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Tales of Old Equestria: Chapter 9Chapter 9: Cottage in the Woods The metallic sounds grew louder as the ponies cautiously approached the source of the noise. Hard Counter and Sheila Shadowmane took the lead, the former keeping a forehoof on his rapier, and the latter levitating a kunai, wrapped in a red aura. Pending Storm and Roswell Rivet kept pace close behind them. “W-what do you g-guys think it could b-b-be?” stuttered Pending as her teeth chattered. Sheila kept her scarlet eyes forward. “Sky Tribe. Must be.” “Are you certain?” Roswell inquired, gently patting Pending on the shoulder to comfort her. “What would they be doing out here, making all this noise?” “What would anypony be doing out here?” retorted Hardy, his purple eyes scanning left and right. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. For all we know, we’re being lured into a trap.” “Who lures ponies into a trap with loud noise?” the inventor replied bemusedly, raising an eyebrow. “It would make far more sense if they posed as a traveler, or a citizen who escaped Cloudsdale, or as a kind stranger enticing us with the promise of delicious cookies!” “Mmm, cookies…” Pending muttered as she stroked her growling belly. “I really hope it’s cookies.” Hardy sighed in exasperation. “It’s not cookies!” “Quiet!” hushed the shadow ninja. “We are near. It’s just ahead.” As the ponies advanced, they could faintly make out the shape of a wooden structure through the obstructing greenery. A large clearing in the woods opened up, revealing the previously hidden structure to be a cottage. The gang came to a stop behind a towering bush at the edge of the glade, peering through the branches in order to get a better look. The cabin sat dead center in the middle of the clearing, standing alone except for a nearby outhouse. Between the two buildings was a fairly typical vegetable garden, full of large, healthy crops. Near the front door of the cabin was a large earth pony, sitting at a cobblestone forge, hammering away on a chunk of metal, his long grey mane tossing with each strike. The forge was built right into the cabin’s structure, with a chimney directly above it, likely serving both to power the smithy and provide heat to the house. “A blacksmith?” Hardy whispered loudly enough so they could hear him over the beating of metal. “What would he be doing out here?” “Well, seeing as how he lacks wings, he can’t be Sky Tribe. Let’s go talk to him,” Roswell said with a relieved smirk. Sheila blocked Roswell with her leg as she surveyed the lone cabin in the glade. “Wait. This could be a trap.” The inventor frowned wearily. “What makes you think that?” he asked, eyeing the stallion’s worn apron and confident strokes. She turned to him, her eyes piercing his. “The Sky Tribe made a point to survey the land between Groundsdale and Canterlot, kidnapping anypony they could find, and yet he remains? That doesn’t seem odd to you?” Hard Counter brought a hoof to his chin as he thought about it. “Hmm… It’s possible the scouts simply missed this spot; we are in the backwoods, after all. Even then, they would’ve had to have been very sloppy to miss this entire glade, or the sound of metalwork.” Sheila turned to Counter. “Exactly. And look at him…” she said as she eyed the blacksmith. “Doesn’t look too friendly to me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a sellsword, paid by the tribe to pose as a local in order to lure ponies like us into a trap. And he’s a big one, even for a blacksmith; I can sense he’s more than meets the eye.” “How do you sense that?” Hard Counter inquired. “Not sure. All I know for sure is that he’s definitely a skilled fighter, more than even a blacksmith should be. I say we go about our business.” Pending held up her hoof. “Um, d-don’t you guys think you’re being, well, a little unfair? Maybe the Sky Tribe did miss this spot, and maybe he’s a nice guy,” she said with timidness. “I think we should talk with him.” Shadowmane sighed under her breath, much to Storm’s chagrin. “Look, we can’t take any chances. We’re on a mission. All of Equestria is depending on us!” “But maybe he could help us? He might have stuff we can use, or know the quickest way to Canterlot, or-” “No,” Sheila said in exasperation. “We’ve got this under control, Pending. If we want your input, we will ask for it.” Storm gasped, visibly stunned by the ninja’s words. She turned to Hard Counter expectantly, to which he replied with a passive shrug. Pending turned her head from them, proceeding to bury her downhearted expression in the foliage of the bush they hid behind. Roswell raised a hoof in objection. “Now, okay, hold on... I think Pending makes a valid point.” “Roswell, this is nothing personal with either of-” “Do any of us know the fastest route to Canterlot from here?” Roswell inquired, cutting Sheila off mid-sentence. “Do we even know for sure how long it’ll take to get there? If it takes us too long, we may very well be too late to stop the invasion.” The dejected pegasus, still hiding her face, gave her friend a sideways glance, surprised to have somepony siding with her. Hard Counter pushed a branch aside, observing the strange stallion, before turning back to the others. “We don’t know for sure when they plan to invade Canterlot. Could be days.” The orange stallion shook his head. “Unlikely. I can’t claim to know much about military tactics or strategies or anything like that, but I highly doubt the Sky Tribe could keep all this secret for long, and they must know this,” he stated, his face stern and his voice confident. “It’s just a matter of time before word gets out, and they need to invade before that happens. And when you consider how fast they can travel by air…” The ninja’s eyes widened. “...It could be as soon as tomorrow.” He nodded in response, his eyes locked with hers. “With that in mind, how can we afford not to seek help from this stranger? He could be the only one who knows the best route to Canterlot.” Hardy grimaced, uneasiness seeping through his stoic demeanor. “And even if it is all a trap, we probably wouldn’t have been able to make it anyway…” “In that case, I suggest one of us go out there while the rest watch from afar, at least until we can verify that he is one of virtuous character,” Sheila said uncertainly. “I would propose sending myself, but we might consider-” Pending Storm cleared her throat audibly. “Guys?” she whispered. “The hammering stopped...” The others each took a sharp breath in realization: the ringing beats of the hammer had ceased. Hard Counter snapped back to the bush, pushing aside the leaves that blocked his view of the cabin. Past the leaves, he saw the face of the blacksmith staring back at him from the other side of the bush. The others watched as his cautious but calm expression quickly turned to one of alarm, as he stumbled back from the bush. “What?” whispered Pending. “What happened?” Before Hardy could muster the nerve to speak, the blacksmith parted the upper branches of the bush, his tan coat clear against the dark leaves, and peered down at the four startled ponies. He shifted his scrutinizing gaze from Hardy to the others one by one with a stony frown, his pace unhurried with a steady composure, seemingly unfazed by his discovery. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” he said dryly with a voice that was as deep as it was placid. The group he spoke to stared at him warily in silence. Pending spoke up. “H-hello there! Um, how are you?” she asked with a sheepish smile. The stranger’s face remained fixed. “Fairly well. And yourself?” he replied evenly. Storm bowed her head as she gave it some thought. “...I’ve had better days.” “I’m sorry to hear that,” the blacksmith replied, genuine sympathy in his voice, in stark contrast with his cold exterior. Hard Counter nervously rubbed the back of his head. “...You’re probably wondering what we’re doing here... “ He attempted a friendly smile similar to Pending’s, but only managed an awkward grin. “We were just… passing through.” “Uh huh,” said the towering stallion, his green eyes flitting back and forth between the newcomers. “And that was before you started spying on me?” “Yeah, well… this, uh, must seem quite strange to you…” Hardy replied with a shrug of his hooves. “Very,” the blacksmith interposed. “Not quite as strange as your choice of apparel, though...” He gave another lasting glance at Roswell and Sheila before settling on Pending, the only undressed pony in the group. “You seem normal enough.” He arched an eyebrow when the mare blushed in response, but he couldn’t stop a hint of a smile to form to the side of his mouth. Roswell stood up tall and cleared his throat, greeting the blacksmith with a friendly grin. “Allow me to explain everything, good sir! We are a herd of traveling performers, making our tour across Equestria. Perhaps you’ve heard of Roswell Rivet and the, uh, Rousing... Rapscallions? Or our slogan... 'Rated R for Riveting'?" This raised an eyebrow from the stranger. “No?” Roswell feigned mild disappointment in response. “Ah, well, we have yet to make it mainstream, so it's understandable you haven’t heard of us. More to the point, we were making our way through the woods, where we then stumbled upon you. Apologies for not approaching you sooner, but we wanted to be sure it was safe; you wouldn’t believe how often bandits pose as regular ponies these days!” The smith’s face was impassive. “I see. In that case, your caution was justified. Equestria isn’t as safe as it used to be,” he said before extending a hoof to Roswell. “The name is Hammer Drop. I take it you’re Roswell?” The orange pony shook hooves with Hammer. “Indeed, I am.” He gestured to the others. “And these are my Rapscallions: Handsome Hardy, Shady Sheila, and Pending the Puerile.” “Hey!” Pending objected in a whiny manner. Her face softened as she pondered something. “...What does ‘puerile’ mean?” “You see?” Roswell asked the blacksmith. “So puerile.” “...I can’t imagine why such an all-star cast would flounder in obscurity,” Hammer Drop replied dryly. “Anyway, feel free to hang around if you’d like. You’re probably quite exhausted from your travels.” The thespian-loving pony nodded his head with a grateful smile. “Oh yes, quite so. Much appreciated, good sir!” The blacksmith, Hammer Drop, made his way back to his cabin, leaving the four to gather themselves. Hardy waited for the large stallion to return to his forge before murmuring, making sure to be quieter than they were before. “I’m having a hard time getting a read on him. As far as I can tell, he seems harmless, but a few things aren’t adding up.” The ninja nodded. “Like what a blacksmith is doing all the way out here.” Roswell chuckled quietly to himself. “Guys, come on…” he said in mild amusement. “You think the Sky Tribe set all this up in the short time we’ve been on the lamb? His forge is built right into the cabin, and it doesn’t look like a new addition.” “True,” Hard Counter conceded. “And even if it were all a hoax, there are far more believable setups they could’ve gone with. Thoughts, Pending?” He turned to the side where the green mare had been sitting, but she was gone. “What the...?” The three of them quickly looked around them, and noticed that Pending Storm had already made her way towards the cabin. Sheila sighed as she face-hoofed. “Naive girl. She’s far too trusting for her own good.” Roswell chuckled again. “Say what you will, but in my experience, Storm can sense the goodness in others,” he said, following it with a wink. “I am her best friend, after all, so you can tell she’s a great judge of character.” He trotted over to meet up with Pending and Hammer, kicking up a few dried leaves as he went. With a shrug, Hard Counter began to follow, but Sheila grabbed his sword belt to keep him still. He turned his head toward her with a bemused expression. “Can I help you…?” “Listen,” she said, looking at the ground. “Those two aren’t warriors like us, and we’re on a dangerous mission of utmost importance. They’re slowing us down.” He brushed her hoof off of his belt. “We can still make it there by tomorrow’s dawn, even with them tagging along.” She frowned, nearly stomping her hoof in frustration. “We don’t know that for sure. Are you truly willing to risk Canterlot for them?” He pivoted towards Sheila, their murmurs now slight whispers. “And what did you have in mind, pray tell?” “Assuming this isn’t a trap, the blacksmith might be able to give us directions. Once we’ve confirmed his trustworthiness, we should consider leaving those two here.” Hard Counter audibly scoffed. “Seriously? And what if the Sky Tribe finds them? This place isn’t exactly camouflaged.” “Would they truly be safer with us? The Sky Tribe are searching for us, and they may very well know our destination by this point.” “If that happens, we’ll protect them.” She tilted her head slightly. “Like Crash Landing?” The ninja was met with a threatening glare. “Watch it,” he growled. She took a moment to consider her words. “Look, that last fight was intense, and it was up against a common squad. We don’t know what else they might have sent after us.” He shook his head, refraining from looking at her. “No,” he said definitively. “If the tribe finds them here, not even the blacksmith would be able to protect them. We’re not losing anypony else, and that’s final.” With that, the knight walked away from the scowling Sheila, meeting up with the others at the cabin. The ninja closed her eyes with a tired sigh. In times of intense frustration, she had been trained to clear her mind, or risk compromising her judgement. I would’ve thought he of all ponies would understand. The mission comes first. She observed as the others threw caution to the wind as they conversed casually with Hammer Drop. Exhaling again, she continued the thought. I suppose I should’ve expected an earth pony to put emotion before reason... perhaps I should depart without him. After confirming for sure nopony was looking her way, Sheila teleported into the trees above, perching herself atop a branch. I’m a Shadowmane. Why would I need them?__________________________________________________________________________________ Though she tried to hide it, the mint-colored pegasus was more than a bit nervous as she approached the strange stallion at his forge. They probably think I’m a useless scaredy-cat… Pending thought as she tried to stop her legs from shaking. I’ll show them. I’m better than I seem. The burly stallion moved a few things around on his forge, preparing to switch to quieter tasks while these so-called performers visited. “I apologize for not having anywhere for you all to sit,” he said, eyes fixed on moving his equipment out of the way. “I don’t often have guests.” Storm dropped her plot to the ground with an audible thud, and gave a tired sigh. “That’s okay; when you’re as tired as this pony, you can sit anywhere and it feels like a bed of clouds. I don’t even care that dirt is getting in my-” Her train of thought halted as she sniffed the air, prompting the just arrived Roswell to raise an eyebrow at her. “-tail… What is that amazing smell?! It’s... heavenly!” Hammer Drop stared off blankly as he took a sniff. “Oh!” he uttered, rushing slightly to the furnace, placing an oven mitt over his hoof while opening the slide, and pulled out a metal pan. He brought the pan over to Pending and Roswell, revealing it to be lined with chocolate chip cookies. “Almost forgot about these. Feel free to help yourself…” he placed the baking pan on the rim of the forge. “-once they’ve cooled, of course.” She gave a delighted squee as she eyed the baked goods. Her tongue hung from her mouth as she fought the urge to eat them off the tray immediately. “Pending…” Roswell warned. “Remember what happened last time you didn’t give it a minute to cool.” “Hey, I survived it once- and twice- maybe a few other times... point is, I’ll be fine!” The corner of Hammer’s mouth curled in amusement. “I assure you, they’ll taste far better if you can actually feel your tongue.” Hard Counter arrived from his prior discussion, wearing a cautious smile upon his face. After catching a whiff of it, he soon noticed the batch of cookies resting on the forge. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” “See, Hardy?” Pending gestured to Hammer Drop. “Told you I had a good feeling about him-” “So, Hardy…” Roswell interjected quickly. “Where’s everypony’s favorite ninja? “Well, she should be-” The swordspony turned behind him, but Sheila Shadowmane was nowhere in sight. He looked to the bush they had been hiding behind, but he saw no sign of her silhouette through the leaves. No... she wouldn’t… Hard Counter thought to himself. She wouldn’t leave without me, would she? His teeth gritted, and he grew increasingly tense the more he stared at the bush. No, she did... stubborn fool! Should’ve expected this from an arrogant horn head… “Hardy?” He briefly jolted as he snapped back to reality. “She... I don’t know,” he said in defeat, still looking behind him. “What do you-” Roswell stopped himself, his face lowering. “Sh-she is coming with us, right?” The swordspony replied with deafening silence. Hammer Drop glanced at the group, before going back to preparing for his next project. “So... how are things back in civilization? Not much happens around these parts.” “You’re completely cut off from everypony else?” inquired Hard Counter. “Not completely. The mailmare brings me mail every once in a while, usually from family, or folks looking to commission me. For the most part, she’s my only source for the ongoings of society. Come to think of it, she never stopped by today,” he said, scanning the sky above. “Wonder if something went wrong...” “Don’t you get lonely being all by yourself?” asked Storm. “I’m not by myself,” he stated matter-of-factly, lifting up his forging hammer. The tool had a shiny, silver head, and despite how heavy it appeared, Hammer Drop handled it seemingly without effort. “I have Graveil here, the only companion I ever need.” The swordspony gave an involuntary snort. “You named your hammer? It doesn’t... talk to you, does it?” he asked with mock hesitation. The blacksmith looked directly into his eyes, replying in a sober tone. “Don’t be ridiculous, Handsome Hardy. Graveil would need a mouth to speak.” He turned his head to face Graveil, inspecting the head. “...That’s why she communicates through telepathy.” Hard Counter looked at Hammer Drop blankly. “...That’s a joke, right?” “Ooh, ooh!” Pending lit up, raising her hoof like a filly in a classroom. “Do you have a restroom?!” “Pending, why didn’t you go in the woods?” asked Roswell. “Uh, cause I’m not an animal, Roswell! Gosh.” Hammer Drop sighed. “It’s over here.” He pointed towards the outhouse across the garden. “I’m used to travelers asking for it.” “Thank Celestia!” she exclaimed as she ran into the outhouse, slamming the door shut. Hard Counter rolled his eyes with a mildly entertained smirk. “Anyways... Do you happen to know the quickest way to Canterlot from here? We’re sorta in a rush.” “I do. How soon do you need to be there?” “Tomorrow, preferably no later than morning, if we can.” “Oof...” Hammer Drop muttered. “I suppose it might be possible to make it, but that’ll require going through the mountains. I’ve made note of several paths that allow shorter travel time-” “Hey, that’s great!” said Roswell excitedly. “...however, without a guide, the journey could be quite treacherous. You may very well get lost, injured, and perhaps worse. By yourselves, it would be foolish to attempt, I’m afraid.” “Okay, so why don’t you lead the way?” Hardy asked assertively. “You would be well-compensated for your help, I can assure you.” The brown stallion’s eyes narrowed at Hardy. “Sorry, but I simply can’t drop everything to help you. I have deadlines to make for these commissions, and I never miss a deadline.” Hardy’s eyes widened as his face became a fierce scowl. “To Tartarus with your deadline! This is of utmost importance!” He took a few aggressive steps forward. “Help us, and you’ll never need to make another deadline ever again!” Hammer Drop tilted his head slightly, and gently placed Graveil on the rim of the forge. He gave Hardy and Roswell a curious look. “What could possibly demand such urgency? Hm?” The blacksmith sat upright, his expression changed to that of a stony frown. “Who are you ponies, really?” There was another pause, but before he could reply, the inventor noticed Hammer’s eyes glance up to the left of him. Roswell turned his head, following the line of sight, and his eyes widened. Hard Counter took notice of his change in expression, and turned his head as well. In the distant sky, a dozen or so black shapes were seemingly hovering in the air. It took a moment of observation before Hardy realized they were getting bigger- no, closer. No... no way, please, not here, he thought as he gripped his rapier. Curses, Sheila, where are you? The swordspony pivoted at Hammer Drop. “Did you set us up?! Was this arranged?!” Hammer raised an eyebrow, seemingly taken back. “I beg your pardon?” Roswell Rivet placed his hoof on Hard Counter’s chest. “We don’t know if he’s involved! We need to take cover! They might not have noticed us yet!” Hardy pushed the hoof away with a low growl. “Fine, but we can’t leave without Pending! There’s no time to pull her out of there!” “Maybe we could-” “Get inside,” Hammer interjected before Roswell could finish. “I don’t know what’s going on, just get inside the cabin now.” The gray and purple stallion was prepared to argue, but stopped himself. He patted Roswell on the back and gestured toward the cabin. “There’s the door, come on!” The two ran inside swiftly as the blacksmith resumed work on an unfinished blade. To be continued...
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