An MLP:FiM Fanfic by Midnight Shadow and Tenure
Climb. A singular urge drove him to traverse the near-vertical cliff; one straining hoof at a time finding purchase in thin divots. He knew that to fall would mean the end. There was no bottom to the depths beneath him, only darkness.
Catch up! His mist-shrouded opponent bounded ahead of him, nearly floating up the treacherous wall. Try as he might, he could not shorten the distance between them. The more he tried, the more difficult the footing, the more his target got away. He reached out to gain another small cleft... and overreached! He lost his grip and fell tumbling into the dark. As he fell, the other kept climbing. As he tumbled, he caught sight of his own hooves, the flesh aging off in desiccated strips until his forelegs were naught but bone, floating away like the pained screams rattling from his dissolving skull.
He awoke in the darkness to the sound of his own yelling; after a few moments of disorientation he realised he was in the relative safety of his tent.
“More nightmares.” he muttered, staring impassively at the tent wall in the dark for a few moments, as dark thoughts churned in his head. Finally, he decided now was as good a time as any. He lit a candle and checked the small clock nearby, it was still a couple of hours until dawn. No better time to get up and finish my journey to the next town, he thought resignedly. He hauled his body out from under the blankets, wincing at the usual ailments his frame saw fit to remind him of and consulted the map he had laid out the night previous. Travelling south along that road yesterday had led to the fork he’d noted at lunchtime, and this road would take him over the border into Equestria, right through a town called Ponyville... .
He snorted a bit at the map, these Equestrians were certainly not the most creative with names, were they? Regardless, there would be paying customers; a farming community always had knives to sharpen and plows to repair. More funds for his journey. A journey to nowhere an insistent thought nagged, but he pushed that to the back of his mind and dragged on his work clothing, hiding his shame as he began his routine.
With effort backed by sufficient grunts, groans, aches and pains, the old pony packed his camp back into his wagon and began his journey to his next destination with the sun just starting to make light on the horizon.
The sun hadn’t yet burned off the morning mists when Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and Twilight Sparkle emerged from the library. All the group save for the party pony seemed to drag their hooves listlessly, their eyes full of fatigue. Pinkie kept up a perky hop in her step as she started speaking with her usual cheerful abandon.
“That was an awesome sleepover, Twilight! I had soooo much fun, especially when we started reading that scary story Applejack brought over,” she adopted a looming pose, “The Legend of The BLAAAAACK BUUUUUUTCHEEEER!!”
Fluttershy cringed, “Please don’t bring that story up again.” she near whispered, “it gave me such bad nightmares, I couldn't sleep at all.”
“We remember.” Twilight and Applejack said in deadpan unison.
“S-sorry... I didn’t mean to-”
“It’s not that we minded you sleeping next to us, “ Twilight interrupted in what she hoped was an assuring voice, “just try to hold a pillow next time instead of our heads.”
Applejack shook her head, “I’ll never get how a pony with such a warm heart can have such cold hooves... ... ”
Their conversation was cut short when the entire square was suddenly enveloped in thick fog. The group let out muffled gasps of surprise as their vision was cut to inches.
A moment later a voice called out from above, “Everyone okay down there?”
Twilight recognized Rainbow Dash’s voice. “We’re all fine! What happened to the weather?”
“A cloud machine kinda went haywire and now... well you can see what happened... or not!” Dash giggled at her impromptu joke, “Anyway, we’ll have it all cleared out pretty quick, just be careful walking around down there!”
“Better come by and tell us all about it later!” Pinkie shouted out.
“You bet, Pinkie! See ya!”
After their goodbyes, the group stood around quietly in the ever-shifting whiteness.
Applejack was the first to break the silence, “So... reckon we should chance it and try for Pinkie’s place?”
“Oh yeah! We were gonna have breakfast at Sugarcube Corner! I totally forgot about that! Jeez, where’s my brain this morning?”
“Lost in a fog?”
The group had a good laugh... save for Fluttershy, who was too busy shaking.
“Oh dear... ohhh dear... we should get inside... .which way is inside again?”
The gang looked around, and around - the entire square was blanketed in thick rolling walls of cloud. Despite the fact it was morning, the fog had reduced things to near twilight.
“Sugarcube?” asked AJ, “do you remember which way is your place?”
“I sure do! It’s this way... .no this way... .oh umm... .this way... .oh fiddlesticks... .hey! Maybe we can ask that pony!”
They looked as a ghostly, ethereal figure came stepping through the murky gloom towards them, glowing a pale green, his hoofsteps echoing curiously. Wreathed in black, clutching what appeared to be a large executioner’s axe, Fluttershy realised he looked kind of familiar... .in fact, he looked like... .
“Eeeeep! It’s the black butcher!” she exclaimed, the fog eating her voice as she took off into the air, disappearing from view. The other ponies gasped and drew closer together, but as the figure came closer they realised it was just his lantern, the oil responsible for the green glow. It hung off an oblong sign which in the fog, somewhat resemble an axe. The sign simply read “Open”. Seeing the four ponies watching him, he put it down and eyed them for a few moments before speaking,
“Is Ponyville, da?”
“I.,.excuse me?” asked Twilight
“This place... .is Ponyville?” he gestured with a hoof, Twilight noted how nicked and worn it looked, whoever this strange pony was he had not only come a long way but had seen many hard days.
“Yes, yes, this is Ponyville. Welcome to our humble town. I’m Twilight Sparkle at your service. This is Applejack, Rarity and Pinkie Pie. You... .managed to scare Fluttershy coming out of the fog like that, and our friend Rainbow Dash will turn up later I’m sure. Who are you?”
“I am havink many names, but you call me Smithy. I am traveller. I am blacksmith, at your service.”
“Blacksmith huh? I think I have a few tasks fer you if’n you’re not busy.”
“Busy is what I come for. Offer services, you pay in place to stay, food, extra bits you have.”
“Ah food! Food I can do you for. I’ve got a nice li’l place jest out the way fer you to be stayin’ at. If you take a look at our ploughs, a few buckets, scythes, axes... " AJ rattled off a list of miscellaneous tools that needed the touch of a blacksmith, and finished with, “and mah shoes are all but worn out an’ Big Mac’s been after me to repair the cider still since last year’s accident... I’ll pay you for your services, you can take what water and apples you need and I’ll have Granny Smith bake you one of her special pies.”
Smithy blinked, “you have big shoppinks!”
“We don’t have too many blacksmiths around here, gotta get ‘em done while you can.”
The noonday sun shown high in the sky as Smithy rolled into the clearing. Unhitching the wagon from his back, he started unpacking his wares. The kiln was setup first, it would take a while to heat. The anvil was heavy and had to be secure and level. The tongs and quencher bucket were simple, just a matter of placement... .
“Wotcha dooin’?” asked a small voice from inside a bush.
Smithy stopped and trotted over to the bush, “what is we havink here, da? Is talkink bush?”
The bush shook, “Uh, ma name’s Apple Bloom.”
“Apple Bloom. Is funny name for bush.”
“I’m a pony, mister.” Apple Bloom hopped out proudly, and then crouched down shyly.
“Apple Bloom is makink more sense now. Good mornink Miss Bloom.”
“It’s past lunchtime, and it’s Apple Bloom.”
“Da, but ‘good day’ is way of sayink goodbye in home country,” Smithy turned unceremoniously back to his tools, “what is you wantink?”
“I just wanna watch.”
“Watch? Watchink is leetle fun for leetle pony. Smithy think leetle pony want to try hoof at makink tools.”
“I... .can I? I mean I dunno, I never thought about being a blacksmith cos my name is Apple Bloom and my sister’s Applejack, and her brother’s Big Mac, which makes him my brother to, and they have apples on their flanks and I thought I’d have apples on my flank when I get my cutie-mark which I don’t have cos I don’t know what I want to do and I want to know so I can get my cutie-mark and everypony has a cutie-mark but I don’t yet and I WANT IT NOOWWWW.”
Smithy blinked, “leetle pony,” he said softly, “not all pony have cutie-mark.”
Apple Bloom blinked, and looked again, her child’s mind latching onto that last phrase like a lamprey. She trotted closer to the blacksmith and gave him a good looking-over as he was setting things up. His head appeared grey with a black mane but the rest of him wore a thick, heavy smock that covered most of his frame. On impulse she reached up to peel back the part near his flank. He jerked back with a start.
“NO! Do not be sneakink up and play with things! I am not swing-set to play on.”
“I just wanted to see your cutie-mark... "
He started to scowl. “That is it. You are beink too much distraction. You must go so I may work.”
“But I jus-”
”LEAVE!” he stamped his hooves and angrily pointed the way out. Apple Bloom turned and fled, her mind stuck on his suspicious behavior.
Smithy’s legs felt weak again, he took a moment to sit down on his haunches and scowled at the ground. That had been far too close for comfort.
Apple Bloom, Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle stalked through the undergrowth as inconspicuously as possible, “Cutie Mark Crusader Perimeter Patrollers are go!” hissed Apple Bloom
“Apple Bloom, what’re we... ?” asked Scootaloo.
“Ssh! Target is acquired!”
“What’s a target?” asked Sweetie Belle.
“He is!” Apple Bloom pointed to the blacksmith, hard at work with one of her big sister’s plows, “we’re watching him!”
“Why are we... ?”
“SSSH!” said Apple Bloom again.
The blacksmith huffed and sighed, putting down his hammer and tongs. He wandered over to the bush and stopped in front of it expectantly.
“He sees us!” hissed Sweetie Belle.
“Abort mission! Abort! Abort!” said Scootaloo
“Sshh! This disguise is perfect! He can’t possibly... "
“Da. Other little pony is beink right. Would be much harder to spot trouble-makink ponies if were not in big box readink ‘not ponies’. What is you wantink, tiny ponies?”
“We... uh... just wanted to watch.”
“Please to be comink out of box. Is hard to talk through mail-slot. Introduce selfs.”
The ponies reluctantly took the box off and stood sheepishly in front of the much larger, older blacksmith, “ah, little girl ponies. No wonder you hidink in bushes. Come, if you must watch, Smithy will be showink you how is done, da?”
“Da!” said Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom pouted and then followed.
“So why we gotta stand way back here? We can’t see nuthin!” Apple Bloom yelled from behind the divider.
“This for many reason.” Smithy declared as the little fillies heard the scrape of metal on metal, “First reason is keepink you out of harm’s way. Sparks are hot and could burn leetle ponies. Second reason is keepink you out of mane while I am workink. Third reason... is so we are havink space for you to help!”
The trio’s eyes lit up at this third reason and they all voiced out in boisterous union: “CUTIE-MARK CRUSADER BLACKSMITHS!! YAY!!”
“Da, da... " Smithy regretted it instantly, although he had to admit to himself that this cute yet terrible trio were growing on him, “are you seeink thing that look like lopsided accordion?”
Apple Bloom looked down and indeed did see a contraption hooked up to a hose leading around the corner, “Uh huh.”
“That is beink called a bellows. Blacksmith use that to pump air into forge, forge get very HOT with bellows. Can shape metal very well with hot flame.”
Two of the crusaders attempted to pull it down with their hooves, but under their meagre ministrations it was less of a ‘bellows’ and more of a ‘puffs’.
“Relax fellow crusaders! I’ve got this... " said Scootaloo as she scampered back a ways and came running at the contraption at full force.
“Ach! Nyet! No!” cried Smithy and reached out over the divider to intercept the filly, but it was all for naught. Scootaloo took a run and a jump, flapped her wings just as hard as she could and leapt into the air, clearing Smithy’s hooves by inches to land on the bellows after a rather stunning backwards flip.
The bellows went down.
The flame came up.
“Yaaaa!!” Smithy ran in panic towards the quenching bucket, mane on fire, and unceremoniously dunked his head into it with a sizzle. There was a scorched smell in the air as the injured blacksmith slumped over, trying to snort the last of the water out of his nostrils and ears. The crusaders for once were completely silent.
“Leetle ponies,” he sighed when he could see and breathe again, “next time you is to be... .what? What is it?”
“You - your flank!” said Apple Bloom.
“It’s blank!” cried Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle together.
Smithy stiffened and smoothed down his oilskin apron, “Da,” he said finally.
“But... .but why?”
Smithy sighed, “Is hard to speak of... but since you see it, may as well be tellink story now, da?”
The three cutie-mark crusaders sat down reverently in front of him, but he waved them off, “Nyet, is short tale. Very sad. Once in Stalliongrad was great general, good with pony. Good with weapon. Very trusted. But all generals, they get old. They are sayink is the lucky that grow old, but... .ach. Is not fun to be replaced while you are not broken. Weapon can be fixed, heart... .not so much.”
“What happened?” he was asked.
“Younger general, very ambitious, very sneaky. Is slowly tankink away everything that older general has been buildink, until his own men are followink new general more. Old general is proud! Has taught protege!”
“What’s a proteegee?” asked Sweetie Belle, the unfamiliar word sticking in her muzzle.
“Is meanink was teacher and student. Trusted position, da? Anyway, is beink biiiig battle. Very big. Many ponies fight, not many ponies to be returnink. Old general, he find himself ignored in battle, ponies die. Very sad. Bigger generals, they sayink old general worthless, new general is better. Old general put out to pasture.”
“They fired you?”
The blacksmith slumped, “da, leetle ponies. They take away life’s work and give to green-horn snot-nosed ass-kissink... .nyet, such words for such leetle ponies. When they take away my job, they takink away mark.”
“They stole it?”
“Nyet, nyet, leetle ones. Without cause, without meanink in life... .mark is gone. I am beink kicked out of army, so I fall back on hobby... this. Now am just blacksmith pony, travellink Equestria before I can travel no more.”
“That’s so sad.” said Sweetie Belle, dabbing at her eyes with a hoof.
“We don’t even have our cutie-marks yet, and now you say we can lose ‘em too?” fumed Scootaloo.
“I know! If’n we kin get our cutie-marks, I bet y’all kin get yours back! We’ll help!” said Apple Bloom, bouncing from hoof to hoof.
Sweetie Belle’s eyes lit up with a thought, “We could make him an honorary member!”
Apple Bloom nodded vigorously in agreement.
Scootaloo gave the two a look, “I dunno... .he’s kinda old.”
“Thank you for reminder leetle pegasus... " said Smithy flatly.
“Er, I mean... But he... aw nevermind.”
“We gotta help!” Apple Bloom stated, looking as serious as a little filly with a gigantic bow in her mane could, “Gettin’ his cutie-mark back might teach us about how to get ours!”
By now the trio was in a huddle, arguing amongst themselves. After a few moments they turned to face him solemnly, “Mister Smithy, you’re now an honorary member of the Cutie Mark Crusaders! We’re gonna help you get your mark back!”
“Wonderful.” He felt he was going to regret this as well.
“CUTIE MARK CRUSADER CUTIE MARK CRUSADERS!! YAY!!” the trio yelled, deafeningly.
“Leetle ponies,” asked the blacksmith, raising one eyebrow when his ears had stopped ringing, “is that even makink sense?”
Smithy eyed the haul. Several old pots and pans, some twisted pieces of metal and busted cutlery. All scrapped for various reasons: Too bent, too rusted, too far gone to be useful. This was going to take some work, and work he wasn’t even going to get paid for. Ah well, he thought, such is life. It would mean the end of several pieces of spare armor, not that he needed them any more. It would have taken weeks to make real armor from scratch, especially if he’d had to smelt the metal, but with suitable pony-sized pieces of what was essentially scrap, he could give them something worthwhile. It would almost be like old times.
The Crusaders shuffled around in their little aprons Smithy had prepared for them out of an old, ill-fitting spare he had kept around. He fashioned some pot-lids into makeshift masks to protect their heads and tied their manes back with bits of old string lest they suffer the fate they had inadvertently brought upon his now-singed coiffure. He directed them to their places and began his instruction.
“Please to be heatink metal, yellow pony.”
“It’s Apple Bloom, mister!”
“Da, da, just to be heatink metal. Scooty pony, you is to be pumpink bellows... .carefully.”
“Aye aye cap’n!” said Scootaloo.
“What’m I doing?” asked Sweetie Belle.
“You is to be hammerink metal flat with big hammer. Smithy is to be bendink it afterwards to fit leetle ponies. We are makink you the armor of leetle pony soldiers.”
There were multiple gasps all around and the three shouted, “CUTIE-MARK CRUSADER ARMOR-”
“Da, da... .enough with the yellink.” he waved a hoof tiredly and set about directing their work.
Surprisingly, they picked it up quickly. Scootaloo had great timing with her bouncing and kept the forge hot and even. Sweetie Belle had great dexterity with her fledgling magic and could wield the heavy hammer like it was a toy. Apple Bloom could manipulate the metal as she heated it with great skill. It warmed his heart, and astonished him that these little craft-masters hadn’t yet found their calling. The sun wormed it’s way across the sky and morning turned to midday, to afternoon, and finally it was done. Three sets of armor - a helmet each, and a breast-plate and flank-guards. They were pretty ugly - it still needed a lot of polishing - and they were very rough, but they were whole.
“Ah, leetle ponies,” said Smithy happily, “you are doink very good work for first time. Come back tomorrow and I will be showink you how to use your armor and be keepink it clean. Leetle warriors must be havink clean armor, da?”
“Da!” the three said happily. And loudly.
The three little ponies had reluctantly hung up their armor. Smithy showed them how to take it off properly and oil it, check the padding and the little cloth straps; it was armor but, for all that it was play-armor. They had left his campsite with almost as much bountiful energy as they’d had coming in. Smithy shook his head, if only he could have that much energy at the end of the work-day! He turned back to his campsite, sighing. He at least still had plenty of work to do, and gifts to complete.
The cutie-mark crusaders were heading back to Apple Bloom’s house for dinner. For all they were bundles of energy, they did occasionally require rest and refuelling.
“Ah shoot, I din’t get mah cutie-mark after all.” said Apple Bloom, stamping a hoof in annoyance, kicking stones along the path where they bounced off the apple trees.
“Me either,” said Sweetie Belle, “how about you, Scootaloo?”
“Nothing here. I was so sure too... "
“Maybe we’ll get our marks by playin’ soldiers?” wondered Sweetie Belle.
“Maybe he’ll get his cutie-mark by playin’ soldiers!” shouted Apple Bloom, bouncing up and down.
“Worth a shot. I bet it’s less trouble than zip-lining.”
The day dawned bright and early and Smithy was already up, the glade he had set up camp in ringing with the dull clanking of metal on metal. Soon after though it was full of the excited and boistrous sounds of a trio of excited foals all demanding attention.
“Tie me up first!”
“He tied you up first yesterday!”
“Well I was here first!”
Smithy facehoofed, “Leetle ponies, my leetle ponies, hush, hush. One at a time. Yellow pony, you is first.’
Apple Bloom stuck her tongue out at Sweetie Belle who scowled and fidgetted. Scootaloo snuck in front of her and the two began fighting but Smithy glared at them, “Nyet! Is no way for soldiers to be actink! Scooty one is next, then is Sweetie Belle.”
“How come you never get mah name right, mister?” asked Apple Bloom with a pout.
“Am beink bad with names, especially when leetle pony is too loud.” he tightened the straps on her armor and set her off to one side before completing the adjustments on the other two. He then set them neatly in a line and settled into his old drill routine march as he explained to them.
“Am makink you armor, leetle ponies. Is now your armor. You is to be treatink it with respect, dignity and care. You is takink care of armor, it is takink care of you. Am polishink armor until bright all last night - is now your task to keep armor bright and clean. No rust!”
“Is this really real armor, mister?”
“Da - but you is callink me sergeant or sir when you is beink soldier. Is very important.”
“Da sergeant sir!” said Scootaloo, clicking her hooves together. Smithy nodded appreciatively before continuing.
“This is real armor, just made smaller for leetle soldiers. Helmets are your own hoof-made! Be proud leetle ponies! Hoof guards are silver - very flashy and pretty for when leetle ponies are on parade, not so useful against other armor - but are weapons all the same! Strike your enemies with them, strike true! Strike hard!”
“This sounds dangerous, mister sergeant sir,” said Sweetie Belle, “I dun wanna hurt nopony.”
‘Nyet, leetle soldier, this is not for hurtink, this for protectink. If you know what to do when you must, you is knowink also what not to do. Attend!” he turned, and pointed to various pieces of the armor one at a time.
“Breast plate for chargink with body. Heavy hit, will knock opponent away. Flank guard for stoppink arrow, turnink sword. Wither-shield for same, also for protectink against chargink pony or enemy. Neck and mane plates for protectink against bitink creatures, and helmet to be protectink head. Remember this!”
“Da!” said all three
“Da what?” said Smithy, stamping a hoof.
“Da, sir!” they said in unison.
“Da, better. Come, will be showink marchink and basic maneuvers.”
Over the days, Smithy showed them. He enjoyed the workout if truth be told, but he fought tooth and nail against using the kind of emotion and discipline he would ask of real soldiers. They were just children, foals without even their cutie-marks - he should let it be just a game. He smiled, for all it was a game they were remarkably good - but what sort of danger could they get into in a place like Ponyville?
They stopped before midday. Despite having carried several pounds of extra weight around a field and body-slamming each other until dizzy, they showed almost no sign of it when stopping and drinking their fill of water. He urged them to take off their armor so he could check the fittings again; now they had used them, they would likely need to be adjusted.
Shaking herself out, Apple Bloom turned to Smithy and said, “I think it’s our dinner time now mister Smithy sergeant sir.”
Smithy smiled, “Am not beink sergeant sir when you are not in uniform, leetle soldier. Go now, big sister is very worried about her leetle Apple Bloom, no?”
“You ‘membered mah name!” she ran up and hugged him, and then turned tail and fled, her friends doing the same. Smithy wiped a tear from his eye and hung the armor up for later, he was quite sure they’d be back. He settled himself down for a nap - work could wait for a while.
“I reckon,” said Apple bloom, “I reckon we jus’ need more practice bein’ soldiers!”
“But we can’t be soldiers without our armor!” whined Sweetie Belle mournfully.
“Shoot, we left our armor at Smithy’s place! We gots to go back an’ get it if we’re gonna be Cutie-Mark Crusader Soldiers.” said Apple Bloom, stamping a hoof as they trundled away from the disaster-zone which had mere minutes earlier been a table set for lunch.
“That just means we’ve gotta be sneaky,” said Sweetie Belle, “We’ve still got what’s left of the zipline, and I’ve still got the ninja outfits I made... .think we can lift ‘em without being heard?”
“I dunno,” Scootaloo, “that armor’s pretty loud... "
“What’s the matter, you chicken? Scoot-scoot-scootaloo!” cried Apple Bloom mockingly.
“That’s still so funny I forgot to laugh. You’re on. Let’s go get ‘em if you’re not too scared!”
“Deal! but we gotta go to the Everfree Forest if we’re gonna find monsters to fight.”
“I... uh... " said Apple Bloom, but frowned as Scootaloo puffed up - she wasn’t about to show she was scared! “Fine!” she said, “We’ll go to the Everfree Forest... .but let’s not stay too long.”
They shook their forehooves together and snuck back to the campsite.
AJ sat by the front door like she always did after a hard-days work. Little Apple Bloom was late. She would never admit it, but scolding little Apple Bloom was part of the fun of looking after the little foal. Well fun was the wrong word, she loved her little sister with all her heart, and safe as Equestria and Ponyville in particular was, she didn’t like not knowing whether her sister was hale and hearty... or not.
It was now getting very late. Apple Bloom was often off with her friends but never usually quite this tardy. Applejack stood up, “Cornsarnit, sis, where are you. I bet you’re ‘round Twilight’s again... " she muttered to herself. She collected her hat and left at a dead run, calling to Big Mac not to wait up.
The strong silent stallion just nodded and gave his customary “Eeeyup.”
Applejack was out of breath when she clattered up to the library and hammered on the door. She was looking left and right as she did, trying to spy a little yellow pony with a big red bow, and failed to notice Twilight easing open the top half of the door. When AJ’s hooves met far less resistance than she expected, she stopped and gave an apologetic grin as Twilight shook her head until her eyes were no longer crossed.
“Applejack? What’s up?”
“It’s li’l Apple Bloom, the scamp’s not come home, I was wonderin’ if’n you’d seen her today?”
Twilight thought for a moment, “I can’t say that I have, AJ - do you want me to come help look?”
“That’d be right kind of you, Twi! Maybe she’s been at Rarity’s place?”
The pair headed to ask Rarity, but no - the unicorn hadn’t seen either Apple Bloom nor Sweetie Belle. The flustered mare offered to wait at home in case any of the three showed up.
Rainbow Dash hadn’t seen Scootaloo either, and since she was looking more than a little flustered about being caught with Rarity trying on dresses, Twilight and AJ left them to it.
“Maybe they’re terrorizing poor Fluttershy’s chickens, again?” suggested Twilight.
“Strikes me as right likely, Twilight.” agreed AJ, and they hot-hooved it to Fluttershy’s cottage.
“The Cutie-Mark Crusaders are missing?” asked Fluttershy, gasping in shock, “Oh no, how terrible! Angel bunny, have you seen them?”
The rabbit tapped his foot, thinking for a second, then shook his head, pointing out the door.
“Ah think he said no, we should go look elsewhere.”
“What’s that way, Applejack?” asked Twilight, sighting along the lapine paw.
“Why that’s... tarnation ah’m dumb! Their clubhouse! Come on!”
Twilight, Applejack and Fluttershy - quite out of breath now, apart from Fluttershy who seemed more than content to drift along a few feet off the ground, held aloft by her wings - headed out towards Sweet Apple Acres, and the Crusader’s Clubhouse.
As the trio headed one way, and large and unfamiliar armored shape came towards them heading the other way calling, “Leetle ponies! Leetle ponies! Please to be comink back now!”
“Smithy?” asked Applejack, “What in Sam Hill are you wearin’?”
Smithy stopped short and stood almost sheepishly in what had to be the heaviest, meanest-looking nearly-black armor she had ever seen on a pony, it covered almost every inch of him in rivets, straps, looped chain and sheet metal - right down to hock-guards. If he didn’t look so embarrassed, he would have looked terrifying.
“Afternoon Miss Applejack, sorry am beink caught in battle attire - was playink game with leetle ponies.”
“A game? Wearin’ that?” asked Applejack suspiciously.
“Da! Was showink leetle crusaders about beink soldier. Am beink made honorary crusader, so I am helpink them. But now... cannot be findink leetle ponies. Have tried at crusadink treehouse, no ponies. Was headink to farmhouse... "
“They’re not at the clubhouse?” asked Applejack, a worried expression on her muzzle.
“Nyet, and they is takink armor.”
“You made them armor?” asked Twilight, raising her ears and staring at the strange blacksmith - he looked like a soldier himself in such a getup. He had to be, nopony had armor like that for fun. She was missing something...
“Wait, wait - you said you were teaching them how to be soldiers? What would you... .you’re wearing armor, where’d you get it? I’ve never seen armor like that! Just who and what are you?”
Smithy looked crestfallen and slightly guilty, “Am not havink time now to speak of such things, just know am now only blacksmith - old, tired, stupid blacksmith who indulge leetle girls in cutie-mark crusadink playtime with armor that I am makink. Armor is missink. Girls is missink. We have problem, da?”
“Da... I mean yes,” said Twilight.
“Oh no, oh horseapples, you didn’t go an’ tell ‘em stories ‘bout wild animals none, didja?”
“Am... maybe tellink leetle stories to leetle ponies... "
“Oh my stars, the Everfree Forest! Let’s move!”
At the edge of the clearing, Applejack stopped and turned back to Smithy. “Aren’t you comin’?”
Smithy first made as if to follow, wavering for a moment between two directions. Eventually he lowered his head and waved a shooing hoof at her, “Go. I am doink enough already. Will be in way of younger ponies... can only slow down search. I will be stayink behind in case leetle ponies are returnink.”
Applejack’s expression darkened as she considered his abandoning the chase, but time was of the essence, “Fine. You and I are gonna have a talk later, though. Count on it!”
She galloped away, leaving a sad old blacksmith behind.
Applejack had been right, realised Twilight - they found tracks that led into the forest from the outskirts of Smithy’s camp. Hurrying along the path had at first been triumph tinged with worry, but once the undergrowth grew wild enough the spoor was gone - and triumph was rapidly being replaced with despair.
Now the Cutie-Mark Crusaders were lost, and so were their rescuers.
Smithy lay like a lump of discarded scrap in the grass next to the CMC clubhouse. He would only make things worse, he reasoned with himself, thoughts loud and gruff - he had done the right thing by turning around. He was convinced. Certain. His path had been set, but... why did a part of his mind whisper and call him traitor and turncoat?
*ka-whuff... .shuffle shuffle*
The strange noise didn’t yet register fully over his warring feelings. The former part of his mind was insistently recounting his past failings and berated him for as much as dragging out the gear he wasn’t fit to wear ever again, let alone putting it on.
*ka-whuff... .shuffle shuffle*
The latter part quietly insisted that those little foals were his responsibility and that if he were a real soldier he would do his duty.
*ka-whuff... .shuffle shuffle*
The former stated matter-of-factly that he simply wasn’t one anymore. The latter that he had started the game, he should be prepared to finish it.
*ka-whuff... .shuffle shuffle*
Both sides now wished to know what that odd and mildly annoying noise was.
Smithy looked up and cocked his head, unsure of what he was looking at. Granny Smith was making her way across the grass in the direction of the forest. She was wearing a sauce-pan on her head like a helmet and had a look about her like she was going to war. She would bring her walker forwards slowly, bring it down *ka-whuff* and then catch up with it using her weak, shuffling hind-legs,*shuffle shuffle* - barely lifting her hooves off the ground.
“Miss Granny Smith... " he ventured tentatively, “Where are you goink?”
She didn’t even turn her head, “I’m off to save my grandkids! What are you doin’ there just settin’ like a’ ol’ pile o’ dirt? Shake a leg!”
Smithy reflexively tried to rise but his legs would not listen to him, he slumped back down in a clatter of steel and chain, “I... I am no good anymore... am too old and tired now... "
This phrase made Granny’s head swivel in his direction, an angry expression on her face. When her eyes fell upon Smithy her expression softened to neutrality and she gazed upon him, appraising.
“Ah... I see it now... you think you’re an old, broke-down warhorse, don’t ya?”
“And you lost a battle or somethin’?”
“... Lose battle... Lose job... lose cutie mark... lose everythink.” Smithy laid his head back into the grass and stared off at nothing.
“Guess there’s nothing for it then but to lay down and die, huh?” Granny sniffed dismissively and turned back the direction she’d been going and continued making her slow, painful way towards certain danger regardless,.
*ka-whuff... .shuffle shuffle*
The slow steps started again. Smithy raised his head again in disbelief, “Why would you go? Can barely lift hoof off of ground.”
“They’re my kin.”
*ka-whuff... .shuffle shuffle*
“But... are you not afraid of danger? Of gettink in way or makink things worse?”
*ka-whuff... .shuffle shuffle*
Smithy felt a strange kind of indignant heat start to smoulder in his gut. He rose up part-ways, feeling slightly perturbed, “But... you are old! Infirm!”
Granny Smith stopped and stared at the old, armored blacksmith. “I may be old, ya great lump, but I ain’t dead!”
The heat of her words took him aback, he tried to stammer out something but she continued berating him, “What, you think ya lost yer cutie-mark because ya stopped being young?!”
“Wh-what? What are you meanink?” he said, unable to quite meet her gaze.
“A grown-up stallion like you ain’t figured it out yet?”
His eyes betrayed only a total lack of comprehension.
Granny Smith spoke plainly. “I’ve been around awhile and I’ve seen it happen a’fore. Some stallions and mares, they get older and can’t do what they felt they were born to do. It happens... they feel they can’t handle their talents, can’t be themselves, and their mark goes away. Heard a doc give it a fancy name once - ‘Broken Mark Syndrome’ or some such.“
“Then please to be tellink me... how are you keepink yours?”
“Well, I kept mine ‘cause I learned the most important thing ‘bout a cutie-mark a long while ago.”
“And this is... ?”
“It just shows on the outside what ya are on the inside.”
“...So," Smithy craned his neck to take another look at Granny Smith’s mark and then back to her, “Mark means... you are made of pie? That is not makink sense... "
Granny gave him an equally confused look for a moment before she realised he was much joking as he was confused, and tried to change tack, “Look, a mark shows up when the best part of ya finally shines through. It’s just showin’ ya what ya already decided in yer heart that you wanna be doin’ the most of. I wanted to spend my days givin’ comfort to my family. I happened to be good at cookin’ up food for my loved ones, so I guess an apple pie was a pretty good mark to show it. Nothin’ says comfort like the smell of fresh apple pie, but that don’t mean all I did was make pie for the rest of my days... "
“But... All I want to be in life is soldier. Always wanted to be leader and protector... They tell me I am beink too old now... “
“But that ain’t the point!”
“Then what IS point!? I cannot be what I feel I must be deep down in heart! I cannot lead brave ponies to battle to protect homeland... .I cannot be soldier without BEINK SOLDIER!!”
“OH CONSARNIT!!” Frustrated, she yanked the pot off her head and tossed it to the ground with both hooves. She used one hoof to yank him by the armor up to eye-level and met him gaze for gaze, “Yer cutie-mark ain’t what you DO, it’s who ya ARE! Ya didn’t lose it because you ain’t doin’ the job anymore, ya lost it ‘cause you stopped bein’ YOU! Stop mopin’ around and remember where inside ya that feelin’ came from in the first place!”
“I... I... " He reached back into the fog of his mind, trying to recall, to feel what Granny Smith was referring to... .at first there was nothing but confusion and past regrets, then he saw a glimmer of recognition, like finely polished armor; it was kindled by thoughts of the enthusiasm the trio of fillies had exuded when they were trying to find their own place. That joy echoed down the far corners of his mind, and reflected back on something.
All at once, the memories came rushing back to him. Old memories of townsfolk cheering, vows to his own family and finally to his country. All the training, the feeling of accomplishment when he was inducted into the junior guard, his first commission - and finally the words of his first commanding officer, “We are not swords to oppress, we are shields to protect. Your mark embodies this. You are a protector before you are a warrior.”
Like warm summer rain, understanding poured over him and something heavy that had lain in his heart was washed away. He found himself on all four hooves, standing tall and slack-jawed with the sudden revelation, “I... remember. You are beink right... all this time... "
Smithy’s mind had wandered, back to his younger days when he too had been just a foal. He had become a soldier the day he got his cutie-mark, long before he’d joined the army. The decision, the drive, the passion - these things had placed that mark upon his hide, not some uniform, a pledge or a salute.
“Pride made me think that if not part of action, not doink things soldiers do, am useless. I am not useless! I am still soldier inside, still wish to protect what I am carink for. Armor, rank, none of these made me wish to use strength to defend ponies, is that I was born for it!”
He smiled widely at Granny Smith, who was grinning back at him, “You help me see truth of myself, Miss Granny Smith... Please to be waitink here in case they are comink back. I will be goink in your place - must hurry!“
“Now that sounds like a right proper soldier!”
“DA! But first, am goink to tent. Somethink I must be picking up in case of trouble... "
‘Knowing my little Apple Bloom and her friends, they’ve already stirred up a whole host of trouble... Go on then! Bring ‘em back safe and sound.”
With a silent nod he thundered off.
Granny Smith set her old bones in the grass, watching him leave. Soon the sound of another pony arriving filled the clearing.
Big Macintosh breathed a sigh of relief as he approached his granny, “Granny! You shouldn’t be sneakin’ out like that. Let Applejack and her friends take care of things.”
“Oh I am, Macintosh... "
“Then what in Equestria are you doin’ out here?”
She looked off in the direction Smithy was running, “Just felt like helpin’ an old pony get the hitch out of his giddy-up. Come on, set yerself down a spell, we’ll wait here for the good news.”
“I dunno, Granny, shouldn’ I be out there too?”
Granny Apple shook her head, “If that old warhorse can’t get those three fillies and our Applejack back safely, we’ll need you t’round the boys up. My old legs ain’t fit fer hoofin’ it into town if it all goes pearshaped now.”
Big Mac looked at her sideways for a moment before obliging his grandmare, with a frown fixed on his muzzle.
“What?” asked Scootaloo, puffing her mane out of her face with a quick breath.
“Kin I walk closer to you?” continued Apple Bloom.
“What’s the matter, chicken?” asked Scootaloo, voice hard.
“Kinda. A little.” said Apple Bloom.
“Me too. It’s dark in here and I think it’s gettin’ late,” said Sweetie Belle, “shouldn’t we go home? We can catch a monster another day.”
Scootaloo sighed, “It’s always dark in this forest!” she said, rolling her eyes. She blinked, truth be told it had gone from exciting to first boring and then to scary as the already wild Everfree Forest had devolved into something primal and raw. She was ready to leave too and besides, the armor was kinda heavy, “Okay, fine, we’ll go home since you two babies are missing your bedtimes.”
“That’s not whut Ah said! But AJ’ll whup me something fierce if’n I’m late agin.”
“And I’m hungry,” said Sweetie Belle, “Rarity’ll be worried and she can’t make dresses when she’s worried.”
The Cutie-Mark Crusaders fussed and fought over the act of turning around. After much shuffling about, they ended up staring off in three different directions into the dark, covered forest.
“Uh, anypony know which way home is?” asked Sweetie Belle.
“I think it’s this way.” said Scootaloo, pointing a hoof.
“Nuh-uh,” said Apple Bloom, “it’s this way cos we came from there.”
“Did not! It’s that way!”
“Will you two quiet down! I think i heard somepony!” shouted Sweetie Belle, uncharacteristically loud. With the outburst, the two went silent - and as they strained, they realized they could indeed hear sounds of ponies in distress, and one of them was hollering obscenities that were often apple-related.
“That sounds like Applejack!”
“WOW those are some bad words... I gotta remember those!”, Scootaloo exclaimed.
“Helping defend the weak... does this make us soldiers now?” asked Sweetie Belle.
“Ah dunno, mah sister ain’t no weaklin’, but I’m gonna go help her!”
“And we’ll help too. One for all!”
“And all for one! Charge!”
“Twilight! Twilight! T’ain’t no time for nopony t’be takin’ no nap! Get up!” hollered Applejack, followed by a loud string of obscenities that would make a sailor blush.
Twilight groaned and kicked a forehoof weakly, a bruise on her forehead was swelling up, visible under her coat and almost seemed to bend her horn out of position. Applejack risked a glance before turning her attention back to the creature which had given it to her. She sprang forwards, positioning herself between her friends and the monster.
It was a troll - huge, ugly, with poor hygiene. All of these facts could and were often used to describe such creatures, but only after the most pressing of traits were dealt with; namely thick hide that was impervious to almost anything short of magic and meat-club paws that could shatter rock and bash the brains out of most other creatures.
Unfortunately, Twilight, Applejack and Fluttershy had been caught unawares - the beast had leaped at them out of the undergrowth and delivered a glancing but heavy blow to the purple unicorn which had all but knocked her silly. The three had scattered, running for their lives, Twilight staggering and falling but each time rising just long enough to escape, although none of them knew how they’d got as far as they had. At the time, it had mattered more what from than where to, but now Applejack and her two friends were seemingly trapped in a blind gorge thick with heavy overhead vegetation, all but blocking an escape route to the sky.
The troll grinned as if to say it was going to enjoy a hearty meal. It started to advance on the trio but suddenly darted back with a yelp, frowning. It did this a couple more times and scowled, standing there, glaring at the trio in frustration, pacing back and forth.
“Come on Twilight, you gotta get up - Fluttershy, how’s she doin’?”
“I... I... " stammered the yellow pegasus, running a hoof gently over the struggling form of her friend, “She’s hurt, Applejack... I think she’s got a concussion.”
“Can she do magic?” yelled Applejack, eyes fixed on the monster only a few feet away - it was stomping backwards and forwards, growling. What is it waiting for? She wondered, we’re right here... .
“I can barely stand up,” groaned Twilight, shaking her head and getting to her forehooves. Her ears were ringing and she was still seeing spots. She staggered to her hooves but fell heavily. She raised her head and concentrated, her horn burst into light and sparks flew from it, but they soon fizzled out. She lolled back, “I’m sorry... forgive me.”
Fluttershy stood over Twilight in a rather terrified attempt to shield her helpless friend. “I can’t go get help because the trees are so dense... I don’t even think I could carry both of you much less Twilight... "
“Don’t sweat it sugarcube, jus’ means we gotta do this the ol’ fashioned way... " she turned back quickly to the monster and reared up, kicking her front hooves, “COME ON THEN, COME AT ME! WHAT ARE YA WAITIN’ FOR?”
Applejack yelled, pawed the ground, darted back and forth - anything to keep the creature at bay. The troll stood back away from the barely illuminated clearing, occasionally lunging as if to walk forward but stopping and glaring at them.
Somehow, figured Applejack, her tactics were working, but she had no idea why. Three small ponies, one of them knocked sillier than a cuckoo in spring, what could they do against such a beast? Her heart sank, thinking about her family. Could Granny take it when she didn’t come home? Could Big Mac?
Her heart sunk even lower when she heard the unmistakable sounds of three overly-adventurous filly foals charging towards her through the forest. The monster heard it too and turned. Applejack used the chance to leap at the troll, spinning in the air and delivering a kick to the monster’s gut that would have bucked an entire apple tree - roots and all - out of the ground. The monster grunted, stumbling to a kneeling position. The trio used the distraction to scamper and clank past the slow-witted troll before it had a chance to register their presence fully. It rose and rubbed its side, dazed and slightly annoyed. The trio skidded to a stop in front of Applejack.
“Apple Bloom! No! Get out of here! Take your li’l friends and run!”
“Ah cain’t do that, sis. Ah’m a soldier now!”
“You ain’t no soldier! You’re a foal! A... .a crazy foal with delusions of grandeur! Git on home now!”
“Ain’t happ’nin’ sis,” said Apple Bloom as she and her two friends turned to face the troll, standing as tall as they could, “we took an oath!”
“You’ll get your silly self killed! This ain’t playtime!”
“No sis, it ain’t.” Apple Bloom lowered her armoured head and pawed the ground, almost unrecognizable in AJ’s eyes as her stance shifted to cool readiness, “Okay, fillies, jus’ like Sergeant Smithy Sir taught us!” The little soldier started galloping, full tilt, sunlight flashing off the metal, glinting in the glare. She threw herself at the troll and slammed into it, shoulder first.
Scootaloo was next, she leapt into the air, wings buzzing with effort as she turned a backflip and slammed hooves that glinted silver into what stood for it’s face.
It staggered back, confused, in pain, angered... .unsure.
Sweetie Belle wasted no time, she too lowered her head but this was for no glancing blow. Her horn was tipped with the same silver filigree that adorned the hooves of the trio, and it seemed almost on fire as she charged.
The monster was worried now, it turned to run but it wasn’t fast enough. There was a sizzling flash and a crack as, miraculously, Sweetie Belle’s horn sunk a few inches into the leathery flesh. Smoke poured from the wound and it swung club-sized paws to both bat away it’s assailant as well as to cover the injury. Sweetie Belle was too fast, and too small, and the blow resounded off her flank-guards and threw her a few feet where she rolled to her hooves and shook her head, unhurt.
“Apple Bloom! What are you doin’?” screamed Applejack, horrified and confused herself. Her little sister was in battle... and winning.
“I’m doin’ what I was taught! Sergeant Smithy says to look death in the eye and spit in it’s face!”
“That’s for soldiers you dumb foal!”
“I keep tellin’ ya,” shouted Apple Bloom breathlessly, “I’m a soldier!”
She leapt again and turned, planting her rear hooves into the knee of the troll, again the silver flashed in what weak sunlight there was filtering through from the canopy above. Where her hooves struck, the skin appeared cracked, burnt almost.
Applejack couldn’t make sense of how the little fillies were doing it. They couldn’t have the strength nor the weight for that beast to even realize they were doing anything. All they had was a few simple moves and that shiny armor... wait, shiny...
“It’s the sunlight!” Apple Jack yelled to the trio, “Keep it in the sunlight! It’s a troll! They hate sunlight! Don’t you remember those bedtime stories I keep tellin’ ya?”
“Ah sure do sis! You heard her, girls, let’s give him sunburn!”
“I’m on it!” said Scootaloo, and she leaped between two trees and rebounded off the trunks, her wings whirring away to gain what little altitude the pegasus foal could manage. She’d been practicing the move that propelled her over Smithy the day they’d set his mane on fire. Using what she remembered from practice, she brought what little weight she had to bare. Twisting in the air she aimed her sharp-edged hooves at the branches and snapped them off with the force of her aerial kick. The weak spots of sunlight became searchlights of flame and daytime came to the Everfree Forest.
The golden shaft of heat and light struck the troll full-on and it roared. It howled. It screamed. The trio regrouped, breathing heavily, sweating, exhausted.
It was still coming, sidling quickly around the spot of light.
It huffed and puffed, blackened flesh seared and leaking what passed for blood from the wounds the three little armored whirling dervishes had inflicted. It was in pain, it was hurt and it was mad.
It roared again, a bellowing howl that shook the trees down to their roots and wildly swung out with the back of it’s hand right into the charging trio, knocking them all the way back to Applejack.
Apple Bloom wobbled back to her feet, looking slightly groggy. She looked the monster in the eye and spat on the ground, giving a shaky little battle-cry of her own.
“I ain’t afraid of you!” she cried, her two friends snorting with the effort of rising up, Applejack and Fluttershy helping them to their hooves. The trio regrouped and feebly pawwed the ground in front of them, trying to look fierce.
Suddenly, a commotion at the other end of the glade drew the others’ attention as something huge and heavy entered into the clearing. Applejack swung her head round, ears splaying back in fear and anger, now what? She said to herself. A figure wreathed in darkness stepped forth. It was hard to recognize until it entered the clearing and the dark blot gave way to almost-black armor and a familiar figure wielding a massive maul in his jaws. At the sight of the newcomer, her spirits lifted.
“Smithy? Is that you?”
The blacksmith stretched and set his hammer down, as much to show the troll what it was going to be dealing with in a few moments as from any need. The run had provided enough warm-up.
“Da, is I, miss Applejack. Little Apple Bloom, I hear you! Is only fool who is not scared. Is warrior who is scared, but who does what must be done. Is important lesson, you will be rememberink it.”
“Da, sir!” said Apple Bloom, leaping for joy,
“Da!” echoed Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle.
Smithy moved to join them, appraising the beast,”Ah, am seeink this is standard troll. Big, smelly, stupid. What are weaknesses, Scooty pony?”
“AJ says sunlight.”
“Da, sunlight. And silver, silver is burnink troll! You are beink lucky leetle ponies that Smithy is big softie and wantink to give pretty armor to pretty fillies. Sunlight is turnink hide to stone, shiny armor to be reflectink light... You is knowink plan?”
“Da. Spread out, keep it in the light, keep it off balance. Never let an enemy regroup. Never let the enemy recover.” said Scootaloo, the other two nodded.
“Then is time for end-game now Smithy is here. Crusaders, advance!”
The four warriors functioned as a unit, the playtime Smithy had spent with them had been well-received. The three moved on the outside of a circle, keeping the creature off balance as they zig-zagged under its legs, pelting it with reflected rays of light from different directions. Smithy stood watching for a moment until the creature turned it’s back on him, and then picked up the huge warmaul he’d never thought to use again in his teeth. Most ponies would never be able to drag it across the ground, let alone lift it, but he hefted its weight almost like a toy. Around the handle he bellowed his own war-cry and started a slow, powerful, thundering gallop towards the beast. He leaped into the air as it turned to face him, shock and surprise registering on its brutish features, as almost a ton of angry, metal-clad stallion and war-maul slammed into it.
Smithy had timed his advance well, or maybe he’d just been lucky. A single, solid ray of sunshine reflected off one of the trio and hit the beast square in its single blood-shot eye right before the head of the hammer slammed home. As it rebounded off, the troll’s face cracked like dried earth and gushed ichor from the wound. Smithy twisted his head, bringing the sledge back around to slam into the beast’s gut. The air went out of the wounded creature and it stumbled and fell. Smithy rolled off and came up on all four hooves as the creature tried in vain to grasp its adversary, only to have its grip fumbled by a couple of digits crumbling off its hand like charred wood. Smithy turned and ran, getting distance between him and the troll.
“Crusaders, fall back, is time to finish this!” roared the blacksmith, picking up his hammer not by the handle but by the strap.
By now the troll was getting to its feet, the ugly bruised, seeping headwound further marring features that could have already curdled milk at forty paces. It snarled and eased itself onto all fours, the worrying thought percolating in its little angry brain that perhaps meals elsewhere may be a better idea. Still, massive hindpaws dug into the ground, large forepaws ripping out huge chunks of sod which it was hurling at its aggressors as it bellowed in retaliation.
Smithy was unimpressed. He twisted his head and the hammer swung up... and around. He swung again and again, and again, until his whole body was dancing in a deadly pirouette which howled with the fury of his weapon’s passing.
With a practiced flick he let go.
His aim was true.
The weapon shot through the air to slam directly into the head of the troll with such force that the beast was thrown backwards, jagged teeth splitting and shattering with its jaw malforming in a most unpleasant way.
Smithy roared, it was a bestial, primal roar. Birds fled, small animals cowered and whimpered in their dens. Large predators made detours and the troll... .the troll turned and fled.
Smithy charged after it, hollering and shouting with bloodlust as the huge monster ran for it’s life, disappearing into the forest like a bad dream. He pulled up short, set his hooves one more time and took a deep breath... .and roared a whinnying neigh which resounded seemingly all the way to Canterlot.
And then he sat, breathing heavily, a wheezing gulp that turned into deep-throated laughter.
“Am indeed beink too old for this... "
Applejack couldn’t believe her eyes. She rushed up to Apple Bloom and gathered all three crusaders into a hug and alternated between frightened sobbing, glowing praises and biting condemnation. They stayed like that for a while as a huge shape shuffled up behind them.
“Is time to go home now, da?”
“Da.” said Applejack, without a hint of irony.
Smithy helped Twilight up, and carried her and a mildly-unnerved Fluttershy homewards as the crusaders walked with Applejack back the way he’d come through the now-empty forest.
Making their way out of the forest, they found themselves in the clearing outside the clubhouse where Granny Smith and Big Macintosh were still waiting. Apparently enough time had passed for someone to run back to the farm for a picnic dinner and a first-aid kit. Granny said nothing and just gestured for the ragged group to join them, which they thankfully did. Fluttershy and Macintosh pulled Twilight over to see to her injuries.
Before they had a chance to sit down, Granny stopped the Crusaders and Smithy, “Oh no you don’t! You’re not gettin’ muddy metal all over my nice picnic blanket, off with that armor!”
The fillies quickly shrugged off their armor, all three simultaneously checking their flanks. To their dismay, they were still bare.
Applebloom pouted, “Awww, we were so good at it, too!”
Scootaloo scowled, “All that crazy hard work for nothing!”
Sweetie Belle looked crestfallen, “I don’t understand.”
Smithy shook off his helmet and smiled, “You are beink fine protectors, have good teamwork, are good learners as well... but you would be makink terrible soldiers.”
All three looked shocked, “But why?!?” they asked in unison.
Smithy looked reverently at Granny before answering, “Because it is not who you are. You are not getting cutie mark because you are not wantink to be soldier. You play soldier game very well, but... is not who you wish to be, deep in heart.”
All three Cutie Mark Crusaders frowned at this uncomfortable truth.
“Well, ask yerselves: Do you really wanna be out marchin’ and fightin’ all the time? Soldierin’s awful hard work with no time for play.” Applejack interjected.
“Da... is true.”
The trio considered this, after a moment Apple Bloom spoke up, “Ah dun think I wanna be a soldier, sis. Sorry Sergeant Smithy Sir.”
The other two nodded in agreement.
“Da, is good thing, but leetle ponies are good soldiers. Remember, and this is lesson that Smithy has only just learnt today - beink soldier is protectink, not fightink. You be soldier for sister, for brother, for grandmother. Not all soldier is tearink down, some is buildink.”
“Like you an’ your blacksmithing?”
“Da, is same. Come now, leetle ponies, let us eat and be goink home.”
He shook off his own armor and stood up, stretching. He looked around at three small gasps, “What?”
The square was empty in the early-morning light, dew rising in the new dawn. The silence was broken by heavy steps and a creaking noise as a large, old stallion entered, pulling a wagon with a lantern held aloft on a large pole, and a sign that read “closed”.
The stallion was old, marred with scars, yet held himself proudly. On his flank was displayed a shield with a crossed axe and hammer, bright and powerful as any colt’s cutie mark.
He was followed by three larger ponies and three smaller foals, the latter clothed in shiny metallic armor that hurt to look at where the sun reflected off the flawless sheen.
“You sure you have to go?” asked Applejack.
“Da! Is big chance. Was workink on last plow for you, Miss Applejack, when strange wall-eyed mailmare drops out of sky. She is carryink letter. Letter is from Canterlot!”
“A letter from Canterlot, eh?” asked Twilight, smiling to herself.
“And I bet you knew nothing about it, huh?” said Applejack to her friend, mock-scowling.
“I may have off-handedly mentioned that we’d met somepony who would make an excellent drill sergeant for new recruits in my latest missive on the magic of friendship for Princess Celestia. No big thing.”
“But what I don’t get,” said Applejack, tapping her muzzle with a hoof, “is who you are. We never did have that talk!”
“Oh yes,” said Fluttershy, eyes shining, “you were so brave! You had to have been... .are... .a great warrior!”
“Was warrior, da,” said Smithy, “much history am havink in army. My stallions are havink many names. Monster Squad was maybe best. Protectink homeland from trolls, wyverns, manticore, wolf... .all beasts seekink to be makink trouble.”
Smithy halted and turned to the Cutie Mark Crusaders, “Maybe leetle ponies is not wantink to be in army no more, but army is wantink to thank leetle ponies still. Am namink you First and Half Everfree Forest Mini Monster Squad Patrol. Am weapons-master for Princess’ guard-ponies now, so is beink official. Are welcome. Good bye, leetle Bloom, Scooty Pony and Sweetie Belle. Goodbye too, Miss Applejack, Twilight and Fluttershy. Maybe am comink back some time, da?”
“Da,” said Twilight, smiling, “you’d be welcome.”
“And I’ll always have some blacksmithing for you to do!”
“But... .but who are you?” asked Fluttershy, “We don’t know your name!”
“Smithy is good name, fluttery pony, but am fearink other names too scary for leetle or sweet ponies like you.”
There was a sudden puff of cloud and the square was wreathed in fog again. Twilight looked up and heard the cries of “sorry!” from above as whatever machine they’d been tinkering with had malfunctioned again. She laughed to herself.
“But... .I want to know!” cried Fluttershy.
“Is not beink obvious?” came the voice of Smithy as he disappeared into the gloom, “With black armor, hammer, beink monster slayer?”
“No!” cried Fluttershy, exasperated.
“Am beink called Black Butcher!” came the voice, out of the mists he had appeared from so many days ago, fading back into legend.
There was a bleating noise as Fluttershy froze solid and toppled over.