• Published 16th Apr 2014
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Besides the Will of Evil - Jetfire2012


A shadow from the deep past returns to threaten Equestria, along with all the world. Can Twilight Sparkle and her friends be a light in the dark?

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Chapter 32

Author's Note:

["The Riders of Rohan" plays in the background]

The golden grass billowed and rippled in the evening breeze. Soft and gentle orange sunshine bathed the fields for miles in its loving and caressing touch, while quiet wind allowed the grasses to be rippled like a golden mane. That ripple, that billowed horizon, spread for miles all directions, far beyond the ranges of the sight. Horizon to horizon all directions was near totally unbroken, nothing but raw gold and light blue sky now filled up with the sunset in the west. Flat and vast and open, it beckoned with infinity of possibilities.

The fields were not full barren, though. Straight ahead, up from the golden grasses rose a stone foundation fathoms tall and thick as mountainside. Upon it, up the ramp that led to it, a barn sat, a barn bigger and far more expansive than many a small hamlet in Equestria. Its wooden sidings were the size of massive tree trunks- and had in fact been tree trunks long ago. A central window at its highest level looked out like a god's eye on the plains, catching up the sunlight and reflecting it, so that it seemed to gleam with molten gold. Gold too, silver also, were the trimmings round the roof, those bindings, fastenings that held all things together. Finally, the roof itself was thatched grass, dried and yellowed, catching now the fire of the sunlight and seeming to set ablaze in brilliance and in majesty.

Spike sat back and whispered, “Whoa...”

“Yep,” said Applejack, “that there's Thatchholm.” She wiped a line of sweat that now was streaking down her cheek. “Whew! Glad we made it fast as we did.”

“I hope I didn't slow you down, Applejack.”

“Shucks, hun, you were light as a feather. Now come on!” With that she broke into a gallop, hurrying the way that kept her parted from Thatchholm's tremendous frontal gates. Spike's eyes widened even further as they got much closer, for the great barn swelled yet further, until it was titanic, massive, bigger than most structures he had ever seen, at least outside of Canterlot.

The gates set in the foundation were large as well. Their iron fastenings were big as Spike, and they had platforms set onto their other sides- at least, that must have been the case, for otherwise the armored ponies whose heads he could see would have nothing to stand on. As they came very close one of the ponies on the gate cried, “Halt! State your business in Thatchholm, stranger!”

“Howdy, y'all!”

“Oh! It's you, Applejack!” The pony turned around and shouted downward, “Open the gates!”

Massive clanking noises rose as bars were shuttled back. Tremendous creaking sounded through the air, and slowly the great gates swung open, showing that indeed the Daleponies were standing on platforms nailed to their other sides. Another pony, stepping downward from the platform, trotted down the ramp into the grass. “Hail, Applejack! Well met! We did not expect to see you again so soon.”

“Neither did I, Stone Shoes,” said Applejack. “And I hate to say it, but I ain't here on vacation. Is the Timbered Court in session yet?”

“Not to my knowledge. Did you wish to speak with Lord Hammer Hoof?”

“If'n I can get in, that'd be great.”

“You will have to speak to Councilor Checkboard,” said Stone Shoes. “Regardless, we shall do what we can.”

“I'm mighty grateful.” With that, Applejack trotted up the ramp, the gates erupting with great creakings as they slowly closed behind her.

They emerged at length atop the great foundation. Spike spun in his seat atop her back, amazed, astounded at all that he saw. Ponies, ponies everywhere! And they were subtly but distinctly different than the ponies of Equestria. For one thing, they were largely shaded rough and darkened colors: reds, oranges, burnt yellows, browns, blacks. There was not a pink or green or blue among them anywhere. Moreover, they were more muscled than the ponies of Equestria, leaner and more fit for rough terrain. Many of them wore tough leather armor, much like Applejack's, and many carried spears, while many others had hoof-axes strapped onto their front legs.

Their gruff demeanors changed as Applejack went by, however. “Hello, Applejack!”

“Hi there Applejack!”

“How's Equestria, Applejack?”

“You're pretty popular,” said Spike.

“Well, you know,” Applejack shrugged, “you change a few centuries-old traditions, you transform an entire culture's way o' life, and suddenly they like you. Go figure.”

“Applejack!”

Smiling brightly, Applejack spun round. A strong and sturdy pony galloped toward her. He was as large as Big Macintosh, and his coat was red as well, though this red was a darker, richer red. His mane and tail were light gray with some dark gray streaks run through them. His eyes were deepest blue, and piercing. Applejack ran toward him. “Ashtail!”

They met each other, and they leaned in for a tender kiss. Pulling back, Ashtail said, “I'm happy to see you, but why are you here? Is something wrong?”

“Sure is, sugarcube. Things are bad in Equestria- real bad.”

Ashtail's grim face darkened further. “We had heard reports... something about a shadow...”

“A livin' shadow, honey. We're dealin' with a black deer over the mountains.”

His eyes went wide. “A black deer? A real black deer? I thought they were extinct.”

“This fella's the last o' his kind, and he's makin' a mess... so I've come to ask for help.”

Ashtail sighed. “Lucky it's summer, not spring. The komagas are long gone, so we're fully ready for a fight... provided my father approves, of course.”

“That's why I came to Thatchholm. Is the Court gonna be in session tonight?”

“Yes, in about half an hour. I'll get you in first on the docket.” His head shifted left then, and suddenly he saw that they were not alone. “And who is this?” he asked.

“Oh! Yeah, this here's Spike,” said Applejack, shifting round. Spike slid off her back. “Remember that vial o' green fire I was carryin', the first time we met? Well, he breathed it.”

“Ah! So this is the dragon whose fire allowed you to go on your quest.” He nodded. “Welcome to Gildedale, good sir Spike.”

Spike bowed low. “It's an honor and a privilege to make your acquaintance, O Ashatail, Captain and Prince of the Dale. May Equestria's blessings be on you and your nation.”

“Ha! He has excellent manners.”

Applejack chuckled. “Sure does. Learned 'em from Princess Celestia herself.” Spike blushed.

“Well, come in. It's hot out here,” and with that Ashtail turned and let himself lead Applejack and Spike into the vast interior of Thatchholm. There were Daleponies milling everywhere, talking, laughing, lounging upon cushions. A few were drinking ice cold water. Others polished their hoof-axes with some wax and rags. Still others put a special soap upon their armor, making it a waxy red. “I'll go speak with Checkboard,” Ashtail said, “wait here.”

He trotted off. Spike spun in circles, gazing up and round at all the vasty decorations of the space. “Wow... this is amazing!” He noticed carvings on the ceiling. “Is that... is that Discord? And that's Celestia and Luna!”

“Miss Applejack!”

Applejack turned toward the voice with smile on her face. “Hey there, lil' one,” she said happily, crouching down and swinging out her front legs. “C'mere!”

A little pony girl, her coat light gray, her mane and tail dark gray, hurtled cross the floor and swept herself up into Applejack's hooves. Applejack drew her into a tight embrace. “I'm happy to see you, Miss Applejack!” the filly squealed.

“I'm mighty happy to see you too, Silkstring. Is your momma about?”

“I am indeed,” and then another pony, larger, fiercer, stepped into her view. She had a light gray coat. Her mane and tail were white, and woven into braids. Her eyes were brilliant green and glimmered with a warmness at the visitors. “Hello there, Applejack.”

“Howdy, Shield Maiden. Wish I were seein' you under better circumstances.”

“I do wonder why you're here. Has it anything to do with the blazes and bursts of power we have seen? Sometimes they light the skies across the mountains in the night.”

“That's right,” said Applejack. “There's a dark l-”

“Mama mama look it's a dragon!” Silkstring exclaimed.

Shield Maiden's own face grew bright as her gaze drifted down to Spike. “My goodness, it is!”

“Ah, I'm Spike, of Ponyville,” he said, and bowed. “It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Heh,” breathed Shield Maiden. “I have never seen a dragon before. You always bring such wonders with you, Applejack.”

“Happy to please,” said Spike. He threw his head back and belched a tongue of glittering green fire. Silkstring squealed with glee.

“Applejack, I told you not to- oh, hello, Lieutenant,” said Ashtail, coming back into their midst. He now wore a golden necklace, accented with a large emerald.

“Hello, Captain,” said Shield Maiden. “Attending to court business?”

“Yes,” he nodded. “Applejack, I have gotten your audience moved to the top of the Court's matters. It will be in session in about ten minutes.”

“Then we'd best get a move on, then,” said Applejack.

“Uh, should I... um...”

“Spike, I'm gonna need your help,” said Applejack. “I reckon they'll believe me, but I'm gonna need you to help me plead my case. We gotta convince King Hammer Hoof, Lord o' the Dale, to help Equestria.”

“Do you need the Dale Guard?” Shield Maiden asked.

“We sure do,” said Applejack. “I'll tell y'all along with the rest o' the court when I see Lord Hammer Hoof.”

“Then we'd best be there. Come.” Ashtail turned and trotted, then came Applejack and Spike, next came Shield Maiden, finally Silkstring.

As it was the height of summer, sunlight still streamed through the windows in this evening, but despite that all the torches in the barn were lit, casting their soft orange glow upon them as they passed beneath the giant pillars. The gold filigree that wrapped occasionally round the pillars and the corners glinted beautifully in the torchlight, flashing as though all the warmth and love of all the folk of Gildedale had poured into them and was now reflected in the soft and supple radiance. At length, they came to a great ramp that sloped up sharply. There they stopped.

“We'll wait here a minute,” said Ashtail, lowering his voice. Around him Daleponies of every size and shape came trotting up the ramp. Many of them dressed with ornaments, though nothing quite as gaudy as was seen inside Equestria: mostly simple earrings or some necklaces of gold. Occasionally they wore instruments of precious stone.

“This is amazing,” Spike whispered. “Applejack's told me so much about Gildedale, but I never thought I'd get to see it.”

“I am glad you are pleased by our nation, master dragon,” Ashtail said.

A gentle hoof tapped Applejack upon her flanks. “Tut tut, Applejack.”

With a smile she turned round. “Niles!”

Niles Nigellus, pronghorn of the Pronghorn Network, stood behind her, saddlebags stuffed full with letters and provisions. He smiled in delight. “Howdy-do, my dear? It's wonderful to see you here and now.”

“What are you doin' here, anyway?”

“I have a message for King Hammer Hoof from the Matriarch of the Diamond Dogs. How about you? Are things all right?”

“I... actually, I ain't doin' so well, Niles. Equestria ain't doin' so well.”

“Is it the dark lord?” Niles asked. “The one old Clive has told us about?”

“It is! We haven't been able to stop him. And one o' my friends had a vision of the future... I reckon that right here and now he's swallowin' up most of Equestria in shadow.”

“Good heavens!” Niles' eyes bulged out. “So what are you to do?”

“Right now I'm here to ask Hammer Hoof for help.” She smiled gently. “Say, while I'm askin' for help from everypony, I... well, I know the pronghorns are always-”

“Neutral,” said Niles. “Yes, nearly without exception we do not intervene in conflicts.” He sat down on his skinny haunches, slender hoof now rubbing underneath his chin. “However, a dark lord who wants to consume the world might well be considered the exception that proves the rule.”

“You'll help?” asked Spike excitedly.

“I can't guarantee it, of course. However...” he rubbed his chin again. “I'll talk to Clive at the Waystation tonight. Once he hears how bad things have gotten, he'll almost certainly convene the Jovai. And there, prongers will talk... and we'll see what happens.”

Trumpets blew. “It's time,” said Ashtail. “Master pronghorn, if you wouldn't mind?” Nodding, Nigel stood aside. The party moved on up the ramp; Shield Maiden raised Silkstring up onto her back. Spike's eyes kept on growing wider, wider as they came up further, til at last they reached the upper level.

“Wow!”

The Timbered Court of Gildedale spread out before him. Throughout the open space, dead trees were stuck into the floor, boardings wrapped around them to make sure they stood upright. Nailed into the dead branches of those long-withered trees were leaves hammered from sheets of absolute pure gold, bushels of them, whole branches, a grove's worth of the precious metal leaves. They shone a radiance into the air as all the firelight reflected in their surfaces, beaming, beautiful, unearthly in their glittering magnificence. Quiet rumblings were billowing into the rapidly decreasing daylight from outside, ponies milled about in waiting underneath the golden boughs. They grew silent when Applejack passed by them, then the whispers rose again, many of them staring long at Spike.

The trumpet blew again. The Daleponies assembled quieted completely, breaking into soft and ordered congregations. A tall, thin pony with a painted coat, white and rust, emerged from to their right. He strode into the open space beyond the trees, where there was a great raised dais upon which stood a massive wooden throne. Further still behind the throne there was a huge and craggy rock that stretched high up toward the vaulted ceiling- this was the Dale Stone, upon which was carved the history of Gildedale, line by line, year by year, century by century.

The thin pony now stood beside the throne. When all, at last, were quiet, he clopped sharply on the wooden planking. “Hail, Ashtail, Son of Hammer Hoof, Prince of Gildedale, Heir to the Throne, Marshal of the Eastern Quarter, Captain of the Dale Guard!” On cue, Ashtail trotted from their midst, stopping sharply right before the throne, bowed gently, then trotted to the left of it, where he turned out and faced the crowd. All ponies present bowed; Applejack of course did so as well, and Spike was versed enough in etiquette to bow beside her. The thin pony stomped yet again. “Hail, Hammer Hoof, Son of Storm Chaser, Lord and King of Gildedale!”

With a steady and repeated thunk, thunk, thunk there was a walking heavy on the timbered floor. Spike raised up his eyes in time to see a mighty pony stallion make his way across the throne room, as tall as Princess Luna, his body thick with muscle. He was red-coated, much like Ashtail, and he had Ashtail's blue eyes. However, his mane was golden-hued, and he had a golden beard upon his muzzle. He wore a golden champron, massive ruby set within. The peculiar thunk within his walk soon showed itself: his front right leg was missing for much of its length below the ankle. Instead he had a lower leg of ivory, which culminated in a thick false hoof wrapped up in golden filigree.

The great red pony turned to Ashtail, and he nodded. “Prince Ashtail.”

“Father,” Ashtail said.

Hammer Hoof eased up onto the dais, whence he sat upon his throne. He rapped his ivory hoof against the boarding with a noise like thunder. “The Timbered Court is now in session! Councilor Checkboard, if you will begin the business.”

“My lord,” said the thin pony, stepping to the front, “tonight's business has been somewhat rearranged. At the request of Prince Ashtail, tonight's first supplicant is Applejack of Ponyville, and Spike the-”

“Applejack!” cried Hammer Hoof, his face split by a massive grin. “Come here, my dear. Don't be skulking about in there.”

“Howdy, your highness,” said Applejack, trotting forward. She bowed low, hat swept off her head. “Good to see you again, though I wish it were under better circumstances.”

“For you to come again so soon after departing us bodes ill. And who is this beside you?”

“Ah, well, this here's Spike the dragon,” said Applejack, pushing Spike into the front. “He's the one that breathed that green dragonfire in the vial- from my first time here, remember?”

“I do.” Hammer Hoof nodded with fatherly assurance. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, good sir Spike. Any friend of Applejack's is a friend of mine, and a friend of Gildedale.”

Spike bowed low, sweeping his arm up against his chest. “The blessings of the Wills be on you and your folk, King Hammer Hoof. I bring what good fortune it is in my power to grant.”

“Heh, he's got good manners.” Hammer Hoof's face, however, soon grew grim. “So then, Applejack, what is your business here?”

Applejack took a deep breath. “I'm... I'm appealin' for Gildedale's help on behalf of Equestria.”

A murmur rippled through the crowd. Checkboard stomped his hoof. “Order!” he exclaimed.

“Equestria needs help? What has befallen it?”

“A black deer,” and now a gasp rose up from out the crowd. “Ya'll've seen some o' the flashes and the magics over the mountains, right?”

“We have,” said Hammer Hoof. “We could not be certain what was transpiring, though we did grow worried.”

“Y'all should be worried. Reiziger, the Lord o' All the Herds, King o' the Black Deer, is back from the grave!”

A murmuring rose up so strongly that Checkboard stomped his hoof four times before he restored order. “Hold a minute, Applejack,” said Ashtail, “the Herd Lord....” he shook his head, “but he's just a fairy tale- a boogeyman.”

“He's as real as you an' I, dearest.”

“He's already destroyed Manehattan and Cloudsdale!” Spike exclaimed. “He's got control of the changelings, and he's making all sorts of horrible creatures with black magic!”

“Are you sure it is truly him, the worst of all the black deer?” Checkboard asked. “I know how powerful the high deer can be. It might be one of them claiming the title for himself.”

“If it ain't him, it's somepony doin' a darn good impression. He wants to take over all o' Equestria, and then he's gonna consume the life force of everything in the country! And then he wants to consume the life force of everything in the world!”

Shouts rose up, panicked whispers flew like buzzing locusts on the twilight air. “Order! Order!” Checkboard cried, stomping strongly with both hooves.

“Please, m'lord, Equestria's tried to fight him alone, but we can't! We've even got the deer of the Shimmerwood helpin' us, and it's still not enough! We need Gildedale's help! We need your help!”

“Hmm...” Hammer Hoof glanced toward the floorboards, blinking hard. His face was grimacing. “If he truly is the Herd Lord of legend, he must be extremely powerful. He may be too powerful for any force, for any creature, to combat.”

“But we have to stick together!” Spike cried. “You're... you're ponies too, right? The ponies of Equestria need you! You can't let them down!”

“Our own borders are in enough danger, being so close to Equestria,” said Checkboard. “You ask us to risk our lives for a nation not our own?”

“That is enough, Councilor,” said Ashtail.

Hammer Hoof took in a breath. “My first loyalty is to Gildedale. I must protect it, and the ponies that live in it. It is my nation, and they are my folk. They come first.”

“But m'lord-”

“Moreover, who is to say the Herd Lord- this Reiziger- won't consume Equestria and be satisfied? His plans for global conquest may be a feint to scare off folk. If I were to allow him to conquer your nation, it would be cruel... but I might save my own.”

“Your majesty-” Spike started.

“To go into battle against a black deer, one of the nightmare creatures of the oldest and darkest legends, invites disaster. Hundreds, thousands of Daleponies could be lost. We are not Equestria with its millions of citizens- lose too many in battle and Gildedale could never recover.”

Applejack bowed down her head, a sickened feeling in her heart. Spike, beside her, drifted close and rubbed her side, close to tears himself.

“And yet... there is a pact.”

Their gazes shot back up.

Hammer Hoof was smiling now. “There is a pact that was signed long, long, long ago... when Equestria and Gildedale first parted ways. It was a pact stating that, while the two nations would no longer be united, they would not be enemies, and that in the darkest of hours they would remember their old friendships. Put simply, the pact states that if one of the nations suffers catastrophe- if it is in dire need- the other will come to its aid.”

Applejack's breath caught within her throat.

“Now Equestria calls for help- and Gildedale will answer!” He banged his ivory hoof upon the dais. “Councilor Checkboard!”

“My lord?”

“Muster the Dale Guard. I want them armed and armored and ready to fight within a fortnight!”

“That seems like quite a while in which to prepare, my lord.”

“Not for how long it will take to muster all of them.”

Checkboard's eyes went wide. “All of them? My lord, think of the home defense-”

“There will be no homes worth defending if the Lord of All the Herds is not defeated! Every spear in Gildedale will ride to Equestria.”

“Hooray!” cried Spike, jumping up and down for joy.

“I'll never forget this, m'lord!” cried Applejack, tears within her eyes.

“One good turn deserves another, Applejack of Ponyville,” he said. “You will ride with us, and together we shall save your country.”

“Actually, m'lord, much as I'd love to help y'all get ready, I gotta be movin' on. I'm gonna go to Issidonia and talk to the griffins, see if I can get their help, too. If it's all right with you, I'll only stay the night here.”

“Do what you must. We shall await your return, and then we shall ride.” He smiled kindly, very kindly for one so tremendous and so fierce. “Now, my dear, is there anything else I can do for you?”

She chuckled. “Don't think so.” She tipped her hat.

“Then you are dismissed!”

“Come on, Spike,” said Applejack, trotting back toward the gold-leafed trees, “let's see if we can't rustle up some grub.”

Ashtail found them near an hour later. Spike was gobbling up hay and rocks within Thatchholm's great mess hall. Applejack was pulling off the last bit of her armor, grunting with relief as bare skin felt the cool air once again. She smiled at him. “Howdy.”

“Hello,” said Ashtail. “I think you were a great success.”

“I reckon so.” They drew together, and they shared a long and tender kiss. Applejack leaned deep into his lips. She suddenly could not forget that he's gonna die someday, he's gonna die and I'm gonna live on. I'm gonna outlast him. I'm gonna outlast him an' any children I may have with him, 'less they get to be immortal too.

“Applejack?” Ashtail pulled away and looked at her. Her eyes were wavering. “What's wrong?”

She shook her head. “Nothin', for now.” She leaned against him. “Well, apart from everything that is wrong, I mean.”

“Indeed,” said Ashtail. He nuzzled her. “I hope I can help in putting things right.”

“I hope so too.”

They pulled apart again, and suddenly he made a face. “Are you really going to Issidonia? King Darius probably won't even agree to an audience with you.”

“I gotta, sugarcube. I gotta try. My home depends on it.”

He sighed. “So stubborn- such faith.”

“Faith's got me this far. Can't give it up now.”

Ashtail drew her close again. “And your faith is one of the things I love about you.” He kissed her on the cheek. “At least I can be with you tonight.”

“Not a bad thing,” said Applejack. She drew him into yet another kiss, one which pulled them close and brushed them fiercely up against each other.

“Blech!”

“Aww, stuff it, Spike.”


Applejack awoke to the dull glimmering gray light of dawn beginning to emerge into her room. The sky outside was hued like slate, and cool mist hung over the golden grasses stretching far away. She yawned, and then she shuffled out of bed. Silently she buckled on her armor, pulling from where she'd piled it within a corner of the room. At last, she flipped her hat onto her head, and only then did she come back against the bed and whisper, “Spike?”

The little dragon mumbled in his sleep, but did not wake.

Applejack's eyes rolled. “Spike, come on! We gotta get a move on! Are you gonna-”

“Twi... Twilight... no, Twilight...”

Her face grew softer. She sighed, and gently rubbed his shoulder. “Wakey wakey, sugarcube. Don't think you wanna be havin' that dream any more, anyway.”

“Gah!” he cried, snapping up in bed. “Twilight! I- Applejack?”

“Good, you're awake. We gotta go, Spike.”

He yawned. “Are we gonna stop for breakfast?”

“I've got saddlebags full o' vegetables and fruits. We'll eat on the road, if that's okay. Not like Thatchholm's kitchen is open at this hour, anyway.”

Rubbing his eyes, Spike's face grew serious; he nodded. “Okay. Let's go.”

They wandered down the massive wooden ramps that led from Thatchholm's third floor to its second floor, and then down from its second floor onto the ground floor with its planking and its massive pillars. Applejack passed by the guardsponies, who nodded at her and permitted her to open up the great barn's double doors. Spike hopped on her back as she went cross the stone foundation. She nodded to herself, preparing to move out, ready to cry for the gates of the whole fastness to be opened-

“Wait!”

She turned. Ashtail cantered toward her from the open barn doors. He wore his own red leather armor, emerald set within its champron. Saddlebags were strapped onto his flanks. Applejack arched an eyebrow. “Sugarcube, what are you doin'?”

“If you are going to throw yourself into this foolishness, I'll at least be there alongside you,” he replied. “Darius may ignore you, but I am a Prince of Gildedale, his next door neighbor. I'll do whatever I can to get you an audience.”

“Ashtail, I can't ask you to leave your father and your country while it's gearin' up for war.”

“I spoke to my father last night. He thinks it is best I go.” His eyes wavered. “And even if he did not think so, I would go with you. I love you, golden dearest. I'll follow you to the ends of the Earth.”

Applejack's cheeks reddened. She nodded. “Well, all right then. If that's how it's gonna be, who am I to object?”

They smiled at each other. They chuckled, then laughed. Still guffawing Ashtail trotted to the ramp and down it, whence he cried out, “The Crown Prince of Gildedale withdraws from Thatchholm, bound for parts unknown! Open the gates!”

Yes, sir!” the gateponies all cried. They slid the massive bars out of their slots, and with the pulling of the winches and the levers made the massive gates swing free, opening onto the fields still gray and wet in morning's weak and early light.

“Issidonia is due north from here. At a good pace we can reach it in two days' time. I presume you haven't lost a-”

“Oh, good! I caught you!”

The two ponies and one dragon turned about. Coming down the ramp, through the gates whose closing had been halted, was Shield Maiden, who like Ashtail and Applejack was armored in her ruddy leather and wore saddlebags upon her flanks. Ashtail arched an eyebrow. “Lieutenant, I don't recall telling you I was leaving.”

“No, Captain, you did not. I learned it from Checkboard when I cornered him last night.”

“Shield Maiden, what about Silkstring?” asked Applejack.

“She is safe and sound, as safe and sound as she would be even if I stayed behind.”

“Lieutenant, this not official Dale Guard business. Where I am going, I go of my own accord. You are under no orders to accompany us.”

Shield Maiden made a face. “I wish to accompany you because Applejack is my friend, sir, and so are you, at least as far as protocol allows. I want to help however I can. At the very least I think you two could use another pair of hooves capable of a good punch.”

“I...” Applejack began.

“If you do not wish me to come- if you order me not to- I shall not. But sir... please?”

Applejack watched Shield Maiden and Ashtail look upon each other. She saw and realized how much was passing with their unspoken rapport. It occurred to her, all of a sudden, that she was not well-acquainted with their friendship, with all the hardships and the troubles that they must have seen together. There was a whole entire history between them that she was not privy to, but that which now was passing in between them.

Finally a smile spread on Ashtail's face. “All right, Lieutenant- you may come.”

“Thank you, sir!” She trotted forward til she was on Applejack's left side; Ashtail was on her right.

“You'd best not slow us down, though,” said Ashtail, humor in his voice. “I notice you've gotten a bit paunchy recently.”

“I certainly won't fall behind, Captain,” deadpanned Shield Maiden, “not the least because I'd hate to be downwind of you after watching you eat last night.”

“Ha!” barked Ashtail. “To Issidonia we go, then. I suggest you hold on tight, master dragon! In Gildedale we ride hard and fast.”

“Ready!” cried Spike.

“Yah!” cried Ashtail, rearing up and whinnying. The three of them thus broke into a gallop, kicking up the grass as they set off into the north.