Blueblood: Hero of Equestria

by Raleigh

Bloodstained (Part 11)

Part 11

All-in-all, everything had gone according to plan; we hadn’t all died yet, and we had reached the pre-appointed stop-off point roughly halfway in our unhappy journey only two hours later than we should have done, which meant that, at Captain Red Coat’s stubborn insistence that we keep to the plan, we had to blindly grope our way through the rough terrain and narrow defiles in the dark like a drunkard struggling to navigate his way home from the pub through a narrow alleyway. A number of guardsponies had stumbled over rocks in the dark, spraining their hooves and incurring a few bruises, though the latter was mostly due to Company Sergeant Major Square Basher’s rather ‘hooves-on’ approach to making sure that those soldiers had learnt their lessons of watching where they were going. Some of the cannons had broken their wheels over the course of our journey, which was something that we had all expected would happen, and thankfully the damage caused by dragging these guns over ground that was less than ideal for them was not irreparable.

Though my anxiety was strong during the daylight hours, it only grew worse when night fell; when we had set up the temporary camp, which consisted of little more than a small plateau area where the soldiers would bivouac and the officers would sleep in the tents that had been brought, the notion that we were now at our most vulnerable continued to nag at the back of my mind. Twilight Sparkle, thankfully, had retreated to her own tent to eagerly process all of the notes that she had made since the last batch that she had produced, Cannon Fodder was content sleeping in his portion of my tent, and Princess Luna was, unsurprisingly, nowhere to be found. It was by the dim light of a single flickering candle that I was granted some much needed time alone, though the constant sound of snoring from beyond the partition and the bubble of rowdy banter from outside the tent reminded me that I was never truly isolated here, and though I tried to busy myself with some pointless make-work, I still found my mind drifting back towards the very real peril in which we found ourselves.

Though Captain Red Coat and the other officers appeared to be entirely unconcerned by the ever-present threat of ambush, as all of the pegasus reconnaissance flights that ranged even beyond the hills themselves indicated that the enemy remained completely unaware of our secretive approach, I was not so sanguine; In fact, I had already seen flickers of movement from up the peaks that entrapped us within these narrow valleys. On a conscious level, I could explain such things as simply being the beasts that inhabit this desolate land, but the itching in my hooves still could not be calmed. Naturally, I could not allow the ponies around me to know of my paranoia; if the pegasi were adamant that the Changeling Army remained massed at the mouth of Black Venom Pass and that none of their scouts could possibly have come within five miles of us without their knowing, then I could not be seen to be getting so worked up about phantasms, which, for all I knew, could only be tricks my damned paranoia was playing upon me. Therefore, I sought to emulate the sort of stoicism and sangfroid expected of the Royal Guard officer class, and hope that Captain Red Coat et al would take from my example, however false it was, and act accordingly should what I fear actually transpire.

It is a little known fact amongst ponies that neither of the two Royal Pony Sisters actually needs to breathe; Princess Celestia is polite enough to go through the motions, but it seems that Luna simply doesn’t bother with such niceties. This unique facet of alicorns, being more accurately described as metaphysical concepts such as day, night, love, and friendship taking the physical forms of ponies to varying degrees of success, is not something that one picks up on immediately, yet one’s subconscious invariably takes notice, which merely adds to the overall feeling of ‘wrongness’ that Luna inevitably invokes in most ponies. Whether this is deliberate or not, I cannot possibly say for certain, but I would not put it past her to simply refuse to do so out of sheer stubbornness to lower herself to an activity only we mere mortals do, or a deliberate attempt just to make me feel as uncomfortable around her as possible. If it was the latter, then she certainly succeeded in her endeavour. [The metaphysics of alicorn biology are, unfortunately, beyond the limited understanding of mortal minds; suffice to say that what Blueblood has described is true to a certain extent.]

One can understand, therefore, as late that evening as I was catching up with some paperwork that had inexplicably found its way onto my desk despite being miles deep within what is considered enemy territory (bureaucracy will always find a way), and which Cannon Fodder had failed to deflect from me with his usual combination of bull-headed obstinacy and rank odour, that I completely failed to notice the presence of Princess Luna, sans disguise, until I was by chance distracted by some noise outside and turned my head to the left to find her face just inches from mine, apparently looking intently over my shoulder at my work. Needless to say, I reacted about as well as one might expect; I let loose an involuntary gasp of surprise as I flinched away from her reflexively, nearly falling off my cushion, and with a clumsy flail of my hooves as my primitive hindbrain tried to engage the ‘flight’ portion of pony’s self-preservation instinct I inadvertently threw a good portion of my neatly ordered piles of paperwork onto the ground. However, I like to imagine that I recovered from my initial shock with admirable alacrity, or at least I tried to give the impression that I had done, as I attempted to reassert my habitual demeanour of regal aloofness despite the surge of adrenaline rushing through my veins making me feel both twitchy and nauseated. [Princess Luna describes this event rather differently; saying that Blueblood ‘screamed like a filly’, fell out of his seat, and spent the next five minutes on the ground gasping for air ‘like a beached narwhal’. I cannot say whose account is accurate, due to a lack of corroborating evidence.]

“Auntie?” I gasped, between short, ragged breaths and some reflexive swallowing to try and quell the sudden infestation of butterflies that had broken out within my stomach.

“Princess,” she insisted through set teeth.

“Your disguise! What if someone sees or hears you?”

“They won’t,” she replied. Her tone of voice and peculiar choice of words did very little to help me relax.

The Night Mare was close, uncomfortably so, as if she had no concept of personal space, yet I felt no body heat radiating off her and no exhalation of breath stirred the sweat-matted fur on my skin. It was all very unsettling. She tapped the papers on the desk with a hoof the size of a dinner plate. “What are you doing?” she asked, entirely unconcerned with the near-heart attack I was still recovering from. I suppressed a small shudder; it felt as if the hide on my back was trying to pull itself free from the raw flesh it concealed.

She picked up a few of the sheets of paper that I had thrown to the ground during my brief panic attack – some more of the horrendously written pamphlets sent to me by the Ministry of Information for dissemination amongst the common soldiery, if I recall correctly – and studied them curiously. As I watched, my heart pumped frantically in my chest, and as her ears pricked and flickered I briefly entertained the notion that she could hear it as clearly as I could.

“Paperwork,” I said at length, surreptitiously concealing with a hoof a foalish doodle of Daring Do punching Queen Chrysalis that I had scrawled in the margins of a disciplinary report form as I did so. I was in no mood for small talk, especially not after the fright she had just given me, but I must admit that I was rather surprised by the idea of the Princess taking a personal interest in my work; for the most part she regards me with the same sort of quiet disdain as she would for some horrid creature that had just crawled out of an open sewer.

I had hoped that my short, terse answer would be enough to make her go away, and to further encourage her to pick up on that hint, I picked up my quill, which, in my panic, I had hurled with some violence at my desk where it had scrawled a large spiders’ web over a page of an open copy of Princesses’ Regulations, and pretended to scribble some notes in the margins of a form. Alas, as her social skills were still sadly lacking at this stage of her readjustment to Equestrian society, Princess Luna either failed to notice the cue to leave or simply ignored it. Mercifully, she stepped back and allowed me some breathing space, though I don’t suspect for a moment that she did so out of any concern for my comfort, and flicked through the pamphlets she had picked up.

“Why?” she asked at length, her brow furrowing into a slight, disapproving frown.

Well, that was the question I had been asking myself ever since I first scrawled my signature on a dotted line in triplicate. I shrugged my shoulders, despite the inevitable stab of pain from my shrapnel wound. “Because it needs to be done,” I said, providing what was probably the best explanation of the convoluted, labyrinthine bureaucratic framework that underpins not only the Royal Guard but all of Equestrian society as one could possibly give without Twilight Sparkle on standby to provide one of her trademark lectures.

Luna tossed the small wad of pamphlets down upon my desk and looked at me with an expression that was quite unreadable. Her permanent scowl deepened, and her lips set into a thin line, tugged slightly downwards at the ends across her long, elegant muzzle. Despite this, there was little of the condescension inherent in her whole demeanour, and indeed without her armour and regalia the mare standing before me looked uncharacteristically vulnerable and, well, like a pony, I suppose.

“This is what is wrong with Equestria these days,” she said, instead taking the cue to leave as an invitation for a rant. I noticed that this sort of thing had been happening to me a lot lately. “I thought I had escaped such nonsense when I came here, only to find the same rot that had infested the Ministry of War has spread to the frontlines.”

“War changed,” I said blandly. “A lot changes in one thousand years.” I contemplated pointing out that the last time Princess Luna went to war over a millenia ago ponies had yet to discover the link between diseases and drinking out of the same body of water one uses as a latrine, but I decided against it. I did not make it this far in life by saying every stupid thing that came to my head, instead I merely let that thought fester to write it out decades later in a document that nopony will read.

My auntie’s face become unreadable; an odd sort of grimace, slightly pained, flitted across her sharp muzzle, before the frown on her brow intensified and she fixed me with an odd glare. “War never changes,” she hissed, her voice barely above a whisper. “It’s the one thing in a thousand years of exile that has remained unaltered.”

“I don’t think so,” I said, and immediately regretted it. I don’t know what compelled me to try and stand up to the one pony in Equestria that one cannot stand up to, especially since I have seen first hoof what happens to those ponies who have tried to (primarily me and the palace servants during the first few months of her return to Equestria, and the subsequent problems they had trying to cater to her rather esoteric needs), and I had very little desire to subject myself to such treatment here of all places. But as I was pleasantly surprised that I had not been subjected to the full force of the Royal Canterlot Voice, which would have likely uprooted my whole tent and sent it flying down the valleys like a discarded newspaper caught in an stiff breeze, and that I wasn’t being throttled to the brink of passing out, I dared to look up from the ground between my forehooves and saw that Princess Luna was lying on my cot with her long, sinuous limbs folded underneath her slender body.

“You don’t?” she said, her tone imperious. She waved a hoof, as if encouraging a foal to read the next line out of a picture book, and her eyebrow was arched sceptically. “The purpose of war is to force the enemy into performing your will through the use of violence. That is the principle act of warfare and it will never change.”

“That’s what war is for,” I said. “How we fight it has changed.”

“No.” Her voice took on an edge of steel to it that made me shudder involuntarily. Anxiously, I placed a hoof on the desk behind me to steady myself, as if somehow the flimsy wooden fold-up structure would protect me in some manner. The papers on the desk and the copy of Princesses’ Regulations, a faux-leather bound tome about the size of a phone book and about seven times as dull to read, became suffused with her deep blue aura, were lifted from their resting places, and presented before me one by one until I was presented with what appeared to be a wall of paper.

“It is not enough,” she began, and the papers began to swirl around my head in a dizzying vortex that made me feel quite nauseated, “that a soldier is willing to risk his life out of a love of his Princesses and his country. No, there must be forms to fill in, tests carried out, procedures followed to the letter, meetings to be had, discussions, fetching, foraging, bureaucracy, punishment details, digging latrines. The Ministry of War be damned to Tartarus for all eternity for having turned soldiers into mere clerks. This. Isn’t. War!”

The forms, pamphlets, letters, and even the book of regulations that were circulating about my head as if I was trapped in the centre of some bureaucratic washing machine suddenly exploded into clouds of white confetti. I flinched, bringing my hooves up to cover the same handsome face that sent the ladies of Prench nobility swooning in their corsets, and there is no shame in admitting that I might have yelped slightly. I’m not quite sure how long I spent in that foetal position; it can’t have been too long but it certainly felt like it at the time, and as I lowered my hooves, which were still itching damnably since we stepped hoof in those hills, I saw all the work that I had done that evening lying like Hearth’s Warming snow around me.

Indignation rose within me; an emotion that one does not express before Princess Luna unless one has a death wish, but once again I felt the frustration and anger that I had been forced to suppress for the good of the war effort and my own false reputation rise within me. It was not that I was particularly upset that the work that I had done had been lost irreparably, for in truth I had been dawdling as usual and making every effort to indulge in the same sort of foalish procrastination that I did with school homework a decade ago. No, my anger rose from the principle that my work, however poor and incomplete as it might have been, had been destroyed by her, and that she would come here, from thousands of miles away to risk my life and that of thousands of others of ponies just to indulge in some stupid, fantastic nostalgia of hers when she led the armies of Equestria into battle. That she continued to lecture me as if she was an elderly mare regaling the younger generation with how utterly wonderful ‘her time’ was, despite such things as the Magna Carta Equus [‘The Great Charter of Liberties of Equines’; a document written by the first Parliament and signed by myself in the aftermath of the Nightmare Heresy. It is notable for, amongst other things, laying down the foundations of the Equestrian rule of law by stating that the will of the Princesses is not arbitrary and that no free pony of Equestria may be punished except through the law of the land. It should also be noted that it would be several years after her return from the moon until Princess Luna would acquiesce to signing the charter] and the concept of regular bathing were considered to be very progressive and highly dangerous ideas at the time, was sufficient to push me over the edge.

Luna’s face was a masque of pure detachment; as if it were merely a sort of working prototype of what a pony’s face should look like and whoever had crafted it, Faust most likely, had yet to inject even the slightest spark of life and animation into it. Indeed, only the gentle wafting of her ethereal mane fluttering on an invisible breeze and the stars within that flickered and rearranged themselves into simulacra of the myriad constellations of the night sky at her fickle whims were the only indications that I could see that she had not been hit with a petrification spell. I did my best to imitate it, but I soon found out that I was dealing with the pony who probably invented the whole concept of concealing one’s feelings beneath an impassive facade and gave up trying.

“Well, what do you think war is?” I blurted out, brushing the torn remains of the paperwork from my shoulders like dandruff. The Princess looked rather taken aback by my outburst, as, I must admit, so was I. There was no turning back now, I supposed, if I was to be torn limb from limb anyway I might as well go out proving my infernal Auntie wrong about something for once, so I continued: “The Royal Guard consists of forty-one thousand ponies-at-arms in forty-one Line Regiments of Hoof, plus the artillery, plus the engineers, plus the special forces, plus the Marines, plus the militias and the colonial auxiliaries. How in Faust’s name are we to get them to the frontline? Lists! How do we train them? Lists and paperwork! How do we arm them? Lists! Armour, food, water, ammunition, recruitment... all of it is done through lists! You can’t just round up a couple of your aristocratic favourites and conscript some peasant levies and call it an army, anymore; you need rules, you need orders, you need ponies to write this stuff down, otherwise nopony knows what in Tartarus is going on!” I paused for a breath. “And Faust help us all if nopony digs the bloody latrines.”

As she listened to my short tirade, her expression did not change. Only when I had stopped, somewhat out of breath and still running on a potent cocktail of adrenaline, fear, and polite, aristocratic indignation, did I notice that the ends of the thin line across her jaw that was her mouth were inclined slightly up in a smile. Panting slightly, I involuntarily gripped the firm cushion my regal behind was perched upon and awaited my immediate dismemberment and/or immolation. Instead, her reaction was almost the precise opposite of what I expected; she chuckled softly, which at first I found confusing and then, as it grew louder and more mirthful, I found to be quite terrifying.

“So, the ‘Prince’” –I somehow knew that she had placed sarcastic quotation marks around my title as she said it– “has a backbone after all. Perhaps my choice was not as ill-founded as I thought. Mark me, Blueblood, you shall be thankful that you yet have soldiers and not clerks standing by your side when you march into battle once more. You have given me much to consider, nephew.”

With that rather ominous statement, Princess Luna rose from my bed and stood before me, with that smile of hers never leaving her face. She dissolved before my eyes into an amorphous cloud of black-blue smoke and sparkles, like her mane, though to my eyes it just reminded me of a giant daemonic amoeba, and slipped noiselessly through the gap between the tent and the ground and into the darkness beyond.

Relief washed over me when she left, though not completely as the knowledge that she was still out there doing Faust-knows-what coupled with the underlying apprehension that very soon we may all die very horribly and very messily continued to nag at my mind. Nevertheless, I knew that it was probably time that I got some sleep, or, at least, pretended to, as I was certain that the fractured remnants of what once passed for nerves would not allow me to do so. I belatedly noticed that Cannon Fodder had poked his head through the tent flap and was regarding me with his usual expression of mild confusion and blankness. The overall effect made him look disconcertingly like one of those mounted trophy heads that Gryphon hunters seem to believe are ideal for decorating one’s home with.

“Is there anything the matter, sir?” he said, implying that he had, somehow, not heard what just transpired from beyond a flimsy drape of fabric. [It appears that Luna had placed a zone of isolation around Blueblood’s portion of the tent, which only lifted when she had left.]

I glanced down at the debris strewed about my hooves, and the little white flakes that settled over my slightly faded coal-black uniform, and, for the briefest of moments, considered telling him the truth. Instead, knowing that such an exercise would be fruitless at best and utterly detrimental to the somewhat messianic faith that he and his comrades placed in me, I merely shook my head. “Couldn’t sleep,” I said, forcing a smile to my face for his benefit, “thought I’d catch up on some ‘homework’, but my horn” –I tapped the bony protrusion on my forehead– “backfired on me.”

Cannon Fodder chewed thoughtfully, but otherwise said and emoted nothing. We stared at one another for a single, uncomfortable moment before I realised what I had done wrong.

“You may go back to bed, Cannon Fodder,” I said.

“Thank you, sir.” He nodded his head in some clumsy semblance of a bow, before it disappeared once more through the tent flap.

I looked to the cot, which no longer looked quite as inviting as it should have been with my level of fatigue, as somehow the fact that Luna had occupied it so recently made the idea of climbing into it quite unpalatable. I therefore took the rough, itchy woollen sheets from the bed and a rolled-up storm coat that I had been using for a pillow and tossed them lackadaisically on the dusty ground, and settled there for some sleep.

It was to my eternal surprise that I actually managed to sleep that night, despite being on the hard ground, and I was even more shocked when I woke up to find that all of my blood was still safely contained within my veins. I expect that one gets used to this sort of thing after a while; I had noticed that the common soldiery had, after basic training and a month or so into their terms of service, all evolved the ability to sleep at any time and any place and awaken alert and ready for combat, if needs be. Though I was far too soft a pony to have acquired that same ability at quite that level, the fact that I had managed to sleep for more than an hour, was able to stumble out of my tent the following morning without feeling that my brains had been somehow scooped out through my ears while I was unconscious, and that I only required just one cup of sludgy black coffee in order to feel the closest I had ever felt to ‘fully awake’ since my military career received its unexpected and entirely unwanted reboot, was all rather encouraging. At least, it was until I was sufficiently conscious enough to remember where I was and why.

As the camp stirred to life at the sound of the morning reveille, the refrain of which echoed around the valleys so as to give the impression that single bugle was merely one of a large chorus and no doubt alerting all Changelings within earshot of our presence, I stumbled out of my tent to find that ‘Cloudless Sky’ was standing sentry just outside of the tent flap. The sight of my disguised auntie so early in the morning gave me quite a shock, for I had clung to the very slim chance that the discussion we had the previous night might have encouraged her to re-assess her insane scheme and just disappear back to Canterlot. Nonetheless, there she was, ‘in-character’, as it were, as the cold and detached life guard of my most regal body, and once that I had gotten over that surprise I felt it best to get on with the task at hand.

I made my rounds, checking up on the soldiers, their NCOs, and the platoon officers, and where needed dispensed the necessary platitudes and slogans that some committee of middle managers in the Ministry of Information a thousand miles away in Canterlot must have fondly believed were inspirational but to me merely sounded insipid and facile. Nevertheless, on the whole the soldiers all seemed rather content, motivated even, by my empty words, and as I rambled them off by rote I mused how my role in this regiment had effectively been reduced to that of a talking head. More importantly, however, Princess Luna seemed to be relatively content with my showing, for as I said ‘the Princesses protect’ for the umpteenth bloody time that morning, having said that infernal phrase so many times in my career that those words have lost all meaning, a few glances over my shoulder at her showed she was smiling slightly. Either that, or she was merely amusing herself by imagining twisting my head around with her hooves like a bottle top until my neck snapped. Who knew what thoughts revolved in that unfathomable mind of hers?

Dawn had only just broken, but Celestia’s sun was still concealed from us by the tall peaks that towered over us, and our little camp was blanketed in darkness. As we were nestled in the cleft between two sheer cliffs, the route to our objective and even more misery (and almost certain death), and the one that led back to Equestria and civilisation, appeared to me as a tunnel stretching endlessly into the darkness, albeit with the clear, orange-tinted sky above and no comforting light shining from either end. In accordance with the plan which we were all supposed to be adhering to, once the whole business of waking, ablutions, breakfasting, and the relieving of the picquets was taken care of the camp burst into a frenzy of being torn down and packaged neatly for transport. While I was making my rounds, Cannon Fodder was hard at work dismantling my tent and preparing it and the contents contained therein for transport, and no doubt making sure that Twilight Sparkle is awake and ready in time; it would not have reflected well on us if we left her still asleep in her tent halfway into Changeling country.

It was only a matter of time before we came across Captain Red Coat, the officer in charge of this insane expedition, on my aimless wandering. The young officer was observing Company Sergeant Major Square Basher conducting an impromptu inspection of a section [more commonly referred to as a ‘squad’, an infantry section consists of between eight and twelve soldiers led by a corporal and is the most basic organisational unit of the Royal Guard] of Night Guards that were unfortunate enough to have been the closest to her at the time. Indeed, I had heard the CSM’s harsh, heavily-accented voice cutting above the general background cacophony that always accompanies an army on the march from the opposite end of the camp. Red Coat was seated on his rump with his back to me. In one hoof he held an enamel mug and with the other he appeared to be working furiously at something around his mouth, which, as I got closer to him, turned out to be a toothbrush.

As I approached Red Coat turned his head, the toothbrush wedged between his teeth and his check, and he nodded a greeting, which I reciprocated by muttering ‘good morning’. The Company Sergeant Major, however, was so fully engrossed in her task of inspecting the troops that she did not notice me, or simply did not care either way. She stopped in her inspection of the front rank by a soldier who she towered over by a clear hoof or so, and rested her pace stick upon the shoulder of that unfortunate guardspony.

“Private!” she barked, and then brought the brass-tipped wooden stick with sudden violence against the soldier’s cheek piece armour with a dense ‘clang’ of metal. The soldier flinched slightly, but otherwise appeared unhurt by the blow. “You have sleep in your left eye; the corner of! How dare you appear in front of an officer with sleep in your eye!”

“Sir!” The guardspony stamped a hoof and then proceeded to rub at his left eye to remove the rheum that had so offended the Sergeant Major. I exchanged an odd look with Captain Red Coat, who merely shrugged and continued with his morning ablutions.

“Faust almighty,” muttered Square Basher in exasperation. “At ease, you miserable lot.” The imposing mare stepped back from the infantry section, much to their evident relief that the end to their torment was in sight, and then cleared her throat noisily. “If I were a Changeling,” she said, addressing the section as a whole, “and if I was unlucky enough to be facing the bucking Night Guards in battle – the hardest, most bloodthirsty bastards in the entire Royal Guard, and unlike the bucking gung-ho pansies in the Marine Corps, we’re hard enough to back up these claims – then I would be downright disappointed, offended, even, that I was going to be killed, murdered, ripped into bloody shreds by the scruffiest, shabbiest, most wretched bunch of half-arsed amateurs in Their Highnesses’ Royal Guard I have ever seen, who have now disgraced themselves in front of me and the Captain and now the Commissar and his pretty filly. But by Princess Luna’s sparkly blue arse” – the real Princess, standing not more than ten feet away from the completely oblivious Sergeant Major, blushed hotly at that remark – “I will make all of you into proper soldiers that will make those so-called ‘fearless’ Changelings shit themselves in their chitin at the mere thought of facing you in the field of battle! You are dismissed!”

The soldiers all snapped to attention, saluted the Captain, who was still engrossed in tending to his oral hygiene, and then dispersed to do whatever it was they were supposed to have been doing before Square Basher had decided to have a little bit of fun with them. Their tormentor turned upon her hooves, marched up to her commanding officer, and snapped to attention with a stamp of her hoof. It might have been my imagination, but I think I felt a slight tremor reverberate through the ground and up my hooves.

“With your leave, sir,” she said, her voice now back down to a rather more comfortable volume, “I’ll go and check on the readiness of the other platoons.”

He removed the toothbrush from his mouth and spat on the ground before rubbing at the frothy toothpaste puddle with his sabaton. “Very good,” he replied, returning the salute. “I want us to leave in ten minutes, Sergeant Major. Tell them that; we leave in ten minutes.”

“Sir!” Square Basher stamped her hoof once more, saluted, and then cantered away to be subsumed into the swirling morass of grey fur, dark steel armour, and pale dusty that surrounded us like a vortex. Now that we were alone, after a fashion, I approached Captain Red Coat, who was sipping at his tea thoughtfully. Upon hearing my approaching hoofsteps, he inclined his head towards me and nodded a greeting.

“Morning,” he mumbled, suppressing a yawn and then pocketing his toothbrush back into a pouch on his breastplate.

I reciprocated the greeting and sat next to him, while my ‘life guard’ stood by my side and watched the ponies around us with her usual impassive stare. “Did you sleep well?” I asked; I was not particularly in the mood for small talk, in fact, I seldom am if I’m truly honest, but as whether or not I would be around to see my twenty-third birthday depended upon the good Captain’s ability to stay level-headed when we inevitably get into battle, I thought it was best to try and give the impression that I was interested in his well-being for reasons that weren’t entirely selfish.

“Not bad,” he said, taking a sip from his mug of tea. Considering he had only just brushed his teeth I couldn’t imagine drinking tea straight after would taste very good, but he didn’t seem to mind at all. “A little tricky getting off at first but, but when I did I had this weird dream with Princess Luna and she was introducing me to all of the great military leaders of history. Then I dreamt I was a magic hamster flying through space.”

“I see...”

I glanced over my shoulder at the disguised Princess Luna lingering ominously by my side, and she returned my look with a knowing smile. Her ability to invade one’s dreams and interfere with them, usually to dispense some sort of helpful advice or impart a valuable lesson about friendship or some other such nonsense, was already known to me; a few months prior to these events I was enjoying a very pleasant and highly erotic dream involving Fancy Pants’ trophy wife, Fleur-de-Lis, and in mid-copulation Luna had burst in, denounced me as a perverted blackguard, at which point Fleur then transformed into one thousand scorpions. Needless to say, the experience was all rather harrowing and put me off the very idea of sexual intercourse for a good few weeks.

From another pouch Red Coat retrieved the rather beat-up old map that we had been using to navigate our way around this Faust-forsaken blight on Equestria, opened it up to its full size like a small table cloth, and spread it on the dust before us. There was a large tear in the upper left corner which removed precisely nothing of any value from the map, a few brown circles and blotches, some overlapping one another, where ponies had placed and spilt their mugs of tea, and what appeared to be a cigarette burn approximately where Dodge Junction was. Amidst the rippling, rolling contours of the hills that made up the bulk of this map were hundreds of hoof-written notes scrawled to the point of illegibility and a thick blue line that marked our progress. As Red Coat smoothed the map out and placed stones at the four corners, I stared at the vague shapes described by the blocky lines and transformed that in my mind into a three-dimensional shape to plot our route to our objective.

“We’ve made good progress so far,” he said, tracing the blue line with his hoof.

I nodded in response; the sooner we were out of here the better.

Red Coat then moved his hoof to a dotted line that I had drawn the previous day to show what I thought was the best route. “Are you certain this is the best path to take?”

“It looks like it,” I said. “My special talent seems to think so, at any rate. It looks wide enough for our carriages and our guns, and there aren’t many twists and turns to it.” What I did not add was the rather disconcerting notion that had only just occurred to me; as I reviewed the route in my mind I noted that, by comparison to the path we had dragged ourselves through just before, much of this new route looked as if it had been built to a design than created by the random whims of natural erosion. The idea set my hooves itching once more, and though I could rationalise that thought as it simply being marvellous good luck that we had stumbled across a path half-built by the ancient pre-Equestrian civilisation that lived here (perhaps they hired Prench contractors who went on strike halfway through construction), the idea that it might still be in use by Changelings or some unknown presence did not sit well with me at all.

“What about obstructions?”

“My special talent isn’t prescient,” I said, shrugging a little, “it’s just telling me that’s the path we should probably take. If there’s anything in our way, I’m sure Lieutenant Southern Cross will blow it up with judicious amounts of explosives. He’ll enjoy that.”

“Hmm.” Captain Red Coat stroked his chin thoughtfully as he regarded the map before him. As I observed him quietly, I noticed that there was a sense of maturity about him that simply was not there before; though his youthful good looks were still marred by the outbreaks of acne that had blossomed over nearly every part of his face that was not previously occupied by an eye, a nose, or a mouth, or any other facial feature of note, the way that he carried himself seemed to convey a rather more intangible sense that the wide-eyed, idealistic, eager young colt that had bumped into me as I stepped onto the platform at Dodge Junction station was hardened somehow by his experiences in war. He was growing up.

“How are the troops?” he asked as he removed the improvised paperweights from the map and started the laborious process of folding it up again.

“Morale is as good as can be reasonably expected out of them,” I said. “They’re eager to take the fight to the enemy, and the Princesses willing, we will, but they’re frustrated by our lack of progress.”

Red Coat took the now folded map from the ground and placed it back inside his pouch pocket. “Aren’t we all?” he said, smiling in a manner that looked rather forced to me. Well, I certainly was not ‘eager to take the fight to the enemy’ in the slightest. ‘Eager to run home, lock myself in my room, and have a good, long cry before indulging in far too much ice cream and champagne to be considered medically safe’ was rather more like it. At any rate, such an idea was hardly feasible, so I merely nodded my head in a manner that I hoped looked suitably grave and terribly commissarial.

“Please excuse me,” he said, “but I need to speak with the Engineers; they’re using up through our supply of gunpowder a bit too quick for my liking. Could you make sure the troops are ready for me, please?”

“Of course,” I said, effecting a friendly smile.

He saluted, which I returned half-heartedly, and then turned and cantered away.

As I wandered back in the vague direction of my tent, now most likely packed away with its contents on the back of a pony-drawn carriage, I noticed that the soldiers themselves had rallied themselves into some semblance of good, martial order. The baggage, guns, ammunition, and other supplies were lashed to the earth ponies, and already the pegasi platoons had taken flight and were circling above us in standard ‘V’ formations, which for all the world looked to me as if we were about to suddenly be assaulted by a vast mob of geese. Twilight Sparkle, as far as I understood, was already making a nuisance of herself by asking questions and sticking her nose in where it probably shouldn’t be, but as she was safely surrounded by guardsponies and their officers I was not unduly concerned for her safety; rather, I was more concerned about the safety of those ponies around her.

I stepped back from the ponies, with my tail, which had since been cropped in the military fashion [Guardsponies are required to wear their tails short to prevent an enemy from grabbing hold of it in battle. This is not mandatory for officers, but most invariably follow suit], and my hind legs against a the sheer, almost vertical, rock wall that loomed about fifteen feet above us and terminated in a small ‘shelf’ and a rising slope to the hill peaks. Affecting to look as if I was supervising the ponies as they quenched fires, packed their bedrolls, and munched hungrily on feedbags, and satisfied that everypony within earshot was too fully engrossed in whatever it was that they were doing to eavesdrop, I leaned in close to my disguised Auntie and said sotto voce: “Might I be correct in assuming you’ve been helping Captain Red Coat in his dreams lately?”

Princess Luna smiled knowingly and nodded her head. “It is my duty, after all; Red Coat has the potential to be an excellent leader of ponies, but it is his youth and his lack of confidence and experience that are holding him back. With our guidance, I in dreams and you by example in war, we shall mould this foal into a capable officer.”

I snorted contemptuously, but I think I managed to mask that gesture by appearing to be clearing my sinuses of the clouds of dust that the soldiers’ hooves had been kicking up incessantly. Rubbing at my nose, I also concealed the rather irritated snarl that tugged at my lips. “And what was the flying space hamster in aid of?”

“I’m allowed to have a little fun, aren’t I?” replied Luna, grinning inanely. Such an expression did not suit her, thought I.

“Well,” I said, watching with a sense of growing dread as the ponies arranged themselves neatly into the marching column with effortless ease, as they had practiced these manoeuvres over and over until the memory was ingrained more in their minds than that of their first kisses. Resigning myself to the fact that the new day had brought only fresh opportunities for me to die gloriously for the peculiar mare standing beside me and her elder sister and the country that they ruled, I adjusted my cap to what I had hoped was a suitable rakish angle and moved to join the column. “I think all of us will be gaining some experience before this is all over.”