There was once the concept that each pony was equal.
This was soon found not to be the case.
Discord has many forms.
Before the Sun Rises.
It was fall, and the rain fell for the thirtieth day. The rivers swelled, and the earthen foundations of Mulch were reduced into slicks of mud. The land was not used to this kind of rain, nor were its inhabitants, and it was from such an unfamiliarity that the invading peoples drew their advantage. It wasn't as if such a boon was necessary; the ponies of this land were naught but farmers and fishers, who knew nothing of battles and warfare. Once in a blue moon, the townspeople might gather their tools and run out a bandit or two. These southerners, wielding magic and plates of iron, represented something different. Most earth ponies had never seen a unicorn's power, and those that had knew of nothing more than petty tricks and spectacles, and here they came as a tide from the South, bringing with them the wrath and judgement of the Gods. No one expected such an inundation.
The people of Mulch stood to defy their foe, as had all the towns and villages that dotted the landscape, but knew that they did not face victory. Their lives had been a show of compromise, whether in trade or diplomacy or piety, and when they were given no middle ground, they stood strong in the face of insurmountable odds. As had the sixty three towns that had fallen to this individual band alone in the past year. They were not playing to win.
And so the rain fell. The constant pattering of water on wood could drive any pony mad, whether the shingles on the roofs, the ash of the palisade, or the oaken armour that every stallion and mare wore upon their backs. The simple carved shell offered little true protection, but it was better than the vast majority, who had been forced to improvise with shingles strung together into a sort of mock-scale. Saddles held spears, tipped with copper for the lucky few, stone for the rest. Nopony spoke; even less dared breathe above the weather.
Near the town center, a house collapsed onto its sundered foundation, and the militia moved silently to take the rubble, that it may serve better use reinforcing the gates. Any inhabitants had either been drafted or, in the case of the elderly, children, and infirm, evacuated to the town hall, which represented the only stone structure and thus the impromptu 'stronghold' of the hamlet. Dragging debris, they were interrupted by a familiar call. Up upon the palisade, a haggard looking pony with a mane matted with wet stared unblinkingly into the forest with his remaining eye.
"Soldiers moving out of the woods!"
They dropped everything, dashing full speed to the walls. Earth ponies had no real means of firing an arrow, and thus these unicorns were the first that any had seen along the lines of ranged warfare, but they learned quickly. After the first volley took its deadly toll several days ago, the remainder knew enough to take cover from any subsequent attack. There was a tremendous clatter as their armour clashed against the walls, slowly trickling down to silence again as even the last stragglers reached their positions. The silence was broken by a biting noise, hundreds of arrows flying over the walls to pepper the ground below, hoping to hit something with the indirect fire. Beyond the arrhythmic thunks of arrowheads striking rooftops, there was no indication that anything had been hit past the ground. Still they stood, though; confusion beginning to set in as it became apparent there was to be no further firing, but they were not given the all clear. An unfamiliar call followed.
There was a few seconds before a response took hold, each member of the militia in a daze at this break in routine. For nearly two weeks they had followed an easy schedule, fixing the walls from flood damage, eating breakfast, taking enemy fire, eating dinner, and so on. That the enemy was to finally make their assault was an uncomfortable fact. Arrows were survivable. The first movement was that of a deep purple mare, though barely of such an age, as she began to dash to the city hall. Following such an example, the rest of the militia began to assemble in the city center, which by now consisted of little more than a large patch of mud in front of the hall.
The mare had distinctly more important things to do than assembly, and she burst into the hall with an exasperated sense of duty. A chestnut colt, wearing a clay pot on his head as if some sort of helm, screamed and ran away from the door, terrified by this entrance that interrupted his game, but she gave him no heed. She crossed swiftly through the building, passing a number of children and elders who looked at her in confusion. Those few that had been injured from arrows held no such confusion, knowing full well what this represented. A mare and a stallion stood at the back, and it was apparent by the looks of their faces that their discussion was not regarding this year's good harvest. Contrasting to all others of fighting age, this mare shone in the fire's light, wearing a shell of iron over her coat of steel, a thick yellow mane sticking out from under her helmet, clearly not having been cut in a long time. The helmet upon her head had a horn, made to protect that most important part of a unicorn, but held a different purpose in the hands of an earth pony. The stallion, on the other hand, wore no such protection, apparently relying on his deep blue robes to protect him from arrows, though it seemed to barely save him from the cold. Their hushed tones cut completely as they were approached, staring intently at this arrival, though the stallion was more irritated than anything.
“Miss Fleurette! We... They...”
The stallion was not having his irritation being relieved as the purple pony spluttered and stuttered incoherently, instead looking back to his companion and shaking his head slowly. She sighed softly, turning back to the increasingly flustered mare in front of her. Resting a hoof on her shoulder, Fleurette stared intensely into this other pony’s eyes, silently commanding calm with her gaze. The spluttering and stammering slowly worked down, eventually quieting as all focus of either party was on eye contact. When Fleurette spoke, her voice was as smooth as silk.
“Blackberry, you must see the need for pacing. Collect yourself before speaking, and speaking will not need time. Do you understand?”
She didn’t understand really, but nodded nonetheless.
“Now, say what you have to say.”
“The enemy is-”
Fleurette moved her hoof from Blackberry’s shoulder to her mouth, cutting her off. Suddenly very interested in this conversation, it seemed that most of the people in the hall were staring intently at the two, deathly silent as they awaited the news. Glancing around, Blackberry understood almost immediately why her superior had quieted her. Closing her mouth, she slowly brought the other pony’s hoof down from her face. Fleurette sighed softly, nodding her head, slowly crossing the hall to the door, tailed by Blackberry as the villagers whispered rumours and confusion amongst one another. It was better they whispered fears than yelled in panic.
The village square was now filled with the full military might of the hamlet of Mulch: roughly fifty ponies stood in the rain, neither shivering nor shying away from this fate. Fleurette stared at a few of them individually, reading their demeanor. It wasn’t courage that brought them here to fight, nor was it despair. These ponies had already resigned themselves to death the moment the gates were barred, made their final farewells to children, to spouses, lovers, parents. They awaited death as a prisoner would await his sentence. These people knew they were already dead, and wanted only for the executioner to finally make his blow. Her eyes trickled to Blackberry, who trotted her way into group as well, tightening her peytral and eagerly giving a final run down of her weapons and armour. Perhaps not everyone had resigned themselves quite yet.
She stomped a hoof, giving a thick crunch of metal that cut through the rainy air, drawing all eyes to the unfamiliar noise. There was near silence, the sound of water on wood penetrated only by the sound of water on metal, both directly in front of the group, and distantly behind them. Outside the walls, a horn blew, and the city gates buckled with a tremendous force. Fleurette closed her eyes and exhaled, feeling the weight of the armour on her body. Though she spoke loudly to the crowd, her voice was still smooth and personal. She did not open her eyes until she had finished.
“Not all of us were born to be gods.”
The gates buckled again, though no horn blew.
“That does not mean, though, that we are not in their plans. Every mare, every stallion that stands here today, is here under the direction of those who gave us life.”
At this strike, the sound of splintering wood was apparent. Two short blasts from the horn accompanied a cheer from outside the walls. With her eyes closed, Fleurette could almost imagine that this was not an assault, rather, some manner of game, or perhaps a parade.
“I do not know what direction was given to you, nor where you have come from, and I do not expect you to know each-other's any better, however we share now a common destination.”
Another crunch heralded the breach of the gates, though they were not fully open. A black coated unicorn poked his head through the hole in the doors briefly, staring at the gathering before shouting something back to his comrades. A few at the back of the group cast uneasy glances to the failing fortification, but were drawn back to the lucid voice of their commander.
“That destination is not death. Neither is it victory, not defeat. Our paths will take us to the end of this road, to the ranks of our enemy. For some of us, that will be the end of our path.”
The gate gave one final groan of protest, barely holding onto the walls it was mounted on. The rain altogether ceased, no longer being necessary as a siege measure.
“For some of us, that will be a turn, a turn to a world, hopefully free of strife such as this. Whether you will cease your stride or march onwards, it has been my honour to walk beside you.”
Fleurette opened her eyes, staring down the road that lead from the hall to the main gate. No barricades obstructed the view, no traps or tricks. Acting on the unsaid cue, the militia turned as well, facing the gate as the soldiers behind backed up for a last strike of the ram. The shattering of wood was the sound that each individual on either side of the wall was waiting for, and its ringing call was the climax of many tired lives that would never know a decrescendo. There was no more time for words. Three horn blasts announced the enemy’s success, and they began to pour into the walls. The noon sun shone beautifully off of the pristine iron, whether it were the plates, the swords, or the arrowheads glinting as they flew from the breach into the formation. For the most part, the missiles glanced off of the edges of the wooden armour, or firmly stuck themselves into the thickest portion of the peytral, but one mare gave a strained gurgle, the mud rising around her as she fell, a sturdy shaft piercing her throat.
There was no order to be given by the defenders. Fleurette was the first to start running, her own iron plates tarnished and covered in mud, an affront to the perfection upheld by the gleaming ranks ahead of her. After her followed Blackberry, eager and willing to fight for glory as much as the safety of her home. She gave a great cry as she barrelled forward, her not quite fully grown legs carrying her as fast as she could manage with all her equipment. Almost immediately after, the rest fell into the charge, giving a great bellow as they ran to certain death. Arrows began to fly at random intervals, archers having been given the order to fire at will, and the infantry braced themselves for this futile counterattack.
The militia crashed into their foes with the force that only a people of great conviction could muster, spears splintering against metal as the magically wielded swords began to set to work. Wood offered little protection, and the farmers and fishers fell in a flurry of motion. Fleurette proved a harder foe, as though her spears were nearly useless in combat such as this, the iron horn on her helm swept and stabbed as lethally as any sword. She could not stand against an army on her own, though, and it was not long before her coat and mane were stained crimson with her own blood, her body straining its hardest to keep focus and strength as pain and injury threatened to overtake her. The last thing she saw was a grinning face, as red as the blood that stained the ground and lingered in the air, as the stallion gored her throat with his horn, the armour sharpened to a point much as hers had been. After that, her path came to an end.
She was the last to fall, and when her limp form collapsed onto the corpses of those she had taken with her, the victors let out a loud shout, the archers making sure each of the defenders was truly dead with an arrow through their skull. The crimson stallion didn’t lose his grin as he marched along the gore-strewn road to the village center, however it became less apparent as he was approached by a large, blue clothed stallion, moving fluidly through his own ranks to whisper in his ear.
“You have won the day, truly. This land is now yours, as are the spoils of victory.”
Assuming this voice to be nothing more than another military advisor, seeking to advance his position in the world to one of a higher pay, the unicorn paid little attention beyond the endlessly practiced nod of courtesy. It was only as he found himself stumbling forward, tripping face first into the mud by the hoof of another party, that the blue stallion was given his due attention, spitting furious words from a filthy face as he struggled to bring himself back to a standing position.
“I’ll have you killed for something like this! Archers!”
The group near the back, counting what was left of their ammunition, jumped into attention at their calling, doing their best not to treat their superior with anything short of absolute respect now that he was, in essence, kneeling before this earth pony who had pushed past them not ten seconds earlier.
“Shoot this bastard!”
Arrows from the pile flew into action, hovering in the air for a moment as they were magically given the energy to fly straight and true towards the designated target. They never made a connection, though, slowing greatly in their arc to fall at only halfway to their destination, the archers looking from one another with great confusion as to this apparent lack of strength on their part. Righting himself, the bloodied and muddied stallion aggressively approached the blue clothed opposition, who until this point had not moved and inch, merely smiling from beneath his azure hood as he watched these events take place.
“Do you know who you’re talking to? I am Lord Crimson Impulse, and I do not play games with fools and insubordinate swine! You will explain yourself at once or I will kill you myself!”
The stallion was apparently not impressed at the words of the Lord, giving a low chuckle as he began to approach him with full attention. The infantry, dissatisfied at the lack of significant loot held in the meagre houses, now began to gather in the streets to view this odd confrontation.
“Need I explain anything that you demand of me, would it not collaborate with my own intentions? No, no I don’t think I need to. I come to you with a proposition, one to increase your standing with your superior, that you might soon be of higher standing than leading this army of recruits to fight against peasants and barbarians.”
Though he was intensely skeptical of the intentions of this individual, Crimson was more than willing to trust him if it meant more prestige, and the possibility of escape from this slow fate. Rather than state any particular affiliation, he nodded to indicate his interest. The other stallion grinned.
“Burn this place. Kill all who reside here, who hide away in little holes. Finally make an example of this town, so that all the rest are kept loyal through fear. Show them the result of defiance.”
The hesitation of the commander widened the blue stallion’s grin. The troops looked confused, muttering questions amongst one another about who this individual was, and what he was speaking of. Stepping forward further, he came up close to Crimson’s ear, speaking through a muted smile.
“My request now is not the first time you’ve considered this option, is it, Commander? You know that merely following orders does not garner the attention that an advancement in rank deserves, and you know the value of an educated risk. Eradicate this place, and you will return home with more glory and men than any would have expected. The prize for success is a truly great one.”
The hesitation of Crimson had evolved beyond the point of horror, and now took on a pensive tone as his eyes tried to discern the intent of this new advisor. All there was to show was a thin smile peering from beneath a blue hood, and with a tired shrug from his subject, that luxury was taken away as well, the stallion turning away and beginning to trot back towards the shattered gate. The soldiers hushed as he neared, parting for his passage as the rumours formed in mere minutes of speculation began to take hold. The eyes of the archers were the last to return to their commander, giving up their viewing of this departure in favour of a viewing of his effect. Crimson Impulse, at this particular moment, was frozen in his place, lost in deep thought. Did the men know what he had said? Would following this plan be taking the orders of another, or his own initiative?
Sensing the eyes upon him, he turned to face the watchful gathering that had formed around him, finally taking note of the dead silence as every mare and stallion waited for him to speak. It was not of loyalty that they waited for orders, but curiosity, and he knew that more than anyone. His voice was uncharacteristically quiet when compared to his usual commanding volume, forming each syllable with the care that was only given to words of great weight.
“Burn this place. Leave none alive.”
Before the Sun Rises.
One: On The Insistence of Desperation.
Pain is said to be the simplest of stimuli. Everything from the smallest organism to a fully formed mare can feel pain, as anything that cannot feel pain is doomed to evolutionary failure. As the simplest of things, it by result takes priority over all others, and as Blackberry lay still in the mud, pain was all she knew. But to lie there, feeling pain, was what made her the lucky one. It took a great deal of strength to open her eye to view the world, both from the fear of what might become visible and the aching fatigue that comes after a time of fitful rest, but it was an action she was ultimately forced to do.
Lying on her side, only her left face was open to the world, and she stared blankly into the orange sky above for a time, tears brimming from the pain of a retina unused to such light. Attempting to take her mind off of recent events and present difficulties, she tried to focus on whether the sun was rising or setting. She was pretty sure that the main gate led out to the west, but that didn’t mean much of anything if she had gotten turned around at some point, and the fact that the sky darkened closer to her flank and brightened to her nose didn’t help for a similar reason. Ah, the mud. The mud was warm; if it was sunrise it would be cooler after a night’s chill. Proud of this bit of logic, she began to right herself, which had a significantly negative effect on forgetting the enveloping agony. She managed to move about an inch before falling back into the saturated earth, its texture now upheld by blood rather than water.
At least her agony reminded her that she was still alive, for what it was worth.
It took another few minutes, lying restlessly in the mud, before she was willing to attempt movement again. This time she managed to roll herself over, getting a good look at things with a level head. From this vantage point, she saw that there were not as many bodies as she would have assumed. Namely that there were none; only indents and etchings in the mud gave proof that anyone had fallen there.
Not yet fully responsive, Blackberry leaned hard on her right hoof to bring herself up: ash, dust, and small debris falling from her body as she rose. Taking a tentative step forward, she was immediately brought to her knees again by a profound jolt of pain. Blinking through stars, she stared at her left shoulder, where the thick wooden shaft of an arrow protruded quite noticeably. There were a few seconds of slow contemplation as her brain tried to understand this oddity, still not entirely grasping what was going on around her. Tenderly, she gripped the shaft between her teeth, biting down into the wood with a thin whimper. Inhaling deeply, she pulled it from her body with a swift motion, groaning and slipping into the mud as her mind threatened to give into the pain.
Slacking her jaw, the arrow rolled from her mouth and into the dirt, and she struggled once more to right herself. The first few steps were shaky, and even though her shoulder was no longer holding a missile it still held a great deal of pain, and she limped her way aimlessly through the former field of battle. She didn’t recognize the landscape anymore; even at the worst state of disrepair a fair number of structures still stood against the rain and mud from only hours before. Even soaking wet from weeks of downpour, everything that remained had been reduced into a blackened mess of rubble, though it would seem that the fire was not overly hot, as very few of the boards or supports had been burned through. A thick black plume of smoke, near the edge of the walls, indicated that at least one of the fires was still burning, though.
Standing idly at what had once been the center of town, she poked about at the stones that lay scattered around the plot. The solace that had once been found within these walls was meaningless now. The town hall had endured fires, droughts, bandits and floods for generations well beyond Blackberry’s brief time here, and now it was scattered in the dirt as easily as a child’s wooden blocks, put there only by the will of someone stronger. What had existed for centuries was usurped in an instant; how odd the swiftness of negative change. None of this was normal, though. The stories had been of oppressive ruler-ship and occupation, not eradication. It was a war for spoils and glory, not for land. This had been a lethally inconsistent indulgence, to burn the land and enslave its people. Giving one of the larger chunks a good kick, Blackberry jumped back as the ancient stone cracked and crumbled into several pieces, falling into the muck with an unceremonious cloud of dust. She blinked away the airborne particles, not sure if this accidental destruction was some kind of sacrilege to the events that had come to pass. She had never been particularly religious, and stood uncomfortably for a time before turning to make her slow way away from this sombre place. She wasn’t sure where to go, though; she’d never been away from home, and now that home was nothing, where else was there?
The plume of smoke grew larger as she began to walk the main road again, this time heading away. Salvaging the homes wasn’t an idea; in their state they would yield nothing of use. The fields had been on their way to harvest, but the siege had seen most of them burned and the rest stolen by the enemy. Pulling at the armour’s straps, the oaken shell fell into the mud, Blackberry relishing the lessened burden on her aching body. It was here on the road that she had started to charge, she could remember that, though any prints had been melded into an incomprehensible mess by the traffic. Her eyes flicked to the indent that she dragged herself from barely ten minutes before, and the skid lines that trailed into it. She’d made it about halfway before falling into the ditch that had once been someones property. In better days it might have been a garden, perhaps, or just a nice yard. No it had been a garden; tulips would always be blooming in the springtime.
Ahead, the smoke became increasingly acrid, and the eastward wind carried it over the town like a cancerous fog. Blackberry gagged and coughed until she came close enough to be outside of its cone of influence, her coat now considerably more coated in soot. The battered gates were completely absent, no sign of them ever having been present beyond the gaping doorway that stood fast in their absence. The bodies of the militia had been left where they fell; Blackberry idly nudged the face of one of them to get a better look. This was Peach Pit, who had helped teach her the ways of farming when she was just a filly. It was how she got her mark. And over here was Ploughshare, who had later learned his talent to be fishing, much to the contrast of his name. His sharp features and blue eyes had captured the heart of every mare in town, and Blackberry had been planning to act on it after the year’s harvest. Turning his head from side to side, she idly mused what might have been before moving along. Picking through every corpse, she noted that Fleurette was not present anywhere, another of the day’s many oddities.
Whimsically abandoning the prospect of solving any of these mysteries, Blackberry exited the safety of the walls for the first time since the gates had shut. The road was strewn with discarded arrows and other miscellanea, and the fields were, predictably, burned to a state well beyond use. Immediately left of the entrance, a large pile of corpses smoldered unpleasantly in the autumn air, and it was understandably this that Blackberry found her attention being drawn to. Up until this point, her mind had not fully processed the material that was being given to her, merely storing absently for later examination. Faced with this direct input, though, that protective ignorance did not hold up, and all function ground to a halt. The idea that her friends had been captured and sold off was hard to swallow when their bodies were grouped together and burned not twenty feet from where they’re once lived. She stood wide eyed for a few minutes, then vomited into the grass in front of her.
Startled by this sudden presence, the blue stallion jumped and looked around, his pipe falling from his mouth. Locating the newcomer, he stood from his vantage point atop the pile, no longer as enthralled with the lovely view of the setting sun. Raising a brow, he examined this soot-covered mare for a moment before sitting back down, his pipe slowly floating its way back into his mouth as he coughed to get her attention. Shooting her eyes up to this previously unnoticed individual, Blackberry’s face was a flurry of emotions as she tried to work out the whys and whats of today’s events. The result of such confusion was her stumbling and spluttering for a few seconds before a coughing fit set in. Not one to be outdone, the stallion raised his other brow, taking charge of the conversation.
“There’s a certain sense of poetry, that as the sun sets in the west, a mare as black as night strides along the moon’s path, emerging from the shadow of death and of darkness. One would attribute such things to fate’s sense of theatrics, but I doubt that fate had it all in mind at this particular juncture. After all, I didn’t notice you there.”
Taking a pensive puff from his pipe, the stallion stared at the still speechless Blackberry for a moment before turning back to the horizon, idly muttering to himself in the place of his apparently mute companion. Blackberry wanted nothing more at this point than to buck this stallion right in his face, partially out of the frustration and anger of him sitting on the bodies of everyone she’d ever known and cared about, but mostly because she just really wanted to hit something. However, unwilling to defile the bodies any further by climbing to their peak, she did her best in slinging insults.
“Swine! Thief and vagrant! You’re the son of a hundred fathers and all of them bastards like you!”
They continued in such a fashion, much to the amusement of the stallion, who up until this point had expected nothing but the silence of the dead for company. Dropping his pipe at the summit, he slid down the face nearest to Blackberry, his momentum sending two or three of the charred corpses down after him.
“My my, you certainly are a ball of spit and vinegar aren’t you, my little androktasia? I suppose if you’d been a calm mare then you likely would not have survived, now would you? Either way, there’s no need to be yelling at me; after all, what did I ever do to you?”
Rather than continue the fruitless act of strong words, Blackberry gave the stallion a hard kick in the face with her front hoof. Startled, he tripped backwards and slumped into a seated position, grinning wildly as he wiped soot from his face, having rubbed off on him from the brief contact.
“Ah, not black, then, bu-”
“Shut up! Shut the hell up! I’m tired of you talking about nothing! You’re going to explain to me why you were ‘oh-so-casually’ sitting on top of a pile of my friends, why you’re even here in the first place, and then you’re going to apologize for sullying their memories, and if you don’t I’m going to break that smug little smile on your face, got it?”
He shrugged nonchalantly, an action which didn’t really affirm that he had understood the statement, but he started running his mouth again before Blackberry had the opportunity to follow through on her words. Standing up again, his pipe lazily floated back to his mouth, stuck between ever grinning teeth.
“I’m here as one who is interested in interesting things, and I must say that in a time as dis-interesting as this, the conquests of a unified empire are rather choice pickings. As for my choice in location...” The stallion shrugged, looking westward once more. “I prefer to stand above the devastation if I can. That pile there is the highest point in this wreck now. Have to get to higher ground, wait out the floods from the peak of the world. But as the waters rise, can any peak be safe? Hm? Hm.”
He gave an audible smack as he cut short a long draw from his pipe, blowing a smoke ring into the air. Rather than join the rest eastward, it circled the air for a moment before heading west, against the wind. Blackberry was not overly satisfied with this answer, and after realizing that he had not answered much of anything, she granted him a second strike across the face. This time it was considerably harder, and his smile vanished as he wiped flecks of blood from his mouth, the mare making sure he knew who to answer to and why he should.
“I asked you a question and I expected an answer, not some fancy-talk that means nothing to anyone!”
He spat on the ground, furrowing his brow as he tried to keep an air of dignity about him.
“I gave you an answer and whether or not you take it is hardly my problem. An additional note is that I would prefer not to be stricken so rashly at any time in the future. Consider your apology rescinded because of such boorish behaviour.”
Ever eager to make a comment about how whether or not he ‘preferred’ to be struck was irrelevant, any words were cut off by a bright flash and a wisp of smoke, the stallion now translated back atop the smouldering pile. Startled by the flash, Blackberry stumbled backwards and fell rather hard upon the dirt road, blinking and shaking her head that her eyes would stop seeing stars. The stallion’s frown remained as he looked to the horizon, where nothing but a tiny sliver of sun remained to see off the last seconds of daytime.
“See, now you’ve gone and ruined what was supposed to be a lovely view. Hmph. All these farm folk, they don’t really have an appreciation for what the important things in the world are! I suppose the same could be said for all ponies, though. Tell me, little mare of the dead, do you have any idea where you’ll be staying for the night?”
Blackberry spat in his general direction. Though it landed far short of every hitting anybody, it was pretty direct in its message.
“I believe that would be a no. Well, regardless of your hostility towards me, the fact that looters will be here to pick this rubble clean within the day is no less true. I’m sure they’d love to find waiting for them a young, helpless, injured mare. Be more of a treasure then anything else they’d find in this trash that’s for sure. They follow the army like a flock of carrion, and they travel by night. Which, by all accounts, means they’ll be out soon.”
She frowned and continued sitting on the road, wishing dearly that he was at ground level that she could strike him. It wasn’t as if she could deny what he was saying, it did make sense after all, even if she didn’t understand the motives herself. Opening her mouth to shout more expletives at this stallion, she forced herself to reconsider, half closing her jaw before she decided on a different approach.
“Why are you saying these things? Why are you trying to help me?”
“Hah!” The stallion pivoted atop the bodies, facing Blackberry with an unnerving grin as he began to wave his front hooves around to accent his words. “Why, my little farm foal, you survived! That is certainly something interesting, whether it was cunning or luck that brought you here. As I said before, I am a pony who likes interesting things, and you are a very interesting thing! I’d rather you didn’t depreciate, no, no that wouldn’t do well for any future investment now would it?”
Once again, Blackberry found herself becoming increasingly aggravated by this presence and its penchant for theatrics. She wanted basic answers and information that he seemed to find pleasure in withholding from her, and from his position she couldn’t force answers anymore. He was still talkative, though, and that could be useful.
“So, you seem to know a bit about the movements of looters, and you follow the army wherever they fight.” She stood herself from the dirt, uneasily walking on three legs to get a closer place to her companion. “That’s not exactly something that everyday folk know now is it. How can I be sure that you’re not trying to lead me into a trap for those same reasons?”
The stallion gave an exaggerated hum as he put on a show of pondering this bit of logic, cocking his head further and further to the right until he threatened to roll himself over. Holding this uncomfortable position for a few more seconds, a grin slowly crept across his face, reaching an uncomfortable size by the time he spoke again.
As he started to laugh -a shrill, dissonant sound- Blackberry found her thoughts turning to violence once more, before realizing the futility of such efforts. This stallion didn’t seem to care about his own personal safety much at all, considering his proximity to such a fresh battle, and it was becoming increasingly apparent that he had little to nothing to say beyond unrelated metaphors and nonsense. Turning her head back down the road, she realized that, if nothing, his words regarding the coming night were correct. Darkness was starting to fall, and the night brought unfavourable conditions as well as unfavourable individuals. Not feeling that the stallion was deserving of a farewell, she merely spat in his general direction again, heading off down the road. Such a rude treatment would deter him from any future contact, and this assumption is what brought her a great deal of irritation as a bright flash heralded his appearance in front of her, and she found herself suddenly lifted about an inch off the ground, struggling against an invisible force.
“What are you doing?! Let me go!”
The last syllable had its pitch suddenly raise in surprise as Blackberry found that her demand was actually met promptly, striking the ground in a seated position with a muffled collision. She blinked in confusion, watching a soot shell of herself trot another few meters down the road before dissipating into a black cloud. A brief check of her body showed that whatever force had lifted her had taken off the black coating, her body once more a deep purple, three stalks of wheat prominently displayed on her flank.
“You’re an interesting mare! Even if you don’t understand my words or my motives, I’m not the sort of pony who’ll lie to another who’s in a bad situation. I speak the truth when I say I’d rather you not die, and if you are going to die, I’d rather it not be arbitrarily and at the hands of a common thug.” He pointed a hoof to her marking, his cloak starting to unclasp as he continued. “You’re a farmer, and you’re young, and so I doubt you’ve been very far from home. The next village would take a few hours for a healthy individual, but for you it may well take all night, what with that shoulder.”
Ah, Blackberry had forgotten about her shoulder. It wasn’t bleeding anymore, and at this point the majority of pain in her body had been categorized into one general grouping and promptly ignored. So long as she kept off that leg, it would almost be like there was no injury at all, beyond the decrease in speed and endurance. She gently blew air over the gash, a sharp stinging reassuring her that it was still there, before turning to frown at the stallion. Before that became a possibility though, she found herself swaddled in an unfamiliar cloak, giving a shout of surprise as she tried to reel away. Such action proved largely fruitless, and for better or for worse she found herself tugging angrily at the cloth, the too-large garment hanging unappealingly from her rather short form. Unhappy that it seemed fairly snugly strapped to her, Blackberry turned her attention away from her clothes and towards the giver thereof. Even lacking a cloak, his coat was of an identical colour, with his mane only slightly darker, closer to that of lapis lazuli.
“What are you doing? Get this off of me!”
“How does the saying go? ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’?”
He shrugged, flicking his horn towards Blackberry, giving her a sudden rush of anxiety as she tried to brace herself against another unknown assault. The fact that she couldn’t discern what had been done to her did little to alleviate the stress, and the stallion’s grin only aggravated it.
“There, now isn’t that lovely? I’m rather proud of it myself!”
He nodded in agreement to himself, leaving Blackberry to pick up her hooves and give herself a fevered examination to make certain she had not been mutated into some manner of beast.
“You should get going, though, night is falling fast, and the road isn’t particularly protective to people who don’t know its twists and turns. Mind your manners, miss mercurial mare; mayhap we’ll meet again, hm?”
She showed her hostility by spitting at him again, this time managing to hit his side. A wave of his horn had the saliva quite neatly removed from his coat, and the stallion trotted away without any inclination of caring about the mare’s disrespect. After putting about ten meters between him and the still seated Blackberry, he blinked away in a puff of smoke and a flash of light, leaving a frowning filly who was still upset about any number of things. At least the intrusion of this eccentric character served to distract her mind from its grief, replacing sadness with confusion and an underlying sense that one had been cheated.
Giving a last assessment of herself, Blackberry was finally able to locate the transition that had been doled out to her. Much as the cloak had carried a middling blue when worn by the strange stallion, its colour was now that of a deep amethyst, the edge trimmed with a wheat yellow that matched her mane. No longer hassled by the anxieties of an unknown spell, she found herself briefly appreciating the gift, only after a few seconds catching herself and reminding that it was given to her by a trickster and an enemy, returning to a state of paranoia regarding the item. In the worry she found safety, as it gave her the idea that there was something she was doing to keep herself alive, outwitting the enemy. The looming realization that there was not anything overtly wrong with the gift did nothing to deter this.
Giving an irritated huff and pulling the clasp tighter around her neck, Blackberry began to limp steadily westward. She let her mind occupy itself with fanciful possibilities of the cloak’s enchantment, much preferring those to the more realistic, more likely possibilities that lay down the road.
“It should be properly represented, the relationship between the thought patterns and nomenclature of each subspecies of ‘Pony’. We Unicorns, as the most civilized of ponies, have gradually turned away from traditional names in favour of more abstract ones, generally regarding [...] thoughts or emotions. Pegasai, who are deeply rooted in their beliefs of fate and spirits, are given names that their parents hope they will ‘grow into’, in effect becoming what they are described as. Earth Ponies, who are simple and barbarous in thought and deed, lack such thoughts and expectations, merely naming their children after what they can see and touch before them. Even through the names, we can draw a clear superiority of logic over their superstitions and simplicities, truly establishing the differences between our lineage[...]”
-Thencan the Pensive, Fifth King of Hippocrene
Before the Sun Rises.
Two: Regarding Frying Pans and Fire.
As the night wore on, Blackberry found herself becoming increasingly religious. It was a lot easier to swallow the idea that she had survived to do some great deed for the betterment of her people, rather than the concept that chance had given her the highest roll of the die while everyone else. The idea that she had been saved by some higher power also lent to the courage that stemmed from one being almost supernatural, bringing to mind the stories that she had heard long ago of heroes and monsters. They were given the power to fight dragons and topple kingdoms; how difficult would it be for the gods to keep a few bandits away from her? The only catch in this new-found piety was that the name of any specific deity to give thanks to was beyond her memory. Surly the gods wouldn’t mind that she had no idea who any of them were.
She forced herself to come to an abrupt halt, frowning as she examined the apparent disappearance of road. It was not overly difficult to see in the dark; the moonlight shined unheeded upon the grassy plains, no trees nearby to block its path, so it wasn’t as if she had gone off the trail some time prior. The road merely came to a halt, two posts on either side of the end of it, with a shallow, wide ditch right after. Not having ever been here, Blackberry was unsure as to whether this was some strange custom or just a feat of ignorance. Whichever it was, it proved to be an unnecessary inconvenience, and she started to pick her way down the small slope, no easy feat with one leg out of commission.
Contrasting the relatively dry soil of the pathway, the slope got gradually cooler and wetter as she descended, with the base being a thickly compacted mud that gave little yield to her weight as she experimentally poked at it. It was almost as if it was a dried out river, except for the fact that this was not a drought, and if it had dried up the soil would have dried as well. Kicking about at the base of the ditch, Blackberry gave a startled jump as her hoof met something beyond dirt, accidentally sending a board of wood skittering to the opposite side. The immediate shame of kicking someone else’s property by accident quickly gave way to confusion and curiosity, and she hurried herself over as best she could to examine the board.
Flipping it over with a quick hoof, she frowned at the script that had been written on it. Illiterate as she was, Blackberry was not overly pleased with the idea that information was being kept from her. Giving it an irritated kick back to the center of the ditch, she began to climb the wall again, finally coming up on the opposite side. Giving a look back, she saw that, in addition to having a pair of posts announcing the end of the road, there was a sign strapped between them. The writing, still unreadable, was this time accompanied by an image. The etching of a broken bridge, crude as it was, got the message across pretty easily. Blackberry frowned at the fact that only one side had a sign, and that hers didn’t, before the obvious realization that her sign was in the ditch brought her back down to the base. Picking it up with a tentative bite, she gave it a toss back up onto the side she had initially come from, doing her best to ignore the taste of dirt and grit as she climbed again back up to her path.
Starting to head away, Blackberry gave a wistful thought about how much better it’d have been if the ditch actually was a river. Over the past few hours of walking, she hadn’t heard even the slightest inclination of a water source, and the weight of thirst was beginning to show itself. Plodding slowly along, a wistful thought became a concerned topic of interest. It wasn’t as if she had never been outside home before, even nearby the city there should have been a creek that followed the path for about a kilometer; she could remember the children catching frogs there in the springtime, but there had been no babbling brook along her path, no ponds or streams anywhere nearby. It had been raining for a month, where was all the water? A few minutes of idle speculation settled on the generalization that it was some Unicorn trick, which wasn’t too far off from the truth. The water had all been used to create the artificial rain that Mulch had been inundated with, and would eventually rain back down when it evaporated from that area.
Had the bridge been washed out before, then? It seemed rather odd for the opposing army to have broken it, since the road presently travelled was essentially the only one in and out of the area, and if they’d broken it without choosing to dry the area it would have made a difficult crossing. If they’d broken it, they probably wouldn't be considerate enough to leave a sign, though. It was at the consideration of the word ‘sign’ that Blackberry began to slow at. The sign she’d found in the ditch, why had she tossed it back up? The only people who would walk that path were the people of Mulch, and at this point the entire living population was on the other side, not particularly likely to return. It seemed a little meaningless, the more she considered it, and the fact that it was meaningless is what brought her to a stop, detouring off the dirt road to sit in the grass bordering either side.
She sat blankly for a time, her thoughts only on what was directly in front of her. It was fall, but winter threatened its grip as the leaves began to fall off of the trees, though they were fairly sparse at this particular stretch of land. The moon was high, slowly working its way to being full; the stars keeping their silent vigil around the white light as they always had. The land was one of rolling hills, no rough edges, no sudden movements, and its inhabitants reflected that. The fields here had once been farmland, and amidst the grasses and wildflowers grew small patches of wild oats and wheat, all rippling calmly with the eastward wind, giving a visual aspect to the gusts and bellows that coursed the world. Her farmer’s eye picked out the different grains surrounding her, and with a slow plod she travelled further off the path in pursuit of a largish patch of barley.
Back home she’d grown barley with Peach Pit, even though she had a distinct childhood hatred of it at the time she started, and she pondered the differences in the two plants as she began to idly chew at the grains. They’d grown ‘six-row’ barley, while this assortment was the so called ‘naked’ barley, and the difference in taste was something new to her, having only ever seen the different kinds in the wagons of merchants, not on the dinner table. She wasn’t really hungry, nor was she particularly interested in thinking about barley, but both things served to distract her from the many problems that had recently arisen in her life, and to her that proved a far greater reward than would be gained from acknowledging her troubles.
Not much for the taste of this strain, Blackberry began to cross still deeper into the grasses, searching for something she was more used to. For a brief moment she considered eating these mysterious plants, wondering which ones were poisonous and which ones were delectable. Giving a nibble on one of them as it brushed past, she found that it was certainly not the latter, giving her a sinking feeling in her stomach as she hoped it wasn’t a binary set of qualities. She tried to remind herself that she was supposed to be a hero, chosen by the gods to do something great, but they were empty thoughts that served no purpose.
Brushing another patch of wheat, she found herself a few strands of proper, six-row barley, and immediately set about gathering them. So relieved to have this reminder of home, she ignored the process of husking the few strands, preferring to just get as many in her mouth at the same time as possible, which, considering there were so few, was all of them. Her satisfied chewing slowed with each motion, and the satisfaction quickly fell out of the action. Frowning now, she spat the pulpy mass out onto the ground, greatly disappointed. It tasted nothing like how her own crop did, lacking the richness in flavour and thickness in strand. For all the quality of these plants, she might as well have been eating rope.
She lay down, looking at the mass at ground level as she slowly pushed it from side to side. It was a taste she’d never have again. She would never see the colour of the field at harvest, she would never smell the flowers that grew in the town square, carefully tended by old Miss Rose, who’s bad shoulders kept her out of the fields. The boisterous laugh of Algol the Gryphon, who came from far away to trade goods of tin. He’d never make a sale, but came every year to see Heath, who brewed beer that Algol was quick to proclaim was the best in his travels. Her bed; her old, scratchy bed, made of woven straw with a wool blanket that she always meant to replace but never god around to doing. All the little senses that were gone now, her mind ran through each one. She wiped a tear from her eye. A few seconds later she wiped away another. A few seconds more, and she stopped trying to keep up, instead just covering her head with her hooves and pressing her face against the ground as she sobbed into the dirt.
It was a while before she felt willing to lift her head again; she may have stopped mourning the losses quite some time ago, but that didn’t mean she was willing to move on yet. The moon and stars had moved, but she had no idea exactly how much time had passed, nor how to accurately tell direction at night. She looked behind her, trying to remember the staggered path she’d made through the fields, but it was ultimately in vain. Giving a sniff, she wiped the filth from her eyes, starting to head to the top of the hill. It held to reason that, from a higher vantage point, one could see more things, but as it were, more things did not constitute of enough. Even able to see what she could, the darkness made it impossible to locate the road she’d left from. Looking up the the stars, hoping to discern some insight, the moon shone passively down, as it always had. At a loss, she arbitrarily picked a direction and began to head straight.
An hour or so later, her path intersected a thin trail, winding haphazardly amongst the greens in no clear direction. She wasn’t naive to the point that she might think this trail led to her destination, but she took no hesitation in picking a direction, making a quick turn to the right, considering her injured left to be, at this point, the more unlucky of the two options. For the first time in as many weeks, Blackberry got a stroke of good luck, and after only a few minutes of walking she heard an upbeat tune being whistled through the cool night air. Forcing herself away from the immediate instinct to rush towards this person, she reminded herself of the possibility of harm, instead jumping off the path and into the tall grass, her purple cloak not giving her much leeway as she tried her best not to be seen. Laying her body down, she was only forced to wait for a minute before an old stallion, a dirty brown coat with a mane as white as a ghost, rounded the bend, a small fishing net hanging loosely over his flank. She didn’t recognize him nor the tune he was so enveloped in, but the fact that he lacked a horn was reason enough to trust him at this point, and she jumped from the bushes with a wide grin, hobbling erratically towards him, giving him an excited greeting.
“Hello there sir good evening I hope you’re well I was wondering if you could give me some help!”
The old stallion, finding himself suddenly accosted by this haggard, cloaked mare, leaping from the bushes and shouting at him, gave a terrified yelp, falling to the ground and covering his head with his hooves.
“I don’t have any money miss please don’t hurt me I’m just a simple fisher all I have is this net will you go away if you take that oh gods please don’t hurt me.”
“What? Oh! No, nonono!”
Slowing her pace considerably, Blackberry tried to make herself as non-threatening as possible, lightly tapping the prone stallion on the head as she crossed to him. When he gave no response to this beyond a strained whimper, she shook him a little harder, which resulted in the whimper escalating to a low wail. Giving an irritated sigh, she did her best to pry one of his arms off his head, hoping to at least get him to look at her for another half second and see that she wasn’t exactly thief material. It took some effort, but she was able to force his limb from his face, bending down lower to make sure she kept eye contact.
“Sir, I’m not trying to rob you!”
“Oh yeah, well then why’re you jumping out of the bushes at me!?” He stamped his now unoccupied front hoof on the ground, as if to accent his words, but neither his voice or his body language showed any real conviction. This was a pony who was happy to roll over and let himself be walked upon. Blackberry was growing irritated with his misconduct, an event that she seemed to have quite a bit of experience in, and at his stomp she narrowed her eyes and leaned in closer.
“Maybe it hadn’t occurred to you that I might be lost? Because I am!”
“Ain't nopony who’s getting lost around here because there ain't nopony who just walks around out here without business, and the only one who’s got business out here that isn’t about stealin’ is me! You’re not me, so you must be a bandit!” His voice now held a sort of emotion that was almost but not quite defiance, closer to the desperate action that one backed into a corner would display. Blackberry just huffed, not entirely certain whether it was really worth it arguing with him. She knew which way he lived, it was just the opposite way he’d been heading, and if he lived anywhere it was probably closer to a town than the state of nowhere she presently occupied.
“Look, I’m just from Mulch. A refugee you could say. I’m trying to get to the next town.”
“Oh you’re from Mulch?” He picked himself up, brushing the dirt from his chest and displaying a proud grin. “My daughter lived there for a while! Nice place, full of good, honest folk. Why, I don’t think that anypony from there could be a bandit any which way!”
He offered his hoof with a sort of pride, this whole change of tune making Blackberry a little uncomfortable. She gingerly shook hooves with the stallion, thinking it best not to point out that she could just be lying about where she’s from, nor poke any of the other holes in this fallible logic. Despite her hesitation and light touch, he showed a certain enthusiasm when shaking her hoof, holding the action for a little longer than Blackberry felt was necessary or really reasonable for two people who had just met on terms such as these.
“The name’s Pagrus, I lived out here with my wife for who knows how long! She passed in the spring though, and the kids went away long time ago, so it’s just me now. I fish in the mornings and on weekends I go to town, sell what I got or trade it for some tea. Would you like some tea?”
She blinked for a moment, trying to pick out the logic in his train of thought before realizing he’d said an important term.
“Town, you said you go into town.”
“Yes, for tea, I as-”
“What town, how far away?”
In her urgency Blackberry forgot to be non-threatening, her voice raising as she tried to force this stallion into answering her quickly. Pagrus cowered under this assault, dropping down a few inches as he unsuccessfully tried to keep himself from shaking like a foal hearing a ghost story.
“It’s... Not too far, just maybe an hour and a half or so? Ma’am I didn’t mean you any disrespect you have to understand these are difficult times for us all, folk like me don’t have a lot and we can’t afford to lose what’s left.”
“No, no sorry.” Blackberry forced her voice to soften, trying to calm herself down as best as possible. “I didn’t mean to scare you I just... Well today hasn’t been the best of days, let’s just say that. My name’s Blackberry, I’m a farmer, nothing special.” She gave him a little smile, and he seemed to ease up a little. He was no longer shaking, at any rate. “And I’d love some tea, so long as it wouldn’t be a bother to you. I wouldn’t want to keep you from your work, after all.”
At this, she gestured with a hoof at the net that had slipped from his flank up to his shoulders in the commotion. Ever so pleased to have been taken up on his offer, Pagrus slid the net back down his body, standing up fully once more, a toothy grin plastered on his face. He wasn’t a particularly complex stallion, as it seemed. He turned and began to head down the path again, but his age made for a slow pace that was well suited for the injured mare.
“Oh it’s just lovely that you’d come, I don’t get much company now that the wife’s no longer with me, and the kids live far away these days. Why, I’d say that the only people I see very often are the folk down in town when I sell my fish, but I haven’t seen them in a while, the river’s all dried up you see, I just thought that I’d head in today to see if it was back yet...”
To merely say that the cabin was sparse would be a bit of an understatement. The squat, three room house was made of sod walls and a set of mossy wooden shingles, an assortment of salted fish hanging limply on a rack out by the front door. The inside was no less modest, furnished with a few crudely carved wooden pieces of furniture and cooking utensils, plus a single green copper pan that offered the only real colour inside. Setting a small fire, Pagrus went through the processes of making tea, from boiling the water to serving it, without taking a single second to stop talking.
“...She really was quite the trout though I mean I sold her for nearly thirty bits, twice the price for the weight! I think the innkeeper meant to stuff her rather than eat her so that must have been more of a draw for him than the meat. Oh but listen to me ramble on, it wouldn’t be polite for me to keep you from getting a word in edgewise.”
Blackberry sipped her tea, using the action to keep her tongue from speaking her mind, which made the brief quip that he had not, in fact, stopped ‘rambling on’ for nearly a half hour, which was an impressive feat unto itself. Her drink, though, gave a conversation topic; her hooves struggled to hold the carved wooden cup without spilling any, her injured shoulder proving particularly inconvenient in this regard.
“So what happened to your leg, if you don’t mind me asking? It’s not as if you’d have gotten it a long time ago, or else you would have adjusted by now wouldn’t you.”
She considered the question, as well as the followup tidbit of logic. She wasn’t sure if Mulch’s attack had been common knowledge, considering it happened less than twenty four hours ago, nor was she sure whether it was worth the effort to lie. Realizing that hesitation probably wasn’t the most polite of responses, Blackberry flipped up the cloak to reveal her shoulder, the wound still fresh and crimson. A raised brow and a low whistle was the response, and the old stallion circled the table to get a better look.
“Ah... that’s an arrow, isn’t it?”
Blackberry frowned at this accurate assessment, a show of knowledge that she thought rather odd for this bumbling fisher.
“Yes, actually. A Unicorn force has been fighting their way through here; I got this while fighting to defend my home. How did you know that?”
Ignoring this question, Pagrus hummed thoughtfully, turning around and disappearing into one of the adjacent rooms for a moment, much to the ire of Blackberry. Flipping the cloth back down over her shoulder, she poked at her tea for a moment before her host returned, a bundle of white cloth clasped in his mouth. The boiled water, still occupying the pot that now sat beside the table, was used once more, as he carefully put the cloth in the pot, replacing it over the fire. As the water slowly began to heat, he turned back to the mare.
“It’s not the first time that those folk came around here with their metal coats and iron bolts. Why, back when I was your age, me and my clan fought alongside Chieftain Broadhoof. Never have I seen a stallion so large, and he wore a helmet with two steel tusks, his armour as thick as a wall! Kids these days don’t have much of a head for history, but I tell you that sometimes it’s important.”
“No, no I know about Chieftain Broadhoof... I used to hear stories about him, but it was more how he fought the dragon Snarl, or tricked the tree god into giving him his strength. I didn’t really think any of that was real, though, just children’s tales.”
“Oho, well. Some of it probably is, but he certainly did exist, and I did see him charge through six lines of infantry before stopping!”
The sound of bubbling water distracted them both, and Pagrus moved quickly to take the water away from the heat, careful not to burn himself as he set it down on the table. Not one to be dissuaded by heat, he was quick to pull the sodden cloth out of the water, still steaming as he placed the bundle on the table. Blackberry, unsure of what exactly was happening, idly sniffed the cloth, making sure it hadn’t been soaking in some kind of solution. All it smelled like was wool, though, and Pagrus unravelled it carefully, laying out varying size strips and squares on the table.
“So, what’s this all for?”
“Oh, well I have to bandage you don’t I? What sort of host would I be if I let my guests leave worse for wear when I could’ve helped them. Even an old pony can be worth something sometimes! I’m just gonna need to get a look at your shoulder again.”
Blackberry found herself doubting the medical knowledge of an eccentric fisher, but she lifted the cloak again nonetheless. Taking a damp square, he began to gently clean the area around the wound, colouring her face with tinges of pain whenever he brushed against the open area itself. Satisfied with the state of affairs, he dropped the cloth back in the pot, grabbing another and covering her shoulder with it, the dampness keeping it fixed where he placed it. All the while, he talked through a mouth otherwise occupied, forcing Blackberry to nod passively along with words that were far too muffled to understand. His work was thankfully brief, and after only a few minutes the injured area was nothing more than a bundle of white against a purple body. Noticing that Pagrus was grinning again, eagerly awaiting her verdict, she gave him a little smile, pulling the cloak back down over herself.
“It’s not like I have a lot of experience being injured like this, but from what I can tell you’ve done a very good job, Pagrus, sir.”
He was elated to hear such a positive appraisal, and after dumping the water out of the pot and replacing it back with the other utensils he began to lead Blackberry with him towards the door, talking all the while.
“It’s good to hear kids these days appreciating a good bit of help when they’re in a spot of trouble, not to mention properly addressing an elder. Now, I know I taught my kids that way, but you just don’t see too many folk who do that these days! Come along now, we should get into town before there’s a big rush!”
Blackberry briefly wondered how many people would constitute a rush, but let herself be guided outside anyways. Once exited, she noticed how long she’d actually been in the house, looking at the reddening sky to the east. Without windows, she hadn’t really realized how late it was, and with the oft rambling stories told to her it had been rather hard to keep track of time. Pagrus, in the mean time, rushed back inside for a moment, returning with a simple woolen saddle and beginning to load it up with an assortment of the sun-dried fish hanging by the door.
“It’s lucky for you I was meaning to head into town soon anyways! Now you’ll be sure not to get lost again, what with a guide as good as me! And don’t think that’s a joke, little Miss, I’ve been walking through these trails since I was younger than you and I’ve been doing it half the time in the dead of night. Don’t think you’ll find anypony who knows this area better than me, no sir-ee. Oh, but I guess I should tell you some things about what to expect when you get there!”
Before she was able to protest, Blackberry once more found herself being given a great deal of knowledge that was not overly useful. As the two of them cut back through the hills, she was taught about Spear Tip, who’s whole family had been guarding the city for a long time, which didn’t leave him much lenience in finding a girl to settle with, so he would probably make a pass on her when they entered. Next he moved on to Clay, a rather successful merchant of the area who made his fortune with very high quality pots, and the man who usually bought Pagrus’ stock. He was apparently a rather strange man, with very expensive tastes in art that he had brought in from the south, and even the war didn’t stop him from getting what he wanted. Another character would follow, and then another after that, until she really felt that she knew many of these people better than she would have bothered knowing them had she lived here all her life.
It was outlining the exact practices with which one of the local innkeepers incorrectly brewed his own beer, Blackberry hadn’t really caught the name of which one specifically, that the view after reaching the summit of another hill actually changed. A low earthen wall, topped with a wooden barrier, had blended rather easily into the similarly coloured landscape, but now, only about a kilometer away, the tops of houses were plainly visible. Only about three thousand ponies lived here, but compared to the modest population of her home, only about a hundred and fifty, this seemed almost like a metropolis to Blackberry, and she was more than relieved to finally see it. Pagrus, on the other hand, was considerably less pleased, and his brow furrowed as he began to pick up the pace, bringing himself into a canter about as quickly as his old bones could take him. Now a little concerned, Blackberry picked up her pace in response, still having little trouble keeping up.
“What’s wrong is that in all my years I’ve never seen anyone put up a banner on the walls of Avena, and the one time they’ve decided to it’s the banner of Hippocrene.”
Blackberry didn’t know these two names exactly, thought she correctly assumed that Avena was the town. Hippocrene, on the other hand, was something she was at a loss for, until they neared the city enough for her to properly recognize the banner, at which point she realized the severity of the situation.
“Pagrus, that banner is the same one that they used when they attacked my home.”
“Yeah, and it’s the same one they used when they attacked mine nearly two decades ago!”
His expression now one that looked like he was planning on storming the walls all by himself, Blackberry thought it best not to press him, instead casually picking up the pace to move in front of him, that she could stop him if he tried anything particularly thoughtless. As they neared the gate, she saw that, though open, three guards regulated traffic, each one clad in gleaming iron and with a spiral horn protruding from their head. It was all she could do to stop herself from losing her mind to anger, Pagrus was already well gone to the glory days of his youth, and had she not slowed down in front of him he’d likely have charged the guards all on his own. As it were, though, a shrill call brought Blackberry to an abrupt halt, causing Pagrus to stumble into her.
“Halt, both of you!”
Pagrus shook his head, doing his best to right himself and apologize for bumping into her at the same time. One of the guards broke from the trio, trotting over to the two of them with a military step. She looked over them both, somewhat disdainful of both the two earth ponies here before her, as well as the general duty she was being forced to perform.
“State your business here.”
Pagrus was still having a little trouble picking himself up, so Blackberry took the initiative.
“My grandfather here comes into town to sell fish...” At this, she indicated to the goods that were packing his saddlebags. “...But he’s getting to be a little too old to be doing this sort of thing on his own, so I make sure he doesn’t get into too much trouble.”
The guard considered this for a moment, looking between the two of them for family resemblance. To her, though, most earth ponies looked the same past their colours, and after curtly bringing Pagrus back to his feet with a flick of her horn, she waved them through.
“The gates close at sundown; if you’re not done your trade before then, you’ll be staying the night. Stay out of trouble, and you won’t have any issues with us.”
Blackberry gave a nod to show she understood, beginning to lead Pagrus into the town as he narrowed his eyes at the guards. Once they were clear, though, he was quick to congratulate his ‘granddaughter’.
“You’re good, Blackberry! Lucky it wasn’t Spear Tip, though, he’d have known that you’re not my kin. I suppose he probably wouldn’t’ve asked though. It’s very odd, though; it didn’t look like there’d been any battles here in a long time. Come on, though, I know you’re probably fixing to leave an old stallion to his work, but I figure I can probably sell a lot more of these a lot quicker if they’re endorsed by a lovely young mare like yourself!”
Blackberry opened her mouth to say something, but ultimately just blushed and followed Pagrus, who gave a hearty laugh at her embarrassment, leading the way into the city’s merchant district. If nothing, she was at least happy that he’d fallen back into his habit of rambling, and he began to explain to her the specific tricks of selling fish as they walked.
“Slowly do the elders walk,
Who know the value of each step.
Quickly do their children run,
Who have not yet learned.”
Before the Sun Rises
Three: Daisies, Barley, and Rye
Despite Pagrus’ optimistic estimates of sales with feminine aid, the day did begin to wear on, and by noon Blackberry politely excused herself from the shabby stall, preferring to wander about the town for a time. Even though it was considerably larger than her home, the area they occupied was still relatively remote, and earth ponies made up the entirety of the native population. She tried to count the presence of the unicorn soldiers, marching quietly about the streets in pairs, but found it impossible to keep track of individual faces when all of them wore their identical uniforms. They didn’t seem to match what they represented, though; many of them weren’t strict in their walk, cantering about the marketplace or taking shortcuts through back alleys, and showed a familiarity with the population that she found very odd. They must have been here for a long time in order for them to have learned the back routes, but still recently enough that Pagrus had not known of their occupation. Her mind focused on this for a time, but slowly she was taken in by the wonder that everypony feels when they first leave home.
Everything was new, carrying with it a sense of discovery in even the most mundane of facts. Homes here were well beyond the simple log cottages that she was familiar with: Some being squat plank hovels, showing the moss of age as the poorer of these folk trudged their slow paths out to work, while few others were made of deep red bricks, merchants and artisans performing their businesses from within such elegant structures. There was no segregation of the classes though, providing a stark contrast in the architectures as a brightly coloured two-story home stood juxtaposed against a background of dull browns, an elderly mare humming softly to herself as she worked a loom near the front entrance. Blackberry stopped to watch her for a moment, giving a sheepish smile as the weaver noticed her audience, giving a slight wave before continuing her work.
Even if she hadn’t seen anything that could truly be considered ‘rich’ in her life, anypony could recognize the grandeur that was represented in the central hall of Avena. Built back when the town was a more important trading post, it showed a long forgotten wealth, a relic from the days when earth ponies had been a unified kingdom. Made of cobbled gabbro, it was made in a sharp shape, cutting through the space around in a show of physical strength, and its material gave it a colour quite near to black in appearance, save the frequent breaks in the wall where windows sat, as well as the larger one for its front doors. The plaza here was similar to the one in the market, large, circular, and made of cobblestone, but this place showed no activity. Indeed, the area seemed to be completely deserted, a fact that Blackberry noticed, but took no real heed of, trotting lightly up to the front door. Assuming it to be a fairly public structure, she pushed the doors open and cautiously entered.
Inside she was greeted with the dual visages of two earth ponies, equipped for war and looking majestic in their stone effigies, both bordering the door as they stared lifelessly inward. They were fairly simple statues, but to Blackberry's virgin eyes they looked striking in their poses, the white marble standing out magnificently against the black walls. Taking her time to appreciate their artistic value, she was startled by a cough from behind her, coming from the scribe who, until this point, had been somewhat impatiently waiting for this mare to state her business that she could then help her with. Swift in turning around, Blackberry stared blankly at the unicorn, an off-white mare with a shaved mane, as she sighed and took the reins of the conversation.
“Is there something I can help you with?”
“Help? I... No, no sorry I was just-”
Before she could finish that incomplete thought, a loud shouting match broke out in the room just to the left of the foyer, drawing the attention of the two mares as the voices heightened in volume and intensity. It only took a few seconds before the door blew open, stopped only by small cushions placed against the wall for just such an occasion. Shortly after the entrance being opened, there was a yelp of surprise, a smallish armoured mare flying dangerously through the air and landing with a tremendous clatter on the stone floor, clearly worse for wear from her travels. A large, blood red stallion filled the doorway immediately after, his rancorous face giving a new shade to his born colour, his own armour carried with a distinctly greater degree of dignity. He said nothing, merely staring at this victim as she struggled to right herself, body aching from its recent abuse. She opened her mouth as if to say some rebuttal, prompting a sneer from the stallion, before deciding against it and skulking away without another word. A few seconds passed before a Gryphon, as large as any of his kind, moved slowly behind the stallion, resting a claw on his shoulder.
“You did the right thing, my Lord.”
The stallion huffed impatiently, not making an action to confirm or deny this assessment. His eyes stared listlessly towards the wall, covered in a variety of painted wood mosaics, before he abruptly focused on Blackberry, staring intently at her with an uncomfortably direct gaze, taking into account every fact about her. She shifted from side to side, nervously glancing at the scribe, who seemed intently interested in whatever it was that was going to happen next.
“What business do you have here.” His words were less a question and more an indirect command for information, his eyes settling to lock with Blackberry's own, who sought escape from this situation.
“I... I'm sorry, sir, I was just... I'm newer to town, I was just taking a look around. I didn't mean to intrude if that's the case here!”
The stallion gave no visual response to this, his face as stoic as it had been trained to always be. With a movement slight enough that Blackberry doubted she'd seen it, he indicated to her injured leg.
“You're standing with uneven weight on that leg. Why is that.”
“It was a farm accident, sir. I was pulling the plow, and it caught on a stone. It tore the skin and dislocated the joint; my grandfather bandaged me and I should be fine soon, sir.”
The stallion gave a reaction to this, though not necessarily a desirable one. Narrowing his eyes, he started to take slow, measured steps towards the mare, comparable to an animal stalking its prey. His hooves made barely a sound against the stone floor, and their meter was far more lax than Blackberry felt comfortable with.
“An odd farm, one that is plowing new soil so close to winter. Tell me, what do you grow?”
“Ah...” This was not going anywhere good, and it was getting there fast. “...B-Barley, sir.”
The approach continued, his aggression becoming less restrained but for his words, which still held calm. “I have heard that barley is able to grow in cold, but it's surely a valuable strain that can push through the snow and frost. Your master must have considerable wealth, especially to have given you a cloak such as you wear.”
Starting to back herself up, Blackberry was quick to adopt a submissive pose in response to this inquisition, lowering her head down and trying to find a way out of this, whether through words or flight. No longer capable of forming an excuse that would satisfy the restrictions of her lie, she emitted a soft whimper, her rear bumping into the wall behind as she ran out of space to maneuver. The stallion's completed crossing of the distance between them was interrupted only by the gryphon, standing impatiently at the doorway, who cleared his throat with a foreign, guttural noise.
“My Lord, Crimson, if you are satisfied with terrifying the local peasantry for another day, we do have more important things to attend to, not to mention more lucrative ones. Leave her be, whatever her lies are it is irrelevant.”
He didn’t move right away, keeping his eye contact for a few seconds longer as Blackberry squirmed inwardly with intense discomfort, but after a time he did at last back off, muttering an unheard phrase under his breath as he turned back to the gryphon, who merely raised an eyebrow.
“What was that you said?”
“I said that her lies are not irrelevant. Not to me.”
The gryphon shrugged, leading the stallion back into the room with an outstretched claw. As the door shut, low murmurs could again be heard from within, but words were impossible to distinguish. Blackberry was still frozen to the wall, her mind trying to process the proximity that she’d been to danger. What would have happened if he found out she was lying? What truth was he looking for? If she’d told him where she was from, would he have finished the job, right then and there? Despite none of these possibilities being particularly likely, she was intensely focused on them nonetheless, her eyes fixated on the point where the stallion had stood barely minutes prior. The voice of the scribe, who was trying to get her attention, fell on deaf ears, and she was forced to come from behind her desk to give Blackberry a stiff push in order to revive her from the catatonic state of paranoia. She stumbled a little from the force, blinking with confusion before her eyes settled on the scribe.
“Ah, and there I thought he’d killed ya without havin’ to lay a hoof on your body. You’re not the best under pressure, but I don’t think I’ve seen anypony who can stand up to that sort of assault.”
Blackberry blinked again, slowly nodding her head to show she understood the words being spoken to her. Her eyes trailed from the unicorn in front of her back over to the now shut door adjacent to foyer, her mind still caught on the stallion who had entered. The scribe, following her sight lines, stared at the door for a second before grinning and heading back to her writings. Blackberry lingered a moment longer before following her over to the desk, trying her best to have quiet steps.
“...Who was that?”
The scribe smirked, her neglected stylus dropping back onto the soft stone with a clatter. It seemed that her work was not of great priority.
“That would be ‘Lord’ Crimson Impulse, Commander of the Armies of the North, and seventeenth in line to the throne of Hippocrene if I remember his rantings correctly. He’s proud and ambitious, and it shows. You probably would’ve been better off telling him why you got your hoof off the ground than lying; he doesn’t like it when ponies try and trick him.”
At its mention, Blackberry suddenly felt very aware of her injury, lightly lifting her hoof off the stone floor to take some weight off her shoulder.
“I doubt he’d be as pleased with the truth.”
“Ah, well, you mind telling me?” The scribe grinned, pleased at the prospect of new gossip, even if it was about a mare that she would likely never see again. “I promise I won’t tell him, I’m just a little curious is all!”
Blackberry frowned, thinking the request over for a moment before deciding that lying by omission was the best way out.
“Let’s just say that I was in a battle with his armies, but not on what he’d say is the ‘right’ side.”
“Ahh...” The scribe nodded knowingly, looking at her with a different gleam in her eye. “...Yeah, I would say that you’d be best to have hidden that, then. He’s not the type to take prisoners, as you can imagine.” She paused, though still nodding, before frantically moving to reassure Blackberry. “Don’t worry though, I won’t say a word. Privately contracted; I’m here on crown business, not whatever it is he’s doing, so I don’t gotta listen to a damn thing he says!”
The scribe laughed, apparently enjoying herself, a feeling which Blackberry couldn’t help but share, though certainly to a lesser extent. Giving a warm little smile, she finally focused more on the mare in front of her than the stallion behind the door.
“My name’s Blackberry, I lived just a few hours from here all my life, but now I’m at a bit of a loss I’m afraid.”
“Well, Blackberry, my name is Lavaliere, and I lived in Hippocrene -the city, rather- for most of my life, but I just arrived here yesterday on assignment. I’m supposed to be ‘monitoring the war effort’ with a ‘bureaucratic eye’, but I think they just wanted to send me off so that I wouldn’t bother them about their tax issues anymore.” She rolled her eyes before giving a huff, her body sinking a little bit. “I am sorry about your loss, though. I hope you understand that not every unicorn is as warmongering as ‘He’ is.”
At this, Lavaliere pointed a hoof to the door, from behind which the discussion between he and the gryphon seemed to be increasing in volume gradually. Blackberry’s smile widened a little, and she moved closer to the unicorn, her eyes glancing to the various forms of writing. Some was on a yellowed paper, but most seemed to have been carved into clay or stone tablets, stacked in piles six or seven high all around the desk. It was all meaningless scratchings to her, but they were interesting scratchings if nothing. Watching, Lavaliere gave a little smile as the earth pony flicked her eyes between the different works.
“You like what you see? Most of it’s mine.”
“Ah...” Embarrassed, Blackberry backed away a little, ceasing her examination. “...Sorry, I was just looking: I can’t read.”
Lavaliere chuckled, the slab on the desk magically being pushed off to one of the piles. “Well there’s not a whole lot to read even if you could. Mostly numbers and troop counts, schedules, everything down to the purity of the metal in the armour. Sorts of stuff that no one cares about except the ponies who are paid to write it and the ponies who are paid to read it. Come on, it’s the middle of the afternoon and I haven’t had a bite to eat since breakfast.”
Blackberry was unfamiliar to the concept of ‘going out on the town’, small as this town was, and didn’t really have anything to add to this request, simply following Lavaliere as she head out through the doors and back through the streets. Rather than display further ignorance, she instead decided to satisfy another curiosity.
“So... What can you tell me about, um, Hippocrene was it?”
The unicorn laughed, a reaction that Blackberry found a little odd, but didn’t think a whole lot of it. “Well, I might not be the best of folk to ask, but I can tell you what they told me when I was getting my own education. Now they'll be sure to teach you how the land was formed and given to unicorns by the gods, but from what I've read, the present state of the empire is only about a hundred and twenty years old or so; not too long in the grand scheme of things, even if it is a few lifetimes. Before that, things get a little hazier...”
She pointed her horn towards one of the guards trotting past, who looked a little confused at her company, but nodded in respect for his superior nonetheless. Lavaliere waited until he was out of earshot before feeling comfortable in speaking again. “Back before we were a monarchy, guys like him weren't common. We were a lot like what you have here; loose communities banded together only by the general sense that we were unicorns. The old writings say it was a earth pony invasion that made us really come together, but in my opinion it was probably just an ambitious chieftain who managed to become the better of his peers. Your kingdom wasn't really present yet, so it doesn't much make sense, does it? They probably changed the books, justify this whole debacle by saying we had to do it before.” She huffed, rolling her eyes a little. “I guess that's what you get when you're under ‘divine rule’.”
Blackberry raised her brow, looking at this mare with interest. “It sounds like you don't really like the king t-”
Unable to finish that thought what for the hoof so abruptly shoved into her mouth, she merely blinked as Lavaliere stared gravely at her, slowly shaking her head. Behind them, the same guard from before trotted back the other direction, his eyes fixed on the two as he slowed gradually to get a better look at them, eventually coming to a full stop.
“Madame, I know you are a representative of the crown, but that is not an absolution from consorting with the natives. Whatever tastes you may have should be satisfied on your own time, and preferably with a semblance of privacy.”
It was at the word ‘tastes’ that Blackberry could feel the hoof in her mouth jolt, then slowly begin to drop back to the ground. Still with a back to the guard, she could see Lavaliere’s jaw clench, her eyes smouldering for the briefest second before any visible anger was repressed, turning her face to the guard with a light smile. Her voice betrayed her emotions, though, dripping with lethality.
“Whatever it is my ‘tastes’ are, whether they are indeed as such, is a fact that is not to be taken lightly with any citizen, least of all a representative of our highness.” The tone, which started in check, dropped its façade for the last few words, causing Lavaliere to pause for a moment, recomposing herself before risking words again. All through this, the guard watched intently, making a mental checklist of her transgressions for later exploitation. “Is it not decree that all foreign agents of the King be treated as if they were the King Himself? Would He be treated with such disresp-” Another crack in her voice, another pause. “...Treated with such disrespect and suspicion? Keep your rumours to yourself, Guard, and keep your tongue untainted with lies, or you’ll see what it means to have a King’s wrath upon you.”
The stallion opened his mouth to provide a rebuttal, but decided that her threat was real enough that he’d rather not try calling her bluff. He stood awkwardly for a moment longer, the gaze of both mares fixed on him, before slowly bowing to Lavaliere, quietly muttering something about meaning no disrespect as he fled from the situation. The two of them held their little tableau vivant for a moment longer, Lavaliere being the first to break the stillness as she started to slowly accelerate down the road again, almost immediately after followed by Blackberry. They trotted in silence for a while, with Blackberry for once taking the first stride in conversation.
“So... I mean if you don’t mind me asking, what was that all about?”
Lavaliere stayed silent, Blackberry starting to feel anxious as it became increasingly apparent that she’d caused her new friend some kind of offence. When she at last provided a response, Blackberry breathed a sigh of relief.
“...Let’s just say that my opinions on tax reform aren’t the only reasons I’m up here. I was working for a month with the royal wives and...” She just shrugged, the hint of a grin playing on her lips again. “Well, imagine you’re spending your days unsupervised with only the most beautiful mares in the kingdom for company. There’s a reason that they don’t pick stallions to work with them, but, well...” She shrugged again, shooting Blackberry a wink. “Mum’s the word, in the end.”
As a quiet earth pony from a fairly simplistic region, this wasn’t enough information for Blackberry to really understand what it was this unicorn was getting at, but she smiled and nodded her head nonetheless, having found long ago that it tends to keep the conversation moving.
“Anyways, rumours get around in the ranks a lot faster than anyone would really imagine! By the time I got shipped out here, everypony already knew why, and then blew that out of proportion. I had a fiancee before he was killed in Sarrais! I guess they don’t like looking at evidence that makes things more reasonable and rational when they can just ignore it and make things hard on someone innocent.”
Seeing the unicorn starting to get a little more dejected, her footsteps starting to falter ever so slightly, her head drooping a little lower, Blackberry opted to change the subject to something more innocuous.
“So, um... What’s Sarrais? I don’t know if I’ve heard that word before...”
“Ah...” Lavaliere frowned a little, but her head raised and her steps got a little more force. “It’s a Gryphon town, down far, far from here. The Southern Army, which my fiancee was stationed in, was ordered to capture it at all costs after one of the desert tribes moved in.”
Blackberry frowned, cutting her off once the sentence was finished. “But... I thought that Gryphons were friendly? I mean, there was even one there in the town hall, and the merchants travel all over the place all the time!”
Lavaliere shook her head at this, taking a second to phrase her words in an easy to understand manner. “Gryphons aren’t... Unified as much as earth ponies or unicorns. They’re a lot closer to how pegasai work, really.” Blackberry didn’t know what a pegasus was, but held her tongue through it. “Essentially there’s about a dozen main groups with hundreds of smaller ones, and they’ve been fighting one another and migrating around and merging and dividing for hundreds of years now. They’re all friendly to ponies like us, which is probably something that makes them so good at trading, but when we first made contact, we started to forge our own alliances and trade routes, which made us the enemies of some other groups without even knowing!
“Most of the time we try and keep everyone pleased, but some of them are pretty rigid in their bonds, so sometimes we fight here and there. Sarrais -I forget what that word means- was a major trading port that decided it didn’t like our diplomacy, broke off ties and killed out ambassadors. So the King sent in the troops, one two three the city is ours again, but not without losses. The Gryphons know how to fight a lot better than they know how to talk; one of the tribals can take out five of our troops before going down, and that’s not even one of their soldiers.”
This was a lot of information for Blackberry, who until this point had assumed that every gryphon simply wandered the world, selling goods and having a good time, never giving much thought as to where they came from and why they might have left. The two of them entered the market district with relative silence as the world bustled around them, Lavaliere steering them both into a bakery while Blackberry did her best to digest this information.
Pleased with the prospect of business, the young colt standing behind the counter jumped up onto his step with a wide grin, looking at his two new customers. Despite the responsibility of running the shop, he was barely past his youth, and his voice still hadn’t dropped.
“Hello there lovely Miss Lavaliere, what can I get for you and your friend on this fine afternoon?”
She grinned at the child, a few bits floating carelessly out of her saddlebag and onto the counter, where they were quickly gathered up by the boy and placed into a small box on the shelf behind. Struggling to get the box open, he spoke through a muffled mouth, trying to keep all the money in order.
“Mmmf... The usual, right? What about her?”
Lavaliere turned to Blackberry, looking her over.
“Blackberry, how does daisy and barley on rye bread sound to you?”
Startled by a question being addressed to her while so deep in thought, she blinked a few times, unsure what was being asked of her. Not wanting to look the fool, she fell back on her old standby of nodding and smiling, prompting a bit of an eye roll from Lavaliere. Nonetheless, she nodded to the colt, who threw up a salute and dashed off into the kitchen, returning with a wooden tray adorned with the two items not ten seconds later. He placed it up on the counter, nudging it towards the two mares with his nose, before centering himself on the step once more to give his well-rehearsed words:
“Thank you for your business, we hope you come again!”
Both foods followed the mares out the door with a magical leash, overtaking them to rest on one of the tables outside, shortly followed by Blackberry, who was quick to sit down after so long on her feet, before Lavaliere brought up the rear, frowning at the clouds that were starting to loom on the horizon. A low, earthy growl seemed to indicate that there was lightning in them, even if they were still far off. Blackberry noticed none of this, but the sound distracted her from eating enough that she raised her head, looking around confusedly. Around them, ponies who were not distracted with bartering and trade muttered amongst themselves, looking to the clouds on the north with disdain. Each one was fairly quick to return to their life, and it wasn’t long before the ponies milled about as they had mere minutes before. The guards, though, quickened their paces ever so slightly, and each one’s path seemed to be more centered on the shelter of the town hall. Lavaliere, who was not moving, merely sat frozen with her eyes looking north.
Noticing her friend’s anxiety only through her lack of appetite, Blackberry gently lay down the second half of her sandwich, cocking her head at Lavaliere.
“What’s wrong? That rain isn’t going to be here for another hour or two at the least, you should eat up!”
She poked at the sandwich opposite, which up until this point had only two sections taken from it. Giving a soft smile, Lavaliere raised it to her lips, pausing to look at the horizon for a second longer before finally adding a third bite. The second rumble fell on the ears of a fairly uncaring population; as did the third, save some stall merchants who began to close up early to beat the weather.
As the fourth and fifth rumbled by, the duration between them decreasing every time, Lord Crimson Impulse found himself becoming increasingly anxious, an uncommon and uncomfortable feeling.
“It can be seen simply, that of the five kings of Hippocrene in the past century, the only two to be male, Ehrgeiz the Visionary and Thencan the Pensive, have made their names in violence and warfare, while the three female kings, Ormet the Reformist, Adalet the Just, and Atenta the Wise, made their names through peaceful interaction. It is for the individual to decide which to condemn as ineffectual.”
Before the Sun Rises
Four: So It Goes
To imply that, pacing in his office, ‘Lord and Acting Commander of the Northern Hippocrene Armies’ Crimson Impulse was afraid would be a gross misunderstanding. Fear was for the weak, both the weak of heart and the weak of mind. His pacing was of anticipation, and of the likelihood of failure in the future, as well as the frustration that there was little he could do to prevent such a failure. The Gryphon, more interested in his droning speech than his audience’s reaction, merely took the unicorn’s pacing as a pensive reflection on his words, seeing no need to stop his explanation as to the nuances of his tribes alliances. Crimson didn’t like his speech, and he didn’t like the Gryphon who was giving it. He’d agreed to come up north to get away from gryphons, and yet here they were, digging their greedy claws into his business, caring for nothing but their own profit and petty squabbles. At least the situation that the distant rumbling represented was something he was used to, something he enjoyed, and he focused more intently on that than he’d care for his guest to know, silently praying for some excuse to leave early.
Unfortunately, he was forced to stay in attendance for the remaining few minutes, the Gryphon finally taking the time to conclude his one-sided debate with an irritatingly smug sense of victory.
"Well, what is your opinion on this matter?"
Presented with this demand for information, Crimson found that he had difficulty recalling what, if anything, this diplomat had been talking about for the past half hour. It was probably something to do with trade; these sorts were always looking to get more money one way or another. Frowning, he postured himself a little more aggressively, something that caused the gryphon to raise a brow, bemused at this. Opening his mouth to say something to stall the situation a little longer, a hasty rap on the door gave the unicorn his much needed relief. Closing his mouth again, he made a show of being irritated at this interruption as he crossed to the door, opening it a few inches. Outside, one of his iron-clad infantry nervously shifted his weight from hoof to hoof, glancing down the hall periodically. Opening it a little more, Crimson allowed the soldier to enter, however he remained standing just outside the doorway.
"Sir... Erm... I am Vatlus, one of the forward scouts serving in your second army, Third of the Fifth of the Sixth century in the First cohort."
Opening the door fully, Crimson took far greater interest in these words, much to the irritation of the gryphon, who wanted merely to do his job and get out of this backwater community.
"Where is Urteil? Is it not the job of the leader to make his report?"
The scout gulped, nervously glancing down the hall.
"We were ambushed by the enemy; Urteil was killed in the woods, along with most of my squadmates, sir. Only I and Noroc, the eighth, survived to make it this far, but she is presently unconscious and being treated for wounds sustained. There, um..." He glanced down the hall again, clearly desiring much more to check on his comrade than be relaying bad news to a leader with a notoriously bad temper, but a sense of duty kept him still. Duty and the fear of reassignment. "...The enemy army approaching isn't the main force, but its still a large horde. Three thousand strong at least, but they were moving through the trees, and it was hard to get an exact measure. They were well equipped, sir, and some of them seemed to be using our armours." He indicated to a puncture in his chest-plate, very nearly having pierced the skin. "One of our helmets made this mark, and it seems that the more important or stronger of the enemy are similarly dressed."
Trying his best to hide the elation inside, Crimson turned back to the gryphon.
"My apologies, Alnitak, but it seems that your discussions have become a significantly lower priority than you think they are. Relay your request to the scribe out front; she represents the crown, and she can approve or deny you at her own will."
Vatlus, yet to be dismissed, couldn't help but overhear the conversation, and cleared his throat to get the commander's attention.
"Sir... There is no out front."
Crimson's heart skipped a beat, his eyes shooting quickly to Vatlus at the doorway. He stared for a moment, then strode a brisk walk out to the doorway, peering at where Lavaliere should have been working. His mind began to run through simulations of what he would do to her for leaving in order of brutality as his body turned to face the soldier. A nod was all that was necessary to dismiss him. and Vatlus was gracious to flee the scene before it turned volatile, dashing down the hall and into the medical station. Alnitak had taken to peering out the window, hoping that his dissatisfaction would leave him and head into the clouds, but no such thing occurred. Instead, he merely found himself increasingly irritated with these ponies, these lesser beings, and how his satrap had seen it fit to waste his time sending him on fool's errands. Perhaps this was a punishment for misdeeds, or a test of his loyalty.
Crimson shut the door most of the way as he turned back to the gryphon, not exactly sure how to deal with him now that his fail-safe was missing. He took a few seconds to get his thoughts in order before clearing his throat, making a show of his incredibly fake smile as he addressed the diplomat.
"It would seem that my prior statement has been rendered irrelevant, however the fact of your priority change still holds strong-"
"Save your words, pony." Alnitak turned from the window, almost spitting the word 'pony' as if it were some kind of slur, and began to pace the room as he talked. "I've had enough disrespect to last a lifetime; would that I could order a method of retribution upon this filthy city, I would, but as I cannot then I must merely be content with the inevitable demise of this whole land. To call yourself a 'Lord' is an affront to the honour that title once held, and if it were in my power I would have such a rank stripped from you. Your unpleasantness leaves a foul taste in my mouth from merely speaking your name, and the fact that you have risen to a position of any power is thanks only to your violent nature and the fear that is drawn from it. My people have no valour nor any credibility in dealing with your ilk."
The stallion, unused to being spoken to in such a way, merely raised an eyebrow as the gryphon went through his spiel, apparently content to watch him pace about for the duration of his rant. As he finished, there was an air of silence as Alnitak waited for some kind of affirmation of his anger, maybe even an apology for all his troubles. Crimson did neither, instead preferring to wordlessly exit the room, shutting the door behind him, an angry screech following as he departed. Rather than fully vacate the building, he trotted briskly over to the opposite wing, where the smell of blood pervaded even the stone. He took a deep breath, revelling in the scent, the familiarity of the air.
A door to his right opened, a rather less shaken Vatlus exiting, standing to startled attention as he noticed the commander not five feet from him, stammering an apology for not being ready sooner before excusing himself down the hall, leaving the door wide open. Crimson poked a head in, where a bandaged and unconscious mare lay on a smooth marble table, presently being looked over by an elderly doctor and nurse, her armour having been shed and lain to the side of the room. He cleared his throat to get the attention of the two medical staff, entering the room as they both turned their heads to look at him.
"Will she live?"
The doctor opened his mouth to say something, but after a second thought, closed it, turning back to her. There were a wide variety of wounds on her body, and blood marked the table as well as the bandages that seemed to have engulfed half her body, but despite it all, her chest rose and fell calmly with each breath, her face passive and serene.
"She should, sir, but I don't doubt that she'll die like the rest of us if the enemy has their way here."
Crimson snorted with amusement, prompting a wry smile from the doctor, who was more than pleased his comment hadn't gotten him in trouble for some manner of insubordination. Careful in his steps, Crimson walked over to her body, examining the wounds with his own, differently experienced eyes. He might not have known how to suture a wound, but he knew how to inflict it, and what it looked like when it was fresh. The long, shallow, horizontal scrapes, about four on her body, were from the charging earth ponies, their spears scraping and glancing when they couldn't puncture the armour of his soldiers. The more serious issue was the large gash on the front of her chest; a deep, hacking motion that was only possible with unicorn helmets. It confirmed her comrade's story, if one was to discount the possibility of another of her squadmates mistaking her for the enemy. Turning toward the armour itself, he brought it towards him, magically turning it over to examine the marks and blows, the blood of both her and the enemy.
"When will she be able to talk, that I may get her account?"
The doctor had to think about this for a moment, the nurse bringing over the clay tablet with patient information etched into it. A few seconds of looking at this gave him all he needed, but his words were slower, and carried a pensive, unsure quality about them.
"It should be about a day until she regains consciousness, and luckily there were no injuries to her legs, so she should be mobile again very shortly, however it would still be roughly a month until she is in any condition to be fighting or even marching with her armour."
Crimson sighed, floating the armour back to its former placement on the floor. His intent had been to get a second opinion on the enemy's strength, beyond that of an exhausted, demoralized scout, but by the time she woke up they'd already have won the battle, else she wouldn't wake at all.
"Keep her safe, and I want her to join the next caravan back to the capital. There was supposed to be one leaving at sundown, try and get her able to move by then."
The doctor gave a quick nod to Crimson, who began to depart, while he turned and nodded to his nurse, the two of them beginning to ready the patient for transfer.
Outside, Crimson was greeted with the sound of shouting, though it seemed fairly one-sided, and muffled by the walls as it was there was no way of conclusively telling what the yelling was all about. Seeing as he was in no was deviating from his intended path, he turned the corner, opening the doors to the outside world. The shouting became far clearer, and though the words cut off as the doors opened, it wasn't hard to tell what it was all about based on who it was saying it. Alnitak, turning fiercely from one of the various administrative assistants to see what the interruption was, narrowed his eyes as he recognized who it was that came into view. Rather than giving him the chance to try and explain himself, thereby digging a deeper hole for himself, the gryphon merely spat at the commander's feet, shouting an insult of some sort in his native tongue as he turned his back, launching into the air with little perceptible grace.
The assistant, terrified and confused, absconded quickly into the doors of the hall before Crimson had a chance to close them, pulling them shut himself as he disappeared into the stone building, leaving the commander to his work.
Gathered in the city square, slightly less than four hundred troops, about half and half infantry and archers, stood in their mottled groups. Most squadrons present were not at full capacity; groups that had left as ten now dwindled to sixes and sevens, and those that still held full number had been deployed elsewhere. This town was not along a major front, a garrison at half capacity would have been more than necessary to keep it in line, and yet such a sense of safety now led to the drastic outnumbering by a relatively small enemy force. Crimson had no one to blame but himself, but now was not the time to blame anyone. That would come after victory, or not come at all. He stomped a hoof, the iron crunching loudly against the stone. In response, three hundred and seventy seven iron-clad hooves stomped in unision, cutting out any and all chatter from the soldiers, every mare and stallion turning to face him. They were arranged by squads. Crimson noted Vatlus standing alone, fatigued but still loyal.
He looked over his army, and saw fear in none of their eyes. Each of them knew that they would be victorious under their leadership, even if they themselves fell, and even if all of them fell in this battle, their armies would again take this place, and would be victorious then if not now. They were not individuals, they were tools of the state, of the senate, and of the crown, and thought only for the greater good. He was not a tool off the senate. He was the one who wielded it.
"None of you, standing here today, are unfamiliar with battle. As I look among you, I see that you have lost friends, lost family." Each one understood his words, and each one stood unwaveringly at attention. The nine others in their squad were their family; the full century, their extended relatives. "It is from such loss that I know you will not today fight with ignorance, nor will you be brash and overconfident. These 'Earth Ponies' are lesser beings, but they are no less dangerous. We will fight, and each side will see its members fall, but on this day, we will find glory on the battlefield, for both those who fall and those who stand. On this day, we will find victory on the battlefield, for those who fall and those who stand. On this day, we will again see our gods, but it will be the enemy who will meet their maker!"
The troops stomped again, belting out in a unified shout. Crimson's voice shifted, seeming to be talking to each member individually rather than orating, though the scope of his audience did not change.
"Archers, you will take position on the northern wall, firing at the enemy as they come into range. Take all available ammunition with you; don't let yourselves die until you have fired every arrow!"
The lighter troops, wearing their thick linen tunics in lieu of iron armour, began to move, heading to the far side of the building, where the de-facto armoury was set up. The infantry didn't distract themselves in watching them leave, but closed ranks to fill the gaps they left nonetheless.
"All squadrons who have a number at less than fifty percent capacity will be also deployed to the walls, however you will concentrate yourselves at the gates and tower portions. Anyone of half or greater with a squadron number of two, five, and eight, will accompany me personally. The remaining shall divide themselves into two equal groups, and all of you will meet me at the western gate in ten minutes. The third-fifth-sixth-first squadron will come to me immediately. Dismissed."
Vatlus, confused at the mention of his squad, remained rooted to his spot, the rest of the motley force moving to their positions around him. It took a few seconds after everyone had started moving before he jumped into action, cutting through the structured movement with a rehearsed ease. As he came to a stop, kneeling respectfully to his superior, Crimson waited until the remaining stragglers had gone to their proper place before choosing to acknowledge him.
"You said your name was Vatlus, correct?"
The stallion nodded. "Yes, Sir, that is correct."
Crimson nodded back, taking a moment to stare out to the north. The town hall had been built upon a slight hill, and he could just barely see coloured banners moving above the rooftops as the archers dragged themselves into position. The terrain to the north continued this slow downward trend, forming a sort of gradual valley covered in grass and trees. It was a land easy to maneuver on, and one that provided the chance for some on-the-job training.
"Military law dictates that, as the final member of your squad in active duty, you must be discharged from this force with honours, does it not?"
Vatlus nodded again. It did. He expected that he would be sent home with his belongings by the end of the day, if he did not die from the enemy capturing this place.
"Do those honours include personal honour?"
That was something that he had to think about. He was a fairly simple stallion, intending as a colt to become a bread baker before the lure of adventure had him sent north almost a year ago. He knew little of family honour, of reputations among the classes. Those were things that nobles thought about; a fairly low citizen like himself had more basic needs to consider. However, it seemed impractical for a government to issue something to her people that wasn't something they needed or wanted, and he shook his head.
"No, Sir, I don't suppose they would."
The single, isolated laugh from Crimson seemed to indicate that he'd given the right answer.
"No. No they wouldn't, would they. Come with me, Vatlus."
Not one to protest what may or may not have been an indirect order, the two of them departed, heading directly westward without any pleasantries exchanged. It took very little time for them to arrive, and along the way Vatlus noticed that the civilians had all but disappeared. As they passed a café, an elegant looking unicorn waved to him as he passed, prompting him to give a confused wave in response, not entirely sure who that was over there, nor why she appeared to be having a pleasant afternoon meal with another unfamiliar earth pony, when there was a battle to be fought in less than an hour. Crimson had no such confusion, quietly seething to himself as they walked the rest of the way. When they did finally arrive, a smattering of early infantry standing idly about, he picked up off an unsaid point from far earlier.
"Vatlus, why is it that you survived an encounter with the enemy?"
Enjoying the silence, in which he had little risk of slipping up in his words, the stallion was a little off-put by so direct a question, especially so soon after the fact. His mind worked harder than it ever had before, trying to get conclusive information from his memories without succumbing to them. There had been eight of them that had left, four days prior; one had fallen ill and died along the march, another was killed in battle taking the city they had departed from. It was on the third day that an enemy fronting force, laying in ambush to catch any watching eyes, had engaged their band. They were eight against twenty, and were at the disadvantage of surprise. Three fell on the initial charge, and a fourth as they struggled to form a cohesive rank. By the time the two further had fallen, they'd managed to bring the losses up to six on either side, but they were still outnumbered. Noroc managed to kill three and wound two more before she finally fell into darkness. Vatlus, heavily demoralized, did his best to keep from running, knowing that these brutes in the woods could outrun him easily. He fought with what he assumed was to be his last strength, not knowing that by this point, the enemy had lost their charging capacity, and he was at a significant advantage. Four fell by him personally, and the remaining few fled into the woods rather than face this foe.
Noroc was the only one still breathing, and so he had brought her upon his back, walking eight hours before stopping to rest, then two more the next day to finally arrive at the city walls again. That was not too long ago, and he desired rest more than anything, but he knew there was no place for slackers. He was here now, and he would fight as hard as he did then, because if he did then there might be a chance that he would live through the battle.
"I fought with fear, Lord."
Crimson found this very amusing, though gave no ready indication of such a reaction, simply emitting a pensive 'hm', looking out towards the city gate, now closed and devoid of outside guards. His mind clicked and whirred, making sense of the situation, trying to decide what would be the best course of action, the best use of his sparse resources.
"One of my kentarchon was killed yesterday, Vatlus. I'm told that I won't be getting a replacement for three more days."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Sir."
"You are hereby promoted from the Third of the Fifth of the Sixth in the First cohort, appointed to the rank of the First of the First of the Fifth in the First cohort, effective immediately and until a point at which a trained replacement arrives or you are killed. Congratulations, officer. Wait until all the infantry are here to receive orders. Let us give you a chance at restoring personal honours."
Taken aback by such a significant statement, hidden in a slew of military jargon, Vatlus opened and closed his mouth like a fish, trying desperately to come up with a suitable thing to say. A few seconds if this silent talking passed before he was able to put any noise behind it, but his commander was more than willing to be patient.
"Sir... I... Wouldn't there be ponies here who will fight better?"
"Perhaps some of them might, but I haven't the time to find them from those who would be worse. You fought a force far larger and with many more advantages than you, and yet you not only survived, but brought one of our people back to us. Whether luck or skill brought you to this end, it is my hope that it will bring us similar strength."
Not willing to provide the newly-dubbed officer a chance to object any further, Crimson trotted through the open doorway of the gatehouse, starting to climb its decrepit stairs. This was a land of tradition and stability; it was entirely likely that the walls and fortifications had existed during wars that had happened centuries past, and yet this would be the first time it would have felt the strength of iron, and the first time it would defend against the people who built it. Coming to the top, he picked up his pace, beginning to circle to the northern portion of the city, where the archer ensigns proudly displayed their coloured banners atop the towers. The clouds, holding stormy weather, loomed over the horizon, making their gradual path towards the city. The sounds of thunder were not natural anymore, the rumbling having lost its erratic nature. It was periodic, melodic, as if it were the heart of the world beating. It was the beat to the melody of marching hooves, which played at the periphery of his hearing.
He passed through one of the various square towers, placed seemingly erratically along the length of the wall, and began to pick up his pace. A few seconds of travel, and he found himself doubling the speed of the beat, making an effortless pace along the smoothly curving wooden walkway. A second tower, and he found himself among his troops, the archers hastily parting their ranks to allow him to pass before closing behind him. The third one he climbed to the top of, slowing his pace as he ascended, before finally coming to a stop at the edge of the parapet. One of his archers, his coat a pleasant blue, stood idly beside him, nodding slightly to acknowledge the presence of his commanding officer.
"They march in time, did you notice, Lord?"
He had, but Crimson made no motion to indicate that he'd understood or even heard the words of this soldier. Having crossed the horizon quite some time prior, the force against them was now entirely visible. At the head stood the source of the thunder: A massive oaken drum, shaped like bellows and adorned with tribal banners, was being struck in perfect time by two large stallions, their armour painted a bright violet to match the colour of their instrument. It was said that there was some inner mechanism of acoustics that let the sound draw for so long, and travel so far, but their own woodworkers could never match those of the Earth Ponies, and whatever secrets it held were still unknown. An army bearing such a thing would travel with the storms, coming seemingly out of nowhere, and it had taken a long time to train the people to discern its sound. Around it, formations of infantry jostled about and did their best to keep cohesive, all manner of woods clattering against one another.
"In formation, too. They bring a great leader to this battle, to keep their armies in such line."
Crimson, having gathered all the information he needed without the assistance of this talkative individual, was more than ready to turn and leave, but at the last moment, something caught him. Narrowing his eyes, he turned to face the soldier, who seemed rather confused that his leader was not leaving. All of the armies of Hippocrene, regardless of deployment, had certain colours associated with them. The north had three, with the colours white, black, and a robin's-egg blue, which was dyed into the heavy linen that each soldier wore over their flank. This particular individual was wearing a deep, almost sapphire blue, a colour far too dark to be attributed to natural causes, and one that was not assigned to any army.
"Soldier, why are you out of uniform?"
The archer grinned, chuckling as he turned to face the approaching army.
"Prioritize yourself, Lord. The enemy is within range."
At this statement, several of the more experienced archers began to take up arrows, igniting them in braziers that dotted the wall. A dozen lights lit along the palisade, a number that soon grew to full capacity, before the hundred little lights flew to meet the enemy. There was little visible effect of only a hundred arrows against three thousand, but here and there among the front lines, a set of wooden armour caught alight, the afflicted member staggering and falling, only to be swallowed by the advancing group. Giving an irritated huff that he would be unable to reprimand this soldier, Crimson gave him a quick glare, turning down the stairs as a second volley was prepared.
It took nearly a minute for him, swaddled in clothes of iron, to run the trek along the wall, back to where his own troops now waited in full force. A minute lost; the enemy might already be at the walls. He would have liked a moment to catch his breath, but there was no time for that anymore, instead just spitting on the ground to get the taste of acid out of his mouth, slowing but not stopping as he cut into the middle of the assembly. At his presence, the unicorns split into their assigned groups, Vatlus trotting to his side, all of them eagerly awaiting their orders. He looked them over, taking deep, cleansing breaths, trying to clear his head as much as possible.
"Today we will undergo a simple tactic, and I trust that you will all be able to follow through with it. We are the hammer. The walls are the anvil. All troops with me will be in a wedge formation, while the two other groups will divide into separate wings, keeping our flank clear and keeping as much of us facing the enemy as we can bear. Our newest kentarchon, Vatlus, will accompany the left wing, and the right will follow its lead. We will circle the town from this gate, and charge only on my order. When I say to charge, you will not flee, no matter how afraid you are of the enemies number, no matter how weak you think we must be compared to them. We have been sent to this land because we are the strong, and we will show our strength to the enemy leader. Take as many of them as you can."
Heading to the gate, the gathering followed him, starting to divide themselves into their various parts. Vatlus, looking rather disillusioned with his position of leadership, was swallowed by the moving mass before he was able to ask anything of his commander. The doors were pushed open, allowing the brave hundred troops to exit the city, the sounds of thunder always at their right. As they closed shut again, Crimson closed his eyes, taking deep, measured breaths as he walked. It was a ritual of his, to clear the mind of all distraction, and make the decisions he took be those of a rational leader. The sounds of thunder dulled, the unified march of his own troops became faint, but the sound was no less strong. They turned right, the left-most wing having to dash to make it into formation. He opened his eyes again, finding himself front and center in the rank, the head of the spear-point that his own group represented.
At the order, all of them shifted their speed, the sound of marching becoming erratic as four hundred hooves began to head into a canter. The enemy's marching had stopped, but the drums had not. They were at the walls, then, and all their attention would be forward. As the wall curved away to the right, the rear of the enemy's formations came into view, slowly giving way to the rest of them. Intermittently in the ranks, the shine of iron armour was present, confirming Vatlus' report.
"See how the enemy takes from our dead! See their dishonour! Make them pay for their transgressions! Charge!"
A canter gave way to a gallop, the ranks holding perfectly. Those who had lances fixed them to their armour, those who didn't simply drew their weapons. The exact troop that Crimson was rapidly approaching was a lightly armed charging section, spread out in a loose formation because of the risk of arrows. Those closest to the west turned slightly, now being made aware of the sound of a charge, but lacked the discipline to know what to do. Some turned to run away, others ran towards them. The mare that Crimson was approaching, her coat a beautiful honey yellow, tried to let out a shriek. As he met her, it was cut short, but the shrieks of others met with less lethal blows became immediately apparent. The staggered formation meant that there was almost no resistance to their forward momentum, and his private squadron pushed forward seemingly endlessly. In only twenty seconds, the initial group was effectively destroyed, and they began to engage the drum-bearers.
Given a few seconds of forewarning, the more heavily armoured guards did their best to pull into a cohesive rank, facing their new foe, however the sheer strength of the force output against them was far greater than they could have prepared for. They wavered slightly as the unicorns approached, losing their cohesion and their footing, than when they were met they were crushed backwards into their own ranks, their unarmoured backs punctured by their comrade's spears. It was not a lethal action, but one that crushed the ranks, sending the frantic screams of the dying and injured into the world. Blood lingered in the air, and from the ranks, an iron-clad earth pony emerged, shouting orders to a wavering group. They tried their best to hold at her request, and she was quick to engage. Rather than the usual tactic of 'hit harder than your enemy', she dipped and ducked, maneuvering around and behind to get an advantageous position. It was a short time for her to drop one of his infantry to the dirt, his throat punctured and his eyes listless.
"Engage the officer! Move!"
Those who were too far away merely continued their attacks, now having lost all motion from the charge and locked in bitter close-combat, however those who could make it were quick to follow orders, identifying the mare in iron. She managed to kill another soldier and wound two more before she made a slip-up, the punishment for such a mistake being a spear into her side, sending her into the ground. At the sight of their leader fallen, the remaining members of the party began to rout, most of them cut down as they exposed their bare backs.
With a few seconds to think, Crimson jumped atop one of the corpses, looking above the battle. The right wing was having more trouble than the left, despite the assistance provided by the archers, as they had been tightly packed and had the thickest armour, however they were unled troops, and the unicorns were beginning to send them into a rout there as well. The left was only slightly behind his own group, working through a mixed troop with relative ease, however it was apparent that they had taken more casualties than he had hoped, likely through pushing themselves to keep up with him. As it appeared, about a third of the initial number had fallen, however they held fast, and as he watched, that earth pony section began to flee northward, any stragglers cut down by his army. The drumming suddenly dropped to a half beat; one of the players had been struck by an arrow and killed. He breathed slowly, calmly, pushing all unnecessary information from his head.
"Engage the final column! Break their leadership!"
It was not his own voice that spoke, rather, that of Vatlus. At such a command, his own soldiers disengaged from the routing enemy, swooping around to attack the northeastern column, the one that held the great drum, where his own group had engaged mere seconds prior on their own initiative. Turning to the right wing, which was only about halfway through their own obstacle, he whistled to get the captains' attentions. The note was high pitched and pierced the din of warfare, three unicorns disengaging and dashing to him from the fray, each a little worse for wear.
"Try to guide the enemy into the wall, or else they will try to breach my own right flank in their escape. Give orders to the infantry stationed on the wall to get down here as soon as the gate is clear."
Each of the three nodded, returning to their own battle to relay these orders, one of them shouting up at the gatehouse. Turning away, he looked to his troops, who were now at something of a disadvantage. The earth pony warriors assigned to guard the drum and the leaders weren't like the simplistic militia that had routed so easily, dictated by fear and instinct. They were a clan of battle, and stood defiantly against odds that they knew were in their favour. Growling under his breath at his own stupidity, he turned and dashed in front of the gatehouse, clambering atop the abandoned battering ram.
"Archers! Fire all arrows at the drum! Bring it down!"
There was no way to know that they had heard and understood beyond their results. A hundred tongues of fire leaped from the walls, sticking fast to the wooden instrument. It was heavily resistant to fire, treated as it were, but all along the frame, one or two tiny fires began to catch. Another volley doubled the number, and there were dissatisfied yells coming from the earth pony warriors. Trusting his favour with the gods, Crimson returned to the rear of his grouping, taking a one-pony charge into the enemies lines. He fought with fervor, but the thickness of the enemy's wooden hide was difficult to work through, and his sword soon was fixed in the chest of a massive mare, enlarged even further by her armour, without her having been injured. She hollered, trying to bash him with her artificially thick skull. The first strike missed, giving him a sore shoulder. The second knocked his helmet off, sending him sprawling backwards. Before a third could finish him off, one of his other soldiers intervened, thrusting an iron lance deep through her mouth. Giving a final gargle, she dropped to the ground, and Crimson found himself in debt. All he saw of his saviour was the flash of sapphire, then they disappeared into the fray once more.
Scrambling quickly to his feet again, Crimson drew a spare knife, kept faithfully on his back. It was less impressive than a sword, but no less lethal, and he managed to send it through the eye of a berserk tribal before being forced to take up the axe of a fallen comrade. Unheard by him, the gates to the city opened, but there was no second charge as ordered. Instead, a single archer dashed out, doing her best to get to him. What was heard by him was a great creak, sounding over all else, as the great drum tipped dangerously to the right. A second creak brought with it the snapping of wood, and the instrument fell gloriously backwards, trapping more than a dozen warriors under its weight, and sending an instant of panic through the entire remaining force. The right wing's engagement, unled and demoralized, devolved into a rout, while the final column merely wavered, however it set a precedent. Morale crushed beneath the weight of their burning standard, the last of the earth ponies began to take steps back, make mistakes in their combat. And as the right wing, renewed by the flight of their foes, crashed into their rear, the warriors collapsed, chaos and fear driving them away from danger.
"Push! Push! Crush them!"
His troops followed orders, but before he was able to join them in the slaughter, the tinny archer pulled him back, her eyes wild with desperation.
"Sir! The civilians have taken up arms against us! They came from the southern end of town, gathering all they could as they came northward to strike us in the rear! The men you had deployed to the walls are doing their best to engage them, but they are without leadership, and are too divided and few. Please, sir, they threaten to destroy us!"
Crimson gave a roar. An angry sound, it could be compared to a lion who has had its prey lost.
"Have the archers gather the wounded." Turning away from the mare, he swivelled his head to address his army. "Regroup! Return to me!"
Confused at the conflicting orders, the troops took a few seconds to collect themselves before running to Crimson. A little more than a hundred had left the gates, and now it seemed like only thirty remained able to continue. Vatlus was not among this thirty.
"Our enemy has brought the very people against us, and they now seek to undermine us from within! Let us charge against them, and drive from this place all signs of rebellion! All of you, with me!"
Fuelled by the heroic victory mere moments before, the troops gave a cheer, though the number of voices made it seem small as compared to the sound he had heard so many times before. Every soldier was valuable, especially when they were so few. They formed a simple rectangle, picking up spears from the fallen and they maneuvered over the uneven terrain of a battle recently fought, heading through the gateway. Shouts from the archers gave them direction, pointing them south to the middle of town, where it appeared that a skirmish was already under way. A mob, perhaps a thousand strong, had filled the square, pushing away merchant's stalls as each one fought to get their chance at a fight. Pockets of unicorns, about a dozen strong, were isolated in various spots, desperately fighting the seemingly endless foe. Pitchforks and clubs were being used, and it seemed that one or two of the soldiers had already fallen victim, while others threw rocks from high places.
"Once more! Charge!"
Every unicorn in the group bellowed as they galloped forward, adrenaline thick in their veins. There was not nearly as much difficulty in this foe as there had been in the other; the soft targets yielding quickly to their weapons. Within seconds, the angry shouts turned to fearful screams, even though the reinforcements numbered a tiny fraction of their own strength, and what had been a peasant uprising was now nothing more than a disorderly rout. When Crimson looked from one fallen enemy for another target, he was surprised to find that there were none. Looking around, he saw that there was simply no one left to fight, and his troops, tired and aching, breathed relief, looking to one another with a mounting happiness as they each realized that they were to continue living another day. One of them pulled her helmet off, letting it drop onto the ground with a relieved laugh. The rest began to follow suit, stripping parts of their bloodstained armour from themselves, celebrating the simple fact that they would live another day. Crimson found it infectious, and would have joined their practice if his helmet didn't currently lie in the field of battle outside the walls. Instead he smiled, exhaling deeply and letting the world wash over him again.
Along the edge of the group, a voice rose.
The soldiers cheered at such an idea as victory, letting themselves become drunk off its intoxicating presence. In one of the corners, an individual found something decidedly more intoxicating in one of the upturned merchant stalls, beginning to share it amongst his friends. Free of the restrictive armours, some of the other troops began to sing joyously, the others swaying and chattering amongst one another. Right beside him, an overexcited mare pounced on one of her squadmates, giving him a passionate kiss, apparently forgetting the rules against such things. Only the moment existed now, and every one of them was convinced to make the best of it. Amidst it all, Crimson silently fled the imminent celebration, joining the archers and their decidedly more sombre march with the wounded to town hall.