• Published 8th Oct 2012
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Blueblood: Hero of Equestria - Raleigh



Like all heroes, Blueblood will always do the right thing... after he has exhausted every other option.

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Honour and Blood (Part 7)

Part Seven

In plotting the route to the stream, any sensible pony would have consulted the map carefully, interpreted and understood the mass of lines that denoted the network of valleys between the hills and rough terrain, and then used that information in conjunction with whatever training they had received in orienteering to select the easiest and most efficient path to their destination. Sensible ponies, however, are in a minority in the Royal Guard, as ponies with even the slightest modicum of sense would never have joined or allowed themselves to be forced into a situation where joining was the only option to avoid the wrath of a magistrate (or a certain distant relative in my case) in the first place. Captain Blitzkrieg and Acting Flight Sergeant Rainbow Dash, both pegasi, had elected to take the most direct route over the craggy terrain with its many cliffs, slopes, valleys, pits, and inclines. The main flaw with this idea should be obvious to those paying attention; their wings were bound and they were therefore rendered incapable of flight, thus their only method of getting to their destination was on hoof. I allowed them to carry on with this frankly insane plan, knowing that dragging themselves there as the crow flies would only wear out the two pegasi faster and to a greater extent than the earth pony soldiers I had brought, the trainee commissar that followed me, and, I hoped, myself.

If getting to the starting position was arduous and difficult in the first place, moving on from it was even more so, at least for Blitzkrieg and Rainbow Dash. The first obstacle we encountered was the hill immediately in front of our starting position, with a slope at some offensively steep angle and with a surface that, like every other damned geological formation of interest here, looked as though Faust had gotten bored of shaping mountains out of primordial clay and instead just smashed the ground repeatedly with a massive hammer and took the rest of the afternoon off. With that infamous prideful unwillingness on their part to admit that they had just made a stupid mistake that seemed characteristic of pegasi, they bravely dragged and crawled themselves hoof by hoof over boulders and through ditches and crevasses. Such unwillingness to deviate from their pre-arranged plan would do them well in the Royal Guard, particularly if either of them had aspirations to becoming a general at some point in their military careers.

Though watching the two prisoners struggle to climb up that hill was amusing for all but a few moments, I rapidly grew bored of watching them fumble awkwardly and alternately berate one another for tripping or slowing down with all of the grace and wit of two drunkards trying to navigate their way to the nearest mode of public transport to take them home. Nevertheless, for me it was something of a day out; a rather morbid excursion that still carried the risk of ambush from Changelings bold enough to try and break Field Marshal Iron Hoof's so-called 'ring of steel' [Though this term became common shorthand for journalists and military historians describing Iron Hoof's shift in strategy from conquest to containment, the only recorded mention of Iron Hoof actually using it was in a complaint to an aide was that it was both inaccurate and evidence that news media should remain as far away from military affairs as possible], but reminded me of more pleasant memories of my foalhood in the sultry heat and humidity of Coltcutta, walking with one of my various nannies, governesses, or one of the native maids around the grounds of the various palaces we lived in at the time. A small army of Coltcuttan servants carrying fans, exotic snacks, and otherwise willing to attend upon my every need would certainly not have been remiss in the Badlands, but I feared that even in an age when officers were perfectly happy to carry swords studded with enough gems to put a Sapphire Shores concert to shame into battle, such an extravagance might be considered a little too extreme even by the standards of the day.

The slow progress, however, provided me with sufficient time to speak further with Trainee Commissar Gliding Moth, who had taken up position as our small column's rearguard. Her angular features bore a more contemplative look, as opposed to the more usual caricature of Princess Luna trying and failing to understand how the modern system of taxation works that they normally held. In truth, I was not in the mood for conversation, and least of all with a brainwashed pony whose mind had been scooped out with a spoon and replaced with propaganda, but I knew that soon the silence would become interminable and, worst of all, would allow her time to consider how much of a disappointment I have been to her unfeasibly high expectations.

I hung back from the punishment detail to come to Gliding's side. "What of yours?" I said.

"Sir?" she said, looking up at me and blinking gormlessly.

"Your background, I mean."

"Oh." She looked away, ahead of us as we came to negotiating our way around a particularly large outcropping of rock that resembled a cluster of pimples on the unharmed portion of Red Coat's face. "It's hardly worth mentioning, sir. You wouldn't be interested."

I arched an eyebrow and shook my head. Her tone indicated that she seriously believed that, rather than using that cliché to try and shut me up and leave her alone, or perhaps it was a mixture of both. The response, however, had only served to pique my interest. Perhaps finding out the sort of pony she was before the black uniform and winged skull emblem had masked whatever personality she might have otherwise possessed, as indeed they had done with me albeit for very different reasons, would go some way in keeping her and any guardsponies she might soon be responsible for soon alive. "Humour me. As you said, I didn't attend the same military academy as you and the other trainee commissars. I think it's only fair that you let me know what I missed."

"Like you, I didn't exactly choose to be a commissar."

"Let me guess, Princess Luna?" I remarked dryly, and chuckled to myself at the private joke at my own expense. I wondered if the one thousand years of isolation on the moon had meant that my auntie simply didn't understand the concept that ponies had free will, or perhaps one thousand years ago such things didn't really matter.

"Yes," she said flatly. "Either I take Luna's offer to make something of my life, or return to the orphanage until I reach eighteen. And then what? Out on the streets or into the poorhouse. It was hardly a real choice.”

We had stopped briefly to allow our two prisoners time to negotiate their way onto a ledge roughly twice the height of the average pony. Rainbow Dash and Captain Blitzkrieg, however, being pegasi were both a little shorter than average, and thus had more than a little bit of difficulty in attempting to climb over it. There might have been a way to get around it, however, I will never know now, as the two of them seemed utterly intent to the point of single-minded obstinacy to surmount this devious obstacle in their path, as though to walk left or right to find smoother ground or simply circumvent this hill entirely was to admit an embarrassing failure. And so it was that Rainbow Dash clambered awkwardly onto Blitzkrieg's back, who was suffering under the weight of even the thin mare, and jumped multiple times in an attempt to grip her hooves around the top of the ledge. Faust almighty, these pegasi make Neighponese samurai with their ridiculous code of honour that tends to get the overwhelming majority of them killed for pointless reasons appear reasoned and humble.

"You are an orphan?" I said, taking advantage of this natural break in our thus far pleasant morning trek. My words were blunt, but like Luna, I suppose, Gliding Moth seemed to be a mare who appreciated such directness over weak and clumsy attempts to spare her feelings.

"Yes, as was everypony else who accepted the Princess's offer." She nodded her head quietly, and looked up at me with a thoughtful expression. "Like you, so I've heard."

"After a fashion," I said. "Father disappeared on an expedition to darkest Zebrica, and Mother found it rather... rather difficult to cope without him. So, I was taken into the care of Princess Celestia instead."

I had never considered myself an orphan when I was a foal. The fact that Mama was still alive, if one could consider life inside Bitlem Royal Hospital [An infamous mental asylum in Canterlot. Blueblood's wealth, however, afforded his mother a life that was more comfortable than the majority of patients there] a life at all, and that Papa's death had yet to be confirmed by the discovery and identification of his body tends to invalidate that particular appellation. Besides, that I spent far more personal time and developed closer familial bonds with potted plants and pieces of wooden furniture than I did with either of my two parents combined meant that for all intents and purposes I might as well have been a damned orphan. Some common ground between us, however contrived it might have been, would help resolve the tensions between me and this self-appointed protégée of mine and, more importantly, hopefully stop her digging further into my sordid past and equally morally-bankrupt present.

Gliding Moth snorted, which sounded more like a suppressed half-chuckle, and the ends of her lips tugged up in one of her rare but not unwelcome smiles. "After a fashion," she repeated. "When I was little I used to dream that Princess Celestia would come and adopt me from the orphanage. Instead, her sister talks me into signing my life away for the Commissariat."

"Do I detect a hint of regret?" I asked, lowering my voice slightly. Fortunately, our prisoners were still distracted by the thus-far insurmountable ledge and the two guards were having an inordinate amount of fun watching them. Cannon Fodder, on the other hoof, had deduced that this would take some time and had settled against a rock with one of his gentlecolt's special interest magazines, of which he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply stashed about the pockets and recesses of his armour which no pony would dare touch without wearing a hazmat suit.

She shook her head, though that slight smile did not leave her lips. It was a shame; for a brief moment I thought I had a kindred spirit, somepony who too felt the crushing weight of responsibility and expectations that came with a title that, for once, I did not want. "Just irony," she said. "Like you said about yourself, I'm not going to disappoint Princess Luna."

There was something about the lowest dregs of Equestrian society that seemed to attract Princess Luna. The ponies that she had selected for her Night Guards, myself excepted, were in varying measures shamed, ignored, downtrodden, poor, disgraced, and so on. They were ponies that ponies such as me and my ilk, the rarefied upper strata of our country who move in the highest echelons of power, wealth, and glory, who are supposed to exemplify the highest standards of the Harmony that shapes our proud nation, simply liked to pretend did not exist. On occasions where we are forced to see this benighted underclass crushed under the weighty foundations of the very authority that made me the pony I am, it was with either condescending pity in the case of the more charitably acceptable and fashionable cases, like our loveable orphan the sombre Commissar Gliding Moth, or in the case of the vicious criminal and father to his stallions Captain Blitzkrieg, outright scorn that we treated them, if we deigned to treat with them at all. Perhaps, in her return from her exile upon the moon she saw herself in the ignored and the oppressed, and had wanted to provide for them the second chance that she so craved. Granted, this was a second chance that entailed a certain level of risk of a brutal and very messy death, but it seems for that particular subset of ponies it was a risk worth taking. The Princess of the Night seemed to engender a peculiar and toxic mentality in these ponies; they had been blessed with an opportunity to make something of themselves, they were naive enough to believe that the Princess truly wished for them to succeed, and they would therefore do anything to please her, even if it meant death.

I, on the other hoof, have never needed to prove myself; my birthright as a prince of the realm had already done that for me. Yet, in becoming a commissar I have done nothing but try and live up to the impossibly high standards set for me. Though perhaps our motivations were different, they to win Princess Luna's rarely-granted approval and mine to maintain the image of bravery that ponies had through no fault of mine built up just to survive long enough for me to enjoy a peaceful retirement with a sizeable harem of willing and nubile courtesans, I was not so different from them either.

The desperately slow rate of our advance over and through these mountains gave me much time to ruminate on this, just like those endless sleepless nights spent staring at a barren stone ceiling and contemplating what grievous sin I must have committed in a previous life to deserve all of this. Gliding Moth and I filled what would have been an awkward silence between us with idle small talk, the subject of which was so banal that I cannot accurately remember what we discussed, but it felt as though that we indulged merely out of social expectation. It was pleasant, however, and I realised that it was far too long since I had a conversation with another pony about topics entirely unrelated to the Royal Guard and the war, however mundane they might have been.

After a while, when the sun was just starting to reach the optimal position in the sky to ravage this land with its full fury, the conversation had wandered into the subject of Gliding Moth's cutie mark. The commissar's uniform at the time did not conceal the cutie mark, affording us the luxury of displaying the most fundamental expression of a pony's personality that was denied to the rank and file of the Royal Guard. [[i]During the reform period to come, it was decided by the Commissariat that commissars should wear trousers as part of their uniform. Prince Blueblood stubbornly refused to adopt this, and it was only his reputation that kept him from being reprimanded.] Adorning the mare's flanks was the image of a grey-brown moth, with a pair of wings intricately decorated with grim, austere, yet beautiful patterns and colours. A stylised eye adorned each wing, likely some quirk of evolution to fool gullible predators into thinking it was a bigger and more fierce creature than its desperately fragile form actually is. Despite its size and prominence, unlike most cutie marks which stand out proudly from a pony's rear, it seemed to blend in with the mottled grey and white fur it adorned, as though camouflaged. A sordid joke about her backside staring at me came to mind, but I resisted the urge to give voice to it.

"I like moths," she said flatly, as though that statement should have been obvious. In a way, I suppose it was, but cutie marks were supposed to be more symbolic than anything else. I don't like orienteering as a hobby, I just happen to be preternaturally good at it. Vast reams of discourse have been written speculating on the meanings behind the curious designs that appear on ponies' flanks, but I suppose in some cases it's ultimately very straightforward.

"I didn't think you'd be the type to be an aurelian," I said. She gave me an odd look, forcing me to clarify the somewhat archaic yet romantic term that I had used: "A lepidopterist, I mean."

"Oh, I don't collect them," she said. "It's a bit cruel to pin them up against cork boards like that for display. But they are very pretty in a way. Everypony likes butterflies, but moths have a beauty that goes beyond the bright colours and patterns. They only come out at night, yet they have a fascination with flame, even if it ultimately burns them."

"Yes, I've always wondered why they do that," I said. "If they crave the light so much, why do they not fly during the day?"

She shook her head. "Something to do with their navigating by the light of the moon, but candlelight confuses them. Still, I like the poetic symbolism behind seeking something that will ultimately burn you to ash were you to actually find it."

I wasn't quite certain how to respond to that statement, wondering if that was a reflection of her personality and her inevitable fate. She certainly seemed driven enough to pursue her goals, whatever they may be, at the expense of her own safety, which meant she would fit right in with the rest of Princess Luna's own cadre of imbeciles. I'd rather a pony with the sense to know when something just isn't worth the effort than somepony willing to defy all of the logic and reason in the universe just to get it. "You just like moths," I said, hoping to leave the sudden unpleasant shift in our discussion at that.

The silence lasted for a few moments. I say 'silence', I meant relative silence, for Blitzkrieg loudly complained that he felt like he had a hangover, which was likely dehydration starting to set in, and Rainbow Dash berated him to get a move on. The arrival of a squadron of vultures circling almost directly above us had gone some way in restoring their motivation, though I suspected that the carrion birds had simply learned over the past few years to associate any movement of a number of ponies with a battle and therefore abundant food, and were thus simply hopeful that we'd butcher some hapless Changelings to serve as their lunch. I felt we were getting close to the stream, due to my special talent for always being able to navigate my way to whatever my destination, or whatever it thought I wanted to go.

"Sir?" said Gliding Moth.

"Yes?"

"I have heard rumours about Lieutenant Scarlet Letter's recent conduct," she said, though her halting speech implied she was doing her best to pick her words carefully. I, however, was not so considerate.

"You mean you've found out he's a utterly incompetent blackguard, and is to commanding ponies-at-arms what Germane food is to fine dining?"

Gliding Moth's eyes widened, her mouth dropped open slightly, and a slight flush came to her pale, mottled cheeks. She composed herself rapidly, stifling what sounded suspiciously like a giggle, though I feared I might have overstepped my bounds in offending the sensibilities of a lady. "That's one way of putting it."

"Forgive me," I said. "When one spends as much time with soldiers as I have, the lines between what is and is not acceptable for conversation becomes somewhat blurred." Granted, what I had said was unlikely to have been said by any of the rank-and-file, aside perhaps for that rare sort of educated pony who for one reason or another found it necessary to join the Royal Guard, but as I would find in later life, that justification certainly does well in ameliorating any offense caused on the rare occasion that tact fails me. Which, I might add, became increasingly prevalent as I grew older and more jaded with the high society scene of Canterlot to which I had once devoted my life to.

"A soldier should be blunt in speech, but his spear sharp," she said thoughtfully, probably just to spare my feelings if I happened to be feeling anything other than quiet disappointment with the direction my life was taking. "But you're saying those rumours are true?"

"That depends," I said, "on what rumours you've heard. It pays to listen to what the troops say in the mess or gathered around campfire, but you shouldn't always believe everything you hear; they have a universal tendency towards exaggeration, particularly in large groups."

She nodded again. The morning air had grown unbearably hot and stifling as is customary, and out here atop this small plateau surrounded on all sides by deep gullies, in which one lay the very stream we were looking for, there was no shade from the onslaught of Celestia's sizzling golden orb. Yet this was merely a pale reflection of the veritable inferno to come when the sun would reach its zenith in a few hours. We had been marching under that blazing sun for a few hours now with but a few short breaks for the two prisoners to find their bearings, and I must say that Gliding Moth was coping with both the heat and the physical challenge of our excursion remarkably well for an untrained mare with a physique that suggested that she might be blown away by a stiff breeze. Either that or she was simply blessed with an upper lip so stiff it would have made Major Starlit Skies envious, and if she had been trained by Princess Luna then it was almost certainly the latter.

"I know. But there's a few things in the official accounts that don't add up. Your AAR [After-Action Report. The military's propensity for initialisms baffles me at times] was heavily redacted, for example. Lord Captain Shining Armour's too, and Colonel Sunshine Smiles'."

"I can imagine," I said, shaking my head. I hadn't realised that the War Ministry's cosy relationship with the Ministry of Information had gotten to the point where the latter was editing military reports for the benefit of certain officials within the former and their clients and friends in the Royal Guard officer class they protect. If they were any more intertwined I'd expect to find the Secretary of State for War in bed with the Secretary of State for Information with a number of bastard foals on the way, however biologically impossible that might be. "I advise you to be careful with Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter. He may look like a blundering imbecile, but that's only because he wants you to see him that way. The second he steps a hoof out of line, you report to me."

"Is that why I was assigned to his platoon specifically? To keep an eye on him?"

I hadn't thought of that, but I suppose it made sense. Our friend and comrade, the insufferable blackguard Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter, would naturally be cautious around me, but he would be unsuspecting of a trainee commissar. Gliding Moth, however, seemed to be no pushover, as evidenced by the fact that she demonstrated perfect willingness to punish even the slightest of Scarlet's transgressions. The Commissariat was at its core a political organisation, founded by a pony who detested modern politics for moving away from the autocratic system she was familiar with, and now showed itself to be as shrewd at playing this cloak-and-dagger game as the officers whose conduct we were supposed to oversee.

"You requested assignment to a frontline regiment, did you not?" I said. The conversation was drifting onto an area I was not exactly comfortable explaining to a mare who, for all intents and purposes, I had only just met.

"Yes, I did, but it's strange that of all the platoons in all the regiments on the frontline I am assigned to one led by a pony whose reputation is under question."

"He was acquitted of all charges."

Gliding Moth shot me a queer look, and shook her head in what I took to be in moderate disbelief. "You don't actually believe that’s truly the case?”

“No more than I’d believe that a gryphon can be taught to sing a hymn,” I said, involuntarily shuddering at the memory of one of less happy events of my early life. [I believe Blueblood is referring to gryphon operas that he attended as part of a cultural exchange initiative. Such performances are certainly an acquired taste for those unused to the unique, screeching quality of gryphon singing and who lack the stamina for shows that can last entire days, but the majesty and spectacle of the epic stories told make up for it.] “The Royal Guard doesn't operate in the way most ponies think it should. It is the shield and sword of Equestria, but a thousand years of peace has made it rusty and blunt. The system has made it easy for ponies like Scarlet Letter to exploit, but that is where we come in. If you want to be a commissar, you will learn that it is not ponies like Blitzkrieg and Rainbow Dash that you should be most wary of, but the cultured, refined officer who thinks only of his own advancement, and thinks nothing of letting others die for his vanity. And sometimes he will get away with it.”

The sun reached its zenith by the time we found the stream, glittering in the light as though it was a path of diamonds. It was a damned miracle that Blitzkrieg and Rainbow Dash could find it in the first place, and I suspected that there was some sort of innate navigational system built into the brain structure of pegasi that gave them some sort of natural advantage over us earth-bound ponies. [Like some birds, pegasi are subconsciously able to detect magnetic fields, allowing them to instinctively know magnetic north] The stream itself was not overly impressive, being about five feet wide and sheltered from the sun within two steep cliffs seemingly carved out of the rocky landscape with an axe, descending from the less arid lands to the north, probably from some greater river, wending its way between these hills to be buried in some crevasse somewhere. What little vegetation grows in the Badlands seemed to been localised almost entirely here, with anaemic-looking grasses and shrubs clinging desperately to the trickle of water that sustained them. Nevertheless, the sight of fresh, flowing water was a welcome one, more so for our prisoners who simply abandoned all restraint and flung themselves down the side of the cliff, their hooves scrambling frantically to maintain purchase on the almost sheer surface, and then headlong into the water.

Neither of them seemed to take much notice of the mare collecting water in terracotta urns at the stream's bank, so consumed by their thirst they were. She was startled by the sudden appearance of two strange ponies, letting a high-pitched yelp of surprise and scrambling back away from them in a flurry of hooves and fluttering robes. It was then Captain Blitzkrieg finally took notice, snapping his head up from the water to address her.

"Calm down, filly," he said, apparently ignorant or uncaring of the fact it was unlikely she spoke Equestrian, "I'm only taking a drink."

The arrival of Yours Truly cresting over the edge of the cliff, flanked by four heavily armed and armoured ponies, one of whom both appeared and smelt like he had just crawled out of a sewage pipe, did very little to help the situation, and the strange mare exclaimed something violent in her native tongue and fell to the ground in a whimpering mess. One of the urns had been knocked over by an errant hoof, and the precious water that it contained spilled out to be soaked up by the arid dust. Blitzkrieg watched the cowering mare with a practiced sense of detachment, before shrugging his narrow shoulders and returning to the business of drinking from the stream.

Our two guards raised their spears warily, but seeing that she was completely alone I instructed them to lower their weapons, which they did only reluctantly. We had long known of the ponies native to this wretched little portion of the world, living curiously unmolested by the vast horde of Changelings lingering mere miles to the south, but actual contact with the reclusive tribes was exceedingly rare. They were the descendents of those groups of ponies unwilling to accept the rightful rule of the Princesses or recognise the divinity of Faust, and thus fled to the one region on this continent that no sane pony, not even the blood-hungry Warmistress Princess Luna, had thought it worthwhile to invade and occupy. The inhabitants of Dodge Junction had over the centuries traded trinkets and cherries with a few of the more enterprising groups and a several of our patrols had encountered wandering parties of natives whose disposition varied from friendly through cautious to downright hostile, though fortunately none thus far had the severe lack of foresight necessary to physically attack our forces. For one to venture out alone by herself implied that her home was relatively closeby, or that there were others of her kind hidden from sight. Their ability to appear from seemingly out of nowhere was well-documented by those who have encountered them, and I found myself scanning the rocks and hills around me for potential hiding places.

Gliding Moth stared at the strange pony, her eyes narrowed and her jaw set in a peculiar manner as though she was about to say something but had thought better of it. Nevertheless, she stared intently at the quivering heap of rags and pony on the ground before her. It was only after the silence, broken only by the ambient sounds of the hot breeze flowing through this cleft and of Rainbow Dash and Blitzkrieg drinking noisily, had endured for a few uncomfortably long moments that I realised, as ever, that everypony was looking to me to decide what to do.

I suppressed the urge to sigh in irritation, which was something that I have had to do more frequently these days. I cautiously made my way down the side of the cliff, and though there were a few moments where I was certain that I would slip, fall, and quite likely break my neck, I reached the bottom and approached the mare. She was about middle-aged, I thought, though I couldn't be sure whether the greying mane and wrinkles were brought about by age or prematurely by the depressing conditions in which they must live. Long, loose-fitting robes draped around her thin frame and onto the dusty ground around them, which I noticed were both more or less the same colour, giving the odd impression that she was melting. In this heat it certainly felt like it. Around her neck hung a crude necklace of string, from which dangled a pendant of three interlocking triangles. Casting the Changeling-reveal spell that had by now become second-nature reassured me that I was not about to have my throat torn out by fangs.

Aware that just about everypony in the vicinity, including ones that I probably couldn't see hidden away in the myriad different possible hiding spots surrounding us, was watching me, I gingerly picked up the jug of spilt water, with its former contents forming a darker patch in the parched earth. It was a clumsy, ill-formed sort of thing, unlikely to win any awards, though the odd, elegant geometric patterns with intersecting lines and shapes carved upon its service with greater care than its initial shaping was quite pleasing in a rough, folk-art sort of way. 'Charmingly rustic', as that oaf Fancy Pants might have put it. I filled it with water from the stream and placed it upright along with its brethren.

"Do you speak Equestrian?" I said, trying to keep my voice as unthreatening as possible. A lifetime of elocution lessons often made it difficult for me to sound warm and friendly, but I think in this case I had at least partially succeeded.

The mare looked up at me with wide, quivering eyes, and slowly and awkwardly rose to her unsteady hooves. She bowed her head, apparently identifying me through my practiced regal bearing and stately grace undimmed by two years' worth of dust and filth and bloodshed that I was a pony of worth, and babbled a sort of greeting in the sibilant tones of her native tongue. She stared back, her frame quivering slightly and ready to bolt in the opposite direction at the slightest sign of trouble. My sword was firmly in its sheath, though the four other armed ponies who had followed me held their weapons in wary readiness, which was not likely to help calm her.

The languages of the natives was something unknown to me, and despite my affinity with foreign tongues, their relative reclusiveness meant that I had only picked up a few words and phrases over the course of my time since arriving at the front. Nevertheless, it seemed to share the same mother as the language you and I speak in Ancient Equestrian, though thousands of years of relative isolation had done much to distort and corrupt the once regal and awe-inspiring tones of our ancestors into the bastardised version these ponies spoke. Some, at least, had a little understanding of this shared ancestral language to varying degrees, even if their grasp of it would have sent my old schoolmaster, who was very keen on the Classics, into fits of blind rage.

"Benevolus?" I said, pointing to myself. [Benevolent, kind, friend, or a well-wisher.]

She nodded, and mumbled something else in her own tongue. Keeping a careful eye on me and my entourage, she took a few steps back, gathered up her jugs, and resumed filling the remainder a little further up the stream away from where Blitzkrieg and Rainbow Dash sated their thirst. Every so often she would turn her gaze to look at us, and then quickly snap her head back down if she were to accidentally make eye contact with either me or a guardspony. I considered the issue resolved; it was unlikely that she wanted anything further to do with us, and I could hardly blame her for that, for even I would want to have nothing to do with me under these circumstances.

I turned and trotted back to the group, and busied myself with refilling my own water canteen in the stream. The water was quite cool and refreshing, having avoided the worst of the glare of the midday sun in this crevasse, and I was thankful for the relative shade afforded by those steep cliffs above us. Though for all intents and purposes the punishment detail had ended, I decided that at the very least a short break was in order; I was in no rush to return, especially in the heat of midday and with my limbs aching terribly, and saw no reason why this little expedition could not be extended by a few hours. After all, after a year or so of precisely sod and all happening vis-à-vis the actual prosecution of this war it was very unlikely that either Field Marshal Iron Hoof or Queen Chrysalis would choose today out of any other day to mount their long-awaited and long-feared offensive. Knowing my luck, however, I'd probably return to find Chrysalis herself in my office, sitting on my chair, eating my biscuits, and drinking my secret stash of brandy.

"What was that?" said Gliding Moth, a little too abruptly for my taste.

"That's a mare," said Cannon Fodder. One could almost take that statement for sarcasm, if my aide was in any way capable of understanding the concept. "Ma'am."

Gliding Moth, however, seemed a little perturbed by the comment, and snapped at my aide, "I wasn't asking you."

"Private Cannon Fodder is right," I said flatly, inwardly hoping that nothing further would come of this, or that my aide would be too offended by her sharp remark. As ever, it went over his head like an airship and he simply crept off by himself to stand guard. "She's a civilian. We've orders to leave them alone."

Gliding Moth snorted contemptuously, "She's a heretic, sir."

Oh dear, I should have known that those elements of the Church who are most divorced from what most sensible ponies would recognise as objective reality have sunk their tendrils into the Commissariat. I had suspected as much, owing to the vast amounts of spuriously religious pamphlets that I had received, collected, and then disseminated amongst the soldiers only to be recycled as toilet paper, and that the reams and reams of manuals and scripture that had been sent to me and then repurposed as compost for Major Starlit Skies' vegetable garden demanded that I act as much as a spiritual mentor to the stallions as the authoritarian hoof of the Ministry of War. I had quietly ignored that aspect of my job, as I did with many other things that I found distasteful, knowing that a soldier's faith tends to be a relatively simple one born out of a desire to have some divine guarantor of survival that needed no input from me and I myself not having much trust in the incense and sycophantic platitudes of religion, but it seemed the new breed of commissars would not, indoctrinated as they were by a system that mistook blind fanaticism for loyalty and bravery.

"Technically," I said, incapable of letting a minor semantic error go uncorrected, "she's a heathen."

The statement was met with a slight look of confusion and that odd pursing of lips that I noticed Gliding Moth did whenever I said or did anything that did not quite mesh with whatever lies the Commissariat had told her about me. "Same difference."

"Not really," I said, crossing the line straight into simply being facetious. "A heretic believes in Faust but not in the official doctrine, and a heathen believes in something else entirely. I think these ponies worship nature spirits." [The native ponies refer to their religion as the ‘Old Faith’, and worship not a single creator being but a multitude of different spirits that inhabit animals, plants, and the land itself. This explanation is unfortunately very crude and does a great disservice to a vibrant faith with a great variety of customs and rituals for each clan, but for the purposes of presenting this narrative and brevity it will have to suffice.]

"But..."

"She's a civilian," I repeated, a little more forcefully this time. I swung a hoof in the mare's direction; she was still doing her damnedest not to look like she knew we were talking about her, even though she likely had no idea what exactly we were talking about, and though she pretended to be busy with her water urns her ears were firmly pointed in our direction. "We've enough trouble with the Changelings without angry natives causing havoc behind our frontlines. Focus on the bigger picture, Gliding; we're here to fight Changelings, not ponies. Leave the proselytising for the missionaries."

And let us get dragged into yet another bloody quagmire, thought I. Nevertheless, I quickly put the thought out of my mind; the Church might have had some role in the setting up of the Commissariat, but it was highly unlikely that even politicians and generals would take complete and utter leave of whatever senses they had left would risk doing something so utterly stupid. One, however, should never discount the idiocy of ponies deluded thinking they are doing the right thing, for they are a far greater danger to the peace and prosperity of the Equestrian nation than even the most corrupt and self-serving of the empowered classes.

She saw sense, however, or at least appeared to. Dear Faust, I hoped I was getting through to her; the ability to think critically is one of the most precious of Her gifts, and to have it stamped out so thoroughly of this young, bright mare by the Academy was a damned shame.

The heathen mare had left hurriedly, as though she did not want to be in even the same continent as us. My hooves began to itch terribly, and the horrid sensation that we were being watched, which I had not felt since I had first accompanied Captain Red Coat's battalion through these very same hills, sent a shiver down my spine. The cliffs and hills above us now loomed as though they were about to close in on us, and I felt suddenly claustrophobic. There, in the clefts and holes I could feel but not see hundreds of eyes watching our every move, judging us for how we dealt with one of their own. Although I had been looking forward to having a pleasant little picnic by the side of this quaint little stream, with our task now complete I thought it best that we made a hasty retreat back to the fortress; no matter what colour the Macintosh Hills were coloured in on the map, this was not our land, we were trespassers in it, and if we weren't careful we were going to get a sharp reminder of that fact.

Author's Note:

Woohoo, here we go again. The stars are aligned and I've produced another chapter for your enjoyment, or not, that's for you to decide.

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