• Published 27th Jul 2014
  • 4,309 Views, 256 Comments

Foreigner - AugieDog



Gilda has taken a posting in a far-flung corner of griffon territory in the hope of never seeing another pony again. That hope is, of course, in vain.

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1 - Commander

"Praetor!" The cry, shrill and piercing, smacked Gilda awake. "Emergency!"

By then, she was already rolling from her blankets, her claws digging into the faded rug that did pretty much nothing to mask the eternal chill of her room's stone floor. Blinking in the just-after-dawn light flooding in from outside, she leaped forward, shouldered the sliding glass door open, and charged out onto the balcony, the heights of the Wyvern Range on the other side of the valley rising like vast rocky talons into the autumn sky, sheer and blue now after last night's storm.

Gentle now, the winds batted their invisible kitten paws at her crest, the air cool and damp when she sniffed it. Stretching her neck, she peered around, trying to see where the cry had come from.

"Praetor!" The echoes told her to look down, a figure rising from the river and the ruins on the valley floor: her senior aedile, she could tell from the gray streaks in his dark, tawny fur. "We've someone on the site!"

Pushing off from the edge of the balcony, Gilda let herself drop. "Tell me where, Godfrey!" she shouted, the wind's claws suddenly fully-grown, tearing at her fur and feathers, and waking her in the best way a griffon could come awake: wrapped in the heart-pounding joy of free fall.

"The civic plaza!" Godfrey's shriek ripped though the sky like no one else in the company, another reason he made such a perfect senior aedile.

"I'll meet you there!" Taking a breath of the wonderful rush around her, she opened her wings and gave the morning one tiny caress. Then she flexed her muscles and dove, slicing the air to ribbons, pounding it into submission with each mighty beat of her pinions, and making it give way before her as all things should, as all things did. The ground rushed up under her, but she laughed, her blood boiling and her heart alive; wrenching the whole world sideways with the sheer force of her down stroke, she pulled up a feather's breadth from the age-scoured stones of Catlatl's civic plaza, the center of the ancient city, and landed with an ease that she'd practiced, practiced, practiced until it looked natural.

One of the cadets stood properly at attention near the weathered dais at the western edge of the plaza: the Judges' Platform, the professors who studied the site called it. Gilda nodded to the cadet—Godfrey was the one who knew their names—and rising with a single wing flap—another move she'd practiced till it was both graceful and forceful—she settled next to the younger griffon. "Report, fledge."

He nodded exactly as sharply as he should have—Gilda made a mental note to have Godfrey put a silver star in the kid's record. "Aedile Godfrey and I had just begun the morning's first sweep, ma'am, when I saw—" His crest feathers fell, his eyes going shaky all of a sudden. He stepped to the side, turned, looked down the little embankment behind the Judges' Platform—

And Gilda's heart skittered against her ribs like a captive pigeon. Four smooth, gray legs; a blond mane and tail; a gray rump sticking into the air with a series of little bubbles on it; wings that always seemed way too tiny to be useful tucked against its side: a pegasus pony lay sprawled in the drainage ditch behind the Judges' Platform in the civic plaza of the ancient city of Catlatl.

A pony. Here.

She could almost feel the stones slipping away beneath her. This one place, this one pony-less place—the old stories all said that nobody but griffons had ever set talon in Catlatl, and Gilda had found that to be true when she'd researched the place on her return to griffon territory after—

Frosting dripping from her feathers; those wide-eyed grass-eaters laughing all around her; the weird mixture of confusion and disappointment on Dash's face; everything inside Gilda turning to ice and shattering. Three years later, the memory still stabbed at her even if, she had to admit, the experience had been exactly what she'd needed at that point in her life...

"Praetor?"

Godfrey's voice, the deep, cutting tone of it again hitting her like a bucket of water: Gilda shook herself, took a breath, and glanced over her shoulder to see her senior aedile standing a step back and to her right, exactly where a senior aedile should be standing when addressing his commander.

Protocol. It steadied her, the stones again firm under her paws and claws, and she nodded to the cadet. "Back to the Eyrie, fledge, and get ready for morning classes."

The cadet gave as prefect a salute as Gilda had ever seen, spread his wings, and rose into the shadowy air, the sunlight bathing the mountains above but still hours from reaching the valley floor. She watched him angle his flight toward the gleaming glass front of the barracks just below the Eyrie itself, then with another breath, she forced herself to look away, to look down and focus on those gray and yellow hindquarters. "Where did it come from, aedile?"

"'She,' I believe, praetor." Godfrey raised a single talon like one of the professors making a point. "And 'mare' is the term for a female pony if I'm not mistaken."

Sometimes Gilda suspected that her senior aedile had a way of smirking at her that didn't reach even the corners of his beak. She'd always accepted it as the proper way for an older subordinate to help guide a younger officer, but at this moment, she found his tone absolutely irksome. "I know the word, Godfrey! I lived in freaking Cloudsdale for six years!"

"Of course, praetor."

"Just tell me!" She managed to swallow most of the shriek: a good praetor never shrieked at an aedile. "Where did this pony come from?"

"That, I couldn't say." He gestured to the rump sticking up from the ditch. "When Cadet Garamond and I saw her, I immediately roused the alarm as protocol says we must when we find a lone pilgrim on the site after a storm."

Gilda stared at him. "She's a pony, not a pilgrim! No way she's here for any real reason! Ponies are more like fleas than people! Always a problem! Always!"

Godfrey's gaze never wavered from hers, his eyes as deep and dark as the pools further up in the mountains. "Forgive me, praetor, but the regulations fail to specify the species when outlining our duties in assisting those we find on the site. As praetor, you must discern whether any visitors are injured or if they—"

"Injured?" The shout echoed around Gilda, and she crooked a shaking claw at the pony. "Shards and shreds, Godfrey! I can hear her snoring! She's fine!"

"Indeed, praetor." He gave that infuriatingly proper little nod again, reached into the pack he always had strapped to his side, and pulled out a pad and pencil. "We can therefore wake the pony and ask her where she came from."

The breath rattled in and out of her throat like dried rice in a kitten's toy. Three years—perfect, pony-free years—she'd served as praetor of the Catlatl Garrison, and in less than three minutes, she'd relapsed into the whining, petulant thing that had worn her name throughout her horrible fledgling years. She was better than that now. She was an adult. A professional. A griffon.

With a nod, Gilda padded forward, hopped down the shallow slope of the ditch to the side of the gently-snoring pony, and bent to take in her scent. "No trace of intoxicants," she murmured loud enough for Godfrey to jot it down in his notes—and intoxication was something she was very familiar with from her lost years in Cloudsdale. She pushed those foggy memories away and focused on the here-and-now. "I'm not smelling any blood or bile, either, so I'd say no major internal injuries. But I'm getting more than a whiff of fatigue poisons: natural enough, I guess, if she really managed to fly all the way here from—"

"The balloon!" a gawky voice shouted, and a sudden flurry of hair and feathers burst into Gilda's face. With a squawk, she stumbled backward, tripped over her own talons, and landed hard on her tail. "The princess's balloon!"

Gilda blinked at the pony, awake and hovering now just above the ditch, her wings beating frantically, her neck craning around, her golden eyes open and—

And pointing in opposite directions.

Which sparked more memories: a gray, wall-eyed pegasus laughing with the others at that horrible party on the last day of Gilda's old life, the day she'd realized that she wasn't who and what she'd thought she was, the day she'd flown straight back to griffon territory and signed up for the Guardian Corps.

Because of course the first pony to violate griffondom's most sacred site would be one of those who'd seen Gilda at her worst. She could practically hear the Cat Mother and the Eagle Father's laughter in the wind that skipped and scampered about the city's tumbled stones...

"Oh, wow!" that thick voice was saying, and again Gilda had to shake herself back to the present, the pony floating right in front of her and staring with those gob-smacked eyes. The pony spun partway around, her snout pointing at Godfrey. "Oh, wow!" Her spine bent backwards, her head tipping up, up, up as she apparently noticed the mountains towering around them for the first time. "Oh, wow!" The hummingbird-fast buzz of her wings slowed to a flap, and the pony settled to the bottom of the ditch, that disconcerting gaze turning back to Gilda. "I don't think I'm in Ponyville anymore."

Another laughing wind whistled through the ruins for a moment; then Godfrey cleared his throat. "The subject appears to be responsive, praetor."

Not answering with 'No duh' was the hardest thing Gilda had done in months. "Thank you, Godfrey," she said instead, her attention still on the pony.

"No, no," the pony said. She tapped a front hoof against her chest. "My name's not Godfrey. It's Ditzelda Derpiella Doo, but ponies all call me Ditzy. Or Derpy. Or sometimes even 'Hey, you,' but I don't know where they get that one from. I mean, 'Hey, Doo' would make more sense, don'tcha think?"

Fighting against hyperventilation at hearing a pony again after so long, Gilda managed to ask, "Do you know where you are?"

That got her some more of that boggle-eyed stare. "I already said: not Ponyville. Isn't that right?"

Gilda suddenly realized she was still sprawled back on her tail, her wings all askew; jumping up, she fluffed her feathers into place, planted her paws and claws firmly on the ancient stones, and looked down at the little pegasus. "You're in griffon territory, Ms. Doo, about as far from anywhere a pony has a right to be as it's possible to get."

"Griffons?" The pony swung her head like a loose shutter in a wind storm, blinked at Godfrey, then came back, one eye rolling to aim more or less in Gilda's direction. "I thought you two looked odd, but I didn't wanna say anything in case, y'know, it was a touchy subject."

"Why would it be a—?" Gilda started to ask but immediately stopped herself. First things first: get the pony off the site. "Ms. Doo, do you feel well enough to—?"

"Oh, now, now!" Flopping back onto her hindquarters, the pony's eyes curled into crescents, her front hoofs clapping together, and a wide smile spread over her muzzle. "We're all friends, so you and your husband can both call me Derpy!"

Godfrey's crest bristled, the corners of his beak definitely turning upward in a grin. "Husband?" he asked.

"No?" Derpy swiveled toward him again. "Uncle, then? Much older cousin? It's just that you two don't look related is the thing, so I figured you'd prob'bly be happy being married to each other."

Gilda fought back a shout; every time this Derpy opened her mouth, Gilda could feel the situation slipping further away from her. "Fine. You're Derpy. Well, I'm Gilda, and this is Godfrey. We're with the Guardian Corps, and we—"

"Guardians?" Those odd eyes seemed to bug out below Derpy's forehead. "Are you soldiers?"

"We're Guardians." A needle-sharp pain jabbed into the space behind Gilda's left temple at the thought of trying to explain to this foreigner what the Guardians were and did. Still, she knew she'd have to try: ponies always wanted explanations, she'd learned in her years living among them. "We watch over the ancient city here to protect it and everyone who comes to visit it."

"Oh!" Derpy's slowly spreading grin and eyes made Gilda think of dandelion fluff floating on the breeze. "You're park rangers!"

"We're Guardians," Gilda got out again through gritted teeth, but it wasn't a point she wanted to waste any more time on. "And since you're apparently well enough to fly, maybe we could move this up to a more comfortable setting?" She pointed to the Eyrie high above them and tried to ignore the sudden grumbling of her stomach: she hadn't had breakfast yet, after all.

The pony's split-level attention seemed both to stay on Gilda and to follow her pointing claw. "Oh, no, Gilda, I couldn't do that. I hafta find the princess's balloon, don't I?" Derpy nodded. "And the answer to that question is: yes, I do."

Princess. Ever since the pegasus had sprung awake earlier, Gilda had been trying to pretend she hadn't heard that word. Now, though, she couldn't stop her mind from running through the procedures: she would have to contact HQ, get them to alert the Diplomatic Corps, have guest quarters arranged for this Derpy till a formal legation arrived...

So much for just pointing her west and waving her good-bye. With tightening shoulders, Gilda asked, "Then you're some sort of envoy from Princess Celestia?"

Ears folding, Derpy cocked her head. "If 'envoy' is a griffon word for 'delivery mare,' then yes, 'cause that's what I am. But I've never really met Princess Celestia. It's Princess Twilight that I know." That big smile came back. "She lives in the town library!" The smile vanished. "At least, she did till that mean ol' Tirek blew it up." She sighed, then everything about her brightened again. "But now Twilight has a castle, and it's nice, too!"

Gilda looked up the slope at Godfrey. "Princess Twilight Sparkle," he said, always ready with whatever information she needed. "The fourth and most recently crowned of Equestria's princesses, she rules from the small town of Ponyville."

"Ponyville!" Derpy hopped into a hover. "Which, as I think we've already established, this isn't!" She dropped back to the ground with a slight squishing noise. "Y'know, I think we're making some real good progress here."

It took every ounce of the self-control Gilda had been cultivating the past three years not to leap forward and wrap her talons around this Derpy's neck. "So you're on a mission from this fourth princess, is that what you're saying? And she sent you here to Catlatl to find a balloon?"

Derpy put a hoof to her chin. "Did I really say that? 'Cause it doesn't sound right."

Godfrey clearing his throat was the only thing that saved the pegasus at that point, the gentle sound reminding Gilda of where she was and more importantly who she was: not the run-away, pony wanna-be of her adolescence, but a griffon embracing the wind and the rocks and the discipline, committing herself to the traditional virtues of her people. Not that most of them even pretended to practice this stuff anymore which was why the Catlatl Garrison had been so desperate for anyone who met the barest qualifications to be commander...

Breathing, she fought to center herself—she wasn't a screw-up anymore; she loved it here and deserved to be here—and listened with one ear as Godfrey said, "And yet you've mentioned the princess's balloon twice now, Ms. Doo."

"Ah, ah, ah!" Grinning, the pegasus shook a hoof at him. "I'm Derpy, remember?"

"Indeed." Godfrey's voice held the faintest rumble of the drill sergeant Gilda knew he'd once been, and hearing it made her feel instantly better. If he was having trouble keeping his temper... "But you do remember speaking about the princess's balloon, don't you, Derpy?"

"Oh, sure!" Derpy waved a hoof at the tumbled stone spires, the lumps of walls and worn-down statues. "It's here someplace; I'm sure of it!"

"How?" Gilda couldn't keep quiet, but she still somehow kept herself from screeching it at the absolute top of her lungs. "This is griffondom's first city, the original spot where the tribes came together in peace and strength and decided to be a people, and that was centuries before any griffon had even seen a pony!" She waved her talons at the ruins around them. "No pony hoof has ever trod these stones! No pony wing has ever stirred this air! No pony horn has ever warped the fabric of space and time anywhere near here! Catlatl is entirely griffon and has been for thousands of years! So how can you possibly think we've got your princess's balloon?"

Derpy gave a few blinks with those wayward eyes. "Because I followed it," she said. "It's a great big purple balloon that she rides around in; maybe I should've mentioned that before."

Every hair and feather on Gilda's body bristled. A hot-air balloon caught in the storm that had thundered through these mountains last night? She leaped to her claws and paws. "Was the princess aboard at the time?"

Godfrey had jumped to attention, too, but Derpy was shaking her head. "I was bringing the balloon to the party. See, when Tirek blew up the library tree, Twilight got all sad. But when ol' Granny Smith started growing the new library tree, Twilight got happy again. Then she asked the mayor if we could have a big castle-warming party to make the new castle feel welcome as a real part of Ponyville."

Forcing herself not to let the adrenaline pumping through her system direct her actions—no lives were in danger; that was the important thing—Gilda gave Godfrey the proper 'stand down' chirp and took a seat again to hear what she hoped would finally be the actual story of how this Derpy had gotten here.

"But my friend Rainbow Dash," Derpy went on, "she remembered that the balloon hadn't been at the library when it got blown up because she'd kind of been borrowing it to use as the center of her floating obstacle course. Rainbow's a pretty fancy flier, y'see."

Gilda managed to keep her reaction to a single grunt.

Derpy nodded. "So we were gonna go get the balloon and bring it to the party as a surprise. But then Rainbow Dash had to go help Twilight bring water to some crocodahlias that had come wandering into town, so I went to get the balloon by myself. But it was a lot bigger than I remembered it being." She heaved a sigh that Gilda felt ruffle her neck feathers. "And then a lot of wind came up, and I don't do all that well with storms: when I try to make 'em smaller, they usually end up getting bigger." She shrugged. "I'm never quite sure what goes wrong."

It made Gilda swallow, the ghost of her kittenhood fascination with pegasus weather-control shivering through her; she'd wanted so much to have that power, to be a pony, to show the other kits in the state hatchery that she was more than a scrawny little nobody—

The pony was still talking, and Gilda focused her attention back toward her: "The storm blew the balloon away, so I chased it. I think maybe we ended up in the jet stream or something, but I don't really remember a whole lot about most of it. I do know the balloon was in front of me when we started coming down, and since I woke up here, the balloon must be here, too!" Derpy gave a grin, her left eye now looking up, her right eye looking down.

It took Gilda a few breaths to get her thoughts in order. "OK, first of all, Derpy, you're not a balloon. So when you and the balloon were coming in for a landing or whatever last night, the storm would probably have blown you around in a different way than it blew the balloon. Does that seem reasonable to you?"

Several more blinks. "Y'know, you're right! I'm not a balloon!"

Gilda did her best not to wince. As oddly as this little pony thought, she wasn't really all that much odder than the ponies Gilda had both looked up to and looked down on for all those years. "And if your princess's balloon was here on the site the way you are, my aedile would've seen it on his patrol this morning. So let's head up to the Eyrie and look at some maps and try to figure out where the balloon might've—"

Another clearing of Godfrey's throat interrupted her. "My apologies, praetor, but in truth, Cadet Garamond and I had just begun our patrol when we came across our friend Derpy. And a deflated purple balloon in the shadows of dawn, it's unlikely we would've seen it from a distance."

Teeth clenching, she said, "Thank you, Godfrey."

"Hooray!" Derpy sprang into the winds fluking lazily around them. "If you didn't see it, then that proves it's here!" Hovering, she seemed to look in several directions at once; then she raised a front hoof and pointed toward the north. "In fact, there it is!"

Derpy was rocketing off in that direction before Gilda could even spread her wings; she'd forgotten how agile these pegasi could be when they put their minds to it. "Careful!" she yelled, leaping into the pony's slipstream and pumping her wings in an attempt to catch up. "This place is really old, and we don't want to—!"

"It's OK!" came Derpy's shout from ahead, the north end of the city spreading over the foothills before them and leading to the site's absolute crown: the half-intact Palace of Nine Jaguars, the seat of griffondom's first government. Gilda almost lost Derpy against the gray stones, but a flick of yellow marked her descent, settling into a cobbled street a few blocks south of the palace. Something darker than gray lay stretched over the ruins of a building there, and Gilda couldn't stop her beak from dropping open: it was indeed a deflated purple hot-air balloon.

"See?" Derpy waved a hoof at it, one of her eyes meeting Gilda's as Gilda touched down beside her. "I mean, the gas bag's all outta gas or whatever, but it doesn't look like it's got any holes in it! So— Oh!" She stopped abruptly.

A similar gasp behind her made Gilda glance back, Godfrey clutching a claw at his chest feathers. "The south wall of the Scribes' Union, praetor!" he said in a breathless whisper. "It's knocked down the south wall of the Scribes' Union!"

Now, Gilda knew the essential layout of Catlatl, of course, but she'd never been one for poring over the professors' maps like Godfrey, her senior aedile able to talk to the dweebiest of those tweedy little griffons about particular buildings and streets and all the minor plazas that dotted the site. Still, even she could tell that the spray of stones scattered across the street from the balloon's gondola was new: one the cadets' main jobs, after all, was keeping the walkways clear for any pilgrims who might want to wander the site. "Derpy," she growled, taking a step toward her, a fire crackling to life in her chest at the thought of ponies once again coming into her life to destroy it.

"I'm sorry!" Derpy cowered, her legs folding her to the street, her eyes spinning like pinwheels. "It's all my fault! If I'd caught the balloon earlier, it wouldn't've broken your city and you wouldn't've—!" She stopped, both eyes suddenly snapping to the side and staring into the shadow under the gondola, something glinting there, Gilda could now see. "Ooo! Pretty!" Derpy hopped upright again, trotted over to the detritus, and lifted a drooping flap of purple cloth to reveal—

The colors struck Gilda first, blues and golds, whites and silvers brighter even than the carefully-preserved mosaics up the hill in the palace's main throne room. Then her eyes focused on the image itself, angular and stylized in the fashion of the earliest-known griffon artwork: the familiar jagged outline of the Wyvern Range with sky and sun above; a row of griffons standing in ceremonial ranks and costumes along the left side of the picture, sigils of the old writing above and below each figure; and along the right side—

Ponies. Unmistakably. All of them unicorns, the tiny slice of Gilda's mind that was still thinking noted, and all of them rendered in exactly the same ancient style as the rest of the mosaic.

She was closer to it now, though she didn't remember moving, her claws joining Derpy's hoof to push the balloon fabric further out of the way. "Praetor," came Godfrey's whisper from just over her shoulder. A shaking talon reached past her to point up at the central griffon figure, larger than the others and with more pictograms around it. "That's the image of Nine Jaguar herself, and these other griffons, they...they're the leaders of the First Council. And the text above the ponies says that they're the King of Unicornia and his advisors come to make a treaty regularizing the sunrise."

"Oh!" Derpy said loud enough to make Gilda flinch. "Like in the Hearth's Warming play!" Derpy's smiling face moved into the edge of Gilda's peripheral vision. "Gee, Gilda! I guess I'm not the first pony to visit here, then!"

Swallowing, scrambling to think, Gilda fell back on protocol. When anything changed on the site— "Godfrey, get the professors down here as fast as they can load up their equipment. This takes top priority over anything else scheduled on the site today. I wanna know why nobody ever even suspected this mural was here." She glanced back at the other crumbled gray stone buildings up and the down the street. "And I want some ideas about how many more ancient mosaics might be covered up around the city."

"Yes, praetor!" Godfrey sprang backwards into the morning sky, the grin on his beak the biggest Gilda had ever seen there.

"Derpy?" Everything churning inside her, Gilda turned to the little pegasus. "I hope your princess won't mind if we borrow her balloon for a little while. We'll need to get the wall stabilized before we can do anything else."

"Not a problem." Derpy waved the hoof not holding up the edge of the balloon. "I bet Twilight'll love to look at and learn about your big, old city!"

After I resign my commission, Gilda thought. Not that she would, of course. Because nothing would stop this Princess Twilight from coming here now, Gilda knew, and she would bring more ponies with her—they were herd animals, after all. And if whoever was in charge of the garrison didn't understand ponies and the way they charged around, breaking things that needed to be broken while also fixing things that needed to be fixed, Catlatl was going to suffer.

And that was something Gilda would not allow. "Yes." She took a breath, and blowing it out, she could almost smell the musty dust of her own inner rock slide. This wasn't going to be easy—was likely to be a living nightmare, the more she thought about it. But knowing the worst of both cultures—and the best, she had to admit—well, she was the only one who could keep what was about to happen from spiraling completely out of control.

With a smile she almost felt, Gilda clapped a set of talons over Derpy's shoulders. "Once the professors get their lazy tail feathers down here, you and me can head up to the Eyrie and send word to your friends that you're all right. Then we can start getting everything ready for their visit."

"Yay!" Derpy threw a front leg around Gilda and squeezed with a strength that made Gilda gasp for breath. "This'll be great and so much fun!"

"Yeah." The breeze tweaked Gilda's crest, the Cat Mother and the Eagle Father, she knew, giving her one more little giggle. "Just great."