My Little Pony:
The first is that the elevation makes it clearly visible for many miles around. It dominates the landscape in an unmistakable display of superiority. During the day the shape of its towers makes it stand out from the slopes of rock, while at night the lights from those same towers glimmer like fireflies set against the starry backdrop.
The second reason is that the position makes such a city difficult to attack. Aside from a few safe paths - always guarded - that lead up to higher ground, the steep cliffs and the defensive walls render a potential siege a dubious prospect. Too, the very height of the city and its towers make such a place easy defended as the soldiery rain assorted sharp objects down upon anyone that dares assault their home.
The last reason is often held as the most important of the three in the early years of such a city, however as a society matures and the years pass without challenge, all too often it can be forgotton as the population grows relaxed and sure in their neat, regimented lives. As they go to and fro about their business, they never think about the third of three reasons why they live where they do.
For the third reason is that hard, cold, tough mountains produce hard, cold, tough people.
By and large, Canterlot had forgotten winter. For centuries the unicorns had habitually warmed the inner walls of the city with their magic so that the temperature rarely dared drop below freezing. The nobleponies let it get just cold enough for fashion to change and for fillies to play in the newly-fallen snow, without having to deal with such unsightly things as ice on the roads or frozen doors.
Only one part of the city was exempt from the spellwork - the western grounds of the Canterlot palace. On the surface, this was done so that the populace could enjoy such sights of winter as the ice gardens, the snowed-over hedges, and the reflecting pool that became an ice rink during the cold months. However, what the average Canterlot citizen didn't know - or chose not to think about - was the real reason for the tradition. Specifically, the fact that the lack of warmth allowed the Canterlot Royal Guard to conduct their winter training without leaving the city.
In the open areas of the grounds they gathered - twenty to thirty of the new recruits accompanied by a pair or perhaps a trio of the officers to oversee their exercises. There, during the day they would spar with horn and magic, while at night they would stand attention in the cold snow. The cycle was grueling and difficult, separating the strong-willed from the weak, and the faint of heart most certainly need not apply.
It had snowed last night, and the glistening carpet stood nearly knee-high to a stallion. The western towers of the palace gleamed brightly as the sun itself in the mid-morning light, a spectacular sight that was entirely wasted on the gathering. Twenty ponies had gathered in the open area - all of them garbed in the steel armor of the royal guard and arrayed in two lines as they stood in rapt attention. Although the barding made them appear uniform, a discerning eye would have easily found numerous difference from one to the next - coat and mane and eye color and suchlike. Ten of them were unicorns, horns glinting in the sunlight. Six of them were pegasi, though at the moment their wings remained tightly clamped to their sides in an attempt to conserve body heat. And four of them were earth ponies, strong in the flank and hoof despite their lack of horn or wing.
Across a patch of churned snow stood a final trio. Two of them were unicorns, the third another of the winged pegasi. They too wore the iconic armor, though their helms were removed and clipped in place at the shoulder. These, then, were the officers to whom the training of the young colts had been entrusted. The pegasus was typical of his kind - slender and sinewy, his eyes hued a pale blue, his coat white as the snow beneath his hooves complimented a tightly-trimmed dyed cobalt mane. The first of the two unicorns was not dissimilar to his winged comrade, though his eyes were darker, his coat and wild mane both a pale cream.
The second unicorn was larger than his fellow, his frame thicker atop four sturdy legs. His coat was a middling brown that stood out sharply from the snow. His mane and tail had once been a solid black, but the passing of years had painted streaks of grey through their lengths. Upon his face he kept a severely-trimmed goatee, just within the regulations of the royal guard. Though colored a muddy brown, his eyes were sharp, intense as he watched the recruits through his narrowed gaze. Upon his flank was a grey diamond shape sometimes mistaken for a kite, but on second glance had the lines of creased metal and reinforced edging that proved the mark to be a kite shield.
The stallion lifted a forehoof and, breath smoking in the cold air, called out a pair of names. Two of the recruits, a pegasus and a unicorn, detached themselves from the lines and trotted quickly towards opposite edges of the patch of churned snow. As they took their positions, the pegasus unfurled his wings, stretching them and gritting his teeth as he flexed his muscles, tight after the long period of being kept held tightly to his flanks. Across from him, the unicorn shook himself and took up a ready stance, his head lowered to bring his horn into line with his opponent.
"Ready," the captain called out. The unicorn kicked his hind legs, throwing up a brief cascade of snow as he set himself. A moment later his horn began to glow and corsucating lines of magic power began to take shape in the air around him. The pegasus flapped his wings, lifting up to hover in the air just above the level of his comrades' heads.
The captain dropped his hoof. "Go!" he barked. At his instruction both ponies charged forward, chruning up more of the snow as their hooves carried them towards one another. As he galloped, the unicorn kept his head steady, the drifting threads of magic solidifying into a five-point shield centered at his horn. The pegasus put out his forelegs as he ripped through the air, blowing up a wake of snow as he passed.
The two collided with a bang as the pegasus' hoof guards met the unicorn's shield and then the two were past one another, the flyer weaving drunkenly in the aftermath of the collision before he shook himself and gathered his wits. The unicorns still in line stamped their forelegs in salute, the pegasi shooting them a series of dirty looks as the pair of jousters turned to face each other once more, the magic shield of the unicorn remaining firmly in place.
"You're not a Wonderbolt, Starchaser!" the pegasus captain called out with a glare. "Stay low!"
The dark-maned unicorn simply lifted his forehoof once more and then stamped the ground a second time. "Again," he ordered.
The two slammed together a second time, and this time the pegasus heeded his captain's advice, remaining low enough that his wingtips brushed the snowdrifts. As they collided the pair all but vanished in the cloud of snow kicked up as the unicorn's shield burst and disrupted the currents of air carried by the pegasus' passing. As it cleared, the pair were revealed sprawled beside one another, both of them dazed, the pegasus attempting to lift himself up on his forelegs. Apparently this was close enough to a victory that his fellow pegasi took the opportunity to stamp their hooves in retaliation for the unicorn's earlier display.
The dark-maned captain stamped his own hoof and the noise stopped instantly, the jousters shaking themselves roughly as they scrambled to attention. "Better," he declared, though his hard face didn't seem to reflect approval. "Remember, this training isn't just to see how hard you can hit one another." He tapped his hoof against the snow. "You're going to train until you can make twenty of those passes. Now-" he began to continue, but abruptly he paused, frowning. A moment later he bared his teeth and lifted a foreleg to cover his mouth as a stifled cough wracked his frame. He looked away as several more followed, a soft growl escaping as he suppressed the choking sounds.
"Sir?" the unicorn recruit dared.
The captain waved his hoof. "Back into line," he said firmly. "Just a little-" he grunted as he thumped a hoof against his chest. "Minor cold. Next pair!" he barked as he recovered. "Take over for a bit," he murmured to his fellow captain before turning to depart. Even as the next pair of jousters stepped forward, the remaining unicorn and the pegasus shared a glance that, if any of the recruits had caught it, might have seemed a worried one.
The palace's halls were warmer than the air outside thanks to the candles set by the place's staff. Within, the guard captain paused, stifling another series of heavy coughs with his foreleg, his eyes squeezed shut as he clenched his teeth. As the fit passed, he groaned briefly as he regained his breath.
"Just a cold, Ironheart?" a male voice said nearby. The captain snapped his head around to find his fellow unicorn glowering at him. The cream-colored pony's hooves tapped quietly on the floor as he drew closer to his peer.
The dark-maned Ironheart growled softly in vexation. "Just...need a cup of tea," he grunted. "Bit of warm air to settle the lungs. Not sixteen anymore," he said, blustering a bit. He turned away as he spoke, beginning to walk the length of the long hall that encircled the palace's western tower.
"That's true," his fellow captain said in a neutral voice. Although the dark-maned unicorn had clearly used a dismissive tone, he seemed to naturally fall into step beside the larger pony. "Neither of us are colts anymore, my friend. We're older, we've grown, we've aged...and we don't fool as easily."
Ironheart sighed. "Are we really going to do this, Lance?"
Level Lance sighed. "We really are, Ironheart. Love of Celestia, I'm your friend," he said suddenly. "How long have we known one another?"
"Thirty years, give or take," Ironheart replied immediately.
Level Lance was silent for a long moment as the pair of them walked along the hall. The high windows of the gallery afforded a perfect view of the grounds outside, but neither of the two ponies bothered to look - both of them had seen the sights a hundred times apiece and more. "Do you remember the conversation we had three years ago?" he finally asked, bracing for an explosive reply.
Ironheart didn't disappoint him. "Strange," the larger unicorn growled, rounding on his companion. "That doesn't sound a thing like 'the day you let me talk you into retiring from active duty.'"
"You're angry at me for-" Level Lance sputtered. "You agreed with me! You put in your own transfer request, I didn't force the papers on you!"
"I never would have if you hadn't hounded me about it," Ironheart replied.
"Hounded you? Are you forgetting the day you doubled over on duty?" Lance shot back without hesitation. "'Lance, what am I supposed to do if I can't stand a ten-hour?' Your words, old friend."
Ironheart loomed close and glowered at his fellow captain. "You've got some nerve playing that-" But abruptly his reply was lost amidst a storm of wracking coughs. Despite knowing he was in no danger, Lance couldn't help but instinctively step back as the larger unicorn covered his mouth in a struggle to suppress the heavy, whooping coughs that relentlessly exploded from his chest. This time however, they didn't stop, and before long Ironheart was halfway to the floor as his legs buckled.
Lance lowered his head and stepped forward to begin pushing the larger unicorn along the hallway. "Come on," he said firmly. "Let's get you to the privy." His comrade was hardly in a position to argue.
Once they'd reached the relative privacy of the washroom, Ironheart ducked into one of the private stalls, leaving Lance outside to listen as his friend's wracking coughs continued for some time, accompanied by nastier sounds that the unicorn didn't care to dwell on. Finally, they trailed off into quiet, leaving only heavy breathing as Ironheart recovered. Suppressing the urge to shake his head, Lance summoned a bit of magic to pull one of the paper towels free from their box, azure magic engulfing the scrap as he levitated it over the wall. To his surprise there was a soft word of thanks from the other side.
A moment later there was a flush and Ironheart emerged. Lance was quietly shocked to see him in such a state - his mane mussed, face lined and legs trembling as he moved to the sinks, wiping his brow with the paper towel. He looked as if he might be knocked over with a feather.
"Those fits of yours are getting closer together," Lance said quietly as his friend ran the water and washed his face.
Ironheart hitched for a moment, then nodded. "Yes," he admitted.
There was a pause before Ironheart replied. "Twice...occasionally three times a week," he said finally with a deep breath that, to Lance's relief, contained no hint of a cough.
Lance frowned. "What about that tincture? Are you still taking it?"
Ironheart shook his mane dry, already beginning to look more like his typical assured self. "Of course," he replied. "Every morning with breakfast."
Lance's eyes widened as Ironheart began to turn towards the door. "Ev-every morning?" he stuttered, shocked. With a burst of speed he galloped out in front of his friend, planting a hoof against his chest. "What happened to once a week?" he demanded furiously.
"I...upped the dosage awhile back," Ironheart admitted. "The fits started to happen almost every day. The doctors advised me to start taking that concoction with breakfast."
"And?" Lance prompted.
"It worked. It still keeps them under control," the larger unicorn insisted, lifting a foreleg to firmly push Lance's own back down. I'll be fine for a day or two now," he said as he started past the cream-colored Lance.
"A day or two," Lance repeated, turning to keep his eyes on his friend. "Ironheart, maybe-"
"Don't say it."
"Maybe it's time you should consider ret-"
"I said don't say it!" the dark-maned unicorn interrupted, turning to level a glower at his friend.
"Don't be mulish, Ironheart," Lance replied, bracing himself for another argument. "No pony serves in the guard forever. Thirty years and you're allowed-"
"It's been twenty-nine years," Ironheart interrupted once more. "Lance, in the last two centuries no pony's had the gall to ask for an early muster out, and I'm not going to be the one who couldn't make it!"
"In the last two centuries no pony's been hit with your...condition," Lance fired back.
"I am not a cripple!"
"I didn't say you were! But even you have to admit that if those fits keep getting worse, eventually you'll be forced to retire."
"I can make it one more year," Ironheart replied stonily. "I will not be the one to besmirch the honor of the royal guard."
"You - what - you - what?" Lance sputtered. "How do you even - sometimes I think you should've been called Ironskull, you know that?" he snapped angrily, stamping a forehoof. Ironheart grimaced. "You know full well that if you sent a request up to the Princess she would grant it on the spot, don't you? She would understand. She wouldn't be offended."
"Maybe. But that's not the point." Ironheart stamped his forehoof. "I'm not infirm, Lance." A long moment of tense silence passed between the two of them and finally Ironhart snorted, a little smile forming on his face. "What would I even do with myself if I retired?"
"Fishing, maybe?" Lance replied with a little smile of his own.
Ironheart grunted. "One more year," he repeated. "I'm already doing nothing but training the new colts. Retirement would drive me crazy."
Level Lance peered at the other unicorn and finally sighed. "I just. I'm worried about you, old friend. I don't want you driving yourself to collapse."
Ironheart lifted a foreleg and reached out to plant his hoof on Lance's shoulder. The other unicorn responded in kind. "Do you trust me, Lance?"
"With my life."
"Then let me have one more year. Then I'll take my retirement and they can put me out to pasture."
"That's a horrible thing to say, Ironheart," Lance replied, smiling despite himself.
Ironheart returned the smile. "Just trust me to handle myself, old friend."
"Alright," Lance said. "But if you keep trying to stick around I'll sign your trotting papers myself."
"That's a deal."
Once Ironheart had departed, striding down the hall without even a hint of the weakness that had gripped him earlier, Lance lingered at the windows, his gaze looking out at the ice-frosted peaks of the mountain range beyond Canterlot's walls. Still, he retained enough awareness that when a soft voice tentatively spoke from nearby, "sir?" he turned to see who had approached.
It was another unicorn in the armor of the guard, much younger than Lance himself, his coat white as snow and his mane a thick cobalt. "I know you," the captain murmured, half to himself as he turned to face the colt. "It's Shining Armor, isn't it?"
"Yessir," the junior guard replied. He stepped closer, but to Level Lance he seemed hesitant, almost nervous, and suddenly the captain understood why.
"How much did you hear, son?" he asked.
With a brief hum of magic, Shining Armor removed his helm so that he could cradle it in the crook of one foreleg. Technically it was a breach of etiquette, but Lance wasn't about to call him on it - the conversation they were beginning wasn't exactly a routine exchange of pleasantries. "I was on patrol, sir, and I heard the coughing coming from the washroom. When I got close I heard you and Captain Ironheart arguing and, well," the unicorn looked abashed. "I just decided it'd be better if I hid out."
"Probably the better call," Lance agreed. "Things got heated enough without a wrench like that being thrown into the mix. It's good you decided to come clean, nonetheless."
"Yessir. Sir...is Captain Ironheart...is he sick?"
Lance let out a sigh. Then he turned back towards the window. "Come here, son," he instructed. As Shining Armor moved to join him, he asked, "do you remember what were you doing six years ago?"
"Six years ago?" the colt repeated. "Jeez, uh...six years ago I was mostly watching out for my sister, sir. Our parents were really busy at the time."
"Foalstitting duty, hm?" Lance said. Without waiting for a reply he stuck his hoof out to point towards the distant peaks. "You see that mountain there? The big one with the crags?"
"Six years ago a nasty critter called a malboro decided to take up residence in that mountain and started waylaying the caravans headed from Canterlot to northern Equestria."
"What's a malboro, sir? I've never heard of it," Shining Armor said.
"It's a plant that uses vines to move around. Think of a big, round, cactus-like thing with teeth," Lance replied. "Ugly as a mule's rear end, and worst part is, they can breathe a cloud of poison. Well, we couldn't have something like that running around so close to Canterlot, so Ironheart volunteered to take a squad of the guard out to get rid of it. They had the thing cornered in a cave when it walloped Ironheart and then let off a blast of that poison breath right in his muzzle. He was winded from that hit, so he ended up getting a lungful of the stuff."
"They couldn't cure it?" Shining Armor asked, wide-eyed.
"Well, at first they didn't realize anything was wrong. They took care of the thing and Ironheart got all the way back to Canterlot without trouble, so they figured he must've got lucky. A couple weeks later he keeled over, coughing like you just heard. They looked him over and realized his lungs were damaged from the poison. The docs mixed up a potion that would keep the trouble at bay, but that was the best they could do."
"Even magic couldn't help?"
Lance frowned and glanced at the colt. "Magic can't fix everything, son," he said. "I know it might seem impossible when you're from a place like Canterlot, but even these days, you can't always just find a quick solution to some problems."
"So...he's not going to get better, is he," Shining Armor said quietly.
Lance sighed. "No pony lives forever, even though we don't like to think about it. Ironheart's just got a tougher reminder than most of us about that." The captain turned away from the window and stuck a forehoof into Shining Armor's shoulder. "You just keep that well in mind. Live life while it lasts, son. Nobody escapes from it alive."
"Yessir," the guard replied with a fast nod.
"And one last thing. As far as you're concerned, Captain Ironheart has a bit of a cold. Nothing more, nothing less. Understand?"
"Understood," Shining Armor said, momentarily rising up on his back hooves to salute with his free foreleg.
"Back on patrol then, soldier," Lance said, turning back to the window.
"Yessir," the guard replied smartly, replacing his helmet and saluting before trotting off.
Level Lance returned to looking out the window, and it was a long, long time before he finally turned away.
(Inspired in part by The Human Seasons by Jon Keats)