• Published 13th Sep 2018
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Alternate Beginnings: Year Six - Doug Graves

Herd Apple continues to grow, both out and up, as Doug meets a few more colorful characters.

  • ...

1 The Sword King's Passion

January 4th, 998 Domina Solaria

Most nights, the train station in Ponyville is deserted. Just a simple wooden platform, one story building with a thatched roof, windows on each side. Barely enough space inside to hold the cargo that occasionally needs to be loaded on a night run. The attendant supposedly on duty may or may not even be visible, the likelihood increasing if a pony has actually purchased a ticket for the red-eye to Canterlot. Some days the train barely even slows down, just enough for the engineer to verify that there are no passengers or cargo waiting to be picked up, the train merrily speeding along on its way, a quick whistle to say hello and goodbye in the same breath.

Tonight, however, is a different story. Not because a lot of ponies will be taking the train, which has only a single passenger car for the night run. In fact, not a single pony will be boarding the train at this time, despite the twelve individuals congregating around the dark building. Instead, it is Doug Apple who will be riding the train tonight: the human stallion of Herd Apple, one ticket resting in his coat pocket, and currently lounging on one of the pony-style seats. One hand is on his stomach, full from having just left the Apple farmhouse after their customary weekly meal with the entire herd. The other finds itself wrapping around his lead mare, Applejack, the heavily pregnant earth pony content to lay next to him, the two watching the rest of the herd at play as his fingers idly twist the soft hair of her large belly.

Off to the side is his second mare, Rarity, shuffling through the contents of his suitcase; well, not his, the suitcase actually the least gaudy of Rarity's that would hold enough of his winter gear for the week long trip. Occasionally she glances back at him, a furtive look that implies he is packing far too little for a week long excursion into the wilderness of western Equestria. Doug winks at the unicorn, the mare rolling her eyes before going back to his luggage. Her frown widens as she unpacks the suitcase again, trying to find a way to jam more 'essentials' inside.

Rainbow Dash flies over to the pair, her filly Scootaloo following close behind and wondering why her dam left the game. Doug's third mare gives Applejack a jealous glance as she lands next to him, roughly shoving her head between his arm and body and looking up at him, a sorrowful look in her eyes. He smiles, his hand forced off his belly and finding its way to Rainbow's mane, the pegasus cooing, her face breaking into a smile as she rubs her head into his stomach.

Scootaloo rolls her eyes at her dam's display, turning to join her sisters as they scamper around the train station. Apple Bloom, Applejack's first, and Sweetie Belle, Rarity's filly, are both chasing a blue ball around while Lemon, Pinkie Pie's filly, merrily chases after them, doing her best to keep up with her older sisters. Fluttershy is playing goalie, trying to keep the ball away from the two posts holding up the roof. The yellow pegasus, fourth mare in the herd, is none too happy about Rainbow Dash tagging her into the game, but dutifully tries to block one of the balls as it slowly rolls towards her; she lets out a small 'eep!' as the ball bounces off her hooves, Scootaloo dashing in to kick the ball into the other post.

The ball ricochets off the post, bouncing over towards the last two fillies in the herd: Applebaum, Applejack's second, and Hedge, Fluttershy's filly. They are sitting on the raised part of the platform and looking down at a memorization card game, oblivious to the incoming threat. Pinkie Pie, fifth and final mare in the herd, grunts from her spot near the card game; she quickly leans over Hedge, a hoof stretching out, saving the filly from the cruel fate of having the light ball knock into her. Pinkie Pie hits the ball back to the trio before groaning, her pregnant belly making the movement quite uncomfortable. She stretches as she leans over them, the fillies below returning to the card game as if nothing had happened.

The train whistles, Doug glancing up from his mares. The Ponyville train station is otherwise deserted, not many ponies taking the red-eye train to Canterlot. Mostly just cargo cars, taking who-knows-what from Dodge City to Canterlot and points beyond. The only movement besides his herd being one of the train engineers, a spry earth pony dashing back and forth, quickly checking off his checklist as water flows into one of the train's water tanks. A quick pat and Applejack sighs, slowly getting up from her reclined position. Doug tries to grab his suitcase from Rarity; the unicorn resists, a playful, "Noo! I need to fit this in!", holding his atlas in her magic, having managed to fit just about everything else inside.

Doug smiles, "I'll just carry it on board, love." He reaches his hand forward, Rarity briefly flinching before moving her head into his hand.

"Do watch the mane, darling," she says, his light pat to her satisfaction. The rest of the herd follows shortly after, Doug saying goodbye to each pony in turn. He gives a quick pat on the head to each filly before picking them up, Scootaloo finding her way on top of his head as he nuzzles the rest of the fillies. The mares follow next, getting up on their hind legs to embrace him, long ear scratches and longer kisses as they break apart.

Doug waves to his herd, Scootaloo leaping off his head, the filly's small wings barely able to forestall the inevitability of gravity. He walks inside the single passenger car, dragging his suitcase behind him. There are two earth ponies dozing on the back seats, the train otherwise empty. Doug moves to the front; it would be louder, being the closest seat to the engine, but he merely pops out his set of earplugs. He glances outside, waving at his herd from the window as he considers; Canterlot is to the northeast, so the sun will be on the left side of the train, but once they leave for Vanhoover he would want to be on the right, at least for the first few hours of the ten hour train ride. Well, since there isn't another stop in between Ponyville and Canterlot he can just swap seats. Not like anypony is likely to sit next to him anyway; sadly, even if the rest of the train was full they'd still avoid him.

Doug puts his atlas to the side and manages to extricate the travel guide to the northwest part of Equestria he had purchased for this trip, contorting his body to fit the pony style seats and still have the sun's dying light illuminate the pages. He has done almost nothing with the area before. The yaks further north are isolationist, barely interacting with ponies on the best of days. Vanhoover, the only major city on the northern west coast, had never really seen the need before now. Maybe they had a pony retire or transfer, and couldn't find a replacement in time. Cloudsdale is the only other factor that occasionally gets near, but he rarely does anything with the pegasus capital but try to avoid messing with their weather when they drift through an area. Right now, the cloud city is now on a slow southwestern route from the northern center of Equestria. They do all of their own weather scheduling; the constantly changing conditions require more specialization than the rest of the country, and it would be a little too much work for him to try to keep abreast of everything they go through. Plus, they tend to snatch up anypony with a cutie mark that relates to weather scheduling, leaving the rest of the country to struggle with ponies that aren't as interested or talented. Actually, that's probably most of the reason he has picked up so many of the towns and cities in the first place.

Vanhoover, however, now wants his services, or at least the services of his 'Cold Digger' persona. His unfamiliarity with the area helped convince Doug to take a week off of his duties around the farm, not that there are many this deep in winter. Instead, he'll get a small stipend to scout the terrain surrounding the western city, get a better feel for how his scheduling will impact everything, and interview a number of the farmers on their needs. At least there isn't much else going on around the nation weather-wise, just managing snowstorms to keep the ground covered with snow but not buried.

Rainbow begrudgingly agreed to handle any weather emergencies that arose, as one of the two of them has to stay on duty and accessible; otherwise the pegasus would have been more than happy to come along. Applejack and Pinkie Pie are too pregnant to even consider joining him. Rarity scoffed at the idea, though she might have come if he insisted. Fluttershy was somewhat interested in hiking around the wilderness, but not enough to come along, though she had at least seriously considered the idea. He sighs as the train enters the underbelly of Canterlot Mountain, a few of the lights in the passenger car turning on; looks like he'll be alone for the week.

Soon enough, the train pulls to a stop, the other two ponies glancing up but not getting out. Doug slides his suitcase to the other side of the train, swapping seats as the doors open, a large white unicorn stallion entering the train. He has a gold and blue compass cutie mark, long blond mane currently tied back in a tight ponytail, a long, thin bag that juts out past his flank strapped to one side and a larger suitcase encased in a golden aura dragged behind. The unicorn stops just inside the entry way, slowly scanning around the train car. The doors shut behind him, a loud 'clang' against the otherwise silent night. The unicorn glances back to the two earth ponies, both of whom give a slight nod, and moves up to the seat behind and across from Doug.

The human glances back at the unicorn as he walks up, a second take as Doug notices the harsh focus, the furrowed brows, and the way his slow, heavy hoofsteps speak to a grim acceptance of things to come. Doug shifts in his seat, angling his body to keep watch while holding up his travel guide. He focuses on his itinerary, occasionally glancing at the unicorn staring at him; traveling by himself, he has left a lot up in the air. After all, he would just be walking around the forest and mountains, following the contours of a terrain map the Vanhoover weather team helpfully sent him. He would be looking at the farmland, the rivers, getting a feel for the lay of the land that can be difficult to glean from a topography map or a list of requests.

The whistle sounds, an ear piercing screech unnecessary at this time of night. The train lurches forward; probably one of the junior conductors who drew the short straw for assignments, as there is barely anything to do in Vanhoover besides sleep and wait for the return trip. The lights from the less glamorous Lower Canterlot station disappear, replaced by the regular flare of one light that zooms past, disappearing into the abyss as another takes its place. The deep rumble of the engine almost muffles the 'schwing' from in front of Doug.

He looks up, his eyes widening as he sees a gold hilted rapier wielded in a golden aura, the stallion in front of him continuing to stare directly at him. A thin smile replaces the unicorn's hard expression, "You don't mind if I practice, do you?" Doug pops his earplugs out as he slowly shakes his head no, cautiously watching the polished metal, the moonlight glinting off the window and rapier as the train leaves the mountain. The unicorn continues, "Now, most ponies aren't afraid of a blade wielded by a unicorn. Why would a working," he pauses as he takes a long look up and down Doug's body, his face curling to a sneer, "Creature like yourself be different?" The unicorn cocks his head to the side a little, the rapier slowly dancing back and forth, Doug's eyes following the sharp tip. "Run afoul of the law? Forced to go by a sobriquet, mister Cold Digger? If that is, in fact, your real name?"

"It isn't, if you must know." Doug looks back at the unicorn, the pony's eyes never wavering. "Is there something you would like?" He can feel his hands shaking as he holds the book, the dryness in his mouth prompting him to glance down at his bag and one of the water bottles within.

The unicorn smirks, "There is, but first. You look like you could use a lesson." A second rapier levitates out of the unicorn's bag, polished nearly as bright as its sister, though the handle is a deep cobalt blue. "You don't have to worry about hurting me; this one is blunted." The unicorn jabs himself in the foreleg, the metal tip depressing the heavily muscled limb. "You see, a unicorn duelist's control must be perfect." The blue hilt levitates over to Doug, the human cautiously taking the grip in his hand. He glances down, inspecting the oddly shaped cross-guard; the whole section is made to be gripped by a hoof, the guard curving around where a foreleg would have been. He reaches with his other hand, testing the tip and then the play in the blade, swishing it back and forth, the length of the sword blunted as well.

"So, you practice a lot?" Doug asks as he stands, the hand with the blade leading as he steps into the middle of the train car. The unicorn smiles and nods, his horn flaring as the chairs slide one by one to the side, stacking on top of each other and forming an impromptu ring on the walls of the train. "Also, I don't think we've been introduced. My name is Doug Apple, but you probably know that." He slowly advances, holding the rapier ahead of him.

"Oh, held a weapon before, have you?" The unicorn nods, ignoring Doug's question, "But your stance is incorrect; a rapier is a thrusting weapon, the blade high enough quality to barely need more than a light touch to end a fight. It is not some stone tipped spear with which you are trying to penetrate the hide of a manticore." The unicorn's smirk returns, "But, a question first, Mister Apple. What makes you think that you are worthy of Mi Amore, when I myself was cruelly denied, the opportunity callously yanked from my hooves?"

Doug stops, going flatfooted as he utters a surprised, "What?" His eyes barely notice the movement coming from his side; he startles, his rapier coming up to block the unicorn's telegraphed strike towards his shoulder. He grips his rapier, grunting as the golden hilt pushes against his own. His feet adjust, his left foot pushing hard while his arm lifts away, the gold rapier gliding back to the unicorn's side.

The unicorn smiles, "Well, you keep your wits about you, and your strength isn't bad. Passable, I suppose. But you haven't answered my question."

"Because you don't have your facts straight," Doug retorts, dashing forward and lunging at the stallion. Faster than he can blink the gold rapier parries his blade to the side, a rap against his forearm causing him to yelp and drop the blue rapier. The human clutches his forearm to his chest, his hand not responding to commands as pain shoots through his arm. He glances up, his eyes widening as the gold rapier levitates back, the point still aiming at him as it slowly withdraws.

"Oh, don't be foalish, if I wanted you dead you would never have seen the blade coming." The unicorn motions to the blue rapier, "But your initiative did surprise me. Pick up your weapon and resume your position against myself, Prince Blueblood." The unicorn gives a short bow, his rapier mirroring the motion as he looks again at Doug.

Doug winces as his right hand tries to grip the rapier, ending up swapping to his left hand. It feels awkward as he slowly moves back into position, his legs swapping their stance, muttering to himself, "It's a good thing I am not right handed." He smirks before he pauses, holding up his right hand, the limb slowly coming back under his control. "Wait. I've heard..." He taps his forehead with his knuckles a few times, looking up at the ceiling, "I haven't heard of many princes in Equestria. You are the stallion Princess Cadance was with before?"

Rage flashes across Blueblood's face, the aura around his horn flaring, "I should cut out your tongue for that remark, cur!" He stamps a hoof, his eyebrows narrowing, "Where did you hear such slander?"

Doug hastily backs up as the gold rapier advances, his own rapier pointing down, rapidly speaking, "Um, it was either Princess Celestia or Princess Cadance, I don't remember. But they just said a prince, they didn't say a name, and-"

The unicorn stops, directing a glare to the other two ponies in the room. They stop spectating the fight, turning to the windows and pointedly staring at the dark landscape outside. The gold rapier levitates to Prince Blueblood's side, the unicorn walking closer to Doug and saying, "Well, then I would appreciate you to never insinuate that it was I who failed to woo the Princess of Love." He glances back towards Canterlot, the mountain mostly hidden from view by the roof of the train, giving a long sigh, quietly confessing, "Even if I was her first."

Doug responds in a low voice, "I can do that." The human looks out the window at the moon, a little louder, "I'm still curious why you thought I was trying to pursue Cadance, though."

"Princess Cadance, brat." Doug rolls his eyes, Prince Blueblood not noticing as he gazes back towards Canterlot. "She was overheard talking joyously about the Apple farmhouse, and the opportunity 'they' might discover there. Word eventually came to me, and, as you are the sire of that particular herd, the intent was obvious."

Doug relaxes, taking a seat at one of the benches towards the front of the car, idly playing with the blade as feeling comes back into his hands. The two catch a glimpse of Canterlot as the train bends around some of the rolling hills; he asks, "When did you hear of this?"

Prince walks to the window, continuing to watch the brightly lit castle fade from sight. "About a year ago. I did a bit of digging, found out who she was referring to." He sighs, "I had to find out who this pony was, who caught the attention of Princess Cadance, who thought himself worthy of courting the Joyful Princess when I myself was unable. For Princess Cadance is not some sky glider, to be used and discarded, and neither is she supposed to be entangled in the web of lies that plague the nobility. As a Princess, she is supposed to be above all of that, but I also couldn't believe she would be drawn to some common pony from Ponyville, of all places. When I found out it wasn't even a pony who had caught her eye, well, at first I thought it was a joke. Then, when I learned that it was serious, I had to meet you for myself to be sure. I set up the Vanhoover deal in order to get to you and find out who you are." He glances over at Doug, "And I find myself sorely disappointed."

"Well, so, your information is partially correct, but reversed." Prince Blueblood raises an eyebrow as Doug continues, "Princess Cadance applied to join Herd Apple about four years ago. Her application was denied at the time."

"Your herd..." Prince Blueblood stammers, short shakes of his head, "Denied the Princess?" He looks at Doug, bewildered, "For what reason?"

Doug shrugs, "Well, it was mostly my decision. You see-"

Prince Blueblood stands, his horn lighting and his rapier sliding away from his side. He twirls, a glare at Doug as he nearly shouts, "This is the second time I should cut you down for an insult like that; I will not give you a third warning, for there are penalties when you insult the Princesses like that. What possible reason could there be?"

"Because I thought that she deserved better than me." Doug sighs, continuing to look out towards Canterlot, oblivious to the fuming stallion behind him.

Prince Blueblood stops, the rapier slowly withdrawing to his side as his aura fades. He murmurs, "You thought..." He stares at Doug for several seconds before he shakes his head, "I appear to have misjudged you entirely and unfairly, Doug Apple. What do you say we start over?"

Doug nods, a smile on his face, "Sure thing." Prince Blueblood turns, walking a few paces away before turning around and walking back. Doug says in his best Spanish accent, "Hallo. My name is Doug Apple." He mumbles to himself, waving his rapier back and forth, a smirk on his face, 'you killed my father. Prepare, to die'.

The unicorn smiles, "Bonsoire; I am Prince Blueblood." He glances down at the blue rapier, "I didn't quite catch that last part, as I'm not sure I knew your father."

Doug shrugs, "Sorry, it's a... cultural reference, from The Princess Bride, a movie from where I came from. One of my favorites."

Prince Blueblood takes a seat next to Doug, grinning, "Oh? And what evoked that particular memory?"

Doug motions to the rapiers, "So, in the movie, there are two duelists, the characters using rapiers. Probably just that. It was... I suppose, it still is, one of my favorite movies."

"What makes that movie so special, then?" Prince Blueblood watches Canterlot disappear from sight, glancing back at the human. "Most movies here are, well, common fare for the masses. Brief romance, a cheap plot, in both senses of the word."

"Well, it has all the best parts of a story. You know, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles." Doug gives a long sigh, "It even prominently features a prince. And a princess; well, actually, the woman, or mare, the prince desires to marry."

Prince Blueblood winks at Doug, "Well, I don't know about true love, but I do know a little something about fencing. And probably more on the rest than I care to say here. After all, I hated the studies Princess Celestia put me through. I was always gallivanting off, you see, reading about the epic fights from a thousand years ago, trying to get into whatever trouble I could in order to reenact the hero. Oh, and getting a hooficure afterwards, so nopony was the wiser." He shakes his head, "But, that is a story for another time. How well do you remember the fight scenes?"

Doug shrugs, "Well, it was mostly choreographed fights between actors who barely had a passing knowledge of sword fighting, yet trying to put on an exciting show. Much like me, I guess."

"Well then, Doug Apple, how do you fancy a lesson in sword fighting?"