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The Age of Wings and Steel

Part One: Journey to the North

Map of Old Equestria

Chapter One

 “What’s wrong with his wings?”

          Rye shuffled his hooves, trying to keep himself warm in the chilly dawn air. A few pale rays of sunlight shone down through the clouds onto the training field. The obstacles ahead; poles, walls and a variety of other structures, cast dim shadows on the ground. Banners bearing the sigil of the Celestial Army, a circular sun with eight rays crossed by a wing and a spear, were pushed into the ground all around the field. They hung limply from their posts, waiting for a breeze.

          He suppressed a shiver that had nothing to do with the weather. The day had come at last. Two long years, all building up to this. Butterflies fluttered in his stomach. He was closer than he’d dreamed possible. He stood at the edge of a small crowd of restless young ponies. They were stallions and mares of every description, all hovering on the cusp of adulthood. Though there were a scattering of unicorns and pegasi, the majority of the young trainees were earth ponies. All of them were gathered on the field for the same reason.

          Today was the final test, the last culling of recruits before the Celestial Army chose its newest crop of officers. The atmosphere was relaxed, as the ponies around him chatted and laughed. For them, the hardest part was over—the physical gauntlet was intended to be a cool-down after the excruciating written exams.

          Rye would rather take another dozen written tests before running this course. He gritted his teeth in anticipation. It would be hard, but not impossible. He didn’t have to pass first, after all, just in the upper half.

          “His wings? Forget about that, look at his head.”

          “What a freak. How do you end up with wings and a horn?”

          He rolled his eyes. “I can hear you, you know.” The two other ponies flushed in embarrassment and hastily began talking to each other about the weather. Irritated, Rye blew a strand of his mane out of his face. He’d hoped that his fellow trainees would have gotten used to his appearance by now, but he supposed that was being too optimistic.

          He was a small pony, nearly a head shorter than most of the other stallions his age. His wings were folded tightly against his back, and his bushy brown mane hung just short of the stubby horn that rose from his forehead. His coat was a light gray the same color as the cloudy sky, but his hooves were already soiled with brown mud from the damp field. He flicked his tail, trying to release some of the pent up nervous energy inside.

          He heard the soft thud of hooves on the grass behind him. “Well well, if it isn’t little Rye.”

          Oh,wonderful. I don’t need this. He sighed, narrowing his eyes.

          “Hello, Fritz,” he said, turning to see the dark blue earth pony approaching with his two inseparable cronies.

          “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t even sure if you were going to show up.” Fritz’s face was, as usual, a barely-contained sneer. His despicably perfect golden mane seemed to summon a breeze to flow through it, wafting gently.

          “And why would I not come to the physical after spending months training to get into the officer’s corps?”

          Fritz chuckled, suddenly assuming an expression of mock seriousness. “I figured you might be headed off to the other one.” He jerked his head upward at the clouds. “The aerial units are always looking for more pegasi. Usually it’s just the washouts with wings that end up down here in the mud with us earth ponies.”

          Rye tried to keep a scowl off his face and shrugged. Fritz knew perfectly well why he wasn’t up there, but he’d never come out and say it when he could pepper the conversation with poisonous little jabs instead.

          “I think you should at least try, Rye. I’m sure the Firewings would love to have somepony with your… unique capabilities in their ranks. A flying mage would be so useful, don’t you agree?” His hulking henchponies laughed on cue. Rye’s face flushed. If he could cast spells, Fritz would be walking around with an extra tail or two. But Rye refused to give him the reaction he was fishing for.

          “The Firewings aren’t really my style,” he lied with a strained smile. “The Equestrian elite have so much pressure on them all the time. And guarding the Princess day and night? No thanks. It’d be like watching paint dry.”

         “Well there’d be no shame in failing to make the cut. They only accept the best, after all.” Fritz gave an amused glance upward. “Failing the infantry officers’ physical, on the other hoof…”

          “That would be embarrassing,” Rye snapped, finally goaded. “You’ll have to tell me how it feels, afterwards.”

          Fritz snickered, unperturbed. “You really think you’ll be accepted? Tell me, are you planning to cast a confusion spell on the proctors?” One of his friends laughed, a sound not unlike a braying donkey.

          “You—“ know as well as I do that I can’t do magic, Rye thought, catching himself.

          “Don’t worry. I’ll send you postcards once we go on tour.”

          “At least I’m not buying my way in.” Rye knew it wasn’t even remotely true. Though Fritz’s family was wealthy, he had no need to do anything of the sort, but Rye was rapidly losing his temper.

          “You wound me.” Fritz put a dramatic hoof to his forehead, before taking it away and smirking. “Well, good luck, Rye. You’re going to need it more than anypony else.” With a sardonic bow, Fritz turned away and left Rye smoldering with anger by the edge of the crowd. His cronies followed him. As soon as they were a few meters away, the three of them burst out laughing.

          Taking a deep breath, Rye exhaled and winced. I could have handled that better. Fritz might be an ass, but he was hardly the first pony Rye had run into that had reacted this way. Snide insinuations and barbed comments might be annoying, but at least they were better than open revulsion. Or worse, pity. There were even those rare few who were jealous of him. He had to assume that those were the ponies that didn’t realize what he really was.

          Rye considered the growing problem of Fritz. He briefly entertained the notion that the pampered earth pony might wash out of the physicals, but realistically he knew that the muscular, intelligent Fritz was almost certainly going to pass the officer’s exams. If the two of them were going to be serving together, he needed to figure out a way to get past the other pony’s instinctive hostility. The sooner he got the others to look beyond his appearance, the sooner he could fit into the unit and become the officer he aspired to be.

          It was a problem for another day, however. Right now Rye needed to be focused solely on the obstacle course ahead. It was the first part of the physicals, followed by a five-mile cross-country gallop in the surrounding fields of the city. That part wasn’t going to be fun. Rye was no distance runner.

          He looked north towards Canterlot, barely visible through the morning mist. The city was built at the base of one of the mountains of the Jotur range, surrounded by a high semi-circular wall. Far above, stretching up and outward from the mountainside, the golden spires of the Sun Castle gleamed in the faint morning light. He looked forward to heading back inside the walls after the run. Even though it was just mid-autumn, the air outside today was freezing. He’d inherited his mother’s natural resistance to cold, but that didn’t make it any more comfortable.

          Where were his parents, anyway? Rye looked around at the ponies who had gathered on the edges of the field. Aside from the trainees themselves, there was a large congregation of ponies who had come to watch Canterlot’s hopefuls strive to prove their worth. It wasn’t a sporting event, so there were no proper seats; most of the onlookers were standing. The vast majority of them were the parents of the trainees, of course, meaning that most were earth ponies. He glanced over a few pegasi and a stray unicorn or two before finding the ones he was looking for.

          A sky-blue pegasus with a mane like flame and a sandy brown unicorn were standing together a few rows in. His mother’s wings were fluttering like they always did when she was nervous. He caught her eye and she rewarded him with an encouraging smile. His father waved a hoof, and Rye grinned. He couldn’t wave back until the test was over, but it was good to know he had at least two supporters out here today. I’ll make you proud yet, mother.

          “All right, recruits.” The drill instructor’s clear voice broke through his train of thought. “Form up.” The trainees scrambled to organize themselves into three lines. Rye found himself pushed to the front. The noncom, an olive green earth pony, walked slowly down the line looking at each of the trainees.

          “Your progress thus far is commendable, and I congratulate each of you on making it to this point. However, we cannot accept every applicant. Only half of you will be qualified today to join the ranks of the Celestial Army’s officer corps.” His voice was measured and even, capturing the attention of all the trainees without rising in volume. “You’ve all run these exercises before in various forms, but your scores today are being marked. We only take the best, so I expect your full effort today.”

          The obstacle course loomed behind the noncom, a forest of poles and walls. Rye swallowed, narrowing his eyes in determination. The officer continued, “In order to expedite the process, you will be running the course in pairs. At the end of the field is a bell. When you have finished the obstacle course, ring it to signal your completion and proceed down the hill. An officer will direct you to the next part of the physical.”

          He cleared his throat. “This is not a race. We’ve put you in pairs to pace each other, not to “win”; but you will be timed, so speed is important. We’ll be posting the results on a board at the starting point for the five-mile.”

          The noncom’s voice turned stern. “I remind you all that magic is not permitted at any time during the course or the run.” He eyed the scant few unicorns in the crowd, taking an extra second to glare at Rye. “Flight is equally prohibited.” The small number of pegasi trainees moaned as one.

          No flight? Well, that wasn’t going to be much of a problem anyway, Rye thought dryly. He flicked an ear in impatience.

          “Failure to complete either the obstacle course or the run will result in your termination from the program. If at any time you wish to change your minds, step out of the course and return to Major Shale to record your withdrawal.” He paused for a moment. “Everypony form up. I want two lines. Each pair will begin running the course on my mark.”

          The trainees hastily formed the lines, jostling each other for positions toward the front. They would all begin the second part of the exam at once, so everypony wanted to be near the front to have a longer break in between the obstacle course and the run.

          To Rye’s dismay, he found himself shouldered with none other than Fritz. He grimaced, staring straight ahead and trying to ignore the taller pony.

          “You know,” whispered Fritz from the corner of his mouth, “It’s not too late to back out. Save yourself the embarrassment.”

          Rye’s lip curled. “You mean being stuck with you for a partner? I think I’ll survive.”

          “Big words, for a small pony.” Fritz sneered. “I’ll see you at the finish line, freak.”

          He’s just trying to rattle you. Instead of dwelling on the unpleasant pony by his side, Rye turned his thoughts to the course ahead.

          The first section was going to be easy; a trench, about a meter deep, filled with mud. There were a series of eight smooth logs floating in the muck, waiting to spill any unwary trainees into the waiting mire. Rye expected no trouble there. He’d always had good balance.

          The next part of the course promised to be more challenging. It was a simple series of hurdles, but they were all designed for ponies taller than he. He’d been practicing that part for a week, but he wasn’t looking forward to it. After the hurdles there was a crawling section, a shallow ditch surrounded on both sides by large poles. The poles had small slats sticking out of their sides, and knocking into them would add penalties to a recruit’s final time.

          Next there was a climbing wall, probably the most difficult part of the course. From the steep wooden wall hung two ropes. At the top there was a small platform, from which extended two thin beams.  They crossed over a deep pit of mud that had been put in place to cushion any who fell—though the humiliation factor was certainly intentional as well. The beams ended on another pair of towers overlooking a sand pit. Jumping down, the recruits would then have to run onward to a hollow log, which they would crawl through. Beyond the logs waited the bell.

          He ran the course in his head as they waited. As the noncom blew his whistle, the recruits ahead gradually moved on. The ringing of the bell echoed faintly every forty seconds or so, followed by another shrill blast of the whistle.

          At last, it was time. Summoning up his nerves, Rye stepped up to the starting position on the right of the obstacle course. Fritz stood beside him on the left, his characteristic sneer finally gone and replaced by seriousness. They both looked intently ahead.

          “Alright. Bolgar, Strudel, you two are up next. Wait for the signal.” The noncom looked out over the course, watching the two ponies ahead of them pass through.

          “Strudel?” Fritz’s head tilted. “I’ve heard that name...” Comprehension dawned suddenly, and he grinned. “Firemane’s husband, isn’t he? So that’s who you are.” He nodded slowly. “That explains why they didn’t boot you out right away.”

          Rye ignored him.

          “And that’s why you’re not trying out for the Firewings. The Captain doesn’t want anypony to know that her son’s a freak.”

          “Go!” barked the instructor, and the whistle shrieked. Both ponies took off immediately, racing for the logs.

          Oh, Fritz, you’d better run, because if I catch you, you’re dead. Rye’s hooves thudded on the grass as they dashed forward. He took the logs at a run, hopping onto the first and barely touching it before leaping to the next. Fritz hesitated on the first log for a precious second, and in moments Rye was across.

          “Try to keep up!” Rye called, throwing Fritz a mocking grin. He raced on as the earth pony snarled.

          Ahead, the first hurdle waited. Rye’s back legs surged, and he flew over it. His belly scraped along the top of the hurdle painfully, but he thudded to the ground again with all four hooves. He charged toward the next. Behind him, Fritz was gaining fast. Rye vaulted the next one, hearing Fritz heave a breath as he landed.

          The tall earth pony easily jumped over the hurdles, but Rye had to hurl himself above each one. By the time they reached the end, Fritz was ahead.  Rye reached the paddles nearly fifteen seconds after than his “partner,” and threw himself headfirst into the ditch. He crawled quickly, fitting easily under the wooden slats. He heard a slap and a curse as Fritz knocked into one.

          He cleared the poles to find Fritz already swarming up the climbing wall. Rye dashed for the rope, pinching it between his forelegs. He began shimmying up as fast as he could go, but Fritz was over first. As Rye cleared the top, he saw Fritz carefully stepping out onto the beam.

          He paused for a moment, looking down at the mud below. He put a hoof on the beam, feeling the steady wood. He bent his knees slightly, easing out onto it. It creaked disconcertingly beneath him as he began to inch forward. Fritz was nearly halfway across already. At this rate Rye was going to finish a good twenty or thirty seconds behind that arrogant blue prick.

          There was one way he could even the pace… Rye paused on the beam for a moment, conflicted. It would be humiliating to lose, but what he was considering might get him disqualified.

          No… the officer only said “no flying”, after all.

          He threw caution to the winds and unfurled his wings. He heard a muffled gasp from somepony on the side, and cringed. He’d forgotten about the onlookers.

His wings were unnaturally small, barely half the size of a normal pegasus’s. His ragged feathers fluttered lifelessly in the chill breeze. His wings were far too little to support his weight, too weak to lift him off the ground, and the feathers were so twisted and small that had he been able to fly at all he could never have steered.

          They weren’t quite useless, however. Extending his wings was like carrying a long pole, lowering his center of gravity and making the act of balancing on the rope a trivial affair. He practically pranced along the tightrope, smirking at Fritz as he passed.

          “I’ll make sure to send you a postcard!” he shouted, turning his head over his shoulder. He felt a hoof slip.

          Oops.

          His leg pushed past the rope, threatening his balance. He flapped his wings frantically, trying not to lose his precarious perch. He swayed back and forth wildly, waving his free hoof. “Oh no—“

          Rye tilted over the pit, the rope swinging out and away from his hooves. Suddenly he found himself upside-down above the mud. He had a good three seconds to savor the fullness of his mistake before he splashed down in a fountain of mud.

          Swearing seemed wholly inadequate. He put one hoof beneath himself, pushing up out of the muck. He slipped and went down again, completely buried in the sucking mire. The freezing mud crept over his mane and coat like a slimy blanket. He wished it would just suck him down and bury him. Well, Rye, you can’t blame this one on the wings and horn.

          He didn’t bother trying to stand again. After all, why bother? He’d just washed out gloriously, and as an added bonus everypony in the crowd had gotten a great view of his puny wings and horn. Now they all knew that the son of Windstreak Firemane Strudel, the famous Captain of the Firewings, was a pegacorn.

          Get out of the mud, Rye. You’re making a scene. He grimaced and stood, dripping with brown goo. He trudged to the side of the pit and climbed out to meet the waiting officer. The military pony’s face was filled with disapproval.

          “Trainee Strudel, I regret to inform you that you have not qualified for a position in Her Majesty’s Celestial Army. The officer’s corps thanks you for your time, and bids you good day.” He lifted the clipboard tied around his neck and made a mark on it. He turned and marched away without another word.

          The mud-covered stallion walked off in the direction of the city, trying his best not to listen to the sound of the bell’s clean peal. He looked ahead to see the blue pegasus and beige unicorn already waiting. The two made an unusual-looking pair.

          I don’t want to have this conversation right now.

          “Oh, Rye,” the pegasus sighed. “I’m sorry.” She gave him a hug, not caring about the mud on his mane that smeared into her own.

          Windstreak Strudel, known to most by her maiden name of Firemane, was an impressive pony. She had a dominating presence, even when she wasn’t clad in the signature golden armor of the Firewings. She was no taller than the average pony, but beneath her light blue coat were supple muscles that spoke to her excellent conditioning. Her wings were feathered neatly, every pinion in perfect position. One of the best fliers in Equestria, she looked the part. Her face, typically filled with confidence, looked strange when contorted into a sympathetic smile.

          “I don’t want to talk about it,” said Rye. “I just want to go back home to the bakery and wash off the mud.”

          “Rye…” Her eyes were filled with sympathy he neither wanted nor needed.

          “And then I’m going down to the Salt Lick and getting very, very drunk.” He started walking again. His parents were forced to follow.

          “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Rye,” said his father, Apricot. “We knew this was a long shot.”

          “Yeah.” He sighed. You never really thought I could do it, did you?

          “Well, I guess the life of a soldier just isn’t for you,” his mother consoled with forced flippancy. “Your whole life is still ahead of you, Rye. You’ll find something else.”

          You can try to hide the disappointment, mother, but you’re not fooling anypony. We all know you wanted me to join the military. It was all she had wanted, all he had wanted. Serving the Princess by joining the Celestial Army—or the Firewings, depending on his level of delusion that day—had been Rye’s foalhood fantasy for as long as he could remember. But his dream was only that. A dream. He blinked away moisture from his eyes.

          The Strudel family walked mutely away from the training field, back into the outskirts of Canterlot. Behind them, the bell rang another long, clean note.


Chapter Two

 

“Duke Blueblood, be reasonable.” The white unicorn placed a hoof on the great table in the center of the council chamber. Her violet mane bounced slightly as she talked. “The fortress of Sel-Paloth is the only thing standing between us and Grypha. You would have us abandon that protection?”

          “Duchess Belle, I understand your concerns, but that 'protection' isn't necessary. Your fears are unfounded.” The Duke, an older, refined-looking unicorn, shook his head.

          “Unfounded?” The Duchess scoffed. “Whether or not you choose to believe it, Blueblood, we stand on the brink of war. The griffon kingdom has been biding its time for decades, sitting on our southern border and waiting for an opportunity. An opportunity like the one you’re proposing.”

          Princess Celestia sighed to herself. Emmet Blueblood and Celerity Belle were at it again. The Duke of Norhart and the Duchess of Whitetail had never been friends, but as of late their bickering had grown steadily worse.

          “Celerity, it’s been six hundred years since the old Empire fell. The Kingdom of Grypha is just its corpse, still rotting in the desert. They have no industry, little trade, and useless land; the griffons are no longer a threat.”

          The Duchess’s thin veneer of patience cracked. “No longer a threat? Tell that to the families who are taken or killed every week by Gryphan raiding parties. Tell that to the soldiers who have given their lives to defend Southlund. Sel-Paloth is far from a symbolic posting. There is a threat, and I’ve been doing my best to fight it alone for the last ten years. I need more troops.” She glared.

          Duke Blueblood shrugged, unimpressed. “I realize you have some history with the griffons, Celerity, but that little scuffle on the border six years ago was barely large enough to call a battle. If the griffons are continuing to harass our citizens, then go ahead. Send out patrols to guard the border. But remove the dedicated garrison. The crown’s coffers are low enough at the moment; we don’t need to spend another sixty thousand bits a year to maintain an outpost on the border of a dead kingdom.”

          “A dead kingdom? You can’t be serious, Emmet. Don’t you remember the conquest of the southern city-states fifty years ago? They were supposed to put land between our nations after the war, but the griffons have gobbled them up like chicken feed.” Celerity Belle straightened, clapping both hooves down on the table. “And now, the Duchy of Whitetail is the only thing standing between you and the Gryphan army. If we can’t keep the border secure, then the griffons will swarm north and wash over the southern plains, burning and pillaging. You’ll finally see the need for those sixty thousand bits, but by then, it’ll be too late.”

          “Your warmongering has no place here, Duchess.” Blueblood scowled at Celerity across the table.

          Belle pointed an accusing hoof at the Duke. “You want us to close our eyes, cover our ears, and hope the griffons just go away? Emmet, you idiot, it doesn’t work like-”

          It was time to intervene. “Councilors, please,” said Celestia. “Remain civil, or I will have you both escorted out.”

          The room rustled as the councilors shifted restlessly in their seats. The council chamber was a huge circular hall at the base of the Sun Castle, the heart of Equestrian politics. The chamber was carpeted in red, and the walls were decorated with dozens of priceless tapestries. In the center of the chamber was a great circular, marble table. Around the table were arranged fifteen cushions, one for each of the delegates of Equestria’s provinces. At the head of the table was the throne, where the Princess presided over the council when it was in session.

          Whitetail and Norhart sat opposite from each other, which was likely for the best. Putting Celerity and Emmet on the same side of the table might have led to blows. Celestia was mildly disappointed in the Duchess’s lack of control regarding Emmet. She’d trained Celerity better than this.

          “Celerity is right about the griffon raids, Emmet,” said the Princess. “They fly over the border during the night and steal grain from the fields, terrorizing the Southlunders. An additional sixty thousand bits a year would be a small price to pay for the security of my subjects.”

          “But Your Highness,” said the Duke, frustrated. “The griffons see that fortress as an insult. It’s a reminder of the old Empire and everything they lost when it fell. Removing the garrison would be a gesture of peace towards Grypha, an offering of friendship between our nations, freely given.”

          Duchess Belle could no longer contain herself. “Yes, freely given, and freely taken, no doubt. Followed by the rest of Southlund and the southern plains!”

          Celestia’s eyes glinted with steel. “Celerity, that is enough.” The Duchess quailed under her princess’s gaze, mumbling an apology.

          Blueblood pressed on. “Duchess Belle has always wanted to increase the size of our military. She means to antagonize the griffons into a full-scale conflict. It is painfully transparent that Celerity’s real goal here is to boost her own army’s strength at the crown's expense.”

          “Strength for Whitetail is strength for Equestria,” said the Duchess firmly. “Griffons live for a hundred years or more. Combine their lifespans with the tiny amount of land they were afforded after the Great War, add in six hundred years, and you have a serious overpopulation crisis. They don’t have the food to feed themselves. They need to expand, or they’ll all starve. I intend to make sure they don’t do so right into our homeland!”

          Blueblood gestured with a hoof. “So let us broker a trade agreement with the griffons. Peace on our border in exchange for shipments of grain.”

          “Griffons don’t trade, Emmet.” Celerity snarled. “They steal and burn. They don’t want allies, they want land and slaves to till it. Everypony seems willfully blind to the fact that they’ve been remilitarizing for nearly a century, which, I might add, is in direct violation of the Treaty of Everfree. We’ve let them get away with it for far too long, and now I’m hearing reports that their army is ten times the size of ours. We need to increase our standing military forces.”

          The Duke’s lips peeled back angrily. “Rumors and speculation. I have yet to see a verified report of anything more than scattered raiding bands from the griffons. Drop the pretense. You want to drive this nation into a war just to feed your own ambitions, Celerity.”

          Princess Celestia motioned for the councilors to be silent. “Clearly this issue is larger than the fate of a single fortress.” She turned wearily to the rest of the council. “It is late, and tempers are running high. We’re done for today. This council is adjourned. We will begin again tomorrow at seven ‘o-clock sharp, as usual. Perhaps then heads will have cooled and we can discuss the matter more productively. Good night.”

          The councilponies grumbled with discontent. The lesser duchies and other provinces were already starting to fragment along the lines that Emmet and Celerity had drawn. The fight over Sel-Paloth was just the latest round of the endless political war between Norhart and Whitetail. The two leaders had always hated each other on a deeply personal level, but their mutual loathing was beginning to bleed out into the nation’s political atmosphere at large.

          Celestia had to watch her step. The entire situation was turning into a powder keg. One wrong move, one hasty judgment could send either Celerity or Emmet off into full-scale violence. There had yet to be any armed conflicts between the two duchies, but both Norhart and Whitetail possessed larger armies than the capital. This fact was not something that had escaped anypony’s notice in trade negotiations over the last several years. Celestia was not pleased with the current balance of power.

        Briefly, she fantasized about dissolving the council entirely, and never again having to deal with Emmet Blueblood, but she’d decided long ago that her subjects needed free will above all else. Equestria was not a theocracy. The opinions and judgements of the ponies’ own leaders were of paramount importance, no matter her personal feelings.

          She stood from her throne as the last few councilors filed out of the room and yawned. She turned to the royal guardspony at her side. “Inger, would you be so kind as to bring a cup of tea to my quarters?”

          The red pegasus bowed deeply. “Of course, milady. I will have it there before you arrive.” He cantered off in the direction of the castle kitchens. She smiled after him. Inger was one of her favorite Firewings. He was deeply loyal and always dependable, although he did have a tendency to forget the spoonful of sugar in her tea.

          The Princess looked around to make sure nopony was watching, then cracked her neck. She stretched out, tired from the long day of sitting on the throne listening to the councilponies bicker. She dearly wanted to sleep, but her day was not yet over. There was work to be done in her other office, that of the goddess of sun and moon.

* * *

          She ascended the stairs in darkness, without torches to light her way. She could have climbed the steps if she was blind, so often had she walked up to the top of the tower. She made this trip twice a day: once in the morning, when she joyously raised the sun to wake the world; and once in the evening, when she lifted the moon with a heavy heart to begin the night.

          She reached the top at last, pushing open the door and stepping out onto the little platform at the peak of the Sun Castle. It was a stone circle four meters in diameter, extending out from the doorway to overlook the entire city of Canterlot below. The sun was deep in the west, the violet sky foretelling the arrival of twilight. Celestia looked out at the land. From here she could see the very tips of the Drakkengard mountains to the west, the sunlight glittering off of Lake Alazure, even the tiny white line of the Great Road.

          She had stalled long enough. It was time to complete her task. She stood at the center of the platform and reached out with her magic. She found the moon quickly. She was getting better at it with time, but it never felt as right as the sun did. The moon was not so hot, nor so large, nor so brilliant as her own charge, but it was important nonetheless. She seized hold of it, exerting all her will upon the vast white orb.

          The sun disappeared as the moon rose. It was not full tonight, but it was waxing. It would be weeks yet before she could look up and see the shadow of the Mare in the Moon, but Celestia felt its eyes upon her regardless.

          Oh, Luna.

          It had been three hundred and twenty-two years, two months, five days, thirteen hours, and eleven minutes exactly since that fateful night, when her sister had fallen into darkness. She still remembered the moment, far away in her sister’s own castle at Lunaria, on a platform much like this one. The rage and betrayal in her sister’s eyes had stabbed her like a blade. Time had never really dulled the pain.

          She gazed up again at the moon. Luna was up there somewhere, imprisoned on that white sphere. She had to be isolated, starving, and lonely beyond imagining. She might even be wholly repentant. Celestia couldn’t know. She would give anything to bring back her sister, to rule together as they had in ages past, but that feat was beyond her knowledge.

          Closing her eyes, Celestia called out to her sister as she had when they both walked the Earth. Luna, can you hear me? I need your help. Her sister had not responded once in three hundred years. Tonight would be no different.

          Luna, the kingdom is in danger. The provinces are ready to tear themselves apart, and the griffons are prepared to gobble up the pieces. I need you, Luna. Come back to me.

          The stars gave no reply. She heaved a shuddering sigh, then turned back to the stairs to take her rest until the raising of the sun.


Chapter Three

 

The smell of freshly baked bread woke him. The scent wafted into his room from the kitchens below, and he breathed it in deeply. He rolled over in his bed, groaning. He wanted to lay there and go back to sleep, but the scent of the bread was too compelling. Rye threw aside the sheets and stumbled out of his bed.

He lurched across the room to his desk, massaging his temples. “Ohhh…” He winced. He stood in front of his desk mirror, looking blearily at his reflection. His hair was a tangled mess. His eyes had dark circles underneath them. He reached up a hoof to his mane and found a dried bit of mud that he’d missed earlier.

Rye set his head down on the counter with a thunk. He waited for the room to stop spinning. Clearly opening that second bottle of brandy last night had been a mistake. He let out a low moan as his stomach churned.

Outside the open window, he heard the cooing of a pigeon. He dragged his hooves to the window, looking out onto the city of Canterlot. Thatched roofs and smoking chimneys gave the capital city a homey air. It was a beautiful day out, and the clouds of the previous morning had been replaced by a shining sun and blue skies. Above the city, high in the mountain, the Sun Castle shone in the warm light. If Rye looked closely he could see the path that cut up the mountainside from the city to the castle, passing over one of the many rivers that descended through the castle to end in a waterfall.

He’d never been inside the castle before. They said it was beautiful, but it was not often that visitors were allowed within. The castle’s inhabitants were primarily serviceponies and soldiers. The Firewings were housed within, though many of them, including his mother, lived in the city while not on duty. The new officers would be inside frequently during their studies and training. He had been looking forward to seeing his mother during her tours of duty.

Rye turned away from the window. He crossed back to the mirror, looking at his mane. It remained irrepressibly fluffy, despite his best efforts to cut it short for the exams. Normally he let it grow out. When he poofed it up, the long mane would cover his horn, and then he could pass as a simple pegasus for his day-to-day wanderings of the city. It was a hassle, but worth it to avoid the stares.

He glanced down at the comb beside his mirror. His father always held his with magic, but Rye was forced to use one with his hoof. Maybe today was different? It could hardly make him feel worse. He stared at the comb, gritting his teeth. Come on, work this time.

Rye’s horn began to glow, a soft orange light like a dim flame. He closed his eyes, concentrating harder. Remember what dad said. Open yourself like a sieve. He reached out for the magic.

It lay just beneath the surface of reality, a cool river that flowed everywhere at once, a million different streams and tributaries all brimming with quiet power. His father, Apricot, had described it to him a hundred times, but no words could quite capture the essence of magic. When unicorns used their power it was like swimming in the river, letting the current flow over them and directing it outward.

Let it rush around and through you, into your horn, his father’s voice echoed in his thoughts. There are no words, or gestures; just picture the spell and feel it flow into and out of yourself. Rye reached tentatively into the river. He felt the cool kiss of the magic, and pressed forward. He suddenly came to a stop, encountering the familiar resistance.

What had he expected? To suddenly push past it to reach the flow, unlike all the times before? Rye shoved harder, trying to feel the magical energies. He was so close, always so close, but he could never fully immerse himself in the magic. His horn glowed brightly, the orange light reflecting off his mirror like a torch. He reached out with his mind, stretching toward the river, but it was out of his grasp. It was like lifting his head to grab an apple from a tree, only to have the branch pull away at his approach.

          He threw himself into it again, screwing up his face with effort.  His horn pulsed with magic, sending orange sparks flying. He grunted with exertion. His eyes snapped open.

        The comb remained resolutely still.

        Abruptly he released the magic, feeling the cool flow trickle away. His horn’s light petered out as he stood breathing heavily. He felt a sudden urge to smash a hoof through the mirror. He’d been wrong. It had made him feel worse.

He shoved a hoof through the comb’s ring, holding it up and smoothing his mane into a slightly less tangled bird’s nest. He threw it down onto the counter when he was finished and glared at the mirror. He pushed the top of it, swiveling it up and banishing his reflection. Rye turned and left the room.

On the lower floor of the house, the bakery was open for business. Apricot Strudel, Canterlot’s most popular baker and an extraordinary cook besides, was packaging a set of loaves for a customer. He slipped the bread into a bag, tying it off with a ribbon. “That’ll be twelve bits, please.”

The customer, a bright yellow earth pony, reached into her saddlebags and pulled out the money. “Thanks again, Mr. Strudel.” She grabbed the bag and trotted out of the store, ringing the bell on the door. Apricot smiled and placed the money beneath the counter. He turned and saw his son, and his face beamed.

“Rye! Good morning!” He frowned. “Or rather, afternoon.”

Rye winced. “Exactly how much did I have to drink last night?”

His mother appeared from behind, looking displeased. “Too much.” She flashed a disapproving look at him. “I realize you were upset, and you aren’t a colt anymore, but don’t overdo it like that. I don’t enjoy getting summoned down to lower Canterlot to drag you back home.” Her stern look softened. “I was a little worried when you didn’t show up by midnight.”

“Sorry,” he said, cringing at the thought of his mother having to drag him to the bakery like a foal. Thankfully his memory of the night was a blur. “Do we have any coffee?”

“I have a pot on,” said his father. “I’ll be back in a minute.” Apricot bustled off to the kitchen. Windstreak followed him, shaking her head.

Rye looked around the little bakery. His parents had lived in this house since before he was born. The familiar grain of the wood was comforting. The storefront was the largest room in the building, lined with shelves that displayed all the baked goods a pony could dream of. He knew the names of every one, thanks to his father.

Perhaps he could be a baker. After all, why had he never considered following in his father’s hoofsteps? He craned his head around to see his cutie mark. He waggled his rump, watching the little olive branch imprinted on his flank dance.

Olives, eh? Maybe I should try cooking. His mother always joked that he was a terrible chef, but she didn’t count. Apricot’s culinary masterpieces had spoiled his wife for years. No. I can lie to my parents, but I can’t lie to myself. He was no cook. He wanted to wield a spear, not a spoon. His dream was to serve Equestria and the Princess, like his mother before him, defending Equestria against her enemies.

At least, he would if Equestria had enemies. The kingdom had been at relative peace for over a hundred years. There were no great wars with which to gain the recognition he craved. It didn’t much matter, anyway. He’d already lost his chance. His mother’s influence might have bought him one opportunity to try the Army’s recruitment exams regardless of his physical condition, but he doubted there would be another.

Apricot and Windstreak returned with a tray holding two mugs of coffee. He smiled and took one. “Thanks.” He grabbed the cup with his mouth and emptied it.

His parents looked at him questioningly. Windstreak finally broke the silence. “So, are you feeling better, Rye?”

“My head’s clearing right up,” he said, knowing what she really meant but not wanting to prod fresh wounds. “I think I’m going to go take a trip to the market today. I’ll see you both later, okay?”

His mother looked frustrated, but she just pursed her lips and nodded. “Alright. Try to be home before the sun comes up this time, please?”

“Sure,” Rye promised. He pushed open the bakery door, ringing the little bell.

“And Rye?” He paused, looking over his shoulder. His mother and father both wore the same expression of parental concern. “When you’re ready to talk about it, so are we.”

He summoned his best fake smile and said “Thanks.” He shouldered through the door and left, hearing the bell jingle behind him. He wondered when they’d realize he hadn’t taken any money with him.

* * *

          The Canterlot market was the largest economic hub in the northern half of Equestria, topped only by the famous Great Bazaar in the southern provinces. There were stalls for everything: food, books, traveling equipment, weapons, armor, antiques, wines, paintings, and anything else one could imagine. The place bustled with activity. Rye faintly caught the end of a song from a street performer, hearing the beat of a tambourine. A dog raced by in hot pursuit of a harried-looking cat, barking. Wagons trundled up and down the street, carrying goods to and from the city. Rye wandered aimlessly past the vendors, listening to them call out their wares.

“Fresh apples! Fresh apples! All the way from the farms of Westermin! Try our world-famous fruits today!”

“We’ve got oddities from all over the world! Come and see our fine selection of Gryphan antiques and Sleipnordic carvings! That’s right, straight from the snowy northlands!”

“Fine spears and hoof-maces for sale! You won’t find a better selection outside of Easthill, I guarantee it.”

“Got hoof-rot? Suffering from a bad case of tail-mange? Going bald before your time? Stop in and check out our collection of cure-alls to fix what ails you!”

Anything you could ever want. Except officer’s bars…

Something caught his eye. A bright peony-pink earth pony with curly yellow hair was standing at one of the stalls, talking to the shopkeeper. Rye smiled and walked up behind her.

“Are these really all the way from Sleipnord?” she was saying.

“Oh, yes,” said the vendor, displaying his collection of small wooden figurines. “Very difficult to get these days, what with the Nordponies turning back travelers at the border. They’re worth quite a few bits, but I think I could cut you a deal, miss.” His eyes were filled with greedy anticipation.

The pink pony tapped her chin with a hoof. “Hmm… if these are authentic, then why are they made out of rowan wood? Rowan trees don’t grow that far north.”

The shopkeeper blinked and gave a disarming smile. “Well, you see, sometimes caravans bring up wood from Equestria for construction purposes—“

The pink pony interrupted. “But you said it yourself; the Nordponies don’t let anypony through the Midrothel pass anymore. It’s been closed ever since the last war against the giants under Helvinkja.” She stared at the shopkeeper skeptically.

Clearly confounded, the vendor stuttered. “Ah, ah, um… well…”

Taking pity on the beleaguered vendor, Rye said “Cranberry?” The pink mare turned and started in surprise.

“Rye! Oh, it’s good to see you!” She jumped on him and hugged tightly. She pulled her head back. “I… I heard about yesterday.”

He grimaced. “The story’s spreading around that fast?”

“Well I didn’t hear a story, really, just a little rumor that that at the officers’ exams yesterday there was a weird pegac—er, that a, uh, pony had, um…”

“Royally botched the training and humiliated himself in front of half of Canterlot?” Rye finished dryly.

“Oh, don’t act like that, it was only a few dozen ponies. But yes, that’s what I heard, and since you’re the only pony I know with wings and a horn…” Cranberry shrugged apologetically. “If it makes you feel better, I haven’t been spreading it around.”

He sighed. “Not really. But thanks anyway.” He didn’t want to look like a whiner. He would not bleed on Cranberry. He changed the subject. “So, what are you doing out in the market today?”

Cranberry’s eyes lit up. “Oooh, I’m looking for new items for my collection. There was this beautiful statue of Phileostryx the Black, and I’ve been looking for more dragon statuettes for years now.” She was starting to gush like she always did whenever she talked about her antiques. “I’m pretty sure it’s actually from Wyrmgand, and you know how difficult it is to find artifacts from the dragon lands these days.”

Rye smiled as she babbled on. Cranberry was a complete history nut. She could always be found reading a book on ancient griffon architecture, the tombs of the camel kings, the roaming paths of the zebra tribes, or some other tome of old civilizations the world had long forgotten about. Her enthusiasm was infectious and endearing. She was like a history-obsessed puppy.

“So I’ve already gotten items from Wyrmgand and Grypha, and now I’m looking for a carving from Sleipnord to complete the set.” She paused for breath, sighing wistfully. “Oh, I’d just love to go to some of these places someday. Think about it, Rye! Adventuring across the world, exploring the deep caverns under the mountains, seeing distant lands and meeting new ponies and other creatures we’ve never seen before…”

Rye grinned. “Cranberry Sugar, wandering historian?” He raised a hoof and gestured grandly. “Galloping across the lands, fending off manticores and trolls by throwing textbooks at them.”

“Now you’re making fun of me,” she pouted. Rye smirked at her, and she gave him a kick. “I’m serious, Rye! Wouldn’t it be great to get out of this boring town for a while and see the world?”

The vendor, by now extremely annoyed, leaned forward. “Look, lady, are you going to buy anything?”

Cranberry gave him a dismissive look and sniffed. “No, I don’t think so. I only buy real artifacts, thank you.” Rye and Cranberry left the shopkeeper muttering bitterly to himself about rowan wood and keeping the merchandise shelved. They trotted off together through the busy marketplace.

“So tell me about Sleipnord,” said Rye, eager for the distraction.

Cranberry was happy to oblige him. “Well, it’s the ancestral home of all ponies, of course, but most of us haven’t lived there for thousands of years. When the old unicorn, pegasus, and earth pony tribes fled south from the never-ending winter, a few holdouts remained in the north. They were the ancestors of the modern day Nordponies.”

They walked over a bridge that crossed one of the rivers running through the city from the castle above. They continued on into another area of the market district. Cranberry talked ceaselessly while Rye adopted a glazed expression and nodded at appropriate times.

“They’re very warlike, which is only to be expected when somepony lives in a land as cold and hard as Sleipnord. There’s a big emphasis on battle in Sleipnordic society.” Cranberry suddenly stopped walking—and more miraculously, talking—and gave Rye a hard look.

“Okay, I didn’t want to have to push, but you’re clearly avoiding the subject. How are you, really?”

He sighed. “I’ll be fine. I knew from the beginning that getting accepted would be a long shot. This is a disappointment, but not a surprise.”

“It meant more to you than that, Rye. You’ve been talking nonstop about the officers’ corps for weeks.” She rolled her eyes. “More than usual, I mean.”

Rye shrugged, trying to look nonchalant and failing. “I’ll survive.”

“I know you wanted to… to prove yourself, in the military.”

“Yeah, well,” he said, “There are other things in life besides the army. Who knows, maybe I’ll be a cook?”

Cranberry snorted. “I can’t see you making bread for a living, Rye.”

“Ah, you’ve never tried my honeyed oats before.”

“No, and I don’t intend to. I’ve been warned by your mother.”

He groaned. “She thinks everything tastes horrible unless my father makes it.” He looked around. “Where are we going, anyway?”

Cranberry started walking again. “I was hoping Jensine might have some Sleipnordic carvings. Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve said hello.” The two of them carried on into the market, winding deeper into the city.

They came at last to a market stall run by an elderly purple mare with a pair of half-spectacles perched upon her nose. Cranberry waved to her as they approached. “Hello, Jensine.”

“Well, if it isn’t little Miss Sugar and Master Strudel! My, but you two are getting big.” The older pony smiled at them as they came up to her stall. “So how can this old mare help you today?”

“I’m looking for Sleipnordic carvings. Got anything like that in stock?”

“Hmm, I’m afraid not. I haven’t received any new shipments from outside Equestria in over a month, now. Getting artifacts over the borders isn’t as easy as it used to be. The last shipment of those beads from the zebra tribes got lost somewhere in the mountains. The Wild Lands aren’t very safe these days.” She leaned over the counter and gave a conspiratorial whisper. “But I do have a collection of maps I don’t think you’ve seen.”

“Ooh,” said Cranberry, her face lighting up. “Yes, please! Let’s have a look at them.”

Rye groaned. “Don’t you have enough maps by now? I can’t even see the walls of your room through them all.”

“Well it’s a library, Rye, there are supposed to be maps and things hanging up”

“You’re not supposed to wallpaper your home with them, Cranberry.”

She shushed him and turned to the collection of parchment that Jensine had dumped onto the countertop. “Hmm… Oh, I don’t think I’ve seen one of these with the capitals marked quite like that… Ooh!”

Rye shook his head and turned to Jensine. “So, still keeping an ear to the ground? What’s going on in the kingdom these days?”

The old pony frowned. “These are dangerous times, Master Strudel. The roads are falling into disrepair all across the kingdom. The crown doesn’t have the money to keep them in good condition any more. Caravans are no longer safe. There have been troll attacks near Norharren, and even the Great Road isn’t as protected as it used to be. The situation up north is deteriorating. And news from Whitetail isn’t much better.”

She looked around before leaning in closer and speaking in a low voice. “I hear rumors. They say the griffons are on the move again. I hear whispers of armies in the desert, tens of thousands of campfires that darken the sky with smoke…”

Rye sucked in his breath. “But… we’ve been at peace with Grypha for centuries. You don’t think they’d really…”

“Who knows how the minds of griffons work?” Jensine shook her head. “There is little news from the other lands, thankfully. Wyrmgand is still shut off from the rest of the world. The dragons want to stay cooped up in their rocky canyons, and I say let them. Never did anypony any good to have dragons mucking about.” She looked darkly to the west. Beyond the horizon lay the ominous Drakkengard mountains, standing their solemn vigil over the border between the land of the ponies and the arid realm of the great firebreathing lizards.

“Ah, here’s the one!” exclaimed Cranberry. She pointed a hoof at the map. “How much?”

“Four bits,” Jensine smiled, “But for you, Miss Sugar, I’ll make it two.”

Cranberry dropped a pair of gold pieces on the counter and swept the map into one of her saddlebags. She smiled at the old pony. “Thanks again, Jensine.”

“Stop by anytime, dear. You too, Master Strudel.”

The two of them walked away. Cranberry stopped suddenly and smacked her forehead. “Oh, drat, I forgot. Inkpot wanted me back at the library by three to help sort the reference section. You know how fussy she gets whenever somepony puts a book on the wrong shelf.”

“Well if she’d just arrange them alphabetically like everypony else…”

“I know, I know. She claims her system is better. It just confuses me.” Cranberry looked apologetic. “Look, I’d really rather stick around, but my sister’s more important than some wooden carving. I’ll see you later, okay?”

Rye nodded. “Not a problem. See you ‘round, Cranberry.” He watched as she cantered off, melding into the throng of shopping ponies and disappearing.

Well, what now? Find another friend to talk to? Well, you’d need another friend for that, wouldn’t you... There were other ponies who treated Rye with at least a modicum of respect, but Cranberry was the only real friend he’d ever had, and vice versa. He smiled to himself, remembering how the two of them had used to play in the city streets during the summer.

Rye’s favorite game had always been Firewings and Monsters. He would be the Firewing captain, naturally, and Cranberry excitedly assumed her role as the monster of the day. They would tussle around, Rye defending the Princess from whatever horrible chimera Cranberry had read about that week.

He sighed longingly. He knew more about the adventures of the legendary pegasi of Equestria’s royal guard than most, not surprisingly because of his mother. She would tell him the stories of old battles against monsters, keeping the kingdom safe from hydras and trolls. The exploits of those heroes had shaped his childhood in more ways than one. He dreamed of being remembered like them; not as a freak of nature but as a great defender of Equestria.

Dreams were for children, he thought bitterly. Rye turned his hooves south, marching for the city gates. He knew a place where he could find some solace, one that wouldn’t leave him unconscious on a barroom floor.

He walked down the main street of the city, dodging merchant wagons. Reaching the grand archway at last, he paused to take in the sight. The gates of Canterlot were a marvel of craftsmanship. The wall surrounding the city was forty meters high and a good four meters thick. No foe had ever breached them, and no foe had even tried since the Great War six hundred years ago, during the fall of the Gryphan Empire.

The gates were swung open as hundreds of ponies milled around, entering and leaving the city. Rye slipped through the crowd, his small frame working to his advantage. He finally emerged on the other side of the mob, outside the city. The road led away into the distance, where it eventually met with the Great Road that ran all the way from Midrothel Pass in the north to the fortress of Sel-Paloth on Equestria’s southern border.

He wasn’t going that far today, though. His destination was in the little Cottontail Wood that lay just outside Canterlot’s outskirts. Rye trotted through the grass as he left the city behind him. He took a deep breath of the crisp autumn air.

The sun rolled lower in the sky as his hooves carried him on, turning the sky from blue to pink. The city grew smaller behind him, but the gleam of gold on the mountainside remained a beacon home.

Rye reached the forest late in the day, entering the woods amidst the reds and golds of the fall leaves. He wandered deeper into the trees, looking for the place he’d come for. He finally stepped into a small clearing. In the center of the little copse was a single tree stump. This glade was his secret hideaway, a tiny pocket of peace away from the bustle of the city. He often came here to think, or just to get away from everything for a while.

He sat on his stump, musing. Cranberry was right. He wasn’t sure what was in his future, but it certainly wasn’t cooking. He wanted ponies to look past his gimpy wings and ungainly horn, to see him as, if not normal, at least not cursed. He wanted to do great things, to be seen to do great things. He didn’t want to be a celebrity. He wanted to be a hero.

Seized by a sudden carefree urge, he posed on his stump. “Fear not, Princess! I will slay the dragon!” He waved an imaginary hoof-mace. For a brief moment, he was a foal again, cavorting around the clearing chasing off monsters from his childhood. Laughing like an idiot, he fought griffons and dragons and giant snakes for the glory of Equestria and Princess Celestia.

Exhausted, he collapsed onto his stump. Still giggling like a little colt, Rye curled up and closed his eyes. All I ever wanted was to be like mom. What am I going to do with myself? He sighed, huddling tighter on his stump. The evening sun was warm and comforting…

* * *

          Rye blinked. He yawned and raised his head. The glade was pitch black as his eyes began adjusting to the darkness. Night had clearly fallen hours ago. He stretched his wings and hooves out, yawning again. How long had he been asleep? His mother was going to give him an earful for this one. She probably thought he’d been at the tavern again. Well, the longer he stayed outside the worse the scolding would be. Time to head back to the city—

Snap! Rye’s head whirled. His eyes darted around the trees, looking for the source of the noise in the darkness. He heard a winded gasp and another stick breaking. He climbed off his stump to investigate. Rye snuck out of the glade, moving deeper into the forest after the sounds.

Somepony was moving fast, galloping full-out through the forest. He ran to catch up, trying to get a look at the pony ahead of him. Through the trees, he caught a brief glimpse of purple. His curiosity fully aroused, Rye followed the stranger deeper into the forest. It seemed like he or she was headed toward Canterlot.

His quarry suddenly paused, gasping raggedly. As the pony hadn’t seemed to hear him yet, Rye took the opportunity to inch closer, hiding behind a bush. It was a female unicorn, her dull pink mane and lavender cloak standing out against the muted blues and blacks of the night. She had a brown cape draped over her back, but it didn’t obscure the symbol on her saddlebags: a scroll with a seal in the shape of the sun.

What is a royal courier doing in Cottontail Woods?

The unicorn regained control of her breathing. She lifted her head, looking around with a wary expression. Her gaze passed over Rye’s hiding spot behind the bush, and he held his breath. She didn’t see him, continuing to look around. She took another deep breath, and turned to run again.

A dark shape emerged from the trees in front of the unicorn, blocking her way. Whatever it was, it wore a heavy, dark blue cloak around it. The mare slowly backed away, her horn glowing with bright violet magic. Rye watched, transfixed. She set her hooves cautiously behind her, never taking her eyes off of the hooded creature. She was so intent on it that she missed the second one as it jumped at her from behind.

The creature grasped the unicorn with an arm. Whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t a pony. The arm ended not in a hoof but in four talons, all of which wrapped around the unicorn’s neck. The creature spoke, its voice raspy and hoarse. “End of the line, Equestrian.”

The unicorn reacted instantly. She jerked her head back, bashing her horn into the creature’s hood. It dropped her, recoiling. Its hood fell off, and Rye choked back a gasp of surprise. The thing’s head was feathered. It could only be a griffon. She bucked hard with her back legs, taking it in the midsection. The griffon reeled backwards, but the first one was already charging for the unicorn.

She rolled to avoid its claws, ducking as they slashed through the air and ripped through her cape. The unicorn’s horn glowed brightly, and the first assailant flew through the air to land in one of the trees. She turned to run, but the second griffon had recovered and dived for her. She rolled away again.

Rye had to help. He broke from his cover behind the bush and charged into the fray.

I flunked out of the military. So why am I the only trainee seeing battle this week?

Reflecting on the irony of the situation could wait. The first griffon descended from the tree again, and was headed straight for the unicorn. Rye reached into the magic and cast the only spell he could. His horn blossomed with orange light, flooding the clearing.

“Hey!” he yelled, as the pony and her attackers both swerved to look at him.

The first cloaked griffon hissed. “No witnesses.”

The unicorn seized the moment of distraction, her horn blazing. A wall of violet light flew outward, smashing into the two creatures. They fell backwards. She yelled, “Come on!” and raced into the woods. Rye ran after her, as the two griffons behind him began to stand again.

He felt a sudden, inane urge to introduce himself. “Nice to meet you,” he said, panting as they galloped, “I’m Rye, what’s your name?” The unicorn didn’t answer immediately, looking fearfully behind.

“Run now,” she said, “talk later.” The two ponies galloped onward. They had nearly cleared the forest when the attackers caught them.

Another cloaked shape loomed before them, sharp talons outstretched. The unicorn and Rye skidded to a halt, horns alight. The two griffons from earlier bounded out of the trees behind them. All of them froze in the clearing. The ponies and the griffons stood still, watching each other.

“This is going to get ugly. Can you cast any battle magic?” asked the unicorn.

“Uh… no.”

“Then this is going to get really ugly,” she amended, scowling at the foreigners.

The unicorn and the griffons moved as one. Her horn blazing, the unicorn hit one in the face with a hoof, and sent a streak of violet light in the direction of another. Rye dodged a swipe from the third griffon, jumping backwards. It came on again, its beak open wide and its eyes furrowed in anger.

There was a blinding flash of purple light and a crack as one of the griffons behind him soared past like a meteor, smashing into a tree with a loud crunch. Rye struck out with his hooves, forcing the griffon in front of him to back off. It spread its wings, leaping into the air above him. He rolled over to dodge its talons as it landed, coming up onto his hooves with flap of his wings. The griffon shrieked at him and he flinched.

In a split-second, it was on him. He felt the griffon’s claws wrap around his neck, and he looked deep into its eyes as it raised its other claw to slash across his throat. There was a booming sound and another pulse of violet light, and the griffon was suddenly ripped away and hurled into the forest.

“Thanks!” he called, grinning as he looked over at the unicorn. The grin vanished as he saw the final griffon right behind her. “Look out!”

The unicorn whirled as the griffon slashed its talons down. He heard her cry out, falling to the ground. Rye’s hooves thundered as he charged toward the griffon. It crouched to finish the unicorn off as Rye jumped into the air. He flew into the griffon and they both tumbled into the grass.

He raised his hoof and smashed it down into the griffon’s face, screaming with fear and anger. Adrenaline coursed through his body.

 The griffon gurgled and clawed at him. He brought the hoof up and down, again and again and again. The avian creature’s motions slowed and it fell silent. Its claws hung limply by its sides as Rye kept hitting it over and over with his bloody hoof. Frightened tears ran down his cheeks as his heartbeat pounded in his ears.

Rye stood, shaking all over. He was sweating, quivering like a leaf. He looked around, feeling a spike of terror as he tried to find the remaining griffons. They lay where the unicorn’s spells had thrown them, unmoving. He tried to calm his racing heart, but his chest heaved as he took one quivering breath after another.

The stories always said you were supposed to feel something after you killed for the first time, some regret or horror at what you had done. He remembered how Lythalia the Brave had wept for his enemies for weeks after their deaths. But Rye just felt terrified, his fight-or-flight response leaving no room for sentiment. He looked at his bloodstained hoof with a strangely detached disbelief.

There was a low moan from the unicorn. Rye ran to her side, kneeling down. He turned the unicorn over, cringing at the wound the griffon had left. There were three huge gashes in her side, and blood was pouring out at an alarming rate. She was still alive, but it didn’t look like she would last very long.

“L-l-listen,” she choked. “Listen to me.”

“I’m listening,” said Rye, his eyes wide.

“M-my name is Dawn Sparkle,” said the unicorn, trembling. She gasped and curled up, pressing her legs across the wounds on her belly. “Oh, Sisters, this hurts.” She closed her eyes, and breathed heavily.

“Wait here, Dawn, I’ll run to the city and get help.”

“No!” Her head snapped up before she cried out again. She hunched over, panting. Blood dripped into the grass. “There’s no time. Listen to me.” She pointed a bloody hoof at her saddlebags, which had fallen off during the fight. “Inside the bag, there’s a scroll.”

Rye obediently opened the bag, removing the item. It was a simple message scroll. It was stamped with black wax. Rye’s eyes went as wide as saucers, and he dropped it.

“Th-that’s a black seal!” Those seals were reserved for messages of extreme importance: famine, treason… war.

“You must—“ Dawn coughed, flecks of red staining the grass. “You must get that message to the Princess. Celestia has to—“ she hacked again, spitting out a gob of blood, “—has to know about the griffons. I failed in my duty, but you… you can’t…” she laid her head on the ground. “You can’t…” She closed her eyes for the last time. “Tell Celestia... that I….”

Rye sat for a minute, staring at the dead unicorn before him. He’d only known her for a few minutes, and in that time she’d saved his life twice over.

He unfastened her cape and draped it over Dawn’s head like a shroud. He picked a bright blue flower from a nearby bush, laying it down on her chest. Cranberry would know the flower’s name, some distant part of his brain thought. He looked down at the little scroll.

You must get that message to the Princess.

He snatched up the scroll in his mouth, marching to the edge of the clearing. He took one last look back at Dawn Sparkle’s body, and his brow stiffened in determination.

Don’t worry. I won’t fail you.

If he ran as fast as he could, he would reach the castle gates at sunrise.

 


Chapter Four

 

Inger stood watch by the great golden door. From the mountains to the east, the first few rays of the sun snuck over the snowy peaks. It was going to be another beautiful day, he reflected. He stretched his wings, letting the sunlight warm his cherry-red feathers. He intended to enjoy the last few warm days before winter set in. He scowled. Inger hated winter. The snow was wet and unpleasant, and the frigid air made flying difficult. One had to beat their wings twice as hard to get any lift in the cold. And the Firewings lived for flying.

        In times of peace, as now, the Firewings served as Her Majesty’s personal guard. It was in this function that Inger found himself standing outside the cozy, warm castle at the crack of dawn, guarding the door against nosy peasants. He didn’t mind, though; it set Her Majesty’s mind at ease to have the Firewings with her, and Inger would gladly walk fifty miles through a meter of snow for the reward of Celestia’s smile. The Princess smiled so rarely these days that every one had become a treasure. He just wished that guard duty wasn’t so… tedious.

          But perhaps it would be an eventful morning after all. Below him, on the steep mountain path that wound down from the castle into the city of Canterlot proper, a small gray pony climbed. Inger watched, intrigued. It wasn’t uncommon for some misguided commoner to try entering the castle without going through the right authorities, but it was rare to see a civilian at the castle at this hour of the morning.

          The pony below finally reached the last flight of stairs, the sharp and straight steps that led right to the front gate of the castle. He paused, likely to catch his breath. Inger squinted to get a better view of him. He raised an eyebrow. Curious—it looked from here as if the pony had wings. If that was the case, why not simply fly up? Inger couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually walked the steps up to the castle.

          Below, the pony began climbing the stairs. He was moving quite fast, taking the steps two at a time. As the pony neared the top, the wind took his mane and blew it aside, revealing a short, stubby horn. Inger’s face hardened, frowning. Pegacorn. Well, that explained why he wasn’t flying, at least.

          The pegacorn reached the top of the steps at last and collapsed onto the ground, panting heavily. Inger watched dispassionately. At last, the pegacorn stood, shakily approaching the tall golden door. As he made to enter, Inger flared his wings and blocked his path.

          “Halt, citizen.” Inger eyed the creature before him with distaste. “What is your business in the Sun Castle?”

        “I have,” the pegacorn took another deep breath, “a message for the Princess. It’s urgent.”

          Inger looked him over again. He was short, or perhaps the better word was stunted, and covered in dirt and sweat. The pegacorn cut an unimpressive figure. Wait, it wasn’t all dirt—Inger’s eyebrows raised. The pegacorn’s hooves were coated with blood.

          “What’s the message?”

          “I can’t tell you. I don’t even know myself. It’s for the Princess’s eyes only. I need to get this to her.” Inger frowned. “It’s urgent,” the pegacorn repeated.

          The Firewing rolled his eyes. “Princess Celestia is an extremely busy pony. All letters must be submitted through the proper channels. The post office is open during weekdays from seven to—“

          “No!” The outburst drew another frown from Inger. “I have to see her right away. Now. Please.”

          “Look, pegacorn,” said Inger, dropping all pretense of civility, “Celestia doesn’t need to be bothered with your problems. Either put your papers in the mail like everypony else or—“

          “I don’t need to be bothered with what, Inger?”

          The Firewing jerked upright, swiveling around and taking a deep bow. “Milady!” Princess Celestia stood in the open gate, her hair flowing gently in the breeze. The quiet alicorn possessed a serene grace and beauty that stood in stark contrast to the pale imitation before them.

          “What is going on here, Inger?” she asked politely.

        “Nothing, milady. Just an intruder on the grounds; it’s not a problem.” Inger stood and turned back to the pegacorn, who was standing in awe at the presence of the Princess. “Off with you, peasant.”

          Instead of leaving, the pegacorn opened his mouth and stammered. “Pri… Princess Celestia? I have a, uh, a message for you.”

          “You’ll not bother Her Majesty, pegacorn.” Inger’s eyes narrowed and he stepped between his Princess and the grubby little stallion.

          Behind him, the Princess gave a tinkling laugh. “Oh, Inger, you’re so fussy. Let him by, I don’t mind, really.”

          “But milady—“

          “Inger,” said Celestia in that gentle tone of rebuke he knew so well. “I always have time for my subjects.” She gave him a knowing smile. She turned to the pegacorn. “Tell me, little one, what is your name?”

          “R-Rye Strudel, Your Highness.”

        Strudel? The name sounded familiar to Inger, but he couldn’t put his hoof on it. Hadn’t he and Captain Firemane run into a Strudel at some point? He shrugged.

The Princess looked briefly surprised. “Strudel? How… interesting. Did your mother send you?”

        “No.” The pegacorn pointed to the scroll at his feet. Inger saw with surprise that it had a black seal. “It’s from… from Dawn Sparkle.” The pegacorn’s face fell, and he scraped a bloodstained hoof across the ground.

        “Dawn? She’s my most faithful messenger. Why would she send—“ Celestia’s eyes widened as she saw the blood. “Rye… what has happened?”

          “There were… in the Cottontail woods…” the pegacorn struggled.

          The Princess forestalled him with a hoof. “I will hear your explanation, but this is not the place. Come with me, Rye. Inger, you as well. We’ll go to my private chambers where we may discuss this without being overheard.”

          “But milady—“

          “No arguments, Inger. Now.”

          He sighed, frustrated. “Very well, milady.”

          Inger and the pegacorn followed the Princess into the castle. As they entered the door, Inger signaled to the interior guard to take his place at the gate. Celestia led the way, walking through the castle. Inger stood close behind her, with the pegacorn trailing them both. They walked by the castle kitchens, and Inger’s empty stomach grumbled sympathetically, but the Princess whisked past without a glance. As they reached the bottom of the tower stairs, he heard the pegacorn groan.

          “Not more steps…”

          The Princess smiled. “My bedchamber is only halfway up the tower.” The three of them climbed, their way lit by the torches in the wall sconces. At last they reached the Princess’s quarters.

          Entering the room, Inger saw the familiar sights. The fireplace flickered on the wall, illuminating the tapestry of the stars. The Princess’s writing couch and rug lay in the center of the room, from where she sent messages all across the kingdom. Her bed, a big four-poster piece of furniture, sat in the corner by the window. The sheets were thrown about in disarray, as if somepony had spent another restless night tossing and turning. Inger felt a pang of sympathy for the Princess.

          The door shut behind them, glowing with the white aura of the Princess’s magic. She turned to them, all business. “Rye, give me the message.” The pegacorn obediently set the scroll at her feet and stood back. Her horn shone, and the scroll flew up to her face. The seal ripped open and the message unfurled. The Princess’s eyes scanned down the letter, absorbing its contents.

          Inger waited patiently for her to finish. Beside him, the pegacorn fidgeted, glancing around at the room. Inger rolled his eyes. Civilians.

The Princess gave a sudden, tiny gasp. She put a hoof to her mouth, her eyes wide, as she continued reading. Inger was growing very concerned. At last, she finished, and rolled the scroll back up. Without warning, she twisted her head and sent the scroll flying into the fireplace. It crackled as the scroll burned.

          The Princess turned to the pegacorn, deadly serious. “How did this letter come into your possession?”

          Swallowing, the pegacorn began to describe the events of the night before in a shaky voice. He told the Princess that he had awoken in the forest—Inger was curious why he’d been there in the first place, but the Princess didn’t push for clarification—and his encounter with Dawn Sparkle. Inger was a bit surprised. He’d met the unicorn before. She didn’t seem the type to go running through the forest at night.

          Then the pegacorn told them about the hooded attackers. He described the fight, brushing over the details. He had the familiar look of somepony hovering on the edge of shock. Inger had seen it all too often.

“I didn’t have time to get help for her. She wanted me to get this to you right away.”

          “Griffons? In Cottontail?” Inger was incredulous. Celestia silenced him with a sharp look, then motioned for the pegacorn to continue. The creature mumbled a brief description of his run up through the city and their meeting.

          “Dawn, she… I think she wanted me to tell you she was sorry.” The pegacorn hung his head. “I didn’t have time to bury her. I honored the body the best I could.” He stared at the floor. Inger shifted uncomfortably.

        “Thank you, Rye,” said Celestia, closing her eyes in pain. She gave an infinitely weary sigh. “Dawn was a brave pony and one of the best friends I have ever had. I will… I will see to it that her family is notified. Her husband and children should know that she died serving her country.” She took a moment to find her voice again. “But there are more pressing matters.”

          Inger and the pegacorn both looked up sharply. The Princess had that look she got whenever she was thinking fast. She paced, turning around on her rug. “Dawn’s letter is the report I requested on the Gryphan army’s strength and movement. It’s worse than I’d feared.” She took a breath and continued. “The griffons are mobilizing. Dawn reports that forces from all over Grypha have gathered at a massive war camp on the Equestrian border. She speaks of thousands of warriors, tens of thousands.”

          With a sinking feeling, Inger said “The Celestial Army is only a few thousand strong. Even the Duchess of Whitetail has only three or four thousand ponies at her command. How are we supposed to fight a force of ten thousand griffons?”

          “It’s closer to thirty thousand. They have enough warriors to easily march over the southern plains unopposed. Enough to break any army we can muster in a single battle.”

          Inger broke in. “How can they feed that many troops? Grypha is a desert. They already have to import most of their food from the Wild Lands to the east.”

          “You’re forgetting about the griffon campaigns in the south fifty years ago. Those little nations set up after the Great War were supposed to be a barrier between us and the griffons…” She sighed. “Instead, they proved little more than easy targets for Gryphan expansion. They aren’t ideal farmland, but they’ve given the king of Grypha enough breathing room to organize this massive army. Hundreds of square miles of land have fallen under his control. And now he wants Equestria.” Celestia’s eyes hardened. “He must not be allowed to have it.”

          Inger paused, thinking. He glanced over at the pegacorn, who was doing his best to look very small. Why was he still here? The Princess should have dismissed him before discussing the situation with Inger. She often talked politics with her guards, but he could think of no reason for the commoner to remain. “Well,” he said, cautiously. “Surely the Celestial Army will not stand alone in this? What of the other provinces?”

          “I have no doubt that Celerity would eagerly leap into battle with us against the griffons, Inger. But Emmet…” The Princess shook her head. “Duke Blueblood is firmly set against war. He wants us to slash military spending everywhere, and devote more of our resources to trade.” She looked weary. “In another day and age I would happily agree, but with the griffons at our borders I’ve been loath to weaken us any more than we already are.”

          The pegacorn spoke suddenly. “Just ignore him, then.” Inger spared him a scowl, but the Princess simply shook her head.

          “The situation is delicate. Emmet has a force larger than the Celestial Army at his command.” Celestia gave a black laugh. “Equestria’s national army is perhaps its smallest.”

          “Can we fight the griffons without Norhart?” asked Inger.

          “You misunderstand. The hatred between Emmet and Celerity runs deeper than you can guess. Emmet thinks Celerity is on a power trip, trying to grab as much authority as she can from the council and the crown. She thinks he is a stuck-up, backwards old fool, desperate to relive the glory days of Norhart. Neither of them are quite right about the other, but... there are kernels of truth there.” She paused, shaking her head again, and continued. “If we do march on the griffons, if we do declare war, and Celerity follows us…”

          “Then?”

          “Well… Emmet may do something rash.”

          The pegacorn spoke again. “Your Highness… you’re the Princess! Can’t you just order him to step in line?”

          She laughed again, mirthlessly. “One of the great ironies of power, Rye, is that the more of it I have the less of it I dare use. Emmet already complains that I do not give the provinces enough leeway in their own governance. Ordering him to march to war would play right into his hooves. He and the other northern provinces could lock the council in argument until the griffons kill us all. And if Celerity heads into battle anyway, then my worst fear could come to pass.”

          Inger swallowed. “Even Blueblood isn’t that crazy.”

          “You underestimate his hatred for Celerity.” She braced herself. “If we go to war, then Blueblood will secede.” There was a short, tense silence.

          The Princess continued, “The Duchy of Norhart is the second largest in Equestria, and many of the other provinces will follow him: Helmfast, Greenway… it would be an absolute catastrophe. Celerity would retaliate, and Equestria would be ripped apart by a civil war between Norhart and Whitetail, all while the griffons swoop in to wipe out the survivors. Hundreds of thousands of innocent ponies would be killed in the fighting. It would be the worst disaster since the Fall. No, we cannot risk open war. Not yet. Not while Emmet remains opposed.”

          “But… Princess…” the pegacorn stuttered. “You’re the sun goddess. Can’t you… I don’t know, smite the griffons with your magic or something?”

          Celestia’s face darkened, and she turned aside. “The power of the gods is not unlimited, Rye. The last time that Luna and I went openly to battle was eons ago. At the making of the world, the gods and the dragons warred against each other for dominion over the Earth. The land was torn asunder as fire rained from the skies, and dragons and gods alike were destroyed in the chaos.

          “We were victorious in the end, but we paid a heavy price. The natural cycles of the world had been broken; the weather could not sustain itself, and the sun and moon no longer rose of their own accord. My sister and I suggested that the task of managing the weather be given to the young race of the pegasi. To the unicorns, we gave the responsibility of raising the moon and sun. And finally, we tasked the earth ponies with healing the Earth’s shattered lands.

          “We left this world and the mortals to their own devices. We no longer trusted ourselves with its care, and decided to let the younger races determine their own fates. We departed from the Earth, not intending to return. But the peace was not to last.” Her eyes darkened. “Thousands of years passed, and the ponies fought amongst themselves. The unicorns proved unworthy of the trust we had placed in them, using their magic to control the other races. The strife between the tribes caused the never-ending winter and led to the creation of Equestria, but the discord and chaos sowed the seeds for something worse.

          “An evil god, born from the disharmony of the pony tribes, rose up from the ashes of the north. He was the greatest enemy the world had ever faced. The ponies were powerless against him, and Equestria suffered under his cruelty for a century. My sister and I returned from our exile to put an end to his reign of madness, but our power was no match for him.” The Princess seemed lost in time. Inger and the pegacorn both stared, entranced.

          “We searched the world for many years, seeking the means to defeat him. At last we found it; hidden not in some cave or mountain, but in the hearts and minds of all life itself. We harnessed that power and created the Elements of Harmony. In a great and terrible battle we defeated the enemy, and sealed him in a prison from which he will never escape.

          “The ponies, though most of them were good at heart, had shown us that they were not ready to be the caretakers of the sun and moon. My sister and I assumed our duties as the goddesses of the day and night, ruling Equestria ever since to prevent another endless winter.”

          “If the Elements are so powerful,” said Inger, who had only heard this story once before, “Why don’t we use them to fight the griffons?”

          “They are the Elements of Harmony, Inger. And right now, there is so much disharmony in Equestria, I’m not sure if they will even work. But even if I knew for certain that I could harness their power, I would not.” The Princess grew distant. “They have only been used twice, and they carried a price. A steep one.” She looked out her window at the blue sky. Inger knew she was thinking of the moon.

          “Using them again might have terrible consequences. That kind of power should not be used lightly. We must turn instead to conventional means to defend ourselves from the threat of Grypha. I must work through mortals.” At that, she gave the pegacorn a strange glance.

          “Milady,” said Inger, “We don’t have enough troops to defend against an invasion of this size. We need allies.”

          “Yes, Inger, I concur. But who?” She turned. “Many nations signed the Treaty of Everfree, but how many will hold to it? The dragons still slumber in Wyrmgand, and their aid would be doubtful in any event. They hold no love for me or my people. The zebra tribes are too far away to send help in time, and the buffalo would most likely aid the griffons instead of us.”

          “What about Sleipnord?”

          Inger and Celestia both looked at the pegacorn. He shied back nervously. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. My friend Cranberry was telling me about how Sleipnord was a land filled with warriors—it just leapt to mind.”

          The Princess put a hoof to her chin. “Hmm… the Nordponies have long been allies of Equestria.”

          “Surely you can’t be serious,” said Inger. “Our nations may have been close once, but it’s been a long time since the fall of the Empire. The Nordponies are extreme isolationists. I’d be wary of letting any Nordpony warrior set hoof on Equestrian soil. Besides, those savages are too busy killing each other to gather an army.”

          Celestia frowned. “You give them too little credit, Inger. The Nordponies are valorous and unmatched in battle.” She nodded slowly. “Yes… the more I think about it, the more this seems the correct course of action. A messenger must be sent to the Thanes, to secure their aid against the griffons.”

          Inger restrained his frustration, and sighed in defeat. “Very well, milady. I will summon a courier.”

          “No!” said the Princess. “We cannot send an official messenger. The royal couriers are being watched, if Dawn Sparkle’s fate is any indication. And the greater danger of civil war is equally present. Celerity and Emmet have eyes in the courier service, and no hint of this alliance must reach their ears before we have unified against the Gryphan threat. Celerity feels much the same regarding the northerners as you do, Inger.” She looked calmly at the pegacorn. “No, we need to send an outsider. Somepony with no ties to the crown, somepony that nopony will be closely watching. Somepony like you, Rye.”

          Inger choked. So that was why she hadn’t told the pegacorn to leave. “You can’t send him!” he exploded, as at the same time the pegacorn stammered protests.

          The pegacorn’s eyes bugged out, and he shook his head frantically. “Me? Princess, I’m not a—I mean, I’ve never—“

          Celestia held up a hoof, quieting them both. “Trust me, please, both of you. This is the best course of action available to us right now.” She looked at the pegacorn. “Rye, will you do this for us?”

          “I don’t…. I’m not sure I’m really the pony for the job…” The pegacorn’s eyes swiveled back and forth. “Shouldn’t you send a carrier pegasus?”

          “Flight would attract too much attention. My agent must travel on hoof. I need an inconspicuous messenger.”

          The pegacorn laughed nervously. “I’m not exactly inconspicuous.” He gave an anxious flutter of his too-small wings.

          “I have faith that you can get the job done, Rye.”

          “I can’t. I’m no hero, Your Highness.”

          “You’d be surprised how often heroes say that.” She smiled gently.

          The pegacorn shook his head in denial. “I’m not the pony you’re looking for.”

          “Are you certain, Rye? Do you truly think yourself unworthy of the task I lay before you?” Her eyes pierced into the pegacorn. “Or is this the ponies of Canterlot I hear talking?”

          That clearly struck a chord somewhere deep inside the young stallion. “I…”

          “You can do this, Rye. Prove it to them. Prove it to yourself.”

          “I… yes. I will. I accept this charge.”

          Inger spluttered. “Milady, I must protest. You can’t give a mere foal a mission this important!”

          “I’m not a child,” said the pegacorn, irritated.

          The Firewing ignored him, still fuming. “This is ridiculous. We can’t place all of Equestria’s hopes on an untrained civilian and send him off to Sleipnord alone.”

          “And I am not,” said Celestia evenly, raising her eyebrow at Inger. “You’re going with him.”

          Inger gaped. “You—I’m—“ he gibbered, dumbstruck.

The Princess nodded, a wry smile on her lips. “Yes. I will make the preparations. The two of you will leave tomorrow night, under cover of darkness.”

        “Princess,” said the pegacorn. “Pardon me, but… how are we going to convince the Thanes to help?”

          Celestia’s horn glowed brightly, and there was a sharp crack! A set of scrolls appeared in the air. “These are copies of the ancient treaty signed by all the nations at the end of the Great War. When the Empire fell, the Nordponies were among those who agreed to join us against them should the griffons ever rise again. These documents will bind them to the word of their ancestors.”

She looked kindly at the pegacorn. “I’m sorry, Rye, you must be exhausted. You haven’t slept since the attack in the woods, have you? Inger, please show him to the guest rooms. I need to plan. I will see you both after the council session tomorrow.”

          “Yes, milady.” Still simmering, Inger bowed deeply. He nudged the pegacorn, who followed suit. The two exited the chamber, the door sliding magically shut behind them.

          As they walked down the steps to the castle below, the pegacorn paused. He looked at Inger curiously. “She kept calling me Rye. Does she use first names with everypony?”

          Inger continued down the stairs. “Yes,” he said, his tone lightening as he thought of his Princess. “Her Majesty cares about every pony under her rule as if they were her own foals.” He looked at the pegacorn. “Do you understand why we follow her?”

          The pegacorn looked lost in thought as they descended. “Yes,” he said quietly. “Yes, I do.”


Chapter Five

“Windstreak, dear, you’re pacing again.” Apricot leaned back from the countertop, eyeing the dough to make sure it had the right consistency.

          “Sorry, love. He said he was going to be back by midnight, but it’s already dawn and there’s been no sign of him.”

          “He’s not a little colt anymore, dear. I’m sure he’s fine.” He carefully set the pan in the oven, measuring the loaf to make sure it would bake evenly.

          Windstreak sighed, her wings aflutter. “I know, I know! I’m just worried about him. I checked the Salt Lick, but the bartender said he wasn’t there yesterday.” She kept pacing. “You know how broken up he must be about the officer corps.”

          Apricot sighed. “Yes, I do. He looked like he was handling it well, though.”

          “Of course he did, he’s my son.” Windstreak looked briefly proud. “Still, you know how he has those little depressive episodes. I’m just worried he’ll do something stupid.”

          “Ah,” said Apricot, with a dry smile. “Now that sounds like Rye. No doubt he’ll show up sometime this afternoon, covered in dirt and smelling like a barn—“

          The bell on the front door jingled from the storefront. Apricot furrowed his brow in annoyance. “We’re not open for another hour. Did I forget the sign again?” The two ponies walked out of the kitchen to see a dark brown earth pony wearing the symbol of the royal courier service. The courier wore two saddlebags stuffed with scrolls.

          “I doubt he’s here for pastries, love…” whispered Apricot. “It’s probably for you.” Windstreak nodded grimly and approached the courier.

          “Are you Captain Strudel?” he asked. She nodded, and he reached into one of his saddlebags to pull out a scroll. “Captain, my apologies for intruding. This is for you.” He handed her the message.

          Windstreak set it down on the counter with a raised eyebrow. “What was so important that it warranted a royal courier?”

          “That’s not my place to say, ma’am. I just deliver the letters.”

          “Very well. Good day, courier.”

          He bowed. “To you as well, Captain.” The courier left the door, racing off to deliver the rest of his messages. The bell over the door tinkled behind him.

          “Well, what’s it say?” asked Apricot. His wife broke the seal and unrolled the scroll, her eyes darting down the letter.

          “Let’s see… ‘Her Highness, Goddess of the Sun, Sovereign of Equestria, etcetera, etcetera…’ Ah, here we go. ‘Captain Strudel, your presence is requested and required at the Sun Castle by noon today…’” She read further, her face falling. “The Princess has summoned all the Firewings to active duty. All of us.”

          “But you’re on leave—“ began Apricot unhappily.

          “Not anymore. We’ve been ordered to report to the castle, today. She’s calling us in, urgent priority. It doesn’t say why, but… she wouldn’t do this lightly.”

          Apricot looked over the letter. “Why would she need the Firewings?”

          “I don’t know for sure, but… I’ve heard whispers of trouble in the south.”

          “I’ve heard them too.” Apricot’s face grew dark. “You don’t think the griffons would dare attack Equestria, do you?”

          “I’m not sure. It’s been six hundred years since the Great War. They might be ready to push out again… We’re certainly weak right now. The last war we fought in was nearly a century ago, and even that was just a token commitment from the Princess to the Nordponies.”

          Apricot sighed in frustration. “So much for our plans.”

          Windstreak looked miserable. “I’m so sorry, love. I know we were going out to Lake Alazure this month, but… this is more important.”

          “Yes, yes,” he sighed, giving her a sad smile. “Equestria comes first.” He gave her a hug. “Go save the world, honey.”

          She smiled with teary eyes. “I love you. I’ll write if I can, but don’t be surprised if I can’t send any letters for a while. The last time we all got put on duty like this I was assigned all the way out in Cloudsdale for half a year.” She sighed again. “Oh, and one more thing—if Rye isn’t back by this afternoon, you’ll look for him, won’t you?”

          “Of course. But I expect he’ll be back before then.”

          “I hope so. I’m sorry; I need to go right away. The letter was very clear.”

          “Don’t worry about it. I’ll finish setting up today.” The two shared a kiss, and Windstreak turned to leave.

          “Remember to get that loaf out of the oven!”

          “I will!” The bell jingled, and she was gone again. Apricot sighed and looked down at the letter. He knew his wife loved the Firewings, but he hated it whenever her duty took her away from her family. Regretfully, he began to dust off the counter before the bakery opened for the day. The bell rang again.

          “Forget something?” he asked, looking up. The pony in his shop was not a blue pegasus, however, but a pink earth pony. “Oh! Hello, Cranberry. I thought you were Windstreak.”

          “Hello, Apricot,” said Cranberry cheerfully. “Is Rye back yet?”

          “No,” said the baker, “I haven’t seen him since yesterday afternoon.”

          “Oh, yes, I met him at the marketplace.”

          Apricot’s heart eased a little. His son hadn’t vanished off the face of the earth, then. Perhaps Rye was just hiding somewhere in one of his funks. No need for concern. Still… “If you see him, tell him to come back home right away. His mother and I are worried about him.”

          “Sure thing,” said Cranberry. “Um… I know you’re not open yet, but…”

          Apricot smiled knowingly. “Here.” He pushed a fresh muffin over the counter.

          “Thangfh,” Cranberry mumbled around a mouthful of pastry. “Well, ‘ow fee ‘oo ‘ater!” She left the store, ringing the bell for the fifth time that day.

          Apricot returned to dusting the countertop. He was having an eventful morning. Rye was missing, the Firewings had been called to duty, and on top of everything the weather looked dismal. What else could go wrong? He sniffed the air, smelling a faint burning scent. His eyes shot open. “Oh, horseapples, the bread.” He dashed for the kitchen, opening the oven and choking on a cloud of thick black smoke.

* * *

          Rye woke from a disturbing dream, filled with feathery wings, claws, and blood. His eyes snapped open, and for a moment he was horribly confused. He lay in a small bedroom that was clearly not his own. The carpet was a soft red, and the walls were not wood but smoothly chiseled stone. A rack of cloaks stood next to the door. Beams of morning light shone in through a small window on the wall to his right. Where was he?

          Suddenly the memories of the day before came flooding back. He lay quietly in the bed for a while, thinking about the strange turn of events that had befallen him. How did I go from walking through the marketplace to traveling on a quest to save Equestria? He’d become a royal representative overnight, it seemed. He just wished he knew what he was getting into.

          There was a knock on the door. Rye rolled out of the bed, untangling himself from the sheets. “Come in,” he called. The door opened to reveal the red pegasus from yesterday. The Firewing stepped inside, scowling.

          “Are you ready yet? You’ve been in bed all day.”

          “Sorry. I wasn’t sleeping very well.” Rye shook his head to clear away the last few smoky visions of the dream. While he got his bearings, Inger dumped a pair of saddlebags at the foot of his bed. The pegasus was dressed in a brown cloak, with the hood pulled off and around his neck. The bright, polished armor he’d worn the day before was packed tightly away in his bulging saddlebags.

          He grunted irritably at Rye. “While you were getting your beauty rest, I took the liberty of packing our supplies. We’ve got enough food to last us a week and a half. We should reach the halls of the Thanes by then. I’ve got the tents and sleeping pallets rolled up in my bags. Get yours on, it’s nearly time to go.”

          Rye nudged the saddlebags up and over his head, nestling them onto his back. “Oof! What did you put in these, rocks?”

          Inger rolled his eyes. “Food, a canteen, and a heavy cloak. You’ll need it for the mountain pass and the land beyond.” Hesitantly, he added “and inside the right bag are the copies of the treaty.”

          Rye swallowed nervously. “Um… maybe you should carry those.”

          The Firewing shook his head. “It is the Princess’s express wish that you alone carry the documents.” He gave a disapproving snort. “I’m sure she has her reasons.”

          Rye pulled a light cloak off of the rack and threw it around his neck. “Before we go, I’d like to stop in at my parents’ house. They should know I’m leaving.”

          “The Princess told me that she would take care of that. We cannot afford the delay, pegacorn. We’re leaving immediately after we talk to Her Majesty. If you ever finish getting dressed, that is.”

          Rye pulled the hood over his head. It worked nicely to conceal his horn. “Let’s go.”

          They left the bedroom, traveling through the castle. It was a maze of passageways, but Inger led him on without hesitation. They came at last to the council chamber, wherein Celestia’s throne resided. She sat alone in the empty room, lifting her head as they approached.

          “Ah, my faithful servants. Rye, Inger, welcome.” She smiled at them both, and Inger bowed. He kicked Rye with a back leg, and the pegacorn quickly followed suit.

          “How did the council meeting go?” asked Inger.

          The Princess sighed. “About as well as usual. Nothing useful got done, but at least Celerity and Emmet haven’t started firing spells at each other. Yet. I haven’t told them about Dawn’s report. I was hoping to resolve the Sel-Paloth dispute without breaking that news, but…” She waved the memory away with a hoof. “It’s unimportant. Leave convincing them to fight the griffons to me. Your task is to find the Thanes, give them the treaties, and bring back an army of Nordponies to help us fend off the southern invaders.”

          “We will not fail you,” said the Firewing, saluting.

          Celestia beckoned them both closer. Her voice dropped lower and her expression grew serious. “The journey to Sleipnord is not an easy one. I expect you will both face many difficulties before you reach the halls of the northern lords. Stay true to your mission, and above all, stay true to each other. You may find that in your hour of desperation, the only light you can find will be your friendship. Keep each other safe.”

          Inger looked pained at the thought of calling Rye a “friend,” but said nothing. Rye simply nodded his head. “We’ll remember.”

         The Princess beamed at the two of them. “Then good luck to both of you. May the sun guide you through the days, and the moon guard your steps at night.”

         Inger took that as a dismissal and turned to leave the chamber. Rye lingered behind, unsure of what to say. He looked up at the Princess. She gave him a smile as warm as the sun. “Don’t be afraid, Rye. The world always seems darkest just before the sun rises. I should know.” She laughed, a tinkling sound that warmed Rye from his hooves to his wingtips. “Your path will not be easy or short, but you have the strength to make it through, even if you don’t yet realize it. Always remember, Rye Strudel: your friends are your greatest strength. You may meet many more on your travels. They will help you through the coming trials. Never forget this. Be well.”

          She bent her head and kissed him lightly on the forehead. Rye knelt, deeply honored. “Thank you, Princess. I won’t let you down.”

          As he left the council chamber he found Inger waiting impatiently. “Are you ready to go? I was hoping to be out of the city by nightfall, but we’ll be lucky to even make the gates now.”

          “Sorry. Are you sure we don’t have time to stop by my parents’ place?”

          “Whoever they are, the Princess will notify them. We don’t have any time to waste. The griffons could attack any day, now.” Inger led the way to the castle exit in a huff. Rye followed, curious.

          How interesting. He doesn’t know that his Captain is my mother. He grinned to himself. The prospect of not having Windstreak’s reputation hanging over him was a compelling one.

          “Hurry, pegacorn,” called Inger. He rushed ahead to catch up.

* * *

          They walked through the city in the cool afternoon air. The sun sank low in the sky as they weaved their way through the crowded streets. The nobles and common-folk alike walked happily past, blissfully unaware of the looming threat of invasion. Rye looked around, trying to take in all of the sights and smells. He wanted to remember this moment, one final glance at home before he left the city for the far-away land of Sleipnord.

          Inger walked on ahead, silent. Rye didn’t know what his problem was, but he hadn’t said a word to Rye since they’d left the castle. Maybe he’s just a quiet pony. Or he might still be angry about being saddled with me. He looked up at the Firewing, who caught his eye and sniffed dismissively. Or maybe he’s just repulsed by the fact that I’m a pegacorn.

          He tried to strike up a conversation, but every time he opened his mouth the pegasus gave him a withering glare that instantly silenced him. Eventually he gave up, resigning himself to a long and boring few weeks. Maybe the Nordponies would be more talkative.

          As they approached the market district, Inger led him down a narrow back alley instead of taking the main road. They crossed behind the marketplace, hearing the sounds of the vendors beginning to pack up for the day. Occasionally, they would pass a drunken pony passed out in some alleyway, snoring gently. They were pretty harmless, but Inger would give them all a suspicious glare as they walked by.

          “Hey, I know this part of town,” said Rye. “You ever been to the Salt Lick? Best red wine in the city.” He bumped into the pegasus, who had come to a stop. Confused, he looked ahead to see two burly-looking earth ponies blocking their path.

          “Stand behind me, pegacorn,” whispered the Firewing. Instead, Rye stepped forward with an amiable smile.

          “Hello there, friends. How can we help you?”

          The bigger one snarled. He had a knife held loosely in his mouth. The rusty blade jumped up and down as he talked. “You can ‘help’ by putting your money pouches on the ground.”

          “Oh, come now, that’s no way to treat a stranger,” said Rye, casually glancing around for escape routes. None presented themselves. He glanced behind him to see that Inger had vanished. How had the big Firewing slipped away so quietly? “Are you sure we can’t talk this out?”

          “Money. Ground. Now.”

          “I don’t have any money, I’m afraid,” he said, looking back over his shoulder. Inger had not reappeared. Rye took a step back. “I just spent the last of it in the marketplace.”

          “Well, that’s a shame, isn’t it?” The thug nodded to his cloak. “That’s a nice bit of clothing you’ve got there. How about I take that instead?”

          The little one started sniggering. “Stick ‘im, Mugsy. Let’s see if’n ee’s a screamer.”

          Rye backed away with a disarming smile as the two thugs approached. “I don’t think you want to do this.”

          “And why not?” said the big one, looming so close that Rye could smell the whiskey on his breath.

          Rye looked up behind the two thugs and pointed with a hoof. “That’s why.” The muggers turned just in time to see two red hooves hurtling toward their faces.

          Inger smashed into the thugs as Rye jumped out of the way. There was a brief struggle that ended decidedly in Inger’s favor, as he bucked the smaller of the muggers in the chest and butted the big one in the face with his head. The thugs dropped like stones. The two of them lay on the ground, wheezing. Rye stepped gingerly over the larger one as he and Inger walked away.

        The Firewing’s voice was irritated. “When I say ‘get behind me,’ get behind me.”

          Rye looked sheepish. “Sorry. I thought I could talk them down. The ‘no money’ line usually works, but I suppose I’m not normally wearing such rich clothing.” He looked down at his cloak. It was embroidered with a line of tiny suns, reflecting its place in Celestia’s castle. Perhaps he should have picked a plainer one. “Anyways, thanks for saving my life.”

          “You’re welcome,” said Inger grudgingly.

          They reached the end of the alleyway at last, turning out onto the main road again. The city gates were just ahead. Rye started moving for them, but Inger grabbed his cloak in his mouth.

          “Not that way. We’ll be using a small postern in the wall to the southwest. I don’t want to attract any more attention that we already have.”

          “Then shouldn’t we go through the gate? We’ll be lost in the crowd.”

          “Hmm.” The Firewing thought for a moment. “You have a point. I just hope nopony recognizes you—“

          “Rye! Rye!” The familiar voice called above the bustle of the crowd.

          Inger swore. “Blast it all. She’s seen us. Let’s go, she might think she was mistaken.”

          “Oh, I don’t think she will…” Rye looked behind them to see Cranberry racing down the street.

          “Rye! Hey, wait up!” Cranberry galloped up to them, breathing heavily. “Hey, there you are! I’ve been looking for you. Your parents are worried sick. I thought maybe you were out at the Salt Lick again, but—“ she suddenly noticed Inger. “Who’re you?”

          Rye put up a hoof to slow her down. “Uh, Cranberry, this really isn’t a good time.”

          “Rye, what’s going on?” Cranberry’s face was rapidly growing confused. “This guy looks like a soldier. Where are you going?”

          Inger butted in. “We’re on royal business, citizen. We don’t have time to chat. If you’ll excuse us…” He coughed, looking expectantly at Rye. He jerked his head toward the gate.

          The pegacorn looked back at Cranberry. “Look, I’m sorry, Cranberry. This is really important. I’d tell you more if I could, but I can’t. Can you take a message back to my mother for me?”

          “That’s just it, Rye, I can’t! I went to the bakery this morning and I overheard your parents talking. Your mother has, uh…” Cranberry swallowed. “She’s been called up to the castle on duty.”

          “What?!”

"Your mother's in the military?" asked Inger. Cranberry and Rye ignored him.

          “They said something about griffons, and an army—I didn’t catch most of it.”

          “No, that would make sense,” said Rye, thinking. “The Princess can’t put all her chips down on our mission alone. She needs to prepare.”

          “The Princess? You talked to Princess Celestia?” Cranberry’s mouth hung a little slack. “Wait a minute, what mission? Rye, what is going on?”

          “Look, we’re headed north to Sleipnord to—“

          “Sleipnord?”

          Inger burst in. “Quiet!” He glared at Rye. “This isn’t your concern, Miss…”

          “Cranberry. Cranberry Sugar.” She looked quite unhappy by this point.

          “Miss Sugar. Please go about your business. This conversation never happened.” He planted his head on Rye’s rump and pushed him toward the gate. “Let’s go.”

          “Tell my father I’m safe!” shouted Rye over his shoulder.

          “I will!” Cranberry yelled, before vanishing from view as Rye and Inger pushed into the crowd.

          As they fought through the throng of ponies, Inger spoke angrily. “What were you thinking, telling her about Sleipnord?”

          “Sorry, it’s just…” He shoved past a merchant. “Cranberry loves this sort of thing. It’s really her that should be going on this trip, not me.”

Inger rolled his eyes. “Civilians.” He shook his head. “Sisters preserve us.”


 

Chapter Six

 

Celerity Belle was past the point of frustration. The council had been deadlocked for over two weeks about this fortress.

“Blueblood, if we don’t put more funding behind Sel-Paloth's garrison, we’ll be caught completely flat-hoofed by the griffons.”

“I think you mean to say, you will be unable to keep the southern provinces in line.”

“This has nothing to do with me, Emmet.” Celerity glared at the blonde unicorn over the council table. “It has everything to do with the griffons who threaten every day to move northward into my land.”

“Our land.”

Annoyed at her slip-up, Celerity dismissed the correction with a wave. “If we don’t step up our recruitment drives and pour some money into the army, then soon it won’t belong to either of us.”

“The military budget already constitutes a grotesque third of the kingdom’s expenditures, Celerity. We can’t even afford to keep the roads cleared of grass anymore. We need to reduce that spending—on Whitetail soldiers, especially.”

Celerity fumed. “You won’t be able to spend the money we’d save if you’re pulling wagons in some griffon slave camp, Emmet.”

The Duke buried a look of anger under a mask of boredom. “Belle, your transparent efforts to boost yourself above the rest of the provinces are growing tiresome.”

“Enough.” Both of them turned to the Princess, who sat on her haunches in the great, golden throne. “This bickering has gone on for too long already.”

Celerity gazed at her old teacher with frustration. If only the Princess would listen to her, the way she used to. Ever since Celerity had taken her seat as the Duchess of Whitetail, it seemed like the Princess had turned deaf to her counsel. Celerity couldn’t understand why she allowed Blueblood to spew his nonsense every day.

“Duke Blueblood. Councilors. There is news I must share.” The Princess looked as if she were arguing with herself. She shook her head; apparently one side of her thoughts had won. “The griffons are mobilizing for war.”

With a triumphant “Ha!” Celerity clapped a hoof to the marble table. “You see, Blueblood?”

The Duke was unfazed. “From whom did this information come, Your Majesty?”

“Dawn Sparkle. She is—was—my best scout, and one of my most reliable couriers. She reports that the griffons have assembled a vast army in the dunes of the Saladi desert, and that they are moving north.”

“How large an army?” asked Celerity, smugly waiting for the figure to throw in Blueblood’s face.

“Thirty thousand griffons.”

There was a dead silence in the council chamber. Even Celerity put a hoof to her mouth. “Oh, goddess…”

“I’m right here, Celerity,” said the Princess with a faint smile. The joke was old and worn, but it still drew a weak chuckle from a couple of the councilors.

“We need to move quickly,” said Celerity, her mind churning into overdrive. “Lord Weatherforge, how soon can you have an aerial force mobilized?”

The pegasus, leader of the province he was named for, looked up at the ceiling as he ran over a few calculations. “I think I can have seven hundred pegasi for you in a week, maybe more.”

“It might be enough.” Celerity already had a plan, but she would need to iron out the details later. “Blueblood, we’ll need your army to reinforce our own strength in the south.”

“You would have me turn my own soldiers over to your command, Celerity?” Emmet gave a long, forced laugh. “I don’t think so. Not all of us are so eager to jump into your war.” He looked around at the councilors. “I ask this assembly, who here stands to gain more from a war with Grypha than Celerity? She would steal your armies, use them up against the griffons, and then bleed your coinpurses dry to fund her own as she dominates the south. I will have no part in this madness.”

“You can’t just ignore the griffons, Emmet.” Celerity restrained herself from throwing any more vitriol at the lord of Norharren. If she needed to sweet-talk Blueblood for his troops, she could do it without gagging.

“We have not even tried diplomacy. War is not the only option, here. Let us send an agent to speak with the Gryphan king. Perhaps we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement instead of a wasteful conflict.”

Celerity was no longer even surprised by the depth of Blueblood’s denial. “How long has it been since you read the history of the Great War, Emmet? Maybe you recall what happened to the emissaries we sent then?” They’d returned without their tongues, if she remembered correctly. Or perhaps it was their heads.

The Duke shrugged uneasily. “It’s been six hundred years. The griffons will surely have learned that violence is not the only solution by now.”

Deciding he was a lost cause, Celerity turned to Celestia. “Princess, can we count on your support?”

Celestia looked torn. “Celerity, for me to declare war, the whole council must be in agreement.”

“You can override that if you wish.” Celerity knew the legal theory better than any in the room, except perhaps the Princess herself. “You have the authority to draft every pony in Canterlot if you want.”

Celestia frowned. “That kind of power should not be used lightly. The situation is not yet as desperate as that, Celerity.”

The Duchess slumped back, her efforts frustrated once again by royal indecision. The Princess used to seem so decisive. What had changed?

Maybe it’s you who’s changed, Celerity.

She shook her head. “We need to prepare. The griffons are coming, whether we’re ready for them or not. I intend to be the former.” She looked around the council chamber. “Are we done here? Some of us need to begin sending word back to our provinces to warn them of the oncoming invasion force.”

Troubled, the Princess nodded. “Very well. We will convene tomorrow to discuss the matter more fully. I beg you all to think of Equestria’s best interests. The griffons will be merciless. I must urge you to consider that war may be our only option.” Blueblood huffed. The Princess gave him a pleading look. “I will see you all tomorrow at seven ‘o-clock. Good evening, councilors.”

* * *

“He’s an idiot.”

“Mmhmm.”

“An absolute idiot.”

“As you say, milady.”

“He’d rather run the country into the ground than help me defend it.” Celerity stamped a hoof.

“Please, milady, I can’t help you if you won’t stand still.” Her coltservant and attaché, Weatherly, fussed around her neck. He was helping her remove the dozens of layers of clothing that constituted her normal council attire. The outfit was a bit cumbersome, but it was well-worth it for the effect it had on the other council members.

The two of them stood in her chambers in the Sun Castle. She stayed in these rooms with the rest of her entourage whenever she was called away from Whitewall City in the south for extended council sessions. The room was upholstered in the colors of the Whitetail Duchy, streaks of purple on clean white. The sigil of her house, a quadruplet of exquisite diamonds, was carefully detailed on a tapestry above the fireplace. It was a little home away from home.

Unfortunately, her neighbor down the hall was Emmet Blueblood. “All he thinks about is money, money, money. He still thinks that he can buy his way back into the glory days of Norhart.” She scoffed. “As if any amount of gold could purge that kind of corruption and incompetence.”

“Now, milady, I know several nobleponies from Norhart. They’re not corrupt in the least.” Weatherly gently removed her tiara, carrying it aside to place it on the dresser.

Celerity sighed in frustration. “I know, Weatherly. He’s just so… frustrating. And the Princess is no help at all.”

Weatherly looked up uncomfortably. “The Princess wants whatever is best for the kingdom, milady.”

“What’s best for Whitetail is best for the kingdom,” insisted Celerity. “We practically are the kingdom. Over a quarter of Equestria lies inside my Duchy, and the blasted griffons are barking at my doorstep. If we don’t pull together a real army fast, they’re going to swarm up through Southlund and past the river before we know what’s hit us.”

“Whitetail has the largest army in Equestria, milady,” reassured Weatherly. He unclasped another chain, sliding off a layer of her gown and hooking it over a hangar. “Even without aid from Celestia and the northern provinces, we’ll be able to fend off any griffon attacks.”

“Weatherly, Whitetail has about four thousand employed soldiers at the moment. The griffons have around thirty thousand. You do the math.”

Her aide paused for a moment. “Did you say thirty thousand?” He sounded faint.

“We’ll be overwhelmed instantly unless Celestia and Blueblood quit dithering and give me the troops I need. I have to strengthen my borders.”

“Perhaps Cloudsdale would be willing to help?”

“Lord Weatherforge has already agreed to give me as many pegasi as he can spare. I think we can also count on the aid of Westermin, as well as Breton and Rivermeet. Not that they’re worth much.”

Weatherly removed another layer. Celerity made a hrmm sound, still thinking. “Helmfast is securely in Emmet’s camp. Those two have been scratching each other’s backs for decades. Norlund and Greenway will follow Helmfast’s lead like they always do.”

The stallion suppressed a chuckle as he took off his lady’s necklace. “What of the others?”

“The only one that matters is Easthill. A good half of my soldiers are still armed only with their hooves. We need Easthill’s steel production if we’re going to equip them well enough to fight the griffons.”

Weatherly raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Good luck convincing him to join you without the Princess’s backing.”

“Yes, he is a loyal fool, I’ll give him that.”

“Loyalty isn’t foolish,” said Weatherly quietly.

Celerity sighed. “No, of course not. Forgive me, Weatherly.”

“How about Everfree?”

“Lord Everfree rules a ghost province. Ever since the Fall…” They both paused as a chill seemed to sweep the room. “Ever since the Princess took over the task of raising the moon, Everfree has been effectively deserted. There are hardly any ponies still living there, and certainly no army. No, he’ll be of no use to us.”

Her expression turned grim. “I’m worried, Weatherly. This could tear the council apart. Blueblood might just be crazy enough to go to war against us if we push too hard for this.”

Shocked, Weatherly dropped the garment he was hanging up. “He wouldn’t! How could anypony weaken the nation at a time like this? We need to stick together to be strong.”

Celerity looked at her aide with an uncertain expression. “Weatherly, I…” Her eyes fell to the floor for a moment, before looking up at him. “I’m not so sure that’s true, anymore.”

“What… what do you mean?”

“Have you ever wondered what it might be like? Being our own, separate nation?”

“No, milady,” said Weatherly, his voice concerned. “The Princess is the rightful ruler of Equestria.”

“That she is,” said Celerity. She thought of her days as Celestia’s protégé. “That she is.”

 


Chapter Seven

Rye was breathing raggedly by the time they finally stopped. Inger had set a punishing pace, galloping at full speed along the road away from Canterlot. The two of them had long since left the city walls behind, and the dim pink sky warned that night was fast approaching. Rye was doing his best to keep up with Inger, but he felt like his heart was going to explode.

Right as he decided he was going to take a break, Inger or no Inger, the Firewing slowed to a halt. “I think we should stop for the night. Best not to spend too much energy this soon in the journey. You’ll need it for tomorrow.”

Rye moaned internally, picturing a whole day of hard running. He collapsed onto the ground by the side of the road, his tongue lolling out and his chest heaving.

Inger rolled his eyes and muttered “Civilians,” in what was becoming a near-constant refrain.

Despite the Firewing’s attitude, Rye thought they were making pretty good time. The Cottontail woods had long disappeared into the hills behind them. They were probably only around ten miles away from the crossroads, where the path would meet up with the Great Road that would take them all the way north to Sleipnord. He looked forward to the paved cobblestone of the only major Equestrian highway.

 “Come on, pegacorn.” Inger nudged him. “We’re not sleeping on the roadside tonight.”

“You found an inn, did you?” said Rye. The Firewing gave him a humorless look. “Hey, a stallion can dream, right?”

Inger pointed a hoof toward a tall hill off the road a ways. “We’ll be sleeping at the bottom. It should be far enough away from the road to avoid any unwanted company, and more importantly it’ll give us a good view of the road ahead tomorrow morning.”

They didn’t bother with the tent. The air was chilly, but dry, and the skies were clear as far as the eye could see. Unless Cloudsdale had forged up a surprise storm for some reason, they wouldn’t wake up soaking wet.

Rye was snoring before he hit the ground.

* * *

“Go away. Lemme sleep.” Rye shoved his hoof in front of his face to push away whoever was nudging him.

“Get up, already. It’s six in the morning, time to move on.”

Rye blinked awake and remembered where he was. Sighing mournfully at the thought of a set of perfectly cooked pancakes waiting somewhere back in Canterlot, he pulled himself together and put on his traveling cloak and saddlebags. Still yawning, he and Inger began the next leg of their journey.

“So how far are we going today?”

“Hopefully we’ll reach the crossroads in a few hours. Once we hit the Great Road, it’s a straight shot up through Norlund and the Antlerwood into Midrothel. From there we’ll follow the road into Sleipnord.”

“Sounds simple enough,” said Rye. “Uh, are we going to eat breakfast?”

“I already ate,” said Inger dryly. “Have an apple.” He tossed one from his saddlebag to the pegacorn.

Rye caught it in his mouth, taking a bite. “Mm, that’s good. Where’s it from?”

“Westermin. Got them on sale from the market, day before last.”

“Ah, of course. It’s been a while since I’ve had fruit from Sweet Apple Acres.” They were quiet for a while as Rye digested his apple. To his relief, the pace today was much easier. Inger seemed to feel they were back on schedule. They cantered along, the morning dew glistening around them.

“So, Inger,” said Rye. “How long have you served under Princess Celestia?”

“In the Firewings?”

“No, in person. I gathered you were her assistant, or something.”

“Not exactly,” said Inger. He looked thoughtful. “You may know that the Firewings serve a dual function as Celestia’s guard and personal strike force.”

Rye fought back a giggle. I know a lot more about the Firewings than you think, Inger. “Yes?”

“Lately we’ve been mostly serving in our role as guards. I doubt Celestia really needs us, to be honest. The last assassination attempt on the Princess was over forty years ago.”

“Really?” Rye was intrigued despite himself. “I’ve never heard of that.”

You wouldn’t have,” said Inger. “A group of insane unicorns tried to overthrow the Princess and bring back Nightmare Moon. It was an idiotic plan, anyway; they had some notion that Celestia was the only thing preventing Nightmare’s return, and that killing her would bring back the dark queen.”

“Er... is that true?”

“What, the Princess holding back Nightmare Moon? I doubt it. She’s never really talked about it., though. She doesn’t discuss her sister much.”

“You seem very close to the Princess.”

“Just so. Celestia doesn’t want guards, she wants friends. She doesn’t need our protection, that’s for sure. That group of cultists? They tried to attack her during the Summer Sun celebration, and she completely wiped them out with her magic. Alone. It was pretty spectacular, I hear. But her guards are around her more than anypony else. No one else ever gets close enough to her to really know the pony, instead of the Princess.”

Rye sucked his lip. “It sounds terribly lonely.”

Inger nodded, sadly. “It is. She never talks about Luna, but if you’re near her often enough you can tell. It’s tearing her up inside.”

“Luna? She mentioned the name earlier, I’ve never heard it before.”

“The Princess’s sister.”

Rye’s mouth formed a little o of realization. “Nightmare Moon. I never knew that was her name.”

“Most don’t, anymore. It’s been three hundred years since she fell, and ever since she’s been shrouded in mystery and myth. Almost nopony remembers a little night-blue alicorn who raised the moon.”

Rye twitched self-consciously at the mention of alicorns. No, it wasn’t an insult. Don’t be so touchy, boy. “And how do you?” Inger couldn’t be more than eight. He wasn’t that old.

“Well,” said Inger. “I never knew her personally, but I’ve seen the paintings around the castle. Great tapestries depicting the two sisters ruling in harmony. They’re heartbreakingly beautiful. They’re like windows into the past.”

Rye raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t expect poetry from you, Inger.”

Inger smiled, an expression that seemed alien on his face. “Everypony has hidden depths. You just have to dig deep enough.” He turned thoughtful again. “I wonder what yours are, pegacorn.”

Rye wished he’d stop calling him that. But he seemed to genuinely think Rye might not be totally useless. Perhaps they were warming up to each other after all.

“Come on, we have to pick up the pace if we’re going to get to the crossroads by lunch. Can you gallop any faster than you did yesterday?”

Or maybe not. Still, it was a start.

* * *

The sun had risen above their heads high into the sky by the time they reached the crossroads. The Great Road stretched out to the north and west, promising adventure and discovery in all directions. It was a mark of the road’s importance that it was paved with flat, smooth stones, unlike the majority of Equestria’s simple dirt trails. The road cut all the way from the northern pass of Midrothel to the far south, over the Grumar River and past the fortress of Sel-Paloth, cutting deep into the kingdom of Grypha. It was the main artery of Equestrian trade, providing a fast and straight path to every major city and province east of Lake Alazure.

Rye had seen the road once before, when he was still a tiny foal. His parents had taken him on a trip to the market in Caladen on the lakeshore. He’d used to sit on his mother’s back while she flew up above the waves, watching the water reach out to the horizon. The road was visible even from the air, extending far beyond sight. His mother had told him stories about what lay down it, of far-off cities and wonders she’d seen while traveling with the Firewings. He smiled at the memory.

“I think it’s time to stop for lunch.” Inger stopped and stretched his neck. They walked off the side of the road, looking for something to snack on. Rye found a patch of dull red roses hidden behind a bush, and called Inger over. They each happily picked one to chew.

“So, Inger,” said Rye, in between mouthfuls. “What stories do you have from your time in the Princess’s service?” He was curious about his companion. If they were going to do this job, they needed to trust each other. He had to get the pegasus to break the disapproving silence between them.

Inger munched thoughtfully on a rose. “Hmm. I’ve seen a lot of action fighting monsters to keep the roads clear. We patrol the road from Norharren to Everfree periodically to make sure the trolls don’t endanger travelers.” His eyes glinted. “Ah, yes, of course. Trottingham.”

Rye’s ears perked up. “Trottingham? My father’s from there originally.”

“Really? He might know about this story, then. Has he ever told you about the big battle that happened there seven years ago?”

“No. That was before I was born, I’m not sure he still lived there.” Actually, come to think of it, his father had never said much about Trottingham beyond running his first bakery there. Rye’s curiosity was piqued. “So what happened?”

Inger sat back, his eyes glazing over in memory. “It had been a quiet year. My first in the Firewings, in fact. The roads were clear and monster attacks in the east had been at record lows for months. Celestia sent us out to do our annual patrol of all the provinces. Marshal Blaise—Goddess rest his soul—decided that we could cover more ground if we split up the units into several groups. Most of the ‘Wings went south towards Westermin to clean up the edge of the Everfree, but I was assigned to scout the lake’s eastern side. We flew from Norharren all the way south to Trottingham over a week, checking every goblin hole and wolf den. All seemed peaceful.”

“We?”

“Yes, myself and two others: Bergeron, our newest recruit at the time, and Guard-Captain Windstreak Firemane.”

Rye choked back his surprise. “Windstreak Firemane?”

Inger grinned. “You’ve heard of her? That’s not her name anymore, she’s married now. I’m afraid I can never remember her new one—to me, she’ll always be just the Captain.” He sighed wistfully. “Ah, Captain Windstreak is the finest soldier I’ve ever seen. And it’s thanks to her I’m still alive.” He grabbed another rose, speaking in between bites. “Well, we didn’t run into any trouble for nearly seven days. We arrived in Trottingham on the last day of summer. It had been a hot season that year; there was a massive cloud shortage in Cloudsdale thanks to an accident in the foundry. We flew into the town around dusk, sweating our wings off. The townsponies offered us rooming for the night, which we accepted.

“A good thing, too, because we wouldn’t be doing much sleeping for the next few days. When we woke the next morning, the Captain ordered me to do a quick flight over the foothills to the east of Trottingham. I did my sweep and didn’t see anything too suspicious, but something odd caught my eye in the mountains. There was a great plume of black smoke rising up from the mountainside, so I flew up to investigate. Forest fires are a real threat up there, you know. Entire towns have burned to the ground due to a rogue blaze.

“I landed in the pine forest at the base of the cliffs, and sneaked as close to the campfire as I could—for it was a campfire, as I discovered—and got a good look at what was going on.

“The trolls had a new chieftain, it turned out. Normally they rove around in small bands, harassing anypony unfortunate enough to run into them. But this new leader, Big-Tooth was his name, had done the impossible and gotten them organized. I had stumbled onto a massive camp of nearly forty trolls, armed to the teeth and ready for war. Great ugly things, trolls. About three times the height of a pony, with huge clawed hands and skin as hard as rock. They were dancing around the fires and singing war-songs, chanting and drumming and waving their crude clubs around. I knew I had to get back to Trottingham to warn the Captain and the townsponies, but I made a mistake. I stayed at the camp late into the evening, as long as I dared, to gather information on the trolls’ numbers and strength.

“I slipped up and got caught. One of the trolls noticed the fire reflecting off my armor in the dark. They jumped me from behind and tied me up. They trussed me like a turkey and dragged me into the middle of the camp. Big-Tooth said that they’d be ‘eatin’ good’ that night, and ordered a pot prepared. They filled it with water and placed it over the fire, intending to boil me alive and then devour me. I struggled as hard as I could, but trolls are excellent at tying knots. They like to keep their prey alive as long as possible, y’see.”

“What happened then?” Rye was quite entranced by this point, hanging on Inger’s every word.

“Well, the minutes passed like hours. They stuck a pole between my legs and hung me over the pot like a roasted boar. Didn’t even bother to take off my armor. I gave up all hope of warning the Captain and the others, hating myself for not getting away while I could. All I could do was hope that I’d at least make one of them choke on the way down.

“Just then, I heard a rumble of thunder. The trolls were confused—there hadn’t been any rain for weeks, thanks to the cloud shortage. But somehow, there it was, a great black cloud hovering over the campsite. Inside, white flashes appeared. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but my heart leaped. A great lightning bolt streaked out of the sky and hit a troll right in the heart. The others scattered in panic. A gold and blue blur raced down from the cloud and landed next to me.

“It was Captain Windstreak. After I’d failed to report back from my patrol, she and Bergeron had flown out to look for me. They’d seen the smoke and investigated, just like I had. When they saw I’d been caught, Windstreak came up with a plan. Together, they flew up and down the mountain all day gathering mist to create the cloud. By the time they had enough to create a stormcloud, Windstreak had kicked up a lightning storm to cover our escape. She cut me loose while Bergeron kept directing lightning down at the camp. The three of us flew off back to Trottingham as fast as we could.

“I knew it wasn’t over. The troll that had been hit with lightning was Big-Tooth’s favorite crony, the one who’d caught me in the first place. The troll chieftain wasn’t going to let that go unpunished, and they knew we had fled in the direction of Trottingham. The three of us needed to prepare the town for the inevitable attack. The Captain ordered Bergeron to take the news to Cloudsdale across the lake—he argued, of course, but we needed the rest of the Firewings if we were to stand a chance. He took off for the west as fast as his wings could carry him.

“It was down to the Captain and I to defend the town. We spent the day overseeing the construction of barricades and other preparations. The town was practically indefensible; it had no walls and lay surrounded by hills on three sides, but we didn’t have the time to evacuate the villagers. There were too many young and elderly to move before the attack. We had no choice but to stand and fight.

“We laid out oil in the grass, and dug shallow pits to fill with wooden spears. We drilled the villagers on basic spear-handling, but it wasn’t going to be nearly enough to fend off the trolls. There were a few unicorns in the village, but none of them knew any battlemagic. It looked bad. The Captain had plans, however. We worked through the night, preparing the town as best we could. Neither the Captain or I got any sleep.

“The attack came early the next day. The trolls appeared on the hills above the town, completely surrounding us from three sides. Nearly forty of the beasts, all screaming and hollering for blood. The Trottingham ponies were terrified, but the Captain gave us all courage. ‘Stand at your posts,’ she ordered. ‘Stand firm, and no foe will breach this city.’

“Big-Tooth himself led the charge. The trolls all ran down the hills en masse, ready to smash us all into oblivion.  But the Captain was prepared. The town’s unicorns may not have been battlemages, but they could work simple fire spells. They lit the oil in the fields ablaze, sending up a wall of flame right in the path of the trolls.

“Trolls hate fire. They use it to cook, and keep warm, but wild and untamed fire causes them to panic. Their lines faltered and crashed into each other. Several of the trolls were pushed by their fellows down the hill, rolling through the fire. The screaming was horrible. Daunted by the flames, the trolls pulled back. We’d bought a brief reprieve. The magical fire burned more slowly than a natural flame, but it would last only a day at the most.

“The night passed slowly. Windstreak and I remained awake, keeping an eye on the dying fires. By dawn of the next day, they had faltered to a bare flicker. The trolls returned with the morning sun. They moved more slowly this time, attacking with measured caution. The force descended from the hills, emboldened by the death of the fires. They crashed into the spike pits. A bunch of them fell onto the stakes, and others were trampled in the rush.

“Despite their losses, the trolls overwhelmed the defenders. Several ponies were crushed by their clubs, and we slowly found ourselves pushed back into the town. The Captain and I flew to and fro around the battle, doing our best to help the beleaguered defenders. We fought as hard as we could, smashing our hooves into the trolls’ heads to try to break their necks, but trolls are tough beasts. The untrained villagers were no match for the blood-hungry creatures, and soon we were forced to retreat deeper into the village.

“Captain Windstreak ordered us into the last defensive position we had. The town bakery was the only building in the village that was made of stone, and that made it a perfect place to make our last stand. The remaining ponies fled inside the building, and Windstreak and I remained outside to buy as much time as we could. We fought for hours, killing maybe two dozen of them, but in the end, there were just too many—we too were forced inside the bakery. We barred the doors and piled as much furniture against them as we could to reinforce the entrance.

“The situation was grim. We and the remaining townsponies were locked inside, surrounded by trolls. They beat on the door, trying to force it open. Foals huddled next to their mothers, crying quietly. The door was well-built, and it took the trolls many hours to make a dent in its sturdy frame. The banging of clubs was incessant. The day passed into night. The baker, a unicorn, opened his stocks to us all before the end, trying to calm the children with cupcakes and treats. The gesture quieted the foals, at least, and I could tell the Captain was grateful. They talked for a long time together while the trolls tried to breach the doors.

“That was the third night we spent without sleep. We were too frightened to feel tired, as the trolls continued to bang on the bakery door, rattling the hinges. The door was beginning to show signs of strain, and splinters of wood flew off with every impact. The end was near. The Captain ordered the remaining townsponies back into the pantry. Together with those still armed with spears, she and I would hold a final stand as long as we could. The doors shuddered and bent, the bar cracking and the hinges knocking loose.

“The doors broke in half, collapsing into a cloud of dust and wood shards. The trolls stormed into the bakery,  ready to kill us all. But then we heard shouting from outside, in a familiar voice. ‘For Equestria!’ came the cry, and I recognized the sound of Bergeron’s voice. After two days of hard flying, he had reached Cloudsdale and returned with the rest of the Firewings and a troop of the Weatherforge armed ponies, nearly a hundred strong. The battle was brutal and swift, and the trolls were crushed under their hooves. The town threw a huge celebration, and the Captain and I were hailed as heroes.”

Inger’s eyes were misted over with fond memories. “We managed to save nearly the entire town. A few brave ponies lost their lives defending  it, but Trottingham was safe once more, and the troll presence in the east was broken for good. They haven’t appeared in force ever since that day.”

Rye was sitting with his jaw slightly open, completely absorbed in the story. “Wow. My mother never told me about any of this. That’s incredible.”

“Your mother?”

Rye caught himself, too late. “Uh, yeah, she’s… in the military. She’s in love with the Firewings, tells me all about them.” All technically true...

“I see. Though Bergeron may have saved us all, Captain Windstreak is the true hero of Trottingham. Without her, we’d all be dead.”

“She sounds amazing.” This game was mildly amusing, but Rye wasn't hiding his parentage just to entertain himself. He wanted ponies to judge him based solely on his own actions, without comparing him to his famous parent. Inger made for a perfect test case.

Inger picked another rose for the road, and stood up. “Well, we’ve wasted enough time telling stories. It’s time we got back on the move. Come on, pegacorn.” He turned and began trotting back to the road. Rye followed, still lost in thought.

So his parents had met in the middle of a warzone—for he had no doubt that the baker from Inger’s story was his father Apricot. Why’d they never tell me about this? Inger said that several townsponies had died in the fighting. They must have been friends with his father. The memories would be painful. Still, Rye smiled to himself. The Guard-Captain and the baker; an unlikely pairing if ever there was one. Mom, Dad, I hope you’re not too worried about me.


Chapter Eight

 

Celestia’s inexhaustible patience had finally been exhausted. The council, despite being given a day to work itself out, was still unable to come to any sort of agreement regarding the griffons. Tensions had been rising rapidly, as Celerity and Blueblood’s positions had finally become ingrained in stone. The only question now was who more provinces would side with.

For the thousandth time, she considered simply overriding Blueblood’s complaints and devoting all her backing to Celerity. But every time the thought crossed her mind, she mentally stepped back and forced herself to look at the larger picture. She had to keep Emmet happy, as much as it pained her to see Celerity’s disappointed frowns. It was her duty as Princess of Equestria to keep the nation unified against the threat of Gryphan aggression.

The councilors had begun raising their voices. The council session was rapidly turning into a shouting match.

“Helmfast, you idiot, we can’t do nothing and hope the griffons just go away.”

“I see no reason to antagonize them with an army, Lord Weatherforge.”

“I can think of thirty thousand reasons.”

Celestia massaged her aching temples with a hoof. “Councilors, do I need to call in more guards?”

Today, the throne was guarded on both sides by a pair of Firewings. She had hoped—clearly mistakenly—that the presence of the golden-armored pegasi would prove a calming, or at least restraining influence on the councilors. To her left stood Lieutenant Bergeron, quiet and sturdy-looking as always. On her right, Captain Windstreak was looking as bored as she felt.

Celestia felt a pang of guilt. She had still not told the Captain what her son was doing, and she was sure that Windstreak was worried sick beneath her calm and confidant façade. Celestia decided that she would tell the poor mare immediately after this meeting, regardless of the outcome.

“Nothing you say will change my mind, Duchess.” Emmet scowled.

Celerity put a hoof on the table and pointed dramatically. “Either we join our forces to fight the griffons, or we may as well put on shackles and give ourselves up to them right now. Make no mistake, those are our choices.”

“I still say we try for peace,” said Lord Greenway. “Griffons are not dumb brutes; they can be reasoned with. We should choose an ambassador.”

“Why don’t we send you?” asked the Count of Westermin venomously. “At least then we’d be rid of your simpering.”

The councilponies burst, screaming and hurling insults. Celestia resisted the urge to bury her head in her hooves. Why did they have to make this so difficult? She just wanted to help them help themselves. But Emmet and his supporters were blocking every effort of Celerity and the Princess to make them see reason.

He was not a bad pony at heart, she knew. Emmet might be prideful, brash, and overly concerned with money, but he truly did have Norhart’s best interests in mind. His greatest goal was to bring his Duchy back into another golden age like the one it had enjoyed under his grandfather’s governance. She almost pitied him for having to assume the burden of a ruined economy that his father had left him.

But his stubbornness was beginning to become a liability. In another twenty years he would be dead or retired, and his son would take his place on the council, but until then she would have to deal with him and his lack of pliability.

“I’ve had enough of this, Emmet!” Celerity was screaming to be heard over the din. “You would rather see the south burn than lift a hoof to help the nation you claim to serve.”

“And you would see yourself on the throne, Belle!”

Celestia stood and flared her wings. Her horn blazed with magical light. “That. Is. Enough.”

The councilponies shrank into their cushions. She glared around at them all. “You are Equestria’s nobility. We expect you to act as such.”

The Duchess winced. She’d caught that royal we, and Celerity of all the councilponies would realize how close that meant the Princess was to losing her temper.

Celestia raised her head and gave another disapproving look around at all of them. “This constant fighting must end if we are to survive the coming storm. I will give you all one day. I can delay no longer. We will hold a vote: to gather together and prepare for war, or not. But know this: if we do not muster our forces, the griffons will sweep north and break us like twigs.” She stared at Blueblood. “Think long and hard before you vote. You have until noon tomorrow.

“This council is dismissed. Get out.”

The councilponies practically fled the chamber, cowed by the Princess’s rage. As the last of their tails disappeared from the door frame, Celestia sank into her throne as if deflating. Instantly, Bergeron was at her side with a cup of tea. She accepted it gratefully.

“Thank you.” She drank slowly.

“Milady…” Bergeron looked worried. “What are you going to do if Emmet and his followers vote against marshaling the armies?”

“I don’t know,” she said blankly. She couldn’t think of anything else to say. She took another sip of tea instead.

Captain Windstreak took her place next to Bergeron. “Is there anything we can do? All of the Firewings are ready to help however we can, Your Majesty.”

“As you always are.” Celestia smiled. “I have a plan in motion already to bring aid to fight the griffons, but it will likely be at least a few weeks before it comes to fruition.” She drank deeply.

“And that plan is?”

“I have sent messengers to the Thanes of Sleipnord. They carry copies of the ancient treaties compelling the Nordponies to help us.”

Windstreak gave a low whistle. “A couple thousand Nordpony warriors could do a great deal against the griffons. But your messenger had better have a silver tongue. Who’d you send?”

Celestia looked glumly at her empty teacup. It had drained far too soon. “I sent two ponies. One of them is Inger.”

Windstreak jolted in surprise, then nodded. “Logical choice. He’s a good pony. Who else?”

“Bergeron, could you get me another cup of tea?”

“Right away, milady.” The Firewing took the teacup and left the room. Celestia sighed.

“Who… who did you send, Your Majesty?”

This was going to be difficult. “Perhaps you’d better sit down.”

* * *

“The Princess has set down an ultimatum. I’m not sure it will be enough.” Celerity’s horn glowed as she paced about her quarters. Her tiara flew from her head and bounced off the wall.

Weatherly caught the headpiece gingerly, laying it neatly on the dresser. “Milady, the Princess will make the right decision in the end.”

“You have more faith than I, Weatherly. Blueblood’s influence is strong. If even one councilor votes against war—just one!—then Celestia will not help us.”

“Whose votes are you certain of?”

“Westermin, Weatherforge, Breton, and Rivermeet will all vote with me. But Blueblood and his lot will certainly reject the motion. There’s no chance of this vote passing, Weatherly.”

“So…” Her aide looked lost. “What will we do against the griffons?”

She heaved a sigh filled with regret. “We’ll do whatever is necessary to protect the citizens of Whitetail against Grypha, Princess or no.”

She looked up at the Belle sigil, her eyes as hard as the diamonds on the tapestry. “My bloodline can be traced back to Lady Platinum herself. My family has held this land for over sixty generations. I will not be remembered as the Belle who let Whitetail fall to those mongrels from the south.”

Celerity bowed her head, closing her eyes. “I just pray that the price is not too high.” She looked up. “Weatherly, prepare a message.”

She waited patiently as he dug around in her desk for a quill and ink. He laid out a sheaf of parchment on the writing table, holding the quill ready. He nodded to her to begin. She cleared her throat.

“To Baron Burnside Aubren, General of the army of Whitetail, Lord of Copperton, etcetera, etctera; fill in the titles.” She waited for the scratching of the quill to cease before continuing. “You are hereby ordered to put your troops at full readiness. You are to send twenty five hundred fighting ponies with as many mages as you can spare to march south. I want them at the bridge of Trellow by Tuesday next week. From there, I will personally assume command of the army and lead them on to Sel-Paloth. We’ll reinforce the garrison while we wait for Weatherforge and Westermin’s troops to arrive.”

Weatherly paused and looked up. He dropped the quill onto the table to free his mouth. “Weatherforge and Westermin? I thought you said the vote wasn’t going to pass.”

“Write the letter, Weatherly.” The scratching of the quill resumed. “You yourself, Baron, will be leading fifteen hundred ponies in the other direction. I want you on the border of Easthill by Monday.”

Her aide gave her a confused look. “Why Easthill?”

“I want those iron mines. This war is going to strain our already fragile economy to its breaking point. We won’t be able to afford to buy steel from Easthill. And since he refuses to join us against the Princess’s will…”

Weatherly looked horrified. “But… milady,” he choked, “That… that would be treason.”

“Is it treason, to ensure my people’s safety?” Celerity’s voice was icy and distant. She stared intently at the diamond crest. “Write it down.” The quill scratched.

“Send another message to me once you have completed your assignment. Once Easthill is secure, we can discuss our next moves against the north.”

“Milady… the griffons are coming from the south.”

“Write it down.”

“Lady Belle—“

“Write it down.” The quill scratched.

“I look forward to your report. Sign it Celerity Augustine Belle, Duchess of Whitetail, Lady of the Whitetail Forest, and all the rest of the titles. Then send it out immediately. Don’t use a royal courier; give it to one of ours.”

“My lady…” Weatherly sounded desperate. “Please. Is there no other way?”

“Unless Blueblood has a change of heart… no.”

“But think about what you’re doing. Think of what this will do to the Princess.”

“It’s going to break her heart,” said Celerity sadly. “But the alternative is watching the ponies under my care be slaughtered by the griffons. And that is no alternative at all.”

As Weatherly sealed the message and carried it out of the room, she placed a hoof up on the sigil tapestry. Celerity looked up at it, feeling the weight of countless generations of Belles all looking down at her. “I’m sorry, Celestia.” She looked into the fire below. “But I do what I must.”


Chapter Nine

“Two ‘o clock of the morning watch, all’s well,” said the guard to Plumline. She nodded to her fellow guardpony and took his place at the wall.

“You’re relieved, Sergeant.” The Sergeant nodded gratefully, and trotted briskly off along the wall. Plumline took a deep breath of the fresh morning air, looking out over the plains surrounding the fort.

The fortress of Sel-Paloth was quiet this morning, as it usually was. Most of the two hundred ponies stationed here were still asleep at this hour, and Plumline enjoyed the solitude. It gave her time to think about her husband, back up north in Whitewall. She was still assigned here for another two months, but she couldn’t wait to see him again once her tour was up. They would walk together by the Pale Lake, and watch the sun set over the mountains as the birds sang in the trees of Whitetail, like they had as foals.

If she listened closely enough, she fancied she could hear the wind rustling over the scrubland in the early morning dark. It was a soothing sound, a faint whisper that spoke to the stark, plain beauty of Southlund. She looked south over the expanse of dirt and sand. It was still too dark to make out the great dunes of the Saladi in the distance, but Plumline could feel their presence. Everypony in Sel-Paloth knew that it was only a matter of time before the griffons came out of that desert, but they had been stationed here for months without any reinforcements from the north. Captain Dartmouth had been requesting more troops for a long time, but Canterlot had sent none.

Plumline shuffled to keep the blood flowing through her legs. If you didn’t stay moving, you could get incredibly stiff on the wall. The fortress was drafty and uncomfortable, and an extremely unpleasant place to sleep; but it was impregnable, a bastion of defense that no siege had ever broken. Even with so few ponies, Plumline was confident they could repel any of the small griffon raiding parties that occasionally dared to venture north. Groups of twenty or thirty of them frequently stole north into the southlands to carry off food, supplies, and the occasional unlucky prisoner, but ever since Duchess Belle had re-garrisoned the fortress, the raids had been stymied by the soldiers under Captain Dartmouth. Plumline herself was going on patrol the next day, an exciting reprieve from walking the walls at night.

The hours ticked by. Plumline yawned and blinked, trying to stay alert. Boring guard duty was the best kind of guard duty, she reminded herself. She shook her head to clear it, accidentally loosening her helmet. It tumbled off her head, clanging onto the stone of the wall’s edge and over into the air. Plumline leaned out over the edge of the wall, desperately trying to catch it, but the helmet was gone. She sighed in frustration. Dartmouth was going to give her an earful for this one. Maybe she could sneak down and retrieve the helmet after her watch, and get the chinstrap replaced by the quartermaster before the Captain found out...

Something caught her eye. On the wall, moving up along the side like some kind of spider, was a great black shape. She leaned further out, trying to get a good look at it. “What the…”

A sharp whistling caught her ear. “Huh?” A glint of metal came shooting from below, narrowly missing Plumline’s head. It shot over the wall, and with a clang the metal thing became a three-pronged hook. It latched onto the wall, anchoring itself. Plumline stepped back in surprise, then horror, as she realized what it was. A grappling hook.

She looked over the wall again, and now she realized that the walls were swarming with black shapes. Plumline pulled back and yelled at the top of her lungs.

“We’re under attack!” 

Beneath her, the black things abandoned stealth, leaping off the wall and spreading their great feathered wings. The griffon assassins swooped up and over the lip of the wall, catching the watchponies off-guard. The griffons wore battleclaws, sharpened blades made to fit over their natural talons; they were wickedly sharp, capable of slicing an unarmored pony in half, and the griffons were swift and efficient. The sounds of metal clashing rang out around the wall. What few guards remained on the wall were quickly being overwhelmed.

Plumline turned and raced for the alarm, one of four great bells that stood on the corners of the fortress, ready to wake the full contingent of the fortress in case of an emergency. Ahead of her, Plumline saw griffons vaulting the wall, slaughtering the guards and gliding down into the fortress.

She raced past another guard, who yelled “Go, Plum! Sound the alarm! We’ll hold them off!” He was locked in combat with a griffon, dressed in a dark blue cloak the same shade as the night sky. He smashed his hooves into the griffon, sending it flying backwards off the wall. It turned midair and flapped its wings, coming back at the guard and slashing at him with its claws. Plumline kept running, trying not to hear the squelch of metal on flesh. She reached the great bell, grabbed the pull rope in her mouth, and rang it as hard as she could.

DONG…. DONG… DONG…

Beneath the walls, inside the fortress, the guards woke to find themselves already under attack. The griffon commando force had slipped into the buildings, killing as many guards in their sleep as they could. The ponies retaliated, but caught without their armor or weapons there was little they could do. Pegasi clashed in the air with griffons, smashing into each other like aerial battering rams. Unicorn battlemages flung spells at their foes, lighting the dark with fireballs and lightning. The entire fortress exploded with light and fire, the chaos of battle quickly shrouding everything inside.

DONG… DONG…

Plumline pulled the bell frantically with all her strength. Behind her, she could hear more griffons landing with metallic clanks on the wall.

DONG…

She felt him before she saw him. A griffon grabbed her with his claw, taking hold of her armor. The earth pony bent her head and bucked her hind legs, sending him flying. She whirled around, galloping toward the griffon with the intent to trample it. The griffon rolled away, taking off in flight. Still distracted by Plumline’s charge, he failed to see a pegasus streaking toward him. The pegasus smashed the griffon down into the wall with a sickening crunch, and Plumline raised her hoof-mace and brought it down onto the creature’s head.

The pegasus landed in front of her. “The fortress is lost. We can’t fight them off, there are too many.”

“Where’s Captain Dartmouth?”

“Down in the courtyard. Get down there and help him out. I’ll cover you from the air.”

Plumline raced down the stairs, hearing the sounds of battle all around; the clash of metal, the screams of dying ponies and griffons, and the occasional snap-hiss of a spell firing through the air. She reached the courtyard to find a scene of utter chaos. Bodies were everywhere, both pony and griffon, and the cobblestones were slicked with blood.

The ponies had formed a line against the griffons, the earth ponies providing the unicorns with a wall of shields mounted on their sides while the unicorns worked their magic. The griffons swarmed around them, diving like eagles on the hunt, slashing with their blades and beaks.

She ran straight for the center of the line. The shield wall opened, and Plumline found herself inside the ponies’ ranks. “Dartmouth! Captain Dartmouth!”

“Here, Sergeant!” She found him in the thick of it, yelling orders to the unicorns. “On the left! Don’t let them get through! Hold the line, ponies!”

Plumline skidded to a halt before him. “Sir, they’re everywhere. The wall is lost. What are your orders?”

The Captain looked grim. “We can’t hold off a force this size. Perhaps if they hadn’t caught us by surprise-” A griffon streaked down toward them, claws extended. One of the unicorns caught it with a spell, sending the griffon crashing into the ground. “Our top priority now is to get the news to the Princess. She and the Duchess need to know what’s happened.” They both ducked as one of the mages missed with a fireball spell, blasting a chunk of the wall apart and raining mortar down on the ponies’ heads. “Plumline, you’re my fastest runner. We’ll keep the griffons busy as long as we can. You have to get to Whitewall and tell them what’s happened.”

“Not a chance, sir. I’m not leaving.”

“Plumline, don’t be an idiot. We can’t use you here anyway. Warn Whitewall! Get that message out! Go!”

Another griffon swooped down into the middle of the line, breaking through the barrage of spellfire. It clashed with Dartmouth, slashing at him. The two grappled, as Plumline rushed to help. Dartmouth rolled over, trying to keep the griffon’s claws away from his eyes. He looked over at Plumline and shouted “GO!”

She turned and ran, as fast as she could. She ran through the portcullis, through the gate, and out onto the north road. She ran and ran and ran. The sounds of battle faded behind her, but she could still hear the screaming in her head.

Plumline didn’t stop to look back until she was far away. The fortress was a small dot on the horizon. The sun was rising to the east, revealing a tower of smoke from the direction of Sel-Paloth. Plumline, her face streaked with tears, whispered “Goodbye...”

Whitewall City was a two day journey on hoof. She had no food or water, but it didn’t matter. The news must be delivered. The Princess had to be told. She couldn’t let them down.

* * *

The fighting lasted for hours. The ponies managed to fend off the griffons again and again, holding the line against them throughout the morning. But by noon, the unicorns were rapidly becoming exhausted. The pegasi numbers fell as more griffons took the skies, forcing them back to the ground. The griffons corraled the ponies into the center of the courtyard, where they were surrounded on all sides.

Captain Dartmouth maintained the shield line, a circle of impassable wood and metal. But the griffons had gained control of the gatehouse. The great fortress doors rolled open, and the griffons’ ground troops poured inside. The infantry were heavily armored, grasping great spears and sharpened blades in their claws. Many had bucklers attached to their forearms, further shielding them from attack. Though too weighted down to fly, the infantry-griffons were even more deadly than their aerial counterparts. They crashed onto the phalanx of ponies like a wave, breaking on their shields and spears.

The weary ponies soon began to falter. The griffons broke the line, cutting through to the unicorns and slaughtering many of the defenders. The end came when Dartmouth himself was slain by an armored griffon, caught from behind while trying to shield a unicorn. When he fell, the ponies knew the battle was over. They let their weapons fall, dropping to their knees in surrender.

The leader of the invading force sat atop the wall, gazing over the remaining ponies. He was a huge griffon, nearly three meters tall even when he stood only on four legs. His wings spanned an impressive ten feet, and his beak and claws were razor-sharp. His eyes were cold and calculating, analyzing the fortress and the result of the battle.

His chief Lieutenant-Colonel landed lightly by his side, perching on the crenellations. “General Shrikefeather. The fortress is ours.”

The General smiled, his beak twisting. He reached his claws up and removed his helmet. “Excellent work. How badly was the fortress damaged?”

“We captured it largely intact. The gatehouse is fully functional, but the unicorns did some damage to the inner walls.”

The General waved this news away. “Cosmetics don’t concern me. As long as the walls are stable. What were our losses?” He brushed a stray feather out of his eyes.

“We haven’t run a full count, yet, but estimates are around forty to fifty, primarily fliers. One of the guards ruined our sneak attack by raising the alarm. Captain Withers was not pleased. I gather it’s a point of pride for him that his commandos have not failed an infiltration in a decade.”

“Withers’ ego is not a casualty that concerns me.”

“Besides the dead, we have perhaps seventy incapacitated, and another hundred or so with minor injuries.”

“Still well within acceptable limits. Very well, Lieutenant-Colonel. Send a messenger to inform the main force that the way into Equestria is open. We’ll begin moving our army north immediately.”

“Yes, General.” The lieutenant paused. “What should we do with the prisoners?”

Shrikefeather snorted. “What do you think?”

The lieutenant tilted his head. “Execute them?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped the General, giving him an annoyed look. “Horses are far too useful to waste. Send them to the taskmaster to be broken, and then put them to work. We’ll need all the laborers we can to shift the siege materiel up from Grypha.”

He stretched his wings. “This is the first of many victories to come. The Equestrians are weaker than we thought. Rejoice, Colonel, for today is the dawning of a new age. An age of wings and steel. The age of the griffon.” His eyes blazed.

As his subordinate flew off to carry out his orders, the General replaced his helmet. The campaign had begun. The invasion was under way.


Chapter Ten

 

Celestia hummed in delight. In the east, the sun had risen. She spun around on her circular platform, still basking in the afterglow of the magic. “Good morning, Equestria.”

She did another twirl, letting the rush of the new day fill her up. Every time she raised the sun, the troubles of the world seemed to melt away in its warm light. The sun didn’t care about politics, or war, or fear, or death. It was just there, the last great constant in her life. As the world around her withered and grew old, the sun would remain.

She closed her eyes again, trying to hold on to that feeling of ecstasy, of purpose. She giggled like a schoolfilly, feeling the sunlight tickle her face. She began hopping around on the platform, humming a little song to herself. It was incredibly un-princess-like, and she loved every minute of it.

But at last reality began to seep into her sanctuary. The last few sparks of the magic faded away as the sun rose higher above the horizon. The dismal prospect of the day soured her mood. It was time to put the council to the vote.

As she descended the tower steps, Celestia knew what the next hour would bring. It was what came after that she dreaded and feared. Should she follow Celerity to war, regardless of Blueblood’s actions? Or should she respect the free will of the council, even knowing it would bring about their destruction in the end?

She and Luna had discussed this many times. If the gods ruled mortals directly, the potential for abuse was nearly unlimited. Power corrupted, and the gods possessed immense power even without the political service of an entire nation. And when they went bad, they went very bad. Her sister was the prime example.

So could she, in good conscience, ignore the vote’s outcome? By pledging her support to Celerity’s efforts to hold back Grypha, she would be slapping Blueblood in the face. He would certainly pull Norhart out of the kingdom, then. Without his forces, Celestia doubted that even Celerity could defeat the griffons.

And paradoxically, doing her best to stop the southern invaders would mean overriding the wills of the ponies she professed to serve. If she did not heed the wishes of her subjects, she was little better than a tyrant.

Freedom, or safety? The choice was clear, but clarity did not make it any easier.

If only Dawn’s message had come sooner, then perhaps Rye and Inger could have brought aid in time to prevent the invasion at all, but it seemed unlikely to happen now. The only question was how much of Equestria would burn before the end.

She was still deeply conflicted by the time she reached the council chamber. She took her place on the throne, gazing around at the ponies already assembled in their seat cushions. The two major players had yet to arrive.

Celerity, her once-beloved student, or Blueblood, the brash and willfully defiant noblepony? Would she follow her mind, or her heart? They were both confusing mixtures of the two.

The Duchess entered at last, dressed not in her usual finery but in simple white robes. The Princess’s stomach sank. It was unlike Celerity to attend a council session without being dressed to the nines. There were several possible explanations for the wardrobe change, and none of them good. She might no longer care about impressing the nobles, having already made her choice; or worse, the Duchess was expecting a fight to break out, and intended to move freely.

The Duke entered, dressed even more surprisingly, in the full ceremonial armor of Norhart’s ruling house. Celestia’s eyes narrowed. If any spells flew in the council chamber today, she would end the fight. Swiftly. But Emmet took his place at the table without comment.

“Everypony is present, Your Majesty.” Bergeron bowed and stepped back to take his place at the side of the throne.

“Let this meeting of the Assembled Council of Equestria be opened,” said Celestia, dipping her head respectfully to the nobles.

“I think we can skip the opening ceremonies, Your Highness,” said Celerity. “We have wasted enough time this week. This issue needs to be resolved today.”

Celestia let the gaffe pass without comment. “Very well. Let us begin the vote.” She turned to Bergeron, who stepped forward to take the roll.

The Princess raised her voice. “The kingdom of Grypha prepares to invade. If they march northward unopposed, our lands will surely fall. But I cannot act without the unanimous support of this council. So I put the question to you: Should the Celestial Army march south to aid the forces of Whitetail against the griffon threat?”

Bergeron cleared his throat and began reading down the list. “Councilors, please state your vote, yea or neigh. Duchess Celerity Belle, of Whitetail.”

“Yea.”

“Lady Irvine, of Southlund.”

“Yea.”

“Lord Gerovic, of Breton.”

“Yea.”

“Viscount Mildemar, of the Delta.”

“Abstain.”

“Lord Three-river, of Rivermeet.”

“Yea.”

As the list moved on, Celerity hoped against hope that Emmet had miraculously seen reason during the night. Perhaps the vote would pass, and she could aid Celerity with a clean conscience.

“Lord Everfree, of the province of Everfree.”

“Abstain.”

“Lord Westermin, of the province of Westermin.”

“Yea.”

“Lord Weatherforge, of the province of Weatherforge.”

“Yea.”

“Lord Easthill, of the province of Easthill.”

“Abstain.” Celestia smiled. Lord Easthill was one of her most loyal council members. He would never vote unless she did first.

“Lord Dalamant, of the Lake Country.”

“I… abstain.” There was a murmur of surprise; most everypony had thought Dalamant to be solidly in Blueblood’s camp. Celestia felt a rush of hope.

“Lord Greenway, of the province of Greenway.”

Greenway squirmed, aware of the eyes of the council upon him. The Princess held her breath. “I too, abstain.” Celestia restrained herself from biting her lip. She leaned forward in the throne, her front hooves planted solidly on the table.

“Lady Viola, of Norlund.”

“I too, abstain.”

It was impossible. All of Blueblood’s supporters were abstaining or even voting for war. Celestia could hardly believe it.

“Lord Helmfast, of the province of Helmfast.”

She waited with growing excitement. The lord of Helmfast looked around the table, squinting. He shook his head. “Neigh.”

With a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach, Celestia sat back on the throne’s cushion. Her haunches pressed up against the metal. She kept her face a mask.

“Duke Emmet Blueblood, of Norhart.”

“Neigh.”

“Princess Celestia, of the Capital province.”

“I abstain,” she said with a dry mouth, as was the throne’s normal vote in matters such as these. She rarely cast her vote unless it would be the deciding factor, and thanks to Helmfast and Blueblood the point was moot.

Bergeron briefly tallied up the scores and read them off. It was an empty formality, but it gave Celestia a few moments to think. “Six votes in support of the motion, seven abstentions… and two against.” He looked up bleakly. “Motion has failed.”

All of the councilponies looked to their Princess. What she did next could determine the future of her nation, but it could also determine what kind of ruler she wished to be, the very core of her being.

She took a deep breath and looked at Celerity. Her old student’s eyes were pleading. Celestia opened her mouth hesitantly to speak. She closed her eyes, bracing herself.

“Motion has failed. The Celestial Army will not march.”

The chamber exploded. Every pony in the room was trying to talk at once, screaming to be heard above the noise. From the sides of her throne, the Firewings moved to stand between the Princess and the nobles. Celerity and Emmet had leapt onto the table, and were shouting into each other’s faces. The other nobles were hurling hooves and accusations at each other. It was complete chaos.

There was a loud banging on the chamber door. The sound of a hoof beating away at the wooden frame rose over the arguing councilponies. Slowly, the commotion died down. All eyes turned toward the door.

It pushed inward to admit a pegasus wearing the saddlebags of the royal courier service. He walked wordlessly into the chamber, approaching the table. Celestia watched with dread as he came closer, eventually reaching her throne. He reached into his bag, shakily, and pulled out a scroll. He handed her the message and fled the room.

She lifted the scroll in front of her face with magic and gave a deep, weary sigh. The seal was black.

The Princess broke the seal and unfurled the scroll. The council waited with bated breath as she scanned the report. At last, she folded the scroll and laid it down on the table. Quietly, she said, “Grypha has attacked the southlands. Sel-Paloth has fallen. As we speak, the griffons are pouring into Southlund.”

Lady Irvine blanched. “My people… when did this happen?”

“Three days ago.” Celestia wanted nothing more than to shove the letter into Blueblood’s mouth. That was where it belonged.

Celerity, her old, devoted student, stood. “Blueblood, your folly has doomed us all.” She turned to the Princess. “Will you fight with us, Celestia? My armies stand ready to face the griffon threat. We will do so, with or without your aid.”

The Princess looked beseechingly to the Duke of Norhart. “Emmet, please.”

“I would rather die than see her seize control of Equestria,” snarled Emmet.

Celerity gave him a withering glare. “You deluded imbecile.”

“Princess Celestia, Duchess Belle is proposing treason. Arrest this bitch before she stabs you in the back!”

The situation had spiraled out of control. The council divided visibly, the northern and southern delegates gathering around their leaders and screaming at the others.

“Weatherforge stands with Whitetail!”

“Helmfast remains loyal to Norhart!”

“Westermin will follow Whitetail!”

Celestia watched, trying to maintain her composure as her country ripped itself in half in a sickening mitosis. The factions withdrew from each other, shooting ugly stares at the opposite delegates. A few councilors sat in dismay, looking between the two groups.

“So, Celestia,” said Celerity. “What’s it going to be? Will you help the south, or let the griffons storm their way up the land until Blueblood realizes that he’s brought our ruin?”

Emmet shouted over her. "Princess, the north can only treat this treachery as it deserves. Celerity and those who side with her are enemies of Norhart and all Equestria!"

“Celerity…” The Princess’s heart was heavier than it had been in centuries. “I cannot condone any action that would split the country apart. Please, reconsider the path you walk.”

The Duchess just shook her head grimly. “If the south must stand alone, then so be it. Goodbye, Celestia.” She turned and swept her robes behind her, striding out of the council chamber.

“Celerity! Celerity! Come back!” Celestia rose to her hooves. “Celerity!”

But the Duchess was gone, along with her supporters. Blueblood made to follow her, giving the Princess a long look. “I know it may not mean much, Princess. But I am truly sorry it has come to this.” He shook his head slowly. “I must put to you the same question. Will you stand with me against Celerity’s tyranny?”

“No,” said the Princess, feeling hollow. “I will have no part in your civil war.” Her voice turned hard and brittle. “Just remember this, Emmet. All the blood that will be spilled these next few weeks belongs to you.”

The Duke flinched at that, turning aside. He struggled to reply, before giving up and leaving the chamber. The northern delegates followed him out.

Lord Sigmund Easthill approached the Princess, looking lost. “Your Majesty… what are we supposed to do?”

The Princess looked out of the great stained glass windows of the council chamber, watching the blood-red light play on the carpet. “Tell your ponies to prepare for war.”


Chapter Eleven

 

Rye swam lazily through the clouds. The sun was shining all around him, lighting up the top of the fluffy whiteness. He dived back down into the clouds, paddling forward. He poked his head out of the bottom, looking down at the distant ground.

He stretched his legs and cracked his neck. Taking a breath, he dove from the bottom of the cloud, soaring down. He spread his wings and flapped, swooping up and around the cloud. He grinned as the air rushed past his face. He swung around to the top, landing back on the puffy white cumulus.

“What a day,” he said to himself, enjoying the warmth from the sun high above.

“What a beautiful day,” he said to himself, enjoying the warmth from the sun high above.

“Strudel.” He looked to the side and to his surprise, found Inger.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, confused.

“Let’s get moving,” said Inger, looking impatient.

“Where are we going?” Rye felt lost. He was just up here enjoying his cloud. Why was Inger pestering him?

Inger walked up to him and started shaking his shoulder. Rye shoved away his leg, puzzled. “What are you doing?”

“Rise and shine, pegacorn.”

The clouds melted away as Rye woke to find Inger’s face about a foot away from his own. The Firewing was shaking him, looking quite annoyed. “Get up already. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today.”

Rye groaned and rolled over, away from the pegasus. “That was a perfectly good dream.”

“I’m sure. Do you want breakfast or not?”

Rye squinted up at the sky, trying to hold on to the feeling of soaring through the air. “What do we have?”

“Let’s see… apples, apples, oats, apples, or, if you want something different, apples.”

Rye made a face. “Forget it.” Instead, he rolled over and pulled out some grass with his teeth, munching on it.

They had been walking nearly a week. It had been five days since that fateful encounter in the forest, and Rye was starting to adjust to the difficulties of the journey. He felt energized by the vibrant grassland, the rolling hills and the open road. He had never spent such a long time out of the cramped, crowded city before, and he was beginning to enjoy himself.

Inger had wanted to be much farther along by this point, but Rye had finally put his hoof down in protest. He couldn’t spend day after day running at the breakneck pace the Firewing set; his legs were going to give out on him. So instead their journey had become a leisurely walk, taking in the scenery. Inger fumed, naturally, but despite his protests they were actually making pretty good time.

“How close are we to the Antlerwood?”

“At this speed?” Inger harrumphed.  “Likely a day’s journey.” He marched ahead stolidly, as Rye sighed.

Conversation with Inger had run dry since their last talk. Rye was reluctant to reveal any more about his family to Inger, and the pegasus wasn’t exactly forthcoming with details about his own life. He still seemed to resent having Rye along, the icy silence freezing any attempts to strike up a friendly chat.

As they trotted down the road, Rye looked wistfully up at the clouds. Flying in the dream had felt so fantastic… He spared a gloomy glance at his wings, remembering his ill-fated attempts to emulate his mother during his youth.

“Oh, Rye. How could you? You could have been killed!”

“Dad, I didn’t get hurt-”

“Your father and I expect better out of you, Rye.”

“I just wanted to-”

“If I ever catch you on the bakery roof again, I swear I’ll lock you in the house for a week. Don’t scare me like that.”

He banished the memory, instead turning his thoughts to the task that lay before them. The ponies of Sleipnord waited beyond the border. They were huge, warlike, descendants of the ponies who had refused to flee south from the never-ending winter… and that was the extent of his knowledge about them. He smiled ruefully. Despite Cranberry’s best efforts, Rye had never taken much of an interest in old civilizations. He’d preferred reading Equestrian history; especially if the Firewings were involved.

He glanced ahead at Inger. The pegasus hadn’t exactly been a sterling example of chivalry so far. Well, not everypony could be like the tales, he supposed. He of all ponies should realize that the Firewings were no different from regular ponies. His mother was a magnificent mare, but she was hardly infallible, though Inger seemed to think she was. Rye suppressed a smirk as he realized he knew Inger’s idol better than the pegasus ever would.

Nordponies. Right. So how was he supposed to convince these “Thanes” to help? And exactly what was a Thane, anyway? He thought it might be equivalent to an earl or a duke, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember. He was beginning to regret not paying closer attention to Cranberry that day in the marketplace.

Rye was so concentrated on the task ahead that he bumped straight into Inger. The pegasus was standing stock-still in the middle of the road, his wings spread and his head cocked back to listen. Rye looked around in confusion. “Inger? What’s wrong?”

“Shh.” The Firewing looked behind them, squinting. “Keep walking.” They set off side-by-side at a sedate pace.

“What’s going on?” whispered Rye out of the side of his mouth.

“We’re being followed,” said Inger. “I wasn’t certain at first. I decided to wait until we passed the crossroads to be sure. They’ve been on our tail ever since the second day. They’ve probably been after us since Canterlot.”

“Who is it?” asked Rye, looking back with a nervous expression.

“Don’t look back. Keep your eyes ahead.” Inger was scanning the road ahead. His eyes lit up as he spotted a large line of trees in the distance. “I’m not sure who they are. It’s not a griffon, I can tell you that much. None of them could have kept that pace for that long.”

I doubt any sane pony would, either, he thought. “Do you think it’s somepony serving Duchess Belle or Duke Blueblood?”

“It’s crossed my mind. We’ll know soon enough.” They were closing on the tree. “I’m going to set an ambush for them. You keep walking on ahead. If I yell ‘run’, then run.”

Rye’s stomach swam. “Got it.”

As they passed the trees, Inger flapped his wings mightily and swooped up into one. He nestled in the upper branches, blending into the red and gold autumn leaves. Rye continued on without a backwards look. He started walking as slowly as he could, not wanting to get too far away in case Inger needed his help.

He heard the growing sound of somepony humming in the distance behind him. What kind of spy sings ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’ while they stalk a target? He frowned in puzzlement, but didn’t dare turn around.

Suddenly there was the sound of a snapping tree branch and a loud shriek of surprise. Rye froze in disbelief. That couldn’t possibly be who he thought it was.

It was. As he whirled around and galloped back toward the line of trees, Rye saw the pegasus tangling on the ground with a very familiar pink mare. She screamed again as Rye ran up to the pair of them.

“Help! Help! Bandits! Help!”

Rye stood staring at Cranberry and Inger as they rolled around. Cranberry’s saddlebags had spilled open, throwing books and maps all over the road. There was a smack as one of Cranberry’s hooves connected with Inger’s face. The pegasus was stunned briefly, long enough for Rye to rush in and pull the two apart.

“Rye!” exclaimed Cranberry. “This guy just tried to kill me!” She sounded more excited than scared.

Rye dragged a leg across his face. “Cranberry, what are you doing here?”

“Hello to you too,” she said huffily. The pink pony stood up, brushing dust out of her mane with a hoof. She looked over at Inger, who was massaging a bloody nose and scowling. “Is this that guy you left Canterlot with?”

Rye gave a long, beseeching look to the heavens. “Cranberry,” he repeated. “What are you doing here?”

“Um, well,” she said, blushing. “Following you, actually.”

“And why are you following us?”

Cranberry looked at him pleadingly. “Rye, you said you were going to Sleipnord. This is the chance of a lifetime! I’ve always wanted to go there.”

“What about your sister?” Rye’s initial surprise was rapidly turning into exasperation.

“Inkpot thinks I’m going on a camping trip. That’s what I told your father, too.”

“You told my father I’m going camping?” He rolled his eyes. “Cranberry…”

“Well I had to think of something on pretty short notice.  I couldn’t risk letting you get too far ahead, after all. It’s been hard enough catching you as is.”

She put on a disapproving frown. “How could you just run off like this without me? You’re being awfully selfish, Rye. Well, at least I’m here now to keep an eye on you.”

“Excuse me?” Inger was seething. “I don’t think so—“

Cranberry rounded on the pegasus, puffing up angrily. “And you. Stealing off with my best friend in the dead of night without so much as a by-your-leave, then attacking an innocent highway traveler! I swear, you’re the most bad-tempered, ill-mannered, inconsiderate pony I’ve ever met.”

Inger was taken aback, trying to recover some of his composure. “Look, Miss… Sugar, was it? I’m sorry if I’ve upset you, but we really don’t have the time for niceties.”

“Clearly. Hmpf.” She turned her head up dismissively. “Well, if you two are done fooling around, mind helping me pack up my things so we can get going?”

Scowling, Inger said, “Absolutely not. You’re turning around and going straight back to Canterlot.”

“And who are you, you bossy little ingrate? I’m here to help you.”

Inger puffed out his chest and raised his head. “I am Inger of the Firewings, servant to Her Majesty Princess Celestia, and a guardian of the realm.”

“How impressive.” Cranberry didn’t sound very impressed. “Rye, why is this guy following you?”

“We’re, uh, sort of traveling together.” Rye looked between the two of them. He was beginning to feel a headache coming on. “Look, Cranberry, I know you mean well, but I really don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Sure it is! You need the Thanes to help you fight off the griffons, and who would know more about how to convince them than Canterlot’s resident expert on Sleipnordic culture?” When Rye didn’t respond, she helpfully added “That would be me.”

Inger was stunned. “How—how did you know about—“

“The griffons? Oh, come on, I can put two and two together. Why does everypony think I’m an idiot? Rye’s mother getting put on active duty, a royal guard sneaking out of the city on a mission to Sleipnord, all these rumors about invaders to the south? Grypha’s been looking to re-expand its territory ever since the end of the Great War. They’ve been eyeing the southern farmlands for a long time, now. It’s only natural to assume they’d invade eventually, and it’s just as natural to assume that the Princess would seek help from the Nordponies like she has in ages past. You know, you two would learn a lot if you just read a book every now and then. It’s four, by the way.”

“Four…?” Inger looked hopelessly lost by this point.

Rye shook his head in dismay. “Cranberry, are you crazy? This isn’t a vacation we’re going on. We’re trying to get an army.”

“And how are you going to do that without speaking Sleipnordic, hmm? I don’t presume either of you do?”

Rye looked sideways at Inger. “Er, how were we going to handle that?”

“I was planning to pick up a translator from the watchtower at the mountain pass,” said Inger. “Look, Miss Sugar, we appreciate your concern, but it would be best for all involved if you could just return to your home and let us do our job.”

“Nonsense. I’ll be a huge help to you both, you’ll see. I’ve brought my map collection of the north and everything!”

“I don’t think that we’ll—“

“Besides, you’ve got no chance of getting their help without somepony that understands their culture.”

Inger’s patience had finally run out. “No. Sleipnord is extremely dangerous. It’s no place for—“

“For a mare?” asked Cranberry tartly.

“For a civilian! I’m only taking him along because the Princess ordered me to. I’m not lugging you around too.”

“I’m not a sack of flour,” said Rye, annoyed. “You aren’t ‘lugging’ me anywhere. I can pull my own weight.”

Inger glared at him. “That remains to be seen, pegacorn.” Rye flinched.

“Look,” said Cranberry. “I’m going to follow you whether you want me to or not. So we can do this the easy way, or the annoying way. You might as well let me travel with you.”

“She’s not kidding,” said Rye with resignation. “She’ll pester us forever until she gets what she wants.” Cranberry stuck out her tongue at him. “And she’s right, we do need somepony who can speak Sleipnordic. Might as well be one we already know, right?”

Inger sighed in exasperation. “We don’t have the time to escort her back to the city.” He looked at Rye, finding no support. “I suppose we don’t really have a choice, do we.”

“No,” said Cranberry sourly, “You don’t.” She brightened. “Besides, it’ll be fun! We’ll get to see the hall of Saddlestead, and the Dragon Lake, and maybe even the Giant’s Forest if we’re lucky! This is going to be so great!”

Rye couldn’t help but smile. “Come on then, let’s get your books.” He helped her pick up her collection of maps and books and shove them all into the saddlebags. As they worked, Inger started walking down the road, muttering to himself.

“So Cranberry,” asked Rye as he knelt to grab a dirty map of northern Equestria, “Why are you really here?”

“That obvious, am I?” Cranberry gave a regretful laugh. “I’m here because you need me. I’m not going to let you wander off into the unknown without a friend at your back.” She scowled in Inger’s direction. “He doesn’t count.”

“He’s not so bad, once you get to know him a little.”

Cranberry crooked an eyebrow. “Rye, he calls you ‘pegacorn.’”

Rye cringed. “Well…”

She smiled at him. “Don’t worry, Rye. I’m here to help you. We’ll make it to Sleipnord and get help for the Princess in no time.” She slid the last map into her left saddlebag and clamped the buckle shut over the bulging pouch. “Now come on, we’d better catch up to him before he gets lost. It’s hard to see where you’re going when you’ve got your head stuck that far up your ass.”

Rye snorted. The two of them ran to catch up to Inger, who was still marching on ahead.

After spending several days with the dour, humorless Inger, Cranberry’s presence was like a breath of fresh air. She chatted endlessly, about Sleipnord, her latest books, what she’d had for breakfast yesterday, anything and everything that popped into her mind.

Rye, grateful for the chance to talk, kept up the conversation by explaining what had happened to him over the past week. Cranberry was an excellent audience, oohing and ahhing in all the right places. When he told her about Dawn, she sniffled back a tear.

“She sounds like a really brave pony. I wish I could have met her.”

“She was,” said Rye sadly. “I just hope we’re not too late to stop the griffons from coming north, or there’ll be a lot more like her.”

He told Cranberry about the audience with the Princess, and the trip out of Canterlot. Ahead, Inger kept pressing on faster and faster in a doomed attempt to run the two of them out of breath. Their hooves sped up, and Cranberry's mouth didn't even slow down. Inger finally gave up and assumed a steady walk, flattening his ears to try to block out Cranberry’s incessant chatter.

Eventually the talk turned to their childhood. “You remember that time you stole old Blossomforth’s cane?” asked Cranberry, laughing.

“Oh, don’t remind me,” said Rye, blushing.

“Don’t worry, Princess! I’ll save you!” shouted Cranberry, waving her front legs in a pantomime of battle. She laughed at him.

“It wasn’t a very good sword,” he said morosely. “It broke after I tried slaying the bakery with it.”

Cranberry giggled. “You were such a cute foal, Rye.” She made a gagging motion. “What happened?”

“Oh, please,” he said, preening. “I'm irresistible.” He tossed his mane.

Cranberry snorted, and burst out laughing. Ahead of them, Inger sighed. It was going to be a long journey.


Chapter Twelve

The General narrowed his eyes against the bright sunlight. His wings beat in a measured pace, holding him aloft far above the scrubland. From this height, the individual griffons below him were indistinguishable. His army looked like a long, black snake, twisting up from the south and slithering slowly northward to meet the Grumar River. The vast horde, stretching beyond the horizon, was a deeply satisfying sight to behold. The sunlight sparkled on the weapons and armor of his troops like diamonds, but the beauty was lost on the General. Aesthetics were a distraction and a nuisance. He had a war to win.

He had waited over a century for this moment, this first strike against his kingdom’s most hated neighbor. The conquest of the protectorates fifty years ago had merely whetted his appetite, their lands providing the means to feed his army and their inhabitants providing the horsepower that drove his siege engines. But it was not enough. Soon the war would begin in earnest, and the General waited with great anticipation.

Southlund had fallen more easily than he had expected. The old fortress, that ancient humiliation imposed upon his nation by the Equestrians, had put up a pathetic fight. He had been mildly disappointed to find such little challenge, but the General was more than willing to accept the easy victories as well as the hard-won.

The coming battles promised to be far more interesting. His advance scouts reported that the forces of Equestria were mobilizing. But whatever army they could muster would be no match for his endless masses of troops. Below him moved ten thousand griffons, infantry and aerial squadrons alike. They were the primary invasion force, the vanguard, the tip of the spear that he would thrust into Equestria’s heart. The shaft of that spear was still marching north from Grypha. Another twenty thousand soldiers under his command, the largest army that had walked the dunes since the days of the Gryphan Empire.

He would have to split his forces eventually, in order to capture Equestria’s major cities while maintaining his timetable. But even a quarter of his army would be enough to crush them. He fully expected to own the plains within the month and the capital within the year, if not sooner.

The next move would come soon. His army still needed a few days to shift up into Southlund. The ponies would be struggling to react, to delay their inevitable destruction. Shrikefeather’s beak twisted into a smile. Could they see yet that they had already lost? He hoped so. Despair was so much more satisfying than defiance.

* * *

Today, the council chamber in the base of the Sun Castle was a war room; not filled with politicians, but soldiers. Upon the great marble table lay a massive map of Equestria. It detailed every mountain, road, and village of the land in exquisite detail, the faded ink spelling out the many provinces and capitals of the kingdom of the ponies.

On top of the map were several groups of miniature flags bearing the sigils of the armies they represented. The violet banners bore the quadruplet of diamonds that signified Whitetail, while the blue ones proudly displayed the blood droplet of the ruling house of Norhart. The forces of Westermin, Weatherforge, and the rest of the southern provinces were all varying shades of green and brown. In Canterlot, the yellow pennants of the Celestial Army stood tall, but their number was depressingly small compared to either of the other Equestrian militaries. Far to the south, the map disappeared in a sea of red banners marked with the roaring griffon of Grypha.

The violet flags of Whitetail were moving rapidly as the reports from Celestia’s vast scout network flowed in, split into two groups that each moved in opposite directions. The smaller force was shifting north toward the Easthill border, but the largest mass of them was headed south to the wide band of blue that signified the Grumar River. The river cut lengthwise across the bottom of Equestria, reaching all the way from Rivermeet to Lake Grumar at the end of the Jotur mountains. It was a wide, deep, fast-flowing natural barrier between the land of the ponies and the griffons, their first line of defense against the oncoming invasion.

The southern provinces were moving to meet the mass of violet, but the blue banners of Norhart remained still in their province. Likewise, the yellow pennants stood motionless in Canterlot, where they had been for most of the last century. But the time for inaction was over.

“I won’t lie, Princess,” said Windstreak, surveying the map. “The situation looks dire.”

Princess Celestia nodded in weary agreement. “There are too many foes in this war. Celerity and Emmet should be marching together, not threatening each other. If only the Duke might see reason…” She shook her head. “But we cannot deal in shoulds and ifs. War has come to our doorstep, and we must take action.”

“Let’s start with the griffons,” said one of the Firewings, an older stallion by the name of Gerald. “What do we know about their forces?”

“Initial estimates seem to have been exaggerated,” said the Princess. “Though Dawn may have been correct about the numbers at Grypha’s disposal, this first wave of invaders is only ten thousand strong, not thirty. But even so, they still outnumber all the forces of the southern provinces combined.”

Windstreak flapped her wings and leapt onto the table, walking carefully around the flags down to the south of the map. She gazed over the ocean of red that buried the desert and the old protectorates, long ago conquered by the griffons. “Do we know who leads them?”

The Princess nodded grimly. “If the reports are correct, and I believe they are, then the invasion is led by none other than General Shrikefeather.”

There was a low rumble of dismay from the older Firewings in the room. Indrid, a mare of eighteen, shook her head. “I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised.”

Wheatie, the Firewings’ newest recruit, gave a nervous whinny. He quickly snapped his mouth shut with a hoof, looking around in embarrassment. He was a white and brown speckled stallion with a cream-colored mane, still young and adjusting to his new position in the group. His armor had only been recently fitted, and his helmet was still slipping over his eyes every time he jerked his head. Trying to cover up his faux pas, he said, “General Shrikefeather? He’s been the leader of the Gryphan armies for longer than my grandfather’s been alive. How are we supposed to defeat somepony—er, griffon—with that kind of experience?”

Privately, Windstreak shared his doubts, but she needed to keep up the morale of those under her command. “I’ve read the reports from the Gryphan annexation of the old protectorates. Shrikefeather’s no fool, but he’s not invincible, either.” She gave Wheatie an encouraging smile. “They gave the griffons a bloody nose with barely half the warriors we have at our service. The war isn’t a lost cause yet.”

“If all of Equestria stood together, perhaps. But we’re hardly unified.” Her lieutenant, Bergeron, was eyeing the Norharren banners. He preened a few of his blue feathers back into place, frowning.

“Emmet’s inaction is troubling,” said Celestia, “but unsurprising. And I think it better to have him sit in Norharren, consolidating his forces around the city, than to have him marching through the north.”

“I’m more interested in Shrikefeather,” said Windstreak. She toyed idly with a red flag, rocking it back and forth with her hoof. “Grypha’s farmland is sparse and poor. They won’t have any surplus harvest. On top of that, his army will be moving slowly, as would any force that large. Their supply lines will be stretched too long to protect.”

“Captain, I fear you’ve forgotten the intent of this invasion.” Princess Celestia strode slowly around the table, looking at the markers. “The griffons’ population is out of control. Even with a low birthrate and a violent culture with a death toll to match, they have too many to feed. They want Equestria’s southern plains and all the fertile land therein. I think it likely that Shrikefeather’s army will live off the land as they go, in an attempt to reduce their reliance on home.”

“Yes,” said Bergeron unhappily. “We can’t depend on supply disruption like we did in the Great War.  We’ll have to face them head on, sooner or later.”

Windstreak shook her head. “Impossible. There’s no force in Equestria that could hope to face that horde in open combat.”

“And yet,” said Celestia, “it seems that Celerity is going to try.” She leaned over the table to examine the cluster of violet flags that rested on the banks of the Grumar.

“Twenty-five hundred ponies against ten thousand griffons?” Gerald looked incredulous. “Those are long odds.”

“But it might work,” said Windstreak, circling the violet flags. “The Duchess’s plan seems to be to meet the griffons here, at the bridge of Trellow.” She indicated a point on the river in the center of the purple swarm.

“Why do the griffons need a bridge?” asked Wheatie, flapping his wings once to emphasize his puzzlement. His helmet slipped down over his eyes again, and he pushed it back.

“It’s true, they could simply fly over the Grumar,” said Windstreak, “but to do so would mean leaving behind all their siege, armor, and supplies. Without those, they have no chance of succeeding.” She gave the violet flags another hard look. “It’s not a bad plan. It could work, but not with so few ponies. Belle is outnumbered four to one.”

“Not quite,” said Bergeron. “Don’t forget about Westermin, Weatherforge, and the rest of them.”

“The Cloudsdale pegasi could tip the balance,” said Indrid hopefully.

“What was the last count on their reinforcements?” asked Wheatie.

Windstreak frowned. “Weatherforge has committed a force of some six hundred pegasi to Belle, but his dedicated air force is only a quarter that size. Most of these pegasi aren’t soldiers. They’re weatherponies he’s called back from around the southern provinces to fight.”

Bergeron scowled. “Aye, and the Westerminners are even worse. Farmers, the lot of them. It’ll be a miracle if they manage to get their spears pointing in the right direction, let alone hold that bridge against a fighting force like Shrikefeather’s.”

“Even Belle’s personal forces are at a disadvantage,” continued Windstreak with growing apprehension. “Whitetail’s iron quality and supply are notoriously bad. She hasn’t been able to produce enough steel to arm her soldiers. Only one out of every three of them has armor, and even fewer have weapons besides their hooves.”

Princess Celestia sighed with dismay. “Which brings us back to the north.” She approached the map’s top right edge, where the other line of violet flags waited. “Celerity plans to capture Easthill.”

Gerald nodded. “With the Pie family quarries and the mines under the mountains, she’ll have more than enough iron production to arm her troops. She’s sending Baron Aubren to take Easthill by force. How are we going to respond, Princess?”

Celestia made a little noise of anguish. “I had hoped not to see this conflict turn us against each other so soon.”

“So did the rest of us, Princess. But the reality of the situation demands a response.”

“I know, Gerald.” The Princess closed her eyes in pain, and then spoke quickly. “Order the third division to secure Easthill and hold those iron mines. Celerity cannot be allowed to harm my subjects for her own gain.”

“It’s the right decision, Princess,” said Windstreak softly.

Celestia’s eyes opened, hard as steel. “No decision that leads to the slaughter of Equestrian citizens is the right one.”

“Wait a minute,” said Wheatie, pushing his helmet back up. “Why don’t we just let the Duchess have Easthill? We need her to be as strong as possible to fight the griffons, yes?”

Windstreak bit her lip. She glanced over at the Princess, knowing how much this had to hurt her. “Wheatie, if Belle was only going to use those weapons against the griffons, we’d give her the steel. But she’s crossed a line she can never return from. Whitetail’s secession, even if unrecognized by the crown, means that she’s out for herself now. She’s going to try to grab as much land for the southern provinces as she can.”

“So Blueblood was right about her,” said Bergeron, disgusted.

“No,” said Celestia quietly. “Emmet thinks Celerity is driven by a hunger for power. But I know her better than that. She only wants what is best for her people, and she thinks that she can give it to them through this desperate move.” She shook her head, her expression unreadable. “My old student is many things, but power-mad she is not.”

“Whatever her motivations,” said Bergeron, “it’s clear that she can’t be allowed to have Easthill.”

“We’re getting off-track. The griffons are the greater threat,” insisted Windstreak from atop the table. She pointed a hoof at the bridge of Trellow. “If Celerity fails to hold them at the bridge, then there won’t be anything stopping them from marching all the way north to the capital.” She started pacing. “I’m sorry, Princess, but you’ll have to send some kind of help to aid her at the bridge.”

“Extend help with one hoof while stymieing her efforts in Easthill with the other? I doubt Celerity would react well to that. I could do such a thing, but not with Emmet on our doorstep.”

Celestia looked to Norhart and the blue banners gathered around Norharren. She laid a hoof on the spot in Norlund where the Great Road and the highway to Norharren connected. “He’s had his eye on Norlund for years. For as long as he’s sat on the council, Emmet’s tried to get the provincial lines redrawn to put that crossroads in his own territory.”

“Then it’s fairly obvious what he’s planning to do with that army of his.”

“We’ll need to stop him as well. We can’t let Emmet terrorize the north. But that means that we will have no troops to spare for Celerity. The Celestial Army will be hard-pressed as it is trying to defend those provinces still loyal to us.”

“So we’re going to leave the Duchess to fight the griffons alone?” said Wheatie, disbelieving.

Windstreak stopped pacing as her face lit up. “No.”

“No?” said the Princess, looking at Windstreak. “I take it you have a plan, Captain.”

The Firewing grinned. “Send us.”

Tapping her chin with a hoof, Celestia said, “Could so few of you truly make a difference, Windstreak?”

“Without a doubt. Each Firewing fights like ten ponies, and those Cloudsdale pegasi are going to need actual soldiers to organize them. We can keep the griffons funneled onto that bridge for Belle to smash. This will work. There are three hundred and twelve of us here in Canterlot right now—sorry, three hundred and eleven.” Windstreak’s voice failed for a moment as she remembered who exactly was traveling with that missing Firewing.

She brushed the feeling aside for later and continued, “We can be ready to go by tonight at the earliest. If we fly as hard as we can, we can make it to Trellow by Tuesday.”

The Princess nodded slowly. “Very well, Windstreak. But I can’t simply dispatch the Firewings to help Celerity. Emmet would react… badly. It’s my hope to avoid open conflict with him for as long as possible. The more Celestial Army troops we can save to fight the griffons, the better.”

Sighing in agreement, Windstreak looked at the map. She studied Trellow, thinking hard. The idea came to her in a flash. “Then we’ll go against your will.”

There was a low murmur from the Firewings. Windstreak looked up excitedly. “The Firewings will go rogue. We’ll just leave the capital, determined to help the Duchess against the griffons regardless of the wishes of the crown. That way, Belle gets the help she needs, you can cover your flank politically, and we can potentially stop this invasion in its tracks.”

“But Windstreak,” said the Princess, “the Firewings’ loyalty is legendary. You’d be ruining your reputations.” The look in her eyes said that the Princess was well aware of how much that meant to Windstreak.

“It’s true,” said the pegasus bleakly. “If we do this, then the Firewings’ name will be mud. No more mothers will tell tales of us to their children; no more little colts will dream of greatness and aspire to be more than they are by joining our ranks.” Her voice caught. “But if we don’t, then those children might not have a future at all.”

Celestia nodded, satisfied. “Then go, Windstreak, with my blessing.”

Turning, Windstreak barked, “You heard her, Firewings! We’re moving out! I want everypony gathered and ready to fly by noon today! And Wheatie, get that helmet fixed.”

The Firewings vanished from the room, and the din of the clanking armor of the soldiers faded into the hallways of the castle. Windstreak and Celestia remained behind, staring at the map.

Windstreak walked slowly to the top of the map, standing just south of the Jotur mountains. She laid a tender hoof on the other side, her face filled with regret. “Princess?”

“Yes, Windstreak?”

“How soon can we expect reinforcements from Sleipnord?”

Celestia flapped her wings, alighting on the table and approaching the Captain. She stood beside Windstreak, looking down at the border between Equestria and Sleipnord.

“It is my hope that they will arrive within the month. It all depends on how fast our messengers can deliver those treaties.”

Windstreak struggled with herself. “Princess…?”

“It’s all right, Windstreak.” Celestia put a hoof around her Guard-Captain’s shoulder. “I know what you’re feeling right now.”

“How can you?” snarled Windstreak. She pulled away from the Princess’s touch. All the emotions she’d been suppressing since Celestia had told her the news came spilling out. “You’ve never had a son, or a daughter. You’ll never know what that feels like. You can’t imagine how much fear and, and, and—“

To her shame, she found that she was weeping. Windstreak wiped a leg across her face. She faced away from the Princess. “I promised him I would keep him safe. I promised him.”

“It’s true,” said the Princess quietly. “I’ve never had a child of my own, and I never will.” She looked out of the stained glass of the council chamber. “When Celerity’s father died, she was only a few years old. I took her in and taught her to be the ruler she is today. She lived in my castle, studied in my library, slept in my rooms when nighttime storms frightened her. What was she, if not my daughter?”

Windstreak turned, ashamed of her outburst. “I’m sorry, Princess. I didn’t mean to…”

“No, Windstreak. Don’t apologize. Sending Rye off without asking you was necessary, but that does not mean it was right.”

Anguished, Windstreak looked up at Celestia. “He’s my son. And you’ve sent him off to face who-knows-what dangers alone.”

“He has Inger with him,” said the Princess.

“But he doesn’t have me.” She had promised him.

A wise smile grew on the Princess’s face. “I understand, Windstreak. There comes a time in every parent’s life when we must let our children go, and hope that we have given them what they need to succeed.” She looked hard at Windstreak. “And from the way he jumped to help Dawn Sparkle, I think you have.”

“I just… he’s not as strong as he puts on.”

“Do you know who he reminded me of?”

Windstreak shook her head. “Who?”

“My sister.” Celestia smiled. “And I don’t mean the wings and horn. Don’t worry, Windstreak. He has the willpower to see this mission through.”

Windstreak looked down at the map darkly. “It’s not his will I’m worried about.”


Chapter Thirteen

It had been over a week since they had left Canterlot. The three ponies were nearing the edge of the Antlerwood, the enigmatic forest that dominated the northern half of Norlund. At last it had appeared in the distance, swallowing up the horizon and the road.

Every step Rye took was one further than he had ever been from the city. He was already starting to feel a slight pang whenever he thought about the bakery, wondering how his parents were dealing with his disappearance and the summoning of the Firewings.

Cranberry, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. She still hadn’t shut up, and though Rye would never admit it, he found the constant babbling a comfort. He nodded along as she talked, a faint smile hovering on his lips.

“And after the chieftain of the Grevyi tribe finally gathered his zebras together, he met the other chieftans in battle on the Yanke plains. I’ve read a few different accounts on the battle, but most of them agree that he fought the other chieftains in single combat and—“

Ahead of them, Inger had pulled to a sudden stop. He turned his head and held up a hoof. Cranberry fell silent.

“Let’s set up camp here,” said Inger. “We’ll be staying on the road tonight. It’s safer that way.”

He let his saddlebags slide to the ground and began fishing inside them for the tent and the stakes. Rye looked curiously around in the late afternoon light. “It’s barely five o’clock. Why are we stopping so soon?”

Inger shot a furtive glance to the north at the treeline that now dominated the horizon. “I would rather not enter the Antlerwood at night.”

Cranberry looked curious. “Why not?” She sat down on her haunches and stretched her front legs.

“There are dark things in there.” Inger’s naturally grim expression grew slightly apprehensive.

“You mean like the Everfree Forest?” asked Rye, taking a bite out of one of their few remaining apples.

Inger shook his head. “The Everfree Forest is wild, untamed, just pure nature running rampant. The Antlerwood is… different. I’ve heard tales of spirits and horrors that steal the souls of those who wander into the darkness.”

“Oh, please,” said Cranberry with a snort, “Don’t tell me you believe those old ghost stories.” She slid a map out of her bags, lying it on the ground.

The pegasus shrugged uneasily. “Perhaps the forest is free of restless spirits, but there’s something in there. Something unfriendly. Many that go in never return.”

“Maybe Nightmare Moon ate them,” said Cranberry, rolling her eyes.

“You can laugh, Miss Sugar, but I knew a pony who vanished in there.” Inger shivered. “It’s my hope that we can pass through in a day or less.”

Cranberry pursed her lips and made a hrmm sound. “I’m not so sure. Take a look.” She spread her scroll out as Inger and Rye gathered around. The parchment contained a detailed map of the northeastern corner of Equestria. The entire northern half was dominated by streaks of green oils representing the Antlerwood. “You see what I mean? It’s at least forty miles to pass through there, thanks to the twisting road. And I don’t think leaving the path would be a good idea.”

“No,” agreed Inger. “We can’t risk getting lost.”

“I think it’s going to be a two-day trip at the least. Maybe more, depending on how well-kept the road is.” She poked a hoof at the small tower drawn in the mountain range north of the forest. “Once we’re through, we’ll be right at the pass of Midrothel. I assume you two had a plan to get past the guards at the tower?”

“We bear the symbol of the Princess,” said Inger, finally retrieving the tent stakes. “They’ll let us pass.”

Rye swallowed the last of his apple. “I’m more worried about the pass itself. Isn’t it supposed to be full of giants and werewolves?”

“There’s no such thing as a werewolf, Rye,” admonished Cranberry, “And the giants haven’t been a problem in over seventy years, after the Nordponies and Equestrians pushed them back into the forest; the last giant war was over a hundred years before that. I’ve got a book on the giant wars if you wanted to take a look,” she said, proffering her saddlebag.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Rye declined. He looked behind them at Inger, who was silently assembling the tent. “Let’s help him get that set up.”

The three of them gathered the poles and stakes, and erected the simple tent. It was very plain, military-style. Tiny but sturdy, it was shaped like a simple inverted ‘v’. There was no way all three of them could fit inside, but Inger demanded they post a watch regardless.

“We’re not near Canterlot anymore. It should still be fairly safe, but I don’t want to take any unnecessary chances.” Cranberry and Rye gave little groans, and Inger rolled his eyes. “You two go ahead and sleep. I’ll take the first watch.”

They ducked into the tent, arranging themselves as comfortably as possible on the hard ground. The two ponies ended up stuffed together like a pair of socks, squeezing as tightly as they could to avoid knocking down one of the tent’s sides.

Cranberry sighed in content as she finally found a comfortable resting position. “This is just like all those times your parents took us camping in the Cottontail, Rye!”

“I always hated having to share a tent with you.”

“What? Why?”

“You snore.” He winced as Cranberry kicked him. “Ow.”

“Quiet down, you two,” said Inger from outside. “Get some sleep. You’ll need it for tomorrow.” He muttered something under his breath. Rye thought he caught “civilians”.

“Night, Rye.”

“Night, ‘Berry.” Weary from the long day of walking, he closed his eyes and let sleep carry him away.

* * *

Outside the tent, Inger stood watch as the hours passed. He sighed, resigning himself to taking the lion’s share of watches for the next few weeks. The two civilians were doing surprisingly well so far, but he didn’t expect them to be very effective watchponies.

For the thousandth time, he wished he could simply take off with the treaties and fly to Sleipnord himself. By wing, he could be over the border this time tomorrow night, and be back with an army in less than two weeks. If only he hadn’t been saddled with the others—no, he admitted to himself, that was unrealistic. Even if he could reach the Nordponies, he had no idea if the treaties alone would compel them to join his cause. Moreover, he couldn’t even speak the language.

He gave a low harrumph at the thought. He fully intended to pick up a real translator at the tower and have the guards escort Miss Sugar back to Canterlot. He didn’t intend to take somepony so naïve and untrained with them into the dangerous northlands.

But weren’t you just as inexperienced, once? Inger smiled wryly. He’d been spending too much time with the Princess. He was starting to think in her voice. He sighed. It was true, after all.

Inger smiled as the memories began rising up. He craned his neck back to look at his cutie mark, thinking back to the day he’d earned it. It was the day he’d officially joined the Equestrian guard. He hadn’t even been three, a child by even Equestrian biology, but he’d always been a large foal, and the recruiter hadn’t inquired too much about the age he’d given.

He’d jumped at the opportunity to join the military as soon as it presented itself. It was the only avenue of escape he had from a life of abject poverty on the streets of Canterlot. With his mother dead, and his unknown father long gone from his life, Inger’s first few years had been unpleasant ones. The feeling of constant, desperate hunger was one he would never forget no matter how hard he tried.

When the yearly recruitment drive for new pegasi to join the aerial military units came around, he’d decided to take the chance to lift himself out of the slums and find a purpose in life. The enlistment process was far simpler than the trials the officers had to go through, but there was still a physical before the enlistment was finalized. And it was there that his life had changed forever.

He stood on the cloud, listening to the officer outline the physical for the young trainees. When the whistle finally blew, Inger flew like he’d never flown before, diving through rings of cloud and soaring around the Canterlot skies as if he’d been born to.

At last the officer called them all to a halt, and led the successful recruits down to the castle where they would be fitted for armor and begin their real training. But as Inger turned to follow them, he was interrupted by a sky-blue pegasus in golden armor.

“Hello, young stallion,” she said, alighting on a cloud next to him. She removed her helmet, shaking out her fiery mane.

“Uh… hello,” he said, confused. “I’m sorry, I think I should be going with the others…”

“Don’t worry. You won’t be going with them just yet.” She started in annoyance. “Oh, I’m sorry, I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Windstreak Firemane.”

Inger’s eyes widened. “I’ve heard of you. You’re the Captain of the Firewings.”

“That’s right. And who are you?”

“My name’s Inger,” he said shyly.

“And what’s your last name?” she asked, amused.

“I… don’t have one.”

“Oh.” The Captain digested the implications of that. “Who is your mother?”

“She’s… gone. She died when I was only a year old.”

“I see.” The Captain gave him a curious look. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Inger. Now, I have some questions for you. One question, really. Why did you come here today?”

Inger considered the question. The obvious answer was the stability and safety a military career could provide him, but that seemed superficial. “I guess… I guess I want to do something with my life. To help Equestria.” He sounded ridiculous, he knew. He was barely a foal, what could he possibly do compared to the experienced soldier before him?

But the Captain nodded sincerely. “A worthy goal.”

Inger looked at the vanishing specks of the other trainees. “Uh… Captain Firemane… why aren’t I going with the others?”

“Because you and I are going to talk to somepony very important. Follow me.” The Captain took off, and Inger followed with a growing curiosity.

They circled the glittering spires of the castle, the glow of the golden domes and crenellations in the warm morning sun creating a sea of liquid light for them to swim through. They sank down into the courtyard, where Captain Firemane guided him in to land. His hooves touched the grass inside the Castle’s walls for the first time. He stared around at the splendor of the Sun Castle in awe. A gentle shake brought him back to the present, as Captain Firemane beckoned him inside the Castle itself.

They walked through hallways filled with vast tapestries and stone sculptures to put the finest art in the kingdom to shame. At last, they arrived at a massive door guarded by two more Firewings. The Captain nodded to them both, and the doors swung open as if by magic. The Captain stepped inside, and Inger followed with a racing heart.

On the other side of the door was the vast council chamber that housed the throne. It was empty save one pony: there, in the great golden chair, seated on a cushion of royal violet, was the largest pony Inger had ever seen. She looked nothing like her picture on Equestrian currency. No metal engraving could capture that ageless beauty, that calm demeanor, that fluid hair that shimmered with all the colors of the aurora.

Princess Celestia shifted to face the two ponies, smiling. “Greetings, Windstreak. I see you’ve found your recruits for the year.”

“Only one, this time.” The Captain looked over at Inger. “He’s an excellent flier. As for the rest… only time will tell.”

The Princess—Inger instantly thought of her as milady, though he would not dare to call her such—looked at him appraisingly. He felt paralyzed by her gaze. He watched as the Captain approached and held a whispered discussion with the Princess.

At last they separated and the Princess turned to face him. He felt as though the sun itself was staring at him, the heat of a summer day filling him up. The Princess’s face was lit with a smile as warm as her eyes. “Every year, the Celestial Army accepts new recruits to defend our nation from any who would cause us harm. It’s a high honor. But every year, we select a few very special ponies to serve in a different way. My personal guard, the Firewings, are the elite group of pegasi who serve as an extension of my will throughout the nation.”

Inger felt sweat bead his brow. “And you want…”

“What I want are the best, Inger. I need ponies who are fierce, loyal, honest, and above all, willing to devote their lives to preserving the peace of Equestria.” She narrowed her eyes and stared at Inger in a way that made him feel as if his soul was being laid bare. “Are you worthy of joining them?”

“I…” Even street urchins like Inger had heard the legends of the Firewings. It was like he’d just been asked to join the ranks of the gods themselves. He felt a drop of sweat crawl down his back. “No, milady.” He cringed at the slip, hoping she would not take offense at the breach in protocol, but the Princess beamed at him.

“There’s one more quality I look for in my Firewings, Inger. Humility.” At this she and the Captain shared a smile. “Now that you’ve passed that little test, I ask you the real question. Do you want to become a Firewing?”

His eyes darted back and forth between the alicorn and the pegasus. “I don’t… I don’t know… I haven’t had any training, I’m not a real soldier yet. I’ve never fought in any real battles, I can’t—“

“Inger,” said the Captain, “we all started somewhere. When I became a Firewing I’d never even seen a spear before. Don’t worry about training, that comes with the job. The only thing here that matters is you. What do you want?”

“I’m not sure,” he said fearfully.

Captain Firemane gave him a piercing stare, then smiled kindly. “You don’t need to be alone anymore, Inger. We’ll be your family.”

He felt tears well up and blinked them away. “Yes. I want this.” He nodded, as if to convince her—or himself.

Windstreak withdrew to the side, bowing to the Princess. Celestia stood, her hair drifting gently through the air. “Inger of Canterlot, do you swear by sun, moon, and stars, to follow Our commands and serve Equestria, to pledge yourself to the defense of all ponies, to commit yourself mind and body to upholding our society and our civilization, to give yourself over completely to service in the order of the Firewings, and above all else to safeguard the lives of each and every Equestrian it is within your power to protect?”

Inger felt a flame ignite in his chest. He felt larger than he ever had, emboldened by the Princess’s words. He stepped forward, his head held high. “I do.”

“Then kneel.”

He fell to his front knees, bowing as deeply as he could. The Princess bent her head and touched her horn to his right shoulder. “Do you, Inger of Canterlot, accept the title of Firewing and all that it entails?”

“I do.”

She moved her horn to his left shoulder. “And do you take this oath, forever and always to hold yourself to the principles of the Firewings until the day you cease to draw breath?”

“I do.”

The Princess withdrew, spreading her wings. Her horn flashed in a blinding light, and he was forced to close his eyes. When the light faded, he looked up to find the Princess solemnly looking down. “Then rise, Inger of the Firewings, and join your brothers and sisters in the service of Equestria.” She held the pose for a brief moment, then suddenly winked. “Welcome to the club, Inger.”

The Captain again bowed to the Princess, then turned to Inger with a broad grin. “Come with me, Inger. We’re going to meet your new family.” She led him in the direction of the door. As they passed out of the throne room, she gave him a mischievous look. “You can show them all your new cutie mark.”

“My what?” Inger was nonplussed. He whirled his head around to get a look at his flank. No longer bare, on each side he found a simple golden ring imprinted on the skin. “Ha! Haha!” He bounced, cantering around her with delight. The Captain laughed, and together they went onward to meet his future.

Inger smiled, lost in the reflection. He’d kept that oath close to his heart for the last eight years. That sense of duty had been his guiding light through every struggle he’d faced in service to the Firewings. Including the current one.

But… he sighed with disappointment in himself. Perhaps he’d been following the letter of the Princess’s words, and not the spirit behind them. He glanced back at the tent, where the earth pony’s snores could faintly be heard. He wouldn’t hesitate for a second to sacrifice himself to save their lives… but he couldn’t pretend he had any real respect for them.

In fact, Inger couldn’t remember the last pony he’d had any regard for that hadn’t been in the Firewings. When had that attitude begun? With his childhood, he could scarcely hold himself above the commoners. Inger frowned, unable to answer himself. He’d had nothing but contempt for his traveling companions so far. Miss Sugar, at least, deserved better treatment than he’d been giving her.

The pegacorn was another matter. Inger knew all about that race’s black reputation. Although it was fairly clear to him by now that Rye Strudel possessed no dark magical powers, he still wasn’t willing to trust his life to such a twisted creature. Not yet, anyway. Perhaps the pegacorn would prove himself in Sleipnord.

He sighed, the weight of their mission pressing down on him. “Don’t worry, Princess. We’ll get it done. Somehow.” He would wake the pegacorn in a few hours to take the second watch, but for now he looked up at the stars and wondered about the future.

* * *

For the first time in a week, Rye found that he was not the last one up. He took a sadistic delight in waking his new traveling partner. He shook the pink earth pony with his hoof. “Get up, Cranberry, it’s time to get moving.”

She groaned, pushing his hoof off. “It can’t be more than four in the morning.”

“That’s right,” he said, chipper. “Inger and I are ready to pack the tent up. Time to get out of bed.”

Cranberry growled at him. “What bed? We’ve been sleeping on the ground all night. My back is killing me.”

“Camping’s just wonderful, isn’t it?” sang Rye. He grabbed her blanket with his teeth and pulled it off. She curled up and shooed him away. He called for Inger.

After they’d finally dragged Cranberry out of the tent, the packing went quickly. The sky was gray and gloomy, promising a heavy rain all morning. They decided to forgo breakfast in the hopes of a dry lunch, and managed to get everything stowed away in their saddlebags in less than an hour. The three ponies galloped north along the road, and slowly the green line on the horizon expanded to dominate the land in front of them.

They nearly made it. They were still a few hundred meters from the treeline when the first droplet splashed onto Rye’s nose. He wrinkled his head and pulled his cloak’s hood up. “We’d better run faster.”

Cranberry paused to make sure her cloak was covering the saddlebags containing her precious books and maps. She pulled her hood down over her head with irritation. “Why can’t they send the bad weather south?” There was a low rumble of thunder, and the rain began to intensify.

Ahead of them, Inger laughed. “You think this is bad weather? This is just a drizzle. Have you ever seen what happens when they schedule a hurricane?” Nevertheless, they quickened their pace.

By the time they made it under the first of the trees, Rye’s back felt damp through the cloak. They paused under a large ash tree to make sure the treaties and Cranberry’s books had survived their exposure to the elements, then continued on.

“Inger,” said Cranberry, startled, “why are you wearing your armor?” Rye looked. Inger still had his helmet stowed away in his bags, but under his cloak was the faint gleam of gold that signaled the gilded armor of the Firewings.

“I told you last night, I’m not walking into this forest unprepared.” Cranberry laughed at him, but Inger just shook his head and kept walking.

The trees around them filtered out most of the rain. The cobblestones of the Great Road beneath them remained dry as they began to tread into the forest proper. The trees thickened, and the sound of the rain on the leaves began to gradually fade.

Cranberry coughed. “It’s so quiet in here.”

“Hey, Cranberry, what did the mother buffalo say to her kid when she sent him off to school?”

Looking apprehensive, she said, “What?”

“Bison.” Rye grinned like an idiot as Cranberry made a face at him. “Okay, okay, try this one. What did the green grape say to the purple grape?”

“What?” Cranberry looked resigned.

“Breathe, you idiot!”

Inger gave him a backwards look of disgust. Rye cackled and kept going. “Did you hear about the fire at the circus? It was in tents.”

Both of them groaned and said in unison, “Please stop.”

“A sandwich walks into a bar—“ He paused. “Do you two hear rain anymore?”

“No,” said Cranberry, surprised. “Do you think the storm’s stopped already? We’ve only been inside the forest for fifteen minutes.”

“Weather doesn’t just switch off like that,” said Inger, frowning. “I’m going to have a look. Wait here.” He set his bags on the ground and took off into the trees. A few leaves drifted down to the ground in the dim light. Cranberry and Rye waited for a few minutes, wondering what exactly was going on.

Inger rocketed back down, dripping. He landed in a puddle, shaking his feathers to clear the water. “It’s still coming down hard out there. But it took me over a minute to get clear of the trees. They’re freakishly thick all around us. The entire outside world is muted.”

“I guess we should be grateful,” said Rye hesitantly.

“I’m not so sure.” Leaving those ominous words hanging in the air, Inger re-shouldered his bags and began walking.

None of them joked now. They strained for the sound of rain, but there was nothing. No songs of birds, no scratches as squirrels moved through the trees, no snapping of sticks or rustling of leaves. The forest was completely, absolutely silent.

But the quiet wasn’t the only strange thing. The air itself seemed to be thickening with the trees, hot and oppressive. Rye felt like every breath took more effort than the one before. He squinted into the darkening depths of the Antlerwood.

“Ow!” came Cranberry’s voice.

“What’s wrong?”

“I hit a tree! The stupid path swerves, and I can’t see a thing in here.”

Inger said, “I’ve got a torch in my saddlebags. Let me get it out.” There was a rustling noise as he dug through his bag. Rye was starting to think those saddlebags were bottomless.

He looked around. It was almost midday, but he could barely see his hoof when he held it up a foot in front of his face. He looked down at the road, but he couldn’t even make out the individual cobblestones. Inger and Cranberry were barely-visible silhouettes.

“Goddit,” came Inger’s muffled voice. He moved the torch to the side of his mouth so he could speak around it. “I’ll never be able to find my flint in this darkness. Pegacorn, can you light the torch?”

“Uh,” said Rye doubtfully. “Hold it out, I’ll give it a try…”

As Inger proffered the torch, Rye closed his eyes and concentrated. His horn began to glow orange as he extended his mind. He had the feeling he was about to humiliate himself, but he didn’t want to seem unhelpful. He reached into the magic, expecting to run into the wall again.

Something was wrong. The wall had vanished. Rye’s heart leapt into his throat. He pushed further, reaching for the magic. What he found was completely unexpected. The river was no longer a cool trickle, but a raging torrent that snapped and growled at the banks. It roiled like flame, spilling out around him. He tentatively reached into the flow.

He gave a gasp of pain as he felt a searing heat blaze his senses. Reflexively, he broke the contact and his eyes snapped open. His horn burned, like he’d just shoved it into one of his father’s ovens.

“Rye? What’s wrong?” Cranberry’s voice sounded strange, like it was coming from a great distance.

“I don’t… I don’t know. The magic…” Rye shook his head, trying to clear it. “There’s something wrong with the magic. I’ve never felt anything like it before. It hurt.” He blinked. “I’m going to try again.”

“Hurry up, then,” said Inger, annoyed. “We can’t stand here all day.”

Rye reached for the magic again, bracing himself. The current of magic smashed into him like a waterfall. He gritted his teeth and plunged into it. It felt like fire spilling around him, enveloping him in the blaze, but not burning his skin. He held himself there, letting the liquid flames lick his face.

His father always spoke of magic as a cool, calming stability, but this was something else entirely. This magic was violent, an assault on his mind that seemed to block out the rest of the world. The only thing he could think of to describe it was sheer, unbridled power. He found himself panting for breath.

He opened his eyes, remaining submerged in the raging river. He looked at Inger, still holding the torch. The pegasus’s eyebrows raised uncertainly. Rye breathed deeply, and focused on the torch. Fire.

The torch erupted like a bomb, the blast of heat and compressed air sending the three ponies flying. Rye’s back slammed into a tree, and he fell to the ground. His contact with the magic broke instantly, leaving him feeling cold. He staggered to his hooves, swaying dizzily. “Everypony okay?”

“Still alive over here…” came Cranberry’s moaning voice. Inger’s was less friendly.

“You idiot! You could have killed us with that blast!” The pegasus was spitting mad, his face covered in soot and his eyebrows literally smoking.

“I’m sorry!” Rye was starting to panic. “I didn’t know it would do that! I’ve—I’ve never even gotten a flame before.” Still trying to process what had just happened, he suddenly smiled. “Did you see that? I used a spell!” He gave a disbelieving laugh.

Inger wasn’t amused. “Don’t try casting any more, or you might set the whole forest on fire.” He searched around for the torch, now lost in the gloom of the forest. “Well, our torch is gone. After that it’s probably been burned to ash.” He snorted angrily. “I guess we’re walking in the dark.”

“I could try giving us some light,” volunteered Rye. The pegasus gave him a withering look. “I’ll try not to blow anything up. This is the one spell I’ve actually managed to get to work before.” He closed his eyes and dived eagerly back into the maelstrom.

He was already growing accustomed to the magic, feeling the boiling waters of power spill over into his mind like they were alive. He let it flow through the conduit of his horn, bursting forth as a shining light as bright as the full moon. It was so brilliant that the normal orange glow was lost in the blinding whiteness. Inger and Cranberry shielded their eyes.

“I suppose that works,” said Cranberry in awe. “What’s it feel like?”

“It’s amazing,” he said, basking in the heat that filled him. “I can’t even describe it.” He grinned. “I could get used to this.”

A sudden dark thought chilled him. The magic had to be related to the forest. It was the only explanation that made sense. Did that mean that once they left, so too would this newfound gift? Rye decided to worry about that later.

“Let’s get moving, then!” he said, trotting off along the path. The light from his horn threw every branch and leaf into stark relief, washing out all color. The longer Rye held it, the brighter it grew. He felt better with every moment he remained in touch with the magic. An irrepressible smile crept onto his face.

Hours passed as they walked through the gloom. Though the cold magical beacon held the darkness at bay, the black forest seemed to wrap around the bubble of light like tar. The air was still stifling, but Rye felt more energized than he ever had before. “Come on, you two! Hurry up!” He cantered ahead, his steps light.

“Rye, we need to stop,” said Cranberry, gasping. “We’ve been going for hours without a break.”

“Yes, pegacorn, we need a breather.”

Something inside Rye snapped. He whipped around, eyes narrowed. “Stop calling me that. I have a name.” The light from his horn surged briefly.

Inger withdrew slightly. “My apologies, pe-Rye. I wasn’t trying to offend you.”

“Weren’t you?” Rye glared. He fluffed his wings angrily and turned around. “Fine. Let’s stop for lunch.” He didn’t really want to hurry through the forest anyway.

As they munched on the grass by the sides of the path, Cranberry approached him. “Rye, are you feeling okay? You sort of yelled at Inger back there.”

“He deserved it.” Rye chewed a mouthful of grass, scowling.

“Well, yes, he was being a bit of an idiot, but… it’s not like you to snap at ponies like that.” She looked worried.

“And how would you know?” Rye snarled. “You’re not the one that has to deal with that garbage every day.”

“I… Rye, I’m sorry, I…” Cranberry looked bewildered, and backed away. She lowered her head, slinking off to the other side of the path.

Rye took another bite of grass. He felt angrier than he had in a long time. All the pent-up annoyance at the Firewing’s behavior over the last week and a half had finally burst forth. He was surprised at just how much of it there was. The raw emotions were spilling out around his carefully maintained air of good humor. He needed to get control of himself.

Troubled, he turned his thoughts instead to the magic. He plunged back into the flow, feeling the power coursing through his horn. It was like coming up for air after drowning his entire life. He wanted nothing more than to stay here and explore his new powers, but he didn’t feel like arguing about it with the others.

Instead, he began trying different spells. Little things, for now: he shot sparks off the end of his horn, letting them shimmer in the air. He tried lifting small pebbles around him, a task as simple as thinking about the spell he wanted.

He heard the mumble of Cranberry’s hushed voice from across the path. He concentrated for a moment, drawing on the magic to enhance his hearing. Suddenly her voice was as loud as if she were standing next to him. “Inger, Rye’s acting strangely.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“He’s not usually so terse. I think something’s wrong with him.”

“Well, we’ll just have to keep an eye on him. I doubt he’ll be a danger to us.”

Of course, thought Rye. He sees me as either a nuisance or a threat. He swallowed another mouthful of grass.

“It’s not us I’m worried about.”

“We’re only going to be in this forest for another day at most.” Inger’s voice rose. “I think it’s time we moved on.”

“Fine,” said Rye. “Try to keep up this time.” He took the lead again, striding along the road, his horn blazing a path through the darkness. The soft clip-clop of hooves on the paving stones was the only sound.

“You were right, Inger,” said Cranberry uneasily. “There’s something wrong with this place. I feel like we’re being watched. The air’s suffocating in here.”

Rye laughed. “I guess superstition’s contagious. You two are jumping at shadows. This place is fantastic!” He sent a shower of rainbow sparkles from his horn, dancing through the light. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Cranberry and Inger sharing a worried glance. He shrugged it off, bathing in the heat of the magic.

The three ponies continued on into the deep, black heart of the forest.


Chapter Fourteen

The hot afternoon sun beat down on Trellow Bridge, reflecting off the coursing waters of the Grumar River. The bridge was a vast stone structure, weathered through countless centuries. It was over forty meters wide, arcing over a hundred meters across the narrowest part of the river. It was a marvel of engineering dating back to the old Empire. The stones, sitting under the sun, were hot to the touch. Though it was nearly winter, the southlands remained warm year-round, and today was no exception.

The surrounding scrubland was broken by a vast collection of white tents that had sprung up overnight. Flags bearing the design of a quadruplet of diamonds hung limply in the dead, hot air. From her position on the bridge, Celerity could oversee her entire encampment. She blinked away a drop of sweat and blew a strand of hair out of her eyes.

She was quite happy with her army’s rapid response. It had only been six days since the disastrous council meeting where the provinces had parted ways, yet all the forces she had summoned from Whitewall had already arrived. She herself had just entered camp yesterday morning, after several days of hard riding in a chariot pulled by her pegasi escorts. Celerity hated flying, but walking from Canterlot to Trellow would have taken weeks she could not afford to lose.

Despite her troops’ prompt mobilization, her camp looked vanishingly small. There were roughly three thousand of Whitetail’s finest here, mostly earth ponies and unicorns. They were well trained, but poorly equipped. It was no secret that southern steel was severely lacking in quality. Nearly half of her ponies were armed with nothing more than their hooves. Granted, those could be formidable weapons, but against the griffons, Celerity was unconfident that they would be enough. Once Baron Aubren took Easthill, she could expect enough steel to outfit the rest of her army, but until then she would have to make do.

The forces of Whitetail did not stand alone. True to his word, Lord Weatherforge had levied every available weatherpony from the southern provinces, and given them all to her command. The final tally was a generous commitment of seven hundred pegasi, unarmored and unarmed, but skilled in flight. Celerity’s gut told her that they would be the key to the coming battle. Holding Trellow would depend on holding the skies.

Westermin’s troops had yet to arrive. Her scouts reported that his army was on the move, and would reach Trellow by tomorrow evening. He was sending the majority of his standing forces, nearly a thousand able-bodied spearponies. When he arrived, her forces would number nearly four thousand troops.

The advance wave of the griffon army approaching them was reported to consist of over ten thousand. Celerity felt her stomach swim. All the strategic maneuvering in the world couldn’t help her against that brutal arithmetic. Yet she would have to do it, somehow.

The Belles were famous for two things: impeccable taste, and unmatched genius on the battlefield. It was they who had orchestrated the final stages of the Great War, six hundred years before, and it was a Belle—Lord Elusive Clement, Celerity’s distant ancestor—who had led the final charge against the griffon lines at the old Gryphan capital in the Everfree Forest. When Princess Luna had claimed the city as her own and rebuilt it as Lunaria, she had granted the Belles with the wide sweeps of land that constituted the Duchy of Whitetail.

Celerity was determined to keep it out of the claws of the griffons, but all the generations of Belles weighed down upon her. Nopony expected more of her than herself, but the task she faced might be insurmountable. Despite the pressure, she smiled. Her family had built their careers on doing the impossible. She would beat the griffons, somehow. And then, if she played her cards right, the Belles would be forever remembered not as the governors of Equestria’s largest province, but as the rulers of the independent south.

She forced herself back to the present. Even with Westermin and Weatherforge backing her up, the coming battle would be the most grueling of her career. The last time she had commanded an army this large was twenty years ago, when she’d driven the griffons out of Southlund for good—or so she’d believed. Under Shrikefeather they had grown bold, coming north over the border in greater and greater numbers, till they had finally been crushed near Sel-Paloth. But those had been relatively small groups of only a few thousand griffons. Even the largest warband was merely half the size of the force that now threatened her.

To win this, she needed an advantage. Her troops were better trained, better positioned, and better motivated than the griffon invaders, but even that counted for little in the face of such an overwhelming horde. She needed a symbol, something for her troops to rally behind, something to strike fear into the hearts of the griffons.

A glint of light caught her eye from the north. She stared up at the sky, squinting. The glint appeared again, surrounded by similar glimmers. Celerity’s breath caught. The objects were headed for her camp, soaring through the air. As they neared, it became clear that there were hundreds of them.

I’ll bet there are three hundred and twelve of them, in fact. Celerity was filled with elation. Had Celestia finally seen reason? Had she really sent—no, surely not.

Shouts from the camp told her that her troops had noticed the new arrivals, too. Soon, the sky above the tents was filled with hundreds of golden-armored pegasi, gleaming brilliantly in the sunlight. They circled the camp, speeding through the air in rings and loops, intertwining in a breathtaking display of precision flying. The troops below in the camp cheered.

At last, the pegasi broke their formations and flew down to land. A sky-blue pegasus, her helmet emblazoned with the symbol of the Princess’s personal seal, dropped from the air onto the bridge before Celerity. She bowed deeply to the duchess.

“Captain Windstreak Strudel of the Firewings, at your service. The ‘Wings are at your disposal, Duchess Belle.” She looked behind her at the camp, where the rest of the Firewings were now landing and being greeted by the troops. “My apologies for the little flight display. My lieutenant thought your ponies could use a show for morale.”

With a wide smile, Celerity said, “Thank him for me.” She looked at the captain intently. “So, has Celestia finally seen reason? We have her support against the griffons?”

“I’m afraid not,” said the captain, looking a little sheepish. “We aren’t here with her blessing. She wasn’t happy about it, but we have to do what’s best for Equestria, and that means helping you fight the griffons.”

Celerity’s jaw hung open. Boggled, she said, “You mean to tell me the Firewings have deserted?”

“We prefer to think of it as doing our duty, Princess or no.”

The Duchess pondered this for a moment, feeling an uncontrollable cheer spring up inside her. “This is…”

“Unexpected?”

“Excellent. You may have just given me the edge I need to win this battle, Captain Strudel. I’m going to assign you and yours to oversee the divisions that Weatherforge has sent from Cloudsdale. Come with me, we need to discuss the battle plan in detail.” The two commanders left the bridge, passing through the camp to find Celerity’s tent.

As they walked past the soldiers, the sounds of cheering surrounded them. Celerity couldn’t help but grin. To her troops it seemed as if legends had suddenly come to life to fight at their side. This would make them confident, bold, and fearless. Just the way she wanted them.

They reached her tent at last. It had been erected on a small hill that rose above the rest of the camp, permitting her a view of the surrounding landscape. Celerity pulled aside the flap, gesturing grandiosely to the captain. They stepped inside the little structure.

Celerity gave a cursory scan of her tent to make sure everything was still in place. One of the perks of command was that her tent was much larger than those belonging to the troops; big enough to fit a full cot, table, and dresser. The cabinet containing her armor remained locked for now, not to be opened until the battle seemed near. The center of the tent was taken up by a large table that was covered in maps and flags.

She strode around the table to take her seat on the cushion there. She lifted a hoof and pointed at the map lying on top of the pile, indicating the bridge. “Here’s the situation. The griffons are marching straight for us out of Southlund. Shrikefeather intends to capture Trellow as quickly as he can to begin the invasion of Whitetail.

“He needs this bridge to move his heavy infantry and siege weapons into the north. The only other option he has for that is marching all the way west to Breton and attempting to ford the river—a hazardous prospect for any army, let alone one so large. And it would stretch his lines to an untenable size. They could never maintain that sort of a commitment.” She shook her head. “No, it must be Trellow. And that’s how we’re going to break them. My scouts tell me that they will be here within the week. Westermin’s troops should reach us before then, Sisters-willing.”

The captain made a doubtful noise. “Even with those reinforcements you’re going to be vastly outnumbered.”

“That’s where the bridge—and you—come into play, Captain.” Celerity grabbed the map and walked outside. The captain followed her. On the outside of the tent, Celerity unrolled the map and arranged it to match the direction of the real bridge before them. “The griffons will approach from here,” she said, pointing, “following the Great Road up to the river. When they arrive they’re going to find us defending the bridge.”

“Why don’t we just destroy the bridge?”

“I considered it. But if we do that, I fear that rather than risk the ford at Breton, Shrikefeather will simply order his infantry to abandon their heavier gear and fly over. They would take tremendous losses from an unarmed assault on Whitetail, but their sheer numbers would still carry the day. This is better.”

“I take it you have a plan, then.”

“A simple one, but one that Shrikefeather won’t be able to avoid. The bridge is only wide enough for fifty ponies to stand shoulder to shoulder across. That sounds large, but divide thirty thousand by fifty and the odds look a lot better for us.”

“The question is, will it be enough?”

“With the bridge nullifying their advantage in numbers, our superior training will easily stop the griffons from moving past us. There’s only one flaw in the plan…”

“The griffons’ aerial troops.”

“Correct. My soldiers can’t fight enemies in front of and above themselves simultaneously. But thanks to Lord Weatherforge, I now have a fighting force of nine hundred pegasi to defend our airspace with. And now that you’re here, my fliers number twelve hundred. I need the Firewings to command the Cloudsdale pegasi and keep those skies clear for the bridge troops. Can you do that?”

The captain snapped a salute. “We’ll make sure none of them get through, Duchess.”

“Excellent. If we can hold out for at least a week and a half, I’ll be receiving more reinforcements from the rest of the southern provinces, along with some additional weapon shipments.”

“Weapon shipments?”

“I have one of my Barons working on that as we speak. It’s not a concern right now.” She gave a catlike grin. “We have to hold the bridge for a full week—just one week! And then we’ll be able to push the griffons back out into the desert and smash them on the dunes like the dogs they are.”

The captain nodded. “Then with your permission, Duchess, I’ll see to my ponies.”

“Go ahead, Captain. Just remember—as long as you keep those skies clear, then we’ve already won. The griffons will not take this bridge.”

* * *

Less than a kilometer to the south, a small hill rose from the otherwise-flat scrubland. Atop it perched two griffons. The larger had his helmet tucked under one leg, scratching a claw along the polished top of the iron.

The marching horde was still a few days behind them. General Shrikefeather scowled. The ponies had mobilized faster than he had expected.  It looked like there would be a fight for Trellow after all. He wasn’t happy with the tactical situation here. He had the superior force, but that choke point was going to cost him dearly before the battle here was done. But he had led the forces of Grypha for nearly a hundred years, and he would not be stopped by a simple bridge and a bunch of rag-tag horses playing at war.

“Lieutenant-Colonel.”

“Yes, General?”

“Are the attack wings ready?”

“As you ordered, sir. They’re prepared to fly tonight, if you wish.”

“Good. The ponies will almost surely be receiving reinforcements from the north. We need to harass them as much as possible before then. Have the raiders target food stores, water supplies, townsteads, scouts, anything to distract the ponies’ attention. But have them stay mobile. I want them harrying the Equestrians, not getting into a slugging match.”

“Yes, sir.”

“What of the siege?”

“The trebuchets are still en route from Grypha. They’re having trouble with the weather. The recent storms have turned the ground to mud, and the wheels are getting stuck.”

“That’s to be expected when fighting pegasi,” said the general, annoyed. “But I expect them to stay on schedule. If our primary plan falls through, those trebuchets will be the only means we have of breaching Canterlot’s defenses.” He drew a claw along the ground, running numbers in his head. “What’s the latest report on our trump card?”

“They’re on the way. Perhaps four days’ journey.”

Shrikefeather frowned. “They should have been here yesterday. What’s taking them so long?”

The colonel shifted uneasily. “Well, they had to go all the way south to enter Grypha. If you’ll remember, sir, you felt that stealth would be preferable to speed—“

Waving a hand in irritation, the general said, “Yes, yes, I know.” He sighed. “No matter. That’s a last resort, anyway. If all goes as planned, we’ll have the ponies cracked open by the end of the week. And then we’ll start moving north.” He looked at the colonel with a faint smile. “By this time, two weeks from now, you and I will be sharing a drink in Cloudsdale.”

“Looking forward to it, sir.” The griffon bowed, and flew off to deliver the new orders to the aerial strike forces. Shrikefeather returned to watching the Equestrian camp across the river. The campaign was about to begin in earnest.

 


Chapter Fifteen

 

“Rye, I think it’s time we stopped for the night.” Cranberry sounded exhausted. Rye’s pace slowed to a stop as he looked back at her and Inger. The two of them looked ragged, panting heavily and sweating.

Rye, though, felt fantastic, almost hyper. He was radiating energy, quite literally. His horn was now so bright that it hurt to look directly at. He shrugged amiably. “If you say so. I’m good for another few miles but if you two want to rest…”

“Rest sounds nice,” said Cranberry with a dull expression. She fell to the road and curled up, not even bothering with the tent. Soon her chest was rising and falling in a steady rhythm..

Inger made a valiant attempt to stay awake. “I should… take the first watch…”

“Don’t worry about it, Inger,” Rye chirped. “I’ll take care of it. You need your beauty sleep, after all.”

The pegasus mumbled something and shook his head, but he too slowly sank to the ground and closed his eyes. Within seconds he was out cold, leaving Rye alone in the forest.

He pranced around the sleeping bodies of his companions, letting his horn’s light extinguish. He’d never felt so… alive. This forest was the most wonderful place he’d ever been. He felt like he could go for days without sleeping. He didn’t even have to reach out for the magic now; it just bubbled constantly around him like boiling water. It was the best feeling in the world.

Rye looked down at the two sleeping ponies, and a grin flashed onto his face. They hadn’t seen a single living creature all day long. It was pretty obvious that nothing lived in this forest. They’d be fine without him for a few minutes… or hours. He dropped his saddlebags and removed his cloak, setting them down in a pile. He trotted off into the trees to find someplace to experiment with this newfound gift.

The minutes passed as the trees lit up with the colors of magic. Spells flew haphazardly around while Rye let his imagination run wild. All he had to do was visualize the magic, let the current surge through his horn, and watch as his thoughts became reality. He spun in a dance, sending rocks and bushes twirling around him like ballerinas. Trails of fire, green and blue and orange, snaked through the air in intertwining rings and symbols.

He imagined a loaf of bread, fresh from the ovens, and with a pop! it appeared before him. Rye smiled and took a bite. He munched on it for a few seconds, but then his mouth scrunched up. He gagged, spitting it back out. Rye quickly took a bite of grass, trying to clear the foul taste away. I guess dad was right. Even unicorns need good cooks.

Well, the rules still applied; magical food tasted pretty terrible. But he could do just about anything else. Rye looked at one of the trees beside him and thought fire, and it burst instantly into flame. He stared at the crackling blaze for a moment, before concentrating again. The fire vanished in a moment, with a gratifying whuff.

Though the fire was gone, the heat remained. The heat of the magic. He rolled onto his back, kicking the air, letting the warmth of it surround him. The magic surged through his body with a joyous force, a feeling of happiness so intense he could not contain it. Was this how normal unicorns felt all the time? Somehow he didn’t think so.

He wished his father were here. Rye was finally doing magic, after years of fruitless attempts, and he wanted his father to see all the disappointment pay off at last. For a moment he considered trying to summon his father with the magic, but he dismissed the idea. That kind of spell was far too dangerous to attempt without a great deal of practice.

But he would only get that practice if he stayed here…

Rye stood, feeling the air seethe around him. It was magnificent. He felt, for the first time in his life, not weak and small, but powerful. He was almost giddy with the sensation, feeling lighter than air. It was like he was flying.

He froze. It hadn’t even occurred to him before now. Could he possibly do it? Now that the idea had taken root in his mind, he had to try. He spread his tiny wings, looking at them for the first time in a long while. They were still too short, too wispy, his feathers rugged and tattered. He flapped them once, experimentally.

His mother had described flight to him countless times in his youth, before the extent of his condition had revealed itself. He’d never forgotten her words, though he was certain she wished he had.

“What’s it like, mom?”

“It’s the best feeling in the world, Rye. The open sky, the plains, spreading out beneath your hooves, the mountains in the distance peering over the horizon—it’s like you’re standing on top of the world, skimming around it at will. You feel like you can reach up and touch the stars, or feel the heat of the sun on your face as you leave the world behind you. You’ll see it for yourself someday, Rye. I promise.”

But that was a promise she couldn’t keep. By the time they’d realized he was never going to be able to fly, he’d been too heavy to ride on her back long enough to fly the way she’d described. Flight had become something to experience in dreams. He’d resigned himself to never soar through the sky like he deserved.

A little voice inside his head whispered to him, Deserved? And when did flying become a right?

When he was born with wings, that was when. It felt like he’d been robbed of his birthright. His mother was the most famous flier in the country, perhaps the world, and he… well, the closest he’d ever come to getting airborne was when he was a foal, the time he’d nearly broken his legs jumping off the bakery roof. At least that had been an accident. The other time he’d tried to take a dive like that, three years ago… The memories, long suppressed in the darker corners of his mind, came unbidden.

He stood on the stairs leading up to the castle. He hadn’t walked to the gates tonight, only halfway up the mountainside. It was a chilly night, but he wasn’t wearing a cloak. The steps were coated with a thin layer of snow, but the air was clear and crisp. He stared over the edge at the town below. He fancied he could see the bakery from here, but the snowcapped roofs all looked alike.

“Rye? What are you doing up here? It’s getting dark.”

He groaned internally. Cranberry was the last pony he’d wanted to run into tonight. “Go away.”

“You shouldn’t be out on the mountain by yourself, Rye. The stairs get so slippery in the winter.” Cranberry’s hooves clopped on the stone as she climbed up to approach him.

“I’m fine. Go away.”

“Rye… is this about the officers’ corps?”

“No. Yes.” He sighed. “They rejected my application.”

“Well a lot of ponies try to get into the training program, loads of them are bound to get rejected—“

“Do loads of them get their letters sent back unopened?” He snorted. “I shouldn’t have delivered it in person.”

“Well, you could always ask your mother to—“

“No,” he said firmly. “I’m not going to ride into my career on her name.”

“Well, I can respect that. Let’s go back home. I’m freezing out here.” Cranberry stamped her hooves, shivering.

“Go on, then. I’m fine.”

“What, go back without you? My sister and your parents would kill me. Come on, let’s go already. I hate it up here. You know I don’t like heights.”

“Ah,” he said. “So my parents put you up to this.” He nudged a pebble with his hoof, watching it tumble off the side of the mountain. “Wouldn’t want little Rye to hurt himself.”

“Rye, you’re acting funny. And not ‘ha-ha’ funny. What’s really going on here?”

He looked at her angrily. “It’s always the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s the officers’ corps, or the merchants in the marketplace, or even the stupid bookkeeper at that library you like so much. They take one look at me and hate me.”

Cranberry frowned. “I know for a fact that the bookkeeper doesn’t hate you. As for the others… it’s not hate, Rye. They’re just scared of the unknown.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one that has to look at this,” he said with a flap of his wings, “in the mirror every day.”

“So that’s what’s bothering you? You’re just mad about having gimpy wings?” Cranberry sounded scornful.

“I’m never going to fly. I’m never going to do magic. I’ll never be like my parents, never exceed anypony’s abysmally low expectations. I’m a cripple.”

“Well,” said Cranberry tartly, “As somepony who won’t ever fly or do magic, let me tell you, it’s not as bad as you seem to think.”

“You don’t understa—“

“I understand plenty, you whining git.” Rye looked up in surprise. “I know it hurts when they stare at you. I know you feel terrible when somepony treats you like a… a…”

“A freak.” He spat bitterly.

“I know you think it’s unfair. Well, Rye, guess what? Life isn’t fair. I think I know more about that than you do.”

He jolted guiltily. “Cranberry, I’m sorry… I didn’t…”

“Listen to me, Rye. You’ve got two options. You can stay up here and try to drown yourself in pity, or you can pull your head out of your ass and move on with your life. It won’t be easy. It’ll hurt. But I’ll help. That’s what friends are for.” She smiled at him. “I’m not going to abandon you. I’m not going to let you make me.”

He looked back down over the drop. A sense of shame washed over him. Taking that dive wouldn’t be a merciful relief. It would be… selfish. “I… Cranberry…”

“Come on, you idiot,” she said, still smiling, as she wrapped a leg around his neck and pulled him down the steps. “Let’s go back to the bakery.”

After that, he’d allowed himself to exploit his mother’s name just enough to get him a chance to enter the officer’s corps. A tiny bit of nepotism to allow him to begin his career fairly… of course, then he’d blown his chance on that field. He sighed.

He’d since learned to replace the feelings of resentment at his situation with a drive to do better, to prove himself, but he had never lost his desire to fly. He still dreamed of it, still wanted to feel the tips of his hooves drag through the clouds, to let the sun bathe his face, to reach out for the stars.

The magic thrummed around him. Now is your chance, it whispered. Be what you were meant to be.

He closed his eyes and opened himself like a floodgate, letting the magic burst through him like water breaking through a dam. It was in his hooves, in his ears, in his head, in his heart. It was in his horn. It was in his wings.

Rye braced his back legs and jumped into the air, flapping his wings mightily. His momentum carried him a half-meter in the air before he fell to the ground. He stood, feeling the magic bubbling up inside him, and jumped again. This time he reached the lowest of the branches above him before coming back to earth.

Gritting his teeth, Rye let go completely. The magic rushed in to fill his mind, wiping out all thought. He jumped into the air—flew into the air—and then he was gone, up and away, into the trees. He crashed through the branches and the leaves, shielding his face from the painful blows. At last he burst through the canopy, soaring upwards into the night sky.

When he came to a stop at last, he surveyed the trees of the Antlerwood with delight. They spread out in all directions without end. To the north, he could see the mountains standing tall, but east, west, and south were all covered with green. He flapped his wings and felt himself accelerate up. He spun around in midair, laughing. It was as amazing as he’d ever dreamed.

Rye flew up, toward the overcast sky. He plunged into the bottom of the clouds, zipping higher as moisture condensed on his wings. He flapped them vigorously, letting himself imagine it was they, not the magic, that were holding him aloft. He burst out of the top of the cloud, opening his eyes and feeling his breath sucked away as he saw the night sky spread out before him.

He’d never seen anything so beautiful before. There were no city lights here to block it out, and precious little atmosphere between him and the tiny pinpricks of light above. Vast swathes of milky white stretched across the sky, and spots of red and blue faintly glowed in the endless tracks of stars.

Rye fell down onto the cloud, landing on his back. He wouldn’t fall through unless he wanted to—one of the perks of having a pegasus for a mother. Instead, he lay there, staring up at the sky. The moon was high above, a little more than half full, now. The mare was just barely visible, her malevolent gaze piercing down to the Earth below.

Rolling over onto his stomach, Rye stood. Here, he felt more in touch with the magic than ever. It was inside every part of him, now. He drank deeply of it, feeling the flames pour into his mind. He was finally what he had always been meant to be. A truly perfect creature, a combination of the strengths of all the races of pony, an alicorn. This must be what the gods feel like. It was perfection. It was bliss. It was incomparable. It was right.

It was temporary.

The worries he’d been studiously avoiding since he had entered the Antlerwood now demanded to be heard. The quest he was on would soon carry him away from this forest, and the magic that had made him whole. Rye paced, deep in thought.

Many who go in never come out again, Inger had said. And now, Rye understood why. The very thought of leaving this place seemed blasphemous to him. But he couldn’t stay. The Princess was counting on him.

But did he have to deliver the treaties to the Thanes? Inger had made it plain from the start that he would prefer to go alone. Rye felt fury burn inside him again. Fine. He’d let the Firewing have his wish, and good riddance.

Why are you so angry? asked the little voice.

Rye struggled to answer. Inger had been a colossal prick for the last week and a half, he was fully entitled to be angry—

That’s just his personality. You’ve dealt with worse and laughed it off. Face it, Rye, this place is affecting more than just your magic.

He shook his head to shut out the insistent whisper. His thoughts, and his emotions, were his own. He turned back to the problem before him. He would let Inger take the treaties to Sleipnord, he decided. The Firewing would be happy, at least. It wasn’t like he had helped Inger much so far anyway.

Cranberry was another matter. He knew she would be disappointed, but there was no way that she could truly understand what this place was, what it allowed him to be. Outside the forest, he was drifting through his life, but in here, he had a future. He wasn’t sure she’d accept that explanation, but he couldn’t find the words for a better one.

But whatever his companions said, he was staying in this forest. There were plenty of edible plants below, and the water from the clouds could keep him hydrated. He could remain here forever, exploring the magic. Being what he had always been meant to be. Flying.

You can’t fly, said the little voice.

Ridiculous. He was standing on a cloud hundreds of meters above the treetops. If this wasn’t flying, what was?

Oh, you’re in the air, all right, but you’re not flying. It’s just magic holding you up.

Well… it was his magic keeping him up, wasn’t it? There was no difference.

It’s not your magic.

It might as well be. And it felt so good to tap into that hot current of power.

Seductively good.

“Shut up,” he mumbled, shivering.

Are you wielding it? Or is it wielding you?

Rye scowled. He was fully in control of his new powers. He twisted his head and fired a bolt of lightning from his horn, flying into the cloud beside him. It exploded into steam. He smiled proudly. Could he have done that without control?

But why do it at all?

Rye blinked away a bead of sweat. Suddenly he wanted to be far away from this cloud, from this spot. He wanted to be back inside the trees, where he would be safe from that maddening little voice.

Diving into the clouds, he plummeted out of the bottom and toward the ground below. He located the spot he’d come from easily enough, finding the hole he’d ripped through the branches. He landed beneath the canopy once more, feeling the comforting shield of the forest all around him.

As he walked back to the road, he prepared his excuses—no, his explanations. “Cranberry, Inger, I think I’ve been slowing you down. It wouldn’t be fair to you two to have to carry my weight all the way through Sleipnord and back…”

He felt the cobblestones under his hooves. “We’re not moving fast enough, the griffons might attack at any moment. Inger, I think you should take the treaties and go on ahead…” At last, he reached the area where Cranberry and Inger had lain. He ignited his horn, the blazing beacon revealing trees and the stark white road.

Inger and Cranberry were nowhere to be seen. Had he missed them in the dark? Rye gave an irritated grunt. Now he’d have to go walking up the path and hope he ran into them—

Lying in the middle of the road was a pile of brown cloth. Rye approached warily. He discovered it was his cloak and saddlebags, lying right where he’d left them. He slid the saddlebags on, delighted. Inger and Cranberry must have decided to go on without him. He wouldn’t have to say goodbye after all.

He turned to walk off into the forest, beginning his new life by finding a glade or a clearing to call home, when suddenly he again remembered that night so many years ago.

“I’m not going to abandon you. I’m not going to let you make me.”

Cranberry would never have left him in this forest. Maybe they’d woken up, and gone searching for him. But… Rye checked his bags. The treaties were still safe and sound inside. Inger would never have left these lying on the forest floor unprotected. Something’s wrong. A sick feeling crept into his gut. He held himself motionless, trying to think.

There was a faint sound, like the chittering of nails tapping on rock. Rye froze, and extinguished his light. The sound came again, accompanied by others just like it. He began creeping toward them, not daring any light. He felt his way through the trees, listening to the sound grow louder and louder as he approached. At last whatever was making the sounds was near enough to see. Rye lit his horn dimly, letting the faint orange light wash over the scene before him.

Cranberry and Inger were lying motionless on the ground, with ruined book pages and supplies strewn all around them. But they were not alone. Surrounding them were a group of… things. They were massive shelled creatures, their long carapaces gleaming faintly in the light of his horn. They were segmented like centipedes, but Rye had never heard of one growing to such a size. Some of them looked almost two meters long. They all had waving antennae, and dozens—perhaps hundreds—of quivering legs that clawed at the air and the comatose ponies.

Their shells dripped with a vile, amber-colored ichor. The creatures were covering Inger and Cranberry with the stuff, using their forelegs to mold it around them like a cocoon. He watched for a moment, aghast. He stepped forward into the clearing, letting his horn blaze fully. He stamped his hooves to the ground. The bug-creatures all paused their labor, twisting their heads and waving their antennae at him.

Rye flicked his head contemptuously and the nearest of the bugs burst into flame. It made a horrible screeeeeee! sound as it roasted inside its shell, twisting away and rolling on the ground. The other bugs recoiled for a moment. Rye looked around at them. There were only a dozen. He could easily handle them. The magic pulsed in his head.

Three of the bugs jumped him. He snapped his head at one and it, too, fell aside, blazing. The other two nearly reached him when they were smashed into each other like a hammer and anvil, their shells giving a sickly crack as they broke apart. Rye looked around for the others, and found that they had vanished. Along with Cranberry and Inger.

A flash of movement alerted him to their escape. He galloped after the bugs as quickly as his hooves would carry him. They were far ahead, but the light from his horn revealed their glistening carapaces in the dark forest. Rye jumped over roots, ducked under branches, and dodged rocks that seemed to spring out of the darkness to block his path. Despite carrying the weight of two fully-grown ponies, the bugs were fast.

Rye felt that they were moving northwest, but he couldn’t be sure. The chase continued for over half an hour, as he desperately tried to keep his friends in sight. They hadn’t been moving in the clearing, but he hadn’t looked closely enough to determine if the two of them were still breathing. He pressed on, willing his legs to move faster.

The distance began closing. He flicked his horn and send a ball of fire arcing toward the bugs. It caught one, and it fell backwards, sizzling. The others raced on ahead, crawling up a sudden sharp incline in the ground. They vanished over the side of a ledge.

Rye came to the top of the ridge and skidded to a halt. The ground before him was broken by a deep crevasse, extending down into the black depths of the unknown. The bugs had disappeared down the hole, along with his companions. He sent a ball of light from his horn that spun lazily down into the hole. The tunnel curved slightly off to the side, the drop turning into a slide. How far it went was anypony’s guess.

He stood motionless, paralyzed with indecision. Inger and Cranberry were gone. He couldn’t possibly hope to save them now. Those bugs had taken them Sisters-knew-where, and jumping into that hole was probably suicide.

So now it was up to him to get the treaties to Sleipnord. He swallowed. But the northlands were dangerous, and without Inger’s help he didn’t think he’d last long. The heat pulsed painfully in his head. Wait. Inger mentioned the tower guard, before. That was it! He’d take the treaties to the ponies of Middengard, and they would deliver Celestia’s plea to the Thanes. And then he could return to the forest. The pain in his head eased.

He turned away from the hole, humming jauntily. It would only take him two days at most to reach the tower and return. Then he could get back to exploring the magic. He’d gone about ten meters when his hooves ground to a stop.

What the hell am I doing?

He looked back at the hole. Cranberry and Inger needed his help. He couldn’t just leave them… But his mission was more important. He had to get those treaties delivered. Rye gave a mournful sigh, and shook his head. He turned to continue, but his hooves didn’t move.

It’s so subtle. The little voice sounded sad. You’ve convinced yourself that you’re doing the right thing.

But he was! Even if he were to foolishly follow them into the abyss, how could he possible save them from those creatures without the forest’s magic? He needed it.

And your friends need you.

“Who are you?” he moaned, clutching his head.

I’m you. You’ve forgotten who you are in here, Rye. Don’t let this place change you. Remember what the Princess said?

“Remember, Rye,” he said, “Your friends are your greatest strength.”

Your friends. Not this forest.

“Right…” he nodded slowly, wincing at the building pressure in his head. “Not the magic.” His head felt like it was on fire. The magic pulsed around him like a living thing, angrily batting at him. He knelt, cringing at the burning touch. He needed it. He couldn’t live without it. Without it, he was nothing, less than nothing. But in the forest he was a god.

Cranberry’s voice echoed through his thoughts.

“I’m not going to abandon you. I’m not going to let you make me. Come on, you idiot,” she said, still smiling, as she wrapped a leg around his neck and pulled him down the steps. “Let’s go back to the bakery.”

“Cranberry?”

“Yes, Rye?”

“Thank you. I won’t abandon you, either.”

He snapped his head up. The furious drums of the magic beat inside his head as he stood, stiffening. He felt for the current that lay beneath the flood, feeling the searing touch of the flame. Rye took a deep breath, and broke the contact.

It was like plunging into ice water. He gasped at the cold, falling sideways into a tree, where he slid to the ground. He lay there, gulping air, shaking like he’d been dunked into the northern sea. He felt hollow, like his vital organs had just been ripped out. It was a sucking cold, leeching all the warmth from his body and leaving him helpless on the ground.

The magic was gone. He was once again bereft of flight, of power, of life itself. He had nothing left… except a purpose. His friends needed him. “C-c-come on, R-Rye,” he stammered, his teeth chattering. “K-k-keep it t-together.”

Making sure his saddlebags were still secure, he crawled to the edge of the crevice. He looked over the edge and into the blackness. It offered no hints as to what lay beyond. Rye looked around at the trees of the Antlerwood one last time.

Come back, they seemed to whisper. Come back to us. Be who you are meant to be.

Rye’s lip stiffened. I am.

He jumped into the hole.


Chapter Sixteen

Windstreak flew through the air, high above the river. Her Firewings and the Cloudsdale pegasi under her charge were busy at work, filling the skies. She had ordered them to gather as many clouds as they could. They were creating rainstorms, and sending them south to disrupt the griffons’ troop movements. It was a large effort for a small payoff, but the ponies needed every advantage they could get in the coming battle. Though Westermin had finally arrived the day before, the griffons still vastly outnumbered them.

The griffons had been sending raiding groups to harass the defenders. On their first attack, they had tried to fly around the ponies and take them from behind. They hadn’t expected the Firewings—the attack was quickly repulsed, and many of the griffons were killed in the subsequent fight. But they’d been sending more and more, wearing away at the stamina of the pegasi and whittling their numbers down. Every pony they lost was irreplaceable, but for every griffon they killed, there were three to take its place.

With the addition of Westermin’s troops, Celerity’s army had reached nearly forty-four hundred fighting ponies, all prepared to defend the bridge at the cost of their lives. The Duchess had been everywhere, walking among her soldiers to boost their morale and to make sure her troops were ready for the coming battle. Windstreak was impressed, despite herself—the unicorn loved her people dearly, and would fight to defend them.

Windstreak hovered, looking north. In the distance, Whitetail forest blanketed the horizon, and somewhere beyond that lay Canterlot. Apricot would be opening the store in an hour, flipping over the sign and letting in the customers. She could almost smell the bread baking in the ovens, and hear her husband’s fussing as he prepared each pastry for sale. She missed him terribly.

And then there was Rye, sent far to the north on a dangerous quest at the behalf of the Princess. Windstreak had been furious, and then terrified, when Celestia had told her about Rye’s encounter with the griffons in the forest. “I knew I shouldn’t have let him wander in there…”

“Don’t blame yourself,  ma’am.” Her lieutenant had flown up behind her without making a noise.

“Bergeron! I thought I told you not to do that.”

“Sorry, ma’am.” He didn’t look very sorry, giving her a cheeky grin. It faded, and he said “But I’m serious, Captain. Don’t dwell on it. He’ll be fine.”

Windstreak had told no one else about her son’s mission. All the rest of the Firewings simply knew that Celestia had sent messengers to the north to ask for aid; they didn’t know that it was their Captain’s only son.

She had kept her personal life very private from the rest of the Firewings. Most of the longer-serving members had met her husband Apricot, but very few of them knew her son personally. Even the Princess hadn’t seen him since he was a tiny foal, only a few months old. No wonder she hadn’t recognized him when they met.

 She’d intentionally said little about him, except to her closest brothers-and-sisters-in-arms. Pegacorns were shunned, considered mutants and aberrations, and she’d wanted to spare Rye as much of that as possible. Perhaps too much. Had she and Apricot smothered him? Prevented him from living in a vain attempt to protect him from the pain of a world that had never understood his kind? Maybe that was why he’d galloped off on this crazy journey to Sleipnord.

Oh, Rye, I’m so sorry. We never wanted this for you.

Eight years ago, she, Bergeron, and another Firewing named Inger had defended the town of Trottingham from an attack by the mountain trolls. During that desperate fight, Windstreak met a young baker pony, Apricot Strudel. He’d been scared, as they all had been, but he’d offered up his bakery as a safehouse for the townsponies. In the last night of the attack, as they had all waited to die, Windstreak and Apricot had talked to each other to take their thoughts away from their impending doom. He’d been quiet and calm, with a kindness in his soul that struck a deep resonance within her.

They survived the night, thanks to the efforts of Bergeron and the rest of the ‘Wings, and Windstreak offered to stay behind for a while to help rebuild the town. The marshal had agreed, and so for three months Windstreak found herself living outside the military for the first time in her life. She and Apricot hadn’t fallen in love instantly—it had taken at least a day. Together, they helped Trottingham get back on its hooves, and after three months the town was as good as new. On the last night of her leave, she and Apricot had sat out under the stars, looking up at them together. She’d struggled to say goodbye, trying desperately to find the right words. But when she opened her mouth, what spilled out instead was:

“Will you marry me?”

Apricot had laughed and kissed her. Their wedding was held two months later, in the capital of Canterlot. The Princess herself had presided, clearly delighted for her personal guardpony. Windstreak had continued to serve in the Firewings, and Apricot moved to the capital to open his own bakery. She lived there with him, completely satisfied.

The day she’d discovered she was pregnant with Rye had been the happiest of her life. The months had passed like seconds, and before she had even become accustomed to the idea of motherhood, she and Apricot were parents of a tiny, newborn colt. But what should have been the most beautiful day of all was soon darkened by tragedy.

The new parents sat and listened quietly as the midwife explained their son’s condition. Normally, when a pony was born to a couple of mixed species, the union would result in one or the other—a pegasus or a unicorn, or more commonly an earth pony. But their son, through some genetic fluke, had both wings and a horn. He was a pegacorn, one of the rarest breed of pony, and one of the most reviled. They were sickly, undersized foals, and rarely made it to adulthood. If, against the odds,  they survived, pegacorns were the embodiment of  every insecurity and jealousy a pony could have. The nursepony held little hope that Rye would live through the year.

Apricot had held her as she cried for their son, devastated by the realization that everything had changed. They swore to each other that they would do everything they could to help their little Rye, knowing that their lives would never be the same.

As the little foal had struggled to take his first steps, Windstreak cooed encouragements. “Come on, Rye, you can do it!” The little colt had walked unsteadily across the room, supported by his parents. He flapped his tiny wings, and Windstreak had kissed his horn. Tears of joy and sorrow ran down her face, and she’d told the little foal: “I’ll always be here for you, Rye. Always. I promise.”

But now he was gone. And she was hundreds of miles away, unable to see him, unable to be there for him. She blinked, her eyes watery. Bergeron had hovered beside her, unwilling to disturb her reflection. He looked over his shoulder to the south, and breathed sharply. “Captain Windstreak!”

Her reverie broken, Windstreak whipped around. “What?”

“To the south! Look!” He pointed a hoof. The horizon, bare just minutes before, was rapidly filling with a black line. As the Firewings watched, the line grew and grew until it covered the edge of the land as far east and west as the naked eye could see. The griffons had finally arrived.

Windstreak’s face hardened. “Signal the alert. Get the Cloudsdale pegasi ready to defend the airspace. I’ll make sure that the line at the bridge is ready.” They snapped salutes at each other and flew off, beating their wings furiously.

She landed in front of Celerity’s tent, bursting inside. “Duchess! The griffons are here! We need to prepare the bridge!”

The duchess was in the process of putting on her armor. Already she was covered in mail, shiny and polished to perfection. She did not turn around. “Have the Westermin ponies take the line. I want two shieldponies in front of every spear.” Her horn glowed as the last piece of her armor, the helmet, lifted into the air. “Are the air forces ready?”

“Yes. We’ll keep the skies clear.”

“Excellent.” The helmet descended slowly over Celerity’s head, her horn fitting snugly through a hole cut in the helmet’s forehead. She turned her head to look at Windstreak with one eye. “Today we’ll give them a fight they will never forget.”

* * *

The bridge was filled from side to side. The long line of ponies stood firm, their shields and spears held ready to defend it. The front line had their shields mounted on their sides, crouched sideways to present them to the enemy. Behind them, the spearponies had their weapons gripped firmly in their teeth.

Without opposable claws like the dragons or the griffons, the ponies had been forced to be inventive about their weaponry. Behind the spearponies were the main fighters of the army, armed with the old standby weapon of Equestria: the hoof-mace. It was as simple as it was deadly; a heavy weight worn like a horseshoe, firmly secured and molded around their hooves. It was flattened on the bottom, with sharp edges to bring maximum crushing power down on anything unlucky enough to be in its way.

The unicorns wore no weapons and had little armor. Their greatest asset was their magic, and a few well-placed spells could turn the tide of a battle. The pegasi had to stay light, and so wore no armor—except for the Firewings, whose gold-laced raiment gleamed in the sun. They would fight tooth and hoof against the griffons in the sky, turning the weather against their foes and making sure the griffons could not surround the ponies on the ground.

But the griffons were many, and the ponies few. General Shrikefeather took to the air with his lieutenant, staring out over the battlefield. “It’s a good plan. Whoever leads them is no fool.” He flicked his tail. “We’ll take it nonetheless.”

“Sir, we could clear that line with our siege weaponry. We wouldn’t have to risk any of our troops.”

“We cannot risk damaging the bridge. We’ll test their strength at the line. Tell the infantry to advance.” His eyes narrowed in anticipation. “It looks like we’ll have a proper fight after all.”

* * *

The vast horde of griffons reached the river at noon. At some unseen signal, they raised their weapons. They began banging their swords and spears against their shields. Roaring and beating out a marching rhythm, the griffons sent up a war chant across the river, a cacophony of noise and bloodlust that sent chills into the hearts of the ponies. Duchess Belle, riding between the line at the bridge and those arrayed along the shores, shouted over the din. “Remain steadfast, soldiers of Whitetail! Fear no enemy! Hold your ground!” The ponies stood firm.

The first attack came from the air. The griffons lifted off, soaring through the air like harpies after blood, filling the skies with feathers and steel. The Firewings and Cloudsdale pegasi flew to meet them. The two great forces clashed in the sky, in a whirlwind of combat that rapidly degenerated into an airborne brawl.

Windstreak smashed her hooves into the face of a griffon, crushing its beak and sending it flying backwards. The griffon fell from the sky, down toward the river below. The Firewings fought like madponies, breaking through the griffons’ defenses and killing dozens by themselves. The Cloudsdale ponies darted through the sky, disturbing the air currents and disrupting the griffon’s flying ability. Where there might be a rush of hot air to lift a griffon, suddenly there was a cold wind from the backblast of a pegasus’s flight that sent them plummeting downward.

The griffons in turn fought fiercely, raking their battleclaws into the ponies. The unarmored Cloudsdale ponies did their best, but against the weapons of the griffons they were nearly defenseless. The battle raged on, and blood rained down from the sky with the corpses of the fallen.

Below, the bridge had turned into a killing ground. The griffons surged onto the structure, crashing against the line of Westermin ponies. The griffons were testing the line for strength, sending in their poorly armored spear-fodder first. The griffons smashed into the line of shieldponies, who instantly stalled their advance. Behind them, the ponies shoved their spears into the gap, ravaging the griffon shock troops. The griffon war cry was replaced by screams and hoarse cries as they fell, pierced by the spears of the Equestrians.

The bridge was raised in the middle, allowing the blood to flow down either side. Soon, the stones were slick with the gore of the dying griffons. The avians pulled back, their first push thwarted. Above, the aerial battle had reached a fever pitch. Windstreak was in the thick of it, flying into combat with any griffon she saw. Though the griffons were many, the Firewings were more than a match for any of them in single combat. The day dragged on, and more and more of the griffons fell to their hooves.

The battle lasted for over three hours. No pony could fight that long without becoming utterly exhausted, but Celerity replaced the ponies at the bridge line with fresh troops every twenty minutes. The griffons tried again and again to breach their line, but those that tried to push through the shields were crushed, and those who tried to fly over them were pierced on the sharp spear-points of the ponies in the middle of the line.

The griffons pulled back near three ‘o clock to lick their wounds and plan the next assault. In the sky, the air raiders broke away from the fight, retreating south over the river. Windstreak ordered her troops to let them go; they couldn’t risk pursuing them over the griffon army. The pegasi descended to the ground to rest their aching wings and recover from the fierce battle. Windstreak sought out Duchess Belle, finding her at last at the rear of the bridge, overseeing the latest change in the line.

“Duchess!” Windstreak landed heavily in front of her, letting her wings hang limply at her sides. Her once-shiny armor was now grimy, splattered with blood and sweat. A griffon had gotten in a lucky hit, scoring a slash across her breastplate. There was a jagged gash through the symbol of the Sun. “Their aerial forces have pulled back. The skies are clear, for the moment.”

“Excellent work, Captain.” Duchess Belle looked tired, but pleased. “We’ve held the bridge and the skies against their assaults. It will be some time before they try again. Are you wounded?”

Windstreak shook her head. “Not seriously.”

“Then get some rest. You’ll need it for tomorrow.” The Duchess turned away. “Leeroy! I want those reinforcements brought up to the front of the line! Get to it!”

The Firewing Captain walked away, giving her wings a rest. From above, Bergeron appeared, landing beside her. “Captain! Thank the Sisters you’re all right.” They smiled at each other, relieved to see they were both unharmed.

“Report, Bergeron. How many did we lose?”

“Miraculously few, considering. Perhaps three score from Cloudsdale have fallen. And… I’m sorry, Captain. Miles was killed. He flew down to save a pegasus in distress, and got hit from behind by one of the raiders.”

Windstreak accepted the news quietly. “But no others?”

“All of the rest of the Firewings are still fit for fighting, ma’am. Ingrid has a mild concussion from getting banged on the helmet, but no others have reported serious injuries.”

“Let us hope that tomorrow’s battle goes as well.”

“I’ll see you in the morning, then. We’re running search and rescue for any pegasi that fell during the battle. Some of them may have survived.”

“Thank you, Bergeron. Good luck.”

“To you as well, Captain.” He saluted and flew off. Windstreak walked in the direction of the Firewings’ tents, determined to get some sleep before the fighting resumed.

* * *

General Shrikefeather listened with displeasure to the after-action report. “It seems they were better prepared than our scouts suggested.”

“Sir, it’s those pegasi in the golden armor. There are only a few hundred of them, but they fight like Krishnika.”

“They’re not demons, lieutenant. Just very good soldiers. Celestia’s elite guard, if I’m not mistaken.” He scowled. “I rarely am.” He flicked his talons idly, thinking. “We need to control the air if we’re to take this bridge on schedule. I want every attack squadron we have marshaled by tonight. We’ll attack at dawn. Send Captain Withers to me, I’ll need to brief him personally. Are the maulers prepared?”

“They just arrived on the field this morning, sir. They’ll be fit for combat tomorrow.”

“Good. If Withers does his job right, we’ll have the opening we need. They were swapping out the line every twenty minutes. If they keep that pattern tomorrow, we’ll exploit it. Once we break that line, the ponies will be forced to retreat. We’ll chase them into the northlands and crush them.” He snapped his claw shut.

“Very good, sir.”

“Before you go, lieutenant, tell me. Have the scouts learned who leads the army?” He hadn’t seen Celestia on the field today, which meant she was likely far away in the capital. That was for the best—he wasn’t looking forward to fighting the god-queen, not yet, not so early in his campaign.

“A unicorn. The Duchess Celerity Belle.”

“Celerity? Of course, I should have expected as much.” He tapped a talon on the ground. “She’s been a thorn in my side for the last twenty years. It’s thanks to her that our raids were never able to take Sel-Paloth. I’ll look forward to killing her… personally. Give the order that she is to be left to me. I want to see the look on her face when we march into the plains over the bodies of her troops.”


Chapter Seventeen

 

Rye slid down the chute, deeper and deeper into the bowels of the earth. The sides were smooth, which was fortunate; the chute began to curve more steeply as he descended, and he found himself pressed against what was fast becoming the bottom. At least two minutes had passed by the time he felt a sharp curve in the tunnel, and suddenly the incline radically decreased. He went tumbling head-over-hooves onto a flat surface.

It took him a moment to get his bearings, as he shook himself off. The feeling of cold had nearly vanished by now, but the emptiness remained. He tried not to think about the hot breath of the magic above, but it edged at his consciousness with insistence. Rye pictured Cranberry, encased in that disgusting ooze, and his head instantly cleared. He knew what he had to do.

Now, the trick was figuring out how to do it. He couldn’t see a thing in the pitch-black cave. He needed light. Rye swallowed. Bracing himself, he closed his eyes and reached tentatively out for the magic. The forest’s whisper echoed through his ears, but he felt no raging inferno, no violent river of flame. Instead, he found the familiar trickle of magic he had tried to touch all his life.

He pressed against it, feeling the resistance. The cool kiss of the stream was… calming. He smiled. He channeled the magic, and instead of a raging torrent of blazing power, he felt the river spray lightly on his face. It was nothing like the magic of the forest, yet somehow, it seemed purer, cleaner. His horn lit, the orange glow revealing his surroundings. It was barely a small candle compared to the shining beacon from before, but it was his light, not the forest’s.

Rye stood in a circular tunnel that extended back and up the way he’d fallen, and forward into darkness. The walls were not the rock he had expected. Instead, they were a strange amber-colored substance, slightly sticky to the touch. The resin material was partially translucent. If he pressed his nose up against a wall, he could see through to the stone underneath the resin, as if looking through a fogged lens. It seemed that the tunnel had been formed naturally or dug, and then coated in this amber substance by something. He had a feeling he knew what.

The only way he was going back was if he could fly, and he’d made that choice already. The path forward into the darkness beckoned him. Rye took a fortifying breath. “Hang on, guys. I’m coming for you.” He set off into the tunnel to find his friends.

As he walked, his hooves echoed weirdly on the resin. It sounded as if it was almost hollow, yet the echoes were muffled. It was like walking on a floor made of cork. The sides of the tunnel were covered with dozens, hundreds of tiny holes. They were various sizes, but all of them were far too small to admit a pony of Inger's size. Rye avoided the holes as much as possible. He was leery of investigating this place any more than he had to.

 Almost an hour had passed without incident, when Rye came to a split in the tunnel. One branch carried off to the right, slanting upward. The other sloped down and to the left. The bugs hadn’t been kind enough to leave signs, so he was forced to guess. Assuming that wherever his friends had been taken was deeper in the tunnels, he chose the left path.

He had yet to encounter another living creature in the darkness. He wasn’t sure whether to be worried or grateful. He came to another split, but this time, both paths led downward. Rye scanned the tunnel floor for any sign of bodies being dragged, but the hard resin offered no clues. Shrugging, he took the left path again.

Rye hummed a few bars from Living in the Sunlight, one of Cranberry’s favorite songs, hoping vainly that she might hear him and respond. The sound reverberated disturbingly off the walls, reminiscent more of a trapped rat’s squeals than a song. He quickly stopped singing.

He could only remain alert for so long. As he walked on and on without running into anything, his attention started to slip. He was so unfocused that he nearly ran into a wall. Rye paused, looking around. The tunnel split like a T, separate paths running left and right. He’d picked left so far, so once again he turned and carried on down that tunnel.

The air was growing damp. Rye smelled something musty but sweet, like rotten milk covered in honey. He wrinkled his nose, pressing forward. Ahead, he found that the tunnel ended, exiting into a larger chamber. He stepped carefully out, looking around at what his bubble of light revealed.

The walls beside and above the tunnel entrance were covered with small greenish pods. The walls themselves were different, oozing a greenish ichor of the same consistency as the amber he’d seen earlier. He looked carefully at one of the pods, when suddenly it squirmed. He recoiled in disgust. Inside the pod was some sort of larval form of the creatures he’d seen earlier. It was a pale white, but through the pod it was encased in, it acquired a greenish hue.

A chittering sound echoed from above. Rye froze, his eyes slowly turning up. Into the light of his horn crawled one of the bug creatures. It was hanging on the wall, its feet clattering on the resin as it descended. The bug crawled over one of the larva pods, extending a thin proboscis. There was a sound like gas escaping a leaky pipe, and the pod flooded with a brown liquid. The larva wiggled back and forth, completely bathed in the stuff.

He didn’t know what it was, and he didn’t want to. Right now he had to get out of this chamber. Rye took off running back the way he’d come, not daring to look behind him. He didn’t stop until he’d reached the junction. He stood there, panting for a minute, listening frantically for the sound of the bugs. The only noises were his heaving gasps. He had gotten away clean.

Regaining some of his composure, he continued down the other path. After a dozen meters, it split into four separate tunnels. Rye gave a little moan of dismay. Sisters, help me. He picked one at random and walked for ten minutes before running into a wall of collapsed rock that completely blocked the path. Backtracking, he took the far right tunnel this time.

After twenty minutes, he’d passed several more tunnel branches, before finally arriving at a large hole in the floor. The tunnel seemed to curve downward like the chute he’d used to enter this labyrinth in the first place. Rye pulled an apple out of his bag and threw it. He listened for over a minute, but heard no sound of it hitting the floor. He ruled out the chute as an avenue of forward progress, and went back to one of the many tunnels he’d passed.

With each passing hour, he grew more and more lost. Occasionally he would come across one of the bugs, freezing in his tracks. They seemed not to notice his presence, ignoring the light from his horn and crawling around the tunnel into one of the holes in the wall. This occurrence was infrequent, but every time it happened, his chest pounded painfully.

“Let’s go adventuring, she said,” he muttered. “See the deep caves! It’ll be fun!” The image of Cranberry’s beaming face put a swift end to his complaining, as terror seized his heart. Every minute he wasted wandering around down here was another minute his friends grew closer to death. He couldn’t be certain of that, but from what he’d seen of these bug creatures so far, it seemed fairly obvious.

His tunnel came to a dead end. It suddenly curved upward ninety degrees, vanishing into the darkness above. Rye stamped his hoof in frustration. “Damn.”

Behind him came a chittering sound. He whipped around to find one of the bugs rearing up at him, raising its forelegs. He held his breath, standing motionless. The bug swayed slowly, its forelegs waving and antennae twitching. Rye’s eyes moved up and down the creature, taking in the horrifying details. Each of its stubby little legs jerked in spastic, ceaseless motion. Its mandibles clacked together, dripping with amber resin. It had no eyes.

Rye didn’t think he was going to get out of this one without a fight. Come on, Rye, you can do this. You killed that griffon in the woods, remember? Just grit your teeth and smash it. This time, however, he had no Dawn Sparkle to back him up. He watched with sick fascination as the bug’s front two legs unfurled. They were much longer than the rest, and they ended not in chitin but in sharp, bony scythe-like protrusions. They glistened wetly in his horn’s light.

The creature’s mandibles opened, and suddenly it let loose a screech like a dying rabbit. Rye smelled the same stench of decay and honey as before, doing his best not to gag. He recoiled from the bug, bumping into the wall behind him.

Instantly, the bug leaped forward. It slashed its scythe-arms at him, scoring gashes across his side. Rye twisted, trying to get away from the creature. He lashed out with his rear hooves, taking it in the middle and sending the bug crashing into the wall. He crawled onto his stomach, pushing up and trying to run. He felt the bug spring onto him, wrapping around his midsection.

He gave a little scream as the bug’s hundreds of legs scraped across his skin. He swiveled, trying to find the thing’s head. It appeared before him, mandibles spread wide as if to invite a hoof. Rye obliged, smashing his right hoof into the thing’s face with all the strength he could muster. It splattered, the hissing instantly cutting off.

He slumped to the ground, still tangled in the bug’s carcass. Grunting, he shoved it off of him. Rye stood unsteadily, shaking. Well, thought some detached part of his brain, that makes two kills. He felt a little revolted with himself. He’d wanted to join the military to save lives, not take them. Perhaps his dream career hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

Rye looked down at the ruined body of the bug creature. No. These things deserve no remorse. They’re abominations. He shook his head. He’d lingered long enough. Turning to continue down the path, he stumbled.

What was wrong with him? The bug hadn’t hurt him that badly. He was barely even bleeding. Rye looked down at the gashes in his side. They were thin red lines, no longer stinging, but numb. Wait, numb?

“Oh, horseapples.” Rye staggered forward. Those scythe-arms had to have been coated in some kind of venom, or tranquilizer. The bugs clearly took their prey alive. Already, he’d lost all feeling in his left legs and side. His right legs were starting to go. At least now he knew that Cranberry and Inger hadn’t been dead when they were carried off in the forest.

Rye wandered down the tunnel, bumping into the sides. He weaved back and forth, trying to make his way forward. His head was growing cloudy. He fell drunkenly against the wall, and slid down to the floor. “Cranberry… Inger… hang on, guys, I’m coming for you.” He blinked stupidly. “Right after a… quick nap…” His eyes shut.

The last thing he heard before he lost consciousness was chittering.

* * *

“What d’you think’s wrong with his wings?”

Rye shuffled his hooves, trying to rub some warmth back into them. The field, full of poles and walls, waited ahead. He glanced around at the other trainees, shivering again. He’d been waiting a long time for this.

“Forget about his wings, look at his head.”

“What kind of freak has wings and a horn?”

He frowned. It wasn’t worth his time, but he was sorely tempted to snap an angry retort.

“Form up, trainees.”

At the drill instructor’s summons, Rye and the other recruits formed their lines. The instructor explained the test to them. “Ring the bell to complete the excercise. You’ll be paired with another to help pace yourselves. We’ll be accepting the top fifty percent of trainees...”

Rye fidgeted, impatient. Next to him stood Fritz. They would be running the course together, it seemed.

“So, Strudel, think you can beat me? There’s still time to give up, you know.”

“Please, Fritz, don’t embarrass yourself. There’ll be plenty of time for that once we start the test.”

The other pony snickered and was silent. Ahead of them, the line grew shorter as the trainees passed through the course. At last, Rye and Fritz reached the front of the line.

The instructor blew his whistle again, and they were off. Rye and Fritz took off galloping, flying into the obstacle course. Rye easily jumped across the logs, laughing as Fritz struggled and failed to find his balance.

The hurdles were next, and he vaulted over the first with ease. The next was higher, and he had to take it at a run. Fritz was across the logs and catching up fast, but Rye wasn’t worried. He had enough of a lead to last him till the ropes. The two of them zipped over the hurdles, each vying to be first to finish. Fritz was gaining ground, but Rye dove under the spinning poles and crawled like a snake. They dragged themselves through the mud, trying to get to the wall first.

The rope dangled from the wall like a vine, and the two reached it nearly simultaneously. They climbed quickly up, shimmying with their hooves. Rye put a hoof over the lip of the wall, pulling himself over, only to find Fritz already on the tightropes.

He carefully stepped out, walking as quickly as he dared. Fritz was far ahead of him, but moving cautiously. Slowly the distance between them began to close. Rye looked at Fritz desperately. Despite Rye’s faster pace across the rope, the other pony was going to make it off ahead of him. There was no way Rye could catch him on the final stretch. It was now or never. The instructor had only said no flying, after all…

Rye unfurled his wings and heard a gasp from the crowd. Let them look. They were about to see that being a pegacorn was not being crippled. Balanced by his wings, he quickly overtook the other pony. As he passed, Fritz snarled. “Nice wings, mutant.”

Rye’s hoof slipped on the rope. He swayed dangerously, struggling to keep his balance. He was going to fall. No. No! He flapped his wings as harder than he ever had, harder than his countless attempts to fly, harder even than his desperate childhood plunge from the roof of the bakery.

The rope moved beneath him, threatening to dump him into the mud below. Slowly, carefully, he brought it under control, his wings maintaining his balance. He bent backwards, and started racing along the rope as fast as he dared. He leapt from the tower into the sand pit, flushed with success. He raced onward through the rest of the course, crawling into the logs and out as Fritz struggled to catch up.

The peal of the bell was like a victory cry. Rye pulled the cord three times for good measure, brimming with pride. He turned to see an officer approaching. “You used your wings, recruit.” The olive green pony was stern.

“I didn’t fly, sir.” Rye said firmly. “I was simply utilizing every advantage I was permitted to.”

The noncom looked sidelong at him. “Hmm.” He smiled wryly. “Very well, Trainee Strudel. Carry on down to the running track.”

Rye was exultant as he skipped away from the obstacle course. He made his way down to the track, taking his place with all the other trainees. After an hour, the rest of the recruits had finished the first section, and the run began.

It was difficult, but Rye kept the pace. By the time it was done, he was sweating like a pig and every breath was like a knife in his side, but he finished the five miles easily before two thirds of the other ponies. He smiled in exhausted delight as the officer posted the times on a board.

The results were read off, as the trainees waited with bated breath for their names to be called. “Cherry Summers. Cloudy Raindrop. Fritz Bolgar. Cyndric Bellemont. Rye Strudel. Pokey Snipes...”

Thunder roared in his ears as he grinned in triumph. The new officers were marched aside to receive their ensign’s bars from the Major, who handed them out to each with a nod of his head.

He’d dreamed about this moment for three years, nearly half his life. Finally, he would follow his mother into the service of the Princess and show everypony that even without magic or flight, he was capable of doing great things on his own. I’m not a cripple.

He was still grinning when the test was over, and the ensigns were gathered together with the noncom. “We’ll be going up to the castle to get you all situated. Tomorrow we’ll begin fitting you for armor. After that, you’ll be given your class assignments.” He blew his whistle again. “Let’s move out!”

The new ensigns turned and marched—not quite in unison, they had not yet mastered that art—after him, their golden bars gleaming in the sunlight. Rye began to follow them, when he heard a familiar voice calling his name.

“Rye! Rye!” He turned to see his mother flying down to greet him, landing on the grass before him.

“Mom! I made it!” He was happier than he’d ever been. “They all thought I couldn’t, but I did! I’m a genuine officer now. We can see each other at the castle, when you go back on tour.” He beamed.

Windstreak’s expression was buoyant. “Yes, you did wonderfully. I’m so happy for you.”

Rye’s enthusiasm faltered a bit. He looked into his mother’s eyes. “Mom. Have I… have I made you proud of me?”

His mother smiled at him. “Incredibly. More than you can know.”

They nuzzled. Rye tried to keep the emotion out of his voice. “Thanks, mom.”

“I’m so proud of you, son. Never doubt that.” Windstreak’s voice broke. “But it’s time to wake up.”

“What?” Rye withdrew.

Windstreak was still smiling, but it was a sad one. “Your friends need you, Rye. You have to wake up.”

“But… but…” Rye looked around. “But I won! I… I thought… I thought I’d finally made you happy. I’m an officer now, a real one. I can prove myself! I can show everyone I’m not a cripple. I can… I can…” He felt like a little foal again.

Windstreak knelt to Rye’s level. “Rye, I am incredibly proud to have you for a son. Nothing could ever change that. But it’s not because of this-“ She poked his shiny new ensign’s insignia with a hoof. “It’s because of this.” She touched her lips to his head. “And this.” She prodded his chest, right above his heart. “I’m proud of you because against everything, you’ve survived. You’re my son, and I love you, Rye. It’s time to let go of my dream and live your life.”

“I don’t want to disappoint you…” Rye sniffled.

“Then save your friends.” Windstreak blinked away a tear, still smiling at him. “Wake up.”

Rye looked backwards at the rest of the ensigns. They were marching off together, laughing away the stress of the exams. The noncom looked back and shouted “Come on, Strudel! Hurry up!”

He turned to his mother again. She shook her head. “Let it go, Rye. Wake up.”

* * *

Growing up in Canterlot, Rye had never had a chance to learn to swim, but he imagined this was what drowning felt like. The darkness pressed in all around him, smothering him in black velvet. He felt like he was coming up for air as he awoke, drawing a hoarse breath. He shuddered. He was sweating.

That dream had been so vivid. Had it even been a dream? Was it simply a hallucination? Was this the dream? Clearly the drugs from that creature’s attack hadn’t worn off yet. He shook his head, trying to drag his mind out of the murky depths.

Gradually he became aware of chittering sounds all around him. With an apprehensive swallow, he touched the magic. His horn glowed brightly, revealing his surroundings. He was not alone. Three of the bug creatures were around him, slathering that amber resin on him. Rye found himself stuck, impossibly, on the side of the wall, encased from his midsection down in resin.

His front hooves were still free, however. Without thinking, Rye smashed one of the bugs in the head. It lost its grip on the wall and fell screeching into the darkness. The other two recoiled momentarily, then raised their leg-scythes and approached.

Rye whinnied in panic, striking out at them both. He took the first one in the abdomen, but the second scurried above him, out of the reach of his hooves. It descended toward him, waving its scythes.

He smacked his head upwards, crushing his horn into the bug’s face. He felt chitin cracking, and ripped his head forward. The bug came off the wall, and fell. Rye was still for a moment, trying to calm his racing heart.

Now that the immediate danger had passed, he was able to observe his surroundings in detail. He was in a chamber he had not seen before, incredibly vast. His horn’s glow reflected in and off of the amber resin, extending its range into the depths. Even so, he could not see the other side of the chamber. It seemed to carry off to the left and right a great distance, becoming lost in darkness. It might go on for miles.

Rye knew with sinking certainty that he was deep under the mountains now. The cave system these creatures inhabited was massive, as big as the Antlerwood itself. Maybe bigger. His attention was drawn to the circle of the wall revealed by his light. The wall was covered with pods, much like the larva chamber, but these pods were the same amber color as the wall. He looked to his left and squinted at the nearest one.

His growing suspicions were confirmed. The pods weren’t just architecture, they were prison cells. Inside his neighboring pod was a brown pony whose saddlebags bore the symbol of the royal courier service. Rye looked around. The pods weren’t just filled with ponies. He saw rats, diamond dogs, timberwolves… if he wasn’t mistaken, one particularly large bubble housed a manticore.

Cranberry and Inger must be in here. He had to escape his cell and find them. Rye looked back over at the messenger pony. To Rye’s relief, he was still breathing. That meant that Cranberry and Inger were probably still safe. For now.

Suddenly the pony’s eyes snapped open. Rye would have jumped backwards, but he was still bound from the middle down in amber. The messenger pony stared at him in confusion, then reached a hoof forward. It clunked against the amber pod. The messenger began screaming. He started banging on his prison, sending vibrations that Rye could feel through the resin wall.

He heard the now-familiar chittering sound from above. “Stop kicking!” he yelled to the other pony, but the messenger couldn’t hear him, or wouldn’t listen. He kept screaming and bashing his hooves against the pod as one of the bugs descended from above. It settled over the pony’s pod, extending its proboscis. The appendage slid into the amber like it was putty, poking through inside the cell. Rye held perfectly still, watching with horror. He’d been wrong. These weren’t prison cells. They were feeding pens.

The sound of leaking gas reached his ears as the bug flooded the pod with some sort of chemical goop. The pony’s screams turned from panic to pain. Rye looked away, wincing. As the screams grew louder and more frantic, he covered his ears. At last, the other pony fell mercifully silent.

Rye pulled his hooves away from his ears. He heard a disgusting slurping noise, like mud being drawn through a straw. Then the chittering sound came again, fading into the distance. Once he was sure it was safe, he looked to his left once more.

The thing in the other pod was no longer recognizable as a pony. Rye’s last meal came back with a vengeance, and he fought to keep it down. He looked away quickly. Once he had control of himself again, he gritted his teeth with renewed resolve. He had to get out of this pod and find Cranberry and Inger before these bugs dissolved them all.

He found that he had a bit of wiggle room with his bottom legs. He couldn’t help but wonder if they did that on purpose, to let victims struggle and release vibrations, but he didn’t have the time to analyze the monsters. He kicked at the inside of his pod, to no avail. He hit it from the outside with his free hooves, but he couldn’t even scratch the smooth amber. Rye started flailing aimlessly, raining blows on the amber from all four of his legs.

Suddenly, a gratifying crack appeared. He kicked a few more times, and the pod crumbled to dust around him. He had only a split second to realize that he had no idea how far the fall was, before he was sliding down the wall.

Luckily for him, there was a ledge not far beneath his pod. He landed heavily on it, standing and shaking off the amber dust. He peered over the edge, trying to see down into the depths. The ledge was actually another wall, extended slightly out from the one he’d been perched on. His horn’s light could not reach the bottom of the chamber. Shivering, Rye pulled away from the edge.

Why had the bugs built this ledge? Was it a safeguard to catch any prey they dropped? A wall that had been built over more victims, preserving them for years? In the end, it didn’t matter. What did was that Inger and Cranberry were in this chamber somewhere, and it was up to him to find them.

“Think, Rye.” He stared around at the pods. “They probably put their victims in the pods as they get captured, so the new arrivals should all be roughly in the same place…” He scanned the nearest pods, but saw nopony he recognized. He wished he could free them all, but there was no time, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to free any of them, yet.

He walked along the ledge, surveying every pod within his sight. He skipped the ones that didn’t contain ponies, but even so he was left with dozens of pods. After ten minutes, his search finally bore fruit. Three rows of pods up, about sixty meters from where he’d fallen, his eye caught a flash of peony-pink and yellow.

Rye stood underneath the pink pony’s pod, searching for a way to free her. Nothing presented itself. He squinted closer; it was definitely Cranberry. Her golden mane was messy and tangled. “Hang in there, ‘Berry. I’ll get you out of this. Somehow.” There were no grooves on the walls, no ways to climb them. He touched the wall, and his hoof came away sticky.

I suppose it’s worth a shot. He stood on his rear legs and placed his hooves against the wall. He pressed firmly to make sure they adhered. Then he pushed up with his back legs, clapping them to the wall as well. Immediately he slid down and landed painfully on his rear. Still smarting from the impact, he stood and shook off. Clearly the resin’s adhesive wasn’t intended to support the weight of a pony. He tried bucking the pod down, but after three minutes of kicking the wall all he’d accomplished was making his legs ache and giving himself a migraine.

Finally, desperate, he jumped up and flapped his wings. He fell back to the ledge, as impotent as ever. If only he still had access to the forest’s magic… Rye paced back and forth beneath Cranberry’s pod. She was so close, just a couple meters out of his reach…

He raced along the ledge, looking a rock or chunk of resin to throw at her pod. The ledge was inclined, leading slightly down into the chamber. He passed dozens of ponies. He wondered how long they had all been down here. Days, months, maybe years. There were ponies of every description; blue earth ponies, violet unicorns, red pegasi…

Red pegasi? Rye jerked to a stop. He backed up, peering into the pod. Sure enough, it was Inger; comatose but breathing. His golden armor blended strangely with the amber color of the pod, making him look half transparent. But he was alive, and more importantly, his pod was level with the ledge.

Rye smacked his hooves against the pod, but to no effect. He tried again and again, but failed to even leave a scratch. He’d managed to break his by hitting it from the outside and the inside at the same time. Maybe if he got Inger to kick too, they could crack it open. He leaned in and pressed his lips to Inger’s pod.

“Inger,” he said, in a crude imitation of Princess Celestia. “Inger, I have need of your aid. Wake up, Inger.”

The Firewing’s eyes blinked once, then twice. “Milady…?” His voice was muted through the pod. He looked around, confused, slowly focusing his eyes on the pegacorn. “Rye? What’s going on?“ he reached a hoof out and discovered his prison. “What the hell—“

“No time to explain, Inger. You’re going to have to trust me.”

“Trust you?” Inger looked doubtful for a moment, but then suddenly laughed. “Why not? All right, Rye, what’s the plan?”

“We need to get you out of there.”

“Sounds good to me. How?”

“To break the shell, we’re both going to have to hit it at the same time. Kick from the inside, okay?”

“Right.” Inger leaned back against the wall and drove his hooves into the bubble. On the outside, Rye pounded away at the resin as hard as he could. On the third strike, a huge crack ran down the center of the pod. On the fifth, Inger’s hoof smashed through and smacked Rye in the face.

“Sorry!”

“Don’t worry about it. Keep kicking.” Rye looked around for the bug creatures, but thanks to some miracle they had yet to appear. Together, he and Inger broke away larger and larger pieces of the shell. At last, Inger came tumbling out into Rye’s hooves, covered in flakes of amber. Rye helped him stand, pushing him upright. “Are you okay?”

“I think… I think I will be,” said Inger, rubbing his head. “I was having the strangest dream. The Princess was giving me a promotion to captain…” he shook his head.

“Come on,” said Rye, urgency creeping into his voice. “We need to get Cranberry and get out of here.” He began galloping off up the ledge, Inger trailing behind, still trying to get his legs back.

They reached Cranberry’s pod to find one of the bugs crawling down on top of it. Inger stepped back, repulsed. “What in Celestia’s name is that?”

“No idea!” shouted Rye, panicking. “Kill it, before it eats her!” Inger needed no further prompting. Still recovering from his ordeal, he flapped his wings and took off. He immediately dropped off the side of the ledge, but before Rye could even look, he was soaring back up and over Rye’s head.

The bug had settled fully onto Cranberry’s pod, and was rearing back to extend its proboscis. Inger crashed into it, sending the bug flying off into the depths, hissing.

“Hurry up, get her out of there!”

Inger kicked the pod uselessly. “Miss Sugar! Wake up!”

All around came a massive cacophony of chittering. The ruckus Rye had been making since his escape had finally drawn the attention of the nest. At the edges of his horn’s light, he could see dozens—scores—hundreds of the creatures coming for them. “Inger! We’re out of time! Do something!”

Inger took a deep breath and flew backwards over the abyss. “Here goes nothing!” He flew straight at Cranberry’s pod, colliding with it like a charging buffalo. It shattered open, spilling her out into Rye’s waiting hooves.

“Come on, ‘Berry! Wake up!” Rye shook her frantically, trying to get a response. He looked up at the bugs, who were quickly coming down the walls.

Inger landed next to him, his eyes spinning. “Hurry up, Rye. I don’t think we have time for this.”

Rye stared at Cranberry, his mind spinning. It hit him suddenly. He opened his mouth wide and jammed his hoof inside.

Inger looked horribly confused. “What are you doing?”

“This always worked when we were foals…” Rye stuck the hoof in Cranberry’s ear.

Her eyes snapped open. “Rye Strudel, you immature little—“ Her face froze. “Rye? Wait, where am I? What’s going on?”

“No time. Run!” Rye wheeled a leg with frantic energy. He took off running down the ledge, the other two ponies in tow, still reeling from the aftereffects of the poison. The three ponies galloped for their lives, fleeing from the oncoming horde of the bug creatures. The ledge ran lower and lower, and the pods showed no sign of thinning. They seemed infinite.

“Don’t stop! Keep running!” Rye yelled. The three of them raced into the darkness together, led only by the orange glow from Rye’s horn. Behind, the chittering, chitinous mass of insects pursued.

Abruptly, the ledge ended in a sharp drop. Rye skidded to a stop, trying not to go tumbling over. Cranberry slammed into him, and Inger into her, and the three of them began to topple. Inger grabbed the two others in a massive hug and flapped his wings furious. They hung precariously for a moment before falling backward in a heap. Beside them was another tunnel, leading into the caverns.

“Where’s it go?” asked Cranberry, sounding completely confused.

“I have no idea, but it can’t possibly be worse than where we are right now.” Rye took off into the tunnel. “Let’s go!” The three ponies vanished into the darkness of the tunnel, leaving the feeding chamber far behind them.


Chapter Eighteen

Windstreak slept through the afternoon and awoke at midnight. She’d formulated a plan after yesterday’s battle, anticipating a stronger push in the air from the griffons the next day. Together with the Firewings and those Cloudsdale ponies who were still uninjured, she had flown the skies throughout the morning, gathering clouds. They were ready now, for whatever the griffons could throw at them. They’d cooked up a storm unlike any that had come down into the plains for decades. It was a huge raincloud, with enough water to turn the ground to mud and bog down the griffon invasion for days. She waited only for Celerity’s order.

Celerity’s forces on the ground were prepared as well, rested and ready to fight again. She’d rotated the line out through the night, making sure that the bridge was full of ponies to guard against any treachery from the invaders. They were emboldened by the success of yesterday’s defense. The griffons no longer seemed unbeatable. Their numbers meant nothing on the bridge, and with the Firewings to hold the air, the ponies had a real chance to stop the invasion before it could truly begin.

The attack came at dawn. Down on the bridge, the griffon infantry surged up from the south, funneling into the kill zone. The spearponies were ready for them, waiting with their weapons pointed over the shield wall. The griffons crashed against them once again, in a repeat of yesterday’s attack. The ponies repulsed them again, driving their spears into the mob.

Above the battle, Windstreak and the air forces took to the skies, prepared for the griffons to come screaming up at them. But to their surprise, they remained unchallenged. No griffons left the ground. The Firewings and Cloudsdale pegasi hung in the air, puzzled.

On the bridge, the slaughter continued. At times, the griffons threatened to overwhelm the defenders through sheer numbers, but the earth ponies held their ground. The corpses of the base griffon infantry littered the bridge, creating a hideous tableau of war. Behind the lines, Celerity frowned. This wasn’t like Shrikefeather. She’d studied his campaigns in the south over the last hundred years. He was smarter than this. Why would he keep sending his troops to die against her wall? The only thing it could accomplish was to tire out her men…

Which might be the point. Celerity had a sudden, paranoid suspicion. The frontliners were due to begin changing out in five minutes. If Shrikefeather was thinking along the same lines that she now was…

“Reinforcements to the front! Now! I want that line shored up immediately!” Celerity’s voice carried over the racket of battle, magically amplified. Ponies struggled through the mass of soldiers on the bridge, trying to reach the front to aid their kinsmen. Celerity watched with bated breath, waiting for Shrikefeather to make his move. The shrieks of dying griffons carried over the bridge, and the smell of blood and smoke filled the air.

Wait. Smoke?

Celerity turned to look back to the north, and nearly had a heart attack. The camp was on fire. Great columns of black smoke were rising up from the rear, drifting in the wind. She stared aghast as the flames consumed the tents, leaping into the air. Behind her came a great shout. Returning her vision to the bridge, she witnessed the line of the griffons fold back on itself, and from the ranks of their infantry strode the maulers.

They were fearsome griffons clad in full plate armor, with huge maces held in their hands. They carried no shields, and were too heavy to fly, for they had only one purpose: to crush their way through the enemy before he could even attack. They were massive, twice the height of a pony, whirling their weapons around to pick up momentum. They charged against the wall of ponies, who were already spent from nearly thirty minutes of fighting. The spears were smashed aside, and the great maces crashed into the shield wall. Wood broke, and shields shattered. Splinters flew through the air, followed by the unfortunate soldiers who felt the maulers’ crushing blows.

Windstreak heard the cry from one of the Cloudsdale ponies. “Look! The camp!” Heads turned all across the sky, looking down at the fire that was rapidly spreading out of control. Windstreak called out to her troops. “Everypony! Hurry! Break off the storm, we’re changing tactics. Use the clouds to put out the fires! Save the food supplies!” In the skies, thousands of pegasi beat their wings north to the huge storm they had prepared the night before.

They had planned to use it to disrupt the griffon’s air units, but they needed it for a more pressing purpose now. Each pegasus flew into the cloud, grabbed a chunk, and zoomed back toward the camp. Windstreak reached inside and wrapped her teeth around a particularly fluffy cloudlet, then raced off. By the time they had returned to the camp, the fire had completely consumed the Westermin tents. If it destroyed the food supplies, the Equestrians would be forced to retreat north. There was no way they could hold out long enough to get enough food to feed the army from Whitewall. The journey was nearly a week long, on hoof and dragging heavy carts. If they lost the supplies, the battle would soon follow.

Windstreak neared the edge of the inferno. The air was blisteringly hot, but it made flying easy. She could ride the thermals, saving her energy for the dousing process. It had been a while since she’d done any serious weatherforging, but she still remembered the basics. Positioning her cloud above one of the tents, she bucked hard and cracked her hooves into it. Rain poured out, falling into the blaze. She braced for a second kick, when suddenly something hit her from the side.

She found herself grappling with a griffon, a great black-feathered and helmeted thing. It shrieked in her ears, slashing at her with the blades on its claw. Her hooves were pinned to her sides, and her wings were trapped by the griffon’s tail. Windstreak used the only weapon available, and bashed her helmet into the griffon’s beak. It was stunned, and they fell locked together toward the fire.

They crashed through the roof of the burning tent, bringing down the entire structure. Windstreak felt like she was in an oven, the blistering heat threatening to overwhelm her. The griffon in front of her stood, roaring at her. How had a griffon gotten this far behind their lines? She tried to fly away, to get out of the heat, but the griffon flew after her, sinking its talons into her armor. The sharp battleclaws dug deep, catching in the metal. She bucked at the griffon, kicking it in the head, but it just roared again. She couldn’t fly—she couldn’t get out—the fire was everywhere—

A golden streak rocketed in from the smoke. Bergeron plunged into the fire, knocking the griffon away. “Come on, Captain!” he shouted, taking flight. “Let’s get out of here!”

The two of them raced upward, trying to escape the blaze. The griffon came after them, still trying for blood. His claws had rent Windstreak’s armor open in the back, and it was difficult to fly. The ruined armor kept obstructing her wing movement. She flapped frantically, trying to get some distance. “Bergeron! Split-loop!”

The other pegasus nodded, breaking off his flight and looping to the left. Windstreak went right, soaring around. The griffon chose to go after her, hoping to finish off the pony he’d already weakened. She pulled an incredibly tight turn, and the griffon stayed with her. He was so concentrated on staying on her tail that he missed Bergeron streaking in from the other side of the circle he and Windstreak had created. Bergeron smashed into the griffon head-on, driving his armored hoof straight into the griffon’s face and shattering its beak.

The griffon went limp, and fell back into the smoke. Bergeron flew up to his Captain. “Are you alright, ma’am?” he shouted over the roar of the fire.

“I need to get my armor off!” Windstreak took off for the sky, with Bergeron close behind. They pulled away from the smoke, flying upward. “Where did he come from?” demanded Windstreak.

“I’m not surethey haven’t lifted any troops off all day

But Windstreak soon realized the truth. As they flew, she looked down at the pegasi still trying to quench the fire. From the smoke, griffons were emerging and attacking, catching the ponies by surprise. Dozens had already fallen, and the fires continued to rage out of control. She now knew the cause of the flames, and the lack of resistance in the skies today. The griffons had flown wide around the ponies during the night, going far abroad to avoid the patrols of pegasi. Sneaking on the ground under cover of darkness, they had infiltrated the camp while the attack at the bridge began, and set fire to the tents.

On the ground, Celerity was frantically ordering those ponies not immediately engaged with defending the bridge to gather water from the river and run it back to camp. Using buckets, helmets, and whatever else they could scrounge up, the soldiers of Whitetail found themselves acting as impromptu firefighters. The situation on the bridge was dire, as the maulers continued smashing their way through the pony lines. So far they had been repelled by a swift response from the reinforcing spearponies, who quickly brought their weapons to bear against the brutish griffons. But they were paying for every foot of the bridge with dozens of ponies, feeding bodies into the meat grinder of the maulers’ maces, and the line was falling back.

And now she had another problem. From across the river, flights of griffons were lifting into the air, carrying large sacks in their claws. They flew over the river, heading toward the bridge from the east and west. Celerity roared angrily: “Where is my air support?” She looked back at the camp, now half-consumed in the fire. The pegasi were trying to put out the fires using the clouds, but somehow a massive force of griffon commandos had sneaked in behind her lines, and they were ambushing the Cloudsdale ponies! How the hell had this slipped past her? She’d been terribly mistaken. Shrikefeather was much smarter than she’d given him credit for.

The griffon attack wings opened their sacks. They withdrew small, black spheres, and began flying over the bridge and throwing them down at the ponies below. The primitive firebombs exploded on impact, devastating the Westermin ponies. Great holes appeared in the line, and Whitetail troopers surged into the breaches to stop up the gaps. The slaughter had turned the other way, and dozens of her troops fell as every minute passed.

Above the camp, Windstreak struggled with the clasp of her armor. The heat had fused the soft gold clip together with the chain, and she couldn’t get it off. “Bergeron! Help me.” Her lieutenant was instantly at her side, grabbing the offending chain and pulling as hard as he could. Together, they put enough force on it to break the link, and Windstreak shrugged out of her breastplate. It fell to the ground far below. She flapped her wings comfortably again, no longer protected but back to full flying capability.

“Look!” Bergeron pointed to the south, where the ponies at the bridge found themselves besieged from the air.

“We have to keep the skies clear!” Windstreak flew back down toward the inferno, where the pegasi had begun to fight back against the griffons. They clashed in the smoke, hooves and claws drawing blood and breaking bone. The griffons would latch onto the ponies and drag them down into the fire, sacrificing themselves to destroy their enemies. It was the mark of an insane, elite group, indoctrinated and shaped for one purpose: the destruction of the air forces of Equestria. Windstreak didn’t know who these griffons were, but it was clear that they had to be stopped.

Even more important was the bridge. The line had faltered. The griffons had nearly pushed the ponies off to the other side. The firebombs were shattering their ranks, breaking the formations apart. Celerity, in the midst of the chaos, reacted as quickly as she could. The Firewings and Cloudsdale pegasi were busy in the rear of the camp, and she had no fliers to take out the bombers. So she did the next best thing.

“Mages!” Celerity’s magically amplified voice boomed over the battle. “I need every unicorn at the line! Take out the fliers!”

Spells flew through the air, lightning crackling and fireballs searing the sky. The griffons retaliated, some abandoning the bridge to drop their firebombs on the unicorns. When the griffons fell, their entire stockpile would detonate, blasting a huge hole in the ground and sending anypony unlucky enough to be caught in the explosion flying.

Windstreak dashed after every golden-armored pony she could find. “Firewings! We must defend the bridge!” They slowly left the fight below, leaving the Cloudsdale pegasi to fight against the griffons. Some still flew clouds over the campsite, trying to douse the fires. The flames had completely destroyed Westermin’s camp, and had spread to Whitetail’s. Lines from the river ferried buckets of water to the fire, and the ponies struggled to keep the blaze under control.

The Firewings pulled away from the camp, returning to the river. The huge flight of the remaining three hundred elite pegasi swooped into the fray. The firebomb squads were not armed for an aerial battle, and were ill-suited to face the best fighters in Equestria. The Firewings streaked down like avenging angels, ripping apart the bombing wings. Cheers went up from below.

“Mages! I want spells on the bridge, now! Take out those maulers!” Celerity’s face was lined with tension, but inside she smiled. Not today, Shrikefeather.

The unicorns blasted the maulers with thunderous spells. Magic exploded across the bridge, blowing away chunks of stone. Griffons tumbled through the air, into the river. The Whitetail troops poured onto the bridge, wielding their hoof-maces and trampling over the maulers. Slowly, the tide was turning.

But the camp was a disaster. The Cloudsdale ponies were unable to fight both the fires and the griffons. They fell by the score, bodies raining down into the fires. The griffons were slaughtering them wholesale, their sharp talons more than a match for the unarmored pegasi.

Windstreak and Bergeron swooped through the smoke, searching for the leader of the commandos. “He’s probably the biggest one,” coughed Windstreak, choking in the ash. All around them, pegasi and griffons tangled in midair, and the sound of thunderclouds boomed incessantly.

“There! The big black one.” Bergeron put as much power behind his wings as he could muster. Windstreak followed him closely. They streaked toward the huge griffon and his guards, two other hulking brutes. He saw them coming, and vanished into the smoke. His guards flew up to confront the Firewings.

“Go for the one on the right!” shouted Windstreak, and they dived into battle. They both collided with the griffon, Windstreak driving into its stomach and Bergeron into its head. The one-two punch shattered the guard’s spine, and it flopped limply in midair as it began the long fall toward the ground. The other dived onto Bergeron, locking its claws around his neck.

“Go! Get the captain! I’ll deal with this!” Bergeron shoved a hoof on the guard’s face, trying to push it away. Windstreak moved to help, but Bergeron shook his head. “You’re going to lose him! Go! I’ll be fine!” Windstreak nodded to her lieutenant, and blasted off into the smoke.

The cloud was dark and burned her eyes, but Windstreak had flown through worse. She listened for the tell-tale mix of roars and bird shrieks that constituted the Gryphan language. She burst out of the smoke suddenly, finding herself on the edge of the camp. In front of her, a Cloudsdale pegasus was flying around a griffon commando, deftly evading its claws. Another pegasus, unseen by the griffon, had dragged a cloud above them. She bucked it hard, and a lightning bolt breached the air. It struck the griffon full-on, frying it instantly and fusing its helmet to its head. The griffon fell without a sound.

Windstreak turned back into the smoke. Cut off the head, and the body will die. She had to find the griffon captain. There! A dark shape in the ash, black-on-black. She soared after it, coming out of the cloud and diving into the form.

Captain Withers was a huge griffon, one of the largest of his kind. Each of his claws was large enough to crush a pony’s head inside, and he was monstrously strong. He grabbed for Windstreak, trying to snatch her neck and bring the battle to a swift end. She dodged deftly, swooping underneath him. His tail lashed out, catching her in the face and sending her flying aside. He swooped after her, roaring in broken Equestrian.

“YOU ARE MINE, PONY!”

“Come and get me!” Windstreak vaulted away from the griffon, doing an aerial somersault and bashing into him with her hooves. The griffon didn’t even flinch, bringing his huge claws down to rip her in half. She rolled away, flapping her wings. The griffon’s eyes were red gleams of light beneath his helmet, little beady orbs that glared at Windstreak with murderous intent. He flared his wings and came after her, shooting through the air like a force of nature.

But her name wasn’t Windstreak for nothing. She zipped away, daring him to follow her. He pursued, giving chase to the infuriating pegasus that had thwarted his commandos’ every move. She took him on a wild flight, diving into the smoke and out again. She flew low, into the inferno. She crashed through one of the burning tents, plunging out of the other side. He dodged the wreckage as the tent collapsed, sending up another plume of ash into his face. He snarled, blinking it away.

He followed her through the fire, the smoke, and the open air. Windstreak led him around the campsite, carefully watching her position. She dived into another cloud. He followed, his great wingbeats sounding like a war drum. “YOU CANNOT ESCAPE ME, PONY.”

“I’m not trying to!” shouted Windstreak. She flew out of the cloud, and turned her head to see it explode behind her as the griffon captain blasted out of it. He roared again, and Windstreak yelled “Now!”

The griffon had just enough time to look down and see that the pegasus had drawn him all the way south over the main force of ponies, before the unicorns below sent enough magic his way to kill thirty griffons. Fireballs, lightning bolts, and blades of wind smashed into Captain Withers, obliterating him completely.

Windstreak sighed with exhausted relief. As she pulled out wide around the campsite, she could see in the distance the griffons retreating from the bridge. The line held. Below, the fires at the camp were slowly coming under control. With their leader dead, the directionless commandos soon fell to the Firewings and the Cloudsdale pegasi.

She landed next to Celerity, who had shouted herself hoarse throughout the long battle. She trotted wearily up to the duchess. “The day is ours, ma’am.”

Celerity gave her a broad smile. “We did it. We beat the bastards back. Thanks to you and the rest of the Firewings.”

“Is it over, then?”

“For today. Shrikefeather won’t try again so soon after a beating that bad.” Celerity laughed, a hollow, tired sound. “He’ll need a miracle to break through this line.” She looked exhausted.

“Duchess, perhaps you should get some rest.”

“Later,” said Celerity. “I need to check on the food supplies and get an accounting of our losses. The damage reports should be done by the end of tonight.” She sighed wearily. “We can’t take much more of this. But Shrikefeather’s army isn’t infinite. If he overruns the cost in horse-er, griffonpower that he’s willing to lose, he’ll pull back. The griffons would rather try for another spot on the river than continue throwing troops away against us.” She frowned. “If worst comes to worst, we’ll destroy the bridge. But Shrikefeather cannot be allowed to have it.”

Windstreak nodded, tired from the fight. “Goodbye for now, Duchess. I need to speak with the Firewings.”

She lifted off and began scanning for the gold that signified a member of her unit. There they were; they had formed a small group on the edge of the campsite, where the Cloudsdale pegasi were now extinguishing the last of the fires. She swooped in, landing next to her fellow ponies. “Bergeron! Is Bergeron here? Is he alright?”

“I’m here, Captain!” Bergeron broke through the ranks. He was missing his helmet, and he’d acquired a wicked slash across his face. It was no longer bleeding, but it was clearly causing him a great deal of pain.

“Bergeron! Thank the Sisters you made it.” Windstreak felt glad for the first time that day. “Why aren’t you in the infirmary? You need to get that wound treated.”

He shook his head. “After my report, Captain.”

“Quickly, then. You shouldn’t endanger yourself like this.”

He laughed. “It’s not as bad as it looks, trust me.” He winced. “Well… at least, I think so.”

“Bergeron…”

“Right. We’ve pushed them back. Any griffon commandos that escaped have fled back across the river. We cleared out most of them. We figure there were about three or four hundred of them. How they managed to sneak into camp, I’ll never know, but they sure did a lot of damage.”

“Any report yet on that?”

“Westermin’s camp is completely torched. All of their supplies and sleeping quarters are gone. But they’ll be able to share Whitetail’s. There… there are a lot of empty sleeping pallets after the battle on the bridge, today.” They were both silent for a moment.

“Food?”

“Thankfully they missed the main grain stores. We’ll not be going hungry.”

Windstreak gave a relieved breath. “What were our losses?”

Bergeron was grim. “Too many. We lost around three hundred from the Cloudsdale units to the griffons. Nearly a hundred more died trying to put out the fires. On the bridge, the Westerminners took a beating. No firm numbers on the casualties yet, but at least four hundred of them. It was a complete massacre. As for the Firewings… we lost some good ponies today. Ingrid. Gennovir. Derek. Gerald. Nearly four dozen all told.” Windstreak felt the euphoria of their victory drain away. “Several others were injured severely. About thirty are in the infirmary with serious burns. Some… are expected to survive. Fifty-two with non-serious injuries. We took a beating out there today, Captain.”

“They did their duty, Bergeron. We won’t forget them.”

“I know, ma’am.”

“Get to the infirmary and get that wound looked at.”

“I doubt they’ll have time, Captain. The nurseponies are overloaded as is-“

“That’s an order, lieutenant.”

“I… yes, ma’am.”

* * *

The sky was blood-red as the sun disappeared over the western horizon. General Shrikefeather was furious.

“Explain to me again, how a bunch of untrained weatherponies managed to defeat the best aerial strike force in my army?”

“Sir,” stammered the lieutenant. “They were outnumbered almost five to one-“

“It’s their job to be outnumbered. If I can’t trust my commandos to be bloody commandos, then how am I supposed to do my job?”

“Sir, Captain Withers was certain that they could accomplish the mission-“

“Captain Withers was an imbecile. He has already paid for his mistakes with his life. Pray you don’t do the same.”

“Sir!” squeaked the lieutenant. “We dealt the ponies a heavy blow today! They don’t have nearly our numbers. If the battle tomorrow goes as badly for them as today’s, then-“

“You feather-brained idiot. They won today; don’t pretend any differently. We can’t keep throwing troops away against Celerity’s damn bridge line.” He snarled. “It’s those pegasi in the golden armor. They’re the ones who smashed the firebombing teams to bits. They’re the ones who organized the Cloudsdale pegasi into the weather teams to put out the fires. We need to break them, swiftly and decisively.”

The lieutenant nervously shifted his balance. “Sir, there’s always the backup plan.”

The General narrowed his eyes and put his claw to his beak. “Hmm.” He’d hoped to avoid playing that card so soon in the campaign, but it was beginning to seem like the most expedient option.

“How long?”

“By noon tomorrow, at the earliest. Most likely not until later in the day.”

“Just barely fast enough to fit into our timetable. Very well. We’ll push tomorrow to keep them on their toes. Have the aerial units hold back, I don’t want to waste any more of them than necessary.”

“Very well, General, sir.”

“And then on Monday, we’ll put the backup into motion.” He sneered. “I always enjoy starting the week off on a high note.”


Chapter Nineteen

Rye, Inger, and Cranberry ran through the tunnels, desperately searching for a way out. The smooth walls offered no escape, only tiny holes through which poured more of the insect-things. The corridor twisted and turned, and soon they were hopelessly lost inside. The chamber lay far behind them, lost in the blackness. With no other options, they fled deeper into the unknown, every step taking them deeper into the lair of the creatures.

Eventually, too tired to continue running, they slowed to a stop, and tried to catch their breath. Rye’s horn still emitted a dim orange glow, but all they could see was the amber resin that coated everything.

“I don’t think they’re following us anymore,” said Inger in between gasps of air.

“I haven’t heard that sound they make for a while,” said Cranberry.

Rye shook his head. “We can’t stop for long. They hunt using vibrations. Our little charge can’t have gone unnoticed. They might be drawing back for now, but they’ll come after us in force again soon enough.” He gulped, gripped by a new, unpleasant paranoia. “Or maybe they’re waiting for us up ahead. I have no idea if they’re smart enough to lay a trap.”

“What are they, anyway? I’ve never read about anything like them.”

“No clue, Cranberry. They jumped you both while you were in the woods, and dragged you off. I came back just in time to follow.”

“Wait,” said Inger, a hint of anger in his voice. “You ‘came back’? You were supposed to be on watch!”

“I know,” said Rye, mortified. “I was… experimenting.” He looked at the floor, avoiding their eyes. “With the magic.”

Inger was filled with fury for a moment, but he saw Rye’s absolute dejection and it drained away. “I’m sorry. I know you were…”

“Whole. You have no idea.” Rye’s eyes were filled with hunger. “There was so much power… I’ve never even been able to lift a toothbrush before, let alone a tree! I was able to do anything…”

Cranberry said quietly, “But you left it. To come after us.”

“Yes.” Rye didn’t say anything else.

“Thank you.” She smiled at him. “Windstreak would be proud.”

Inger’s ears twitched. “Windstreak? Windstreak Firemane?”

Cranberry nodded, delighted. “Oh, yes! Well, that’s her maiden name, she’s called Windstreak Strudel now—she’s Rye’s mother!”

Inger stared at Rye, his eyes wide. Inside, Rye felt disappointment welling up. He’d hoped to be judged, by Inger at least, on his own merits. But now, on top of being a pegacorn, the pegasus would be sure to think of his mother every time he looked at Rye; and how could he hope to measure up to Inger’s self-professed idol?

Slowly, the red pegasus said “Then I guess I owe the Strudel family my life twice over.” He looked Rye squarely in the eyes, and smiled. “Thank you, Rye. I’m glad to call you my friend.”

Rye managed not to choke in surprise, and smiled uncertainly. “Even though I’m a pegacorn?”

Inger nodded, having the grace to look ashamed. “I’m sorry. I… made some hasty judgments about you. Your… disabilities… do not define you.” He gritted his teeth as though the words were being pulled out of him with pliers. “Will you accept my apology?”

Rye raised an eyebrow and snarked “This isn’t just because I saved your tailfeathers back there, is it?”

“Don’t be an ass, Rye.” Inger gave him a look. Rye smirked.

“Then yes, apology accepted. Glad to be with you, Inger.”

They were interrupted by Cranberry. “Did you hear that?” she asked.

“I think it’s time we started moving again,” said Rye.

The group began another run into the labyrinthine tunnels, blindly following the trails the bugs had dug into the mountain depths. Rye’s horn lit the way, the warm orange glow providing a shield against the darkness and the horrors that lay inside. The ponies galloped along, hoping against hope that an exit would present itself.

“Inger,” said Rye between breaths, “Which way are we going?”

“Not entirely sure,” he answered, legs thudding on the tunnel surface. “We’ve been heading northwest for the last hour or so.”

“How can you tell?” asked Cranberry, flagging.

“I’m a pegasus,” said Inger, as if that answered her question.

When Cranberry tilted her head quizzically, Rye explained. “Pegasi have an innate sense of direction. Something to do with magnetic fields. Mother told me about it, years ago.” By unspoken consensus, the three slowed to a brisk trot, letting the exhausted Cranberry rest.

“We have a small deposit of magnetite in our foreheads,” Inger filled in. “Like a little compass. Pretty handy, even underground.” He looked darkly around at the tunnel. It was beginning to narrow again.

Cranberry looked skeptical. “Rye, you have the worst sense of direction of anypony I know. Although a lump of metal in your skull would explain a lot—”

“Pegacorns don’t have one,” he said moodily, and she dropped the subject.

Inger picked up the conversation smoothly.  “At any rate, we’ve been heading roughly northwest ever since we left that large chamber. We must be far under the mountains.”

Cranberry groaned. “We need to be going east! We’re headed in the opposite direction of the pass.”

“Well, if you see a route east, by all means. But unless you’d like to go back to the bug chamber, we don’t have much choice.”

She gave a little whimper. “Point taken.” Her head drooped. “I have no idea where we are… all my maps…” Cranberry shot a look over her shoulder.

“My helmet and the supplies are gone as well.” Inger looked pained at the loss, but he buried the regret with Firewing discipline. Suddenly alarmed, he looked at Rye. “The treaties—“

Rye said “Don’t worry, I’ve got them in my saddlebags.” Sure enough, they were still hung over his back; a little worse for wear from his imprisonment, but intact.

Cranberry shook her head glumly. “Some of my best volumes were in those bags.”

“Better your life than your books, Miss Sugar.”

She smiled at Inger. “Call me Cranberry.”

He gave an acquiescent nod. “As you wish, Miss Cranberry.”

Cranberry laughed. “They don’t make them like you any more, Inger.” The Firewing’s stride grew rather prim. Rye rolled his eyes. He stumbled abruptly to a stop.

“Uh-oh.”

The tunnel was blocked. Before the trio was a featureless wall of the bug resin. In the walls of the tunnel there were several small crawlspaces, but they were all too tiny for a pony to fit into. The ceiling offered no escape. Dead end.

“Oh, horseapples.” Rye stared at the wall blankly, trying to think. Cranberry flopped to the floor of the tunnel, too exhausted to care. Inger flapped his wings nervously.

“I don’t remember any side passages from the last mile or so.”

Cranberry said, still lying on the floor, “Mile? Just how far have we been running?”

“A long way,” said Rye absently. He put a hoof to his chin, his thoughts racing around in useless circles. “Um.”

Inger frowned. “Why is this here? It seems odd they’d stop digging like this.”

“I think it’s recent,” said Rye. “Look at the edge, where the wall meets the tunnel.” Unlike the rest of the smooth resin material they’d seen, the wall had been sealed sloppily. Globs of amber-colored goo were hardened around the wall like glue.

“They set a trap, and we fell right into it.” Inger whirled around, looking back into the gloom.

“Then why aren’t they attacking?” asked Rye. “I don’t think this is a trap. I think they’re trying to stop us from going down this tunnel.” He tapped the hastily constructed wall. It responded with a dull clunk. “Too thick to break through.” Looking at the side holes, he pursed his lips and said “Hmm.”

“We’re not going to fit in one of those.” Inger raised his eyebrows skeptically.

Rye leaned his head down into the largest of the holes. The light from his horn extended a short way down into the hole. “It’s larger on the other side. A pretty tight fit, but I think we can make it if we crawl.”

“Oh, good,” said Cranberry, “I’ve always wanted to take up claustrophobia as a hobby.”

Rye ignored her. “It looks like it curves north, parallel to the main tunnel.”

“I’m not so sure this is a good idea…” said Inger.

Cranberry stood abruptly, alarmed. “Shh! Listen!” All three of them froze. They heard a faint, quiet, rustling. Something far down the tunnel made a distinct chittering sound.

“That settles it,” said Rye. “Let’s get in there.” He reared back and smacked both hooves into the edges of the hole. It collapsed, revealing a tunnel barely half of Inger’s height. Rye went in first, his small frame fitting comfortably inside. Cranberry came next, popping through the hole with a squeak.

Inger looked apprehensively at the tunnel entrance. No room in there to spread his wings. He shook his head again. He was supposed to fly like a bird, not burrow like a mole. Trying not to think about all the rock pressing down on them, he crouched down and squeezed into the hole.

They crawled into the darkness, inching along toward the unknown. The air in the cramped space was stale and stuffy. Rye blinked a bead of sweat out of his eye. They had to be close to getting out. These tunnels couldn’t go on forever.

Or could they?

“Rye…” Cranberry sounded hoarse and faint. “How much farther?”

“Just a little further, ‘Berry,” he lied, worried. “We’re getting close to the end, I can feel it. Keep moving.” Behind him, she moaned quietly to herself. They crawled in silence; the only noise was the scuffling of hooves and grunts from Inger whenever he encountered a particularly tight bit of tunnel. Rye was starting to panic. This tunnel was never going to end. They were going to get stuck, or suffocate, or the bugs would catch them, or-

He was so concentrated on his fears that he failed to notice a sharp drop in the tunnel’s size. He banged his head into the wall with a smack, and lost his grip on the magic. The light flashed out. He felt Cranberry bump into him from behind, pushing him into the wall.

“Hey, what gives? Where’d the light go?” Cranberry’s voice was very weak.

Rye slumped in defeat. “Damn.”

“What’s wrong?” Inger croaked from the back. “Why aren’t we moving?”

“The tunnel is too small.” A small silence followed this announcement. Cranberry let out a whimper.

Inger took a deep breath. “We’ll have to back up.”

“How? You barely got through the first time.” Rye stamped a hoof in aimless rage. They were going to die down here. There was nothing he could do.

“I’m not giving up yet.” Inger shifted, shoving himself backwards. Rye was too drained to fight anymore. Cranberry wasn’t moving either. “Come on, Rye. Miss Cranberry.” He stared into the darkness at them both, waiting for them to move. “Both of you, pull yourselves together. We can’t stay here.”

“What’s the point?” Rye shook his head and closed his eyes. He leaned on the tunnel wall.

Inger snorted angrily. “A pity. I suppose you really are as useless as I thought—pegacorn.”

Rye’s eyes snapped open. “How dare you—“

“Aren’t you? Then prove it.”

Rye realized he was being baited. Still furious, he spat. “Fine. Come on, Cranberry.”

“O….okay…” Cranberry managed bravely. There was a faint sliding noise as the ponies began trying to back up.

“Watch the hooves, Miss Cranberry.”

“Sorry. Ouch! Rye!”

“Was that your head?”

“Yes!”

“Sorry.”

“Um… Rye? I think I’m stuck.”

“Just push harder, Inger.”

“All right, I’ll—do you feel that?”

“Uh—“

The ground seemed to sag. Rye felt himself sinking. “Oh, damn—“ The tunnel, overcome with the weight of the three ponies, finally collapsed. The floor crumbled beneath them, and they were in free fall.

The tunnel had seemingly led over a cave. The three ponies hit the ground at the same time, a thick cloud of resin dust plumed up around them. The fall didn’t hurt; they landed on something squishy with a wet smack. The dust began to settle. I’m really getting tired of falling down holes this week, Rye thought. He picked himself up, shaking his head woozily. “Everypony okay?”

Cranberry coughed on the dust from the rubble. “Where are we?”

“No idea. Let’s get some light.” Rye concentrated, and his horn glowed brightly. The warm orange colored the cave around them, and Rye discovered three things.

First, the cavern was big. Not even close to the size of the feeding chamber, but several pony-sized houses could easily have fit inside. The other wall was faintly lit by his spell, casting the familiar color of the resin back at him. Secondly, he saw an exit. On the far side of the chamber was a large hole, big enough for Inger to fly in. It led off up into the darkness. And third, he found that between the ponies and the exit was the largest, most bloated and hideous creature he’d ever laid eyes on.

It was almost shapeless, a giant mass of dripping ichor and chitin, and it was close to the size of the bakery back in Canterlot. At the front—the head?—of the creature were the now-familiar mandibles of one of the insect-things, clacking incessantly. Useless legs squirmed all along the length of the creature, scrabbling at the ground but unable to shift that enormous lump of flesh and shell. As Rye’s gaze travelled down the beast’s length, he found at the other end a large tube. Even as he watched, a bulge appeared and squeezed through the tube, coming to a rest on the ground below. It was a yellow-white, translucent, elongated sphere. Inside, he could see something wriggling.

“Oh, Celestia…” Cranberry sounded ill. Her voice drew his attention to their hooves. Beneath them lay the smashed remains of several of the eggs, the tiny bugs inside crushed under the weight of the ponies. Rye recoiled, knocking over another one of them. They were everywhere. The cavern floor was practically covered in the things. He looked up again at the large bug.

“The heart of the nest. This is what they were protecting.” Inger’s voice was filled with revulsion. “These things are abominations.”

Her attention drawn by the noise, the Queen turned her head toward the group. Her mandibles clacked twice in rapid succession. The dreaded chittering filled the room.

“What do we do?” Cranberry drew closer to Inger. He fluffed his wings out protectively, staring around the room. Bugs began to crawl into the chamber from holes in the walls, their slimy shells glistening in the light of the pegacorn’s horn.

“I… I don’t…” Rye stared around. There was no way out—except past the Queen. “We have to make a run for it!”

“We’ll never make it!” Cranberry was trying to keep her terror under control, but she was practically crying. Rye just felt curling into a ball and wishing it all away. The bugs surrounded them, drawing closer, waving their scythe-arms in deadly promise.

Rye reached deep into the magic. Now, more than any time before in his life, he needed it. The cool trickle was there, tantalizing him with the promise of power, but not allowing him to touch the flood. Fire. Fire. Fire. Fire. The ghostly specter of the forest seemed to taunt him.

The bugs were nearly upon them. Cranberry closed her eyes and shielded her face with a hoof. Inger stepped in front of her and Rye, prepared to go down fighting. The hissing of the creatures was everywhere.

Fire. Fire. Fire. Rye strained. No flame appeared. He looked up to the broken ceiling, pleading. Princess, help me! The rock above held no comfort. The rock above…

The rock!

Rye’s face lit with a manic grin. “Inger! Hit the wall!” The pegasus turned his head in bafflement.

“What?”

“DO IT!”

Inger hurled himself backwards, crashing into the wall with all his weight. At the same time, Rye bucked against it with as much strength as his exhausted muscles could manage. The bugs closed in, ready to slice into the ponies.

“AGAIN!”

Cranberry scrambled backwards, trying to keep away from the scythe-arms. Rye looked up once more in desperation. “AGAIN!” He and Inger hit the wall as hard as they could. One of the insects loomed up, bringing its scythe down at Cranberry. She pushed back, bumping into the wall.

There was a low rumble. The bugs paused. Their antennae twitched in confusion. Rye’s smile turned predatory.

“Gotcha.”

The ceiling, weakened from the hole the ponies had ripped in it when they fell from the tunnel, could no longer support the weight of the countless tunnels dug into and above it. A vast spiderweb of cracks reached out across the chamber. The first chunk of stone came free, falling like an arrow to the chamber floor. It smashed into one of the eggs, splattering it everywhere. The Queen squealed in rage, her legs twitching helplessly.

“Run!” Rye, Inger, and Cranberry rushed into the mass of bugs. Rocks began falling everywhere as the cavern collapsed. The brood found themselves under attack from their own home, their domain turned against them. Disoriented, they were pushed past and left behind. The ponies charged through the insectoid mass, racing by the Queen. She still writhed in impotent fury, screeching as the cavern filled with stone. The ponies ran, smashing eggs underhoof as the rocks fell indiscriminately on egg and insect alike.

The ponies reached the tunnel, narrowly dodging a boulder the size of a cow. “Keep going!” shouted Rye. “This whole place is coming down!” They ran for their lives, pushing their bodies past their limits. The tunnel led distinctly uphill. Rye’s heart lifted as they went, followed by the creaks and groans of the mountain. It sounded like the ground had come alive.

They dodged rocks and carried on, Rye’s horn leading the way. “Keep it up! Keep running! Don’t stop for anyth—“ He was interrupted when a falling stone connected with the top of his head. His momentum carried him forward, and the light of his horn instantly winked out. Rye ploughed into the ground. Inger and Cranberry screeched to a halt beside him.

“Oh, no, no no no—“

“Rye! Rye, get up!” Inger reached down and shook the pegacorn. All around them, the earth roared. Rye’s eyelids fluttered. Inger bit his lip. Wait… how could he see without the guiding orange glow?

Inger turned his head up the tunnel. Far in the distance, a tiny star seemed to shine through the darkness. Daylight. “Rye! Get on your hooves! We’re nearly there!” Rye’s head lolled listlessly. Inger looked around in panic as the tunnel rumbled and broke apart. Behind them came the tremendous noise of caving rock, a roar unlike anything he’d ever heard before.

Cranberry stood beside him. Inger yelled over the din: “Miss Cranberry! Get out! Save yourself!”

She shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere without you two.” She cast a terrified eye around them, but she gritted her teeth, resolved.

Inger grabbed the harness of Rye’s saddlebags in his mouth. He dragged the limp pegacorn up the tunnel, inching toward the distant sunlight. Cranberry grabbed ahold and helped. They weren’t moving fast enough. The roar of the falling rock had nearly reached them. Ahead, the light flickered as rocks and dust obscured their view.

Inger dropped the saddlebags. He leaned in close to Rye’s ear. “Rye, wake up!” He took a deep breath. “The Princess needs us.” Rye’s eyes opened slowly.

“I…”

Inger grabbed him again, lifting him to his hooves. “Let’s get moving!” Supported by Cranberry and Inger, he began hobbling toward the exit.

The three ponies walked like arthritic cripples, their bodies refusing to put up with any more abuse. The light grew and grew until the star had become a gaping hole out of the caves. Blinding white light filled the gloomy dark, and the three staggered out of the tunnel. Behind them, the mountain heaved one final time, and with a long rumble, fell silent. Dust and rubble rolled out from the cave, a faint cloud of dirt that was the only sign of the chaos below. The ponies collapsed onto the ground.

It was covered with frost. As far as they could see, the cold, white tundra stretched out before them. Behind, the Jotur mountains reached up into the clouds, the peaks hidden from view. The mountains flew east and west, a wall between them and Equestria. A cold wind blew past. It was snowing.

Rye, Cranberry, and Inger dragged themselves together. As they lay beside each other, utterly exhausted from the events of the previous two days, Inger began to chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” Rye managed.

“’I’m not a sack of flour’, you said,” Inger wheezed. “’You’re not dragging me anywhere!’ you said.”

The other two lay for a moment, still gasping for breath. Cranberry began to giggle. Inger let out a chortle, and then suddenly all three of them were laughing. Tears streamed down Inger’s face, and Cranberry doubled up holding her sides. Completely spent, they laughed and laughed and laughed. They laughed with the joy of being alive, of coming through the nightmare unscathed. They laughed because they still could.

Chapter Twenty

“Milady?”

“Ah, Weatherly.” Celerity looked up from her maps. She was lying on the floor of her tent, the maps spread around her. A candle flickered in the center of the tent, dimly lighting the interior. “Come in.” Her coltservant approached, gingerly proffering a teacup. Celerity accepted, lifting it to her lips with magic.

Weatherly watched his mistress with concern. Her hair was disheveled, her once-carefully groomed mane ruffled and unkempt. Her face was lined with creases of worry. The worst were her eyes. He remembered just a week ago, when they sparkled with vitality and passion. Now, they were dark twinkles hidden deep in sunken pits. She looked… old.

“Thank you, Weatherly. Was there something else?”

“Yes, Milady. The reports from the north have just arrived. I thought I should deliver them to you myself.”

“Ah, so Baron Aubren has finally sent word?” She brightened a little. “Read it to me.” She took another sip of tea, her eyes closed. She looked ready to fall asleep.

Weatherly pulled a scroll from his pouch, and unrolled it with a flick. He laid it down on the table, next to one of the Duchess’s innumerable maps. Taking his reading glasses from another pouch and setting them gently on his nose, he cleared his throat and began. “’To Celerity Augustine Belle, Duchess of Whitetail, Lady of Whitewall City, Daughter of Scarcity Selene Belle, Counci—‘“

“You may skip the titles, Weatherly.” Celerity drank again, rubbing her eyes.

“Of course, Milady. ‘I am pleased to report that our campaign in the north has been a complete success. The province of Easthill is now ours. Though resistance was greater than we initially anticipated, the iron mines have fallen under our control. We were able to capture the mines intact, and should be able to resume production by the end of this week. Once mining starts again, we’ll begin sending iron shipments south to the furnaces in Whitewall. It is my hope that within a month, we will be able to fully outfit all of our troops.”

Celerity smiled, finally opening her eyes. “Excellent news. But what did he mean, ‘resistance was greater than anticipated’?” She tilted her cup to her mouth.

“Um... ah, here we go, Milady. ‘The troops of Easthill were disorganized, but they had unexpected reinforcements from the Capital. It seems the Princess has decided to face us in open conflict. Her troops were no match for ours, I am pleased to report.’ Milady? Is something wrong?”

“N…no, it’s nothing. Please continue.” Celerity sighed to herself. Oh, Celestia. I had hoped… No, she had always known, deep down. The path she’d chosen could only lead to one end.

“’A number of some four hundred Canterlot troops and two hundred of Easthill’s ponies met us in battle in the hills. They took us by surprise, but they were underequipped and undertrained. We fended them off with minimal casualties. Of the twelve hundred ponies you gave me, nearly eleven hundred are still fit for fighting. I’ve kept four hundred here with me to maintain order, and I have taken the liberty of sending the rest back to Whitewall to reinforce the city.

‘Things go well in the north. Celestia is holed up inside her castle, and the rest of her army remains stationed in the Capital. My assessment is that the Princess is reluctant to move her forces to counter our incursion, for fear of an invasion from Norhart to the west. Blueblood is still gathering his forces, but my scouts report he’s placed Clement, his eldest son, in charge of the Norhart army and intends to march them east to capture the crossroads.’”

Celerity snorted. “Of course. Emmet’s first concern is money; no matter if world burns around him.” She motioned for Weatherly to continue.

“’Of perhaps more interest to you, my lady, is the rumor that has reached my ears regarding the Princess’s personal guard. They say the Firewings have rebelled against the Princess and abandoned the Capital. We have seen no sign of them here in Easthill, but if it is true, then the northern provinces should prove easier pickings than we anticipated.’” Weatherly paused. “Milady…? It sounds almost as if Aubren plans to move troops further north.”

“Indeed he does, Weatherly.” Celerity gazed evenly at her servant. “Once this matter with the griffons is ended, we will need to solidify our holdings against northern incursion. The southern provinces will not bow to Blueblood’s demands or royal incompetency any longer. The time has come for Whitetail and the other southern provinces to unify under one banner. Easthill is just the beginning.”

Weatherly swallowed. “Of… of course, Milady.”  He scanned the scroll, blinking away a bead of sweat. His stomach felt ill. “Where… where was I? Ah, yes… ‘Our position in Easthill is now solidified. I request your permission to remove an additional sum of one hundred and twenty thousand bits from our treasury. Count Greenway’s captain of the guard has upped the price. Again. The final decision is yours, of course, but I respectfully remind you that their cooperation would be cheap at three times the cost.’”

Celerity nodded irritably. “Of course. Send Aubren a letter authorizing the transaction.”

“I… yes, Milady.” Weatherly now looked very pale. He kept reading, his voice betraying no sign of his unease. “The letter continues… ‘With the guards’ help, it should be a simple matter to take the road and cut off any trade to the north. Once we secure the bridge in the Lake Country, we’ll have complete control of Equestria’s economy. At this time, I feel it unwise to plan any further until we have formally secured the alliance with Weatherforge.’”

The Duchess’s eyes flashed. “You overstep your authority, Baron,” she murmured to herself. She suddenly snorted, shook her head, and her eyelids drooped again. “Is there any more?”

“Nothing much, Milady. ‘Continuing my proud service in the name of the Lady of Whitetail, I await further orders. Signed, Baron Burnside Aubren, General of Whitetail, etcetera.’ On the reverse of the message are a series of troop numbers and some supply requests. Mostly technical details.”

“I’ll take a look at them later. I need to focus on the griffons for now. Set it over there.” She pointed to a scroll case in the corner of her tent. She turned back to her maps without another word, silently dismissing Weatherly with a wave of her hoof.

He set the scroll in the case, looking sorrowfully at the Duchess. Oh, Celerity. What is happening to you, Milady? He shook his head and left the tent. The warm night of the southern plains welcomed him, a breeze wafting through his mane. Weatherly stood still for a moment, still coming to terms with the implications of the letter. The northern provinces should prove easier pickings than we thought… He was terrified about the path his mistress was walking down. He would follow her as he always had; but Weatherly feared that Celerity was headed for a grand, spectacular, and public self-immolation.

* * *

“They are nearly here, General Shrikefeather. They will arrive on the morrow.”

The General drummed his talons, pleased. “Good. Have the troops been mobilized?”

“They began moving immediately after nightfall, sir. I… Pardon my impertinence, sir, but I still fail to see what good moving most of our troops back south will do.”

Shrikefeather plucked a stray feather, turning it over in his talon. “Tell me, Lieutenant-Colonel. Have you ever heard the story of Tyorj?”

The other griffon shook his head uncertainly. “I have not, sir.”

“No, of course you haven’t. No one studies Equestrian history anymore. But it pays to know your enemy’s past, Colonel. History repeats itself.

“Tyorj was an old unicorn city, long ago before the foundation of Equestria. Before even the Gryphan Empire first rose. Far in the north, in the ancestral lands of the ponies, it was a fortress built halfway up the side of a mountain, jutting out from the rock. They say it was the most marvelous city of the era. The unicorns ruled over the other tribes from within their impregnable stronghold. No pegasi or earth pony set claw inside for generations.”

“But what does this have to do with—“

“The unicorns, however, were cruel overlords. They abused the other tribes, forcing them to work as serfs, produce a yearly harvest to feed them, and keep the weather under control, by holding hostage the continuation of the solar and lunar cycles. But then came the never-ending winter. Crops failed. Weather grew wild and untamable. War finally broke out amongst the tribes. The pegasi, led by their chieftain and commander, Hurricane, pushed out the unicorns, and drove them back into their fortresses.

“Eventually, the unicorns followed their brethren, the earth ponies, and fled south to Equestria; abandoning the frigid and barren north for warmer, more fertile lands. But Tyorj remained. The unicorns within refused to surrender their home, swearing to fight to the death to prevent any pegasus from entering the sacred city.

“Hurricane and her pegasi attacked the city again and again. But Tyorj was unbreakable. The walls were stronger than any weapon the other tribes possessed, and the unicorns’ magic was more than a match for the pegasi in open battle. The pegasi laid siege to the city for ten years. Not once did they breach the walls. Finally, after a fruitless decade of throwing away her troops against the city’s defenses, Hurricane abandoned the fight. The pegasi packed up their camps and left the mountainside. Behind them, they left a large, wooden statue of a bowing pegasus, an admission of their defeat.

“The Tyorjans were overjoyed. They brought the statue into the city gates, and the celebration of their victory lasted throughout the day and night. The unicorns slept peacefully for the first time in a decade.

“Then, late in the night, after all the unicorns had fallen silent, a group of pegasi that had hidden inside the statue emerged. They opened the gates from within the city to the outside, where waited the rest of the pegasus army, who had returned from their long flight around the mountain. The pegasi poured inside the city of Tyorj, slaughtering all the unicorns within.”

Shrikefeather sighed as if in admiration for the strategy. “It was a temporary victory, though. Eventually, the ever-colder climate forced the pegasi to follow the unicorns to the south. And so Equestria was founded.”

The Lieutenant-Colonel shifted. “But sir, there’s no gate for us to open. I don’t see how a wooden horse is going to help us get control of the bridge.”

“No, Colonel.” Shrikefeather sounded disappointed. “You’ve missed the point of the story.”

“And that is?”

Shrikefeather smiled, still twirling the feather. “Sometimes, in order to defeat your opponent, you need to let them think they’ve won.”

* * *

Windstreak looked down lovingly at her son. He was a tiny little foal, barely six months old. Sickly, undersized, and frail, she watched his every move like a hawk. Rye would come to no harm under her care. Today, she’d taken him to the fields outside the city, and was giving him his first flying lesson. The nursepony had expressed doubt that he could ever fly, but Windstreak knew in her heart that she was wrong. Her son would be an excellent flier someday, just like his mother. He had to be.

His wings fluttered at his sides to no avail. “Come on, Rye! I know you can do it!” She cooed constant encouragements. They’d been at this for an hour now, but she wasn’t going to give up so easily.  “Come on! It’s not about how big your wings are, it’s how you use them!” She flapped her own  in demonstration. The little foal screwed up his mouth in determination and flapped harder. His horn glowed orange. His wings blurred as they moved up and down faster than the eye could follow.

To her delight, his front hooves lifted off of the ground. “You’re doing it! Come on, Rye!” Her son’s face was scrunched in concentration, and slowly he began to float upward. “Great job, Rye! Keep going!” She smiled, feeling a huge weight lift from her chest. Her son was going to be just fine. All the worry of the past few months seemed to melt away in the warm noon light. She couldn’t wait to tell Apricot.

Rye kept rising into the air. She looked around at the grassy field. “Okay, Rye, I think that’s high enough for today. Come on down, now. Just flap gently, you’ll sink slower.” But Rye didn’t flap slower. He kept moving up. “Rye, come down, please.” He showed no signs of slowing. “Rye!”

“Mama?” Rye’s little face widened in confusion. He continued rising. Windstreak was getting concerned, now; he was going pretty high, and he’d never flown before. She flapped her wings.

“Hold on, Rye,” she said calmly. “I’m coming up to get you. Just stay there.” She took off from the ground, flying after her son. He didn’t stop. “Rye, quit going up! You’ll fall!”

Her wings felt like lead. The ground seemed to drop away beneath her. Above, her son began crying. Windstreak flapped harder. Around them, the sky was darkening. The air was thick and stifling.

“Mama!”

“Hold on, Rye, I’m coming!” Windstreak struggled harder. Rye was now shooting away into the sky, his wings flapping like a hummingbird. A distant rumble of thunder warned her that He was far above her. She felt like iron weights were attached to her chest, pulling her back down to the ground. Below her, the earth had fallen deep into an abyssal darkness. She tasted ash. Clouds began to cover the sky, blackening and blotting out the sun. Below her, the chasm yawned.

She flew past a cloud as it flared, and lightning slashed the air. Her son was barely visible, a speck high above. Windstreak swept through another cloud, the moisture clinging to her aching wings. She couldn’t see, the black cloud was everywhere.  And then suddenly, it was no longer water, but ash. The cloud was smoke, thick and choking.

Windstreak burst from the smog, narrowly avoiding a huge, fast shape. She turned, startled. It was a large griffon, tangled up with a pegasus. The two were kicking and scratching at each other, leaving bloody gashes. All around her, the sky was filled with warriors, pegasi and griffons alike. They clashed in the air, rending at each other with blades, talons, and hooves. The noise of the fighting threatened to overwhelm her senses, pressing down on her like a smothering blanket.

Windstreak ignored it all, desperately keeping an eye on the faint orange glow of her son’s horn above. The clouds around and above were raining. The raindrops were hot and red, splashing her face. She blinked her eyes, and tasted copper. Thunder and battle roared around her.

Windstreak found herself wearing her golden armor. It was no wonder she felt so weighted down. She didn’t remember putting it on. It seemed to grow heavier the higher she went. The droplets of crimson rain splattered over it, turning the gold black wherever they touched.

The world seemed to somersault. Up was down, and down was up. Now Rye was falling below, rushing through the clouds. The rain poured upwards, lightning flashing around and throwing the scene into sharp relief. She cleared the clouds below to find below a vast lake of flame that stretched to the horizons, like the surface of the sun. Tongues of fire leapt up to snatch griffons and ponies, leaving the smell of burning meat hanging through the air. Rye fell toward the fire.

Windstreak shot after him, dodging airborne skirmishes. He drew nearer to the flames as she approached. She was close, so very close. “Hold on, Rye! I’ve got you!” The fire turned obsidian black, tendrils reaching out to envelop her son. He slid closer to the edge of the blackness. She was only a few meters away.

Rye reached his hooves out eagerly. “Mama!” Windstreak stretched out to grab him.

The darkness bulged outward, engulfing the foal in black. “No!” she screamed, flying frantically after him. She reached the edge and suddenly the gigantic, dead griffon captain burst from the fire, his claws outstretched and his eyes burning bright red inside his naked skull. As his claws ripped into her, the griffon opened his beak and screamed into her ear.

“MAMA!” It was Rye’s voice.

Windstreak snapped upwards from her sleeping pallet. She was shaking, a cold sweat lingering on her skin. She hung her head, taking a shuddering breath. Her tent flap pulled open. Bergeron’s head poked inside.

“Captain? Are you alright?  We heard screaming—“

“I’m fine, Bergeron.” Windstreak shivered. “I… I need to… what time is it?”

“It’s three ‘o-clock, Captain. Three hours till sunrise, if the Princess is on schedule.”

Windstreak gave a curt nod. “Thank you, Bergeron. I’m fine, really.”

“Very well, Captain. I’ll put breakfast on the fire.” Her second-in-command bowed out, still looking concerned.

Windstreak waited a moment to make sure he was gone. Then she fell into her pillow and cried.

* * *

Windstreak emerged from her tent some time later, looking rather the worse for wear. The camp was starting to wake up. Soldiers were already gathering around the campfires for the morning meal. She sat down beside the nearest fire, looking into the pot.

“Vegetable soup again?”

Bergeron, sitting across the fire gave a dry laugh. “You would prefer meat?”

Windstreak grimaced. “No, thanks, I’m not a griffon.” Bergeron’s laugh abruptly died, and he coughed. They’d all heard the stories about what horrible fates awaited the griffon’s conquered enemies. The lucky ones ended up as slaves. The unlucky ones…

She took a decisive bite of carrot from the pot. “The soup’s not so bad, I suppose. I’m afraid my husband has spoiled me when it comes to breakfast, though.” She munched reflectively. “He makes the most wonderful pancakes…” She reached a tentative hoof up to her ear. A small earring dangled from the tip, a band in the shape of two interwoven olive branches. She normally left Apricot’s wedding present behind when she went into battle, but today she felt she needed the comfort of the small reminder of home. “I miss the food already.”

Wheatie, the youngest of the Firewings, sat down beside their fire. “Ah, the famous Strudel bakery. I used to bring mother a loaf every day, back before I joined the ‘Wings.” His youthful face was bright and happy, with faint laugh lines creasing his cheeks. His white, speckled coat and auburn mane gave him the appearance of an old hero from the ancient tales, but his flippant attitude tended to ruin the image.

Amused, Windstreak leaned back and looked at him. “I remember, Wheatie. I also remember that you’d forget to pay for the loaf half the time.”

Wheatie cleared his throat, embarrassed. “Well, I always brought extra money the next day if I forgot.”

“That you did.” Windstreak smiled as she finished her soup. Turning to Bergeron, she set the bowl aside with a hoof. “So, what are we expecting today?”

                “More of the same, I think.” Her Lieutenant wiped his lips. The gash across his muzzle had faded, and was no longer a gory streak, but he would wear the scar for the rest of his life. He was still adjusting, masking the occasional twitch of pain as he moved his face. “The griffons didn’t push very hard yesterday or Saturday, compared to last week. The Duchess thinks they’re getting tired. I’m not so sure. I think they’re planning something big. They were making a huge racket all last night and into the morning. Sounded like the entire army was marching back and forth.”

Around them, the army was suiting up for the day. Earth ponies latched their armor into place, helping each other affix the metal plates properly along their backs. The pegasi stretched out, running their pre-flight exercises in preparation for another long day of flying. The unicorns were dressed in nothing but their robes, as usual. They rested, saving their magic for the battles to come.

The Firewings readied themselves. Windstreak cinched the clasp of Bergeron’s breastplate shut, tapping it with a hoof to make certain it was secure. He returned the favor, buckling the rear haunch-plate that she couldn’t reach. Windstreak was wearing borrowed armor; her own had been lost after being warped in the heat of the fires in Friday’s battle. The Firewing she’d taken it from would no longer need it. Sergeant Thornbeam was expected to live, but her fighting days were over. Her broken wing had been improperly set, and had begun to heal badly. It was a horrifying fate for any pegasus, to be trapped on the ground. Though she might recover flight in time, Thornbeam would never be able to keep pace with her comrades-in-arms. Windstreak suppressed a shiver of pity.

Her armor secured, she placed her helmet onto her head. Peering out through the eyeholes, Windstreak felt a vague sense of comforting familiarity. Though the bakery was far away, she carried a small piece of home with her in her heart. She reached up to her ear and touched her wedding band. She smiled privately. Let today bring what it may. She would be ready.

“Wheatie,” she said, drawing the young stallion’s attention. “Tell Sergeant Mossdown to take red flight to the west of the bridge today, once we take off. I don’t want any more commando raids getting through to the camp.”

“You think they’ll try that again, Captain? They took some major losses last time.”

“Shrikefeather never tries the same trick twice. Except when he does, just to be unpredictable. Just have them make sure no griffons get through.”

“Aye, ma’am.”

In the distance, the sun was peeking over the horizon. Windstreak looked out at the faint light and whispered “Good morning, Princess.”

There was a loud shout. Windstreak turned her head to find the cause of the commotion. One of the Whitetail spearponies was running at a full gallop through the camp, knocking aside pots and pans and raising an enormous ruckus. He was headed straight toward the Firewings’ encampment. She stood more sharply as the pony approached, still shouting hoarsely. He finally reached her, panting for breath.

 “Captain Strudel!”

With the Duchess spending more and more time sequestered inside her tent, Windstreak had become the de-facto commander of the military forces arrayed at Trellow. The pony before her was one she recognized. He was a spearpony on the bridge line, and he was supposed to be on duty.

“Soldier,” she said with a warning tone. “Why aren’t you at your post?”

“The griffons, Captain! They’re—“

* * *

“Gone!” Windstreak burst into the Duchess’s tent, knocking over a case filled with maps and scrolls. “Duchess Belle! They’re gone!”

The unicorn was fast asleep on the floor, her head lying on a detailed map of the Grumar River. Her mouth was hanging open, the parchment beneath it slightly damp. She snored softly. Windstreak shook the Duchess gently, trying to rouse her. Celerity’s eyes blinked fuzzily, then rapidly. She sat up, pulling her mane out of her face.

“Captain Strudel! What warranted this interrup—what time is it?”

“Celerity! The griffons are gone!”

”What?” Celerity’s eyes shot open. She leaned forward, stamping her hooves urgently on the ground. “Are you certain?”

“All but a scant few hundred have turned back to the south. There’s no sign of them. They left during the night.”

“I don’t—“ Celerity paused, taking this in. Stunned, she grinned. “How many are left, you said?”

“Perhaps seven hundred? A token force left behind to cover their retreat. All infantry. Their entire aerial attack force has up and vanished.”

The Duchess paced, bubbling with nervous energy. “It might be a trick. They could have gone far ‘round us during the night. Perhaps they’re trying to bypass the army and attack Equestria directly with their air forces.”

Windstreak shook her head. “Unless they went all the way west to Rivermeet, they didn’t slip past our scouts. And if Shrikefeather thinks he can get his infantry through that marshland before winter sets in, he’s sorely mistaken. No, Duchess, I think they’ve retreated. Honest-to-Sisters turned around and left.”

Celerity, overcome, had to sit down. “I can scarcely believe it.” Her head was spinning, but she felt happier than she had in months. “We’ll need to keep the bridge line intact until the rest of their army moves out, of course.”

“Naturally. I expect them to start clearing by the end of the day.”

“This is… this is wonderful. I’ll need to… I’m sorry, Captain. If you’ll excuse me, I need to attend to some logistical matters. If we really have stopped the invasion, then I’m going to have my hooves full for the next few days sorting out our next steps.”

“As you wish, Duchess.” Windstreak bowed respectfully, and left the tent, humming with uncontainable happiness. Celerity sat back on her haunches, still reeling from the news.

We did it. Though she’d told herself from the start that this plan would succeed, she had always harbored a small seed of doubt that a mere four thousand troops could hold the bridge against the full might of the Gryphan horde. But now, Shrikefeather was pulling his troops back. In removing his aerial fighters from the battlefield, he was all but waving the white flag.

The griffons had devoted an obscene amount of resources to this invasion. Their kingdom had barely a shadow of the former glory it once held as the Gryphan Empire. They could not afford another effort like this. Not in her lifetime, perhaps never again. She’d beaten them. She’d beaten Shrikefeather.

Celerity allowed herself a moment of pride. For over a decade, now, her troops stationed in Sel-Paloth had fought off Shrikefeather’s troops and raiding parties. The military she’d built had kept all the southern provinces safe for years, and the culmination of her efforts had finally borne fruit. She and Shrikefeather had long fought at a great distance, testing each other, determining the strength of their enemy. But when push came to shove, when the cards were all laid down, Celerity had proven the better leader.

Hubris was a flaw, she’d been told. Celerity pushed away the self-congratulations for another day. She had more important matters deserving of her attention right now. With the griffons gone, her timetable had just been majorly stepped up. She’d expected another week at least to gain footholds in Greenway and the Lake Country. But now it looked as though the northern campaign was upon her already.

Easthill was only the first of many vital components in her planned campaign. Soon, Greenway would give her much-needed access to the Capital, and the heart of Equestria’s trade network in the Great Crossroads. More important than the military victories, however, would be unifying the provinces under her guiding hoof. Never again would Equestria be threatened by outside influences or internal disputes. Her ponies would be safe in her care.

Weatherforge and Westermin had pledged allegiance to her cause already, in fighting the griffons. It would take little convincing to bring them more firmly under her control. She needed Weatherforge’s pegasi, especially, to keep order in her new realm.

Speaking of which, what was she to call this new alliance of the southern provinces? The Belle Kingdom?  No, it sounded too authoritarian. She didn’t want to be a Queen. Celerity would be more than happy having power in truth rather than name. The Confederacy of Whitetail? She mulled the name around in her mouth. It rolled nicely from the tongue. The Confederacy they would be, then, united under her banner. It would take quite a lot of convincing, but thanks to the griffon invasion, she was already halfway there.

Nothing brings ponies together like a good old-fashioned common enemy. With Westermin and Weatherforge at her back, Breton and Rivermeet would fall in line easily enough. The Delta and Lake Country were still claiming loyalty to Canterlot, but they would change their tune once an army of Whitetail soldiers marched into their capital cities. And once Baron Aubren took control of Greenway, she could begin solidifying her power base to fight her real enemy: Duke Emmet Blueblood.

She considered the separate problem of Celestia. Most of her opponents in this game were easy to play against: Blueblood was her chief political rival and her most hated foe; she would feel no regret at destroying his armies, slaying his heirs, and permanently ending his line. The other Dukes and Lords were just pawns to be used, pieces she would move and sacrifice without regret. Even Shrikefeather was purely a professional enemy, and despite their continuous conflict Celerity held a certain grudging respect for the griffon.

Her relationship with Celestia was… different.

She still remembered the first time she’d seen the Sun Castle as a tiny foal not yet a year old. Her father, the inestimable Duke Fendrake Belle the Third, had taken her with him to her first council meeting. Already training his only daughter to one day take his place, her father had brought her inside the council chambers while the Equestrian nobility debated. She had watched, wide-eyed, and taken in everything: the way the nobles danced around each other in the delicate game of power, the way they wielded their words like weapons. When the session had concluded, and most of the other councilors had left, her father had introduced her to the Princess herself.

She had been overawed by the great alicorn, prostrating herself before the Princess. Celestia had laughed that tinkling laugh she would grow to know so well, and asked her name. The young filly had been too shy of the Princess’s beauty to speak.

When did I lose that sense of wonder?

Might it have been the death of her father? She had still been so young, barely four years old, when her father took sick with the wasting disease. It had struck so suddenly, so decisively, and so conveniently—right before the major trade summit regarding Norhart that her father had publicly opposed—that she remained convinced to this day that it had been poison. Nothing could be proven, however. With her mother long dead, and her father newly passed, the young Celerity was forced to step into the horseshoes of the Duke and take up his mantle.

Her advisors and steward promised to keep her duchy safe for her until she came of age, but Celerity knew that they wanted to hold the real power and that she must be ready to take it back when the time came. Power was the only way to accomplish anything, and the only way to keep safe in Equestrian politics. But she needed a mentor. She had no one to rely on, no teacher. No friends. And so she turned to the one pony she knew she could trust implicitly.

Celestia, deeply sympathetic to her plight, immediately agreed to help train the young mare in the ways of the royal court. Under her tutelage, Celerity’s reputation as a political mastermind and military genius grew rapidly. But they were closer than simply student and teacher. They went everywhere together, spent long hours talking every day and night. The Princess even confided to her about Princess Luna, and Celestia’s long-held regrets regarding her fallen sister. In return, Celerity shared all her suspicions about the truth of her father’s end, and the fears of betrayal from her power-hungry steward. She had called the Princess “Aunt Celestia” until reaching her majority at age seven.

She had taken back power from the steward on her seventh birthday, receiving the traditional tiara of the duchy during the interminably long ceremony. The steward, now her chief advisor, made it clear through implication that he expected to maintain a hold over his young ward, and to continue ruling the duchy as he had for the past three years. But Celestia’s protégé was not so easily controlled. Celerity had real power, now, and she put it to full use to bring about her own ends and strengthen her lands. She fortified the fortress of Sel-Paloth, cleared the more dangerous sections of the Whitetail forest, and helped the Princess lead the council to the right decisions to better Equestria.

But as the years passed, Celerity gradually began to lose her childlike faith in the Princess. Her work as a council member put her in close proximity to Celestia while she went about the difficult process of running the kingdom. She was constantly present to watch the Princess’s every decision. Every mistake. Discovering that her mentor was not infallible was a long, unpleasant process that took her years to come to terms with. Increasingly, she found herself and the Princess moving at cross-purposes.

The Princess was willing to sacrifice much to keep order, up to and including her own sister. But slowly Celerity had come to the conclusion that the act of banishing her only kin had somehow… damaged the Princess. She was too wary, too fearful of offending the nobles. Too passive. Emmet Blueblood was a consistent thorn in Celerity’s side, doing his best to drag Equestria back into the dark ages. But the Princess never quashed his insane ideas, always giving him a platform to spew his nonsense. And so Equestria was weakened.

Celerity would make it strong again. The Confederacy of Whitetail would suffer no such foolishness. Her word would be the final say on any matter of military or political significance. It would be an unbreakable nation, a solid rock standing between its ponies and the vicious outside world. No griffons would invade on her watch. Security. Peace. And Celerity would have all the power she needed to make sure her vision came true.

Except… the Princess now stood in her way. Her contribution to the defense of Easthill was an unmistakable statement: “I will not support you.” The Capital itself was of little strategic importance: out of the way, far from the nearest trade hub, and it possessed a very weak military. But leaving Celestia alone was no longer an option. In order to prevent an alliance of desperation between the Capital and Norhart, she would be forced to take Canterlot. And she knew that if she set hoof in the city that she would have to face the Princess and justify herself. Celerity forcefully ignored the painful mental image, and turned to more purely strategic matters.

The Firewings might be on her side in this scuffle against the griffons, but she doubted they would so easily turn on their Princess. Perhaps it would be simpler to eliminate them right here, right now, while they were all together in one spot. But she couldn’t afford yet to rob herself of the critical advantage they gave her in the air. Celerity sighed. If only they could all have died gloriously in battle against the griffons like heroes. It would have saved her a world of trouble down the line.

She moved back to her maps, beginning to plan. She would need to move fast.

 

Chapter Twenty-One

The celebration in the Equestrian camp carried on from morning throughout the evening, and showed no signs of slowing by dinnertime. Windstreak wasn’t sure where the instruments had come from, but several of the Westermin soldiers had started playing a lively series of tunes they called a “hoedown”. The Whitetail troops gladly joined the party, and the camp was soon filled with dancing and singing like she hadn’t seen in years. The Firewings were a bit more professional, but after Windstreak wryly allowed herself a few spins around the camp with a soldier from Westermin, their discipline cracked and they too joined in the fun.

Above all else, the air seemed filled with hope. A force of a mere four thousand ponies had just sent an army of ten thousand fleeing for the dunes. If such a thing was possible, then might Equestria’s shattered provinces find peace with one another? It was an unspoken message of unity that pervaded the campsite.

Soldiers packed up their belongings, ready to begin the march home in the following days. The wounded who could not walk were slowly shifted onto mobile pallets, preparing for the journey back to Whitewall, where they could convalesce in peace.

The bridge was still guarded, however. The line remained strong, still reinforced every twenty minutes by a new group of spearponies. The griffons on the other side showed no signs of aggression. They were still squatting in the remnants of the horde’s camp, nearly a quarter of a mile away from the bridge. The infantry had made no move toward the line all day.

Windstreak reclined at the edge of one of the dancing circles. She had her helmet off, tucked under one of her hooves. She sighed, contented. She looked west as the sun approached the horizon. They had perhaps three hours before the sun set on the last day of this very brief war. Soon, she would be returning to Canterlot, where she could see her husband again. And then she would be flying north to bring back Rye. They no longer needed the aid of the nordponies, after all, and she was determined to make sure he made it back in one piece.

The weather had been beautiful all day, as if celebrating with the ponies. She suspected the Weatherforge pegasi of clearing out the clouds to let the sunshine through, but she hadn’t been paying attention in the initial celebration. But there was still one cloud lingering, far to the south. She blinked, looking closer. No, she’d been mistaken, there was nothing.

Windstreak yawned and replaced her helmet on her head. She hadn’t gotten a very good night’s sleep. She was starting to see things. Not wanting to sleep and risk another nightmare as hideous as the last, she decided to take a walk to clear her head. The Guard-Captain wandered south along the riverbank.

Her path wound her up to the bridge. Normally, Celerity could be found here, making sure that the line was replaced three times an hour, but the Duchess had yet to emerge from her tent. Windstreak had given the order that she was not to be disturbed, leaving Celerity to her ruminations. Without the Duchess’s presence, however, the bridge seemed oddly empty.

“Hello, Captain.”

Windstreak started in surprise, then rolled her eyes. “I thought I told you not to do that, Ber—“ She turned to find, not her Lieutenant, but Wheatie. “Oh. Sorry.”

“My apologies, Captain.” The young stallion inclined his head. The two fell silent. They looked out over the griffons’ small force for a while. A faint east wind blew up, catching Windstreak’s tail. She sighed. Wheatie glanced sideways, his apparent casualness betrayed by the tension in his stiff back. “A bit for your thoughts, Captain?”

“Oh… I’m happy that we’ve beaten the griffons back, believe me. It’s just…” Her voice trailed off.

“It’s your son, isn’t it.”

Windstreak closed her eyes and hung her head, laughing sadly to herself. “Oh, Bergeron. I thought you were more discrete than this.”

“I’m the only one he’s told, Captain. He felt the burden was too much for one pony to bear.”

“Too much stress for him, being my secret-keeper?”

“He was referring to you.”

“Ah.” Windstreak took a deep breath. “Yes, it’s my son. He’s gone off on some damn fool mission for the Princess that’s going to get him killed, more likely than not; and after the events of today it turns out that that mission is completely pointless. I’m just…” Her voice caught. She sniffed, her eyes watering.

Wheatie found something very interesting to look at in the other direction while she dried her eyes. She continued, her voice back under control: “I’m just worried that he’s going to get hurt. A mother’s foolish fears, I suppose.”

“I don’t think you’re being foolish, Captain.”

“Thank you, Wheatie.” She smiled at him. A brief flash caught her eye. “Did you see that?”

“Yes. From the south.” The two looked out again.

Windstreak rubbed her eyes. “I suppose I wasn’t seeing things. That’s shaping up to be quite the storm.” Far in the distance, a massive black cloud was just barely visible. “Good. I hope it rains all over Shrikefeather’s army.” She had a brief vision of black nimbuses and crimson rain. She shuddered, turning her thoughts away.

“Well, Captain… if you’re planning to head after your son once we return to Canterlot, and the Princess allows it, I’d like to come with you. Bergeron as well.”

“I don’t need—“

“Maybe not. But you’ll make us feel better if you take us along.”

“You two aren’t going to stop pestering me about this, are you.”

Wheatie grinned. “You’re beginning to grasp the concept of nagging, I see.”

“Fine. If the Princess gives the go-ahead, I’ll take you two with me. I’m not sure why you care, Wheatie.”

“You’re my Captain and shield-sister. I’m not going to let you face something like this alone.”

“Well… thank you. And give Bergeron my thanks as well.”

“Of course, Captain.”

The two stood, looking at the sky, each busy with their own thoughts. The sun sank lower in the sky, streaking it with violet and rose. Behind them, the party continued unabated. The faint strains of music carried over the wind.

“Captain?”

“Yes, Wheatie?”

“That storm is moving awfully fast.”

“They tend to do that, on the plains. They can swoop up on you in a minute.”

They both stared southward at the cloud. Windstreak felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. Wheatie squinted.

“It’s moving straight toward us.”

“Yes.”

“Those aren’t flashes of lightning. They looked metallic.”

“Yes.”

“... Captain?”

“Yes, Wheatie.”

“That’s not a storm, is it.” It wasn’t a question.

Windstreak took a fortifying breath and exhaled, shaking herself to make sure her armor was still secured. “Tell me, Wheatie, have you ever heard the story of Tyorj?”

* * *

The alarm was nearly drowned out by the sounds of the celebrating soldiers. At first, it could almost be mistaken for another instrument, joining the music. But soon, the ringing alarm’s distinct sound began to pierce through the din to the ears of the soldiers. There was a lull in the songs as the soldiers paused, listening to the frantic ding ding ding of the bell.

They dropped their instruments, stamped out their fires, and left their food abandoned on the ground. Those that had removed their armor to allow freer movement for dancing hastily rebuckled it. Soldiers grabbed their weapons, racing for the bridge. Wings beat. Hooves stamped. Spears and shields fell into line. But the defense was disorganized. Sloppy. Distracted.

The flap to Celerity’s tent burst inward. Windstreak’s face was filled with urgency. “Duchess.”

Celerity took one look at the Captain and her face hardened in instant understanding. “Shrikefeather.” She stood, shoving away the table. She walked to the side of her tent, brushing aside maps to reveal the small closet in which she stored her armor. Her face was filled with tranquil rage, a mask of controlled emotions.

Her horn glowed and her armor slid out of the little chest. The silver chain links gleamed softly in the candlelight. “Prepare your troops, Captain,” she whispered. Windstreak saluted and vanished from the tent.

Across the river, the griffon infantry had begun their approach. The seven hundred remaining griffons neared the bridge, a tight and cohesive unit of hardened killing machines. They were Shrikefeather’s best, handpicked for the sole purpose of finally breaking the bridge line. To the south, the great cloud was now fully visible. And it was no cloud at all, but the most massive flight of griffons anypony had ever seen. Not since the days of the Gryphan Empire had such an army flown in the skies of Equestria.

On the north side of the Grumar, Windstreak hovered beside Bergeron. The pegasi from Weatherforge and the Firewings were all airborne, waiting for the enemy. They stared across the river. “There have to be at least fifteen hundred of them.”

“We’ll hold it, Captain. We always do.”

“Our troops are still disorganized and unprepared. This is going to get ugly, Bergeron.”

“We’ll hold it.”

“Shrikefeather’s got to have an ace up his sleeve. This is no ordinary attack.” Bergeron said nothing in reply, his face unreadable beneath his helmet.

Below, at the bridge, Celerity held command. “Steady, everypony. Steady, now.” The Duchess’s calm voice soothed the soldiers. “There aren’t enough of them left to take the bridge. We can hold the line against seven hundred griffons. We will hold the line.” Whitetail and Westermin ponies alike gritted their teeth, preparing for the oncoming assault.

The cloud of wings and steel drew closer. Uncountable griffons swarmed in a vast, seething mass. It was like a living thing, looming up to reach out and consume the Equestrians. It crossed the river, the sounds of a thousand synchronous wingbeats vibrating through the air. Windstreak felt like she was bracing herself for the impact of a wave. Her eyes narrowed. “Get ready, everypony!”

The cloud burst. The griffons exploded outward, streaking into the ranks of the ponies. They were everywhere at once, completely blocking out the sky and the ground. Windstreak found herself immediately fighting for her life. Two griffons swung toward her, claws outstretched. She kicked one in the face, somersaulting away to avoid the second’s claws. A third raked his talons across her back, scratching the golden armor. There was a crack from behind her as Bergeron collided with the griffon. The second one grabbed onto him, pulling him away. Windstreak flew after it, driving her hooves into its skull and instantly breaking its neck.

There was an immense roar, a thunderous sound that shook through the air like an erupting volcano. All the ponies flinched for one brief moment, stunned still by the arrival of a new enemy. Hidden in the center of the cloud of griffons, they had flown from the south, remaining shielded from the ponies until now. Until it was too late. They burst from inside the horde, ready to destroy the Equestrians.

It was impossible.

Windstreak had never really believed they still existed. They were old legends, myths told to children to entertain them and keep them from wandering outside at night. None of them had ventured from their homeland in centuries. The only pony she knew who had ever seen one was the Princess herself. And they were a match for even her in power. They were great beasts formed from the bones of the world, creatures who had once strived against the gods themselves for dominion over the Earth.

They were the inhabitants of the arid land of Wyrmgand, wielders of fiery breath and untold natural power. They were not living creatures so much as forces of nature given flesh. Wherever they went, destruction followed, and nothing—no pony, no griffon, no god—could stand in their way. Or so the legends said.

Dragons.

Their scales gleamed brilliantly in the sun’s light, scintillating colors blinding and dazzling in their beauty. They were huge. Their heads as large as houses; their teeth were the size of a pegasus’s full wingspan and sharp as blades. Their talons could cut through the finest of Easthill steel with ease, for they were made of stronger stuff than iron. Dragons were of the Earth, more pure than any metal or stone. Trying to defeat one would be like trying to kill a mountain. But the most striking features were their eyes. The only word that could describe them, thought Windstreak, was old. They were windows into the ancient past, reminders that they were as older than Equestria itself.

There were two of them. One was bright viridian, her gleaming green hide scarred with the marks of old battles won and lost. The other, a dark scarlet the shade of freshly spilled blood; even bigger and covered with many more ancient wounds that told of foes defeated and enemies slain. They descended upon the army of pegasi like colliding meteors.

The first victims, still stunned by the appearance of the legendary creatures, were felled in seconds as the dragons’ huge claws slashed through their ranks. The griffons resumed their furious swarming, slicing apart the pegasi. The Firewings were the first to respond to the new threat, flying fearlessly into battle as they always did.

Windstreak and Bergeron flew high above the great red dragon, dodging griffons and pegasi.

“Do you see a weakness?” shouted Bergeron.

Windstreak yelled back over the noise “No! It’s a dragon, it doesn’t have any weaknesses!”

”Well, we have to do something! They’re going to wipe our entire army out!”

“Come on! Go for the eyes!” Together, they dived downward, flying straight for the dragon’s head. From the opposite side, Wheatie led a dozen others in the same maneuver. A third squadron of nearly thirty Firewings dove from the front, drawing the dragon’s attention. Its eyes narrowed. Right before the Firewings collided with its head, the dragon twisted violently, slamming its neck into first Wheatie’s group and then Windstreak.

It was like being smashed by a mountainside. Windstreak dropped, stunned and unable to flap her wings or focus her thoughts. The wind rushed past her, roaring. She regained control, spreading out her wings and trying to steer her descent while she recovered. She looked upward at the great red dragon just in time to see the third squadron attack.

The dragon’s mouth yawned wide. Windstreak stared from below in awestruck wonder. The dragon inhaled, and from its mouth poured a massive font of flame. The fire was hotter than any Windstreak had ever felt, including the burning tent of the assault on the camp. Even from far below the dragon, she could feel the blast of heat. The Firewings caught in the flame simply vanished, wiped from existence by the dragon’s breath.

The green was ravaging the Cloudsdale pegasi, ripping apart their formations with impunity. All around, griffons swooped in between the dragons, picking off stragglers and fleeing pegasi. Windstreak hung in midair, dismayed.

“Captain!” Bergeron screamed over the roar of battle as he rocketed down beside her. “Captain! What do we do?”

“Stay alive! I need to get to the Duchess! We’ll make a fighting retreat. Get the Weatherforge pegasi mobilized!” Windstreak rocketed away toward the bridge. Bergeron flapped helplessly for a moment, then turned around and flew back into the thick of it.

Below, at the bridge, the griffons pushed forward. The maulers had finally struck. Driving forward like a wedge with their shields, the other griffons had cleared a path to the line for the giant mace-wielding berserkers. The maces crashed against the shields, but the spearponies held.

Celerity screamed orders, trying desperately to maintain control of the situation. Above her, scores of ponies were burning to death every minute. Her forces were in complete disarray. If the bridge line broke, all was lost. But still it held.

From inside the great wedge, a massive shape erupted. His wingspan was over three meters long. His head feathers were as black as soot, and his eyes pierced the armor of whomever they stared upon. He held no weapon, for his talons were more than enough. He wore no shield, for no foe could touch him in battle. His armor bore no insignia, nor any indications of rank, for he needed none; his authority was obvious and absolute. He said nothing, and gave no battle cry, for no words were necessary. General Shrikefeather had taken the field.

The spearponies shunted their spears upward as they had done so many times before. The General’s beak opened and he let loose a piercing shriek. Ponies cringed and flung their hooves to their ears, terrified. The General brushed aside the spears with a contemptuous claw, falling among the spearponies like a whirlwind. Blood splattered through the air. The maulers charged in behind him, wreaking havoc with their maces. The ponies fell back, terrified and overwhelmed.

The line was broken.

Windstreak landed next to the Duchess, who was still shouting orders. “Celerity! The battle’s lost! We have to retreat while we still can!”

“Never! He hasn’t won this yet!”

“Celerity! Even if we hold the bridge, those dragons are going to wipe out our entire army! We need to go!”

The Duchess looked back at Windstreak, her mane blowing crazily in the wind. “NO! No retreat! We will not let these mongrels through. I will not allow it.

Windstreak grabbed the Duchess and shook her, throwing protocol to the wind. “Celerity! Be reasonable. We have to save as many of our troops as we can. ”

The unicorn’s horn pulsed brightly, and Windstreak found herself flung backwards onto the ground. Celerity stamped her hooves down aggressively, steam flushing from her nostrils. “Don’t you dare, Captain Strudel. No pony under my command flees in the face of battle.”

Windstreak looked at Celerity’s face. The Duchess’s eyes were wide and wild. Her mane flew unkempt around her head. She stared at Windstreak, but Celerity wasn’t really looking at her. Her gaze was lost in some other world. Windstreak had seen the same look once before, one horrible day long ago, as a trapped stallion burned to death inside a flaming winery. His eyes had rolled as he turned feral in his final moments.

Celerity’s face was now identical. She had lost herself. There was nothing more to be said. Windstreak shook her head and took off, leaving the half-crazed unicorn standing alone and  panting. Celerity whirled back around, screaming “HOLD THE LINE!”

But the line was no longer hers to hold. General Shrikefeather and the rest of the griffons had driven the ponies back completely over the bridge. For the first time in six hundred years, griffons stepped over Trellow Bridge and into the Duchy of Whitetail.

Windstreak flew over the lines of Westermin and Whitetail ponies. “Retreat!” she called. “Retreat! Fall back to Whitewall City!” Seeing the golden armor, the ponies below heeded her command, and began to move away from the bridge. Above, Bergeron was doing his best to organize the pegasi in the midst of the airborne slaughter. With agonizing slowness, the army began to shift northward.

At the base of the bridge, Celerity retained control. A scant hundred unicorns and earth ponies still fought bitterly against the oncoming griffon horde. They battled like madponies, killing dozens of griffons for every one that they lost. The Duchess herself entered the fray, flinging spells into the griffons.

General Shrikefeather found her at last. Celerity was locked in combat with a group of griffons, along with several of her soldiers. Celerity’s horn glowed brightly, and with a snap-hiss! lightning flew from its tip to strike a griffon in the chest.  Another leapt to slash at her, but was intercepted by a soldier’s spear. The Whitetail spearpony was grabbed by another griffon and dragged away. Celerity sent another bolt of lightning flying into the griffon before her. It sizzled on his flesh, and he fell.

Behind her, she felt a great thud, and the ground shook. She turned wildly, another spell flying to her horn. Shrikefeather had come for his prey. Before she could let fly her spell, his talons raked across her face. She cried out in pain, flinching. He grabbed her bright chainmail with both claws, and swung the Duchess sideways. She flew through the air, crashing in a heap.

Celerity planted a hoof underneath herself. She raised her head, firing a bolt of lightning at the General. But the griffon was already airborne, and the bolt missed as he flew toward her again. He landed heavily beside the duchess. She struggled to stand, but his claw slammed down on her head, driving it sideways into the dirt.

“Look around you, Celerity.” General Shrikefeather leaned his head down to the Duchess’s. He held her down in the dirt. “Look at your army.”

Celerity’s eyes swiveled back and forth. She struggled, snorting and spitting in fury, trying to pull upright, but to no avail. The General held her down tightly.

“Look.”

Celerity’s motions slowed. Her eyes rolled back down, and she gasped for air. She looked out at the bridge. All around it lay the corpses of hundreds of ponies. Even now, innumerable griffons were pouring over into Whitetail. Above, the roars of the dragons and the smell of brimstone dominated her senses. She twisted her head to the north. Her army, what shattered remnants of it were left, was fleeing.

“They are running, Celerity. Running like cowards.” Shrikefeather clamped harder on her head. “For too long, you have stood between me and Equestria. If not for your interference, I’d have taken the southlands years ago.” His voice was a curious mix of respect and anger.

Celerity couldn’t catch her breath. Her heart beat like a drum, her ears flicked helplessly. She continued her futile struggle.

“But your time is done. Look, and see all that you wished for cast down and broken at your hooves. Here, at the end, you are nothing, Celerity.”

The Duchess looked out over the land of Equestria. In the distance, though she knew it was impossible, she fancied she saw the golden spires of Canterlot glittering in the sun. Tears blinded her.

“I’m… sorry…”

“Oh, Celerity, it’s too late for that.”

“Celestia… I’m so sorry…”

The pressure on her head released. Duchess Celerity Augustine Belle looked up at the sky one last time, watching the two great dragons circle the battlefield. In the corner of her vision, Shrikefeather’s talon raised high above her. She stared at the sun as the last few rays peeked over the horizon. She felt oddly at peace.

And then she felt nothing at all.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

“I need to rest.” Cranberry slumped to the frost-covered ground, her chest heaving. Rye looked back at her and nodded wearily, his breath puffing out in a cloud. Inger sat down, and Rye followed suit with a grateful moan.

Flakes of snow drifted gently down. The tundra was wide and empty. The only visible feature anywhere was the mountain range behind them. Though the three been walking for hours, the Joturs still loomed above them, their peaks lost in the clouds. Rye couldn’t even see the sun through the thick weather, but the bright white snow was nearly blinding. When they left the mountains, the ground had been mostly dirt, but the further north they plodded the more the ground vanished under a thin blanket of ice.

“Where are we, Cranberry?” Rye suppressed a shiver as a cold wind swept past them all, leeching the warmth from his skin. Few of their belongings had escaped the caves. Inger had been wearing his armor, and Rye still had the bags with the treaties, but their heavy cloaks and all of Cranberry’s things were lost. Rye had not been carrying any supplies in his saddlebags. They had no food, and no water. It would probably have frozen anyway, he reflected. His stomach growled.

“I’m not sure.” The earth pony’s face was haggard and dull. “We’ve obviously passed into Sleipnord, but I have no idea where that passage let out. We could be a hundred miles west of the pass, for all I know.”

Rye yawned. Inger’s eyes sharpened. “If you’re tired, perhaps we should sleep now. Before we travel any further north.”

“I’m fine, Inger.”

“We need to be careful up here. Falling asleep in this weather can be the last thing you ever do.” Inger focused his eyes on some distant memory. “I’ve been to Sleipnord before, a long time ago. The Princess sent some of the Firewings to broker a trade agreement with the Thane of Aenir.”

Cranberry, eager for a distraction from her rumbling belly, took the bait. “What about?”

“Steel shipments, if I remember correctly. But our flight got caught in a storm. We were forced down shortly after passing over the Jotur mountains. We landed in a pinewood forest.”

Cranberry whistled. “Sounds like the Eastern Ghostwood. How did you end up there? That’s a long way away from Aenir.”

“I don’t know what it was called. I just remember how cold…” Inger blinked. “You two are both from Canterlot, yes?” They nodded. “You remember the winter four years ago?”

Cranberry’s face went very blank. Rye looked at her and cringed. Tentatively, he said “I was only two, then, but I remember. Mother wouldn’t let me leave the house for days. Said I’d... catch my death.” He glanced uncertainly over at Cranberry, who was still imitating a statue.

Inger continued, missing the small exchange. “Crops died. The castle’s waterways froze up. The streets were buried with snow. We had to call in help from Weatherforge to get the weather under control, but…”

Cranberry, her voice oddly tight, said “But it was too late.” Rye winced, no longer able to look her in the eye. He began pawing the ground awkwardly with a hoof. “Many of the townsponies didn’t survive the winter. Dozens of little fillies were left without their parents.” Her voice caught, but then she looked at Rye with a brief, grateful smile. “Some were fortunate enough to have siblings and friends to look after them, while they tried to scrape by.” Her smile faded. “Others… weren’t so lucky.”

“It was horrible.” Inger was still lost in time. “But it was nothing—nothing, compared to those nights we spent in that forest. Low temperature doesn’t normally bother pegasi. Our blood gives us some protection from it, that’s how we can fly high enough to forge the weather. But in Sleipnord, the greatest danger isn’t the wolves, or the monsters, or the unfriendly locals. It’s the cold. Your breath freezes as you exhale, little icicles form on your skin. Wings, freezing over; the air in your lungs turning to ice… Three of our company died after the first night. Two more followed them the next. By the time we finally made it to Aenir, only myself and three others remained.”

Outraged, Rye broke in, saying “The pegasi up here must be insane! How can anypony survive in that kind of weather?”

“There aren’t any pegasi in Sleipnord,” said Cranberry suddenly. “This is all runoff weather from Equestria.”

Rye was stunned. “No pegasi? So how do they control the weather? Magic?”

“No unicorns, either. Everypony in Sleipnord is one hundred percent earth pony.”

“Well…” he said, discouraged. “At least we’re not going in the middle of winter. It’s just barely starting to get chilly. It’s still late fall down in Canterlot. The weather shouldn’t be that bad.”

Inger grimaced. “That mission took place five years ago. In June.” They were all silent for a while after that. Cranberry shivered.

“Well!” she said suddenly, standing. “If we don’t want history to repeat itself, we’d better get on our hooves and start moving. I lost all my maps back under the mountains, but I still remember the general lay of the land. I think the closest hall should be Saddlestead. We need to keep moving north.” Without waiting for them to follow, she galloped off.

Inger stared after the earth pony in surprise. “What’s gotten into Miss Cranberry?” His eyes widened as he finally caught on to the buried subtext of their earlier conversation. He cringed. “Oh, no… don’t tell me that she—“

“Yes,” said Rye, somber.

“I didn’t realize…”

“A lot of fillies lost their parents,” Rye echoed. “After that winter, she and her sister Potluck stayed with my family for a year, until Potluck managed to get a job working in the city library.” He smiled sadly. “That’s when Cranberry started reading about the old civilizations. She’d bring books over for me to look at, every now and then…”

“Do… do you think I should apologize?”

“Give her some time, first. She doesn’t like to talk about her parents much.” Rye took off after Cranberry. Inger followed, still berating himself under his breath.

* * *

They marched endlessly through the frozen plains, leaving no hoofprints on the hard ground. The light snow left only a thin blanket, crunching underhoof as they walked. Gray skies looked down drearily on the three, letting no warmth through from the sun above. Icy wind would blow up intermittently, chilling to the bone. Rye discovered that moisture in the air had a tendency to freeze, pelting them with tiny shards of ice. The land seemed to stretch on endlessly around them, without any trees or hills to break the flatness. The mountains were still visible, but the weather behind them was beginning to thicken and obscure them from sight. They had left the foothills behind long ago, and were now deep in the tundra.

Cranberry pressed on ahead. “I th-th-think we’re getting cl-closer, now,” she said through chattering teeth. “Keep an eye out for a b-big, wooden st-st-structure.”

Inger’s brow bent in concern. He quickened his pace to pull equal with Cranberry, extending a wing to shield her from the wind. Rye followed suit, though his little wing was a sad counterpart to Inger’s. Cranberry looked gratefully at them both, but she kept shuddering.

“I think we need to stop soon,” said Rye. “It’s getting dark.”

“It c-c-can’t be more than s-six ‘o-clock!” stammered Cranberry.

Inger nodded. “We’re far north of Canterlot,” he said. “And we’re on the cusp of winter. There won’t be a lot of daylight to go around for the next few months up here. For every twenty-hour day, we’ll be lucky to get five hours of sunlight.”

She gave a violent shake. “W-well we c-c-can’t stop here. There’s no p-protection from the w-wind.”

“We’re not going to find any before nightfall. We’ll have to dig a pit.” Inger looked at Rye. “Keep moving around, Miss Cranberry. Try to stay warm. Rye and I can do the digging.” Rye nodded. The two scraped their hooves across the frosty ground, scoring gashes in the ice. Luckily for them, it was still thin at this time of year, and the ice soon yielded to hard dirt. They worked for an hour and a half, excavating a small pit to shield them from the worst of the wind while they slept. The sunlight was long gone by the time they finished, but when they stepped back at last they had dug a pit large and deep enough to fit all of them inside.

The sweat from the exertion had frozen on Rye’s brow. He quashed a shiver, grateful for his mother’s gift of pegasus blood. Even with his natural resistance to the cold, he was still freezing to the bone. He could only imagine what it was like for Cranberry.

The pink pony was shaking like a leaf by now. She fell gratefully into the small ditch, curling up to try to hold some warmth to herself. Inger and Rye slid down next to her on either side, by unspoken agreement. The three were wedged in tightly. Cranberry flinched at the touch of Inger’s icy armor, but it soon warmed from the heat of the three bodies. The ponies lay motionless, except for her involuntary shudders.

The wind howled around them, like the shrieks of griffons thirsty for blood. The snow was falling harder now, beginning to cover them with a thin layer of white. Inger looked at Rye, his face as worried as Rye felt. Slowly, Cranberry’s shivers calmed, and she finally began to snore softly. The two others breathed silent sighs of relief. Neither would be getting much sleep that night.

As the hours passed, the wind began to die down. The snow fell quietly. Neither the song of birds nor the howl of wolves pierced the silent tundra air. At length, Inger broke the quiet.

“Rye.”

“Mm?”

“I felt I should thank you again.” Inger’s breath puffed out slowly. “For saving our lives.”

Rye shook his head, smiling. “Don’t mention it.” What do you really want, Inger?

“I confess, I… have a question for you.”

Aha. “Ask away.” Rye looked down to make sure Cranberry was still sleeping soundly. Her chest rose and fell in steady rhythm.

“Remember two weeks ago, when all of this started?”

“Of course.” Had it really been just two weeks?

“That night in the forest… I’ve been wondering. Why were you there, when you ran into the Princess’s courier?”

Rye sighed. He looked ahead at the edge of their small shelter. “I was… hiding.”

“From what?”

“Myself, I suppose.” Best to get it over with quickly. “The day before, I’d washed out of the Celestial Army's officer exams. I went out into the woods to be alone for a while, when I ran into Dawn. You know the rest.”

Inger looked surprised. “Officer exams? Why were you trying to join the army?”

“I’m… not sure, anymore.” Rye looked up at the dark sky. “I thought I wanted to be like my mother. I wanted to see her face light up with pride when I got those officer's bars… but I never really had a shot, anyway.”

“Why not?” Inger looked genuinely curious.

“What, besides the obvious?” Rye raised an eyebrow and gave his wings a flap, then sighed again. “I don’t think I’d be a very good soldier.”

“You’ve proven yourself sturdier than you look.”

“It's not that. It's just... in the tales, being a warrior is all about defending the weak, and protecting Equestria. They don't talk about the blood, or the sweat, or the fear. They barely mention the killing. I don't know if I would have the stomach to kill another pony, when the cards were down.”

“Ah.” Inger’s eyes were all-too understanding. “Yes.” He looked off into the distance. "It takes a certain... detachment, to kill and stay sane. Especially if your enemy is a pony, rather than a monster. It changes you, after a while."

“Have you ever…?”

“Yes.” They were quiet for a moment. “If you didn’t want to be a soldier, then why were you trying to join the army?”

Rye studied the dirt, drawing circles with his hoof. “I just wanted to… succeed. No. I wanted to be seen to succeed. I’ve been hidden in my parents’ shadow for my whole life. I want to cast my own.”

“So you want to be famous?” Inger said, skeptical.

“Not famous…” Rye lifted a wing, pointing at it. “All my life, I’ve been called a cripple. I used to hate how unfair it was. But just complaining about it isn’t going to change anything.” He gritted his teeth. “I need to prove them wrong. All of them. I need to show them that I can do great things, pegacorn or no.”

Inger nodded slowly. “I can understand that.” He wrestled with himself for a moment, but honesty won out. “I… know what it’s like to be looked down upon for your birth. My mother died when I was young. I never knew my father. Life isn’t easy for a bastard on the streets, but I survived. Until the Firewings found and recruited me. Your mother, in fact.” He looked over at Rye. “I owe everything to her.”

“Ha!” Rye gave a black laugh. “The cripple, the orphan, and the bastard. A fine group of heroes we are.”

“We’re not heroes, Rye. We’re not fighting great battles or slaying giants. We’re just trying to help our country the best way we can.”

“My mother’s a hero,” said Rye wistfully.

“Yes. But wars are rarely won by heroes.” Inger gave him a rare smile. “That usually falls to the grunts like us.”

“Do… do you think she’s still alive? The fighting must have started by now.”

“Don’t worry about her, Rye. I’ve flown with your mother through more battles than I can count. I doubt even a dragon could kill Windstreak Firemane.”

Rye smiled nervously. “I hope you’re right.” He closed his eyes and laid down his head. “We’d better get some sleep, and move on early tomorrow. We have to find this Saddlestead place soon. I don’t think Cranberry will last another night.”

Inger looked down at the earth pony between them with concern. Her soft blonde mane was coated with tiny fragments of ice. “We’ll find it. We have to.”

* * *

In the morning, long before the sun rose, they roused Cranberry with great difficulty and continued their trek. The snow had stopped sometime during the night, but the wind was picking up the slack. It bit fiercely into their skin, and the little flecks of ice flew through the air like stinging bees.

Cranberry was hardly talking at all, now. She occasionally stopped to try to remember some detail of the map, before adjusting their path. Without Inger’s head-compass they would have been completely lost, but they were slowly and steadily heading north.

“Inger, I th-th-think you should t-t-take a look at the area from the sky. S-s-see if you c-can spot Saddlest-t-tead.” Cranberry shivered violently. The tips of her ears were turning white. Inger, alarmed, gave Rye a look and jerked his head at Cranberry, and took off into the air.

Rye tried his best to shield Cranberry from the wind, but his little wings made a poor barrier. She sat down, head hunched against the cold, and stared dully upward at Inger, who was just a faint golden dot in the sky. A few minutes passed before he returned to the ground, shaking the ice out of his feathers.

“I saw something! It couldn’t have been more than two miles north of here.” Inger’s face was lit with the first enthusiasm Rye had seen since leaving the caves. “It looked like the sun reflecting off of metal, or something. We’re close.”

Cranberry stood, but lost her balance and fell to the ground. Before Rye or Inger could help her, she was once again climbing to her hooves, shivering. “Let’s g-g-g-go, then.” She plodded onward. The two stallions shot each other helpless glances and followed.

The skies finally began to clear. The sun rose, but it seemed to be far southeast of its normal position. Everything about Sleipnord seemed slightly off-kilter. Rye felt like he was walking toward the roof of the world. Home seemed very far away in this alien landscape of ice and snow.

They made slow progress. Cranberry’s pace had grown more and more unsteady, and she was beginning to falter. She said no word of complaint, but her failing strength weighed heavily on all their minds. They pressed on, determined and desperate. The pain in Rye’s stomach was almost as bad as the pain in his lungs, each breath like a knife in the cold air. It had been at least three days since any of them had eaten.

Rye paused. Up ahead, he saw a bright flash of gold. “Did you two see that?”

“See what?” Inger sounded half-asleep, his voice sluggish. His hooves had started to drag through the frost.

“I saw something up ahead.” Rye’s heart beat faster. “I think it was a pony.” He galloped on ahead, ignoring Inger’s noise of protest.

“Hey!” he shouted. “Hey! Anypony there?” Ahead, he saw a blue pegasus clad in golden armor. He raced up to her, panting in the harsh cold. “Mom! What are you doing here?” He blinked and rubbed his eyes. His mother was gone. Rye stared blankly ahead. His stomach growled.

When the others caught up to him, he rejoined them wordlessly.

“Wh-wh-what was that ab-b-bout?” Cranberry stammered.

“I thought I saw my mother.” He shook his head to clear it.

Inger looked grim, as usual. Rye was beginning to think that was his default expression. “That’s a bad sign. Be careful, Rye. Don’t go haring off like that again. You might end up chasing hallucinations to your death.”

“What’s that, up ahead?”

“Rye…”

“No, really. Look.”

“I s-s-see it t-too! Come on!” Cranberry galloped ahead. Rye and Inger both followed, running as fast as they could manage.

The three reached the top of a small hill to find a magnificent vista before them. They stood on the shore of a massive body of water. It had to be at least the size of Lake Alazure down in Equestria. Rye couldn’t see the other shore. The sun shone down on the sparkling water, reflecting up off the ice floes and casting golden glows all around. It was heartbreakingly beautiful.

Rye sank to the ground in despair. “We passed it. We must have missed it in the storm. Or we came out farther west than we thought.” He couldn’t even summon the energy to swear. Inger just stared out over the water. Cranberry shivered violently.

“Th-th-this is the Dragon Lake. We’re too f-f-far north. We need to t-turn around.”

They were going to die out here. He’d never get the help Princess Celestia needed, Equestria was going to fall to the griffons… No. They might not be great heroes, but the fate of their homeland rested on their weary shoulders. Rye stood again, determined.

“Come on. We’re still going to Saddlestead. Cranberry, lead on.”

The earth pony looked around, trying to get her bearings. “I th-think it’s this way.” She started off south, back down the hill. They all marched alongside each other, the pegasus and pegacorn sheltering Cranberry from the wind. The sun’s pale light did little to warm them. They kept walking for hours.

A sudden gust of wind whipped past, and Rye’s ears perked up. “Did you two hear that?”

Inger groaned quietly. “Rye, it’s just another-”

“N-n-no, I heard it t-t-too.” Cranberry was in bad shape. Her normally bright pink coat was pale, and covered in flecks of ice. Even Inger looked worn down. Rye felt his strength slipping away by the minute. They had to keep moving, or they would surely die.

“Let’s go. Just one more hill.”

"Y-you said that t-two hills ago."

They drudged through the snow. Faint sounds echoed on the air. “There it was again. Sounded like a horn.” He lifted his head, hopeful. “Maybe there are ponies over this ridge.” If it’s not just another hallucination. They crested the hill.

It was no hallucination. Before them lay hundreds of ponies, fully armed and armored. They were falling upon one another in battle, with blades and hoof-maces and all manner of other weaponry. The sounds of the battle flew up to the three on the wind, carrying with them the stench of blood.

Inger looked out at the carnage. He exhaled slowly. “Welcome to Sleipnord.”


Part Two: Kingshammer

Map of Sleipnord

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

“How is the fit, m’lord?”

          The white unicorn lifted a leg, feeling the pauldron and breastplate shift. “It’s a bit tight across the chest.”

          “Easily fixed, m’lord.” The blacksmith reached his head down under the unicorn’s leg, grabbing one of the armor’s belts and loosening the buckle. “Now?”

          “Much better. I can breathe.”

          “That’s always good,” said Weston, from the side. The big earth pony leaned back against the wall with a grin. “We’d hate for our little princeling to pass out in the middle of his first battle.”

          Clement frowned. “I’ve fought in battles before.”

          His squire laughed. Weston was always laughing. The brown earth pony’s face was naturally jovial, permanently smiling, and his eyes constantly twinkled at some private joke. “Fending off groups of the hill tribes? Putting down bandit camps on the Northroad?” He shook his head. “Lord Clement, pardon my impertinence, but you’ve never seen a real battle before.”

          The young lord of Norhart huffed in annoyance. “And you have?” It was possible, of course. Weston was older than he by nearly a decade. Not a common knight-squire relationship, certainly. Normally, one took a squire on to teach him the ways of knighthood, not the other way around. But Clement’s father had given him Weston years ago as both an aide and a tutor, in the hopes of making him a soldier worthy of the name Blueblood.

          “Aye, milord. Years ago, not long after you were born, I fought in the rebellion.”

          “On which side?” Clement’s eyebrow rose. Weston had never mentioned this before.

The brief and unfortunate uprising in Fillydelphia nearly ten years ago had been the only real fighting the north had seen in generations. Clement had still been just a foal when the dissent over maritime trade restrictions had exploded into violence, but he remembered the long nights his father had spent locked in his study with the rest of his war cabinet. After the final battle at the coastline city, displaced soldiers from both sides had fallen on hard times, and become sellswords or brigands. It seemed his squire had been one of them.

          “Does it matter?” Weston sighed ruefully, still smiling. “Of course it does. If you must know, I fought under your father’s banner.”

          “I should hope so.”

          “I left the army after my five years were up. I found I had no taste for war anymore. But I’ve remained in the Duke’s employ. Your father pays well.”

          “The Bluebloods always reward the loyal,” said Clement. He looked to the blacksmith. “Are we done?”

          “Yes, m’lord. That’s fine armor to be sure. Norharren steel is the strongest in the north. And not even an Easthill armorer could have crafted a piece like this.”

          The blacksmith spoke the truth, thought Clement. His new armor was magnificent, as befitted the heir to the Norhart Duchy. It was polished mirror-smooth, so clean it seemed to glow white. It was delicately gilded with gold along the lines of the plate, in curving floral designs that set off his deep blonde mane perfectly. A white cape carrying the sigil of his house lay draped across the back. The blue droplet of blood hung proudly, firmly establishing his line. Clement had always found using blood for a house sigil to be a bit tasteless, but since the name and emblem of Blueblood were as old and honorable as Equestria itself, he supposed it was bearable.

          “Thank you, good smith. My father has already paid for your services, I trust?”

          “Most kindly, m’lord.”

          “Have another bit,” said Clement, nodding to Weston. His squire took a gold piece from his coinpurse and tossed it to the smith, who caught it gratefully. Clement stepped down from the fitting stand and shook again, adjusting to the weight of the armor. He might only be nine years old, still a young adult by Equestrian standards, but in his new coat of steel he felt like a mighty warhorse of fifteen, ready to bring glory to the name of his house in battle.

          He and Weston left the blacksmith’s, striding out into the streets of Norharren. The city was built on a hill, with the long main road running up the length of it. It was divided into three great circular tiers, each bounded with a short wall more for show than protection. No enemy had ever laid siege to Norharren. Its power lay in the influential ponies who resided there, rather than in any inherent strategic location.

          Below them were the outer districts, where the commoners and the poorer citizens of the northern capital lived. On good days like today, the wind carried the smell from the hovels in the opposite direction. Clement tried to avoid that part of town. The central tier of the city was home to the artisans and the crafters’ guilds, including the blacksmith he and Weston had just visited. Above the merchant’s district was the circle of the nobles. Here was the heart of northern politics, where the lords and ladies of Norharren spent their days drinking tea and plotting their advancement through the unwritten ranks of the noble houses. At the very top of the hill sat the grand Blueblood manor. Flags bearing the blue droplet waved gently in the afternoon breeze as the guards paced the outer walls below.

          They climbed to the manor’s entrance, passing through the heart of the city. Clement held his head high, privately enjoying the stares of the commoners. His armor gleamed brilliantly in the sunlight, and his cape fluttered majestically behind him as they walked. He was careful to avoid the puddles of mud that accumulated on the sides of the street, fearful of dirtying the radiant steel.

          They passed through the high gate into the noble district. Clement smiled as the guards saluted, and inclined his head to acknowledge them. He and Weston climbed higher, finally entering the manor. Inside, he ascended the stairs to his father’s study, gulping with sudden anxiety. He removed his helmet, sliding it carefully off over his horn and tucking it under one leg. At the door, he left Weston to stand guard and entered.

          “Father?”

          Duke Emmet Blueblood looked up from his desk and his face broke into a wide smile. “And here he is, my only child! Come, my son, show me your new armor.”

          Clement proudly stepped forward to let his father examine the fine craftsmanship. “The smith said this is finer than even an Easthill armorer’s work.”

          “Indeed it is. I haven’t seen such skill in the craft since my grandfather’s time. You look wonderful, my son. Like a true knight. If only your mother could see this… The details are exquisite.”

          Pleased, Clement bowed his head. “Thank you, father.” He looked up again. “You wanted to see me after the fitting?”

          “Yes.” His father’s expression faded back into the familiar seriousness. “Tomorrow, your appointment becomes official. When you take your oaths, you’ll be the commander of my army in truth.”

          “I’m ready, father.”

          “I know you are, my son. You’ll do me proud. But we need to begin discussing our next moves—“

          There came a knock on the door. Irritated, Clement called to Weston. “What is it?”

          Muffled through the door, Weston’s voice answered, “A message for the Duke.” Clement’s father sighed, rubbing his forehead.

          “Very well, let him in.”

          A harried-looking courier pegasus entered, carrying a single scroll. He gave it to Clement’s father without a word, and bowed out hastily. The Duke was not known for his tolerance of interruptions.

          Clement waited as his father scanned the document. His father’s eyes widened as he read, and finally he rolled up the scroll with a flick of magic and sent it to rest on his desk.

          “That,” he said quietly, “was a message from one of our agents in the south. The bridge of Trellow has fallen. The griffons have entered Whitetail.”

          Trying not to show his dismay, Clement said “Then… the Duchess?”

          His father nodded. “Celerity is dead.” He walked to the window, looking out over his city. He breathed out slowly. “I am… not half as pleased as I’d expected.” The Duke frowned, deep in thought.

          “Celerity is dead?” Clement’s face broke into a wide smile. From what his father had told him, the world was a better place without that unicorn in it. “Surely this is good news,” he ventured. “If Whitetail’s army has been defeated, then our own campaign in the north will go unopposed.”

          “Yes, but… it seems the griffons are a larger threat than I had first anticipated.” His father walked back to his desk, still thinking.

          “Well, if Duchess Belle is no more, then who leads the army of Whitetail?”

          Duke Blueblood barked a hollow laugh. “Even I don’t know that, my son. Celerity has no family, no children. The inheritance of the Whitetail Duchy is a fiendishly complicated matter. Perhaps some first cousin or distant uncle of Celerity’s will grasp the reins—but the issue can wait until after the war. Celerity’s succession will no doubt be disputed for years, and right now we need to focus our efforts on the north. Come, look.” He had a map stretched out on his desk, spreading from Cloudsdale all the way north to the Jotur mountains.

          On the map were the tiny flags that signified the presence of the armies of Equestria. There were only three colors of note: violet, for the small number of Whitetail forces still occupying Easthill; yellow, representing the Celestial army; and blue, for Norhart’s own forces. The Norhart army—his army, thought Clement—was not quite the largest. Celestia had a force of some twenty-six hundred troops stationed in Canterlot. The Firewings were no longer in the capital; in a stunning display of treachery they had abandoned the Princess and flown south a week ago.

          Clement had been shocked and more than a little disappointed. He’d always looked up to the Firewings. They had been living legends, selfless heroes flying to defend Equestria and her Princess. Their betrayal felt like a personal violation of his trust. Still, he hoped he would not have to face his old heroes in battle.

          Norhart’s army was nearly as numerous as the Princess’s, but they were much better trained and equipped. Clement was confident his two thousand troops could defeat any force that mustered against them in the north, even more so now that Duchess Belle’s army had been broken.

          “We’ll need to move quickly if we want to take Norlund with a minimum of bloodshed,” his father was saying. “Helmfast’s troops arrived yesterday, but I don’t think we should wait for Count Greenway to send any of his forces. He’s too wary of the Whitetail troops stationed in Easthill to move any great number of soldiers away from his borders. Regardless, we have enough ponies to take the crossroads with little trouble.”

          Clement was trying to stay involved, but his attention was waning. All this talk of strategies and tactics was of little interest to him. He preferred to think of battles, rather than maps. “Of course, father,” he nodded.

          “I will need to adjust my plans for the developments in the south. We will speak again tomorrow, after you’ve taken your oaths.” He smiled again.

          “I eagerly await your command, father,” said Clement before bowing and taking his leave. Weston greeted him at the door, and the two left for Clement’s own chambers.

          “Help me get the armor off, would you?” As Weston moved to assist him, he sighed wistfully.

          “Can you imagine it, Weston? Tomorrow I’ll be a real General, like one of the old warriors from the legends.”

          “The Bluebloods have long been a valorous house, Lord Clement,” said his squire, unclasping Clement’s cape. His face was carefully neutral.

          “Come, Weston, you seem struck with an ill humor. We should be rejoicing! Our greatest enemy is dead, and soon Norlund will be ours.”

          “As you say, milord.” Weston unhooked the first of the armor’s belt straps. “But please, show some caution these next few weeks; for the soldiers’ sake if not your own.”

          “You always advise caution.”

          “And you have yet to listen, milord.” His squire gave a wry smile.

          “Mind yourself, Weston,” said Clement coolly. Weston winced at the rebuke, and resumed his work in silence. Clement turned his thoughts to the morrow, smiling at the thought. Soon he would be a real knight, and he would lead his father’s troops—no, his troops—to victory in the east.

          “Tomorrow, Weston, we ride for Norlund and glory! I fear I will not be able to sleep much tonight. The excitement is almost overwhelming.”

          Weston shook his head to himself. “I’ve prepared you as best I can, milord, but I fear that nothing can truly make you ready for a battle like this. Just… stay safe, milord.”

          “You worry too much, my friend.” Clement grinned. His beautiful armor was now completely off, lying in a pile on the floor. “If you would be so kind as to take that to the armory?”

          “Of course, milord. Good night. I will wake you come morning.” His squire left the room, carrying the young lord’s armor. Clement lay down on his bed, his head filled with visions of charging into battle at the head of a great host of mighty destriers, like in the tales. Not since the Great War had there been a chance for glory such as this. He closed his eyes, sighing to himself in happiness. “Soon.”

 


Chapter Twenty-Four

 

The fighting lasted well into the evening. Rye, Cranberry, and Inger watched from their position on the ridge as the Nordponies below fought and bled and died, crashing against each other again and again.

          “This is our army?” Rye’s voice was filled with disgust. “Unbelievable. We come all this way to find them killing each other. We need warriors, not corpses.”

          “Th-th-they’re a v-violent p-people, Rye. That’s why we w-wanted their help in the f-first p-p-place, remember?” Cranberry’s eyes were shut tight. She was curled against the cold, trying in vain to hide behind Inger’s broad wings from the wind.

          “We have to get down to one of their camps,” said Inger. “It can’t be far.”

          “If we walk down there right now we’re likely to get a blade through the throat.”

          “R-Rye’s r-right, we n-need to w-wait for the b-b-battle to end before we ap-p-proach.”

          Inger exhaled angrily. “Miss Cranberry, we need to get you to warmth, and fast. We don’t have time to wait.” The fear in his eyes belied his anger.

          “I’ve m-made it this f-far, I’m not g-going to g-g-give up now.” Cranberry flinched as a gust swept past them.

          The minutes crept by. With nothing else to do, Rye stared down at the Nordponies below. It was chaos and death on a scale he’d never seen. A dizzying array of banners flew around the field, carrying varied emblems and sigils, but two banners seemed predominant: the army that had come from the east carried the mark of a raven, and the forces from the east were led by a crest of two great elk antlers. When the wind swept by, Rye could sometimes catch the faint calls of the fighters. The sunlight began to disappear.

          As the evening wore on, it gradually became apparent that one of the groups below was winning. The flags of the raven pushed the elk further and further back westward across the field, leaving behind piles of bodies and broken shields. In the last few vestiges of the light, a loud horn sounded, and the defeated army beat a hasty retreat. The winners let them flee, and the calls of more horns sang their victory to the tundra.

          “We need to follow them back to their camp,” said Inger. “They’re bound to have fire and food there.” He looked down at Cranberry with barely-contained terror. “We should go now.”

          Rye agreed, but Cranberry wouldn’t budge. “Hey, ‘Berry. It’s time to go. Let’s get a move on.” She gave no response. “Cranberry. Cranberry.” There was little pink left in her once-bright coat; she looked as pale as the tundra snow. The tips of her ears had turned black. She wasn’t moving.

          His heart leapt into his chest. No, no no no no. Not now, not when we’re so close! Inger leaned down beside the little pink earth pony and held his breath. A slight puff of steam wandered from Cranberry’s mouth, and the two stallions sighed with momentary relief. Inger nudged his head underneath her. “Come on, help me carry her. We can still make it in time.”

          Rye helped drag Cranberry across Inger’s back, and the sturdy pegasus lifted her with a grunt. “She’s heavier than she looks,” said Inger, but the stab at levity hung dead in the air. He stared down the ridge at the Nordponies below, who were turning and marching back east. “Come on, let’s follow them.”

          They walked as quickly as they could, urging their stiff joints onward. Cranberry bumped up and down on Inger’s back, making no movements of her own. Eventually they found themselves wandering in the trail of the Nordponies, stepping through the vast tracks of hoofprints left behind by the army. The Nordponies were distantly visible ahead, but they were beginning to disappear from sight.

          “Come on, Inger,” said Rye. He couldn’t feel his legs anymore. His eyelids seemed to droop of their own accord. “We have to hurry or we’ll never catch them.”

          “Right,” said Inger, sounding as tired as Rye felt. They quickened their pace, setting off at a light run. Cranberry’s head bounced rhythmically. The Nordponies were starting to vanish from view in the failing daylight. Rye raced ahead, and began shouting hoarsely.

          “Hey! Hey! Help us! Wait!” The Nordponies were too far to hear him. He ran onward, trying to close the gap. Inger followed, still carrying his burden.

          “Wait up!” Rye pulled closer, his hooves thudding on the hard ground. He was close enough now to see the banners again. The ravens seemed to stare balefully at him. He yelled out again. “Hey!”

He was gratified to see a small group of Nordponies break away from the main army and begin circling back. They never slowed their pace, galloping like the wind. Rye began to falter, his energy spent. Inger pulled up next to him. “Hold up, Inger. They’re coming to us.”

          Indeed they were. Rather rapidly. The Nordponies were on them in a minute, running right past without a look. Rye yelled “Hey!”, but the northerners broke their charge and turned to encircle the three Equestrians. There were about a dozen of them.

          Some dim part of Rye’s brain noted with curiosity that they were all shades of brown and gray, ochres and earth-tones blending together in their plain coats. None of the vibrant colors of the Equestrian ponies could be found. There were other differences, as well. The northerners were tall to a pony, even the shortest of them standing equal to Inger. They were all thickly built as well, dwarfing even the largest chargers Rye had ever seen in Canterlot tournaments. Their coats and manes were long and shaggy, rough blonde curls falling freely from their heads.

          Each of the Nordponies was clad in a kind of armor Rye had never seen before. It looked like chainmail, but instead of metal links it was made of scales sewn into cloth. The scales were the color of faded blue steel, dull and unreflective. The mail covered their breasts, necks, and backs, and their upper legs were armored with boiled leather. All of them wore heavy fur-lined cloaks, pulled tightly around their backs and fastened in front with a raven-shaped clasp. Their helmets were made of crudely wrought iron, covering the tops of their heads but leaving the eyes and muzzle exposed. From underneath their helmets they stared at Rye. Their eyes were all the same bright, piercing blue.

          The Nordponies were armed to the teeth. A few wore hoof-maces like Rye had seen before in Canterlot, but most were armed with more exotic weapons. In their teeth they gripped axes and a few hammers with short tassels hanging from the hafts, but the most impressive of all was the pony who wore a sword sheathed at his side.

          Axes and hammers took great strength of the neck to wield effectively, but a sword was something else altogether. Ponies did not have the natural ability to wield a blade that griffons did. Without any way to grip a sword except their mouths, most found it simpler to use their natural hooves or simple spears as weaponry. Those who did dedicate themselves to mastering the difficult art of swordsponyship were individuals of exceptional dedication and skill. Rye knew this pony must be their leader.

          Sure enough, the pony wearing the sword stepped forward. He studied the three Equestrians before him without expression. Rye looked around nervously. The other Nordponies had their weapons drawn, and were clearly ready to use them. He stared back at the leader, trying to come up with something—anything—to say.

          “Hyaal jyk var?” queried the Nordpony. He stared curiously at Rye, who suddenly felt acutely aware of his tiny wings and miniscule frame.

          “Look… my friend, she’s hurt—we need fire, food, water. Please, can you help us?”

          “Jarveil, seijvar ya vilduin.” The sword-bearer’s eyes narrowed. A sudden gust of wind took them, and Rye’s hair flew backwards to reveal his horn. The Nordponies reared back. “Volsijeh!” The sword-bearer swept his head back and in one swift motion drew his weapon, bringing it instantly level with Rye’s face. In contrast to the rough iron axes held by the others, the sword was made of fine steel. It was still stained with blood from the earlier battle.

          “Whoa, whoa! Hold on!” Rye looked back and forth, panicking.

          Behind him, Inger breathed deeply. “Rye, this is not a fight we can win.”

          “I don’t want to fight them at all!”

          The lead Nordpony watched the interplay in silence. His gaze was locked on Rye’s horn, as if waiting for it to explode. The Nordpony’s eyes flicked between Rye’s wings and horn, and his forehead creased in puzzlement. He edged his sword handle to the side of his mouth, speaking around it with the ease of one long-accustomed to doing so. “Breivikk?”

          “What?” Rye felt a bead of sweat drip down his neck before freezing. “’Bray-vik’?”

The Nordpony seemed to struggle for a moment, before saying “You… You nih…” His brows furrowed.    “You-nih-corn?”

          Rye shook his head frantically. “No! No, not a unicorn. I have a horn, but no magic, see?” He gave a sickly grin. The Nordpony stared at him with distrust, but to Rye’s vast relief he sheathed his blade once more. The rest of the warriors stood down as well, letting their axes and hammers hang from their sides by the tassels.

          The leader spoke haltingly. “You… Equestrian?” His voice was thickly accented.

          “Yes, yes, Equestria! To the south.” Rye pointed a hoof at the distant mountains. “We came to talk to you.”

          “My speak… little Equestrian.”

          “A little’s better than none. Look, please, we need your help. Do you have any fire? Warmth? Uh...” Rye thought for a moment, then plunged his hoof into the thin layer of snow on the tundra’s icy ground. He sketched a rough campfire, before looking up at the Nordpony. The northerner’s eyebrows rose in understanding.

          “Fieyra.” He broke into a laugh. “Na fieyrar, na skeivar—Equestriar sik valund dir je rovund!” His warriors laughed with him.

          Rye had long ago become keenly attuned to all forms of insult, both subtle and overt. He had just spent three long and harrowing days living on pure adrenaline, without eating or drinking or getting a good night’s sleep, and now these foreigners were mocking him and his friends for the crime of freezing to death. Something inside him snapped.

          “You hairy imbeciles. We’ve been through a nightmare over the last three days. We’ve lost our food, our supplies, our clothing, and our way. We came here to ask for your help, and instead you’re spitting in our faces and laughing. Damn your laughter. My friend is going to die if you don’t help us.”

          He doubted the Nordpony had understood five words of his ranting. But his tone was clear enough, and the noises of their mirth died. The leader tilted his head to look at Rye, then at Cranberry’s pale form. His eyes softened. He nodded to three of his warriors. “Forsete, Erling, Hadle; vash ter skeivar a je Equestriar.”

          The three warriors grumbled with displeasure, but unfastened their heavy cloaks. Inger gratefully set Cranberry down and snatched one of the furs. He wrapped the pale white earth pony in the heavy cloak, covering her from her ears to her hooves. He put on the second himself, before hoisting Cranberry over his shoulders like a little filly. As he worked, Inger muttered under his breath, casting worried glances at her unmoving features. Rye watched with concern as he clasped his own borrowed cloak around his neck.

          The cloak was warm and thick and wonderful. Rye wanted to bury himself in it and sleep for days. The inside smelled of actual leather—not like the artificially sewn furs of Equestria. He supposed he ought to be horrified at the idea of wearing another creature’s skin, but the harsh north left little room for sentiment. After a day and a half of wandering the frozen wastes he was more than willing to accept the gift. He again resisted the urge to fall to the ground and snuggle under the warm cloak until the sun set and rose again.

          He turned to the Nordpony leader and bowed. “Thank you. Please, take us to your camp. We haven’t eaten in days.”

          The Nordpony barked orders, and the group moved onward. The Nordponies escorted the Equestrians in a circle, providing a small buffer against the wind—and preventing any attempts to stray from their course.

* * *

          The sun was completely gone by the time they reached the camp. The glow of fires beckoned, promising warmth and food. The ponies approached the outer limits of the camp, where they were met by an advance guard of another dozen Nordponies.

          The guards exchanged a few words with the pony who held the sword, before nodding and allowing the group to pass. The one with the sword motioned for Rye and Inger to follow, and led them deeper into the camp. They passed by dozens of tents, keenly aware of the suspicious eyes of the Nordponies. The standard of the raven fluttered from every tent, the bird’s eye glaring down at the Equestrians. Rye tried not to imagine the howl of the wind as the raven screeching.

          Eventually, they came to one of the largest and longest tents in the camp, big enough for nearly forty ponies to stand shoulder-to-shoulder inside. Ducking into the flap of the tent, they found themselves in what was clearly the infirmary. Cots and tables spread from one end of the tent to the other, filled with injured soldiers. Moans and cries rose from the wounded, as several ponies rushed back and forth tending to their injuries. The smell was terrible. Rye heard a frenzied whinny from the far side of the tent, then a squelching noise and silence. He shuddered underneath his cloak.

          The pony with the sword led them to the end of the row of cots, gesturing to one of the empty ones. Inger laid Cranberry down on it, carefully tucking her cloak back over her ears. She looked very small. She shivered, and one of her ears twitched.

          A grim Nordpony holding a crude saw rushed past Rye, headed down the line of cots to one of the tables. The soldier lying on the table began screaming in unintelligible Sleipnordic as two others held him down.

          Rye couldn’t take any more of the tent. He fled from the stench of blood, bursting out of the infirmary and into the clean snow. He stood, gasping for air, trying not to hear the sounds of the dying behind him. He heaved, but it had been three days since his last meal, and nothing came up. Utterly miserable, he curled up beside the tent’s entrance, huddling under his cloak.

          A few minutes later, Inger and the swordspony emerged. The Nordpony gestured firmly at the ground with a hoof, then turned and went deeper into the camp. Inger sat down beside Rye.

          “She’ll live, I think.” Inger dour tone sounded almost cheerful, for him. “I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but the… nurseponies? Whatever the Nordpony equivalent is, they didn’t seem very concerned.” He looked at Rye again. “Are you feeling all right?”

          “I’ve been better.” Rye sat upright. “Where’d our friend go?”

          “I think he went to find a translator.” Inger looked off in the direction the swordspony had gone in. “I can’t be sure, but I think these are the ponies of Saddlestead.”

          “Cranberry would know.” Rye looked back at the tent. “She’ll live. She has to.”

          “Here comes our friend with the sword,” said Inger.

          The swordspony trotted up to them, accompanied by another Nordpony. The newcomer was short for a northerner, barely a head taller than Rye. His coat was drab gray, and his mane and eyes were the same blonde and blue as all the other Nordponies they had encountered.

          He sized the two Equestrians up, then said “Hmm.” He looked at the pony with the sword, who nodded. Turning back to Rye and Inger, he said, “Greetings. I am Vasijeil, son of Hafnr, son of Skierran. What are your names?”

          “Uh, I’m Rye Strudel… er, son of Apricot.”

          “And your companion?” The translator looked over at Inger.

          “Inger. Just… Inger.” The pegasus looked uncomfortable, but the Nordpony didn’t press further.

          “You come from Equestria?”

          Rye nodded. “We’re here on behalf of Princess Celestia.” He reached under his cloak, struggling to unclasp his saddlebag. “We’ve brought-“

          The translator forestalled him with a hoof. “Not now. We can discuss your business here after you’ve eaten and rested.” He spoke a few words in Sleipnordic to the swordspony, who replied in kind. “Eberhardt says that you may sleep in his tent tonight. You are to be afforded the same courtesy as if you were in the Thane’s hall itself.”

          Rye’s eyes widened. “You mean he—Eberhardt—he’s the Thane?”

          The translator laughed. “No, the Thane is not on the field today. Pressing matters demanded his attention in Saddlestead. Eberhardt Snowmane, son of Heimfarr, son of Dalf, is his chief Huskarl. Have no fear; you will be safe in his care.”

          Eberhardt said something to the translator. “But we have spoken long enough. You must be tired, and hungry. Most of the soldiers have already eaten, but there is still some soup in the pot.” The translator and Eberhardt beckoned and walked away, and Rye and Inger followed.

          They came to one of the fires near the center of the camp, where a great cast iron pot hung over the flames. At Eberhardt’s request, one of the Nordponies dipped a ladle into the pot and filled three bowls. Eberhardt and Inger dug in, but Rye sniffed the soup apprehensively.

          “Wha’s wron’?” asked Inger, between gulps.

          “That smells foul,” said Rye, eyeing the soup warily. “How can you eat that?”

          “I’ve had worse,” said Inger. “And I’m hungry enough to eat a—well.” He took another sip.

          Rye looked at the translator. “Could I have a look at the cooking facilities around here?”

          The Nordpony barked a laugh. “We don’t have any ‘facilities’, Equestrian. This is a war camp. We have to feed two thousand ponies three times a day. There’s no room for fancy meals, just hay, soup, and porridge.”

          “Can you at least let me talk to the cook?” The translator spoke to Eberhardt, who shrugged and nodded.

          “Very well,” said the translator, amused. “Come, I’ll take you to Yarvisteil. I warn you, don’t insult his cooking. It would reflect badly on me if I were to bring you back… less than intact.”

          They wandered into the camp, eventually coming to a bulky tent that smelled faintly of cooked vegetables. Rye poked a head inside, bumping into the chest of an immense Nordpony. He craned his neck up at the looming stallion, feeling his stomach drop.

          Behind him, the translator spoke. “Yarvisteil, valyir ha. Ver sik Rye se Equestria.” He said to Rye, “This is Yarvisteil, son of Hafnr. No relation.”

          “P-pleased to meet you,” said Rye, still looking up at the glaring cook. The Nordpony had to be at least two meters tall. A tiny apron hung around his neck. It would have been comical if the pony wearing it hadn’t looked like a terrifying, full-blown warhorse.

          The cook said something angrily in Sleipnordic. The translator snickered. “He wants to know why an Equestrian dirt-eater is in his storeroom.”

          “Dirt-eater?” Rye huffed indignantly. These Nordponies clearly couldn’t cook to save their lives. How dare they call him a- “Tell him my soft Equestrian stomach can’t handle his northern gruel. I need some supplies to make food that’s fit for eating.”

          The translator winced and said something to the cook. Yarvisteil’s mouth curled down. The translator said something else, and Rye caught the word ‘Eberhardt’. The cook snorted, and shook his head. He grumbled something in disgust and pushed past Rye to leave the tent.

          “He says that he’ll respect his commander’s wishes, but his tolerance for southerner foolishness is low. I suggest you hurry up and get your supplies.”

          Rye looked around the tent. Several makeshift shelves held various jars of ingredients. The entire setup was clearly designed to be moved on a moment’s notice. Rye picked through the jars, looking for the right vegetables.

          “What kind of organizational—can’t find anything in this mess…” Rye muttered to himself. He sorted through the shelves, complaining merrily. He laid aside some carrots and onions on a piece of cloth. “No peppers… Well, we’ll have to make do…” He felt like he was back at home in the bakery’s kitchen, helping his father prepare dinner. As he laid out some seasoning, he remembered the delicious smells as his father danced about the kitchen, working his magic. Apricot Strudel’s bread was famous, but he was a fantastic cook in every respect. Rye missed him more than he’d realized.

          “Aha!” He reached his head over the shelf and snagged a jar. He unscrewed the lid and shook out a few of the vegetables inside. “Beets!” he said brightly. He replaced the lid and the jar, then gathered up all his ingredients in the cloth. “Not perfect, but it should do.” He trotted outside and nodded at the translator.

          They returned to the dying campfire, where Inger waited. “Hope you don’t mind, Rye, I finished off your soup for you.”

          Rye shuddered. Inger had a poor definition of edible. He looked into the pot. Most of the so-called “soup” had already been eaten by the Nordponies. The pot had cooled enough to touch. Rye tilted it with a hoof, pouring out what little remained inside. He stirred the fire a bit, hoping to rekindle the flames.

          Eberhardt grunted, then pointed to a pile of logs behind a nearby tent. Rye threw some wood on the fire, basking in the warmth. “Oh, that’s nice.” He took a moment to let the heat dance on his face and melt away the nightmarish cold of the day before. He scooped up some snow and threw it into the pot to boil.

          As the snow melted, the translator spoke. “Now that you have settled, Eberhardt wishes to hear how three Equestrians managed to find themselves in the middle of the tundra without so much as a flint and tinder.”

          Rye looked at Inger, who nodded, and began the tale. “It all started down in Canterlot, two weeks ago…”

* * *

          Rye and Inger took turns describing the events that had led them to Eberhardt’s camp. They told the Nordpony about the griffon attack, the meeting with the Princess, their run-in with Cranberry, the darkness of the forest, and the horrors of the underworld beneath the mountains. When they finished, Eberhardt sat silently.

          «So,» he said at last, his words passing through the translator. «You have come to Sleipnord to find aid against your foes in the south.» He frowned. «I doubt you will find any help in the northlands, Equestrians. We have troubles of our own.»

          “The Nordponies helped us defeat the old Gryphan Empire six hundred years ago,” said Rye, smothering his anger. “Your ancestors swore to aid us should they ever rise again. Well, the day has come. We need your help.”

          Eberhardt shook his head. «The griffons are fierce enemies, but they threaten your homeland, not ours. We fight a more personal foe, here.» He looked out over the tundra, gesturing with a hoof. «Sleipnord has no ruler, no Princess, as you do. The Thanes are not kings. For the help you request, you would need the support of all three of the major halls. And that, I fear you will not find.

          «There is war in the land of Sleipnord, as there has always been. Thane Yorel Rimebeard of Aenir is dead, and his son Erik now leads their warriors. He seeks to take the Blood Fields, sending his armies endlessly against our own.»

          “The Blood Fields?”

          «You sit upon them as we speak. Between Saddlestead, Aenir, and Hoofnjord lies a vast stretch of land. Though it is already frozen for the winter, in the spring and summer months this plain yields fertile soil. Farmland is a rare commodity in the north. Much blood has been spilled in the past over this land, and ours is likely not to be the last.

          «With the death of the Thane Yorel, Erik has become more aggressive in his attempts to hold the fields. Four months ago, his warriors attacked the peasants under our protection, slaughtering our vassals and burning their homesteads. Thane Braki sent me and two thousand of his warriors to crush his army and defend our land, but the months have passed and the fighting grows only fiercer. Today we struck Erik a heavy blow, but he commands forces more numerous than I, and he will soon recover. My men and I return to Saddlestead tomorrow, to celebrate our victory and prepare for the next battle.»

          Rye mulled over everything Eberhardt had said. “So the other ponies today, the ones with the elk sigils?”

          «Erik’s warriors. The elk is the symbol of his line.» Eberhardt scowled. «The Rimebeards’ sigil is a mark of shame, yet they wear it proudly.»

          “Why are elk horns a mark of shame?”

          «Long ago, the Rimebeards joined themselves with the elk. They used foul magic to dominate the other houses, subjugating our ancestors to their rule. Even today, elk blood runs in their line. The taint of magic is strong about them. They are not truly ponies any longer.» Eberhardt looked at Rye’s horn. «And tell me, Rye Strudel, son of Apricot, what exactly are you?»

          “I’m not a full unicorn,” said Rye, fully aware of where this conversation was leading. “I can’t do magic. It’s just a horn.”

          Eberhardt frowned. «So you say. I won’t permit any of the Equestrian black arts in my camp. If I catch one whiff of magic…»

          “Don’t worry,” said Rye. “I’m harmless.” He nudged his bowl of soup. “Care to try some of this before I go?”

          «Go? You’ll be staying here tonight,» said Eberhardt.

          “Yes,” said Rye, “but first I’d like to take a bowl of this to Cranberry. My father always made this for me when I had a cold… maybe it’ll warm her up again.”

          Eberhardt nodded in understanding. «Very well. I admit, I am curious. I shall taste your Equestrian food.» He took a sip. His eyes widened. «That is…» Rye winced in anticipation. «Delicious. What is in this?»

          Relaxing, Rye smiled. “Oh, a little of this and a little of that. It’s a Strudel family secret recipe.” He thought for a moment. “Well, it would be, if they’d had any pepper.”

          “I’ll try some of that,” said the translator, his curiosity piqued by Eberhardt’s reaction. He took a sip and hummed with surprise. “That’s quite good.”

          Inger looked regretfully at the steaming pot, then gave a little moan and held his stomach. Rye gave him a smug smile. “Care to try some?”

          “No… I’m feeling a bit ill, truth be told.”

          “Well, well. Perhaps you’ll think twice before you gobble up that disgusting sludge next time.” He restrained himself from an I told you so. He swished his tail and trotted off, carrying a hot bowl in the direction of the tent where Cranberry lay.

          He reached the infirmary and paused at the entrance, bracing himself for the unpleasantness within. He pushed through with his bowl of soup, expecting to hear the screams and howls of the injured again, but found to his quiet gratitude that all was silent within. The injured lay sleeping, their wounds beginning to heal from the battle with the Aenir ponies.

          Deeper inside, he found Cranberry. She was still lying on the cot, though her cloak had shifted off her head. Rye whispered “Hey.” He nudged her, but Cranberry didn’t respond. “Cranberry, you in there?”

          Cranberry’s lips moved. She murmured something again as Rye leaned closer. “Mom…?”

          “No, Cranberry, it’s me. Rye.” He smiled sadly. “Come on, drink up.” He spooned a ladle of soup into Cranberry’s mouth. The earth pony mumbled a bit, and turned over. A little pink flushed back into her pale face. “Wake up soon, Cranberry. We’re going to need your help to get this all sorted out.”


Chapter Twenty-Five

 

One hoof in front of the other. One hoof in front of the other. One hoof in front of the other. Windstreak’s silent mantra beat in her head. Her whole world had narrowed to the dust underneath her hooves. One hoof in front of the other. One hoof in front of…

          The southern plains were burning. In the crisp fall air, the fires had spread lightning-fast across the land, incinerating hundreds of acres of un-harvested crops. The smoke from the blaze blotted out the sky for miles, raining down ash and cinders on the marching ponies. Giving the order to light the flames had been difficult, but such was the price of escaping the horde. Windstreak smiled bitterly to herself.

          The griffons had planned to move rapidly through the southlands, forgoing supply lines by living off the bountiful harvest of the Duchy’s farmers. Without having to worry about feeding his troops, Shrikefeather could have pushed his army up to Weatherforge in days. Now, all the griffons would find as they wandered north would be scorched earth and ash. An extreme measure, to be sure, but Windstreak had had no choice.

          The survivors of Trellow, what few remained, were marching north. Not even half of the ponies under Celerity’s command had made it out of the battle alive, and most that now walked behind Windstreak were injured or barely alive. The only thing keeping them going was the certain knowledge that the griffons would not be far behind.

          They made for Whitewall City, the heart of Whitetail that lay deep inside the forest of the Duchy’s namesake. But the green trees of Whitetail Forest were still far ahead. The army marched through smoke and dust, straining for sunlight through the thick black clouds. Daylight seemed a distant memory.  

          The burning of the fields had bought them only a week at most. Shrikefeather had no choice now but to push onward to the fertile lands in the heart of Equestria. Westermin would fall next, then Weatherforge and Rivermeet. But Shrikefeather could not afford to leave the remains of Whitetail’s army and Whitewall City at his back. The griffons would come for the Duchy’s capital, and soon.

          Windstreak intended to be ready. She was pushing the remains of the army as fast as they could go, but the battered ponies could only keep such a pace for so long. They trudged day and night, stopping to rest every few hours, hoping and praying to the sisters that the griffons were not yet following. Whitewall waited beyond the horizon, lost in smoke.

          Of the twenty-five hundred soldiers who had held the bridge at Trellow, only a thousand remained. Most of the casualties were those from Westermin, the spearponies from the front lines of the bridge. They had been decimated by the constant assaults, and barely a hundred of them now marched northward with the rest of the ponies. The pegasi from Cloudsdale had fared little better, their numbers now vanishingly small. The Firewings had taken the fewest casualties during the siege, but nearly a hundred and fifty of them had fallen in the final retreat. The griffons had lost thousands taking the bridge, but in the face of their numbers it counted as little more than an inconvenience. And then there were the dragons…

          One hoof in front of the other. The war looked grim. Windstreak could see no real hope of victory ahead. But the alternative was too awful to think about, so instead, she thought about walking. One hoof in front of the other.

          They would arrive at Whitewall in less than a day. After that, it was anypony’s guess as to how long they would have to prepare for the inevitable griffon attack. Without Celerity to lead the army, Windstreak had done her best to keep the bedraggled soldiers organized and moving. She looked forward to turning command over to the new Duke or Duchess once they reached the city.

          “Captain.” From her left, Bergeron’s hoarse voice pierced her thoughts. “The troops are starting to flag. We need to rest again.”

          “Of course. Sound the halt.” Windstreak licked her lips, trying to moisten them. The army’s food and supplies had been abandoned at the bridge during the retreat, and with the irrigation systems ablaze all the water around them was polluted with ash and dust. They would have to press forward and reach Whitewall soon, or collapse from thirst.

          A horn blew loudly, and the army slowed to a stop. All around, ponies lay down to catch their breath before the march resumed. Windstreak used the opportunity to take stock of her soldiers. She gathered Bergeron and the highest ranking Whitetail officers still alive together for a brief meeting.

          “Have Wheatie and the scouts returned?”

          “Not yet, Captain.” Bergeron spread his wings and stretched his aching legs. “I expect they’ll catch up to us soon, now that we’ve stopped.”

          “How are the troops?”

          One of the Whitetail ponies shook his head. “We’d better get to Whitewall soon, or we’ll lose the rest of our army to the plains.”

          “We’ll be there by tomorrow morning, if we keep this pace. When Wheatie gets back, we’ll know how long we have to prepare.”

          “Do you think Shrikefeather will push so soon?”

          “We’ve left him no other option. He has to feed thirty thousand griffons and Celestia-knows how many slaves. The only place with that kind of food is Westermin…”

          “And he won’t take Westermin without attacking Whitewall, right.” Bergeron ferreted something out of a pouch inside his armor. “Care for an apple, Captain? I’ve been saving it.”

          Gratefully, Windstreak accepted. She bit into the fruit, savoring the taste of something other than ash. “I’ll need to talk to whomever is in charge of Whitewall as soon as we arrive. Celerity’s heir will want to assume command of the forces, I’m sure.”

          “And who is her heir, exactly?” asked Bergeron.

          “Celerity’s aide would know,” said the Whitetail officer. “Weatherby, I think his name was. I’ll see if I can find him.” He walked off wearily, not bothering to salute.

          Windstreak turned to Bergeron. She eyed the huge gash across his face with concern. “How are you holding up, Lieutenant? Is that wound giving you trouble?”

          Her Lieutenant shook his head. “It hurts, of course, but the pain’s begun fading already. A few more weeks and it’ll just be another story to tell my grandchildren.” He smiled.

          “You have grandchildren?” Windstreak said, disbelieving.

          “Well, not yet. Someday, I hope. After I’m too old to fly with the Firewings anymore, I’ll take the little fillies out to the lakeshore and tell them about our adventures. This one should make a fine tale. ‘Can you believe your grand-dad saw a real live dragon?’” Bergeron waved his hooves as his eyebrows threatened to pop off his head.

          Windstreak snickered. “They’ll just call you a liar.”

          “Well, I don’t quite believe it myself, yet.” Bergeron blinked, dumbfounded. “Dragons.” He shook his head.

          From behind them they heard the approach of the Whitetail officer. He cantered up to the Firewings with another pony in tow. “I’ve found him, Captain. This is Weatherby, Celerity’s aide-de-camp.”

          “Weatherly, actually,” corrected the smaller pony. He was an unassuming looking little stallion, his once-neat mane disheveled and slicked to his neck from the long march. The flight from Trellow had not been kind to him.

          “Hello, Weatherly. I’m Captain Windstreak. This is Lieutenant Bergeron.” Windstreak nodded to the Duchess’s assistant, and he bowed in return. “We were hoping you might know who the Duchess’s heir is.”

          The pony’s face was filled with sadness for a moment. “Milady had no mate, nor children.” He gathered his thoughts for a moment. “It would be Tymeo Bellemont, Celerity’s first cousin once-removed.  I know little about him, I’m afraid.”

          “Well, I hope he’s half the leader Celerity was. I’m no strategist. We’ll need him to get the defense organized.”

          “Don’t hold your breath,” said Bergeron with contempt. “The Bellemonts are warriors in the bedroom, not the battlefield.”

          Windstreak stifled a snort. The Bellemonts, close relatives of the Belles, were one of the most socially mobile houses in the kingdom. Throughout the last hundred years, they had clawed their way up the ladder of nobility through a dizzying array of political marriages and alliances that had given them a reputation as scheming peasants reaching beyond their grasp. They had no military forces to speak of, which boded ill if Whitewall was now under their control.

          “Look, Captain. I think our scouts are returning.”

          Windstreak looked up to the south to see three pegasi flying toward them, Wheatie at their head. The scouts landed beside the Captain, shaking the soot out of their wings. She saluted Wheatie and waited for him to catch his breath. “Report.”

          “Good news, for once,” said Wheatie. “The griffons aren’t following us. It looks like Shrikefeather has decided to shift the rest of his troops and siege engines over the river before pressing north. The griffons have set up camp surrounding the bridge on both sides. From the numbers we saw, I’d say we have at least a week before he begins pushing forward again.”

          Windstreak felt her spirits lift. “What of his remaining forces? How badly did we hurt them?”

          “Well, we gave them a black eye, at least. He lost a lot of fliers trying to take the bridge, but he’s got plenty more where they came from.” Wheatie jerked his head toward one of the other two scouts. “Flitterwing here thinks they have about three or four thousand airborne fighters still in battle condition.”

          “Give or take a few hundred,” amended the other Firewing.

          “And our estimates on their infantry are still in the range of twenty to thirty thousand,” said Wheatie.  “But if they’re anything like the ones we’ve been fighting all week, then every Equestrian pegasus is worth four of their warriors.”

          “So we’re only outnumbered forty to one,” said Windstreak dryly. She caught herself. These ponies needed every bit of morale they could scrounge up from the ashes. “But you’re right. They haven’t the discipline or the skill to break us. What of the siege weaponry?”

          “Dustfeather?” Wheatie looked to the third scout.

          “I counted thirty trebuchets at least, and there may be a dozen or more yet to cross the river. They have enough to crack Canterlot open like an egg.” Dustfeather gulped. “But they move slowly. If Shrikefeather wants to keep his army together, they’ll keep him locked in the plains for another few days.”

          Windstreak turned back to Wheatie. “And what of the dragons?”

          The young Firewing’s face was grim. “There are only two of them, but we’ve seen what they’re capable of. They’re staying close the bridge for now, but we can assume that they’ll move with the army when Shrikefeather eventually pushes out.”

          “Sisters. Dragons.” Bergeron shook his head. “I still can’t believe it. How did Shrikefeather get dragons in his army?”

          Windstreak quashed him with a wave of her hoof. “I’m more interested in how to kill them.”

          “Killing a dragon?” Wheatie looked unconvinced. “It’s been a long time since anypony’s even seen a dragon, let alone killed one.”

          “The archives in Whitewall will have something. Or one of the mages may know how to bring one down. They’re not invincible.”

          The other Firewings looked doubtfully at each other. “We’ll follow your lead, Captain,” said Wheatie.

          “Very well. We’ve spent enough time resting. Sound the horn again. I want us in Whitewall by tomorrow morning.”

          “Right away, Captain.”

          The horn called again, and the weary ponies began their march once more. The ponies trudged north, through smoke and fire, out of defeat and into the unknown.

          One hoof in front of the other. One hoof in front of the other. One hoof…

* * *

          The General’s face gave no sign of the rage boiling beneath it. “How many acres of farmland?”

          “Thousands, sir.” The Lieutenant-Colonel trembled. “They’ve been lighting the fires behind them as they go. The wheat goes up like tinder—“

          Shrikefeather held up a claw, and the other griffon stammered into silence. “So. They’ve decided they would rather burn their home to the ground than see it taken by Grypha.” He scratched the wooden table with a claw.

          The tent was small and cramped, too tiny for Shrikefeather to even spread his wings. But his command tent was still on the south side of the river, and the General was determined to stay at the forefront of his army. The map on the table had black charcoal smears across most of the southern plains, matching his mood.

          “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” He dug a claw into the map at Whitewall, drawing it down and tearing a line through the plains. “This Firewing Captain… Windstreak. Tell me more of her.”

          “She leads the golden-armored pegasi. With Celerity dead—and a fine kill it was, sir—command of the armies seems to have fallen to her. She is leading them north in a full retreat. It was she who ordered the burning of the fields. Those few golden pegasi we have captured alive speak highly of her skills in battle. But she is no Celerity. There’s no boldness in her tactics. She flees for Whitewall, hoping its walls will protect the remnants of her army. The path to Whitetail Forest lies open.”

          “I want her head on a pike. Because of her, Trellow cost us far too much, and these ‘Firewings’ are too great a nuisance to leave at our backs as we move into the north. We need to crush Whitewall, quickly and with as little griffon-power as possible.”

          “It will take a great deal of time to shift the trebuchets into the forest…”

          “We’ll not be sending the siege to Whitewall.”

          “But how will we breach the city’s defenses? They say a hundred ponies can hold that fortress against ten thousand enemies.”

          “They exaggerate. And one dragon is worth ten thousand ponies.” Shrikefeather stood, his head brushing against the tent’s roof. “Come.” He left, his tail swishing impatiently behind him.

* * *

          “You’re so boring sometimes, Viera.” Merys rolled over on his back, scratching a claw along his armored underbelly. The great red dragon was lounging with his tail in the river, letting the water play over his scales. “Setting a few prisoners on fire is an amusing way to pass the time.”

          Viera rolled her eyes. “Merys, you’re a fool.” The green dragon stretched her wings, letting the sunlight warm them. To the north, the sky was covered with thick smoke, but behind them the sun still glowed brightly. Her stomach rumbled. She was getting hungry again, but not yet so hungry as to rise from her comfortable position by the riverside. Viera fanned herself with a wing. “Slaves are useful. Burning them alive for your entertainment is a waste.”

          Merys yawned, sending out a blast of hot air. “Entertainment isn't a waste. Some of us prefer to enjoy life.”

          Viera sneered. “And that’s why your hoard is the laughingstock of Wyrmgand.”

          Flames flew from Merys’s nostrils. “We’ll see. Once we plunder the Equestrians’ capital, I’ll have riches worthy of song.”

          Viera laughed. Male dragons were dismally easy to bait. “Of course you will.” Merys would be sure to steal the gold from the spires of Canterlot, raiding the city for every last ingot of precious metal he could find. Viera had different treasures in mind. The library of the Equestrian Princess was legendary, even in Wyrmgand. Spellbooks and other arcana lay hidden inside, dating all the way back to the time of Phileostryx the Black and Starswirl the Bearded. Soon enough that knowledge—and power—would be hers.

          But the griffons moved so slowly. It had been over a day since the dragons had crushed the Equestrians at the bridge, and still the horde squatted by the river. The griffon General demanded much, but she would tolerate his impertinence so long as he delivered the riches of Equestria as promised.

          Viera caught a familiar scent on the breeze, and frowned in displeasure. The General, seemingly summoned by her thoughts, approached, followed as always by his closest lackey. Viera lowered her head to the ground, gazing at the griffon with an eye the size of a small pony.

          “Yes, griffon?”

          The General’s annoying little shadow piped up in that irritating shrill voice of his. “You will address the General with the proper respect, dra—“

          “Lieutenant-Colonel.”

          “… my apologies, General.”

          Shrikefeather spared a sideways glare at his subordinate, and turned back to the great green dragon. “The strategic situation has changed.”

          Viera puffed a burst of smoke from her nostrils, covering the two griffons. The little one bent double, coughing, but the General flapped the smoke out of his face with a wing in annoyance.

          “Indeed?” Viera looked unimpressed. “Have the Equestrians summoned an army from their pockets?”

          “With the fields ablaze, my troops will be unable to live off the land. Supply lines must be set up from Grypha, which will take time, but we need to push northward to capture the farmland north of the plains.”

          “You should try horse,” said Merys from the side. “It’s a bit chewy, but you get used to the taste.” He howled with laughter. Viera and Shrikefeather eyed the red dragon with mutual disdain. There were few things they agreed upon, but Merys was one of them.

          Shrikefeather continued, ignoring the interruption. “As soon as we have the siege moved over the bridge, we march for Westermin and Weatherforge. But the fortress of Whitewall remains a threat.”

          Viera straightened. Whitewall was one of the oldest unicorn cities in Equestria. Their magical archives were rumored to be grand indeed. “Whitewall, you say?”

          The griffon smiled. “I thought that might catch your attention. The remnants of Celerity’s host are fleeing to the city. I can’t afford to have them at my flank while I push north through Weatherforge. I need you to take seven thousand of my troops and capture the city.”

          “I doubt I will need the help.”

          “The army—and you—will be under the command of Major Gableclaw. Merys will remain here, with the rest of the army.”

          Viera’s eyes narrowed. She snorted flame contemptuously. “And who are you to order me?”

          The griffon was uncowed. “The one who will deliver you the wealth of Equestria.” He folded his wings at his side and cocked his head impatiently.

          Viera grudgingly inclined her snout. “Very well.”

          “Gableclaw’s forces are already prepared. You will leave immediately.” Shrikefeather pointed a claw towards the north. “And one more thing. The leader of the golden-armored pegasi, these… Firewings. Make sure she dies.”

          “As you command,” said Viera, her voice dripping with sarcasm. The great green dragon beat her wings, lifting off and sending waves of wind blowing across the plain. She glided through the air to the waiting forces of Gableclaw. “Whitewall…” She smiled in anticipation. This deal with the griffons might yet be worth her time.

* * *

          The Lieutenant-Colonel coughed, waving away smoke. “I am still unsure of our… ‘allies’. The King places too much trust in the greed of dragons.”

          Shrikefeather frowned. “His Majesty has dealt with their kind before. Gold is the key to a dragon’s heart. They’re simple creatures, once you know how to pull their strings.” He beckoned. “Come. There is much to do.”

          The two of them began to cross the bridge. It still bore the scars of the battle, the stones covered with congealed bloodstains and pockmarks from misfired spells. Chunks of the bridge were missing where the firebombs had landed, and in certain places wooden slats had been placed over gaps in the stone that opened to the river below. Griffons hurried ceaselessly across in both directions, carting weapons and armor behind them. They all gave the General a respectfully wide berth.

          “Will Gableclaw be able to take Whitewall with such a small force?”

          “With Viera under his command, I expect Whitewall will be ours by the end of the month. Even without her, the city won’t survive for long against a real army. Most of Whitetail’s strength was here at Trellow. The few that have escaped will not be able to hold the walls against a determined attack.”

          The Lieutenant-Colonel nodded. “And the rest of our campaign?”

          Shrikefeather sidestepped a firebomb crater. “That depends. The loss of the plains is going to slow us down a great deal. How soon can the flying divisions be ready?”

          “We’ll need at least another three days to get the siege over the river. We’ll have to reinforce the bridge to prevent it from collapsing while our infantry cross—“

          “The siege does not concern me. Nor do the infantry. Our airborne units, Lieutenant-Colonel. How soon?”

          “Well… today, if they aren’t to be expected to carry supplies.”

          Shrikefeather quickened his pace. “Then we leave today.”

          “We, sir? You’re leaving the bridge?”

          The General scowled. “The ponies have delayed us too long already. Manderly can oversee the movement past the Grumar. You and I will be pushing ahead with the aerial units. We won’t need anything else where we’re going.”

          “As you command, General.”


Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Celestia woke, and for a moment, life was sweet. Pale moonlight filtered into her chamber, the usual sign that night was coming to an end. She threw aside her blanket, stretching her legs above her head and yawning. The Princess rolled out of her bed, standing up and shaking her head. Her mane fell loosely around her neck, resuming its ceaseless flow. Celestia smiled as she began to look forward to raising the sun for the day.

          Then she remembered.

          Celerity.

          Her legs failed her, and the Princess sat heavily on her bed. Her scout’s message scroll was still lying on the floor where it had landed after she’d thrown it. She didn’t need to read it again. The words were already burned into her memory for all eternity.

          Trellow has fallen. The griffons are moving north. The Army of Whitetail has broken and fled. There were few survivors. I regret to tell you that the Duchess was not among them.

          The Princess waited, but the tears did not come. She supposed she had none left, after last night. She stood again and lit her horn, listlessly raising her royal tiara from its place on her dresser. It nestled gently over her head, settling down into its proper place. Her ceremonial peytral rested lightly around her neck, the amethyst set at the front gleaming in the moonlight. She slid on her gilded horseshoes, feeling her hooves lock comfortably into the familiar metal. Her routine was unchanged. Yet nothing was the same.

          She left her room, beginning the journey to the top of the tower. As she walked the stairs, the memories flowed unbidden to her thoughts.

          “Auntie, it’s five in the morning.” The little unicorn yawned. Celestia smiled down at her. “Are we starting already? I don’t wanna study this early.”

          “Come on, Celerity. You’re getting a treat this morning. Would you like to help me raise the sun?”

          That had the intended effect. The white foal practically leapt out of bed. “Really?”

          “Really. Come on, go clean up. We can’t start the morning with your mane looking like that.”

          The filly ran off into her chamber’s washroom. The Princess smiled after her, enjoying Celerity’s excitement. They spent hours every day talking about politics and courtly intrigues; it wasn’t healthy for a young filly to get so caught up in study that she forgot to live. Celestia looked forward to every opportunity to give her student the chance for a little fun.

          Celerity raced back out, her mane hastily combed and bound. She bounced up and down, her face wide with happiness. “Can we go now?”

          “Don’t run too fast up the stairs. We’ve got to climb quite a few of them.” The little filly took off through the door, galloping toward the tower steps. Celestia chuckled to herself. “Ah, youth.”

          As she placed her hooves on the steps above, Celestia had never felt older. Celerity’s little voice still echoed around her. She had the horrible feeling that this was going to be worse than Sunny Sprinkle’s death, and that had haunted her for a decade. In times like these, immortality was more a curse than a blessing. Celestia had long ago become accustomed to dealing with her grief as those around her passed on, but losing a student was never easy. And Celerity was more than a student.

          “Auntie, Auntie! Come on, hurry up! We’re going to be late for morning!” Celerity raced up ahead. Celestia followed, climbing the steps at a rather more sedate pace. She restrained herself from calling out to Celerity to be careful on the stairs. The young unicorn was nearly old enough to have her cutie mark; she certainly didn’t need any unnecessary mothering from her mentor. Yet… with her mother long gone and her father so recently deceased, who else was there?

          She tried to turn her thoughts away from the young Celerity, but the other news was hardly encouraging. The griffons had broken through into Whitetail, and no force remained ready to fight them. They would spread north like a plague of locusts. Blueblood’s forces mobilized to the west, and Easthill had fallen already to Whitetail. Her entire guard retinue had gone south to the disastrous battle of Trellow, and it seemed that few, if any, would return. The citizens of Canterlot lived in fear, dreading what every new day would bring. She reached the door at the top of the steps at last, pausing as she pushed it open.

          “Wow!” Celerity spun around on the platform, looking around. “You can see the whole city from here!”

          “Mind the edges,” said the Princess. “There aren’t any railings.”

          “Yeah, I guess you can fly, can’t you.” The filly poked her head over the side, looking down at the castle below. She quickly pulled back.

          “Are you ready, Celerity?”

          “Yes, Auntie.” The unicorn beamed up at her. Celestia took her place in the center of the platform, looking up at the moon.

          “It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”

          “I guess. I’ve never really looked at it that often.”

          Celestia’s smile grew sad. “Few do.” She stared up at the great shadow of the mare that had blemished the moon’s surface for the last three hundred years. “Few ever have.”

          “Well most ponies are asleep while the moon is up. How would anypony look at the moon while they were asleep?”

          “Tell me, Celerity, do you like the night?”

          Celerity shrugged. “Not nearly as much as the day, Auntie. I like your sun.”

          Celestia winced. Her sister had been right. Luna was always right. Had she spoken the truth at the end, too? Was it really Celestia’s fault?

          “Celerity, do you remember who raised the moon before I did?”

          “Nightmare Moon, Auntie. She used to rule the night. Then one day you beat her and banished her, and you’ve been doing the moon ever since. Everypony knows that.”

          “No. Not Nightmare Moon. My sister, Luna.”

          Celestia dragged her hooves, placing herself at the center of the platform. The moon looked the same as it had that morning, so long ago, full and bright and beautiful. She raised her head and dipped into the flow of the magic.

          “Are you going to raise the sun now?” Celerity trembled with excitement. Her mentor nodded, and her horn began to glow. Celerity had always wondered what this looked like.

          Celestia closed her eyes as her horn’s light began to grow. The world grew dim around her, the trees and mountains fading into the background. The millions of creatures of the world, ponies, griffons, and dragons alike, all shrank away into nothingness. The Earth became tiny, a little blue marble in a vast dark void. All the lives and struggles of its children melted away as she rose above, reaching for the sun.

          Celerity squinted at the Princess. The light from her horn was brighter than the full moon now. She had spread her wings fully, craning her neck to the sky.

          Celestia touched the surface of the sun. A vast sphere of light and heat, more intense than dragonfire, it waited beyond the horizon for her call. She caressed it like a lover, feeling the warmth tickle her face.

          The young filly shielded her eyes with a hoof as the light grew brighter. The Princess’s eyes snapped open, her pupils lost in blazing white. Celerity felt her jaw hang slack.

          Celestia reached deeper into the sun, through the roiling flames. She found its heartbeat, the pulse of the star as it expanded and contracted in the depths of the void. She listened to the rhythm, feeling her own heart match the tempo. She pushed further, the sun wrapping around her in a fiery embrace. At last she reached the center.

          The Princess gasped, and her horn blazed. Celerity could no longer look, turning away. Her whole world had turned to light, even her shadow burned away by the fires of Celestia’s magic. The Princess leapt up from the platform, her wings outstretched. The very air seemed to hold its breath. Suddenly the light pulsed, and Celerity felt the wave of magic roll over her. It was like standing in an inferno, bathing in the shining blaze of the sun. The heat of the magic rolled over the platform, enveloping her. She trembled. Slowly, the brilliance faded, and she opened her eyes again.

          Princess Celestia was standing in the center of the platform once more, her horn dimmed and her eyes no longer alight. But the Princess was radiant, her skin still glowing with the power of the sun. From the distant east, the sun’s first rays peeked over the horizon.

          Celestia looked down at her young student, still flushed with solar majesty. She grinned. “Good morning, Celerity.” The little filly was speechless for a moment.

          “That was incredible, Auntie!” She rushed forward to the Princess as the aura of light faded. She wrapped her hooves around Celestia’s leg. “But kind of scary.”

          “Don’t worry, Celerity. You’re safe as long as I’m around.”

          And now she was gone. Celestia stared at the sun as it slowly rose. She still felt the ecstasy of the magic, but it seemed to dissolve like rainwater. The sun’s light seemed pale and muted, bringing no warmth with it. She turned abruptly, and left the platform. The specter of the tiny unicorn haunted her steps, still bubbling with excitement. It hurt more deeply than she could express.

          But worse than the pain of her loss was the knowledge that it would happen again, and again, and again, for as long as she lived. Forever.

          She could not dwell. She and Luna had long ago realized that was the way to madness. She had no time to mourn. She needed to take action, to do something to save her kingdom. And now that the griffons had broken into the south, only one option remained to her.

          She closed her eyes and seized the magic. There was a blinding flash, and the Princess was gone.

* * *

          Her hoofsteps echoed quietly from the walls, the only sound these ruins had heard in centuries. Broken pillars littered the floor, overgrown with vines. The hard stone was weathered and chipped from hundreds of years’ disuse. The old tapestries had long rotted away, leaving only a few fibers hanging from the walls. Shattered glass still glittered in the dawn’s light.

          Few dared tread the halls of Lunaria, so long after the fall of its mistress. In the center of the Everfree Forest, the Moon City lay quietly, untouched. The dead city was cursed, they said. The spirit of Nightmare Moon still wandered the ruins, looking for victims. Celestia was not afraid. She grown used to the ghost of her sister long ago.

          The room she looked for lay deep in the heart of the city, once the seat of power in the south, from a time when she and Luna had ruled together. It all seemed so long ago, now. Perhaps the distant past was best left forgotten. Memories could be painful.

          She came at last to the chamber she sought. Like the rest of the city, it was in a state of advanced disrepair. Plants had crept inside through broken windows, the trailing vines wrapping around the pillars of the room like snakes. It contained no decorations, no ornaments, merely a single statue in the center of the room. It was an ungainly looking thing, covered with moss and leaves. Six arms extended from its core, each supporting a small sphere.

          The Elements of Harmony had only been used twice before. The power within them had cast down gods of chaos and darkness, imprisoned them in stone and moon, and saved the world. They were Equestria’s last defense against those that would do her harm. The unassuming spheres contained power greater than Celestia herself posessed, power that she feared to harness even now. But she had no choice.

          Her horn lit as she reached out to the Elements. The spheres glowed in response, welcoming the return of their wielder. As she called to each in turn, the spheres began to emit the light of their magic. Honesty. The Element’s light orange aura glimmered. Kindness. Soft pink lit her face. Laughter. The blue glow warmed her. Generosity. Loyalty. Deep violet and red joined the spectrum.

          And… Magic.

          The final sphere remained dark, the magenta light of its aura nowhere to be seen. Celestia called to it again, gently probing it with magic. The Element sat quietly, unresponsive.

          She released her hold. The other auras faded, the Elements once again assuming their stony vigil. Celestia stared at the final Element, aghast. Why was it not answering her summons? What had happened? Was there something wrong with the Element?

          Or was there something wrong with her?

          A quiet voice whispered the answer inside her, and Celestia turned away. She stamped a hoof in denial, refusing to believe it. “No.” She shook her head defiantly. “It’s not true.”

          You know it is. You cannot use the element of friendship, Celestia. You have none left.

          You are as you will always be: alone.


Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

The audience chamber was filled with spectators. They were all waiting to see the knighting of their young Duke-to-be, and the ceremony had all the appropriate pomp the occasion required. Banners carrying the Blueblood coat of arms were draped from the bannisters, six hundred candles had been lit and placed in the ceremonial braziers, and the great carpet had been unrolled from the door to the altar where Knight-Commander Volund, the Duke, and the Voice of Celestia waited. As Clement entered the great chamber, there was a quiet stamping of hooves.

          Clement stepped forward as he Knight-Commander began his speech. He stood rigid, waiting to give his oaths. He glanced over at his father. Emmet smiled at him, and he returned to his attentive pose with a warm feeling.

          The Knight-Commander droned on, detailing the duties and responsibilities of a knight. Clement knew them all by heart already. He’d wanted this for a long time. He was ready, he knew it. His shining armor reflected the candlelight, the fire dancing off his pauldrons and the helmet he carried. He looked magnificent, and soon he would wear the steel chain of the order of Norharren’s knighthood to complete the set.

          “You will defend the weak, aid the helpless, protect the ponies of Equestria from their enemies…”

          The speech was long and dry. Clement had seen these ceremonies before, and he knew there was nearly an hour of it to go. It was all worth it for the chance to serve his father.

          “Above all else, a knight pledges to keep the kingdom strong. Your first duty must always be to the whole of Equestria.”

          His thoughts turned to the war. How long would it take for his army to move into Norlund? He hoped it would be quick. He was anxious to see his first real battle. Weston had been right, after all. Leading small groups of his father’s ponies along the road to clear it of brigands was good training, but hardly a real substitute for war. He was scared, of course, but excited to face a real foe in combat instead of a practice dummy or a sparring partner.

          He wanted to look around to see where Weston stood in the crowd, but he had to keep facing straight ahead until the end of the ceremony. Afterwards at the celebratory party he could crack his neck, but appearances had to be maintained. Clement allowed his mind to wander, picturing his triumphant return to Norharren with a conquered Norlund at his back. Perhaps they would throw a parade…

          At long last, just when he was beginning to fear the Knight-Commander would never stop talking, Volund’s speech wound down and came to a halt. The time had come for him to take his vows. He placed a hoof over his heart as the Voice read the oaths, speaking when he was required to.

          “And do you solemnly swear before the sun and the moon that you will uphold these tenets with every action, word, and thought?”

          “So do I swear,” he replied, following the script.

          Finally, the vows were completed, and the Knight-Commander brought forth the knight’s chain. The steel links shone faintly in the candlelight. The armored unicorn presented it to Clement, draping it around his shoulders and latching the clasp to his armor. Clement kneeled with his front legs. The Voice stepped forward and lowered her horn to Clement’s shoulder.

          “Let it be known that this pony has been deemed worthy in the eyes of Celestia, and let him now be granted the title of Knight and all that it implies.” She raised her horn and placed it on his other shoulder. “In Celestia’s voice, I name you Knight Clement Marverion Blueblood, and servant of Equestria. Rise.”

           He stood, feeling victorious. The assembled ponies all stomped their hooves in applause, as the Knight-Commander and the Voice took their leave of the altar. His father approached and clapped him on the shoulder with a hoof.

          “Excellently done, Clement. I’ll see you later in my study to discuss our strategy, yes?”

          “Of course, father.”

          “Very well. Enjoy yourself, but don’t drink too much. I want you sharp.” His father passed him and left.

* * *

          The after-party in the Blueblood manor was an expensive affair. The Duke would only have the best for his son, and most of the city’s nobility had been invited. Clement shook hooves and accepted congratulations throughout the evening, chatting up the mares of the nobility and generally enjoying himself. Weston lurked in the corner of the building, his face locked in an uncharacteristic frown. Clement shrugged. If his squire was upset for some reason, he didn’t intend to let it spoil the day of his knighting.

          He grabbed another tart from the table of food and went to relax outside in the gardens. He wandered into the hedges, finding his way through to the pond. He admired his reflection in the water, still delighting in the new steel chain that hung from his shoulders.

          “What a farce,” said a muffled voice. Clement’s head rose. He hadn’t expected other ponies to be outside while the party was still going.

          “He’s not so bad,” said another pony. “Certainly, Clement is young, but he has the look of a knight about him.”

          “And what does that mean, anymore? Knights, don’t make me laugh. Did you even listen to the Voice’s readings? Of course not. I doubt she listened to herself.”

          Clement crept closer to the hedge, straining to hear the two ponies. He looked through a hole in the shrubbery, trying to see the two speakers. They must be right behind the hedge, not-quite-whispering to each other.

          “I don’t catch your meaning.”

          “A Knight’s first duty is to serve Equestria. All of Equestria. And yet our little lordling is marching off to war against the Princess herself.”

          “Well…”

          “The hypocrisy in that family is staggering. The Duke protests against an increase in our military spending for years, then demands that we provide an army in weeks. And now he’s using it to make his own coinpurse bigger.”

          “Keep your voice down. I think you’ve had too much to drink.”

          “Oh, don’t pretend you don’t see it too. At least the Duchess of Whitetail went to war to protect her people, not to subjugate another province to pad her tax revenue.”

          “And we all saw how well that turned out. Besides, you can’t pretend Belle is innocent either. What about Easthill?”

          “She took Easthill for steel to arm her troops, so that she could fight against the griffons.”

          “What, you honestly think she wouldn’t have marched to war against us afterwards? Be serious.”

          “Perhaps. But it hardly matters now, anyway. She’s dead, the griffons are marching north, and we’re wasting our army fighting against the ponies who should be our allies.”

          “I admit, I… do not think it right, to attack the Princess. She’s done right by us for a long time.”

          “Blueblood’s going to get us all killed, mark my words.”

          “I think it’s time we head back inside. You’re going to attract unwanted attention if you keep shouting.”

          “Fine. I’m tired of this party anyway.”

          The two stallions left the garden, their hooves echoing off the cobblestone. Clement sat in silence, doubts eating away at him. Your first duty must always be to the whole of Equestria. He stood, suddenly taken with determination. He needed to talk to his father.

* * *

          As he walked up the stairs to his father’s study, Knight-Commander Volund’s voice reached out into the hallway. “I simply feel that it might be best to deal with the griffons before we—“

          “No!” There was a thud. Duke Blueblood’s baritone echoed. “This is our best opportunity. If we wait, or move our forces south, we’ll lose the chance to take Norlund. Celestia will reinforce the provinces around the capital, and we don’t have the time to spare.”

          “But sir, if Westermin and Weatherforge fall, then—“

          Clement knocked a hoof on the door, and the voices fell silent. His father called out, irritated. “What is it?”

          He pushed the door open and entered the study. His father and the Knight-Commander were both standing with their front hooves on the desk, looking at a map. The Duke’s expression softened as he saw his son. “Ah, Clement. My apologies. I didn’t expect you for another hour or two.”

          “Father,” began Clement. Best to come right out and say it. “I share the Knight-Commander’s concerns.” He watched with a cold feeling in his stomach as his father’s smile vanished. “We need to deal with the griffons.”

          Volund jumped at the support. “The boy is right. I’m telling you, Emmet, if we don’t send our troops down to help the southerners we’re ALL going to be in trouble.”

          “I think you greatly overestimate them.”

          “Celerity was no fool. She died all the same. If we don’t want to share her fate, we need to act while we still can.”

          “Father, is it really wise to attack the Princess? Couldn’t we use her help against the griffons? Surely we’ll have to fight them at some point.”

          “Yes we will,” picked up Volund. “And better to do it with Celestia on our side than to have her at our back.”

          “Father, we can’t just ignore the threat from Grypha.”

          “Enough.” The Duke’s face was stern. “I will brook no more argument. This is Norhart’s opportunity to take its rightful place as Equestria’s first province.” His eyes were steely. “Whitetail’s era is done and over. It is long past time for us to surpass it. If the griffons destroy Celerity’s Duchy, then so much the better.”

          Volund slammed a hoof down in impotent anger. He stood back from the desk. “As you wish, then. But this foolishness will be the death of us all.” The Knight-Commander swirled around and left the room.

          The Duke and his son stared at each other. “No more argument. Am I clear?”

          Clement swallowed. “I still don’t think it’s—“

          “Clement.”

          He lost his nerve, and folded. “Yes. You’re clear.”

          “Good. Perhaps now we can attend to our campaign? Yes?”

          “Yes, father.”


Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

From her vigil on the wall, Plumline could see the sun rise. The limestone walls that gave Whitewall City its name had already begun to sparkle. The sunlight played off Plumline’s helmet and armor, casting shadows around the top of the wall. She stared at the sun as it rose, blinking away moisture as her eyes began to adjust to the light.

          It had been nearly two weeks since the attack on Sel-Paloth. Plumline was still furious that she had not been with the Whitetail forces that moved to secure Trellow, but the medics had not seen fit to release her so soon. They were worried that she was mentally unfit for combat, still reeling from the deaths of her entire garrison. Plumline wanted nothing more than to join the army at Trellow to avenge her comrades, but instead she was stuck in Whitewall. At least she’d been able to convince the city watch’s Captain to let her stand guard on the walls. Otherwise, she’d still have been confined to the clinic.

          She looked out over the forest to the south, dismayed to see that the black clouds of smoke from the day before had not yet faded away. The only thing that could have caused them was a wildfire, and with all the weatherforging pegasi tied up at Trellow, she was worried that it might spread to Whitetail Forest itself.

          Another guard passed her, making his rounds. “The smoke clouds?”

          “Yes.”

          “I wouldn’t worry about them too much. The last brushfire burned itself out in a few days without coming near the treeline.”

          “I hope you’re right.”

Plumline began walking the other direction, pulling a clockwise circle around the outermost wall. Whitewall was a fortress city, and there were two great circular walls of limestone surrounding the keep. The first was forty meters high and smooth as glass. The interior wall was half again as tall, reaching up above the trees. The keep stood highest of all, poking its crenellations above the inner wall. The walls themselves were thick, nearly two and a half meters, and effectively impenetrable from the ground. All of the white limestone shone brilliantly during the daytime, creating a dazzling display of sunlight.

          As Plumline came to the northern side of the city, she looked down to see if she could catch a glimpse of the Pale Lake. Fed by a river from the western arm of the Jotur mountains, the lakebed was the ancient quarry that had provided the stone used to build Whitewall. After the city’s construction was finished, the river’s course had been altered to flow inside the excavation. The dissolving limestone and the resulting discoloration of the water had given it its name.

          The glassy surface of the lake remained undisturbed this morning. Nopony knew for sure how deep it was, after centuries of erosion. Plumline enjoyed walking the shores when she had the time, but with the invasion, she doubted there would be any.

She looked over at the north road. The road circled and twisted through the forest, eventually coming out to meet the Great Road in the west. Few travelers ever used it, for Whitewall was out of the way and had no great trading center. It was a remnant of the old days of the Gryphan Empire, built by the ponies of Whitetail to serve as a defense against the griffons’ easterly encroachments.

          Plumline’s ear twitched, and she squinted down at the road. A pony had wandered around the curve from the forest. From this distance, she couldn’t make anything else out about them. Another pony joined the first, and then a dozen more, then a ceaseless mass of earth ponies, unicorns and pegasi alike, all of them headed straight for the city gates. The sun glinted off the golden armor of the pegasi in the lead, and Plumline finally realized what she was seeing. She reached a hoof down and lifted her horn, taking a deep breath and blowing it as loud as she could.

* * *

          Windstreak was glad to see the gates of the city open in welcome as her troops approached. The bone-tired soldiers, cheered by the sight of their destination after two days of punishing marching, moved quickly inside. She led the front of the march, entering the city’s gleaming walls alongside Bergeron and Wheatie. They were greeted at the gate by a group of unicorns dressed in fine robes.

          A youthful-looking pony stepped forward as they arrived. “Welcome to Whitewall, Firewings. I am Lord Tymeo Bellemont, the city’s steward while the Duchess is away.”

          “I am Captain Strudel of Her Majesty’s Firewings. This is Bergeron, and this is Wheatie.”

          “So the army has returned! I take it there is good news from Trellow? Have we defeated the griffons yet?”

          Windstreak stared apprehensively at the young unicorn. She’d been hoping for someone a little more… experienced. This pony was barely two years older than Rye. “I’m afraid not, Duke Bellemont.”

          “Oh, no, I’m no Duke,” The unicorn laughed. “Though my mother would be thrilled if I were to marry Celerity, I doubt the old nag would ever accept such an offer.” His laughter faded as the Firewings stared at him. “It’s a common mistake, really. I’m just the steward.” Tymeo’s face fell as he slowly began to realize what was going on.

          “Duke Bellemont, the battle of Trellow is over. The griffons are coming north. My troops are tired and hungry, and we need to prepare. I request your permission to garrison Whitewall until the griffons arrive.”

          “D-Duke? But then—surely Duchess Belle is not—“ The young Bellemont’s mouth worked soundlessly as he searched for words. He looked lost.

Windstreak had a sinking feeling. “Do we have your permission?”

          “Of course, of course… We will see about accommodations for the soldiers. I… think I need to convene the city council to discuss this.” He bowed hastily and fled.

          “Well, that could have gone better,” said Wheatie.

          Bergeron cringed. “That’s the new Duke? He’s just a child.” He looked back over their shoulders at the army still trailing up the road. Whitetail troops were pouring into the city now, bedraggled and worn. The few Firewings mixed into their number saluted their Captain as they passed, and Windstreak returned the gesture.

          “This doesn’t bode well for us,” said Windstreak. “I was hoping to hand the reins over to the new Duke, but… clearly that’s no longer our best option.”

          “You’ve led us this far, Captain,” said Wheatie. “We’ll follow you to the end.”

          “It may be a bitter one.” She sighed. “Bergeron, make sure that our ponies are fed and watered. Wheatie, see about those housing accommodations. I’m going to have a talk with our new Duke.” Windstreak nodded to them both, and the three Firewings split up to attend to their tasks.

* * *

          “They tell me Celerity is dead,” Tymeo was saying, his voice filled with barely-suppressed panic. “Which leaves me as the new Duke of Whitetail.”

          “Celerity… dead?”

        “It can’t be...”

          Windstreak pushed into the chamber that held Whitetail’s ruling council, a small group of six ponies that handled matters of state for Celerity—and now Tymeo.

          “Greetings, Duke Bellemont,” she hailed as she entered. The council and Tymeo turned to face her. Most of the council members were earth ponies, but there was one sole unicorn, who wore the dark blue robes that marked him as the city’s archmage. They all regarded the Firewing with wary eyes.

          “Ah… Captain Strudel, was it?” Tymeo smiled nervously. “I was just appraising my aides of the situation.”

          “The situation is this,” said Windstreak, without formality. “The griffons smashed us to bits at Trellow. We have barely a thousand soldiers left to defend the city with. Shrikefeather is pushing north as we speak with a force of at least twenty thousand griffons and siege weaponry.”

          One of the elderly mares in council robes looked faint. “Twenty thousand?”

          “Or thirty. That’s not all. Shrikefeather has more than griffons at his command. Two dragons travel with his army.”

          At this, the archmage began coughing in surprise. “Dragons?” He coughed again, getting spit in his beard. “Impossible. No dragons have entered Equestria for nearly a thousand years.”

          “They killed hundreds of my soldiers. None that stood against them lived. They’re very real, and they’re coming.” She looked around at the council and Tymeo, whose face was rapidly turning an ashen gray. “I’ve bought us some time by burning the fields behind us. Shrikefeather will be hard pressed to feed his army without them.”

          One of the earth ponies, presumably the minister of agriculture, jerked upwards in rage. “You what? You set the fields on fire? That was an entire year’s harvest! We’re the breadbasket of Equestria! Without that grain, do you know how many will go hungry? You’ve single-hoofedly caused a famine, Captain Strudel!”

          Apricot would have had a stroke if he’d heard that she had burned Equestria’s main source of wheat and flour. She winced internally and pressed on. “If I hadn’t, then the griffons would be eating it all right now, and pushing north in days rather than weeks. An empty stomach is better than a missing head.”

          Tymeo waved a hoof to interject. “If I may?” He looked around. “This isn’t what the Duchess had planned. It seems clear to me that her hopes of a solid alliance between Weatherforge and Westermin have been dashed. The main force of Baron Aubren’s troops have already returned from Easthill, but the shipments will not begin arriving until tomorrow. We can’t even arm our troops until they do.”

          He sighed heavily. “Celerity would not have wanted this, but I see no other choice. I think it best if we turn over the defense of the city to Captain Strudel. She is more versed in warfare than any of us, and I can think of none more qualified in the city to lead our soldiers against the griffons.”

          No, no, no! This was the last thing Windstreak wanted. She could command her Firewings like extensions of her own body, because she had flown with them for years and knew every intimate detail of their fighting styles. She had never before been forced to lead a real army. Her first action as a de-facto General had been to sound a full retreat from the worst military defeat Equestria had suffered in the last six hundred years. She wasn’t ready for this.

          But who else was there?

          “You’re right, my lord.” The archmage bowed his head. The other councilors nodded slowly in assent.

          “Then it is settled. Captain Strudel, I give command of the forces of Whitetail to you and grant you the temporary rank of General in the Whitetail military. There is a ceremony that comes with the title, but I think we can all agree that it can wait until after the threat has passed.”

          “Surely that can’t be legal. I’m already a soldier in the Princess’s employ, I can’t just swear loyalty to—“

          “The technicalities don’t matter, Captain. I’m the Duke, now, I can give you the title by fiat if I wish.” His face softened. “You’re the only one who can save my subjects.” The Duke looked plaintively at her. “Please.”

          “I…” Windstreak looked around. The councilponies all looked as helpless as she felt. “I… very well. I accept.”

          “Thank you,” said Tymeo sincerely. “And now if you’ll excuse me, councilors, General, I need to explain the situation to the citizens of Whitewall. Those who wish to flee before the invaders come deserve the chance.” The young Duke swallowed and paused. “Celestia have mercy on us all.” He left the room, his new office weighing heavily on his shoulders.

          “Archmage,” said Windstreak as the councilors began to file out. The blue-robed unicorn turned his head. “I need you to search the city’s archives for anything and everything you can find about dragons. We need to find a way to kill them.”

          “As you wish… General.”

          Windstreak flicked an ear uncomfortably. “Please, just Captain.” The archmage bowed his head in acknowledgement and left. She stood alone in the tiny office.

          Oh, Sisters. What am I going to do?


Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

“It’s impressive, isn’t it?”

Clement looked out from his tent on the hill. Before him stretched the army of Norhart, thousands of blue tents filled with soldiers. His soldiers. He stared off into the distance, trying to count to the end of them, and was pleased when he could not.

“That it is, Lord Clement.” Weston nodded his head.

“That’s Sir, now,” said the young lord with a jesting smile.

Weston grinned back. “As you wish, Sir Lord Clement.”

The army was on the move. They’d left Norharren two days ago, marching east to Norlund. The great northern highway would lead them straight to the crossroads that his father soon hoped to control. But before they could take Norlund, they would have to deal with the Celestial Army.

Clement felt another twinge of excitement. The Princess’s troops would be foes of real worth. Not bandits, or rebellious peasants, but trained fighting warhorses. “It’s going to be magnificent, Weston. We’ll send them running back into the hills.”

“Of course.” Weston gazed at the young knight. “Have you discussed the battle plan with your sub-commanders yet?”

He waved an airy hoof. “There will be plenty of time for that tomorrow. We should reach the Norlund border sometime late in the afternoon. We’ll set up camp there and prepare to meet Celestia’s forces the day after. Are you excited, Weston?”

His squire shook his head. “To be frank, my lord, I had hoped to never see battle again.”

Clement frowned. “Don’t you want the glory of defeating a worthy foe?”

Weston shrugged. “The other side of that glory isn’t pretty. The stories tend to skip over those parts.”

“Which parts?”

“The fear. The terror that you’re going to die at any moment, just another casualty on the field. The blood, everywhere, running like rivers over the grass. The stench of sweat and blood and piss.”

Clement shivered at his squire’s tone. “Enough, Weston.”

“Sorry, my lord.” Weston looked down. “But you’ll see for yourself soon enough.”

His squire had been so grim lately. Clement frowned at him. “What’s the matter, Weston? You’ve been acting this way ever since my knighting.”

Sighing, Weston glanced over at him. “My lord, your father…” He paused, as if searching for the words. “Is this really serving Norhart? Is this really serving Equestria? It seems to me as if this army is marching solely to feed the Duke’s own ambitions.”

Clement gave him a hard stare. “I hope you’re not implying my father has anything but the best interest of his ponies at heart.”

“Of course not, my lord,” soothed Weston.

“Good.” But a small voice whispered in his head, your first duty must always be to the whole of Equestria.

 “I think I’m going to bed. I will see you in the morning, Weston.”

“Yes, my lord. You’ll need a good night’s rest for the battle, anyway.”

Clement turned and re-entered his tent, disturbed. What if Weston was right? His father had been rather… distant, lately. More so than usual. Clement felt the familiar fear rising up. Had he disappointed the Duke? His outburst the other night had turned his father’s warm demeanor into stony silence.

Ever since Clement’s mother had died, the Duke’s smiles had become rarer and rarer. Nothing filled his heart with more warmth than seeing his father’s delighted expression whenever he did something to please him. He would give all the glorious battle in the world just to make his father laugh again. But he feared that feat was beyond him.

* * *

The next day passed quickly. Clement was glad that he had allowed Weston to talk him out of wearing his armor; though he enjoyed spending every moment he could inside its gleaming plates, he was hot and sweaty enough by the end of the march without being bogged down by the heavy steel.

They were nearly to the crossroads by now. Less than a day’s journey stood between them and the Great Road, but the Celestial army would be even closer. He felt another thrill of anticipation. Weston’s dark words seemed to melt away in the warm sunlight, the slight anxiety in his stomach banished by the rays of light.

At last, they stopped to make their camp for the final time before the approaching battle. Clement sought out the command tent, where the officers would be waiting. This was to be the moment where he truly took command.

The banner outside the tent fluttered gently in the breeze. The blue droplet waved proudly, as high as Clement’s spirits. He took a deep breath, and stepped inside.

In the tent, Clement found his father’s war council had already convened without him. He paused for a moment in surprise. Why had they not waited? Annoyed, he cleared his throat.

“Are we ready to plan the battle?”

The officers all raised their heads from the table. Knight-Commander Volund coughed in surprise. “Lord Clement. I had not expected to see you here.”

“What kind of leader would I be if I did not help organize our troops?” Clement glanced around in irritation.

The officers were giving each other pained looks. “Lord Clement, we have already come up with a strategy for tomorrow.” Volund gave him an unreadable stare. He motioned to the table, where lay a map of the crossroads and the surrounding area. “Celestia’s forces are here,” he said, pointing a hoof at a group of yellow pennants that stood in the hills.

“There are only about fifteen hundred of them. We have the advantage in numbers with nearly twenty five hundred. We will hit them head on with the main force, which I will lead. Major Vennin will take two hundred and fifty chargers around their northern flank, and Major Dengar will lead two hundred others around their southern flank. We’ll hit them from three sides at once and wipe them out.”

“It seems… simplistic.”

“The best plans usually are. Fewer things can go wrong.”

Clement nodded. “Very well. Which group am I commanding?”

The officers all looked around, their faces carefully blank. He heard a cough. Clement frowned. “Which group am I commanding?” he repeated.

“Ah…” Volund searched for the words. “It was my intention to have you remain at camp, my lord.”

Clement scowled. “I see. You’re all trying to keep me away from the battle.” He blinked and took a deep, calming breath. “I appreciate the thought, Knight-Commander, but I am a warrior in the service of my Duke, and commander of this army. I will not lead from a cushy seat at the rear of my forces.”

“My lord,” began Major Dengar, moving his hooves in placation.

“No, Major.” Clement frowned again. “I’m not going to wait this battle out on the sidelines. I will fight with my troops. I can lead the vanguard.”

Volund choked. “Absolutely not. The Duke would have my head.”

“Fine, then. Not the vanguard. But I will join in the fighting.”

Volund looked at him with a mixture of dismay and resignation. “I… very well, Clement. I’ll put you in Major Dengar’s group. Follow his orders to the letter, am I clear?”

Clement felt a sinking sensation as he realized that he was going to have to prove himself to the officers here—especially Volund—before being given real command of anything more than a seat cushion. “That will be acceptable.” Internally, he fumed. There was little honor to be found charging an enemy’s flanks with a numerically superior force. This was supposed to be his army, not Volund’s. But he swallowed his pride and nodded to the Knight-Commander. “Now, is there anything more to discuss?”

“We were just talking about food supplies when you walked in. I doubt you would be interested, my lord.”

Truthfully, Clement couldn’t care less about the supplies. But he needed to show that he was willing to lead, and a leader would be involved in every aspect of his troops’ lives. Besides, one day he would be the Duke, and this experience would be valuable training. “Actually, I would, Knight-Commander.”

Volund hid his surprise admirably. “Very well, my lord. If you’ll just take a seat we can go over the status of the rations again…

 


Chapter Thirty

 

“Any luck yet?” Windstreak looked up hopefully.

Across the table, Bergeron was poring over a thick volume titled Legendary Weapons of Equestria and Beyond, flipping through the pages without enthusiasm. His eyes rolled up to the Captain. “I’m afraid not, unless you’re hiding Wyrmsbane or the Kingshammer on you somewhere.” He closed the book with a thunk and set it aside in a growing pile.

Windstreak sighed. They’d been at this for three days without any results so far. The library of Whitewall was one of the largest she’d ever seen, but she was beginning to fear that it did not contain the answers she was looking for.

She turned her head back down to A Brief History of Wyrmgand, which had to be the most inaccurately-titled book she’d ever read. She’d barely skimmed the last nine hundred pages, uninterested in the various territorial squabbles and hoard thefts that constituted most of Wyrmgandian history. Even with such a cursory reading, she was beginning to realize that it was less a country and more a shared space between individual dragons. They had no government, and they followed no leaders. Each dragon was a nation unto itself, and its word was law to any dragons weaker than it.

Fascinating, but not helpful. Windstreak was far more interested in the book’s appendixes, which dealt with the creatures themselves. She began re-reading the entry for the third time that day.

Dragons, the eldest race, have roamed the earth since the very beginning. They sprang from the fires of creation, when the world was still red and hot. They were the undisputed masters of the earth, until the arrival of the gods (see Appendix C for more information on the creation wars). Long before the other races rose from the ground, the dragons ruled.

Dragons are made from the very bones of the earth, their roots as deep as mountains’. A dragon’s skin is covered with scales, harder than rock and sharper than steel blades. Dragonbone is even more resilient, immune to heat and virtually indestructible. For this reason, the remains of a dragon are greatly prized for their utility in the crafting of armor and tools.

But these are rare; for dragons, though not immortal, live much longer than the younger races. If a dragon can survive enough battles they can reach ages of nearly six thousand years or more. A dragon’s age can be roughly determined by its size, for dragons do not stop growing until they have reached an age of three thousand years at least. This rate of growth is linked to the size of a dragon’s hoard, through magic not yet fully understood (see Appendix F for more information on the physical and psychological importance of dragon hoards).

Windstreak sighed and turned the page. Dragons, though not immortal... That implied they could be killed, but the book was maddeningly evasive about how one could do so. Giving up, she slammed it closed and shoved it aside. “How about you, Wheatie? Found anything useful?”

The young stallion looked up from the pages of Dragon Diets: Forty Meals and How Not to Be One with a dull expression. “Not particularly.” He yawned. “They still need to breathe, right? Maybe we can choke them when they try swallowing us all.” He shook his head and turned back to his book.

With a grimace, Windstreak turned to the side and pulled out the next book in the pile, a ponderous-looking tome named Dragonslayers. The title looked promising, but upon closer inspection it turned out to be a collection of biographies about the famous ponies from the Pre-Classical era who had had their names emblazoned in history for the same impossible feat she now contemplated: killing dragons. The book said next to nothing about the actual slayings themselves, and what little it did was unhelpful. The great magical weapons the slayers had used had been lost for hundreds or thousands of years.

There was a creaking sound as the door to the library opened. Windstreak looked down the aisle to see the archmage pulling a small cart filled with another dozen books.

“I’ve collected all the relevant materials I can find,” said the archmage, pulling up to the Firewings. “There’s next to nothing on them in my spellbooks, except continual warnings to avoid the things.” He shook his head. “I’m afraid we just don’t know very much about the dragons. Everypony that’s ever tried to study them has ended up as a smoking crater. I can keep looking, General, but I doubt I’ll find anything.”

“It’s Captain, still. This new rank is… it’s just a formality. I certainly don’t want it.”

“As you wish, Captain.” The archmage sorted through the books in his cart. “Have any of you discovered a weakness yet?”

Bergeron snorted unhappily. “Their claws can cut through iron, their breath can melt rocks, and their scales can’t even be scratched by mortal weapons.”

“It gets better,” said Wheatie in a dry tone. “Ordinary fire doesn’t even hurt them. They like taking baths in volcanoes. On top of that, they’re nearly immune to magic. Even Starswirl the Bearded would be hard-pressed to kill one of these things.”

“It’s been done before,” said Windstreak, picking through the new volumes. “It can be done again.”

“I hope so,” said Bergeron, without conviction. “Hang on, this might be something.” He scanned the page again. “Ah… do we have any dragonbone spears in the city, archmage?”

“Alas, no. The last one in Whitetail’s possession was sold to cover the expenses for Sel-Paloth years ago.”

“Then never mind.”

Windstreak rubbed her face. “What time is it?”

The archmage looked at the candle. “You’ve been in here for six hours, Captain. It’s nearly midnight.”

Yawning, Windstreak stretched her wings. “Then I’m going to bed. Wheatie, Bergeron, we’ll pick this up tomorrow morning, yes?”

The two members of her unofficial inner council nodded. “I’m going to give it another hour tonight, I think,” said Bergeron.

“Captain,” said the archmage, “before you go, I should tell you. The Duke wished to speak with you tomorrow morning. I would see to him before coming here.”

“Very well. I’ll meet Tymeo in the council chamber at six.”

“I will let him know.” The archmage bowed as Windstreak left the library.

She wandered through the halls of Whitewall City’s keep. The white stones were thick enough to resist any mortal weapon, but what could they do against dragonfire? Goddess, her stomach hurt. She swallowed. All the citizens of the city were counting on her, and her alone, to keep them safe against the oncoming horde. She felt like she was dragging a weight behind her on a chain.

But she felt sorrier for the young Duke. For the last three days he had been organizing the evacuation, trying to keep his ponies calm while confiding privately in Windstreak that he was in way over his head. Young Tymeo did not have the experience to lead the city in a time of crisis. Still, he had accepted his responsibility without complaint, and he was putting in every effort to save the vassals he was sworn to protect. Windstreak respected him, though she could not help but wish he were Celerity instead.

At last Windstreak came to her chambers near the top of the keep. She strode inside the humble little room, quietly closing the door behind her. The moon was beginning to wane, but enough light poured in from the window for her to see by. She looked out over the forest, at the green tops of the trees.

She frowned. It was mid-November. The trees should already be bare, but with Lord Weatherforge pulling all the pegasi he could spare to help in the war effort, the seasonal cycle had been thrown out of balance. After the war—assuming any of them were still alive—the rebuilding process would be difficult without the pegasi lost at Trellow.

Looking down at the streets of Whitewall, Windstreak’s mind churned with hundreds of fruitless plans. Weapons were useless; magic, worth about as much as spit. The dragons were unstoppable. Perhaps the Princess could stand against them, but Celestia was still far in the north dealing with Blueblood. And even if she were here, Windstreak had her doubts that the Princess could singlehoofedly take on two of the ancient creatures.

She slipped under her bed’s sheets, lying down sideways. The bed felt half-empty without the warmth of another body. She missed Apricot terribly. She hadn’t even been able to send him a letter since she’d left Canterlot. It would not be long before news of Trellow reached the capital, if it had not already. Would Apricot think that she was one of the fallen? She wanted nothing more than to be with him right now, but she was beginning to fear that she would never see him again.

Sisters save us. Dragons. The old legends were springing to life around her, and the world was falling apart. Windstreak buried her head underneath her pillow and pressed it down around her ears. Maybe she would wake up to find herself back in the bakery, the events of the last three weeks merely a bad dream.

* * *

She slept fitfully, twisting and turning beneath damp sheets. When morning came at last, she rolled out of bed, feeling worse than she had the night before. She wandered over to the mirror on the wall, picking up the hairbrush the Duke had provided with her hoof. As she brushed her fiery mane back into place, she stared gloomily at her reflection.

The pony in the mirror was a stranger. Her eyes had sunken back into her skull, dark circles deeply pronounced on her cheeks. Her normally bright and clean blue coat was still covered with caked-on dust from the road. She resolved to take a bath before hitting the library again.

But first, she needed to speak with Duke Bellemont. Windstreak lay the brush down beside the mirror, and looked over at her armor. It hung on a rack beside the bed, the once-polished gilded steel covered with dirty smudges. She needed to clean it before it tarnished, but she couldn’t bring herself to spend any time away from the library. The thought of the dragons loomed in her mind, pressing down on her like a crushing stone.

She walked through the halls of the keep in the direction of the council chamber. She passed no other ponies. Most of the keep’s inhabitants were still asleep at this hour. Her hooves echoed slightly as they clopped along the floor stones, the rhythmic sound doing little to calm her aching stomach. She reached the door at last, pushing it open and stepping inside.

“Duke Bellemont.”

Tymeo looked up from his desk with a tired smile. “Ah, General Strudel.”

Windstreak let the title slide. It wasn’t worth arguing about. If it gave the young Duke some small comfort to think she was worthy of leading an army, then she would not take it from him. “You wanted to see me, my lord?”

“Yes. I have some good news, finally.” Tymeo stood and motioned Windstreak to come to the window. They looked out northward to the city gates.

“I don’t see anything.”

“Well, they haven’t gotten here quite yet, but I’m expecting them to be in the city before noon.” Tymeo looked as tired as Windstreak felt. He rubbed his eyes, yawning. “Baron Aubren’s messenger arrived last night. He says that the first shipments of the new Easthill weapons have finally come.”

Windstreak peered at the road, trying to catch any glimpse of wagons, but saw nothing yet. “What exactly is in these shipments?”

“Well, to be frank, I don’t know. This was Celerity’s game; I was just supposed to the keep the city safe while she was away.”

“Hm.” Windstreak thought back to Trellow, remembering the vast hordes of griffons crashing into the unarmored Cloudsdale pegasi. “How soon can we begin fitting the soldiers?”

“I’ve got every blacksmith in the city—well, all the ones who chose not to flee—ready and waiting to begin working on the armor. The weapons, on the other hoof, will be arriving already forged. How many troops do we still need to arm?”

“Not as many as before,” said Windstreak gloomily. “When we arrived at Trellow, Celerity had fifteen hundred troops without arms. About half of them are dead.”

The Duke winced. “Be honest with me, General. Do we have a chance against the griffons?”

“That depends on how many of them Shrikefeather commits to taking the city.” Windstreak walked away from the window, over to the desk. She unrolled a map, looking at the south. “With the southern plains scorched to ash, his first priority will be Westermin. That’s in the opposite direction from Whitewall. He won’t be sending his main force here.”

“So even with so few to defend Whitewall, we might stand a chance?”

His optimistic tone brought a tired smile to her face. “Duke Bellemont, even if Shrikefeather only sends a quarter of his forces to Whitewall, we’ll be outnumbered two to one. And this time, we won’t have a bridge to funnel them all into our spears. I wish I could be more encouraging, but frankly, there’s not much hope.”

“Well, what if we got reinforcements? Weatherforge and Westermin are still our allies.”

“And both of them lost most of their armies at Trellow. They’ll be hard-pressed to defend themselves, now, let alone send aid to Whitewall. I’m sorry, Tymeo, we’re on our own.”

The Duke sat heavily on his desk cushion. “I see. Thank you for your honesty, General.” He stared at the grain of the wood, rubbing a hoof along the top of the desk.

Taking that as her dismissal, Windstreak nodded wearily and left. She turned left to head toward the baths, but suddenly the image of a roaring green dragon sprang up in her mind. She sighed, and walked instead in the direction of the library.

* * *

Wheatie and Bergeron had started without her. They were both curled up beside the table of reference material, their noses stuffed into their books. Bergeron was reading an old copy of Flora and Fauna of Equestria, looking bored out of his mind. Wheatie was reading… Windstreak smirked.

“How are you enjoying Steamy Canterlot Nights, Private?

Wheatie looked up guiltily, shutting the book and tossing it aside. “Didn’t hear you come in, Captain.”

Still grinning, she grabbed a book from the pile and sat. “A bit of good news, you two. The shipments from Easthill are arriving today.”

Wheatie looked pleased, but Bergeron scowled. “The blood of Canterlot troops is on those weapons.”

Windstreak gave a tired shrug. “It’s wartime, Bergeron. Practicality comes before sentiment.”

He gave a hmpf and turned back to his book. Windstreak looked down at her own, a dog-eared copy of The Student’s Bestiary of Strange and Rare Creatures. She flipped through the table of contents. It was arranged geographically rather than alphabetically, to her annoyance.

“Wendigoes… sea serpents… draugr… sphinxes… satyrs… pegacorns…” She paused.

Taking a quick glance up, she saw that neither Bergeron nor Wheatie had noticed, still buried in their own books. She turned the pages, quickly finding the chapter. She began reading.

Of all the creatures in this book, perhaps none is more saddening than the pegacorn. These creatures share the form of an alicorn, but instead of divine grace they possess only grotesqueries. This rarest breed of pony is an aberration resulting from an unfortunate union between a pegasus and a unicorn.

Due to the influence of evil spirits, bad blood, or perhaps plain bad luck, they inherit a twisted mockery of both parents’ gifts: a horn, unable to perform magic, and wings too sickly and weak to fly. Most become thieves or brigands, as their accursed blood drives them to crime. Rumors of their dark powers are greatly exaggerated, however; most pegacorns cannot perform even the simplest spells. Regardless, caution is to be advised if meeting one of these mutants. Their temperaments are notoriously unstable, and they are little better than feral beasts when angered.

A word of reassurance to potential parents: pegacorns are far from common, and the majority of mixed-race parents need not worry. Only one pegasus-unicorn foal in four thousand will be cursed with the body of a pegacorn. In the event of a pegacorn’s birth, however, it is kinder to smother the beast rather than permit a monstrosity from-

The book crashed into the library shelf. “Captain!” said Bergeron, looking up in surprise. Windstreak was breathing hard, still grinding her teeth. “Captain, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I need to take a break. Carry on, Lieutenant.”

She stormed out of the library without looking back. She needed to get out of this city.

As Windstreak emerged into the daylight outside the keep, she beat her wings and took to the air. She flew high above Whitewall, letting the sunlight wash over her.

It is kinder to smother the beast…

Still enraged, she soared north of the city, headed for the lake. It was a short flight, and she soon sailed above the glassy water. The unbroken surface of the lake was far below her, reflecting the sunlight. Windstreak took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and folded her wings. She plummeted from the air, plunging into the water like a spear.

It was freezing cold. She felt the water rush past her, carrying away the dirt and grime. She curved her body, shooting out of the water again and taking flight once more. She shook her head, letting her wet mane fly back in the wind. She soared upward, headed for a cloud.

She alighted on top of the puffy white cumulus, striding to the edge and sitting heavily. She looked northward from her perch, but she was too far south to see Canterlot, let alone the northern stretch of the Joturs. Somewhere far beyond that horizon, her son was wandering through the icy wastes of Sleipnord, risking his life for his country.

It is kinder to smother the beast…

She snorted angrily, punching a hoof into the cloud. It emitted a halfhearted clap of thunder. She flopped onto her back, staring up at the blue sky.

Oh, Rye… She would give anything to be at his side right now. He was always on her mind. The mental image of a small, gray pony slowly freezing to death kept her up at night. The Princess made a mistake. It should be me going to Sleipnord, not Rye.

But she wasn’t. She was here, and dwelling on what ifs would do nopony any good. She rolled back over, looking down at the lake.

The ripples from her brief dive still traveled outward. The milky water lapped the shores, giving no hint as to its depth. Windstreak toyed idly with a piece of cloud, her thoughts inevitably drawn back to the dragons.

They can be killed, but how? Even Easthill steel won’t pierce those scales. She stared glumly at the lake, watching a pair of birds fly below her cloud.

She gave another snort. Maybe Wheatie was right. We should all fly down their throats at once and hope they choke to death.

Suddenly she sat upright. They do need to breathe. She stood, suddenly filled with nervous energy. Her tail began swishing as she paced. What she was thinking of was crazy. It would never work, not a chance. Unless… perhaps, with enough pegasi, it could be done. But how were they supposed to keep the dragon—

A glint of sunlight caught her eye, and she looked back down to the road. The first in a long line of wagons was pulling up to the gates of Whitewall, filled with gleaming steel. Windstreak stared at the shining metal with a grin as the last piece clicked into place. This was mad. They were probably all going to die.

But they’ll be singing songs about it for centuries to come.

 


Chapter Thirty-One

 

Her world was dark, filled with oily shadows that slithered through the air around her. Often, she heard voices speaking in a language she felt she knew, but could not recall. She shivered, the icy touch of the wind seeming to follow her even into her dreams.

“Cranberry, can you hear me?”

Rye’s familiar voice echoed in the shadows. She turned round and round, looking for him, but could not see him anywhere. She moaned in distress. She felt something liquid and hot pouring into her mouth, and swallowed gratefully. Then the blackness reached up again and dragged her back down into the depths.

* * *

“Will she be okay?”

“The worst has passed, Equestrian. Now, the rest is up to her.”

She twisted, writhing against the grip of the shadows. She wanted to reach the voices, to speak, but the words did not come to her. She was drowning in the cold darkness.

Suddenly she felt warmth as something pulled over her. She snuggled underneath it, feeling the soft touch of fur on her skin.

“Hang in there, Miss Cranberry.”

She smiled. The soothing tones of Inger’s voice seemed to briefly banish the shadows. But the reprieve was not long, and soon they came for her again.

* * *

Cranberry woke to find herself in an unfamiliar tent. It was relatively small, with only enough room to fit a few ponies inside. She was lying on a sleeping pallet, covered with a thick fur blanket. She blinked, lifting a hoof to her head. She discovered that from her forehead up it was wrapped tightly in thick bandages. Looking around, she found she was not alone.

Inger, sound asleep on the floor beside her, was wearing a thick cloak over his golden armor. He had in his mouth a small cluster of brightly colored sedge flowers picked from the tundra. She smiled to herself. Rye had been right; Inger was a bit of a sweetheart once you got to know him.

She peered around the tent, trying to figure out where they were. When she found the symbol of a raven sewn into the tent flap, she knew.

Saddlestead. I guess we got to them after all. She yawned, stretching her legs above her head. The sound woke Inger, who jerked upright, blinking.

“Miss Cranberry! You’re awake!”

“Good morning, Inger,” said Cranberry, beaming. “It is morning, isn’t it? I can’t really tell.”

“Yes, we’re probably breaking camp in an hour or two—but you’re awake!” Inger was smiling. “How are you feeling?”

“Better, I think,” said Cranberry, rolling the blanket off. “How long was I asleep?”

“You’ve been drifting in and out of consciousness for the last three days.” Inger’s face drew in with concern. “I—We were afraid we were going to lose you. It was touch and go for a while, there. Ponies aren’t meant to survive this kind of cold without protection.”

At the memory of the biting wind, Cranberry shivered. “Where are we?”

“We’re traveling with Eberhardt Snowmane, the chief huskarl of the Thane of Saddlestead. He’s taking us back to the hall to meet with the Thane.”

“Oh, yes!” said Cranberry with giddy delight. “I’ve always wanted to see Saddlestead. How far away are we?”

“I think about a day. We came out of the mountains much further west than we’d thought. If we hadn’t run into Eberhardt we’d probably still be wandering around the tundra.”

“Or dead.”

Inger winced. “Thankfully, the Nordponies’ hospitality is not lacking. They’ve been quite good to the three of us so far.”

“Where is Rye, anyway?”

Inger laughed. “He’s off with the cook as usual. I think they’ve finally started warming up to each other. I’m amazed at what he’s been pulling off with these limited supplies.”

“Huh?”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll tell you all about it. I’ll send somepony for him. Excuse me for a moment.”

Inger left the tent as Cranberry laid back down on her pallet. It seemed that despite their horrible detour under the mountains, they were back on track. She grinned again, giving a little squeal of happiness. Saddlestead! She’d first read about it as a little filly, but even then the images of the rough, worn wood and rock had captured her imagination. She was finally getting to live her dream.

The tent flap pulled back as Inger re-entered. He was carrying a bowl of some kind of porridge. He set it down next to her and took a seat.

“So what’s up with the bandages?” asked Cranberry, leaning down and munching on her breakfast.

Inger looked apprehensive. “Um… well, you made it out of the cold remarkably unscathed, all things considered.” He smiled briefly. “It’s good to see some pink back in that coat. But, well, no non-pegasus can go that long in such low temperatures without it leaving some scars.”

She leaned back from her porridge, putting a hoof up to her head again uncertainly. “What kind of scars?”

“Your ears. They’re, uh, a bit smaller, now. They tried to save you from the frostbite as best they could, but…”

She touched one of the lumps in the bandages where her ears were bound. “Oh. My.” She blinked. “Well, as long as I can read and talk, I’ll be fine, right?”

The tent flap burst open to admit Rye, wearing a grin that stretched from ear to ear. Around his neck was a heavy fur cloak with a raven-shaped clasp. He looked happier than she’d seen him in a while. “Cranberry!”

“Hey there, Rye,” she said brightly. “Can you believe it? We’re really here! In Sleipnord!” She gave another giggle. “I can’t wait to meet my first Nordpony. What are they really like?”

Rye laughed. “They’re a bit brusque, but they started warming up fast once they tried my honeyed oats.”

Inger shook his head. “Where’d you even find that honey?”

“It was Yarvisteil’s private stash. I managed to convince him to lend me some.”

Cranberry leaned back onto her pillow, bemused. “You sound like you already know them pretty well.”

“Oh, I’m getting real popular,” said Rye. “Yarvisteil’s a decent fellow, but there’s no art to his cooking. These warriors are learning to appreciate civilized food.”

She snickered. “It’s funny, Rye, I never pictured you as much of a cook yourself.”

The pegacorn affected a modest shrug. “If you spend seven years living with Apricot Strudel, you pick up a few things.” He looked to Inger. “So, the gang’s back together. The only thing to do now is talk to Thane Heimjar and get that army. Cranberry, what can you tell us about the Thanes?”

“Well, to start, you say their first name with the title, Rye.”

“Oh. Thane Braki, then.”

“Right. As for the Thanes, they’re a group of feudal lords similar to the kind Equestria had before the Princesses. There are three major halls, each belonging to one of the older houses of Sleipnord: Saddlestead, ruled by the house of the Raven, Hoofnjord, ruled by the house of the Serpent, and Aenir, ruled by the house of the Elk.”

“Why ‘the Raven,’ instead of the house of Heimjar?”

Cranberry sat forward, adopting an academic tone. “The system works a bit differently than Equestria’s. The line of succession is not blood by default. Each Thane personally names his successor before he dies. Of course it’s typically a relative, but it’s not unheard of for them to give one of their most honored warriors the responsibility instead.”

She finished off her porridge as she talked. “The houses aren’t really a government the way the provinces are. They’re more like a collection of landowners who agree to live by a short set of common laws in exchange for peace between each other’s settlements. They don’t have any sort of regular legislative process or governing body.”

“Well, the only thing that matters is whether or not they’ll abide by the treaties,” said Rye. Inger nodded.

“Their ancestors signed those at the end of the war,” said Cranberry, “and the Nordponies value their word more than their lives. I’m sure the Thane will follow the promise of his forefathers.”

“I’m not,” said Rye uneasily. “He’s in the middle of a war with the Thane of Aenir. They’ve been fighting over the tundra for the last year or so.”

Cranberry frowned. “Well we’ll just have to tell them to stop, won’t we? They can’t sit up here wasting warriors against each other while the griffons take Equestria.”

“I doubt it’ll be that easy, Cranberry.”

The tent flap opened again, and another pony entered the increasingly-crowded tent. He was a bit taller than Inger, his blonde curls falling around his ears with artful abandon. Cranberry’s breath caught. Her first real Nordpony!

She looked at him and bowed with barely contained excitement. “Valyir ha. Ser sik Cranberry Sugar se Equestria, dottir se Featherquill, dottir se Strawberry.”

The Nordpony gave her an amused glance. “Well,” he said in fluent Equestrian, “your accent is atrocious, but you speak the language well enough.”

Cranberry’s mouth closed with a hmpf as she folded her front legs. “I take it you’re a translator.”

“Vasijeil, at your service.” The Nordpony sharply bowed his head. “Eberhardt sent me to tell the three of you that we’re packing up camp. We’ll be on the move in an hour.”

“We’ll see to it,” said Inger. The Nordpony bowed again and left. Inger looked between the two of them. “Come on; let’s get the tent rolled up.”

Cranberry stood for the first time since her collapse. She yawned again. “All right.”

“Here,” said Inger, reaching behind him. He pulled out a thick fur cloak in the same style as the ones that he and Rye were wearing. “You need this more than both of us combined.”

She wrapped the cloak around herself gratefully, clasping it together about her neck. “Thanks. You two go on out, I’ll pick up in here.” They nodded and exited through the tent flap.

She gingerly worked a hoof under the bandages around her head, and unwrapped them. When her ears were free, she gave them a wiggle. She ran a hoof over the top of her right one, discovering that the top half was almost entirely gone. That was going to feel strange for a while.

She’d been remarkably lucky to escape with so little damage. She shivered again, and pulled the cloak over her head. Cranberry reached down and picked up one of Inger’s flowers, sticking it behind her ear with a smile. She rolled up the sleeping pallet and left the tent to find Inger and Rye already busy pulling out the stakes from the frozen ground.

Cranberry looked around her, taking in the beautiful tundra. They were far enough southeast now that the ice had yielded to hard dirt, and she could see shrubs and other hardy little plants poking out of the ground. In the far distance she could just barely make out the edge of the Dragon Lake.

The sun was just rising in the east. There were no clouds to be seen, and the warm rays bathed her face in light. Cranberry took a deep breath of the brisk air, exhaling with a happy sigh. She couldn’t wait to tell Inkpot about this once they got back to Canterlot. Her sister was going to kill her for running off like this, but it was so worth it to see the north.

A Nordpony, bigger than the first, trotted up to the Equestrians’ tent. He looked at Rye and spoke gruffly. “Rye, Yarvisteil seylvn ter gritya sika fieyrot.”

Cranberry was startled. “He knows your name? You have been busy, haven’t you? He said ‘Yarvisteil says your breakfast is burning.’ ”

“Oh, horseapples. I’ll bet he set the griddle too far into the fire again.” Rye rubbed his forehead and sighed. “I’m not really that hungry anyway. Just tell him to take it out and give it to somepony else if it’s not too burnt.” Cranberry passed on the message to the Nordpony, who looked quite surprised to hear her speaking his language. He nodded and ran off.

Behind her, Rye and Inger had finally disassembled the tent. Inger was rolling it up tightly while Rye gathered the stakes together in a bag. Eager to be useful, Cranberry helped Inger compress the tent and tie it off. He lifted it over his back and had her wrap a cord around to secure it.

“Eberhardt’s letting us borrow this tent, along with the cloaks and some supplies,” explained Inger as they worked, “but he did ask that we carry it all.”

Rye tossed the bag of tent stakes around his neck and knotted its cord. “Well, let’s get moving, then. We’re nearly there.”

Cranberry squeaked. “I still can’t believe this is actually happening. We’re in Sleipnord. I told you this would be fun.”

“You’re not the one carrying the tent,” said Inger dryly. He shifted the weight up on his back and grunted.

The three of them walked into the east, where the rest of the Nordponies that had already packed up were waiting. They had a long day ahead of them.

* * *

They caught their first glimpse of the hall of Saddlestead that afternoon. They stood on a hill overlooking another flat stretch of the tundra, surrounded by the throng of Nordponies. As they pushed forward, Cranberry craned her head to see.

“Rye! Rye! Come look!” She pointed excitedly. “See that black smudge on the horizon over there, by the coastline? I think that’s it!”

“Uh, Cranberry…” Rye looked at her with amusement. He was far too short to see over the Nordponies surrounding them.

“Oh, right.” She glanced at him, embarrassed. “Uh, I could give you a boost, if you wanted.”

“Pass. I’ll see it soon enough.”

“Suit yourself.” She kept moving forward with the press of Nordponies, trying to get a better look at the distant great hall. As they drew nearer, the pace quickened. The warriors were eager to return to their home. Within the hour, they were close enough that Cranberry could make out the details of Saddlestead, barely containing her delight.

The hall was built on a huge outcropping of rock that jutted from the shore, standing tall above the waters of the Dragon Lake. It was less a single building than a miniature city. The wooden walls of the dozens of buildings that climbed the side of the rocks were stained with the spray of sea salt, the wet stones glistening in the daylight. The main hall stood at the peak of the rock, its roof nearly a hundred feet above the tundra.

Cranberry stopped in awe as the Nordponies shouldered around her. She looked up at Saddlestead, taking in all the details of the woodwork; the carved horseheads over every roof standing their eternal vigil.

“Look at the walls, Rye! See the carvings?”

“Yeah,” said her friend, openmouthed.

“That’s a detailed history of all of Sleipnord. Over there on the left you can see the old pony tribes, back when we all used to live up here.” Cranberry pointed. “And over there is the first giant war… and there’s the rise of the enemy… and over there’s the Great War! Look at the detail on those griffons!”

“Hm,” said Rye. “Maybe after this is done we’ll have a place up there.”

“Ohhh, this is so exciting!” Cranberry was shivering. “Come on, I want to see the inside!”

They reached the gates at the bottom of the rocky plateau. The gates swung open to admit the returning warriors, as cheers rose up from inside the city. They entered, surrounded by the exuberant Nordponies. The inhabitants of Saddlestead rushed out to greet the army. Mares and stallions embraced as foals raced through the streets, whooping. Cranberry smiled.

From behind, she felt a nudge. She turned to see that she, Inger, and Rye had been joined by a tall Nordpony wearing a sword.

“Is this Eberhardt?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Inger. He looked to the Nordpony expectantly.

Eberhardt bowed his head to them and spoke. «You can understand me, can you not? Welcome to Saddlestead, Equestrians. You stand in the greatest hall in all of Sleipnord. »

«Thank you, » said Cranberry.«It’s magnificent.»

Rye looked impatient. “It is, truly; but when are we going to speak to the Thane?”

«Soon enough, » said Eberhardt. «But first, we will celebrate our victory over Erik. The festivities will last all night, I expect. Would the three of you do us the honor of dining at the Thane’s table tonight? »

Inger looked apprehensive, but Cranberry nodded eagerly. “We wouldn’t miss it for anything!”

Eberhardt was pleased. He bowed to them and took his leave, walking up the street toward the main building at the top. Cranberry looked between Rye and Inger, trying not to jump for joy. “Can you two believe it?”

“This is good,” said Rye. “I’ll be able to talk to Thane Braki during the festivities. Hopefully he’ll be in a receptive mood once he’s had a few ales.”

“You’re such a spoilsport, Rye. We’re standing in Saddlestead, and we just got invited to sit at the Thane’s own table! I, I, well, I’ve just never been this happy! Ohhh!” She squealed, running off to the stairs.

Rye and Inger caught up to her as they entered the main hall. It was a massive building, big enough to hold several hundred ponies with room to spare. The celebrating Nordponies were already taking their seats at the tables, roaring victory cries to each other. Cranberry looked to the far side of the hall, where a long table sat on a platform slightly raised above the rest. A particularly large seat cushion sat behind the central place at the table.

Eberhardt appeared again and showed them to their places at the high table. He sat Rye at the position left of center, and himself took the right. Inger and Cranberry sat to Rye’s left. She sank into the soft seating cushion, enjoying the change from the hard tundra ground.

The hall continued to fill, hundreds of Nordponies entering and sitting by the tables. Cranberry took it all in, her hooves firmly pressed to the cheeks beside her enormous grin.

To think, just three weeks ago I was shopping for Sleipnordic carvings in Canterlot. And now look at me! Sitting in Saddlestead itself!

She gave a dreamy sigh and rolled her eyes up. “If I’m asleep, don’t wake me up.”

Rye snickered. “Try not to burst, Cranberry. I’d hate to have to mop you off the walls.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Look,” said Inger. “The Thane.”

Cranberry craned her head to see. He had just entered the hall, still standing in the grand door. As the Thane approached, she felt butterflies jumping around in her stomach. He was a huge pony, nearly as tall as Princess Celestia herself. He was thickly built, his shaggy coat hanging over his hooves like a blanket. His blonde mane was streaked with gray, but his cool blue eyes were alert and observant.

Thane Braki ascended the platform, walking behind the table to his seat. He paused to greet Eberhardt, who quickly introduced the Equestrians. The Thane looked calmly at Rye, Inger, and Cranberry. “So you are Celestia’s messengers,” he said, in Equestrian. His voice was a steady baritone, his accent thick and exotic but still easily understandable.

“Yes. I am Rye Strudel. This is Cranberry Sugar-“

“Pleased to meet you!”

“-and Inger of Canterlot.”

The Nordpony nodded to each of them in turn. “I am Thane Braki Heimjar of the house of the Raven. Welcome to my home.”

“It’s our pleasure,” said Rye. “Might we have an audience when the feast is done?”

The Thane looked at his horn and wings curiously. “I think it would be better to wait for tomorrow. But I will hear your message, then, Rye Strudel.”

“I…” Rye sighed with frustration. “I suppose that will have to do.”

The Thane turned to the rest of the hall. He spoke, his voice suddenly booming above the other noise. All the other Nordponies fell silent as their leader talked.

«Warriors of Saddlestead! Today we celebrate a great victory over the treacherous Thane of Aenir. You have served your hall well. Tonight, let us eat heartily and drink to the memories of those brave warriors who fell to put an end to Erik’s madness. All hail the fallen in victory! »

The Nordponies roared back, «All hail the fallen in victory! »

The Thane looked over his warriors. «But words do not do justice to the deeds of those gathered here today, or the memory of those now gone. I have spoken enough. Let the feast begin! »

There was a thunderous stamping of hooves as the warriors shouted and hooted. Doors at the side of the hall burst open to admit dozens of ponies pushing carts filled with food. Cranberry watched, thrilled by the energy in the air.

When the cart passed by the Thane’s table, she helped herself to a plate of alfalfa. She looked over at Rye, who was giving the food a critical eye. He bit into it warily, then his brows rose in surprise and he nodded. She smiled and took a bite of her own meal.

The hall was soon filled with songs and toasts. There was a loud cheer as the first of barrel of ale was rolled out. The Thane took the first mug, holding it aloft and pronouncing his satisfaction.

Cranberry grabbed herself a mug and sat back down at the table. Rye looked at her with surprise.

“Cranberry, you don’t drink,” he said with a disbelieving laugh.

“Well,” she said with a shrug, “when in Sleipnord…”

Two refills later, she was leaning on Inger’s stoic shoulder, crying with mirth. “So then, I tell him that he looks less like a Firewing and more like a dog someone’s slapped gold paint on. He flips out and starts chasing me with Apricot’s favorite rolling pin, but—“ she burst out laughing again, wiping away tears and taking another swig of ale. “But he trips over his own hooves and goes flying out the door, wham! Right into the unicorn outside. Just so happened she was a traveling wizard visiting Canterlot to do some research on battle magic. She zapped him so hard he was still crying about it a week later.” She banged on the table, her chest heaving with laughter.

To her right, Rye was nursing his own drink with an amused expression. “Hey Inger,” he said, snickering. “You should try this stuff. Cranberry seems to like it.”

“I’ll be fine, thank you,” said Inger, as Cranberry fell over, clutching her sides. Inger shook his head, turning his eyes up to the ceiling.

Rye kept trying to talk to the Thane throughout the night, but as far as Cranberry could tell he wasn’t having much luck. He was telling the story of their journey from Canterlot, but the Thane didn’t look very enthusiastic.

Cranberry heard the words to an old Sleipnordic battle song rising up in a chorus from some of the warriors below. “He-eey, I know this one!” She leaned forward onto the table and yelled as loud as she could. “There once was a pony who lived by the seeeea—“

Beside her, Inger put a hoof to his forehead. Cranberry kept singing, belting out the lyrics in a mish-mash of Equestrian and Sleipnordic and waving her leg half a beat off-tempo. There were a few raucous calls and a whistle or two from the ponies below.

At last even Inger succumbed to the celebratory air and cracked a smile. He and Rye held a discussion about the Firewings while Cranberry talked with Eberhardt, asking him about life in the north. She found that the Nordpony was quite talkative, once you got him going. As the night wore on, sleep claimed more and more of the celebrating Nordponies, but the feast was still going on well past midnight.

Together, Rye and Cranberry pushed and wheedled Inger, who finally gave in and relaxed with a mug of his own. It didn’t take long before he was telling them embarrassing stories about the Princess.

“This one time, I accidentally walked in on her in the bathtub while delivering her morning tea. You’re not going to believe me, but I swear she had a rubber duck in there.”

Cranberry fell to another gale of laughter. “The royal ducky of Canterlot. Ha, that sounds funny.” She waved an unsteady hoof. “Ducky, ducky!” She looked down to find her cup empty. She stood to get another drink, but Rye tugged on her cloak.

“I think you’ve had enough, Cranberry,” he said with a look of admonishment.

“Nonshense.” She shook her head. “I can hold my—“ Suddenly she felt the strangest sensation of wooziness. “Oh, wow, that’s weird.” She held up a hoof and stared at it, feeling a tingle. “Rye, is this normal?” The next thing she knew she was leaning sideways, her eyes closed and a loud snore on her lips.


 

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

He couldn’t see anything.  The burlap sack covered his head, stifling him. His wings were bound behind him, his hooves in front. They had been dragging him for several minutes, but he didn’t know where.

For the first day he had kept his dignity. Surely, he had thought, he would be afforded the respect due a prisoner of war. But as his city burned, his will had eroded. He had pleaded for hours, but they responded no more to his begging than they had to his demands.

He’d rotted in his city’s own prison cells for three days while they slaughtered his ponies. He could hear the screams from outside, the booming of thunder and the ringing of metal on metal. Yesterday, at long last, they had fallen silent. He had hoped briefly that his soldiers had won the battle, but when his cell guards returned he knew the worst had come to pass.

Now they were taking him away, but to where he could not guess. His hooves trailed behind him, drifting along the top of the cloud. His guards’ claws were locked around his front legs, pulled over his head and chained together. He’d never been more humiliated. He’d never been more terrified.

The air rushed past him as the guards took to the air. Their wings beat mightily, lifting his weight with ease. For a moment, he hoped that they would lose their grip so that he might plummet to a quick and painless death, but soon he felt the firm top of a cloud under his hooves once more.

He heard the creak of a familiar door opening. Suddenly he knew where they were headed; but the thought of his old home was no longer a comforting one. He felt the soft carpet beneath him as the paws and claws of the guards thumped softly over it. They ascended the stairs, his back legs banging painfully into each one.

They reached the top of the steps, and turned left. The dining room, then. He knew his house like the back of his hoof. But the familiar sensations did little to calm his racing heart.

At last they entered the room, where he heard the clink of a wineglass being filled. His captors threw him to the floor. He fumbled to his hooves as they reached around his neck and ripped off the burlap sack.

He was blinded momentarily by the light, blinking as his eyes adjusted. His table looked the same as ever, but sitting at the far end was the largest griffon he’d ever seen. The griffon was reclining on his seat cushion, holding a glass of his finest wine in one claw while tapping the other on the table.

The griffon smiled at him. “So nice of you to join us, Lord Weatherforge.”

He spat on the table. One of the guards at his side wrapped a claw around his head from behind and slammed it down into the wood. He fell to his knees, bleeding.

“I had hoped Equestria’s nobility might have better manners, but I see I was mistaken.” The huge griffon took a sip of wine, wiping his beak with a napkin. “Lieutenant-Colonel, would you be so kind to refill my glass?”

“Yes, General.” A second griffon, not quite as large as the first, tilted the bottle of wine into the other’s glass.

“And pour yourself one, too. I believe I promised you we’d share a toast in Cloudsdale.”

“That you did, sir.” The smaller griffon smiled, filling a cup of its own.

He looked between the two griffons, still dazed from the blow to the head. He blinked as the blood began running into his eyes. “What do you want?”

“Want?” The huge griffon set down its glass. It gestured around with a claw. “This. All of it.”

“Cloudsdale?”

“Equestria.” The griffon took another drink.

“It’ll never be yours. The Princess will put an end to this madness.”

The guard slammed his head down again, and he fell to the floor. “That’s enough,” said the large griffon curtly. “I want him conscious. Wait outside.” The two guards bowed gruffly and vanished.

He tried to stand, but his legs gave out on him. The big griffon looked down at him, and then motioned to the other one. “Help our friend to his seat.”

The smaller griffon roughly grabbed him, hauling him to the other side of the table. He fell onto one of the seat cushions there, laying his head on the table and trying to recover his wits.

“Here,” said the larger griffon, handing him a napkin. He pinched it between his hooves and wiped away the blood from his forehead. The griffon smiled at him, taking another drink. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Your Princess can’t stop me. None of you can.”

He glanced around at the table, looking for a knife, a broken plate, anything with a sharp edge, but nothing presented itself. Strangely, there was no food, either. No fruit, no hay, not even a single vegetable. He scowled. The griffon must have set up this little dinner charade solely to parade its victory in front of him.

He looked back at the griffon with contempt. “Celerity Belle managed to hold off your entire army for over a week with barely a handful of troops. You can’t possibly hope to win a war against all of Equestria’s provinces combined.”

The griffon broke into a laugh. “Why would I need to, when you keep feeding your armies to me piecemeal?” It drained its glass and motioned for the other one to fill it. “You lost this war a long time ago, Lord Weatherforge.”

“You’ll fall just like you did six hundred years ago. The griffons will never conquer our land.”

“Your land?” The griffon looked out of the window at his city, still smoldering in the afternoon sun. “It would seem that it is in fact mine. As it should be.”

“You beasts deserve nothing.”

The griffon set the glass down and leaned forward onto the table, its expression instantly darkening. “Beasts? Beasts? Every day, while you sat at this table and ate with your family, dozens of my people starved to death in the streets of Gryphandria. As you supped on oats and wheat, griffon hatchlings fought each other for scraps of bread. While mothers cried for their dead, you filled your bellies with honey and milk until you could eat no more. Tell me, Lord Weatherforge, who at this table is the beast?”

The griffon sat back, its rage instantly buried. Its face showed no emotion as it took another long drink from the wineglass.

“We offered to help you. We would have sent grain, but you refused our messengers.”

“You would have had us become dependent on you like helpless children, begging for your table scraps and showering you with gratitude.” The griffon sneered. “Griffons do not beg. We do not ask. We take.”

“Well, you’ll never take Equestria.” He looked to the window. It was so very far away from the empty table. He could never make it before being caught.

“I seem to have taken quite a bit of it already. Your wine is excellent, by the way.” The griffon took a long draught from his glass, its composure fully recovered from the earlier outburst. “But the rest will follow soon enough. Do you want to hear how it will happen?”

He looked at the griffon warily. “How?”

The griffon leaned forward, its golden eyes gleaming. “It will be a day like any other. The sun will rise over Canterlot, the birds will sing, and the laughter of children will fill the air. The ponies will wake to continue their daily routines, heading outside into the daylight.

“Then the skies will darken with the shadows of thirty thousand griffons, as we rain down upon your city with claws and steel. The streets will run red with Canterlot’s blood, as your Princess’s army tries vainly to stand against the endless horde. The walls will crumble beneath the merciless barrage of our siege engines. The last screams will die away as I stand in the throne room, and take my seat upon your Princess’s beloved chair. Canterlot will burn to the ground at my command. There will be no survivors. All of you will die.”

He lifted his head defiantly. “No matter how many trebuchets you’ve brought, it won’t be enough. No griffon will ever pass beyond those walls.”

“Trebuchets? You think my conquest of Equestria depends on glorified rock-throwers? No, Lord Weatherforge. You yourself have delivered to me the final piece of my victory. And for that, I thank you.”

Puzzled, but refusing to show it to the griffon, he snarled. “Go to hell.”

“Not today, I think.” The griffon took another drink.

“If you’re done gloating, then send me back to my cell. I won’t give you any more satisfaction.”

“Ah, but Lord Weatherforge, you’ve been such a gracious host to us. I was hoping to return the favor. Won’t you join the Lieutenant-Colonel and me for dinner?”

He looked at the empty table, baffled. “There’s nothing here.” He felt a sinking sensation in his stomach.

“I’ve been told it’s chewy,” said the griffon, flicking a talon. “But that I’ll get used to the taste.”

 


Chapter Thirty-Three

 

“Lord Clement.” Weston’s clipped tones woke Clement from a foggy dream. “It’s dawn.”

“Thank you, Weston.” Clement rolled off his bedroll, standing and shaking away sleep. He felt butterflies float in his stomach. “Help me put on my armor, if you would.”

Silently, his squire helped him buckle on the shining steel plates. The gleaming white plates shone softly in the sunlight filtering through his tent. They were as polished as the day he’d bought them. He could see his reflection in the pauldrons as Weston buckled them on. Clement tried to imagine the celebration tonight after their victory, but all he could see was a line of spears pointed at him. He swallowed.

The last clasp snapped into place, and his horn glowed as he lifted his billowing blue cape to fasten around his neck. His helmet nestled into place over his horn. He breathed out softly. “This is it, Weston.” He pulled out the bundle he’d carried since Norharren. Unrolling the cloth, he revealed a shining war axe, made from steel as fine as his armor. He hooked it onto the side of his armor, where it hung like a dead weight.

“Are you nervous, my lord?”

Clement swallowed. “Yes.”

“Good. Hold on to that.” Weston’s face was humorless. “It’ll keep you alive.”

With a shiver that had nothing to do with the morning chill of early winter, Clement left his tent. He strode through the misty camp, making his way to the command tent. As he passed, he saw soldiers waking up and eating breakfast. His stomach swam at the thought of food. He didn’t think he could keep it down if he tried.

Arriving at the largest tent in camp, he pushed inside. “Knight-Commander Volund.”

“Ah. Lord Clement. Good morning.” The Knight-Commander was fully armored as well, his battered plate standing in sharp contrast to Clement’s. None of the other officers were inside the tent; they were all likely preparing themselves. “Major Dengar will be expecting you at the flank in an hour. Have you eaten?”

“No.”

Volund’s face softened. “I remember my first battle. I couldn’t even hold down a bagel.” He looked at Clement with a smile. “You’ll do fine, my lord. Just keep your head down, and follow your orders.”

“Yes, Knight-Commander.” Clement tilted his head and took a seat at the table. He looked down at the map. The blue and the yellow flags in Northlund were touching, now. Soon, those flags were going to turn into real soldiers, trying their hardest to kill him.

He felt his eyes drawn southward. A wave of red flags covered the lower reaches of the map. Clement traced the Great Road with his hoof, from the leading edge of the red to the crossroads he now stood at. The distance was disturbingly short. He looked down at Whitetail Forest, and the tiny flags that were the only remaining troops of Celerity’s once-proud army. They were doomed, plain and simple. He could almost hear his father rejoicing.

Your first duty must always be to the whole of Equestria.

“I know,” he snarled.

“Excuse me?” said Volund, confused. Clement shook his head and stood.

“I’m going to find Dengar. Goodbye, Knight-Commander.” As he turned to leave, a horn sounded. Both he and Volund froze as the long wailing note stretched out through the air. At last it faded.

“To your position, soldier,” said Volund, flipping down his helmet’s visor. The two rushed from the tent, heading for the field.

* * *

Half an hour later, Clement stood in the midst of a vast throng of armored ponies. They waited atop a hill that overlooked the crossroads. They were only one of the flanking groups, but there had to be at least four hundred soldiers pressing around him. Clement had managed to squeeze himself into the front section of the army. He was only four or five rows back from the first line. He tried to calm his breathing.

In the distance, the Canterlot lines were marked by their waving white banners that bore Celestia’s sigil. The yellow suns seemed to dance in the wind. Even the real sun seemed to join them, piercing down from the east into the eyes of the Norharren ponies. They had planned to wait longer in the day before attacking, to circumvent exactly that, but the Canterlot ponies had marched during the night, and now stood ready on the field before the crossroads.

“They got the jump on us,” said the pony to Clement’s right. “I don’t like it.”

“You worry too much,” said the soldier to his left. “We outnumber ‘em three to one.”

“Yeah, but what if they have the Firewings with them?”

“You idiot, the Firewings all went south, to Trellow. Doubt any of ‘em made it out of there.”

“Some of them did,” said Clement. “The last few are holed up in Whitewall.”

“And who’re you?” asked the first pony.

“Lord Clement Blueblood.”

“Ha! Good one. I like this guy, Scrubs.”

“Strawbuck, you idiot, he’s tellin’ the truth! This ‘ere’s our very own duke-to-be! I saw ‘im at ‘is knighty-thing.”

Clement smiled, despite himself. “Well, today I’m just a soldier, like you two.”

“You hear that, Scrubs? He’s just like us, he says.” Strawbuck clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, any duke who’ll get down in the muck with the grunts is okay in my books. Stick with us, milord, we’ll keep you alive when the blood starts flying.”

“Aw, you’re scarin’ the poor feller. Don’t mind Strawbuck, m’lord, he’s a right prick, he is.”

“Oi, you keep that up and I’ll prick you.” Strawbuck rattled his spear.

Their bickering was silenced by another blast from the horn. Clement, naturally tall, peered above the heads of the other soldiers. From their position on the hill, they had a clear view of the battlefield below. The forces of Norharren were on the move. The central mass of troops was marching forward to meet Canterlot. Weston was somewhere in that morass of steel. Clement felt a pang of worry for his squire.

Another horn sounded. Dengar’s forces, including Clement, turned to their right. They began marching down the eastern side of the hill. Clement marched in rhythm with his fellows, holding his head high to try to catch a glimpse of the battle to the north. He could faintly hear the clash of metal over the pounding of a thousand hooves.

The mass of soldiers turned again. They were now on the side of the hill, overlooking the melee below. Clement felt a sense of vertigo. He hummed a few bars from an old ballad about a knight, who had led a glorious charge like the one that now waited below. For a brief moment, he forgot his nerves.

“Ready, milord?” asked Strawbuck, his voice serious. “Stay close to us.” Clement nodded. He hefted his axe in his mouth. He waited for the final blast of the horn. The seconds stretched out.

DWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

The signal sounded, and they were off. The Norharren soldiers charged down the side of hill, picking up speed like an avalanche. Clement’s hooves thudded on the ground as he raced forward with the throng of armored ponies, wind whipping at his face. The enemy line drew closer and closer, until he could make out the individual rays of the sun on their banners.

The Norharren line smashed into the Canterlot army’s flank like a tidal wave of metal. The ponies ahead of Clement vanished into the fray, and suddenly he was in the thick of the capital’s troops. A spear thrust from the fore and took Strawbuck in the throat, splashing blood backward over Clement’s face. Shocked, he blinked it out of his eyes, before being pressed forward by the mass of soldiers behind him.

A pony wielding a spear came at him, and his training took over. Clement’s horn blazed, and the pony’s spear angled into the ground. Clement closed the distance in a second, whipping his head forward and burying the head of his axe in the pony’s neck. Blood sprayed like a fountain from the severed jugular, splattering his armor. The shining white plates were stained with crimson.

From the side, he felt an impact as a hoof-mace smashed into his armor, and the steel plates bent and absorbed the blow. He whirled around and slashed at the pony with his axe, but his weapon soared over his opponent’s head. Clement took a step back as the enemy soldier reared up to swipe his hooves out.

“M’lord!” Clement’s head whirled around to see a spear coming straight for him. Scrubs dived forward, knocking the spear aside, and plunging his own into the soldier’s chest. It pierced the armor easily, thrusting out of the pony’s back. The Canterlot soldier let out a puff of air, and collapsed.

Clement turned back to see a hoof-mace flying at his head. With no time to dodge, he simply cut in with his axe, embedding it in the pony’s leg with a squelch. The soldier cried in pain as Clement ripped the axe back out. The Canterlot pony fell over, out of the fight. Clement looked around for Scrubs, only to find him lying entangled with another soldier. A broken spear haft protruded from his shoulder. Then a new foe was on him, swiping with an axe.

Clement lost track of time. There was no room to think. His instincts and his training carried him forward, propelling him through the melee without conscious decision. The battle blurred together in his mind. There was no blood haze, no berserker rage, only clinical repetition of his exercises. Retreat, advance, slash, retreat, advance, slash, retreat, advance, slash. It was no different than felling wood.

He hacked again and again, his weary legs threatening to give out on him. Blows glanced off his steel plates, but his mirrored armor reflected them without injury. The rhythmic swinging of the axe became his world. The noises and smells of battle faded away as he sank into the act of fighting. Eventually, he stopped noticing the blood.

The battle ended as suddenly as it had begun. Clement found himself surrounded by Norharren troops once more, as they surged forward after the Canterlot soldiers fleeing over the hills. The fear, held at bay by the desperate concentration of battle, rushed back in a flood, and he sank to his haunches, gasping. His bloodied axe fell to the ground.

Clement’s breath heaved, his neck and legs ached, and his body was dripping with sweat and other ichor. He felt somepony grab his shoulder. “Don’t worry, milord, you’re safe now. We’ll protect you.”

“Straw—“ he looked, but the soldier was nopony he recognized. Of course. Strawbuck’s dead. The pony nodded to one of his compatriots, and together they dragged Clement to his hooves.

“Come on, milord, we’ve got to get you to the back of the line.”

“I can still fight,” said Clement, dazed.

“Not with that head wound, milord.”

Clement reached a hoof up to his forehead, discovering fresh blood. His helmet was dented. He couldn’t remember taking the hit.

“Come on, milord, we’ll get you back to the medical tent, and they’ll patch you right up.”

Only half-conscious, Clement allowed the soldiers to drag him away from the field, where the battle had devolved into a rout. They passed the bodies of Strawbuck and Scrubs, the stench of blood beginning to set in the air. Broken banners and spears littered the battlefield. The bodies were innumerable.

Clement passed out for a brief moment, regaining consciousness as the soldiers hauled him into one of the medical tents, where the medics were triaging the wounded. The blood room, it was called. A medic rushed up to him. “My lord!” He looked to the soldiers. “Where is the wound?”

One of the soldiers indicated Clement’s forehead. The medic stuck a leg in front of Clement’s face. “How many hooves am I holding up?”

“One,” said Clement hazily.

“I think you’ll be fine. Just a minor concussion. We’ll bandage that head wound up and you’ll feel better in a few days. I’ll see to it personally.”

“No.”

“My lord?”

“Help the wounded. I can get a bandage myself.” His tongue felt thick in his mouth. He spat blood on the ground, to the medic’s dismay. “Don’t worry. It’s not mine.” He lurched to his hooves, stumbling over to the tables of medical supplies, where he secured a roll of bandages. One of the soldiers unbuckled and removed his helmet while the other wrapped the bandages tightly around his head. The blood seeped through, staining the white fabric. He was lucky the hoof-mace had missed his horn. A shattered horn could be lethal.

He left the blood room, and dismissed the soldiers. They gratefully nodded and left in the direction of the battlefield, likely to look for more of their fallen brethren. Clement walked unsteadily through the camp, finding the way to his tent through luck or providence, and collapsed inside on his bedroll. Sleep took him.

* * *

“Wake up, Clement.” He blinked. Above him, Weston looked happy.

“How long was I asleep?”

“Not long. An hour, at most. You shouldn’t sleep on a head wound like that, anyway. It’s a good way to never wake up again.”

Clement pulled himself upright, wincing as his muscles complained. “I assume we won?”

“Yes. The Canterlot ponies have retreated to rejoin their main host in the east.” Weston offered him a slice of bread. “Here. You need to eat something. I retrieved your axe, by the way.” Weston set it down at the foot of Clement’s bed. “Let’s get that armor off.”

He began unbuckling Clement’s plate. The dented pauldrons came first, bearing new dings and scratches. The white steel was darkened with splashes of dark red. Soon it lay in a pile on the ground, tarnished and bloody. Clement munched on his bread listlessly. “We did it, then. The crossroads are ours.”

“Yes.” Weston’s cheer faded. “How was the battle? It got pretty bad inside the main push. I’m glad you weren’t with us; our casualties were far too high.”

He swallowed a bite of bread. “You were right.”

“About?”

“The other side of glory.” Clement let the bread fall to his plate and pushed it away. “I don’t feel happy, or sad, or anything. Just... tired.”

Weston spoke apprehensively. “And the other thing?”

“My father? I don’t know, Weston.” He shook his head, his eyes lost in space. “I don’t know.”

The tent flap burst open to reveal Volund, his armor adorned with fresh dents and scrapes. “Well, if it isn’t the conquering hero himself! They say you killed a dozen soldiers all alone!”

“They exaggerate,” said Clement dully. “Perhaps five.” He hadn’t been counting. He’d intended to count, but somehow, it didn’t seem important anymore.

“Still, for your first battle? Impressive.” Volund was beaming. “I must admit, having you in the fight was an excellent morale boost. Word’s started spreading around that you took the front lines. The troops are falling in love with you, my lord. Keep this up, and they’ll follow you anywhere, even into the capital itself.”

Clement looked up sharply. “And just where are we going next?” Surely his father would not be so bold as to assault Canterlot.

“To crush what’s left of the dogs. Their main force is gathering in the east, and we’ll meet them in battle again. This time, there won’t be any of them left to stand against Norhart when we’re through. We’ll need to discuss the specifics tomorrow, at dawn, in the command tent. I formally request your presence, my lord.”

The effort to include him seemed genuine, but Clement felt no elation. He simply nodded. Volund bowed again, and with a flourish of his cape, left the tent.

Weston sat down next to Clement. “Hearing him say that two days ago would have had you puffed up like a rooster. What’s wrong?”

He wrestled with himself. “Weston, I… I feel like I’ve failed.”

“My lord. By all accounts, you fought splendidly. Your father will be proud.”

Clement shook his head. “I don’t mean the fighting. There were… two soldiers. They said… they said they’d protect me. Keep me safe. But they couldn’t even keep themselves safe.”

“They died protecting their lord. There are few deaths nobler than that.”

“Does it matter? They’re still dead.” Clement scratched the ground with a hoof.

“Clement. It’s not—“

“I know,” he interrupted. “It’s not my fault they’re dead. This is war. Soldiers die. But Weston, someday it will be my fault. I’ll be the one ordering these ponies into that meat grinder. And I just…” Clement closed his eyes in pain. “I don’t want to do that for such a worthless cause. That’s how I’ve failed. By leading these ponies to their deaths for nothing.”

Weston remained silent. Clement took a breath and continued. “What do we gain from this? A crossroads? Trade? None of it will matter if the griffons burn the south to the ground. And fighting the Princess’s troops? This is madness. We should be allies, not enemies over some numbers on a tax ledger. My father…” His voice caught. “My father is so dead-set on regaining Norhart’s lost glory that he can’t see he’s destroying Equestria.”

They were quiet for a moment. “So what are you going to do?”

“What can I do, Weston? He’s still my father. I love him, with all his flaws. I’ve sworn to serve him, and I can’t break that oath.” Clement put his head in his hooves, anguished. “I just… I just need time to think.”

His squire nodded. “As you wish, my lord. Get some rest, but don’t sleep right away. It doesn’t look like a bad scrape, but best not to take chances. I’ll wash your armor tonight.”

“Thank you, Weston.” Clement pulled his bread closer and took a bite. Thoughts spun around in his mind. Voices whispered in his ears. He lifted the chain of his knighthood and gazed into the bloodstained steel, trying to find answers.

Your first duty must be to the whole of Equestria.

 


Chapter Thirty-Four

 

Whitewall had filled with the ringing of hammers. The blows echoed from the walls, an orchestra of metal playing a steely symphony. Windstreak watched from the keep window, listening. “Music fit for the times, Bergeron.”

“Indeed, Captain.” Her lieutenant stepped back from the window. “One of our scouts has returned. He says we have four days before the griffons arrive, but the dragon may be here a day sooner.”

Still looking out at the limestone walls, Windstreak nodded slowly. “Three days. That’s enough time. We’ll be ready.”

“Do you really think this is going to work?”

Windstreak looked at Bergeron. “Are you serious? I have no idea. But I can’t think of a better plan.”

“Nor I.” Still, Bergeron didn’t look happy. “But are you sure it was wise to melt down the spears and swords? We might need them when the main force arrives.”

“Bergeron, without that steel we won’t survive the dragon’s first attack. We can hold this city against a normal army for weeks, even without those spears and hoof-maces. The dragon is the most dangerous threat.”

The lieutenant shrugged. “I suppose if we do pull this off, a few thousand griffons won’t look very dangerous.”

“I want to tour the smithies.”

“Again? I think you’re beginning to annoy the blacksmiths.”

“I’m a general, remember? I’m entitled to annoy.”

Bergeron chuckled. “That you are, Captain.”

* * *

They entered the first smithy a short time later, feeling the heat of the forge roll over them. Beside the forge lay a vast coil of chain, each link almost a meter long. After five days of forging, the chains had grown to considerable length. Windstreak did the math in her head. Three days from now, they would have nearly a dozen chains, each a hundred meters long, light and sturdy as Easthill’s steel was famed for.

The smith paused in his labor, looking up from the latest link that still glowed with the heat of the forge. “General! Hadn’t expected to see you again so soon. It’s coming along.” He nodded to the coil of chain. “This is the best steel I’ve ever worked with, but I’m not sure that even it will be strong enough.”

“We have the archmage working on that as we speak,” said Windstreak. “He’ll be sending a mage by sometime today. They’ll enchant the chain with as many strengthening spells as they can.”

The smith nodded and began pounding away at the metal once more. Windstreak watched for a moment, and then took her leave. Bergeron followed her out into the street. The sound of hammers all around was deafening.

“Bergeron, how are the pegasi teams doing?”

“They’ve been running the drills you laid out. The Firewings are performing admirably, of course,” Bergeron raised his head slightly. “The pegasi from Weatherforge  are doing their best, but they’re used to working with clouds, not metal.”

“They’ll have to be stronger. We can’t do this without them.”

“They will be, Captain. Don’t worry.”

Windstreak shook her head. “All I do these days is worry.” She looked above to the southern sky. It was clear and sparkling blue, but all she could see was a giant green dragon swooping from the skies streaming fire from its jaws. She shivered.

“Look, Captain. It’s the Duke.”

Tymeo approached the Firewings, waving a hoof in greeting. “General! A moment, if you would.”

Windstreak turned as the young duke trotted up. “Yes, Duke Bellemont?”

“Good news, for a change. We’ve completed the evacuation. All the civilians have left, and should be well away by the time the griffons arrive.”

“Well,” said Windstreak with a tired smile, “At least there’s that.” Her smile died. “Although I’m not sure Canterlot will be much safer than Whitewall in the coming months.”

“Ah…” Tymeo looked crestfallen. Windstreak silently cursed herself. The young duke needed encouragement and motivation. She couldn’t afford to have him crack under pressure right before the coming battle.

“But they’re safe for now, and that’s what counts.” She smiled again. Tymeo nodded soberly. “The chains are coming along. We’ll be ready by the time they arrive.”

“I’m still waiting on any replies to our request for help. Baron Aubren is still in Easthill, but the troops he sent with the steel should help. No word yet from Canterlot, Greenhaven, or Norharren.”

Windstreak stifled a snort. “You sent a letter to Blueblood?”

“It couldn’t hurt.”

“I suppose not.” Windstreak puffed a strand of orange hair out of her eyes. “But I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

“Speaking of which,” said Bergeron, “We should check in with Wheatie. I’d like to have at least a reasonable expectation of this insane plan working.”

“Will there be anything else, Duke Bellemont?”

Tymeo shook his head. “I’ll let you return to your duties, General. Sisters smile upon us all.”

* * *

They found Wheatie above the lake, hovering in the air. A rope dangled from his mouth, the other end looped in coils and held by two other pegasi. The rope vanished into the milky water. The line played out, slipping deeper and deeper.

“Well, Wheatie?” Windstreak fluttered next to him, looking curiously down at the surface of the lake.

Wheatie wrapped the rope around his hoof to free his mouth. “Two hundred meters, and we still haven’t hit bottom. We don’t have any rope longer than this, Captain.”

Windstreak’s eyebrows rose. “I think two hundred meters will be enough.” She shook her head in amazement. “This might actually work.”

“And what if it doesn’t?” asked Wheatie, nervously.

“Then we use conventional tactics.”

Bergeron snorted. “You mean, ‘get roasted and eaten by a giant dragon.’”

“Essentially.”

The three Firewings flapped their wings, staring down at the lake. “Four days,” said Windstreak. “Four days, and it’ll be over.”

Bergeron let out a harsh laugh. “It’s never over.”

* * *

Four days. Infuriating. I could be there in two. Viera circled high above the forest, looking down at the treetops below. The leaves blocked the griffon army from view, but dragons could see slightly in the infrared, and she could perceive the mass of warm bodies moving north.

The griffons were, as ever, slow. For creatures with wings, they moved like cattle. And anything that resembled cattle was prey. Viera’s eyes narrowed. She would tolerate them in exchange for the riches of Whitewall. She looked forward to spending days picking through the city’s archives to find the choicest enchanted artifacts and magical scrolls.

After she wiped out the last of the ponies, of course. A lesser dragon might have pitied them. They were no match for Viera; their greatest warriors and mages posed no threat. It was not ego, but simple fact. She would reduce the city to rubble, and burn the defenders to ash. It would be far easier than fighting the larger dragons in Wyrmgand. In this soft land, she was the apex predator.

And yet she found herself taking orders from beings infinitely her lesser. She growled. This Major Gableclaw was an arrogant lout. She found herself missing the General, who was by comparison urbane and properly respectful. This stupidity had lasted long enough. Viera tilted forward, going into a dive toward the front of the army below.

She smashed through the canopy, flattening a pair of trees and crushing them into splinters. She landed with a thud that sent waves through the ground. Before her, the griffons recoiled and trembled. Viera leaned in close, enjoying their fear. “Bring me Gableclaw,” she crooned. “I would speak with him.”

A wiry griffon pushed his way through the crowd, fuming. He roared as he approached. “You answer to me, dragon, not the other way around.”

“Of course, Major.” Viera sneered. The griffon stood defiantly below her, his wings unfurled and his tail raised high. He was a laughable creature. “Tell me, Gableclaw, is this the fastest that your army can march?”

“If we push harder than this, we’ll be in no shape to fight the ponies of Whitewall when we arrive.”

“Then I fear this is where I take my leave. I will be going on ahead, Major, and when you finally reach Whitewall, I’ll be there to open the gates for you. If the gates are still standing.”

“By the authority granted to me by General Shrikefeather himself, I order you to—“

This time, Viera couldn’t contain her mirth. She let out a blast of smoke as she laughed, covering the griffons. “Authority? Words and ranks are meaningless, griffon.” She held up a talon large enough to gut a buffalo. “This is authority.” She turned contemptuously away, flapping her wings in readiness to leave.

Behind her, the griffon shouted. “Remember, dragon! Kill the leader of the golden pegasi. Then you will earn your reward!”

As if he could keep her from her prize. “As you wish,” she said, taking off. She soared into the air, leaving behind the irate, but powerless griffon. She narrowed her eyes and flew for the horizon.

The archive of Whitewall. All mine, soon enough. She could still smell the ashes on the wind from the burning plains. A good omen. Viera smiled.

 


 

Chapter Thirty-Five

 

Rye swished his tail impatiently. His hooves thudded faintly on the wood as he paced. The doors remained closed.

“You look like your mother when you do that,” said Inger. The pegasus was lying a short distance away, his head resting on one of his front legs. He moaned. “My head is killing me.”

“Lightweight,” scoffed Rye. He forced himself to sit. He studied the carvings in the wooden door, silently willing it to open.

Inger yawned. “I’m not the one that passed out on your plate.”

“Where is Cranberry, anyway?”

A faint smile crept onto Inger’s face. “Getting acquainted with the outhouse, I think.”

“Well, if she’s not back in fifteen minutes, I’m going to track her down and dump a barrel of water over her head. I need her at least half-sober if this meeting’s going to work.” Rye pulled a scroll out of his saddlebag and unrolled it for the third time that morning.

“I doubt the words have changed, Rye.”

The pegacorn frowned. “I know. I’m just burning energy.” He gave a tense sigh. “He has to help us.”

“He will. Didn’t you hear all that talk about honor and glory last night?”

Rye rolled his eyes. “They were celebrating, Inger. You expect them to talk about defending the homestead and harvesting crops for the winter while downing ale?” Inger shrugged and fell silent.

The creak of wood drew Rye’s attention like a lightning rod, but the door ahead remained shut. Instead, the one to his back was opening. Behind them, the sharp report of hooves and a vaguely unpleasant smell told him that Cranberry had finally arrived.

“Rejoined the living, have we?” he asked, turning his head back down and scanning the treaty.

Cranberry walked up beside him and gave Rye a halfhearted kick. “Shut up.”

“No witty retort?” Rye grinned despite himself, and looked up. “You look terrible.” Cranberry’s face was miserable, her normally well-kept mane unkempt and frayed. She had dark bags under her eyes, and an unfamiliar scowl.

“Shut up.” She walked over to Inger and lay down beside him, putting her head on his back.

Annoyed, Inger craned his head back. “Excuse me—“

“Shut up.” Inger looked at Rye with exasperation. Rye just raised his eyebrows in amusement.

Clearing his throat, he sat back and rolled up the treaty again. “Now that we’re all here, I think we need to go over the audience again.” He gave Cranberry an uncertain look. “You up to it, ‘Berry?”

Not opening her eyes, Cranberry mumbled “Yes.”

“Okay. Thane Heimjar—“

“Braki.”

“Right, Thane Braki is bound by the word of his ancestors to follow these treaties and send Equestria troops. But we didn’t expect him to be in the middle of his own war. I’m worried that he won’t be willing to give us the help we need.”

“They just had a major victory, didn’t they?” Cranberry blinked, finally opening her eyes. “Surely he’ll be amenable to diverting some troops now that the pressure is off his farmland.”

“Eberhardt said that we’d need all three of the Thanes to support us if we wanted the numbers we need. What do you know about the other two, Cranberry?”

“It’s not like I’ve been reading the Sleipnord news, Rye. My information is only good up to around five hundred years ago.”

“Well then, what can you tell me about the houses?”

“They’re noble houses. What more is there to say? The ranks and marks of prestige may be unique, but they really aren’t that different from the Belles or the Bluebloods. Although political weapons in Sleipnord tend to be a lot more… literal.”

“Let’s just hope they can get along better than the Duke and Duchess,” said Rye with a grimace. “Though from the looks of things, I doubt it.”

“Before we go in, you should know some basics about an audience with a Thane. His entire court will be in there, all his huskarls and the chief farmers, and maybe some higher ranking servants. There are a lot of little etiquette things for you to know.”

Rye dragged a hoof along his forehead. “And you think now is the best time to tell me?”

“Shut up.”

“Go on, then.”

With an ahem, Cranberry sat up. “First off. Basic courtesy rules. Never speak unless spoken to by the Thane. I think as an ambassador you technically have more status than any attendants he may have, but it’s probably better not to push our luck, so don’t talk to them either. Always make eye contact when you’re talking, looking at the ground is a sign of disrespect. Keep eye contact while bowing, too. Don’t kneel, he’ll think you’re patronizing him.”

Rye glared at her. “Anything else?”

“It’s customary to bring gifts, but since we lost all our possessions in the caves, I think we’ll get a free pass on that. He can speak Equestrian, but he may use a translator for formality’s sake. Oh, and, uh…” Cranberry coughed. “You’ll have to smoke the pekkeir.”

“The what?” Rye crooked an eyebrow.

“It’s just Sleipnordic for ‘pipe’. A long time ago, it was a popular assassination tactic to poison a rival lord’s tobacco. So, to show that he means you no harm, the Thane will take a puff on the pipe, and then give it to you to do the same. It’s a symbolic gesture.” Cranberry looked uncertain for a moment. “At least… it was, five hundred years ago.”

“Assuming I don’t choke to death, is that the end of the posturing?”

“Aside from the customary dance of peace.”

Rye stared at her. “You’re joking, right?”

“Of course I’m joking. After the pekkeir ritual, the Thane will ask you to present your request, allow you to speak, and then give you his answer.”

The door swung open. Eberhardt stood on the other side, holding out a hoof. “This way,” he said in his thick Equestrian.

The three Equestrians followed him inside. The audience chamber was much smaller than Rye had expected. It was a short hall ending in a raised platform, with a single seat cushion. Thane Braki sat alone, without any servants or guards aside from Eberhardt. Unless his court was hiding in the rafters, they weren’t here.

Cranberry…

As they drew nearer, the Thane spoke. “Approach, Rye Strudel.” Inger and Cranberry held back with Eberhardt as Rye stepped forward. Keeping his eyes on the Thane’s, Rye bowed.

The Thane bowed his head in return. “Tell me, Rye Strudel se Equestria, what brings you to this distant land of ice and rock?”

Rye blinked stupidly and said the first thing that came into his mind. “What about the pipe?”

To his surprise the Thane roared with laughter. “The pipe? We haven’t bothered with that since my grandfather’s grandfather’s time!”

Behind him, Rye heard a whispered “whoops”, but he cleared his throat and pressed on. “The remnants of the Gryphan Empire have risen in the south, and threaten my homeland. Princess Celestia has sent us to call the north to stand by the treaties you signed in ages past, to help us defend our home against the southern invaders.” There, short, simple, and to the point.

The Thane’s reply was equally blunt. “I cannot help you.”

Rye stared. He’d expected the Thane to be a little less direct. Still, he was prepared for the answer. He pulled out the weathered parchment. “This treaty binds the ponies of Sleipnord to, and I quote, ‘render all available aid against any and all griffon threats upon the request of any of the nations gathered at this signing,’ which includes Equestria.”

Thane Braki shook his head regretfully. “I have no available aid. My soldiers are hard-pressed to defend my own lands against Erik. If I send them to help the Sun Queen against the griffons, my own lands will fall. I am sorry, Rye Strudel.”

He hadn’t come through forests, caves, and wastelands to be brushed aside like a beggar. “Then call a meeting of the Thanes. Settle your differences, and fulfill your promises.” Rye tried to think of a more compelling argument. “Prove your honor. Help us in our time of need.”

“A thanesmoot is no light request, Rye Strudel. And I doubt that Erik and I could resolve our conflict with talk. The bad blood runs too deep.”

Rye snarled in frustration. “There has to be some way to get you two to stop killing each other long enough to help us.” Braki frowned disapprovingly. Behind him, he could practically feel Cranberry wincing.

Suddenly, the Thane gave a rueful snort. “We are warriors. One might as well stop the sun from rising.”

“That’s happened before,” said Rye quietly.

The Thane peered at him. “Not forever.”

“Nothing’s forever. Not day, not night, not peace—but that doesn’t mean they’re worthless.”

Braki considered this for a moment. “So you want a truce between myself and Erik, just long enough to fight in your war? He would never keep his word.”

“When he lends me his soldiers, he’ll have no choice.”

“You think highly of your diplomatic skills, Equestrian. You presume he’ll give you any troops at all.”

“It’s not presumption, it’s hope.” Rye stared bleakly at the Thane. Quietly, he said “It’s about all I have left these days.”

Braki sighed with a forlorn expression. “Peace is… a fine notion, but a naïve one. Erik will never stop. Perhaps if the House of the Snake stood with me… but Thane Breyr is a slippery one. I have no real authority over him. But perhaps—“ The Thane looked sharply up. “Eberhardt. Vaiar jer riem.”

The huskarl bowed and began ushering Inger and Cranberry out of the room. Cranberry looked back over her shoulder curiously. The door shut behind them. Rye turned back to Braki, crooking an eyebrow.

“Tell me, Rye Strudel,” said the Thane, leaning close with an intense expression. “What are you?”

Puzzled, Rye said “A pony?”

“Are you Breivikk? A unicorn?”

Somehow, Rye had hoped that it wouldn’t matter outside Equestria, but it seemed that even outside his homeland, his bloodline draped heavily around his shoulders. In a voice weary with practice, he said “No. I’m a pegacorn. My mother is a pegasus, and my father a unicorn. I can’t fly or do magic. My wings and horn don’t work like other ponies’.”

“No magic?” The Thane sighed and sat back. “None whatsoever?”

“None.” Something in Rye’s gut gave a twang. The Nordponies hated magic. Revealing even the smallest ability could alienate Braki. Yet somehow he felt he should be honest. “Except… I can light my horn.”

“Show me,” whispered the Thane, his eyes focusing on Rye’s forehead.

Rye closed his eyes and let the magic flow. The walls of the room glowed warmly as the soft orange light filled the air. He heard the Thane exhale softly.

“At last.”

Puzzled, Rye broke the spell, and the light vanished. “At last?”

Thane Braki stood, and walked past Rye. He looked meditative, staring into space. “I see a way that we can help each other, Equestrian.” Rye waited expectantly. “You know that the Thanes are not kings. Sleipnord has no single ruler.”

“Yes.”

“It was not always so. Long ago, when the lesser gods still walked the Earth, and the three tribes of the ponies kept the sun and moon, the Nordponies were ruled by one leader, a king of sorts. He was the greatest warrior of all the Earth ponies, the one most fit to lead them in battle against the unicorns and the pegasi. The king had no crown. Instead, the king wielded a magical weapon—the Hrafnhamarr. Kingshammer.

Braki paced, now. “It was forged by the gods of the mountains and the forests, made for a mortal champion to do what only the gods had done: the Kingshammer was the weapon of a dragonslayer. Mortals chosen by the gods fought alongside them against the dragons in the beginning, when the world was young. But it became the symbol of the king of Sleipnord. Whoever was worthy of wielding the hammer was worthy of ruling.”

Rye had a vague idea of where this was heading. “But the hammer was lost?”

“In a sense. In a great battle against the unicorn tribes, the last king of the Nordponies was slain. His son took up the hammer, but he was young and inexperienced, and he too was killed. The unicorns routed the Nordponies, and took the hammer as a token of their victory.

“They placed it deep within a vault, buried inside a mountain. Mount Jormundr, the roof of the world. They placed many enchantments upon the hammer, and the city in which it resided. No pegasus or earth pony could open the gates of that fortress. Only one with the gift of magic can hope to retrieve the Hrafnhamarr.

“And this is where I come in.”

“No unicorns have set foot in Saddlestead for hundreds of years. Magic-users are distrusted by my people. Even pegasi are held in low regard. Equestria has forgotten the times before the endless winter, but we have not. Unicorns are turned back at the border, or killed if found in our lands. I had given up all hope of ever finding one to undertake this task.”

“What about Erik? Doesn’t he have elk blood?”

“If any of their old magic remains within him, it is far too weak to break the barriers of the ancient unicorns. No, only a full-blooded unicorn can pass those gates.”

Rye coughed. “I’m only a half-blooded unicorn.”

The Thane bit his lip. “It will have to be enough. We have little choice. The only way to ensure my hold is safe from Erik is to unite the Thanes under my rule. He would not dare to move against me with Breyr and the lesser lords at my side. Only then, after I have bound the Thanes together in peace, we can send our troops to aid the Sun Queen.”

Slowly, Rye let out his breath. “So I risk my life to make you the most powerful pony in Sleipnord?”

Braki shrugged. “Only if you want my help against the griffons.”

Rye considered his options. He could try talking to Erik or Breyr instead, but he doubted they would be any more helpful. Erik in particular was starting to sound like a raving lunatic. Besides, he doubted Braki would lend him the supplies to make it to Aenir. He could refuse, but that would leave him back where he’d started, with no friends or allies aside from Cranberry and Inger. They might be brave, but he doubted the three of them could make a difference against thirty thousand griffons.

With resignation, he nodded. “All right. I’ll get your hammer.” He glared at the Thane. “But I want my army.”

Braki gave a smug bow of his head. “Of course, my Equestrian friend. I will call the thanesmoot in ten days. After that, it will take a week for the thanes to assemble. We will meet in Hoofnjord, Breyr’s hall. That should be sufficiently neutral ground for Erik. You will have two and a half weeks to get the hammer and meet us in Hoofnjord. With the hammer in my possession, the thanesmoot will declare me king, and I can give you your troops.”

“I’ll leave tonight.”

“I’ll be sending Eberhardt with you. He can lead you to Mount Jormundr, and he will bear the hammer back to me.”

“As you wish.”

Rye swept past the Thane and through the doors. He passed Inger and Cranberry, who immediately fell in step with him.

“Well? How’d it go?” Cranberry trembled with barely contained excitement. “Did he agree after all?”

Inger was more apprehensive. “You don’t look too happy.”

“I’ve just caught a bad case of politics.” Cranberry looked confused. “The Thane has agreed to help us if we can find him some old magical artifact.”

“An artifact?” Inger looked skeptical. “He’s willing to give us his army for an artifact?”

“Not just any artifact. Something called the Kingshammer. It’s the symbol of the Sleipnordic kings.”

Cranberry said “The Kingshammer? That’s just a legend.”

“He seems to think it’s real enough.”

Inger frowned. “And he’s sending us after it?”

“Us?” Rye stopped and looked at both of them. “I’m not forcing you two to join me.”

Giving him a dry look, Cranberry snorted. “I think I’ve already demonstrated how well leaving me behind works.”

“Face it, Rye,” said Inger. “If you wanted to travel alone, you should have left us in the caves.”

Rye smiled. “I figured as much. We’re leaving soon, if not tonight, so pack what supplies you can. We’re headed to a place called Mount Jormundr, any idea where that is?”

Cranberry whistled. “That’s about a week’s journey from here. I’ll check around for a map, there’s bound to be a few in Saddlestead.”

“Equestrians.” The three of them turned to find Eberhardt behind them. He spoke in Sleipnordic, saying «Thane Braki has offered you food and drink, along with traveling supplies and shoes. You’ve also been afforded a great honor: a set of Aurelisk scales each, to match your cloaks. Please, follow me.»

* * *

“Rye, I’m really not sure this is a good idea.” Cranberry let out a whimper as the Nordpony blacksmith lifted one of her legs onto a wooden block.

“Look, do you want to make it back to Canterlot with your hooves intact, or not?”

“I don’t see how nailing bits of metal onto them is going to help.”

Rye rolled his eyes. “It’s not like it hurts.” He tapped one of his new shoes against the wooden floor. The iron might be crude, but it would protect them from the rock-hard tundra dirt. After a quick inspection of the damage his hooves had already taken on the trip from Canterlot, he’d quickly agreed to the shoeing. Inger had declined, gold-embroidered shoes already being part of his armor. Cranberry had taken a bit of persuasion.

Was taking a bit of persuasion. “Just hold still. You can’t feel a thing.”

“But what if he misses?”

“He won’t miss if you hold still.”

Cranberry closed her eyes and braced herself. “Fine. Just do it fast.”

The Nordpony farrier hefted a wide, flat hammer in his mouth, and leaned in. He began nailing the shoe on, as Cranberry opened one eye and glanced at him. “Huh. I guess you’re right. That doesn’t hur—OW!” She let out a whinny.

The farrier looked up with irritation. “No. Move.”

After another twenty minutes of fussing, they finally escaped the smithy. Cranberry kept complaining about the strangeness of it, but Rye enjoyed the sound of the metal on the wood. It felt exotic, somehow.

Eberhardt guided them to Saddlestead’s armory, where they found Inger. He was inspecting a set of mail. It was the same kind Eberhardt and his warriors had worn, and it was unlike anything Rye had seen in Equestria. Rather than metal, it appeared to be made out of scales.

Inger tapped it with an armored hoof. “What is this, anyway? It can’t be as good as steel.”

“Aurelisk,” answered Eberhardt. The Nordpony was trying to practice his Equestrian, but Rye could still only understand half of what he said. “Is big, uh… lizard.”

“You use lizard scales for armor?” Inger looked incredulous.

Eberhardt nodded. “Sleipnord iron, uh…”

“Unrefined?” offered Rye.

“Trash,” said Eberhardt. He pointed a hoof at the weapon racks. Taking a closer look, Rye realized that most of the axe blades were nicked and bent, and the spear points dull. “Aurelisk scalear—scales; not-trash.” Eberhardt took a hammer from the rack and smashed it against one of the mail coats. It left no mark on the dull blue scales. Inger’s eyebrows rose respectfully. Eberhardt gestured around at the coats of armor. “Will need, where we go.”

“We’re not planning on fighting anypony, are we?” Rye swallowed.

The huskarl rapped a hoof on the scales. “Aurelisk. Big lizard.” He touched his cloak. “Though…. Useful.” He searched for the words before giving up with a sigh and speaking in Sleipnordic.

Cranberry translated. “He says they make the fur cloaks out of the Aurelisk hides, and sew the scales into their clothing for armor. It’s not as strong as steel, but it’s tougher than the iron up here. It’s also slightly flame retardant.”

“How could a lizard live in a climate so cold, even if they have fur? Wouldn’t they freeze to death?” said Rye.

Cranberry grinned as she translated the response. “It probably has something to do with the way they breathe fire. Aurelisk translates loosely to ‘little dragon-cousin’.”

“Great,” said Rye. “We can burn and freeze to death at the same time.” He shook his head, and he and Cranberry began trying on different suits. Rye shrugged on a set of scale armor. It was, of course, too large for him. After four more failed fittings, he began searching for the smallest set of scales he could find.

“Ooh, look at me!” Cranberry did a little twirl in her new mail vest. “These scales are pretty.”

“You’ve gone native on us,” said Inger with a smile. “It looks good on you.”

“Thanks,” she said, blushing. Suddenly, both of them were distracted by Eberhardt. The Nordpony had burst out laughing.

Rye was standing at the far end of the armory, dressed in another suit of mail. “It’d be nice if I could cut some holes for my wings, but I think it fits pretty well! What’s he laughing about?”

Eberhardt said something in Sleipnordic, and Cranberry giggled. “He says that armor belonged to Yarvisteil’s sister, before she retired to work her farm.”

Rye shrugged ruefully. “Well, I doubt any of the stallions’ armor will fit me.” He posed in front of the dingy wall mirror. “Rye Strudel, warrior of the north! Fear me!”

Cranberry snickered. “Quite fearsome. No kneecap will be safe from your reach.” Rye gave her a pained look. “If you’re done preening, we’re hitting the kitchens next.”

“Oh!”

“I thought that might get your attention.”

The three of them reached the hall’s kitchen just after four, and by the time Rye had finished ransacking the cupboards for ingredients it was nearly dinnertime. Against his protests, Inger and Cranberry pushed him out of the cook’s way and out of the kitchen.

They ate in the hall with the rest of Saddlestead, and then stopped in the storeroom to get a tent and more traveling necessities. Inger, perhaps a bit vindictively, left carrying the tent and bedrolls to Eberhardt and Rye. Instead he took the bags containing the food. Cranberry somehow escaped with a map as her only load.

After a brief discussion, they decided to leave that night. Cranberry wanted to stay in Saddlestead as long as possible, but Rye and Inger overrode her by reminding her of the griffons. She quietly acquiesced at the thought of her sister facing down an angry horde of the southerners.

As the sun vanished into the horizon, the four ponies trod over the tundra. The hard dirt crunched under their hooves. Rye gave a long sigh. “Off we go again.”

Cranberry gave him a nudge. “Perk up. Thane Braki’s agreed to help us. Once we get the hammer for him, we’ll be back to Equestria in no time!”

Rye looked south. “I just hope we’re not too late.”


Chapter Thirty-Six

 

Clement stood on a new hill, on a new battlefield, with a new press of ponies surrounding him, but he could not shake the feeling of deja vu. In the distance, he could make out the shine of armor that bespoke the army of Canterlot. They were vastly more numerous than the force Norhart’s troops had engaged two days previously. Around him, he could feel the soldiers’ nervousness.

“Take heart, ponies,” he said loudly. “We’ve beaten them once already. Stick together, fight hard, and we’ll make it through the battle alive.” He heard whispers.

“Is that the duke’s son?”

“I think so.” The soldier’s voice rose. “It’s Lord Clement!”

“Yes,” said Clement. Volund had been right about the effect his participation had on morale, and he was going to milk it for all it was worth.

“Lord Clement fights with us!” There were more whispers.

The soldier at his right bowed. “Beg pardon, milord, but what are you doing here? Weren’t you wounded in the last battle?”

“Just a scratch.” Clement pulled his helmet up slightly to reveal the bandage beneath. “My place is with my troops.”

The pony looked at him with awe. “Thank you, milord. I’ve never known a noblepony to fight with the enlisted.”

“What’s your name?”

“Pennyforth, milord.”

“Today, Pennyforth, we’re all nobles.” Clement rested a hoof on the soldier’s shoulder. A cheer went up around him.

I wish I were half as confident as I sound. Clement smiled for the troops and returned to his position. The soldiers, emboldened by his presence, pulled their formation tighter. The horn sounded over the field, and they began their march.

Thousands of hooves tread the grass in unison. The pace quickened to a trot, as the troops of Norharren pressed forward. They lowered their spears and raised their shields. The army of Canterlot drew closer. Clement felt chilly anticipation. He breathed in deeply.

The blare of the horn echoed through the ranks. Clement roared at the top of his lungs.

“For Norhart! Charge!”

And the battle was joined.

* * *

He kicked aside an orphaned helmet. The field was a scene of carnage. Bodies littered the ground, both with blue and yellow standards. The grass was damp as he strode amongst the corpses. The sun had set an hour ago. The moon now cast its ghostly light over the ruin.

“My lord!” Behind him, he heard Weston’s familiar voice.

“Hello, Weston.”

“I see you’re unharmed.” His squire gave a sigh of relief. “I was worried when I didn’t see you at dinner.”

Clement kept walking through the bodies, his helmet tucked under one leg. His bloodied axe hung from his flank, tapping against his plate with every step. “I’m not very hungry.”

Weston matched his pace. “Maybe not, but you still need to eat.” Weston reached into a bag draped over his back and pulled out an orange. He tossed it to Clement, who caught it automatically. “You made quite the impression out there, today. I passed at least three toasts to your name on the way here. You’re becoming something of a hero, my lord.”

Clement just stared off into the dark sky. “It’s good to have heroes,” he said absently.

His squire stopped. “What is it, my lord?”

“I saw Jauffre Bolgar today.”

Weston laughed. “Little Jauffre? The twit who always wore his helmet backwards in sparring matches at the manor? I thought his family moved out east; I didn’t realize he’d enlisted with Norharren.”

“He wasn’t with Norharren.” Clement seemed to be looking at something very far away.

“Ah… then when did you see him?”

“When I put my axe in his throat.” Clement resumed his steady walk.

Weston had to run to catch up. He struggled to compose himself. “Clement… I doubt it was Jauffre.”

“Oh, it was. I checked, after the battle. He was quite distinctive.” Clement shook his head. “Wasteful. That’s what this is, Weston. Wasteful. Lives, money, horsepower, it’s all being wasted on this madness.” He looked at his squire with icy eyes. “It has to stop.”

“What do you intend?”

“I’m going to write to my father and demand that he end this insanity. Volund will back me up. We’ve both agreed before that the griffons are a higher priority than the Capital’s troops.”

Weston looked unconvinced. “I wouldn’t be certain of Volund’s support. And what makes you think your father will listen this time?”

“This time, I’m not going to let him overrule me. If he doesn’t listen, I’ll resign my commission.”

“Ah… Clement, I’m not sure that’s the wisest course of—“

Clement interrupted him with anguish in his voice. “What else can I do, Weston?” His face was filled with despair.

His squire looked away. “I don’t know.”

Clement stared down at the body of another soldier. Whether the pony was from Canterlot or Norharren, he could not tell; the armor gave no clue in the faint moonlight. He shook his head. “Very well, Weston. I’ve spent enough time among the dead. Let us rejoin the living, however briefly.”

Clement turned away from the field and began trotting west. Weston followed him, subdued.

* * *

The two ponies walked through the field without speaking. Every few minutes, they passed a pony hauling the bodies of soldiers on a cart back to camp for later burial. The reek of battle had mostly faded, but the faint scent of decay was beginning to rise. Weston glanced at his lord with concern, but Clement’s face was a mask that revealed nothing. With a sad smile, Weston realized who the young lord reminded him of. He’d seen that same hard stare a hundred times in the manor at Norharren.

It’s good to have heroes, Clement’s words echoed in his thoughts. But when those heroes fall from the pedestals we place them on… He breathed out slowly. First the Firewings had abandoned their oaths and their princess, then the Knight-Commander had informally stripped him of command, and now Clement had begun to realize that his own father was a selfish fool. Weston’s heart went out to his young charge, but what could he do to ease the pain of so many betrayals?

They continued wordlessly on through the night, the flickering lights of campfires in the distance the only signs of life. His lord seemed as distant as the moon above, as cold as the bodies that lay around them. Weston thought of the vibrant, pompous pony in the smithy only weeks before, and felt a pang of loss.

Ahead of him, Clement pulled to a stop. “Weston, do you see that?”

“See what, my lord?” Weston peered into the blackness.

“On the outskirts of the camp. It looks like something’s stirred up the watch.”

Weston shrugged. “Probably just some soldiers who’ve had a few too many beers.”

“Perhaps,” said Clement, his eyes narrowing. He replaced his helmet atop his head, and began trotting toward the commotion.

When they reached the edge of the camp, they discovered a group of watchponies confronting a lone pegasus. The pegasus was shouting angrily at them, but the soldiers had spears trained steadily on him, and stood calmly between him and the camp. They weren’t budging.

“What’s going on here, ponies?” asked Clement with a tone of curiosity.

“Milord!” The soldiers bowed in surprise. “He’s an intruder, milord,” said one of the watchponies, throwing Clement a nervous salute. “We caught him trying to sneak into the camp.”

The pegasus gave an angry yell. “I’m not an intruder, I’m a messenger! I’ve told you, I have a letter for—“ He was cut off by one of the soldiers, who smashed the butt of his spear across the pegasus’s face.

Weston winced in sympathy, and turned to his lord. “If he really is a messenger…”

Clement nodded with a disapproving frown. He turned back to the watchpony. “Why have you blocked his path?”

“He ain’t got no message,” said one of the soldiers, who then spat on the ground. “He’s one of those stinking southerners, trying to spy on us.”

Looking more closely at the pegasus, Weston could make out a quadruplet of diamonds on the back of his cloak. He blinked in surprise. One of Celerity’s?

Clement regarded the pegasus with a curious eye. “And what message could Whitetail possibly have for Norhart?”

“Oh, sorry,” said the pegasus, with a bleeding lip and an angry look in his eye, “I can’t tell you. It’s for the Duke’s eyes only.”

“You idiot,” said one of the watchponies, “The Duke’s miles away in the capital. This is the army camp.”

The pegasus looked crestfallen. “You mean I—I’m not even in the right—“

“Hold, messenger of Whitetail.” Clement put up a hoof. “I am Lord Clement Marverion Blueblood, son of Duke Emmet Vermillion Blueblood, and heir to his house. I will take your message.”

The pegasus looked at Clement with uncertainty. “I’m supposed to give this straight to the Duke, and nopony else.” He looked down at the ground, and suddenly stiffened his lip with determination. “But we don’t need the Duke, we need his army.” Looking up at Clement, he nodded. “All right, Lord Blueblood.”

All the watchponies stiffened and leveled their spears as the pegasus moved his head back, but relaxed when he drew out a scroll instead of a weapon. The pegasus held it out for Clement to take. The young noble’s horn glowed, and the scroll hovered before his face.

Weston waited while his lord read the missive. At last Clement folded it, and shoved it in his breastplate. He looked at the chief watchpony. “I need to speak with my officers. See that this pony is given food and drink, and a place to sleep. Treat him as you would me.”

The watchpony struggled to restrain his protests, but saluted and nodded. “As you wish, milord.”

Clement and Weston watched the small procession of soldiers re-enter the camp with their new charge in tow. Clement gave Weston a studied look. “I need to speak with Volund. Where might he be found?”

“I think he’s still in the command tent, my lord.”

Without responding, Clement turned and strode forth. Weston hurried to catch up. At last they reached the large, blue tent, breezing past the entrance flap and into Volund’s lair.

The Knight-Commander sat at the head of the table, reading a roll of parchment. He looked up as the two of them entered, smiling. “Ah, Lord Clement. Your timing is impeccable.” He gestured at the paper in front of him. “We’ve just received our new orders from the Duke. They came scant hours after our victory; the Duke must have had them sent yesterday.”

“I see,” said Clement, impassively. “And where does my father direct us?”

“I’ll let you read it yourself, my lord. Part of the letter is a personal message for you—don’t be alarmed, I haven’t read it.”

“Thank you, Knight-Commander.” Clement bowed his head. “If you would be so kind?”

“Of course.” Volund pushed the parchment down the table, before standing and stretching. “I’ll be in my tent, if you need me. I need to get some sleep before we march tomorrow.”

As Volund brushed out of the tent, Weston tried to catch a glimpse of the parchment before Clement lifted it. “We’re marching tomorrow? But where? Canterlot has no troops left in Norlund.”

“Weston, please wait outside. I want to be alone for this.”

Weston sighed internally, but bowed. “As you wish, my lord. If you have need of me, just call.”

“Thank you, Weston,” said Clement with sincerity. He looked into Weston’s eyes gratefully. “For everything. You’re the last pony I can depend on.”

Trying not to show his emotions, Weston forced a smile. “Whatever road you take, I’ll stay by your side… Clement.” He bowed and left the tent, still blinking away the wetness in his eye.

* * *

As his squire quit the tent, Clement sighed and sat down on Volund’s seat. He found himself filled with dread at the thought of reading that sheet of parchment. Instead, he removed the letter from the pegasus, unrolling it once more. He briefly paused, looking at the Duke’s orders, then shook his head and began to re-read the missive from Whitetail.

To Duke Emmet Blueblood, of the most esteemed house of Blueblood and ruler of the Duchy of Norhart, Lord of the North and master of Norharren:

As you have likely heard, the battle of Trellow has ended in disaster. Whitetail’s forces were crushed, our army routed, and our Duchess slain. I, Tymeo Bellemont, have taken up her mantle as the leader of Whitetail, but I find myself overwhelmed. The griffon horde surges north, devouring the riverlands and the plains. What few soldiers remain under my command are weary and wounded. We cannot stand alone against the invaders.

The last bastion of hope in Whitetail is the city of Whitewall. The griffons are coming for us in force, and they have great and terrible creatures at their command. I ask—nay, beg—for your help against our common foe. Though I know there was no love lost between the late Duchess and yourself, I implore you to consider the fate of our nation, and to help us in our time of need. Without assistance from the north, Whitewall will surely fall, and with it the entire south.

I eagerly await whatever aid you may lend us. Only you can save us from the coming storm.

Duke Tymeo Bellemont, Lord of Whitetail

Clement slowly rolled the letter back up. He tried to recall Tymeo Bellemont. They were distant cousins, and he had met the young lord before at various social functions. Tymeo was not even as old as he, and already had been thrust into Duchess Belle’s horseshoes. Clement exhaled softly. His father would never even consider lending help to his sworn enemies. The poor young duke was going to die. Whitetail’s last hope was no hope at all.

The other letter seemed to draw his gaze like a magnet. Clement closed his eyes and braced himself. He pulled the parchment closer and began to read his father’s writing.

Knight-Commander Volund:

Congratulations on your first victory against the Norlund occupiers. By the time this letter reaches you, I shall be expecting news of your second. You have done well so far, but the crossroads are just the beginning. Easthill still lies under Whitetail’s control, the symbol of Celerity’s treacherous secession. We are going to take it back.

Lord Helmfast has finally delivered the troops he promised me, and I am going to personally lead them to our newest battleground. Baron Aubren of Whitetail leads the troops in Easthill, but they are dangerously undersupplied and outnumbered by our combined armies.

The scouts report that Greenhaven has come under attack from the griffons’ far advance raiders, so passage through Greenway is denied to us for now. While the beasts from the south are busy with Greenway, you are to take your forces east. You will march through the Capital Province, skirting the southern border of the Cottontail. My own forces will follow you and divert south to the border of Easthill and Whitetail. We will come at Aubren from north and south, and with the hammer and anvil of our armies, crush him.

Attached is a personal missive for my son. See to it that he receives it—unread.

Lord Emmet Vermillion Blueblood

Clement removed a separate sheaf of parchment that had been folded inside the first. He had to pause to compose himself, steadying his shaking hooves. He unfolded it, taking in the painfully familiar quill strokes.

Clement, my son! They say you fought magnificently in battle, like a mighty warhorse from out of the songs! I wish I could have seen it with my own eyes; but soon enough we will stand side by side on the field of battle, and you can prove to all your true mettle. A duke must be courageous, valorous, and skillful, and you have shown yourself to be all of this and more. I have never been prouder to be your father.

I look forward to seeing you soon, my son. I shall count the days until we meet in Easthill.

With love,

Emmet

With an aching heart, Clement sat back from the table. He could not remember the last time his father had said the word “love” to him, not even when speaking of his mother. He’d finally accomplished what he had always wanted, and brought a victory worthy of praise to lay at his father’s hooves. The approval he had sought for so long was finally his.

He pressed his forehead against the table and wept.

* * *

“Weston!”

His ears perked up at the sound of his name. He’d fallen asleep on watch. Berating himself, Weston cocked his head, listening.

“Weston! Inside, please.”

He pulled aside the tent, stepping inside. “My lord, it’s nearly dawn. You should get some sleep.”

Clement looked tired, his eyes red. “I will, Weston, but I need you to do something for me first.”

“Anything, my lord.”

The duke-to-be looked Weston squarely in the eye, and with a voice backed by iron, said “Tell Volund and the other officers to meet me here at seven o’clock tomorrow morning. I need to explain our new orders to them.”

Weston bowed. “As you wish, my lord.” He paused. “But hasn’t the Knight-Commander already seen them?”

“No,” said Clement, his jaw set. “Volund hasn’t seen anything yet.”

 


Chapter Thirty-Seven

 

“What is the meaning of this, Clement?” Volund’s irritated drawl broke Clement’s tired train of thought. The Knight-Commander was the last officer to arrive. The others were all seated around the table, waiting for their commander to enter.

“I’m glad you could join us, Knight-Commander.” Clement’s cold, clipped tones gave Volund’s anger pause.

Outrage, however, won over surprise. “Look, boy, just because you’ve started making a name for yourself doesn’t mean you can send some common servant to beckon us to your heel like dogs.”

Clement’s eyes narrowed. “You will address me as my lord, Lord Blueblood, or Lord Clement, Knight-Commander. I will forgive the slight this once.”

Volund puffed up, his face reddening. “My lord, I would like to know the purpose of this meeting.” The other officers looked between their commander and Clement with expressions of growing dismay.

“We are gathered here this morning so that I can lay out our new orders for all of you.” Clement set his hooves down on the table, pushing himself upright. Two sheets of parchment lay beside each other, one under each hoof.

“This is highly irregular—“ began Major Dengar, before Clement slashed a hoof through the air to silence him.

“Nopony is to speak before I am finished. Are we clear?”

The officers were growing restless. Clement saw angry looks flashing in his direction. These old warriors were used to being obeyed, not being given commands; especially from some upstart princeling. They’ll get used to it.

“My lord,” said Volund, in a chastising tone.

“Nopony,” repeated Clement, tapping the table for emphasis. “Are we clear?”

Volund simply scowled and sat back, with an expression that told Clement he would regret this display of impertinence.

Having silenced the officers, at least for now, Clement pushed forward the letter to his right. “My father, the Duke, is marching at the head of an army gathered by Lord Helmfast. They make for Easthill, with the intent of destroying the forces of Baron Aubren and capturing the province for Norhart.”

Clement looked around at the officers. Volund was still seething, but a few of the others were wearing uneasy expressions. Could they sense what was coming? He doubted it.

“My father has ordered us to march east to meet him there, where we will take Easthill in a fearsome battle against the forces of Whitetail, the ponies we have deemed unworthy of calling themselves Equestrians.” Clement pushed the letter further. “Spears will shatter, shields will splinter, and blood will flow over the plains like a flood. The minstrels will sing for many generations of the glorious slaughter of the ponies of Whitetail.” He hoped his voice was free of bitterness, but he could not be sure.

“But I received another letter last night, from a young relative of mine. Duke Tymeo Bellemont.” At looks of confusion, Clement put a hoof to his head in mock realization. “Ah, of course. Forgive me, I should not have expected you to know the politics of those false Equestrians. Duke Bellemont is Celerity Belle’s successor, and the pony now in charge of defending Whitetail against the horde. The horde of thirty thousand griffons that now sweeps through Equestria, completely unopposed.”

Some of the officers, including Major Dengar, were beginning to show signs of apprehension. Volund, on the other hand, looked ready to pop a vein. Clement continued on, waiting for the inevitable explosion. He filled his voice with as much sarcasm as he could. “Duke Bellemont humbly requests that we send any available aid we can muster to defend the city of Whitewall. Without us, he and the city will not survive the month.”

He looked at Volund, and then to the other officers, whose expressions were turning ugly. Finally, they grasp what I propose. “But these are Whitetail ponies, hardly better than the griffons themselves. What should we care if the griffons burn, pillage, and defile their land? We may look the same, speak the same language, swear fealty to the same Princess, live in the same country, share the same blood, but we are nothing like them. Nothing at all.”

He abandoned the pretense, slamming a hoof on the table. “This farce is at an end. I refuse to sit by and watch my kin be ground to dust under the griffons’ heels. My father would have us march to destroy our own. I say to you, let us march to defend our brothers and sisters. Let us fight for Equestria, not against her. We must march to Whitewall.”

“You treasonous little whelp.” Volund stood sharply, fury etched in every line of his face. “You would spit on your father’s good name? Betray his trust? Let your own arrogance and pride bring you to—“

“Sir Volund!” roared Clement, startling all present. “Are you a knight of Equestria?”

Volund, apoplectic, gave him a burning glare. “You dare impugn my honor?”

“Answer me, Volund!”

“Yes!” shouted Volund, matching Clement’s volume. “And already I see it was a mistake to grant you that same honor. You ought to be court-martialed for this mutinous—“

Clement ripped his helmet from his head and slammed it down on the table. He reached his hoof up to his neck and pulled forward the silvery chain of his knighthood. “Show me, Volund! Show me your chain!”

The officers were now in various states of shock and dismay. Several of the younger ones were trying to look as small as possible. They were like children, hiding under the table while their parents fought. A few looked ill.

Volund, boiling with rage, shoved his hoof inside his breastplate, and dragged out his own chain. “Look at it, you traitorous bastard.”

“Do you remember your oath, Sir Volund?” Clement gazed at the Knight-Commander with steely eyes.

“How dare you—“ Volund seemed ready to charge at him. Officers scurried out of the way.

“Do you remember your oath?”

“Of course I—“

“Say it. Say it!” Clement’s eyes blazed. “YOUR FIRST DUTY! WHAT IS YOUR FIRST DUTY, SIR VOLUND?”

Volund roared back at him. “TO SERVE EQUESTRIA!”

Clement sat back, letting his chain drop. “To serve Equestria. To serve the whole of Equestria. Every mare, stallion, and foal. Every. Last. One.” He looked at Volund, his anger spent. “I am prepared to do my duty, Sir Volund. Are you?”

The Knight-Commander’s mouth worked soundlessly. His eyes slowly sank. He looked down at the chain wrapped around his hoof. “To… to the whole…”

“To the whole of Equestria,” Clement repeated softly. He looked down at the letters on the table. “This is the choice that lies before us. To serve our Duke… or to serve our country.”

He looked around at the officers, who were all deathly silent. Some looked ponderous, others furious. Clement gazed at each in turn, pausing to stare into their eyes. “I will serve my country. Who will stand with me against the griffons?”

The young Lieutenant Sablehoof slapped the table and stood. “I will, my lord.”

“And I,” said another officer.

“And I,” said another, and then all at once, the tent was filled with pledges of allegiance. Clement felt a rush of gratitude as more and more ponies declared themselves.

Not all the officers spoke. Major Dengar in particular glared at Clement with buried anger. Clement gazed back coolly. “My lord,” said the Major, his voice filled with barely-contained contempt, “This is mutiny. Treason.”

“Is it treason, to protect my people?” said Clement, coldly. He knew, now, why Celerity had done what she did. Though he could not respect her for betraying her liege, much as he could not respect himself for what he was doing to his father, he could at least understand her.

“With all due respect, my lord, they are not your people. Those ponies belong to the Duchy of Whitetail.”

“Major Dengar,” said Clement, “We are all Equestrians.”

“Yet some of us are more loyal than others, it seems.” The Major stood, disgust frozen on his face. “I refuse to take part in this.”

“Then go,” said Clement, too tired to argue. The emotional and physical exhaustion of the previous week was beginning to take its toll. He felt like he could collapse at any minute. “Any who wish to follow Major Dengar to the ruin of our nation are free to leave. I will not stop you.”

Several officers, mostly the older ones that had served his father longer than Clement had been alive, stood and marched around the table to the exit. As they filed out, Dengar looked back and snorted. “And what makes you think the army will march at your command?”

Clement stared back evenly. “Who will they follow? The Duke who sits on his chair in a distant city, ordering them to throw away their lives so that he can afford a new set of armor? Or the one who marches with them, fights with them, and asks them to save their homes from the griffons?”

Dengar shook his head. “Your father was so proud of you, Clement. And now you’ve pissed all over his hopes and dreams. I hope you can live with that.”

Clement’s face creased with pain. “I’ll have to.” He did not watch as Dengar left. When he finally turned his eyes back up to the remaining officers, he found Volund among them.

“Sir Volund. I’m surprised. I had thought you loyal to my father.”

Volund looked pensive. “I have served the Duke for nearly twenty years. I’ve carried out his orders from Fillydelphia to Caladen, and never once disobeyed. I’ve given him everything.” The Knight-Commander looked up at Clement with firmness. “But not my honor. That, I still hold. I will fulfill my oath. I will march with you.”

Clement nodded slowly. “Then we go to Whitewall.” He stood and lifted up the letter from his father. His horn glowed as it slowly ripped into two, then four, then many more pieces. They fluttered to the ground like snowflakes. Clement looked at the Knight-Commander. “Have the troops ready to march as quickly as you can. Whitewall has little time.”

Volund snapped him a salute with a strange expression. The officers all followed suit with the same, unfamiliar look. It took him a moment to realize what it was.

Oh, he thought with surprise. So that’s what respect looks like.


Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

Deep inside the keep of Whitewall, a pegasus sat before a table. The tiny room was lit by a single candle, whose warm, flickering glow danced on the bare limestone. Occasionally, a boom of distant thunder told of the raging storm outside, but the chamber was hidden so far in the bowels of the keep that the torrents of rain could not be heard. The only other sound was the scratching of a quill.

My dearest Apricot,

This is the fourth draft of this letter. All of them have begun the same way: I miss you. I miss you so much that it hurts, like a piece of me is gone, like a hole has opened up inside me. I want to see you, to hear you, to feel you again—but I fear that I will not. The griffons come for us, a vast army fresh and hungry for blood. We are too few to stand against their assault, but stand we must. For who else is there?

The pegasus paused her writing, reaching a hoof to the wedding band in her ear. She breathed deeply, and continued the letter.

I wish I could have seen you again before the end, but it seems unlikely. Know that my thoughts are, as they have ever been, with you and Rye. I cannot say where he is, for fear that this letter may be compromised, but he travels with one of my best Firewings. He is in good hooves, so do not be afraid for him.

She paused again, giving a weak laugh. She wished she could follow her own advice.

Do not weep for me, Apricot, for I am glad to die for Equestria. If my life can buy her a little more time to fight for freedom against the griffons, then I give it willingly. We always knew this day would come, and though we had hoped it would not come so soon, I am prepared and ready.

When you see Rye again, tell him that I love you both with all my heart. Even if I perish in the battle to come, I will always be with you, both of you.

She sat back, shaking her head. It sounded so trite, so false. She was no poet; how was she to explain? She sighed, crumpling up the letter and tossing it aside. She pulled up a new sheaf of parchment, and bent to write.

Faintly, she heard the long call of a horn. She dropped her quill and sat straight up. The horn blew again, ringing through the halls and into her little chamber. Windstreak stood, placing her helmet on and securing the strap. She rushed out of the chamber, heading into the storm.

* * *

In the highest part of the keep, the council chamber, there sat a unicorn. The chamber was empty, save for him. He had dismissed the councilors long ago, and sent most of them away with the civilians. They would have to lead his people to the relative safety of Canterlot. He looked out from the window down at the city below, peering at it through the pouring rain.

It was his city now, he reflected. Even after two weeks of frantic scrabbling to hold the Duchy together, he could scarcely believe that he had inherited so much, so soon. His father had always told him he was destined for greatness, but he had never really believed it. Yet here he was, the youngest duke in Whitetail’s history.

Of course, Celerity had assumed her title at the age of seven. He could never compare to that. There were many ways in which he could never compare to Celerity.

I am no warrior. I cannot lead soldiers. I can barely lead a single city. And he had failed at even that; everypony in Whitewall knew that the true voice of authority was the great Firewing, his appointed General, Windstreak Firemane. He was simply the figurehead, parroting her commands to his subjects.

I’m not even a duke, either. I’m a fraud, and a poor one at that. He sighed and rested his head on the window sill, listening to a crack of lightning in the distance. He had done his best, but his best was nowhere near enough. His city was soon to fall, and Whitetail with it.

To think that I should see the end of my nation… He felt so old. Once again, he was struck by the sheer unfairness of it all. There was so much he’d never done. He’d never visited the Delta to see the great trading ships, or traveled to the great waterfalls in Rivermeet, or eaten dinner with an emissary from the zebra tribes, or kissed Lady Geniveve underneath the trees of Whitetail Forest…

A white pegasus wearing golden armor flew past his window. He watched him disappear into the black clouds, flying freely away from the city. He longed to join the Firewing, to fly far away from Whitewall and his duty, to leave and never look back. But it was too late for escape. His place was here, with the last defenders of Whitetail. He stared out at the falling rain as the minutes passed.

The steady roar of water on the walls was broken by the loud call of a horn. It echoed against the walls of the city, over the banging of hammers and the ceaseless sound of the rain. He froze. What happened to three days?

He listened with trepidation, thinking—hoping—that perhaps it had been a clap of thunder, but the horn sounded again.

Sighing, Tymeo stepped away from the window. It was time, then. He shrugged on his violet cloak and left the chamber to meet his death with dignity.

* * *

The storm raged below, but above the clouds the sky was deep blue and calm. Perched upon a fluffy bit of cumulus, a dark blue pegasus with a gray mane meditated.

From below, there was a glint of gold. He gazed curiously, wondering if the Captain was coming to deliver new orders, but the pegasus approaching him was white, not blue. “Ah,” he said.

The newcomer landed beside him on the cloud, drenched from head to hoof. “It’s really coming down under there.” The white pegasus shook himself off, splattering water onto the reclining Firewing. “Ah, sorry, Bergeron.”

Wiping away water from his face, Bergeron said, “Why are you here, Wheatie? Does the Captain need us?”

The young Firewing shook his head. “No. I haven’t seen her all day, actually.”

Bergeron relaxed. “Ah. Then you’ve come to enjoy the view?”

The two of them looked out over the vast, unbroken sea of clouds. They were gray or black, occasionally flickering as lightning flashed inside them. Wheatie whistled. “Two whole days and it still hasn’t let up. This is some storm. Where’d it come from? We sure didn’t make it.”

Bergeron’s brow furrowed with worry. “It means there’s trouble in Cloudsdale. I’m starting to think they have larger concerns than managing the weather right now.” His words were accented by an ominous rumble of thunder.

His companion shivered. “Could they be that far north already?”

“If they’re not fighting through the forest? Certainly. They could be moving up through Weatherforge as we speak.”

Wheatie shook his head. “It’s all falling apart. And the soldiers… they think we can stop it, put the world back together just the way it was. How? How?”

“I don’t think we can,” said Bergeron. He gave Wheatie a sad look. “We’ll hold out as long as we’re able, but then? I don’t know, Wheatie.”

The younger Firewing toyed with a piece of cloud. “How long have you been in the ‘Wings, Bergeron?”

Accepting the abrupt change of subject, Bergeron leaned back. “Oh, almost as long as the Captain. Nine years… the time’s passed so quickly.” He gave a reminiscing sigh. “We’ve gotten into so many scrapes over the years. Have you ever heard about the battle of Trottingham?”

“Yeah.” Wheatie tried to smile and failed. “A battle against hopeless odds.”

“And we survived. Who knows? Maybe this will actually work. The war’s not over yet, Wheatie.”

The younger Firewing slowly shook his head, but kept staring down at the vast sea of storm clouds. “You brought the Firewings to Trottingham’s rescue. Who’s coming to ours?”

At a loss for words, Bergeron gave a weak shrug and sighed.

“It’s just… it’s different, you know?” Wheatie looked up at the sky. From this altitude, it was a deep, dark blue. “Being afraid you’re going to die … and knowing.”

Bergeron made an unconvincing noise. “Wheatie… It’s not lost yet. We could still win this.”

Wheatie snorted. “Firewings aren’t supposed to lie, Bergeron. It’s okay. I’m not cracking under pressure or anything. We all knew this was a one-way trip when we left Canterlot. It’s just…” He exhaled. “I wish I’d had more time.”

Bergeron thought of his daughter, recently married and living in the capital. He’d looked forward to having grandchildren. He gave a slow nod. “Yes.”

“Are you afraid?” asked Wheatie.

“Afraid?” Bergeron turned his head up to look at the wisps of cirrus above. “I’ve been all over the world. I’ve seen icebergs, as big as entire cities, floating on the sea. I’ve seen mountains ten thousand meters high. I’ve seen vast, open plains of golden grass, where the zebras run strong and free. I’ve been to beaches, canyons, forests, jungles, and caverns so large they could swallow Canterlot. I’ve flown through blizzards and hurricanes, felt volcanoes and tsunamis, seen the Princess raise the sun. This… This is just a new adventure.” Bergeron smiled at Wheatie. “No. I’m not afraid.”

His companion gave him a bleak look. “I am.”

Bergeron abruptly stood. “Look.” In the distance, he could faintly make out a sparkle of green.

Wheatie saw it too. “She’s here.”

“Come on. We need to alert the Captain.” The green speck was rapidly resolving into a distinctive and familiar shape.

“We were supposed to have another day.”

“The scouts were wrong. Let’s move, we need to sound the alarm.”

The two dove from their cloud, piercing the black sea below. Rain poured around them, and a blast of thunder nearly knocked them senseless, but they fought through the clouds. Their progress was slow, but after a minute they broke free of the furious clouds and into the storm below. As they descended, the long wail of a horn called out around the city.

* * *

An earth pony stood a lonely vigil on the wall. Her skin was drenched, her armor slick and shiny in the rain, her mane stuck fast against her neck.

Rain means life. She’d heard that, somewhere. She couldn’t remember where. Maybe it was from a book, one of her old dog-eared novels about high romance and chivalry. She knew they were silly, but they were her private comfort, her little secret world where there were laws and justice and sanity. Where nopony had to live in fear from dragons, or griffons, or any other monsters. Would they have books on the other side? She hoped so.

The pony exhaled, watching the mist of her breathe dissipate in the chilly air. The first week of December had come, and even this far south the air was becoming cold. At least the rain wasn’t freezing as it landed; an icy wall could be as dangerous as any enemy. The booms of thunder and the rushing winds were finally blowing away the leaves of the surrounding forest, still green without the intervention of the pegasi. The bare branches of the trees swayed unsteadily in the torrential downpour. Rain means life, but winter means death. She’d read that one, too.

A crack of lightning made her duck under the lip of the wall. Normally you didn’t have to worry about getting struck, unless you’d made the weatherponies really mad; but this was a wild storm like she’d never seen before. It felt angry, battering against the walls as if trying to knock them down. She peeked up and over the wall again.

A brightly colored pegasus was flying in her direction. Not one of the Firewings, his armor was steel instead of gold. She peered through the rain to get a better look. There was another flash of lightning, and she felt a moment of panic at the thought of him being struck by it, but when she blinked away the afterimage he was still there. He didn’t look like he was flying all that well, perhaps he’d hurt his wing?

He reached her in a minute, soaring over the wall. His legs swung down and clipped the edge, and he tumbled toward the edge. She leaped forward, grabbing his hoof between her own, and pulling him up and over the lip of the wall. They collapsed in a heap, landing in a puddle.

“Careful, there!” she said, shaking him. “You okay?”

“She’s here!” he whispered, his eyes wide. “She’s come!”

“Wait, I know you—aren’t you supposed to be scouting for the griffon army?”

“Too late. Too late. Not enough time. She’s here.”

“What? Who’s here?” She found herself having to shout over the roar of the wind and rain. She leaned in close to catch the pegasus’s answer.

“The dragon!”

The wind seemed to fade away, replaced by a roaring in her ears. She slowly stood and looked south. It couldn’t be, not yet. Not yet.

The clouds exploded. A massive green shape blew through them like they were nonexistent, its great wings beating the air like thunder.

Plumline raised her horn to her lips and blew. A long, clear note echoed from the city walls, rebounding, magnified, into the air above Whitewall. As the dragon drew closer, she blew another note, a wail of warning. She drew in her breath, and set the horn to her lips for a third blast.

She never got the chance. The dragon, moving as fast as the wind itself, smashed into the wall.

Fragments of limestone flew into the air, the bits and pieces of her city soaring out as if trying to escape the dragon. Plumline had just enough time to look at the dragon’s glistening scales, marveling at their beauty in the rain, before she went over the edge.

She fell forever.


Chapter Thirty-Nine

 

 “Captain Strudel! Captain Strudel!”

“I know, Bergeron!” Windstreak’s hooves slipped on the slick limestone street as she raced forward. Her lieutenant and the private flew fast beside her. Ahead, the walls loomed, and above them the dragon waited.

She was perched on the wall like a giant bird of carrion, her wings still flapping with the force of thunderclaps. Shattered blocks of limestone and bodies littered the courtyard below. The dragon, her scales glistening in the rain, reached up her head and roared. The sound was louder than the storm, smashing into the ponies like a physical thing. They faltered, wincing.

“What about the plan?” shouted Wheatie over the din. “Do we have enough chains?”

“Six out of our promised dozen,” she yelled back. “It’ll have to be enough.”

Bergeron flapped his wings against a gust of wind. “We have to get her away from the city!”

“Right,” said Windstreak. “Wheatie! I need you to get out to the lake. Get the chain teams ready for us, just like we drilled!”

“I’m not leaving you to fight that thing alone, Captain—“

“That’s an order, Private. I don’t intend to fight her. Just get going!” Windstreak looked back to the dragon and her eyes widened. “Oh, sisters, take cover!”

The three pegasi dived out of the street. Windstreak hid behind the rear edge of a tower along the wall. Mere seconds after she’d reached her cover, a vast river of flame consumed the road. It was blinding and hotter than spellfire, and it filled the space between buildings and incinerated anything on the street.

Windstreak watched with awe as the very rocks she hid behind began to warp. The tips of her armor’s decorative blue star slowly drooped. She blinked away sweat. Whoever thought armor covered with gold was a good idea ought to be gelded.

The flame ceased abruptly, as the dragon’s attention turned elsewhere. Windstreak peeked out from behind her hiding spot, and caught a glimpse of the dragon smashing forward through the upper half of the wall. The limestone crumbled like cake, rocks tumbling to the ground as the dragon’s massive body burst through. The tremor of her landing shook the ground beneath their hooves, and Windstreak felt her breathe vanish. She’d seen them just a few weeks ago, but she’d already forgotten how big they were.

Sparks and flames flickered on the dragon’s scales as mages rushed forward. Ignoring them, the dragon swished its tail back, knocking another chunk out of the wall, widening the hole. She let out another roar, a sound of power… and contempt. The dragon looked around, as if searching for something.

“Captain!” Windstreak looked over to find Bergeron running across the street to her. “Wheatie’s gone for the lake, but we still need to get that dragon over there. Any ideas?”

“Maybe we can get her to follow me. She’s bound to have orders to kill the leader of the Firewings.”

“Are you crazy? I said ideas, not suicide.”

There was another earth-shaking roar, followed by a brief blast of flame and the screams of dying ponies. “We’re out of time. Come with me, we’ll get her attention.”

Windstreak took off, soaring into the air against the pelting rain. Bergeron followed her as they raced toward the dragon. Every instinct in her body screamed at her to turn around and never look back, but she ignored them with the discipline borne of a decade in the Firewings.

More Whitetail ponies were now pouring into the courtyard; all those not stationed on the lake shores had come out to buy more time for the city. They broke on the dragon’s flanks like waves on a cliff. Flames consumed scores of them at once; gusts of wind from the dragon’s wing beats buffeted them aside like dolls. The dragon began to stride through the streets encircling the first ring of the city.

“Go for the eyes!” shouted Windstreak. She and Bergeron dove toward the dragon’s face, aiming for the left eye. It blinked once as they approached. Moments before impact, the dragon’s claw appeared as if from nowhere and batted them carelessly aside.

Windstreak tumbled through the air, struggling to reorient herself. Up and down were a confusing tangle, and the rain smeared her world into a blurry mess. She smacked into the city’s interior wall, knocking her breath away, and began sliding down the water-slicked stones.

Before she hit bottom, she regained her senses and flew up once more. Below, the dragon was steadily making her way to the north side of the city. It came to Windstreak in a flash. “Bergeron! She’s going for the gate!”

A line of spearponies, stretching across the street and four ponies deep, blocked the dragon’s path. She didn’t even stop, simply walking over them like ants; those that remained in her way vanished under her talons. Their spears snapped like twigs as they stabbed at her scales, the unicorns’ most powerful spells bouncing off and making divots in the limestone road.

The dragon reached the gate in minutes, surrounded by spearponies. They stabbed at her flanks in futile effort. She reached up a leg and swatted them aside like dust. The massive green dragon reared up on her hind legs and gripped the left gate. Her immense muscles tensed, and the enormous hinges of the left door snapped cleanly apart. The dragon slammed the door down to the ground, crushing those beneath it.

One of the unicorns managed a lucky shot, sending a ball of spellfire directly into the dragon’s eye. She roared, more with irritation than pain, and unleashed another stream of flame onto the ponies below. Windstreak and Bergeron hovered helplessly.

Windstreak sucked in her breath. “Now the griffons can just walk right in.”

“If we don’t get her out of the city, none of us will live long enough to fight the griffons anyway!”

Below, the dragon had turned back toward the city’s center. Her wings beat mightily as she took to the air once more, flattening all the unlucky soldiers around her.

“Now’s our chance!” Windstreak rocketed forward, feeling the stinging rain slap against her face. Ahead, the dragon landed heavily on the interior wall, her claws sinking deep into the stone. She briefly lost her grip as the stone crumbled, but flapped her wings again and regained her position.

Windstreak came in from above, swooping down in front of the dragon’s face. Her heart rate spiked with adrenaline as the dragon’s eyes swiveled to focus on her.

“Dragon!” To her surprise, the dragon’s head leaned slightly back as it took her in. “I am General Windstreak Firemane of Whitewall, Captain of the Firewings, and leader of the armies of the south. I offer you one chance to surrender. Give up now, and you will not be harmed.”

The dragon blinked once, and then snorted. The blast of hot air from her nostrils blew Windstreak away like a kite, sending her spinning through the air. She fought to stabilize her trajectory, flying up through the rain and landing on the roof of the keep.

Below, on the inner wall, the dragon’s head slowly swung left and right. The dragon sniffed inquisitively, ignoring those few spells still coming from the city’s ruined first level as they bounced harmlessly off her scales.

Bergeron landed beside her. “You all right, Captain?”

“We were wrong,” said Windstreak, her voice heavy with despair. “She doesn’t give a damn about killing me, or the army. She’s just going to pick apart the city at her leisure, and there’s nothing we can do to stop her.”

“Yes, but pick it apart for what? She’s looking for something.” Bergeron and Windstreak cringed as the dragon let out another long roar. “What’s she after?”

“Gold? Gems?” Wind