‘See you later’ were words that I had been uttering a lot. They were certainly preferable to ‘goodbye’. ‘Goodbye’ had a finality to it. ‘See you later’ was far more optimistic and, this time, it wouldn’t be goodbye. I’d make sure of that.
When I landed at Eastern Command, it was like a nest of angry ants. Royal guards and Equestrian soldiers swarmed everywhere, going about their duty to get ready for the inevitable. The harbor was full of ships and their floating cousins dotted the sky. One stood out in particular more than the others: the TMS Harmony.
In support of the war effort, Jet Ventures had loaned it to the crowns. That was smart. Thousands of ponies could be conveyed across the ocean on it. What better way to move such a large number of troops on short notice?
I had my volunteer card with me: S class. Even with me seeing a counselor, I’d been judged as top form for this operation. I guess Orchid was right: getting help didn’t end your career. It would have been nice if I’d figured that out a lot sooner. Not that it really would have mattered in the end... I’d still probably be on my way to a war. The damage had already been done.
The check-in lines stretched on endlessly. Royal guards from all over the kingdom had shown up in their various armors to do their duty. They would be securing the northern gryphon kingdom of Nordanver while the Army did the heavy lifting to the south.
Amazing. Amazing that we’d do it and amazing that King Ranald trusted us so deeply that he would put his civilians’ safety in our hooves. We were, more or less, occupying another kingdom to free up its soldiers. So be it.
When my turn came, the pony behind the desk snapped a quick salute. “Good afternoon, sir. Volunteer card, please.”
I gave it to him. He matched it to his documentation and then handed it back with a set of orders. “You’re to proceed directly to General Ironhoof’s headquarters, sir.”
“Ironhoof’s headquarters?” I asked in surprise. Why would they send me to the Army?
“That’s what it says, sir. I don’t know anything more.”
“I understand, thank you,” I muttered as my heart sank. I’d been assigned to the Army? Two years ago, that would have filled me with glee. Now, it wasn’t what I wanted. Not at all.
Dread was the only emotion I could register as I headed away from the Royal Guard and towards the long-established buildings that had been home to the Army.
I found the general’s headquarters without issue. I’d been there before at the start of my career. We’d even met once. One of the various staff officers took my paperwork, looked at it, and then nodded. “The boss has been expecting you. Knock before you go in.”
What was going on? I trotted down to the General’s office and knocked on the door. It was open and the room was full of ponies. They grew quiet and General Ironhoof looked my way.
“There you are,” he said. “Come in.”
I did so and stood at attention. “Lieutenant Knight, reporting as ordered, sir.”
“Of course you are. As soon as this mess started, we knew we’d see your name on the volunteer list. You’re going to be joining my headquarters staff. I’m not going to waste a fine soldier like you protecting some gryphon’s hut.”
Headquarters staff? Now that could work. Strategy, planning, tactics, and logistics were passions of mine. Plus, I’d do better at not breaking Crystal’s heart. It’s harder to get killed when you’re back from the frontlines. I wasn’t afraid of fighting, but priorities change. I could do my part here and keep ponies alive. That was just as important, if not more so, than ending lives at the end of my father’s sword.
“Yes, sir, thank you, sir.”
He nodded. “Good. I’m surprised you’re not a captain by now. What is the hold up?”
“No captain’s school, sir. Never had time.”
General Ironhoof snorted. “I see. Son, do you need to go to captain’s school?”
“In all honesty, no, sir. I’m comfortable with my command and have little doubt I could serve as an executive officer for a company.”
The general nodded. “Yes, I agree. That is what my advisors have told me. Somepony get Silent Knight a sunburst and make that bar of his look less naked. I hereby promote you to captain, congratulations. Secure your gear and get to work.” He then turned away from me to get back to his planning.
“Yes, sir, thank you, sir.” His advisors? Who were his advisors? Then it dawned on me and I started looking at the other ponies in the room. I’d been so focused on General Ironhoof I hadn’t even been aware of my surroundings.
Chief Warrant Officer Steel Wings was looking my way from the general’s side. When our eyes met, he nodded at me. I nodded back. I never thought I’d see him again, though it made sense that he was here. Equestria did not have many armsmasters and they wouldn’t be sitting a war out.
On the other side of the general was a vaguely familiar black-coated unicorn stallion. He was a colonel, the one who had relieved us during the cockatrice battle. He’d seen me with the princess and knew we’d been in the fight.
Finally, there was the sergeant major who was currently removing the lieutenant’s pin from my armor and replacing it with my new rank. I recognized him immediately even though I hadn’t seen him in over ten years. My coat bristled but I kept my composure.
He was white, like me, but age had long since dulled his coat. The same for his formerly blue mane. There was nothing but grey left. A hard life in the Army had made him old, but it looked like he was still going.
I hadn’t been formally dismissed but the general had moved on. Once my pin was in place, I turned and let myself out to go stow my gear. There were hoofsteps trailing behind me in the hall, so I stopped. It was obvious who it was.
“We missed you at the funeral,” I said, trying to make it sound like I at least halfway meant it.
“He didn’t want me around when he was alive, so I didn’t see why he'd want me there for his send off,” the voice said behind me.
“You didn’t come to the wedding, either.”
“No, I wasn’t sure if I was welcome there. Your mother hates me fiercely and rightly so. I imagine you and that sister of yours aren’t too keen on me, either. Still, when I saw your name on the volunteer list, I convinced the general you’d be best served at his side. Didn’t see your sister on there. Not surprised.”
It took all of my effort not to growl. After a deep breath, I just shook my head. “Thank you. My wife will be most appreciative.” The tone carried a bit of a sneer.
“Have some respect, boy.”
Slowly, I turned and faced him, drawing myself up to my full height. “‘Have some respect, boy’? Let me remind you, Sergeant Major Knight, that I am an officer of the crowns and you’ll show me proper respect regardless of who you are. Are we clear?”
My grandfather’s muzzle twitched. Anger tried to play into it, but he kept calm. “Crystal clear, sir. May I recommend to the captain that he doesn’t forget the value of senior NCOs and their wisdom.”
“Duly noted and I won’t. As long as you keep your advice to matters of military importance. You have repeatedly made it clear that that is where your priorities lie and imparted that dedication to your son.”
Slowly, I closed the distance between us. The weight of the last year hit me fully and something inside snapped. The mere presence of him had set off a flare of righteous anger in my chest. He looked like Stratus. He looked like me.
“Please allow me to be clear, however,” I growled. “I am as dedicated to this cause as you. I am as loyal to the crowns as you. I am as committed to my duty as you. I will not, however, abandon my family like you. That mistake ends with my generation.
“With some luck and all my effort, I’m going to get through this war and go home to my beautiful wife and have thirty foals. And do you know what? I’m going to name them all Knight whether they’re mares or stallions or good enough for you or Stratus. Then I’m going to raise them right… or at least better than you did! Is that clear, Clement?!”
He blinked but did not give ground. Slowly, he nodded. “Yes, sir. I understand.”
“Good. You’re dismissed.”
“Yes, sir,” he replied before turning and heading back to the general’s office.
War and strife. That was what I’d volunteered for. It filled me with trepidation and dread. It never occurred to me that family would come into it. What had I gotten myself into?