Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Bloodstained (Part 10)

Part Ten

In some strange and quite twisted manner I was actually looking forward to the offensive, but only in the same way that one looks forward to having painful dental surgery; one merely wants to get the whole unpleasantness over and done with as soon as possible so as to alleviate the cloying anxiety that is often far worse than the ordeal itself. Nevertheless, it had imbued me with a sense of impatience as I waited with my fellow officers, General Crimson Arrow and his staff, Twilight Sparkle, and ‘Cloudless Sky’ for Lieutenant Southern Cross and his merry band of Horsetralian Engineers, on which the success of this operation so depended.

Much of the previous night was spent lying stone cold awake and in varying stages of sobriety and drunkenness on my cot, shivering beneath my covers and gazing up at the worn, moth-eaten ceiling of my tent as my mind frantically searched for a way to get out of this hateful predicament short of shooting myself in the hoof or eating gunpowder (I had recently punished a few ponies attempting to be invalided back home by doing that, so it would not have done my false reputation any favours by trying the same thing). [Gunpowder contains nitrates, charcoal, and sulphur, and in large amounts it is extremely poisonous. However, in small doses it induces stomach cramps, diarrhoea, and shakes, and could therefore be used by the more cowardly of soldiers to feign illnesses. That it was such common knowledge, especially to the commissars and provosts, dissuaded its widespread use as a means of deserting except in the most desperate of deserters.]

Predictably, my alcohol-addled, distraught, sleep-deprived mind had failed miserably to come up with anything even remotely productive, which in turn did very little to improve my already plummeting self-esteem. Though on a rational level I knew that guarding Twilight should keep me free from the hardest of the fighting, I fear, however, that I was in a dreadful funk that night, and on occasion broke into foalish wails as I lamented my unavoidable fate. I was fortunate that the combined snoring of Cannon Fodder and Spike helped to drown out whatever pathetic noises I was making.

It is a relief to know years later after the event that all that ponies remember is my stern, sober, and generally heroic demeanour, looking oh-so-dashing and noble as I gazed out wistfully at the treacherous landscape which we would be fighting over for the foreseeable future. If only they had known that I had spent the night before weeping pathetically into my pillow. It’s all immaterial, anyway; what ponies remember, or what they want to remember, rather, is far more important. I like to think I had gotten over that anyway when the hangover started to set in at about the same time Celestia’s sun started to rise; it felt as if my brain was pounding against the confines of my skull with every heartbeat. That said, as I looked around at my heavily-armoured colleagues I was thankful I did not have to slog through this unbearable heat while wearing seventy pounds of enhanced steel plus equipment and rations, though a glance back at the jagged hills to the south, beyond which lay endless hordes of Changeling drones did much to dissuade me of that notion.

Twilight Sparkle sat nearby, a little off to the side of mob of officers, with a small notepad and pencil hovering steadily in front of her muzzle as she would watch and take notes. She was clad in some spare Night Guards’ armour that was in portions too big and too small for her; the saddle was bound tightly across her midsection in a way that had to be quite uncomfortable, and the helmet in particular would frequently drop over her eyes without warning and jab painfully into the bridge of her muzzle, forcing her to readjust it periodically. Flanking her was ‘Cloudless Sky’; Shining Armour (who, like everypony else, was completely oblivious to the true identity of the pony standing not more than three feet away from him); Spike, who was looking thoroughly bored and dejected that he would not be following us on this mission (I had personally vetoed that idea, as while Colonel Sunshine Smiles’ insistence that the battlefield was no place for a ‘lady’ was ignored, all would agree that no child should be exposed to its horrors. That, and his continually irritating habits would have forced me into performing acts upon his person that would have made anything he might have witnessed in war look like a picnic in comparison); and Captain Red Coat’s second-in-command, Company Sergeant Major Square Basher who had been assigned to train Twilight Sparkle in the use of her new armour and how to keep her head down when things inevitably go pear-shaped.

“He’s late,” said Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter for the umpteenth time, referring to the missing Southern Cross. Like the rest of us, the irritating little unicorn was positively dripping with sweat, such that it seemed to pool in the crevices of his armour plates whereas mine simply soaked into my uniform to leave unsightly dark patches in awkward places. He attempted to cool himself by wafting before his face a small, elegant silk fan, which was decorated with some delicate Cathayan calligraphy that he must have believed was some beautiful and inspiring poem about cherry blossoms, the fleeting ephemeral quality of life, or some other such rot, but with my limited understanding of their impenetrable language I could more accurately translate the script into Equestrian as ‘buck the eighteen generations of your ancestors’. [An insult considered to be very offensive in Cathay, as ancestor-worship is considered a very important part of their religion and culture.] It was, however, my only source of amusement as I waited for what seemed like decades for Southern Cross, so out of that and a slight sense of vindictiveness I decided not to tell him.

“Saying it five times in a row won’t make him appear,” I snapped, fast losing the will and the inclination to mask my irritation. Luckily, the ponies around me took my sour mood as frustration at not being in the thick of battle yet born out of an eagerness to get ‘stuck in’ with the enemy, as opposed to being generally upset that my life was not turning out quite the way that I had planned.

“We’re still early,” insisted Major Starlit Skies. He checked his pocket watch, and as he did so, he wiggled his nose in that peculiar, disarming gesture of his that settled his small pince-nez spectacles into a more comfortable position. His presence was not strictly needed, and neither was that of Colonel Sunshine Smiles, and Captain Blitzkrieg, as they were not joining us in this insane expedition to certain death, but apparently those three felt the need to come and publicly wish me and everypony else unfortunate enough to have been selected for this mission good luck. We would need it, though frankly I never put much stock in the common soldier’s superstitious adherence to Lady Luck; I prefer to take more pragmatic steps to ensuring my survival than in the fickle whims of a bored personification of random chance, though, needless to say, the amount of times that I have owed my survival to the metaphorical roll of the die is quite disconcertingly high.

The distinct aroma of unwashed underwear forewarned me of Cannon Fodder’s approach a full second or so before he swam into view, bearing one of the many enamel mugs that he had somehow secreted amongst his armour. I accepted the tea gratefully, though mindful of drinking something hot in this positively scorching heat, some more fluids would undoubtedly help towards alleviating my pounding hangover, so I sipped slowly as I scanned the indistinct horizon, which appeared to have turned to quivering jelly by the haze of heat rising from the dust.

“The inspection is not due to start for another few minutes,” the Major continued. He snapped shut the gilded cover of his pocket watch as if to punctuate that remark, and tucked the antique timepiece back into the recesses of his armour. Cannon Fodder offered the older stallion one of his many mugs of tea, which he accepted gratefully, but only after wiping down the sides and rim of the enamel receptacle with a hoofkerchief, and blowing on the surface of the tea contained therein to try and cool it. “Thank you.”

“That’s no excuse,” grumbled Scarlet Letter, apparently oblivious to the hint that he should shut up for once, but it seemed that he was as immune to taking hints as my aide was to taking baths. He sponged at his sweaty, dripping brow with a pristine white hoofkerchief, which he had somehow secreted within his uniform without getting it creased or stained in some manner.

I shook my head, and soon regretted it as the pounding of hammers against the inside of my skull intensified briefly. Returning my gaze to the quivering horizon, where the bland yellow ground met the equally uninteresting clear blue sky, I noticed emerging from the haze of heat that rose from the parched earth a large, amorphous grey smudge, accompanied by the distinctive, percussive beat of dozens of ponies marching in step. Well, about bloody time, thought I, as, dispensing with all attempts at maintaining what shred of dignity that I had been hoping to present, simply sat my princely rear on the dusty ground to watch. The smudge soon coalesced into shapes vaguely identifiable as ponies, as the rhythmic sound of iron-shod hooves, which seemed to beat in time with my throbbing headache, grew louder and more distinct, and soon they became identifiable as formation of sappers, their bulky, armoured forms made to look even more ungainly by the sheer amount of equipment strapped to their bodies, marching towards us.

“They’re a slovenly bunch, these colonials,” said Scarlet Letter as he watched the formation of ponies emerge from the haze towards us. “Can you believe these uncouth peasants want to rule themselves and that worthless scrap of land they call home, sir? Ridiculous! I dare say they’ll all be ruined within a half a week if we grant them self-rule!”

“On the contrary,” I said, “devolving power to the colonies will alleviate the administrative and logistical burden on Canterlot.”

Scarlet Letter briefly pulled a face as if he had just walked in on his mother fornicating with King Sombra. “O-of course, sir,” he stammered, in what was perhaps the fastest display of back-tracking that I had ever seen in a pony. “How foolish of me,” he continued, laying on the sycophancy so thick I that could have spread it like brie on a cheese cracker. “I did not consider the greater implications, but certainly a pony of your experience in power must have clearly seen the bigger picture vis-à-vis the administration of the colonies. It is fortunate that we have leaders with such clear vision and insight, sir!”

As the words tumbled out of his mouth in a frantic rush, such that I half-hoped that they would become clogged in his fat neck and choke him, I scanned his voice for any tones of sarcasm. Sadly I found none, for if he was being sarcastic I would have still found it far less insulting than his absurdly transparent attempt at toadying. I still don’t know what I found more offensive; the sycophancy itself or that he believed I would be fooled by such a clumsy attempt to do so. I was too tired and hungover to have done anything about it, except to wave a hoof dismissively in his direction and make an annoyed ‘grunt’ sound in my dry throat. However, he appeared to have taken that as an invitation to continue talking; I soon wondered if I could shove him in the way of Southern Cross’ engineers to be trampled to death, and claim that he had tripped over on a rock.

“But that Lieutenant Southern Cross’ impertinence makes my blood boil, sir!” He stamped a hoof at the ground. “He speaks to superior officers and to common soldiers as if he is their equal, with no regard to the rank structure and traditions of Their Highness’ Royal Guard. He has no courtesy, no manners, and takes nothing in this business of war seriously! It really is infuriating, sir!”

“He’s a little rough around the edges, true,” I said, watching the formation of engineers slowly becoming clearer and more distinct, as if emerging from the fog. Compared to the average guardspony they were positively laden with equipment, such that underneath the pouches, saddlebags, lengths of rope, spades, pickaxes, axes, and Faust knows what else strewed about their bodies, it was nigh impossible to see the steel grey armour beneath. The noise of their hooves pounding against the ground was joined by that of all of this equipment clattering against itself and the armour it was lashed to, sounding like someone had hurled the entire percussion section of the Canterlot Symphony Orchestra off a cliff.

Scarlet Letter snorted condescendingly. “That’s putting it mildly, if you don’t mind me saying so, sir. He was raised up from the ranks, I hear, and their sort are often ill-disciplined and discourteous.”

As was his commanding officer, Shining Armour, thought I, glancing over my shoulder to see the Captain of the Royal Guard himself chatting amicably with his younger sister, and though I could not hear their conversation over the background noise surrounding us, judging from Twilight’s irritated expression her brother was fussing unnecessarily over her safety. “They often are,” I conceded, remembering the old adage that common soldiery promoted to the officer caste simply do not fit in amongst the rarefied company of their social superiors. “But nevertheless I’m sure that he is a fine officer.”

Then, as if they had been waiting for the opportune moment to embarrass me, the advancing platoon of engineers, which were now no more than ten or so feet away from us, suddenly burst into song.

Lieutenant Southern Cross, who led his platoon from the front and twirled his axe like a baton, started, and then thirty gruff, heavily-accented voices joined in as the engineers marched past. Their leader had the sort of ridiculously wide grin on his face that implied he had been planning this stunt for quite some time now.

The song itself was cheerful, and the tune itself was of a martial rhythm as the ponies marched in step with it, even if the lyrics were of a decidedly silly nature that probably little to no sense to anypony outside of their backward little island commune. [The song was in fact a popular advertising jingle for a Horsetralian condiment known as ‘vegemite’. The recipe for it is rather obscure, and personally I cannot stand the taste of it, though my sister is rather fond of the stuff.] The odd spectacle had the effect of silencing the gentle bubble of polite, and somewhat forced, conversation around me, as the officers, and, indeed, some of the braver guardsponies who conveniently forgot that they were at attention, stopped whatever it was they happened to be doing and watched with expressions of varying levels of incredulity; from the imperiously-arched eyebrows and vague looks of condescending disdain, as if finding a foal has just stolen all of your biscuits, to the bug-eyed, slack-jawed idiocy that I was fast becoming used to around here.

The one exception to this parade of stunned faces was Scarlet Letter, who looked at me with an expression that I could only describe as smugness triple-distilled into its purest form by the most skilled alchemist of the Royal College of Magi. It took a not-inconsiderable amount of will and personal discipline, which was in increasingly short supply here, not to try and punch it out of him, but thankfully I succeeded. Laying hooves upon fellow brother-officers of Their Divine Highnesses’ most honourable Royal Guard is generally frowned upon, unless it’s a duel, of course, in which case one is free to simply murder one’s opponent. As I had little to no desire to sully my hooves anyway, I simply shrugged and muttered some empty platitude about how a little levity now and again can improve the morale and fighting spirit of the soldiers.

“If you say so, sir,” he muttered, evidently unable to resist rubbing it in.

When the song ended as abruptly as it had broken out, Lieutenant Southern Cross peeled away from his unit, which marched off to take its pre-arranged position at the vanguard of the battalion’s marching column, and walked towards our small group. There was a definite swagger in his step, which was matched in its cocky self-assurance only by the same big grin that every serial prankster wears now plastered on his face, as the other officers stepped to the side to form a small tunnel for him to reach General Crimson Arrow. Glancing around, we had all appeared to have taken to the unspoken consensus that it was best to pretend what we had just witnessed simply did not happen, and proceed accordingly.

With everypony present and correct, finally, we proceeded with the inspection. It was more of a formality than a strict necessity; Company Sergeant Major Square Basher had already taken the liberty of conducting a full inspection of the entire battalion a few hours before. It is a very rare occasion that I encounter a mare able to look me in the eye without first rearing up on her hind legs, standing on a box, or first being in possession of both a horn and a pair of wings, as I am quite tall myself, but CSM Square Basher of the earth pony company, affectionately known as Sergeant Bash or simply ‘Marezilla’ owing to her intimidating size, build, and temperament to match, was one of those few. She was a non-commissioned officer of the old school, by which I mean she seemed to believe that victory in war had less to do with inspired leadership, superior strategy, and good logistics, but everything to do with how loud one can shout. Watching her unleash invective after colourful and creative invective at those ponies for having committed a few minor infractions with their uniforms a few hours before had provided some element of amusement for me.

Nevertheless, the officers of the Royal Guard were sticklers for tradition, and I, being a pony who owed his lofty position on the Equestrian aristocratic hierarchy to the great and noble traditions that this nation is founded upon, could not be seen to disapprove of this, regardless of how onerous I found the concept of examining the uniforms and equipment of over three hundred ponies. The inspection itself was to be led by Captain Red Coat, but given his youth and relative inexperience with, well, everything, frankly, he relied upon his Company Sergeant Major to help direct him as the senior officers, plus Twilight, Spike, and both of my hangers-on sifted through the serried ranks of guardsponies. Once or twice, every few moments, an officer would make some light comment about the standard of dress of the soldiers, and everypony else would titter in agreement.

“You have a fine body of troops, Captain,” said General Crimson Arrow. I could tell by the uninterested tone of his voice and the equally bored look in his eyes that, like me, he was merely going through the motions and would much rather be someplace else. He paused and indicated with a hoof to one of the soldiers, who stood as a perfect facsimile of the other two standing either side of him; stock still and as unmoving as a statue. “You are to be commended.”

Captain Red Coat’s cheeks flushed red. “T-thank you, sir,” he said, grinning inanely as if he had just been given a boiled sweet from an elderly relative. “But I think Sergeant Major Square Basher deserves most of the praise, sir.”

Sergeant Bash probably deserved all of the praise, thought I, as I looked over at the rigid forms of the soldiers around me, which gave me the unsettling impression of being trapped in a giant chess set and surrounded by exquisitely crafted pawns. I could hardly imagine Captain Red Coat, as enthusiastic and eager to please as he still was, bringing a full battalion of three hundred ponies into line all by himself; the soldiers, many of them having already served in the Royal Guard when their commanding officer was struggling with the three times table, would have eaten him alive were it not for ‘Marezilla’s’ presence.

“I was only doing my job, sir,” said Square Basher flatly. Her voice was calm, deferential, and even had a tone of timidity about it, which was in stark contrast to the highly aggressive torrent of violent and highly creative profanity I witnessed being unleashed on the enlisted ponies just a few hours before. Nevertheless, her chest puffed out with pride, which only did more to emphasise her intimidating bulk.

“That’s what Sergeant Majors are for,” said General Crimson Arrow off-hoofedly, and waved a hoof at the nearest soldier, “somepony needs to keep the scum in line.”

There were a few general mumbles of assent from the other officers, and we started to wander onto the next platoon before we were all interrupted by a certain quiet, inquisitive little voice.

“Excuse me,” said Twilight Sparkle, and I noted that General Crimson Arrow emitted a none-too-subtle sigh of exasperation at the slightly nagging sound of her voice. The young mare had since given up on wearing her helmet, as the nose plate of which had by now formed a rather unsightly bruise in the shape of a crescent moon a few inches across on the bridge of her muzzle, and had instead taken to tying it by the chinstraps to the buckles on her saddle so it dangled awkwardly around her midsection. I vaguely mused that if she didn’t want it then maybe I could have it. “Did you just refer to the guardsponies as ‘scum’?”

“Yes I did.”

Twilight hummed thoughtfully for a moment, and then scribbled down something resembling a long stream of squiggly lines on her ubiquitous notepad. “Could you elaborate, please?”

“May I, sirs?” said the CSM, much to the General’s evident relief. She glanced over to Captain Red Coat and me as if silently asking the both of us for approval. I gave a well-practiced, reassuring nod, while Red Coat appeared to have been inflicted by that sense of shyness that often ensues when he is in the presence of Twilight Sparkle, and he probably believed that such behaviour was regarded as ‘endearing’ by those of the opposite sex. Apparently satisfied, and probably relieved too, that she had been granted permission to do whatever it was she had in mind to prove her point, she then turned away and marched towards the closest soldier.

“Name and rank!” she bellowed, her face a mere few inches from the guardspony’s face and yet he did not flinch even in the slightest.

“Private Shield Warden, sir!” The stallion punctuated his response in the time-honoured fashion of raising his right forehoof and then stamping it into the ground as if it were the exclamation at the end. [Non-commissioned officers are generally not referred to as ‘sir’; however, there are a few exceptions to this rule which include sergeant majors and Royal Equestrian Marine Corps drill instructors during training. Furthermore, contrary to what one might expect, female officers in the Royal Guard are not addressed as ‘ma’am’, but as ‘sir’.]

“What were you before you joined the Royal Guard?”

Shield Warden hesitated. “A criminal, sir!”

“What were you?” she bellowed louder, moving her face just slightly closer to the guardspony, who bore this invasion of his personal space with the same stoicism and nonchalance as the drill manual (a sacred tome for all non-commissioned officers) demands of him during parade. The only indication that he gave of even being slightly affected was a moment or two of slightly more rapid blinking than usual, as flecks of spittle sprayed in an unsightly manner over his face.

“I was a thief, sir; I mugged ponies to pay off my gambling debts. They gave me a choice between the workhouse and the...”

The slightly wordy stallion didn’t get a chance to finish detailing his life story.

“You were scum!” interrupted the Sergeant Major, and the amplitude of her voice leapt a good few decibels, which elicited a quiet, impressed noise from ‘Cloudless Sky’ just behind me. She had all but head-butted Private Shield Warden as she proved once again that personal space is as alien a concept to NCOs as politeness is to Manehattenites, and pressed her bulky muzzle against that of the guardspony’s with a dense ‘clang’ of metal hitting metal. The soldier flinched slightly, but otherwise stood his ground admirably. Nevertheless, that slight movement was noticed by the aggressively fastidious Square Basher, who told him, in a much quieter tone that was somehow even more menacing than the unremitting torrent of invectives she was known for, to stand up straight and proud like a stallion.

“You were pathetic!” the Sergeant Major continued, more than living up to her nickname. “Useless! You were nothing!” Panting heavily with exertion, and the skin beneath her dyed grey fur flushed a deep crimson with large, distended veins snaking across her temples, she took a step back, and I could see a tiny flicker of relief flicker across the blank, masque-like face of Shield Warden. “But what are you now?”

The guardspony hesitated for a brief moment, mulling the answer over. In the rather interesting movement of muscles in his brow I could almost see the gears and levers turning in his mind as he sought the wisp-like phantasm of the answer that was least likely to result in him getting shouted at further. “A soldier, sir?” he ventured.

Sergeant Major Square Basher nodded her head, and a thin smile – that most rare of facial expressions amongst those who hold her rank – tugged at the corners of her thin, grey lips. “Well done, Private!” she said, and though I searched the tone of her voice for any hint of sarcasm or irony, I found none and believed it to be one of the few times she and her ilk were genuine in their compliments. Apparently satisfied that she had proven her point, she turned to address Twilight Sparkle. “You see?”

Throughout the Sergeant Major’s display, there was the muffled sound of wood tapping against a thick wad of paper, as Twilight Sparkle drummed out a regular tattoo with her pencil. “I still don’t follow,” she said, rather meekly.

“I think I can answer this one, Lady Sparkle,” I said, hoping to end this ridiculous farce; it was bad enough that we send these poor sods charging straight into Changeling jaws without having to add public humiliation into the bargain. That and I hadn’t said much in a while, and I felt that it was high time that I should. “The Royal Guard takes those ponies that the rest of us would rather pretend simply didn’t exist; the poor, the destitute, the wastrels, and the criminal classes, and they are fashioned into steel and fire. We take that purposeless anger each of these youths feel, and ponies such as the Sergeant Major here and me forge it into something useful, for the good of Equestria. For many of these ponies, their term of service in the Royal Guard will be the first time they have had discipline applied to them in a consistent manner, and with that martial discipline we will instil constancy, proper respect for their betters, and that which is most lacking in these times: a sense of duty to their country and to their princesses. In short, we make something out of nothing.

I left out the part about what we did with these ponies when their terms of service were over, however long we required them for, or rather, what we didn’t do with them. For upon their completion of their term of service, should they survive, of course, they were simply let loose back into Equestrian society with no further means of support. I expect many would simply return to their previous life of crime, or perhaps other more idealistic or luckier ponies might actually turn their lives around, but many yet would simply re-enlist with the Royal Guard with naught else productive to do with their lives. I wasn’t about to tell her that, of course, but I’m sure being a smart filly she’d be able to work it out for herself at some point. Twilight made another, vaguely intelligent-sounding ‘humming’ noise and jotted something unintelligible down on her notepad.

“Couldn’t have put it better myself, sir!” said the Sergeant Major, though I was uncertain as to whether she was being sincere or sycophantic.

“That is what I’m paid to do,” I remarked dryly, half to myself, though inwardly I thought the pittance I receive monthly was not nearly enough for the amount of mortal terror this job forces me into.

I felt we had wasted enough time, so I cleared my throat in what is the universally accepted sign that all business has been concluded, and turned around to catch up with the other officers, most of whom had trotted away over to where the Solar Guard contingent of the battalion stood in gleaming lines that coruscated in the bright sunlight. However, it was to some sense of vague disappointment and slight dread that, upon glancing over my shoulder, I saw that only Cannon Fodder and ‘Cloudless Sky’ had followed me. There, Private Shield Warden stood stock still at attention and gazed unfocused at the back of the pony in front’s head, though his view of this wondrous sight was blocked by the ungainly forms of Twilight, Square Basher, and Spike. The first of those three had taken to interrogating the second, much to my irritation and that of the third member of their little group, though I like to think I was much better at concealing it.

The flow of searching questions was probably very interesting from an intellectual standpoint, I might imagine, but this was hardly the place and time to voice them, and was interrupted when Square Basher raised a large, armoured hoof and poked hesitantly at the helmet that dangled awkwardly from Twilight’s midsection. The offending piece of armour jangled noisily against her saddle. “Why aren’t you wearing your helmet?” the Company Sergeant Major asked.

“Huh?” Twilight looked startled for a moment, as if the sudden stoppage of question and answer had left her momentarily disorientated, before glancing around at the offending piece of armour. “Oh, it didn’t fit properly.”

“Helmets are very important,” said Square Basher, and as she did so I noticed that she carefully removed the pace stick that she had always carried sheathed like a sword underneath her left armpit. [A long stick carried by warrant officers and senior NCOs of the Royal Guard. It consists of two lengths of polished wood, hinged at the top so it can be opened like a drawing compass, and is used to accurately measure out certain lengths, such as that of a single pace or the distance between ranks of soldiers, for the purposes of teaching drill] Her voice was curiously quiet, level, and calm, which, in personal experience having gone through officer training at sixteen years old [after he had been expelled from high school for poor grades and behavioural issues, Blueblood had almost immediately bought a commission with his considerable inheritance and joined the Royal Guard as an ensign in the 1st Solar Guard] usually signified something rather unpleasant and quite violent in one’s immediate future. “Do you know why?”


There was a loud and distinctly unpleasant ‘crack’ of polished wood striking what could only have been a skull, as Square Basher had swung the pace stick down upon Twilight’s head. She flinched under the blow, her forelegs giving way as she reached up to clutch what would likely become a rather large bump that would likely make it even more difficult for her helmet to sit properly on her head. Despite my antipathy towards Twilight, and having inflicted similar blows to the head during our foalhood when I was roughing her up for lunch money or to alleviate my boredom, I felt the first inklings of what I suppose is called ‘sympathy’ by other ponies. It was rather unpleasant.

That’s why,” Square Basher snapped. She had yet to learn that while beating soldiers is considered to be not only acceptable but actually quite beneficial in correcting their behaviour and moulding their psyches into correct and proper military discipline, doing so with civilians tends to be something frowned upon lest the gutter press start moaning about military brutality and all that rot.

Spike protested loudly, and tried to force his way between his wounded mistress and the intimidating mare, but was simply brushed aside with a hoof. With surprising tenderness that was in stark contrast to her sudden display of violence, the Company Sergeant Major helped Twilight back to her hooves. “If I was a Changeling,” she said, taking the helmet and fiddling with the internal supporting straps, “then your skull would have caved in, and all those big, fat brains of yours that make you Princess Celestia’s personal student would be spread all over the ground like strawberry jam. Got that?”

Twilight nodded rapidly, and winced slightly as Square Basher placed the helmet on her head and began fussing with the various straps and harnesses to fix it around her chin. “Helmets protect your head,” said the Sergeant Major as she worked. “You might want to make a note of that, Spike; helmet protects your head.”

If helmets were so bloody marvellous, then why didn’t I get one? As I watched Square Basher faff with Twilight’s helmet straps until it was sufficiently tight for it to stop falling forwards with every slight movement, I pondered this eternal question further, and even considered lining the inside of my cap with the same enchanted steel that standard Royal Guard armour was crafted from, should I be lucky enough to source some. I had actually confronted Princess Luna about this, on the off-chance that she had found a gap in her hectic schedule to do Faust-knows what to grace me with her dark presence as I worked on paperwork, but only after drinking half a bottle of fine brandy that Cannon Fodder had scrounged up for me from somewhere. She explained in rather condescending tones, as she normally does with just about everypony, that one of my many duties was to inspire the troops by example as well as rousing speeches, and what better way to boost the fighting spirit of the regiment than to show utter contempt for the enemy’s abilities by not wearing armour?

I thought that the best way for the troops’ morale to be utterly ruined was to see my heroic head caved in like a chocolate egg, but I kept that to myself. Besides, given the dark, gallows humour prevalent in this regiment, I’m certain most of the soldiers would have found that to be rather funny.

“Helmet... protects... your head,” Spike mumbled as he scribbled down the note as bidden. He arched an eyebrow sardonically. “Huh, even I knew that one.”

“You’re gonna go far, kid.” A deep, throaty chuckle reverberated from Square Basher’s lips, and she ruffled the stiff spines on Spike’s head with her steel hoof, from which Spike flinched from. “You’re going to be a field marshal one day,” she joked, blissfully unaware as we all were of just how terrifyingly prophetic her words would become. [Spike would later join the Royal Guard upon maturing as an adult dragon, and would eventually reach the rank of field marshal. Prince Blueblood would later go on to serve as an independent commissar attached to his command staff, and if Spike’s own memoirs are any indication he regarded my nephew as being something of a mentor and guiding force throughout his career; an idea that Blueblood was in equal parts amused and terrified by.]

We caught up with the other officers and proceeded with the inspection. The Solar Guard platoons were absolutely immaculate, and nopony would have expected anything less from ‘Celestia’s Own’; their neatly trimmed and bleached fur and scintillatingly-bright golden armour hurt one’s eyes to look upon in this intense sunlight. We passed without much further comment, aside from the compliments paid by the General to the respective commanding officers. Scarlet Letter, however, almost could not be stopped from gushing in the most sickly sweet and transparently sycophantic terms about how honoured he was to receive such gracious compliments, and it was to my discomfort that I found that Crimson Arrow responded most agreeably to that; he always had quite a fragile ego that required constant nurturing lest it wither and die like a delicate, rare orchid given as a birthday gift to one’s beloved aunt and then forgotten about. [Blueblood, I am so sorry about that.] Conscious of the time, however, I got him to shut up in time to move onto the Horsetralian engineers.

The difference between the spotlessly clean and utterly perfect turnout of the 1st Solar Guard platoons and the rather more grimy engineers was readily apparent to all; the single platoon of the Royal Horsetralian Engineers were caked utterly in a thick film of dust, such that their armour appeared to be of the same yellow-ish colour as their fur. I assumed it might be laziness on their part, and thus affected a suitably disapproving expression as I and my fellow officers scrutinised their appearance, but nevertheless I told myself that, should it come to the point that I would have defend Lieutenant Southern Cross, it would make an effective camouflage in amongst that omnipresent tan-coloured dust.

“They’re looking a bit scruffy, sir,” said Cannon Fodder, without the faintest hint of irony.

General Crimson Arrow pulled an odd face that looked as if he was trying to keep himself from appearing too disgusted. “Well,” he said, his voice strained as he tried to word it properly, “they are a little unkempt.”

“Soldiers are dirty,” said Southern Cross, who had been standing alongside his comrades. He was grinning inanely as usual, as if he was still amused by the ‘prank’ he pulled a few hours ago. “Equipment is clean. Look closer, mate.”

We did, and saw that he was indeed correct. Their equipment – spades, axes, knives, lengths of rope, and a myriad other curious items that I could not possibly identify the use of – was absolutely spotless. Upon closer inspection their dirtiness was nowhere near the level of that of my erstwhile aide, replete as he was with unidentifiable food stains and Faust knows what else caked over his armour and non-regulation facial hair, instead theirs was simply the result of a more utilitarian approach to the strictures of uniform maintenance; their armour was purely functional, devoid of the shiny accoutrements that adorned that of their fellow brothers-in-arms from the Equestrian mainland, and thus indicative of Lieutenant Southern Cross’s strictly practical approach to soldiering. Crimson Arrow snorted uninterestedly.

“Even the spades?” I remarked as I examined one such example strapped amidst the array of baggage and tools to an engineer’s back.

Especially the spades,” he answered. Then, turning to address his troops, he called out, “Engineers! Present spades!” In a series of deft, well-practiced movements that proved they had all been drilled effectively, his engineers had unstrapped the aforementioned tools and planted them handle first into the dust, supporting the wooden shaft with a foreleg to hold the spades perpendicular to the ground with the bright metal tips aimed towards the skies.

“The spade is an engineer’s best friend,” he said, taking one from a guardspony. “It will dig trenches, foxholes, fortifications, latrines; clear minefields and obstructions; and in a pinch it’ll serve as a deadly weapon. Look after your spade, or one day it’ll dig your grave for you.”

The Engineers having passed (not that we could have failed them at this late stage, as doing so would invariably delay the offensive, though the thought had crossed my mind), we moved onto the final contingent; the remnants of the 16th Royal Artillery. The guns and their respective crew were arranged in a long row, with the artillery pieces placed in order of size of calibre; long-barrelled cannons, howitzers positioned at a precise forty-five degree angle in some semblance of a salute (and would probably annihilate some peasant’s outhouse a few miles away if they were fired), mortars that resembled squat, fat chamber pots on wooden supports, and probably a half-dozen other sorts of guns whose differences were likely only appreciated by pedants.

Such things did not interest me much, as I’d rather leave what I don’t understand to those ponies who do, and so I only assigned enough brain power to keep myself moving forward at a steady pace behind Twilight Sparkle and mutter the occasional encouraging platitude, and the rest to admiring the callipygian sight before me. Sergeant Bramley Apple, acting commander of the reformed battery, discussed in animated tones with Major Starlit Skies about how with the correct application of the appropriate sums his cannons could strike a watermelon perched upon a pony’s head a mile away without causing any injury to that individual. I jokingly suggested testing that theory on Spike, to Bramley Apple’s and Spike’s mutual enthusiasm, which earned me a stern glare from Twilight that only grew more intense as my facetious grin widened involuntarily.

Despite my inattention, I noted that all of the guns had name plaques nailed to their side, all lovingly polished to a high degree of shine so as to stand out against the darkened steel of the weapon it adorned: ‘Bertha’, the impressively sized 25-pounder howitzer I had seen in the previous battle; ‘Dora’; and ‘Maribel’, for example. The artillery ponies always held a peculiar reverence and affection for their weapons, one that was quite alien to me as I noted that these guns tended to explode violently and injure their crews with alarming regularity.

“It’s an Apple family thing,” explained Twilight, when I off-hoofedly pointed it out to her. “Applejack names all of her apple trees. She says it encourages them to produce juicier apples, but I haven’t had the time to test that hypothesis yet.”

The inspection of the artillery culminated in the viewing of the powder magazine, which was a small area nearby where the barrels of gunpowder and the ammunition had been piled up on ruggedly designed carriages ready for transport. Upon our approach Sergeant Bramley Apple, who was leading us past the guns and their crews arrayed for our perusal, stopped suddenly and from one of the many pouches that adorned his armour he retrieved a number of small horn rings that appeared to be hewn out of darkest obsidian.

“Begging your pardon, sirs,” he said, though he appeared to have been overcome by his habitual sense of shyness when speaking with officers and was instead addressing the area of empty air just above General Crimson Arrow’s head, as opposed to the area of empty air inside his head. “Ya’ll unicorns are going to have to wear these nullifier rings before coming any closer. One errant spark or flame and the entire camp will be blown sky-high, so, uh, you’re going to have to sit this one out, dragon.”

Spike groaned in annoyance, folded his little arms indignantly, and muttered something about being left behind again, but otherwise I ignored him and took the ring. As I placed it upon my horn, I felt a sudden ‘deadening’ within my very being that I expect would be quite difficult for those ponies not blessed to have been born unicorns to understand. I suppose the closest description to the other two thirds of Equestrian subjects would be like a pegasus losing his wings or an earth pony losing his ability to grow plants, or something. I don’t know. Anyway, it was a damned unpleasant, cold, nauseous sensation that made me shiver despite the intense heat beating down upon us. My headache intensified.

Having left Spike under the supervision of the gunners, we were encouraged to view the barrels of gunpowder and the variety of ammunition; from the standard round shot to explosive shells, shrapnel shot, and canister shot. I don’t know if it was the uncomfortable feeling of the ring upon my horn, being as a dense weight pressing down on my skull that was in no way helped by my hangover, but I felt a distressing chill and a wave of nausea as Bramley Apple proudly unscrewed the top from a canister shell, like an oversized jam jar, so we could examine the deadly shards of ragged metal and ball bearings packed within. The remainder of the inspection proceeded with my usual lack of attention as the acting commander of battery rambled on about something, though I effected on occasion to appear to be very much interested in the cannon balls stacked neatly in a sort of pyramid shape, and as we stepped back to what the gunners had informed us was a safe distance I returned my nullifier with barely-concealed relief.

The sight that greeted us upon our return did much to improve my mood, albeit temporarily. For wedged in the barrel of Bertha was Spike, with his head and upper body swallowed up inside the gun’s gaping maw and thus leaving the lower half of his body, stuck by his fat belly, exposed with his stubby infant legs and tail flailing manically in a desperate effort to free himself. From within the gun barrel, muffled by the inches of thick steel, one could hear his barely audible cries for help. Naturally, I found this utterly hilarious and could not help from chuckling, and the gun’s crew thought so too and were paralysed in fits of raucous laughter. Shining Armour burst into lively guffaws in a manner quite unbecoming of the Lord Captain of the Royal Guard, and he leaned on my withers for support. Indeed, the only pony who did not amused by this (even Princess Luna raised a wry smile), aside from Twilight, who rushed over to her assistant’s aid, knocking over one of the stallions in the process, was Sergeant Bramley Apple.

“Land sakes!” he bellowed, anger etched in the ragged lines that creased his face as it twisted into an expression of utmost rage, the effect of which only made Shining Armour’s already exuberant reaction even more enthusiastic. Surreptitiously, I gently brushed the Shining off me and let him collapse in a giggling heap on the ground. “Ah leave y’all alone with him for five seconds!

Bramley Apple chased after Twilight and in the finest traditions of the NCO caste of the Royal Guard beat some semblance of martial discipline and sense into these soldiers, paralytic with laughter, quite literally with howitzer’s ramrod. “Ya’ll better have a damn good explanation as to why Big Bertha’s blocked!”

“Uh, Big Bertha ate Spike,” said one of the stallions, battered and bruised but still filled with mirth. At least, he was until he was given another blow to the head with the ramrod.

“We dared him to, sir,” ventured the other. It was a fair enough reason, I suppose.

Bramley Apple sucked in a deep breath through his teeth, and then tapped at the gun with the tip of the ramrod. “Well, how do y’all propose on getting him out of there?”

One of the gunners raised a hoof. “We could load a charge of gunpowder there and fire it. That’ll clear the blockage.”

“What?” shrieked Twilight. She had seized Spike’s legs tightly in her purple magical aura, and was struggling in vain to free him from his gunmetal prison. “Are you crazy? You’ll blow him to bits!”

“Y’all call yourself gunners?” said Bramley, his voice a few decibels lower now and slightly calmer. “This here howitzer’s a muzzle-loader, so there’s no way in Tartarus y’all are going to get a charge of gunpowder in there. We’re going to have to grease him up like a pig at hog wrasslin’ and ease him out. Go to the canteen, they should be swimming in grease.”

Spike, I am sure you will be pleased to know, was eventually freed, and was not too terribly upset by his ordeal. Looking back, he seemed to enjoy being the centre of attention for once, despite being a little shaken. Nevertheless, it was to this happy memory that I clung to for comfort, like a security blanket or a cuddly toy, when I found myself skulking with the battalion through the dark ravines and valleys of those infernal hills. Once he was freed and appropriately fussed over by Twilight before being hoofed over to one of the officer’s wives appointed as his nanny, the inspection wound up to a natural conclusion on account of there not being anything else that needed inspecting. [It was not unknown for officers and some soldiers to bring their families on campaign with them, and often they would perform administrative work for the regiment. For the sake of completeness, Twilight Sparkle has informed me that it was Captain Fine Vintage’s wife, Ruby Claret, who looked after Spike.]

We wrapped up the end of the inspection; the earth ponies and unicorns took to their pre-arranged positions in the column surrounding the baggage and supply train, the pegasi took flight and went through their standard combat air patrols, while the gunners were lashed to their guns and ammunition carriages. In matter of a few short minutes we were ready, and it was with a hollow pit in place of my stomach that I looked forlornly out at those mountains once again and moved to take my position by Captain Red Coat’s side, and once again plunge into the breach entirely against my will but with no other recourse to save my hide that would not result in my reputation being shattered beyond repair.

“Blueblood,” someone called out, and I turned to see General Crimson Arrow behind me, having approached me during my brief reverie.

“Crimson,” I replied. Standing either side of him was his usual coterie of aides and staff officers, each with identifiable by their dress uniforms with the red band around their peaked caps, and all with an expression on their faces that seemed to indicate that, like me, they would much rather be elsewhere. A generals’ staff, I mused, was simply not used to being this close to the enemy.

“I, uh, wanted to wish you good luck,” he said, extending a slightly dusty but well-trimmed hoof at me.

I took the hoof hesitantly and shook it, if only because I was wary of the hundreds of pairs of eyes that might have been watching me at this moment and I felt it best to be polite, despite my unease. “Thank you,” I said, trying to inject a little confidence in my wavering voice. I feared for a moment that he might have noticed that my handshake was rather weaker than usual, but if he did he gave no indication. Nevertheless, I made up for that by looking longingly at the ragged, broken chain of hills that loomed over us ominously like a frozen tsunami moments before impact, and adjusted my cap in a manner that I hoped appeared most heroic and noble. “Keep that bottle of brandy safe for me; I shan’t be long.”

We saluted one another, and then, as a drop of rain is absorbed into a greater puddle, I took my place in the marching column, off to war.


Given any other circumstance I might have found this terrain rather beautiful, or even romantic. The desolation provided one with a sense of quiet and peace about it, emphasised by the lack of the trappings of Equestrian civilisation or indeed anything that appeared to be alive aside from some desiccated-looking shrubs and a rodent or two, so I expected it would have been perfect for a weekend break of quiet introspection were it not for the billions upon billions of Changelings not more than a few miles away all wishing to drain one of love. The hills towered over us menacingly, making me all too aware of just how trapped we were. The myriad crags, crevices, hillocks, valleys, boulders, caves, and dry shrubs could have concealed the entirety of the Changeling army and we would have not known until it was far too late and with no means of escape. From the gaps between those rocky peaks sunlight peaked through in thick rays, as if one could reach out and touch them, to illuminate seemingly random spots across the darkened valleys, giving the impression of being inside a vast cathedral as light pours in through the stained glass windows.

As we trudged through the valleys at a snail’s pace, my imagination dredged up all sorts of horrors that could be hidden within the darkened shadows, made worse by every slight flicker of movement both real and illusory, watching and waiting for the opportune moment to strike down from their vantage point and eliminate me, singled out as somepony special by my ridiculous uniform. I would look up from time to time at those broken, ragged peaks towering above us all, and I felt as if the hills themselves were crouched in ambush against us.

It should have been no surprise for you, dear reader, to learn that our advance through those hills was not exactly a pleasant walk through the gardens of Canterlot with your best mare by your side; anypony with sufficient mental capacity to understand the Equestrian language reading this should have worked that out by now. No, what I endured was a gruelling march over the harshest, roughest terrain this country has to offer – entirely inimical to the transit of ponies and of wheeled pony-drawn vehicles – and surrounded entirely by dour, tired, frustrated, complaining soldiers and a firm contender for the ‘most irritating unicorn in Equestria’ competition (beaten only by Rarity, my sisters, and myself). A journey that would have been over in a few short hours over flat, clear terrain was projected to take the entirety of this afternoon and the following morning, with an uncomfortable overnight stop where I feared we would be at our most vulnerable.

Our progress was slow and halting; necessitated by the terrain over which we travelled. Every few steps or so we had to pause and send out pegasus patrols to scout out the most viable paths through the valleys ahead, while Captain Red Coat and I poured over the latest aerial reconnaissance photographs to try to make sense out of the grainy images and apply it to our own limited, myopic view of things down here. Were it not for my special talent of navigation we would have certainly found ourselves dreadfully lost in there. Upon discovery of a viable route, which in itself took an inordinate amount of time to do so, the engineers would have to be sent forth to clear the route of any obstacles with spade, hoof, and, much to Southern Cross’ enjoyment, judicious use of high-explosives. Even then, the going was still rather tough on the earth ponies dragging the baggage trains and the artillery, who oftentimes would find a wheel stuck in a pothole or trapped in rocks or simply find that the path was not wide enough, necessitating further valuable time spent trying to free them.

About a few hours into our unhappy journey, in which the cool shade of the hills providing some small respite from the relentless heat was the only relief in this cavalcade of utter misery, Twilight Sparkle complained of headaches. I found that she had already consumed her entire day’s ration of water and was starting to feel the effects of dehydration. She was given some painkillers for the headache by one of the medics and told to take smaller sips from her canteen regularly rather than gulp it all down in own go.

“I’m really sorry,” she said, taking a sip from my own water canteen that I had so graciously allowed her to borrow. With water being so strictly rationed here, at least until we could get to that damned fortress and hopefully find the well there still in working order after all these years, I had allowed her to drink from my own water ration just this once. Despite most certainly not wanting to, the gesture would have been appreciated and I hoped that it would go some way in making me look good for her report.

“For what?” I asked. We had taken yet another one of our breaks as the pegasi were reconnoitring the route ahead, and as the sun was starting to set, casting the sky in a lambent orange glow to the west and a darkening blue to the east, it would not be long before we established a camp for the night. Captain Red Coat was up ahead with Lieutenant Southern Cross, discussing how to remove the latest blockage. On this mission I wanted him to concentrate so I tried to keep him away from Twilight Sparkle as much as possible.

“I should’ve known better.” Twilight returned the canteen to me, and I rubbed clean the mouth of the bottle with my sleeve before taking a sip myself. “I did so much research and preparation before setting out on this report, and not just on the Royal Guard but also on survival in arid climates. I read books, I read journal articles, I read ancient scrolls from the Canterlot archives about the Badlands theatre of the Nightmare Heresy, I even planned on taking an airship to Saddle Arabia, but Spike told me I wouldn’t have time to make it to Dodge Junction after. I really should have known better than to drink all of my water ration in one go!”

“We all make mistakes, ma’am,” said Cannon Fodder, who had hitherto remained silent by my side. He noisily munched on one of the ubiquitous ration bars that always had a suspiciously unidentifiable taste.

“I-I’m not allowed to make mistakes!” exclaimed Twilight. “I’m Princess Celestia’s personal student and she’s entrusted me to help reform the Royal Guard, I can’t afford to make stupid mistakes like that!”

I removed my cap and rubbed at the sweat that had accumulated around the hat band and then made some vain attempt to smooth the blond mop of my mane back into something resembling a style. “I imagine that’s the problem with preparing for war or survival; there’s always bound to be something that you can’t prepare for or you’ve forgotten about.” And it was that which tended to get one killed rather messily, thought I.

A sudden rumble and a burst of debris and smoke erupted without warning from further along at the head of the column, followed by a loud cheer from dozens of accented pony voices. Twilight flinched slightly in alarm at the sound. I, for one, was rather more concerned about the noise attracting unwanted attention, but the brains behind this operation and the engineers had all agreed, without consulting me I might add, that the use of very loud explosives was the quickest and easiest way to clear a path for the artillery.

Twilight chuckled anxiously as she recovered, seemingly rather lost without her number one assistant to keep her grounded. All around us the soldiers of the battalion, those who were not on patrol or on the picquets and were therefore using the opportunity to banter with their friends, gamble, or try to catch up on some much needed sleep, scrambled up alert and readied themselves for the signal to advance.

“Do you think we’ll win?” she asked, gazing out at the stallions as they each checked their equipment and armour and assembled into a marching column under the direction of their officers.

I arched an eyebrow at the question; it was not as if I could answer it truthfully, as Princess Luna still lingered nearby, falling into the traditional role of the passive, emotionless bodyguard with about as much animation as a piece of furniture perfectly.

Seizing the opportunity to score a few extra brownie points with the guardsponies I had been trying to endear myself to, I gave a vague sort of shrug and said, “I don’t know, Lady Sparkle, but perhaps we should ask the stallions what they think.” Then, I turned to address the battalion, or, at least, what part of it happened to be within earshot of me. The soldiers had arranged themselves into platoon marching order, in files of three as a long, snaking column that would wind its way like snake through these narrow valleys. Each of them looked tired, as soldiers often do on campaign; already covered in dust and dirt despite having spent hours cleaning themselves and their uniforms for the inspection not a more than a few hours previous, though to me it felt like an eternity away.

“Lady Sparkle wants to ask you all a question,” I said, projecting my voice clearly so that it echoed around the valley. If the enemy could hear me, they would probably have been alerted by the small chain of explosions that preceded our advance anyway. “She wants to know if we’re going to win! Well, what do you all say to that?”

The soldiers responded with a single, wordless roar that filled the entire valley and answered her question perfectly. Despite their frustration at their slow progress and at the harsh terrain they marched over, they were all without exception in high spirits for they were doing something that worked towards what they thought was an achievable goal after weeks of doing nothing seemingly productive following that inconclusive battle in Black Venom Pass. I, however, could not share in their enthusiasm, and as I rejoined the column with Twilight Sparkle, Cannon Fodder, and the disguised Princess Luna by my side, I could not shake the uncomfortable feeling that we were being watched.