• Published 5th Nov 2011
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Equestria: Total War - emkajii



War comes to Equestria: with despair, with starvation, with sacrifice and with heroism.

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XVIII. Valley Foal, Equestria. March, 1252.

XVIII. Valley Foal, Equestria. March, 1252.

Derpy sat at her desk in her room, eating a bowl of newly sprouted grass shoots and reading the reports Davenport had assembled. She had sent pegasus scouts along the gryphon convoy's supposed path every day for the past week, and one had finally sighted it six days due north of Valley Foal. This meant their original rendezvous point wouldn't work, but that was no matter. She didn't bother sending out a confirmation recon flight. Cloudkicker never gave her bad intelligence, and they needed every hoof they could get preparing the army for campaigning season.

Her army would be up to the task, she thought. Her core of eight hundred winter survivors were tough and disciplined; months of training and shared misery had forged them into true soldiers. They were healthy, too: now that the spring grasses were coming in, they were eating again, and rapidly gaining strength. They would be fine. However, the arrival of the spring grasses also meant they could begin recruiting--and recruiting was going far better than expected. They had over four thousands enlistees coming in over the next two weeks. Those wouldn't be much use until they had been trained, but it wouldn't take long to get them in basic fighting shape. Plus, she didn't mind the prospect of sending them into battle half-trained. She could rely on her Valley Foal veterans as reserves whenever her lines began to break.

But that was a matter for the future. Her present concern was the first test of the Equestrian Army of Free Ponies. The numbers weren't on her side. Eight hundred gryphons against eight hundred ponies, of which only two hundred had wings. But she would have surprise. She looked out the window, at the gentle spring day. And she...she would have the weather.



Lyra magically rolled up her tent, and began stuffing it into its sack. Next to her, Bon Bon was carefully packing both her and Lyra's possessions into her saddlebags.

Lyra glanced over at Bon Bon. "Oh--you don't need to do that! I can carry my stuff!"

Bon Bon blew a strand of hair off her face as she worked. "I don't need to. I want to."

"Come on, honey, you can hardly walk."

"I can walk just fine. Besides, I don't want it weighing y'down when we have to fight."

Lyra stopped and sighed. "Weighing me--so you're still not going to fight? Bonnie...why are you here if you don't want to fight? Why don't we just go home?"

"I can still be useful. There's lotsa things to do around here. I dig, I pull, I carry." She shrugged. "There's lotsa things to do."

Lyra reared back on her hind legs and crossed her front hooves. "But you expect me to fight."

Bon Bon smiled. "I don't 'spectcha to do nothing, sweetie. But you can fight, right? I mean, like, your legs work; you can kick. Now I ain't pushing you to do nothing, but I fought when I could. I darn near died, y'know that. If I could still kick I'd be fighting still."

"It's not fair. I just...I just wanted to be happy with you. And like, life was almost becoming normal. Like, we slept in the same place, we ate at regular times, we did some work and we trained and we went to bed together. And now it's ending again. Why can't we be happy?"

"Aw, Lyra. Y'can still be happy. I'm happy with you wherever we are. And...y'know, if it makes you feel better, I can come up with'ya to the battle." She grinned. "But y'know my legs can't kick no more, so you better protect my tail, missy."

Lyra forced a smile. "I couldn't ask you to do that. Hang back with the carts where it's safe."

"I could! I mean it! Would that make you feel better?"

"Stay back, Bonnie. It's okay."

"...all right," Bon Bon said. "But if you change y'mind, lemme know."



----



The army marched out, in two long trains. One group, with the baggage, the invalids, the camp followers, and the non-combat support ponies, took a winding path branching off from Valley Foal, following a good cobblestone road winding through barren farmland; their carts would have few problems getting stuck, they were unlikely to be ambushed, and they would meet up with the main army at Rollinghoof two days after the ambush. The main group would take a muddied-but-direct dirt path through the sprawling Chestnutpeake wetlands.

Derpy knew splitting an army was a cardinal sin in warfare--and leaving your baggage train undefended was downright stupidity--but it was a gamble she was willing to take. If her intelligence was correct--and it should be--the gryphons did not have an army in the field, and the timing of the ambush had to be perfect. Rollinghoof was the only town between the gryphon convoy's current location and Fillydelphia, and its location by the marsh's edge made perfect for an ambush. The chance to fight the battle there made the risk worthwhile. Or so she hoped.

Near the rear of the main army, Scootaloo bounced along giddily, fluttering her wings as she went. It would be a three day march to Rollinghoof, but three days of marching was nothing by now--and this time, there would be *action* at the end of the march. Besides, who cared about marching when there was enough to eat? Marsh grasses weren't that tasty but they were certainly plentiful.

Beside her, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle walked nervously, looking around them.

"Why ain't nopony noticin' us?" asked Apple Bloom. "Big Mac said we weren't allowed here. It's all big ponies."

"Maybe we're too short to see?" Sweetie Belle offered.

"Nah," Scootaloo laughed, "It's 'cause we're big ponies too! I mean, Sweetie Belle can do some magic now. And I can sorta fly a bit now. And Apple Bloom is getting really strong. We're not fillies!"

"Uh, yeah, we are fillies," said Sweetie Belle. "We totally are."

"Hey!" said Apple Bloom, changing the subject. "We should play some music!"

Sweetie Belle looked up at a soldier walking dead-eyed next to her. "I don't think we should be calling attention to ourselves. I mean, I'm okay coming along, but what if the General finds out?"

"Well, I'm not worried none 'bout that," Apple Bloom replied. "She can't very well send us back. We're marchin'; there ain't no 'back' to send us to. We came to watch, and now we're gonna watch--no matter what. So why worry?"

Scootaloo chipped in. "Yeah! Don't worry! C'mon, Sweetie Belle, sing! You came up with all sorts of cool songs!"

"Well...I don't know. I like singing and all, but..."

Apple Bloom pulled a wooden cylinder out of her little saddlebag. It was big; it occupied the entire right-flank bag. She tossed its strap over her neck, then pulled out a wooden stick, the center of which she grasped in her teeth. She snapped her head to the side. The cylinder made a sharp, resonant banging noise.

"You brought that drum?" Scootaloo asked.

"You bet! I got your fife in the other bag. You been practicin' like I said to, right?" She tossed it to Scootaloo. "Now! Sweetie! Get singin'!"

Apple Bloom rapped out a series of three triplets, then fell into a steady, martial rolling beat. Sweetie looked around helplessly, then shrugged, and began singing at the top of her lungs. It was La Chevallaise, one of the first songs she had written. It was the most popular, too--the soldiers had taken a special liking to it. Scootaloo shrugged, and began piping imprecisely along; music wasn't her forte, but the song was simple enough.

Rise up, children of ponies, the day of glory has arrived!
Against us, gryphon tyranny: unbowed and blooded, we must rise!
Unbowed and blooded, we must rise!

Her resonant voice rang clear and sharp through the swamp trail. Nearly everypony turned to look as they walked.

Will ponies submit, frightened, crying,
To gryphon masters and lion slaves?
Will ponies lay down in graves,
While freedom is softly dying?

The ponies around them were singing. Apple Bloom rapped louder. Sweetie Belle stuck to the beat Apple Bloom provided, though it was a bit faster than she usually sang it. As she hit the chorus, she sang louder still, her voice straining but still controlled.

To arms, my ponies!
Form our batallions!
March on! March on!
And we shall free, our Equestria!

A particularly tall stallion stooped down next to Sweetie, and motioned for her to jump on his back. She did, and repeated the chorus. In every direction, ponies were singing as they marched.

To arms, my ponies!
Form our batallions!
March on! March on!
And we shall free, our Equestria.

Sweetie breathed in deeply, her face a broad smile. Everypony was listening to her. Everypony was singing her song. She flew eagerly into the second verse.


Derpy sang along softly as she walked. She liked the tune; it was familiar and stirring, and it always boosted ponies' spirits during marches and drills. Yet this time it was accompanied; a soft rap of drumming and tweet of fifing gave a rather engaging backing. She leaned over to talk to Big Macintosh.

"Who's playing, Mac?" she asked. "Did we take on some musicians?"

Without a word, he turned and headed back through the line to investigate the source of the music. Derpy kept walking and singing to herself. Suddenly, the music stopped, as did the singing. She looked quizzically behind her. A minute later, Big Mac arrived, his eyes aflame with anger, three fillies following close behind.

"It was them, General," he said, snorting in rage. "They came along."

Derpy walked off to the side of the road, and motioned for Mac and the Crusaders to follow. They did, and as the army continued to march along past them, Derpy leaned down to speak with the fillies. She spoke gently.

"So, girls. You've decided to come along on the raid?"

Scootaloo nodded eagerly. Apple Bloom looked nervously at Big Macintosh. Sweetie Belle looked at the ground.

"And you understand that we can't protect you when the fighting starts."

Scootaloo again nodded, just as eager. Sweetie Belle dragged a hoof through the soft dirt.

Derpy looked up at Mac. "I can have them hang back from the main group, but there's no guarantee they won't be found by fleeing gryphons. The best I can do is have them hide in the marsh for a day or two before rejoining us, but really, Mac, telling them not to come along doesn't ever work."

Big Macintosh looked from Crusader to Crusader, then back at Apple Bloom. "We should have dropped them off at a town somewhere."

Derpy shrugged, and affected nonchalance. "Maybe. But we didn't. But as I recall, you didn't even suggest it."

Big Mac snapped his attention onto Derpy. "General, I didn't want to leave her where I couldn't protect her."

"And now we're taking them to where we can't protect them," Derpy said. She felt like she was trying to prove a point with him, but she didn't know what it was.

"God damn it all," he shouted, "I know that!"

She shook her mane, and sighed, realizing she was just being touchy about his disapproval of her decisions. "...yeah, Mac, I know. I'm sorry. You're right, we should have found them a home. But--"

"--but this is our home!" Scootaloo interrupted.

Apple Bloom immediately piped up. "Yeah! We'll follow you forever!"

Sweetie Belle nodded. "Yep! Because we're ponies too!"

Derpy nodded, then fixed an eye on the three in turn. They were right. They would follow forever. Hadn't they followed her in the first place, even when they had been told to evacuate? Hadn't they followed her even when their bodies were too starved and frozen to walk? Hadn't they followed her even when expressly forbidden from coming with the main army? So long as she let them live in the camp, they couldn't be kept from the front forever. And she couldn't kick them out of the camp.

"All right, then," she said. "It was a mistake to let you come along in the first place, but I did, so that's something I'll have to deal with. I don't want you fighting in any battles. I want you to stay safe. But I'm not going to try to protect you. If you want to come along, I'm not going to try to stop you."

"WHAT?" Big Mac yelled.

"I can't stop them, Mac."

"Punish them!"

"I can only punish soldiers, and I will not have child soldiers."

"This is my sister you're talking about!"

"Your sister, Mac. Not the army's sister."

"You have responsibilities!"

"I feed them and tell them to be safe."

"We can't bring them!"

"You and I both know the only way to keep them from following is to stop feeding them."

"We can't do that!"

"Right. Which is why they're going to come along."

Mac narrowed his eyes. "Captain, I've followed you through a lot, but--"

Derpy interrupted, narrowing her own eyes. "--it's General, Major Apple--"

He took a step closer and talked over her. "--you've lost sight of what it is you're fightin' for. Bringin' Apple Bloom to--"

She took a step closer. They were both talking over each other "-you never knew what you were fighting for. It's all about what makes you feel good inside, not about what's possible or what's--"

He took a step closer. "--there it is again. 'Possible.' Always excuses with you. After the torture trial I was startin' to think you was growing a moral compass, but that was just another game, wasn't it? Another cold-hearted calculation, what's best for the army, what's best for--"

"--yeah, Mac. What's possible. What's best for the army. That's what we are: an army." She took a step closer. They were nose to nose. He stood proudly and solidly on all four legs, drawn up to his full height. She matched him in intimidation if not in height; she had learned how to make her presence felt despite her stature. "You're a good stallion, Mac, a real good stallion. But you won't face ugly facts. You don't understand how to be a good officer." She said the words as if she were emasculating him.

"I understand perfectly," he growled. "I'd just rather be a good stallion than a good officer. You'd rather be a good officer than a good mare, but all that means is--"

She leaned her muzzle close to his ear. "--I am a damned good officer and a damned good mare, and don't you dare forget it--"

He pushed her head back with his own. He locked eyes with her. "--all that means is you ain't neither."

She glared back. "Oh. Really." She raised a hoof, and grabbed him by the neck. He was beginning to raise a hoof to defend himself, when she leaned in and kissed him aggressively. She pulled his face into her own; she kissed and bit and licked. Months of self-denial and discipline flooded out in a torrent of passion--until, with a single shove, he pushed her stumbling back.

"Derpy." He paused. "Do. Not. Ever. Do. That. Again."

He turned, and rejoined the line of ponies marching past.

Derpy bit her lip; her face was flushed underneath her fur. Shock and shame and guilt and horror and regret and embarrassment coursed through her. She turned to the Crusaders, all of whom were staring goggle-eyed at her.

"...fall in, girls," she said at last, "and sing and play your music." They didn't move. She continued to speak, trying to keep from crying. "Did you girls write that song? I thought I heard somepony say you did."

Sweetie Belle slowly nodded.

"Good for you," she said, carefully controlling her voice. "It's really good. The soldiers like it. And I like it. Can you write sheet music?"

Sweetie Belle shook her head.

"Okay. Would you mind if I had Davenport write it down so we can give it to people we meet?"

Sweetie Belle shook her head again.

"Thank you. Now go on. I'm going to rest here for a minute. Go. C'mon, go. Go."

Sweetie Belle turned and began walking. So did Scootaloo. Apple Bloom lingered a second, on the edge of asking a question, but then turned to catch up with her friends, her drum bouncing as she went.



----



The campfires stretched along the road and throughout nearby clearings. In the warmth of a particularly bright fire, Big Macintosh sat next to the Crusaders.

"...you're really good at buildin' fires, big brother," Apple Bloom whispered.

"Eeyup."

"...you know a lotta stuff. I oughta pay more attention to you."

"...eeyup."

A soft voice came from behind them. "Um...Major Apple? We need to talk."

Big Macintosh sat silently, then at last said, "All right girls, clear out. Sit down, General."

"You don't tell me to sit down, Major Apple. You agree to the order." Her voice was gentle but insistent.

"Yes, General."

Derpy sat down next to him, and the Crusaders stood up and walked off reluctantly.

She wasn't sure how to phrase it. She wasn't sure what balance to strike. She decided not to bother with phrasing it. She spoke. "...Mac, I'm sorry. About yesterday."

"Eeyup." He looked pained. He knew this conversation was coming. He didn't look forward to it.

"I don't know what came over me."

"Yeah, you do."

"...yeah, Mac. I do. I love you." She sighed. "I do. I shouldn't but I do."

"I know. And I'm sorry, Derpy. I am truly sorry."

"Why don't you love me," she asked pleadingly. "Why?"

"You're old enough to know that question never has an easy answer."

"...I know. It's just that...I need you, Mac. For lots of things. And it's not fair that you don't need me back."

"I do need you, Derpy. We all do. We need you to be our general."

"Not like that! I...God, you know what I mean."

"I do. And...no sense avoiding it. You need to know what I mean too. You're not a good mare, Derpy." She winced, and her ears flattened back. Mac continued on. "No, you don't understand. You're not even a mare, really. We don't see a mare when we look at you. We see authority. We see command. You're the army, Derpy. The whole army, and not a pony. So we can't love you--not like you want to be loved. We can respect you; we can follow you; we can fear you and admire you and follow you to the death. To the death." He paused. "But we can't love you. Not like that."

"But I...wait. None of you like me? But--"

"We do. Just not, y'know. Not like that. You're becomin' everythin' I don't like in a pony, Derpy. You make excuses to do evil things. But...somepony has to. You do what I can't. You give us what I couldn't. You're what we need, and you're what I hate. You're like a symbol, Derpy, and we all darn near worship that symbol...but that don't mean I like the mare. And t'would make things easier on both of us if you was to stop expectin' me to."

Derpy said nothing. Neither did Big Mac. The fire crackled.

At long last, Derpy spoke. "I'm...a symbol?"

"We started as farmers. We're an army now, and you're darn famous across the occupied territories. At this rate we'll field ten thousand ponies by mid-April, and if it weren't for you we'd all still be in Ponyville."

"...yeah. And if it weren't for me, there'd still be a Ponyville."

"It wasn't your fault. Bad stuff happens when there's a dust-up goin' on. What's important is that you're the biggest reason there's even a ruckus in this part of Equestria."

"Oh, Mac, if I'm that important, why doesn't anypony like me?"

"General, you're not askin'. You're fishin'. It's unseemly."

"God damn it, no! I'm serious! I'm all alone. Nopony talks to me. It used to be just you but now it's nopony. Even Davenport acts all unnatural around me and finds excuses not to be near my quarters and he's supposed to be my aide. I just sit alone reading and painting and writing letters to my daughter that I'll never get to send, because I don't even know which corner of Equestria she's in and I probably never will. And now whenever I say anything everypony does it and they never ever say anything but 'yes General' but then I see nasty pamphlets circulating through camp and ponies talk about me behind my back like I'm some sort of monster but every time I say anything they cheer me and goddamn it I'm so alone I'm so alone I'm so alone Mac."

She was crying now.

"Gener--Derpy. I'm sorry. But you're right. You are alone. You ain't one of us, and that's just the way it has to be. Leadership ain't just bein' popular and givin' nice speeches. It's carryin' thousands of ponies at once. You got to bear it alone, because that's what leadership is."

"You're lying," she sniffed. "Lots of leaders have husbands and wives and stuff."

"I ain't read too many books, but ain't nobody ever told me 'bout a general bringin' his wife along on the march."

"...I don't know, Mac." She wiped her eyes and stared at the fire. "I don't think it's true that I've got to be alone. Maybe ponies just don't like me."

Mac stood up. "General, I think we're past the point where this is a useful conversation. I don't like goin' in circles. Permission to leave."

Derpy blinked, but kept gazing ahead. "...okay. Permission granted, Major."

She sat alone. Completely alone. She was used to being alone. But it seemed for a bit like she wasn't. She liked giving speeches and being a leader because it seemed like ponies liked her; they listened to her and cheered her and spoke nicely to her. It wasn't real, though. They cheered because they liked feeling hopeful. They cheered because they liked feeling strong. But that was all they liked. They didn't like her. Mayor Mare was right. They really weren't her foals. It was a good way of thinking of them for a while, but there were better ways. She knew there were better ways. They were her weapons--her willing weapons. Her soldiers were her arrows, and her speeches were how she strung the bow, and her strategies were how she aimed her shots, and her orders were how she loosed them. And that meant it was her--her alone--against the gryphon armies.

A spark landed on her fur. She blew it off. So she was alone. Well. She knew how to be alone. Alone as a filly was how she learned to fight bullies. Alone as a mare was how she raised Dinky. Alone as a captain was how she had learned to fight gryphons. And alone as a general was how she was going to fight--until she won or she died.

Alone. She was alone. Truly and completely alone.

She looked around her. Dim silhouettes of ponies walked and sat by their fires. She couldn't make out their identities. She realized their identities didn't matter--they couldn't matter. They were still her ponies, and she still loved them all. But if she wanted to keep them alive, she had to win. And if she wanted to win, she had to fight alone.

She got to her feet, and began walking back to her tent. And as she walked, she remembered being a filly on the awkward cusp of puberty. And she remembered how isolated she was when the ponies mocked her and bit her. And she remembered how she felt when she--she against all of them, against all of the world--kicked that one chestnut bastard in the mouth. She remembered how she felt alone as they circled around her menacingly. She remembered how she felt alone as she broke the snout of another. She remembered how she felt alone as they fled from her. And she remembered looking at the trace of blood on her hoof, and realizing that she would never be bullied again. And she remembered feeling that being alone was the most liberating, most empowering thing in the world.

She arrived at her tent. She entered, and pulled a scroll out of her old mailbag. She unrolled it. It was her most recent painting--Dinky napping in the sun, in front of Carrot Top's flower bed. She smiled, and pulled her brush and ink out of her old mailbag.

Tomorrow they would arrive at Rollinghoof. She would have to have a clear mind.

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