Little Sparrow

by Mitch H

The Vale And The Spire

By the time we had crossed over the eastern passes of the Unicorn Range into the Vale of Clouds, the officers decided we ought to call ourselves Gusty's Legion. Gusty disagreed. She insisted that a legion was a specific thing, owing allegiance to the Commander of Pegasopolis, and placed under legionary discipline. While our outfit's discipline was based on the legionary code, it wasn't exactly the same thing, and she was nobody's idea of a legate. The fact that if Pansy had stuck it out Gusty would have been a legionary legate or possibly a proconsul by now, sailed right over her head. Pansy hadn't, Gusty wasn't, that was the end of it.

Also, she demanded to know if we were going to give her the right to beat ponies to death with a vinestaff, or to order entire platoons decimated on her say-so. I thought it was a glorious idea, but Steeljack and North Wind balked, and that was that.

Gusty insisted on calling us the Forge, and every time she talked for her command, instead of letting me do the talking, that particular conceit escaped a little bit further. We ended up signing a couple short-term contracts to this city-state or that pocket duchy, marching and occasionally fighting as we made our way west. We generally recruited more than we lost, and if we collected more than our share of starry-eyed pegasi escaping the despotic rule of the Cyclone Empress, Gusty didn't kick up a stink.

The little sparrow was making a name for herself, throughout that fall, winter, and the next spring. We never did stop to go into winter quarters, if only because the bad harvests of the previous year meant that no place was rich enough to be willing to host a pack of dirty mercenaries. In general, they preferred to sic us on their neighbors, or if they were particularly rich, to pay us to go away entirely. We fought a dozen skirmishes, and cracked open two little blockhouses that the locals referred to, grandly, as ‘bandit fortresses'.

One of those blockhouses belonged to a local barony. When we broke the walls, the baroness died of a heart attack, right as we were marshalling to rush the breach. The resulting chaos made it difficult to tell if they had surrendered, or had just decided to lay down and give up. Gusty showed her soft-heartedness by sparing the new baron and his battle-shocked retainers. Once we determined that there were no prisoners inside that fortified baronial mansion, we took a bribe to let them go. Gusty gave the wet-behind-his-ears unicorn a good talking-to on the subject of taking in runaway serfs without squaring it with his bigoted neighbors, and left it at that.

Suffice to say we didn't get a bonus on that job.

The second blockhouse, on the other hoof, we had to blast wide open, and Gusty led the storming of the breach at the head of the Ironmongers, slaying every bandit that stood and fought. We found out once we got inside why they fought so hard to keep us out - a hall of horrors, tortured prisoners, and storerooms full of loot and foodstocks. We hung the bandits, freed the prisoners and returned them to their sobbing families, and took the loot, and half of the foodstocks.

The Ironmongers showed off by leveling that blockhouse until you couldn't see where the walls had stood - they got the local earth ponies to plow topsoil over the foundations. I heard through the grapevine that the locals eventually turned the whole thing into a pine spinney, but that might have just been a pony’s tale.

By late spring, we passed out of the Vale of Clouds, over the central passes, and down into the rich farmlands around the Republic of Tall Tale. This was a contested country, divided between that stubborn oligarchy, the archons of the Sirespire, three different little duchies, and a number of small cities semi-unified under the banner of the Trade League. This latter nullity was actually a puppet, a bit of felt and cloth under which lurked the barely-gloved hoof of the Serene Republic of Van Hoover.

I talked the little sparrow into letting me negotiate the first major contract in the Vale of Tail, as the Talltails liked ponies to call it. The archons preferred the Sirelands, and the ponies who took refuge with the agents of the Serene Republic mostly bowed to their distant patrons by calling it the inland provinces. We signed up with one of the small cities in the orbit of the Serene Republic, and those Van Hooverian lickspittles became a major player just by having signed a strong mercenary force like the one Gusty had forged from our shoddy materials.

She insisted I call us the Forge in the contract.

The Coltington contract was a frustrating one, and we did little more than march and counter-march, threatening to destroy this fortification or that, without ever actually doing anything about it. We marched in the company of a delegation of Trade League Van Hooverians, with one cowed Coltingtonian all but dragged behind them on a leash. After a while, the Trade Leaguers started talking as if the Serene Republic was paying our silver bits, and I had to take aside their pocket Coltingtonian to find out if they were blowing smoke up our plots.

They weren't.

Gusty sat me and the other officers down in her tent for a little come-to-Star Swirl meeting. The little sparrow didn't care to discover we'd been tricked back into service with the Serene Republic. They’d tricked her into sending her ponies off to die in Anugypt, and she was inclined to resent that. I personally wasn't amused by the fact that the Coltingtonians had signed a contract under false pretenses, and made me look like a fool.

We ended up exercising the termination clause in the contract I'd created, and walked away free and clear, leaving behind only two months' worth of payments. To say that the Trade League weasels were not amused is to lowball the situation. Those pegasi were pretty damn wrathful, but seeing as we'd been their biggest military asset in the so-called inland provinces, they couldn't do much about it other than block us from getting contracts with their other client states in the Vale of Tail.

As if we wanted to be beholden to some other griffon’s paw of theirs.

We ended up signing with a little duchy you've probably never heard of, and for good reason. The duke was an earth pony in a region largely dominated by unicorn nobles and the occasional delegation of Trade League pegasi, a stallion named Jute Bale. He was looking to improve his revenue and to try and build up his negotiating position with his clients, the local cities that belonged to the Trade League, and to improve his prestige among his fellow-dukes and his status with the oligarchs of the Republic of Tall Tale.

To be honest, the little duke couldn't afford us, but Gusty had been pissed with our previous employers, and we cut him a deal. We went into winter quarters on his land, and kept the Talltails and the Trade League from his door, and dealt with another collection of bandits and outlaws that had collected along the back-roads away from the routinely patrolled roads for which the Trade League nominally existed.

I strongly suspect that the Trade League had a deal with at least some of the larger gangs of outlaws. That suspicion was sparked by the way the continuous predation of bandits along the non-protected roads drove traffic towards their ‘protected' roads and inns, but I never found any direct evidence of this while we were working for Coltington. And I never found any evidence along those lines in the duke’s employ, either. No letters laying helpfully about the bandits' holes we burned out in the year we worked for Jute Bale, no bandits willing to implicate Trade League collaborators, nothing. Later in the season Gusty managed to talk the duke into a coalition with both of his rival duchesses and two unassociated walled towns who had neither been able to afford the Trade League's dues, nor tolerate the expensive patronage of one of the oligarch families of Tall Tale.

That year of bandit suppression eventually led to us blockading a member of the Trade League, a small market-town which had grown fat on what, exactly, we couldn't determine, besides its proximity to some of the most bandit-infested roads along the southern fringe of the Vale of Tail. The appearance of a small army from the Republic of Tall Tale threatened to turn our bandit-hunting blockade into a full-bore siege. This was brought to a stop by the approach of another large mercenary band in the van of a collection of League militias, and Duke Jute and the duchesses couldn't spare their own militias in the field with the harvests rapidly approaching.

We made peace with the no-longer-all-that-fat burghers of Smoke's-Gate, who swore upon a stack of Harmony tracts that they'd never, ever give sanctuary to bandits, or fence their ill-gotten gains. We left the backroads liberally decorated with the decomposing, hanging corpses of bandits at every crossroads in the south of the Vale, and went back into winter quarters among the rich harvest of a year beyond all comparison. The prosperity had been equally distributed among all of the little dependencies, cities, and pocket sovereignties. For once, everypony ate well over the winter.

That second year in the Vale of Tail was the fattest I'd ever seen, and the granaries and storehouses grew packed to overbursting with the fruit of the New Sun. Which of course just meant that there was more surplus for fractious ponies to bully each other over.

My old compatriots from home made a brief appearance in the north of the Vale while we were bullying the ponies of Smoke's-Gate that fall. They had come over the highlands and around the Galloping Gorge to expand the Crystal Empire's arc of tributary states and alliances beyond the McClouds, and their threats and blandishments fell upon the reclusive and hostile unicorns of the Sirespire, they being the statelet furthest to the northeast in the Vale, and closest to the passes leading into the Crystal Empire. Nothing came of it in that first brief fall foray, but they returned in the spring with a large army of crystal ponies, and it then became very much our problem.

The spring of our third year in the Vale saw a lot of politicking among our employers, our would-be employers, and those we had campaigned against. To be honest, the mercenary's life in the disputed lands between Van Hoover and Tall Tale had been almost idyllic up to that point. We got exercise, kept up our discipline, were moderately well-fed and if we weren't especially well-paid, well, there was some recompensence in doing Harmony's work, clearing the roads of banditry, keeping the weak from being bullied by the strong, the strong from being taken advantage of by the sly, weak, and treacherous.

The Crystal siege of the Sirespire put an end to that. Everypony else in the Vale was threatened by the sudden appearance of an army of aggressive ideologues with strong magic, bound and determined to destroy a group of ponies which, if reclusive and peculiar, were still not inclined to prey on their fractious neighbors. Or so was the general tenor of opinion across most of the otherwise-divided polities of the Vale.

But those neighbors were still never the less fractious and bitter, and it took months of squabbling before an alliance was assembled from two of the three duchies, a half-dozen cities - some League, some not - and the Republic of Tall Tale herself. Nopony really contributed all that much other than a few battalions of militia and an agreement to pay the Forge's wages for the campaign season. A campaign season which they'd half-pissed away with those endless negotiations.

But, once they set us loose, Gusty charged forth with velocity. She set me over the levies from the various unicorn city-states, and I folded them into the Hammers, pairing them up where I could with earth ponies from the duchies. It wasn't quite the same as our patented crystal focus-choruses, but it made for an offense/defense pairing which promised to make them tactically superior to everything they might face other than, unfortunately, a crystal tercio.

"Blackie," said the little sparrow, looking at the maps she'd gotten from the neighbors of the Sirespire, "I don't see how we break the siege without assaulting here, along the back of this ridge."

I looked over the terrain she was looking at on the map, and hoped the map actually represented something real.

"Commander," I started, because this was in conference before a number of militia officers who might have gotten the wrong idea from any casual form of address used in front of them, "I can see why you're worried about this high slope here, and the chances they've fortified along here-"

"Not chance, fact. Their anti-flyer defenses are strong, but they can't keep our scout patrols far enough out to not see what they’ve done. Not without their own air skirmishers. Fortified lines and bastions along here, here, and here. They only have gaps right in the middle, and here to the left."

"We could try and break a bastion or two by spell-chorus force."

"Are you that eager to make it a coup de main in the face of crystal shielding and the-"

"Heartstrikes, yeah. No, you're right. They punch back hard, my old countrymares. Damn shinies, if you give them the high ground, they'll roll tartarus downhill over your manes."

And so on, the two of us plotting while the militia captains, the strategos from Tall Tale, and my fellow officers from the Ironmongers and the Warsparrows watched, respectfully silent as we argued it out between us.

In the end, I was more proud of the breaking of the siege of Sirespire than some of our later victories, if only because I was so heavily involved in the planning. As Gusty matured as a commander, she became more decisive, and frankly, more authoritative. By the next campaign season, I had as little to say to her plans as her other minions, and the execution of those plans were often proof positive that she didn't need anypony else to perfect her deployments.

The battle for the investment lines in front of the Sirespire was bloodier than ponies of the Vale prefer, and if we hadn't been there to stiffen the assaulting formations, I think they would have shattered, fallen back, and given up on keeping the crystal ponies out of the Vale of Tail. As it was, Gusty used the Ironmongers to keep the militia companies from breaking and running, while the Warsparrows and the Hammers smashed in the Crystal Expeditionary Force's left flank. The pegasi vertically enveloped the Crystallers’ flankers and skirmishers while I and my ‘Glass Hammers' cracked open their westernmost bastion like a softshelled egg.

The Sirespireans we were there to relieve didn't sally forth until the very end, not until the crystal ponies, their flank stove in and their unity shattered, fell back in disarray, giving up their elaborate line of entrenchments. Whoever was commanding the Crystallers - afterwards I was able to put a name to that clever pony, a gentlecolt named Glittering Stone, who much later in life gave me some further hornaches - he was on the ball, and he managed to keep that measured retreat from becoming a rout. The Vale alliance army kept pressure on the northern interlopers, and we spent two weeks harrying their defeated but not destroyed force as it fell back in stages, half-march by half-march.

We left the Ironmongers and some of the earth-pony militias to post the passes north over the westernmost range of the McClouds, while the rest of us returned to the battlefield outside of the Sirespire, and presumably the demobilization of the alliance army. Halfway home, we were greeted instead by Gusty and the Warsparrows flying Hades for feather, riding hard on a bitter wind.

Gusty and her pegasi had returned earlier, in a much more sedate manner, to attend a series of diplomatic meetings. The leadership of the city-states and the nobles who had contributed the resources and the soldiers of the alliance army which had rescued their reclusive neighbors were determined to talk with the archons the Sirespire, who up to this point had generally avoided treating with their neighbors directly. There were many basic matters which, if not generally important in the grand scheme of things, had been left to fester unaddressed for generations.

This strange little city-state had kept to themselves for generations, even centuries, and aside from some local baronages who fed them with truck crops and grain deliveries, had scarcely any commerce with the outside world. Even their borders and the forest-rights of the treelots and woods between that polity and their neighbors were governed more by inertia and assumptions on the part of said neighbors than any actual agreements to speak of.

During the first week of what looked to be a protracted period of diplomatic teeth-pullling, one particularly restless and adventurous Warsparrow decided to amuse herself via inventive trespass. She took advantage of the break in that perfect isolation of the Spire during the talks, when there were perhaps more doors open in that tightly-bound fortress of solitude than was usually the case. And scrappy, sly little Nightly Doo, who suffered from an imp of the perverse and an irresistible itch of curiosity, crept into places where more cautious or courteous ponies would have never have set hoof. And what she found was enough to change the world forever, at least for the ponies of the Sirespire.

The living ones, anyways.

When a palid, hollow-eyed Nightly Doo reported her illicit findings to Gusty, it took all of that pony's not-especially-copious skills of restraint and deception to not immediately beat the next batch of Sirespireans she saw into a bloody, bone-flecked pulp. But she endeavoured, she waited, and the next chance she saw, she led the entire warband back to our army, to collect us, and return in force.

Because little Nightly Doo had looked behind the wrong door, and found her way into the inner sanctums of the Sirespire, and discovered there the charnelhouses which lay inside of that proud, whitened tower. The clotted gutters, the bloodstained altars to unequine deities, the implements of torture and immiseration… it was really quite impressive that the warlocks of the Spire had hidden what they were for so long. A white tower, visible for dozens of leagues, as plain as the nose on your muzzle, and nopony noticed.

Gusty led us back to the Sirespire, and had us occupy the abandoned crystal expeditionary fortifications. Messengers extracted the diplomats from their pointless negotiations, and the siege was resumed under new management as our own employers screamed bloody murder at Gusty’s insubordination. Meanwhile we sent back to the passes for the Ironmongers to return, with every volunteer that Steeljack could lure to our banner. Gusty herself gave a glorious speech which bound at least half of the levies from the alliance signatories' militias and hirelings to our cause, and formed them into fresh formations with no differentiation between Talltailians, Leaguers, or ducal subjects.

Perhaps half of the diplomats and Very Important Ponies accepted our claims, or rather, withheld judgment and didn’t storm off in disgust like the others.

The Sirespireans sent ponies under the flag of parley to find out why they had been suddenly sealed away by their neighbors and just-made friends, and Gusty, who was tired of equivocating and making nice with the necromancers and the butchers, bluntly informed them that she intended to see the Sirespire torn down, its bloody foundations purified by fire, and its priests drawn and quartered.

It was not the most artful display of politesse ever seen on a battlefield, but it impressed the Tartarus out of me.

The Sirespireans were not amused. The ‘diplomats’ attacked her under that flag of parley, and might have cursed her dead if I hadn't been there to divert the attack. I took their worst shot, absorbed it, and, having conquered their dark magic with my own considerable talents, returned it to them threefold.

What their own spell did to those diplomats, I don't care to put down on paper. Even now, as I am today, it sickens me. And I let it flow through my hooves, through my veins, and across my aching horn. The dark magic didn't leave me unaffected - ever afterwards, my horn had a distinct and savage hook and point to it, as if I had been born an Eastern unicorn. The taint it left upon me… after that, nopony would ever question those old rumors that hypocritical witch Amore spread about my destiny and my innate monstrosity.

Gusty never forgot what I’d done, though, what I’d paid for with that warping I’d taken in her defense.

We held the entrenchments against the small forces the warlocks of the Spire could sally out against us, until the Ironmongers and their scattering of volunteers rejoined us. After the remnants of the alliance army were reunited, we were able to begin regular approaches to the great tower. This process took a month and a half, and the very best days of what was a long and luxuriant campaign season. The last three weeks of those approaches were punctuated with regular bombardments of now-familiar dark-magic, projected from little horns jutting out of the otherwise-featureless Sirespire. After a while, I worked out with my Hammers how to destroy those projectors with our own counterattacks, and we worked our way around the circumference of the great tower, burning away their defensive works while we cowered behind enhanced mantlets built by our own engineers.

Finally, the Sirespireans’ capacity for resistance to our forces was at an end, and we were able to begin battering holes in their physical walls. The first several attempts were stopped up by internal defenses built by the warlocks of the Spire, who struck down the engineers and assault troops who tried the initial breaches. While we poured counterfire into the breaches and did our best to roast unwary warlocks defending those holes in the Spire's defenses, the surviving engineers worked around the circumference of the tower once again, and created further breaches.

In the end, there were more of us then there were of them, and the warlocks of the Spire ran out of defenders before we ran out of campaign time. It helped that yet another fat year had meant that our volunteers hadn't been needed at home for the harvest, and families who had lost members to ‘bandits' or ‘outlaws' over the years were especially keen to keep our renewed siege well-supplied. Not all of the oligarchs and the nobles believed our stories of what had been seen inside of the Spire, but to the common pony, the logic was unassailable, and enough civilian ponies had come close enough to the siege to observe the abominations which the warlocks set loose upon us.

Only ponies who were determined to not see the plain truth preserved their ignorance, mostly by staying far away from the siege.

A week before the winter snows came, we found them so spread out in their defenses as to be vulnerable, and Gusty ordered the assault. Many died at the breaches in the initial push, and the fell magics the warlocks mustered in their desperate defense claimed a high price among the assaulting army.

But there were a lot of us, and not that many warlocks in the grand scheme of things. They were overwhelmed, surrounded, and slaughtered at one breach after another. A dozen little breach-battlefields filled up with our dead, and the warlocks’ stinking carrion. Nopony was willing by this point to take prisoners, and the terrible magics they'd used in their own defense had left nopony with any illusions about the truth of Nightly Doo's testimony about the terrible temples hidden inside the walls of the Sirespire.

Eventually, after the defenders were slaughtered, and their high priests ridden down by Gusty and her valkyrie guard of pegasi, everypony got a look at the butchershops these warlocks had called their ‘houses of the holy' in their blasphemous books and scrolls, most of which we ended up burning afterwards.

Nopony was exactly sure how many captives disappeared within those bloody walls over the years, or how many bones were hidden far below in the artificial cenotes the warlocks' fell magics had hollowed out below their whitened fang of a Spire. We tried to purge the Spire with fire, but it was too tall, and stone wouldn't burn, not at the temperatures we had available to us.

In the end, we sent to the Crystal Empire and the growing kingdom of New Equestria for skilled rock-ponies and crystal ponies specializing in construction, who consulted together and figured out how to bring down the blighted, fell abomination which had been once called the Sirespire. With some aid from strong-horned unicorns, the rock ponies and the crystal ponies triggered an ‘implosion' and let the Spire's own destabilized weight to collapse into itself, dropping down into the enormous hollows carved out below its heavy stone walls.

But ever after, they say that nothing healthy ever grew among the rocks and scree that we left over the collapsed ruin which was left after Gusty's ponies put down the warlocks of the Spire.