Ponies have very strange ideas as to what constitutes a suitable environment for healing. For one thing, Topaz refused to allow me to perform any work save to tread downstairs into my root-cellar-sleeping-chambers with her by my side, insisting that if I was in shock and having trouble getting about and that if I fell down the stairs I’d only make matters worse. I opted not to take offense at the insinuation that a mere injury would weaken my grip on the planks below my hooves, but her next insistence was beyond absurd. She claimed ‘bed rest’ and ‘relaxation’ were sure ways to recovery and that I should spend my short period away from training to get just that.
I had never before considered such a horrendous waste of my time. Even injured within the hive there were tasks that could be accomplished, and I attempted to rise from my cocoon no less than four times before her glare pinned me into the spot as firmly as any of the smaller insects in her collection. Perhaps not quite so firmly as the glass-coated Stingsley, but I was hesitant to challenge her resolve and risk the same fate. I did try to rise again once she had left my room, but that proved a flawed decision when she returned only a moment later with a number of books stuffed in a saddlebag.
“Here.” She stated judiciously, herding me back to my bedding. “As the lady in charge of my home and lawful superior to you as a guest, you are hereby ordered to obey my medical instructions of letting your back heal.”
“You cannot do that.” I protested lamely, but I realized with some concern that she very well could. I had not been aware of such house-rules, but Topaz had been very understanding of many of my misunderstandings before now… her insistence that I obey her now was, if not welcome, understandable. And, I decided, she was the pony who I had gone to for medical assistance. It would be terribly hypocritical for me to refuse her advice after seeking it specifically.
“Can and have. You’re here until further notice. I brought you a few books, and I’ll bring you down something to eat. Let’s see… calcium carbonate… lots of calcium in general, broken bones… eggs for protein… lots of broccoli… lots of cellulose too...”
“Do not trouble yourself, Topaz, I will recover soon enough-” I tried to protest, but she was unstoppable, as always.
“I don’t think you’re eating properly. Enough, sure, but not the right sorts of things. I mean, you’ve said you’re supposed to support the weight of the nests, one pony shouldn’t have cracked it that badly! We’re going to have to come up with something to hide that, or explain away any tenderness, maybe some deep bruising-”
I neglected to correct her that Shining Armor had fallen from nearly the top of the tower. Given how she was overreacting, I doubted that revelation would make the treatment any better at all. “That is hardly necessary-” I tried again as she prodded me with something else and was cut short. Her hoof was cold, and I shied away from it, startled.
“Now, I couldn’t remember if it was hot or cold you put on a sprain for swelling, I think it’s cold, so we’re going to put an ice pack- ah ah ah, don’t you hiss at me!” She hefted a strange pouch in her hooves and I could feel it sucking the very warmth from the room. I glared balefully at it, but when Topaz tried to touch it to my back I sucked in a pained breath and kicked it out of her hooves, intent on getting the chill as far away from myself as possible.
At her offended outcry, I was able to get my breath back. “Hurt. No cold.”
“Warmth it is, hold on, I have an idea!” And with that that, the mare raced up the stairs again. I scowled at the bag of cold. What a horrible thing for ponies to have. The hive was never cold, cold was a slow death of the body seizing, and ceasing function. Those afflicted usually slowed to a halt, dwindling until their mind left the hive’s consciousness if they were not swiftly recovered. My nest had not suffered from extreme cold in a number of years, but I could recall a powdery coating of discomfort on the ground as a larva and did not wish to ever experience such unpleasantry again.
Topaz returned with some sort of red round rubber rectangle which she very promptly dropped on my back. My hiss of pain was drowned into a sigh of relief as heat began soaking through my shell, relaxing muscle and melting my pains away. I marveled at the ingenuity of ponies and allowed myself to enter a quiet doze, returning to awareness only when Topaz gave me a hard prod with a hoof and ordered me to eat a hastily created ‘stew’ of eggs, broccoli, and cheeses that would provide what she hoped were the proper nutrients. I dubbed it ‘Egg-Shell stew’ and she hesitantly agreed she might have dropped one or two in there by mistake. Regardless, it was not distressing and regardless of any additional crunch, it was also hot. She lamented that I probably needed much more protein in my diet and that there had to be better arrangements made. After that, she left me to my own devices while she went to do some research while I took to reading some of her offerings.
I considered the books on pottery before reluctantly setting them aside. I was to be a guard now, not a craftspony, but… I did want to continue working on my craft. I did not actually have a special talent, but I reasoned that I would have to continue the craft to keep up the facade of my cutie mark. Which I again considered; could I explain the significance of it in relation to crafting? Unlikely. But now I could not change the cutie mark; the symbol was part of my training uniform and had been drawn on my training gear by a fellow recruit. Any alterations would be instantly noted. Perhaps I could claim it was intended to be a cup coming out of kiln? I recovered one book and noted with interest that it was not about making useless knickknacks that Topaz had suggested I sell at one point, but instead started with an explanation for making firebricks that one could use to make their own kiln. I eagerly devoured this information, finding the knowledge fascinating. This was followed by ‘traditional bricks’ and ‘glazed bricks’ and more information on building materials. I had nearly forgotten what had led to my expulsion from the hive, and marvelled at the usefulness of this book… though it made much note of quarried stone as a building material, and any drone could tell you that if you found a vast quantity of solid stone, you were far better suited to build into it as opposed to moving it elsewhere. But then, ponies prefer to walk about with things like ‘natural sunlight’. Topaz herself claimed it was good for a pony, and had more than once dragged me to the surface to enjoy a sunny day and have lunch outside.
I wondered idly if Topaz had made arrangements for us to see another play or concert. I had rather hoped she had, but now had to admit that it was unlikely I could attend such an event. In lieu of myself, I decided, she should still go. I had left the matter of my expenses wholly in Topaz’s hooves, and after much coaxing she had agreed that I could pay for these experiences with my own coin, being that apart from food I had relatively inexpensive tastes.
I still do not know why anyone would bother tasting things that weren’t food, though I could recall vaguely that starving drones would chew or suck on small bits of the red or grey ores that we sometimes found while excavating to trigger the hunting instincts on the off chance they could find prey. Regardless, that is no explanation for why ponies would do so. One does not hunt the wily grain field and I have yet to find a better way to find apples than a merchant’s cart or an apple tree, neither of which require heightened hunting instincts. Unless the merchant is fleeing from you. I made a mental note to carry a small quantity of powdered metal, just in case.
When Topaz returned to check on me and not-feed me with a glass rod filled with some red fluid (which had no taste that I could notice, leading me to again question the logic of ponies), she verified that she had indeed bought tickets for both of us. I faltered before deciding that she should take Honey with her; Honey had more than earned my friendship and the giving of gifts was much a part of such an arrangement. Topaz tried to argue this with me, but I was adamant that if the tickets were for a specific time and place, it was a waste not to use them. To my immense surprise, she eventually agreed with this assessment.
Honey was delighted, claiming she’d been wanting to see a show for ages while at the same time offering a great deal of true sympathy towards me, fussing over false bruises that Topaz had instructed me to create, which was appreciated. I had honestly believed that the false bruising would be too much, but it was gratifying to know I had made them realistic. She also snuck me a ‘care package’ which was essentially a half-dozen jars of assorted honeys whilst Topaz was otherwise busy. This was also appreciated.
Waking up with a jar on my snout in my cocoon was, I decided, an odd way to sleep but the faint taste of the amber bliss was enough to maintain a good mood. My back had settled comfortably during my extended resting period and I grudgingly admitted that perhaps this ‘bed rest’ had something to it and I would have to say as much to Topaz. Gingerly climbing the stairs left me with an odd sight.
For one, the door wasn’t fully closed, and I took care of that.
Secondly, and perhaps more strangely, Topaz still appeared to be ‘cleaned up for a night on the town’ and had her head partially buried in the armrest of her couch, making vaguely displeased sounds and shifting her wings as if to burrow into the fabric. Very peculiar.
“Topaz? Are you well?” It was not entirely unusual for her to sleep late on weekends, but I had never recalled her purposefully sleeping on her couch. Or in this position, but perhaps she did the same with her bed. Her only response was to wave a wing in the general direction of me and the window.
I reasoned that, with pony love of sunlight, perhaps what she wished was for me to raise these blinds, which were all unusually shut. With a bit of magic, I threw open all of them.
The noise she made was neither expected nor, I think, entirely polite, and she rolled over holding a pillow over her face with her hooves, making a loudly muffled noise that I could not quite make out.
“Gill you?” I repeated in confusion.
She repeated it back, a bit louder this time, into the pillow.
“...I’m near you?”
She stated it more firmly into the pillow, but for all I could tell, made no move to remove the pillow and make her intentions known. Her failures of diction would have to wait. Unsure if she could hear me any better than I her, I enunciated clearly and loudly.
“Would. You. Like. Breakfast?”
She made a series of noises and wafted misery. Clearly hungry, then. Luckily she had made much of her ‘Egg-Shell stew’ for me and I simply heated it in her kitchen, taking care to vigorously whisk it with a metal device she kept for just such a use. Topaz continued to make noises, and I heard her stomach clearly. I feared I was running out of time, and increased the temperature. Soon, the mixture came to a frothing boil, and I poured some for Topaz and myself, bringing it to her.
She now had her wings around the pillow over her face. I could not begin to reason what the problem was. Cautiously, I lifted the edge and held the bowl towards her muzzle. “Would you like some?”
Five minutes later, I scowled at the spilled bowl before glaring up towards the bathroom where Topaz had fled as I scrubbed at the floor with a sponge, cursing the ‘five second rule’ as she had previously explained it. Honestly, I would never understand ponies.
Topaz had been apologetic about her sudden onset of illness and the wasted food, but thankfully was much recovered later that day. She’d inspected my hardened extra-shell and told me that she didn’t think I was in danger of damaging it further now that the resin had hardened, but warned me to keep the bruises on my pony-shell to let others know I had not been entirely unscathed. Truthfully, her cautious prodding was both painful and disconcerting, but regardless of my health, I was required to return to training the following day.
Shining too had a number of discolored spots on his midsection, though his were less evident due to an enormous amount of cloth wrapped around his torso that made him look quite rotund. Apparently the younger spawn of his parents had sought to provide him with medical assistance and he hadn’t had the heart to tell her that bandages don’t work that way.
“Had to stop her anyways when she started tying a tourniquet around my ribs. I don’t think that works. For that matter, I don’t think Smarty Pants has a real medical degree.”
“It would seem unlikely.” I agreed, wondering if Smarty Pants was the name of his younger sibling. It seemed very suitable for her, from what little I’d been told of her. At her age she should be more focused on play, I thought. “I would expect graduating magic kindergarten would be prerequisite to a medical degree.”
“Well, no, not technically, I mean, magical training isn’t required of every unicorn. A lot can’t really do much or don’t have those particular talents. The school for gifted unicorns is really more a matter of refining magical abilities.”
“Topaz claims there is all sorts of study there.”
“Yyyeah, and some ponies would prefer it to be more focused on the unicorns who need help with their gifts. Some don’t really need the training, some just need the basics explained to them, and some need more assistance to reach their full potential. I mean, I went, did a little hoofball, but for the most part my shields are just… a thing I do.”
“Oh, sure. I have a heck of a pass, but I kept popping shields on the field. It’s grounds for disqualification; no magic allowed that interferes with the game.”
I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Sometimes I wonder if ponies have secret languages made to discuss matters that are only important to those who understand the language itself.
The training period was the first of our extended weeks. We still received one day to ourselves at the end of the first week, but we were not to return to our homes. It was during this time we had the first case of derangement, in which an otherwise very stable stallion started throwing random food items together in a large cooking pot to try to make a stew that didn’t ‘taste like broiled cardboard dipped in mud’ and wailed that there wasn’t decent broth stock to be found. The sergeants managed to talk sense into him with a combination of canned soup and letting him perform ‘kitchen patrol’ which I recognized as ‘KP’ from Topaz’s friend on the border. The pony seemed unnaturally grateful for this opportunity, and Shining admitted that he’d rather never be neck-deep in pots if he could help it.
This was, of course, overheard and we found ourselves joining our comrade for the rest of the day. I delighted in the extra food, even if it was slightly less than fresh. Shining scrubbed his pots more disconsolately while the pony previously in question bounced around the kitchen as if he had been born to it, finding random spices amongst the clutter and making something of much improved flavor compared to our normal meals.
For the most part, my false discolorations seemed to please the ponies around me, and Shining enjoyed showing his own off. A number of our comrades inspected them and found them pleasing to the eye, one of the earth ponies actually telling me that it was ‘nice to see that unicorns could bruise like any other pony’. Shining looked rather taken aback, and there was an odd bit of hostility in the air for a moment before I pointed out that blood had to run to our flesh like any other pony, obviously, what sort of creature didn’t have that happen?
I may have panicked. Regardless, the others snorted and shared a chuckle over that, and we moved on to our next item of training. Before the combat training began, one sergeant brought me aside and suggested that I be put on light duty. I was pleased until it was explained that ‘light duty’ was less duty, and I vehemently refused on the grounds that I was perfectly fine and pain was an absolutely natural part of life. Albeit the part where life tries to kill you.
I do not think I won the argument, but the sergeant claimed I made his head hurt and he’d consider it more later. Perhaps it was a victory after all.
I immediately had cause to regret my efforts, as I was swiftly and firmly introduced to the sand of the sparring grounds by my partner for the day.
“...Ow.” I firmly declared, wondering briefly if the large earth pony was going to crack my shell again.
“Good throw, Bigflank.” A sergeant congratulated from across the yard. “Now get his tail up and get him back to it.”
The large stallion hefted me with one limb, dropping me back onto unsteady hooves. I was beginning to wonder if being taught to wrestle with earth ponies was meant to teach the unicorns humility. I was at least certain that I was learning how not to hit the ground. Mostly. I was at least aware that I shouldn’t do it.
“Sir yes sir!” Bold replied with far more cheer than I felt. The earth pony, a huge trapezoidal black mark with white numbers on his flank, was always at his best mood during this training, which was always far too jovial by my opinion. We went through the proper motions, and I darted forward for a grab. This turned out to be foolish, and I swallowed an unfortunate amount of sand upon landing face-first.
“You know, you got a lot of spunk for a unicorn. Ain’t afraid to get dirty. Uh, no offense.”
“None taken.” I agreed. Dirt was hardly something to be feared. Sand was more annoying than anything, and I spat more out, attempting a jab next.
I had not been aware my foreleg could bend that way. It was an illuminating and painful experience. Tapping the ground with my other hoof meant another faceful of sand before I was released.
“Some of the others, they take this sort of thing awful personal.” He gave a bit of a grin. “Think I’m doing it on purpose.”
“I would rather hope you are. Otherwise this would be embarrassing.”
“Well, I am going a little easy on you, shortstop. You bein’ hurt and all.” He flipped me over himself, slamming us both in a pin and wrapping a foreleg around my neck. I tapped again and Bold released me.
“Course, not everyone’s so giving. After that stunt you pulled last week, Ol’ Shiner ought to at least let you have the top bunk.” He threw a heavy blow of his own that I barely ducked out of the way of.
“I have always preferred to be on the bottom.”
The larger stallion almost missed a step, and I grabbed the other front leg and pulled, nearly toppling him. Before I could take advantage of his predicament, the bay rolled back a step and returned to a proper stance. I cursed my overabundance of zeal.
“And if Shining prefers to be on top and I below him, I see nothing wrong with that. If anything, that makes us a good pair.” This time, he did miss a step and when I went for the back leg, he reared and ended up crashing to the ground with a thud that cast sand out of our circle in a cloud. I was beginning to get the hang of this, I thought.
The reddish stallion stared up at me, clearly in shock at my newfound prowess. “Ah. Not judging, you understand. Just… surprised, I think.”
“Of course. I just got lucky.”
“S...Sure you did! I mean, no designs on him or nothing, just didn’t think. Uh. Let’s get back to it, then?”
To my immense disappointment, I did not manage another point for the rest of the session. My jest seemed more true than intended, and I cursed myself for drawing attention to this odd bit of luck.
At the end of this training period, we received our first set of armor. It was bronze instead of the traditional gleaming gold alloy, but still retained a fine shine… unfortunately, we had them tossed at us and were told to have them polished and fitted up properly for inspection upon return the following training cycle.
I had rather been hoping to receive guidance in how to assemble and wear the various metal shapes. Shining pointed out that we were very likely supposed to either figure it out or fail, and that would be an excuse for extra physical training. I fear for my sanity, as for just a moment, I understood the logic behind such an act.
Regardless, I took my weighted bag of various metal plates and hobbled back to my home. Topaz demanded to check my shell as soon as I entered the door, making clear sounds of vague disapproval at the shell and crack. For reasons I could not fathom, the idea of dirt in the coating distressed her. She seemed… very much uninterested in the metal plates of my armor, but admitted she’d only had a bit of experience taking a set apart, never putting one put together, and she’d try to help if need be. Truthfully, much of the armor I was able to figure out from the various other guards I had seen. Still, she had a large mirror in her room and allowed me the use of it. The room itself was rather nice, for something so far above ground. I did not like having only a thin layer of wood precariously balanced upon others to support me. It felt unnatural.
What I had not been prepared for was the fact that it kept falling off. I had struggled into the loops of woven material that were attached, but for the life of me could not fathom how to attach it properly. Perhaps the fault lay in my form. Ahhh, that explained why my rations were increased; I was not of a proper size for the armor! Unwilling to accept this, I began making several minor adjustments. Torso needed to be thicker. Legs longer? Heavier. Add a bit to the ribs. Bold had made for a decent example, more like that. The armor began to snug, and I admit I may have preened a bit.
There was a knock and Topaz entered the room with little other fanfare, looking up and stopping dead.
“What. What the buck.”
“Topaz? Are you alright?”
“I haven’t had a stallion up here in better than six months.” She mumbled, sounding a little dazed. Then she shook her head, vehemently. “Bad Topaz. Idol, what the hay are you doing?” The last sounded more exasperated than curious.
I paused, feeling suddenly like I had been caught doing something inappropriate. “...Fitting my armor?”
She gave me a baleful look. “By giving yourself the musculature of a champion weightlifter?”
“Well… it didn’t fit.” The words sounded lame, but I could not think of a better reason. It was true enough.
“Oh for… look, let me see.” She prodded my armor with a hoof. “Here, look, there’s straps.”
“I thought you did not know how to-” My breath caught as she cinched the belt, pulling a strap with her teeth. “Put this on?”
“Well… um… no, not really. I mean, I helped somepony take some of it off once. Or twice. I'm working in reverse here. Look, drop the muscles, you can’t go back there looking like a Tommenjerry dancer.”
“Nothing, none of your business, just go back to normal.” Her grumbles were slightly muffled by another strap. “Changeling can’t be doing that to a mare, honestly…!”
I deflated rapidly, the false musculature melting away so suddenly she nearly fell over on me. Oddly, she felt a little disappointed. I’d never understand ponies. I winced as one strap tightened over my cracked shell, but made no other complaint. Proper fit was more important than minor pain, I decided.
“There!” She spun me to face the mirror again. “What do you think?”
The stallion in the mirror was me. But wasn’t, precisely. It was the form I had chosen as my personal one, but… I rather liked the change the armor seemed to bring about. I straightened, taking a properly attentive stance. I felt pride swell within me. For once, I saw no reason to disallow it. I’d built camaraderie with my fellows. Between Shining and the others, I’d actually received a reasonable share of emotion, enough to have gotten me through the week without difficulty.
This wasn’t just something I wanted to do, I finally realized… it was something I could do. I could be a changeling and a member of the royal guard. Looking at my bronze armor, I knew without doubt I was not yet there… but one day, and soon, I would be.