Disclaimer: I do not own My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or any of its characters. I do not own the character of Shield Maiden I make no money from this writing.
Equestrian Knights: the Two Powers
Chapter 6: Amon Mearas
It was a bruised, battered, and beaten group that finally reached the end of the Bridge of Brelagrose. The sun was just reaching the middle of the sky. Rainbow Dash trudged in the front, her head hanging low and wings tucked in close to her sides. She moved with a slight limp, grimacing each time she put weight on her right rear hoof. She had landed hard on that leg in the fight against the Unicorn Dusk Nox earlier that day, but aside from a brief check from Doctor Whoof she refused any sort of help, simply telling him to check out the others.
The others. They walked along somewhere behind Rainbow Dash, she wasn't sure how far or how close. They walked huddled close together almost unconsciously, as if that might provide them better protection in case of another attack like Dusk's. All of them were at various stages of beaten. Rarity and the deer, Diogo, were the worst off, both of them having been tossed around for most of the fight. This was especially bad for Diogo because he was not as solidly built as the ponies; one of his legs had actually been dislocated, and after it was reset by Doctor Whoof he was forced to stay on Big Mac's back and keep wait off his leg for a while. Rarity meanwhile had gotten a shock straight through her body, messing up her muscle control for nearly half an hour and heating her metal armor enough for it to char some of her fur.
The rest of them had gotten off relatively easily, compared to those two. Ditzy was bruised all over like the others, and a cut above her left eye had required some bandaging up. Big Mac was able to force his way through any pain he felt, so he was fine. Twilight Sparkle meanwhile had been even quieter since they had started moving again than Rainbow herself, which made the Pegasus worry. The Pegacorn's left wing was in a sling at her side, to keep the bones in the right shape as they healed on their own, which according to Doctor Whoof would only take till sunrise the next day. More lingering were the numerous cuts, scratches, and burns littered over the purple pony's body, a result of her own attacks as much as Dusk's. As nonthreatening as they were for her life, they would heal at a much more natural rate.
Doctor Whoof and Shield Maiden were both more or less unhurt. Shield Maiden thanks to her thick leather armor and battle-hardened body and Doctor Whoof because he was the only one not to get attacked. He was also, Rainbow Dash imagined, the only one in the group with his eyes not trained on her back. She could feel them all staring at her, silently, perhaps unconsciously, accusing her. She had been their leader, their Captain, and she had been as useless in the fight as any of them. More useless even, as it had been Twilight who had kept them all from getting pummeled by those massive streams of water, and Twilight with Big Mac's help who had struck the blow that made Dusk eventually retreat. It had all been Twilight.
Rainbow Dash hung herself lower, her mane draping around her head and obscuring most of the world from her. She walked and watched the hard concrete of the bridge abruptly change to the hard-packed soil of a regular road, marked by grooves from carriages and free of grass. It was wide enough for three carriages as large as the late Trixie's old show wagon to move along it side by side, with room to spare for a pony or two walking along them.
Rainbow Dash stopped walking but continued following the road with her eyes. It stretched on ahead of them for many, many yards. Perhaps half a mile, she reckoned. As it went a gradual curve grew, until it veered off to the right and went up the course of the Mearas River to the northeast. From examining the map Twilight carried Rainbow Dash knew the road would cut away from the river about three days up it to head toward Stalliongrad. The river though would continue on for many miles, past Germaney and to the farthest reaches of Equestria to the Unknown North. That was not a path Rainbow Dash ever wanted to travel.
Leaving the road entirely, Rainbow Dash looked straight ahead. There, hovering mere feet from the road itself, the Hatchling Forest sat, a great wall of green and brown pines. Rainbow Dash's sharp vision could not pierce the trees for more than a few feet on the outer edges so thickly were the trees grown together. Knowing how large gryphons grew however, and that they were flying creatures like her or Ditzy, Rainbow Dash figured the trees must thin out somewhere deeper into the forest. Otherwise they would have barely enough room to fly in a straight line.
Shield Maiden wandered up beside Rainbow Dash and looked at the forest with her. "What are you thinking, Rainbow Dash?"
At the sound of her name Rainbow Dash looked at Shield Maiden beside her a moment, thinking, before sighing and looking back to the trees. "I'm just thinking about how much easier this would all be if we could just go through that forest." A thought occurred to her, making put on a wistful smile. "You know, I used to have a gryphon friend called Gilda. We were best buds in flight school, but when she started treating my Ponyville friends like trash I told her to get lost. She sure would be nice to have around right about now though...."
Shield Maiden put a hoof on Rainbow Dash's shoulder and squeezed. "If she was as you say, then she most likely wouldn't help us anyway." The armored earth pony looked to the forest, and to Rainbow Dash's surprise slipped into a frown she could only call...frightened. "Besides, I don't particularly like the look of those trees. They are too close together, you could trot into an ambush and not even realize it until they enemy was upon you."
Rainbow Dash nodded. "Yeah, I suppose they're a lot different than those golden plains you call home in Gildedale. You could see something coming for miles there." She grinned and gave her friend a friendly shove on the shoulder. "But of course, then somepony could see you coming a mile away too. Must be pretty hard to sneak up on anything there."
Shield Maiden shrugged and stepped away from her. "Yes, I suppose. Anyway, I believe it is time to get moving?"
At that Rainbow Dash looked around her and realized that, yes, all the others had stopped upon reaching the spot she stood at. They were all either drinking from their canteens, taking the moment to sit down and rest, or were simply staring at her expectantly. Diogo had slid off of Big Mac's back, refusing any further help from the work stallion as he nibbled on some grass. Rainbow Dash blushed in embarrassment at having held everyone else up and turned her eyes back to the road ahead. "Uh, right. Come on everypony. Let's try to get some miles under our hooves before the sun sets."
Faster than Rainbow Dash had expected of them, those resting or eating quickly finished with what they were doing and began falling back in line. Rarity and Twilight moved closer to where Rainbow Dash and Shield Maiden stood, Rarity shooting a small smile to the Pegasus, though for what Rainbow Dash couldn't figure out. Meanwhile Diogo moved to the back of the group where Doctor Whoof was. Rainbow Dash liked that, it meant the doctor could keep an eye on the deer and help if he began to fall behind.
A few seconds longer and everyone had sorted themselves out and were ready. "Let's move out!" Rainbow Dash shouted. With this command the seven ponies and one deer launched themselves forward into a light gallop, naturally falling into two rough lines with Shield Maiden and Rainbow Dash at the head as they ran. Though their bodies cried out in resistance to the sudden increase in speed, sore and hurting from the recent fight, the group powered their way through it and pushed themselves had hard as they dared. They veered to the right as soon as the turn in the road came until they were aiming northeast, a direction they were to hold for the next three days as they followed the river upstream.
Minutes passed, dragging into hours where the only sound to be heard was their ragged breathing and the fall of their hooves like thunder on the road. Rainbow Dash felt pain lance up her leg with every step she ran, but she dared slow down or stop. A sense of urgency filled her at the feeling of the sun on her back, slowly inching its way down to the western horizon. Now that they were moving again, really moving, it hit her all at once how much time had been lost, first in Brelagrose putting the dead to rest, and then later in the fight against Dusk. She felt no guilt for taking the time in the city, but that did nothing to lessen the inexplicable fear worming its way into her gut. Anything could have happened that day in Brelagrose, and so Rainbow Dash pushed herself on harder and harder. The pain from her ankle, at least, served as a distraction from her thoughts....
It presently occurred to Rainbow Dash that she could just make out her name being called. Coming out of her thoughts she looked to her left where Shield Maiden ran, but the warrior's face was set into a focused frown and her gaze was trained to the woods beside them. Turning her head to look over her shoulder, Rainbow Dash spotted Rarity looking at her, worry etched onto her features.
"Rainbow Dash," she shouted over the wind and the pounding of their hooves. "For Celestia's sake, get off that ankle before you break it! You have wings, fly you idiot!"
Rainbow Dash looked back ahead and thought on this. The idea of simply flying along with the others had come to her, and she knew it was not helping any to keep abusing the hurt ankle as she was. Even at that moment pain spread from it through her leg, a throbbing pain that made it hard to think on anything else. But a glance behind her showed that everyone else was running together, even Ditzy. Flying then almost felt like cheating to her, taking the easy way.
Rainbow Dash was saved from having to try to explain this to Rarity by Shield Maiden drawing close. "Rainbow Dash, perhaps you could fly up and scout the area around us? An eye in the sky might help us avoid another ambush like the one Dusk pulled on his!"
That was all the convincing Rainbow Dash needed. Turning her head to look behind her again, she found Rarity's eyes and locked with them. "Rares, you're in charge until I get back. If I'm gone longer than an hour, assume the worst and panic accordingly."
Rarity nodded in acknowledgment of the order, and it was definitely an order, not a request. Rainbow Dash returned the nod before in one swift motion spreading her wings wide and leaping up. Without losing any of her speed or momentum she switched from running to flying. In another moment she tilted her body and shot off into the air like a rocket, a rainbow trail left in her wake. Rarity picked up the pace to fill the spot Rainbow Dash had been in.
As Rainbow Dash climbed higher and higher into the sky, the fear, guilt, and anxiety that had been bubbling within her slowly receded. Up in the sky, among the clouds, it could all be left behind on the ground, with all those other ponies and their troubles. Rainbow Dash all too eagerly welcomed this feeling of freedom that flight gave her. For the first time since that mist-filled day, where she had spilled her pain and sorrow out to her friends and discovered a true evil had set itself against them, Rainbow Dash smiled. Not a weak smile, or comforting smile, or a smile of false bravado to hide the pain she was in, but an honest to goodness grin of joy. The sky was her domain.
Tucking her wings in close to her sides, Rainbow Dash went into a rolling spin, corkscrewing to the side and slid her way through a cloud the size of the Sweet Apple Acres barn. Her rainbow trail flared out in her wake, and slowly the cloud split in two down its middle and began to drift apart. Before the two pieces could go far she spun down and circled around, slicing through again through the bottom; now it was four pieces of cloud that were drifting apart, spreading out around a shimmering field of rainbow light.
Rainbow Dash peeled away from the fractured clump of cloud and flew straight for another. Tilting to the side some, angling her approach just right, she flared her wings out and skimmed over the surface of the miles-long cloud. The very tip of her right wing dragged along the misty substance, sending cloud spraying out behind her in a thin sheet. The sunlight caught it, and Rainbow Dash grinned as the land beneath her was bathed in rainbow light that for once wasn't her own making. Well, not directly her making.
Her wings went back to her sides, and releasing a shout of joy Rainbow Dash turned at a sudden 90 degree angle, piercing into the cloud. A split-second later and the other side exploded out in a widening circle of color. A level of joy beyond laughter filled Rainbow Dash as her Sonic Rainboom obliterated the cloud she had flown through, the circles of light spreading through the air. There was no doubt that they could be seen for miles, and Rainbow Dash imagined that they might even be visible from Canterlot.
Rainbow Dash looked behind her a moment to admire the brilliant stream of light flowing behind her, before looking back ahead and seeing the rapidly approaching blue of the Mearas River. A grin crept onto her face, and maintaining her speed Rainbow Dash threw her legs forward, the sudden shift in weight distribution making her body spin. This was something she had to time absolutely, completely perfectly, or else she would risk winding up a red stain on the river. Rainbow Dash didn't feel a moment of hesitation though; in fact, it was the danger of the stunt that made it so worthwhile.
She sped closer and closer to the river surface, reaching the point where her entire field of view was dominated by blue. At the last moment before she slammed into the water Rainbow Dash stopped her spinning with a kick of the legs and shifted her momentum from vertical to horizontal, and quite suddenly she was galloping over the surface of the water at supersonic speeds. Each tap of a hoof against the water sent a pressurized wave of water shooting out behind her, only for a moment before getting bisected by her rainbow light trail.
Rainbow Dash couldn't keep up this trick for long; even the momentary touches of her hoof on the water made her hurt leg ache. Reluctantly she lifted up from the river, dropping out of supersonic flight as she drifted up towards the clouds in an almost lazy manner. For this final trick she wanted to pull she would not need speed so much as precision, some luck, and a bit of...artistry.
Her eyes scanning the sky above her, it didn't take long for Rainbow Dash to spot what she was looking for and smirk. There, about a hundred feet above her and to her left, two clouds sat perfectly spaced beside each other. She quickly changed her course until she was below them, and then turned up to fly toward them. Her eyes narrowed on the closing distance between her and the clouds, mentally working out the sort of flying math she bet the others, especially Rarity and Applejack, would never imagine her being able to do, something which suited her just fine. Once she thought she had the timing down right, Rainbow Dash began to spin as she flew up, her wings stretched out to her sides and tilted ever so slightly. She passed between the two clouds and the tips of her wings passed through the edges of the clouds, catching the fluffy white substance on them. She passed the clouds and continued flying up, and as she spun the cloud matter came with her, trailing behind in two trails that twisted together into a flowing helix of white. The effect was that, to any observers, the split colors of her mane and tail had flowed together into a single, blazing white.
Soon enough Rainbow Dash felt the cloud on her wings run out, and she ended the trick with a little loop. She had climbed up pretty high during the flight, and all before her the land spread out, little patches of green and yellow in varying shades mixed together, with one thick band of blue cutting through it. To the north and northeast she could see mountains in the distance, hulks of dark grey topped with white where snow fell. To the west, behind her, the sun had just reached the horizon and begun to slowly sink beneath it.
Feeling a tad winded from her impromptu aerial show, Rainbow Dash flew down and perched on a low hanging cloud to catch her breath. 200 feet below her the rest of her group moved, little specks of color against the dull brown of the road. She watched them down there and smiled again. It was good to see them safe, for once.
A shadow fell on the cloud Rainbow Dash sat on, followed by a gust of wind, a flapping of wings, and a shift in the cloud's tilt as something much heavier than Rainbow Dash settled onto the cloud behind her. She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Well, that'd be a properly dramatic entrance..." she turned around to look at the newcomer. "If I didn't know you lot were watching since before I began having fun."
Sitting there before Rainbow Dash was a gryphon. The largest gryphon she had ever seen in fact, nearly a head taller than Gilda had been the last time Rainbow Dash had seen her. The main color of his body was a rusty red, like the shade leaves turn in autumn. Over his chest and shoulders was thick leather armor emblazoned with the insignia of a feather inside a circle, and at his left side was strapped a short sword in its sheath. On his back, nestled between the wings, was a bow and quiver full of arrows. His grasping claws were unencumbered, but strapped onto his lion paws were boots fitted with metallic claws, fit for slashing through flesh and bone.
"Pony...." The gryphon slid off a pair of goggles off his head and glared down at Rainbow Dash with a pair of forest green eyes. "Your 'show' was impressive. I had a very hard time restraining several of the younger gryphons under my command from flying out and trying to teach you a lesson about flying so close to OUR territory."
Rainbow Dash smirked and gave her wings a shake. "Yeah well, it's a good thing you did, 'cause I would've kicked their butts so hard they'd be wishing they were back in their eggs!"
The gryphon gave a very jerky, very unwilling nod. "That's why I restrained them. You are obviously an incredibly skilled flyer. I doubt you came here just to show up my gryphons, most ponies are too...nice, for that sort of petty act." His eyes flicked to the greaves on her shins and his frown grew. "Plus, you were the equipment of my equivalent in your Equestrian military. Explain yourself, now."
Once the gryphon had finished speaking, Rainbow Dash smirked and stood up. She knew, having dealt with Gilda for many years, that gryphons were a proud, brash, and boastful race, and as such expected those same qualities in those they dealt with. "Explain myself? You want me to explain myself?"
Rainbow Dash puffed her chest out and strutted over to the gryphon, who narrowed his eyes at her. She stopped nearly chest to chest to him, if his chest weren't at the same level as her head, and smirked. "Perhaps you've heard of the great Pegasus warrior, knight of the Equestrian crown, ambassador to all ponykind, and best flyer in the world...Rainbow Dash?"
The effect of her announcement was immediate, and just about as Rainbow Dash expected. The gryphon's eyes widened in surprise, flicking almost imperceptibly fast to her mane, then her cutie mark, before returning to her face. He took a quick half-step back so he wasn't so close to her. "Oh...oh yes, I've heard of you, Captain Dash. You've made quite an impression on the gryphon people." The gryphon bowed his head to her. "I am Altair, Second Captain of the 8th division Gryphon Rangers. It is...interesting to meet you."
"Right back at ya." Rainbow Dash gave him a little half-serious salute. "I'm with that group of ponies down on the road you undoubtedly noticed; the Knights of Equestria, you see. We're on a mission from Celestia, to-"
She was silenced by Altair's upraised hand. "Wait, stop. I'm not the one to have that conversation with. I'm just the Second Captain; you want to speak to the First Captain."
"Okay...." Rainbow Dash cast her gaze about, but she did not see any more gryphons anywhere in the skies. "So...where the heck is this First Captain?"
Altair indicated to the Hatchling Forest. "She...is one of the gryphons that to be restrained. She doesn't like ponies very much. But listen. Ahead on the road your group travels sits Amon Mearas. Make camp there for the evening, and my captain will visit you there when her temper has cooled and I've managed to talk sense into her."
"Yeah, I know of the place you're talking about." Rainbow Dash looked west to the sun, and started estimating the time until it had fully set. "I think we'll manage to get there before night hits. Okay Al, you have yourself a deal."
Rainbow Dash spit on her hoof and held it out for him to shake. Altair regarded the dripping wet hoof with a raised eyebrow for a moment, before looking up to her grinning face. "That is disgusting. For now I go, before any of your pony weirdness infects me like my captain warned me about."
Before Rainbow Dash could say anything Altair spread his wings and leapt from the cloud, disappearing in a blur in the direction of the forest. She watched the gryphon fly for a moment, before shaking her head and matching his action. Instead of the Hatchling Forest though she flew down to the road winding between it and Mearas River, coasting along above it for nearly a minute before spotting her friends in the distance. Slowing down some she pulled up to them and landed in the vacant spot behind Rarity.
"Okay guys, we've got a new plan. Let's go a bit more before stopping for the night at Amon Mearas, okay?"
Rarity continued galloping, looking over her shoulder at Rainbow Dash. "Why, what's come up?"
Rainbow Dash jumped and flipped over Rarity, to where she was flying backwards and facing the ivory Unicorn while keeping pace. "Well after I got done showing off how absolutely awesome I am, a gryphon captain flew up to me from the forest. They want to meet with us tonight to discuss our quest."
"Can we trust gryphons?"
Rainbow Dash looked over to Shield Maiden, who had asked the question. "I guess we'll find out tonight, won't we?" She spun around so that she was facing forward again. "Now come on ponies! Um, and deer I guess. We've got a bit more ground to cover before the day ends, so let's pick up the pace!"
With Rainbow Dash's command, the company put on a fresh burst of speed they had not expected themselves to be capable of. Soon the pounding of their hooves against the ground echoed along the river to their right and through the woods constantly to their left. Rarity moved back a space, allowing Rainbow Dash to once more assume her position at the front beside Shield Maiden. She did not run with them, but flew just fast enough to keep up.
Minutes passed by. Behind them the sun slipped further and further down beneath the horizon, and as they passed around a bend Rainbow Dash spotted a hill growing in the distance. "There it is!" she shouted. "Just a bit further!" As the hill grew clearer as they neared, a few gasps rang out from the company, the loudest of all from Shield Maiden. Rainbow Dash chuckled and grinned. "Yeah, it gets that reaction a lot."
The hill sat on a peninsula into the Mearas River, stretching nearly halfway into the river from the shore. In stark contrast to the natural green and brown hues of the fields and forest around it, the hill was a massive and barren slab of rock, looking more as if it had been planted there than being a natural part of the area. Layered on the upper reaches of the rock were pillars and broken walls, worn down by time and weather. The whole thing towered above everything else nearby, a black silhouette in a dark blue sky.
The company slowed, and then came to a stop as they reached the foot of the monolithic hill and looked up at it in awe. Doctor Whoof glanced around at the sides of the hill, frowned, and trotted over to Rainbow Dash. "Right, it's a very nice rock, you should be very proud. Now for the matter of scaling those sheer stone sides about 500 feet to the top of the thing, eh?"
"That won't be a problem at all," said Rainbow Dash, still looking up at the hill. Diogo, you and Rarity can teleport up to the top. Just so you know, the top is made of real big, flat stone slabs, if it makes it any easier. Meanwhile, Ditzy, Twilight, and me can carry you earth ponies up there by flying. See? Easy as pie."
Rainbow Dash flopped onto her belly on the stone top of Amon Mearas with a pained groan. Her chest rose and fell, her heart and lungs working feverishly to draw in enough air so that she wouldn't die before she could slap Twilight and Ditzy. "Why...did I have...to carry up...Big Mac?!"
The sound of hooves clopping on stone made Rainbow Dash tilt her head up, only to see a giggling Ditzy Doo trotting over to her. "Because, rainbow best flyer in the soup! Big apple not radish enough to slow the time!"
"...shut up, Ditzy."
After a few more minutes of lying there and regaining her breath, Rainbow Dash worked her way back onto her own hooves, gave her mane a shake to get rid of some loose pebbles that had gotten in it, and then looked around. From what she could see, camp was already mostly made for the night. The area she stood in was a perfectly circular stone slab built into the top of the hill, measuring about seven yards across all around. Pillars surrounded the edges of the circle, supports for a roof that was no longer there, only a clear view to the stars above. The circle itself was littered with debris and chunks of stone, though the worst of it had recently been moved to the side to make room at the center of the circle for a crackling fire and several sleeping bags.
Rainbow Dash approached the fire, sitting down next to Diogo and staring into it. The deer was currently in the process of removing his armor for the night; the sun had finally slipped beyond the horizon, and stars had begun to appear in the dusk.
"Big Macintosh is on the other side of the fire," he said, indicating toward it with an antler. "Making supper. Rarity, I think, is going about the area laying on some early warning spells in case anything approaches while we're asleep, Doctor Whoof is by the pillars, going on about how awesome they are, and I'm not entirely sure where Sparkle, Doo, and Shield Maiden are."
"Eh, they're probably exploring the grounds." Rainbow Dash spread her wings out to let the heat from the fire better soak into them. "Gosh, you guys got this thing set up fast!"
Diogo shrugged. "It was mostly Rarity. The moment we teleported here she already had her magic acting and her packs open to start work. Did you know she knows a spell to make wood burn slower?"
Rainbow Dash blinked and looked at Diogo in surprise. "No, I didn't. Yeesh, when I got back from my travels she was going on all the time about how much she wanted to start traveling, but I never imagined she would actually start learning for it. Hmm...."
Rainbow Dash returned her gaze to the fire, where it stayed for several minutes. Then she stood up and stretched. "Well, I should probably start a lookout. No knowing when those bird brains might show up. Call me when the food's ready, okay Diogo?"
The deer nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
The next moment Rainbow Dash bopped him on the head. "Hey now, none of that! I told you, ma'am is my mom's name!" Then with a laugh she flared her wings and flew off into the dark.
From the southern section of wall surrounding the flat hilltop, a set of stairs descended a third of the way down the hill. It was at the bottom of these steps, on a hidden plateau built into the rock face, that Shield Maiden stumbled upon Ditzy Doo. The wall-eyed Pegasus had stripped from her armor, and with her back to the stairs was bathing herself in a clear pool that Shield Maiden figured must have formed from rainwater dripping down the rocks. It was wide enough for two or three ponies to stand in together, and deep enough to lap at their bellies.
Shield Maiden went over to were Ditzy had piled together her Equestrian armor, sat down, and set to work removing her own armor. At the noise Ditzy's ears perked, only just then noticing the other mare, and turned to smile at Shield Maiden. "Oh, hello lady of the golden plains! We grey ponies have to flap out of the syrup together, right?"
Shield Maiden paused in removing her peytral and looked in confusion at Ditzy. "Syrup...you mean stick together?" Ditzy nodded, her smile dimming somewhat, and Shield Maiden looked down at herself. Then she looked back up at Ditzy and gave her a small smile. "Huh, well what do you know, we are both grey-coated. Almost the same shade too."
Removing the rest of her armor, Shield Maiden set it in a pile next to Ditzy's pile and stepped closer to the pool. Ditzy had resumed washing, dunking her head down beneath the surface to get her mane wet. Shield Maiden regarded the surface of the water for a moment, and then carefully slipped a forehoof into it. The water was cold, almost shockingly so, but she steeled herself and waded in until she was all in. Then she took a deep breath and, following the other pony's example, dunked her head in. And then almost immediately she pulled it back out, her eyes wide and teeth bared. "C-Cold!"
The next moment Shield Maiden was forced to eep again when Ditzy stood up on her hind legs and began scrubbing across Shield Maiden's back. "H-hey, what are you doing?!"
For her part, Ditzy giggled and scooped a hoof-full of water onto the earth pony's back and kept scrubbing. "Personal experiences says, full bowl of running in komaga hide armor funnels into a glass of soreness! One hoof for another makes the world go shiny!"
"...." Shield Maiden glanced over her shoulder at Ditzy, looking at her vacantly-smiling face for several seconds as she thought over what had been said. "So...you...sympathize with how sore I was wearing that armor all day because YOU were wearing similar armor...actually now that I think about it I remember Dash mentioning you were in Equestria's military, so you perfectly understand what I'm physically feeling. And now you want to help me out so that I can help you out?"
Ditzy nodded her head, before shaking it. "No, Rainbow Dash will be fine for me later. I just want to be friendly by massaging you."
"Oh...." Shield Maiden turned back forward, accepting the help. Her eyes closed and she sighed in relief as Ditzy's hooves shifted from her back to her sides. "W-well, I must admit, this feels so good after today...that fight sucked...."
A moment later her eyes shot open and she turned to look at Ditzy, something the Pegasus just said catching in her thoughts. She swung her neck around so fast it cricked. "Wait, Rainbow Dash will be fine for you later? What, um, what exactly did you mean by that?"
Ditzy's massaging hooves slowed, and then stopped. Ditzy dropped back to her four legs and took a step back from Shield Maiden. The smile had dropped from her face, replaced by a look of worry. Though Shield Maiden couldn't think of anything she had to be worried about. "Uh, be, be fine as in, uh...it's like...." Ditzy's face scrunched up in a supreme effort of concentration. "We're like...Rarity and Big Mac. FINE."
Shield Maiden blinked. "Oh. Well uh...oh! Oh. Huh." She sat down on her haunches, raising a hoof up to her chin to scratch at it in thought as she regarded the pony before her. "We don't have any...ponies like you two in Gildedale." She saw Ditzy's face drop and could have slammed her head into the stone wall at her stupidity. "No no, don't think that! I don't...personally have anything against that, I guess. Um, you seem happy, and Dash seems happy, and this conversation is really awkward and I think I'm rambling now. Anyway, I just don't get it, I guess. Gah, this is frustrating!"
With a huff Shield Maiden slammed her forehooves into the water, inadvertently splashing Ditzy. The Pegasus's face broke into a grin in response to this, which in turn made Shield Maiden smile. She edged a bit closer and looked into Ditzy's eyes as best she could. "Listen, I mean no disrespect or anything. It's just, we don't have any of that in Gildedale. There, marriages are encouraged not just for our love, though that's important, but for children. And I don't get how you can stand to, well, not have a kid of your own. That seems the second-most important thing about a coupling to me and why are you giggling like that all of a sudden?"
Rather than answer, Ditzy walked past Shield Maiden, motioning for her to follow. The two ponies stepped out of the pool, and after a moment where Ditzy dried them both off with a gust created with her wings, Shield Maiden followed the Pegasus over to their armor piles. Ditzy dug around in hers for a moment, before pulling back with a photo gripped in her mouth and a smile on her face. She set the photo down on the pile so that they could both look at it. "My muffin!"
Shield Maiden walked over to the photo and looked at it. It depicted what looked to be a warm spring day, in a park or forest meadow. At the center of the photo sat a little Unicorn filly with a violet-grey coat and yellow mane and tail. She was sitting there smiling at the camera, her eyes lit up in excitement over something.
Looking back and forth between the filly in the picture and the mare beside her, the resemblance was obvious to Shield Maiden. She motioned to the photo with a hoof. "Your daughter?"
Ditzy nodded her head hard enough to send her mane flopping about. "Yep! That's my little muffin, Dinky! The bestest filly a mommy could question for!"
Shield Maiden smiled, and stepping away from the photo approached her own pile. "Well, she is certainly a cute little filly, but I might have to disagree with you on her being the best." Bending down Shield Maiden rummaged through her discarded pack a moment, before pulling out her own picture, setting it atop the pile much like Ditzy had done with her photo. Ditzy trotted over close to look. It was a charcoal painting, depicting a light grey filly with a dark grey mane and tail "That there is my daughter," said Shield Maiden, smiling. "She's MY little muffin."
Silence fell between the two ponies, the two mothers, as they took this chance to leave, for a little while, the danger of the quest they had undertaken. They shared stories about their children and homes, their friends and lovers. Shield Maiden did most of the talking, something she did not mind too much. Ditzy was a good, sweet listener, whose occasional comments, once Shield Maiden listened past the nonsense words to the meaning behind them, always brought a smile or laugh to her lips. It was as if, in the nonsense, there was no room for exaggeration or deceit, only sincerity. It did not take long for Shield Maiden to understand why Rainbow Dash loved her.
Presently a lull came to the conversation. Shield Maiden sat beside Ditzy Doo, looking out from the rock shelf to the dark of the night. "You know," she said, "this is the farthest I have ever been from home. Actually it's the first time I've ever even left Gildedale. I hope everything is going okay. Ashtail and Applejack should have reached there by now, perhaps even made their way to Thatchholm if nothing waylaid them."
Ditzy turned her gaze south and sighed. "Dinky is good girl. Bet muffin has all the animals straight-laced. And her friends too. Ponyville must be boring as a ball bearing. Mustard seeds-" the sound of shifting pebbles came from nearby. Immediately Ditzy looked to the stairs and grinned from ear to ear. "Twilight!"
Shield Maiden looked to the stairs a moment later and nearly jumped out of her skin at the dark form on the steps. The next moment the figure stepped forward into the moonlight, resolving into the shape of Twilight in her dark cloak. Shield Maiden sighed and smiled, mentally berating herself for getting so jumpy. "Oh, it's just you, Twilight Sparkle. You...kinda startled me with that robe of yours. In the dark you look a bit like Dusk in it."
The purple Pegacorn looked down at herself, before quickly lowering her hood to her shoulders. "Oh! I'm sorry for that. I suppose I must've looked rather intimidating on the stairs there. Hehe...." Twilight walked closer to them, and Shield Maiden saw her eyes, shining violet in the night, go from her and Ditzy to their armor piles, then to the pool of water, and then back to them. "Taking a bath?"
Shield Maiden shook her head. "No, already did, so the pool is all yours if you need it. Careful though, the water's really cold when you first get in."
Twilight Sparkle nodded her thanks and began to approach the pool, unclasping her cloak with her magic. Shield Maiden, with Ditzy in tow, turned to gather up her armor to leave. Her eyes fell on the drawing of her young filly, set beside Ditzy's photo of Dinky, and a sudden, insatiable curiosity burst to life inside her. Shield Maiden turned back to Twilight. "Hey, Ditzy and I were just talking about our fillies. Are you a mother, Twilight?"
As soon as the words left her mouth, Shield Maiden felt something was wrong. Twilight had frozen stepping into the pool, facing away from Shield Maiden. Ditzy looked between her and the purple pony, an expression of worry where there had once been a warm smile. Shield Maiden felt a horrible, freezing magic fill the area, unlike any she had ever felt before. She gulped and took a hesitant step away from Twilight, toward the stairs.
But then Shield Maiden's fear shifted to concern as Twilight sat down and hung her head, still facing away from her and Ditzy. "I...I had a child once. He wasn't mine by blood, but he was my little son all the same. I fed him and changed his diapers, I rocked him to sleep and sang lullabies when he needed them. I, I..." in the dark, Shield Maiden could barely see Twilight's shoulders begin to shake. "I taught him how to walk and talk, how to read and write. I taught him right from wrong and proper manners at the table and...and...." Twilight shuddered, the rest of her words beaten down by her sobs.
Shield Maiden shared a look with Ditzy, who simply shook her head, tears gathering at the corners of her own eyes. This was enough to tell Shield Maiden what had happened to Twilight's son. Horror filled Shield Maiden, horror that she, with her daughter alive and safe in Gildedale, simply could not relate to the pain that Twilight must experience every day. What was it like to lose a child? What did the pain do to a pony? These thoughts burned in Shield Maiden's mind. A sense of guilt overtook her as she watched Twilight cry before her. "Twilight, I'm so, so sorry. Just...just forget I said anything, okay?"
Silence for a moment, before Twilight sniffled and turned to look at them. Tears still fell from her eyes, but the sobbing had stopped. "No, no you don't need to apologize. You didn't know." A shudder ran through her body, and Twilight's face scrunched in pain as the flow of tears strengthened again. "I just...oh Celestia I miss him so much. Spike, my precious Spike...."
A brush of wind against Shield Maiden's side, and suddenly she found that she was alone outside the pool. Ditzy had flown over and pulled Twilight into an embrace, hugging her close and speaking softly into the younger mare's ear. "It's okay. It's okay. It's okay. It's okay. It's okay. Twilight Sparkle, it's okay. It's okay." Twilight pressed into the embrace, and her sobs began to slowly weaken.
Shield Maiden watched this display for a few seconds, before the feeling came over her that she was intruding on something intimate. An aura seemed to emanate from the two mares, a feeling of closeness that most of the time could only be felt between siblings, or life-long friends. Shield Maiden could not explain, but she felt it between them all the same. Even more, she felt her presence was not needed. Quietly gathering her things she slipped away, going up the stairs to the fire and warmth.
But even as she left, Shield Maiden heard Twilight speak through tears, and the words she said filled Shield Maiden's chest with an icy fear.
"In the name of my mother, my father, and my sister, I swear that you two shall return to your daughters. Even on my life, I swear it."
Shield Maiden ran up the stairs, a panic overtaking her. Her mind whirled in horror at what she had heard. The Family Oath, a pledge both great and terrible, binding its maker through a magic deeper and older than Unicorn magic, even older than elk magic if the myths were true. Stories of those who made that oath existed in all cultures around the world, even Gildedale, though Shield Maiden had only heard of three Daleponies to make it. All the stories Shield Maiden had heard ended in tragedy for those who failed their oaths, and she had heard many. And Twilight Sparkle, a mare Shield Maiden barely knew but had already gone through so much pain, had just made that oath.
More screeching broke Shield Maiden from her thoughts, and she realized that she had made it to the top of the stairs, and now stood at the outer edge of the circle of pillars on the hilltop. The screeching came from within the pillars, followed by a pony shouting and the sounds of a scuffle. Shield Maiden gasped. "That's Rainbow Dash!" Shield Maiden dropped her armor, not having time to put it on. Grabbing her hoof-axe from the sack she strapped it to her hoof and charged past the pillars into the hilltop circle.
Almost immediately Shield Maiden ground to a halt, gaping at the sight that met her eyes. The gryphons had arrived.