• Published 22nd May 2014
  • 5,690 Views, 292 Comments

Renegades - TheAndyMac

When the Hive speaks with one voice, what do you do when your voice speaks out of synch? For two changelings, there is only one answer; run.

  • ...

Contact - III

In the wilderness north-east of Dodge Junction, there sprawled one of the many forests that ponies were proving to be so fond of.

Well, to call it wilderness was a little generous. There was only one piece of truly wild land this deep into the land between the Crystal Mountains and the MacIntosh Hills, and that was yet another forest, albeit one that the ponies were rather less fond of.

Compared with the Everfree, this forest was like a park. Kept in check by the many magics of Equestria, its weather was tightly controlled and its inhabitants, for the most part, kept docile and friendly. But to changelings that had never seen a real forest before, it certainly felt wild. And oppressive. Treetops bent over them, like giants bending to reach down and snatch something, and every scurrying creature in the undergrowth felt like some stalking predator.

Breeze shivered, pulling himself a little closer to Sun. It was coming into late evening, and the sky, as much as it could be seen through the canopy, was growing ever darker.

Sun, for his part, spared Breeze a glare that sat at odds with his disguise's usual relaxed, content expression.

"Breeze. Enough."

The younger changeling pulled back, blushing, his head down and ears low. Even with Rainy Days' skin, he looked almost like he were a nymph again, still clutching to what was left of his hatching pod.

"Sorry, sorry..."

There was no use explaining his fear; he'd done so enough times in this one day alone. And they'd already spent two days wandering through forest of one kind or another. It was enough time that the sight of the trees was becoming more than just familiar, and yet for all that, he still felt trapped by them. That he even felt claustrophobic was unnerving in and of itself, since it came from a creature that had grown up in close, tight tunnels.

Nor was there any use in Sun explaining why that very fear was irrational and ill-founded, but he looked set to, taking a breath and opening his mouth when the faint sound of singing came drifting through the trees from the path ahead of them.

He pulled up short, Breeze alongside him, and his mouth closed with an audible click.

The tune was bouncy, set to a marching pace, and though the words were still indistinct at this distance the voice was obviously male. It drifted away, and a light, more melodic female voice sounded, weaving back and forth along the path.

Breeze shot a nervous glance in Sun's direction, but the other didn't react, simply standing his ground and widening his stance a little. For a moment, the voice continued, growing steadily louder. Then the words became clear, and a pair of ponies emerged from between the trees, hauling a heavy laden cart behind them. A unicorn stallion, and an earth mare, singing a duet between them. The mare was partway through a verse:

"...I never did intend to gae tae foreign lands,
And I never will marry a soldier-o!"

At that moment the stallion took over.

"Now up jumped the colonel, March, boys, march!
Tarry, cried oor captain, oh tarry-o!
O tarry yet a while, just another day or twa
Til I see if this bonnie lass will marry-o"

He paused for breath, ready to launch into the next verse, when he looked ahead, catching sight of the pair as they stood agape. His face split into a broad smile, as the mare beside him did the same.

"Good evenin', lads! Nice tae see new faces on the road. Whaur are ye headed tae?"

"F-fillydelphia..." mumbled Sun. Something was odd about these new ponies, and it wasn't just their cheerfulness. Their voices were strange. Or rather, their words were.

The mare didn't seem bothered by their shock, though, or the thoughts and suspicions that had to have been clear across their faces. She just inclined her head to them, still smiling. "Ah, we've just come fae there. Whit are ye goin' there for, if I might ask?"

"We were just going to pass though," Sun said, his voice slow and eyes starting to narrow. "We might look for some work while we're there, but we don't plan to stay too long."

At this, Breeze swallowed, stepping forward and nodding.

"That's right, and we should be moving."

The stallion, however, simply laughed at that, sharing a glance with the mare.

"Now, dinnae be sae quick to run off! It'll be dark, soon, and I doobt ye lads have tents packed away in thae saddlebags, eh?" He looked between the two, and chuckled again. "We were soon tae mak' camp oorsel's; why no share oor fire? Ah can gie ye a good at oor ware afore ye go in the morning, too."

He motioned towards the cart. It was an old, ramshackle thing, but the many repairs that covered it were of decent quality, and Breeze might have thought it had a good few years left in it. If he had been the type to notice such things. He did, however, notice the boxes filling it, and glimpsed all manner of things, both practical and useless.

But he didn't say anything right away. Instead, there was a moment's silence, punctuated only by the rustling of the trees, as he and Sun tried to sort the stallion's words into plain Equestrian. Breeze just stood, oddly taken by it, while it took longer than either of them would have liked before Sun finally spoke up.

"That's...very kind of you. You're a travelling merchant?"

The stallion shook his head. "Naw, lad, we're Ceardannan. Craftsponies. Name's Fair Trade, and this is Melody. Just ca' her Mel, though."

Breeze just stared back at him, searching through what little he knew of pony society. Beside him, he knew Sun would be doing the same. In the meantime, Trade frowned at the pair of blank faces before him.

"Summer Walkers?" he tried. "Tinkers? No?"

Breeze shook his head. "Nope, sorry."

Trade looked, for a moment, as though he couldn't understand what was happening in front of him. But then he shrugged, waving it off. "Ach, it ain't a problem. We're travelling folk, true enough, but no' for trading. At least, not really. We carry things around to trade with, but we walk the roads because we want to. All use folk live on the roads. But it'd be a sight more comfortable telling ye all this with camp set up. So, lads, will ye help us get unpacked, and sit a while?"

They shared a glance. Breeze felt a desperate urge to refuse them; not just for the obvious reasons, but for another, unknown feeling deep in his gut that told him there would be trouble. One hoof crept up to the side of his muzzle to trace the scar still lying there, bold against his pale coat.

But Sun seemed unsure, as opposed to worried. Even then, it was obvious what his answer was going to be, when he finally got around to deciding, and it was just as obvious that he'd have a decent enough reason for it. So Breeze just sat back, letting the older changeling speak for him.

"If you're sure you don't mind... We'd be happy to."

The fire's orange glow was like a beacon in the deep darkness of the forest. Beyond the bright, flickering circle the black was absolute, the canopy and the close trunks blocking out any light from the moon or the stars, save for the occasional break in the leaves where the cold pinpricks of the stars could be seen.

Within that circle, however, the world was warm, soft, and safe.

Breeze rested on his side, basking in the firelight like a lizard sunbathing on a seaside rock. With the camp set up, the impromptu company had fallen into a rough circle around the fire, as Trade passed steaming bowls of stew around. It wasn't fantastic, Breeze mused as he chewed on a spoonful, even by his own limited experience. But it was pleasant enough, and it was hot. Better than eating grass from the side of the road, at least.

"So then, lads," Trade said, swallowing his own mouthful. "Whaur exactly are ye comin' frae?"

"Dodge," replied Sun. He glanced up at the stallion, eyes drooping, drowsy from the heat of the fire. "Got bored of frontier life, and thought we might try making a life for ourselves somewhere a little more populated. More interesting."

"Ah. You two a couple, then?"

If the forest had been populated by crickets, there might have been the sound of their chirping to fill the void that followed. That at least might have made things less awkward. As it was, there were only the sounds of the fire as both of the changelings' heads snapped towards each other, eyes wider than plates.

Breeze let out a long, droning "Nooooooooo..." at the same time as Sun shook his head, simply repeating the word a few times before he waved the younger changeling down.

"No, we're just friends. Close friends, I'll grant you, but that's just because we've been through a lot together. We're not a couple."

Chuckling, Trade waved his hooves at them, making a 'calm down' gesture. "Nae offence meant, lads, just makin' assumptions." He turned to face Breeze. "So, how is it that ye let Mr Sun o'er there dae all the talkin' for ye? Shy one?"

Breeze just nodded, his cheeks gone red and not going back.

"Ach, I wouldnae force ye tae talk, lad, but ye've nought tae fear frae us, just so's ye ken."

Again, that odd accent rang in Breeze's ears, drawing him in. It was rough, yet somehow melodious, the sort of accent that would be easy to put to song. The obvious question built on his lips - had been building all evening, in fact - and finally burst free before he could stop it.

"Where are you from?"

At that, Mel let out a less-than-ladylike burst of laughter.

"How, does the accent no' gie it awa'?"

When Breeze replied with a blank stare and little else, she blinked, very obviously at a loss. "...really?"

"Never was very good with accents," Sun said, rushing to fill the silence. "Neither of us were. Comes with living on the frontier."

Trade raised an eyebrow. "You're no' kiddin'." As Sun looked away, kicking at the dirt and grass, he smiled, waving it off. "Well, we're frae a wee place up in the north o' Trottingham County. Grew up on an oat farm, a wee ways in from the coast, an' Mel here in a fishing village nearby. Nice enough place, if a bit bleak. Awfy weather, an' a'."

"...'awfy' in what way?"

"Rain," said Mel, her face bleak and her glare flat. "Naught but. Oh, you might hae some sun, maybe even a whole day or twa at a time. But it doesnae last. North Trottingham is the pegasus dumpin' groond for their used-up storms. Near the coast, see; they punt it o'er oor way, an' let it drift oot o'er the ocean."

Breeze hummed to himself, nodding. "Sounds nasty."

"Aye, it is. Spend your childhood in the rain, ye tend tae get a tad bitter..."

"Hold on, back up a minute," he said suddenly, looking between the couple. "You," he pointed at Trade, "grew up on an oat farm? And you," - Mel - "grew up in a fishing village?"

Both nodded, and Breeze sat back, shoulder muscles twitching and tensing as he tried to buzz wings he didn't actually have any more. "So what was all that about 'Ceardannan'?" He spoke the strange word perfectly, without even a second thought. "You know, all your folk 'living on the road', and all that?"

Flickering sparks drifted up from the fire as a log crackled and spat, sap pockets bursting in the flames. Mel and Trade shared a glance, eyes glinting in the firelight, and chuckled together.

"What?" demanded Breeze, frowning. The rush of spotting the inconsistency, as obvious as it was, had sent a rush of confidence through him, and it was still lingering, even as confusion started to set in. "What's funny?"

"Ach, it isnae much, lad. Just that... Well, tell the truth, the Ceardannan havenae been daein' much wandering for a hundred years or more. Mel an' I, we're gone back the auld ways, but we werenae born tae them." He sat back, setting his bowl aside and resting in a very un-pony-like position. "Aye, auld ways in Equestria're dyin' oot, these days. Folk mak new tradition, an' only a few edjits like us keep the auld ways movin'."

The fire had all but burned out. A few embers still glowed a dull red amongst the white, ashen remains, but there was little heat, and their light didn't reach out more than a foot or two. Though the night was mild, the small group had wrapped themselves up snug and tight to keep the chill away. Almost like a nymph in a cocoon, Evening Breeze mused as he shifted inside his blankets, trying to eke a little comfort out of the lumps and grassy knots beneath him.

The sounds of soft breathing came from all around him, soothing and calm, but somehow infuriating as well. They were a constant reminder that everypony else was asleep, restful, even carefree. But not him.

Truth be told, he hadn't slept well in days, not since leaving the cabin. With the dull fear of the escape now behind him, and the reality of the long slog ahead of him, he found himself noticing the things about the Hive that, quite frankly, he missed. As much as he'd been dissatisfied, and eager to run once he knew that it was possible, he couldn't deny that there was a strange comfort to the routine of his old life. At this moment, it was the routine of sleep; lights out when the captain said so, bunking with something like fifty other drones so that their presence was constant, even at rest. There was a sense of belonging, on those nights, that he never felt anywhere else, and of security as well. The Hive was safe, at least from outward threats. There was no such security here. Even if he knew academically that there was no danger, he still felt vulnerable.

Worse, perhaps, the time awake gave him a chance to reflect. Reflect on the differences, and even the strange similarities. He was free now, able to do what he wanted, when he wanted. At least, within reason. But though food was theoretically more plentiful here than in the Hive, he was going to have to work so much harder for it. There was a certainty in his old life, that you would be fed and watered and sheltered so long as you did your job and did it well. But out here, he had no such guarantees. Heck, he had no job.

And yet he found the world around him to be as trusting as the Hive had been. For different reasons, perhaps; in the Hive you trusted your fellows because they were meant to be just like you, working towards a common cause with the same thoughts and feelings behind their chitinous skulls. In Equestria, the ponies seemed to trust each other, like Trade and Mel had trusted Sun and him, out of a quiet confidence that they were better. The dangers of the world outside their borders wouldn't touch them, because they had risen above that. They controlled the skies and the trees and the creatures that scurried between them. How could they not think that way? How could any danger touch this realm, where their queen moved the sun and moon themselves?

Or at least, that was how it seemed to him, in the long, hidden hours of the night. His opinion was of limited value, all things considered, but he was on the right track. Equestria was trusting, to a degree. Maybe not for the reasons he suspected, but then again, maybe so. Either way, the night was dragging on. With a little effort, he rolled over, and realised that the bundle of blankets beside him was empty.

He sat up. No trick of the darkness there, the blankets were lying flat on the ground. He looked around the campsite, spotting Sun and Trade, both still and peaceful. Mel, then. But where had she gone, and when? He hadn't noticed any movement. Then again, since wrapping himself in his cloth cocoon, there had been periods when he was so lost in thought he might as well have been sleeping.

So she was missing. Had she gone far? In any case, what did it matter? What was he going to do about it? Simple pragmatism said to just lie down and try sleeping, ignore the problem and pretend that he knew nothing about it when someone else found out. He felt the urge to listen to pragmatism's advice, to not concern himself with these ponies. After all, the forest was dark, and he still felt a thrill of fear every time he looked into the deepest darkness between the trees, imagining eyes staring back at him.

The problem was, another part of him wondered if it might not be a good idea to go and find her. He was scared, that much was true, but this mare had taken the pair in, and along with her husband had given them food and shelter. And it wasn't as if he was going to be sleeping any time soon.

He tugged the blankets away with his teeth, kicking the last clingy folds off and rolling to his hooves. There were faint prints in the grass, marking a trail from the blanket pile to somewhere between the trees. Breeze gulped, even less sure that this was a good idea, but he began to trot, very cautiously, along the trail.

As he reached the trees he started dragging his hooves, but it wasn't out of fear, or his reluctance to go between the trunks and into the true darkness. In there, with the eyes of a pony, he'd be blind, unable to follow his own tracks back to camp. So he dragged his hooves, making bold, broad scrapes through the undergrowth, leaf-litter and dirt. Even if he couldn't see, he could always feel his way back.

He moved in, leaving his trail behind him, hoping the noise might attract Mel's attention, and hers alone. Calling angry forest dwellers down on him while trying to find a missing pony? Not a fantastic way to meet his end. Not that he wanted to meet it at all, of course. But he couldn't help imagining every half-glimpsed shape in the deep darkness as some crouching beast, or a nameless horror. There was movement to his right, the rustle of leaf litter that might have been the wind, or something more sinister.

He thought about giving up the facade. Of shedding this disguise and reclaiming his chitinous self. He probably wouldn't last much longer. But at least he'd have real weapons. More than just those ridiculous hooves.

He kept shuffling, the thought of running into Mel without his disguise providing all the motivation he needed to avoid temptation, and press on. The soft suggestion of sound stayed with him, but it was indistinct now. The huffing of some monstrous creature, the soft sound of the wind, or maybe even just his imagination.

It could have been any of these things, but he would never know which, because as he watched the trees to his side, he stepped out into a hidden clearing, and stumbled into Mel herself.


She called his name in a harsh whisper, wanting to shout but not daring to disturb the peace of the forest. As he fell back onto his rump, startled by the impact and the sound of his name, she glared down at him, looking far more severe by moonlight than she did in the day, or by the warm light of the fire.

"M-mel?" he stuttered, staring back with wide eyes. The clearing was more or less barren of trees, letting through the hard, white light of the moon and the soft twinkle of the stars overhead.

"Whit are ye daein' here, ye daft bampot? It's the middle o' the nicht! Ye should be in bed, no' chasin' after me!"

He pulled himself back to his feet, frowning.

"W-well I wouldn't be chasing you, if you were in bed as well. So what are you d-doing here?" With some effort, he stilled his shaking limbs and glared at her, though the effect was somewhat diminished by his nervous stutter.

She threw a scowl at him, but it was softened by amusement. She turned away, sitting down, looking up.

"Just looking at the stars, is all. I ken these forests, and there are aye a few goods spots fer stargazin'..." With a backward glance, she erased her scowl and matched his frown, raising an eyebrow for good measure. "An' I get tae be oot here, because I ken this forest, an' I ken whit lies in it. You dinnae, so you shouldnae been sneakin' around after dark!"

"I'm sorry," he muttered, his angry expression gone, replaced by something a little more contrite that hid a slow-burning wick in his belly. He looked up through the gap in the trees, not wanting to meet her eyes. "I wondered where you'd gone, or why. Didn't want anypony to wake up to you missing."

At that, she let out a little sigh, and her expression softened, the frown giving way to a rueful smile. "Ach, you're a daft thing." She made a gentle shooing motion at him. "Go on, I'll be back afore long."

But Breeze wasn't listening. His wandering eyes had found the shining moon, and he stared up at it as the dark silhouette of its stoic queen glared down upon him. He was about to whisper a quiet prayer, caught up in the sight, when Mel's hoof crossed back and forth in his field of vision.

He looked over at her, catching the glint of her white teeth in the moonlight as she grinned. "A little moonstruck there, lad?" she asked, her eyes glittering.

He nodded, almost ashamed at being caught like that, struck by the moon, and about to whisper useless things to it. This creature, this pony, had shown him up in the dark already, a place where a changeling soldier like him was supposed to thrive. His pride could only take so much, so he bit back an enthusiastic reply and set his face.

"I suppose. Is this what you're out here for?"

She rolled her eyes, not seeing his mask dropping into place, and prodded his side. "Did ye no' hear me say so? Aye, I'm a stargazer. Here for the view. There's no better place fer it than the middle o' nowhere. Well, maybe the forest's no' the best place, but it maks ye focus on one patch of sky. Ye see mair in that one place than ye would if it was the whole sky ye were watchin'."

"Aye...?" Breeze said, almost without thought. He had barely heard a word of what she'd been saying, too focused on her voice, and the way she spoke the words rather than their meaning. As she turned to give him an odd look, though, he realised what he'd said, the way he'd picked up her odd word as an afterthought, and closed his mouth, eyes very deliberately fixed on the stars.

Thankfully, she turned back, choosing either to ignore it, or perhaps having never really heard him in the first place. As he let out a sigh of relief, she giggled to herself. "You're really enjoyin' the view, aren't you? Well, I suppose I could let you stay a while. We'll head back to camp together. Does that sound all right?"

He nodded, and something clicked in his mind. Alone, in the middle of the forest, where the trees would muffle any noise and of the only two ponies able to reach them, one wasn't even a pony at all. A smile started to spread across his face as an idea started to grow.

This, he thought, could turn out to be a very productive night.

Author's Note:

Okay, this took FAR too long to finish than it had any right to. Things have been a bit busy, and for some reason the words just weren't flowing. But I have a chapter up now. I might revise it later, it's still rough and probably has errors all around, but it's here.

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