• Published 26th Feb 2018
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A 14th Century Friar in Celestia's Court - Antiquarian

Providence is an odd thing. Friar Jacques de Charrette, warrior monk of the Hospitallers, will learn this the hard way as a vision leads him to Equestria, where he and his newfound friends will face a diabolical threat.

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Voices in the Morning

Imagine, if you will, the experience of spending the better part of five decades sleeping on surfaces ranging from light cots that were little better than planks to stone slabs to rot-covered dungeon floors. Imagine further that, in that time, the softest surface upon which you had slept was the sands of the desert, but that your sleep had often been restless under such conditions because of the fear of attack in the night.

Now imagine that, after all that time, you found yourself sleeping on a mattress large enough for a king and plush enough to cushion a fall from a castle wall. To say that the experience would be unusual would, at that point, be redundant.

All of which is to say that Jacques found it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Not so much because he did not want to get up, but rather because his sleep-addled mind found it challenging to position his still weak limbs in such a way as to extricate himself from the distressingly cozy embrace of the mattress and blankets. By the time he actually swung his legs over the side of the bed, he felt like he’d just fought a wrestling match with a cuddly bear.

Defeated by a mattress, he thought with a smirk. What an ignominious end that would have been. He could not complain about the rest he’d received, however. His body felt far better than it had the day before, and his thoughts were the clearest they’d been since arriving in this strange land. Glancing out the window and realizing that the sun had not risen yet, he considered going back to bed, but rejected the idea out of hand. I must return to the discipline of the Liturgy of the Hours; without my brethren around to keep me regimented, extra care must be taken. He stroked his beard thoughtfully. I suppose I could invite folk from amongst the ponies to join me, but… no, he decided, recalling an experience praying alongside an Eastern Rite Catholic. To do so would be akin to the confusion of that poor Maronite multiplied a hundred-fold.

Based on the light of the sun that had just begun to invade through the curtains, he guessed that he’d already passed the early hour of Lauds, but not yet Prime. Lacking the sound of a bell to mark the time, he decided to simply pray from one directly to the next, with Mass between, trusting that God valued his piety over his precision under the circumstances.

Considering that he did not want to risk Redheart’s ire by walking around too much first thing in the morning, he cast his gaze about searching for a suitable implement with which to support himself. To his surprise, he found an implement quite well-suited to the purpose: a walking stick. Cut from a stout wood that he could not identify and beautifully polished, it was too perfectly sized to have belonged to any of the Apples. Meaning that one of them must have cut it for me yesterday and left it in here for me; I simply did not notice. How profoundly considerate of them.

Rising to make his way over to his impromptu altar, he faintly recalled falling asleep on his knees. It wouldn’t be the first time. But then, how did I get to bed? His mind conjured up faint images of his sister Jeanette easing him off the floor. Which seems highly unlikely for a number of reasons, he chuckled. The thought did shed some light on the incident, however, as Jeanette, God rest her soul, had been blonde. This suggested that Applejack had been the one to come to his aid last night.

Putting aside his speculations for now, he once more knelt to say his prayers, making a quick entreaty to God that he have the strength to rise afterwards. Without the need to homilize or serve a long communion line, the mass was short, and even Lauds and Prime were made brief by his solitude. As at the hospital, he sang the hymns under his breath as the dawn brightened outside.

As he finished his final hymn, he became aware of another voice raised in song. The voice was female, rich in emotion and haunting in beauty. The words were soft, and he doubted that he would have even heard but for the utter silence of the morning. With slow reverence for the angelic quality of the singer, he let the sound guide him to the source, taking him across the room to the window. He pulled aside the curtains with caution, lest he alarm whoever was singing.

Outside, seated on a patch of grass several yards away from the house, was Morning Song. The mare was watching the sun as it crept over the clouds. She had dispensed with her armor, and the rays of dawn transformed her white coat to a pale golden hue. From his angle he could see that her eyes were closed as she raised her voice unto the heavens.

The music was mesmerizing, almost hypnotic, and he found himself sitting on the windowsill to listen.

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,

In the ranks of death you'll find him;

His father's sword he has girded on,

And his wild harp slung behind him;

As she sang her voice rose in triumphant, hastening, defiant crescendo, the repetition to which she built sounding like a warcry in spite of the muted tones with which she sang.

"Land of Song!" said the warrior bard,

"Though all the world betrays thee,

One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,

One faithful harp shall praise thee!

Shall praise thee!

Shall praise thee!"

The triumphant notes hung in the air, and for a moment, Jacques thought that the song had concluded.

Then the next verse came, soft and slow, and full of grief, her voice almost breaking with emotion on the third word.

The Minstrel fell, but the tyrant's chain

Could not bring that proud soul under;

Jacques felt a tug at his heart as he returned to the last moments of his tortured brethren. Tears formed in his eyes as he felt afresh the painful honor of witnessing their defiance. As though sensing his distress, tears ran from her eyes as well.

The harp he loved ne'er spoke again,

For he tore its chords asunder.

Just as it seemed that the lament would be overcome with grief, a deep, swelling note of somber triumph rose from her soul, lifting the song from the dead unto what the dead had died for.

And said "No chains shall sully thee,

Thou soul of love and bravery!

Thy songs were made for the pure and free

They shall never sound in slavery!

Thy songs were made for the pure and free

They shall never sound in slavery!"

Such was the beauty and emotion of the moment that Jacques sat in stunned silence for a moment, unable to even wipe the evidence of passion from his eyes. When he regained his composure, he wasted no time seizing his walking stick and heading downstairs.

While he was eager to make his way outside, he was not so foolish as to force himself at a pace that would earn him a painful trip to the floor. As such, he had plenty of time to take stock of the fine craftsmanship of the Apple home. Or ‘craftponyship’ I suppose. That will take some getting used to. Among other things he noticed a wall clock, the small hand of which lay between five and six; assuming that it functioned the same as the hospital clocks had, that meant that it was not even time for Prime yet. Well, Lord knows I tried to be punctual.

The trip also gave him time to consider Morning Song. Based on what Medevac had told him of the ponies’ so-called ‘special talents’ and this morning’s performance, he would have assumed that her special talent lay in singing. Yet she told me yesterday that she is a ‘psychologist’ by training and avocation. And now she is a soldier. What manner of soldier is she if her talent is music and her profession the mind?

Eventually winding his way outdoors to where he’d seen Song, he had one of his questions answered. Still armorless, Morning Song was running herself through what he recognized as unarmed combat drills, throwing punches, strikes, and kicks in the formulaic dance of a practiced martial routine. Ah. A warrior bard. Naturally.

Taking a moment to rest before crossing the distance between them, he observed the mare’s technique. It was a peculiar hybrid of the bucks, kicks, headbutts, and trampling techniques that warhorses were wont to use and moves that resembled something more akin to boxing or grappling. With bewildering swiftness she switched between fighting on all fours to fighting on her hind legs. Most of these latter stances were eerily human, some resembling techniques with which he was familiar while others had a more acrobatic and flowing style than what he’d learned in the West.

After a time, she paused in the middle of her exercises, panting slightly from the exertion. She addressed him without turning to look. “You’re up awfully early for a man half dead, Friar,” she observed. Glancing over, she gave a cheery smile. “No need to stand on ceremony. Come on over and sit down. I’ll grab you a seat.” She trotted over to the nearby barn to fetch a crate.

Making his way across the grass, he replied, “I didn’t wish to disturb your training. I knew many knights who could become quite… irritable when their practice of arms was interrupted.”

Song chuckled as she pushed the crate over for him to rest on. “Yes, well, I think you’ll find that I have a very high threshold for annoyance. Which is why I haven’t busted Krucjata down to buck private.”

Jacques smirked as he sat. “Yes, he does seem quite, shall we say, un excentrique. Though a good soldier, I’d imagine.”

Very good,” replied Song, sitting on her haunches in front of him. “He might look like a beggar, but he’s one of the most bloody-minded stallions I’ve ever met. Which, in my profession, is saying something.”

In your profession… which one I wonder? he pondered, still not sure what to make of the pleasant mare. He decided he needed to know more. “I heard your singing this morning.”

She winced. “I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“No need to apologize,” he said hastily. “I was already awake for my morning worship and, even had I not been, there are far more unpleasant awakenings than your angelic voice.”

Song blushed slightly. “That’s kind of you to say, Friar, though if you want I’ll take greater care to move farther away from the house in case you want to sleep. I only picked that side of the house to watch the sunrise and because the Apples all sleep on the far side of the house; I assumed human ears weren’t as sensitive as ours.”

“They likely aren’t, but I’m glad I heard you. It was…” he thought back to the experience and felt his throat tighten with emotion. “It was truly exceptional. Quite moving indeed. Is it…” he hesitated to broach the topic, but reasoned that he needed to learn about the soldiers he might well end up fighting alongside. “Is it a song of your own creation?” Based off your own losses, he didn’t add.

She shook her head. “No. The song is from an old war, one even older than the Reign of the Royal Sisters.” He nodded, recalling some of the brief history of the land that Twilight had taught him the night before. “Back when the Three Tribes were still at odds with each other, most of the earth pony realms were subjugated by the pegasi and unicorns. But the earth ponies of the warrior clans to the north continued to fight, in spite of famine, fire, and massacre. ‘The Minstrel Boy’ was a song of defiance against tyranny. After the Unification, it remained popular amongst the soldiery and eventually became incorporated into the united military forces of Equestria.”

“An admirable thing that your three peoples have all come to adopt a song which once spoke in defiance of two thirds of your number. You seem a rather forgiving people.”

The pony chortled. “Well, we’ve had over a thousand years to get over our pettiness, but we try.”

Jacques nodded, thoughtful. Song has answered his spoken question, but given more of a history lesson than an answer to his deeper inquiries. Deciding to be more direct, he changed tack. “Morning Song, I hope you’ll forgive my lack of understanding, but I am a little curious about your own story.”

She cocked an eyebrow. “You want to know why and how a pony whose special talent appears to be singing ended up as a War Dog of Celestia.”

The friar frowned, suddenly concerned. “Are you certain you are not a mind-reader?”

Song laughed. “I promise you I’m not. I’ve just heard that question more times than I can count. It wasn’t hard to guess.” She stroked her chin. “As to the ‘how,’ special talents aren’t as narrow as they often first appear. Many, including ponies, tend to assume that they only represent a single specific ability, but they’re often more conceptual. For instance, my talent isn’t singing by itself. It’s tied to what singing accomplishes.

Jacques’ brow furrowed. “How do you mean?”

Song tilted her head to the side and her jaw twisted in such a way as to suggest that she was chewing on her inner cheek. After a moment’s pondering, she asked, “Friar, what is music?”

He blinked. “I’m… sorry?”

“What is music?” she repeated. “Is it merely melodies created with instruments and voices, or is it something… more?”

Jacques sat back and considered this. He recalled the emotions that had coursed through him as she sang of the minstrel; the comradery of a ballad on the campaign trail; the mixed grief and consolation of a funeral dirge; the tenderness of a mother’s lullaby; the revelry of a tavern song; the ecstasy of the Divine Praises. And so I begin to see. “It is more,” he replied at length. “Much more. Passion and love and sorrow and joy; life and beauty given form in the very air.”

Song quirked a smile. “You have a bit of a poet in you, Friar Jacques.” He spread his hands modestly. “But you’re right; music is so much more than mere sound.” She rose and fetched a bundle that she’d stashed nearby. Opening it, she began pulling out her armor one piece at a time, spreading them out on the grass between them. “Life and beauty, as you said.” She pulled out a rag and a flask of polish and began cleaning her kit. “And what is life without both joy and sorrow, birth and death?” Her hooves went about maintaining her armor with mindless precision, but though her polishing was thorough he could see that her eyes weren’t tracking what she was doing. She may as well be blindfolded. “Ever since I got my cutie mark, I’ve learned each and every day that music is so much more than we often make it out to be.” She looked up and gave a smile that was at once somber and content. “So too am I.”

The old man stroked his beard in thought. True enough, young warrior. “Yes, Medevac explained to me that the true nature of one’s special talent can prove multi-faceted. Yet I still confess some difficulty in wrapping my head around it.” He waved a hand through the air. “Ah well. Perhaps it is something only time shall cure.”

His remark elicited a long pause in Song’s work as her gaze narrowed in contemplation. After a moment, she resumed her work, remarking, “I could tell you the story of how I got my cutie mark, if that would help.”

Her offer gave him pause. It was less what she said, and more the long silence that had preceded it. “I wouldn’t want to pry,” he said carefully. “I know the princess asked you to help me learn about this world, but I wouldn’t dare take undue advantage of that fact. If such things are private matters amongst ponies, there is no need to share it with a man you scarcely know.”

Song gave a half-smile. “That’s kind of you to say, Friar, but I wouldn’t have made the offer if I wasn’t comfortable. And, yes, I happen to be an anomaly amongst most ponies in that I’m fairly private about mine but,” she winked at him, “I feel I have a good enough measure of you to tell the tale.”

Casual though her tone was, Jacques was not fooled. This was not a matter she brought up lightly, whatever she said. “Well,” he said with a humble dip of his head, “thank you for trusting me with your confidence.”

Retaining her half-smile, she began her story, eyes on her armor as she continued to work. “Most ponies get their cutie marks when they’re around Applebloom’s age, just shy of adolescence, if not younger. She and her friends are actually on the late side of the average, but still within the expected range.” Setting the completed helmet aside, she moved on to the peytral. “This was not the case with me. I was nearly an adult when I got my mark.” She glanced up. “Am I correct in guessing that human children and youths have the capacity to be quite cruel when they set their minds to it?”

Jacques recalled many moments of his youth that he was not proud of. “Quite.”

“Well, ponies are no different. Any filly or colt whose mark comes in a little late is bound to get teased and bullied. If your mark’s still not there when you’re getting ready for university… well…” she gave a mirthless chuckle. “Let’s just say that after I learned to fight back against the physical bullying, their verbal abuse became more creative.” Song paused her polishing to contemplate the grass, a wry twist in her lips. “I suppose in hindsight I’m thankful for the bullying, as it taught me to fight back against more than one kind of attack, quite a useful skill given…” she gestured to her armor. “Still, at the time I was in a pretty low place. My family and friends were nothing but supportive, of course, but, well,” once more she glanced up with a grin, “sometimes we can just get in such a funk that we sort of forget all the good things, can’t we.”

It wasn’t a question. Jacques nodded soberly. “The dark night of the soul,” he replied, “when no comfort seems to pass through, even when the comfort is truthfully there.”

“Precisely. That’s where I was to a T.” Jacques had no idea what that expression meant, but was able to guess from the context. “Anyway,” she set aside the peytral to move on to the flanchard, “one day I needed to clear my head. My favorite thinking spot was down by the river, where this big stone bridge crosses over the water; there’s an inlet underneath the bridge where you can sit in the shade and just…” Song swept a hoof out to paint the scene, “watch the water pass you by.” The mare paused her cleaning, letting the memory wash over her. “I always loved that spot. Logs and debris would often get caught under there, marring the current, but the river always flowed on until they were washed away. Sometimes it’d take days, weeks, even months and years, but in time all yielded to the water. It helped me remember that my problems were like these logjams; they might mar the entire river for years, but in the end are washed away like all the rest.”

A beautiful sentiment, thought Jacques.

“Well, this particular day I apparently felt like singing. To tell you the truth, I can’t even remember what song it was. Knowing how I was feeling it was probably something about weathering storms or triumph through tragedy, but it could have been a drinking song for all I can recall.” Chuckling, Song moved on to cleaning the crupper. “Whatever the case, when I finished the song and looked down, I had my cutie mark.”

Jacques raised an eyebrow. “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” shrugged Song. “I couldn’t make any sense of it at the time. I was rather annoyed, to be honest. I’d sung under that bridge hundreds of times before that and it never appeared. But, there it was. So, naturally, I celebrated. Held a party, invited everypony I could think of, the whole shebang. When I went off to college I pursued a career in music, performed locally in choirs, bands, and solo shows… it was a good life,” she smiled fondly at the recollection. “I made a decent living and it always brought me joy to see how my music had the power to move hearts. And yet, in spite of all that, I felt empty. Well,” she amended, “not entirely empty; just that something was missing.”

The crupper now sparkled in the rising sun, but Song did not pick up the next piece of armor. “Then, one day, I found out what.” Her tone was so soft that Jacques almost didn’t hear it. “I’d just finished a show at a restaurant when a stallion came up to me. He was gaunt, with a stooped back, like he’d been carrying a heavy burden for too long. He asked if he could have a moment of my time. I didn’t have anywhere else to be, so I went over to his booth. At first I couldn’t really tell what he wanted, though he complimented my singing a number of times, but then he…” she shook her head and Jacques could have sworn he saw moisture in her eyes, “… he broke down sobbing. And he told me a story.” Her eyes met his, and now Jacques was sure that they were tears. “You see, Friar, many years before there had been a tragedy down by that river that I loved. I young filly had been out playing with her father. They were playing hide-and-seek and, after a while, he couldn’t find her.” She dabbed at one eye with a hoof. “It was days before they finally found her… washed up by the side of the river.”

“God have mercy,” murmured Jacques, horrified.

“Her father was wracked with grief, of course,” she continued. “It was an accident. Horrible as it was, it was only an accident, but try telling that to a father. It seems that one day he felt that it was just too much for him, so he went down to the bridge and stood on the edge, high above the raging waters that sweep all things away.”

Jacques’ heart ached for the poor father. To have lost so much… even any sense of hope… that poor soul.

“He was ready to jump, but,” Song sucked a breath in, “it seems that just then he heard a voice, a filly just turning to marehood, singing beneath the bridge.” The friar’s eyes widened. “He couldn’t bring himself to jump in front of her, so he waited. And listened. And, by the time the singing ended, he’d stepped back down from the ledge.”

Letting out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding in, Jacques exclaimed, “Laudate Dominum! Praise God!”

Song let out a long sigh and stared off at defocus. “It was incredible, the fact that I happened to be under the bridge just then; that I happened to be a depressed blank flank who needed to sing to cope with the bullying; and then, years later, after counselling and support helped him get his life together, he happened to be eating lunch at the spot I was performing so he could show me my purpose in life. It’s the sort of thing that really makes you believe the stuff they teach you about things happening for a reason.” She shook her head, as though still unable to process it all. “Incredible.”

Providential,” added Jacques. She nodded. “So, this is what set you on the path to being a, how you say, psychologist?

“More or less,” said Song. “I changed the course of my studies from music to psychology and signed on for another few years to get my Master’s Degree and open a practice. Of course, my family isn’t exactly wealthy, so I went through the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps to pay for my schooling, which left me with a Second Lieutenant’s Commission in the Reserves and,” she chuckled, “also set in motion the chain of events that would lead to me wearing this uniform. More strange happenstance, I suppose.”

“The Hand of Providence was at work, no doubt,” replied Jacques, “but how exactly do you mean in this case, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Song resumed cleaning her armor, this time working on the guards which covered not only her hooves but, now that he noticed, her pasterns and cannons as well. And with a rather heavy metal at that. I do not recall the other soldiers having guards that covered that much. The friar could only speculate as to the reasons for the difference but, as Song had begun speaking once more, he resolved to ask another time. “I opened a practice relatively close to the borders, in a region where our neighbors aren’t exactly the kindest.” She scrubbed at the guard with a vigor approaching harshness. “I spent most of my days helping war veterans, civilians, and refugees suffering from trauma. As time went on and my name became known to the REF, more and more difficult cases were sent to me because of my expertise.” The guard was now clean, as far as Jacques could tell, but, apparently, she still saw some imperfection in its surface, as the scrubbing did not slow. “Most of these new patients, a few other species but mostly ponies, had been trafficked.” She spared the briefest glance in his direction. “Slaves.”

Jacques felt the familiar chill of righteous outrage stiffen his back. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh,” she grimaced. “I… I did what I could to help them patch up their psyches and move on with their lives.” Her polishing halted, and she stared at the guard for a moment with the scrutiny of one seeking to root out the stain of imperfection before setting it down and picking up the next one. “Some fared better than others, but I think I helped them all to some extent.” She fell silent after that, and remained that way for some time as she continued her work. Jacques was loathe to upset her, and said nothing. As she cleaned the fourth hoof guard, her story resumed abruptly. “It was around that time that I met Argent. She knew my work and trusted me. The captain and her command were trying to crack down on a particularly vicious slave ring. All slavers are a particular kind of deplorable, but this lot was, as Argent put it, ‘especially wretched’.” Song smiled, but it was without warmth. “She’s always had a way with insults. Anyway, one pony that Argent rescued knew something about where the slavers would strike next, but she was too traumatized to speak to the soldiers because… well…” she swallowed, “anyway, I spoke her tongue and I didn’t look like a soldier so I talked to her and… and I…” she blinked several times, then turned to him with an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, Friar, but I may become quite angry if I talk about what I learned that day, and I think it would be best if I told you another time.”

Jacques held up a reassuring hand. “Pray, do not apologize!” he exclaimed. “The peddling of flesh is a damnable offense, and I do not wish to grieve you by asking after something that is not my business!”

Song gave him a sunny smile. “That’s most kind of you, Friar.” Finishing the last piece of her armor, she began repacking her bundle. “At any rate, that was when something woke up in me, the same as it did when I met that father years before.” Her smile remained, but there was steel in her blue eyes. “I realized that it wasn’t enough for me to just patch them up when they came to me. I needed to keep them from getting hurt in the first place. It wasn’t enough to be a healer. I needed to be a soldier.” She smirked. “Something that a Hospitaller can appreciate, I’m sure.”

The monk waggled a hand from side to side. “In truth, I was always a poor healer,” he admitted. The two shared a chuckle.

Putting aside her bundle, Song struck one hoof against the ground. “Well, there you have it, Friar. The tale of the singing psychologist soldier. A regular Renaissance Mare, if I do say so myself.”

The term ‘Renaissance Mare’ went clear over Jacques’ head, but that didn’t surprise him at this point. “Well, I must say that you’ve risen far in my estimation, Lieutenant Song,” he remarked earnestly. “Many times you have answered the call to love and compassion, so naturally that you do it without realizing. We should all be so lucky as that stallion on the bridge to have such a mare as you in our lives.”

She shrugged modestly. “I just listen, really. Ninety-percent of a patient’s recovery is about them realizing just how strong they can be in the midst of their weakness. I just provide the tools they need to find that strength.”

“An important ten percent,” he replied. “The greatest impediment to holiness is the belief that it is impossible. What nobler profession, then, than a physician who removes the blindness in another’s eyes?” Song nodded, but didn’t meet his gaze. Sensing that she was uncomfortable receiving such praise, he decided to change topics. “Well, thank you for telling me your story. I now feel that I have a better understanding of how cutie marks work. Though I am also curious about your martial tactics, as well as the formation of your military. Would it be alright if I asked about that?”

“Of course, Friar. We are allies and friends, after all.”

Friends, he repeated to himself, smiling. Indeed.

One of her ears twitched towards the homestead. “It sounds like the Apples are up. Why don’t we discuss broad military principles over breakfast, and then I can demonstrate our actual fighting techniques when Marble and Krucjata show up for combat practice?”

“I think that sounds like a marvelous idea, Lieutenant,” he answered, levering himself up with his walking stick and gesturing towards the house. “Ladies first.” His polite gesture was almost ruined when one of his legs threatened to buckle.

She raised an eyebrow. “Ordinarily I’d thank you graciously, but why don’t I walk beside you in case that happens again?”

He chuckled and did as he was bade. “I suppose that would be wise. Thank you.”

Dagger wasn’t sure what roused him from his pleasant dreams, but whatever sense urged him to wakefulness brought with it an instinctive discretion. The russet-coated pegasus did not stir as he lay in his cot, but kept his breathing even and unhurried, as though he were still asleep. He could tell by the slight light upon his eyelids that the only illumination in the dormitory was that of the solitary lamp that hung at the center of the room. Far more important, however, his ears detected other ponies nearby; far closer than they should have been. Beneath his folded wings, his inner feathers shuffled the blades hidden there, readying them for use should the need arise.

He maintained his breathing.

The other ponies had drawn closer now. An ordinary pony would likely not have been able to tell, but Dagger’s senses had expanded since coming to the Temple. Had they been ordinary ponies approaching, he would have been able to tell just from their breathing how many there were and where they stood, even their approximate builds. Of course, it wasn’t ordinary ponies who surrounded his bed, so that made matters trickier.

He maintained his breathing.

They were all around him, at least three for certain but probably five if history were any indication. Not a one of them said a word, but he knew they were there. The air shifted by his head, and he fought the urge to tense as a muzzle leaned uncomfortably close to his ear.

Still he maintained his breathing.

With a sigh, the muzzle whispered in his ear. “Come now, Meat. We all know you’re awake.”

Dagger exploded from the bed, his hoof striking the speaker square in the jaw and sending him crashing into the next bed over. His silver eyes took in the scene at a glance.

As expected, his usual tormenters had arrived in force. Two unicorns were at his back - a pure black mare named Silhouette and a pale blue and white stallion from the Far East named Sai. To his right was fellow pegasus Thorn, a dark green stallion with crimson mane, and to his left a cream and black earth pony stallion known ominously as Guillotine. Directly in front of him was Falx, a tall, handsome-faced unicorn with purple coat, brown mane, and a rapidly developing bruise on his face.

Falx’s glare was murderous, but his cohorts had frozen in momentary shock. Dagger exploited this advantage ruthlessly.

Rather than taking immediately to the air, as they doubtless expected him to do, he dove low and fast for the weakest link: Thorn. The pegasus could be a ferocious combatant when he had room to maneuver, but he couldn’t take a hit like the others could. So Dagger hit him first. Before the small pegasus could properly react, Dagger was upon him, snapping a sharp kick to his left wing. There was an audible crunch followed by a squeal of pain as the bones snapped. That squeal was cut short as Dagger drove a hoof into Thorn’s ribs, forcing him back onto his hindlegs, and then there was another crunch and squeal as the larger pegasus shattered Thorn’s right rear metatarsal bone.

Not pausing to examine his hoofwork, Dagger took to the air, launching off the crippled Thorn’s head and driving it groundward in a parting strike as he flew for the exit. Instinctively he swerved, and it was well that he did, for a flung sai hissed past his wing and embedded itself in the far wall. Twisting his neck, he saw the weapon’s namesake lining up for another attack. Unsheathing his wingblades, he deflected the second sai with ease. Just as he was about to congratulate himself, though, a heavy blow from behind knocked him from the air. Hitting the floor, he rolled to the side just in time to avoid a sword being shoved into the hardwood where his leg had been.

Silhouette stepped forward, yanking her arming sword from the floor and menacing him with it, her eyes cold. Smoke trailed from her body, and Dagger cursed, realizing that the room’s poor lighting had allowed her to shadowstep between him and the door without him noticing. “Now, now,” she chided, her tone bespeaking refinement. “Can’t have you running off without learning your lesson, can we, Meat?”

“Especially after what you did to poor Thorn,” rumbled Guillotine, whose Prench accent was almost lost in the guttural basso that seemed to fight its way out of his belly with great difficulty.

Thorn whimpered pitifully.

Falx trotted past the little green pegasus with a snort of contempt. “Serves him right for letting his guard down like that.”

Dagger knew he was in trouble. Before, his only chance had been escape. Now, his only chance was that he could split his attackers up. Make just Falx my enemy, and I might be able to take him. So, with a sneer, he said, “Sort of like when I clocked you, eh, pretty boy?”

The tall unicorn stopped. He blinked several times, as though having difficulty processing what Dagger had just said. Then he pulled out his hooked sword and remarked, “You know, Meat, until you said that, I was considering letting you keep your wings.”

Well, that backfired, thought Dagger.

Further thought was cut off by the jet-black smoke that leapt from Falx’s horn and eyes like flames, and Dagger sprung to his hooves and snapped his blades into a tight defensive posture. In a blur, Falx crossed the room, his shadowstep bringing him to Dagger’s side with inequine speed. The pegasus snapped his guard into position with not a second to spare as the sword crashed against his defenses. He shifted the weight of the block to one wing and attempted to fling one blade with the other, but Falx saw the attack coming and drew a short hook with his magic, catching the strike and turning it aside. Wielding both his weapons with his magic, the unicorn advanced mercilessly, using the heavy falx blade to hack away at Dagger’s defenses while the small hook alternated between shielding the unicorn and attempting to catch one of Dagger’s limbs.

The pegasus was forced back steadily. His wingblades had much shorter reach than Falx’s cleaver, and the confined space combined with the speed of his attacker meant that flying wasn’t an option. The hook kept the daggers he flung from striking, and every blade he threw meant one fewer to stand up to his foe’s relentless hacking.

Which was why he changed tactics. The next time Falx’s hook flew out to snatch his wing, Dagger caught it on one of his blades and wrenched it from the unicorn’s grip, sending it flying across the room to bounce off the unfortunate Thorn’s head and elicit a loud curse from the little pegasus. As Falx was briefly distracted by the audacity of the move, Dagger thrust for his side. Blade met flesh and only Falx’s quick use of shadowstep saved him from a crippling injury. His rapid dart took him around Dagger, and the pegasus could do little but brace himself as a sharp kick from behind sent him sprawling across the dormitory floor. He rolled with the impact and saw Falx striding towards him, eyes smoldering with black hate. “You impudent little—”

The unicorn was forced to bring up his blade to deflect the two daggers flung at his head. The move spared him death, but one blade still scoured a gash along his cheek. Dagger allowed himself a cocky grin as he sprung to his hooves, flexing his blades. “Sorry, Falx, did I cut you off?

Falx’s eye twitched. “You will bleed now,” he declared flatly. “Sil. Guil.”

Dagger’s eyes widened as he realized he’d overplayed his hand. He shifted to a defensive posture. Oh shi—

Guillotine might have been as tall as the average Solar Guard, and was considerable bulkier, but Dagger had to admit something. That fat bucker is fast. No sooner had the words left Falx’s lips than the earth pony moved, shadowstepping in a straight line for Dagger. His mastery of the Dark Art was not so impressive as to avoid splintering the furniture in his path, but that didn’t matter much to Dagger as the flat of Guillotine’s axe met the side of his head and sent him flying.

He didn’t fly far, as his torso met the pommel of Silhouette’s sword and he was smashed to the ground. To say that the wind was knocked out of him would have been an understatement. He gasped for air like a pony half drowned as he stared at the ceiling.

“Sai,” said Falx mildly.

Lying on his back as he was, Dagger had a magnificent view of Sai appearing above his head in a puff of smoke, hindlegs down. This is really gonna—

Hrraugh!” he retched as Sai drove his hooves into his stomach. He tried to strike at the unicorn with his blades, but the pain slowed him down and his attack was easily blocked.

Then Guillotine and Silhouette stomped their hooves onto his wings. He screamed in agony as they pinned him, but was powerless to do anything else. With slow contempt Falx crossed the distance to him, dabbing at the blood on his cheek with a kerchief. “You are a singularly troublesome stallion, you know that?” he asked. “How they let a magicless runt like you into the Temple is beyond me.”

Dagger coughed and tasted blood. “Well, we can’t all have our heads as perfectly up our flanks as you, Falx. Sorry to bring the standard down.”

Why did I say that?

His captors seemed equally befuddled. “Dagger,” said Guillotine, “you are really stupid, mon ami.”

Might as well hang for gold as for copper. “And you’re a fat sack of horseapples, Guil. Tell me something I don’t know.”

Falx took that challenge as being addressed to him. “How about the fact that I can remove your wings in such a way that you’ll feel each blood vessel be severed individually,” he offered.

Dagger swallowed, but forced a defiant grin on his lips all the same. “Well, technically I didn’t know that, but it also doesn’t surprise me, so we’ll call that one a grey area. Care to try again?”

“I have one,” offered a new voice. “How about you release my brother or I’ll air out your brain.” Falx froze as a pony wrapped in a flowing black mantle seemed to materialize from thin air behind him, a stiletto firmly pressed to his temple. “Seriously, Falx. I’m not screwing around here,” said the pony conversationally. “I’ll kill you and sleep well.”

Dagger let out a pained chuckle as Falx’s lackies stared in shock. “What took you so long, bro? You missed all the fun.”

“Shaddup, stupid,” replied his brother lovingly. “Well, Falx? What’s it going to be?”

Falx gritted his teeth. “This doesn’t concern you, Cloak.”

Cloak’s face was obscured beneath the hood, but Dagger could tell that his brother gave a long and disbelieving blink. “I- I kinda think it does concern me, Falx. What with him being my brother and all.”

“You tell him, bro!”

“Shaddup, stupid.”

“Weakness has no place amongst us!” hissed Falx. “Your pathetic brother cannot even shadowstep! What kind of a Blade would he make?”

In spite of himself, Dagger looked away in shame.

“The kind that was apparently whupping your flank until your entourage stepped in,” replied Cloak blithely. A whimper echoed from the other side of the room. “Oh, and he kicked the snot out of Thorn too. Now, my hoof is getting tired, Falx, so if you’re gonna make a decision…” He pressed the stiletto hard enough to draw blood.

“All right! All right!” hissed Falx. With a last, hate-filled glare at Dagger, he addressed his minions. “Let him go.”

Reluctantly, the other ponies released Dagger. He bit down his pain and forced himself to his hooves, grinning with a confidence he couldn’t feel. “Good workout, gents.” He looked at Sai and Guillotine. “And ladies. I’m not sexist.” Sai spat something back in his own tongue.

“Much better,” said Cloak, still not relaxing his hold on Falx. “Now, why don’t you idiots go and collect poor Thorn. The boss wants us all upstairs and I don’t think the little pissant can walk.”

“The First Blade has summoned us?” demanded Silhouette with reverence. “Why?”

“Didn’t you know?” exclaimed Cloak with mock astonishment. “Our cause has succeeded! We rule the world! All the nations are bowing at our hooves, and we’re gonna have a parade! How in Tartarus should I know? Just get out of my sight while I’m still in a good mood!” With little choice but to obey, Falx’s cronies collected their brutalized comrade and withdrew. Once they were gone, Cloak leaned in close to Falx’s ear. “Now, you should know, the only reason I’m not killing you is because I think Kuro Ken would be peeved at me. If you ever pull something like this again, I think I’ll just deliver you to Mistress Inkling’s tender mercies, eh?”

“You’re a fool, Cloak,” snarled Falx.

“And I got the drop on you, so what’s that make you?” With a shove he propelled the other unicorn towards the door. “Piss off.”

Now released, Falx glowered at Dagger, his eyes promising that this wouldn’t be their last encounter, whatever Cloak said. Dagger winked at him and blew a kiss. A guttural snarl rose in Falx’s throat, but he left without a word.

Once he was gone, Dagger sagged against his brother and let out a pained cough. “Cutting it a little close, aren’t we brother?”

“Sorry,” came the contrite response. “I didn’t catch wind of it until I realized Falx and his stooges weren’t amongst the other Initiates at the service. I figured your lazy flank was oversleeping and was on my way to investigate, but His Edginess waylaid me.”

Dagger chuckled, then hissed in pain. “Don’t make me laugh. I think my ribs are cracked.” He started limping towards the exit, his brother keeping slow pace beside him. “Any idea what His Edginess wants with us?”

“Not a clue,” replied Cloak, dabbing at the blood on his brother’s face with his mantle. “But one thing’s for sure.”

“What’s that?”

“Anywhere’s better than here.”

Author's Note:

Whoof. Okay. This chapter did not come out the way I expected hardly at all.

The opening went more or less as planned right up until it got to Song delving a little more into her history. Originally it was not quite that... serious. The slave trade thing was already there, sure, but not the rest. I think it's because my playlist lately has included Nickelback's Lullaby, Skillet's Would it Matter, Linkin Park... just Linkin Park (especially One More Light), Peter Hollen's tribute to Chester, and Emerson Drive's Moments. Why am I listening to all these? Well, it's a subject that's been on my mind lately. As someone who has grappled with depression and at one point was suicidal, I feel that it's my obligation to both draw attention to the importance of caring for our mental health and to reach out to help those who are going through the same dark journey that I've been on. I want to tell you something as someone who's been there and found the way out: If you or a loved one is depressed or suicidal, please reach out. You are worth saving! You are beautiful and unique and it would be a tragedy if your story ended before it's fully been told. Life is pain, yes, but it is so much more than that, and even in pain there can be beauty. Look at my pain - I use it to reach out to others with empathy and love! What could be more beautiful than loving others! Please, reach out! There are centers staffed by people who professionally take calls from strangers! That's right, strangers who want to talk to strangers because they don't need to know you to know you're worth saving! Can you honestly tell me that doesn't demonstrate your worth? If even a stranger can want to do a job like that for you, then surely you must mean more than you think! I'm placing here a link to the US Suicide Prevention Hotline and here a link to a list of international services. You are worth saving!

Edit: Friar Jacques and Morning Song present strategies for dealing with depression and emotional pain in this helpful PSA. To help offset the heavy subject matter, it is written with a bit of comedy in the style of Red vs Blue PSAs, but the advice within it is backed by some of the most successful therapists I know (and, in my work, I know plenty).

On a lighter note, the beatdown section.

...that sounded bad...

Anyway, that scene caught me totally off-guard. I was planning on introducing Cloak and Dagger, of course, but it was going to be a test in front of Kuro Ken and Kiln. Dagger would lack the ability to shadowstep, but on top of that Cloak would have been a lackluster fighter and both would have come across as weak, but scrappy. That is not what happened here. This entire scene, both of their flank-kicking moments, and every single one of the other Initiates were completely spur-of-the-moment writing yesterday. After several failed attempts to write this section, I pounded it out in its entirety yesterday and edited it today. So, if it's a little rough, that's why. But I'm pleased with how it came together.

The hardest part was naming Falx, quite honestly.

Shoutout this week is a two-parter: The Flower Mare and The Flower Mare: Unbroken by Flammenwerfer. Outstanding stories about a soldier dealing with depression, suicide, and the life that comes after. Both stories are somber, but there are moments of levity, and they end on an ultimately life-affirming and triumphant note. Depression isn't the end. Loss isn't the end. Life and Love are always before us. The tale of the Flower Mare captures that perfectly.

Happy reading!

Edit: Whoops! I forgot to note that 'The Minstrel Boy' is an actual song. It's Irish, not surprisingly, and required little tweaking to fit this story. It dates back to one of their many wars to overcome foreign enslavement.

Edit to the Edit: The use of the term 'enslavement' was deliberate. There was a lengthy period in history where it was more profitable to sell Irishmen than Africans; this was during the Triangle Trade. Their slavery was of a different variety than the enslavement of Africans, but still deplorable and unique in its own way (Cromwell-type leaders carried out deliberate purges, for one). Check out the books Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson or The Invention of the White Race by Theodore Allen for context. This is not to say that I have any hostility towards the English. All cultures and peoples have evil things in their history; all have heroes and virtues as well (the slave trade was ended by Englishmen before any others - check out William Wilberforce and his compatriots). I strive to be brutally honest as a historian, but one reader helpfully pointed out to me that, out of context, this could sound strident how I worded it. It was not my intent to conflate two different circumstances which, while bearing some similarities, are unique. Thank you, Dozy Dreamer, for holding me to my words and messaging me for clarification respectfully.

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