• Published 15th Nov 2014
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Journey's End - GentlemanJ



As the darkness in the west reveals itself, Marshal Graves is called to fight once more.

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Chapter 23

Chapter 23

“Alright girls, we’re stopping here for the night.”

“How can you tell?”

At the head of the line, Rarity turned back to Twilight and pointed to three, small pebbles nestled in the branch of a stunted tree, small enough to easily go unnoticed, but too securely fashioned to be anything but intentional.

“That’s the trail sign for marking camp,” she explained, more for the scholar’s curiosity than anything else. “We’ve been following the same signs I marked out before and this one means that it’s a good place to stop for the night.”

“Meh, don’t have to tell me twice,” Rainbow Dash grunted as she tossed off her pack. “My feet are killing me!”

“Aw, are yer little piggies cryin’ wee wee after a little day’s walk?” Applejack cooed.

“Oh my, does it hurt really bad?” Fluttershy murmured as she danced about in a nervous tizzy. “I know you’re more used to flying, Rainbow Dash. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Chill out, Flutters,” Rainbow Dash said as she popped off a boot and wiggled her toes about. “Just need to let them air out for a bit.”

“Uh, you might want to hold off till after we’ve got everything set up,” Twilight Sparkle frowned, less from concern and more from her friend’s lack of decorum. “The last thing you want is to stub a toe in the dark.”

“Sure thing, mom,” Rainbow Dash grinned. “Should I wash my hands before dinner, too?”

“Yes, yes you should,” Twilight sniffed. “And do it well, or no dessert for you.”

The jokes came from spirits considerably raised after a long, but uneventful day’s travel. With a quarter of their supplies remaining and an extra back to carry them, the burdens each girl bore were considerably lighter and made for better progress. Though fatigue steadily mounted as the days began ringing their toll, having all their friends together makes even the toughest roads more bearable. In fact, with Rarity at the head and reading the trail – a knotted blade of grass here, a broken twig that formed a surreptitious arrow there – the day’s trip had been almost easy.

Thus, the evening sun set on a camp that, while low on food and shelter, was abundantly supplied with good humor and cheer. Not that they forgot about the food of course.

“Hey Applejack,” Pinkie Pie called from over the fire pit. “Did you and Flutters manage to pick up anything for dinner tonight?”

“Not much tah speak of,” Applejack grimaced. Tugging off a side satchel and turning it over, a small handful of stringy beans and some nuts tumbled out. “Much as I hate tah admit it, the marshal was right. There didn’t seem tah be much growin’ in these woods. Nothin’ worth makin’ grub of, anyway.”

You can’t get water from a stone, and that’s about all they could hope for as the lands grew increasingly barren around them. While the same monolithic trees surrounded them at every step, the gravelly soil steadily choked off the underlying greenery till shrubs and grass gave way to boulders and stone.

Twilight had said something about mana toxicity from increasing ambient energy in the air, but nobody had understood much of the explanation. Rainbow Dash thought it was due to increased elevation. Though their journey thus far had involved numerous ups and downs from traversing the broken landscape, this day’s trail had steadily trended towards the upward. Every time they’d crested one of those stony hills, it seemed that it was only to discover an even bigger one behind it.

Whatever the cause, vegetation had slowly dwindled out as boulders and gravel grew up in their place. Applejack had kept at her foraging efforts, trying to find some things to fill their bellies, but her rewards had been scant. In truth, the only reason she’d kept as long as she did was an unwillingness to admit that Graves was right. Not that’d she’d tell anyone, of course, but still.

“Now I’m all for modest meals,” Rarity said with pursed lips, “but even I must admit that these are rather on the scant side.”

“I know, right?” Applejack frowned. “I guess we could sort a stew it all together with some of them staler biscuits we’ve got, but it ain’t exactly gonna fill us up all the way, not after all that hoofin’ we’ve been doin’.”

“Then use this.”

Applejack yelped and nearly popped out of her boots.

“Land sakes, don’t do that!” she huffed, rounding on the suddenly present marshal full of righteous indignation. “You can’t jess go poppin’ up like a prairie gopher behind people’s backs, marshal. Done near gave me a heart attack.”

From the way Graves pulled off a satchel of his own, it didn’t seem like he’d heard a word she said.

“Hunted some stuff for dinner. It doesn’t taste that good, but it’ll keep you moving. Once you finish, lights out and rest. I’ll return at dawn, then it’s back on our feet.”

“Graves–”

“Oh, and Rainbow Dash,” he continued, completely steamrolling Applejack with his unrelenting pace. “Prep your wings. You fly when I give the signal.”

“No.”

Graves paused as eyelids blinked over flat, iron disks.

“No?” he repeated, his voice dangerously calm as he turned to face the flyer.

“You heard me,” Rainbow Dash frowned, an expression that she told herself was due to indignation and not a mask for apprehension. Honestly, how could anyone’s eyes be so freaking cold? “I’m all for helping out and what not, but there’s no need to be a jerk about asking, you know.”

Cogs slowly clicked their way into place.

“You seem to be confused, Miss Rainbow Dash,” Graves pronounced as he seemed to loom larger with every clipped word. “I wasn’t asking. I was ordering. And when I give you an order. You. Listen. Got it?”

“Now hold on there jess a second,” Applejack interjected as she jumped to her friend’s aid. “Last time I checked, the Princess and ol’ Ironside put Twilight in charge, not you. If anyone’s gonna be a bossy pants around here, it’s gonna be the expert over here. No offense, Twilight.”

“None… taken?” Twilight blinked. However, before she had enough time to decide whether to be indignant or not, the marshal turned his unyielding gaze onto her. Even as she swallowed her apprehension, some part of her marveled at the almost physical feel of increased gravity produced solely from psychological pressure.

“Twilight is in charge,” he nodded, eyes never wavering from the girl in question. “And if she’s got any sense about her, she’ll let me do my job without wasting time with backtalk. Nobody wants another fiasco like before. Right?”

The young mage swallowed the lump in her throat as she stared up at the imposing figure. You could have honed a knife’s blade against the planes of his face.

“R-right. Whatever you say.”

“What?!” Though Rainbow Dash and Applejack vocalized the concerns of the rest, Graves stamped down on dissent as he would on a struggling grub.

“Wings prepped, Rainbow Dash. The rest of you, same orders. Any questions?”

Oh, there were questions alright, but not for Graves. All eyes turned to Twilight as they asked the same question. But Twilight said nothing else and merely returned a small nod. Without a moment’s pause, Graves turned and vanished into the evening shadows.

“Okay, sparkle butt, what the buck was that all about?!” Rainbow Dash asked anew once the marshal’s departure made breathing about ten thousand feet of elevation easier. “You’re just gonna let him walk all over you like that?”

“Well, he does sort of have a point, you know?”

All eyes turned to Twilight Sparkle like she’d just declared books to be too old-fashioned for use.

“Okay, is everythin’ all right in that gourd of yours?” Applejack asked with more than a little look of concern for her friend’s possibly fever ridden brain. “You’re saying you actually think it’s okay for Graves to act like that?”

“I’ll admit, his approach was certainly rough,” Twilight conceded with a wince, “but I also think that maybe we need to change up how we do things. We hit a rough patch recently, and who would know better about getting out of rough spots than Graves?”

“That’s… true,” Applejack grudgingly grumbled. “Still, I don’t much like the way he came about it, all high ‘n mighty an orderin’ us around like we’re his henchmen, yah know?”

“I know, I know,” Twilight wholeheartedly agreed. “But we have to remember that Graves is a soldier. That’s probably how all of them talk in the field so maybe he’s just slipping back into old habits? The point is, he’s probably just thinking in terms of following orders and working fast. Those aren’t exactly bad, right?”

The girls didn’t want to admit it, but Twilight did make a sort of unpleasant sense.

“I get that it’s not the most comfortable,” she continued, clearly recognizing the discomfort of her friends, “but I’ll be bet he really does know what he’s doing, a lot more than any of us, anyway. That’s why – now this is just my opinion – but maybe… maybe we should just follow his lead, you know? Just let him do what he thinks he has to.”

“… Alright, I can live with that,” Applejack grudgingly nodded as she stared green-eyed disapproval at the space Graves had just vacated. “But what I can’t abide is his manners. Hay, I was raised in a barn and even I don’t act like that.”

“I agree!” Rainbow Dash snorted. “I mean, just where does he get off with that sort of high flying sass?”

Though there was a veritable mine of comedy gold in that statement, Twilight Sparkle thought it best to avoid digging given her friend’s already incensed attitude.

“He’s probably got a lot on his mind,” Twilight Sparkle answered, her soothing smile a poor salve for her friend’s wounded pride. “It can’t have been easy staying ahead of us and marking our trail all while hunting and not being hunted by other predators, right?”

“Tch, can’t be that hard,” Rainbow Dash snorted. “If it were, he’d be asking us for help. I mean, there are seven of us, right? Only reason he’s doing it all on his lonesome’s ‘cause he just likes it that way.”

“Now that’s not fair and you know it,” Twilight Sparkle admonished. “Graves has been doing everything he can to keep us safe and it’s not right for us to criticize his methods.”

“I don’t know,” Pinkie Pie intoned. “I like to think that I know some really good jokes–”

“You certainly do,” Fluttershy agreed, all earnest encouragement.

“–but if I mix up the punchline or kerfluffle the delivery, it ends up being about as funny as soggy toast, which let me tell you, isn’t funny at all. You feels me, Twilight? You feels me?”

“Um… no?”

“I… think what the Pinkster’s saying,” Rainbow Dash hesitantly proffered, “is that it doesn’t matter how good you know something if you don’t do it well.”

“And how,” Applejack heartily agreed as she turned to face Twilight Sparkle. “Now don’t get me wrong, I reckon that Graves knows heaps about bein’ a soldier an’ all, but that don’t mean he knows how to be a good leader. I mean, talkin’ like yer the biggest bull in the pen don’t motivate folks; it jess makes ‘em madder than the biggest bull in the pen. Graves don’t seem to know how to do otherwise, so maybe… maybe that’s why Celestia put you in charge instead of him.”

“She did say that! She totally said that!” Pinkie Pie eagerly agreed.

“Girls…”

“All we’re saying is that somebody’s got to be in charge and we don’t think it should be Graves,” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “What do you think, Sparkles? Yes or no?”

Twilight looked to each of the girls in question, the expression on her face reminiscent of the time she’d gotten a multiple choice questions to a precisely fifty-fifty chance. Amethyst eyes flashed with uncertainty as she pensively bit her lower lip.

“I think…” Twilight Sparkle swallowed and continued, hoping the pause made her sound surer than she felt. “I think we should bear with Graves for now. He may be rough, but he still knows what needs to be done.”

The reactions from the girls were as varied as they were unreadable. Applejack looked over to Rainbow Dash and shared a brief, wordless conversation. In the end, she sighed, straightened her Stetson, and gave her friend the best encouraging grin she could muster.

“If that’s what you figure.”

*****

Dinner that night was a quiet affair as all good humor seemed to have disappeared with the sun. True to his word, the long, pale fillets Graves provided tasted fairly awful; astringent and acrid, the meat had a faint taste of bile that wouldn’t go away no matter how long it stewed. However, it was enough to fill their stomachs at least, so it was with a bitter sort of satisfaction that the girls went to bed.

Coals banked and camp secured, the darkness of a starless sky settled as weariness quickly pulled the girls into dreamless sleep. For some, however, sleep did not come quite so easily.

“Twilight,” a soft, melodious voice called. “Are you awake?”

“What is it, Rarity?”

“I just wanted to know if you were feeling alright.”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

With the darkness around them, the reply would have been completely convincing if not for the slight pause that came before.

“It’s just… you seemed a little out of sorts in your response,” Rarity quietly said. “Usually, I would never have expected you to take such a passive course of action.”

“Rarity, going along with Graves is anything but passive,” Twilight giggled.

“I agree,” the seamstress smiled. “But the going along part is, wouldn’t you agree?”

“He knows what he’s doing. Why shouldn’t I take his advice?”

“Oh, you certainly should,” Rarity quickly agreed. “But there’s a big difference in accounting for a customer’s requests and giving them run of the shop. You should be quite familiar with the concept.”

“Please, don’t remind me,” Twilight groaned.

“I see the statement stands," Rarity giggled before her voice fell to more somber tones. “My point being, Twilight Sparkle, is that you’ve always been a girl of action. When you saw problems, you went out there, did your homework, and came up with a solution to see that problem resolved. Of course, you always considered the advice of friends and confidants, but you never relied on them to act for you. When did that change?”

Rarity waited for a response. In fact, she waited so long that she started to wonder whether Twilight Sparkle had accidentally fallen asleep.

The almost whispered reply proved that she hadn’t.

“Let’s say you… made a dress for a customer, and you put on a long, flowing train because you thought it’d look nice,” Twilight began as her voice quietly drifted through the dark. “The customer wasn’t sure she wanted it and actually thought it might be best to take it off. But you told the customer that the dress simply had to have it and they leave it on. Then one day, the customer wears your dress, trips on the train, falls, and breaks her arm. How would you feel about trains from then on out?”

Now it was the scholar’s turn to wait for a response.

“… Twilight, darling,” Rarity began, concern obvious in her voice. “You can’t blame yourself if you– your customer trips on the dress you made. Why, if might have happened whether or not you added the train at all.”

“But we don’t know that,” Twilight countered. “All we know for certain is that we wanted to put a train on the dress, the customer didn’t, and that our decision to include it anyway resulted in someone to get hurt. Am I still supposed to insist on adding them on for my own stupid ideals even when they might hurt my customers more?”

Pause.

“If you believe that your final vision requires it, then yes. Even if your customer disagrees, you can’t just leave your creation unfinished. I mean, if you didn’t care to see it done right, why did you even start it in the first place?”

“Maybe you didn’t have a choice,” Twilight chuckled dryly. “Maybe the customer was a client you just couldn’t refuse.”

“We always have a choice,” Rarity said, her words soft and sad. “That’s why we have to choose to believe in our vision.”

“Then…”

Rarity heard her friend swallow. When Twilight spoke once more, her voice was so fragile, it could have shattered under a spider’s breath.

“Then… what happens when you don’t believe anymore? What if you don’t even know whether your vision is right?”

Rarity wanted to give an answer. She really did. But silence fell and kept its reign till the sun rose again.

**********

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