• 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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XX. Chestnutpeake Wetlands, Equestria. March, 1252.

XX. Chestnutpeake Wetlands, Equestria. March, 1252.
Day One.

The strange band walked along the path as it wound through the marshlands. There was a bit of a chill in the air, but it was a chill that carried the promise of warmth. The skies were blue and beautiful, and small clouds drifted unbidden through the sky. In the distance, they could see the sunlight sparkling on the waters of Chestnutpeake bay.

"So, um...Nikolai," Apple Bloom said, looking around as she walked.

"Yes, Apple Blossom?" the gryphon replied.

Apple Bloom snapped her attention to the gryphon. "Name's Apple Bloom, beaky. Apple Blossom's my cousin. Second cousin once removed? Or first cousin twice removed. Never was too keen on the difference."

"I apologize. Is zat vhat you vanted to tell me?"

"Nah. I wanted to ask ya why ya speak in such a silly accent. I mean, y'all are all gryphons, but you and Anna talk kinda weird."

He smiled. "I vanted to ask you a similar qveshtion."

"Whaddya mean, accent?" Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. "I talk like everypony else does."

"Of course, of course." Nikolai made a little hand-waving motion with his claw. "But vhere are you from, little pony?"

"Ponyville. Like my friends are." She tossed her head in the direction of Scootaloo.

"And your family? Such as Apple Blossom?"

"Aw, we're all over the map! We started out in the Ponyzark mountains, from what I hear, and now we're plum everwhere! Finest apple farmers in Equestria!" She closed her eyes and smiled as she talked.

"Ah, you see! You speak vith the voice of your mountain home, zough you are ssoroughly pony." He winked. "I am ze same way! Anna and I come from ze mountains of Korella'gryph. Qvite a long way to travel, no?"

"Ain't never heard of it." Apple Bloom squinted and looked straight ahead. "And I do talk like everypony else does. Y'all gryphons must have feathers in your ears."

"But...you have not heard of the mighty tvin peaks of Korella'gryph? Ze Shoulders of ze Vorld? Ze mountains zat bear ze sky? Ze home of--"

"--nope. Sounds dumb. And borin'."

On the other side of Nikolai, Anna laughed. "You see? I told you ze ponies are taught nossing of ze vorld. How can you blame zem for fighting if zey do not even understand vhy zere is a var in ze first place?"

Nikolai gave a tiny shrug. "Well, zen, little pony, how do you ssink ze sky is kept vhere it belongs?"

"I dunno. Celestia probably put some magic on it to keep it up."

"But she is not fifteen hundred years old, and ze vorld is much older. How do you ssink ze vorld vas kept in place before her?"

"...never really thought none about it."

He smiled generously. "Of course you do not. Ze sky is rightly held up by ze vorld--by ze Shoulders of ze Vorld. Ze sun and moon bear zemselves in most of ze vorld, and did in your home for most of history. If left alone, ze clouds are perfectly capable of moving zemselves. You see? Look up at ze sky. Is zis ssriving, natural beauty not preferable to ze sterile mechanical arrangements your vinged ponies build? Is nature not ze best caretaker of nature?"

"Maybe it is, maybe it ain't. Applejack told me th' apple trees in th' Everfree Forest grow by theirselves, and their apples ain't one quarter as big or as juicy as ours are. Don't grow as fast neither, not without Earth-pony magic"

"But zey are real apples, made by ze land and ssrough ze grace of ze spirits of your ancestors."

"So what?!" Apple Bloom shouted, "why do y'all care!? Is this what this is all about? Y'all don't think our apples are good enough for ya, because--what? They're too good? That don't make a lick of sense!"

"It is not about your lands, pony girl. It is about vhat is best for ze vorld. Eqvestria is dead to the ancestors and to nature. And ze death is spreading."

"Dead? It's the beautifulest land on Earth! How can you walk through all this and say it's dead?"

He shook his head. "Eqvestria is not natural. Ze entire country is managed like a garden. It is not right."

"And if'n your neighbor had a real pretty garden, would you burn down his house to make him get rid of it?"

There was a minute of silence.

"Vell...if your neighbor's garden vas spreading and choking your apple orchard, vould you sit and do nossing?"

There was an hour of silence.

Day Two.

Scootaloo walked happily down the trail. They had unbound her wings--any flighted creature is quite capable of recognizing when another is grounded. She flapped them occasionally, relishing the feeling of air resistance. They had been growing the past few weeks; they ached in the mornings and when she flapped hard, but they were catching more air than ever before. The sensation of wing pushing against air made her giddy. It wouldn't be long now until she could fly--truly fly. She looked up at the sky and closed her eyes against the sunlight. The wind blew, and she extended her wings to catch it. She felt her body weight drop noticably, and she grinned.

"Yeah, I remember when I was a lil' fledglin' too," a voice behind her said. "Lemme burst a bubble for ya now--flyin' is hard as hell when ya start out, man. It takes all ya got just to stay aloft. It ain't fun for the first few months. It ain't easy for the first year. And it takes a ton of practice."

Scootaloo blushed and wrapped her wings tight against her sides. "Um--what? No. I wasn't--"

Rolf laughed. "C'mon, man, there ain't nothin' wrong with it! Any kid with wings can't wait to use 'em! Just means you're fulfillin' your callin', 'sall. Your parents would be proud to see it!"

Scootaloo suddenly looked very uncomfortable. "Well, actually..."

Rolf cocked his head emphatically. "Oh, kid, that's rough. Was it the war? Or--no, no, never mind, not my business. But if they've gone to your ancestral hall, then I'm gonna double down on that statement. They are seein' it, and they are proud. Take it to the bank, kiddo."

"We...we don't have ancestral halls. I don't even know what that means."

"Sure ya do. You gotta soul, right? Don't tell me you don't." He winked.

"Well...I guess."

"Right. And it's gotta go somewhere once your body's done with, right?"

"I suppose, but..."

"And where else would it want to go than with all your ancestors? You miss your parents, right? Imagine how nice it'll be to see 'em again. And how much nicer it'll be to see your grandparents, and your great-grandparents, and your great-greats, and all the way back. Thousands of family members, all delighted to see ya, all tellin' ya how proud they are of ya, and then ya take your place at the table with 'em."

"Um...we don't really believe in that."

"So? If I said I didn't believe in oceans, would it change the fact? Ain't never seen one."

"The bay is right over there." Scootaloo pointed with a hoof.

"Whatever! Ain't seen one before this trip. Convince me. Convince me oceans are real."

Scootaloo raised an eyebrow. "What are you going on about? Everypony knows oceans are real."

Rolf raised his eyebrow back. "Everybody knows ancestral halls are real."

"But...the rivers have to go somewhere, right?"

Rolf smiled mischeviously. "Your soul's gotta go somewhere, right?"

"But...a soul could go anywhere."

"A river could go anywhere."

"Oceans just make sense! Where else would all the water go? A hole? Then that hole would become an ocean!"

"Ancestral halls just make sense. Where else would all the souls of a family go? A hole? Then that hole would become an ancestral hall." Rolf laughed in self-satisfaction.

"This conversation is dumb, Rolf. I'm not a gryphon and you won't make me one by arguing this stupid stuff."

"Your loss, kid. I'm just tryin' to help."

"Well...if you guys want to help us you could start by leaving us alone."

"That's not what I'm talking about."

"...it really is, Rolf."

Day Three

Sweetie Belle rode on Anna's back. The other fillies were mostly unbound now; only a single leash-like cord remained. A light sprinkling of rain fell, but not enough to noticably wet their fur.

"So...um...Anna," Sweetie Belle said.

"Yes, Sveet Bell?"

"That's not my name."

"I know. But it is a prettier name. 'Sveetie Belle' means a passive girl, does it not? A beautiful young voman who is a little sveetie to everyone. Submissive--to zose who do not deserve it--is not an honorable ssing for any person to be. A voman should be respected for who she is and not how she bows down to everyone else. Now, 'Sveet Bell' means a fine craftvork zat makes a beautiful sound. A 'Sveet Bell' is valuable because of vhat it is. A 'Sveetie Belle,' on ze ozer hand, is valuable because she ignores who she is to make ozers happy."

"But my name is Sweetie Belle."

"And my name is Anasztazia. But I choose to go by Anna, because my name is hard for people outside my home to remember. I balance who I am viss vhat I vish to show ze vorld. Ve cannot help who ve are, Sveet Bell. But ve can choose vhich parts of us ve show ze vorld."

"That's dumb, Anna. I'm Sweetie Belle through and through. And I'm not gonna be 'Sweet Bell' because somepony thinks it's gonna sound nicer."

"Life is balancing your inside self and your outside self."

"No it isn't. My sister always says life is about embracing who you are. I'm Sweetie Belle and I'm not ever gonna be anything but Sweetie Belle. And I don't know exactly what being Sweetie Belle means yet, but when I get my cutie mark, I'll be all Sweetie Belle all day long."

Anna laughed. "And zere is nossing ironic about 'embracing yourself' because anozer pony told you to?"

Sweetie Belle wore a look of intense concentration. "Is irony the one where you find something when you're looking for something else? Or is that serenity--"

"--zat is serendipity. And I ssink you are missing ze point--"

"--or maybe it's solarity. Is that a word? No, that isn't a word. Anyway, Rarity is really smart. It would be great if I ended up just like her."

There was a brief pause. "You know, Sveet Bell, I ssought ze same of my sister."

"Was she a soldier too?"

"Ha! Certainly not. She vas a jeweler, like my fazzer vas."

"No way! Mine's a dressmaker! That's like the same!"

"So it is. And you vant to be like her?"

Sweetie beamed. "Just like her."

"So did I. She vas graceful. She vas beautiful. She vore imported peacock feazzers and gold circlets viss embedded jewels and vas everyssing a girlchick like me vanted to be."

"Yeah..." Sweetie said, dreamily. "She's so elegant."

"Yes. Zen I realized I did not like ze hours of painstaking work under magnifying crystals. Very frustrating. I liked vorking viss muscle and sveat. So I became a carpenter--very revarding vork. I enjoyed it very much. But zen my sister caught grippe and died and as ze oldest child I had to qvit being a carpenter and take over ze family business and be a jeweler." She shrugged. "Ze ancestors have a vicked sense of humor sometimes."

"So...how did you become a soldier?"

"I enlisted vhen ze var started. I am from a brave line. My ancestors appreciate piety towards ze family traditions, but look most favorably upon zzose who serve ze king viss zzeir blood." She smiled slyly. "And it vas a good excuse to give ze store to my younger brozzer. I hoped I vould be given a plot of Eqvestrian farmland vhen ve von ze var, and zen I vould have a good excuse not to make any more bracelets. And vhat could be more honorable zan caretaking ancestors whose land vas liberated for ze first time in a millennium?"

Sweetie looked nervously around. "Um...you know. Not killing ponies and taking their land? That seems more honorable to me. I mean, that land you want...it's somepony's. It's somepony's and you don't have the right to take it."

"Vell...it's ultimately ze ancestors'."

"That just sounds like an excuse. Like your talk about joining the army to please your ancestors was. It's like you gryphons say 'the ancestors want this' whenever you really mean 'I want this.'"

Anna smiled broadly as she looked over her shoulder at Sweetie. "You have stumbled upon ze key to ze Gryphon heart, my little friend. You are qvite wise. Ze ancestors are very real--as real as your sister--but zeir voice is subtle. It is easy to confuse your vishes viss zeirs. Many do. I have seen many fights vhere both gryphons insist zey do not vant to do somessing but ze ancestors demand it--and zat somessing is exactly vhat a greedy fool vould do. Zat is vhy ve have kings; zey are best at telling vhat ze ancestors vant."

"But what if they don't care about what your ancestors want?"

"Of course zey do. Vhat kind of king vould not care about ze ancestors?"

"A bad one. Like--"

"--and ve vill hope ve do not ever have a bad one," Anna said quickly, cutting Sweetie Belle off.

Morning of Day Four.

The sun was warm--honestly warm, for what might have been the first time in months. Scootaloo skipped along the road, whistling to herself. Apple Bloom trotted happily beside them. Neither were bound. Sweetie Belle, still tied up, rode cheerfully on Nikolai's back, singing along to the tune Scootaloo was whistling.

Suddenly, Nikolai stopped walking. He spoke in a scolding voice. "Do not vhistle or sing zat song. It is an evil one. Ve are travelling togezzer and hope for a peaceful resolution to our situation. A song about zis var vill not bring ze right energy."

"It's not evil," Apple Bloom shouted. "Sweetie Belle doesn't write evil songs. It's a song about ponies workin' together to save their kin. That ain't evil."

"Wait--she wrote it? " said Rolf incredulously. He turned to Sweetie Belle. "You wrote La Chevallaise?" Sweetie nodded. "You're pullin' my leg here. You're just a kid we picked up in some town."

"Yeah," Sweetie said. "I've written lots of songs. Like...a bunch of 'em. Derpy told me she's even gonna make a little book of 'em."

"...you know ze Grey Mare. Personally." Anna spoke in a near monotone. "And you write famous propaganda songs. And you expect us to believe zis."

"Uh, of course we do," Scootaloo said. "Well I mean we all know Derpy. We've known her forever. She was our mailmare back in Ponyville. We used to go to school with her daughter. Sweetie's the only one who writes the songs, though."

"You wrote La Chevallaise." Anna continued, her voice audibly disturbed.

"Yes," Sweetie Belle said. She wasn't quite sure why they were making a big deal about it.

"You are personally close to ze Grey Mare. How close?"

Apple Bloom piped up. "She's in love with my big brother I think. And she's always real nice to us. She even let us tag along with the army even though she wouldn't let any other foals."

"Do you believe all zis, Nikolai?" Anna spoke in a voice that was far, far more serious than she had yet used around them.

"Truthfully I do. It is consistent viss all zey have said in separate conversations. If zey vere intelligent enough to organize zzeir lies, zey vould be vise enough to not say such ssings." His voice, too, was cold. "You understand, Anna, how zis changes ze situation."

"Wait, what--" Sweetie Belle started to say.

"I do." In one quick motion, she leapt forward and grabbed Scootaloo. At the same time, Rolf tackled and pinned Apple Bloom.

"Bind zem both." Nikolai said. It wasn't a necessary order. Rolf already had the ropes.

"I apologize for ze abrupt change in our relationship, my little ponies," Anna said. "But you are vorth far, far more zan ve had believed."

Afternoon of Day Four.

They walked on, the Crusaders in a terrified silence, the gryphons debating how best to redeem their bounty.

"--yes, but I am telling you, Rolf, zat ve cannot simply tell ze pony army ve have ze girls. Zey vill find us, kill us, and take zem."

"Yes, but they wouldn't dare," Rolf said testily. "We have 'em as hostages. They try anything, we kill 'em. In fact, I'd think we should send the message attached to the yellow one's dead body. Let 'em know we have the white one and the orange one. It's the white one they'll want, and killin' another one will let 'em know we mean business."

Nikolai shook his head. "Yes, but you do not understand ze Grey Mare. She loves fiercely but is cruel vhen enraged. Zese girls are like her family, yes? If ve kill vun, zen she vill be made blind viss fury and vill stop at nothing to get her revenge. But she vill cooperate so long as she believes she can get zem back unharmed."

Scootaloo looked sadly back at Rolf and Nikolai, then back down at the ground.

Anna nodded in agreement. "Yes. But ve are approaching zis ze wrong vay. Ve should find passage to ze liberated regions. Perhaps barter our svords and armor; zose are vorthless in comparison to zese girls. Zen ve should give zem to ze army. Ve vill be revarded greatly."

A shadow flitted across the ground. Scootaloo cocked her head.

"Yes," said Nikolai. "But ze ssing is, ve are still deserters, and I am an officer and ze son of a nobleman. Ze army will know ve have fled a losing battle, especially if ve arrive vithout our armor or svords. Ve vill likely be executed as cowvards, vhich ve frankly do deserve. Zey vill qvietly take ze girls, and vill loudly kill us."

Another shadow flitted across the ground. Scootaloo looked up at the sky. She didn't see anything.

"Yes," said Anna, "but zey vill loudly proclaim zat zey have captured ponies dear to ze Grey Mare, and zey cannot do zat vissout inviting questions as to how, and zey cannot answer zem if zey kill us."

Another shadow. This time Scootaloo saw something. Her eyes opened wide.

"Yes," said Rolf, "but they aren't gonna brag about how Gryphonia kidnapped some pony kids, now are they? We're trying to liberate Equestria, and targeting kids ain't the way to win the ponyfolk over to our side, now is it?"

"Um, excuse me," Scootaloo said, "but...if we're so important...shouldn't we be moving faster?"

Rolf spoke irritatedly. "What."

"I mean...we were going slow because we knew the army wasn't going to move out. Because they were waiting for the supply train."


"But if you're saying Derpy is gonna trade anything to get us back, wouldn't that imply she would be looking for us? Like, right now? They'd have figured out we didn't die in the fire eventually. And you don't need a supply train to send out scouting parties. You can just send ponies. And they could arrive at any moment." She looked up and smiled.

"...by eight generations." Nikolai put a claw to his forehead. "She is right. Ve vere so foolish. Put zem on your backs and abandon everyssing else, ve must fly before--"

At once, there was a fluttering of wings, and immediately afterward, the sound of two unforgiving lances tearing through flesh. To Nikolai's left and right, Rolf and Anna dropped to the ground as bolts of color swept through his field of vision. Immediately after, he felt something hard crashing into his side. The white filly tumbled off him. The world tumbled around him. He grimaced. He was on his back. He tried getting up. He couldn't. There was a hoof on his chest. He opened his eyes.

A grey mare with crossed eyes glared down at him. "No. It's a bit late for that." She tossed her head to the side, and with a metallic rasp, a lance extended from under her cloak. Its point was pushed up against his throat. Nikolai swallowed hard. The movement of his throat against the spearhead cut his flesh.

Nikolai began to speak. "I vas--"

"I don't want to hear it," the mare said.

She thrusted her shoulder forward.

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