Flintlock stood still, calm, and impassive. Whilst Dusk quietly fidgeted and occasionally paced, as was his custom at times like this, he remained as still as Discord. There was nothing to be done. He had given his orders, all that could be done now was watch them be executed, and see if the enemy reacted.
Of course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t as concerned as Dusk. Potentially at this very moment, dozens of Bright Lights may be moving into position to attack. At any second the skirmishers sent out along the column’s flanks might come into contact. But whilst the ponies he had sent out now had the potential to affect the situation in one way or another, he was little more than a bystander.
That was, to his mind, one of the most difficult things to deal with when one became an officer. You went from following orders as a private, to giving them and following them through as a sergeant, to simply watching those orders be executed as a captain. Flintlock was a mustang in the true sense of the word, having entered the service as a humble private and risen through the ranks on merit and skill.
The rest of the column had fallen silent as well. The marching had stopped, and even the usual sounds of hooves and wheels on the desert roads had ceased. But even the little things had stopped; even the young foals had stopped crying. It was as if everypony knew that something was about to happen, for better or worse, quite soon.
Looking over to his colonel, Flintlock saw that he was once again pacing, and beginning to wear a fine trail into the sand beneath his hooves.
“They’ll get back when they get back,” he offered in an attempt to calm the anxious colonel. Star Dusk replied by glancing at him worriedly. He then switched his gaze to the western horizon; in another half hour or so, it would be completely dark.
“They been gone a hay of a long time,” Dusk replied. “What if they got jumped, and now they’re just going to wait it out until nightfall?” Flintlock rolled his eyes.
“Oh yes, of course. Naturally, our sun loving enemies would attack at night, when we have the advantage in vision and hearing, and when they’re hampered by their highly reflective armour. By the moon, Dusk, get a hold of yourself!” Out of the corner of his bat like eyes, Flintlock spotted something.
Turning to get a better look in the fading light, he saw five, perhaps six ponies making their way towards them. Two of them were quite clearly thestrals. And judging by the way they were flanking the other ponies, which were two earth ponies, and a unicorn clad in typical western attire, they were well in control of the situation.
“See, what did I tell you?” Flintlock said, gesturing to the small party. “Safe and sound, and no sign of retaliation. C’mon.” Taking the lead in a move that, during the war, would have been viewed as incredibly insubordinate, Flintlock led Dusk towards the returning scouts and their new prisoners.
As the two trotted up, the scouts promptly snapped to attention and reported themselves, just as they had been trained to do by Flintlock.
“Sir, we retrieved these three ponies as requested. They claim to be from San Maretonio.” Putting on his best intimidating face, and with Flintlock behind him, backing him up, Dusk addressed the three captives.
“What are you three doing so far out of town then? Somehow I doubt there are any apple orchards out here.” The trio were clearly a little scared. For the moment, that was exactly how Dusk wanted it. The eldest of the three, an earth pony stallion with a tan coat and dark brown mane spoke up.
“We heard that there was a group of refugees heading towards us, sir,” he said hurriedly. “The three of us thought it would be a good idea to come out here and meet you first, before you reached town.” His accent had a hint of Mexicolt to it, but it was masked by a partial Canterlot one, which indicated that this stallion was not some simple farmer.
“A welcoming committee?” Dusk replied, curious.
“If you like, sir,” the stallion nodded. “I assume you are seeking somewhere to rest before you continue your journey?” The answer caught Dusk off guard. He had expected that he would have to negotiate their way into the town. What he hadn’t expected was this sudden hospitality. Flintlock broke into the conversation
“Seems awfully generous of you, friend. Most ponies wouldn’t be too happy about having the better part of a thousand ponies suddenly turn up on their doorstep.” The stallion smiled disarmingly.
“Most ponies, sir, have not had two similar groups pass through their town in the last month. We have enough space to let you all rest briefly, and we welcome the business and trading opportunity you provide.”
Dusk turned to Flintlock, their eyes meeting briefly. Having served together for so long at time, the pair could, at times, almost read each other’s mind. In this case, their thoughts were almost identical. This was exactly what they had been hoping for, and here it was served up on a silver platter. And that was what worried them. It all seemed too perfect.
On the other hoof though, what choice did they have? They couldn’t bypass San Maretonio. Regardless of their supply situation, the civilians would probably start rioting if they got wind that they were going to pass by the only rest stop for miles. They all needed the rest. They needed supplies; food, water, medicine and so on. What choice did they have? Dusk turned back to the stallion and his two compatriots.
“Alright. We accept your invitation,” he said, still sounding wary. “If you have no objection, we will set up a small outpost in the old mission just outside of town.” The stallion merely nodded.
“I take it we are free to go then?” he asked.
“Yes, you are free to go.” Dusk turned to one of the two thestrals who had brought the trio in. "Sergeant, release these three.” The manacles around their hooves were promptly removed, and they began to walk away. Before he left, the stallion turned back to Dusk.
“I hope you will all enjoy your brief respite. Permit me to introduce myself, my name is Rare Diamond. If you have any question or concerns feel free to drop by and see me at Governor’s House.” That explained the Canterlot accent and the slimy feeling Dusk got around him. The stallion then turned to the sole unicorn of the group. “If you would be so kind?” The trio then vanished in a flash of light as the unicorn performed a teleport.
“Well, that explains how they got out here so fast.” Flintlock muttered. Dusk frowned a little.
“Yeah, it sure does.”
And so the column prepared to move out again. With night drawing on fast, Dusk gave the order to recall all the patrols that had been sent out. Whilst thestrals may possess excellent night time vision, it was still quite possible for them to inadvertently lose each other in this near featureless desert. And given how cold it became at night, a pony could not afford to get lost.
The assembled guards were now instead stationed around the column in a protective cover, just as they had previously been. When everypony was gathered and ready, Dusk gave the order to move out, and the column began its march again.
Up ahead, it was now possible to make out the settlement of San Maretonio, which was now partially illuminated by a few dozen lanterns. It was a new moon tonight, so the lights served as a useful guide. In the end it became so dark that it was difficult to make out the horizon on the open plain. The only light for miles was the town itself, and the few touches of light here and there in the column. Normally, by now they would be resting up for the night, with Flintlock and his guards enforcing a strict blackout. But since they were so close to their objective, it seemed foolish to spend another night out in the desert.
Dusk and his staff were already planning how things were going to be once they arrived in town. He still didn’t like the way they had been ‘greeted’ by the mayor and his two associates. Something about the guy just didn’t sit well with him. Perhaps it was simply because he was a politician; Dusk always did have a fierce distrust of politics.
There were more important matters to attend to though. Chief among which was where everypony was going to be put up for the night. It had already been decided that the old mission would serve as a suitable barracks for the guards, as well as a bastion for the more important ponies in the column. But the mission would not hold a thousand ponies, perhaps barely a quarter of that.
The civilians would have to be billeted elsewhere; something he was not particularly comfortable with. Spreading them all out meant that, in an emergency, it would take that much longer to get everypony organised and together. He would prefer it if they could keep them all close at hand. With the column still plodding steadily on, he left his position near the front and went searching for Flintlock.
Flintlock himself was in two minds about their destination. But it was very much a case of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Either they went to San Maretonio, got what supplies and rest they needed, and risked enemy attack. Or they could go around, run out of supplies, face an out of control civilian population and never reach their destination. Whichever way he looked at it, the risks of going to the town were outweighed by the rewards. Just as he was contemplating going to talk with Dusk about it, he found the colonel standing behind him.
“Dusk, I was just about to come and find you,” he said as the colonel drew up. “You still feeling uneasy about this?” Dusk nodded.
“Yeah,” he replied, briefly removing his helmet and scratching at his mane. “But I don’t see that we have much in the way of a choice. We have to stop within the next three days, maximum, or we’ll die of thirst somewhere out here. You have any ideas?”
Flintlock thought for a moment. Whilst there was no question of the column not stopping in San Maretonio, there were several approaches open to them. He sure as hay wasn’t about to send the entire column in together.
“Maybe,” he began. “Maybe we ought to do a little bit of recon first. Send a couple of my guys into the town, quietly. They have a look around, check everything’s how it’s supposed to be, then we bring in the rest of the guard, followed by the civilians. If there is anything waiting for us, we’ll have a fighting chance.”
Dusk considered the idea, it was sensible enough. But it didn’t exactly win much in the way of hearts and minds did it? Their invitation to rest was presumably based on the vague support and goodwill of the townsfolk. If they saw a couple of thestrals sneaking around in the shadows, who knew what conclusions they’d draw. For all Dusk knew, they’d see it as preparation to attack and turn on the column. Perhaps they might even alert the hostile mobs and militias.
On the other hoof though, based on their previous experiences, and the knowledge that ambushes had claimed the lives of Lunar supporters in the past, they’d be fools to go into a town without exact knowledge of what it was like. It was eventually this which won out, and Dusk told Flintlock to organise a reconnaissance patrol.
The patrol was to fly high up, and not touch down until they returned. They were to search for any signs of prepared ambushes or other evidence of enemy activity, as well as getting a layout of the settlement for strategic purposes. With that knowledge, the few guards they had would be better prepared when they entered the town. When they were confident the area was secure, then they could move the civilians in.
Flintlock also suggested that they keep them near the Lunar mission. Whilst most would be outside its walls, he suggested setting up a few small guard posts on the perimeter. So there would be two rings of protection. On the outside would be the first ring of guards, protecting the civilians. Then, inside the walls of the mission, would be the rest of them, along with what few cannons they had, to provide heavy covering fire to the outer ring. With an established base, they could also perform a few recon sorties to keep an eye out while they remained in the mission.
The initial patrol was to be as small in numbers as possible. In the end, it was boiled down to just two of the more experienced guards Flintlock could call upon. One would actually perform the recon, the other would watch his back and act as a second pair of eyes. They would fly as high as they could, so as not to be spotted and stick close at all times. Just to be safe, Flintlock ordered them to approach the town from the east, rather than the west, which was the direction the column was approaching from. If there were any eyes watching the darkened skies, they were most likely looking in the most obvious direction.
To keep their weight down, and thus increase their endurance, as well as their stealth, both thestrals decided to forgo their armour. Given the nature of their mission they hopefully would not require such protection. Just before the pair departed, dusk gave them their final orders.
“Alright, with any luck this should be a simple milk run for you. With any luck there won’t be anything there, and our suspicions will be unwarranted. However, we will be depending on you to be both thorough and discreet. You must not, under any circumstances, be detected by anypony. If anypony so much as glances in your direction, you are to abort and RTB immediately. Is that clear?” Both flyers nodded in understanding.
“Yes, sir,” they both answered. Dusk smiled.
“Good. All that remains then is to wish you both luck and good hunting. I expect you back here within the hour. If we don’t hear from you by then, we’ll assume you’ve been compromised.” The two thestrals nodded again before taking off. Within thirty seconds, even Dusk’s sharp, and specially adapted eyes, had lost them in the gloom.
To prevent their move being guessed, the column continued moving forward, albeit at a slower pace. But to all intents and purposes, they were all once again forced to play a waiting game. And once again, Dusk began to grow nervous.
It was around twenty minutes later that the patrol returned; well within their one hour window. Just as they had departed, the two thestrals returned almost silently, their leather like wings making next to no noise, unlike the feathers of pegasi. Emerging out of the darkness, the pair alighted almost directly in front of Dusk and Flintlock, who were discussing the finer points of logistics with Dusk’s general staff.
For a moment, Dusk’s face betrayed a hint of surprise, the sudden arrival of his subordinates having caught him off guard. However, he quickly masked this with a friendly smile; it would hardly do to let them see that they had spooked him.
“Ah, excellent, you’re back,” he greeted them. “Well, what have you to report?” The older of the pair spoke up after saluting.
“Sir, we conducted a thorough aerial observation of the town, from the western approach, and across, including the old mission.”
“How does it look, can we billet ponies there?” Dusk enquired.
“It looks a little worn, sir. But the walls and main doors are still intact. It should serve as a useful base camp and as a defensive position if needed.” Dusk grinned, his biggest concern, aside from the obvious potential threat, was that the mission, due to age and damage, would not be defendable.
“Excellent, and what about the town?”
“We made three passes, sir. And we couldn’t see anything untoward. There is certainly no large enemy force there. As for the civilian population, they seemed to be going about their evening, no signs of weapons or any organised groups. I’d say the place is perfectly safe.” Flintlock scowled at the somewhat flippant remark, but otherwise was impressed. The pair then gave a brief outline of the town’s layout.
San Maretonio was a typical frontier town. Simple wooden buildings, all collected together to form one main street. At the head of it was Governor’s House where the mayor lived. On either side was a collection of businesses, including a saloon and a general store where supplies could be bought through bartering. Just outside the town, connected by a well-trod path, was the old mission, known as the Moonflower.
Surrounded by high stone walls, the Moonflower was almost a fort in its basic design. One main door at the front was large enough to accommodate carts and wagons. There were only a couple of other entrances and these could easily be defended or blocked off altogether. Inside the mission, there were a number of buildings; the Lunar temple itself, a couple of bunkhouses, as well as some storage buildings, all of which could be used as further defensive positions, in the event the walls were breeched or scaled. Even better, the thick walls had a sort of catwalk running all the way around at the top. On this, it would be possible to station sentries, as well as the few canons they had. All in all, it was an excellent place to hole up in.
And so, satisfied that there was no immediate danger to resting in the town for a few days, Dusk ordered Flintlock to move his guards into the town in order to make a path for the civilians. They would all move through the town, and settle around the Moonflower. Most of them would be resting outside its walls, but if needed, the mission offered a safe haven as it always had. Just as in other nations, a pony could, if in flight from persecution, step onto holy ground and claim sanctuary.
Whilst they would still be, for the most part, sleeping in tents or wagons, they would now have the luxury of running water, and freely available food and medicine, as well as any other supplies they needed. It would still be a far cry from their old lives, but it was a step in the right direction.
And so, just before eleven o’clock, the weary, battered column finally made its way into San Maretonio. Led by the guards, the civilians steadily made their way through the town towards the safe haven of the Moonflower. Most of the foals had fallen asleep and were being carried by their parents; the hour was far too late for them.
Everypony was simply exhausted, the long trek, combined with the heat, and now the rapidly encroaching cold had left everypony tired. The two more recent pauses to their progress had also served to put everypony on edge. But now, having entered the town without incident, everypony slowly began to relax.
A few residents of the town were still out, evidently waiting to greet them. The odd store here and there was still lit, as was the saloon, whose owner extended an offer of free drinks for all the guards in the group. Said offer was diplomatically, but nonetheless firmly, declined by Star Dusk, much to the irritation of the lower ranks. Still, they were satisfied with the promise of eventual leave, just as soon as they were set up in the Moonflower. Until then, they were still very much on duty.
In the end, it took about twenty minutes for the column to pass through the town. In that time, the governor, who had previously greeted them, awoke from his bed. Still dressed in his night clothes, with a large great coat thrown over them, he too came out to greet them. Once again, he welcomed Dusk and Flintlock, as well as the rest of the staff to the town and reminded them of his offer to assist them in any way he could.
Still somewhat uneasy around the stallion, Dusk merely asked for assistance in setting up basic amenities, such as water and some food for them all. Despite his apparent kindness, neither Dusk, nor Flintlock, could shake the feeling of unease around him.
It took another two hours before everything was set up in the Moonflower. Upon arrival, they found it necessary to force the main gate open; since the lock, due to age, had rusted shut. After that though, the place was suitable enough. Dusk quickly organised the large bunkhouses into barracks, in order to keep the guards and civilians separate. This was an old tactic. Were he still serving in a proper regiment, when resting at camp, there would be a contingent of Lunar Guard troops between the senior officers, and the rabble that made up much of the Lunar militias, as a safeguard in case there was any disturbances.
It took a fair while to examine the other various buildings that made up the mission. There were a few storehouses, a small house, which Dusk chose to set up a command post in, and of course, the Lunar temple itself.
The temple, much to the relief of Moonapple, was relatively untouched. It had certainly been spared the destruction that befell so many of its counterparts. Of course, like most places left for so long a time, the place was covered in dust and was generally untidy; Moonapple found a number of hymn books and scriptures scatted on the floor. The ancient organ in the far corner was also completely out of commission. Luckily though, the beautiful stained glass windows, which held images of the princess herself and those commonly associated with her (though not her sister), as well as some depictions of stories from the scriptures, were still intact. All in all, Moonapple was quite happy, and Dusk quickly assigned what few guards he could spare to making the place presentable. While they were too late, and too tired, to hold a service tonight, Moonapple said he would be happy to hold a service at sunset tomorrow. Dusk figured that by then, everything would be organised and squared away.
On the military side of things, all that remained was to set up the cannons and post the sentries for the first watch. Prior to starting their journey in earnest, some of the guards in the column had attempted to make a counter attack, using old cannons that had been left in their casements. These had been secured and hauled halfway across Equestria in order to provide some form of firepower if needed. Flintlock’s suggestion was now to use what few they had in order to cover the whole area at a greater range. With cannons on the catwalk, they could fire at a range the better part of half a mile.
However, given their weight, they were forced to rope in what unicorns were available and use them to lift the weight. It was hard going for the exhausted ponies, particularly as many of the unicorns were not guards and did not have particularly powerful magic. Eventually though, with great thanks from Dusk, the last of the four cannons was in place. Now they could fire shot at any approaching enemy from any direction.
As for the civilians, they slipped into the familiar routine of their lives. Many had tents to erect, but some had been able to bundle their lives into carriages before they were forced to flee. These were all now arranged around the fort, forming the beginnings of an odd shanty town. Many were planning to purchase what materials they could in the town in order to make themselves more comfortable.
Finally, beyond them, a select few guards, some of the strongest in the group, began to dig at the soft, sandy soil; doing their best to create foxholes and other entrenchments.
With everypony at last settled and the stars shining brightly above them, dusk stepped out onto ‘battlements’ as it were to address the civilians and the assembled guards.
“Alright everypony, I shall not keep you too long, I know you all want your rest.” This provoked a chuckle amidst the civilians. “We will be resting here for the better part of a week, so I encourage you to make the most of it. We are now very close to our final destination. I know it has been hard for you all, but I want you to know that I am proud of the way you have all handled yourselves these past months. Many of you knew nothing of military life or hard living when we began. But now, we have almost completed our journey. Soon we will be safe from our enemies, free to bide our time until our princess returns. So settle in, get some food in your bellies and get some sleep. You have all earned it."