Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Honour and Blood (Part 11)

I suppose some might say that enduring continual attempts on my life is simply the price one pays for the status and luxury that comes with being a prince of the realm, but this particular incident only marked the second failed assassination I had experienced thus far, the first being when Scarlet Letter opened up the crypts of the fortress and allowed the Changelings inside.  Of course, those hypothetical ponies might be correct, as a cursory glance at my sprawling family tree indicates a great number of branches that were pruned rather too early by certain overzealous other branches wanting their time in the precious sunlight.  Being under Princess Celestia's protection for much of my early life and my refusal to take any interest at all in the more contentious issues of the day had helped to mitigate this particular family curse, at least until my fame had reached such levels that even as yet undiscovered tribes in darkest Zebrica could draw a reasonably accurate portrait of me if given a pencil and a sheet of paper.

I mention this because I want to convey just how jarring it felt when the fog in my mind faded with the cloud of dust brought about by this surprise demolition, and I realised that what had just happened was no accident but a deliberate, callous, and cowardly attempt on my life.  Changelings have tried to kill me in battle more times than I dared to count, and as of this day so had ponies, but there is a stark difference between killing in war and cold-blooded murder; both were unpleasant and I made it a special interest of mine to prevent both things from happening to me, but the former was to be expected and I at least had a small chance of killing the other bastard first in a mostly fair fight, while the latter demonstrated such cowardice that even I was appalled.  I have standards.  Certainly, I was not above contriving situations that allowed other, less deserving ponies than I to die in my stead, but ultimately survival was still possible, but to perform the deed myself, as whoever had detonated the charges with deliberate aim to scatter my bodily remains into the stratosphere had just attempted to do, crossed the one boundary that should never be violated.

It was a relief to find myself uninjured, though I was quite lucky in that regard.   A few soldiers had been caught in the blast, tossed into the air as I had, and landed back onto the bridge with bones broken and joints sprained from the impact.  Cannon Fodder himself was unharmed, as though his coating of filth had shielding properties as yet unknown to science, and appeared entirely unperturbed, as usual, by yet another close call with death.  Stumbling onto hooves that seemed rather too shaky to support me, I stared at the yawning gulf where the centre span of the bridge stood, and across where the troops on the other side seemed to be in as much a state of shock as I was from what little I could make out of their distant faces.  There seemed to be some kind of commotion in the centre of the formation where, if I remembered correctly, the detonator had been set up.  When I found the pony who depressed that plunger, and with Faust as my witness I swore that I would, then I would subject him to such torments that eternal damnation in the pits of Tartarus would seem like a pleasant relief.

"Sir," said Cannon Fodder, "shouldn't we help Lieutenant Southern Cross?"

I don't know how I failed to notice a pair of hooves clinging desperately to the edge of the ruined bridge, but in my defence the settling grey dust had made us all look like ghosts.  Cannon Fodder and I rushed on over to see Southern Cross dangling by his forelegs. His mechanical one spluttered and made all manner of unpleasant, disconcerting noises that demonstrated that the blast had well and truly turned it into a broken piece of scrap metal attached to his shoulder.  Despite its damage, it still managed to support his weight well enough, as it seemed that whatever mechanisms powered the artificial limb had seized up solid.  Below, the view of the chasm behind his wildly kicking hindlegs was thoroughly nauseating.

"Help me!" he shouted up at us, and his hooves slipped a few inches downwards.  I grabbed his organic foreleg while Cannon Fodder grabbed the useless mechanical one and we both hauled him off the edge of the broken bridge.  He was a damn sight heavier than I thought he would be, but with so much of his body replaced with moving lumps of metal I should have expected it.  Nevertheless, even with the two of us it still took a great effort and much cursing to drag him to the relative safety of solid ground where what remained of our little rescue party had formed up with the surviving members of Lieutenant Scarlet Letter's platoon.

The soldiers formed up in a defensive semi-circle around the damaged bridge, but with our backs to a large chasm and the only method of retreat now a pile of historic rubble a few hundred feet below our position was probably the absolute worst in all of military history since the Prench marched their heavily armoured knights straight into a muddy swamp, where they got stuck and were picked off from a comfortable distance by Trottingham archers.  [This seems to be a reference to the Battle of Agincrop, where Prench chevaliers were indeed trapped by their heavy armour in muddy terrain, though Blueblood is incorrect when he says they were dispatched from a distance by archers, instead the lightly armoured Trottingham forces moved into close range with their trapped enemy and finished them with swords and spears.]  The enemy, however, was utterly fixated on the Colours and with only a few stragglers who were unable to force their way through the mobs to reach the few brave defenders left standing to turn their frustrations upon us in small disorganised groups.  They were dealt with in short order, shot and/or stabbed before they could move close enough to inflict any damage.  I noticed that some of the enemy were earth ponies, and I could only guess that they had been hiding around the rocky terrain or crept up on us while our attention was focused on the marauding pegasi.

Southern Cross attempted to stand, but with his foreleg now a solid rigid lump of metal stuck out in front of him in a manner reminiscent of what artists mistakenly believed was an ancient pegasus salute [a reference to the neo-classical movement in art that was popular in Canterlot at the time, which aimed to replicate the grandiose artwork of pre-Equestrian pegasus society with little regard for historical accuracy.  Often with a martial theme, it was no coincidence that interest in this style waxed and waned with the intensity of the ongoing Changeling Wars] his stance had become awkward and ungainly.  It became clear to all except him that there was no way that he could be in any fit state to fight effectively.  Until he started striking this piece of delicate and complex machinery with his hoof and swearing at it, and then whatever it was that had become damaged within had somehow fixed itself through the magic of violence and obscene language.  After a few experimental stretches and movements, each accompanied by distinctly unpleasant grinding noises and bursts of hot steam from the vents, he seemed satisfied with his work and looked around with a rather dazed expression on his face.

"Where's the rest of my section?" he blurted out.  Southern Cross's mouth was as wide open in shock as his eyes, and he frantically turned his head this way and that to try and find them.  "Where the bloody hell are they?  They were all right..." - he stopped when he saw the ruined bridge, and then bowed his head and removed his helmet - "They were all right behind me."

"I'm sorry," I said; it was all that I really could say in these circumstances.

"Bastard!"  Southern Cross stomped a hoof into the ground and turned to face me, his features twisted grotesquely into a tight knot of anger and grief of such raw intensity that I almost forgot about the battle raging around me.  "I'll kill him.  I'll bloody well kill him."

"Easy, Lieutenant..."

"They were my colts!" he snapped, turning his anger upon me and ramming his muzzle against mine, snarling and blasting hot breath through his nostrils as he apparently tried to push me down.  "They were soldiers!  They knew the risks!  They all knew what they were getting into when we signed up and got shipped halfway across the bloody world to fight!  But not this, they didn't deserve this."

"Lieutenant," I said again, softly but as firmly as I could manage.  "Fall in with the platoon."

Somehow, the sound of my voice seemed to snap Southern Cross out of his spiral of self-indulgent angst; there would be plenty of time for him to do that later, but he was going to be of very little use to me if he allowed his emotional response to this tragedy to interfere with his duties.  He stepped away from me, mercifully granting me some much needed personal space, his eyes wide with their pinprick-sized pupils darting around with a high nervous energy.  Muttering something that sounded like an affirmative, he eased his wickedly sharp axe from its harness and then moved with slowly growing confidence and determination in his gait to the half-ring of soldiers around us.  Some might think me cold, but if there is anything that I have learned in the past two years of doing my damnedest to keep myself alive then it is that sentimentality has no place on the battlefield.  The enemy was not going to suspend their efforts to kill us just so we could have an emotional and dramatic moment.

With that distraction out of the way we could finally turn our attention back to the monumental task at hoof.  The twin flags rose defiantly above the dust and the bodies ahead of us, but between us and the brightly coloured sheets of cloth that ponies seemed to value more than their own lives was what seemed to be every single dust-dwelling autochthon in the entire Badlands.  I wondered if they were even the slightest bit cognisant of the almost religious value of the royal standards, not bearing any kind of banner or other distinctive means of advertising to which denote the political entity they fought for.  That they knew that it was important to us was evident, as they as a military unit, disorganised though they were, had focused nearly all of their efforts upon taking the standards, such that they appeared not to have noticed the rather large group of now very angry and upset Equestrian soldiers forming up behind them.

We numbered now little more than a score, minus those wounded in the blast, and while I would have liked more stallions with me on this thoroughly suicidal venture this small number would have to do.  Under my orders, we arranged the unicorns to the front and the earth ponies with spears readied behind.  The enemy was still distracted, and had either forgotten about us or believed that we would simply stand by and watch as our comrades were cut down.  They were a moderately short distance away from us, about fifty feet or so as they pushed and shoved past each other in a mad and frantic attempt to be the one who claimed our standard; it was this selfish disorganisation that probably allowed the colour guard to hold out for so long.

"Unicorn section!" I shouted above the din.  "Fire!"

A dozen sparks of light flew from the unicorns' horns, mine included, and ripped into those unfortunate enough to be at the rear of the enemy mob, cutting down a few.  The effect of a magic missile is hardly the quick, clinical, almost refined death that certain unicorns, who were unlikely to have fired a shot at a living target, seem to believe.  A scintillating orb of raw magical energy, focused and shaped into a rough ball shape the size of a pomegranate and then projected at the speed of sound from a unicorn's horn rips into an organic body, disintegrating soft tissue and leaving a horrid crater of cauterised flesh that conceals pulverised bone and liquefied organs.  That there is very little blood spilt does not in any way lessen the brutality of the deliberate effect of firing upon another pony, nor the violation of the most basic, fundamental law of equine society.

"Earth ponies to the front!" I ordered, and they complied instantly.  There was not a moment to lose while we held the slight advantage of surprise.  "Spears at the ready!  Platoon, charge!"

The Equestrian soldiers shouted a unanimous, wordless cry that is often expressed in written language as 'huzzah'.  This word, however, is far too inadequate a term to describe the sound of two dozen stallions roaring in expression of the release of so much pent-up aggression, and the appropriation of this signal to prelude to a massed infantry charge by the upstart bourgeoisie as an effete exclamation of delight does not exactly conjure up the necessary image of thundering hooves, lowered spears, and the sickening sound of sharp steel ripping through flesh that it should.  It was a cry that was felt rather than heard, deep within a primitive part of the equine brain best left repressed, that awoke a lust for blood.

I had the sense to position myself with the unicorns, who followed snout-to-tail with the earth ponies in front with their sabres drawn.  Pressed in on all sides by warm, sweat-soaked bodies, whose sun-baked armour singed my skin, however, did not make me feel as safe as it should.  The distance between us the enemy closed within a matter of seconds, leaving the survivors of that initial fusillade of shots virtually no time to brace for the charge.  The earth ponies tore through the enemy ranks, spears ripping into flesh, shafts splintered, and bodies trampled under-hoof, like a sharp blade.  The mob parted, forced out of the way by the stampede, and then moved to surround us.  Robbed of the momentary advantage of surprise, and lacking the sheer weight of numbers and momentum required to carry off a proper Equestrian Charge and push deep within the enemy formation and inflict the desired panic, our gallant assault slowed and became bogged down like a cart in wet mud.

A gruelling slog of attrition ensued.  With our momentum lost and in the confusion of the fight our formation had become intermingled with that of the enemy, if their incoherent mob can be charitably described as a 'formation'.  Despite my best efforts, as the fight descended into a brawl I was robbed of the protective screen of earth ponies and forced to engage with the enemy directly.  Once more, my view of the battle became reduced to this myopic, self-absorbed scene, one of many played out on a grand scale.  My senses became localised entirely to the space immediately around me, as it always did in the all-too-common occasions that I found myself dragged into the sickening mire of war at its worst; the feel of the dirt beneath my hooves, the hot wind that plucked at my coat and fur, the stench and taste of blood, the cacophonous roar of clashing steel and screams, our goal the two Colours flying above, and the pony directly in front trying his damnedest to kill me.

An earth pony clad in tattered yellow-grey robes lunged at me with a sword, his foreleg extending like a piston with aim to impale me upon his blade through my chest.  He was a thin, wiry fellow, unshaven and unwashed too, and looked as though he was scarcely capable of lifting his weapon.  Despite his slender physique, he seemed to use it competently.  I darted quickly to the side, and the bronze blade whistled past my aching shoulder.  He tried to adjust the thrust of his blade to catch me in the flank, but I was faster.  My sabre came down and sank a good few inches into the pony's foreleg to the bone.

The pony screamed in agony as blood seeped around the grievous wound.  A sharp tug freed my sword with a spray of arterial crimson that splattered onto my already stained tunic.  Another swing of the sabre hacked into the back of his neck, not quite severing through, but the overall effect was all the same as he slumped to the ground in a grotesque mass of twitching limbs and blood.

I stepped over him, the thoughts of the dying pony leaving my mind as his life left his body.  A civilian might imagine a battle as being filled with hundreds of instances of noble one-on-one combat, each deciding the fate of nations in their own way.  That was not the case; for when I stepped forwards I did so with a dozen or so other soldiers beside me.  Even in the swirling chaos of this disorganised battle, like the phalanxes of antiquity a well-drilled Equestrian infantry unit advanced and fought together, with each individual soldier supporting the next to him.

It was the enemy's turn to be surrounded, as slowly but surely we had pushed the survivors into the cleft between the two sheer rock structures.  This, however, had the unfortunate side effect of forcing the remaining Colour Guard back into more open territory, where, in what short, fractured glimpses I could grasp between the shifting heads of the ponies jostling with one another to try and get to them, they elected to clamber atop one of the smaller rocky outcroppings to gain some advantage in having the higher ground.  I could see, however briefly, two ensigns clutching the flags for dear life with one hoof and clumsily wielding swords with the other, their youthful eyes stricken with horror as they watched the carnage.  The Colour Guard, identifiable by the greater amount of ornamentation on their armour and the ceremonial halberds they swung to brutal effect, were down to four soldiers, supported by a further five unicorns and earth ponies who formed a cordon around the two ensigns.  All around, the enemy swarmed like carrion birds around a dying beast, picking around at the extremities until it must surely fall.

"To me!" I cried.  "Push them back!"

The platoon, on the danger of becoming dispersed on account of casualties creating gaps in the line, rallied around me.  The grinding slog of a Royal Guard advance was slow and inexorable; a steamroller that relentlessly and ponderously ground down all resistance before it.  With many of the spears broken in the initial charge, the earth ponies had to rely upon their swords, and likewise with the close press of bodies the unicorns too were forced into the brutal mess that is hoof-to-hoof combat.  I had found myself in the unfortunate position at the front of our formation, hacking almost blindly with my sword and somehow managing to deflect and avoid oncoming blades that would have torn great rents into my flesh.  My memory of the fight became a blur of steel and blood, of the stench of gore and death, interspersed with flashes of utmost clarity: a pony clutching at his bloodied face shredded into ribbons, another writhing on the ground holding a broken leg bent at an obscene angle, one motionless on his back with his chest torn open and its eviscerated contents revealed to the sky...

We were close to the Colours, damnably so.  Only a mob about five ponies deep, the rest having moved to surround our isolated comrades or presumably deciding that claiming our standards wasn't worth the effort after all and had wisely fled.  The ensign carrying the Royal Standard had fallen, and in his place Trainee Commissar Gliding Moth held the glorious banner aloft with one hoof and with the other wielded her rapier to deadly effect.  I confess to feeling a small degree of pride when I saw her expertly slice a pony's face straight across the eyes and then finish him off with another across his throat, though that emotion was rapidly and rudely shouted down by the sensation of utter terror that comes with being in mortal danger.  A number of the soldiers guarding the Colours had fallen, leaving only three of the veteran Colour Guard, their once-immaculate silver armour that had only seen use as mere ornamentation for state events was now splattered with blood and gore.  This, coupled with the ever-present dust that stuck to their fur gave them the appearance of savage ghouls risen from the dead of some long-forgotten war.

The ensign clutching the regimental standard of the 1st Solar Guard, with the symbol of the blazing sun embraced by the crescent moon fixed upon a white shield on a crimson field, in an act of utmost desperation reared back on his hindlegs and hurled the flagpole like a javelin towards us.  Mercifully, he avoided impaling anypony on our side with it and it landed harmlessly, point-first, in the midst of our formation and stood proudly embedded in the dirt.  The banner was quickly snatched up by Cannon Fodder, who, having lost his spear, seized the pole with both hooves and clutched it to his grimy breastplate.  The flag itself still flew proudly in the breeze, eagerly waiting to be reunited with its more esteemed sibling.  This, however, had forced the ensign to drop his guard, and he was rewarded for his quick thinking and bravery with a spear between his ribs.  The posthumous medal I would recommend him for would be of scant comfort to the family he left behind.

Our rescue party pushed onwards, fighting our way through the thinning formation of native ponies.  Gliding Moth had seen us, and for a moment our eyes locked across the battlefield.  She thrust the ancient standard skyward and shouted something that I could not hear clearly over the primal cacophony of battle.  Whatever it was, it certainly had an effect on our troops, as the remnants of the platoon surged forwards, cutting down the enemy until I, at the head of this formation, could almost climb up the rock formation unimpeded.  Standing there, standard in one hoof and sword in the other, chest heaving with exertion, uniform splattered with blood, and screaming furious exhortations to her troops to fight harder, she looked the very model of a Commissar.

This rocky outcropping was about twice the height of a reasonably-sized pony such as myself from where I stood at the base, though the opposite side was more of a gentle slope that allowed easier access.  There, however, our push had forced the enemy to congregate around the slope, hemming the surviving Colour Guard at this sheer drop.  Rearing up on my hindlegs, I reached up, just about able to touch the reasonably flat top of this structure with my hoof, though I could not find enough purchase to pull myself up.  Gliding Moth inched her way towards me, and so focused was I on trying to extend my hoof to reach hers so I could be dragged up to support our gallant soldiers (and be situated safely behind them too), that I completely failed to notice that one enemy warrior had managed to cleave his way through our formation until he swung his club down on my head.

It was by instinct alone that my head, protected only by a cloth cap, was saved from being crushed like a tin can.  Without conscious thought, I had raised my sword to my right side just in time to catch this great misshapen lump of unpolished, blood-spattered iron that this ungainly brute had rudely swung down on my head just before it could connect.  I could not arrest the blow entirely, but it was enough to divert its path into the ground by my hooves, where its impact left a small crater in the cracked earth.

I imagined this warrior to be a champion of some description, likely hoof-picked by whatever warlord, chieftain, or other such petty ruler that liked to believe he owned this place.  He was a massive brute of an earth pony, about as big and stocky as Colonel Sunshine Smiles but with none of the refinement to his physique.  His was a frame built out of hard use rather than exact and careful exercise.  The same sort of tattered robes his comrades wore also covered him, but a large metal helmet crudely fashioned out of what seemed to be low quality iron was balanced precariously upon his head.  It resembled little more than a bucket upended on his crown, and with the 'bottom' rounded out with the application of a number of hammers.  From below the brim, or lid, I should say, two grotesque, pig-like eyes glowered at me.

My opponent raised his metal club, muscles bulging with the effort to raise that uncouth, unrefined weapon.  I, however, was faster, and lunged forward to run him through with my sabre.  That he was not skewered like a cube of cheddar cheese and a pineapple chunk at a dinner party thrown on a budget was an unpleasant surprise, but not as upsetting as coming to the realisation that attempting to parry his makeshift mace had shattered my blade.  I had precious little time to feel upset at the loss of this weapon, this sabre that over the past year or so had served me very well, as the great lump of iron swung down once again.

I stumbled backwards in a clumsy flurry of hooves, and the club swept just before my nose so close I could almost feel it brush against my fur.  Before he could correct himself and bring that lump of iron to bear once more I plunged the jagged six inch long remnant of my blade straight into his wrist.  Jiggling the handle a bit elicited a sickening squelching sound and had the desired effect of both making him drop his weapon and cry out in pain.  I seized the club with my magic, and in a burst of exertion that left a dull ache in my forehead I tossed it as far as I possibly could.  That twinge of pain, however, was merely a prelude of what was to come; while I struggled in vain to free what was left of my sword, presumably the jagged end was caught upon bone, I caught a short glimpse of a hoof the size of a dinner plate swinging my way before it connected with my glowing horn.

Red exploded across my vision, and all I could feel was agony.  My legs buckled and I fell to the ground, rendered helpless by the pain, and writhed in the dust like a wounded animal.  I had enough sense to reach up to my forehead, and it was some relief to find that despite being bludgeoned my horn was still completely intact; it simply would not do for the great Prince Blueblood to spend the few minutes that remained of his soon-to-be-shortened life a useless cripple.  [The loss of a unicorn's horn is irreversible except by very potent restorative magic.  If it is completely destroyed will render one incapable of performing even the most basic of magic.  It is fortunate, therefore, that horns have evolved to be extremely resilient.]

A strong hoof shoved me roughly onto my back.  My blurry sight could make out the indistinct form of this stallion standing over me, as his grubby hooves then descended and closed around my exposed neck.  Behind him I could make out the unclear silhouette of Gliding Moth holding the banner aloft.  From above a pegasus, unseen by her or any of the stallions standing beside her, descended like an owl upon a field mouse and stabbed his spear through her ribs.  The standard was seized from her failing hooves, and carried away by the enemy.  A fusillade of magic missiles was fired in the thief's direction, but they were aimed too hastily and too few in number to provide an adequate chance of hitting him, and he disappeared into the distance.  We had failed.

Strangling a pony to death takes rather more time than those trashy adventure novels would otherwise indicate, with the gallant hero subduing an unsuspecting guard by giving his neck a light squeeze for a short while with minimal fuss.  It certainly felt like a damnably long time, my limbs flailing in utter, futile desperation beating against my would-be murderer.  The pressure around my exposed throat was such that the burning in my lungs and the horrid sensation of my oesophagus constricted was sufficient to override the agony in my head.  Dear Faust, even now half a century later I shudder to recall the memory of this; the sight of this monster of a stallion standing over me, hooves clasped tightly around my neck and squeezing my windpipe closed, but starker in mind than even that is the feeling of sheer, unbridled panic that filled every vein and fibre of my body with ice, and gave motive force to my attempts to free myself.  [Unconsciousness from asphyxiation tends to occur in about ten seconds, but in this case it is likely that this pony was not at all skilled in strangulation and had not applied enough pressure to Blueblood's arteries.]

Nopony was coming to my aid, for our rescue force had been worn down to the point of both physical and numerical near-destruction.  Like me, each individual soldier was engaged in their own individual fight for survival.  I am not one to believe in the concept of divine intervention, but as my window into the mortal world around me began to dim around the edges and the colours faded, and the sickening sensation of asphyxiation itself began to dull into numbness, I had flung my right hoof out to the side and found cool steel, I came the closest to the feeling that perhaps somepony up there was taking a momentary interest in my wellbeing.  I rapidly seized whatever this object was, ignoring the pain as it sliced into the delicate palm under my hoof, and plunged it straight into the side of this earth pony.

Never before has the simple act of breathing felt so rewarding.  When the great hooves moved from my throat I sucked in great, deep lung-fulls of the dusty, blood-scented air as though it was from the clean and unspoiled Crystal Mountains.  The fogginess in my head had not faded, but still I dragged myself to my hooves, pushing the shrieking pony off me.  Somehow, my hoof had found a shard of my sabre, and it was this twelve-inch long sliver of steel that was now embedded in my opponent's side.

I looked around for a useable weapon, but found none within easy reach.  Around me the battle still raged even though the Colours had been lost.  If anything, our stallions fought with far greater savagery than they had earlier; all semblance of discipline had collapsed utterly, not least because I had become somewhat occupied at the time, and what ensued was no longer an organised battle, insofar as battles can be adequately organised, but a brawl.  The pegasi had simply flown away, but the earth pony and unicorn contingent of this native war-band found it rather more difficult to escape from the vengeful Equestrian soldiers driven so insensibly violent in their need to wipe away the shame of losing the Royal Standard with blood.

I noticed that the metal bucket on this stallion's head was resting askew, and for a lack of anything else to hoof decided that it would have to do.  While he was still staring gormlessly at the shard of metal stuck in his side, blood oozing from the wound, I rushed forwards and wrenched the helmet free with my hoof.  My horn was still throbbing with agonising pain, so I was forced to do things the mud-pony way and brought what was effectively a shaped lump of metal straight into the side of my opponent's skull.  The blow made a sickening crack, and he fell to the ground with blood pouring from a horrendous gash in his temple.  I stood over him, and brought the metal helm down again, and again, and again.

The pain in my forehead faded, but I still felt utterly sick inside.  The Colours were gone, lost to an enemy that we were not even at war with, and all that I could see was red; it filled my vision utterly, the blood calling my name and exhorting me to further violence until all the world as I could perceive it had been reduced to the pony I was killing, the lump of iron in my hoof, and my own bloodlust.  Each strike of the iron helmet against that pony's skull, the horrid crunch of shattered bone and the squelch of pulverised flesh that sent shudders through my right hoof and along my foreleg to awaken some long-repressed lust for blood from the caliginous regions of the equine psyche.  I was a heathen striking an ominous tattoo on a drum as a prelude to a sacrifice to a forgotten god.

"Sir!"  A strong hoof seized mine, and the familiar voice of my aide Cannon Fodder, only slightly higher in volume than his usual dull monotone, snapped me out of my rage-induced fugue state.  I slowly turned my head, and felt the disconcerting sensation of what must have been a mask of splattered, congealing blood in my fur shift and crack with every twitch of facial muscle.  He stood beside me, and slowly let go of my hoof when he saw that I had abruptly come back to my senses.

Only then did I see what I had done, and became aghast when looked down to see a horrid pink and red mess that was once this pony's head protruding from a body that seemed more or less intact.  I recall mentally asking myself if I had really done that.  A pool of blood had soaked into the dry, thirsty earth, but had also splashed messily along the entire length of my right foreleg and onto my chest to utterly ruin my uniform, such that my once white fur was now almost entirely splotchy red and black.  I dreaded to think what my face looked like, but I was hardly going to waste precious water just to wash my face when the inside of my mouth felt like it was full of cotton wool.

As I dropped the helmet, battered with a number of dents that I was certain were not there to start with, and tried to put the sight of the awful ruin that was once a living, breathing pony out of my mind, I became aware of how unnervingly quiet everything had become.  The surviving Equestrians stared back at me with haunted, vacant expressions.  Each, like me, was covered in a layer of grey-brown dust, with streaks of blood, rivulets of pouring sweat, and in some cases tears, carving lines across their bodies and their armour.  A few stumbled across the cramped battlefield, moving between the boulders and rocks and bodies seemingly without aim or purpose, but most had seen fit to passively stand more or less still with wide-open eyes fixed upon me.  Of the enemy they had taken no prisoners, but I could scarcely blame them after what they had just been through.  An unspoken acknowledgement of our collective failure seemed to spread amongst the ranks as if by telepathy, for none had the courage or wherewithal to give it voice and thereby confirm the gravest disgrace that could fall upon us - we had lost the Colours and had the bad luck to survive, to crawl back to base, and proffer explanations and excuses for the dishonour we had inflicted upon the whole Royal Guard.

Speaking of survival, I have often pontificated that the lead-up to a battle is the worst part of war, as one usually does not have the time to ruminate on its horrors when one is utterly immersed in them, save for the occasional quiet moments.  Sometimes, however, it is the aftermath that feels the worst, and not least because of the sight of eerily still corpses mutilated and twisted into unnatural forms.  The relief of survival is drowned out, like a cry in a hurricane, when the adrenaline that sustains one in a fight to the death evaporates to leave one feeling physically and mentally drained to the point of near collapse.  I felt dreadfully sick, as though every breath of the dust-choked air threatened to send up the oats I had for lunch.

A cry of pain broke the silence like a rock through the glass pane of a greenhouse  It was feminine, and could only have come from Gliding Moth.  Hopeful that she had somehow survived her injury and was not beyond help, I trotted around the rocky outcropping until I found a place that was low enough for me to comfortably climb on top of it.  There, the bodies of two ensigns and their guards lay close together, as if embraced in death.  They had all given their lives to defend the Colours, which, as I saw their bloodied and torn corpses, I could not make my mind up whether or not I should have joined them rather than suffer the dishonour or if it was all just a horrible waste of life.

Gliding Moth lay on her front with her forelegs dangling over the edge of the boulder and her lower half smothered by a dead soldier.  Blood poured from a grievous wound in her back at an unsettlingly fast rate, almost like a running faucet, and mixed with that of her fallen comrades in the dry, thirsty earth.  I pushed the limp bodies away to get to her, ignoring the strain in my limbs as I hauled the heavy, lifeless corpses to the side; there would be time for the proper respect due to the dead later, after the needs of the living had been seen to.

Her hoof reached up and seized mine as I approached, and she stared up into my eyes.  Her face was pale, more so than usual, and her eyes wide and red.  Where her hoof touched my sleeve it left a streak of bright crimson against the darker red of drying blood.  Her breathing was shallow and quick, and with each sharp breath her chest inflated and deflated rapidly like set of bellows.

"Sir," she gasped, tears rimming her eyes as the life ebbed from them.  "I lost the Colours."

I held her hoof, while with my other I did my best to stem the bleeding, but it simply wasn't enough.  Whatever pressure my hoof could apply on the wound could do nothing to halt the flow, so I removed my red sash, the most potent symbol of the commissar, and tied it tightly around her chest.  A grim faced medic approached, took one look at Gliding Moth, shook his head sadly, and then trotted away to find somepony else with a better chance of survival to save.  I was about to call him back, threaten him with a flogging or even an execution unless he somehow defied all of the accumulated medical knowledge of ponykind and stopped the bleeding.  The other ponies watched, or otherwise found something else to be getting on with, and in spite of my grief I felt their eyes judging me.

"I'm sorry," said Gliding Moth.  Blood pooled around her open mouth, which made her cough violently.  "I tried."

I struggled to think of what to say, so I held her cold body to mine as close as I could.  "You didn't lose them," I said, lying through my teeth like the craven bastard I am, and yet somehow it felt like the right thing to do.  In truth, I had no idea if it was.  "You saved them, Commissar Gliding Moth."

A weak smile came to her lips, and she stared back into my eyes.  Only when I saw that she was not blinking did I realise that she was truly gone.  I don't know how long I spent staring with horror into the wide open, hollow eyes, trying to somehow will the life that had left them back, yet all I had gotten in return was a terrifying silence.  In spite of their lifelessness, or perhaps because of it, they seemed to gaze accusingly into me, for in death she had seen the truth behind my public facade; I was responsible, for if I had fought harder and better than I had done, if I hadn't tried to hold myself back to save my own life, if I hadn't allowed Scarlet Letter to live long enough to set this grotesque spiral of events into motion, then she would still be alive.

On the ground by her body was her sword, its blade stained with drying blood but still serviceable.  Carefully I lifted it up, and then made the decision that I would take it back with me, believing in some sentimental way that it would contain some part of her essence, and thus I could placate her restless spirit by plunging her finely crafted rapier into the withered, hollow chest of Lieutenant Scarlet Letter.  I took her scabbard too, and after removing and discarding mine, now rendered useless after the loss of my weapon, fastened it around my waist.

I left Gliding Moth's body with the others, one more statistic for the General's reports and for the historians of the future to argue over, and I scrambled back out of sight of everypony else.  I was surrounded by more of these statistics - twisted, torn, burnt, stabbed, and mutilated in heaps around me.  I could scarcely see for the tears that stung my eyes, but behind the boulder upon which she had died nopony could see me.  For the first time that I could remember I broke down utterly, more so than when I came to the realisation my father was unlikely to return home; it was not dignified or noble, it was indulgent and shameful for a pony of my social stature to be reduced to this level, not to mention a dreadful waste of precious fluid.  Yet there are some things that all of the aristocratic detachment and refinement in the world cannot restrain, and so I sat with my face buried in my hooves, gasping frantically for air between choked sobs as tears streaked down my face and washed the blood and gore from it, where I hoped and prayed that nopony could see me, and sobbed in a toxic mixture of grief and anger at the absurdity of the war that had taken her from me.

[No other eyewitness testimony that Twilight Sparkle has been able to uncover mentions Prince Blueblood's expression of grief.  However, it is unlikely that the survivors of the rescue party were unaware.  We can conclude that it has been omitted out of a sense of respect for their Commissar and of the shared sense of shock they must have felt at losing the Colours.]

Damnation, I felt more ashamed of myself than I ever had done in my whole worthless, wasteful life; why did the death of Gliding Moth hurt me so much more than those of the ponies whose lifeless bodies littered the battlefield around me?  How could I be so bloody selfish to indulge in this misplaced grief, when back home in Trottingham and Canterlot scores of mothers, fathers, wives, and husbands would soon learn that their loved one who went to war would never return home?  It was some time, I don't know how long, when I regained sufficient control over myself to at least stand up.  Once more I would have to take charge and do something, though I had not the slightest indication of what we should do in this unprecedented situation.  The ponies out there needed somepony to lead them, and unfortunately for all concerned that somepony had to be me.

I walked among the living in a daze, as if my legs had been propelled by inertia than any conscious desire on my part and heedless of the expectant stares that I received.  Out of everypony present, however, it was Lieutenant Southern Cross who had the courage to say something to bring me out of my grief-induced stupor, by summing up our situation in the most succinct and effective way possible.

“Well, now what?”