• 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 9)

Rainbow Dash greeted the news of our gallant mission to blow up this bridge of dubious military importance with her characteristic restraint and good grace, by which I mean she enthusiastically declared that it was about time she got to do something productive, punched empty space, and did an obnoxious little dance some ten feet in the air in front of the Night Guards' senior officers, General McBridle, and his staff. This initial exuberance of hers, however, began to evaporate after a few days like a good mood when a tax collector knocks on one's front door as the drudgery of planning and preparation began to set in, and before long her incessant complaining about the constant inventory checks, meetings, briefings, debriefings, equipment requisition, additional training, form-filling, and other such tedious but ultimately necessary things that inevitably preclude even the most basic of all military operations, in this case, going into enemy territory to blow up a bridge, would be enough to drive the most patient of nuns into a murderous rage.

"Why do we even need to demolish a bridge?" she asked one morning, while we waited in the queue in the quartermaster's storage tent. Pencil Pusher was busy admonishing a soldier more than twice his height and girth for the improper usage of the Royal Guard standard issue spork and would likely be doing so for some time, which meant that I would have to endure Rainbow Dash's company for much longer than I had initially hoped to. I had only come to have the regiment's armourer have a finer edge put on my sword before our little excursion, and while that was a simple enough task for me to have let Cannon Fodder do instead, I simply wanted an excuse to get out of my office and stretch my legs for a short bit. As for her, I had gathered that she required a replacement flightsuit, having ruined hers in a mid-air collision with a Night Guard who, I wish to point out, suffered injuries greater than a damaged uniform and wounded pride by cushioning her fall. It was pure bad luck on my part to have run into her here in this empty limbo of bureaucracy, where time has no meaning and the souls of the damned are doomed forever to catalogue, clean, and organise the myriad goods that keep Equestria's war machine running at peak efficiency, or something resembling that.

"To cover the flank of the coming offensive," I said. "We've been over this, or were you really sleeping through all of those meetings? Hm?"

"Oh, no! I was definitely awake for those, sir!" she said, a little too quickly to assuage my suspicions. "I mean, Changelings can fly, so they can just fly over the smoking wreckage of the bridge we just blew up!" She demonstrated this concept by waving a hoof above her head in a wide arc.

The thought had occurred to me, and like all good commissars I put that little thought back into the far reaches of my mind where it wouldn't bother me unless I was sufficiently bored and morose for it to make another appearance as I contemplate the nightmare that my life has become. I knew the truth, of course, that it was an entirely political gesture to spur the government of the day into taking this war for the continued survival of the Equestrian state and its Harmony a little more seriously. I could not, however, very well say that to Rainbow Dash, whose rather naively short-sighted and self-centred view of the world could not account for the machinations that took place behind the scenes of the war, and indeed she seemed to be entirely unaware of the vast endeavours, planning, manoeuvring, meetings, and discussions that inevitably accompany such a vast undertaking as a military operation beyond that which immediately affects her. She simply would not understand, and besides, it was just not her place to know. The problem, however, was that I struggled to think of an alternative explanation that would sate her curiosity, and telling her that such questioning of orders was simply something not done by the lower ranks would only exacerbate the situation in the long run.

"Food," said Cannon Fodder suddenly. I turned my head to see him standing behind me; I had forgotten he was there, in truth, which wasn't surprising when one considers his tendency to remain silent unless spoken to. It did, however, seem to imply that my continued exposure to his unique aroma had dulled my sense of smell to the point where the lingering stench of body odour and unwashed tunic no longer registered to me.

"Lunch will be soon," I said, grateful for the diversion, though somewhat confused as to why he chose that exact moment to say something. I had long ago given up any hope of trying to understand the inner workings that motivated my aide to do anything, believing that to be something beyond the scope of both the intellect and the sanity of most ponies to fully comprehend.

"I mean, they still got to feed themselves, right?" he said. I was astounded; it was the most amount of words in a single sentence that I had heard him say, though it was related, if somewhat tangentially, to one of the very few hobbies he pursued with anything resembling enthusiasm.

I saw Rainbow Dash's confused expression, and, having deciphered the concepts behind what Cannon Fodder had been trying to explain in spite of his limited vocabulary before she could, decided to save everypony present the misery of seeing the both of them employing their limited faculties in trying to discuss this issue. "They can't just live off the land like ponies," I said. "If they cross the gorge, they need to maintain a supply line to bring whatever it is they eat from their hive; otherwise, any counter-attack across the gorge runs the risk of being isolated and starved."

"Huh." Rainbow Dash cocked her head to one side and squinted at Cannon Fodder, while chewing on her lower lip as though doing so would make discerning the meaning behind my aide's words and marrying it up with her curiously self-obsessed worldview any easier. "I guess that makes sense," she said, at length.

It didn't, really, but it kept her from asking any more awkward questions that might jeopardise the masquerade that the Royal Guard knew what in Hades it was doing, which was the most important thing at the time. If everything went well, and despite the apparent simplicity of this operation it was a very big 'if' that cast a deep shadow over my mind, it was not something we would have to worry about again. Experience had taught me that despite what most ponies think, when supposedly simple things go wrong they still have as much capacity to be as spectacularly, horrendously, awfully catastrophic as more complex operations. Perhaps even moreso, when one takes into account the false sense of security that tends to cloud one's judgement when doing something described as supposedly simple.

[Prince Blueblood here has touched upon one of the more popular and more plausible theories that seek to explain why Changeling strategy appeared to be more reactive to Equestrian advances and why they seemingly never sought to gain the initiative despite repeated opportunities to do so. Though most of the war was fought in Changeling-held territory, their unique method of feeding and their inability to formulate a means to store and transport their food, that is, the stolen love that one pony feels for another extracted, distilled, and stored, in sufficient quantities forced Queen Chrysalis to keep her forces on the defensive and use such under-hoofed methods such as infiltration and sabotage. The destruction of the bridge would indeed have prevented the enemy from maintaining a supply line with enough capacity to maintain a large enough force for a counter-attack. Another theory is that destroying bridges is just what the military does, just in case it might be useful to the enemy, and Royal Engineers are more than capable of constructing new bridges in their place.]

By now, Pencil Pusher had finished being tediously pedantic with the burly soldier and had turned his bureaucratic obtrusiveness onto his next victim, who was a platoon sergeant with a requisition form for four candles, and thus the queue advanced one space. It was then that Cannon Fodder broke the few moments of awkward silence that had fallen, as it tends to do when I am forced to socialise with ponies so far beneath my class that we have about in much in common as a Saddle Row tailored suit has with a pair of dungarees.

"What do you reckon is for lunch, sir?" he asked.

I shrugged my shoulders, inwardly grateful for the diversion. "The same as breakfast, last night's dinner, and yesterday's lunch, and forever: brown stew."

***

Like all military operations that I have participated in, and most likely the ones I haven't graced with my presence either, this one started as it meant to carry on. Our intrepid little task force had mustered on the outskirts of the encampment, where the mass of tents that surrounded the ancient fortress like a halo around a saint on the stained glass windows in Canterlot Cathedral stopped and what was marked as enemy territory on the maps began, and after a flurry of activity to get ourselves ready, we were stuck waiting. It had been decided that a smaller force consisting of a platoon each of earth ponies and unicorns, supported by the trainee Wonderbolts, and a section of engineers would be sufficient to the task at hoof. Personally, I would have preferred a much larger detachment of ponies to place between me and the ravenous hordes of Changelings, but understandably General McBridle would have been quite unwilling to empty the entirety of Fort E-5150 purely for my own benefit. However, as the sun crested the horizon and was large, fat, orange satsuma hovering a few inches above the almost perfectly featureless plains to the east, the unicorn platoon from the 1st Solar Guard and Trainee Commissar Gliding Moth were an hour late.

It is often said that the moments of fearful trepidation before battle are worse than the actual battle, though I firmly contend that the two are downright terrible in the first place and that ranking them in order of awfulness is an exercise in futility, but sitting around in the early morning with only a mug of that ubiquitous strong tea and a ration bar of dubious contents to sustain me, being forced to divide my attention between watching the mass of tents for any sign of a very apologetic mass of gold armour and white fur to emerge and making sure that the Horsetralians didn't let their boredom get the better of them and start setting off their explosives prematurely, almost made me wish for a locust-like swarm of Changelings to descend upon us. Almost. There was, of course, the vain hope that they simply would not turn up at all, but the inexorable advance of the Equestrian war machine, powered by sheer bureaucratic inertia, would find other just as willing volunteers for martyrdom eventually. In the absence of further orders, all we could do was sit as Celestia's life-giving sun started to raise the temperature to just beyond that which is considered safe for ponies to spend any significant length of time within.

All of these sources of annoyance and anxiety paled in comparison to Rainbow Dash, who, after a commendable few minutes of waiting quite patiently, had taken to pacing back and forth and around in meandering circles with no apparent direction or purpose than to express her barely concealed irritation at having to wait for her chance at glory. Every so often she would stop, and then complain that in no uncertain terms that she was very bored and posited the option that we simply embark on our mission without the unicorns. Occasionally, a few of the other soldiers would simply jeer and make crude remarks at her in response, but thanks to their curious misapprehension that I might be somehow capable of stopping thirty or so heavily armed and armoured stallions and mares from doing what they wanted things never progressed further than that. A certain allusion to broken records came to mind, and while I had been willing to allow her to indulge in her own frustrations for a short time as I felt that it would have been hypocritical of me to prevent her from voicing just what I was feeling at the same time, to an extent, but as ever allowing a pony as ill-disciplined as her to speak freely would only embolden her to the point of saying something that somepony would make her regret. After about half an hour or so of grinding down everypony's patience, the inevitable happened.

"It's not like we even need the unicorns," she said. "I mean, you've got the Wonderbolts right here! I'm pretty sure we can handle all of this on our own anyway."

I was about to tell her that she was more than welcome to fly straight into enemy territory without the support of unicorn magic and earth pony muscle and demolish a bridge without explosives and the expertise to use them, when one of the earth pony soldiers had apparently had the same idea. Almost immediately behind her was a full section of earth pony stallions, who had been observing her uncouth ranting for quite some time, having apparently exhausted all other forms of passing the time. This aforementioned soldier who, unlike his comrades, had failed to see the funny side of the trainee Wonderbolt's ignorant remarks. He, a short but heavily-built pony with a squat nose that had been broken and hadn't set quite in the right place, rose from where he had been playing an engrossing game of snap with his comrades and marched with an expression of righteous determination on his face towards an oblivious Rainbow Dash.

"Now listen here, you dumb little..." he began, but, mercifully for him, stopped when he saw me lingering close by and watching with affected mild interest.

"Private," I said, and he snapped to attention. "Inform your platoon commander that I want him to send your section over to that small hill over there and report back in five minutes. I want to know what's behind it."

His bluster deflated by the presence of Yours Truly, resplendent in a commissar's uniform that had clearly seen better days, the soldier muttered something quietly in the affirmative and then went on his merry way to relay my orders to his commanding officer. He glanced over his shoulder a few times, but seemed to focus more on Rainbow Dash than me, and was then subsumed into the mass of ponies that was his platoon. With him out of the picture and a potential repeat of the last time a trainee Wonderbolt and a Night Guard found themselves incapable of resolving their differences without the excessive use of hooves and head-butting mercifully averted for now, I turned my attention back to this irritating little filly with an unerring tendency to make my life much more difficult than it already was.

"What's his problem?" said Rainbow Dash, oblivious as ever.

"As for you," I said, removing my cap and running a hoof through the mop of greasy blond mane that flopped unceremoniously over my eyes. I sighed dramatically for effect and shook my head, before levelling my gaze once at the confused mare. "Sit down, don't say anything at all, and don't move until I say you can. That's an order."

There was the briefest moment of hesitation, before she sat her pert, latex-clad rear down on the dusty ground with a look that could have caused a bushel of apples to shrivel up and rot within seconds. A glance back at the tents, with the nameless, almost identical stallions milling between them confirmed that our missing platoon was still desperately late, so I had time for one more lecture. One, I thought, that would avert whatever disaster her impetuous and disobedient nature was going to bring. Having been subjected to such proselytizing speeches from Twilight Sparkle for much of my life and Princess Luna more recently, I like to think I had grown rather adept at delivering condescending sermons to ponies who lack the necessary wit, intelligence, or authority to respond. Whether or not they have quite the same effect, I can't be certain, though the average pony tends to be suitably over-awed by the web of falsehoods that is my career and reputation that I could probably tell them that I'm related to Discord and they might believe me.

"What in Tartarus am I to do with you?" I said, shaking my head. Rainbow Dash looked as though she was about to say something, but then wisely decided that it was better to keep whatever little retort that what she possessed in place of wit had devised to herself. I sat down next to her, and fiddled with my cap idly with my hooves; I found that she tended to respond better when I approached her not as some kind of authority figure descending down from on high to dispense sanctions like an avenging alicorn of old, but as close to an equal as I could possibly manage with her. Besides, I don't think I could have mustered the same sheer bloody-minded, hell-forged ferocity that Sergeant Major Square Basher and her ilk so effortless drew upon as a mage draws upon magic to cast her spells.

"I don't expect you to understand immediately," I continued, trying to keep my tone relatively friendly and as free of condescension as one cursed with an accent as refined as mine can possibly muster. "You've been here for a few weeks, but these ponies have been here for two years with no end in sight. I appreciate that you've done a lot for Equestria, but while you've been doing that thousands of ponies here have been fighting, forgotten and un-acknowledged. So, for you to come here, with minimal military experience, without having to wade through the sweat and the blood and the filth that these soldiers have had just to survive here long enough for you to arrive and strut about, and to act as though you think that you and your collection of county air show entertainers -sorry, trainee country air show entertainers- can single-hoofedly win a war that an army of four thousand soldiers so far hasn't might not sit too well with them."

Rainbow Dash had the good sense to look sheepish as I harangued her. I like to think I am a somewhat decent judge of character, as being able to deceive ponies as often as I am forced to demands that I either learn this skill or else have the scaffolding of falsehoods that hold up the fragile edifice of my life come crashing down, and from what I could tell she seemed appropriately embarrassed by her own behaviour. She gave a slight nod of her head, pursed her lips, then looked back up at me.

"Yeah, you're right," she said quietly, half to herself. "None of this is how I expected it to be. I just... want to prove myself."

"Believe me, Acting Flight Leader, war is never how anypony expects it to be. You can prove yourself by doing your job and following orders, like a good soldier. Everypony here has to earn respect the same way."

That seemed to shut her up; either she couldn't think of an appropriate retort or had wisely decided that arguing with me was entirely futile when I had the authority of the Commissariat and, by proxy, Princess Luna standing behind me. A mere talking-to would not permanently fix the issue, of course; talking about war and all that it entails is insufficient as a means of conveying what it is truly like, much like how solely reading about higher magic won't automatically make one adept at teleportation or manipulating the raw fabric of reality unless one actually attempts it. No, only a baptism of blood and fire in the font of battle would be enough to strip the unwarranted arrogance from her like filth from a mithril breastplate. Should any of us survive, that is.

Eventually, Rainbow Dash simply fell asleep, which meant that I had to contend only with her snoring, which sounded more like an express train colliding with the Manehatten Philharmonic Orchestra attempting to perform 'Ride of the Alicorns' after consuming a crate of beer. It was, however, still preferable to hearing her speak, and I was grateful for it. I was about to see if I could rejoin her in the realm of slumber, on the off-chance that I could slip back into a very pleasant and, I assure you, completely innocent dream involving Countess Coloratura and a bed made of cotton candy, when Cannon Fodder roused me from that blissful transitory state between the escape of unconsciousness and cold hard reality, and pointed at the encampment.

"I think they're here now," he said, nudging me in the shoulder and leaving a streak of grime and dust on my tunic. “The Solar Guards.”

"What makes you think that?" I said groggily.

I rose unsteadily to my hooves, and saw peeking just above the pointed tops of the tents and wooden shacks two flags drifting towards us like the sails of a galley partially obscured by rocks. They were instantly recognisable to any guardspony worth his meagre pay; the Royal Standard, sewn by Princess Platinum and carried into battle by Commander Hurricane, and its younger but no less resplendent brother the regimental standard of the 1st Solar Guard. The flags twitched and swayed in the gentle breeze, but the young ensigns who carried these sacred military relics held them steady enough despite marching for them to appear as though they were gliding along with the grace and poise of Auntie 'Tia on ice skates. The presence of these two glorious banners, steeped as they were in the history of our land and its unconquerable harmony, never failed to stir even my cynical heart to, at the very least, feel slightly less miserable about the concept of my impending death. Of course, these colourful sheets of ancient fabric were designed explicitly for that purpose, for a soldier may not always be motivated by love of country, family, his friends, money, or even a commissar peering judgmentally over his shoulder, but the sight of a standard flying in the wind (helpfully provided by use of weather magic, of course) would remind even the most cowardly of guardsponies for whom and for what they fight.

This flicker of uncharacteristic jingoism, however, was snuffed out the very second I saw the platoon emerge from behind the tent closest to us, and at its head was quite possibly the very last pony that I wanted to see. Lieutenant Sir Scarlet Letter led the column of marching unicorns, flanked by Trainee Commissar Gliding Moth. Immediately behind him was the colour guard; six veteran soldiers, two of each pony race and forming two units of three guarding the ensign and the battle standards they proudly held. Together they were the malformed head of a fat, noisy snake that slithered its way free off the confines of the tent and onto the field before us.

The platoon halted, and Scarlet Letter and Gliding Moth marched up to me and saluted, the former with just barely enough discipline to be considered only just acceptable and the latter with an enviable sense of precision that bordered on clockwork. At the abrupt, barked command of the platoon's sergeant, whose previously cheerful and chipper mood that I had seen in the twelve months of his commanding officer's absence had been replaced with a fracturing semblance of civility and professionalism, the platoon stood at ease and busied themselves checking their equipment and exchanging crude banter with their Night Guard earth pony comrades, though they curiously ignored the Wonderbolts. I could not help but notice the stark difference between the two platoons, and I don't mean in terms of the white and gold versus the two slightly varied shades of grey that form the most obvious of variation. No, and it's a reason not always appreciated by civilians, but a soldier on campaign will invariably appear different to that of a soldier standing guard at some national monument or guarding the Princesses. Though the mithril armour remains more or less the same, the former would have supplemented his uniform with saddle bags and pouches, made emergency repairs, made rudimentary and not strictly legal modifications to make the infamously uncomfortable armour easier to wear, and fashioned crude additional plates of armour to cover areas left conspicuously vulnerable by standard armour such as the neck and the limbs. These Solar Guard unicorns looked as though they had just stepped out of a tourist guide book for Canterlot Castle with their gleaming, dust-free armour. It was a point not missed by the Night Guards, whose enquiries were met almost unanimously with casual hoof-pointing towards Scarlet Letter.

"You're late," I said abruptly, not wanting to allow Scarlet Letter to get the first word in. "And you're not Lieutenant Everlasting Oak." He certainly wasn't; the pony who was supposed to lead the unicorn contingent of this little expedition was a mare who, despite her pretensions of being a warrior-poet while possessing none of the skill of weaving images with deft use of the Equestrian language, was a competent, if unremarkable, officer who had yet to try and have me killed in the name of her own vanity.

[Everlasting Oak's notoriety as an extremely bad, yet popular, poet has more or less superseded her military career in the public eye. Nevertheless her service to the Royal Guard should be commended, even if her poetry is to be justifiably maligned.]

"My good friend Lieutenant Everlasting Oak suffered a terrible injury this morning when a box filled with helmets fell on her as her platoon prepared to muster for this glorious battle," he said, with that strange meter of voice that all politicians adopt when reciting a statement that they had obviously rehearsed several times yet wanted to sound as though they were speaking off the cuff, as it were. "I graciously stepped in and volunteered my services and my platoon for the operation. Commissar Gliding Moth supports this."

I was about to mention that it was all rather convenient and that it wasn't up to him to decide whether or not his actions were 'gracious', but I decided it was best to keep that thought to myself for now. There would be ample time for suitable admonishments later, preferably with the aid of a provost's whip. "What about Lord Captain Shining Armour and General McBridle? Do they support this?"

"We are already behind schedule," said Gliding Moth, and there was an undercurrent of nervous impatience in her normally restrained, calm voice. "Lieutenant Scarlet Letter's platoon was already prepared and we did not have time to seek written approval from the Lord Captain. I took the decision, so we can proceed with the operation without further delay."

"The bridge isn't going anywhere," I said. "I'd rather we have written orders from Shining Armour before setting off."

"With respect, sir," said Scarlet Letter, taking a step closer to me, "if our crusade against the Changeling enemy is to continue as planned, then surely we must proceed with all possible haste. Or would you rather delay the offensive over a simple administrative discrepancy? I daresay, sir, my colleagues in the Ministry of War will not look favourably upon the political officer who abuses his power to pursue a meaningless vendetta."

It was all I could do to keep myself from slapping the impudent stallion across the face like one would with a hysterical filly; to stand there, after all that he had done in the name of his own puerile vanity and accuse me of holding a vendetta. If he wanted a vendetta, however, I was more than willing to give him one; my family's long and bloodied (no pun intended) past is, for the most part, a long series of feuds and quests for vengeance against slights both grave and trivial, but always ending in one or both parties involved reduced to physical, financial, psychological, and/or metaphorical ruin. Indeed, various ancestors of mine had turned revenge into a veritable art form. For the most part I simply hadn't the energy to pursue this little family hobby, but looking at him there I wondered if there was time yet to dust off the old Exsanguinator after a thousand years of storage.

[The 'Exsanguinator' is an urban myth, and Blueblood's mention of it here is likely a little joke to himself. Though his ancestor Prince Coldblood's ruthlessness and paranoia is hard to exaggerate, having known him for all of his mortal life I know that he would have found a device that kills a pony by very slowly draining all of their blood into a large vat so that they might watch their life literally slip out of them and then to allow his wife to bathe in it to preserve her youth to be too inefficient a method of removing troublesome ponies for his tastes. I would like to assure everypony that such a device has never been built and never will be so long as I am still Princess, though I doubt this explicit denial would stop the conspiracy theorists, who will take it as further proof of their ideas and continue to irritate Blueblood's surviving relatives by trying to break into the Sanguine Palace and find it.]

Nevertheless, he was right, as much as I truly hate to admit it even now. The look of smug self-satisfaction on his porcine features was infuriating, and there was not a damned thing that I could do without earning myself a court-martial. [Discipline of commissars was handled through the Commissariat through ad hoc internal inquiries boards, therefore Blueblood could never be officially court-martialled. It is likely he simply didn't know or didn't care.] Though I would love nothing more than to postpone the offensive over this 'simple administrative discrepancy' as he put it, I could think of nothing more that would ruin the reputation I now bore as a protective shield than to defy the spirit of our orders and return. In truth, I despised having such responsibility over me; the continued life and well-being of the ponies around me were dependent on my decisions being correct, and the fact Scarlet Letter's withered, fat-encased lungs still drew breath was proof that I still lacked the spine to make them. That one's own desperate situation is the fault of others is marginally less dreadful than the horror granted by knowing that this misery is self-inflicted.

"Would that all of our officers showed such eagerness," I said, not willing to give his remark the slightest bit of dignity by acknowledging it. Besides, I could simply push him off the bridge and claim that he tripped on a loose paving slab. The structure was said to be very old and likely in a state of disrepair. "But what about the Colours? Seems a bit of an unnecessary extravagance."

The Colour Sergeant, an older stallion who defied Princesses' Regulations by maintaining a large bushy beard that one could lose a cat in by virtue of his seniority and a sense of fear over what might be behind it, stepped forwards and beckoned the young, wide-eyed little ensign bearing the greater of the Princesses' Colours forwards. "Whenever the 1st Solar Guard march to war, the Colours will always lead them."

I pursed my lips and frowned, and I was about to protest that we were only going to go and blow up one measly little bridge out in the middle of nowhere and ask if it was truly necessary to bring out these ancient relics for what amounted to the military equivalent of asking one's staff to go to the shops and pick up some milk, but instead held my tongue. I decided that we had wasted enough time as it was waiting around for the 1st Solar Guard to sort itself out, and the sooner I could get this over with the better, preferably before the Changelings had woken up and had their morning cereal. It was futile, of course, to argue with tradition, especially with the oldest and most prestigious of regiments in the whole Royal Guard, and thus I reluctantly acquiesced. In a few moments our merry band was ready and prepared to march across the seemingly endless wastes, where any small hillock and rocky outcrop could conceal half the entire Changeling horde, albeit with two very large and brightly coloured flags just to make sure that it would be absolutely impossible for anypony and anything out there to miss us.

The march was easy enough, as marches go, at least for the first hour or so over flat and level and frankly boring terrain. The Colours took the lead, with the Night Guards immediately behind them, the Solar Guard contingent forming the rearguard, and the Horsetralian Engineers in the middle. Two sappers were yoked to a wagon that carried a number of squat wooden barrels, each marked with a rather uninviting warning symbol that made its highly volatile contents perfectly clear to everypony. A few hundred feet or so above us the Wonderbolts circled lazily in a standard escort formation, acting both as navigation and as a lookout. I took position with the Colours at the head of the column, which were ironically leading the Night Guard platoon as a result of an incongruence between centuries of tradition and modern practicality that resulted in another awkward compromise that suited nopony, and while I felt uneasy about being at the front and therefore most likely to be the first casualty of an ambush, being as far away as Scarlet Letter without being accused of desertion was a compromise I was willing to accept.

Being in close proximity to the two standards invoked a wave of warming nostalgia that brought me back to my time as a junior officer in the 1st Solar Guard. As ensigns, Shining Armour and I both had the honour of carrying those standards at official functions, which largely consisted of various parades and guard duty back then as going to a real war was considered utterly unthinkable until the Changelings attacked Canterlot. That I was granted the greater and more noble task of holding the same royal standard that Commander Hurricane bore into battle on behalf of Princesses Celestia and Luna and Shining Armour had to make do with merely the regimental standard was not lost at me at the time, though I recall that the colour sergeants selected to keep us line soon tired of our incessant bickering (most of which, I must confess, was started by me) and arranged for our simultaneous promotion to the rank of lieutenant just to be rid of us. I could hardly blame them.

The royal standard itself depicted Celestia and Luna chasing one another in a circle around the sun and moon, surrounded by neatly arranged stars against a cerulean background. A slight, warm breeze had picked up from the south, stirring the ancient silk into some semblance of life. It was not fluttering gloriously in the wind as artists seem to imagine it does when borne into battle or displayed for parade, but such gauche and clichéd imagery seemed rather too vulgar for so splendid a flag. Instead, it and its sister the regimental standard accepted the zephyrs with a stately, refined grace, as a mare and stallion dancing masterfully across the marble floor of a Prench ballroom. Both were beautifully preserved, with the slight fading of the once-vibrant colours only adding a sense of elder refinement. The battle honours stitched into both flags spoke of the wars that shaped and moulded the Equestrian state, that brought it both glorious victory and mere survival; I imagined the ponies who had fought and died beneath their patrician countenance over the millennia, of all the heroes whose names are immortalised as much in the collective psyche of ponies as they are in marble statues in Canterlot and names carved in stone on austere memorials, and the acres upon acres of headstones like trees in a morbid orchard where their mortal remains are interred, and I felt the impossible weight of their judgement upon me. I would be found lacking. But not matching up to this unattainable ideal was to be the least of my concerns, as I soon found out.

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