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Vigilant Shield

WhiskeyandCigars Jul 20th, 2017 (edited) 561 Never
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  1. >You are Vigilant Shield, a Canterlot guardsmare.
  2. >The road to Ponyville has never been the safest in Equestria.
  3. >Skirting so close to the Everfree Forest, travelers would encounter monsters every now and then, with their imagination turning a pack of timberwolves into hydras or worse.
  4. >Bandits, however, were new.
  5. >Recently the Royal Guard had been receiving reports of thievery along the isolated path.
  6. >Little would have come of it, had the outlaws stuck to hitting merchant caravans and peasants on pilgrimage to the capitol.
  7. >A job for the local constabulary to handle.
  8. >As fate would have it, however, the small town is a crossroads to other, more important centers of Equestrian power, and nobility frequents its spas and inns.
  9. >After this countess or that baron sent a few too many tersely worded letters to Princess Celestia (long may she reign) about their run-ins with the ruffians, the Guard was put on the case.
  10. >That didn’t mean the situation was given a high priority, and a young, inexperienced guardsmare was assigned to learn more about it.
  11. >Namely, you.
  12. >The coach rolls over another particularly large rut, knocking you against its wooden wall as your armor emits a dull metallic thud.
  13. >You extend a foreleg to prevent your helmet from rolling off the bench next to you.
  14. >Throughout the morning you’d been fiddling with it, and had removed the colorful crest to make it easier to conceal in the coach and less conspicuous to observers.
  15. >“Oh, this is absolutely dreadful. Has the road always been this rough or are the locals simply too afraid to maintain it properly?”
  16. >Countess von Pferd had begun complaining the moment the coach rolled through Canterlot’s Celestial Gate, and the regularity of her whining had increased as the day wore on.
  17. >Her husband, the Count of White Tail, heaved a nearly imperceptible sigh and locked eyes with you before attempting yet again to calm his wife.
  18. >For a moment as your eyes meet his, you feel a spiritual connection to the high-born pony, the two of you equals in suffering.
  19. >“Deary, I am quite certain that it is only the appearance of these vagabonds that has sunk the path into disarray. Once our noble guardsmare here gets a hold of them, our travels shall be far more pleasant.”
  20. >The Count gives you another glance, this time pleading, and you’re greatful that you have the forward bench of the compartment to yourself.
  21. >Join the Guard, save nobles from their nagging wives, among other monumentally important duties.
  22. >THUD
  23. >The coach lurches and groans before coming to a halt.
  24. >“Good Celestia, what on earth was that?”
  25. >You ignore the Countess and peer through the small windows on either side of the coach, eyes flicking over the surroundings.
  26. >Tall trees line both sides of the road, but you see no movement.
  27. >Sliding your helmet in place, you pull a dull cloak over your armor and move to the left-side door, checking again for anything suspicious.
  28. >Seeing nothing, you tug the cloak’s hood over your helmet and push the door open, dropping to the cold, muddy road.
  29. >“Where does she think she’s going? She’s supposed to protect us!”
  30. >“Shhh, now now dear, I’m certain she’s just helping the driver.”
  31. >Partially correct.
  32. >You close the door on the bickering nobles, hooves squelching in the mud as you pace slowly to the front of the coach.
  33. >Although it’s about noon, the primordial woods strangle sunlight as it filters through the trees, keeping the road in perpetual twilight.
  34. >The air is cool and still beneath the leaves, and birds sing their songs far off in the forest.
  35. >The driver, a stocky, well-built earth pony, has already unharnessed himself and is inspecting the front right wheel.
  36. “What is it?”
  37. >He jumps and turns toward you, relaxing as he answers.
  38. >“Got a tree limb lodged in the spokes, ma’am. It’s gone up into the transom, wedged real bad, you see?”
  39. >The driver motions to the aforementioned branch, and you see that although the wheel is unharmed, the coach’s forward motion lodged it firmly through the spokes and into the undercarriage.
  40. >Something isn’t right.
  41. >You kneel in the mud, prying the free end of the tree limb free for inspection.
  42. >A notch is cut into it, and tool marks surround the divot.
  43. >Looking back down the road, your eyes follow the rut left where the limb was dragged to another piece of wood.
  44. >The plank is trimmed to a wedge, thin enough to match the notch in the limb, and a length of rope is tied through a hole drilled in its center.
  45. >The rope disappears into the gloom cast by the forest.
  46. >An ambush.
  47. >Your heart begins to hammer heavily in your chest, and your mouth goes dry as the driver sets about freeing the wheel, unaware of the danger.
  48. >The fabric of your hood scratches as your ears swivel frantically, making hearing difficult.
  49. >Oh Celestia, you’ve never even been outside of Canterlot, and here you are, alone in the Everfree, surrounded by ruthless bandits!
  50. >An eerie silence has fallen over the forest, and you suddenly realize that you no longer hear the birds.
  51. >Or the von Pferds’ quibbling.
  52. >The driver carries on with his work, oblivious, and you move a forehoof beneath your cloak.
  53. >The hilt of your sword meets it, and you slowly pull it from its scabbard, the blade glinting softly in the darkness.
  54. >Shifting your hooves as quietly as you can, you round the front of the coach to face the left side.
  55. >There, with its back to you, is a strange creature.
  56. >It stands on two legs, an upright torso topped by a round head looming well over twice your height.
  57. >Two arms protrude from its side, one resting on the scabbard of a longsword dangling from its waist, the other motioning with a crossbow into the coach door.
  58. >You notice that the crossbow’s string isn’t knocked, though a bolt is locked into the weapon.
  59. >The creature is wearing a black gambeson and brown gloves, with tall leather boots enclosing its legs.
  60. >Possible choices run wild in your head.
  61. >Kill it now with its back turned?
  62. >Take it hostage in case its fellow bandits show up?
  63. >Swallowing hard, your mind goes blank and you blurt out the only thing you remember.
  64. “Stop! You’ve committed crimes against Equestria and her people. What say you in your defense?”
  65. >Oh, buck.
  66. >You really think a forest dwelling vagabond is going to heed the standard Canterlot accusation?
  67. >The creature freezes, its shoulders tensing, and it lifts its head to sigh before slowly turning towards you.
  68. >Your blood runs as cold as the forest.
  69. >A mask is tied around the creature’s lower face, obscuring its features, but the eyes are clear as they stare into yours.
  70. >There is no surprise in them, or fear.
  71. >The creature’s eyes twinkle mirthfully and crinkle at the corners, betraying a smile beneath its mask.
  72. >“What have we here? Why, a valiant warrior, come to defend the downtrodden nobility, perhaps?”
  73. >A deep male voice booms theatrically from the creature, as if he’s merely playing a stage villain.
  74. >He slings the crossbow over his back, taking a step away from you and drawing his distressingly long sword with a menacing grind of metal.
  75. >“Well then, noble defender, I say it’s time to stand and deliver, don’t you?”
  76. >You drop the hood from your helmet as your wide eyes shift between the bandit’s blade and his eager face.
  77. “I- I’m warning you to surrender, criminal. Princess Celestia herself has taken notice of your actions and seeks your bringing to justice.”
  78. >“So I’m a celebrity then? Splendid! But why on earth would I quit on top of my game?”
  79. >You scramble for an answer, deeply desiring to avoid crossing blades with him, seeing as his is nearly double the length of your own.
  80. “The longer you evade justice, the worse your punishment will be?”
  81. >Gotta work on sounding more sure of yourself.
  82. >The bandit’s eyes go wide in terror, and he begins to hesitantly back away from the carriage and towards the trees.
  83. >“Well, I do so very much hate punishment. Manacles do dreadful things to my skin, you see. So if you don’t mind, brave guardsmare, I believe I shall be going.”
  84. >With that, the tall vagabond sheathes his sword and gives a mock bow before turning and sprinting off into the woods at full tilt.
  85. >As you stand confused at the turn of events, a dreadful cry bursts from the coach door.
  86. >“Don’t just stand there, he’s made off with my prized Crystal Imperial necklace! After him!”
  87. >Darn it.
  88. >If you want to continue your admittedly short career with the Guard, you’d do well to keep your charges happy.
  89. >Shoving your sword unhappily back into its scabbard, you take off after the criminal.
  90. >His heavy footsteps leave easily visible prints in the soft forest floor, and you weave between trees as you rush deeper into the gloom.
  91. >The woods are so dense that you can’t see him, and you push yourself to the limit to catch up.
  92. >Your breath comes short and sharp as your heartbeat pounds rapidly in your ears, lungs burning and legs aching.
  93. >Suddenly, the dim forest gives way and sunlight fills your eyes.
  94. >You skid to a halt, chest heaving as your head swivels.
  95. >The thick woods have opened into a small meadow, only the size of a respectable garden back in Canterlot, but the break in the canopy is enough to allow pure sunlight to reach it.
  96. >A soft bed of grass blankets the meadow, with a stunning variety of brilliant flowers sprouting up here and there.
  97. >Unfortunately, the grass has completely obscured the footsteps you were following.
  98. >Still catching your breath, the warmth of the sun combined with your exertion soaks you with sweat beneath your armor.
  99. >You drop your head low, scanning the grass carefully for any sign of the bandit.
  100. >“Even if you find the trail, he’ll be long gone,” you think darkly, not wanting to return to the coach in defeat.
  101. >A snapping in the foliage above whips your ears back, but before you can look up, a weight lands on top of you, forcing you heavily to the ground and knocking your helmet away.
  102. >You roll and try to kick out with your legs, but your attacker deftly pins your hind legs to the ground, pressing their full weight on your hips.
  103. >Your sword is out of reach, and before you can retaliate with your forehooves, you find them locked in the attacker’s grasp.
  104. >Completely pinned, you squirm desperately, grunting with the effort.
  105. >“Come now, my valiant friend, surely you know that to struggle any further is pointless?”
  106. >You finally pause to look at him.
  107. >The bandit’s gleeful eyes greet you once more.
  108. >“You seem a little winded. If I let one of your hooves go, would you agree to not use it in a retaliatory fashion? I’m quite fond of my face, you know.”
  109. >You are still panting, and sweat stings your eyes as you glare up at him.
  110. >Without any better options, you relent and give him a curt nod.
  111. >The hand anchoring your left hoof to the ground loosens, and immediately moves to your face.
  112. >You press your head back, wanting to shrink away from his hand, but the soft meadow ground doesn’t allow it.
  113. >“Rest easy, I’m only fixing a few things.”
  114. >You scrunch as the bandit’s hand brushes your teal mane out of your eyes, tucking it away behind one ear.
  115. >“It’s truly a shame I had to first meet you in that helmet. I much prefer you this way.”
  116. >Unable to take his stage actor’s tone any longer, you open your mouth to retort.
  117. “What, pinned on the ground beneath you, unable to fight?”
  118. >The bandit’s eyes crinkle again, and his hand moves away before he thinks twice and reaches behind an ear, giving it a gentle scratch.
  119. >O-Oh Celestia.
  120. >“I was actually referring to the romanticism of our situation, if only you’d care to look around. The sun shining softly on our own corner of the world, the aroma of spring blossoms filling the air, the birds singing as if for us alone.”
  121. >You can’t be enjoying this.
  122. >You aren’t; the overall situation anyway.
  123. >But Celestia, how this scratching feels.
  124. >You can’t help but keep panting.
  125. >“Just because we’re foes doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a little civility.”
  126. >His voice is husky; lewd, even.
  127. >Snap out of it, Vigilant.
  128. >Your free hoof comes up and pulls his hand away from your ear, drawing a chuckle from the bandit.
  129. >“What is it that brings you to visit me, anyhow? I thought we’d taken our leave on agreeable terms?”
  130. >Your eyes narrow at the bandit as you try to decide how to respond.
  131. “The necklace. You stole it from my charge and I want it back.”
  132. >The bandit cocks an eyebrow at you.
  133. >“Just like that? Well, I suppose I’ve had my fun for the day and I’ll be perfectly glad to hand over the jewelry – hoove over, as it were. My apologies, these cultural sayings often get the better of me.”
  134. >He leans uncomfortably close, sending you into another scrunch.
  135. >“However, you’ll have to ask me nicely.”
  136. >Oh for goodness’ sake.
  137. “Fine. Will you please give me the necklace?”
  138. >The bandit lifts his free hand as if to regard his fingernails, despite wearing gloves.
  139. >“I’d like a proper term of address, as it were.”
  140. “Mister Thief, would you please give me the necklace?”
  141. >“I prefer ‘purloiner,’ it has a certain ring of class and respect that my profession is so severely lacking these days.”
  142. >You scowl up at the bandit, who is clearly enjoying his position.
  143. >It’s for the Guard, Vigilant.
  144. >“Mister Purloiner, would you please give me the necklace?”
  145. >The bandit’s hand waves grandly through the air before reaching to a pouch on his belt.
  146. >“But of course, my small, metal-clad acquaintance. I’m always pleased to assist the Royal Guard in any way I can.”
  147. >He produces the necklace: a fine silver chain from which hangs an intricate crystal design, seeming to absorb the sunlight and glow from within.
  148. >With his fingers he delicately unclasps the chain, and before you can protest, he drapes it over your neck.
  149. >Reaching behind your head, he leans in close to fasten the jewelry.
  150. >You can smell him; a combination of sweat, earth and something else.
  151. >Wine, perfume?
  152. >It’s intoxicating.
  153. >Before you can enjoy the scent any longer, the bandit completes his task and leans back to take in the result.
  154. >“I must say, it is a shame that such a lovely piece must inevitably find its way back to the neck of such an undeserving mare. Your glittering golden eyes rival Celestia’s own sun reflected in this necklace.”
  155. >Against your will, you feel your face heating up at his compliment, and your mouth opens and closes without words.
  156. >“As much as I’d love to spend the day with you, my noble guardsmare, and perhaps an evening, who knows, I do believe we’ve spent enough time lounging in this manner. Ponies will begin to talk…,” he confides in a mock whisper.
  157. >With that, he rolls off you and stands tall, striding for the treeline on the other side of the meadow.
  158. >You rise on your own hooves, forcing yourself back into a professional state of mind.
  159. “Wait!”
  160. >The bandit turns flamboyantly on his heel.
  161. >“Yes?”
  162. >You’re completely spent, and you have no doubt he’d lose you in another chase.
  163. >At the very least, you could get a name to go with the description you would report.
  164. “Who are you?”
  165. >The bandit straightens up and goes into a full bow, one arm stretched to the side as he makes a formal introduction.
  166. >“My name is Anon E. Mousse, master thief and purloiner extraordinaire.”
  167. >Anon completes his bow and winks at you before turning to the forest once again, striding into the underbrush and disappearing from your sight.
  168. >M-maybe you could leave a few things out of the report.
  169. >…
  170. >You are Anonymous
  171. >Also known as Anon E. Mousse, master thief and purloiner extraordinaire.
  172. >But not in polite company.
  173. >At least, not when you aren’t actively robbing said polite company.
  174. >It has been nearly a year since your arrival in Equestria, and it’s nothing at all like you expected.
  175. >You had watched the show, of course.
  176. >Frequented the board for shits and giggles.
  177. >You weren’t a waifufag though; that was taking it too far.
  178. >So when the ritual laid out in that AiE story actually worked, you realized pretty quickly where you had woken up; the edge of the Everfree Forest.
  179. >It was a little exciting at first.
  180. >You had never exactly dreamed of going to Equestria, but the idea seemed like it would be fun.
  181. >The first order of business had been to make contact, so you started toward Ponyville.
  182. >Getting caught eating from a tree at Sweet Apple Acres does sound like a pretty generic way to start your own AiE adventure, now that you think of it.
  183. >However, you figured the orange farm pony or her relations would be easygoing enough to introduce yourself to without drawing too much attention at once.
  184. >It wasn’t exactly where you thought it would be, but soon enough you did come upon an orchard.
  185. >You barely had time to choose an apple, though, before a cacophony of noise drew your attention.
  186. >The rest of that day was spent running and hiding from a particularly unpleased and exceptionally ancient stallion, clad in simple farmer garb and wielding a wicked looking scythe.
  187. >The pony was certainly no Apple, and you decided to be more cautious as you scouted the rest of the town from a safe distance.
  188. >It wasn’t the Ponyville you remembered.
  189. >The architecture was similar; thatched-roof cottages, tall buildings that would look at home in some old Bavarian town, just… more authentic?
  190. >Like they were that way because they had to be, and not just a stylistic choice.
  191. >The next thing that caught your attention was the guards.
  192. >You could count on one hand the number of times you remember seeing the Royal Guard in Ponyville on the show, and even then it was two to four ponies, at most.
  193. >This Ponyville was positively crawling with them.
  194. >Guards standing watch over every road into town.
  195. >Guards patrolling the streets and keeping an eye on the market.
  196. >Guards outside of the bigger, more important looking buildings.
  197. >That wasn’t the only oddity, however.
  198. >The ponies weren’t clad in the familiar gold plating and blue plumes of the Royal Guard, but rather in simpler, but far more useful looking plate, cream yellow with maroon flashes.
  199. >A sigil of two maroon ponies facing a pink heart emblazoned the guards’ chest plates; at least the Ponyville flag hadn’t changed.
  200. >Given the welcoming you had received from the farmer, you didn’t imagine you would be treated much better by the town guards, and decided to stay out of sight.
  201. >It was cold that first night; you arrived in a pair of flannel pajama pants, your favorite broken-in undershirt, and a brown robe.
  202. >Good attire for a comfy night in front of the computer, but the harsh fall wind cut right through their thin material.
  203. >Fortunately for you, the weather equally affected the guards, whom either moved indoors or huddled around a handful of braziers spread throughout the town.
  204. >By some stroke of luck the building you infiltrated to stay warm had been a library; no sign of the familiar tree.
  205. >The librarian was a small, mousy looking mare, soundly asleep on a cozy looking tome.
  206. >You took the liberty of borrowing a candle and its brass holder, and set off in search of a history volume that could enlighten you.
  207. >While the text was certainly not modern English – ponyish, whatever – it told you everything you needed to know, whether you wanted to or not.
  208. >It had been 250 years since the banishing of Nightmare Moon, and the land of Equestria had been a fairly tumultuous place ever since.
  209. >Several short and fierce wars with Griffania across the sea, and persistent raids from beyond the Northern Mountains by Yak nomads had plagued Equestria since Celestia had assumed monarchy.
  210. >Your budding ideas of goofing off with the usual colorful cast were dashed in an instant, and you began planning how to survive in this new, old Equestria.
  211. >Staving off hypothermia was the first step, and you soon found you had a talent for moving about unseen.
  212. >Despite your size relative to the shorter ponies, you were lithe and agile, opposable thumbs and the ability to climb proving a boon.
  213. >Additionally, the town seemed to be almost entirely earth ponies, so the chance of being spotted on rooftops by nosy pegasi was nonexistent.
  214. >You just had to be careful which rooftops you scaled; on several early occasions, you found yourself crashing through thatch, scampering away before the building’s occupants could make sense of the intrusion.
  215. >In short order you had assembled a motley but functional set of clothing, using your rudimentary skill with a pilfered sewing kit to craft some trousers, boots (moccasins, more like), and a decent try at a medieval style gambeson.
  216. >The Everfree became your home.
  217. >Frequent patrols from the town guards kept the outer edges of the forest clear of less reputable creatures, and the brush was thick enough to hide the glow of your nightly campfires from any wary eyes within the town itself.
  218. >Small game satisfied your protein needs, rabbits and squirrels proving no match for the snares of such an apex predator as yourself.
  219. >Though, the timberwolf you pissed off with that trap set a little too deep in the woods knocked you down a few notches on the food chain.
  220. >Everything else you acquired the same way as your clothes; stealing.
  221. >It’s not that you had been a thief back home.
  222. >It’s just that when you’re the only one of your kind, and unwelcome in town, what else are you going to do?
  223. >Still, you couldn’t spend the rest of your Equestrian life as a highwayman.
  224. >So you concocted a plan.
  225. >Ponyville was a crossroads town, lots of wealthy travelers coming and going.
  226. >Often they traveled with their own bodyguard or two, but it wasn’t too hard to lure them away from their charges long enough to do your thing.
  227. >Just like setting snares, only for different prey.
  228. >You didn’t take much from each victim; a nice tunic here, an ornate broach there.
  229. >And each time a little coin, just pocket change really, but the proceeds added up, and the pettiness of the theft kept the authorities from getting too heavily interested.
  230. >Your needlework improved with your small fortune, and soon you had dressed yourself finely enough to be the envy of a Canterlot count.
  231. >Your slim bandit’s clothing was hidden away beneath a pompous doublet and flowing cape, one that easily concealed as you stowed away on a merchant’s wagon headed for the capitol.
  232. >The next morning you made your grand entrance: Anonymous, the galivanting gentleman from afar.
  233. >What, you haven’t heard of me?
  234. > You shall soon, my friend, perhaps over a fine wine and a good feast.
  235. >Your ill-gotten coin funded your carousing with the finer folk for a time, and when it ran low you stole away to the forest, plying your trade once more.
  236. >It was good fun, though you had to admit it had become something of a rut you were stuck in.
  237. >Presently, you are absentmindedly recounting your great adventures to the Lord Commander of the Canterlot Royal Guard, while mulling over your situation internally.
  238. >“An unborn child’s ghost, you say?” the Lord Commander inquires with a shudder.
  239. >“What a horrid thing to encounter.”
  240. “Indeed, my lord, though all wasn’t lost. You see, I had learned of a certain ritual to perform. One that could turn the ugly beast into a benevolent guardian for the Bloody Baron.”
  241. >“Is that so?” the lord commander leans in, a goblet of Pegasian Red clutched tightly in one hoof.
  242. “It is. I fought my way past wraith after wraith, called up in the creature’s fury, and laid the poor soul to rest beneath the Baron’s house with the sacred words.”
  243. >You pause to wet your throat from your own selection, something sour and Griffanian, though the name escapes you, the room spinning pleasantly with its effect.
  244. >“I do hate to interrupt you in the middle of such a gripping tale, my friend, but I believe the reason for my being here as just arrived.”
  245. >You squeeze your eyes shut, trying to force your head clear.
  246. >Heavy drinking hadn’t really been your thing back home either, but the ponies here consistently have more alcohol on hoof than water.
  247. >‘Good for the spirit,’ they say.
  248. >Well, when in Rome – or is it Roam, here? – ah, fuck it.
  249. “Speaking of which, why did you want to meet this pony of yours in a tavern anyway, fine establishment though this is?”
  250. >And it was.
  251. >The Canterlot Winery was perhaps the most well-appointed building you’d seen since arriving; owned and operated by the Royal Vineyard Society and stocking the finest fruits of Canterlot’s many gardens, the posh multi-floored establishment also served food and any other drink you could ask for.
  252. >Well, aside from an ice-cold Coke; they don’t seem to have figured out carbonation yet.
  253. >“Any gathering can easily be passed off as a social gathering in a place like this, my friend. And what’s more, I’m certain the mare could use a drink after a long and dangerous journey such as hers.”
  254. >The Lord Commander’s reasoning seems a little shaky, but then so does he, draining his goblet and dribbling a thin red rivulet down the front of his gleaming gold armor.
  255. “May I enquire as to the reason for this mare’s journey? ‘Long and dangerous’ sounds like a story I would enjoy.”
  256. >You hadn’t intended to spend the evening drinking with the highest-ranking guard in the capitol.
  257. >However, you had scarcely sat down at the bar to drink some boredom away when the already tipsy commander called to you from a corner booth.
  258. >“Naturally, my friend, naturally!” the Lord Commander slurs cheerily as he slams his goblet to the table.
  259. >“You see,” he lowers his voice to a poor attempt at a whisper.
  260. >“There’s been a spate of robberies, along the highway to Ponyville.”
  261. “Oh?”
  262. >You raise your eyebrows theatrically, and truthfully.
  263. >Had you been getting lazy, carrying out your escapades too close together?
  264. >The fucking Lord Commander of the Royal Guard is personally receiving a report on the matter, after all.
  265. >No problem, you’re still golden, pony boy.
  266. >Heh.
  267. >Your drunken self thinks about how clever your drunken self is for a second or two before returning to the situation at hand.
  268. >The Lord Commander is, for lack of a better description, a complete dunce.
  269. >Ponies in this world still seem to achieve positions based on bloodlines instead of merit, and you have a sneaking suspicion that the Lord Commander’s bloodline is particularly muddled.
  270. >He’s no Charles the Second, of course; you suppose he’s probably quite handsome, from the female attention he receives.
  271. >It’s just that he’s… not exactly a thinker.
  272. >Fortunately for you, that quality isn’t required to be a good drinking partner.
  273. >“Guardsmare Shield, over here if you please! I have someone I’d like you to meet!” the Lord Commander cries boisterously to an armored mare across the room.
  274. >You squint in the candlelit glow of the winery, something about the eyes beneath that golden helmet appearing vaguely familiar.
  275. >Oh.
  276. >Fuck.
  277. >“Introducing Anonymous, a gallant adventurer of unsurpassed experience! Anonymous, meet Vigilant Shield. Rather new to the Guard, far below my own extensive experience, of course, but she does show promise…”
  278. >The guardsmare squeezes past revelers, meekly apologizing for the inconvenience her passing causes.
  279. >Finally arriving at the table, she draws herself up and drops her head in a stiff-necked bow to the Lord Commander.
  280. >“Lance Corporal Vigilant Shield reporting as ordered, milord,” the mare states, her voice clear but wavering slightly.
  281. >She’s nervous, you can tell.
  282. >Boxed in at the small booth, you can’t do anything but down the rest of your wine, cursing your stupidity.
  283. >Why the hell did you not ask the Lord Commander about this earlier?
  284. >At least then you could have excused yourself and disappeared for a while.
  285. >In truth, you’re surprised you’ve gone this long without raising suspicion.
  286. >To your knowledge, you’re the only human in this world, and surely a bipedal being such as yourself would be remembered by the few ponies who’d gotten a decent look at your form.
  287. >However, you may have underestimated the number of strange creatures, sapient or no, that roam this land.
  288. >You’d seen minotaur blacksmiths, diamond dog thieves being dragged off by market guards, even a cat or two.
  289. >Weird kahjiit looking motherfuckers, but that’s beside the point.
  290. >That point being, bipedal creatures such as yourself, though rare, were not completely unheard of.
  291. >But now, you had been stupid.
  292. >You had let this Vigilant Shield get a good look at you, mask or no mask, and allowed yourself to get caught face-to-face with her alongside one of the most powerful morons in the capitol.
  293. >Your heart is pounding as you look for a quick exit from the room, but the floor is packed with tables and their rambunctious occupants.
  294. >Vigilant rises from her bow, her golden eyes peering into your own as if searching for an answer to some unspoken question.
  295. >Suddenly they go wide as saucers, pupils constricting with terror.
  296. >Shit, here we go…
  297. >The mare immediately drops into another bow, deep enough that the crest of her helmet thuds loudly against the side of the table.
  298. >“Apologies, milord, I didn’t recognize you! I’ve only heard s-stories about your exploits!”
  299. >What?
  300. “Huh? – I, why, no apologies are necessary, Lance Corporal. I suppose that I do make it a point to stay on the right side of the Royal Guard, so my dealings with them have been rather scarce.”
  301. >The guard rises once more, head shaking nervously beneath her loose-fitting helmet.
  302. >Fear and longing for approval fill her golden eyes, but not of fear of recognition, as you had worried.
  303. >Rather, she seems terrified of being reprimanded for not realizing the company she was in.
  304. >“Bah, enough with the stooping and the bowing, guard, out with it! Let us hear what you have to say!” the Lord Commander bellows, having sat patiently for about as long as someone of his temperament could.
  305. >Vigilant looks rapidly between you and her drunken commander, helmet swiveling slightly behind the pace of her head.
  306. >“U-us, milord?”
  307. >“Yes, us! Anonymous here has seen far worse than a few petty bandits scratching their living in some moon-damned forest! Perhaps we should just pay him, and let him sort the – hic! – problem out,” the Commander mutters as his muzzle slips clumsily into the goblet for another drink.
  308. >“A-as you wish, milord,” Vigilant replies softly, barely audible over the din of the tavern as her eyes shift between the two seated figures.
  309. >“We were nearly to Ponyville, milord – pardon, milords – when the carriage was stopped by a trap set in the road. I dismounted to assist the driver in freeing the carriage, when the bandit appeared.”
  310. >“You’re a shit storyteller, you know that, guardsmare?” the Lord Commander butts in, chuckling to himself over his cup.
  311. >“Got no panache, no flair to it, this one, not like Anonymous’s stories. Best get it over with quickly.”
  312. >You sit quietly, twirling your goblet between your fingers and very much wishing that you were elsewhere, and look askance at the guardsmare.
  313. >Vigilant’s ears droop to the sides of her helmet, her eyes going ever-so-slightly watery.
  314. >“Apologies, milord. I drew my sword and forced the bandit to flee – ”
  315. >Not how you remember it, but you suppose she deserves something to feel good about.
  316. >“ – but not before he had made off with Countess von Pferd’s necklace.”
  317.  >Your eyebrows creep upward a notch.
  318. >Honest little thing, isn’t she?
  319. >If you had allowed something like that to happen, you sure as hell would have changed the story a little.
  320. >Speaking of which, just how much of this story is she going to tell?
  321. “Well you got it back, didn’t you?”
  322. >Vigilant’s eyes dart back to you, surprised that you seem to have taken over the debriefing from the wine-soaked Lord Commander.
  323. >“Y-yes, milord. I chased the bandit deeper into the forest, and – ”
  324. >She pauses, and even in the poor light of the tavern you can see the parts of her cheeks visible beneath the helmet fill up with light pink.
  325. >“There was a… a scuffle. And I was able to get the necklace back, though the bandit fled,” she finishes, suddenly finding the surface of the table keenly interesting.
  326. >Well all right then, guardsmare.
  327. >Still telling the truth, just not in too great of detail.
  328. >“What’d he look like?” the Lord Commander blurts, rousing from his sodden silence.
  329. >Vigilant turns toward you, and her mouth twitches, as if trying to force out a particularly dirty word.
  330. >“He… well, he was a…”
  331. >She closes her eyes and draws a deep breath, bracing herself.
  332. >“He looked like Anonymous, milord. I mean not exactly, he was dressed differently but the same size and he had legs like him walked like him and even – ”
  333. >You hold up a hand to slow the guardsmare’s stammering, causing her to flinch and her mouth to clamp immediately shut.
  334. “So, he was a human, then?”
  335. >“I, I don’t know what a  ‘human’ is, milord,” she replies, her voice quiet and sounding a step away from outright panic.
  336. “It’s what I am.”
  337. >Vigilant begins to shake again, ears pinned back against her helmet.
  338. >“I’m so sorry, milord, I didn’t mean any disrespect, its just that I didn’t know how else to describe him and you were sitting there and looked sort of like him and – ”
  339. “It’s fine, its fine! I understand, there aren’t many humans in this part of the world, no disrespect taken here, Lance Corporal… Vigilant, was it?”
  340. >The guardsmare’s head nods rapidly up and down, her helmet scarcely able to keep up.
  341. >“Uh, yes that’s – I mean, yes, milord – sorry.”
  342. >The Lord Commander brings his goblet to his lips, blowing quiet fart noises into the wine, and giggling before speaking up.
  343. >“So, we have another human in Equestria? An adventurer like yourself possibly, though obviously less reputable.”
  344. “It would appear so. Dastardly creature, preying on innocent ponies. That stretch of road is dangerous enough, being so close to the forest. Vigilant, can you describe him, his features or clothing perhaps?”
  345. >The mare’s brows furl and her muzzle scrunches in concentration, an expression you remember causing by different means not too long ago.
  346. >“Well, he was dressed like a bandit,” she begins.
  347. >“A bandit dressed like a bandit? How shocking!” the Lord Commander shouts with a theatrical sweep of his forelegs, sending a dribble of wine airborne and laughing boorishly.
  348. >The wine spatters across Vigilant’s face as her eyes flinch shut.
  349. >When they open again, they are wavering with tears, and she takes a steadying breath before continuing.
  350. >“H-he wore a black gambeson and trousers, boots and brown… um”
  351. “Gloves?”
  352. >You accompany the hint with holding one of your hands before the guardsmare, wiggling your fingers.
  353. >“Yes milord, that’s it. He wore a mask on the lower part of his face, but he had eyebrows just like yours, and eyes… the same color, too,” Vigilant adds, her own eyes dancing across your face in confusion.
  354. “It’s rude to stare, you know.”
  355. >She drops her head, face flushing hot enough to be noticeable beneath her coral-colored coat.
  356. “Alas, human appearances aren’t nearly as diverse as those of you ponies, so I’m afraid simple physical attributes will be of little help in bringing this miscreant to justice.”
  357. >It’s a long shot, but you’ve got to find some way to keep the heat off.
  358. >“Ha! You’re both looking at this completely wrong,” the Lord Commander gleefully interjects.
  359. >“Think about it, guardsmare; how many humans have you ever seen?”
  360. >“Well, I-I guess two, milord,” Vigilant returns hesitantly.
  361. >“Exactly! Hardly a difficult amount to keep track of, is it? So long as we know what this bandit wears and that he’s a human, what does his face matter? If we find a human that isn’t Anonymous, we arrest him, simple as that!”
  362. >Well fuck, that was easy.
  363. >“An excellent idea, milord,” Vigilant mumbles.
  364. >“Well, that’s why I’m the Lord Commander of the Royal Guard, and you’re the – um – a…”
  365. >“Lance corporal, milord,” she offers meekly.
  366. >“Yes, of course. Now,” the Lord Commander rises uneasily to his hooves.
  367. >“I have important matters at the palace to – hic! – attend. Until next time, my friend!”
  368. >The drunken noble staggers a few steps before seeming to remember Vigilant, turning to face her.
  369. >“You’re dismissed, Lance Corporal, back to the barracks with you.”
  370. “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to hear more about Miss Shield’s journey. May she stay here with me, for a while?”
  371. >With the immediate danger of being thrown in the dungeon passed, you figure you can still have a little fun tonight.
  372. >Besides, the poor pony deserves a drink or two after putting up with such an oaf as her commanding officer.
  373. >Said stallion glances between you and the still-standing armored mare, his glazed eyes revealing a slowly churning thought process.
  374. >“What, you? And her? Here?”
  375. >You nod.
  376. >The Lord Commander’s jowls tremble, the corners of his mouth creeping waveringly upward until –
  377. >“Snnnrk-HAAAHAHAHAHA!”
  378. >The commander’s laughter trails off into a long-winded wheeze, the kind that, in your buzzed state you find irresistible to chuckle along with.
  379. >You do so, only fueling the Lord Commander’s mirth as he leans against the table for support, slamming a hoof down on it repeatedly.
  380. >As he catches his breath and tries to speak, he breaks off into another imitation of a broken accordion.
  381. >You can’t help it; wheezing laughs are your kryptonite, and you keep laughing with him.
  382. >Suddenly aware that Vigilant is silent, you turn toward the little armored pony.
  383. >Her ears are laid flat and burning a brilliant red, her head dropped nearly level with her chest.
  384. >A sniffling racks her body, tears slowly rolling down her muzzle and dripping to the tavern floor.
  385. >Ah fuck, what now?
  386. >You cough a few times to stifle your laughter, rubbing a hand over your face to sober up a little.
  387. “Ahem, uh, why is such an arrangement so humorous?”
  388. >The Lord Commander eventually calms down, clumsily wiping tears from his eyes.
  389. >“What, you really don’t know?”
  390. “Afraid not.”
  391. >The noble pony takes a few moments to gather his drunken senses while Vigilant, realizing that he is paying attention again, composes herself as best she can.
  392. >Her eyes are red and her cheeks are streaked with tears, her lower lip quivering, but she straightens into attention.
  393. >“Well things may be different in your part of the world, I suppose,” the Lord Commander begins.
  394. >“Here, however, ponies of different statues tend not to – well – mix, socially.”
  395. >You shrug, not really seeing the big deal.
  396. >Since arrival, you hadn’t put a great deal of effort into learning the rules of medieval Equestrian society.
  397. >Your ill-gotten coin and fancy clothing, along with your being something of an oddity, had gotten you a comfortable lifestyle in the capitol, so the need never really surfaced.
  398. “I’m no noble, so what’s the big deal?”
  399. >“You – what’s the big deal? Well you may not be a noble but you are pony – person, sorry – of high standing: well-traveled, socialize in important circles, and so on.”
  400. “And she’s a Royal Guard, so what’s the catch?”
  401. >The Lord Commander snickers as if he’s privy to some inside joke.
  402. >“My friend, my – burp – friend, the only ‘royal’ thing about the Guard, is the city under their watch. A knighted pony or member of a noble house, such as myself, is appointed to serve as its commander, but the rank and file are nothing special.”
  403. >He points a hoof in the general direction of Vigilant, apparently having difficulty focusing the multiple visions of her that dance in his vision.
  404. >“Take the Lance Corporal here. I bet you her parents were… wait don’t tell me, don’t tell me… farriers, no! Farmers, I bet they’re farmers!”
  405. >You swear you can feel the heat from Vigilant’s blush as she mumbles something, the sound lost to the din of the tavern.
  406. >“Speak up mare,” the Lord Commander orders.
  407. >“Cheesemakers, milord! M-my parents are cheesemakers,” she forces out, her voice cracking at the end as she barely catches a sob in her throat.
  408. >The mare takes a step back, desperate for the meeting to end.
  409. >“I’ll be on my way to the barracks, milords, if you’ll excuse me.”
  410. >Before you can stop yourself, an arm reaches out, a hand grasping tightly around Vigilant’s foreleg.
  411. >She flinches, her eyes darting up to yours.
  412. >What are you doing, Drunk Anon?
  413. >I don’t know yet, Sober Anon.
  414. >Maybe I’ll tell you about it in the morning.
  415. >You give her what you hope is a reassuring smile before turning back to the Lord Commander.
  416. “My parents come from a cheesemaking tradition as well, interestingly enough; maybe we can share techniques. In any case, humans tend not to worry as much about the position a person is born into. Well, some of them anyway.”
  417. >“Really, no marriages to maintain bloodline purity?”
  418. “Not for a long time. Maybe you should try it? Could do you some good.”
  419. >O fugg, now you’ve done it.
  420. >However, the Lord Commander doesn’t seem to even register the slander of his house, simply laughing, and draining the rest of his wine.
  421. >“Maybe, maybe! Perhaps I’ll go to Ponyville and court a farm mare, sing her a song and write her a poem, ha! Goodnight, Anonymous, enjoy your cheese talk.”
  422. >The Lord Commander staggers to the door, disappearing into the night.
  423. >With any luck he’ll fall into the moat on his way back into the palace.
  424. >You sweep a hand toward the vacant bench opposite yourself, and Vigilant climbs into it.
  425. “I don’t think you’ll be fighting any battles in here.”
  426. >The mare doesn’t move, so you nod towards her helmet.
  427. >She gets the picture and lifts the gold-colored helmet off her head, setting it next to her on the bench.
  428. >Her teal mane is short, falling about to her shoulders – do horses have shoulders, is that what they’re called here? – and matted from hours squeezed under the helmet, long bangs falling into one eye.
  429. >Vigilant fusses with her mane while you consider what to do next.
  430. >You hadn’t really intended to ask about her trip, aside from ensuring she didn’t really recognize you from the incident in the woods.
  431. >However, you weren’t expecting the Lord Commander to be such a complete dick to her, and so here you are trying to comfort the guard pony.
  432. >“Did you really mean it?”
  433. “Huh?”
  434. >“Are your parents cheesemakers too?”
  435. >Oh yeah, that.
  436. “Eh, not really, well they’re from ‘a cheesemaking tradition’ is what I said.”
  437. >“What’s that mean?”
  438. “They’re from Wisconsin, watch the Packers and all that.”
  439. >“Where’s Wisconsin? Watch the Packers pack what?”
  440. >God damnit Anon, you were supposed to be asking the questions.
  441. “It’s not important. Anyway, I’m sorry about that whole thing with the Lord Commander. I shouldn’t have laughed along with him.”
  442. >“Oh.”
  443. >Oh?
  444. >What’s that supposed to mean?
  445. >Vigilant keeps fiddling with her mane, avoiding your eyes, and it looks like she’s about to cry again.
  446. >Fuck fuck fuck, think of something.
  447. >You decide to take a gamble.
  448. >Just about everyone is either a happy or a sad drunk, right?
  449. >50/50 chance then.
  450. >You raise a hand in the air and wave a serving mare frantically to your table.
  451. > “Yes, love?”
  452. “More wine, please. I’ll have a Celestial Red. Vigilant, what would you like? I’m buying.”
  453. >The guardsmare’s eyes flit between you and the serving mare, and she swallows hard before quietly placing her order.
  454. >“An ale, please.”
  455. >Beer girl, then.
  456. >“What kind of ale?” the serving mare pushes, sounding a little annoyed.
  457. >Vigilant looks to you for help, the pleading in her eyes seeming to say that she’s never been to a place that serves more than one kind of ale.
  458. >You turn to the serving mare.
  459. “Twocastle Brown, that’s a good one. And actually, make that my order as well, skip the wine.”
  460. >“Be right back, love.”
  461. >The mare winks at you before sauntering away from the table.
  462. >Vigilant is turning her helmet over in her forehooves now, trying to look busy, but you can see the hurt looming over her like a raincloud.
  463. >You may be a sneaky two-faced thief, but even those need something else to do now and then.
  464. >And you’re not leaving until this mare is suitably cheered up.
  465. >Christ, this is gonna be a long night.
  466. >You gambled.
  467. >And you lost.
  468. >“Oh and the smell! Don’t – hic!—don’t even get me started on the smell!”
  469. >The guardsmare’s meek manner had led you astray, and the first mug of ale had disappeared in a single long chug, followed by two more snagged from a passing serving mare before you could stop her.
  470. >Vigilant currently alternates between crying, gasping for air, downing a fourth mug, and rambling about what you quickly gather to be a rather shitty life.
  471. >Thus far she’s related her few interactions with the Lord Commander, harassment from the urban-born members of the guard, and how utterly depressing life in the city is compared to her home village.
  472. >“Every day I wake up a-and it’s like I can never fill my lungs. All the way, I mean!”
  473. >She leans back in her booth and draws a deep breath through her nostrils before blowing it out in an exclamation of despair, the blast of beer-breath colliding with your own nasal senses.
  474. >Vigilant leans forward, cradling her head unsteadily in one hoof while the other grasps her mug as if it contains a heavenly nectar.
  475. >“I-it’s just sweat. Sweat and wine and old food and –hic!—and dirty clothes. Every shift, every day. And then it’s back –hic!—back to the barracks and the jokes and the dirty names – ‘filthy mudpony, hornless, wingless, plowing idiot—”
  476. >She pauses and sniffles, her red eyes welling up yet again, tears running the well beaten trails down her cheeks.
  477. >Vigilant tips her mug up once more, only to find it empty and look around desperately for another serving mare.
  478. >Although the speed of the guardsmare’s descent into misery had initially overwhelmed you, you’d finally managed to discretely wave the servers off your table a short while ago.
  479. >The mare is finally quiet as her head swivels about in search of more booze, and so are you.
  480. >You spin your own ignored and nearly full mug between your fingertips.
  481. >The onslaught of drunk Vigilant had left you with little capacity to think up a plan for handling the situation, and your alcohol-addled brain is already overstressed.
  482. >You lift your hands to your temples, trying to rub away the dull throbbing and get a clear train of thought going.
  483. >Vigilant’s eyes pass over your unattended mug and freeze, flicking to your own and betraying her intention.
  484. >Before you can stop her, however, the pony deftly swipes a hoof across the table and scoops up the mug, sloshing a little of its contents onto her breastplate as she raises it to her mouth.
  485. “Vigilant, wait, I don’t think that’s really –”
  486. >Your concerns fall on deaf ears as the mare’s throat works like a machine, draining the mug in a matter of seconds.
  487. >She slams the empty vessel down with a victorious thud, a foam mustache tracing her upper lip as she breathes heavily.
  488. >Her glazed eyes come into focus for a moment of self-awareness as she rests her forehooves on the table.
  489. >“I—I’m a mess.”
  490. >Well, no real arguing there.
  491. “I… wouldn’t go that far.”
  492. >She looks up at your comment, her ears dropping back and eyes shimmering as her lower lip trembles.
  493. >“I should –hic!—never have stayed, milord. I, I, in front of a pony of high standing, and drunk and slov… slav…”
  494. “Slovenly?”
  495. >Vigilant buries her head in her hooves and begins to sob.
  496. >“I don’t know! Milord please forgive me, I made a fool of myself and, and…”
  497. >You decide the safest route is to let her cry herself out, rather than interject and start another bout.
  498. >Gradually the muffled sniffles fade, her shoulders heaving slower and slower.
  499. >“About done for the night, love?”
  500. >You jump slightly at the voice over your shoulder, and turn to find a serving mare standing patiently.
  501. “Uh, yeah, yes, thank you.”
  502. >Fishing a handful of coins from your pocket, you pay for the last round of drinks and send her on her way.
  503. >Returning your attention to the table, you find the sobs have been replaced with gentle snoring.
  504. >Ah fuck.
  505. >Well at least you can think in peace, now.
  506. >You rest your chin in your hands, tiredly regarding the sleeping mare across from you.
  507. >Her head is gracelessly slumped face down on the table, cushioned by her forehooves as her mane sprawls across the dirty surface.
  508. >No taking her back to the barracks in this condition, that’s for sure.
  509. >Back to your place, then?
  510. >When in the capitol, you rent a room in a cozy, upscale inn near the city center.
  511. >It’s not a far walk from here, and you figure Vigilant can sleep off the night and clean up in the morning before heading to the castle.
  512. >It’s the least you could do.
  513. >Besides, you talked your way into the meeting; you can talk Vigilant out of a little missing of duties.
  514. >You stand, measuring your reaction to the motion.
  515. >A little unsteady, but capable enough for the walk.
  516. >Rounding the table, you do a little mental planning before gingerly wrapping your arms around the sleeping guardsmare and scooping her out of the booth.
  517. >The armor makes things a little awkward, and her scabbard digs into your ribs, but she isn’t too heavy.
  518. >You nearly leave before remembering her helmet, shifting Vigilant around to free one arm and grab it.
  519. >The pony never wakes, her soft snores continuing at a steady pace.
  520. >Placing the helmet on her head, you roll her over and cradle her as you might an oversized baby or a large cat, her fore and hindlegs tucked tightly into each other.
  521. >Probably an indecent position for public, but it is late, and the patrons of the tavern are far too gone to notice or care.
  522. >With your cargo situated, you head for the door and into the pleasant summer night’s air.
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