A 14th Century Friar in Celestia's Court

by Antiquarian

On the Theory and Application of Violence

Twilight Sparkle was not one to be easily wowed by the academic prowess or mental acuity of another. After all, she had studied with some of the greatest minds that Equestria had to offer… and surpassed most of them by leaps and bounds. She could perform complex spells with an 85.7% success rate after seeing them only once, speak seven languages and read thirteen, lecture with a justified degree of confidence on virtually any practical science, and generally run circles around ponies in logic games.

This is not to say that Twilight was arrogant or that she was incapable of appreciating the talents of others. Quite the opposite, in fact. She remained modest about her accomplishments to the unfortunate point of crossing from virtue into self-deprecation, and she was always quite genuine in her praise of others when they displayed talents of the mind. Even when these talents were overshadowed by her own, her praise and admiration were genuine.

The simple fact remained, however, that Twilight seldom encountered ponies, or creatures of any sort for that matter, who could, say, hold their own with her in a complex philosophical debate, or rival her ability to process and retain data. Whenever she did, she always prized those moments, as they were few and far between.

Which was one of the principle reasons she’d come to thank the fates that Jacques had turned up on her proverbial doorstep. Days had passed since his arrival, and, once Redheart had been convinced that the shock of seeing the place would not give him a heart attack, he’d begun making the trip to town to visit the library and study. The feared cardiac arrest at the sight of the thousands of books had not occurred (though he had needed to sit and gape quietly for a good hour), and, once he’d recovered, he’d wasted no time in demonstrating to Twilight that it had been worth the risk.

In a word, Jacques’ mental acuity was impressive. His knowledge of modern science was exceedingly limited, it was true, and his knowledge of magic essentially nil. But such failings were simply the fault of time, not the mark of any intellectual deficiency. Indeed, the friar had a sharp wit and a keen mind which readily digested most any topic which was put in front of him. He would often appear bemused when confronted with an unfamiliar concept, but whenever she’d think he was stumped he would cut to the heart of the issue with the unerring straightforwardness of a warrior philosopher. One minute he would appear befuddled, and the next Twilight would swear that she was talking to the griffon general Clawswitz given new life. More than once in the last few days, their study of magic and Equestrian lore had been completely derailed by stimulating debates of applied moral philosophy that had left her grinning like a schoolfilly.

Right up until she realized that they’d gotten off-topic, of course.

His ability to retain data rivalled her own. She reasoned (often with a shudder) that it was because books were so scarce in his world, but whatever the case he seemed able to memorize complex tracts with little effort. Early on she’d learned that he could quote most, if not all, of his holy scripture chapter and verse, and, though she did not have texts for comparison, his recall of the writings of his world’s philosophers (including the disturbingly familiar-sounding Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and more) were so consistent that she felt safe in guessing that he had them very nearly memorized as well. It was a hypothesis that seemed to be borne out in practice, as he very seldom needed to read or hear something twice. One day he’d read four tracts on unicorn magic, and the next day he’d make particular reference to passages from them without needing to look. Her estimate was that he was one of those rare beings possessed of a near perfect memory. When he’d laughingly assured her that most humans weren’t quite such quick studies, she wasn’t sure if she’d been more disappointed or oddly relieved. In a profoundly unusual turn of events, Twilight found herself with a pupil who could actually keep up with the pace of her teaching without struggle.

Except, of course, for the application. Jacques had consumed a staggering amount of text in the last few days, far more than she would have expected him to. Among other things, he had a general idea of Equestrian history, a broad sense of its governmental structure, and, thanks to their tangential conversations, a working knowledge of most of the major Equestrian philosophers. On the whole, that’s a better education than some university students I could name. Most importantly for their purposes, he’d even (in spite of his misgivings) come to understand the basics of magical theory and its most common schools, as well as many of the fundamentals behind Curatrix and Dark Magic.

None of which translated into his being able to cast even the simplest of spells. His passive magics, like his strength and regeneration, functioned normally, of course, but he hadn’t managed to repeat any of them since the armoring trick that he’d unconsciously pulled at the hospital.

It was… frustrating to say the least. So frustrating that she’d given serious consideration to strapping him to her lab table and running some detailed tests on him to see if she could figure out how to make him react. Only one thing stopped her from doing it.

The fact that he was as frustrated as she was.

Twilight was aware of a rather unattractive trait she possessed: that of obsession. When a problem took hold of her that she couldn’t solve, she had a bad tendency to push past all reasonable equine limitations (and even a few unreasonable ones) to solve it. When this trait manifested itself as a virtue (as it sometimes did) it was called ‘tenacity.’ Twilight was honest enough to know that she was sometimes tenacious… and sometimes obsessive. Much of that obsession came from a fear, bordering on a phobia, of failing the ponies who depended on her.

Seeing that same fear in Jacques was a sobering experience. He hid it rather well, but she’d looked in the mirror too many times to miss the signs. His inability to do what he regarded as his Creator-given duty was eating at him. What had made him so afraid of failure was a mystery to her, but she didn’t need to know to sympathize. And so, in her empathy for him, Twilight had managed to restrain her baser instincts to seek knowledge at any cost and instead allow him time for other things. The study of military history, weapons, and martial tactics all seemed to appease his grim sense of duty somewhat, as he could legitimately feel that he was making progress towards something that would practically aid them in the coming fight, and she made a point to allot time to the task.

Which was why she’d left the good friar buried in Brigadier General Culverin’s Treatise on Martial Arts of the Pony Races while she and Spike ran out to grab some muffins.

“I don’t know how that guy can read so much,” remarked Spike as they ambled back to the library with the baked goods. “Seriously, it’s like having two of you around all the time.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow in mock annoyance. “Is that such a bad thing?”

“Nah. Just creepy.”

She giggled. “Well, I’m just thankful that he’s such a quick study. I can’t even imagine trying to pick up the mechanics and lore of a new world completely on the fly. Just think – an entire world of unique races, cultures, histories, sciences, technologies, all just waiting to be examined in intricate detail through total immersion in this fathomless new puzzle of reality—”

“Twilight, you’re drooling,” pointed out Spike dryly.

The mare wiped her mouth quickly and glanced around with reddened cheeks, hoping that nopony saw.

“Anyway,” continued the dragon, “You can be thankful he’s a brainiac like you. I’m just thankful to have another guy around. I love you girls, but it’s nice to have somecreature around who talks male.”

Twilight shot him a quizzical look. “‘Talks male?’” she repeated. “Leaving aside your poor grammar, you two hardly say anything. Half the time you just grunt and point.”

Spike smiled slyly. “Exactly.”

Before she could ask what he meant, she happened to glance down at her reflection in a passing store window… and saw the reflection of another pony that seemed to be approaching at a swift clip down the lane. Rolling her eyes, she did some quick mental calculations. Assuming the standard refractive properties of the glass relative to the approaching target, impact will be in about… Her calculations finished she simply charged her horn and conjured a small shield at a deflective angle between herself and the incoming missile.

Said missile had no time to change its course, and Twilight’s ears were abruptly assaulted by the sounds of a gravelly voice cursing, an impact, and a cry as a cyan-and-rainbow blur glanced off her shield and plowed into the dirt in front of her, leaving a shallow trench in its wake. The missile came to a rest, and a low moan rose from it.

“Sweet Celestia!” exclaimed Spike, who’d yelped quite loudly at the fury missile’s entrance. “Are you alright, Rainbow Dash?”

“She’s fine,” remarked Twilight with much less concern. “After all, she wasn’t coming in that fast because she’s overconfident after the last four times she spooked me.” Reaching out with her magic, she plucked the pegasus out of the dirt and pulled her muzzle-to-muzzle so as to better glare at her. “Isn’t that right, Rainbow Dash?”

The pegasus shook her head to loosen the dust from her mane and wriggled out of Twilight’s deliberately underpowered magical grip. Once she was free, she hopped into the air and took her customary place two feet off the ground. “Sheesh, Twilight. If you’re gonna lecture me like my mother, at least throw in my middle name.”

Twilight smirked. “Fine, ‘Danger.’ Maybe next time you’ll think twice before you sneak up on me from an angle that let me see your reflection. I doubt Marble would have made that mistake.”

Rainbow huffed. “Yeah, well, it’s still four to one in my favor.”

“That would be true, if we were actually competing!” the unicorn snapped. “Honestly, would it have killed you to just ask me to help you practice your stealth lessons?”

Dash looked like she was about to shoot back a hot retort, but Spike piped up before they could rehash the debate he’d heard four times already. “What brings you to town, Rainbow Dash?”

“Checking in with you two, actually,” replied the pegasus, mercifully dropping the subject. “AJ and I are gonna start whuppin’ flank soon and I wanted to know if you and Jacques wanted to join us.”

“Sounds fun,” smiled Spike. “I’m in.”

Twilight had to resist the urge to remind the pegasus that most of the ‘flank whuppin’’ that had occurred in the last few days had been delivered squarely to Rainbow and Applejack. Both of them had taken up the REF ponies on their offers of training, and they had the bruises to prove it. Still, they’d both been improving and seemed to be enjoying themselves. In fact, the whole business had proved to be a draw to outside observers as well. The other girls had taken to observing on occasion, as had the two Lunar Guards, Redheart and Medevac, and, of course, the other Apples. It probably won’t be long before Big Mac starts training with his sister, reflected Twilight, realizing that she was curious to see how he would fare. I’ve only ever seen him break up fights, not start them. And I didn’t even get a good look at those fights because they don’t last long when he gets involved. But Applejack swears he could wrestle a bear if he wanted to.

Shaking aside these idle thoughts, she made herself focus enough to actually answer the cyan mare. “Sounds interesting, Rainbow,” particularly if Fritters uses his mystery technique again, “but I have to see if Jacques wants to before I say yes. He’s had a frustrating couple days.”

“Still can’t cast, huh?” asked Rainbow. “That’s rough.”

“Why do you think he can’t do it, Twilight?” asked Spike. “I mean, he knows all the basics.”

“Yeah,” agreed Rainbow. “He should just be able to do it, right? He’s done it before.” She held up feathers like fingers as she ticked off points. “The forest with the wolves when they were evil, the hospital with the monitors when he thought they were evil, and the hospital again with Spike when he thought he was evil.” She winced as the words left her mouth and glanced at the dragon. “Er, no offense.”

He shrugged. “Eh. None taken.”

“It’s not quite that simple,” answered Twilight. “He’s never had magic before. It’s like waking up one day with a limb you’ve never had. Imagine if you just suddenly had a unicorn horn. You’d have no idea what to do with it.”

Rainbow laughed, seeming more amused by the idea of herself with a horn than anything else. “Hah! I know what I’d do. I’d make myself the Princess of Awesomeness!”

“Or Radicalness,” suggested Spike.

“That too.”

Twilight chuckled. “I’m not sure Equestria would survive you as an administrator.”

Rainbow huffed, folding her forelegs. “Says you! I’d be a great administrator!”

“Oh yeah?” smirked the unicorn. “Which political parties make up the current Coalition Government in Parliament, and what are their historical relationships to the various parties of the Opposition?”

The daredevil mare’s mouth flapped open and shut several times before she gave up and glowered at Twilight. “Fine. We’ll just have to get you fitted with a pair of wings so you can handle the governing part of the princessing while I do all the awesome parts of princessing.”

“Your grasp of statecraft horrifies me.”

“Which is why I need you, oh Princess of Eggheads. You can be the Luna to my Celestia.”

“While I appreciate that you consider Celestia to the be current ‘Princess of Awesomeness,’ I suggest you not tell Luna about her title.”

“Look, can we just drop this and go talk to Jacques already?”

“That would probably be best.”

Jacques sat cross-legged on the floor of the library, surrounded on all sides by treatises on pony weapons and martial styles. It was… fascinating. Some matters were familiar. Since ponies were capable of standing on their hind legs and wielding weapons as a human would, most conventional stances and styles were nearly identical to his own, even down to having identical names. A short while ago he might have found it eerie, but the past days had given him time to adjust to the bizarre synchronicity of worlds.

For every similarity, though, there was a fresh alteration to his thinking. First to come into play was the difference of limbs. Ponies could, through a combination of joint pressure and magic that was beyond his understanding, grip weapons in their forehooves much as he would with his hands. However, the books noted, even the strongest hoof grip had difficulty comparing to that of appendages like griffon claws or minotaur hands. This meant that ponies were theoretically easier to disarm than such races. They had compensated for this by adapting their martial styles to incorporate the advantages that they did possess.

The first involved the use of the teeth to grip weapons. Initially, Jacques had found this ridiculous, likening it to gripping a blade in the reverse grip with his hands. It was true that the reverse grip was useful with knives and short blades for hooking, stabbing, blocking, and disarming opponents. However, because of the way that the wrist joint bent, it was worthless in all but the most specific contexts for slashing and hacking, which made wielding long-bladed weapons in the reverse grip useless. He had assumed that the same would apply to teeth grip.

He had been wrong. Because of their musculature and lower center of gravity, and the fact that they were four-legged beasts, ponies were able to put their entire body into an attack made with the head, and the power of their neck muscles gave them a surprising amount of ‘snap’ that offset many of the drawbacks of the reverse grip when it came to hacking and slashing. However, it was not without its own severe disadvantages. Stabbing was actually more difficult for teeth grip than for reverse grip, and, as a style, teeth grip tended to leave the body seriously exposed to counter-attack. This made it too cumbersome for any pony but a swift one. Thus, its utility was mostly limited to throwing weapons, like axes or chained weapons, or to use by agile combatants with the speed to offset this disadvantage, leading to its popularity amongst the earth-ponies in the former case and the pegasi in the latter.

Each of the races had their own particular emphases as well. The pegasi had a long and distinguished martial history, much of which reminded Jacques of treatises he’d read on Roman military tactics. Short swords and daggers, wielded with hooves or with teeth and accompanied by shields, were preferred for close-quarters combat, though spears and javelins remained their primary weapons. Archers were also common, as the utility of wings made it easier for them to use bows-and-arrows without mounted bases, magic, or great strength. They tended to rely on speed and agility to augment their attacks, and were masters of both harrying and charging. On the ground, the use of their wings essentially lent them two additional limbs, and, if they were disarmed, provided an avenue of escape. The main weakness that Jacques saw was the temptation to rely too heavily on their wings.

Unicorns tended to favor one-handed, or rather one-hooved weapons more than the other races, for the obvious reason that their magic allowed them to grip their weapons without needing to use their hooves or teeth. This gave them unequalled versatility in combat, especially when ponies were able to combine their telekinetic grip with offensive spells or magic wards. Some unicorn weapon masters were noted as being able to control multiple blades at once, though this was rare, and a handful were even able to make magical constructs with which to fight so that they needn’t carry six swords. Both styles had their drawbacks, however. Telekinetic grips could, in certain circumstances, be even more vulnerable to disarming than hoof-grip. As for blade constructs, their Achilles’ Heel was the danger that, if they were broken unexpectedly, they could send a magical backlash that could incapacitate even trained battle-casters. Jacques could all too easily see overconfident unicorns succumbing to their own hubris. To their credit, the masters seemed to know this, and their treatises insisted that, to be truly a master of a weapon, a unicorn must first become skilled in it without their magic. Because of this, the unicorns remained the most prevalent users of the various one-hooved weapons and the kite and round shields that accompanied them.

In Jacques’ opinion, the earth ponies had been the most creative in evolving their battle style. Without the versatility of unicorn or pegasi magic, they’d had to overcome the other races’ advantages through their own natural stability and grit. And, as a result, he found them in many ways to be the most familiar.

All melee combat, he well knew, relies upon having proper leverage on the weapon to apply force in the direction needed to inflict damage. In general terms, the more of the body that could be put into play, the more leverage could be applied, and the more damaging the strike would be. If a weapon had a longer haft, like a two-handed longsword or a polearm, then the fighter had more options in how to do this; a long weapon could be braced off the shoulder, the forearm, or virtually any part of the torso and hips with enough creativity. Because they were quadrupeds, and because of how their joints were arranged, ponies could do this far more readily than humans, and all three races had learned to apply this in melee combat.

The earth ponies had taken this to the highest degree. More than any other equine race that Jacques had read on, the earth ponies had become masters of two-handed swords, polearms, and lances. Each and every treatise he read on their martial arts seemed entirely geared towards bringing the full, massive strength of the earth pony to bear in a strike with the least amount of movement possible. Their knowledge of the anatomy of close battle was unrivaled, as there seemed to be no part of their body that they didn’t use in combat. Jacques even came across one passage talking about using mane and tail to add precision to strikes. Moreover, their natural attunement to the earth gave them a sure-footedness that made them the hardest of the races to unbalance or disarm. Even in ranged combat they were deadly. While they lacked the unicorns’ magic or the pegasi’s air superiority and swiftness with the bow, their raw strength enabled them to load crossbows with a speed that the other races struggled to match; unicorn magic would be worn out with the repetition, and pegasi wings were too fragile to risk using to reload the weapon. With the addition of large throwing axes, stones, and chained weapons, they had great offensive potential at medium range as well. Still, they had nothing comparable to unicorn battle mages, and aerial combat left them at a disadvantage without proper weaponry.

The unarmed combat followed a similar pattern. Some, like boxing and wrestling, were familiar, while others, like jiu jitsu and wing chun, were not. And, as with the various weapon styles, it was a peculiar mix of human and equine techniques. There was a far greater emphasis on kicking than he was accustomed to, especially with a powerful hind-leg ‘buck.’ Cavalry tactics seemed to apply as well, and though he was quite familiar with the principles of overrunning, trampling, and bashing aside opponents, it was odd to see them applied by a sapient race for personal use.

Still, the fundamentals of war remained blessedly familiar. The unicorns’ magic and ability to impale their enemies, the pegasi’s air capability, and the raw strength of the earth ponies served to expand the principles he was familiar with rather than eliminating them. His studies, combined with his observations of the soldier ponies during their sparring, and the fact that he’d been able to offer some legitimate pointers to Applejack and Rainbow Dash, gave him confidence that he’d be able to adapt his fighting to this new world with little more difficulty than adjusting to fighting in the Outremer after learning combat in Provencal.

Which is more than I can say for my own magical aptitude. The gloomy thought made short work of his previous good humor. His failure to reproduce his previous magical successes weighed heavily on his mind. It was impossible to know when these so-called ‘Shades’ would make their next move, but Jacques had never been one to wait idly while the enemy maneuvered. If dominance on the battlefield lay in minimizing the enemy’s advantages while maximizing his own, then preparedness was essential to victory. But he could not be prepared, because he could not make full use of his own advantages.

Jacques clicked his tongue in the manner that his mother always had whenever he was doing something that he shouldn’t; he’d picked up the habit as a means of personal discipline. Now, now, Jacques. Let’s not be so harsh. It has not yet been two weeks, and I’m adapting to living in a world of pastel-coated talking ponies of all things. More unusual still, everything is infused with a power that does not exist as such in my own world. I ought to be gentler with myself. Impatience is a vice, after all. It was sound advice, he knew, but he had a hard time listening to it.

Sighing, he set the book aside and stood with a grunt, his joints clicking painlessly, if loudly, into place. One thing that he couldn’t complain about was his recovery. He hadn’t needed his walking stick to get around for several days, and indeed only carried it because he was loath to walk without a weapon and his sword drew a lot of stares. His stitches were all out, and his injuries had faded into the sort of background pain that only troubled him when the Spring rains came. Or rather, when the Spring rains are brought. By pegasi. Who control the weather. Because that’s how things work in this world. He gave a short chuckle and wandered about the room, swinging his arms to get his blood flowing after so long sitting on the floor. Yes, I really should be more patient with myself.

His thoughts were interrupted by the return of Twilight and Spike, who had Rainbow Dash in tow. He greeted them with a shallow bow. “Ladies. Spike.”

“Hello, Friar,” replied Twilight, levitating a muffin over to him. “Up for another try?”

Jacques grimaced and nodded. Several days ago, he and Twilight had been attempting to get him to use his magic-dampening ability to shut off her levitation for trivial things like retrieving a pastry or book from her grasp. It was a good idea, but not one that had worked thus far.

Reaching out a hand, he held it directly underneath the muffin and tried to recall what it had felt like in the hospital when he’d shut off the monitors. He closed his eyes, his brow furrowing with concentration as he attempted to dredge up the memory. It was there, he knew. He could feel it at the edge of his consciousness, tantalizing him with the knowledge that only a slight push would give him the missing piece of the puzzle that was his new powers.

And so he strained; he struggled; he ran through every thought and emotion even remotely related to the event, every treatise he’d read on magical dampening fields, every scrap of information he possessed. He strove for result.

The muffin remained airborne.

Letting out a deep sigh, he resigned himself to the fact that this wasn’t going to be the moment and simply plucked the pastry from the air. “Not today, it would seem,” he remarked, his demeanor gloomy. God, I know that it is within Your permissive will that my patience be tested here, but I cannot help but wonder why. The knowledge that there was a reason, even if he did not know it, ought to have consoled him. Instead, he found himself frustrated by his ignorance, and disappointed in himself for his doubts.

“Don’t worry, Friar,” Twilight said. “I’m sure you’ll get it eventually.”

He gave her a dry smile. “I don’t doubt that, Lady Sparkle.” Or at least, I should not. “I simply find patience to be a difficult thing when darkness looms.” The remark came out more biting than intended, and he felt his own gloom spread throughout the room as the ponies and dragon were sobered by the reminder. Well done, Jacques. Next you can wander by the school and frighten the children. “Forgive me, my friends. I fear that patience is a virtue that I have always struggled with, and perfectionism is a familiar vice of mine. When patience falters and scruples multiply, my temper wears thinner than it ought.”

Spike chuckled and leaned against Twilight, munching around a mouthful of muffin. “You call that perfectionism? Hah! Trust me, dude. Twilight could teach classes on the subject.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and charged her horn. In a burst of light, she disappeared from where she’d stood and reappeared two feet to her left. The act dazzled Jacques every time he saw it, but this time it had the added effect of humor, as Spike yelped in shock before crashing onto the floor. His muffin went flying, but Twilight caught it with her magic before it suffered any damage.

“You shouldn’t beat yourself up, Friar. It won’t help anything. And, yes, I know it makes me a hypocrite to say that,” she said with a glare at the sheepish Spike as she returned his muffin, “but it’s still true.”

Jacques nodded, turning his own muffin in his hand without eating it. In truth, he wasn’t particularly hungry, as he was accustomed to fewer meals than his Equestrian friends, but he played it off as being lost in thought so as not to offend them. “I know that you speak the truth, but I admit to finding it difficult to relax.”

“Well,” cut in Rainbow, “I’ve got the perfect solution!” She made a series of rapid aerial loops that Jacques still struggled to follow even after days of acclimation before coming to a halt midair in a heroic pose. “Me and Applejack are about to lay the smackdown, and you're invited to watch!”

“Applejack and I,” corrected Twilight.


The mare’s bravado brought a smile to Jacques’ face. Several days of getting soundly thumped by the warriors and still she boasts. Henri would have liked her. He folded his arms and gave a mock severe look. “Lady Dash, are you certain that your intent is truly to help me to, as you say, chillax, and not simply to show off?”

Rainbow shrugged. “Eh. Two clouds, one buck.”

Chuckling, he nodded. “I suppose that it would be a welcome distraction and a practical one, as I must familiarize myself with equine combat.” He collected his walking stick and headed for the door, discretely passing his muffin to Spike as he passed. “Allons-y.”

Applejack grimaced and shifted in her borrowed armor. As a farmer, she was no stranger to physical discomfort, but it hadn’t taken long for the alien attire to start pinching her in new and inventive ways. Within minutes, she’d developed a profound respect for everypony who wore steel plates on a daily basis and resolved to never again take the stoic stances of the palace guards for granted.

“How in the hay do ya’ll fight in these tin tuxedos?” she demanded, tugging at one of the straps to loosen it.

Fritters approached and, with a jerk of his magic, firmly re-tightened it. “Well, for starters, we strive to put it on correctly. Honestly, Applejack, armor doesn’t do you any good if you leave gaps in the plates for blades to pierce your hide.” Finding that she’d loosened many of her straps in the minutes since Song had helped her get dressed, Fritters clicked his tongue in annoyance and set about tightening everything.

The two of them stood out by the same arena that had been used for sparring the last few days. Song and Marble were a few yards away, chatting amiably with Redheart, Medevac, and Ironhide while Oaken bandied words with the other Apples. All the soldiers, minus Oaken, were armored and armed with practice weapons, awaiting the arrival of Rainbow Dash and whatever guests she might bring.

Applejack was thankful for the delay, as it gave her yet another opportunity to voice her concerns. It had been one thing sparring with (and mostly losing to) the various soldier ponies the past week. It was another thing entirely to fight in armor, and she chafed under the plates for reasons that she couldn’t quite express. “Ah still think it’s a bit cumbersome,” she protested. “Armor don’t do me much good if’n Ah can’t move.”

The unicorn snorted, unimpressed. “Don’t give me that talk, plow horse. If I can get used to moving with the weight, you can. Trust me; once you get used to the weight, it’s like a second skin.”

“It ain’t the weight, Fritters. It’s the flexibility.”

“Oh, I think you’ll find that you can be plenty mobile in this ‘tin tuxedo,’” he smiled. “And, if not,” she yelped as he tightened one strap with a sudden jerk, “at least it will amuse me watching you try.”

The glare she shot him was calculated to stop a raging bull in its tracks. She knew because she’d done just that during one particularly eventful little adventure out west of Appleloosa. It seemed that Fritters was made of sterner stuff than the bull, or at least was a poorer judge of mood, because he was unmoved by the display. “Don’t give me that look,” he chided her. “You’re not sore because the armor chafes or anything like that.”

“And just what am Ah sore about?” she demanded, half-snarling.

To her surprise, his expression shifted from teasing to sympathetic. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the others were engrossed in their own conversations before quietly answering, “Well, I can’t say for sure, but I suspect you don’t like thinking about why you might need armor someday.”

Applejack inhaled sharply.

Fritters smiled kindly. “I’m perceptive remember? There’s no shame in such fears, so long as they don’t master us.” He rapped her peytral with an armored hoof. “And, once you accept the armor as your aid, it will help with that.”

The farm mare let out a long breath, reaching up to push back her helmet. She’d chosen the wide-brimmed ‘kettle hat’ because it reminded her of an armored stetson, and that familiar shape was a much-needed touchstone of comfort at the moment. And he was kind enough ta get it for me, so Ah guess that earns him some points. “Ah reckon yer right,” she admitted. “No point in runnin’ from somethin’ that’ll keep me safer.”

Jesteś mądry! Smart!,” he commended her. “And it really will keep you much safer. When you’re wearing plate like this, there are really only three ways to die. First,” he boinked her snout with his hoof and ignored her answering growl, “you get hit somewhere the armor isn’t.”

“Obviously,” she snapped, rubbing her muzzle.

“Second, you get hit with something that just doesn’t care about the armor, like magic that ignores the plate or an impact that sends you flying or a heavy hit from a blunt weapon. Of course,” he tapped his own armor, “Guard armor has enchantments to dull impacts and ablate most combat magic, so you’re still safer in it than out of it, even in a lightning storm.”

Applejack remembered how the squad of Solar Guards who’d been struck with lightning by Nightmare Moon had survived the night with only minor injuries. When she and the other Bearers were getting checked over in the hospital the morning after the Nightmare Night ‘Incident,’ Redheart had told her that, ironically, the metal had saved the Guards from death by electrocution thanks to its enchantments.

The thought was enough to endear her to armor somewhat.

“Third,” continued Fritters, “you can die by something piercing the armor. A crossbow bolt or a hefty spear thrust can punch through,” he jabbed a hoof at her torso unexpectedly and drove her back a pace, “as could a good hearty swing from a massive sword or axe, especially if it hits on the wrong part of the suit or has a Big Mac-sized gentlecolt doing the swinging. Even then, though, an off-center hit on the armor will probably just glance off, whereas it might kill or cripple you without armor. Strikes that are too light and lack the mass or the force to penetrate will just bounce off entirely.” He smirked. “Which is always fun when you’re close enough to see the other guy and he realizes just how hosed he is.”

Applejack tilted her head in confusion. “So how come when yer sparrin’ Song’s knives tend to count as lethal hits even against armor? They ain’t that heavy. Ah got a hard time picturin’ them punchin’ through the plate even if’n they were sharp.”

“Well, one, Song’s a strong little pony,” said Fritters as he stepped back, gave Applejack a critical visual inspection, then nodded, apparently satisfied that she was properly attired. “And, two, her practice daggers don’t exactly do the real deal any justice. Each of her combat blades was forged by three master smiths - an earth pony, a unicorn, and a pegasus - to gain the metallurgic and magical skills of all three races. They’re ultra-dense, which makes them heavy for their size, and enchanted to hold a very keen edge. They more or less turn her into a walking crossbow with a good singing voice and a penchant for caring about unit morale.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Those fancy knives can’t ‘ave been cheap.”

Fritters shrugged. “You’d have to ask her about that. What I will say is she used to have a nice house and a thriving practice, and now she lives in bachelorette housing at Fort Brag as though she were a hopeless career degenerate like me.” He grasped Applejack’s helmet in his magic and adjusted the strap to fit more snugly on her head. “Make of that what you will.”

It was at that point that a certain rainbow pegasus decided to make her appearance, buzzing the Acres and coming in for a screeching halt six inches from Fritters’ face. “The Dash has arrived!” she declared.

“‘The Dash’ is out of uniform,” replied Fritters, nonplussed. With his magic hefted Rainbow’s kit bag from where she’d left it before leaving to find Twilight, Jacques, and Spike. “I trust you found them, seeing as how you’re a half hour later than you said you’d be?”

“Well, yeah,” huffed Rainbow, “I mean, it only took me so long because—oomph!” Her knees buckled as he dropped her kit bag on her back.

“Given that we’re behind schedule, why don’t you take this opportunity to suit up, Flight Officer,” suggested the colour sergeant in a laconic tone that suggested that it wasn’t a suggestion.

Rainbow cleared her throat and straightened up hastily. “Um, yeah, sure,” she said before zipping off behind one of the sheds. Shortly thereafter, Applejack heard the sounds of zippers, clanking metal, velcro, and what she could have sworn were power tools. Dash reappeared ten seconds later, fully kitted in her light Air Corps armor and a smug expression.

Applejack couldn’t help but be impressed. “Wow, Dash. Ah know yer fast an’ all, but that’s still impressive.”

The pegasus preened. “What, you thought we just painted each other’s hooves in Basic instead of learning actual combat skills?”

“Combat skills that taught you to put on your combat wingblades for sparring?” asked Fritters innocently, indicating the sharpened blades. Rainbow turned beat red before vanishing behind the shed again. Applejack guffawed and Fritters gave her a dry grin. “Don’t let the Air Head fool you, Applejack. Half of what they teach in the EAC is pedicures. The other half is how to eat cake while the ground pounders do all the work.”

“Ah’m sensin’ some rivalry there.”

“Maybe just a bit.” He gestured to a long-bladed practice sword that leaned against the nearby fence. “Might I recommend that Madam l’Applejack limber up before the spectators arrive?”

Applejack chuckled in spite of herself and collected her weapon of choice. The greatsword was a fearsome-looking weapon, with a massive double-edged blade and a hilt long enough that it could almost have been classified as a polearm (or so she’d been told).

The weapon had caught her eye the first day that the REF ponies had presented a rack of practice weapons requisitioned from their unit in Canterlot. Something about its heft had just felt right to her. When Twilight had gone on to note that, historically, two-hooved weapons like the greatsword had been favored by earth ponies for generations, it had just confirmed her decision. The farm mare was still getting used to the stances and swings, but, for all the bruises the soldiers had given her, she felt that she was making great progress. Ah’ve won some matches here an’ there. Better with bare hooves than the sword, but Ah’ll get the hang of it.

Hefting the blunted weapon, she began practicing with the blade, focusing on her form and technique. Fritters took a few steps back to allow her room to swing and, after a time, began calling out blade positions and critiquing her form. “…Alber…. Pflug…. Ochs... Hälfte Pflug… Alber…Nebenhut… Keep your point out of the dirt, AJ… Better… Pflug… Vom Tag. No, no, no,” he tutted. “Your posture is off. Too much weight on the back hoof.”

“This ain’t exactly a natural posture ta hold fer long!” she shot back. Vom Tag involved rearing onto her back hooves to position the blade above her head. Her balance had always been good, thanks in part to her experience boxing, but holding the weight of the blade over her head like that made Vom Tag her weakest position by far.

“Try positioning the blade over your right shoulder rather than your head,” suggested a fancy-accented voice from behind. Applejack twisted her head to see that Jacques had arrived, with Twilight and Spike in tow. “You will find the strikes to be slightly weaker and shorter-ranged than when held over your head, but quicker and more deceptive to your opponent as well. When wielding my blade two-handed, I always preferred the shoulder version of Vom Tag, since Arabs and Turks tended to be smaller and more agile opponents.”

Applejack shifted to reposition the blade and found it to be much more comfortable. “Hey, that ain’t half bad, Friar. Still feels as unnatural as permafrost in July, but it’s better than feelin’ like a ballgown at a barnraising.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” chuckled Jacques. “Who are you fighting today?”

She gestured to Ironhide, who was also limbering up. “Iron first. No sure after that.”

He motioned for her to come to the fence. “Then, if I may offer some advice…” She trotted over and he leaned against the fence post like a coach at a boxing ring, speaking in low tones. “Speed is likely preferable for the upcoming fight. The unicorn’s telekinesis allows him to set the tempo of a fight to be as fast as he wants. You’ll need to be able to swiftly slide from one position to the next to sweep aside your enemy’s attacks and work your blade underneath his defenses. Motion and leverage are your allies; you want to pivot in such a way as to slide from a block into a strike and back with as few extraneous movements as possible. Like so.”

Stepping back from the fence, he used his walking stick as a mock sword, demonstrating how to fluidly shift through stances and positions while both attacking and defending. Sweet Celestia, he’s movin’ well, she thought with admiration. Wouldn’t ‘ave wanted to tango with ‘im in ‘is prime! Once he’d finished, he rejoined her at the fence. “You remember what I taught you about fighting an opponent who bears a shield, I trust?”

Applejack nodded. “Heavy strikes to push him back, precision strikes ta get around it, an’ sweeps ta hit anything exposed.”

He smiled and lightly tapped her on the helmet, the equivalent of paternally ruffling her hair. “You’re a quick study, jeune fermière. Fight well, Applejack!”

She turned around to see Fritters glaring at the old knight in mock irritation. “You trying to poach my pupil, Sir Jacques?”

“I don’t know. Are you claiming to know more of the art of the sword than a man who’s practiced it for the better part of sixty winters?” replied Jacques merrily.

Touché.” He winked at Applejack. “Knock ‘em dead, AJ. Show this Nightie what Fritters has been teachin’ ya.”

Applejack took a deep breath and stepped forward to the center of the ring. Here goes nothing. The rest of the ponies vacated the pen, save for Ironhide, her opponent, and Marble, the referee. The squat pegasus nodded to both of them. “I’ll go over the rules for today’s bout real quick, and then we can start. Sound good?”

“Make sure you use small words so the Nightie can follow!” heckled Medevac from the ringside.

Ironhide smirked to Applejack. “Ignore him. He’s just jealous because Marines aren’t allowed to stay up as late as we are.”

Medevac pulled off his prosthetic leg and shouldered it like a club. “I call next fight.”

“If I could just get to the rules,” interrupted Marble with a glare at both stallions, “we can get started.” The pair fell silent. “Thank you. This is going to be a straight melee fight. Ironhide is permitted to use magic only for weapon handling, and no more. Clear?”

Applejack nodded, shifting into Hälfte Pflug, the version of the ‘plow’ stance wherein she gripped the sword the crook of one hoof like a spear while standing planted on the remaining three legs. “Gotcha.”

Ironhide remained on all fours, wielding arming sword and kite shield in his magic. “Check.”

“Very good,” said Marble, taking to the air and hovering a few feet away. Applejack and Ironhide respectfully clacked their practice blades against each other in salute before resuming their ready stances. “Redheart, want to count us off?”

The nurse hemmed and hawed at the suggestion. “I don’t know… given that I’m mostly here to patch up anypony who gets hurt, I feel like it might be a conflict of interest if I—”

Three-two-one-go!” interrupted Medevac.

Applejack decided to interpret that as the signal and lunged forward, seeking an early victory by striking at Ironhide’s head. The stallion had hesitated at Medevac’s questionable countdown, but recovered quickly, blocking with his shield. Applejack let the momentum of her attack carry her forward, shifting both forehooves onto her hilt as she did so and sweeping the greatsword around in a low cut aimed at Ironhide’s legs. Once more, he blocked the attack with his shield, and this time he retaliated with a slash from his own sword. The farm mare pulled her sword back, sliding one hoof down the blade to wield the weapon in the ‘half-sword’ style, gripping it by both hilt and blade. She caught the blow on the flat of the sword, braced with her hindlegs, and pushed back, thrusting his sword away. With his weapon temporarily out of the way, she shifted from a horizontal push into a lateral stab and attempted to sneak her point over the top of his shield.

Of course, Ironhide had been doing this for far longer, so he blocked with his shield before she could do any damage and followed up by whipping his sword around with his magic and thrusting at her side. Only her armor saved her from an early ejection from the match, as his sword clattered harmlessly off her plates. Still, the attack forced her back and yielded the initiative to him. He advanced swiftly, and she was hard pressed to deflect all his strikes. The value of her armor quickly became apparent, as without it she’d have been too busy blocking to counterattack.

Even so, she struggled to change the tempo of the fight back to something in her favor. It’s that blasted shield! she thought with familiar irritation. If Ah could just take care o’ that, Ah could take care o’ him! Ah’ve beaten him before, an’ Ah can do it again if Ah can take care o’ that confounded shield!

The only problem was that Ironhide didn’t seem willing to let that happen. The few times she’d beaten him in days past she’d simply used her superior strength to run roughshod over him and bash his shield aside. Unfortunately, he seemed to have learned from those experiences, and he’d been very careful today to deflect the force of her blows off the shield rather than simply taking the abuse. An’ Ah think he mighta been takin’ it easy on me before today, she realized a split second before his sword snuck past her guard and clattered against her helm. She stumbled back, falling into a defensive stance as he advanced on her.

“Break his grip, Applejack!” shouted Jacques from the sidelines. “Break his grip!”

“Easy for you to say, Friar,” grumbled the farm mare, spitting out the flecks of sweat that had dribbled into her mouth. She glared at Ironhide’s gleaming horn. How can Ah break his grip when he’s got—

It was at that moment that three things happened at once. The first was that Applejack’s fighting instincts came up with an audacious plan of action. The second was that Ironhide lunged forward, swinging downward at her head. The third was that her instincts determined that her audacious plan was the only way that she was getting out of this and elected to unilaterally put the plan into action without consulting the rest of her mental faculties.

Applejack moved into the path of his attack, wielding her weapon half-sword style. Like before she caught his strike on the blade between her two forehooves. But, rather than pushing off like before, she twisted inwards, catching his sword with her crossguard and bringing them both around and down to hoof over the top of his shield. Now his armaments were tangled up with hers, with her crossguard hooking them both, her blade extending behind her like a pool cue held back for thrusting, and the pommel of her sword pointed towards him like a cue’s tip. There was a flicker of surprise in his eyes as he attempted to untangle his sword, but before he could she executed the second half of her plan. With her considerable strength she thrust her pommel forward—

Straight into his horn.

Warrior unicorns were fully capable of impaling opponents upon their horns. It was by no means a weak instrument, and, had he not been actively channeling magic, the blow would have done little damage. Ironhide was actively channeling magic when the blow hit, however, and the painful backlash of the forcibly disrupted spell sent him reeling backwards as he dropped his weapons.

With his training, it would not be long before he recovered, but it was all the opening Applejack needed. She pounced on him, bearing him forcibly to the ground and menacing his head with the upraised butt of her greatsword. Ironhide did the only thing he could reasonably do under the circumstances.

He yielded.

The soldier tapped a hoof lightly against one of her legs as he stared crookedly up at her. “Nice moves.”

Applejack stepped off him, offering him one forehoof while she leaned on her sword with the other. “You weren’t so bad yerself.”

Hooves pounded dirt and whistles and cheers filled the air.

“Way to go, AJ! That was awesome!”

“Nice job, Applejack! That’s one for my notes!”

“Yer the rootin-est tooten-est cowpony swordfighter in Ponyville, sis!”


“Ya did mah old heart proud, little Applejack!”

“Bravo! Bravo! Well done, Applejack!” cried Medevac with a butchered mockery Trottingham accent. “A finish with a pommel strike! Marvelous of you to end him rightly!”

“Nay, foul knave!” called Fritters in an even more butchered Trottingham accent as he trotted over to give Applejack a congratulatory hoof bump. “‘Tis when she hurls the pommel of her blade at him from afar that she endeth him rightly!”

Applejack wiped sweat from her brow and sat, realizing that she was panting. “Ah can do that?”

Song also approached, tossing Applejack a water bottle, which the farm mare gratefully drank. “Oh, absolutely,” said the alabaster mare. “Old-fashioned earth pony ingenuity. Just unscrew the pommel and chuck it. Or, in your case, buck it.”

Ironhide chuckled as he accepted a water bottle from Marble. “I’d be a little terrified to face a bucked pommel from you, Applejack. With a kick like yours it’d probably go clean through my head.”

Applejack felt a little queasy at the prospect and masked her discomfort with another drink of water. Fritters seemed to notice anyway, if the narrowing of his eyes was any indication. He put a smile on his face and patted her withers. “Don’t worry, Applejack. He’s a Nightie. It’d just go in one ear and out the other, missing his brain cell cleanly.” His tone was light, but the look in his eyes was a gentle one, and she smiled gratefully.

Ironhide, on the other hoof, appeared less than amused. “Go chew a magic missile.”

Fritters glared at the other unicorn. “What was that, Private?”

“Go chew a magic missile, Colour Sergeant,” corrected Ironhide.

“Better.” He gestured to the fence where the spectators were gathered. “Shall we gather at the ringside and, oh what is it you rustic types say, talk goose?”

“Turkey,” replied Applejack, one eyebrow raised in irritation. “It’s talk turkey, and you know darn well it’s talk turkey.”

“Po-tay-to, to-mah-to,” he said as he led the way over to the fence.

What Fritters had meant by ‘talk turkey’ had been to gather everypony (everycreature, she corrected mentally) and discuss how the two combatants had fought, both good and bad. The Konik typically led these meetings, despite the fact that Song was the senior trooper present. That had surprised Applejack initially, until Song had explained that the REF was somewhat flexible with who took the lead in different situations. Whoever the specialist was tended to have the floor and, when it came to combat, Fritters was the expert among experts. Though Ah suspect ole Jacques might be able to give ‘im a run for ‘is money, she thought with a glance at the Friar.

The meetings were densely informative, with everypony taking mental (and, in Twilight’s case, physical) notes. It was a refreshing change of pace for Applejack that most of what was said of her today was complementary. With the exception of when she’d gotten to fight exclusively unarmed, her victories had been vanishing rare, and she was abundantly pleased with herself after today’s performance. As for Ironhide, the easy-going stallion was a good sport about it, and seemed more interested in learning from his defeat than anything else. Fritters, for his part, showed remarkable restraint when it came to ribbing the Lunar Guard.

Right up until the end.

“Now, I know it might be a difficult concept for you to understand, but you might consider taking an advanced combat course on ducking to avoid a similar defeat in the future,” he advised deadpan. “I hear they have picture books for it now, so you should be able to handle it.”

Rainbow Dash and Medevac joined Applebloom and Spike in snickering like naughty foals at that. Applejack swatted the colour sergeant’s barding and indicated the children with a tilt of her head. “Hey, quit corruptin’ the youth,” she chided him.

“To be fair,” cut in Twilight, “I’ve heard worse out of you and Rainbow when you get competitive.”

The cyan pegasus chuckled. “Darn right you have!”

“In any case,” continued Fritters, undeterred by the interruption. “I think we all know the real reason you lost is because you went up against a certain somepony’s star pupil.” He struck a dramatic pose and polished a hoof against his peytral.

Ironhide smirked, sensing an opportunity for retribution. “You’re right, Colour Sergeant. I should have known better than to fight somepony taught by Friar Jacques.”

Fritters’ eyes bulged. Rainbow whistled softly. “Ooh, he got you good, dude.”

Jacques’ hearty baritone laughter shook the air, and the monk stepped forward to stand next to Applejack, patting her on the head as he twirled his mustache. “It would seem I owe you an apology, mon ami, for t'would appear that nefariously I stole your pupil after all!”

Fritters twisted to give Jacques a baleful (and utterly artificial) glare. “Fie on you, sirrah!” he cried, once more adopting his horrific Trottingham accent. “I demand of thee satisfaction for your treachery!”

Marble leaned over to Song and muttered, “Captain Argent’s gonna demand satisfaction of him if he keeps butchering her accent like that.” The mare nodded sagely.

Jacques grinned down at the ‘incensed’ stallion. “Are you challenging me then, young colt?”


The friar chuckled and tossed his cane to a startled Big MacIntosh. “Very well,” he said, seizing Applejack’s sword from where it leaned against the fence and hefting it over one shoulder, a fierce gleam in his eye. “I accept.”