3 Days Earlier
The snow was falling in a rush by the time Foalston came into view from behind the near-constant stream of hissing flakes. Though not yet a blizzard, it was enough to keep all but the most hardy souls indoors. But that didn't quite explain the dead quiet of the village itself. Other than the snow itself and the shop signs swinging back and forth in the wind, there was nobody and nothing moving in the streets.
Velvet was twitchy as they came into the village via main street, pushing through rising drifts with makeshift cloaks flapping behind them. Perhaps it wasn't quite fair to single him out; all of them were twitchy, truth be told, and even if one discounted the eerie setting, they could be forgiven for it. But he was the most so, and by far.
Not that Breeze had any difficulty imagining why. Stalwart's cursing of the Everfree Forest had carried into the wagon, and Breeze was hardly unaware of the superstitions surrounding that place. Indeed, it would have been more surprising for him to have spent so much time in Equestria and been unaware of it, such was the presence it held, and whenever it was spoken of, the name was spoken with no small amount of venom. No doubt, then, that the taste of the westerly wind was contributing plenty to the state of the village.
For the time being this feral weather was a mixed blessing. Keeping Foalston clear suited them down to the ground, but on the other hoof its effects could be problematic. A village full of spooked ponies was no safe place for a changeling; paranoia bred suspicion. And resuming their old disguises had pushed them both towards a hard limit. The urge to feed was already tugging at Breeze's thoughts.
Not that they were planning to stay long. It was a unanimous opinion that lingering in the nearest settlement to their point of escape would be tantamount to handing themselves back over to the Guard, and so there was little option but to keep moving. It was only a delay, of course. The next village, Saddleside, would be their place of rest whether its occupants were as superstitious as Foalston's or not. And, of course, this was a road that drew them ever closer to Canterlot.
The long road between the city itself, and Fillydelphia behind them, made up the village's main street. A few smaller roads and alleys branched off of it, but this place couldn't have been home to more than a hundred ponies or so. A few dozen families, doubtless mostly farmers, and the scant local businesses that completed the community.
As they passed by houses and shops Breeze could feel eyes on him. Ponies were peering through cracks in blinds and from behind half-parted curtains. The half-glimpsed looks in those eyes...it as enough to make him glance down at his own legs, just to be sure that they weren't chitin clad and holed.
"This whole Everfree mess," he hissed to Val. "Why do you all take it so seriously? It's not as if it's the only place in the world where you don't push the clouds around."
"Breeze, you come from a wild place, I get that, but... You really don't understand. Sure, the clouds move on their own, the trees grow without our help. That makes most of us feel funny, but that's not the half of it. They say it can't be controlled. At all."
"Right, and we all know how much you ponies like to be controlling everything," Breeze muttered.
"That's not it. Or, it might be some of it, but not nearly the whole. Think about this; if a storm blows up from that place, there's not a pegasus in the sky can even push the clouds away. Not even earth ponies can tame those trees. If it decides to push its borders out..."
The changeling nodded, dropping back a few paces. He was hardly satisfied by the answer, but with a little reflection he had to admit it made some sense. Even if he felt like pointing out that the idea of pegasi controlling the weather according to some schedule was about as foreign a concept to him as wild storms were to Val. Still, it had him thinking.
"Hey, Sun," he said, falling back further to join the elder changeling, trailing behind Natalya. "Do you think maybe the Everfree is where She got the Throne from?"
Sun gave him a momentarily blank look before creasing his brows with thought.
"The Queen?" Naturally, who else? "Maybe. Maybe it was always in the Badlands, though. I always thought the Hive had been built around it."
"And they used to say to me that the Hive had always been there, and we just moved into it," Breeze said with a chuckle.
"'Since Time Immemorial', right?" said Nat over her shoulder. Breeze started, unaware that they'd been speaking so loud. "Didn't realise you had a queen, or a funny throne. She what you're running from?"
"Is this really the place for that sort of talk?" snapped Val, before Breeze could brush off the question. The changeling scowled at the interruption, but a the same time Val had a point, and it was a convenient enough excuse to wriggle out of answering.
"He's right. Let's not do this here." Or ever, he though to himself. There were some things he had little desire to relive, and some he had even less desire to share.
Shouldn't have said anything to begin with, really. Any other time, he doubted he would have. But the prison blanket turned cloak did a poor job at keeping the wind from stabbing at his sides, and when he wasn't occupying his mind with other things his thoughts turned to the gnawing hunger and his hooves started trembling with it.
Little else around to distract him, too. Just the houses, low and rough in their construction, to contrast Filly's lofty, squared-off streets and concrete walls. He tried to use them, but he didn't have much inclination to spare them any further glances. for they did little to take his mind off things. Quite the contrary; seeing ponies looking back at him made him feel as though he were a starving stallion gazing through the windows at a well-stocked patisserie.
Well, that wasn't the exact thought that came to him, but it expressed the sentiment well enough. A sentiment that made him shiver when he caught it circling around inside his skull. No, less of that, please.
It was an odd sort of relief, then, to be leaving the village of Foalston behind them. Yes, they were embarking on a long march with no supplies to speak of, in season and weather hardly conducive to travel. But the lack of fearful eyes - eyes made so fearful, no doubt, by thoughts of those they held dear - on his back left Breeze feeling just a little freer.
Freedom, of course, tempered with doubt. Saddleside was near enough a day away, by wagon. They could travel faster by hoof, with fewer breaks, but there was still a chance they might find themselves walking on into the night. Especially given how short the winter days were.
No doubt about it, to press on now was to take a hefty risk, but it was a calculated one, at least. The eerie Everfree weather, superstitious locals and vengeful guards waiting eastward were all good reasons to keep moving. Of course, that same weather provided a compelling reason to stay put, all on its own. So it came down to the risk of capture, versus the risk of death. An old, familiar equation.
Old, familiar, and even nostalgic, Breeze came to realise, an hour or so out of Foalston.
By now the weather had started to ease back again, from a heavy fall to a light dusting of very fine flakes, and the wind had all but blown itself out. The going ought to have been easier, and would have been if not for that damned hunger. Every step became a stumble, limbs quivering whenever his weight settled on them. Both Nat and Val had offered to try taking wing and carrying him, but neither of them looked to be in fit shape to carry even themselves very far.
Val had suggested, then, that they all keep shy of the road and stick to walking though the open country itself. A patrol or a chasing squad, keeping to the road for mobility's sake, would come charging straight into them, he said. Nat, however, almost immediately shot him down.
"Snow's deep enough that we wouldn't be able to help leaving tracks. Would be just as easy for them to catch us, and we'd be making slower going. Not worth the trouble."
That was much to Breeze's relief, for he was sure the slow going over rough ground would make their chances far worse than they were already. It was hard enough as it was, pushing through snow that had risen above their hooves, without any kind of shoe to speak of. The cold would do for them, just as well as heat would.
And that's when the nostalgia struck. The flight from the Hive, so similar despite the differences. A slog through miserable conditions after a violent breakout, facing a choice between capture and death. Only in heat, not snow, and knowing that capture meant death regardless. Then again, it might just mean death for them here too, mightn't it?
This time around, though, he felt as if he were simply being carried on by momentum, inexorable as a river's pull. In months long past he'd had something else driving him. A dream of a better life, a determination to taste freedom, both of these concepts new and fresh and fed by urgency. He thought of that feeling, the first rush from the Hive and the realisation that they had done the unthinkable. The hike before the fever set in. Even after, when only stubbornness and Rising Sun at his side had kept him walking until he'd dropped. As grim as the immediate future had been, the unknown had had a lustre, or so it seemed now.
His insides squirmed when he thought of it. The memory tasted bitter, and this time he felt only helplessness, and the warmth of tears threatening to spill from his eyes.
To have gone through all of that, and all for this. To have pushed on, survived, reached fabled Equestria, only to be back in the same damned situation, facing the same equation with no way of knowing which side outbalanced the other. Stay and face capture, run and risk exposure. Maybe this was fate.
Maybe that was just what life would always be, outside of the Hive. Always running, until he could run no more.
Another hour, and the world around them was darker. It was hard to notice, surrounded above by cloud and below by crisp snow, but Breeze could tell. Somewhere up ahead of them the Sun was sinking into the west. Darkness, dropping temperatures... How long would they blunder on for, unseeing, before they froze? The one cold comfort was that behind them, the Moon would soon be rising to replace its larger sibling. Or was it really a comfort?
For months Breeze had thought she'd been shielding them, the Queen in her lonely hive. For years he'd said prayers to her, looking fondly at the profile etched into the silver disc. Now he wondered if he'd been wrong all along. If she was changeling, kin to them as some legends did claim, why would she watch over two renegades? Was it not more likely that she would punish them? Maybe this life of flight was that punishment. Recompense, for breaking the Hive.
Yet more time passed. Not measured in hours, minutes or seconds, but by endless stumbling steps. The snowscape around them had turned blue, the deep dark shade of the mighty ocean on a clear day. The cold grew until their limbs rebelled, and at last the four of them flung themselves down in the shelter of a piled drift.
There they lay, curled together, for a short time before Natalya stood and shook the snow from her feathers.
"I'm going up to take a look around. Maybe we're close, or there's somebody around who can lend us a little help."
"You sure you can manage it up there?" Val asked, his breath misting. "I could come up with, in case you need a hoof." He shook out his wings as well, but the feathers drooped, and he seemed unable to keep them stretched out for more than a few seconds.
Nat shook her head, stroking a claw through the feathers, closing them against his side.
"I'll be fine. Won't be gone long. Count ten minutes, and if I'm not back by then push on. I'll meet you at Saddleside."
And then she went, leaping up, to vanish with the rush of flapping wings before any of them had a chance to object. Val watched, as if he could see her dark shape among the dark clouds, then turned away with a sigh, pushing a hoof into the snow.
Breeze, meanwhile, shifted. He wanted to ask Sun about the Moon, about life, all the dark thoughts gathering behind his own eyes, wanted it so bad he took a breath to speak words already gathering on his tongue, as if speaking them aloud might make them fly away into the darkness as well. But all that came out was a long sigh; Val was already looking over in anticipation. The changeling told himself it was not something for the pony to hear and yet that felt like a coward's excuse.
Instead he closed his eyes, resting his head back against piled snow, and did his best to relax. Even though his body screamed in protest at any thought of activity, and standing up seemed to be the hardest thing in the world, it made him uneasy to be sitting still. The phantom weight of Goldy's damned band seemed to get heavier with each moment he sat until it felt like a ball-and-chain clamped to his leg. Weighing him down while it summoned soldiers to him. Would keep summoning them, no matter how long they ran for.
"They'll find us," he said out loud without meaning. "They'll get to us before we managed to do a damn thing." The tears that had threatened to well up before now trickled down across his cheeks, hot and bitter then cooling as they rolled over his jaw. "None of it meant anything at all, did it?"
There was Sun's hood on his shoulder, trying to pull him in to lean against the other changeling. To lean on his friend.
He resisted. If Sun had been able to give him any comfort - real comfort, something to ease his fears instead of sharing in them - he would have spoken. But he said nothing.
Instead it was Val who spoke.
"We'll be fine," he murmured, weariness weighing down every syllable. He'd piled snow into a small bowl, pulled from the wreck of the wagon, and was grinding it down to liquid beneath his hoof. "Sure, things are looking a bit bleak, I'll admit, but it'll take them days to get back to the city and report in." He passed the slushy mix of water and snow to Breeze, who took it on instinct and slurped up a mouthful of icy water before passing it on to Sun. "And just as many days for them to even get back to the wagon, let along figure out where we've gone, since..."
"They can follow these," Breeze cut in, lifting his left foreleg. "The bands. Goldy gets the last laugh, the bastard."
The last of the light seemed to be draining from the world, as the Sun sank deeper below the horizon, when three things happened in swift succession.
First, as he turned away from Val to take the waterbowl back from Sun, the pegasus chuckled, though the sound seemed to be as much as a surprise to him as it did to Breeze.
"Right now, sure, but there's gotta be a way to block them, right? They're just moonstones." At the confused looks from both changelings he took the bowl from Breeze and all but tossed it aside, more animated than he'd been in a long while.
"Really? You two have horns, and you don't know how moonstones work? All they do is send out a signal. Any signal can be blocked. I'll bet with lead or silver or something like that, but all we need to do is find a mage. Or hell, a book on moonstones! We've got a few days yet, there's time enough to rig up something temporary."
As Breeze was gaping at this, and Val looking self-satisfied in a way that seemed perverse in the dark snow, the second something descended upon them with a ghostly ruffling of feathers. Natalya, dropping easily from the sky to land amid the crunch of snow.
"Very sorry, boys, but we're going to have to cut this break a little short. Saddleside's two miles out at most. We make a good pace we can be there in an hour, at most!"
Finally, far off in the east, there was a break in the cloud. Through it, like parting gates of pure shining silver, the Moon gazed down upon them, cold and stern.
There was no time to enjoy the moment; the breaking cloud meant that the night would be getting even colder, and none of them wanted to linger in the countryside a moment longer. But Breeze, the last one to leave the shelter of the drift, made a point to bow low to the Queen above him and whisper one more prayer into the snow.
The temptation, upon staggering into Saddleside with the rising Moon at their backs, was to find the nearest sheltered spot, fall down, and sleep until the world seemed just a little bit brighter. The earlier rush of their imminent arrival had been tempered by the final hour of walking, in dropping temperatures, and it seemed like every part of Breeze's body aside from his barrel was burning and numb. But there were still things to be done, assets to be taken stock of, and as cold as it was already, it was getting even colder with every star that was made visible above their heads.
It was early in the evening, though the darkness made it feel far later. By the hoofprints scattered across the snow-dusted cobbles the working day had ended, and the four of them were lucky enough to have missed the first rush from homes, farms and shops to the village's local establishments; the public house, for the average pony, and the village inn for the better off. That left the courtyard in front of the village hall empty, affording the quartet a semblance of privacy as they huddled together on a picnic table piled with snow.
"First things first, need to think about money," Sun declared, sitting in a hunch that made him seem alarmingly small in Breeze's eyes. "We need somewhere to stay, you two need food, and we need to get our hooves on enough lead, silver or what have you to block these moonstones. Going to need bits for all of those."
The other three nodded, in varying stages of alertness. Val, sitting between the exhausted Breeze and Natalya and who now seemed ruffled at worst, spoke up.
"So, I'm gonna go out on a limb here, and guess that you're not planning to do that the same way as you did back in Filly?"
"Not exactly," replied Sun, nostrils flaring. He looked half like he wanted to snap back at the pegasus, and half as if he'd rather have found a quiet spot to curl up and let the world spin on without him. "But we're going to steal it. Successfully, this time. I hope."
Ah, Breeze had know it was coming. He'd already gone over all the options he could think of in his head on the way into the village, and found that this was the only practical solution to their particular set of problems. It was either that, or they would starve, freeze or find themselves back in chains. Hells, once upon a time death had been a preferable alternative to capture. Dying free and all that. By comparison, theft seemed a trivial thing. Even so, he had to bite back a protest and let it escape instead as a low, strangled snort. And of course, even if Sun wouldn't say as much in front of the other two, they did need to feed. How easy would it be to lift a purse, while its owner lay insensate at their hooves?
"That'll be our job," he rasped, wincing at the sound of his own voice. "No offence to either of you, but you'd only get in our way on this one, and we really, really can't afford any screwups." He looked, and was thankful enough to find no signs of mortal offence in either of their faces. "Best that you find a quiet spot, stay out of sight. We can meet back here in an hour or so. Should have enough money for a room tonight, and if need be we...we can hit one of the houses later tonight or tomorrow."
He hoped that neither of them noticed the hitch in his voice. Seemed that he was in the clear, though; griffon and pegasus shared a short look then nodded.
"Agreed," said Val. "We meet here in an hour from now."
All eyes side across to the town hall itself; an imposing, cut-stone spire rose above the square, a wide clock set into it. The heavy iron hands read a quarter to seven, or close enough to it.
"An hour from now," Sun affirmed with a nod. "Try not to draw attention."
"Likewise," replied Nat, giving one of her subtle griffonic smiles. Then she stood, stretched, and wandered off with Val under her wing, strolling almost like a pair of carefree lovers enjoying the moonlight, if one ignored the way Val was leaning on the formel for support, rather than out of affection.
There was little activity at the bench for a few minutes after they were gone. Only when the 'casual' pair were out of sight did Breeze let himself slump and sigh. Both body and breath were heavy, leaden and slow.
"All right," he grumbled after a few seconds of resting his cheek against the packed snow atop the table. "Let's just...go and get this over with. There were a couple of...couples back at the pub, weren't there?"
"What are you thinking, separate and impersonate?" asked Sun. When Breeze nodded, the elder changeling glanced away. "It's a risky play. I can't say that I like it. Given the choice, I'd rather play for lust with someone unattached. That feels safer right now."
Breeze shrugged and forced himself to sit up straight again, brushing snow from his cheek. His hoof wandered over the fine, near-invisible line of his scar. "If things go bad they don't go quite so bad. But I figure there's less chance of success, small town like this. Not like Filly, where you can pick up some pony in half the bars. Besides, it's not like we have money for a drink as it is." There was something else that niggled at him, but he didn't give voice to it. "We'll do it quick. Get what we need and figure things out from there." Oh, how dirty those words felt in his mouth, but he was up and moving, for what choice did he really have? Sun fell into step with him, nodding.
They headed eastward, back towards the hotel that stood near the edge of the village, that they'd passed on the way in. Just as Breeze had thought, there was a mare and a stallion sitting together at one of the parasoled tables set up on one side of the hotel doors. Their drinks were empty, heads close, but neither seemed to be speaking, instead enjoying the simple presence of the other. More importantly, they were wearing the sorts of small saddlebags that might hold a hefty purse, and they were alone.
The hotel itself sat with its back to the countryside, maybe one or two other buildings between it and the village's limits proper. Its front opened out onto a square much like the one in front of the village hall, only smaller, with houses on the other three sides and narrow streets radiating from it. The happy couple aside, the only evidence Breeze could see of anyone else hanging around outdoors, was a few half-seen shapes moving in the darkness between bright lampposts.
Sun nudged him, and together they moved from the edge of the square, deep into darkness of an alleyway to the left of the hotel itself. There were thatched-roof cottages on either side, but their windows were dark and vacant.
"You're sure you can manage the change?" Sun asked as they paused there, watching. Tension seemed to flavour the crisp air; at any moment, the doors of the hotel might open, or some congregation of ponies might come herding from across town.
"Not as if I have a choice," Breeze murmured. It wasn't really an answer, but it was enough to satisfy.
"Right. Let me go first, anyway. I'll pick up the stallion and lead him this way, let you get a look at him. Just remember to be casual, okay? I know you're hungry, but if we get sloppy now..."
His eyes slid down to the ground, where snow was already turning a dirty grey-brown, packed hard underhoof and refreezing into a smooth, glassy surface. Breeze put on a half-smile that tugged at one corner of his mouth and gave the elder changeling a firm prod on the shoulder.
"I know what I'm doing, remember? Besides, it'd be a shame to get this far and... You know..."
As he trailed off he couldn't help feeling that he'd done more harm. Certainly wasn't feeling any better himself. With some effort he widened the smile. "Go on, won't get any easier if we spend all night standing around."
Sun nodded, took one deep breath, and stepped out into the pooling orange light of the gas-burning lamps.
Breeze couldn't hear what his friend was saying to the stallion at this distance, but he felt sure he could mouth along regardless. It wasn't hard to guess the sort of thing Sun would be coming up with; Excuse me, could you lend me a hoof? I think I dropped my coinpurse, but with my bad eyes, I can't see in the dark. Something like that. In any case, Sun made an airy gesture towards the alley that had them both standing before the stallion waved his... Girlfriend? Wife, even? Before he waved her back down with an easy smile and gave her a short kiss on the muzzle in parting.
Step one, working nicely. As Sun lead the stallion across the square Breeze stepped back a few paces and slumped against the rough wall, tilting his head down to gaze at a patch of icy snow a few ahead of him. Any other pony would have seemed suspicious, like a stallion of ill-will waiting in ambush. Any other pony might have ruined the night and spooked their mark, sent him back to his mare with a decidedly bad feeling about the situation.
Not Breeze. While he might not have been invisible, not even in this darkness with his sable coat, but something about his posture made him seem beneath notice. As much a part of the scenery as the houses, the sort of thing one's eyes passed over without really registering.
They passed him without a second glance. Sun was sure to ask some question, and the stallion was obliging enough to reply in the heavy drawl of a farmer. The words weren't important; Breeze disregarded them and kept his attention tightly focused on the way they were said. As they drew up beside him he could pick out a few details in the gloom; a windblown mane, scruffy fetlocks with long hairs growing over the hooves. The visual was good, but his magic did the lion's share of the work. It reached out, invisible and intangible, to wrap the stallion in an aura of sense that fed everything into the unconscious centres of Breeze's mind. Then they passed behind him, out of his field of view. He could hear their hoofbeats continue on for a short way before disappearing off to his right.
Ten seconds or so passed before he pushed himself away form the wall and took a few backward paces to put himself well out of view. A glance behind himself showed where the alley ran into another house and split at a T-junction. Sun had headed left, as Breeze looked out into the squared. Walking down the alley it was the right-hand path. Not vital knowledge but the sort of thing he felt better knowing.
Now came the tricky part. Breeze turned his mind inward and pushed deep to find the last little dredges of power buried within. His eyes, screwed up tight, saw sparks dance against the backs of his eyelids and lips twitched and peeled back to expose a flash of white teeth. And then it was like a dam breaking. The change came on in a rush, surrounding him in the comfortable old flames that died away to reveal the scruffy farmer in his place.
Taking the change with so little of himself to spare left him trembling all over again, and brought beads of sweat to his brow. The exertion passed within moments, and soon he could stand with relative stability once more. He could walk, without fearing that he'd trip over his borrowed hooves. All right, then. Time to be a proper changeling.
The mare lifted her head with surprise showing in her eyes as he approached, the sort of surprise that melted into a quiet delight as she realised who it was she thought was returning to her. Breeze flashed what he hoped was an appropriately rueful smile as she shifted on the bench, making a show of moving along for him to join her again.
"That was quick. You found it already?"
Her voice was softer than her stallion's. There was none of the rustic charm or the drawn-out drawl here. Instead, her words were precise, carrying the Canterlot accent that always sounded oddly brittle to Breeze. Like a delicate statue made of some fine crystal. Had she come down from the Capital, for this simple farmer?
"Heh, well, t'tell ya the truth," he started, rubbing one sheepish forehoof against the other, "it looks like we might just be needin' your eyes out there, after all." It was damn hard not to overdo the country twang. Just another reason to get this done fast, cut down on his opportunities to screw it up. "Wouldya?"
She gave him a quirked brow, but no suspicion gleamed behind her eyes, and a soft smirk pulled at her mouth. With a little chuckle she shuffled out from the table and stood, her gaze intimate and teasing, in equal measure.
"All right, darling, if it helps you learn to ask for help now and then~"
There was a swell of affection from her and oh, Queen he could taste it on the air. Sweet but not cloying, in a way that reminded him of the clear, fresh taste of autumn raspberries. He was glad, just then, that his hunger wasn't more physical, else his stomach would have growled with ferocity to impress a dragon, he was sure.
They started to walk, but it was all Breeze could do to keep from urging her into a trot; there was activity in his peripheral vision, doors spilling warm light out onto the square, ponies emerging into the darkness. The hotel was just starting to empty, and though figures clustered around it, with the exception of a few shapes lingering in deeper shadows, he figured it wouldn't be long before the village was swarming with ponies heading for home or for the cheaper drinks of the public house.
Then they were across the square and moving into the cloaking darkness of the alley. Breeze cast a glance back over his shoulder, saw nothing near enough to be a threat, and moved in. He knew he couldn't restrain himself now, whether or not he wanted to; real, sweet love was here in front of him. It was innocent, begging to be taken, and he could no more resist its call than he could resist the urge to breathe.
The first draught took the mare by surprise. Waves of weakness and dizziness spread through her, pushing her off balance. She half turned and met Breeze's glowing eyes, eyes that took a hold of her as the strength that had been sapped from her surged into the changeling. His limbs were hot in defiance of the winter's air and his mind sparkled, as though he'd swallowed bottled lightning!
She swooned forward; he reared onto his hindlegs and stretched out his fores to accept her as she fell. The changeling cradled her, almost as a lover, could have been mistaken for one if it weren't for the thin line of pallid green haze that linked them. Deeper, more...His jaw fell open, bumping his chest, wider than any pony's mouth had a right to be. All the while he marvelled; had it always been this good? Had he forgotten, in the months of subsiding on pale lust, or had they made this better? The mare was weakening beneath him but he wanted more. A meal couldn't be enough, he needed a banquet! A feast, the memory of which he might savour for years unnumb-
Instinct took hold. His mouth closed, eyes darkened, and the flow of love cut off in an instant. He stood with his back to the alley's entrance, not daring to look back. Not just because he'd been spotted, but because the voice that had blurted out the stunned curse was Natalya's.