• Published 16th Nov 2012
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A Great Endeavor - Rune Soldier Dan



On July 3, 1943, Equestria declared war on the Axis Powers. These are the stories of those times.

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Chapter 10: Warlocks in Winter (Epilogue)

”It is morning. It is cold, but it is morning still. The Sun is rising over Europe.”

-Princess Celestia, December 31st, 1944



North of Bastogne



It had been a few hours since the human said anything. Long enough to worry Applejack. “Y’all still with me, Leslie?”

“It’s Tex,” the voice groaned back.

A moment passed and then it came again, carrying a note of concern. “What about yourself, ‘Jack? Christ, you sound like a chorus of frogs.”

She gave a weak laugh, but didn’t dare waste any more energy on it. “It’s mah nose. Keeps running, but keeps freezing too. Think if I gave it a good blow, ice cubes would come out.”

Freezing. Ice. She spat a curse as the thought made her start shivering. It started with her front right, then spread like lightning to the rest of her body.

The shivering turned to violent tremors. They were bad enough that it was hard to walk. Applejack’s pace slowed, but never stopped. She couldn’t stop. Dusk was falling. Couldn’t stop until she found them some shelter. And it better be soon, because they were in a world of trouble if it wasn’t.

Lost her hat some time ago. Dad’s hat. Couldn’t even think about the sentimental value right now, not with her legs going numb in the snow. Not with her ears feeling like they were freezing off. Not with her stomach growling and nose frozen shut.

Not with Manny still lying back there.



”AJ, keep that dumb shit Tex on your back. Start running at the first sign of trouble. I don’t like the look these Krauts are giving us...”



A tear came down her face, freezing along with all the others.

Tex’s thoughts had apparently drifted to the sergeant, too. He turned on his litter – a wooden door hitched to Applejack like a sled – and cast his eyes on her back. “That stubborn jackass, I can’t believe it.”

“I know,” she sighed, clamping her mouth closed afterwards. No point in letting him hear her teeth chatter. He was probably scared enough as it was.

“Doesn’t make any sense, you know? The other guy starts shooting and you don’t have a gun, what do you do? You head for the freaking hills, that’s what. Thank Christ I was riding you, or I’d be sporting a bullet in the brain. But Manny? Did you see him?”

“Not really,” Applejack said quickly, gritting her teeth again afterwards.

“Craziest thing you ever freaking saw, ‘Jack. When…when the Germans started shooting, we were all in that field, you know? You took off like a shot, and all I could do was hold on for dear life. But I looked back and saw Sergeant Manny running TOWARDS them. Towards that freaking machine gun they set up and just hurled his helmet at it.”

More quiet, freezing tears came down Applejack’s face as the human went on. Tex’s own voice was cracking with emotion. “I dunno, maybe the Kraut flinched? Maybe he stopped firing for a second, and a few extra people made it out of there. Christ, that’s what I want to think. Maybe he just died without a reason…”

“…Like the rest of them…” A sob coursed through Tex’s voice.

Applejack kept her eyes resolutely forward, keeping her teeth grit shut. Stop crying, Tex. Ain’t doing nopony no good. Save your energy. After that second bullet, you’ve got little enough to spare.

Just focus on staying warm. I’ll get us out of this.

But she didn’t say it. Applejack was crying too, and shaking too badly, and not really sure how things were going to turn out.

“I can’t believe it!” Her burden screamed, jerking a useless fist to the sky.

’Burden?’

Well…Heck, don’t think ‘bout that, now.

Tex continued in a broken voice. “I just can’t believe it. We had surrendered, for the love of God. And they just lined us up in that damn field. ‘A headcount,’ they said, a HEADCOUNT! How stupid are we?! Those lying sacks of shit, they knew EXACTLY what was going to happen. With us all nice and lined up in front of all those rifles and that MG…”

He shook his head, voice getting even weaker. “It was like the big ol’ hand of God swung a sickle, and down they went like cut wheat. You ever saw anything like that before?”

Applejack heaved a sigh. “Didn’t see it then, neither. I was running with the first shots, and didn’t look back.”

Opening her mouth let her teeth resume their chattering, but Tex didn’t seem to notice. “You reckon any of the others got away, ‘Jack?”

“M-m-maybe.” Applejack didn’t even shrug, too busy shivering and shaking and chattering to-

“Goddamn, ‘Jack, you’re shaking more than a schoolboy on his first date.”

Applejack swallowed and gingerly turned her neck to look at her passenger. The movement sent needles of icy pain down her back, but still she walked on. Tex was looking right at her.

Wire-haired, wire-built Tex. A fast-talker from suburban Houston, he had passed himself off as a cowboy until the real thing came along in the form of Applejack. She liked him fine, but never expected much out of him.

He picked a bad time to prove her wrong.

His breath caught as he saw her face. “My God, ‘Jack, you look terrible.”

Applejack tried to snort, but with her nose stopped-up nothing came out. Tex didn’t look like much, himself. Frozen tears were stuck in the grooves of his face, and frozen snot had formed a film above his lip. A ski hat mercifully kept his ears warm, but every inch beneath was frosted over save for the places the skin cracked and blood leaked out.

Judging from Tex’s response, her own face probably didn’t look any better.

He finally broke eye contact and looked her up and down. Taking in the shaking limbs and white-blue ears. The icy flanks and the chattering teeth.

Then his eyes turned back to his own body. He got two bullets in the thigh as they fled the murder field. Riding proved impossible without tearing open the wounds, so they had stolen the door from one of the farms they passed. The impromptu sleigh was hard to work with. While he stayed bundled and still, Applejack was exposed, and she didn’t have much left…

A thought crossed her mind, and she narrowed her eyes. Don’t you dare say it, Tex.

As if he knew her thoughts, Tex shook his head glumly. “Cut me loose, ‘Jack.”

“Shut yer mouth,” she snapped, too quickly for the chattering to stop her. She turned violently away from him and redoubled her pace.

“You think I’m an idiot?” He called out shrilly. “It’s gonna be night soon, and our asses are dying tonight. As in DEAD. As in, ‘we’d’a saved ourselves a lot of trouble if we just walked in front of the MG.’”

“You quit that talk right now,” Applejack snarled.

“’Jack, I’m a hundred-fifty pounds of dead weight you’re lugging around. You’d move four times as fast without me, easy.”

Applejack shook her head. “How ‘bout you hushing up right now and letting me work?”

“DAMMIT, ‘JACK!” Tex screeched, his fear and anger boiling over. “You think I want this? No! I’m not brave or selfless. I’d kill Roosevelt himself if it meant I get to live. But I don’t. I just don’t, I’m DEAD, okay! Like all those poor bastards in the field, I’m DEAD. But I’m not quite so much a bastard that I’d drag you down with me. I get to DIE. You get to LIVE, if only you’d quit being such a stubborn mule! You KNOW I’m right!”

“Ah don’t reckon Ah do!” Applejack shouted back.

“Jackass!”

“Dumb-apple!”

“Stupid pony!”

“Idiot man!”

A short pause, then he responded in a deflated voice. “You don’t have anything to prove, Applejack. You’re a damn fine girl. I’d say a good soldier too, except I don’t know a thing about being a good soldier.”

He finished with a sob. “I go right to Hell if I drag a good sort like you down with me.”

“Well, you enjoy the warm weather if’n it happens.” Applejack tried to smile, but her face was so numb she had no idea if it was successful. “But it won’t. I gotcha, and that’s that.”

Tex fell silent afterwards, and it didn’t take long for Applejack to wish he’d speak again. For all her assurances and fake confidence…he was right. She was too cold. Too tired. There wasn’t much left to give. Soon dusk would turn to night and it would get even colder.

Just keep walking.

Might survive if the dead weight was dropped.

No.

Big Macintosh. Applebloom. The girls. Don’t you want to see them again?

Ah will. Pinkie Promise.

…Ah don’t really believe that.

But that ain’t no excuse to abandon a friend in need.

Too stubborn to live.

“Too stubborn to die,” Applejack grunted through a raw throat, forcing her mouth into a fearless grin. The wind was starting to blow in her face, so she lowered her head and soldiered on.



------



Trotting alongside her patrol, Rarity was the first to see the pair. A slow moving blotch of orange against a darkening sky. While the humans advanced at a wary pace, she dashed ahead.

Was it Applejack? Hope flooded her heart, followed a moment later by fear of disappointment.

Hope proved the victor. Caked in frost, head lowered in exhaustion, it was indeed Applejack plodding down the road. Her steps had grown so small that her hooves simply dragged through the snow ahead of a makeshift sled tied to her back.

So exhausted was Applejack that she didn’t even notice the unicorn approach. Not until Rarity’s hooves wrapped around her, yanking her frostbitten nose into a snow-white shoulder. Rarity shivered – it was like hugging an ice cube. Her muscles tensed, but her mind overruled them. She shifted a little to get better footing and hugged all the tighter.

“You feel like fire, Rares,” Applejack mumbled. “Ah must be freezin’ you half to death.”

You’re the one frozen half to death, Dear. Rarity smiled quietly and weaved a simple spell with her horn. A light-pink fire enveloped both of them, harming neither and filling their bodies with a gentle warmth.

Applejack’s eyes widened, her voice no louder than a whisper. “Woah.” She smiled sleepily, nuzzling into Rarity’s side. “Never seen that ‘un, before. Feels nice.”

“It’s called ‘Friendship’s Warmth,’ Dear.” Rarity said, easing Applejack gently to the ground. The snow beneath them melted, and the exhausted earth pony collapsed into her friend’s embrace.

“It takes two to cast.”



------



Applejack had fallen asleep instantly, not even waking when Rarity lifted her with telekinesis into one of the trucks.

“You can get some sleep, too,” Ben Cook quipped at the American soldier as they lifted him onto a stretcher.

“I’ve been lying down for four days,” Tex snapped. “Get me some food and hooch and send me back after the Germans. I owe them.”

But the war was over for Tex. He’d been hit so many times that he’d get a hot ticket to Britain, there to spend months and months in a hospital.

He didn’t say much when the medics told him. They congratulated him on finished his duty. When the Germans surrendered, Tex would read about it in a London Newspaper set by his hospital bed. He nodded when they smiled and patted his shoulder, assuring him that everything would be fine.

When the truck resumed its slow, rumbling journey, Rarity watched as Tex reached over and gripped Applejack’s leg. The sleeping pony didn’t even budge as Tex squeezed her, crying silently.

Rarity didn’t say anything, and neither did the human. He continued to weep without a sound, holding onto Applejack the whole way to Bastogne.



------



McAuliffe considered himself a stern professional when it came to soldiering. Parades and polish were for others, he’d stick with tough men and muddy boots.

But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with enjoying your time in the sun.

He probably had as many reporters as Princess Celestia, maybe even Patton. In a crisp, clean uniform he led them down the battered streets. He even allowed himself a savage grin as the well-fed civilians shivered in the cold.

“Even without their warlocks, things were touch-and-go for a while,” he explained, keeping it as simple as he could. “No Christmas turkey for us, all through the 24th, 25th, and 26th they came on, tightening around us. But we held on, dammit. The pegasi finished clearing the skies on Christmas, letting the flyboys bomb ‘em. Those poor bastards just kept coming, through the bombs and the snow and the machine guns. Some of them even got in Bastogne itself, but we were able to throw them out.”

Firing from windows and doorways as they spilled into town. The Germans dying, they just kept dying, but they kept pushing forward. They were able to firebomb some of the buildings. Not many survivors from those ones.

But nobody wants to hear that part.

“But you boys know the rest of the story. Patton from the South and Celestia from the West.” He punched his fists together. “Can’t get through Bastogne, so they have to leave the roads. Lots of them get lost, or slow down so much we catch up with them. All their panzers outta gas, dozens and dozens of ‘em, just left for us on the road.”

“Those who can, running into the woods with the princess and Ol’ Blood ‘n Guts at their heels. Those Krauts who were on the wrong side of Bastogne…” he punched his fist again. “It’s done, boys. Hitler’s last gasp, done. And here’s where it ended.”

Sure he was proud, but he had a right to be. He made a difference here, a BIG difference.

“Not just me,” McAuliffe whispered, yanking himself back down to Earth. Leaving the reporters to other interviews, he retraced his steps back to the old city hall. There wasn’t much headquarters-work to be done, so he let the docs annex it for a hospital. Lots of people in there – his own, and injured guys from Patton and Celestia’s armies as well.

He shook a few hands, patted a few shoulders. The wounded and dying, looking up at him like he was Moses with the Ten Commandments. He was the big damn hero, and they worshipped him for it.

Rather than inflate his ego, the praise pierced it, bringing him down from his heady jingoism. A hero? He just sat back and gave orders.

A side hall brought him to where the wounded Equestrians lay. The segregation made it easier on everyone – go figure, human doctors didn’t know much about treating ponies. They had one of their own nurses here, but the brunt of the work was borne by local veterinarians. Funny ol’ world.

God help him, even these ponies were awed in his presence. Blushing and giggling, Flitter asked him to kiss her bandaged leg so it would heal faster. What could he do? He leaned in and did it, pretending not to notice a camera flash off to the side.

The newsreels hadn’t paid much attention to the other hero of Bastogne. Even these Equestrians didn’t know how much Twilight Sparkle had done. A bandage was wrapped around her chest, and another on her leg. Her cheek had fresh stitches on it, and one of her ears would hang in two halves for the rest of her days. But all in all, the wounds were minor. She got off lucky. They all did.

Twilight hovered around a bed that held an orange mare, holding a bowl of soup and spoon with her magic. The pony in question was barely visible, bundled beneath several blankets with a hot water bag on her head. She glared daggers at her friend, reluctantly allowing herself to be fed. On the other side of the bed, Rainbow Dash stood with her head swaddled in bandages, chatting with a white unicorn. A few battered Americans had planted themselves on stools nearby, beaming at the bedridden mare.

“Chicken soup, AJ?”

“Don’t be gross, Jackie,” the orange pony huffed. “Hot bean soup, thank you very much.”

The corporal shook his head, befuddled smile on his face. “And you were walking for four days. Shoot, Big Lee and I got picked up by the Brits within two. That couldn’t’ve been easy, what with you dragging Tex the whole way.”

“Reckon we made do.” The mare shrugged and looked away, feebly accepting another spoonful.

The larger human spoke. “Fred got out, too. Kid didn’t even realize we were being shot at until your brother snagged him.”

That got her attention. “Mac’s here?!”

Jackie lit a cigarette, smiling with half of his mouth “’Eeyup.’ Actually was in your bed, but he cleared out to make room. Big red target that he is he got hit again, but it didn’t slow him down. Shoot, between that and D-Day he’d have two purple hearts by now if he was from the States.”

“Heh.” Applejack cracked a smile. “He’s too stubborn to die, just like his sis.”

Die. “Hey…any of you guys hear what happened with Manny?”

Jackie took a puff and looked away. “Yeah, pitched his helmet at Jerry. Poor bastard. They’re calling it the ‘Malmedy Massacre.’”

Alliteration. Applejack gave an irate snort. “Don’t much care what they call it.”

“Neither do I,” Twilight said. She touched her hoof to Applejack’s, smiling softly. “I just care that you’re alive.”

The farmpony frowned, glaring off into space. “I hear yah, Sugar. It’s just…lotsa good folks ain’t.”

“I know,” Twilight said softly. Hesitantly, gently, she leaned in to embrace her friend. “But you are. You all are. I can be happy for that.”

Too weak to lift her forelegs, Applejack nuzzled her friend back. Rainbow Dash and the white unicorn stepped over to join the quiet group hug. Applejack and Rarity were sobbing. Rainbow was frowning tightly, fighting the water coming to her eyes. Twilight was smiling with her eyes closed, but a tear trailed its way down her cheek.

McAuliffe watched for one more second before turning away, unnoticed. This ain’t no place for a ‘hero.’

Author's Note:

As the weather broke, so too did the deadlock around Bastogne. Allied planes began to hammer the besiegers, desperate to save the forces trapped inside. Patton made his presence felt, assaulting with reckless abandon to relieve the siege. With so much of their army trapped on the wrong side of Bastogne, the Germans themselves fought wildly to secure the crossroads. And against them the defenders held out, unwilling to yield with relief so close in sight.

In the end, Model’s last desperate assaults failed. The defense held. Patton entered Bastogne triumphantly on December 27th. Eisenhower finally released Celestia to attack and attack she did, pinching the cream of the Axis assault between herself and Bastogne.

The remnants of the German army fled back into the Ardennes Forest, pursued by forces under Celestia, Bradley, and Patton. There, the Allied generals found no great victories. Only ambushes and minefields, bunkers and kill-boxes. Once more, Walter Model had resurrected the German army and punished his foes for their hubris.

But this would be the last time. Germany had so little left to give, and disaster now loomed more inevitably than ever. The blow in the East met with much the same results as the one in the West: The Germans struck, gained ground, and were then rolled back with heavy losses and no real success.

The last card had been thrown. Crippled beyond salvation, the Wehrmacht rallied its remaining strength and prepared for the apocalypse. There was no chance now, not even of a negotiated peace. Yet still the Third Reich would fight on, desperate, maddened, clinging to the last few threads of hope.

The year turned. The snow began to thaw, and already the Allied armies were on the move.



Chapter 10 of the project, and end of the Bastogne arc. Thank you for reading.

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