It occurs to me that thus far in my ignoble career I have spent more time attending meetings than I have actually on the battlefield. Not that I am complaining, as I think most sensible ponies, of which there appears to be an ever-decreasing number in Equestria, can agree that it is far better to be merely bored for a few hours than to be in constant mortal danger. But meetings tend to make for rather onerous reading and are even more tedious for me to write about; and as I fear that these writings will one day be read for the purposes of light entertainment amongst ponies with nothing better to do than waste their own time reading the inane ramblings of Equestria's biggest fraud than the sort of serious, scholarly interest that I had originally intended, for the benefit of you, dear reader, I shall gloss over the following as best I can without depriving you of any salient information.
This emergency meeting was held upon the raised dais in the Great Hall, where the dilapidated old throne, its various accoutrements, and the surrounding piles of debris had been cleared and the area repurposed into a makeshift planning centre for Captain Red Coat. In the place of the aforementioned mess was a large wooden table, and piled atop this was the usual array of maps, papers, notes, drafted orders, requisition lists, orders of battle, and other examples of every conceivable sort of paperwork that the Royal Guard accumulates during the average offensive operation. In hindsight, it was rather amusing; the soldiers had worked so hard to clear the rubbish left behind by the Diamond Dogs, the sturdier items of which had been thrown into a large pile where a large, gaping hole in the fortress walls had been torn centuries before in a vain effort by Lieutenant Southern Cross to make it defensible once more, only for the officers to move in and make another mess with their papers and assorted stationary to be cleared up by those same luckless soldiers, should they survive the coming battle, at a later date.
All of the officers of the battalion and Sergeant Bramley Apple of the 16th Royal Artillery Regiment crowded around this non-descript slab of wood, probably a door purloined from elsewhere in this castle, propped up on four piles of bricks, and each stared intently at a rather large chart draped over it like a cloth over a dining table. It was simply a map of Black Venom Pass and its surrounding environment, one of thousands of identical standardised charts printed out and delivered to officers upon their arrival to the frontlines; indeed, I had a smaller copy of this tucked into my coat pocket, another pinned up on a wall in my chambers just above my cot like a poster of some vapid idol of a teenager’s lust-filled fantasies, and one more having served as an impromptu hoofkerchief when Cannon Fodder suffered from a particularly nasty and very messy bout of hay fever. We were all separated from the Great Hall and the off-duty soldiers relaxing by a series of large blank wooden panels erected around the dais, rather like modesty screens seen in the boudoirs of mares for the purposes of changing into some enticing lingerie, though any such attempt at maintaining the secrecy of this meeting was somewhat foiled by the fact that this screen did not block sound, which was proved by the abominable racket that the off-duty soldiers made as they relaxed after a long day of work. At any rate, complete secrecy was probably not an issue here, as the common soldiery would be informed of the impending slaughter in due course. [That the need to set up this meeting as quickly as possible outweighed the commanding officers’ need for privacy is probably a more plausible explanation behind this lack of secrecy.]
Twilight Sparkle and ‘Cloudless Sky’ were also present; the former was quite content to sit in the corner of the room and observe quietly as she was wont to do at such things, while the latter hovered silently by my shoulder as usual. The other officers appeared to have accepted the presence of those two, even if I did not, and though they continued to treat both Twilight and my disguised Auntie as being merely pieces of furniture that occasionally talked and required regular feeding and bathroom breaks (though, to be frank, I was not so sure that Princess Luna even needed those) it was still a relative step up from their previous barely-concealed hostility in the case of the former and their complete indifference in the case of the latter. As for Cannon Fodder, my erstwhile aide, he stood guard by the wooden partitions, relying upon his usual obstinate personality, messy appearance, and ungodly odour as usual to dissuade anypony from trying to spy on our meeting.
The officers wandered into the room one by one, and the forced attempt at small talk made by some of the other officers already present had failed to lighten the mood. An awkward and heavy silence had thus fallen upon our little gathering, as together we each silently contemplated upon what was to be done now that the plan, which in its initial phases had been going fairly swimmingly as far as Royal Guard battle strategies were concerned, was now about as useful as a chastity belt made out of chocolate. The map before us told us in no uncertain terms exactly how royally bucked we were about to be; our position was marked by a small flag depicting the battalion’s standard, the Changeling hordes were represented by a single black flag, entirely devoid of any symbolism for their unimaginative kind has no need for such frivolous things, planted disconcertingly close to ours, and representing the rest of Army Group Centre was the Royal Standard still hovering uselessly at the Equestrian end of Black Venom Pass, apparently ready to advance. It did not take a military genius to work out that our situation was now quite hopeless, though being officers of the Royal Guard none of us, least of all myself, were willing to admit that to one another; judging by the relative distances between us, the Changelings, and Army Group Centre, there was no way that Crimson Arrow's force could launch their frontal attack on the horde as planned before the enemy had reached and slaughtered us all in this fortress first.
“Thank you for coming here on such short notice,” said Captain Red Coat, after the last officer to arrive had stumbled into the room. The subtle change that I had observed in him over the past few weeks or so since his bloody and horrific first experience of the rather less pleasant side of modern warfare had only grown further; in his eyes and in the way that he carried himself there seemed to be a greater sense of maturity than there was the first time that I had met the lad. His youth and inexperience was still apparent, as was his evident fear and anxiety with what we were about to undertake, but it seemed tempered with a greater sense of experience that gave him a sense of maturity in excess of his scant seventeen years of life.
“I won’t beat about the bush here,” he continued, turning his gaze over the ponies assembled around the table, “the Changeling army has moved from its original position occupying Black Venom Pass and is now advancing rapidly in our direction. They’ll probably be here tonight, which is why I’ve called this meeting to work out what is to be done about this.”
It was Lieutenant Scarlet Letter who spoke first, which was profoundly irritating to me as I had spent the better part of my time in this miserable little castle trying to avoid him and thus far I had mostly succeeded. “Are you certain, sir?” he asked incredulously, though the tone of his voice was inflected with his usual pompous, condescending attitude that I found to be just so grating from a pony that I outranked in almost every sense of the word. Although it's not entirely relevant to the description of this meeting, I found myself quietly impressed with the way that he had kept his uniform absolutely immaculate despite the ever-present dust and the lack of time with which to polish it; his golden armour shone brightly even in these gloomy surroundings and the crystal star upon his breast reflected the myriad dim candles as though fireflies were trapped within, and somehow he was able to keep his fur and mane clean and devoid of the usual dust and grime that the rest of us were so caked in. That it was at the expense of his platoon’s own pay and time, having forced the unicorns under his command to buff and clean his armour and surrender their own hygiene equipment for his own vanity had not occurred to me then. It was all unimportant at the time, anyway.
The Captain cocked his head to one side curiously and waved a steel hoof in the vague direction of one of the castle's many portholes. “Have you looked out of the window lately?” he snapped, and the sarcasm that tinted his voice sounded rather unbecoming of pony of his relative youth. I put this uncharacteristic display down to his frayed nerves, though inwardly I was quite impressed; perhaps I was rubbing off on him rather more than I had first thought, though I would have to make sure that it was the better parts of my personality, of which I will admit there are very few, that he absorbs.
Lieutenant Scarlet Letter snorted derisively and shook his head. “I thought the plan was to support the attack on Black Venom Pass? The plan stated that the Changelings would remain by the valley, not attack us.”
“It’s damned unsporting of the enemy not to follow our battle plan,” I remarked dryly, eliciting a few quiet, polite titters from a couple of the other officers, a rather hurt glare from Scarlet Letter, and a slightly delayed and awkward giggle from Captain Red Coat. “Didn’t anypony tell them they’re to stay put?”
While everypony took that as just another display of the sort of casual flippancy and Tirek-may-care bravado in the face of almost certain death that they expect out of a hero of Equestria such as I, it would be more accurate to say that I was trying to mask not only the inchoate terror growing within me for the approaching black mass visible just beyond the window, but also my incredulity at the insanity of Scarlet Letter’s remark. Of course the Changelings aren’t going to follow our plan; it would be utter madness on their part for them to do so if they had somehow became aware of our presence. In fact, given their expertise in guile and gathering information, as seen in their successful-for-five-minutes capture of fair Canterlot, I would have been surprised if they weren't eavesdropping on this very conversation. If they were consciously following our plan then this war of extermination we were embarking on would have become all the more justifiable.
With urgency apparent in his voice, Captain Red Coat impatiently tapped a hoof on the table, though he looked rather sheepish as he did so, and continued with his briefing. “Our overall goal is to destroy the Changeling army in a battle of annihilation by supporting the main assault on Black Venom Pass. Obviously that’s no longer a possibility as the Changelings will reach us before the rest of Army Group Centre can make its attack, so I propose that we remain here and hold Fort E-5150 until General Crimson Arrow’s force comes to relieve us. That way we can still achieve the primary aim of this operation. I have already sent a messenger back to Dodge Junction with an urgent request for reinforcement.”
It was then that Captain Red Coat started detailing our plan, which has of course been recorded by historians and armchair generals as a shining example of how to withstand an assault on a fortified location, but my overriding memory of it could be better described as a general sense of barely-contained horror at the sheer hopelessness of it. His speech was halting, stammering, and filled with anxiety, and from time to time he would pause for seemingly great lengths of time to consult some scrap of paper which had whatever salient piece of information he need on, but he proceeded with his task admirably. Our gallant commanding officer had, apparently by himself, though I could not discount the possibility of him getting some nocturnal assistance in the shape of Princess Luna [Though my younger sister likes to maintain an aura of mystique around her unique ability to walk through the dreams of my little ponies, she can confirm that she was providing some assistance to Captain Red Coat in his development into an officer. She would also like it be made clear to those who read this that she ultimately sees herself merely as a source of guidance for her subjects, and that whatever epiphany or personal development may occur during those dreams is entirely up to the pony in question] (a surreptitious glance over my shoulder revealed a knowing smile on her lips, which all but confirmed that theory), devised a plan of staggered defence, by which time would be bought by holding the Changelings for as long as possible at a series of defensive lines starting at the outer walls of the fortress, and then receding into the courtyard and into the fortress proper. It was hoped that by drawing the Changelings into the narrow tunnels and corridors of the fortress their advantage in numbers could be blunted, and that in doing so we could hold out for as long as it was necessary for Crimson Arrow to finally come to our rescue. As much as I disliked this plan, when everything else boiled down to simply 'fight as hard as you can until rescue or death, whichever comes first' it was hardly the most extravagant of strategies, thus far neither I or anypony else present could venture any other alternative. That is, except for one other pony.
Lieutenant Scarlet Letter raised his hoof like an over-eager school-colt. "One question, sir," he said. "Have you taken complete leave of your senses, sir?"
"I—" Captain Red Coat spluttered uselessly for a moment, as indeed did much of the other officers present, and his eyes opened wide and were on the verge of popping out of their sockets like champagne corks. "I beg your pardon?"
"Your plan, sir, is bordering on the ludicrous; we number a mere three hundred fighting ponies with scant artillery and engineer support, and out there are thousands upon thousands of Changelings. It's a simple case of mathematics. There's no way we can possibly hope to stand against such numbers."
"Then what would you propose instead?"
"It's simple," said Scarlet Letter, with an insufferably smug expression on his face. "We retreat back to Dodge Junction. The offensive is lost, sir. The plan is in ruins, and we should fall back to preserve the lives of everypony in this battalion."
He had a point, though I hated to admit it, and clearly it was having an effect on the other officers present. A few murmured quietly with one another, while some were more openly nodding or voicing their approval. Retreat, however, was something that just could not be countenanced, at least not while I was still standing here in my death-black uniform and with the stupid, skull-faced hat perched upon my head, and glaring at everypony with an expression calculated to instil the fear of Faust in even the most ardent of atheists. Indeed, Lieutenant Southern Cross, tactful as ever, illustrated this point perfectly by nodding his head in my direction and drawing a line across his neck with a hoof, while making some none-too-subtle gagging noises in his throat.
"Well," said Captain Red Coat, looking increasingly exasperated and in danger of losing control of this meeting as the murmurings of the other officers against him only grew louder. "I'm open to all alternatives. I just think we should try and salvage the plan as much as possible so the offensive isn't wasted."
Of course, anypony reading this would have naturally assumed that I would have advised running away, and I would be lying if I said that the thought had not crossed my mind, but the memory of our rather hellish advance through the mountains was still very fresh in my mind and the risk that the Changelings were trying to lure us into an ambush there was far too great to even consider this course of action. No, as much as I hated it, my best chance of survival lay remaining within these crumbling walls, and if I could devise some way of ensuring that I am kept safely inside and away from the bulk of the fighting, so much the better.
Nevertheless, I couldn't say it in those exact words, at least, not while Twilight Sparkle was scribbling away in the corner, dutiful as ever, and recording these words to be read by every important and learned pony in the land (unlike this scribbled nonsense, of course). "If retreat was an option, then I assure you I'd be the first pony out of those gates and running for the hills," I said, speaking the truth for once in my career but taking care to inflect it as a joke, though all I got for it were a few slightly odd looks.
“But as Captain Red Coat has just said,” I continued, dropping the aforementioned inflection and taking on the more serious demeanour that this situation warranted, “retreat is not an option here. And as far as the Commissariat is concerned, it is never an option unless it is strategically and tactically advantageous to do so.”
To underline this point I affected a glower that would have made Princess Luna flush with pride, and drew this cold, severe gaze across the officers assembled around the table, taking care to focus on those who, in one way or another, agreed with Scarlet Letter’s idea, before turning my attention to the irritating little stallion himself. Again, using that same technique for intimidation that Luna often uses on just about everypony, myself in particular, I held that stare for what must have been an uncomfortably long amount of time for him. He was unable to meet my gaze, and suddenly found something very interesting to look at on the table in front of him, and he squirmed awkwardly like a naughty schoolfoal brought before the headmaster to answer for some egregious sin.
“And I want to make this absolutely clear,” I said, satisfied that he had been suitably cowed into submission. The sound echoed loudly in the dim silence that followed, and even the constant noise from the soldiers beyond the partition seemed somewhat hushed. “The Royal Commissariat will not tolerate any defeatism in the ranks of the Royal Guard, nor will it tolerate any officer trying to usurp the authority of his superior. Our situation is not so dire that we need to fall back. I will overlook this only once, Lieutenant, as you are correct in saying that we are greatly outnumbered by the enemy, and we need every single available officer to fight and lead. That is why you have not been removed from command. My fellow commissars, however, may not be so lenient in the future.”
I left the implications unsaid; better for them to allow their imaginations to fill in the details. Lieutenant Scarlet Letter mumbled something quietly to himself which sounded like he agreed with me, but I could tell by the hurt and somewhat betrayed look in his expression, crestfallen and pale with horror, that this was most certainly not the case. I resolved to keep an eye on him during the coming battle, as he, more than anypony else present, was most likely to break under the strain. And if I were to shove him in the way of the Changelings should they wander too close and claim that he died bravely for Princesses and Country then that would have been an added bonus.
“Is that clear, Lieutenant?” I said, still holding that glare.
Lieutenant Scarlet Letter stammered hopelessly, “I-I… but…”
“I said: Is. That. Clear?” I snapped, punctuating each word by tapping a hoof on the table.
“Y-yes, sir,” he said, all but hiding underneath the table.
The rest of the officers likewise mumbled or nodded, though Lieutenant Southern Cross was grinning inanely as if he found it somehow funny. Captain Red Coat looked at me with a thankful expression, which I returned with a silent, reassuring nod of my head.
At any rate, it seemed to settle the officers for now. There were few other questions, which were mainly related to the exact disposition of the troops, where the most defensible locations of the fortress were, and if there were any gaps that the officers needed to be aware of. I remained silent, stepping back a little from the table to better observe the reactions of my fellow comrades; the overall majority appeared apprehensive while others were more or less confident depending upon their individual dispositions, which was to be expected, but nevertheless all approached the business of battle with the same level of professionalism expected of Their Highnesses' Royal Guards. Each was already a veteran, bloodied in some shape or form in the Battle for Black Venom Pass as I had been, and therefore nopony was under any illusions about the formidable capabilities of the enemy. All, that is, with the exception of Lieutenant Scarlet Letter, who glowered at Red Coat from across the table, his face cast in dim orange by the dying light of the setting sun, and with an expression like he had bitten into a slice of toast spread with marmite after being assured that it was chocolate spread.
"On the ramparts and in the courtyard the battalion will fight according to separate platoons," Red Coat continued with growing confidence, "but inside the castle itself they will have to split into mixed sections, each with a unicorn trained in pyrokinetic magic. The narrow corridors will make flame spells deadly, but we'll need to be careful with them. Each squad will cover a particular corridor or room until we are relieved. I won't lie to you; this will be tough, but I think we'll pull through."
“As the Princess wills,” I said flatly. The words were echoed with equal lack of enthusiasm around the table.
"I think..." said Captain Red Coat hesitantly once he had finished stumbling through his plan to a sea of sober, ashen faces, "I think this offers our best chance of survival and in completing our main objective." There was a mumble of assent from the officers, though a few of the Solar Guard officers showed much more enthusiasm than their darker brethren, and as Sergeant Bramley Apple was not a commissioned officer he was not allowed to show anything more than stoic obedience, which he did so commendably.
"Well, cheer up everypony!" he said with sudden renewed vigour, although the decidedly fake grin stretching across his face and a slight tremor in his voice belied the anxiety that he was feeling. "It could be worse."
At that point I sincerely wanted to murder him. Of course it could get worse; if one is ever in a situation where it could not get worse, by which I mean absolutely anything that happens might be considered an improvement on one's circumstances, then one is in quite serious trouble. Thankfully, I have yet to find myself in such a predicament, though there is always plenty of time and opportunity for that in future, I expect.
One officer, an equally youthful pegasus lieutenant of the 1st Solar Guard Regiment piped up incredulously, "How? How could it possibly get any worse than this, sir?"
"It could be raining," said Captain Red Coat sheepishly, shrugging his shoulders, "I suppose."
When it did indeed start raining two hours later, I wished I had murdered him and that bratty little lieutenant as well when I had the chance. The rain in the Badlands, as it is in much of the arid south of Equestria, is quite rare, but when it does come it certainly makes up for the weeks and months of scorching heat and muggy humidity by coming down in one almighty unceasing torrent of precipitation, as if Faust herself was pouring water from a bucket down upon our tiny fortification. The sky was dark and leaden, though the west, where the sun was still rather hesitant about this whole setting business, was still free of the foreboding and dark storm clouds that lingered unsettlingly above us. It was not at all like the rain in Trottingham, which tends to come in small fits and starts, April showers, and the occasional summer downpour; I know this because as I made my rounds to check on how the stallions were doing before the inevitable battle it was all that they would talk about. In hindsight, I think it was merely some form of coping mechanism to deal with the stresses and anxieties that they were undoubtedly feeling before battle, but it still felt damned peculiar to me at the time to see what I had thought to be merely a base stereotype actually had a degree of truth to it.
The soldiers seemed eager to 'have another crack at the bugs', so to speak. Especially after the indecisive battle at Black Venom Pass, and, if anything, they were rather pleased that the enemy was coming to them and not the other way around. The response from General Crimson Arrow, received a few hours after the meeting by way of a pegasus runner, expressing his approval of Captain Red Coat's plan, which proved to me that my friend had a fully-functioning brain cell after all, only helped to boost their already high morale. I, of course, was not so certain, but I put on my usual brave face as usual as I made my way through the fortress and its battlements, getting utterly drenched by the rain as I did so. [It is likely that Blueblood did not protect himself from the rain with magical shielding, as most unicorns would, in order to conserve his magic for the battle.] The troops continued to engage in their lively banter, and it would often devolve into the usual pre-battle rituals of trading friendly insults and decidedly unfunny jokes - their sergeant's face was ‘so ugly that the Changelings would surrender instantly at the sight of it’, for example. Frankly, I am completely at a loss as to how they could have possibly maintained their spirits so well while I was metaphorically coming apart at the seams inside with sheer, unabated terror, but I expect that they, the lower orders of Equestria's society, are somewhat more resistant to such hardships and the concept of their own mortality than the likes of a soft, pampered, effete little thing such as me.
After I had made my rounds for the evening, dispensing the usual pleasantries and making the appropriate noises to keep up the facade that I was still doing my job properly, I elected to spend the remainder of my time before the battle, which could have very well been my last few hours upon this world, alone atop an isolated rampart on the outer walls of the fortress. Cannon Fodder had retreated back to his room, either to complete some more paperwork or to engage in a certain solo gentlecolt's leisure activity with his magazine collection I don't know and I don't want to. I protected myself from the torrential rain by hiding under a small tarpaulin with a few boxes of oats rations, though I was still soaked to the skin, and with naught else for company but a couple of sentries a short distance away doing their hardest to pretend that I didn't exist, an expensively imported Hayvana cigar, which likely cost more than what the peasant who had rolled it earns in a year, a brazier with which to warm myself, and a small hipflask full of what was left of that Scoltish whisky. Before anypony reading this assumes that I am a drunkard who needs to dull his senses before a battle, I would like to assure you that you are indeed correct, but as I am also a pony of moderate temperament, and in having a paranoid streak I took care not to imbibe too much so as to avoid impairing the natural instincts upon which I rely so much for getting myself out of sticky situations. Considering that I might be dead within the next few hours, one can forgive me for wanting to enjoy what might have been the very last opportunity to do so.
The sun by now was halfway buried into the Macintosh Hills, and as I looked out at the bleak, empty vista before me it seemed like a great orange sphere printed on a flimsy sheet of paper torn in half roughly to leave a broken, jagged edge against the rugged terrain of those hills. The dark storm clouds and the tiny sliver of visible sky burned with luminescent yellows, oranges, and reds, like the glowing embers of my cigar, and the very first stars of Luna's night sky battled with the dying light of the sun to make themselves visible to the ponies below. Just beyond the parapet, like a cancerous growth spread upon the flat and featureless plains of the Badlands, were the Changelings, and far closer than they had been when I first glimpsed the vast, numberless horde from my chamber's window. It was a vast, undulating black smear, tinged with an unhealthy shade of lambent green and bathed in the orange-red glow of the setting sun, and stretched seemingly to the quivering horizon itself, and seemed to ripple and shudder like a tumultuous ocean. As I gazed hopelessly into the heart of the swarm, puffing away at the cigar and taking the occasional sip from my flask, I found it had a strange, hypnotic quality to it. The way that the individual Changelings had become subsumed into a singular, vast entity, seemingly without end or boundaries, unstoppable and irresistible, and each individual merely a single component of a greater whole was at the same time both mesmerizing and utterly horrific. And yet, there was a strange sort of beauty to the sight, as there often is in war where one discovers a sight so magnificent in spite of all the terror it might invoke that it is impossible for one not to feel overawed by it all; the sight of tens of thousands of Changeling beasts advancing in perfect synchronicity upon our beleaguered little fortress was one such sight.
Every few minutes or so, the cannons of Bramley Apple's scratch artillery battery roared, with yellow and orange tongues of flame and smoke spitting forth from the soot-blackened barrels. The guns were placed behind me in the crumbling castle keep and atop the roofs where the precious black powder was protected from the rain by a series of vast tarpaulins, eerily reminiscent of the marquees erected for the Canterlot Garden Party. Thin white streaks were cast across the dreary, dark sky; the smoke left by the burning fuses of explosive shells fired by the formidable howitzers, mortars, and cannons (the 'holy trinity' as Bramley jokingly referred to them) into the midst of the storm. A few moments later there would be another dull 'crump', as of a firecracker being set off, and a cloud of fire and smoke and sickly green viscera would bloom somewhere within the black horde where a mortar shell had exploded, or thin streak of blood and gore would be torn into the mass by a cannon ball. Each suitably impressive hit was followed by a ragged cheer from the stallions standing sentry on the parapets, who watched the bombardment intently, though for all the good it was doing against the numberless swarm Bramley's cannons might as well have been loaded with custard pies and candy floss, for each hole or rent torn into the black mass was quickly filled, healed, as it were, until there was no more trace left of the carnage wrought.
My quiet reverie, however, was interrupted most rudely by the sound of a throat clearing noisily behind me, much in that brusque manner of a pony deliberately doing so to grab another's attention. Sighing in resignation that my precious solitude had been interrupted, I turned and tilted my head to the side to find the last pony on Equus that I wanted to see here standing fetlock-deep in the sunken, soaked mud.
"Hi, Prince Blueblood!" greeted Twilight Sparkle, still clad in her armour with the helmet firmly buckled in the way that Sergeant Major Square Basher had instructed her. Levitating a few feet above her was a translucent purple shield to protect her from the downpour; perfectly circular in shape and giving off a lambent magenta glow that bathed the soggy ground near her hooves in that dim light. She ducked under the tarpaulin to stand by my side, and upon dispelling her shield the rainwater which had collected atop its surface suddenly fell with an almighty splash and drenched her utterly. Were I not already so soaked with rain that the cloth of my uniform was sticking like a skin-tight latex flight suit to my body (also making it the closest my uniform had seen to a proper wash since I first donned it) I might have been annoyed at being splashed, but actually I found it to be rather comical.
As she tried to pull the straggly wet strands of her fringe away from her eyes, grumbling in irritation as she did so, I could not help but giggle inanely at the rather ludicrous sight of Princess Celestia's favourite pupil having committed such a silly little mistake. She shot me a rather severe glare. "Good evening, Lady Sparkle," I said, once I had managed to compose myself.
Twilight stepped closer to the brazier, apparently in an effort to dry herself by the heat, and sat upon her rump on the relatively dry earth next to me. "I know, very funny," she snapped irritably.
"Forgive me," I said, doing my damnedest to suppress another decidedly un-regal case of the giggles, "but I'd have thought that Auntie Celestia's personal student would know better than to dispel an umbrella enchantment without getting rid of the rainwater first."
Her glare was held for a few moments longer, until her resolve eventually crumbled from the onslaught of the rather silly grin that tugged at the ends of my lips in a manner that felt most unnatural to me, and all attempts at pretending to be angry with me failed utterly with an awkward smile and a few polite chuckles. "I guess it was a little funny. I should've known better than to do that."
I gave a vague sort of shrug and took a long draw of my cigar. "It happens to the best of us," I said, exhaling a small cloud of that delectable smoke that soon drifted and dispersed on the wind.
Twilight Sparkle nodded her head and turned her gaze across to the vast mass that stretched before us, seemingly unlimited in its proportions as it stretched almost to the thin crest of hills on the horizon, advancing inexorably upon our position with all the grim inevitability of Quartermaster Pencil Pusher relentlessly chasing my outstanding mess charges. She had a quiet, thoughtful expression on her face, and I could see that she was troubled by something. Perhaps she was still feeling some embarrassment for when I had caught her earlier with a group of other mares, the relatively few female soldiers of the battalion [The Royal Guard still tended to favour male recruits at this stage of the Changeling Wars, though the Night Guards tended to have a slightly higher proportion of mares compared to the Solar Guard and other arms of service], watching Sergeant Bramley Apple's artillery ponies, earth ponies all with muscular physiques and stripped of their armour to better deal with the demanding physical work of loading, firing, and cleaning their guns, with the same hungry looks in the mares' eyes that a dog gets upon hearing the sound of a can being opened. I can still see the embarrassment lending a deeper red hue to her cheeks as she insisted that she was merely 'taking notes'. Come to think of it, I was rather more surprised by the idea of the bookish little mare being attracted to anything that was not made of paper with lots of large, complicated words in it or certain powerful unicorns who have been dead for quite some time. The thought, though amusing to me, was unlikely, for her worried gaze was now fixed firmly upon the hated enemy.
"It's quite impressive," I said, trying to relieve the awkwardness of the situation, "isn't it?"
"Yeah," she said breathlessly. "There are some philosophers in Canterlot who say the Changelings have come the closest to reaching true Harmony. They live in a society without any disorder or strife or unrest; just total conformity, total obedience, and total Harmony. It's an interesting theory."
"I'm sorry, Lady Sparkle, but that sounds like a load of old bollocks to me," I said, coining a phrase I had picked up from overhearing the troops' banter that I felt summed up my thoughts on the matter most succinctly. Twilight, being more familiar with Trottinghamite slang that I first thought, suddenly gagged at what I will readily admit to as a rather uncouth expression and certainly beneath a pony of my noble station, but here and in this situation, such things ceased to be all that important to me. [There were, and still are, some ponies who sympathised with the Changelings, at least in their cause if not their actions in provoking this war and their further attacks on Equestrian civilians during its prosecution. In this instance, I can agree with my nephew's assessment of this viewpoint, though not necessarily in such vulgar terms, as being based upon a very warped and corrupted idea of what a truly Harmonious society should look like.]
"That's... that's one way of putting it," she said, once she had recovered. "Do you think we'll win?"
"The battle, or the war?"
"Of course we'll win," I scoffed. "One can hardly expect a commissar of all ponies to say 'no' to that question."
"I suppose you can't," she said, chuckling a little to herself.
Huddling closer to the warmth of the brazier in an attempt to dry herself, not that it did much good as the rain continued to drip through via numerous holes in the tarpaulin, Twilight Sparkle looked at me with a rather ambivalent expression on her face. I wondered why, out of all the ponies here, she had to pick me to spend time with; when one considers the past history between the two of us, stretching back through our time in Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns together up to my admittedly rather foalish attempts to sabotage my cousin Cadence's marriage to Twilight's oafish older brother not more than a year prior to this battle, I was probably the very last pony in existence that she would want to even share the same continent with. Nevertheless, I decided that I would humour her for the time being, though I doubted whether either of us would find anything even vaguely stimulating about our awkward, stilted conversation.
"There's something I wanted to talk to you about for a while," she said, at length, "but I just haven't had the chance to until now."
The fur on the back of my neck bristled instinctively at those words, they being among the most terrifying that a mare could possibly say to a stallion, as what must inevitably follow that statement, usually an admission of eternal love or some such rot like that as tends to be the case with me, often does not bode well for one's immediate future. I had, of course, much personal experience in dealing with such things, you see; being Canterlot's most eligible bachelor on account of my stunning good looks and my regal title means having to fend off the often unwanted attention from mares who find the contents of a stallion's money vault equally as enticing as what lies between his hind legs, though I couldn't imagine why she would suddenly take a liking to me of all ponies and here of all places. Not that I found her particularly unattractive; though she was not quite the sort of mare that I tend to pursue during my various trysts over the years and hardly being the sort to indulge in a little harmless fun now and again, I had to admit that she had blossomed into quite a shapely, pleasing little thing since adulthood. Warily, I nodded my head and politely asked her to continue.
"I don't know if you remember, but you made my life very..." She stopped, apparently searching for the correct word.
"Difficult?" I posited. Inwardly I breathed a metaphorical sigh of relief that it was not as bad as I had feared.
"Difficult," she repeated. "Very difficult when we were at Celestia's school together."
"Yes, I remember," I said, not quite sure what she was trying to accomplish here. It was not something that I am particularly proud of, even when I was much younger and actually inflicting the abuse of which she spoke, but to bring it up when the enemy was so close that an expert cricketer could have brained a Changeling in the front ranks with a well-aimed hit was utterly daft even by her standards. "For what it's worth, I am sorry about what happened."
She nodded, which made her helmet, still the same one issued by the stores that was far too large for her head, wobble and bob awkwardly. "I just wanted to ask you… well, why you did all of that. I mean, it's a long time ago and I'm over it, but with the Changelings coming I may not get the chance to later."
"Well," I said, taking a sharp intake of breath at the rather uncomfortable direction that this conversation was being steered towards. Faust knows I do my fair share of contemplating my navel, though I merely have the good sense and manners to keep that to myself, as vocalising it would rather violently destroy the myth that had been built up around me. I suppose I could have made an excuse and just left, and to be frank, as I look back, I'm entirely sure why I didn't; perhaps there was some remorseful part of me that wanted to grant Twilight the closure that she wanted, or perhaps I subconsciously knew that keeping on her good side might prove advantageous for me in the future.
"Why do you think?" I asked hesitantly.
"Mom and Dad said that it was because you were jealous of my academic success," she said, her voice taking on a curiously scholarly tone as if she was delivering a lecture at some sort of formal event held for her fellow intellectuals, "and Shining Armour said it was because you're just a horrible elitist jerk who couldn't stand to see a commoner doing better than you. Neither of those hypotheses stand up to much scrutiny; you never really cared about getting good grades for as much as I can remember, and... you know, I like to think there's a bit more depth to you than just being a 'horrible elitist jerk'."
I like to think so, too; in addition to being an elitist and a jerk I am also a toady, a reprobate, a rogue, a philanderer, a bigot, a blackguard, and, oh yes, an unrepentant coward, but you must have worked that out for yourself by now.
"I suppose all of them were right, in a way," I said, realising that for all her meekness and quiet awkwardness she was not likely to leave any time soon. "The truth is, I was jealous, but not of you getting good grades. It's a little more foalish than that, I must admit. I was jealous of you monopolising Auntie 'Tia's time, which she could have spent doting on me instead. I suppose I must have blamed you and lashed out."
"You just wanted Princess Celestia to spend more time with you?" she asked, somewhat incredulously.
"Something like that," I said. By now my cigar had gone out, as they are wont to do if left unattended for more than a few minutes, and thus as I spoke I busied myself with relighting it with the smouldering coals of the brazier; which rather sullied the taste, I thought. "My father was rarely around, being a noted explorer as much as he was a senior dignitary and favourite of Princess Celestia at court, and my mother seemed to regard my sisters and me as noisy and unpleasant little distractions from her favourite pastimes of doing precisely nothing all day except preening herself for various high society functions and fornicating with father's gambling partners. An aristocrat simply doesn't raise her foals. She can produce them, but she doesn't sully her hooves in the messy business of actually looking after them, oh no, that's for commoners. Instead, that duty goes to a small team of nannies and governesses, and in my case that also included Princess Celestia. When father went missing in the Zebrican jungles and mother's mind broke and she was locked away by the family in an insane asylum, Celestia took me in and raised me. She was the only family I had left that wasn't trying to manipulate me for their own selfish ends. When she started tutoring you, I was left all alone again."
I don't know if that piece of random psychobabble nonsense truly satisfied her, but she nodded thoughtfully and did not pursue the subject further, which was fine by me. The truth is that I behaved in such a manner simply because it made me feel good, not that I am in any way proud or happy about that side of myself, even though it was some time in the past now, but admitting that the reason my cronies and I called her names, pushed her into the mud, and sabotaged her homework on a regular basis was out of nothing more than sheer boredom probably would not have gone down well with her. [I fear that Prince Blueblood might be being a little too hard on himself here, as while his behaviour was certainly deplorable, unjustifiable, and eventually led to his expulsion from my school for gifted unicorns (in addition to his low grades), I like to think that there really was more to it than just him being a 'jerk' as Shining Armour put it. One cannot underestimate the effect that losing one's parents, no matter how distant they might have been, can have on a young foal, particularly in an aristocratic family such as the Blood clan, in which the succession to the title of prince and the dukedom of Canterlot, with their associated privileges, duties, and intrigues, fell on a colt no more than eleven years of age. I fear that taking Twilight Sparkle on as my personal student may have engendered feelings of resentment in the younger Blueblood, which perhaps I should have stepped in to resolve earlier.]
"How is Rarity?" I asked, motivated more by some compulsion to ease our collective awkwardness than anything close to concern for the mare and her histrionics.
"She's still pretty mad at you for leaving her alone in your suite in Canterlot Castle," said Twilight.
I laughed, causing Twilight to pull an odd face at me. "Oh, I can imagine it," I said. Then, twisting my voice into a shrill falsetto in imitation of dear Rarity's refined Canterlot accent when she's having one of her characteristic hysterical fits: "Here I am, trapped all alone in the most opulent and luxurious suite of rooms in all of Canterlot, with a veritable army of servants all employed solely to make my life as comfortable as physically possible, and with naught else for company but the cream of the crop of Equestria's ruling elite! However will I survive in such horrid conditions!"
Twilight did not seem the least bit impressed by my admittedly poor impression of her close friend. "In addition to all of the other things you've done to her."
"The Grand Galloping Gala, still?" I asked, arching an eyebrow in imitation of my darker aunt.
"Yes, that," she said. "She's still rather upset about it. You completely crushed her dreams."
Narrowing my eyes at her, I snorted contemptuously and shook my head. "Her dreams of marrying a prince only for his money and wealth and social prestige?"
She returned my gaze with an indignant frown. "That's not what she wanted."
"Oh please, Lady Sparkle, you're a smart mare, so have a proper think about this. How can anypony expect any sort of relationship to start just on the first meeting? She was never interested in who I am, only what I am. She didn't want a lover; she only wanted a rich husband that would be her gateway into Canterlot high society." As ever, nopony ever cared about what I thought and felt.
"That's not true!" she snapped. "Rarity has her faults, yes, but she's still a kind, generous pony who you could have had a wonderful relationship with if you gave her the chance."
"No," I said. It was quite remarkable that for all her intelligence and knowledge, Twilight was still quite naive about how the real world beyond her books actually worked, and in particular, love and relationships. "Lady Sparkle, even if I was interested in her, there is no way anypony could possibly countenance the marriage between myself and a commoner."
I confess that I could not, and still cannot, come up with any adequate answer to that question, or at least one that would satisfy Twilight Sparkle's very rational, set view of how the world works. Her inquisitive and questioning nature would simply not accept the rather more insubstantial and unempirical notions of honoured traditions stretching from time immemorial, and that, in my mind, made her quite a dangerous force in Equestria.
"Because it just isn't done," I said, quietly giving up the effort to try and explain it in words she would understand. "She has no blood and no lineage to speak of, and to sully myself in the company of common blood is to bring my family into disrepute. Nobility, you see, simply does not have the luxury of choice in marriage. That liberty belongs only to the common pony. My mother, you see, did not love my father, and neither did he her. Their union was merely the signing of a treaty between my family and that of an ancient Prench dynasty—a purely economic affair for the mutual gain of our two families. And do you think I would be doing your friend any favours by dragging her into such a world? Except, perhaps, as a mistress, which I doubt she would ever agree to."
"True, I suppose," she said in a tone of voice that implied that it most certainly was not. "But that doesn't excuse your behaviour."
I chewed my lower lip thoughtfully, and turned the smouldering cigar over with my magic as I contemplated my next move. Then, deciding that I might as well admit the truth of the matter as there was a real chance that I might be quite dead very soon, unburdening myself of at least one of my lesser sins before my too-short life was judged by Faust, as it were, and that it was likely the only way to get the inquisitive little mare to drop the subject, I said, "Is it not better for Rarity to believe that her dreams were 'crushed' because I am an insensitive blackguard, rather than blaming herself for not being worthy of my attention?"
Twilight frowned at me, humming thoughtfully, and then shook her head dismissively and mumbled something that sounded like an agreement and apparently decided that it was not worth pursuing any further, which was fine by me.
The rain continued to pour with no signs of abating any time soon, though the cloud cover seemed to be breaking here and there to let in the dark blues and purples of the deepening night sky. It was something of a relief, however, as despite the chill freezing me to my bone and the annoying drips of water leaking through the many holes in the tarpaulin under which we sheltered, the torrential downpour ensured that the Changelings' ability of flight was hampered. Faust, it seemed, was smiling down on me, though I could not shake the feeling that behind her back she concealed a dagger of fate with which to impale me when I least suspected it.
"What was it that Captain Red Coat said?" asked Twilight, after a moment's pause. "Something like, 'cheer up, it could be worse, it could be raining'?"
I nodded, though her clumsy attempt at a Trottingham accent was not much better than Luna's butchery of that dialect. At any rate, I was thankful that the conversation was being steered towards more comfortable grounds. "Something like that, yes," I said.
"I don't understand how he can be some calm and blasé about it all. I can't imagine how he's coping with all that responsibility at such a young age."
To be brutally honest, I don't think he was, as, like me, I expected he was merely putting on a brave face for the benefit of not only himself but everypony else around him. If anypony out there denies feeling the slightest amount of fear or trepidation before going into battle, then they are simply lying; everypony feels it, even those ponies generally assumed by others to be fearless, including myself, of course. The difference is merely a matter of how well one can conquer it, and though I appear to be quite able to simply mask it behind a facade of cool detachment and an entirely false casual disregard for my own safety, I tend to fail spectacularly at not letting that fear control my actions. Captain Red Coat, in being able to carry on with the task at hoof without any sense of the cowardice that afflicts me and places the lives of others at risk for his own worthless skin, is likely a greater soldier and a better stallion than I ever will be.
"It's because he's an officer," I said, and Twilight looked up at me with a slightly quizzical expression. Sighing slightly, and taking another small drag of my cigar as if to steel myself, I tried my best to explain it to her. "Every soldier looks up to their officers. They need to believe that their officer is in command of the situation, has everything under control, and always has a plan to get them out of a sticky situation alive if anything goes wrong. That's why Captain Red Coat and every good officer of the Royal Guard, your brother included, puts on this act, because their soldiers are scared and unless officers can present this facade of infallibility there's no way that their orders are going to be obeyed with any sense of efficiency. It's called the 'stiff upper lip', and the Trottinghamites seem to do it the best. It's also why everypony expects an officer to be a gentlecolt; refined, intelligent, cultured, and preferably of good noble breeding. Soldiers simply want their officers to be better than they are."
Well, that was the theory at least. As I spoke, Twilight had retrieved her ubiquitous notepad and quill from the deep recesses of her armour with such speed that I had at first assumed that she had summoned them seemingly out of nowhere, and scribbled furiously. The quiet and pensive expression on her face earlier had evaporated just as quickly, to be replaced with that all too familiar and somewhat terrifying look of eagerness to absorb new knowledge which seemed to come more naturally to her. When I stopped, however, and the scribbling had likewise ceased, she stared up at me with a pleading expression, and I rolled my eyes and struggled to think of something further to say. It then occurred to me that she had thus far interviewed nearly every senior officer and the occasional NCO and private unfortunate enough to be randomly selected; basically everypony who mattered in her eyes to the success of her little research project, with the notable exception of my princely self, which I found to be at once a concern and a relief.
“But I take it that doesn’t always work out,” said Twilight, astutely poking holes in my argument as I expected that she would. “Like that Lieutenant in the meeting.”
“They’re still only ponies,” I said. “Sometimes the mask of infallibility slips under the strain of war, and that’s what the commissar is there for. I provide guidance for the lost, I support the wavering, and I give strength to the weak. I will also punish the cowardly, the treasonous, and the defeatist.”
“Again, like I saw at the meeting,” she said, scribbling some more. She lowered her notepad and quill for a moment, and the aloof, scholarly expression dropped for a moment, to be replaced by a rather more concerned frown. “I was quite… quite impressed by that.”
I took a thoughtful puff of my cigar and tilted my head slightly. “Impressed?” I echoed.
She gave a disarming shrug of her shoulders. “I guess,” she said. “I mean, to see you exercise the authority Princess Luna invested in you when you almost never take anything seriously was very impressive. Kind of scary, too.”
“I think you’ll find that’s entirely the point,” I said, chuckling softly.
The sound of a whistle, shrill and piercing, put an end to any idea of us continuing this increasingly rambling and incoherent conversation. All other noises, except for the rain drumming a dull tattoo against the tarpaulin under which Twilight and I had sought shelter, had ceased or were otherwise drowned out utterly. The lone shriek was joined by another, and another, and so on, until the night was filled with the unholy choir of half a dozen officers blowing into half a dozen regulation brass whistles. In the grim night that closed in around us it sounded like the trumpets blown to signal the end of the world, and considering what I was about to face it certainly did not feel too far from that; for this was the signal, first started by the small coterie of observers stationed atop the castle's tallest tower and carried onwards by the other officers of the battalion, that the enemy had closed to within optimum firing range for the unicorns.
By now this black tumour on the face of our world appeared to have grown and spread to cover almost the entire expanse of the fields beyond, such that when I turned my gaze from the north to the south I could not see even the tiniest sliver of the rough earth beneath the scuttling, crawling masses, save for the ripple of hills to the south west behind which the sun had just ducked behind. I could not identify individual Changelings for the dimness of our twilit surroundings, though the mob appeared to be more 'granular', if that is the correct word to describe it, as if staring at a sheet of quivering black-green sandpaper. The darkness soon enveloped us, and one by one a few lamps, hidden under the castle alcoves or carried by sentries, flickered alight in a vain effort to ward off the encroaching night.
All around us the castle suddenly exploded into activity, as from previously unseen places hidden in darkness, the soldiers of the battalion rushed forth, darting this way and that, jostling past and occasionally colliding with one another in a mad dash to take their pre-arranged positions on the battlements ready for the enemy in a scene that reminded me of viewing the main shop floor of Neighcy's close to Hearth's Warming. [A very large and prestigious department store in Manehatten, and yet despite its upmarket image and well-to-do clientele, Prince Blueblood regarded visiting the shop in his youth with me as 'slumming']. Slowly, one by one, the cacophony of whistles faltered and eventually died to leave the ungodly racket of hundreds of hooves stampeding across the soggy quagmire that was once the castle's courtyard, the clatter of mithril armour and steel weapons, and the gruff, barked orders from non-commissioned officers frantically trying to enforce some sort of order to the swirling, kaleidoscopic chaos of furs white and grey, and armour golden and silver.
"Well, this is it," I said to Twilight, and despite doing my hardest my voice came out as a rather feeble croak, for inside an ice-cold vice was slowly tightening itself around my bowels. I took a moment to collect myself, which, I later found out to my immense relief, she took to be a heroic contemplation of the battle ahead and of the weight of Equestria's survival resting on my noble shoulders rather than me simply trying to halt the rise of fear-induced bile up the back of my throat. "Go back inside the castle to your quarters and stay there with Cloudless Sky and that Diamond Dog. A section of guardsponies will be stationed nearby, just in case the enemy penetrates the keep, so you'll stay safe. You are to do absolutely everything the corporal tells you, understood?"
Twilight nodded her head solemnly and then turned to canter away. She stopped, however, and turned her head over her shoulder towards me. "Good luck out there," she said, apparently earnest in her sentiment. I merely nodded my thanks, and she trotted off to be subsumed into the swirling morass of guardsponies—another armour-clad figure amidst hundreds.
With her gone, I looked once more to the enemy, and was disappointed to find that only an inch or so remained of my cigar. Recalling my father's admonishments that a gentlecolt never finishes a cigar, I tossed the remainder over the edge of the parapet. I watched as the glowing orange ember sailed lazily through the inky darkness and then disappeared utterly, before turning away from the horror of the enemy horde to find Captain Red Coat.