Chapter 1: Offer of a Lifetime
The Canterlot courtyard was arranged overnight into a small testing ground. It was littered with things like training dummies, fake swords, and weights. Ten ponies were in the middle of the courtyard, mingling as they waited for instructions while a couple of guards watched over them.
Among them was Brave Storm, a striped earth pony, who found herself roaming away from the group to check out all of the different equipment. Something out of place in a shadowy corner caught her eye. A tall and thick log that was so large it looked like it was cut right out from the trunk of an old tree. Inspecting the log, Brave Storm observed rounded grooves that reminded her of hoof prints.
“All right, listen up, everypony! I’m only going to say this once!” The ponies were interrupted by a strong voice that carried across the courtyard effortlessly. The source was from an airborne pegasus with a blue coat and a wild pink mane and tail. She was adorned in the Canterlot’s day watch armor, which caught the midday sun and sparkled brilliant gold.
“I want all of you to line up in front of me.” The pegasus continued as she landed, folding her wings close to her sides. “You’re going to stand shoulder-to-shoulder flank-to-flank. Do you understand?”
There was a casual shuffle of hooves as the ponies slowly made their way over.
“I said-” the pegasus inhaled deeply and bellowed, “Do you understand!?”
“Yes, ma’am!” shouted the crowd in unison as they quickly formed the requested line.
“That’s more like it! When an order is given to you as a guard you are to follow it promptly! Understood?”
“You all learn quickly! Good! My name is True Heart and I am the captain of the Daywatch guards.” She introduced herself.
“And I am Dark Wing," said a voice in the shadows behind True Heart. Emerging from the darkness came a dark gray bat pony wearing silver armor. “The Nightwatch captain.”
Dark Wing passed over a clipboard to True Heart with a tired glare. With his thick dark eyebrows, slit pupils, and long pointed teeth he held a rather menacing expression on his face.
“Not gonna do this part this time either, eh?” True Heart commented, flipping through the pages.
“I keep telling you to host this in the evenings if you want my active participation.” Dark Wing poorly stifled a yawn.
“Listen up, recruits. You’ll be cycling through these different training exercises and-” the pegasus looked back at her bat pony colleague, who was already struggling to keep his eyes open. “-we’ll be watching your performances. You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to show potential to learn.
“You’re going to find yourself a partner, pick a station and wait there. When you hear the whistle blow-” Dark Wing blew a whistle. “-you’ll begin. When you hear it again, you’ll move to the station to your right. Clear?”
“Yes, ma’am!” the crowd answered.
After a couple of seconds of the line staying in place with no signs of budging, True Heart shook a hoof and prompted, “Well? Go!”
The line immediately broke and became a cluster as ponies rushed together, bartering partnerships with each other. Being in the middle, Brave Storm immediately felt overwhelmed and looked away from the chaos where she spotted a golden yellow unicorn that pulled himself away from the group. She made her way over and he offered her a nervous smile.
“Hey, uh- partners?” he offered his hoof out to her. “I’m Summer Solo.”
“Brave Storm.” She answered and touched her hoof to his. “Anything catching your eye?”
“Hm, how about that?” he offered, gesturing to a weapons rack with a collection of training swords in different sizes and a couple of shields. “I know a little bit about swordplay, and starting somewhere familiar sounds comfortable.”
“Looks fun.” Brave Storm confirmed and trotted over to claim the station before any of the other ponies could group up and claim it from under them. Summer Solo wasn’t too far behind her and immediately began inspecting the different wooden swords. Using his magic, the unicorn pulled one of the thinner swords off the rack, gave it a few swings and thrusts, and looked satisfied with the weapon.
“You know anything about swords?” he asked.
“I know they’re made of metal and go swish swish when you swing.” Brave Storm answered with a shrug.
“Ah, picked the weapon sparring to start? I suppose that’s to be expected of you, Summer Solo.” True Heart remarked and turned her attention to the other eight ponies. “This is a pretty straightforward station. I want to see you and your partner spar using any of the swords up on the rack. Now, these might be fake swords, but they’re still made of real wood. Be careful not to bruise each other too badly- you have other courses you need to do. Any questions? No? Good.”
“You know her?” Brave Storm asked once True Heart was out of their space. Summer Solo, who was back to inspecting the swords, held a melancholy expression for the briefest of moments.
“My whole family’s been supporting the Guard in their own ways since the Wild Magic surge.” He answered, pulling out a short and stocky sword from the weapons rack and offering it to the earth pony. “I think this is a good match for you. You normally have a shield with these, but let’s have you get used to wielding a sword.”
Brave Storm took the sword in her mouth and gave it a few practice swings while True Heart explained the other stations. Summer Solo offered small bits of advice to Brave Storm between the pegasus’s explanations.
Dark Wing blew his whistle and the courtyard sprung to life with ponies grunting, talking casually between exercises, and True Heart shouting words of encouragement as she made her rounds. Dark Wing stayed in the shade, using his ears more than his eyes to observe.
“Want me to go easier on you and hold the sword in my mouth, too, or do you want me to use my magic?” Summer Solo asked as Brave Storm dropped into a low stance.
“Give me a challenge.” She answered, determination flaring in her eyes.
“Aren’t you a bold one?” Summer Solo laughed as he adopted a tall stance keeping his posture narrow.
Immediately Summer Solo lunged forward with a quick forward step, dropping his body low and bringing the sword forward to poke at Brave Storm. She barely had time to step aside to avoid most of the blow and felt the sword grazing her long coat.
“Your hair is far longer than I thought. I’ll need to adjust for that.” Summer Solo wonders aloud, adjusting his stance into something more defensive as Brave Storm attempted to make her counterattack. He did a graceful sidestep and brought his sword down in time to easily parry the blow of her swing. As Brave Storm slid down the slant he made with his sword, Summer Solo quickly withdrew the sword and before she had time to recover, poked her neck with the tip.
“Guess I lost.” Brave Storm resigned with a laugh. “You’re good.”
“Nah, you’re just inexperienced and I used my best sword. Let’s make it fairer.” Summer Solo modestly brushed off, returning his sword to the rack. He pulled off another sword and held this one in his mouth. He continued to offer Brave Storm advice on how to get better, even allowing her freebie swings to try out a new technique. He also spoke his thought process out loud, something that Brave Storm was sure was also helping her learn.
The whistle blew and the pony pair put up their swords neatly for the next group before trotting to the next station. Brave Storm didn’t win any of the matches against the trained unicorn, but he showered her in praise for her progress and notably refused to accept any praise she tried to return. The next station had them doing a sled-pulling exercise. The partners are to take turns getting into the harness and pulling the sled, adding more and more weights to the load with each round.
“Ah, this is pretty easy for me.” Brave Storm insisted on going first and was quickly in the harness with Summer Solo's aid. “Go ahead and throw on fifty pounds of extra weight.”
“Fif-fifty!?” He declared in shock. “You’re so strong.”
“Well, yes, I am pretty buff. But there’s a trick to pulling sleds.” She felt her head rising proudly and some of her muscles flex at his compliment. Not that her long hair would allow any of the muscle definition to show.
“Loaded!” He declared and trotted alongside Brave Storm. She pressed against her harness, got a grip on the dirt, and pulled. The sled offered a bit of resistance at first, but as she felt more sure of the ground beneath her, Brave Storm could quickly pull the load to its destination and back with little effort.
“My turn, I guess.” Summer Solo nervously laughed, helping Brave Storm out and slotting himself into her place.
“How much weight?” Brave Storm asked.
“Loaded.” She told him and trotted to his side where she could see him already struggling to move the sled forward. His neck was strained and his hooves slipped on the surface.
“Stop before you hurt yourself.” She asserted. Summer Solo offered no resistance and began panting. She waited until he recovered to begin instruction. “First off, you need to dig into the ground better. It doesn’t matter how strong you are or what posture you have if you keep sliding around. Don’t step with the tip of your toe first, dig your heel in. Yes, like that. Now try to pull.”
Immediately, Summer Solo went from not being able to move at all, to slowly but steadily pulling the sled to the line. Brave Storm applauded his efforts and walked alongside him. She told him that he was doing well, offering encouragement to keep going and to keep doing his best. It took three times as long for him as it did her, but he made it all the same.
“I… I need a break.” He huffed. “That was the most I’ve ever pulled.”
“That was really dangerous!” Brave Storm scolded with a furrow on her brows. “You could have seriously hurt yourself. Why did you do that?”
“I-I don’t know!” he said between heavy breaths of air. “I just saw how much you pulled and-”
“I’ve been lifting heaving things for years. It was kind of my job.” she interrupted. “You didn’t expect me to be able to beat you in sparring because you were trained and I’m not expecting you to do what I can.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” he apologized, his breath fully caught. “We should get you pulling before True Heart thinks we’re slacking off.”
Brave Storm was now in control of the number of weights being pulled by either pony. Quickly she maxed out the five hundred pounds of offered weights on her sled and had Summer Solo hitch a ride on the back. In the spirit of the challenge, she extended the number of laps until she was doing a steady three laps for Summer Solo’s every one lap.
She offered a new technique to Summer Solo on each of his trips and steadily brought him back up to his original thirty pounds. Since the start of the exercise, Summer Solo showed a lot of improvement, able to complete his lap in half the time he did his first attempt. And even more notably, he wasn’t devoid of his breath.
“Great job, Summer Solo! You’ve made so much progress already!” Brave Storm complimented, helping him out of his harness.
“I suppose. Still have a ways to go before I get even close to you.” he deflected.
“Why do you keep doing that?” Brave Storm asked with a frown.
“You keep deflecting every bit of praise that comes your way.” She answered sternly, tilting her head to the side. “During sparring, you wouldn’t accept the compliment that you were good at it since you were experienced and you complimented me for my improvement. However, over here you applaud my strength despite it being my job to be strong and you won’t accept my praise that you’ve improved. What’s up with that?”
“I-I… I’m sorry.” Summer Solo answered, lowering his head and tucking his tail between his legs. “I- there’s just a lot. I’m the youngest of four siblings and I always had to fight for my attention from my parents. They’ve all done this before and they were all already so much better at it than I am now. I never really got compliments, just criticisms and I never… learned how to take praise. I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to apologize to me for.” Brave Storm cooed, softening her tone. “That’s really unfair. Unfair of your parents to do that to you, yes. But even more importantly, unfair to yourself. You shouldn’t compare yourself to other ponies. You know your own journey and your own abilities. You know how far you’ve come and you should be proud of your progress. And for no one’s sake but your own.”
“I didn’t even know I was doing this to myself.” Summer Solo softly admitted, bumping his shoulder gently into hers. “Thank you, Brave Storm. I’ll work it.”
Before they could continue, all of the ponies in the courtyard stopped their exercises and bowed in the same direction. A very confused True Heart was caught off guard as she glanced at the ten ponies across the courtyard.
“Is this some sort of prank?” she demanded with a frown. “Did we say you could stop?”
“True Heart.” Dark Wing hissed behind her, but the pegasus continued.
“This isn’t the time for you to be fooling around!”
“The disrespect of-!”
“What?” True Heart snapped at Dark Wing, finally turning around to face him. He was also bowing and, with his eyes, he gestured for her to look at the courtyard entryway. There stood Princess Dawn Bringer with an amused smile. Next to her was an intimidating red pinto unicorn with scars across her face wearing a green cloak.
“Good afternoon, True Heart.” Dawn Bringer greeted.
“Pr-princess!” the pegasus stammered, and quickly dropped into a low bow. Dawn Bringer released a cheerful and pleasant laugh that put everypony at ease.
“I’m just here to watch. Pretend as though I’m not here.” She said, waving her hoof gently. Dawn Bringer settled into a place near Dark Wing and struck up a conversation, occasionally looking out into the courtyard and watching the ponies settle back into their exercises. Watching far more intensely was the unicorn.
“Who is she?” Brave Storm asked.
“The… princess?” Summer Solo asked, raising a brow.
“No, the unicorn.” She snipped, offended that he could possibly think that she wouldn’t recognize Dawn Bringer.
“Oh, her. I think her name is Sword Dancer.” He answered as he hopped onto the sled. “I see her around rarely, but she’s always close to the princess.”
True Heart continued to lead the exercise. For the next few hours, she led the ten ponies through the different stations two times each, a break for a late lunch, and one more round. During the last session, True Heart and Sword Dancer pulled out the large log from the corner and brought it to the center of the courtyard.
True Heart blew a whistle and ordered, “Everypony, put down your equipment and form a line over here!”
Brave Storm and Summer Solo had a complicated station with several things to put away. As a result, they were the last two in the line. Unicorn guards began moving things out of the courtyard, leaving only that log behind.
“This is your last task and we’ll be finished. We want you to kick this log as hard as you can. Go for it like you want to kick it in half!” True Heart explained. “You’ll get three attempts and you can use whatever method you’d like, but it has to be your hoof touching the log. If you’re a pegasus can use their wings, a unicorn can use their magic, and an earth pony- well, you can use your legs.
“I want to specify here that you are not expected to be able to break this log. Your performance here will not negatively reflect on you. Try your best. All right, you’re up.” True Heart closed out as she pointed to the first pony in the line- a pegasus. Everypony in the courtyard respectfully backed themselves along the edge to give her space.
At first, the pegasus tried a standing kick to test the waters. As hard as a kick as it was, the log didn’t even quake. Second, she ran from an unoccupied wall and sprinted forward, turning on a dime at the last second and using the momentum to bring more force to her kick. A shallow hoofprint was left behind. Finally, she took herself high into the skies and dove. The log tipped over so slightly and fell back into its resting position. A deep groove was left behind—a polite round of applause.
The next pony tried, then the next, all leaving their marks of attempts to split this log. Now it was time for Summer Solo. He looked to Brave Storm who gave him an encouraging head butt.
“You got this. Remember, you’re not being judged negatively for this.” she encouraged.
He nodded and gave her a nervous smile. But there was vigor in his eyes. He will do Summer Solo’s best, not somepony else’s best. Even on his strongest and most creative kicks, he didn’t leave a mark on the log. His head drooped in disappointment for a brief moment. But he shook his head and forced himself to hold a prideful pose.
“Good job!” Brave Storm cheered as she trotted up to the log, bumping shoulders with the unicorn as he passed by her.
“Thanks.” he accepted with a small smile. “Good luck!”
Brave Storm approached the log and took a moment to inspect it and maybe find a weak part to attack. No luck, it was solid, so anywhere would do. She lined up her shot and threw her legs out, connecting firmly with her target. A loud crack was heard in the courtyard and the other ponies winced in empathy. She felt the unrelenting sturdiness of the log throw the force back to her legs and through her bones. Brave Storm felt her body turn to jelly and she stumbled to the ground.
“You okay, kid?” True Heart asked with concern, but her slightly unfolded wings betrayed some excitement. “That was a mean kick. Sounds like you broke something. You wanna stop?”
“N-no, I’m fine. I want my other kicks.” Brave Storm said defiantly. Her technique was off, that’s why it bounced back. Should she try a running start? No, she’s certain her standing kick would serve her better. The log wants to be immovable and to defy its wishes, she needs to be rooted.
Brave Storm aligned herself and dug her front hooves into the ground. Toes first since she’ll need to push off the ground to use all of the muscles available to her. A few deep breaths. In, out, in, out, in- kick! Using both of her hind legs, she forced herself to be unmovable against the log. If she refuses to move, then it must be the log that moves. And move it did as it tilted far to its other side.
Brave Storm let her guard down, figuring the log would fall over entirely. Instead, the log’s tilt stopped, held, and then began falling back towards her. In a split moment, without time to think about what she was doing, she readied herself for another kick.
Everything slowed in her mind and she saw the perfect timing. Her last kick would use the momentum of the log itself to deliver a devastating blow. Her hoof connected, she would not move, and the log could not go back. So the log did the only thing it could and split open, leaving a deep scar along its length. The sound of splintering wood echoed in the courtyard and all else was silent. Then there was a cheer as Summer Solo bolted away from the crowd.
“You did it, Brave Storm!!” he yelled, throwing himself onto his hind legs. His excitement was contagious and Brave Storm found herself on her back legs, too.
“I did it? I did it!” she repeats to herself, in disbelief of what she managed to accomplish.
“By Dawn Bringer’s sparkling tail, you’re amazing!” Summer Solo declared.
“By my what now?” Princess Dawn Bringer asked, her head tilted at the new-to-her phrase. Dark Wing stifled a laugh that earned him a dirty look from Sword Dancer.
“Did you see that!?” True Heart cheered, no longer hiding her excitement in her professionalism. She was reared and her wings were shamelessly flapping. “I didn’t think that thing could be broken.”
Among all of the whooping and cheering from the nine other recruits, Brave Storm caught Sword Dancer giving her an approving look. She turned her focus away, managing to get True Heart to stop galloping and flying around enough to talk with her, Dark Wing, and Dawn Bringer. Huddled up and with the crowd beginning to swarm around Brave Storm, it was impossible to tell what the four were discussing. But she did catch that the conversation dispersed after the four of them nodded. Dark Wing and True Heart stayed while Sword Dancer and Dawn Bringer used the hullabaloo to quietly slip away.
The guards fed the recruits dinner in the courtyard, allowing them some time to socialize and wind down from their training. It was getting late and the guards were noticeably changing shifts as the golden armors of the day watch turned silver. With a full belly and tired body, Brave Heart was ready to get to bed. She nudged Summer Solo, who was leaning against her as they lay in the grass together.
“Hm?” he acknowledged her, looking over his shoulder.
“I think I’m gonna head home.” She told him, punctuating her reasoning with a yawn.
“Mind if I walked with you?” He asked her, helping her back on her hooves.
“I wouldn’t mind at all.” She answered with a smile. She stretched her back as Summer Solo told the group of ponies he was talking to goodbye and wished they all wished each other luck in getting into the guard.
“I don’t think I’m getting in.” Summer Solo admitted after a long moment of comfortable silence between the two of them. His head was still high and he spoke with a matter-of-fact tone rather than the saddened one he probably would have had at the start of the day.
“Why’s that?” Brave Storm asked. “You did well today.”
“Well for me, yes. But I don’t think well enough for the guard.” He stated. “Honestly? I’ve been thinking since you told me to not compare myself to my others. And I began to wonder if this is what I even want to do with myself or if this is just what I felt like I needed to do. I saw that my whole family was invested in the Canterlot guard and I just assumed I had to be, too. Maybe this is what I want, but I think I need to come to that conclusion on my own.”
“What will you do if you are accepted?”
“Hm. I think I’ll decline the offer.” He said after a moment of thought. “And if later I decide that I do want to be a Canterlot guard, then I’ll come back. I passed it once, I could pass it again.”
“I just met you several hours ago and I feel like you’ve grown a lot today.” Brave Storm remarked with a warm smile.
“I did. Thank you, Brave Storm. Even if for the wrong reasons, I’m glad I came.” Summer Solo confessed and punctuated his next point by brushing his head against the earth pony’s shoulder. “Because I made a really good friend today.”
“I did, too.” she reciprocated, resting her head on his for a moment. “I think we split here, right? Good night, Summer Solo.”
“Sweet dreams.” he wished, gave her a quick nuzzle, and trotted off down his street.
By the time Brave Storm reached her street, the night watch had completely taken over. She began to feel unsettled the closer she got to her home. Sure, it was late, but there should still be a few ponies wandering the streets. And she didn’t remember the last time she saw a guard on patrol.
“Hello, Brave Storm.” she heard behind her. She jumped and quickly twirled around to face the pony who startled her. It was the pinto unicorn from earlier, and she was a lot scarier up close.
“Ah!” Brave Storm yelled and demanded. “Where did you come from? How did I not hear you? When did you get there?”
“You done?” the unicorn asked, raising a brow. Brave Storm took a few calming breaths and nodded.
“I am Knight Commander Sword Dancer and I am here on behalf of the Knights of Equestria.” She introduced herself, her stance strong and proud. “We have worked for centuries to ensure the safety of Equestria and the ponies who call her home. And now, I formally extend my offer to you, Brave Storm, to join the Knights and protect all of Equestria.”
From inside her cloak, Sword Dancer pulled out a white knight chess piece and offered it for Brave Storm to take.
“I- what?” Brave Storm choked out after a moment of awkward silence between the two.
“I know, it is a lot to take in. You probably never heard of the organization until now, correct?” Sword Dancer asked and continued, tucking away the chess piece. “To skip the formalities, we were around long before the Canterlot guard. And we operate on quests, rather than routine. One week we may have to help ponies defend their town against a Wild Magic attack and the next we’ll have an expedition deep into the forest to slay a bugbear that has been attacking ponies on the road.”
“Okay. But- why me?” Brave Storm asked, sitting as she tried to process everything that she was being told.
“I think you’re a perfect fit for what the Knights of Equestria stand for.”
“How do you figure that?” Brave Storm asked, unsure how Sword Dancer could know that.
“From your training in the courtyard. True Heart told me you didn’t back down from jumping right into something new. Dark Wing commended you for taking time out of your training to confront your partner about his self-destructive habit.” Sword Dancer listed. “The Princess herself caught how Summer Solo and you looked to each other for support and helped each other. And of course, I caught that moment you thought on your hooves and used that opportunity to use the log’s weight against it. You like to be challenged, you’re kind, you support your friends, and you’re quick-witted. All of these are admirable qualities of a Knight.
“What I am giving you is the offer of a lifetime to a pony like you. To go beyond the guard and only protect the princesses and ponies of Canterlot. I am asking you to protect and be a shield and a hero to everypony in Equestria.” Sword Dancer reestablished, pulling the chess piece out again. “So again I ask- Will you join the Knights of Equestria?”
“I… I don’t know.” Brave Storm admitted. “I know filly-me would have been screaming in excitement. But I spend my whole life looking up to the princesses and wanting to join the guard to protect my princess. And this being presented to me when I’m this close to getting everything I wanted is a lot.”
“Yes, I understand.” Sword Dancer sympathized. “I request that you think about it. Give it a week and come back to me if you’ve decided to take me up on my offer. But for now, get some rest. You’ve earned it, Brave Storm.”