• Published 26th Sep 2011
  • 7,347 Views, 295 Comments

The Colour You Bleed - Kegisak



Blueblood is kidnapped, and dumped in an unfriendly neighboring country.

  • ...
8
 295
 7,347

In Which Care is Given

Chapter 10: In Which Care is Given

There was silence in Canterlot Palace, save for the steady sound of hoofsteps. Princess Celestia's golden horseshoes tapped gently on the marble floor, keeping time like the ticking of a clock. She paced back and forth across the room, not saying a word.

She had been preparing to raise the sun when she had received the news, getting as far as rousing herself and getting cleaned up when the acting captain of the guards had rapped gently upon her door. He had told her what happened, and she had immediately gone silent. Luna still hadn't returned to the palace, and so the princess had nopony to confide in. She couldn't tell her niece, obviously. Not yet. The only ponies who could know were her guards, and now was exactly the wrong time to show weakness in front of them. She sighed.

“When?” she asked pointedly. The acting captain, one of her personal pegasus guards, saluted.

“We found it... pardon, him, early this morning, Your Majesty. One of the maids, Lilac. She found him, called us, then I came to you.” Celestia nodded.

“The filly... how is she?”

“Shaken,” the pegasus said. “But she'll be fine.”

“Have you had time to inspect him yet?” Celestia asked, still pacing. The captain shook his head.

“Not yet, Your Majesty. I sent another guard to fetch the doctor while I got you, but they're under orders not to inspect him until you arrive.”

“Very good,” Celestia said, finally standing still. “Take me to him.” The pegasus saluted, and opened the door for his princess. He led her through the palace's winding hallways. They were completely devoid of ponies this early, save for the odd industrious servant checking for something to do. In times like these Celestia's ancient mind became jaded, and she wondered idly if an earth pony they passed straightening a tapestry might be looking for a raise. For an instant she considered having his pay docked, but pushed the thought away. It was only stress talking, she reminded herself. Even she was not infallible. Today, more than any other, was a day to remember that.

Their path took them down into the less-traveled wings of the palace. The marble floors and walls gave way to simple, dank cobblestone. It seemed appropriate; compared to the opulence of the rest of the palace these hallways seemed almost oppressive. Celestia was beginning to grow impatient of her guard's short-legged strides, and the tips of her wings twitched irritably. Fortunately, they soon came to a small door, and the pegasus stopped.

They entered the room. It was one of many that lead outside, all for various purposes. This was one of the rooms that received packages. Ordinarily these packages contained food, or cleaning supplies and the like, but Celestia gathered that a special delivery had come in this morning. The young mare Lilac was still there, wrapped in a blanket and speaking softly with another guard. Celestia trotted up carefully.

“Are you alright?” she asked comfortingly. Lilac looked up at her, and smiled weakly.

“Yes... thank you, Your Majesty. I think I'll be fine. But...” She paused, and looked down. “I'm very sorry,” she said. Celestia shook her head.

“Thank you,” she said, “but don't worry about it. This is not the first time this has happened to me. I'm a big girl.” She smiled sweetly to the mare, who smiled back. Celestia looked over the mare’s head at the group of guards huddled around the back of the room. There was an unarmoured unicorn with them, who Celestia recognized as the palace's doctor. She walked up to him, and ruffled her wings. The doctor tuned around, and bowed.

“Your Majesty,” he said quietly. Celestia nodded politely to him.

“Have you taken a look at him, yet?” she asked. The doctor shook his head.

“Only a cursory inspection, Your Majesty. I was told to wait until you arrived and gave your blessing to give a full review, as... well, I'm sure you know the procedure.” Celestia nodded once again.

“Yes, of course,” she said. “What do you know so far?” The doctor shook his head, and shrugged.

“Very little,” he admitted. “I know what happened, but I don't know when. It could have been weeks ago, or earlier this morning. I won't be able to tell any more until I take a closer look. Did you want some time alone with him first, Your Majesty?” Celestia tapped her chin thoughtfully.

“Perhaps,” she said. “Something about this doesn't sit right with me.” She hummed to herself, running through scenario after scenario in her mind. She lived through weeks in instants, watching each new turn of events unfold. Many of them led to somewhere close to here, but never quite here. She rubbed her eyes, and looked up. Something else strange occurred to her.

“Oak!” she said. The red-brown pegasus sitting across from her bowed.

“Your Majesty,” he said softly.

“Why are you here, Oak?” Celestia asked. The guard lowered his head shyly.

“I... the princess was sleeping soundly, so I thought I might be able to have breakfast. I heard miss Lilac scream, and came in here. I... have been too caught up to return to Her Highness yet.” Celestia struggled to maintain her composure. If Amethyst woke without Oak, she might go looking for him, and she might find the trail leading her here. That was the last thing Celestia wanted.

“Go back to her now, Oak. She mustn’t find out about this yet. Is that understood?”

“But Your Majesty,” Oak objected, “she should know about this, don't you think? I mean, she deserves to know. To hear it from you, not from a guard or a rumour this time -”

“That was not a request, lieutenant,” Celestia said sharply. Oak – and several other guards nearby – winced. The goddess took a deep breath, and spoke again. “She will,” she said. “I promise she will. But not yet. Something is wrong here, Oak. I want to make sure that somepony isn't trying to fool me. It... feels wrong.” Oak's expression became puzzled, but he saluted regardless.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” he said. He fluttered across the room, but before he reached the door it swung open on its own.

“Oak!” Amethyst said gratefully. “Thank goodness. I've been looking for you. One of the servants said he saw you come down this way a while ago... where did you run off to, Oak?” The lieutenant leaned away, trying hard not to show his nerves. Celestia did so as well, hiding her emotions much better.

“Ah... I went to fetch breakfast, Your Highness,” Oak said quickly. “I wasn't expecting you to be awake so soon.”

“Yes...” Amethyst said, “yes, I... had another nightmare. But that's not important. I'm awake now. What's for breakfast, hm?” She smiled widely, trying to put on a brave face for her guard. She looked over his shoulder, but he shifted to block her vision.

“N-nothing here, your highness,” he said. “Just a package arriving.”

“Really?” she asked, looking over Oak's other shoulder. “It must be some important package, with so many guards – and Aunt Celestia! What are you all doing here?”

“Nothing, dear,” Celestia said coolly. “Why don't you and Oak head outside? I'm going to be raising the sun soon, I'm sure it will be lovely to see. It's a very clear morning today.”

“Maybe in a minute,” Amethyst said. Her brow was beginning to furrow slightly, and she was looking past her nervous guard with interest. “What are you all looking at back there? And why have you got the doctor with you?”

“I-it's nothing to worry about, princess,” Oak said, waving his hooves. Amethyst ignored him, quickly stepping around the flustered pegasus. He tried to stop her, but she marched on heedlessly. Celestia sat in her path resolutely, and the mare marched straight up to her aunt.

“What is it, Auntie?” Amethyst asked pointedly.

“Nothing.” Celestia said, every bit as sharp.

“Then why won't you let me see it?” the purple mare asked again.

“Because it isn't worth seeing,” Celestia said. The two stared at each other in silence, an unspoken line of communication passing in the way that only family can manage. It was Amethyst who spoke first, and her voice was filled to the brim with fear.

“Auntie... what's wrong?” Celestia sighed, and stepped aside. Amethyst walked past her, peering at what the guards and doctor had been gathered around. The doctor took a step back, sighing sadly.

Amethyst took a slow step forwards. “N-no...” she said quietly. She stepped forward again, lifting a quivering hoof into the air. “No,” she whimpered again. “No, no, no, no no no!” She began to scream, and covered her head with her hooves. “NO!” she screamed, almost begging. “NO! No, please, please gods no! Oh gods, why!?”

The guards, the doctor, and Princess Celestia had all been gathered around a box. It was short, only a few feet high, but it was long, and packed with straw. Inside it was a unicorn stallion. His coat was white, and his mane the colour of the straw surrounding him. He was turned on his side, so everypony could see his cutie mark: a six-pointed compass rose. He didn't breath. He didn't move. He was dead.

“Why!?” Amethyst cried again. She threw herself onto the body, sobbing and writhing as if she were in pain. Every scream stabbed Oak in his heart. He walked slowly to the crying princess.

“Amethyst,” he said quietly. The princess looked up at him, tears staining her face. For a moment he shared a sympathetic glance with her, and she threw herself into his hooves. He swallowed, but sat down with her and let her cry.

“Oh gods, why?” she sobbed again. Nopony spoke. They let her cry, respecting her loss. Nopony in the room would ever tell another soul what had happened, they all knew that. The princess would have to be strong for her country. She would have to lead it well, and never let this touch her. She would need to put on a brave face for the other countries. She would have to be nobility. But for now, she was allowed to be a mother, mourning for her child.

“Oh, my foal,” she moaned, her tears finally spent. “My poor, poor foal... how could this happen?” She sniffed, and looked up. “How could this happen, Auntie?”

“I'm so sorry, Amethyst,” Celestia said.

“Couldn't you have done something?” the purple princess demanded. “Couldn't you have stopped this? Why didn't you!?” Celestia hung her head in shame.

“I don't know,” she admitted. “You're right. I could have done something. But I didn't.”

“And why not!?” Amethyst demanded angrily. “He was your nephew, Auntie! He was... he was my foal, and now he's gone... I told you we should have gone after them! If you had just listened to me, my foal would still be alive! Now he's dead, and IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT! I HOPE YOU'RE HAPPY!” She screamed, and began to cry again. Oak held her, letting her sob into his shoulder. Celestia sat silently,

“I don't want to be here anymore, Oak,” Amethyst said eventually. “I can't be here anymore. I want to go.”

“Of course,” Oak said. He helped her to her hooves, and led her to the door. Before they left Amethyst looked over her shoulder, staring at her aunt with hate-filled eyes. Then, she was gone.

The room was silent. The acting captain of the guards shuffled his wings, and spoke.

“Your Majesty,” he said, before Celestia interrupted him.

“She'll be fine,” she said quietly. “She's scared right now. Heartbroken. She has every right to be angry with me.” She closed her eyes, and sighed. “Leave me alone with him,” she said. The pegasus saluted, and all the ponies slowly filed out of the room. Soon it was just Celestia and the body. She turned around, and looked at it carefully.

The eyes had been closed – thank goodness for that. He looked almost like he was sleeping, lying there in the straw. She ran a hoof over him gently and found a strange lump in his neck, like the bone wasn't aligned right. She furrowed her brow, and looked closer. There was something wrong, she could tell. It didn't look right. It didn't smell right. Even the air around it tasted just ever so slightly off.

She hummed to herself quietly and looked over her shoulder, confirming that the door was shut tight. She turned back to the body and closed her eyes, breathing deeply. A smell filled her nose like nothing else in the world. It was like smelling fire, or electricity. It almost had no smell of its own, instead smelling of everything else at once. She could smell the mortar between the stones. She could smell the moss and mildew, and the stones themselves. She could smell the old wood in the room. She could smell saltwater.

She felt her mind spreading out, touching everything in the room. The tiny, imperceptible currents in the air playing across her coat, the subtle grit of the stones beneath her hooves. She became aware of every single object in the room with her, no matter how small, and her mind joined with them. She could hear the faint whispers of the long-dead wood that supported the walls, and the steady chipping of the masonry where the cobblestones were born. The room came alive to her, and she became a part of it.

When she reopened her eyes, the world was different. Tiny flecks of gold hung in the air like dust in a sunbeam. They swam, shifting in strange currents and forming ancient and eldritch shapes and symbols. She saw the entire room at once, as if she had left her body and were floating in the air. She smiled in spite of herself; this was not a sight she saw often anymore. She focused her attention on the body. It was swathed in gold, the flecks dancing across it's body like ponies at a festival. A fleck clung to every single hair in his coat and mane.

“Magic...” she said softly. Her horn lit up, and the stallion in the box began to glow as well. His fur seemed to bristle, and the golden sparks dashed away from him, flying into the air and sinking into the walls and the wood. Bit by bit, hair by hair, the white of his coat melted away. It was replaced by a deep, chocolate brown. Within moments her nephew disappeared, and in his place lay a new stallion, bare of any gold. And yet, he was not new at all. Celestia remembered him, from weeks ago. A soldier. An honoured guest. An Aloan.

The princess breathed a sigh of relief. She would have to find Amethyst later, when the unicorn had calmed down. For now, though, Celestia had business to attend to. The sun was late to rise, and she was going to have a very busy day. There was much to do, much to prepare for. She would have to leave the castle soon, to visit an old friend. A very, very old friend.

***

Blueblood and Brook walked out of their home and into the darkness of the morning. Blueblood looked around idly, while Brook moved in the direction of the shed.

“Bring the cart over, Red,” he said quietly. Blueblood nodded, and headed around the house to fetch the old pony's wagon. He pulled it around, leading it over to Brook where he sat by the shed. Brook had already propped the door open, and was looking at the broken plough inside.

“Are you going to be alright with this?” he asked Blueblood. The white pony eyed the plough, and nodded slowly.

“I think so, master,” Blueblood said. He wrapped his hooves around the plough, and began to walk slowly backwards. He kept the plough on its good side, and it slid along the ground easily enough. When he reach the cart he leaned back, lifting it off the ground slowly. He grunted with the effort, and Brook lifted his hoof slightly.

“Do you need help?” he asked. Blueblood grunted, and put it back down.

“I... might,” he admitted. Brook nodded, and his horn glowed faintly. With the help of Brook’s magic, Blueblood managed to lift the heavy plough up, and put it in the back of the cart. He leaned against the edge, panting faintly. Brook walked up to him.

“I'm okay,” Blueblood said softly. He stepped away from the cart, and Brook nodded. With Blueblood's aid the old pony climbed into the back of the wagon, and Blueblood moved into position to push it once more. “Do we need anything else, master?” Blueblood asked. Brook shook his head.

“No,” he said. “We just need the plough. We can find a place to stay, and things to eat in the city. We'll buy supplies while we're there too. But for now, this is all we need.” Blueblood nodded, and turned around. “Don't push yourself,” Brook told him. “Let the rib rest.” Blueblood nodded again, giving a shy smile to the old pony. He set off, pulling the cart back to Port Ponzance.

The week since Blueblood had hurt himself had been a strange one. As always, Brook hardly spoke. In spite of this the old pony had always seemed to have something to do. He wouldn't let Blueblood do anything, and when Blueblood asked he had simply stated that Blueblood needed to rest.

Blueblood’s rib wasn't hurt bad. It had bruised where the chain pressed into it, but the pain was dull, and the bone probably wasn't hurt at all. Brook had been silent to these objections, however, and Blueblood had been to shy to push them. So he had simply sat on the balcony, or in the bedroom if it rained. When he was on the balcony, he found himself more and more looking out at the river, and the forest beyond it.

At first, it had simply been something to do. Blueblood had felt guilty about not being able to work at first, but the view had been able to take his mind off it a little. The more he looked, the more it was out of curiosity. He wondered just why his master chose to spend day in and day out staring. As he stared, the reason began to unfold before him.

It was not simply that the view was beautiful, though that was certainly true. The more he saw it, the more he began to see in it. He began to notice the trees in the distance rustling, and the glint of the light off the water changing subtly as the river rippled in the wind. Even when he didn't focus, he could allow his mind to wander. It was peaceful. At times he fell completely into his mind, forgetting about the world around him.

When it rained, and he sat in the bedroom, he found himself reading. Brook had found him sitting in the middle of the room one day, and silently placed a book of poetry in front of him. It had taken Blueblood a while to grow accustomed to reading the measures, but when he did he found that he enjoyed it.

While the week had not been a hard one on Blueblood, it had not been perfect. Brook had fallen into silence the morning after Blueblood had hurt himself, and Blueblood couldn't help but tiptoe around the silent stallion. In truth, he still found it hard to accept all the help that Brook gave him. At least now, though, Blueblood had recovered enough that Brook would allow him to work again.

When the two ponies next spoke to one another, the sun was high above them in the centre of the sky. In spite of its late rise, it shone brightly. It had not rained recently, but it threatened to again. The air was heavy with humidity, and pearls of sweat were forming in Blueblood's mane.

The road had widened out, and the last of the trees had fallen away. Blueblood pulled the cart through rolling hills now, and the road fell away from them on one side.

“Stop,” Brook said. Blueblood did as he was told, and looked back. He was panting slightly, and he had been holding his tongue out to cool himself off, but he closed his mouth shyly.

“Is something wrong?” Blueblood asked. Brook shrugged.

“Let's take a break,” he said simply. “Cool off for a while.”

“... Alright,” Blueblood said. He offered his master a hoof down from the wagon, and the old pony took it. He eased himself onto the ground with Blueblood's help, and trotted down the hillside. Blueblood followed after him, looking back at the cart.

“Shouldn't we stay with the wagon?” he asked. Brook laid down on the grass, and sighed as a breeze blew through his mane.

“It will be fine,” he said. “There's nothing in it worth stealing.” Blueblood nodded, and sat beside him. A gentle wind blew over the hills. It cooled Blueblood, chilling him where he was damp with sweat. It felt good, after hours of pulling the cart.

“The breeze is nice,” Brook said, breaking the silence. Blueblood looked over at him slowly.

“Yes,” he agreed quietly. “Is it... always this humid?”

“In the woods? Yes.” Brook said. “Out of the woods the dry season is much better.” Blueblood blinked at him.

“Dry season?” he asked. Brook stared back.

“Where are you from, Red?” he asked suddenly. Blueblood lowered his head a tad, and answered.

“Um, Equestria, master,” he said. Brook nodded.

“I was there... once. It's different. We have two seasons here: wet, and dry. We're at the end of the wet season. In a month or so the dry season comes. The rain stops for half the year, then comes again near the end.” Blueblood thought about this for a moment.

“So... during winter?” he asked. Brook shrugged.

“I don't know,” he said.

“Oh,” Blueblood said, “right. I'm -”

“Don't apologize,” Brook cut him off. Blueblood paused for a moment, trying to hold back another apology. He saw the corners of Brook's mouth twitch up for just a moment before the old pony recovered himself. The old unicorn hummed idly, and lay his head on his hooves. Blueblood turned away from him, looking at the view before them.

The land fell away from them in the distance. Hills bobbed up to the left and right, and as the forest reclaimed them it seemed almost like an ocean on land, the dips and rolls immeasurably slow waves playing along its surface. Far away Blueblood could see a thin strip of the River Aloe cut through it, breaking the flow before the land faded into the mists of distance. It still felt surreal to Blueblood, seeing the horizon. It felt like it went on forever.

A breeze cropped up, blowing Blueblood's mane in his eyes. Through the golden strands he could see the forest in the distance shift, its leaves rippling in time with one another. He lay down, and sighed. In spite of himself, he smiled.

“It's beautiful,” Brook said simply. Blueblood looked over at the old pony. He still stared forward, head resting on the backs of his hooves. The breeze blew through again, sending another ripple through the forest. “Perfect,” the old pony said.

“Yes...” Blueblood said quietly. “It's nice.” He looked back at the vista, and was reminded of Brook's own view from his balcony. A question came to him mind, but he struggled to ask it. “Master,” he said slowly. Brook's eyes flicked towards him.

“Yes?” the old pony asked.

“You watch the forest from your balcony a lot,” Blueblood said, still slowly. Brook nodded. Blueblood's brow furrowed, and he continued. “Does it ever... do you ever get tired of it?” Brook hummed again, and scratched his beard calmly.

“No...” he said finally. “No. Every time I look at it, I see something new. Something I didn't notice before. It changes every time.” Blueblood thought about this. Perhaps Brook had simply watched for longer, and knew the forest more intimately, but Blueblood couldn't imagine being able to notice the subtle changes from day to day.

“You've been looking too, haven't you?” Brook asked. Blueblood blinked in surprise.

“Y-yes,” he said. Brook nodded.

“Do you think about things, when you look out there?”

“Yes,” Blueblood said again. Brook stared into the distance. His eyes had a far-away quality to them.

“What do you think about, Red?” he asked. Blueblood looked out at the scenery for a while, thinking.

“I... don't know,” he conceded. “I guess I just... think about whatever comes to me. Everything.” He lowered his head, but Brook smiled faintly.

“Everything,” the old pony repeated. He sighed, and Blueblood thought he could hear peace in that sigh. “Everything is a good thing to think about,” Brook said. He lay his head on his hooves again, that faint smiled still on his face. Blueblood looked at him for a moment, then turned away. Another breeze came, playing through Blueblood's mane. He stared out at the forest before them, and he smiled as well.

***

Hours later, Blueblood hauled the cart up to the walls of Port Ponzance. The enormous gates that broke the wall were still wide open, but a pair of guards stepped into their path. Blueblood was nervous for a moment, but the guards ignored him, nodding instead to Brook in the back of the cart.

“Afternoon, sir,” one guard said. “What brings you to Port Ponzance?”

“A bit of trade,” Brook told him. “I need a plough fixed up. Do you need my medallion?”

“No, that's alright,” the guard said. “No need to do everything – you've got a slave with you, I doubt you're trying to sneak in.” The two guards stepped aside, and Blueblood pulled the wagon through the gates. The guards nodded to Brook once more, still ignoring Blueblood. Brook nodded back to them faintly.

“Master?” Blueblood asked, after they he had walked for a while longer. Something had been on his mind since they spoke to the guard at the gate.

“Yes?” Brook asked. Blueblood looked back at him, lowering his head slightly.

“How did the guard know that I was your slave? Do you really not have any earth ponies in Aloa?” Brook shrugged.

“Few enough,” he said. “But that isn't how.” He ran his hoof along the cloth wrapped about his shoulders, and tapped the medallion tying them gently. “These,” he said. “This far out, everypony wears wrappings and a medallion. Only slaves don't.”

“Oh...” Blueblood said, nodding. That meant that everypony who saw them knew that he was his master's slave. Not so long ago, that would have made him happy. Longer ago than that, it would have made him livid. Now, he didn't quite know how to feel about it.

It was late in the afternoon now, and much of whatever bustle the city might have had was beginning to die down. The streets were still full of ponies, but it was not as packed with them as it had been when Blueblood was first brought here. Brook told him to head back to the market lane, and he complied. The wide lane was easy to find, especially since the spoke-like road from the gate brought them right to it.

The street here was more populous, and Blueblood often found himself nodding apologetically to groups of ponies who were forced to break around the large wagon. In truth, he wasn't sure of exactly where he was going. Brook never gave him any cue to stop, so he simply kept walking. The market street seemed to stretch on forever, bending and curving just enough that Blueblood could never quite see the end of it. Just as his legs were beginning to grow sore from the day's walk, Brook spoke.

“Turn right here,” he said. Blueblood nodded, and turned into a small alleyway. It tucked between the sides of two shops, leading away from the stores and merchants. The alley began to narrow gradually, and before long Blueblood was starting to wonder if he would be able to keep pulling the cart. The walls of the buildings on either side stretched high up above, hiding the low sun and putting the two ponies into darkness. In the distance Blueblood saw a point of light. He kept moving towards it; not that he had any choice. The walls kept creeping close and closer, and as they reached the other side of the alleyway Blueblood would have sworn that the wagon nearly scraped along the walls.

He stepped out into the light, and blinked. His eyes had adjusted to the dark of the alleyway, and the open sunlight was blinding. When he was able to open his eyes again, he took a look around.

They were in a large open square. The ground was paved with old, loose cobblestones. The buildings were pressed together, walling the square off save for a few narrow streets like the one they had just come through. The buildings stretched two or three stories tall each, and on the second stories Blueblood saw wide balconies, similar the one on Brook's home. Also like Brook's home the places beneath the balconies were shaded porches, sinking back into the shadows before the buildings proper began. The buildings cast a large shadow over half the square, but the half that was still lit shone gold as the waning sun cast orange upon the yellow sandstone.

No building seemed to have the same purpose as its neighbor. Several were undecorated, and Blueblood imagined that they were homes. Others had stands set up out front, selling various goods. One had long, rich sheets of cloth hung from its rafters and laying folded on its bench. Another was covered in metal implements – kitchen utensils, farm equipment, even simple lengths of chain. The air around the house behind this stand seemed to shimmer, and Blueblood could see a thick plume of smoke rising up from its chimney.

“There,” Brook said. “A forge. That's what we need.” Blueblood nodded, and pulled the cart over to it.

The shimmer in the air had been heat – as Blueblood drew close he could feel it radiating outwards. He saw a red glow coming from the window inside, and guessed that the forge must be just inside.

With Blueblood's help Brook clambered down from the wagon, and limped over to the door. He rapped on it sharply, making a deep thudding noise. There was silence for a while, then the door creaked open.

A gigantic stallion stood before the two, golden-brown of coat and with a fiery red mane and tight silvery wrappings. “Hullo,” he said gruffly, grinning at the pair. Blueblood stared at him – he had never seen a pony quite so full-looking. The smith was almost as wide as his door frame. Brook, however, did not seem surprised.

“Hello,” he said, nodding respectfully. “Are you the blacksmith who made these tools?”

“That's me, yeah,” the smith said, beaming proudly. “You need something forged?”

“Not forged,” Brook said, shaking his head. “I just need a repair done.”

“Well, I can repair whatever you have for me!” the smith said. “What do you need fixed up?” Brook limped back to the cart, gesturing for the smith to follow. He did so, brushing past Blueblood without a thought.

“Managed to break a plough,” Brook said offhandedly. “Need it fixed up before we can get back to work. Dry season is coming soon.” The smith leaned over the side of the cart, humming knowingly. He inspected the plough, nodding to himself.

“You weren't kidding that you did a number on it,” he said. “Cut it the whole way through. Well, I can fix it right up. It won't come cheap, though.”

“I can afford it,” Brook said simply.

“Well, no offense sir, but I don't know that.” The stallion shrugged, and Brook sighed.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I suppose that's fair.” He unpinned the medallion tied to his wrappings, and handed it over to the smith. The smith turned it over, inspecting whatever was on the back. As Blueblood watched him, he saw the stallion's brow raise in surprise.

“White Brook?” he asked incredulously. “The Raging River? Commander of the -”

“Yes,” Brook said sharply, cutting him off. “That was... a long time ago.” The smith gave him the medallion back, and grinned.

“It's an honour to meet you, sir. I'm... sort of surprised that it's just a plough. From you, I would have thought your armour or something...”

“It's been a long time since that armour did anything that would need repairs,” Brook said. “Nearly twenty years. I'm just a farmer now. Is that all you need?”

“Oh!” the smith said. “Yes, of course. I'm sure you'll be able to afford it easily. I'll even give you a discount.”

“No,” Brook said. “That won't be necessary. I have more than enough.”

“That's very generous of you, sir,” the smith said. Blueblood watched him oddly. The way that he spoke to Brook – it was like he was meeting his childhood hero. His tone was almost reverential, and Blueblood could see his head bobbing humbly as he spoke. It was subtle, but Blueblood understood what it meant exactly.

“Actually,” Brook said, “I hate to ask this. We just came to the city, and don't have anywhere to stay for the night. Is your home large enough for two guests?”

“Oh yes,” the smith said, beaming. “I'd be honoured if you would stay with us while you're in town. I'm sure my wife would be as well.”

“Hm,” Brook said, nodding. Blueblood wasn't certain, but he seemed to be losing that sense of calmness about him. He seemed slower, duller somehow. He took a step towards his master, but the old pony lifted his head and looked towards him. “Red,” he said suddenly. “Can you take the plough into our host's forge, and put away the cart?”

“Yes, master,” Blueblood said, nodding to him. He reached into the back of the cart, dragging the heavy plough out. The smith didn't move to help him, instead waiting until Blueblood managed to pull it out and get it onto the ground. When he had, the smith opened the door into his house and held it.

“Just bring it in here,” he said. Blueblood nodded, and began dragging the plough backwards along the ground. The smith watched him as he did so.

The inside of the house was sweltering. Blueblood had been right; the forge sat in the opening of the house, right beside the window. It seemed to be a small foyer, as there was another door just feet away from them. He dropped the plough by the forge, then returned outside to the cart.

“Take that thing around the back,” the smith said. “You think you can find the way around our house?” Blueblood nodded silently, and began to pull the cart along. It seemed light as a feather without the heavy plough and his master in the back. Before leaving the square he risked a glance over his shoulder at his master. The old pony was sitting by the fountain, staring off into space. It was much like when he would look out over the river, but was different somehow. Blueblood stared at him for a moment, before shaking his head and pulling the wagon into another alleyway.

The path around the smiths house was simple to find; it was a simple gap in between the back of his building and another, leading to a tight square. Blueblood was forced to climb over the cart to get back out, which took a bit of time. When he returned to the front of the house, Brook and the smith had disappeared. Blueblood nudged the door to the smith's house open gently, poking his head inside. The forge was empty, so he did the same with the next door. There he saw his master, sitting at a table with the smith and a much smaller mare. Brook spotted him, and nodded gently.

“Come in, Red,” he said. The smith didn't pay any attention, but the mare stared at him in shock. Blueblood stepped inside, but went no further than the door. He stood awkwardly, pawing at the ground as the mare gaped at him.

“Um... is something wrong, miss?” he asked her. She closed her mouth as if she had just realized she was staring, and turned to her husband.

“A... a foreigner?” she asked incredulously.

“My slave,” Brook said simply. “Red.” the mare stared at him again, but looked at least somewhat more comfortable this time.

“Oh...” she said, “I see. That makes more sense.

“Yes,” Brook said again. He seemed more succinct than usual, to Blueblood. He was almost certain something was wrong now, but he couldn't imagine for the life of him what it was. His wondering was interrupted as Brook beckoned him to come closer. “Come sit down, Red,” the old pony said. Our hosts have offered us dinner.”

“Ah, yes,” the mare said, standing up from the table. “It's almost ready, I think.” she stepped away, going to a stove along the wall. Blueblood sat at the table beside his master, and looked at him carefully. Brook gave him a strange glance, but his eyes soon snapped back to the smith.

“So,” the golden pony said, “what brings you into the city? Just the plough?”

“Yes,” Brook said, nodding slowly. “Just the plough, and gathering a few more supplies. We'll be able to start planting soon, but we're running out of food in the meantime. Need to be able to last until the first crop comes in, and the traders don't come by often.” The mare returned, levitating a large, steaming pot of stew. She laid down bowls, and began to ladle the stew into them. She heaped it into Brook's bowl, smiling sweetly at him as she did so, but when she came to Blueblood she spooned in a meager portion of broth and a few token vegetables. Blueblood thanked her regardless, but he could see Brook eying his bowl.

The mare poured herself a bowl, and sat beside her husband. “So?” she asked. “Shall we?” Brook hummed, and reached in front of Blueblood. He took away Blueblood’s bowl, placing it in front of himself, and giving Blueblood his bowl instead. Blueblood stared at him, but Brook simply nodded.

“Yes,” the old pony said. “Let's.”

There was a strange air hanging over the meal. Brook seemed to sag, if that were possible. The smith and his wife, however, were exuberant. Pride seemed to emanate from them, and they beamed at Brook from across the table. The two feelings seemed to meet in the middle, fusing into a strange sort of awkwardness. The smith's wife, for her part, seemed blissfully unaware of this.

“So is it true?” she asked. Brook looked up at her, and she continued. “That you live out in the middle of nowhere, all on your own?”

“No,” Brook said. “Red lives with me. But I used to.” The mare rolled her eyes faintly – Blueblood barely saw it – but she continued.

“Why?” she asked. “Why not live in a city?” Brook shrugged.

“You can't farm in the city,” he said. “I like the woods.” His words were soft, and he didn't seem to be looking at the mare directly. Blueblood was silent as he ate, watching Brook out of the corner of his eye. It was still barely noticeable, but he could see it more clearly now. His shoulders had gone slack, and his neck hung forward just slightly, his eyes cast barely downwards.

“But you could always live just outside the city, couldn't you?” the smith asked.

“Hm.” Brook said shortly, cutting off the conversation. There was silence for a moment, before the smith coughed.

He struck up another conversation, this one directed away from his guest. Brook joined in occasionally, giving his opinion, but he never seemed to lose that slacked quality that Blueblood noticed. Still, he chatted politely with his hosts, and the four ponies ate together. The already low sun dipped lower as they ate, and it was almost dark by the time they had finished.

The smith leaned back in his chair, patting his belly happily. “Ah,” he sighed. “That was wonderful, sweetie.”

“Oh, no,” she said, “it was nothing. If I had known we would have company I'd have made you something better, sir.”

“Nonsense,” Brook said. “It was delicious.” The mare smiled coyly.

“Well, thank you sir,” she said. “Why don't I go light some candles – it's beginning to get dark in here.”

“That sounds like a good idea. We'll clear things up in here while you do that,” the smith said. His wife trotted into another room, and he turned to Blueblood.

“Why don't you clear up these bowls, hm?” he asked. Blueblood nodded, and stood, but Brook stopped him.

“Red,” he said shortly. Blueblood paused, and the smith looked at the old green pony in surprise. “You're my slave,” Brook continued. “Not his. You don't have to clean up if you don't want to.”

Blueblood stood still, looking between his master and the smith. The air in the room was heavy, the tension palpable. Blueblood could almost feel the smith's confusion. Brook simply stared at the golden unicorn, his hooves folded in front of his face. From the smith's perspective Brook's expression must have been more impossibly difficult to read than normal. Blueblood was torn on what to do, for a while, but eventually began to gather up the bowls.

“These ponies were kind enough to let us stay with them,” he said quietly. “This is the least I can do for them.” Brook hummed, and nodded.

“That's very polite of you, Red.” he said. Blueblood lowered his head, and smiled. He gathered the rest of the dishes silently, carrying them to a basin of water. He washed them quickly, stacking them neatly on the counter. The mare returned, carrying a few lit candles, illuminating the room.

“There we are,” she said, placing the candles on the table. “How's that, sir?” Brook nodded politely to her.

“It's lovely,” he said. He got to his hooves, however, and grunted softly. “But,” he said, “I'm sure you two would hardly want to spend a wonderful evening like this with an old stallion in your way.”

“Oh no!” the smith insisted. “It's not a problem at all, sir! We'd love to spend the evening with you. I'd love to hear some of your old stories.”

“No, no,” Brook said tiredly. “I insist. I know what you young pony's are like. Besides, I'm not as young as I once was. I can't go forever like you can. If you would show me and Red to our room, We'll be out of your manes.”

“Oh... well, of course,” the golden stallion said. He stood, and trotted into the next room. Brook limped after him, and Blueblood followed alongside his master. They walked through a living room, and the smith showed them into a small bedroom.

It was well-kept for what must have been a simple guest room. There was a medium-sized bed in the corner, tucked in beside a wardrobe. Across from these there was a stool and a writing desk. There was a board with several strangely carved pieces on it, all neatly in their places.

Brook limped inside the room, looking around. “I hope this is alright, sir,” the smith said, bowing his head slightly.

“Yes, thank you,” Brook said. “But, do you have a blanket you could spare for Red?” The smith blinked, and tapped his hoof on the ground.

“I think we might,” he said, stepping out of the room. He returned in a few moments with a thin sheet, which Brook took gratefully.

“Thank you very much,” he said. “Enjoy your evening.”

“No, thank you,” the smith said. “Enjoy your sleep. I hope everything suits you fine, sir.” He bobbed his head again before he left, closing the door behind him. Brook sighed deeply when he left. Blueblood thought that he was looking a bit less tired than before, but he still seemed so much older than normal.

“Do you know them, master?” Blueblood asked. It didn't seem like that was the case – the smith had been amazed at who Brook was, for whatever reason – but it seemed odd that they would take them into their home if they didn't. Perhaps that had something to do with how Brook was acting.

“Hm?” Brook asked, straightening up slightly. “No, I don't know them. I've hardly ever needed anything forged before.” Blueblood's brow furrowed.

“Then... why would they take in strangers for the night? Are you... famous?” Brook snorted, and smiled humourlessly.

“Famous,” he said. “Hm. Yes, I'm famous... in a way.” He gave a protracted sigh, and slumped forward again. Blueblood lowered his head, and took another step forward.

“Master,” he asked quietly, “what's the matter?” Brook sighed again, and looked at the white stallion. He rubbed his eyes, and smiled faintly.

“No,” he said. “It's nothing. I'm sorry if I seemed short, but... 20 years is a long time. Sometimes things change.”

“That's not...” Blueblood said quietly, but decided not to finish. If his master didn't want to talk about it, Blueblood would respect that.

“No,” Brook said again. “That isn't why they took us in. I forget, sometimes, you are Equestrian.”

“Why?” Blueblood asked, tilting his head.

“Culture,” Brook said simply. “Aloans are much closer to one another than Equestrians. We have to care for each other. It's how we started. So, if an Aloan needs a place to stay, they can just ask another to spare a room. Most houses have a guest bedroom like this one.”

“Is that why you don't have inns?” Blueblood asked. Brook nodded.

“We have some, but only for large parties, or rich ponies. But yes, travelers will just stay with locals.” Blueblood thought about this. It seemed to make sense – until he remembered the mare's reaction to him.

“But,” he said, “the smith's wife...”

“We care for Aloans,” Brook said again, perhaps a bit sadly. “Aloans. Nopony else.”

“Oh...” Blueblood said. Brook shook his head. He looked at the desk, and Blueblood followed his gaze. He was staring at the game set on it.

“Do you play?” Brook asked him.

“What?” Blueblood asked.

“Casualty. The game. Do you play?”

“N-no...” Blueblood said. “I... think I've seen it before, but I've never played. I don't think I know how.”

“That doesn't surprise me,” Brook said. “It's a common game. They say the gods invented it to settle disputes before kingdoms and armies.”

“Really?” Blueblood asked. Now that Brook said that, he remembered where he had seen it before. He remembered seeing a set in auntie Celestia's bedchamber. The set had been cast from gold and silver as opposed to simple painted stone like this one, but the pieces all looked the same. Brook stood, limping over to the set. He touched it gently with his bad hoof, then turned back to Blueblood.

“Would you like to learn?” he asked. Blueblood tilted his head, but smiled faintly.

“Yes,” he said. “I would.” Brook nodded, and lifted the set off the desk. He brought it over, and sat on the floor across from Blueblood.

“Do you know anything about it?” Brook asked. Blueblood shook his head shyly.

“No,” he said. Brook nodded.

“The goal is to capture your opponents throne.” he tapped a gold-coloured square on the edge of the board. “At the same time, you must lose as few pieces as possible. You can capture your enemies throne, but still lose if you lose too many pieces.” Blueblood tilted his head, his brow furrowing.

“Why?” he asked.

“The game mimics a war between two kingdoms,” Brook explained. “If you capture your enemy’s kingdom, but you don't have enough ponies to hold it, then the victory was worthless. Every piece is valuable. You cannot waste any of them. Do you understand?”

“I think so,” Blueblood said. “You can't sacrifice a piece to get ahead. You have to respect all of them, because they're all useful in the end.”

“That's right,” Brook said. “Some of the pieces move differently from one another, but each is useful. You must use each one to its utmost potential to win.” Blueblood nodded.

“I understand,” he said.

“Good,” Brook said. “Now, this piece is your infantry...”

Blueblood slid an infantrypony onto the golden square on Brook's side of the board, and grinned widely. “I won!” he said happily. Brook shook his head.

“Look again,” he said. Blueblood looked down at the board, and his mouth fell open. He barely had any pieces left – less than half as many as Brook. The old pony had cleared a path for him, then systematically destroyed his force while Blueblood had focused on pushing ahead.

“You lose,” Brook said. Blueblood laughed weakly, and flopped his head down.

“Yeah...” he said.

“You need to pay attention to everything on the board,” Brook said. “You can't afford to lose sight of your army, just because you've broken away from the fray. You were too focused on capturing my throne, and you let me take your units.”

“Yeah...” Blueblood said again. “I... really messed that up, didn't I?” Brook nodded.

“In a real war, my forces would have been enough to rebel from the inside. This kind of loss is the worst kind. If you had taken my throne and won, I would not have been able to start another war. Now though, I could rebel and rip apart the country from the inside. When a game is lost like this, both sides have lost in the end.” Blueblood stared at the board, and he suddenly understood just why Brook had beaten him so badly. While Blueblood had seen it as a game, Brook had treated each unit as an actual soldier on the battlefield. The white pony bowed his head.

“I guess... I'm not that good at this.”

“No,” Brook said. “You did very well.” Blueblood looked up.

“Really?” he asked. Brook nodded.

“Yes,” he said. “You were able to get a piece through my defenses. You read my line and found a gap. That's good, for a beginner.” Blueblood smiled proudly, and rubbed his flushing face.

“I... thank you, master.” he said. Brook nodded.

“Did you enjoy it?” he asked. Blueblood nodded as well.

“Yes, master,” he said. “It was... fun. And interesting.”

“I'm glad,” Brook said. He stood up slowly. “It's getting late... we should probably sleep now.” Blueblood nodded slowly. He stared at the board in front of him. The pieces were all where they had been when he lost the game, in strange positions around the board. His were haphazard, but looking at it now Blueblood could see a sort of organization to Brook's pieces.

Brook had treated the pieces like actual soldiers on a battlefield. Blueblood had treated them like pieces of painted stone. He hadn't played the game properly; he hadn't cared about his units.

“Master?” Blueblood asked. Brook turned to look at him.

“Yes, Red?” he asked. Blueblood looked up at him, smiling shyly.

“Before we go to bed... will you play one more game with me? I'd... like to try it again. Properly, this time. I promise I'll be better.” Brook walked over, and lay down. A warm, earnest smile spread across the old pony’s face. His horn lit up, and all the pieces slid into their places.

“I know you will,” he said.