And that was how Skewbald Doul found himself en route to a place he cared nothing for, for reasons he felt no shame over, to a purpose that just left him bemused.
Wind whipped his mane into disarray and flapped the pages of the book he was doggedly trying to read. Sharp gusts had twice obliged him to save his spectacles from a groundbound doom. The two Nightguard pulling the chariot were happy to ignore their silent passenger, instead swapping jibes and rumours fresh from the barracks.
They cut a south-westerly course, and had been doing so since daybreak for the better part of two hours. Whenever Skewbald intermittently gave up reading out of sheer frustration, he'd look out over the sides of the sky chariot and see fields and hills and the odd crags of stray mountains rushing by beneath the cloud cover. Twice they passed over villages, the ponies on the ground waving up at the chariot bearing royal insignia. The guards waved back. Skewbald didn't.
Skewbald found himself going through old mental counting exercises and remembering rote tricks in an attempt to stave off the tedium. One interesting note had sounded at one point, when he'd glanced behind the chariot to look to the north-east. The clear horizon he'd expected had instead been marred with a heavy black band of what seemed to be stormclouds. Skewbald hadn't heard of any great scheduled storms, but it wasn't as if he paid much attention to the weather schedule in any event.
They flew on, and it seemed like an age to Skewbald before they neared the journey's end.
"There we go," said one of the guards in a loud and cheerful tone to her colleague, catching Skewbald's attention.
Ahead of them, becoming clearer as they started the descent through the clouds, Fort Livery sprawled, baking under the mid-morning sun.
It was built by a river whose name Skewbald hadn't bothered to remember, radiating out from an ancient wooden fort built atop a crag rising out of a meander. Streets of bright, thatched houses ran down the slopes, gradually yielding to farmland as they ran across the flatland. Dusty roads and stone bridges made the town a crossroads, linking Las Pegasus to the east with Trottingham to the west with the Buffalo Territories to the south. What Skewbald took to be the town hall rose above the houses in the centre of town, competing with the fort's towers for height. Banners atop these towers flapped in the hot wind, he noted, banners marked with the blue-and-bronze of the Equestrian Guard.
"Shout if you see a flat bit," said the other Nightguard, craning around to glance at Skewbald. "We'll come in for a landing as close to the hall as we can."
In a farrier's office in the middle of Fort Livery, Zephyr Gauze was trying and failing to write a letter home.
Dear Mother, Father, Boreas, Eurus,
I received your last letter as of the 21st, and am pleased to report that a rugged life out from Trottingham has not rendered me dead and/or uncivilised. At least, not yet.
The words sounded good when he ran them through his head, and he wrote them down. He then stared at the paper, tried to push past a sudden wall of writer's block, and failed. Zephyr let his pen fall from his mouth and flicked the paper into a wastepaper basket beside his desk with a sigh. It joined a growing pile that threatened to overflow the basket.
Stretching green wings briefly and flicking strands of his blond mane out of his eyes, Zephyr rummaged for some new angle with which to open a letter. He stole a glance at the speaking tube rising out of his desk in case it should thump with an appointment for him, and when it didn't, he turned his attention once more to a well-worn copy of Daring Do and the Griffon's Goblet.
There was little else in the office to occupy his attention. His medical equipment - stethoscopes, ever-ready farrier's bag, needle and thread, jars of antiseptics, ointments, sealants, bandages, and orthotic shoes – was as clean and prepared as it could ever be. Nopony had made any demands on his time since he'd arrived, whether patient or fellow farrier.
A less patient farrier would have been all but bouncing off the office's walls, he was sure. The townsponies had acquired an annoying habit of not getting injured or even mildly unwell a lot of the time. The Guard had their own medics and farriers in the fort to deal with their own still rare injuries. And Zephyr was sure that the other farriers in the clinic were deliberately steering the few cases they received away from the young student on a placement. It was, he conceded, probably a well-intentioned attempt by those who remembered themselves during their student days to save as many lives as possible, but still. He'd worked his initial years at the coal-face of medical education and emerged with most of his sanity intact. Some practical experience before returning there would be nice.
Zephyr kept reading, part of his attention listening to the world turn outside his office. He sat behind his desk at one end of the room, behind which a window allowed light to stream in. A stocked cabinet ran along one wall, and a farrier's chair and folding screen along the other. An elderly air conditioner gurgled away to itself in a corner, producing intermittent blasts of steam given colour by the deteriorating magical mechanism inside it.
One such blast broke him from his reading, making him remember with some guilt about the letter yet to be written. He tugged open a drawer and withdrew a fresh sheet of paper. Securing a pen in his mouth, he began to write, determined that this time, he would finally see it finished -
Dear Mater, Pater, Assorted young miscreants,
Your letter reached me alive and well...
And then, with the regularity of a metronome, writer's block. He stared at the words, created anagrams, reshuffled them, converted them into numbers and added them up, and then despairingly added the letter to the basket and re-found his place in the book.
Behind him, unseen, a flying chariot broached the town's skyline.
Above the Cadet Training Grounds for Fort Livery, the skies were drenching the ground with sunshine.
They were also bucketing down with rain, shrouding the ground with mist, sending gale-force winds chasing through a raging thunderstorm, and sending down enough snow to do a windigo proud.
The training grounds were a grid of nine hectare-sized squares, each of which bore a different feature, such as a thick forest, rolling hills, a facsimile of a border fort, or a perfectly level plain. The weather for each square was changed regularly by pegasi officers, according to the needs of whatever exercises were on the schedule. Currently, the central-south square was shrouded with fine drizzle. Sunbeams were caught from neighbouring squares to turn the edges into shifting rainbows, and to set the dripping armour of the drilling cadets inside aglimmer.
It was the sort of sight Chevalier would have normally taken a moment to appreciate, if he weren't distracted by another cadet trying to brain him with a waster lance.
Silver Shield's lance's blunt tip slashed down and was knocked aside by a last-minute swipe from Chevalier's own weapon. Chevalier back-stepped hurriedly as he tried to raise his lance into a proper ward. This was easier said than done when the thing had to be awkwardly couched under a leg or balanced in one's mouth, but Chevalier persevered, securing it in a firm bite just in time to dodge and knock aside two casual thrusts. Silver Shield pulled back and held his lance in the crook of a foreleg, flashing Chevalier a cheerful smile as he did so.
"I'm always open to surrender," said Silver Shield, who was proving himself irritatingly adept with the weapon. "Just in case you felt the need to offer it."
"Shtolen the wordsh from m' mouth," replied Chevalier, somewhat indistinctly past the lance between his teeth. "'M prepared t' be merfiful."
Silver Shield laughed briefly, just long enough for Chevalier to take advantage of his distraction and drive forward. Silver Shield's turn to hurriedly block came, and the cadet quickly yielded ground as their lances blurred and cracked together in the air, trying to maintain distance between them both.
They broke apart and circled one another, Chevalier shifting the lance so that the pole's midsection was supported only between his teeth. Silver Shield lunged forwards with a single straight thrust, interpreting the stance as weak. But Chevalier was ready for the attack, and side-stepped in the instance before the lance drove through the space where he'd been standing. Silver Shield tried to correct his momentum, too late to stop Chevalier from swiping his hooves out from beneath him with one swift and strong lance flick. Silver Shield all but spun in the air and came crashing to the ground with a clatter of armour plates and a startled release of breath, floundering on his back like an upturned tortoise.
Chevalier quickly positioned himself above Silver Shield's stunned figure, spitting out the lance and letting it roll free as he pinned the cadet down with the weight of both his hooves. Silver Shield struggled, but Chevalier was a pony to whom 'strapping' could be reasonably attached as a descriptor, and Silver Shield gave up after a few moments, breathing heavily with exertion.
Around them, there came the clacks and muffled oaths of other cadet pairs at their own lance drill, above which the voice of Staff Sergeant Ginger rose. As advanced cadets, Chevalier and Silver Shield were spared most of her attention.
"I'll take that surrender, if you're still offering," said Chevalier brightly, casually shifting his weight as Silver Shield renewed his escape attempt.
"Sun take it, Chev. If you keep pinning me to the ground during training, we're going to start rumours."
"Implying that they haven't started already." Chevalier nodded sagely, as if in grave contemplation, affecting to not notice Silver Shield's covert kicks to his midsection. "Wise advice. I'll be sure to do it more often and more publicly. Thank you for saying so."
"Well, that's – if you'd – moonrocks on a – arrgh." Escape attempt mark two was finally conceded as a failure, and Silver Shield opted for lying prone and adopting an annoyed expression. "Remind me again why I'm your coltfriend?"
"My skill at arms, easy wit, chiselled physique, and discrete and self-effacing nature? Agree to all of these and you go free."
"Fine. Assuming that sarcasm counts."
"It's such nice weather for lying in the grass," said Chevalier. "Obviously, you don't want to miss a single part of it."
Silver Shield snorted and threw his head back, the back of his helmet leaning on the damp grass, his grey eyes regarding the world behind him.
Then he said, in a low and careful tone, "Ease up. Your dad's coming over."
Chevalier looked up, towards the central square. A balloon with an under-slung basket was tethered to the middle of the square via a long chain. A ladder descended from the basket, allowing officers to scale the balloon and observe any training in progress, providing a point from which to take notes, plan future sessions based on performance, and only occasionally point and laugh.
From the direction of the balloon, a dark figure in purple officer's armour was trotting in their direction. Their gait was quick and limping.
Chevalier let Silver Shield go, offering a hoof to help him up. He checked himself over briefly, tucking a few stray red strands of his mane back beneath his helmet, and shook himself, sending some of the water soaking his armour and coat off in a spray. He was aware of Silver Shield doing the same, though perhaps with not as much care as Chevalier himself.
"At ease, cadets," said General Destrier De Gendarme as he neared, hardly seeming to notice the drizzle he had stepped into, and returning their salutes with a brisk one of his own. He turned to the approaching Ginger and returned her salute in turn. "Sergeant, would it interrupt your drill if I borrowed one of these cadets?"
"Not unduly, sir," said the rust-coloured mare, her gaze sweeping them over briefly. "The spare can help teach other groups."
"Very good. Cadet Chevalier, if you'd accompany me?"
Destrier turned and began trotting back the way he came. Chevalier followed after a backwards glance and a mouthed "Meet you after this?" at Silver Shield. He fell into step with his father, wondering what he had been called away for. The horseplay back there? A family matter? Was there an emergency?
When he was near his father, their similarities and differences were apparent. Chevalier had inherited Destrier's red mane and wine-coloured eyes, but where Chevalier was of slightly-above average height with a muscled build and a white coat, Destrier was tall, gaunt, and black-coated. Chevalier trotted in gleaming bronze-coloured cadet armour; part of Destrier's battered purple armour was missing to make room for a metal leg brace around his left foreleg.
"We'll be receiving a newcomer from Canterlot soon, via royal chariot," said Destrier as they passed the boundary from drizzle into clear skies. "A student from the School for Gifted Unicorns, from what I've gathered."
Chevalier said, "Yes, sir," by way of a place-holder, trying to contain the several curious questions that had immediately bobbed up. He instead waited for his father to elaborate.
"I imagine they'd be happier with somepony meeting them as they arrived, just to show them around the town, answer questions, give them directions, and help them get settled in." Destrier turned a dark red gaze on Chevalier. "If you're feeling presentable?"
Greeting a visitor should be an easy and simple enough task, and a student of the School for Gifted Unicorns – heck, so much as a student from the capital - seemed like the sort of pony who'd have an interesting tale or two to share with Chevalier. He'd get to show off some of Fort Livery, and depending on how long that took, he'd probably still be able to spend much of the afternoon with Silver Shield as well. Chevalier grinned, letting his inner presentability shine through as best it could past the rain and sweat.
"I can do that, sir," he replied. "When will they be arriving?"
Destrier glanced skywards.
"Around now-ish, if I may use formal parlance," he said dryly, extending a hoof. Chevalier looked in its direction, and saw a distant chariot pulled by two pegasi, with a figure too small and distant to be made out in the back. It was coming down over the town, and seemed like it was beginning to circle.
"Meet them when they land," said Destrier. "Wherever they decide to do so. You'll probably catch them if you start galloping now."
"Yes, sir," said Chevalier, saluting as he peeled away. He gathered speed, moving to a canter in the direction of the town, the sun already starting to bake his armour dry.
"Try the town hall again!"
"We've tried thrice! It's not going to stop being all statues and fountains!"
"Then – there!"
"That's a roof! You can't land on somepony's roof!"
Fifteen minutes ago, they had started their search for a suitable landing area for the chariot.
They had discovered that whoever had planned the town really had a thing for narrow, sharply-curving streets, and filling wide open spaces with sprawling fountains and statues with upwards-facing jags. The two Nightguard had started arguing about what parts of the town would have spaces in them, and Skewbald had been content to let them get on with it.
That had been fifteen minutes ago, when life was happy and full of joy.
Five minutes after that, the argument had resumed in earnest, when the Nightguard had started to insist to one another in sheer disbelief that there had to be a space somewhere, but had contended over where it could be.
Skewbald had tried, after their raised voices had become a definite distraction, to imply that he wouldn't actually mind if they just dropped him off somewhere outside the town proper. He had been ignored. Some manner of pride was now at stake, and stars save the pony who attempted to interfere.
Five minutes after that, the Nightguard had started pulling the chariot with escalating force, pulling off acrobatic stunts that a Wonderbolt would have respected and that dropped the bottom out of Skewbald's stomach as he held onto the chariot's side for dear life. They had kept on loudly denying reality and each other, and twice now had tried to pull the chariot in different directions.
Ponies below had become convinced that this was some sort of spectator event, and had started cheering every loop-the-loop and swerve. Bored guards on the fort's walls had produced score cards from nowhere and were watching avidly. A small crowd galloped after them, including one figure in gleaming armour who seemed to be trying to wave them down.
Skewbald was too busy holding onto the chariot to pay them much attention. His gaze flicked often to the straining ropes that kept the guards attached to the chariot. The tell-tale glitter of enchantments ran across their surface, ensuring the ropes would try and keep the chariot's top facing in the right direction no matter the movements of the pullers.
"Horse-words to this," declared one of the Nightguard suddenly. "Try the town hall again."
"Buck this with steel shoes," declared the other Nightguard at the same time. "Maybe the fort has a space."
"Just slow down and wai..." interjected Skewbald, straining to make himself heard above the rush of wind, just before the Nightguard, halfway through pulling the chariot in another midair loop, pulled sharply apart in opposing directions.
The ropes pulled taut. The ropes snapped.
The chariot whirled and entered freefall, spinning all the while, and Skewbald's perception of the world boiled down to sky buildings sky buildings sky ponies gasping sky ponies fleeing sky empty street sky WHUMPH.
The chariot by some miracle landed base-down with a mighty crash, tiles and thatch scattering around it from where it had clipped the edges of roofs. Skewbald was hurled about within it, his head slamming off the hard wood of one side. The concussive force knocked away his senses; he was aware of landing awkwardly on one foreleg but hardly felt it past the sudden new constellations that appeared to have sprouted to life and were wheeling across his vision. His legs, at least the three which were currently responding to instructions, flailed as he tried to rise. He swung himself upwards with a low groan, just in time to meet a falling tile head-first.
That knocked away any immediate enthusiasm for another attempt at rising, and for a long moment he lay in the chariot, content to admire the pretty stars and to let his senses gradually reknit themselves into something he could work with. The concerned hubbub of what were presumably bystanders rose from around him. He slowly twisted his neck around, looking up at the sky and at the looming edges of buildings.
One of the buildings sported a red-green banded pillar – the sign for any farrier's office – and Skewbald let his gaze drift there, just as another stallion rose up in front of it and perched his hooves over the chariot's sides.
He appeared to be a pegasus, his blond mane in disarray and his green wings spread out, the strap of a hastily-donned farrier's bag swinging around his neck. Bright yellow eyes looked over Skewbald with the typical analytic concern of a farrier, undershot with a certain worrying enthusiasm. "Are you okay?" the pegasus asked, his accent strange to Skewbald, even as it seemed to reverberate along with his blurring form. "Can you hear me?"
"Gggh," confirmed Skewbald, waving his obedient forehoof in the farrier's direction while attempting to summon a response. "Gah … yes." He realised part of the reason for the blurriness of the farrier beyond whatever jolt had been delivered to his skull; his glasses had been knocked from his snout. Magic coalesced about his horn, the very act of drawing it in seeming to set the world a little more to rights, and he scouted about the bottom of the chariot with some probing tendrils.
The farrier nodded, taking the information in. "Okay. Is anything in pain? Have you hurt a leg, your head, your horn?"
"Don't think ..." Skewbald found his glasses, levitating them up to reset them, and noted with some relief that they weren't broken. He tried to stand up inside the chariot, disliking being spoken down to, and managed to awkwardly roll himself over and rise to all four hooves before abruptly falling over to his right again.
"Retract that, maybe," he muttered. The lack of sensation below his right foreleg's knee was suddenly apparent to him, coupled with a faint and persistent pain just at the knee. "Leg, definitely. Maybe head."
The farrier opened his mouth to speak and then looked away, to the opposite side of the chariot. Skewbald glanced there, just as a new stallion perched their hooves over the chariot's side. His hooves were shod in what seemed to be enclosing metal shoes, and large red eyes scrutinised Skewbald from beneath a bronze-coloured helmet. "You okay in there?"
"Oh, yes, okay as can be," said Skewbald, trying to aim for 'scathing' in his tone but, he feared, probably only achieving 'confused'. The farrier was likely to be useful in the near future, some earth pony cadet with more hooves than brain cells likely wouldn't.
The cadet gave him a wry grin by way of response, and then looked up at the farrier. "You need a hand here, farrier?"
"Some help getting him inside the clinic wouldn't go amiss," the farrier said. "Do you know safe lifting?"
"I've taken the courses, same as any other wannabe grunt." The cadet peered back down at Skewbald. "We'll get you outta there soon as can be, big guy. What's your name?"
"Skewbald. Skewbald Doul." The grim impression was coming over him that the cadet – and probably the farrier once he'd outstayed his service – had every intention of inflicting himself on Skewbald's future.
"Like it. Goes with the coat. I'm Chevalier. Chevalier De Gendarme," replied the cadet, his head briefly dipping in what was presumably meant to be a courteous bow. The name rolled out of his mouth with the hint of a Fancé accent. His hooves began to press down on the chariot's side, to accompanying groaning from the wood. "Sleipnir's danglies, that was an entrance if ever I saw one."
"Zephyr Gauze," offered the farrier – who, it now occurred to Skewbald, was suspiciously and worryingly young. "I'll see you up and raring. Welcome to Fort Livery, incidentally."
"Don't I feel it," muttered Skewbald, leaning his head against the bottom of the chariot and looking up at the sky again, to where the two Nightguard seemed to be getting into a heated argument over whose fault that had been, to where the noise of bystanders rose and beat on his patience like a drum, and where more tile fragments and thatch continued to patter down like raindrops
He'd had more promising starts, he wasn't going to lie.