• Published 28th Jun 2014
  • 8,928 Views, 196 Comments

For Whom We Are Hungry - Cold in Gardez

You didn't want to come here, but fate cares nothing for insects. The story of a changeling in Ponyville.

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Ponyville at Night

It is instinct that guides you to this house.

There are hundreds like it in Ponyville. By day they are colorful and tidy and distinct, each stamped with the character of its owners – playful or stately or garish. But when night descends, the colors fade, and the special gardens and ornaments fall into darkness, and only their shapes remain. Raw geometries that blot out the fading pastels of the evening sky, until that light too fades, and the moon paints the houses all the same with silver and shadows.

But inside, the houses still pulse with life. In this one, a stallion and a mare have just finished feeding their foals and chasing them around the house in preparation for bedtime. Two foals, you think, both female.

You know this, even though you cannot see past the curtains, or smell anything other than the seared radishes and braised carrots drifting from their chimney. You know that inside you would find laughter and unwashed foals fighting to avoid their nightly baths, and scented beeswax candles that are never lit. You know these things as if you are standing among them, not crouched between the prickly stems of some unnamed garden hedge lining their lawn.

You wait until the lights go out, one by one, until only the last remains, flickering from the second floor.

It's time. You dart across the grass, feeling it tickle the soles of your hooves. You stay to the shadows, away from the warm glow of the gas streetlights that hiss and sputter in their glass cages. You pause for a moment, letting the sound wash over you, and you close your eyes and let it carry you back, before all this, before Ponyville, before Canterlot, before you hid in shadows and beneath bushes, before you were hungry, before you knew the cold touch of fear between your wings, before...

The wind shifts, and the sound of the lamps fades. The reality of your situation returns, and you swallow the lump of memory in your throat. That was foolish of you – anypony could have seen you there, half-cloaked in shadows, skulking through somepony's yard like a thief. Which you aren't.

You aren't. You repeat that over and over again.

The house is made of smooth-cut timbers painted a shy pink that you can barely see in the clouded moonlight. Small tendrils of ivy cling to its side, starting to bud and send out the season's new feelers. They are black against the pink walls, and as you wait, pressed against them, barely breathing, you see a tiny mote skitter between their lines. A spider, out for a nighttime hunt. As if sensing your gaze, it freezes for a moment and holds perfectly still, and then it darts away into the shadows.

You silently wish him luck.

It's time. You take a deep breath, so deep your chest swells and your lungs ache. You hold it as long as you can – thirty seconds, a minute, two. When your legs begin to tremble and the edges of your vision go gray, you slowly exhale, willing the shakes to cease. You breathe out your fears, your hunger, your guilt, and let only the spider's stillness remain.

You place your hooves against the wood walls, feeling for the gaps between the planks. It would be easier to fly, of course, but even on a cloudy night like this you can't take that chance. Too many pegasus ponies lounge on the clouds above, their sharp eyes attuned to the flutter of wings. It's too risky, so instead you press yourself against the wall and start to climb.

The window is only a dozen feet above the ground. You reach it in a few seconds – you are a good climber – and oh-so-carefully raise your eyes above the windowsill, making sure you don't let any of the warm light from within spill onto your face.

That would be bad. You know this, even though it has never happened – you've never been caught.

There are voices inside. Two of them, both sleepy. A mare mumbles something, and a stallion whispers back. Bedsprings creek, and you hear the heavy thud of his hooves on the floor. They walk away, through a door whose hinges badly need some oil, and all is silent again.

You wait and watch. The mare rolls across the bed, gathering the covers over her. It's still cool at night, this early in the spring, and even ponies with their warm winter coats like to feel snug in bed.

A loud, groaning creak shakes the house, followed by the sound of water flowing from a shower head. Faintly, you hear what might be the stallion's voice, raised in a quiet song whose words only he knows.

It's time. You try the window and find it unlocked, of course. They're never locked, not in Ponyville. It's part of what you would love about the place, if you could ignore the stabbing pains in your belly long enough to feel anything other than hunger. Slowly, achingly slowly, you ease the window open and slide through the gap.

This is the hardest part. You only caught a glimpse of the stallion, and heard his voice only in whispers, but it will have to suffice. You focus on that image of him, of a brown coat and short, tangled mane, of his scent – clover, and rocks in a stream, warming in the sun. It's a nice scent, very subtle for an earth pony, and you let it carry your mind away for a moment, away from all that you have become, to some empty place where there is no hunger, or fear, or skulking about in the shadows at night. Only the sun and warm rocks and clover and peace.

Enough. You've stalled enough. You push away the silly daydream and focus on what matters – the image of the stallion, his voice and his scent. You focus on them, and you close your eyes, and let the magic work.

There is so little magic left in you, now. Only dregs. Once upon a time, this spell would have seemed simple to you, foal's play, but now it drains every bit of energy in your body, until only your bones and desperate desire to stay alive keep you from slumping into a pile of goo.

And maybe that will happen anyway. You've seen it happen to others, when they let themselves grow too weak. They try the spell, can't sustain it, and then they're gone. Lost.

But it's not your time for that, not tonight at least. Your heart opens, and out spills the little magic that remains. It begins with a green fire around your chest and quickly builds until every inch of your body is aflame. The heat sears you, burning away everything that was, and you are reborn.

You're taller now. Larger. Your hooves could crack rocks, and you could carry this entire house on your back. You draw in a deep breath, enjoying the different scents that flood your nose. Ponies have a sharp sense of smell – not as sharp as yours, of course, but they smell different things than you. The world is more beautiful to them. How could it not be? They are the gods' favored children, and all of life exists to please them.

You shove that thought away and focus on your new body again. It looks like a match, and you know without speaking that your voice is perfectly his. But none of those matter as much as the scent – ponies might forgive a coat a few shades off, or a voice too sharp or mellow, but their noses never lie. Every pony has a unique scent, and that they never forget.

You're pretty sure you got it right. And if you didn't, you'll die, so you should probably just hope for the best. There's nothing else you can do now, after all.

There's no need for stealth anymore. You step around to the far side of the bed and climb atop the covers next to the dozing mare. She smells of feathers and pine sap, and she reeks of sex. The mattress slumps beneath your weight, and she rolls over to press her back against you, mumbling softly in her sleep.

The warm taste in your mouth is love. You drink it like a pony dying of thirst, desperate, ravenous, devouring every scrap of it you can. You don't have the time to savor it – the stallion will return any moment, and to be discovered like this is as good as death. You gulp down huge lungfuls of this mare's love, and for a moment the terrible stabbing pain in your belly starts to ease. Not sated – no, you are never sated – but something less than starving, now. Something like you used to be, back in the hazy reach of memories you desperately try to forget.

There is another creak from the house's plumbing, and the sound of water from the shower trickles away.

It's time, and you could almost cry. There is so much love here, between these two, an ocean of it, and you can only sip it through a straw. You could spend all night beside this mare, drinking her love, and never consume more than a single snowflake in a blizzard. You are a pony dying of hunger beneath a thousand apple trees bearing a million ripe fruits, all forever out of reach.

You start to sob, and choke back the sound as the mare stirs. You've waited too long, and now you risk being caught. The sheer terror of that potentiality banishes the taste of her love, and you roll out of the bed just as the stallion reaches the bedroom door. You crouch against the wall, hidden behind the side table, as he climbs into the spot you just left. He pauses a moment, as if puzzled by some unexpected lingering warmth, but then he settles down, and even from across the room you can taste the flood of emotions – love, hope, joy, exasperation – between them. You want to scream.

The light clicks out, and the room falls into darkness. You wait until their breathing slows to a steady pace and creep back to the window. You slide it open and vanish out into the night, silent as a ghost, leaving nothing in your wake, your theft complete.

But you are not a thief. You are not a thief. You say that to yourself again and again as you skulk through the shadows to your nest.

You will not starve. Not tonight.

But the sun is still hours away, and already you are hungry again.