Stalwart Hooves would likely never know why a farming community would decide to lay down their roots at the base of a giant rocky mountain. He also had little chance of understanding why, after untold years of silence, a dragon living inside the mountain would start snoring soot into the atmosphere. He also reasoned it was beneath him, or above him, or somewhere off to the side of him, to understand why the Royal Guard had decided to send just two of their soldiers to sort the issue out. The world, he supposed, was irrational like that.
“It’s a small dragon,” his commander, an aging earth pony named Rings, said. “Don’t be so worried.”
“It’s still a dragon,” Stalwart replied.
“Yeah. A small dragon.”
Laden with full packs, the two made their way up a narrow pass snaking along the side of the mountain. Gentle but constant winds blew across the exposed path, making normal conversation difficult. For the most part, they kept their heads low, hugging the rock face whenever possible and keeping their minds off the unprotected drop only a few steps away. The whole walk probably would have been much more terrifying if they weren’t so tired.
“Couldn’t they have gotten pegasi to fly up there, sir?” Stalwart adjusted his pack and looked at Rings, who was a few paces ahead of him. The two had been plucked off a night-patrol in Canterlot and sent via train to the town at the ase of the mountain--Craggy Crown, or something--with vague instructions to address the issue and assist where necessary. The issue being an animal most well-known for eating ponies and stealing gold. Well, here were a couple well-tenderized ponies dressed in gold armor coming up the mountain to face it. Equestria was a nation of bold strategies.
“All our pegasi are with the Princess in Cloudsdale. There’s no one else to take care of this.” Rings’ voice was even. It bore no weight, though it fell heavily on Stalwart.
He looked into the sky, straining to see the cloud city. Floating just above the northern horizon, a few wispy dots caught his eye. “Jerks,” he said, and looked down again. By the end of the first hour he thought he had a good rhythm down. Don’t look down, don’t look around, don’t look anywhere. Just walk. Eventually you’ll stop. For now, just walk. “Should have gotten the elements of harmony to deal with this.”
“Do you want them to come by every time you need your hoof held? Are you so helpless you can’t even do your job?” Though Rings was clearly tired, his voice still had that strangely infuriating quality to it. It made Stal want to push him off the edge of the clif, especially when it came out all condescending like that.
Stal considered his options. “You’re right, sir.”
A minute of silent walking passed them by. Far above them, a flock of birds came to rest on one of the upper outcroppings. Their voices surprised Stal. He realized then that he and Rings were the only two ponies around. They had a virtual 360-degree bubble of isolation stretching all the way down to the base of the mountain. Sure, there was a village down there. Stal knew that. But up here, with the air thinning and the sweat dripping slowly down his face, he felt like it wasn’t even there at all. Like he wasn’t even there at all. A traveler, a rogue but ultimately pointless element. He was born at the base and started walking. At the top--maybe he’d finish. Maybe he’d start over at the bottom. Maybe he’d have to walk down and try not to slip.
“Y’know what? I think we should keep talking,” Rings said, startling Stal out of his daydream. “A lot of great commanders told me that positive casual interactions with subordinates result in more productive work. When it comes to your fellow guard, the hang is essential.”
“They didn't teach us how to hang in basic."
They shared a laugh. It rang strangely in the open air.
“Hey Stal,” Rings said, “want to know why they call it a Code DR?”
“Why’s that sir?” Stalwart said.
“It’s shorthand for Code Drudge.”
Stalwart felt another rock worming its way into his horseshoes. “Fascinating.”
“Get it? You drudge up the mountain, you poke the magical pony-eating beast until it gets mad, then you drudge back down the mountain.”
“I thought DR just stood for dragon, sir.”
“Nah, no. Drudge. Not dragon.”
Stalwart stopped. With a wince, he lifted his front hoof and shook out a rock from his horseshoe.
“You wanna stop now?” Rings asked in his bullish way. “We’re almost there.”
Stalwart looked up. Another thirty yards ahead, the pass leveled out. The dragon’s lair would be there for sure. Follow orders. Look forward, not around. But discontent was already seizing him like soreness in his legs, the slow calcification that could be thought away for a time but always got the better of you in the end.
“I joined to save Equestria, sir. Not foalsit it,” Stal said.
“You are saving Equestria. One step at a time.”
Had he been less tired, that answer would not have been good enough. But The cave was so close, and he had his orders, and the rocks were out of his horseshoes. So they kept going.
The cave was about where they expected it to be. The path widened into a plateau about twenty yards across, one side a sheer face rising to the summit and the other a sheer drop. A wide gash in the mountainside roughly four meters high extending far into blackness. A trickle of soot rolled out the cave’s ceiling and into the open air. Prevailing winds pushed it out of view to the other side of the mountain and out of sight.
“Well,” Rings said, “I guess we better get to it.”
“I suppose,” Stal replied.
Rings made a little motion with his hooves, like an ironic dance move he wasn’t really putting any effort into. “Off you go.”
“Uh, sir, I don’t think I know your plan. It would be unwise to go in without a plan--”
“Yes, absolutely. A plan is vital to success. As is teamwork, and trust, and good spirits. That’s why they sent us up here in the first place.”
“Yes, sir. So, the plan--”
“The plan, Stal, is simple. It’s been carried out effectively for many years, well before the elements of harmony showed up. I’ll set up a command post over there.” He pointed to a scenic side of the plateau overlooking some rolling green plains. “Meanwhile, you try and get the beast out of there. Use your spear--”
“Sir? Are you saying I go in there alone?” Stal started to lean into his words. Gravity felt stronger in the thin air than it did at sea level. Wasn’t it supposed to work the opposite way around? Maybe if he had been a scientist he could have studied it in a lab as opposed to feeling it in the field.
“It’s a small dragon, Stal. You’ll be fine.”
Stal resisted the temptation to run back down the mountain. Instead, he dug his hooves in and said, “If we worked as a team we could do this much more efficiently.”
“We are working as a team, and we are working efficiently.” Rings turned towards the wide expanse of plains below them. “The guard contingent in that town down there--see it?” He pointed at a tiny collection of huts and houses ten or so miles away from Craggy Crown. “The guards there are waiting for me to give a mirror signal. Once I signal them, they’ll send a message to Canterlot letting them know the mission is accomplished. We return to town as heroes, and tomorrow morning Canterlot’ll send a pegasus crew to pick us up.”
Stal felt the righteous anger that had puffed him up deflate all at once. “I didn’t know that.”
“You don’t need to know that. You need to go in there and stab the dragon until it leaves.”
Stal nodded, “Yes, sir.” He faced the scar in the rock and readied his spear. “It was a small dragon, right sir?”
“Of course. Soot plume analysis indicated the dragon wasn’t more than a few meters long. There’s a very small chance of deviation.”
“Deviation--that means there’s a chance it’s not small.”
Rings rolled his eyes. Something almost like forlornness crossed his face. Maybe he was just mad he couldn’t talk everyone into compliance. He got right up next to Stal and in a moment of rare passion shouted, “Fight, private! Do it! Fight!”
Half scared, half offended, Stal uttered a pathetic battle cry and charged into the cave.
Darkness engulfed him almost immediately. Somehow he had forgotten about that fact. Caves were dark. Dragons could see in the dark. Ponies could not. No sooner had he lost sight of the ground at his hooves than he tripped over something hard and metallic. His armor rattled as he rolled across the stone floor. The metal plates rattled against each other.
Something lunged at him.
It all happened so fast. There was darkness, a strange noise like a bassy chicken, and just like that the sun was shining in his eyes and he was skidding across the plateau, coming to a stop a few lengths away from where Rings stood.
“Was it a big one?” Rings asked.
Stal rose slowly to his hooves and groaned, “Couldn’t see it.”
“You’ll get him this time. Ears up, head down.” Rings gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder before walking to the edge of the plateau. There, he sat with his front hooves just barely hanging over the mountain’s edge. The view must have been wonderful.
Meanwhile, Stal tried to ignore his captain’s serenity. He pounded his chest plate a few times, forced a hot breath between his teeth, and charged into the cave again.
As the distant sounds of lopsided battle rang from the cave, Rings took in the scenery with half-lidded eyes. Pegasi got bored of looking down, but for a wingless pony like him, the earth only looked more beautiful from far away. It was all a matter of perspective. Like seeing a good friend in a market without saying hello. Just observing. Most earth ponies found heights unnerving. Rings felt the mountain beneath him, extending all the way down to the town below. Somehow, he didn’t feel far away from mother earth at all. If anything, he felt even more connected than ever before. A strange feeling of zen washed over him.
Stal flew out of the cave again. His armor made a terrible squeaking sound as he rolled across the rock.
“I think--oh stars.” Stal came up to his knees and rested his head against the ground. “I think it’s toying with me.”
“Dragons might not be able to smell fear, but they can smell sweat. Try using your scent to throw off the enemy.”
Stal scrunched up his face, trying to extrude something of value. “I don’t think smell is the issue, sir,” he finally replied, his words even with preemptive thought. “I can’t hit it because I can’t see it.”
“Do you really think you need to see it to fight it?”
Rings sighed. “We might be up here for awhile, but you’ll learn a very valuable lesson from this, I’m sure of it.”
“Yes, sir,” Stal called as he ran back in.
As he flailed in the darkness, it occurred to Stal that the dragon could be playing with him to soften him up. Literally. He forgot whether tired ponies were more tough or tender. Something told him he shouldn’t worry too much about it.
The beast picked him up by one leg and threw him outside. He was up on his hooves in an instant, spitting bloody murder, charging again and again into the cave.
To Rings, the mission was pure comedy gold. “I forgot to mention,” he managed to say between laughter, “that if I don’t signal in two hours, the contingent from the town is gonna come over here with a cannon and blast the top of the mountain. You’d better hurry!”
As he checked a newly-forming bruise. Stal said, “It would take all day just to haul the thing up here.”
“Not necessary. You know the new cannons, the Horsewitzer designs? They can shoot six miles. All they’d need to do is park the thing down there in the town, aim it at a nice angle, and boom!” Rings laughed and laughed. “Boom!”
Stal charged in again, if not just to escape the laughter. Darkness and the occasional high-pitched shrieks were no comfort though, and soon enough he was out in the sun once more, this time with a long dent in the side of his armor.
“Give me your armor, sir.”
Without turning around, Rings patted his helmet and shook his head. “Not gonna happen. You’re gonna have to buff that out yourself.”
“Sir, my armor’s been--”
“Compromised, yes--but why compromise mine, too? You’re gonna run in there again and it’s just gonna smack you around some more, and your armor is gonna need fixing anyway. A force whose armor is only fifty percent functional is still better than a force whose armor is zero percent functional. Besides, yours has that shine to it. The dragon probably thinks you’re made of gold. Use that to your advantage.”
As Stal moved into the cave again, Rings occupied himself with the surrounding plains’ topography. Wheat and barley stretched for miles on end. To the east, the border of the wild Everfree forest peeked over the horizon. A few clouds swirled restlessly over the trees, but at this distance it looked more like a dance than a storm. As a younger stallion he worried constantly about being alone. Now, all he could feel was the embrace of isolation.
A flash of light caught Rings’ attention. He turned to find Stal flopping across the plateau, skidding all the way up to the very edge of the mountain before he finally dug in his hooves and came to a stop. A few loose pebbles skittered into thin air. Stal followed them with his eyes for a moment until they fell out of sight, and only the ground far below remained. Then he scrambled back, breathing hard.
“You were gonna catch me, right sir?”
Rings laughed. He wasn’t so alone up here. Maybe things would be different if he had the mountain to himself. “Of course I was gonna catch you, Stal.” Rings ignored Stalwart’s distress and pointed towards the horizon. “I think I found Ponyville, right over there on the edge of the forest. Do you see it?”
Stal turned sharply and stared into the cave again. “I see it, sir.”
Rings threw a glance over his shoulder and chuckled. “Sometimes I think about how pretty this place would be without anyone around. No ponies, no dragons. Totally abandoned.”
Stal stared into the cave and nodded. “No dragons. Sounds nice.”
“I think about how beautiful it would be, how much I’d like to be there and see what no one else could see. I could explore the cave and not be afraid of dragons. I could look at the land and not see a single trace of ponykind.” He smiled slowly. “But then, just being there would ruin it. That’s a darn shame, isn’t it? I’ll never see something I don’t see.”
“Sir, let me borrow your spear.”
“Like you wanted to borrow my armor?”
“Really. I have an idea. I just need two spears to make it work.”
Rings sighed and threw his spear over to Stal, who caught it in his teeth. He forced out a couple short breaths before jogging back into the cave.
As darkness engulfed Stal, he blinked hard and scanned for any sign of movement. Somewhere ahead of him came a skitter and that deep clucking sound.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Stal reared back and whipped the first spear into the cave wall. Sparks flew where the metal tip hit stone. The dragon shrieked and went after it. As silently as he could, Stal trotted deeper into the cave, his head swiveling between the immediate blackness before him and the sounds of the dragon.
After what seemed like ten minutes of searching, he finally blundered into what he was searching for. With all the grace becoming of a royal guard, he looked over his shoulder, tripped, and fell flat into a reasonably-sized hoard of gold and jewels.
Behind him, the dragon was already growing bored with the spear. He could feel its footsteps as it closed in on him. Acting quickly, he laid down on his back at the base of the hoard and twisted himself into a throwing position with his spear perched in one hoof. Legs coiled and eyes closed, he held his breath and waited.
A moment later, the dragon returned. It belched out a pathetic cluck before hopping atop its hoard and laying down. Coins predating Nightmare Moon’s defeat pelted Stal, along with some less impressive Equestrian bits.
A minute passed. Stal let himself breathe again. He opened his eyes again, and as they adjusted to the low light he saw the dragon’s silhouette outlined against the faint glow of the hoard. It clucked once and laid its head atop the pile. A few loose coins clinked against each other as they fell to the ground. For a long moment, the cave was still.
With all his might, Stal threw the spear over the dragon and deeper into the cave. The walls shook with the sound of metal meeting stone. With a great roar, the dragon threw itself off the pile in a shower of gold and took off after the noise.
Stal waited another moment before getting up. He raked one hoof across the side of the hoard, gathering as many coins as he could hold before booking it for the exit.
Perhaps dragons couldn’t smell fear, but they could smell sweat. Hardly a moment passed before more warbly roars echoed through the cave. Stal didn’t look back as he sprinted out the maw of the cave and into the light. The sun blinded him, but he stumbled forward to the very edge of the plateau before throwing the gold over the edge.
“Sir!” Stal shouted to Rings, who hadn’t moved an inch. “He’s coming out!”
They both turned their eyes to the mouth of the cave. The soot trickling out of the cave stopped for just a moment, just long enough to reveal the form of the dragon as it barreled out of the cave after its lost treasure.
Stal dove to one side. Rings leaned over and flinched. The dragon gave one more horrible squawk and threw itself over the edge.
Slowly, Stal got to his hooves. The dragon had left a trail of soot that made it hard to breath. “Sir?” Stal said, “you still there?”
“Yeah,” came the reply from across the plateau. “Still here.”
They moved to the edge of the plateau, and were just about to look over when the dragon came flying back onto the plateau in all its semi-feathered glory, thin lines of soot mixed with saliva dripping from its pointed mouth, a hooffull of gold coins clutched tightly in its talons. It offered a final shriek before stomping back into the cave.
“Well,” Rings started, “guess we’ll just have to do that again.”
“No, look.” Stal pointed at the top of the cave, where the stream of soot was losing steam. Another minute passed, and it was gone entirely.
“Huh,” Rings said with a shrug. “I guess we just needed to change his sleeping position.”
Stal just stood there, staring. His armor was dented and dirty. His spear was gone. His face was black with smeared soot. His bones ached.
But the issue had definitely been addressed.
“What if he rolls over again?” Stal asked.
“Then Canterlot will send someone else up here to deal with it.” Rings was up on his hooves again, stretching his legs one by one as he made his way over to Stal. “Hopefully they’ll send someone else.”
“We seem to be the most experienced in dealing with this dragon now,” Stal remarked.
“Yes. It would seem like we are.”
Rings made one last walk to the edge of the plateau. He pulled a rounded mirror from his pocket and lined it up with the distant village before flashing it three times. A faint light from the town winked back three times. A smile appeared on his face.
Stal took the moment to catch his breath. His mind drifted to the the long walk back to the village. He wondered how on earth Rings could be smiling knowing they had such a slog ahead of them.
Some ponies, he supposed, were irrational like that.