Redheart's Refuge, at Dawn
An ancient manor house stood at the crest of a hill, overlooking a small valley. An elderly white pony, blue eyes still sharp even as her body started to fail, was standing in its doorway, doing the same. On her flank was the unmistakable cross symbol that adorned countless flags and banners across the valley's town. Her town. Her little peaceful oasis in a desert of war and strife. Just far enough from the borders of the Houses to remain untouched... for now. A fiercely loyal band of protectors, the Children of Redheart, easily deterred roving bandits and disgruntled mercenaries, but she knew they wouldn't be able to stand up to an invasion force... It was only a matter of time before the Refuge fell. She had negotiated extensively with the Apples, with the Inquisition and even Mistress Rarity herself to keep their status as refugees, but the Everfree Forest continued its expansion. If the Earthborn couldn't stop it, what would become of her little town? Redheart shuddered to think. And would the others forever keep their oaths to leave the Refuge alone? Doubtful.
For now, however, they remained free, and continued to grow, as evidenced by the extensive tent city surrounding her house. A few little groups of refugees arrived in the valley almost every day. Unicorns from the South, Earth ponies and Pegasi from the North, even the occasional zebra or buffalo. They all came to her, for protection, for some small semblance of peace, and she gave it to them. And though she wouldn't admit it outright, she also had ways of helping her charges "disappear". Covert detachments of the Children, mostly deployed in Whitegold lands, had erected an Underground Railroad of sorts, funneling the most hunted refugees, such as escaped slaves or Stormwing defectors, all the way down to the Emerald Coast. It was called the Shadowy Path, and it was the most risky operation the group undertook. If what they were doing ever came to light, the full force of the Inquisition AND the Stormwing MPs would fall on the Refuge, and that would be catastrophic... Nevertheless, Redheart knew she couldn't abandon them to their fates, and use of the Shadowy Path continued.
"Hail, Lady Redheart!" and many variations of it could be heard as she made her slow, careful way down the path from her manor to the town proper, and she nodded or waved at the many refugees with a resolute smile. Groups of her Children stopped to give short salutes, before quickly continuing with their duties, and she spoke with a few of their Captains, to gauge morale and learn of the progress of the day's tasks. In truth, the former nurse was as much commander-in-chief as she was mayor, and only barely managed to juggle the dual role. Walking along either side of the Lady were two members of her personal guard, incredibly skilled and ever vigilant. They wore strong, light armor adorned with both Redheart's symbol and the symbol of the Children, which was the red cross encompassed by a black heart.
As she ambled past a café in the town square, a cream-coated unicorn quickly finished his apple pie, leapt up from his table and started towards her. His mane and tail were a deep mix of orange and red, matching his tri-tone cutie mark, which depicted a sun hanging low over the horizon. One of the bodyguards, a burly unicorn himself, stepped between him and the Lady, wordlessly shaking his head. Redheart peered from behind the pony's back, and tapped him on the shoulder with her hoof, saying "It's alright, dear, I know this one. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, he's my great-nephew. Is that you, Red Dawn?"
"Yes, Aunt Redheart, and I dreadfully wish to speak with you." The sunrise-colored unicorn had a Trottingham accent, and by his tone seemed quite delighted to see her. He smiled broadly as the Child let him pass, and walked right up to her, saying "In fact, I've come all the way from Canterlot to do just that!" The Lady was unimpressed. She said "You may have taken off the hat and the cloak, but you are still an Inquisitor, Dawn. My agreement with Trixie Lulamoon was very clear..." He looked slightly disheartened, but pressed on regardless. "Auntie, I promise you, I'm not here on official busin-" he tried to say, but she held up a hoof to silence him while the second Child, a blue female Pegasus, whispered in her wrinkled white ear. At the news, Redheart frowned, and returned her attention to her nephew, saying "Why then have I just been told that my Children are stalling half a dozen plain-clothes Inquisitors at the gates? Keep your 'promise', Dawn, and tell them to begone. I will accept your presence, for now, but none of your retinue are getting in. Write a message on that fancy magical paper of yours, and my messenger will deliver it. Order them to remain far away, lest my Children get... Testy."
If Red Dawn was disappointed, or surprised, he didn't show it, and almost immediately he did as she asked, sending orders for the group of Inquisitors to return to their camp. It was some miles from the Refuge, which he explained to his aunt. "Now that that is taken care of, we can talk, right?" She still didn't look particularly pleased, but she nodded, and her nephew smiled again, though it was somewhat less exuberant. He said "I was wondering, um, hoping, actually, that you could put me in touch with my father... I haven't received any letters from him in some years, and he never told me where he was even then. I know that you wear close, you know, before... Have you had better luck than I? Honestly, Auntie, I worry about him... I could protect him, now that I've been promoted. He doesn't have to hide from the Inquisition anymore..."
For a fraction of a second, the Lady hesitated, studying her nephew's expression carefully. When she spoke, however, her tone was even, the same as before, and she said "I have not received any letters from nor sent any to him in... I'd say well-on ten years now. Back then, however, Red Luck seemed quite adamant that the last thing he would do was come out hiding. He developed quite the hatred for your Inquisition. I take it he stopped writing once you told him you had joined?" The genuinely disappointed expression on Dawn's face turned to anger, and he almost yelled as he said "I joined the Inquisition to save him, and he abandoned me because of it!!" The bodyguards reminded him of their presence, and he immediately deflated, attempting to wipe away the tears in his eyes. "Auntie, I just want my Da back..."
Redheart's face was grave. She placed a weak old hoof on her nephew's shoulder, and looked him in the eyes, blue into crimson. "Listen to me, Red Dawn, and listen well. In this conflicting, chaotic world we inhabit, everyone has lost someone. Everyone. You have lost your father, and I pity you for it. Red Luck was a good pony, and he loved you. But think about how many fathers have been lost to the people around you. Look at your fellow ponies, these humble refugees, and consider how many of them have lost their fathers to your Inquisiton. To your subordinates. To you. Perhaps when you have done so, you will understand your father's actions..." She sighed, a weary, elderly mare's sigh, and began to walk past him. "Stay, if you wish, but don't stay for too long. Tomorrow morning, if you have not departed, my Children will happily escort you to the gates. Goodbye, and good luck, High Inquisitor."
Red Dawn's head hung down, and only in his peripheral vision did he watch his aunt slowly, purposefully walk away. It had been a complete waste of time. No, worse than that. It had been a painfully doubt-inducing waste of time. He pulled himself up, and began to head for the gates immediately. He had to get out of that Luna-forsaken town of heretics, with its pompous, crotchety Lady. Who was she, a lowly Earth pony, to make him feel guilty? He was a High Inquisitor! She should have been bowing at his hooves!! Somewhere, however, deep down below the necessary callouses of a dogmatic soldier, he knew she was right. He was a sower of chaos and destruction... The thought ate at him through the entire walk back to his camp. In the end, he decided that he hated her even more for making him think it.
In stark contrast, Redheart put her nephew out of her mind almost immediately. There were more important things to deal with... VERY important things. Around an hour after her conversation with Red Dawn, she received word that one of them had arrived. One of the ones he had told her to watch for. And if one was there, she knew it wouldn't be long before the others were as well. A tear came to her eye as she ordered a group of her Children to invite them up to the manor house. After all this time... It had begun.