• Published 20th May 2012
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My Little Balladeer - Ardashir



The Elements of Harmony find themselves facing an evil beyond their knowledge, armed with an alien magic. In desperation they use their Elements to summon aid and get - a hillbilly with a silver-strung guitar?

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Chapter 3

My Little Balladeer
Chapter 3

I slept right well for a time there in that barn-like house with that little palomino right nearby and more like her upstairs. It might sound odd to whoair hears this, but I’ve been in the army in wartime. And I’ve spent most of my life in the outdoors. You do that, you learn to sleep air time and place you get the chance. I wondered myself if I could trust these ponies, but I put that thought out of my head. I doubted much that they’d have fed me and let me in their home if they meant to do me any wrong. And I never saw how being a-scared over nothing profited air soul much in life.

I slept and I dreamed, and they were right strange, the way most dreams usually are. In one I met the little filly again in the woods, but this time she spoke American English to me and sounded like any young human girl a-talking to you. Then another dream, and she and I were inside of a village filled with other little ponies, full-grown ones like her family. But these ones were strange compared to them. They had none of those marks on their flanks. It seemed like they were doing a play party too. But all the food and drink on the tables was dust like it’d been there forever and a day. When I turned to point it out to the little filly, she wasn’t herself any more. She was made all of black bones and bloody red light for eyes. Another of the big ponies was a-touching her, and that one was like she was, and so were all the rest. And the homes all around them looked ruined and tumbledown, like they’d been abandoned and gone to nothing long ago. Then they all started to come at me. I tried to play my guitar with its silver strings which are a protection against all unchancy things, but someone snatched it away from me with a nasty laugh. And just as the little filly and the others reached out for me, saying that they wanted me to stay there with them forever, I woke up.

I don’t shame to say that I looked around me in the dark and felt right glad to see four walls and a ceiling and everything like it’d been when I went to sleep. A part of me wondered if maybe I’d expected to see it all gone and nothing but bones around. I might not even have been surprised to see that thing happen. That farmhouse was one strange place, and that’s the truth.

But all the same, I felt something to be wrong. Like something stood right behind me, a-waiting for me to stop being careful so it could drop on me. It minded me of one-two times in the war, when I’d figured on an enemy ambush somehow before it could happen. Once my unit and I turned one such around when I felt that. I thought maybe that might be what I was feeling here.

I heard something whimper under the table that gave me a start. I closed my eyes tight and opened them, using an old hunter’s trick to help see in the dark. It helped some bit. I saw what whimpered. It was the dog. She hid under the table and looked at the doors. She looked right scared, her ears down and a-shivering. I heard another sound beside, a soft whicker almost like a whisper. I looked to see the palomino sitting up and looking at me. She looked to the door. I strained my ears and thought maybe I heard what she like to have heard. The softest sort of whispering and the light click of a hoof striking a rock.

She rose and moved quietly to one of the lamps they’d been using before. I followed her silently, like I’d learned to do in the Army. I stayed away from the windows and when I reached her, I put my hand on the lamp and held it so she couldn’t remove the cover from it. Little bits of light came out from under it.

“Don’t do such a thing,” I said to her, though I knew she didn’t understand the words. “Whoair is here might not know that we’re awake.” She gave me a confused look. I stuck my fingers in the thin beam of light that cover let out and wiggled them. I pointed at them with my other hand and then outside. She caught my meaning right quick and set the lamp back down. She turned and went to the door, moving right quietly.

I stopped just long enough to fetch my guitar and followed her to the doors. She reached up and opened the top half and we both looked out into the farmyard.

The moon sank back down towards a horizon where the faintest pale grayness showed. If this place were like my own home, I reckoned it to be just an hour or two until dawn. No sound at all outside, not even the little sounds you learn to expect when you’re in the country of nocturnal birds and beasts a-looking for dinner or trying not to be dinner. I saw nothing at first as I swept my gaze across the yard and the barn and the pen. Then the palomino snorted softly and tugged at my arm. She pointed off towards the orchard. I looked. I saw what she’d seen.

First I thought it to be two pair of fireflies there, but fireflies don’t shine red. They weren’t that big either. Nor do they turn to settle on you like eyes. I made out some little more of what stood there watching us. They looked like horses, about the size of the ones I’d seen here, but different someways. They near melded into the dark like they were a part of it and they looked too raggedy, with stringy manes and hides that looked to be as much bone as anything. We looked at them and they looked back at us. I wondered myself if they might be friends or at least not enemies. One look at the palomino told me that reply. Her ears were down close to her head and her eyes were wide with what looked like anger and fear together. Human or pony, ain’t air soul greets a friend thataway.

I got my guitar across me, my left hands on the frets and my right clawing the strings. I felt the palomino a-looking all curious at me as the strings sang out and I started the Last Judgement Song. When I was a boy my uncle T.P. Hinnard told me it was a strong protection against evil things, and it helped me many a time. I just hoped it’d be a help here as well as I played.

Three holy kings, four holy saints,

At Heaven’s high gate that stand,

Speak out and bid all evil wait,

And stir no foot or hand…

I felt some surprise to see them flinch back. I’d wondered me if it’d work against them or air wicked thing here in this place. It worked on evil things in the world, true, but that would be in my world, and this was another place entirely. I sang another verse of the Last Judgement Song:

The fire from heaven will fall at last

On wealth and pride and power,

We will not know the minute, and

We will not know the hour…

They flinched back further still. They stared at us just a heartbeat more. It felt to be one of the longest I’d ever known. Then they turned and went back under the trees and vanished amongst them. I stepped back from the doors and turned to see the palomino a-looking at me like she didn’t know how rightly to trust me now. I wondered whatair she thought. Maybe she thought I was an evil enchanter of some sort. I looked at her and she looked right back at me.

Whatever she saw, she must have trusted it, for next she went and bolted the doors, as solid as the gates of a fortress. She went and checked all the windows, making sure they were shut and bolted tight. I heard her hooves clicking light on the floor as she walked into the other rooms, then the sound of her seeing to the doors and windows there. Whatair came from those woods, these ponies feared it a right much, and no mistake. Finally she returned to the front room and lay back down on her pallet, watching me. I went back to my bedroll. I set my guitar within arm’s reach in case I needed it and lay myself down. She watched me the whole time, near as silent as those things we’d seen in the yard. It took me a long time before I went back to sleep but I eventually did it again. Gentlemen, you can sleep through anything if you’re tired enough.

When I awoke again the sun was up and shining. I heard the ponies up and moving in the next room and smelled someone cooking breakfast. It smelled like eggs, and they smelled right good. I sat up and noticed the little filly from last night a-watching me. She smiled to see me, and I returned her one.

“And a good morning to you,” I bade her as I rose and went into the next room. I heard her following along behind. I must have been a strangeness, but I was a welcome strangeness to her at the least. The horse with the three horseshoes on his flank was walking out for whatair work these horses did on their farm. The palomino stood by the old, old mare from last night, the strange one with the snow-white mane and the green coat, and they were both a-washing dishes and bowls in the sink. The sorrel stallion looked to be finishing up a bucket full of oats. The sorrel nodded at me like air human soul would and pointed a hoof at the table.

“Thank you, and I will,” I answered him. Not much was left but what there was looked right good. Some eggs showed scrambled up, and bread that smelled fresh, and more apples and some apple muffins. Hay and oats and such as well, but I left those for the ponies. I sat down and forked some eggs on to a plate, took up some bread they had there, and made a meal of it. The eggs were like air other I ever ate and the bread had that warm rough taste to it that most homemade bread does. The little filly seated herself nearby and had some food. By the time I finished the sorrel walked out the doors. The filly looked like she wanted to stay there and keep a-watching me. The palomino whinnied at her and she went out after the stallion. She gave me a sad-eyed look and then showed it to the palomino. The palomino just whinnied at her once more and pointed her hoof out the door. The little filly looked to sigh and left.

After I ate and helped at cleaning the dishes up, I walked outside and took a good look around. The house and barn sat on a rise in the midst of one of the biggest apple orchards I’d ever seen. Farm fields stretched out around as well, looking like good fertile bottomland, a warmer brown than I’d ever seen back home. They smelled like they’d been fertilized for planting. I could see the sorrel and the filly heading off into the orchards, with him pulling a wagon. They’d probably be clearing the deadfall and broken branches from the trees.

Maybe a mile, maybe more, past those fields and orchards, I saw a whole little town. Some of the buildings looked right fancy for such a small place, with one like a carousel like you get in traveling circus shows and another that looked like someone’s idea of a fancy-made cake. I saw another place that looked more official, somehow, like a tower hung with banners. Past it all there rose a windmill, with the blades turning in the cool breeze I felt. If there weren’t more of these little ponies there I’d be right surprised. This whole place felt something like that one place in Gulliver’s Travels that none of the retellings air seem to get right, that land of the horse-folk and the Yahoos who served them.

And past all of that a skyline of near the steepiest mountains I’ve ever seen stretching clear across the horizon. They rose up high and sharp like the Rockies, rather than short and ground down by time and the elements like the Appalachians back home. I beheld something shining white like untouched snow or the finest marble set aside one of them, like it sprouted from it or grew fast there. The sky above looked bluer than blue with near no sign of haze or distance. I thought I saw birds flying around in it, but they looked a sight bigger than any birds I remembered seeing before. It all looked cleaner and clearer than aught I’d ever seen on Earth. It wasn’t quite a paradise, not quite, but it looked a lot closer to it.

Looking back at the orchard reminded me of what the palomino and I saw earlier. I went to the spot where I’d seen them. As I approached, I slowed a bit. I smelled a sharp nasty smell there, like from spoiled meat or maybe something worse. I wondered me if I’d find sign that air thing had been there.

When I reached the spot I found it, and no mistake. Black splotches showed on the green grass and brown soil with a nasty, greasy look to them. The grass in and around them looked withered like from a hard frost, and the marks formed the u-shape of a hoof print. I heard hooves and a soft neigh nearby. I near jumped out of my skin before I looked to see the palomino there with her hat on. Some distance behind her the border collie watched and whined, but it came no closer to those hoof prints.

The mare came up beside me and looked at the prints, her eyes grim. I started back along the line of those two sets of hoof prints, a-wondering if they’d lead where I thought they would. The palomino followed me, snorting and lowering her ears once or twice as we passed apple trees with broad sickly-looking patches on them. The trail led right where I thought it would, back through the orchard and across that dirt road and into the edge of the forest. Right where that little filly and I’d come last night, near as straight a line as made no difference.

“We were followed,” I said to her, “And no mistake.” I looked at the palomino and she looked back, her eyes wary and cautious. I wondered myself if maybe she blamed me some ways for this. I wondered if she might could be right somehow.

The trail went on into the woods, but after what I’d seen and heard last night I wasn’t such a gone gump as to follow it in there. Nor did she seem eager to follow. We just looked at each other again and turned to head back to the farm. I wondered as we went, going back under the trees and her staying close by, whyever did those things follow the filly and myself back to her farm? Judging by the way the palomino acted, this was no normal thing for here. Was I a-bringing a heap of trouble onto people who’d been nothing but friendly to me? I can tell you, that thought didn’t sit easy with me. I’d slowed to think on that and so the palomino was ahead of me when we came out from under the apple trees.

A shadow passed overhead, like a bird’s but different. Bigger than near air bird I’ve ever seen ‘cept for the Ugly Bird, and the body looked too large for those wings. Whatair it was, it wheeled over us.

And then I swear to nothing, I heard an angry neigh overhead and something dropped down between me and the palomino. I heard her neigh, either shocked or angry her own self. And what I saw then, well, now, maybe you’d better sit yourself while I try and describe to you what I did see.

It was a pegasus, the flying horse from the legends of the old-timey Greeks across the sea, small as the palomino. But I nair ever heard of one colored blue as the sky before. Or with a rough-cut mane and tail all the colors of the rainbow. Nor did I ever expect to see one, alive and real, no picture in a book or moving picture, landing down afore me with fire in her eyes. She whinnied something back at the palomino. Then she came on at me, her ruby eyes burning like coals.

* * *

Applejack came back out into her farmyard with the stranger when Rainbow Dash finally showed up. AJ knew Dash’s usual morning flight took her over the farm. And right now, with all the trouble Thorn had caused, Dash was making it her business to keep an eye on everything. Applejack hoped she would catch Dash’s eye and bring her down so they could get Twilight and the rest of their friends together to meet her “guest” and decide what if anything to do with him. So when wings whirred overhead and Dash dropped down between her and the stranger she felt no great surprise. She couldn’t say the same for her “guest”. He stared at the pegasus in wide-eyed surprise as she landed before him, down low in a crouch and ready to attack.

“Ohmigosh, AJ, it’s a monster like Thorn! Run and I’ll hold it off! And you,” Dash turned on the stranger, her rose-red eyes alight with fury, “What’s the idea of threatening one of my friends? Did that creep Thorn send you here? Are you a spy?”

He said nothing. He just shifted to bring his guitar up and around. Applejack remembered how his music drove the haunts away. Right then she didn’t want to see what else it could do. When she saw the muscles in Dash’s shoulders bunch as the Pegasus got ready to hurl herself at him, Applejack promptly grabbed a mouthful of rainbow tail as she’d done so many times before.

“Now just hold on there, sugarcube!” Applejack mumbled the words out around a mouthful of pegasus tail. “He ain’t no enemy, he’s a friend.” Dash shot her a disbelieving look but she relaxed. Applejack spat the mouthful of tail out and said, “He saved Applebloom just the other night. But he don’t speak any Equestrian. You go and fetch Twi and she can do that speakin’ spell of hers that she mentioned to us once and then we can figure out more about him.”

“You sure about this?” Dash said as she darted a suspicious look at the stranger. He seemed calm but still paid close attention to them. Dash said, “We’re supposed to go and tell the Royal Guards in town when and if that Thorn creep showed up again. And he sure looks a lot like him.”

“Looks like ain’t the same thing as ‘just as bad’, Rainbow,” Applejack said to her. “He stayed the night here and didn’t do us any harm. He was right mannerly, too.”

“AJ, I’m under orders as Captain of the Ponyville Weather Patrol and a bearer of the Elements of Harmony to bring him to Captain Bastion and his guardsponies. Hay, so’re you. We’re supposed to try an’ arrest him!” Dash stomped one hoof against the ground for emphasis.

“Well, then say Ah’m holdin’ him in a citizen’s arrest until you go get Twi and we figure out how to talk to him!” When Dash looked ready to argue some more, Applejack nudged her with her head, adding, “Besides, if he is here with that snake Thorn, then the sooner we talk with him the sooner we can figure out what else he’s up to.” She hesitated before adding, “An’ maybe we should’ve been expecting him after what we did.”

“Huh? What?” Dash blinked and gave her an incredulous look. “Y-you mean… that when we used the Elements to try and get help like the Princess suggested, that he’s what we got?” She flapped her wings and rose up off the ground, going over to the stranger. She eyed him critically. He looked back, seemingly fascinated by her flight. Dash flew back over to Applejack. “He really doesn’t look like any kind of help I’d expect, Jacky.”

“Well, you don’t always look like the best flyer in Equestria, but y’are,” Applejack said to her. Dash shot her a dirty look but she ignored it. “Now go an’ get Twilight. We need her here.” Dash looked reluctant, but she turned to fly off. Then at the last second she turned and flew at the stranger, hovering right before his face. She thrust her hoof under that lump under his eyes and gave her best intimidating look.

“Okay, I’ll go, but I’m warning you. Applejack’s a friend of mine, and if you hurt her or her family, it’ll be the sorriest day of your life, whatever the hay you are!” She shot off like an arrow, heading for the library. Applejack watched her go and sighed.

“She’s mah friend, but one o’ these days she has to learn to ask some questions first,” she said to the stranger. He tilted his head, giving her what she imagined to be a curious look. She added, “Ah’m right sorry about that.” He looked at her and then after Dash before raising one hand and waving it from side to side in a ‘no worries’ gesture. Then he pointed at the farm and mimed holding one of the baskets, obviously wanting to help with the work. AJ’s opinion of him rose.

“Naw,” Applejack said, “this is more important. We got to wait a spell for Twilight to show up, and then we’ll see what we’ll see.” She sat down by the edge of the orchard. He looked at her, shrugged, and sat down nearby. She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile and mentally added, An’ if you are the help we asked for, then Ah’m sorry for what we did to ya. An’ I hope we didn’t do wrong by either us or you.