Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Honour and Blood (Part 16)

There is a strange beauty in desolation. Indeed, as Cannon Fodder and I walked through the rocky, rough terrain of the McIntosh Hills we were surrounded utterly by the striking, unforgettable vista, which married both loneliness and despair with a peculiar sense of majesty that was somewhat difficult to put properly into words. Forging our way through the tight, winding paths between the massive, rocky outcroppings and near-sheer cliffs, seemingly devoid of any life on an order higher than tumbleweed, it was easy to feel as though we were the last two ponies left alive in the world. The bleached sandstone structures, hewn by wind and rain and time itself into hard, jagged, and unforgiving effigies, tinted with the slight shade of orange as the sun began its descent to rest for the night, rippled across the terrain like the glazed surface of a crème brûlée that had been tapped impertinently with a spoon. That we were at the mercy of the elements, in this, one of the last untamed frontiers of mainland Equestria, where pegasi mastery over the weather had still yet to be established and earth ponies had not yet tamed the local wildlife, only seemed to add to the deadly allure of this place.

Solitude was a rarity in the military, as one spent every waking hour surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of ponies at all times, each having lost the concept of individual privacy long ago in basic training. One learns to hoard it like a dragon and its gold. I was grateful for the opportunity to experience it again, being used to shuffling around an enormous mansion for much of my adult life, at least the years not spent in the Royal Guard, with only servants for company. Though my mission, such as it was, continued to occupy a portion of my mind like an unwanted squatter who was proving difficult to remove, I could at least play my favourite game of 'pretend I'm not really here' again. Whatever was really happening was immaterial, for as long as this journey would take I could simply shut out the world, forget about being the Blueblood that everypony expected me to be, and just be a pony walking more-or-less alone through the barren wilderness. Everything considered, it was not an altogether unpleasant experience, and I even took the time to enjoy one of the few remaining Haybana cigars left in my collection as we marched [Blueblood did not mention this when Cannon Fodder packed his saddle bags, but knowing him as I do it's likely he still carried a few in an engraved cigar case in his pocket at all times along with his hipflask].

It was still unbearably hot even in the shade of those hills, a cover of clouds obscured the sun and had a stultifying effect upon the climate here; the humidity, already choking, became trapped and intensified until I noticed that I had managed to sweat through both my undershirt, my storm coat, and the thin linen robes that covered them. I thought about the last time that I had my uniform laundered, and was somewhat ashamed when I found that I could not recall. My body odour must have been terrible, but at the very least it was completely and utterly overwhelmed by that of my aide's.

Despite the roughness of the terrain and the fact that the more I looked at the map and the complicated mess of squiggles and symbols, all of which looked as though if I said a few wrong words in Old Equestrian I might accidentally open a portal into Tartarus and summon Tirek from his prison, I felt as though we were making good time. My special talent, fickle though it might be, had never failed me yet, and though its choices in where it felt I needed to be were sometimes questionable I could be reasonably assured that we would arrive at our destination in good time.

I could scarcely imagine ponies eking out any kind of existence here, with little to no grazing, even less water, and, oh yes, a veritable horde of Changelings beyond counting wanting nothing more than to wrap everypony up in nice safe cocoons, and drain them entirely of love like Blitzkrieg at a free bar. Even then if they could somehow find enough food and fluid to sustain themselves, no doubt via obscure means handed down from soothsayer to shaman or whatever passes for an educated pony around here, that still begged the question of whether or not it would still be an existence worth living. To live separated from the guiding hoof of Princess Celestia and, to a lesser extent, Princesses Cadence and Luna, was an alien concept to me, even if I continued to hold reservations about our alicorn rulers being truly divine after having spent so much time with them (it occurs to me that there is no greater argument for atheism than to spend personal time with a goddess, especially when she is sitting at a dining table and shovelling cake and confections into her mouth at a rate that would choke a normal pony). But to also go through life wilfully shunning the comforts of civilisation, such as running water, whisky, and servants, was just something I could not comprehend at all. I wondered if that illusory thing they call 'freedom' that drove them here in the first place all those centuries ago was truly worth such deprivation, but then I remembered that ponies still willingly live in Detrot and decided that perhaps there was just something fundamentally wrong with our entire race.

Eventually, I began to recognise some of the topographical features around us, and I felt a faint glimmer of hope as the familiar rocky shapes, all but indistinguishable unless one has spent as much time as I surrounded by them, loomed over us. From there it was a matter of following this cleft between two hills and then down further between the steep cliffs where this freshwater spring flowed. I even picked up my pace from a slow, languid walk more suited to ambling down Saddle row to a brisk trot at the promise of cool, clean, and crisp water that hadn't been first purified with chlorine tablets.

The valley soon narrowed, and our hoofsteps echoed ominously around us. Despite my excitement at advancing in our, well, it'd be charitable to call it a 'quest' but by my meagre standards this was rather adventurous, I found myself halting and looking frantically behind in case somepony or something had followed us. Each time, however, revealed only our hoofprints in the dust, but the nagging sensation of being observed was hard to dispel. This time I wanted to be found, though only by the right sort of native tribespony and not the ones who might stick me in a large pot and make a regal sort of pony stew. [Rumours of cannibalism among the Badlands pony tribes are entirely unfounded, but still persist unfortunately]

We turned a corner in the valley, and at the other end was something shimmering like sunlight reflecting off polished steel - the river, finally. As we approached, I realised that I hadn't put much thought into how I'd go about asking the natives for information; the language barrier would be a bit of an issue, but in the spirit of most tourists abroad I would assume that at least somepony spoke Equestrian and that any issues might be solved by speaking slower and louder and with excessive pointing and hoof gestures. That still all depended on there being ponies around to interrogate, and if they were at all inclined to listen to the strange foreign stallion in the scary uniform demanding the locations of another strange foreign stallion, a mare, and a colourful if ancient flag.

As it happened, I was in luck. When we reached the stream, the clarity of the water rushing over the rocks so very tantalising to my dry tongue, I saw two such natives on the other side of the shallow, narrow river. One was an earth pony mare, at least as far as I could tell, apparently ancient if the rough, jagged lines across her face that gave one the impression of a rolled-up sheet of paper that had been flattened out were any indication. She stood by the edge, her hooves all but touching the water, and watched as the other, a tall, broadly-built stallion, collected water in ceramic pots and piled them up neatly next to her.

They saw us approach, or were most likely alerted to our presence minutes before we came into view by the loud clanging of Cannon Fodder's ill-fitting suit of armour jangling like a wind-chime in a hurricane as he walked. The stallion stopped collecting the water, placing the half-filled pot to the side with the others as he stepped forwards to place himself between us and the mare. He was another earth pony, with a dusty beige coat and a cutie mark depicting some kind of desert flower that I recognised growing around this rare source of fresh water. Clad in a set of linen robes that approximated the colour of ever-present barren rock around, similar in style to the loose set that my aide and I had thrown over our respective uniforms, I could tell by the strange proportions and protrusions in said cloth that he had the same idea as us (or vice versa I suppose) and had thrown it over some sort of primitive armour. About his waist was a length of rope that served as a belt, and thrust far too carelessly for my liking into this was a bronze short-sword sans any kind of scabbard.

The stallion glared silently at me, his brow furrowed and his head tilted low as if he might suddenly charge forward. That initial assessment was confirmed when he snorted and stamped his hoof impetuously, though whatever intimidating effect he was going for was ruined by the splashing of water with each stomp. I returned his glower with one of my own as I approached the water's edge, and found to my satisfaction that I had a good few inches over this colt. After a few moments of silent, awkward staring at one another, daring to break the gaze and admit defeat in this apparent test of wills and stallion-hood, I decided that this whole thing was ridiculous and pulled back the hood of my robe to reveal both my face and the peaked cap that I still wore.

"Hello," I said while doffing my cap, relying on that traditional, non-threatening introduction. "I am Pr..." -I paused, and realised that it might be a little unwise to let slip to these natives that I was Canterlot royalty- "My name is Blueblood, and this is Private Cannon Fodder."

Cannon Fodder replicated my polite gesture a little more clumsily, though it was hardly easy to doff one's cap when it was a metal helmet. "Evening, sir and ma'am," he said.

There was no response from the stallion, and I wondered perhaps if, like the mare we found during our last visit here, he could not understand Equestrian. I was about to ask him if he understood what I was saying when the elderly mare suddenly stepped around him with a speed that belied her advanced age and then reached up to clip his ear with a hoof. She admonished him angrily, and from little snippets I knew of the bastardised dialects of Old Equestrian that they spoke I came to the conclusion that she was telling this stallion off for being rude to the 'foreign devils from the tyrant of the north', their terms for our fair realm and its beneficent ruler, I assumed. Perhaps I should have been offended at those less-than-flattering terms for my homeland and my dear auntie, but luckily for them I found their display mildly amusing. He at least had the good sense to look sheepish as he shied away from this mare, his formerly tall and defiant stature ready to strike me, the invader, down, was now submissive like that of a beaten puppy.

The mare huffed and approached me, muttering to herself in her native tongue. "I am sorry," she said in halting but still understandable Equestrian. Her voice sound subterranean, as though it was coming up from the very earth beneath our hooves. "He is young and very stupid and not mature. Please, we share our water with you."

That must have been some kind of cultural habit unique to these ponies, I assumed, so I bent my head down and took a few tentative sips from the stream. [The scarcity of potable water has meant that some Badland pony tribes hold it in almost religious reverence. Comparing this with the symbolic importance of the sun and moon in Equestrian society would be apt.] It was as cool and refreshing as I remembered, and after everything that I had been through over the past few weeks it tasted far better than any champagne I had up to this point. I glanced up just to check that I had not committed some diplomatic faux pas (though it wouldn't be the first or last time), but the elderly mare did not seem to be offended and instead watched with a sense of quiet, almost feline curiosity.

"I am called Bitter Salt, of the Agave tribe," she said, her voice dry and croaky with age. Her accent was curious, vaguely reminiscent of the melodic Bitalian accent but with the odd twang and drawl of the south of Equestria mixed in. "This is my, erm... I do not know the word in your language. I teach him so he will not be very stupid more?"

"Your student?" I posited.

Bitter Salt made a slow, nodding motion with her head. "Yes, Chipped Urn is my student. I teach him to fetch water so he may be of use to the tribe." She paused, and then looked both my aide and me down with a scrutinising eye that felt somewhat invasive. As a representative of Equestria and its ruling class I drew myself up to stand as tall and proud as I could, though the whole affair felt rather awkward when wearing these shapeless cloth robes and, while I was used to being the subject of many approving looks from mares and the odd stallion as Canterlot's most eligible bachelor, I felt instead like I was a piece of jewellery being appraised by somepony who lacked the necessary taste and breeding to truly appreciate it.

"Northern foreigners everywhere these days," said Bitter Salt abruptly. She began to pace around, occasionally in a circle around us and occasionally weaving in between, and every so often she would stop to poke and prod at our clothing and mutter to herself. I stood there and allowed this strange mare to indulge in her curiosity, though Cannon Fodder was a bit adverse to examination after his rather traumatic night spent subjected to Twilight Sparkle's invasive testing, and he would flinch and stumble back from the questing hooves. The strange mare seemed to get the message however, or she found the lingering smell of unwashed underwear and rancid sweat to be too much for her, and instead paid more attention to me.

"Scouts spotted two of yours walking south from the old towers," she continued, rearing up on her hindlegs and resting her forelegs on my back to get a better look at my cap. It seemed that the concept of personal space was not something shared across our two cultures, and if I wasn't so reliant on her help in finding the two 'northern foreigners' I might have pushed her off and into the water. "This is because of what happened at the bridge, no?"

"What do you know about that?" I asked, trying not to give too much away. Bitter Salt mercifully got bored of poking my cap with a hoof, moved off my back, and took up a nicer, more sedentary position in front of me.

"We saw the whole thing," she said. "We watch you as you march into our lands unbidden with your steel and your fire, we also watch as you fight Changelings and bring death with you, but now you fight our kin and we are confused. Pony should not kill pony."

If only things were quite that simple, I thought; 'pony should not kill pony', as she had so eloquently put it, and yet here we were having done just that. "It was self-defence," I said, which was only true if you ignored Scarlet Letter's horrendous lack of good judgement, but hopefully she didn't know about that. I had neither the time nor the inclination to try to explain to her the whole complicated and messy issue that was the state of the Royal Guard at the time, and the convoluted business with the thankfully deceased failed-officer too. Besides, their friendship had yet to be assured, and I would rather this mare and her tribe continue believing that we Equestrians are the unstoppable bringers of steel and fire, as opposed to desperately trying to patch up our malfunctioning war machine with string and wishful thinking.

"Such a thing was unavoidable," she said with a shrug. "Only a matter of time. You northerners did not once ask when you entered the lands of our ancestors and occupied their towers. We have no love for the Changelings, who hunt our ponies and steal them from us, so we would have freely welcomed you and shared our water. The other tribes are not so understanding."

I snorted and shook my head. As if we needed their permission to enter this land and destroy an existential threat to Equestria? Besides, if they believed that this worthless scrap of territory truly belonged to them then they were sorely mistaken; everywhere and everything the sun touched belonged to Princess Celestia, and likewise all under the cover of night to Princess Luna, and if we allowed these heathens to live in this barren waste free of their duties and obligations to their rightful princesses then it was only by our mercy that they... I halted that train of thought before it could crash into the metaphorical station and ruin everything; it was something my father would have said, the damned bigoted old fool that he was, and I wanted to keep the number of ponies, monsters, creatures, and so forth who want to kill me down to an appropriate minimum. [Blueblood's father's track record as colonial governor, diplomat, and explorer remains tarnished by a number of off-colour remarks he had made in public about every race known to Equestria including other ponies. However, his general lack of interest in the role of parenting and the young Blueblood's tendency to wander off and experience those cultures himself had shielded him from internalising this unfortunate mindset too much, though it appears some of it did seep in. As much as Blueblood was an elitist and a snob, his father was much worse even by the standards of Canterlot high society.]

"I need to find those two ponies," I said, hoping to just get to the bottom of this so I could return and drink myself into oblivion in my office.

"It is as I said, scouts say they walk south toward where the bridge was," said Bitter Salt. "One white in gold metal, the other blue with the many-coloured mane and very loud voice."

So that confirmed my suspicions after all. Rainbow Dash was behind all of this, and when I was through with her I'd have that 'many-coloured mane' sitting in my trophy room at home next to the tail of the manticore my grandfather shot and my twenty-five metre swimming certificate from when I was a colt. That, of course, assumed that I was not too late and there was enough of her left for me to take back.

"They seek the flag that was stolen, yes?" said Bitter Salt, tilting her head to one side in curiosity. "It must be important, this flag. The Rat Pony Tribe have it, and they boast of it constantly when tribe chiefs meet. 'Look how we took the northern foreigner flag,' they say. 'They are not so tough. We can stop them taking our land and enslaving our ponies if we work together'."

Her words hit me like a buck to the face from Applejack's ridiculously well-built older brother, or how I imagined that might feel after once having witnessed him at work in their apple orchard [Blueblood did not visit Ponyville until much later, so he is clearly writing this for dramatic effect and with the benefit of hindsight]; the native pony tribes here united and actively working against us was a terrifying prospect that rapidly turned the contents of my stomach into ice-water. As if the Changelings weren't bad enough, though they had been curiously quiet lately which was very worrying as it implied they were up to something (which later turned out to be correct, but I’m getting ahead of myself), but to have an unknown and hostile population disrupting our war effort would only lead to either a very embarrassing withdrawal for us or the committing of more troops to deal with this new issue. The former was unlikely, as the Royal Guard had been invested in stopping the threat on the southern border for too long to simply give up (though that was my favoured option as it meant going home), but the latter would only result in this already overly-long and drawn-out campaign being made all the more difficult and unpredictable than it truly needed to be.

"They're called the Rat Pony Tribe?" said Cannon Fodder abruptly, snickering a little like a colt who had heard a word he thought sounded funny. In all fairness he had a point, and I wondered who in their right mind would name their tribe that and why weren't they immediately cast out into the desert for even suggesting it. Bitter Salt looked at him as if she had momentarily forgotten he was here until he spoke, which, if one could ignore his persistent and potent body odour, was a rather common occurrence for him. She rolled her eyes and made an odd sort of bobbing motion with her head.

"It sounds better with our words," she said. Cannon Fodder's especially vacant expression implied that he did not believe her. "The tunnels, the ruined city buried in the rock they live in, it puts us all in mind of the little furry creatures that dig in the dirt. They remember what happened more than a thousand years ago, when Equestria drove our ancestors into this land when they did not want to submit to the tyrants of the sun and moon."

"We don't want to make anypony submit," I said softly. "Our fight is with the Changelings who attacked us, not with any of the ponies here. Things have changed in a thousand years."

Bitter Salt fixed me with that scrutinising glare once more, her cold silver eyes, sunken by age into deep, dark sockets that only amplified their penetrating effect, made me shudder involuntarily in spite of the heat. A second later, however, and her expression softened, and she gave a gentle, motherly smile. "I believe your words," she said, "but others will not. A thousand years have passed, but hatred is like a seed. It was planted when Equestria attacked our tribes and drove us from our homelands, and watered with resentment it has been allowed to grow into a tree. Sons and daughters were taught to keep this tree alive, and their sons and daughters, and so on, until everypony acknowledges that this tree has always existed and always will exist."

"But not the Agave tribe?"

She shook her head. "Trade with the north has brought us riches, and we are not so stupid to provoke ponies with steel and fire." Bitter Salt then made a sidelong glance at Chipped Urn, who was pointedly pretending to find a collection of pebbles under the water more interesting than our conversation. "Most of us. Your invasion has made the young ones interested in action and violence. Such things will bring only pain for us all."

It was getting late already, and Shining Armour and Rainbow Dash's lead had been extended greatly by our heading in almost entirely the opposite direction. It would take us hours to get to the site of the battle, assuming that we did not get lost, ambushed, fall into a sinkhole, or get struck by lightning along the way. At that moment it felt like any number of possible things could disrupt our mission, but I still had no idea just how unpleasant the next few days would be for me. Even if we did get there, which was not completely assured due to the aforementioned perils, it would likely be night-time when we arrived and it would be stupid in the extreme to expect to find our two intrepid deserters waiting patiently for us on that large rocky outcropping with a full picnic spread and champagne. One could dream, however, but that hurdle would have to be tackled once we got there.

I was about to thank Bitter Salt for the lesson in Badlands native tribal politics and for pointing us in the right direction, though now I wonder if I might have been spared a great deal of pain and physical scarring if I had gone straight to where the bridge used to be and caught up with the two. Before I could even finish manoeuvring my lips and tongue into the correct position to speak, the elderly mare reared up on her hindlegs and wrapped a foreleg around Chipped Urn's neck. "He will go with you and help."

Chipped Urn boggled at the elderly mare, who dropped back down to all four hooves. He said something in his native language; it was a single word, and the shocked tone of voice, its high pitch, and the speed at which it was delivered left me with absolutely no doubt as to its precise equivalent in Equestrian - "What?"

The stallion received another clip around the ear for his outburst, and lowered his head submissively and rubbed at the much-abused auditory organ with his hoof. Whoever this mare was and her standing in their society, she must have held a great deal of authority within it. My assumption was that she was a tribal elder of some description, and that with the lack of a correctly stratified and hierarchical political system based on hereditary titles and feudal bonds dating back to time immemorial (or should be, if it weren't for those damned democratic reforms, but I'm getting ahead of myself) their leadership structure was probably based upon age and experience. Not a bad system if the problems caused by senility and the need for frequent naps could be circumvented, I suppose.

"Go with the northerners," she snapped, raising her voice an octave or two in urgency. She still spoke Equestrian, apparently for our benefit. "Help them find their friends and get the flag back."

Chipped Urn stared incredulously at the mare, as though she had suddenly grown an extra head which then told him that he was adopted. His wide eyes, pupils shrunk to quivering pinpricks, flicked to me, who watched the two as dispassionately as I could manage despite being just as surprised as he was, and then back again to Bitter Salt. He said something, his voice a little more measured this time though his apparent unhappiness at this unexpected order was demonstrated aptly when he swung his hoof in my direction and gesticulated wildly with it, which had the added effect of splashing water onto the front of my robe. I picked up a few words, and from the context I gathered he was complaining about why they should help the northern tyrants who want to take their land.

"So we don't give them reason to take our land!" she said with an angry snort for emphasis. The young stallion recoiled at the force of her words, the tone of which certainly indicated that she was a mare entirely unused to the concept of being defied. "Imbecile! Think further than your next fight! We show northern ponies we can be friends and they will let us keep our lands. You want to be a stallion? Do this, and your journey will be complete."

I'd considered making an excuse and leaving, as I did not particularly want yet another sulky teenager to foal-sit on our journey through enemy territory, but I would never say no to having an extra body between me and said enemies. The afternoon, however, was making its transition into evening, and the awkward and somewhat embarrassing rumble in my stomach hinted that it was fast approaching dinner time. As the two native ponies stared at each other, apparently waiting for the first to break and admit the other was right in their assessment about whether or not Equestria and I were at all interested in annexing this vast expanse of nothing, my thoughts drifted to what the 1st Solar Guard's officers' mess would be serving - perhaps cauliflower sformato with crispy kale and caramelised pine nuts, or baked mushroom and celeriac torte. All I had to look forward to was another feedbag of oats which would keep me fed and energised for the march ahead, but severely lacked in flavour and emotional nourishment.

The sigh that escaped Chipped Urn's lips like air from a burst tyre brought me back from my reverie of the simple pleasures of complicated recipes. "I will do it," he said, shooting me a glare in the process. He pointed his hoof accusingly at me. "But no tricks."

I guided his hoof back to the ground with my magic, which he initially struggled against but soon accepted - it was good to assert who was really in charge here. "I wouldn't dream of it," I said.

Chipped Urn snorted. "You promise not to take land?"

That decision was hardly mine to make, for if the government of the day decided that it wanted to annex the Badlands and make Equestrian subjects of its equine inhabitants then it could (whether or not it would succeed in that endeavour is another matter entirely), and only a veto from one of the Diarchy could stop it. [My sister and I possessed supreme sovereign power in Equestria, which was delegated to Parliament. Therefore, we had the authority to veto Acts of Parliament, though as a convention we did not exercise that right except in extreme circumstances and if the two of us were in complete agreement.] In the interests of speeding this along as quickly as possible, I said, "You have my word as an officer of the Royal Guard that we will not take your land."

That meaningless statement seemed to mollify him a little, though his hard expression and tense body language certainly revealed that he was not at all happy with this arrangement, and neither was I, in truth, but then it had been a very long time since I had ever been happy. Bitter Salt insisted that we leave immediately, to which I agreed wholeheartedly.

“Thank you for sharing your water with us,” I said, giving a curt bow with a nod of my head. My knowledge of their cultural norms was still rather lacking, but I hoped that improvising a few words of insincere gratitude would at least leave them with a positive impression of me and Equestrians in general. “Our water will be shared with you too.”

That seemed to make Bitter Salt more than happy, and we prepared to leave, though our new guide seemed to complain about not being adequately prepared and something about the jugs of water he was collecting. This argument, like the others that had preceded it, was finished by a few short outbursts from the tribal elder, and soon enough Chipped Urn was grudgingly guiding us south-ish through the hills, his face becoming all the more sour with each dragged step.

The cloud cover had grown denser, and the dimming light of the slowly setting sun trying and failing to pierce through the steel blanket above us had cast a grim and bleak pallor over our surroundings. The omnipresent pale yellows and browns of the hills and plains had turned to grey, as if the colour had been washed out of them, and likewise the greens of the grass and shrubs whose roots were fed by that stream far behind us appeared as if dead or dying. As the sun set, sinking lower and lower with each methodical step, the striking shades of yellow, orange, pink, and purple that usually accompany a sunset here (one of the very few boons of living in this bleak place was observing my aunties' work in raising and lowering their respective celestial objects) failed to materialise, and everything simply became darker and greyer.

Night falls quickly here, and with it the temperature, making this the rare moment I was thankful that the commissar's uniform was made of heavy wool. By the time we had emerged from the hills and into the wastes beyond I thought it far too dark to proceed. Even in these wide open plains the gloom could hold anything from a single Changeling patrol to the entire horde of the bastards. I had a brief mental debate with myself about lighting up my horn, for even my feeble abilities in illumination magic would be visible from miles around. Stumbling awkwardly around in the dark over the rough and pitted ground, the risk of tripping and spraining an ankle, breaking a leg, snapping my neck, or any other unpleasant thing I imagined might happen, soon outweighed the risk of being spotted, and thus I lit my horn with a warm golden glow.

My light, though tiny, seemed to only deepen the darkness around us, though that might have been my imagination. Silhouetted against the deepening night, separated from Luna's moon and her night sky by the clouds that concealed them, the shapes of rolling hills and such on the horizon took on grotesque forms of monsters in my mind; dragons, minotaurs, bugbears, and a few conjured up by my own overactive imagination but nevertheless featured far too many teeth and eyes. The knot of fear and anxiety in my stomach only tightened as our journey continued, until it felt as though I might suddenly erupt into a shrieking and inchoate ball of terror. The feeling of solitude was no longer a comfort as it had been before, but now a very real sense of desolation and loneliness that seemed to strip away the pretences of my image as a stallion of Equestria's social elite and reveal the emptiness within.

I made an attempt to pass the time and relieve my anxiety through idle chit-chat, but Cannon Fodder is hardly a sparkling conversationalist even at the best of times and Chipped Urn proved to be rather incapable of the subtle arts of maintaining a polite conversation. Nevertheless, it was not a total waste, as I did glean a few interesting facts once the well of the old standbys of the weather and good books he might have read recently (he turned out to be illiterate) had run their course. I asked him what Bitter Salt had meant about his 'journey' being complete and becoming a stallion.

"Colts of the tribe must do a great thing before they can become stallions," he said, apparently confirming my suspicions that this was some kind of rite of passage for him.

"And Bitter Salt believes helping us retrieve our missing ponies will count as a 'great thing'?" I said, trying to conceal my sarcasm as best as I could. Fortunately, his inexperience with the Equestrian language meant that he didn't pick up on it.

"Yes," he said flatly. "I do not like northerners, but Bitter Salt is the elder and I do as I am told. I want to be a stallion more than I do not like you."

It was after that I gave up on further attempts of conversation. The itching in my hooves had returned, and it occurred to me then and there that I had been rather too trusting of the very first native ponies I had just met. Then again, what other choice did I have? The weight of the rapier hanging from my waist and Cannon Fodder's distinct bouquet reminding me of his continued, silent presence did reassure me, however, that whatever happened, there was still every chance that through guile or just running as fast as I could in the opposite direction I would make it out alive at the end. I like to think that I have become fairly adept at 'reading' other ponies, which is merely part of the process of covering my various misdeeds, of course, and while Bitter Salt appeared to be earnest in her desire not to provoke the great Equestrian war machine into marching straight into her home and ruining everything as it always does, this stallion was another matter, but I reckoned my dutiful aide and I could tackle him easily if it came to that.

If I had any conception of what would await me there at the site of the former bridge, and just how wildly inaccurate my assessments had been, I would have picked a random direction and just run into the darkness, and likely not stopped until morning came or I collapsed from exhaustion, whichever came first.

After an indeterminate period of time spent walking in near-silence, with only a few aborted attempts at further conversation, I spotted lights in the darkness. Flickering, yellow-orange pinpricks that pierced the gloom; probably campfires and the like. Buoyed by what I hoped signalled the end of our unpleasant trek here we picked up the pace a little, I was deluded enough by hope to think that perhaps it was Shining Armour and Rainbow Dash sitting around a blazing fire, singing obnoxious camp songs and eating those marshmallow things the common ponies rave about, then I can drag them home and be done with this whole silly affair. That thought died quickly, however, when my natural predisposition towards paranoia reasserted itself and I realised that those were more likely to belong to the native ponies here, the Rat Pony Tribe that stole our flag. I hoped they were as amenable to bribery as their name implied, and that the saddlebags full of money, gems, and military-grade steel would be sufficient to at least buy our safety.

As we approached, Chipped Urn trotted off ahead of us. The itching in my hooves grew worse, so I cantered off after him. Cannon Fodder appeared to have picked up the cues that something was amiss and followed behind with his spear readied. The two of us being laden down with supplies meant that by the time we had caught up with our supposed guide he was already conversing with a group of ponies standing by a modest campfire. Five such natives sat or sprawled lazily in a circle, basking in the warmth; sentries, I assumed, for after our last foray here I imagined this tribe would be particularly wary of any further incursion. Behind them was the steep valley, and in the warm glow of the fire I could still make out what was left of the bridge after it had been demolished - a set of supports on either end, and a short length of walkway that ended abruptly into jagged, broken masonry. I suppressed a shudder that was not entirely due to the plummeting temperature when I saw the remnants of my last brush with death.

The five natives rose to their hooves when they saw me, brandishing primitive bronze spears and swords. One, wearing a set of those ubiquitous linen robes, albeit with greater ornamentation in the form of dyes that were once lurid purple but had since faded in the sun, I took to be some sort of leader. He was a unicorn, though rather shorter and stouter than the usual elegant stereotype of our race, but with an angular, cruel sort of face that seemed out of place with his stature. The conversation had stopped, but Chipped Urn helpfully pointed me out to this unicorn, as if I needed to be.

"I come in the spirit of friendship on behalf of the Princesses of Equestria," I said, in Old Equestrian. Hopefully, this chap had some knowledge of our shared ancestral language, and, more importantly, would be amenable to the magic of friendship.

He was not. The moment he slapped my face as if I was a hysterical mare was the moment I'd realised that I had been an exceptional idiot that night, and when his horn had lit up with magic and the earth itself rose up beneath me in great, shuddering jolts that knocked me off my hooves confirmed my suspicions. I called out for my aide over the roar of the rock breaking and moulding itself to the whims of this unicorn, but my companion had unfortunately decided to stand a respectable distance from this little diplomatic tête-à-tête and thus too far for his unique abilities to take full effect, so it was in vain. As I clung to this rising pillar of earth, the force pinning me to the rocky surface and threatening to send the oats I ate for dinner back the way they came, I dared to peer over the edge to see that the others had wrestled Cannon Fodder to the ground, though he gave a fairly good account of himself judging by the one native pony bleeding out on the ground next to him.

I must have been about thirty feet in the air when the rapid ascent of this pillar had ceased. The unicorn mage, for he must have been one to cast geomantic spells of this power, was almost directly below me. If I could aim correctly, I could jump and land directly on top of him and hope that his stocky frame would cushion my landing somewhat, or he would simply step out of the way and I'd dash myself on the ground in a bloody great smear instead. I wasn't about to chance it, and not for the first time I wished that I had paid more attention in magic school and learned how to teleport properly, so thus I clung to the edge. The arrogant smirk on the unicorn's face, however, encouraged me to grab a loose pebble and throw it with as much petulance as possible at him. Whether it struck true or not I couldn't tell, because almost as soon as it left my hoof the pillar beneath me lurched violently.

To my horror, the pillar of rock was crumbling, albeit from the top down. The ground gave way beneath my hooves violently, and sent me tumbling with it. My world was a swirling maelstrom of rock, dry mud, and dust that assaulted my body. I could only flail my hooves in a bid to protect my face and right myself, but trapped in this rockslide I could find no purchase in the rolling mass of earth. My descent slowed, however, the collapse of the pillar no doubt controlled as such by the unicorn so as not to cause me too much damage, before I was dumped unceremoniously and rather painfully atop the pile of smashed debris that remained of the pillar. The bulky contents of the saddlebags I wore jabbed awkwardly into my side where I landed on them.

I wasted no time in clambering to my hooves, despite the pain flaring in my limbs and chest as I did so, and firing a shot in their direction. In fact, so incensed was I at having been assaulted in such a manner I had summoned the energy in my horn and discharged it before I even stood up. The shot missed by quite a wide margin, but a blast of scintillating magic projected at the speed of sound in their general direction was enough to scatter the natives. The missile briefly lit up the area around us, throwing everything into stark relief in the manner of a nearby lightning strike before the darkness of the night reasserted itself. The second shot, more carefully aimed this time, found its mark in the shoulder of one of the native ponies, and he collapsed in a heap like a coat dropped from a peg as this lump of raw magic ripped into his flesh and pulverised his insides. Two down, three more left plus the traitorous blackguard Chipped Urn; I had no idea what he said to them but he must have set them up for this, and by Faust I was going to make him pay.

Drawing my sword in a fluid motion, I charged straight at the unicorn, who had retreated to what he probably assumed was a safe distance. To say that my judgement at that point was clouded by anger would be an understatement, and to say that I was angry at myself for having walked merrily into such an obvious trap even more so. Nevertheless, in spite of the stabs of pain from the multitude of bruises and cuts I had received tumbling down the collapsing pillar of earth, I willed my aching limbs onwards. I could have fled into the Badlands, but the result would have likely been the same, albeit delayed, for this was their territory and it would probably be only a matter of hours before they tracked me down once more. No, there and then, in the few rapid fractions of a second I had to make my choice, I thought that if I could kill the pony I presumed to be their leader then that might induce the others to surrender.

It was not to be, however, as moments after I broke into a gallop with aim to run this unicorn through with my sword before he could use his powerful magic once more, I caught a glimpse of a pair of hooves just before they struck me in the right shoulder. Pain erupted through my body, exacerbated by the blows I had already taken, and the force from the buck sent me tumbling like a ragdoll hurled to the ground. All I could see was a momentary blur of the dusty pale earth and the utter black of the cloud-covered sky, interspersed with the orange glow of the fire. I came to a rest, my head spinning and my entire right side aching terribly, having landed on a particularly bumpy part of the saddlebag, and sharp daggers of pain pierced into my flesh as I struggled to get back to my hooves.

Chipped Urn was standing over me, and the fury inspired by seeing him was sufficient to provide one last burst of energy I needed to stand. Whatever happened, I was determined not to go quietly and that he should suffer in some way for this betrayal. My sword was still wrapped in my telekinetic grip, and without any of the sort of finesse or efficiency of movement my fencing instructor had impressed upon me all those years ago, I thrust it wildly in his direction. The stallion shouted in alarm and stumbled back, raising a hoof to ward off the deadly thrust of the rapier. The blade sunk into his foreleg and he shrieked in pain. I tugged the weapon free, and was rewarded with the sight of blood seeping from the open wound.

The satisfaction I felt in hurting him, potentially killing him if I was lucky enough to nick a particularly vital vein and if their medical science was as primitive as their tribal system implied, was short-lived. Strong hooves forced me to the ground, which I struck snout first, as the other two natives had apparently collected their wits and rushed me. I struggled against them, but it was in vain as they pushed my battered body down into the dirt. In one last attempt to free myself, I dropped the sword and instead drew upon as much magical energy as I could muster, which in truth was not much, but at this range even with my meagre talents in war magic the discharge in the form of a shapeless wall of force would have sent them flying. The pressure in my horn built and built, the soft golden glow of its aura brightening until I could clearly make out the snarling, aggressive expressions on the two ponies holding me down amidst the darkness. They babbled in their language, urgency inflecting the tones of their alien tongue, until one retrieved something from inside his robes.

My head was seized, though I wrenched it back and forth in a vain attempt to free myself. Before I could release the magical energy I had summoned, it all simply evaporated into nothing. The pressure was gone, and with it the ache that comes with drawing upon too much magic too quickly, leaving in its wake a dull sort of numbness. Try as I might, the wellspring of power that always lingered at the edge of a unicorn's senses that I never paid much attention to was gone. It was like being a blind pony groping around for an item that I knew was there, but some malicious individual had placed only just out of reach. The weight upon my horn and the sensation of cool metal upon the bony appendage confirmed my suspicions that they had slipped a null ring upon it.

Rendered powerless, the only thing I could do was shout and curse, but though I loudly promised all kinds of horrific retribution down upon the entire native pony race here that dared to attack me (especially Chipped Urn), such that if my ancestor Coldblood could hear what I said I would do to them even he might consider it to be rather excessive, most of my anger was directed at myself.

How could I have been so stupid? Even now, writing about this with the benefit of a half-century of experience, I can only conclude that I was young and therefore a moron. Yes, my survival instinct had invariably warned me that this was all too good to be true, that I was waltzing proudly into the most obvious of traps that even the most exploitative of all third-rate adventure stories that appear in the cheapest of the pulp fiction magazines would consider to be far too unrealistic. The only possible solution to this conundrum I can think of is that I had not yet learned to trust in those instincts, and that I was so wilfully hopeful that there could be a nice, safe, quick end to the problems that had built up over these past few weeks that I had deluded myself into accepting the first obvious and therefore wrong solution. With all that I had gone through, the universe had still decided that to have just one thing go right for once was too much to ask.

It was over, and the last thing I saw before a rough sack was placed over my head and I was hauled away was Chipped Urn looking on, a pained and somewhat guilty expression on his face that in the flickering light of fire seemed more mocking than it should.