If there’s one thing that the Royal Guard does extremely well, and it is the only thing mind you, it’s putting on a show. The 1st Solar Guard arrived in style, marching down the main thoroughfare of Dodge Junction with all the pomp and grandeur as if they were parading through the wide streets of Canterlot.
I had joined Field Marshal Iron Hoof, General Crimson Arrow, and the senior officers of Army Group Centre in front of the town hall/general headquarters as the Regiment paraded past us. Approximately nine hundred ponies, their coats pure alabaster white and their golden armour gleaming in the bright noon sun, marched past us.
The procession was lead by the regiment’s ensigns; the lowest of the commissioned ranks and given the honour of carrying the regimental banners, thus making them excellent targets. At the head was the flag of Equestria itself, which displayed a stylised Princess Celestia and Princess Luna chasing one another around a sun and moon. The cerulean banner was the largest one carried and it fluttered proudly in the quiet midday breeze. As the most prestigious regiment in the Royal Guard they were allowed to carry the flag of the kingdom into battle, symbolising the unconquerable spirit of Equestria or something to that effect.
The banner of the regiment was carried just behind the first one; it bore the device of the blazing sun cradled in a crescent moon fixed upon a white kite shield which was upon a field of crimson red looking much like the colour of dried blood. Stitched upon the flag were many scraps of parchment, upon which the many battle honours of the regiment were scrawled upon in fading ancient ink. To read the names on the flag was to read of the greatest battles in Equestrian history that have ensured the survival of our great nation and its dominance upon the world: Ghastly Gorge, Canterlot, Gryphonburg, Horse’s Drift, Hollow Shades, Canterlot again, and dozens of other words that would make Twilight Sparkle squeal with excitement and dash to the library for a forty-eight hour history-studying binge. The regiment’s motto, ‘Solaris Irati’ [Fury of the Sun], was emblazoned around the sun/moon device.
I had carried that same banner four years ago, upon purchasing my commission after completing basic training. My ‘official’ autobiography goes on at length at how much of an honour it was to carry the very symbol of the prestige of the regiment, to the extent that this single entry takes up an entire chapter, but in all actuality all I can remember was how monstrously heavy that damned, infernal flag was.
Behind him still were two more ensigns who carried long pennants that bore the cutie marks of former Captains of the Guard, some of which were thousands of years old and dated back to the first founding of Equestria when the Royal Guard was established by Commander Hurricane. Captain Shining Armour’s kite shield cutie mark was the latest addition to the banner. [It should be noted that the 1st Solar Guard has a rather unique rank structure. While it clearly follows that of the rest of the Royal Guard, the commander of the regiment, normally known as a Colonel in other regiments, is called the ‘Captain of the Guard’. This represents his unique status as not only commander of the regiment but also the ceremonial commander-in-chief of the Royal Guard and head of my personal bodyguard. The Changeling Wars represents one of the very few times that the Captain of the Guard left my side and led the regiment into battle. This little fact tends to confuse popular historians and armchair generals.]
Behind them was the regimental band, the 1st Solar Guard being one of the few regiments considered important enough to have one. Two dozen stallions from all three pony races performed a rousing rendition of ‘Rule Equestria’ on a wide assortment of brass instruments. Well, they didn’t so much perform the song as much butcher it utterly but they made up for their lack of musical skill with sheer exuberance, much like how most of the Royal Guard does everything else actually.
The soldiers marched on past us. In a large city like Canterlot such an event would have been greeted by packed crowds waving little Equestrian flags and singing ‘Faust Save The Princesses’. Here, however, the population was barely in triple figures and the majority of them were out working the cherry fields, enjoying a hoe-down, fornicating with relatives, or whatever it is these rural inbred folk do for fun. There were only about half a dozen tired looking militia ponies watching how the real soldiers do their work, before they apparently got bored and wandered off to do something else. They probably had an all-important barn full of cherries to guard.
The procession halted and thankfully so did the music. Shining Armour, looking resplendent in his imperial purple armour with gold highlights, stepped out from the formation with his Major and two Captains in tow behind him. He marched towards, halted, snapped to attention, and saluted us.
“’Celestia’s Own’ is reporting for duty, Field Marshal!” said Shining Armour with his usual youthful enthusiasm.
He was a stallion roughly my age, though probably a few months younger than me, but he often acted like he was in his late teens. Being Canterlot’s resident pretty boy it was only natural he became the poster child for the Royal Guard, at least until I came along and supplanted him as the face on the recruitment posters.
Quite how this young commoner was hoof-picked by Celestia herself to command the most prestigious and elite of regiments in the Royal Guard was beyond my reckoning, far be it from me to doubt Auntie ‘Tia’s judgement but he was hardly officer material. [Naturally it hadn’t occurred to Blueblood that I selected Shining Armour purely on his merits as a commander and not because I gave a distant ancestor of his a scrap of land to own.] Granted he had married his way into royalty, earning himself the title of prince but never actually using it, and his younger sister was Celestia’s favoured personal protégé, but as far as I was concerned a commoner was always a commoner. The fact that we regularly got into schoolyard fights when we were just colts might have shaped some of my resentment towards him, as well as the fact he made off with my regal cousin. This, of course, was before I discovered that he more than earned his commission and status, and before that fracas with the Crystal Empire. [I would hardly call what happened with the Crystal Empire a mere ‘fracas’.]
Field Marshal Iron Hoof saluted in response. “Welcome to Dodge Junction, Captain,” he said with little to no inflection.
“Indeed!” said Crimson Arrow exuberantly, stepping forward to shake Shining Armour’s hoof. “We’ve been waiting so long for you, can’t get this show started without my old regiment, eh?”
“So sorry to have kept you all waiting then!” replied Shining Armour, grinning widely. “We had some trouble with Changelings in Canterlot before mobilisation. Blueblood sorted it all out for us, didn’t you?”
He suddenly fixed me with an oddly ambivalent expression on his face. I couldn’t blame him, however, as on the one hoof I was once the colt who mercilessly picked on his beloved younger sister to the point of tears, while on the other hoof I had accidently saved his wife. Hopefully he would remember the ‘saving his wife’ part more.
“I just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time,” I said, telling the truth for a change though not mentioning the part when I ran away to save my own skin; that would not look good in front of all of the guardsponies and officers. “How is my cousin doing? Is she taller than you yet?”
The Captain of the Guard snickered, “Not just yet! Princess Celestia said it would a few more years though; alicorns don’t really stop growing, do they? She’s doing as well as can be expected, it’s a shame I’ve had to leave after such a short time but duty calls. She asked me to deliver a message to you.”
“Oh?” I cocked my head to one side curiously, and Shining Armour grinned back at me.
“She said ‘look after Shining Armour for me, make sure he comes home’.”
I snickered in response, “Oh, I don’t think the brave and dashing Shining Armour needs somepony like me watching his back all the time.”
“Yeah, but you know what she’s like; worries about everypony and everything.”
One of the draws of joining the Royal Guard, according to the ponies who run the recruitment offices dotted around Equestria, is to experience brand new things that one would never be able to experience in the civilian sphere of life. At that precise moment the Royal Guard had enabled me to experience something I would never have been able to as a civilian; tolerating Shining Armour’s company. Usually he’s very hostile around me, yet now he was being friendly and approachable. He even appeared to be speaking to me as an equal; I supposed that after marrying Princess Cadence he was technically equal to me.
“While I’d love to allow this happy reunion to go on,” said Iron Hoof with a very slight inflection of annoyance creeping into his unnervingly monotone voice, “we do have a war to plan, if you’d all like to follow me please.”
Shining Armour grunted in annoyance and turned back to face Iron Hoof, “Of course, the sooner we can get this war over with the better. Lead the way, Field Marshal.”
Looking somewhat relieved, the moustachioed Field Marshal led his officers inside. I overheard Red Coat muttering something about ‘hoping it wasn’t over too soon’ but I ignored it, soon enough he would be eating those words. Shining Armour paused to instruct one of his lieutenants to lead the regiment to the main encampment and await further orders.
Shaking my head despondently I stepped inside and took my seat roughly in the middle of the central table where I had previously dined so opulently with the other officers. Much of the decoration that was there the previous week was gone; the table was bare, the triumphal statue of Princess Celestia was absent, and the banners returned to their respective regiments.
Shining Armour, to my surprise, took the seat on my right, while Sunshine Smiles sat down to my left. Opposite me was Colonel Rising Star of the 3rd Solar Guard, whose subordinate I had just duelled not an hour earlier.
Most of Rising Star’s face was covered by an impressively bushy moustache and mutton chops, while his eyes were covered by the brim of his battered old pith helmet. He was an elderly earth pony, judging from his greying facial hair and mane, and from what I had heard he was he was a veteran of the Zebrica frontier wars against the Gryphons, which would have put him in his mid 70s at the best estimate.
I noticed that Clear Heavens was conspicuously absent, and instead a young lieutenant was sitting in his place.
“Are you alright, Blueblood?” said Shining Armour, looking over my somewhat battered and grubby form before his eyes settled on the bandages just visible under my open collar.
“Fought a duel,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “Regimental honour, you see.”
Shining Armour made a disgusted face, “I don’t like duelling; too many good officers get themselves killed that way.”
I smirked, nodding my head. “Yes, I agree, but I didn’t have much of a choice this time; Princesses’ Regulations you see.”
The Captain of the Guard looked surprised; I was agreeing with him on something! Tartarus had just frozen over and pigs all over Equestria had just sprouted wings and were performing sonic rainbooms. I have to admit seeing that expression on his stupid ruggedly handsome features was well worth having to sit next to him. It wasn’t a face he made often, for most of the time he just grinned inanely.
“Bah, Clear Heavens was a fool and a rather vulgar colt,” said Rising Star, his moustaches quivering and flapping with every movement of his upper lip. I caught myself leaning forward to see if I could see crumbs and bits of food stuck in that impressive yard brush on his face. “Doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, eh? But the stallions like him and he keeps a relatively good company. His father’s a baron, you know.”
I nodded silently in agreement, thinking that this Rising Star fellow probably should have retired from the Royal Guard a few decades ago. I couldn’t imagine the poor old sod leading a troupe of filly scouts on a cookie sale around the Canterlot suburbs let alone an entire regiment into battle.
“But he’s eager,” he continued. “Eager to give those damned Gryphons a good thrashing, eh? I wager we’ll be sipping tea with the Princess in Gryphonburg before the month is over.”
“But it’s the Changelings we’ll be thrashing,” said Shining Armour in exasperation, “not the Gryphons. They’re our allies now, remember?”
The elderly stallion looked confused for a moment, as the gears in his mind creaked into life and he suddenly remembered that he isn’t sitting on the frontier of some Celestia-forsaken jungle in Zebrica fighting over some red line on the map. My heart sank as I watched him, not only was his body old and decrepit but also his mind was senile. He shouldn’t have been there. I ventured that over half of the officers sitting at this table were unfit to be in charge of even a foal’s lemonade stand.
Shining Armour shot me a look. It’s strange how much information could be shared in just a look; the expression upon a pony’s face can say much more than words ever could. The weary expression in his eyes said ‘I know, Blueblood, I know how you’re feeling, and there’s not a damned thing either of us can do about it now’. He probably had to put up with this abject insanity for the entirety of his military career, and I was surprised and relieved to discover that the near decade he spent amongst these imbeciles hadn’t eroded the stallion’s sanity. It was strange how ordinarily I’d have joined in with their aristocratic posturing, being a noblepony par excellence myself, yet my painful awareness of the dangers we were about to plunge into, largely a result of my selfish desire to preserve my own life, meant I couldn’t take part in their blissful ignorance.
At the far end of the huge table was a large white screen propped up like canvas on an easel on wooden planks. Field Marshal Iron Hoof and General Crimson Arrow took their positions either side of this screen, and as the gruff Field Marshal cleared his throat an expectant silence fell across the hall. I leaned forward in interest; finally I was to know what on Tartarus we were doing on this forgotten scrap of Equestrian soil.
Iron Hoof’s horn lit with a pale green aura and the screen rippled with colour, before settling into a map of the south eastern border of Equestria and the Badlands. I had heard of this particular spell before, apparently it was popular with school teachers, lecturers, and middle management in corporations as a means of displaying presentations through pictures and text projected onto a white screen. I had no idea how it worked, of course, but knew it revolved around something called ‘power points’.
“Mares and stallions,” Iron Hoof said gravely, “welcome to Operation: ‘Enduring Harmony’.”
For the second time that day I applied my hoof to my forehead. ‘Operation Enduring Harmony’, that’s what this invasion was going to be called? It was a bloody stupid name concocted by politicians back in Parliament probably, who, as ever, wanted an impressive sounding name to this military operation to galvanise the support of the masses behind them. They were turning this infernal war into a PR exercise, and no doubt they’ll take the credit when we inevitably drag Chrysalis’ rotting, bloated carcass back to Canterlot. They probably needed an entire select committee of at least thirty PR specialists, each paid in enough bits to fund a scholarship for a foal in Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, just to come up with the damned silly name in the first place.
That’s what happens when you dabble in democracy, ponies elect morons. [But unlike aristocratic ‘morons’, they get unelected just as easily.]
“The invasion and pacification of the Badlands will take place along three fronts, East, Centre, and West, and spearheaded by their respective Army Groups.” Three red arrows appeared on the map. “The main offensive will come from Army Group Centre, that’s us, through Black Venom Pass, while Army Groups East and West will guard our flanks from the Hayseed Swamps and Appleloosa respectively.”
The image on the screen flickered and zoomed in on the larger centre arrow symbolising us. The Badlands were protected on all sides by a vast mountain range, except the south but one would have to cross the treacherous San Palomino Desert to bypass these nigh impassable mountains. An invasion force would therefore be forced to use one of the many narrow passes and valleys between the mountains in order to penetrate into Changeling Country.
“Our first objective is to capture this: Black Venom Pass.” A red circle appeared over the said pass. “This is the only path wide enough for any army large enough to conquer the Badlands to go through, all others are simply far too narrow or too treacherous to even consider crossing. The army that controls this pass controls nearly all troop movement between southern Equestria and the Badlands and it is therefore imperative that we capture it immediately. Once a hoof-hold here has been secured and supply lines have been established we can strike inwards to the Changeling hives and eradicate them one by one. Victory, therefore, hinges upon us seizing and holding this pass. From there, the annihilation of the Changeling threat is all but assured.”
The screen flickered once more, and zoomed in even closer to the pass to show an aerial photograph of the pass itself. It was only a few miles long and a couple of hundred yards wide, flanked by steep inclines to the east and west and opening up to the south into the harsh wastes of the Badlands. The inclines were by no means uniform, and often broke out into numerous ridges and cliffs. At the northern mouth of this pass was a large structure built into the side of this cliff, while at the opposite southern end was a massive black smudge that looked ominously like an enormous formation of Changelings.
“This is the citadel of Maredun,” he said, illustrating the structure, “an ancient castle built by the pony civilisation that used to live in the Badlands before the Changelings, now derelict. Pegasus reconnaissance has shown the castle to be mostly intact and certainly defensible by a large army, and records indicate the underground barracks large enough to support a single regiment of the Royal Guard.
“This operation will be led by General Crimson Arrow, and conducted by the 3rd Solar Guard, the 16th Artillery Regiment, and the 1st Night Guard. The 1st Solar Guard will act as the strategic reserve. The 3rd Solar Guard will advance to the southern mouth of the valley and clear the Changeling army there. The 16th Artillery will set up its cannons along this ridge here...” another red circle appeared on the western ridge, “... to cover the advance of the 3rd Regiment, while the 1st Night Guard will be positioned further down the incline to protect the artillery or provide reserves for the 3rd Regiment if required. The 1st Solar Guard will be stationed here at Maredun, where General Crimson Arrow will set up his headquarters and direct the battle from there. Any questions?”
[It should be noted that Blueblood is not blessed with a particularly long attention span, especially when the topic of discussion is not directly about him. While his summation of Field Marshal Iron Hoof’s plan for the war and for the Battle of Black Venom Pass is largely accurate, he does miss out on much of the finer detail on the plans themselves. This description, however, is sufficient for the narrative of Blueblood’s memoirs. Readers who wish to learn more are welcome to read the minutes of this meeting in the Royal Guard’s archives provided one has sufficient security clearance.]
The officers posed their questions, and I remained silent for a moment. At the time it seemed like a reasonable plan, if somewhat overly cautious. Holding back the 1st Solar Guard as reserve seemed somewhat peculiar to me, as being the so-called ‘best of the best’ they should have been sent in to spearhead the attack. Then there was the absence of the 5th Solar Guard, who presumably would remain behind at Dodge Junction. Surely, considering the apparent importance of this operation to the entire war effort, one would want to commit the entirety of their force to ensure complete and total victory. At any rate, Iron Hoof seemed supremely confident in his plan and for a time it did well to assuage my fears.
The questions were fairly mundane, asking about the exact troop movements, projected casualty numbers, estimated resistance and so forth. There was a quiet ‘buzz’ about the place, as if an underlying tension in the air. The ponies around me were all excited, except for Iron Hoof who never got excited about anything and Sunshine Smiles who seemed rather deep in thought, the event they had been waiting for and looking forward to was finally coming; we were going to war.
Then it all took a rather ugly turn for the worse. At the far end of the table closest to the projection screen were the officers of the 16th Royal Artillery Regiment. Unlike the Solar Guard they were clad in black lacquered armour and their fur was a pale grey instead of purest white, since their trade revolved entirely around things that explode with a lot of smoke it made sense they didn’t operate wearing gleaming gold armour that would be easily stained by soot. Colonel Shrapnel, who seemed rather aloof and distant, even more so than is standard for a Royal Guard senior officer, stood up.
He was an earth pony, as were most of the artillery crews as earth pony strength and endurance was needed to haul the heavy iron cannons and their ammunition around, with a strong muscular body. His fur was patchy, and the skin underneath lined with horrific burn marks from when an improperly loaded cannon exploded. Dangerous business, cannons, just as likely to kill their handlers as they were the enemy if they weren’t careful.
“I want to voice our concerns,” he said in a voice that sounded like sandpaper rubbing on wood, “about the presence of the Night Guards operating as our picket line.”
After some slight hesitation, Colonel Sunshine Smiles rose to his hooves. I saw the ponies around us grimace at his fearsome visage, for the scar upon his face made the stallion rather more intimidating even if it weren’t for his armour and fangs.
“I can reassure you all,” he said slowly, “that our regiment is highly trained and prepared for combat, the 16th Artillery needn’t fear Changeling assault with the 1st Night Guard watching over you.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt as to your fighting prowess,” said Shrapnel, tapping a hoof on the table, “I’m more concerned about where your true loyalties lie.”
“Aye!” Major White Castle of the 3rd Solar Guard, who sat opposite the Night Guards officers, pointed accusingly at our direction. “Nightmare Moon! They’ll betray us all again!”
Captain Blitzkrieg snarled and lunged over the table, only for his forward momentum to be arrested as Major Starlit Skies seized the pegasus’ tail and dragged him down onto the desk. He hit the wood with a surprised yelp and with a flail of limbs and black leathery wings.
“You take that back!” he growled at the Solar Guard Major, who shuddered at the sight of the pegasus’ fangs. “Nopony insults Princess Luna! Nopony!”
“Calm down, kid,” snapped Starlit Skies in the manner of a school teacher admonishing a student as he hauled the limp Blitzkrieg back over the table to his seat.
I had quite enough, so I stood up and planted my hooves on the table. “In case you ponies haven’t noticed we’re all on the same side here.”
“Aye, that’s what they want us to think,” scoffed White Castle. “Maybe they’ve gotten to you too, Prince, you are, after all, Nightmare Moon’s beloved nephew.”
I blinked back incredulously, “I’m Princess Celestia’s nephew too.”
To my eternal surprise, Shining Armour stood up next to me and slammed his hooves on the table, causing the ancient antique furniture to wobble precariously. The ponies around us gasped in shock at such a scandalous and vulgar display from the Captain of the Royal Guard. His chest was heaving with barely controlled indignation as I saw a near decade of having to put up with this petty bickering finally coming to a boil.
His face was contorted into a rictus-like scowl similar to the look I saw him give to his younger sister when she was doing her best to ruin his wedding, though to be fair on Twilight she was right. A vein on his forehead throbbed as he snorted aggressively, glaring at each and every officer in the room who cowered under the gaze of their ceremonial commander-in-chief.
“You’re all behaving like foals!” he shouted, stamping a hoof on the table to punctuate the statement.
“We don’t have the time for this,” said Field Marshal Iron Hoof firmly.
Shining Armour glowered at the Field Marshal before relenting and slinking back into his seat, snorting in indignation and sulking like a foal denied his favourite treat. The other officers looked apologetic and muttered under their breath as they retook their seats, except for Shrapnel who continued to stare in our direction.
There was something off about that particular stallion, but I couldn’t quite put my hoof on it. In hindsight I can remember the glassy, vacant look in his dark eyes as being massive warning signs, but at the time I ignored it. To this day I wonder if disaster could have been averted if I had voiced what the tingling sensation in my hooves was telling me, but I also fear that it wouldn’t have made any difference.
Iron Hoof clopped his hooves together and his servants, who were waiting in the recesses of the room, handed out thick envelopes to each officer in the room. These were the official detailed orders, listing exactly what each unit was to do at any given time according to a strict schedule. Such was Iron Hoof’s style of command; he loved his timetables and wanted everything to go according to his grand plan. As I have alluded to earlier, things never go to plan in war.
We left hurriedly, with officers darting back to the encampment to enact their orders with their usual enthusiasm. The feeling in the air was electric; it was finally happening, the battle that would decide the fate of Equestria, the thing for which we had been preparing for so long, and I couldn’t join in with that excitement. As I briefly looked over my orders I started getting that sick feeling in my stomach and the itchy feeling in my hooves once more. This would not end well, I thought.
Before I left, though, I saw Iron Hoof take Crimson Arrow to the side and tell him that, in no uncertain terms, the success of this mission relied upon following his plan to the absolute letter and with no deviations.
My orders were relatively simple; just stick with the Night Guards and make sure they do their job properly. It had occurred to me that if the regiment had wanted to rebel and throw their lot in with Nightmare Moon they could easily just kill me; though quite why they would want to throw their lot in with a mostly dead part of my Aunt Luna’s psychosis was something that eluded me, yet a seemingly popular belief for the Solar Guard.
Red Coat was ecstatic, looking much like a foal on Hearth’s Warming who had just seen a suspiciously scooter-shaped present under the Harmony Tree. He practically skipped merrily along back to the camp, chatting happily to Colonel Sunshine Smiles who, to his credit, did not cave in the irritating youth’s skull with his over-sized muscular hooves. The Colonel seemed a little more quiet and pensive, and I noticed that his facial muscles around his scar twitched.
I saw Starlit Skies taking sheets of parchment out of his envelope with his magic, inspecting the orders carefully and checking a gold pocket watch carefully. Warfare, as he would later explain to me in another one of his lectures, is all about timing; the movement of regiments, companies, platoons all according to a strict schedule, and waiting for the opportune moment to strike when the enemy is at its weakest. His pocket watch, I noticed, was an incredibly complicated affair filled with assorted dials and numbers that made sense only to him.
Blitzkrieg was oddly jittery, not happily excited like Red Coat yet not introspectively quiet like Sunshine Smiles and Starlit Skies but merely anxious. His thin body was tensed under his armour, and I could see that rather than being mere skin and bone his body was in fact packed with toned but slender muscle. He looked like an elastic band ready to snap.
“Bah, it’s a shame I’m going to miss out on all the fun,” said Crimson Arrow as he stepped up alongside me.
I frowned back at him, “Fun?”
“The fighting, Blueblood, you’re going to be there in the thick of it and I’ll be stuck in that wretched old ruin watching from afar.”
Oh how I envied that poor bastard. He was going to be sitting there in relative comfort and safety while I risked my life for Princesses and Country, and he thought that he was the one who had gotten the short end of the stick. I considered suggesting we swap places, or that I keep him company in that dreary ruin, but I couldn’t think of an appropriate justification for doing so at the time.
“You’ll still get the credit, of course,” I said amicably.
“Oh yes of course, but it’s not quite the same is it?” he said in annoyance. “At any rate, I should invite you for a celebratory dinner once we achieve victory in the field, but I must dash now, toodles!”
As he trotted off to... wherever it is he was supposed to go I resigned myself to the fact that there was no way I could possibly worm my way out of this. I supposed I might be able to attach myself to the unicorn company; they typically spend battles flinging magic missiles at enemies from a comfortable distance. Considering that the regiment’s unofficial motto was ‘get stuck in’ I didn’t think that doing so would last that long, sooner or later I’d be finding myself in the brutal maelstrom of close quarters combat. At least in this case I’d have numerous heavily armoured ponies guarding me, and not a whining seamstress who faints at the sight of dirt.
The army mobilised fairly quickly, which was to be expected given the obviously temporary nature of the Dodge Junction encampment. It had taken them only a full day of preparation whereby equipment was checked, final letters to home were written and sent off, and much revelry enjoyed by all. Indeed, despite my advice not to, Colonel Sunshine Smiles had decreed that the ponies be allowed to have beer imported from Trottingham before the battle to keep their morale up. Trottingham ale, if you are lucky enough never to have tried it, is served at a lukewarm temperature and is also the colour of mud, so I respectfully declined. The night, however, did become interesting when I had to deal with the after-effects of such revelry when a couple of guardsponies somehow received more beer rations than they were allowed to and embarked on a night time raid of Shining Armour’s tent. I offered to have them all flogged for this, but the Captain of the Royal Guard insisted that ‘colts will be colts’ so I just put them on extra latrine duty instead.
I had elected to spend the rest of what could have been my last night alive alone in my tent anxiously fretting about how to get myself out of this. I came out blank; the orders given to me were clear and there was no arguing with a pony as bull-headed as Field Marshal Iron Hoof, who would broker no alterations to his precious plan. Crimson Arrow, however, simply didn’t want to deny me the pleasure of risking my life for Equestria when I offered to stay with him and provide ‘tactical advice’ for the battle.
We moved out in the morning as a long snaking column, with the unicorns taking up the front and rear while the earth ponies took the centre so that, in theory, they would be protected from ambush by the unicorns who would mow down any would-be attacker with magic missiles. The pegasi ran aerial reconnaissance, using their speed and ability of flight to range far ahead of the advancing column and report back on the terrain and possible enemy action.
The journey was quiet, though the atmosphere was still tense. I marched with Colonel Sunshine Smiles and Red Coat at the head of the regiment. With their superior earth pony strength and endurance they were hardly breaking a sweat, while the two hour march had left me with a burning ache in my legs. All of my efforts in cleaning myself before battle (so that I might look pretty when I die), scrubbing the sweat and dust, rubbing fragrant oils into it [And Blueblood wonders why ponies call him a ‘ponce’], and styling my mane, was wasted as once again I was covered in mucky sweat and dust kicked up by thousands of pony hoofsteps.
The afternoon sun beat down upon on us, and the heat was becoming almost unbearable which made the day’s march all the more difficult. I was even becoming thankful for my ridiculous cloth ‘armour’ as the plate armoured ponies around me looked as if they were suffering more from the heat than me, though given the choice between temporary dehydration and permanent death I think I’d still pick sweating under thick steel plates any day.
Cannon Fodder was quiet, taking the impending battle as if it were a pleasant day out. Nothing, except for Twilight Sparkle, seemed to faze my phlegmatic aide, and I started to envy the poor sod. He was a pony for whom things just happened; there was no consideration as to the reason why these things happened or any attempt to change his fate, but merely a quiet and resolute acceptance of it. Unlike me, who fretted over every single decision and event because of my utmost desire to not die.
The mountains loomed heavily over us. Looking up we could see them stretching up into the sky, forming a natural barrier between civilisation and the dark barbarism of the Changeling race. Their steep inclines, snow-capped peaks, and treacherous jagged rock formations would stop any advancing army foolish enough to attempt to cross the mountains, all except for Black Venom Pass.
The pass appeared as a cleft in the mountains, like a tunnel carved out of the immortal rock by some unknown and eldritch power. It was said that an ancient pony civilisation once lived in the territory that we now know as the Badlands, and it was they who had cleaved the pass in the first place and built the citadel which General Crimson Arrow and the 1st Solar Guard would appropriate for their uses. Quite what happened to this ancient civilisation and where the Changelings had came from was not known at this point, but if we had known the truth then perhaps we would not have been so eager for war.
The citadel was built into the side of the mountain range, upon one of the many ridges that lined the valley. Tall, forbidding walls built out of grey stone rose from the ridge, forming numerous courtyards surrounding the keep built straight into the side of the mountain. There were a number of tall towers, many collapsed or on the verge of collapse, from which artillery and unicorns could direct fire down into the valley below. Castles of this period were built according to the principle of luring the enemy into killing zones in these courtyards. The aim, therefore, was not necessarily to keep the enemy outside the walls, though it would certainly help if they were, but to force them into these areas where they can be whittled down by artillery fire and infantry before they can reach the keep.
The 1st Solar Guard, along with Crimson Arrow and his general staff, peeled off from the formation to ascend up to the castle. Despite the relatively expansive width of the valley, I found the tall mountains either side of us to be rather claustrophobic. A Royal Guard army would never be able to march over the mountains, but I was not so certain that the Changelings would encounter quite the same difficulties. Travelling in this column formation made us incredibly vulnerable; a lightning assault down the middle would divide the army into two, cutting off the two halves and allowing each to be encircled and destroyed at ease. The fact that the pegasi continued to report that the mountains were clear and the Changelings had yet to move from their position at the opposite end of the pass was rather unnerving. Surely they would have made their move now; strike us down at our most vulnerable.
Yet they didn’t. The plan was going without a hitch, which I found to be rather more disturbing than if the Changelings were to suddenly charge upon us.
We came to the ridge, which was more of a large plateau with a slight upwards slope. Climbing up the mountain side to reach this plateau damn near killed me as I dragged my unfit, flabby body up the steep incline. I remember thinking that I had to be the absolute pinnacle of pony physique by the end of the day, considering the massive workout I just had and assuming I would survive the battle, and I wished I’d inherited more of the tough earth pony stamina from Celestia’s bloodline. [Though the alicorn bloodline has been somewhat diluted in Blueblood’s case, there are still definitely elements of earth pony and pegasi traits in him (since alicorns such as I possess traits of all three races). In fact, Blueblood is being rather tough on himself, being rather stronger, larger, and tougher than most other unicorns.]
As we reached the edge of the plateau, overlooking the 3rd Solar Guard marching through the valley below us, the 16th Royal Artillery lumbered further up the plateau to their firing positions. The plateau itself was on a shallow slope that led up to a ridge upon which the artillery was to be deployed, thus giving them a commanding view of the battlefield below.
With a feedbag of oats over my muzzle and a mug of strong tea I watched the 3rd Solar Guard below us stop and then adopt the standard battle formation; unicorns arrayed at the front across the entire width of the valley and earth ponies behind, the pegasi had landed and taken up formation on the flanks and rear of the earth ponies. The idea behind this was the unicorns would lay down a fusillade of magic missiles upon the enemy and would continue to do so until the foe ran away, got too close, or the unicorns got too tired, at which point the earth ponies would wade in and finish off the Changelings left alive. At least in theory, but thus far in Equestrian military history this fairly standard infantry tactic had worked quite well against an opposing army polite enough to simply line up and let themselves get slaughtered.
Presently, sergeants barked orders to their squads and the ponies scrambled to their hooves and returned to formation. The 1st Night Guard took up a similar formation to that of the Solar Guard down in the valley below; unicorns at the front, earth ponies somewhere in the middle, and pegasi guarding the flanks, all aimed down at the valley below. I reluctantly dragged myself off the ground like a teenager being told to wake up and go to school, and then rejoined the senior officers congregating at the heart of the Night Guard’s formation.
The plateau was perfectly positioned, as from here we could see the entirety of the battlefield. At the southern mouth of the valley lay the Changeling army, looking much like an ugly black and green smudge on the sandy landscape distorted by the haze and mirages. They couldn’t have been more than a thousand yards away from us, and well within range of the cannons and mortars being lugged into position behind us.
“Remind me why we’re needed here,” asked Red Coat. The young earth pony couldn’t keep still; he was always fidgeting anxiously as if he urgently needed the toilet.
“In case the Changelings sneak around and attack the artillery up there,” explained Sunshine Smiles. “I know you’re eager to be down there, but we have our orders.”
The young stallion stamped at the ground in irritation, “I know, I just don’t want to miss out.”
As if on cue the artillery behind and slightly above us opened fire, sounding like the rumble of nearby thunder as the iron cannons spat flame and iron at the enemy. I winced as I saw the cannon shots scream over our heads and impact into the mountainside opposite us, sending up clouds of dust and dry earth. I also noted how precariously close they were to the rear ranks of the 3rd Solar Guard. My hooves itched uncomfortably; something was most definitely wrong.
“The artillery isn’t supposed to start for another fifteen minutes,” said Starlit Skies as he trotted over towards us, checking his over-sized and overly complicated pocket watch. He gently tapped the glass as if that would somehow make the relevant dials make sense. There was a concerned expression on his normally calm and friendly face, which I found rather unnerving.
“Maybe they’re just calibrating their guns,” I said with a shrug and a nervous glance over my shoulder at the artillery positioned just behind us. I hoped, prayed, that I was right.
“Aye,” said Sunshine Smiles, “the cannons haven’t been used in decades, probably just warming the barrels up or something.” That helped alleviate some of my concerns, though the sickening sensation of anxiety refused to go away. I knew very little of how artillery worked, though I knew there was probably more to it than simply loading the cannon, pointing it, and then firing it. It had something to do with maths, physics, or something else I couldn’t possibly comprehend, but I was sure Starlit Skies would be able to give me a lengthy and in-depth lecture on the subject later.
The cannons fired again. I watched in horror as a cannon ball ploughed straight into the rear ranks of the 3rd Solar Guard’s pegasi, killing a couple and sending the formation scattering in panic. A few more impacted harmlessly into the cliff side, but another bounced straight into a platoon of earth ponies. The regiment lost all semblance of coherency as the rear ranks surged forwards to try and escape the artillery fire, forcing the other ranks forwards into the waiting jaws of the Changeling horde.
I turned, rearing on my hind legs and waving my forelimbs at the artillery regiment. “Adjust your aim!” I shrieked at them pleadingly. “Friendly fire! Adjust your bucking aim!”
Another cannon fired, the sound of its roar carried along the wind, and I was hurled to the ground by a rough force from my left. I grunted as I hit the ground and Cannon Fodder, who had shoved me out of the way, landed on top me. The iron ball hit the ground a few feet away from me, showering me with dirt and dust, and then bounced straight over me to bury itself in the dry earth just behind my cowering form.
“They’re firing on us!” I screamed, stating the blindingly obvious but I think I could be forgiven for that given the circumstances. Cannon Fodder, his expression only showing a slight bit of concern, rolled off from on top of me.
“Sorry, sir,” he said, and I blinked at the bizarre little apology for saving my life.
Another shot smashed into a platoon of earth ponies a few hundred feet away, mangling bodies and reducing them to offal and scraps of meat. I heard whinnies of pain and the voices of gruff sergeants and officers as they struggled to keep the survivors under control and restore order. There, as I struggled back up to my hooves and gazed up at the cannons pointed straight towards us, I saw the treachery that wormed its way into the heart of Army Group Centre – the 16th Royal Artillery had been infiltrated by Changelings.
The senior officers were frozen by fear and indecision. The Colonel was shivering slightly, his muscles tensed and quivering underneath his armour and his mouth gaping wide open in abject disbelief. I grabbed my fallen cap from the dusty ground and placed it on my head before cantering up towards him.
“Orders!” I shouted in panic. “Your orders, Colonel!”
Sunshine Smiles didn’t appear to hear me; instead he only stared up at the cannons spitting death in our general direction. Despite their few lucky shots before, it became obvious that the Changelings that had obviously infiltrated the artillery regiment’s ranks had little to no idea how to operate their cannons. Most of the shots went wide or fell short of us, and I witnessed one cannon exploding due to improper loading.
“Bucking do something!” I shouted, forcing my face against his.
The big earth pony blinked at me a few times, before shaking his head as if to shake the stupor out of his mind. He pushed his way past me with the confident swagger of a born leader, with determination in his eyes where there was once doubt.
He called the senior officers over to him, but I couldn’t help but think that all it would take was one lucky cannon ball to singularly wipe out the top leadership cadre of the whole regiment in one go. Reluctantly I joined in the huddle.
“We need to take that ridge,” he said authoritatively, even if he was stating the obvious. “The earth ponies will advance with me and Red Coat. Starlit Skies, I want the unicorns to maintain a constant rate of fire on the artillery to keep the gunners away from them, but make sure you don’t accidently hit us when you’re firing over our heads. Blitzkrieg, keep the skies clear, if you’re feeling confident you can take a platoon to harass the gunners but make sure you keep out of the unicorn’s way. Is that all understood?”
Starlit Skies and Blitzkrieg both saluted and then cantered off to their respective duties. Orders were disseminated down via lieutenants, ensigns, sergeants, and corporals, and soon the first fusillades of iridescent white missiles were hurled in the general direction of the artillery. The regiment’s pegasi took to the skies and circled above us protectively, while the earth ponies were turned around to face the enemy.
The artillery fire became more sporadic, coming in volleys of twos or threes that mostly fell short. It seemed that the unicorns’ firepower was doing its job in forcing the Changelings to take cover. Then again, the average Changeling drone had very little in the way of self-preservation instincts when under the thrall of the tyrannical Hive Mind.
“Commissar,” he said, turning to me. “I’d like you to stick with the earth ponies.”
I blinked, “But I’m a unicorn!” I protested, tapping the obvious horn upon my forehead.
“Aye, but I think the earth ponies would benefit more from your inspired example if you’re there to lead them into the fight.”
“Very well,” I said, internally disappointed that I wouldn’t be spending the battle a nice and safe distance away from the slathering hordes of over-sized magic bugs. This was it, no more worming my way out of it, no more lies, excuses, and dissembling; I was going to fight.
“Sir,” Red Coat muttered. The young stallion’s face had blanched to an unnatural and unhealthy pale colour beneath his ashen grey coat, his eyes were wide with pupils reduced to the size of pinpricks, and his body trembled uncontrollably. “I-I...”
Sunshine Smiles patted him on the shoulder, “Just stick with me, lad, and I’ll promise you’ll be okay.”
He nodded tentatively in response and then trotted off, stumbling once or twice as his legs gave way to his fear, to deliver his orders to his subordinates.
My mouth had suddenly become incredibly dry as I stepped away and took my place by an earth pony platoon close to Red Coat. Cannon Fodder took his usual place next to me, and I decided that with his unique ability to suck out a unicorn’s magic that staying with the earth ponies was probably for the best.
“Company advance!” the Colonel cried out, wasting no time with giving any of those ridiculous speeches that films and books seem to think happen with every battle. A heroic speech in the midst of war certainly looks and sounds impressive, but simply leaves more time for the enemy to reload their cannons and shoot us. "Get in close as quickly as possible and start killing. Disperse formations! Do not bunch up! For Luna’s sake, do not bunch up!”
A drum sounded somewhere in the formation, rolling out a steady marching rhythm, and the regimental banners were unfurled and held aloft by the ensigns. As one the company marched forwards, the platoon formations spreading out somewhat until there was at least one pony length between each guardspony, which would minimise casualties from cannon fire.
We moved damnably slow at a standard marching pace to the tune of that distant drum. The enemy was only a few scant hundred feet away, almost close enough to smell the sickening ichor and corruption of the Changeling race wafting on the light breeze, so bloody close and yet so damnably far. Each step brought us inexorably closer to the foe, but it felt like an eternity. It has always been said that the advance was the hardest part of any battle, and I’m inclined to agree. In the brutality of close quarters combat there was no time to think or consider mortality, but here, as we march so slowly into the killing ground, there was every opportunity to consider that in the next instance I could be dead with a cannon ball where my pretty head once was.
The guardspony next to me muttered a prayer over and over, growing in intensity and volume as we neared the enemy. “Princess Luna, Mistress of the Night, deliver me not unto the fires of Tartarus but unto Thy Eternal Night. Princess Luna, Mistress of the Night, deliver me not unto the fires of Tartarus but unto Thy Eternal Night...” he intoned again and again until a sergeant told him to shut up and ‘stop annoying the Commissar’. [It should be noted that ‘Eternal Night’ in this prayer, which predates Nightmare Moon by a good few centuries, is a poetic description of spending the afterlife in the embrace of my sister and I.]
The unicorns’ missile fire settled into a consistent barrage, with simultaneous blasts of destructive magic hurled at the enemy’s direction; such was the mathematical precision drilled into Starlit Sky’s unicorn company that I heard the distinctive ‘snap’ sounds of the air being displaced by the magical discharge as a single heavy reverberation, rather than as a series of individual discharges. The barrages came like clockwork every fifteen seconds, and they certainly did their job by keeping the Changelings’ heads down but to my rising terror I saw that the enemy had learned to time the loading and firing of their weapons in the fifteen second gap between the fusillades.
I could make out the pony-shaped insects, having shed their now useless disguises, packing their stolen cannons with magically charged gunpowder and heavy iron cannon balls. They were clumsy, only having a basic idea of how these weapons worked, yet as we marched closer and closer it mattered less and less how well they could aim their guns. My heart sank when I saw them load one of the most heinous weapons ever developed by ponies: canister shot. [Rather than being loaded with a single round shot, the cannon is instead packed with a large number of ball bearings and shrapnel. While inaccurate, canister shot has a horrific effect on large infantry formations.]
Ahead of me I saw the black barrel of a cannon levelled down towards me. The gunner lit the fuse and the gun spat fire with a thundering explosion that shook the earth beneath my hooves. I hissed as I felt a sliver of shrapnel scrape along my shoulder, mangling a rather ugly wound in me. The pony next to me virtually exploded and showered me with a spray of blood and flesh.
He simply collapsed in a bloodied heap, like a marionette that had been severed from its strings. The mangled remains of the pony who, not a few minutes earlier, was praying so fervently for my Auntie Luna to accept his soul, lay in a crumpled pile amidst his shattered and buckled armour. The face was unrecognisable; the flesh virtually stripped from the shattered bone, his chest torn open where the armour had failed to protect him.
The platoon marched on.
There, lying before me, I saw that all a pony ever was, and will be, is blood, organs, flesh, and bone wrapped up in a fragile sack of skin. All the stuff that had previously seemed so valuable to me; social class, hierarchy, manners, parties, and all of that upper class aristocratic nonsense was once my very reason for living, all of that just didn’t seem so important anymore. Gazing down at the broken and mangled pile of meat that was once a pony, everything else around me seemed to fade away. The roaring thunder of cannons became unclear and indistinct, as did the cries of the wounded and dying and the shouts of officers trying to keep order, as if I was suddenly immersed underwater.
With the sick dribbling down my chin and the bitter taste of vomit stinging my dry throat I looked up, dazed and confused as the ponies continued to march towards their deaths. I saw an earth pony decapitated by round shot and another platoon’s entire front rank was eviscerated by shrapnel, yet still they marched onwards over the bloodied remains of their comrades.
“Commissar!” Cannon Fodder yelled at me. I glanced up, seeing him waiting a few yards from me and waving a hoof.
I stumbled forth after him, breaking into a weak and clumsy trot to try and catch up with them. Bodies littered the field; their features shredded beyond all recognition.
A wounded pony cried out and I stopped. His face was an utter ruin, but still he cried out for a medic, Princess Luna, his mother to save him before finally expiring in a pool of blood. The last thing that pony saw before ascending into Luna’s Eternal Night was my face and that sick, grinning skull on my cap.
As I write this I cannot recall their names or remember their faces, and it shames me.
Leaving the bodies I cantered back to my position with Cannon Fodder by my side. Bloodlust was reaching a boiling point in the earth ponies; for they had been subjected to this artillery bombardment with no capacity to respond in kind. They snorted and growled, stomping forth as if having to restrain themselves. They wanted vengeance and they wanted Changeling blood. I wanted it too. I wanted to get close, I wanted to kill and kill again. I wanted to avenge those two ponies. It seems incredulous given the normally placid, harmonious, herbivore nature of ponies, but the most animal, base instinct within us had been stirred.
To paraphrase an important pony, for he must be important if his words were recorded for posterity, ‘artillery adds dignity to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl’. Well, I now pray nightly that the immortal soul of whoever said that is burning in the eternal fires of Tartarus, for I had seen the effects of artillery upon a pony’s physical body and concluded that there is absolutely no dignity to it. [The words are attributed to General Crack Shot, whose bombardment of the city of Gryphonburg during the thirty minute war successfully forced the Grpyons surrender at the cost of dozens of Gryphon civilians. This is not an event I remember with any particular pride.]
We were close now, damned close. Close enough to see the glassy, vacant eyes of the Changelings. The unicorns behind us ceased firing lest they accidently hit us. The smell of ozone, blood, vomit, gunpowder, sweat, and excrement assaulted my nostrils and made me gag. The smoke wafted down towards us, stinging my sore eyes and thankfully concealing parts of our formation.
Sunshine Smiles darted forth, rearing on his hind legs and flailing his fore hooves and whinnying in rage. “Into them! Charge!”
Author’s Note: This was originally going to be a single chapter, but I’ve had to split it into two. I’ve never written a battle scene before, so I’m hoping I’ve pulled it off. Not sure if this warrants a gore tag, though. I probably need to get myself an editor at some point