Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Honour and Blood Part 17

It was some time before the hood was finally removed from my head, and considering that the first thing I saw was a disheveled Shining Armour staring back at me, with his mouth hanging open like a goldfish that had caught sight of its owner holding a tin of fish food from beyond the tank, I might have preferred it to remain there. Cannon Fodder and I had been taken, or dragged rather, to a large underground cavern, where a dozen or so ponies, including Shining Armour and Rainbow Dash, rested against the far wall. It was dark, with the only light coming from a few tiny glowing orbs that floated up to the ceiling. The stench inside was appalling even by the standards that I had grown somewhat accustomed to over the course of my military career, especially in close proximity to the unique aroma of my aide. I would find out its source soon, and I certainly wish that I hadn't.

The two native ponies that had 'escorted' me to where I would be living for the duration of my stay here shoved me into a dank little corner of the cavern next to Shining Armour, who looked on incredulously and with his jaw working uselessly in a vain attempt to articulate his surprise. Before I could even stand back up in defiance of the indignities inflicted upon me, not wanting to give my captors the satisfaction of seeing me sprawled on the ground, a crudely-fashioned iron manacle was placed around the fetlock of my left rear leg. An experimental tug resulted in the clinking sound of metal links, which I discovered were secured into the wall behind me with a sort of anchor drilled into the rock. There appeared to be enough slack to allow some limited movement around the cavern, but not nearly enough for me to get to the exit. Sitting awkwardly on my haunches, I inspected the manacle and found that while it appeared to have been cast by a five year old foal with the barest minimum of parental supervision, a lump of metal with a crude, if effective, lock on it was still enough to keep me restrained.

After they had dealt with me, the natives set to work doing the same to Cannon Fodder, who, after that initial explosion of violence, now accepted our capture with his usual admirable stoicism as though he assumed that this was all part of my master plan. In addition to the two who had brought me here, a few more tribesponies stood and threatened the other captives with spears and swords, while that damnable unicorn looked on with a rather grim expression on his face. I caught sight of Chipped Urn standing at the cavern entrance, which was little more than a fairly narrow tunnel, just wide enough for two ponies to stand abreast. I stared at him, and he limped away, unable to meet my accusing gaze. Oh yes, I will have vengeance, just as soon as I worked out how to get out of here.

The natives babbled in their own language, and it appeared to be a different sort of dialect to that spoken by the Agave Tribe members that I had met earlier. Whatever it was that they said, it culminated in an outburst of cruel, mocking laughter. Mercifully, they left us alone without inflicting any further indignities upon me. No, that was to come later. I noted with interest, however, that the entrance into this place, that I now understood to serve as a sort of prison for this tribe, had no door. It was likely that they simply did not have the raw materials to make barred doors, and judging by the roughness of the manacles and chains attached to each of us, my suspicions that quality iron was a luxury here was confirmed. But as I sat there, dejected and wallowing in the misery of my own failure, that one open path remained a tortuous reminder of freedom, taunting me with its apparent closeness, but never to be reached with the chain about my hoof.

"Blueblood?" said Shining Armour, apparently having collected enough of his wits to speak. "What are you doing here?"

He was without his armour, apparently having been taken from him by our captors who would likely prize the beautifully-crafted enchanted steel barding of the Captain of the Royal Guard. He therefore sat before me naked save for a nullifier ring upon his horn. His usually pristine white coat was covered in dust and dirt from the cavern he had been held captive in. Curiously, I noted that they had allowed Cannon Fodder to keep his barding, though I suspected that they were simply afraid of what they might find if they removed it.

"I was looking for you," I said, forcing a smile that definitely did not want to exist on my face. Leaning forward a bit, I could see Rainbow Dash sitting on her haunches next to him, likewise devoid of any armour or clothing, glaring at me angrily and with her forelegs crossed over her barrel. "And Rainbow Dash, too. It looks like I succeeded."

Shining Armour blinked vacantly at me for a few seconds. "Why?" he asked, a hint of venom colouring the tone of his voice.

"The Royal Commissariat takes a dim view of desertion, Shining Armour, and the Captain of the Royal Guard particularly so," I said firmly, letting a little of my anger at being dumped into this situation show. "And I could hardly face Princess Cadence and Lady Twilight Sparkle again if something were to happen to you."

It was downright cynical of me to exploit his loving devotion to his wife and his sister like that, but the sudden waves of shame that overwhelmed the coltish good lucks that my cousin apparently fell for did at least make me feel slightly better about my current predicament. It might have been cold-blooded and manipulative, and I am more than willing to accept those charges, it was about time that this figurehead of the entire Royal Guard considered the consequences of his actions in the longer term than the span of a few hours or days at most. If I had to feel like my life was falling apart in my hooves as a result of his mistakes, then I was damned if I was going to be the only one. He looked as though he was about to say something, probably apologise judging by the wetness that appeared at the edge of his blue eyes, when Rainbow Dash interrupted him with her usual lack of manners and tact.

"Hey!" she shouted suddenly, probably loud enough to alert the entire tribe. She darted around Shining Armour to face me, or as much as the chain would allow as she strained against it to get closer. "That was uncalled for! You just wanted to sit on your posh, fat flank and do nothing while these ponies have our flag! When some ponies take something important that belongs to you and kills your friends doing it, you don't just accept it, you get over there and make them pay."

I snorted and shook my head, still overwhelmed by her utter arrogance in her belief that she knew better than me or any other officer of the Royal Guard. Somehow, despite being beaten and locked up she still believed that she was in the right here. "And look where that got you and your best friend's brother," I snapped at her. "You rushed in without thinking, just like before, and ruined everything."

"It's still better than doing nothing about it," she barked back. I could see her straining at the chain around her leg like a leashed dog trying desperately to bite at something held just out of reach. Trim, corded muscle strained under sleek, sweat-soaked blue fur in what seemed to be an earnest attempt to break out of her restraint, just so she could get close enough to give me the beating she believed I deserved. Given her physical strength and athleticism, she might actually accomplish both of those things relatively soon.

She continued her rant, angrily pointing at me with a grubby hoof that was in sore need of a hooficure. "When Nightmare Moon captured Princess Celestia and tried to bring about eternal night, did we just lie down and accept it? No! We went into the Everfree Forest and rescued her and Princess Luna. When Discord turned Ponyville into the chaos capital of the world, we didn't just give up at the first sign of trouble. Well, we kind of did, actually, now that I think about it. But we still came through for each other in the end and won."

I let her finish her screed, arching an eyebrow in an affected air of superiority as I did so, as if what she said was somehow beneath my notice. One of the things that one learns growing up as an aristocrat, in addition to how to hold a knife and fork correctly and the correct glasses to decant alcoholic beverages into, is how to put lesser ponies in their place, and that can be just as effectively accomplished with merely a certain look as much as words, or more so perhaps. Conveyed appropriately with sufficient regal bearing, of course, even the most belligerent trade unionist would be reminded of their lowly position on Equestria's great societal ladder. I fear, however, in my bruised, battered, and unwashed state at the time I probably looked rather more constipated than dignified.

"It's not the same," I said, ignoring the complaints in my many bruises as I rose to my hooves. Towering over most ponies as I do generally tends to help, but this was a mare who had faced the literal nightmare of one of the most powerful ponies in existence made flesh, the most feared tyrant in all of recorded history, Nightmare Moon, and had beaten her. She merely stared back, still tugging at her chain; perhaps if I made her angry enough, she might actually succeed in breaking the relatively flimsy iron...

"How is it 'not the same'?" she said, her lips curled back in a rather animalistic snarl. "The way the soldiers talk about you, you're supposed to be some kind of war hero. You saved Rarity and Cadence, you won the Battle of Black Venom Pass and the siege of the fort, so what in the hay happened to you?"

I could tell her precisely what happened; I was merely in the wrong place at the right time, which happened to be rather crucial and violent events that invariably had an impact in what would later be termed 'history', whilst being just conspicuous enough for eye-witnesses to apportion undue credit to me. Everypony who might say otherwise being dead or in no condition to speak certainly helped with that, too. Besides, soldiers' gossip is almost always exaggerated, and more so with each and every new telling, to the point that if you asked a common guardspony about my alleged rescue of Princess Luna from Queen Chrysalis, they might tell you it was I who summoned the pillar of fire from the heavens that scourged the Changeling horde from the face of Equus.

"You make it sound as though I did those things alone," I said, shaking my head. As ever, with the ease of the practiced dissembler I merely spoke the truth, cleansed of a few unfortunate details and clothed in the finery of false modesty, which would only add further credence to my entirely fraudulent reputation for personal heroics. "I had some very good soldiers with me, some of whom didn't make it, and you insult their memory by implying those victories only belong to me. I did my duty, Rainbow Dash, and if my example encouraged others to fight all the harder for the Princesses then that is the only credit I can accept. Rushing off without support, without orders, without a plan is just stupidity."

Rainbow Dash did have the presence of mind to look a little chastened, but her youthful over-confidence soon re-asserted itself. "You mean, what you just did right now. Which is why you're locked up here with us."

Well, she got me there, I have to admit, and I was struggling in my exhausted state to come up with a good retort. Fortunately for me, it was Shining Armour who spared me the indignity of having to admit that I too had done something monumentally stupid (though if I must be completely honest, for honesty is the whole point of this little writing exercise, repeating another pony's ill-conceived and obviously wrong decision, with the full knowledge that it would likely result in utter failure, ranked even higher on the idiocy scale). He rose to his hooves, revealing in the dim light a rather nasty-looking set of bruises and a few cuts that he must have suffered in his capture, and positioned himself between the two of us.

"That's enough from both of you," he said firmly, using that same 'assertive kindness', as I have come to call it, that he used when admonishing enlisted ponies for minor misdemeanours. He looked to me, then Rainbow Dash, and stepped back to address the both of us: "We're in this mess together. We can bicker about whose fault it is when we get out, and I promise everypony here that we will. But until we do, the least we can do is avoid making our stay here any worse than it has to be. Understood?"

Damn him for being right, as usual. I suppose it was that ability to remain relatively calm, level-headed, and optimistic to the point of an almost blind hopefulness, which most find endearing but I find irritating, that earned him his appointment as Captain of the Royal Guard.

"You're quite right, I'm sorry," I said, and Shining Armour's eyes bugged so hard that I feared they might fall out of their sockets. It must have been the first time he heard me apologise, and come to think of it, it had been rather a long time since I've had to do that to anypony. The apology was not entirely sincere, as nothing would have made me feel better about myself than verbally beating Rainbow Dash into submission, but the wall of her stubbornness had, over the course of the past few weeks, revealed itself to be utterly impregnable, so I had to concede that continuing to argue would have been ultimately fruitless. At the very least I could feel a tiny amount of pride, like a flickering candle amidst the all-consuming darkness, that I had been the first to say the single most difficult phrase in the Equestrian language aside from 'I love you' and 'we have run out of wine'.

Rainbow Dash mumbled an apology and went back to sulking. She stared up at a spot in the ceiling, and following her gaze, after she gave me a venomous glare when she caught me staring, I saw a thin shaft of hazy light that emanated like a beam from a tiny hole drilled into the rock. It was a ventilation shaft, I assumed, but from her position, angling her head in a certain way, it might have been possible to see the sky, though it must have still been as dark and bleak as only an overcast night can be. At least our captors were kind enough to ensure that we don't suffocate down here. [Though it appears to still be nighttime, Blueblood mentions a shaft of light. It is likely that this came from an additional light source like a campfire near enough to the ventilation hole on the surface, or even one of the aforementioned glowing orbs inside what might have been an intricate system of air ducts that serviced the entire tribe in the caves]

I looked to the other ponies held captive with us in this cavern. That corner where they sat huddled was therefore a riot of pastel-coloured fur and manes, and a dazzling mosaic of cutie marks ranging from a hoofball to a chess piece to an orchid flower. Most of them were earth ponies, as far as I could tell, with the occasional unicorn and pegasus amongst them too. One or two looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place where I might have seen them before.

"What about them?" I asked Shining Armour, nodding towards the huddled mass of ponies.

Shining Armour glanced behind him, and then looked back to me. "They're from the 1st Solar Guard," he said. "It looks like we weren't the first to come up with this idea."

The deserters that I had overheard General McBridle speaking about earlier, I assumed. So that made three groups of ponies who tried to do exactly the same thing with exactly the same consequences. Perhaps, therefore, there was merely something wrong with ponykind in general, I thought, but kept that to myself. I watched as one of their number, a pegasus stallion with a pale, sky-blue coat and a cutie mark that resembled a spinning tornado, stood up, his chain jangling loudly as he did so, and trotted on over as far as his restraint would allow him to. He stopped when he reached that limit, snapped to attention with the sort of parade ground efficiency that could only have come from a pony who spent the bulk of his adult life in the Royal Guard, and saluted with likewise alacrity.

"Corporal Slipstream, sir!" he barked with a martial stomp of his hoof, as though he was practicing drill back in the Canterlot and not shackled up in a dingy cave in the middle of bloody nowhere.

I arched an eyebrow, not bothering to return the salute. NCOs were supposed to know better, being the conduit through which the authority of the commissioned officer flowed to the great unwashed mass of enlisted soldiers. "Care to explain why you and your friends here decided to go absent without leave?" I asked, sweeping my hoof in direction of said ponies huddled together.

[There is a technical distinction between desertion and absence without leave; with the former the offending servicepony has no intention of returning to the unit, but with the latter they plan to rejoin at a later date. Blueblood appears to use the two terms interchangeably, and we can assume that he was either ignorant of the difference or didn't care to learn.]

Slipstream frowned and tilted his head to one side like a puppy confused about something odd its owner had just done, which I suppose was rather apt when one considers the rather complex relationship between an officer and a private soldier. There was a few seconds delay, as I could see in the subtle movements of the muscles in his brow and cheeks reflecting his very careful consideration of the right sort of answer that would result in the least amount of trouble for him. Yet again, it was another common peculiarity that I had noted in speaking with any common guardspony from any regiment; that expression of vague puzzlement and subtle anxiety, and sometimes terror depending on the exact circumstances, which perfectly illustrated the insurmountable differences in social class between us. Only Shining Armour seemed to be immune to that sort of thing, in my personal experience.

"Same reason as you, sir," he said, having selected what he thought might be the safest option. "We just had to get the Colours back. They jumped on us as we marched here, and took our weapons and armour and shoved us all in here."

"And throw away your careers and potentially your lives in the process?" I said; the exhaustion that sapped the energy from my body and dulled my brain was making me more irritable than usual, or had rather broken my capacity to hold back my annoyance at the series of bad decisions that had led to it in the first place.

"Wouldn't you, sir? If you were one of us?"

Of course I bloody wouldn't; I liked to think that I had more sense than that, even if I was a commoner, but nevertheless here I was, trapped inside a dingy, stinking cavern with a rusty chain around my hoof. I had gone ahead and done it anyway, and I had been mentally kicking myself for it ever since. It was all their fault for me being in this mess in the first place, and that moment in time, looking between this pegasus sergeant and Shining Armour, who stared back with a studied expression of quiet interest in my answer, I thought that facing an angry and upset Cadence might have been a better option for me than trying to rescue her husband. I couldn't say any of this, of course, my undeserved reputation for heroics and, let's face it at this point, base competence, had its benefits but required a consistent level of maintenance with careful words.

"You're right," I lied, "I would have."

It was not the Royal Standard itself that really mattered, it was what it represented. This ancient, moth-eaten, faded sheet of cloth attached to a pointy stick was more than just that; for them it did not just embody the spirits that propelled our nation to greatness, it truly was Equestria, the Princesses, harmony, and friendship for these soldiers, who were all expected to fight and die for those vague concepts. Such symbolism, calculated and cynical in the extreme, was how we, by which I mean officers in general, motivate the ponies under our command to do these things against their best personal interest.

"Look," said Shining Armour, his voice now softer and taking a more conciliatory tone, "we're all tired and angry. It's getting late. We should all get some rest and we can figure out what to do in the morning."

I had to concede that he was right, again, in spite of how those words seemed to clog in my throat when I said it. Resting on my belly, watching the cavern entrance warily in case those natives returned to torment me further, an expectant and tense sort of hush descended. Out of the corner of my eye I would spot a soldier or Rainbow Dash staring at me, usually with expressions of quiet awe or confusion from the former and utter venom from the latter, but they would quickly look away when I turned my head to face them. There was mercifully no further attempt at small talk, at least as far as I was concerned, but the huddled troops would engage in short, whispered conversations about topics I could only guess at.

An attempt to remove the nullifier ring on my horn by trying to pull it off with my hooves revealed that it was completely stuck, as if it had somehow fused with the bony structure. I had thought it was too good to be true that our captors would allow us the full use of our forehooves to pluck off the hateful device, but I was unfamiliar with these unicorn-restraining devices and so that little spark of hope died rapidly. Examining the one on Shining Armour's horn, which I had to do without appearing to be staring invasively at him, I found they were large, crude devices imprinted with a particular set of symbols - a mountain rising out of the earth, a desert flower, a watering can, and a club. I could only guess as to their meaning, but after some thought I decided they were likely the cutie marks of the ponies who could remove them. Whatever it was, both the rings and that unicorn's prowess with manipulating the very earth beneath his hooves implied a certain affinity with the magical arts that neither I nor military 'intelligence' had anticipated.

My watch had stopped some time ago, so I did not know how long I had been there, but after a while I became aware that I needed to engage in that unpleasant activity common to all ponies regardless of status and wealth - using the bathroom (though I'm not sure alicorn princesses do, as I've never been brave enough to ask. I suppose all the cake that Celestia consumes has to go somewhere.) [We do.] When I discreetly asked Shining Armour where the latrine is, he pulled a face and pointed at a large hole in the floor that I hadn't noticed before. So, that was the source of the foul stench that pervaded this room. I could only imagine I didn't see it because my subconscious had blocked it out to spare me the indignity of how my imprisonment here would get far, far worse. You, dear reader, will be thankful that I will likewise spare you the details of the unpleasant and embarrassing business that followed.

Soldiers develop a preternatural ability to fall asleep just about anywhere, no matter how inhospitable, and almost at will. With a job that consisted of both strenuous manual labour and indescribable tedium, coupled with the ever-present threat of an officer with a desire to plaster as many bits of shiny metal and ribbon on his chest sending them off into battle with barely a moment of warning, it is not surprising that they learn to do this out of sheer necessity. It is with some personal irritation that I never acquired this to the same degree, though it might have something to do with the fact I never truly thought of myself as being a soldier. In spite of my inability to sleep, lying on my back and staring up at the ceiling, with my commissar uniform bundled up under my head to serve as an impromptu pillow, at least allowed me the time and space to think things through.

I was alive, and I held onto that one little fact like a foal's security blanket; it meant that on some fundamental level, for as long as my lungs drew breath and my mind could still scheme, then I could get out of this sorry state. This so-called Rat Pony Tribe had seen fit to keep me a prisoner, despite my aide and I having killed two of them in our capture, and our army an indeterminate number in self-defence much earlier, so I came to the conclusion that they must want us alive for some reason. It was more than likely that they had recognised me as somepony very important, no doubt marked out by the ridiculous uniform that Princess Luna had forced me to wear, which was forever a signal to every enemy of Equestria that I had to be killed very quickly. Therefore, I could safely assume they wanted to hold me captive, presumably to ransom back to the Royal Guard in exchange for something they wanted - bits, gems, steel, a promise to leave them alone, or some other such rot. All of that meant they had to keep me both alive and in relatively good health for their plan, whatever it might be, to work. I was, however, under no illusion that my happiness would be very low on their list of priorities, which was confirmed by the distinctly unpleasant conditions they kept me in, but at the very least I could draw some measure of comfort from this realisation.

That, as far as I could see it, left me with two options - sit around and wait for the Royal Guard to do something to secure our release, which, given the state of military at the time I wasn't too confident about; or try to escape myself, and while I did have a number of trained guardsponies, the Captain of the Royal Guard, and bearer of an Element of Harmony at my disposal, I still needed an opportunity to do so. I decided that the best course of action was to do both; we wait patiently for rescue or release, but if the chance for escape presented itself and the risk to my personal health not too great, then we would take it. There was also the possibility that Twilight Sparkle and the other Elements could mount their own rescue, but that would have been far too embarrassing a concept for me to contemplate.

Sleep did come eventually in short fits and starts, such that if it wasn't for a rather unpleasant nightmare featuring a demonic version of Princess Luna manipulating a cemetery filled with headstones via thin strings attached to her hooves, like a grotesque puppet master, I might not have been sure I got any sleep at all. My darker auntie must have been busier with more deserving sufferers that night, which on reflection was a good thing considering how upset she might have been if she saw that my subconscious still viewed her as some kind of monster.

Shining Armour was known for his fairness and his gently-firm approach to enforcing discipline in the ranks, but like everypony in the world he had his limits. The first was making Twilight Sparkle upset, which I found to my very painful detriment when I was a younger teenager; the second was making Cadence upset, which Twilight Sparkle herself discovered when said spouse was impersonated by Chrysalis; and the third I discovered when I was rudely awoken from my shallow, restless sleep by the sound of him shouting.

"Inside the hole, Prize Orchid, not next to it! For pony's sake, how do you expect to be promoted to the sharpshooter platoon with aim that bad?"

There would be no indulgence of my favourite game of 'pretend I'm not really here' that morning; the rude outburst from Shining Armour coupled with that ungodly stench and the roughness of the solid rock beneath me had ruined the potential for any fantasy I might have of being elsewhere. I struggled up to my hooves, finding the night spent lying on the ground in the cavern had not done any of my bruises any good, as dull stabs of pain accompanied almost every movement. Sitting on my haunches and taking in the thoroughly depressing view of the cavern before me, I made a show of yawning and stretching my limbs with a satisfying crack of joints.

"Good morning," I said, keeping my voice quietly optimistic but not so much that it would become irritating to everypony's increasingly frayed nerves.

The response from everypony was muted and despondent, as expected; a mere collective groan that might have sounded like 'good morning' as spoken underwater. It was clear that nopony was in the mood for small talk, which suited me just fine, really, as useless, empty chatter would have only grated on my slowly collapsing sanity. I was, however, eager to discuss our escape, but held back on that on account of not wanting to be overheard by any sentries that might be posted along the tunnel.

Rainbow Dash apparently hadn't picked up on the need for secrecy in planning an escape, or much else of what's going on around her for that matter, for the moment she saw me wake up she blurted out: "So, fearless leader, what's the plan now?" Her voice was soaked in enough sarcasm to float a battleship made out of pure spite. She even pulled on her chain, making the links clink noisily, to emphasise her point, as if somehow I was to blame for this.

I could have responded with something trite like 'getting out of here', which I expect is what she probably thought a noble 'hero' like me might say in a situation like this. The alternative was to tell her to shut up, but with the tendrils of a bad night's sleep still gripping firmly around my brain and fogging my thoughts I did not particularly feel like getting into the argument that the damned mare was trying to goad me into.

"Lord Captain?" I said, keeping my voice to a quiet hush. Shining Armour looked up from his contemplation of the floor by his hooves and swiveled his head to face me. "What are your orders?"

I wasn't really looking for his opinion, but I needed everypony here to remain positive and alert if they were going to get me out of this mess. After having berated him the night before, I felt his morale could stand to be boosted a little by allowing him to return to his former respected position as an officer of the Royal Guard. That was ultimately the whole point of a commissar, as decades later I try to explain to the new cadets in the Academy, not to order or force others, but to gently guide them to the right decision. If they felt as though they came to it themselves then so much the better.

"We watch and we wait," he said, whispering too. He gave me an expectant look, as if waiting for my approval, which I gave with a polite nod of my head. "Pass it down the line to everypony - observe everything our captors do and report back to Commissar Prince Blueblood and me. Then we can come up with a plan to get us out of here."

Perfect. And it seemed to mollify Rainbow Dash a little too. If anything, now that we had a relatively clear enough direction, the captured Equestrian troops seemed to perk up at the 'orders' from their officer. To do nothing was the root of many disciplinary problems within the Royal Guard, but when given an achievable goal to work towards and something resembling a method to get there, then that same energy that would have been wasted sulking and complaining could be put to something far more productive. Keeping me alive, in this case.

It was some time before our captors made another appearance. Half a dozen wretched-looking ponies clothed in dirty rags were marched in under armed guard, and I watched with an air of affected mild curiosity as they split into two groups. The first emptied bags of limp hay in front of each of us, while the second had the rather less enviable task of emptying the latrine hole with primitive shovels for one reason or another [My guess would be for use as fertiliser, given the poor quality of the soil in the Badlands]. Either way, it was all terribly unhygienic and rather put me off this breakfast. I was, however, amused when Shining Armour sincerely thanked the individual who had deposited his meal before his hooves, though he didn't touch it.

They were all silent as they worked, with their heads bowed and not daring to make eye contact even with us, and all the while they were subjected to jeers and taunts from the guards, whose mocking words required no translation into Equestrian to understand their meaning. I saw one such servile taking a little too long in dumping a pile of hay in front of Corporal Slipstream, apparently taking care to keep the food, such as it was, as far away from the latrine pit as possible. His initiative was rewarded with a snarling insult and a rude poke in the rump with the business end of a blunt spear, which drew a trickle of blood to mar an otherwise elegant cutie mark depicting a candle.

Rainbow Dash shot to her hooves when she saw it, wings erect again, apparently incensed at the mistreatment of others going on. The guards looked at her, laughed, but otherwise ignored her, and she slunk back to sit on her haunches in mild embarrassment.

"Slaves?" I posited. I would not put it past these savages to still employ that thoroughly barbaric practice, whereby ponies are bought and sold as mere property.

"Looks like it," said Cannon Fodder, munching on the hay in a manner that did further harm to my weakened appetite. "Poor guys."

I could only agree with my aide as I watched the second group carry out their unpleasant, disgusting task in carrying the effluent away in buckets. It was over quickly, which was some small mercy, but that only marked the start of the humiliations that were about to be inflicted upon me. The slaves slipped out of the cavern at the barked, guttural commands of their masters, who, after having lost their usual source of amusement in abusing the slaves, decided to turn their attention towards us instead.

The guards took up positions around the cavern, menacing us with threatening, albeit clumsy, jabs of their spears. I noticed that the trained and professional guardsponies did not seem to be overly bothered by what they must have seen as very amateur spear-drill, and most carried on either eating their impromptu breakfast, chatting with one another, or otherwise ignoring the natives. The rather blunt and rusty tips did not look as though they would cause much damage on their own, let alone penetrate Royal Guard steel armour, but the possibility of suffering some kind of infection as a result was ever present. A couple of the natives approached me; one held a spear threateningly at my neck while the other unlocked the chain around my hoof. A slap on the rear, which otherwise would have resulted in the blackguard being challenged to a duel he would most definitely lose were we back in civilised Equestria, motivated me to move forwards and follow the guards out of the cavern and into the tunnels.

"There's no need for any of that," I said, amicably enough despite wishing I had a glove on hoof to slap him with. He probably didn't understand me, judging by the vacant expression on his face. "I'm coming along quietly."

Quite why they picked on me I wasn't sure, but I imagined that my regal bearing, unique white fur, and above average height might have marked me out as a pony deserving very special abuse. As it happened, I was wrong on that account, but as I was marched down the tunnels, occasionally shoved and pushed by the guard behind me, it was somewhat reassuring to feel as though I still hadn't lost that special something that marked me out as a stallion of noble heritage.

The tunnels themselves were roughly hewn, and even I, not an expert in such things, could discern the marks in the walls from the tools used to carve this out of the earth. They were quite wide, though the actual width varied from approximately three ponies broad to large enough to host a modest military parade. Illumination was provided by more of these small glowing orbs, some of which floated aimlessly above our heads while others were fixed into place in crude sconces.

I passed a number of other caverns along the way to wherever it was I was being taken to, each containing scenes that I would describe as strikingly normal; one looked to be some kind of school where bored foals were lectured on something or other by an uninterested teacher, another had mares weaving thin cloth, one just seemed to be a space to socialise as native tribesponies sat around within and chatted amicably with one another, and so on. This must have been an entire city underground, sheltered from the merciless heat of Celestia's sun and the predatory Changelings above.

Our path sloped downwards, and my preternatural sense of direction informed me that I was being led down a spiral path that descended a considerable distance below. The background noise of the underground city died away, and the claustrophobic silence, broken only by the sounds of our hooves on the stone and the terse, clipped conversation from my escorts, descended like a fog. Further along, I could discern the sound of metal striking stone, which to me sounded rather like champagne flutes being clinked over and over. With each step this noise grew and multiplied into a cacophony that filled the pit of my empty stomach with a sense of cold dread, and my mind with all kinds of interminable horrors that could await me at the end.

Eventually, I reached my destination after what felt like an interminable amount of walking. My legs and hooves were already aching. I had been led to a cavern that was much larger than the one I had spent the night in, and it was filled with ponies of all colours and races labouring away in a variety of activities that I assumed was related to the business of mining. Such things are not obviously apparent to one such as I who has never lifted a hoof in manual labour in his life, but I made an educated guess based on things that I had overheard the Trottingham soldiers discussing. [The northern, midland, and Bales provinces of the Griffish Isles had a significant mining industry, especially in coal, iron, and tin, until the pits closed. Many of the soldiers in the 1st Night Guards would have had some link to the mines.] At the far end, ponies chipped away at the rock wall with a variety of tools that resembled pickaxes, while others gathered up the broken stone and ore to pile them into crude wagons to be dragged away somewhere. All of this took place under the supervision of more guards armed with spears, who observed their charges with a sense of casual laziness that implied to me that the propensity for slaves to revolt, common amongst all such primitive cultures that engage in this debased practice, was rather low.

I didn't have time to dwell on this, unfortunately, and neither to take in the full vista of industry that stretched out before me. Manual labour, working with my hooves; it was far worse than anything I could have ever conceived of. My escorts guided me, well, pushed and shoved I suppose is a better description, over to the far wall, weaving around the other working ponies along the way. There, facing the vast edifice of chipped and cracked stone, I was shackled to a single length of chain that bound all engaged in the onerous and infamously back-breaking job of breaking rock. A pickaxe, which is a grandiose term for what was effectively a length of wood the approximate size and girth of a pegasus' foreleg with a blunt chunk of metal embedded in one end, was thrust into my hooves. I looked at it, affecting an expression of quiet amusement in spite of the sickening fear that was still writhing in my gut.

"Just what do you propose I do with this?" I said, waving the crude implement as though I had no idea as to its true purpose.

Only one guard remained to supervise me, apparently having drawn the shortest straw while the others found something else to do. A short, thin earth pony with a blunt muzzle and wide, open eyes - he could only have been a teenager - stared up at me with an expression that belied a certain amount of trepidation. I decided to have some fun with him, and out of a sense of aristocratic arrogance I was going to make damned sure that his time with Yours Truly was going to be a struggle. On a more productive level, in accordance with Shining Armour's scheme, it would be good to test how far these natives would go in enforcing discipline.

The guard pointed at the wall next to me, and then mimed the action of striking the pick into it with a hoof. "Dig," he said, in blunt, accented Equestrian.

"You're kidding," I said. "You're kidding, right? Do you know who I am?" Under normal circumstances I absolutely despise that phrase; if a pony is important enough for others to recognise them on sight then those six little words are entirely unnecessary. In this case, however, it was certain that he had absolutely no idea with whom he was dealing, but I was determined to defy my captors in as many small, petty, and annoying ways as possible until I could escape.

"You are slave," he said, grinning to reveal a row of yellowed teeth that made me blanch at the sight of them. It looks like he understood Equestrian rather more than he initially let on, and he had evidently realised that I was mocking him. I was rewarded with a rather rude shove in the direction of the wall, followed by an aggressive wave of his spear in my direction. "Dig!"

A small crowd of other guards and even a few of the slaves gathered around us to watch my petty act of minor rebellion. Among their number I saw a vision; a unicorn mare of uncommon beauty who stood apart from the unwashed slaves and ill-mannered guards. Her slim, sensuous frame, though plump in the right places, was accentuated by a delicately thin, gauzy cloth draped over her curves. Her coat was a dusky brown colour and her mane black, which made the desert flower cutie mark on her pert rump and her striking magenta eyes stand out all the more. Put her in a nice dress and a chapeau and she would not have looked too out of place at the Grand Galloping Gala. Those eyes locked onto mine, and our gaze held across the gulf between us, before she broke off and turned to the filly attending by her side. Amidst the slightly quietened sound of the mining operation around us, I could make out a few words in their native tongue - "I want that one."

It's never a good sign when anypony says that about anypony else. She must have been their equivalent of a noblepony, I assumed, eyeing up a rather attractive new slave to take away for some depraved activities later. Nevertheless, I decided that I would have to deal with that later, whatever it was. One thing at a time, I reminded myself, and that was engaging in the noble and ancient art of shirking one's duties - an activity I had all but perfected in high school.

"Manners cost nothing, you know," I said to the guard, affecting the most sickly sweet and condescending voice I could manage (which is considerable with the benefit of years of elocution lessons from a very young age). I turned to face the wall, and with pick in hoof I started to half-heartedly chip away at the rock without any clear indication of what I was supposed to accomplish - was I looking for ore or helping them build an extension? All the while, I could feel that mare's hungry gaze on my flanks as I 'worked'.

So maybe that's what being leered at feels like.