm a tightly-packed and well-drilled infantry square, but now that their pernicious hive mind was aware of our incursion it would not be overlong before the inexhaustible supply of expendable drones would converge upon us.
The soldiers remained professional and disciplined despite seeing the enemy, knowing that they were much too far away for us to do anything about it. As I was just about to call Lieutenant Southern Cross back and demand an update from him, which, much like the various plumbers, electricians, and other such technicians I must employ to keep my crumbling homes somewhat liveable, would most likely consist of a vague estimation that must be multiplied by a factor of three or four in order to arrive at the correct amount of time to fix the issue, Rainbow Dash called out suddenly and loudly enough for me to hear.
"Hostiles at three o'clock high!" Rainbow Dash's barked command, clearly attempting to imitate Captain Spitfire's sharp bark. "Attack pattern alpha-seven! Engaging!"
The Wonderbolts shot off in the direction of the enemy patrol like rats fleeing from an opened trap. I hesitated for a few seconds, believing that they would see sense and realise that the 'hostiles' were much too far away to intercept, before I realised that they weren't coming back and shouted, "GET BACK HERE!" as loudly as I possibly could. Either they did not hear or, as I suspected, chose to ignore what I thought was an entirely unambiguous order, and we, the poor, ground-bound infantry, were left isolated and alone with no protection from the skies or means of long-range spotting. The last echoes of the Royal Canterlot Voice resonating around the chasm died away as both Changelings and Wonderbolts dwindled into minute specks against the clear blue expanse, and were then lost in the sky's emptiness.
I imagine there's a technical word for the sort of awkward silence that follows when a group of ponies collectively come to understand just how badly things have turned, and it's probably in Germane and consists of just about every letter of the alphabet [one could create a compound word out of piecing Germane words together, but it would not be one actually used by native speakers], but if such a word did exist then it would be a most apt title for this unofficial autobiography. Everypony looked to me for leadership, once again proving that most ponies are very poor judges of character, and I reluctantly gave the order to continue with the mission at hoof, but at the first sign of trouble we would start an organised retreat home. If the Wonderbolts did not return by the time the bridge was a smoking ruin then I would make what Rainbow Dash endured under Sergeant Major Square Basher seem like a pleasant summer evening strolling down a seaside promenade by comparison, if I was feeling charitable and didn't gut her with my sword immediately upon landing for disobeying an unequivocally direct order. It would have been an unpopular decision with the sort of reverse-baseball-cap-wearing, beer-drinking, hoe-down-attending peasantry that make up the core of the Wonderbolts' following, but I expect they would have found something else with which to distract from the tedium of their lives.
As much as I knew it chafed Lieutenant Southern Cross, the Engineers were now forced to rush their efforts. An errant spark or a crossed wire would have blasted them into oblivion and scattered their mortal remains all through the chasm below, but, despite my misgivings, I trusted in their professionalism. My watch had stopped, either due to me forgetting to wind the damned thing this morning (such were the perils of trying to live without one's valet, and I was not about to let Cannon Fodder handle an instrument of such delicacy as a watch) or the mechanisms within had been clogged up with the ever-present dust, so I could not tell how much time had passed. The sun barely seemed to move in the sky, though the heat and cloying humidity only grew worse as time dragged inexorably along.
The Engineers were still hastily connecting miles upon miles of brightly coloured wires to barrels and to strange bits of machinery and, most ominously, to the detonator on our side of the bridge when the pegasi were spotted. At first we all assumed that the Wonderbolts were metaphorically crawling back, and indeed I was very much looking forward to using the speech I had spent the intervening time composing and editing in my head, but these pegasi came from a south-easterly direction more or less following the path forged by canyon as opposed to the near-direct south that our erstwhile comrades had just deserted us. As they flew closer I could make them out more clearly; the flyers were clearly pegasi, though they each wore gowns of rough, sandy-brown cloth and primitive iron helmets instead of the sleek, skin-tight blue and yellow jumpsuits I had expected to see, and they were armed with a motley selection of various spears and swords forged out of what little iron could be gleaned from the barren rock.
Grim Cathedra gave the order to form square, which the well-drilled platoon did in a matter of seconds. It was merely a precaution, but I hoped that this clearly defensive measure would not be interpreted as an act of aggression by these natives. I took my position with the officer in the centre of the square, and found the feeling of safety granted by being surrounded almost entirely by four walls of heavily armoured ponies with spears and horns raised defiantly like the spikes of some kind of steel hedgehog that could also shoot magic only slightly alleviated the bowel-loosening fear that started to grip me. The Engineers too had joined us, though their deadly spades would be of very little help against pegasi if fighting was to break out.
I noted that the detonator, a small black box with a large red plunger, had been set up next to us in the centre of the square, and was being guarded by Lieutenant Southern Cross.
The pegasi maintained a respectable distance, though they were still close enough for me to pick out the physical details of specific individuals. They flew without a coherent military formation, instead soaring at their own respective paces, occasionally darting closer to one another with sudden bursts of speed to engage in whispered conversations I could not hear. A few dared to move in for a closer look, for indeed that's what I assumed they were merely doing, but none of them seemed to have the manners to land and introduce themselves. The sky had become thick with them, or at least it seemed to; their constant and erratic movement made it difficult to keep track of individual ponies and was thus intended to be a cheap, albeit effective, psychological trick to give the impression that there were far more of them. Knowing this did very little to help combat its effect, and indeed the soldiers around me snorted and fidgeted anxiously as though straining at a leash to fight them. I employed the universally-accepted gesture of friendly greeting by waving my hoof and smiling at the strange ponies, but none of them reciprocated. However, when performed from behind a ring of grey and silver steel tipped with raised spear-points and horns charged with magic and while wearing a black and red uniform adorned with the equally ubiquitous symbols of death the meaning behind that gesture might have been somewhat lost.
"I wish they'd sod off," said Grim Cathedra. The use of a Gritish curse sounded odd in his Nhorse accent, but suited his morose personality.
"They're only taking a look," I said. "So long as everypony stays calm and doesn't do anything stupid they'll either talk or go away."
Grim Cathedra snorted, shook his head, and waved a hoof at the other end of the bridge where thing were certainly not as calm and controlled as they were here. "Somepony should tell them."
I had been so worried about my own immediate safety that I had neglected to pay attention to our comrades on the other side. To say that they were somewhat less organised than we were would be a gross understatement; 'farce' might have been a better word, as the platoon seemed to be struggling to form the protective square formation around the Colours. It was difficult to make out exactly what was going on, as much of what was visible there in the crevice between the two outcroppings of rock that sheltered the path was obscured by the dust brought up by so many hooves, but the two flags were visible above the sandy haze, slowly shifting around to whatever confused orders Scarlet Letter was issuing.
The pegasi natives seemed to take a far greater interest in our comrades across the bridge; the presence of the Royal Colours implied that whomever was in charge of our expedition would be with the brightly coloured pieces of cloth on sticks that were intended to serve as a means of identifying the commanding officer. The sky seemed full of these sandy-robed pegasi, all constantly moving, gliding, and flitting between one another in a chaotic aerial ballet, and greater in number than those above my head. My hooves itched terribly; it was most unlike the native ponies here to behave in such a bold and, to my eyes, deliberately provocative manner. Our lack of aerial support and the scattered, disorganised disposition of our forces far from the safety of the Equestrian front line made it absolutely clear to them that we were isolated and vulnerable. Nevertheless, I held fast to the belief that they were merely curious about the sudden military presence on their metaphorical doorstep and not suicidal enough to provoke outright war with Equestria.
Perhaps I should have sent somepony over the bridge to relay an order to form square, perhaps I should have done it myself and kicked the incompetent officer into the chasm. Whether or not that would have made a difference to what followed one can never be certain; sometimes the fate of the rest of one's whole life can rest upon one decision, or it makes not the slightest bit of difference and everything goes terribly wrong regardless of one's choice. I watched, peering over the heads of soldiers that surrounded us, and silently implored them to form square.
What followed was something that still confuses me to this day. I have had nearly an entire lifetime, longer than most ponies whose bloodlines are untouched by divinity as mine, to work out what reasoning could have possibly motivated the pony or ponies responsible to perform what I could only describe as an act of pure insanity. A tiny flash of light, almost imperceptible in the bright sunlight, flew from the cloud of dust, clipped the wing of a pegasus who had flown too close, and sent him spiralling to the ground. I didn't see him land with all that dust in the way, but even with my poor understanding of pegasus flight it seemed unlikely that he survived the impact with the ground. The response from his comrades was entirely understandable given the circumstances. The swarm 'flinched' as though it was possessed of one singular mind, before it split into a number of smaller groups with disconcertingly military precision, and then descended upon the disorganised platoon with sudden and brutal ferocity.
The suddenness of the incident and our distant perspective from across the bridge, coupled with the intellectual and emotional disconnect brought about by the very concept that our enemy was not unthinking and unfeeling Changelings but now ponies like us, gave what we saw a horrid surreality that was only enhanced by the diffused sound of clashing steel and battle cries echoing about the gulf the chasm. The spell, however, was swiftly broken, for we too came under attack. The assault on our position was nowhere near as aggressive as that on our comrades, owing to our greater organisation; our earth ponies' spears and unicorn magic were effective in keeping the enemy at a healthy, if still uncomfortable, distance away from us. One, a colt barely into adulthood, seemed to grow impatient at trying and failing to manoeuvre around bristled spear points and magic missiles and made a bold dive straight towards me, having undoubtedly identified me by the many shiny things attached to my uniform as a pony of some minor importance. A spear shifted, and there was just barely enough time for his defiant snarl of victory to transform into an expression of surprise and dawning horror before he impaled himself upon it through the chest with such force that the point erupted with a spray of blood from his back. His forward motion ceased, his outstretched wings twitched and he writhed in pain on the spear, before the soldier wielding it slammed the dying pony to the ground and wrenched his bloodied weapon free.
A few more would meet the same fate skewered upon earth pony spears or shot from the sky by fusillades of magic missiles until our square was framed by a halo of dead, dying, and wounded pegasi. There were no casualties on our part, as the enemy could not get past our defensive screens of spears and unicorn fire to meet us in hoof-to-hoof combat. Unless they brought overwhelming numbers or a full platoon of unicorns to pick us off leisurely from a relatively safe distance, it was entirely unlikely that we would be forced from our position. Despite being all but completely surrounded even I felt remarkably safe in the centre of the square.
The same, however, could not be said for the platoon across the bridge. Their failure to form square in time meant that small groups of soldiers had become isolated from one another, and could thus be individually surrounded and picked off at leisure by the marauding pegasi. Nevertheless, despite being clearly outnumbered, their forces dispersed, and being commanded by a stallion who was even less qualified to command ponies-under-arms than me, our soldiers fought admirably. Amidst the clouds of dust brought up by hooves I could see that superior Equestrian discipline, training, weapons, and, most importantly, sturdy mithril armour was more than a match for these primitive savages. One mismatched group of unicorns and earth ponies had forced their way through the enemy, carving a bloody path through the mob, to reach the bridge. There, they held their position guarding the one way home for their comrades, and as a testament to the famed obedience so expertly instilled in the common Equestrian soldier, not one of their number broke rank and fled to the obvious safety of our side of the bridge.
To watch and do nothing was agonising, but I was in no particular hurry to cross the bridge and hurl myself into the madness. Yet as the minutes crawled by it became horribly clear to all that the enemy was not seeking to drive us from what I presumed must have been their bridge [Due to a lack of written record keeping, it is almost impossible to ascertain which of the many pony tribes that inhabit the buffer regions between Equestria and Changeling Country actually 'owned' the bridge. Indeed, these cultures lacked the concept of ponies or organisations possessing land or structures as property] but were instead turning their full attention upon the Colours, which were still isolated from the main bulk of the platoon. As far as I could make out the colour guard had taken refuge in the small gap between two of the larger boulders, which was a sensible course of action to take as it provided a small measure of protection from both attack from the air and from being completely surrounded on all sides. Yet they were still isolated, and it looked as though every damned native of this benighted land had been summoned to this very spot with the express purpose of wresting our Colours from our hooves.
"They can't hold out much longer," said Grim Cathedra, pointing at the two flags visible above the melee.
"If the platoon can regroup properly they should drive them off," I said optimistically.
The taciturn pony snorted and shook his head. "Not with him in charge," he said. "It's funny; soldiers complain politicians fight in the wars they start, and here's one of them making a total mess of it."
I knew what had to be done, I just did not want to do it. He was right, of course; the beleaguered platoon only needed somepony to get over there, kick Scarlet Letter off the cliff, and get them to organise themselves. That our superior discipline and craft with weapons and armour would hold out against the savage horde was becoming increasingly unlikely under the constant onslaught; these were not the mindless Changelings we were used to fighting, but employed tactics of rapid, sharp attacks and retreats that our heavier infantry struggled to match. The bloody fool who had fired on them in the first place had grossly underestimated them, and if he survived this encounter with the natives I would make absolutely certain he would not survive his next with me. Besides, Gliding Moth was still over there, and I felt strangely concerned about her safety. Reluctantly, I did what was expected of me and gathered a section of unicorns and earth ponies, and leaving the remaining twenty soldiers plus the Horsetralian Engineers to guard the rear.
The narrowness of the bridge and the fact that whomever designed and built this thing apparently hadn't heard of railings (the concept of health and safety standards not having been invented until after their civilisation fell) made our progress across it slow. The old cliché of not looking down to avoid feeling the terror of such dizzying heights was made downright dangerous by the lack of anything at all to stop me going over the edge and plummeting to my messy death; at least, I thought, it looked as though the bottom of the crevasse was far enough for me to have time to consider that perhaps such requirements were, on the whole, a good thing. An errant slip, an accidental nudge from any one of the ponies around me, or a stiff breeze could have sent me tumbling down into the abyssal depths below, where it would be exceedingly unlikely that my rotted corpse would be found and interred with my ancestors. Naturally, Cannon Fodder and I covered the rear, in case the enemy pegasi had noticed our little rescue party. Despite this, I heard hooves behind me, and stopped to look over my shoulder and see that despite my explicit instructions otherwise, Lieutenant Southern Cross and about five of his sappers were trotting right behind me wielding axes and spades as weapons.
"I thought I told you to stay behind," I said, not slowing my step.
"Bugger that," said Southern Cross. "Can't."
Fine, thought I, more bodies to place between me and the enemy then. It struck me that for an industrious lot with a famed 'can-do' attitude these Horsetralians seemed to use the word 'can't' an awful lot, both when asked to do something and told not to do it. [On a personal note, I have yet to make up my mind as to whether Blueblood has consistently misheard that particular expletive, or is uncharacteristically censoring his own private memoires, or perhaps it's simply a private joke.]
Up ahead and further down the bridge I heard the sound of some sort of commotion breaking out. The soldiers ahead slowed, and they were clearly none too happy about whatever it was that caused the obstructions. I could hazard a reasonable guess as to what exactly was causing the problems, and lo and behold I was proved completely right when Lieutenant Scarlet Letter forced his way between the two Night Guard stallions trotting side-by-side in front of me. The soldier on the right tripped over his own hooves in a misguided attempt to avoid trampling the shorter unicorn, sending his rear legs slipping over the edge of the bridge. Fortunately, his companion seized the poor soldier by the straps that held his breastplate on, and with a snarl of exertion that bared his fanged teeth he dragged his comrade back from the precipice.
"Watch where you're going!" he shouted. "You coward!"
Scarlet Letter found himself face-to-tunic with me. Faust almighty he looked terrified, as well he should; the commissar just caught him nearly killing a pony. He tried to compose himself, but the trembling movements of his hooves as he tried to straighten his posture and the wild, panicked look in his eyes betrayed his fear. "That pony just insulted me!" he shrieked, his voice wavering. "What are you going to do about it?"
I stared back at him in sheer incredulity for a brief second, before a nudge from Cannon Fodder, apparently impatient to get back to the relative safety of Terra Firma, brought me to my senses. The sheer and utter gall of this thoroughly unpleasant stallion always found new lows to sink to.
"I'm going to give him a bloody medal!" I snapped, then I grabbed him by the neck with my telekinesis and shoved him none-too-softly in the direction of the safer side of the bridge, where I was certain the soldiers there guarding our retreat had just witnessed what he nearly did. "Now get out of my sight."
I didn't hear his retort, nor did I care to. The moment's distraction was forgotten as quickly as it had started, and we marched onwards towards the inchoate roar of battle to perform the grim task of war that fate had once more thrust onto me. All the while, directly ahead of us and visible above the heads and spears of ponies locked in the brutal scrum of hoof-to-hoof combat the two flags, the standard of the First Solar Guard and the Royal Standard of the Royal Pony Sisters, fluttered resplendently in the dust-filled breeze, under the omnipresent glare of a merciless sun. My blood was up, and I eased my sword out of its scabbard with a shriek of grinding steel, which had the added effect of motivating our small force to march with greater urgency.
We had nearly reached the end, the first stallions of my rescue party had already joined their comrades to bolster the line, when an ear-splitting bang pierced through the ungodly noise of combat. I had barely enough time to register what had happened, when something slammed me in the flanks with the force of a locomotive. Whatever it was tossed me and the stallions around me briefly airborne, describing a small arc before crashing into the bridge again. I landed snout first, and my nose exploded in agony. A few stallions had slipped over the edge, but the luckier of their fellows had managed to grab into armour and straps to save them. Choking on dust, I dared to lift my head, and slowly, as though I wanted to put off realising the horrifying truth for as long as physically possible, I looked behind me to see a gap ten feet wide had been blasted out of the bridge.