The very fibres of my being cried out for something. Close the distance, I felt my body singing. Try as I might, I could only feel an inexorable, intolerable, inevitable fading...it could be saved by just a few words words which bound lips could not produce. No mouth, yet must scream. Bound lips, yet must shriek.
Wordless, yet must produce sound.
This state is not unknown to me.
I awoke, tearing from one nightmare into another. Rock walls, sick trees, violet sky.
Breathe. Just breathe. Think of her, think of Arddun. Thoughts of the moon covered me with warmth, steadied my haggard breaths, slowed my jackhammer pulse. I turned away from the cave mouth; I didn't want to see the world.
Finger and thumb pinching the bridge of my nose, as I drew long, steadying breaths, I kept that luminescent disc in my mind's eye, and suddenly nothing was as bad as I had believed...
Why? came the thought, quick and painful as a lightning bolt. Why does the moon have such an effect on me?
She was glorious, my Arddun. She was glory. But why have I suddenly become a moon-worshipper overnight? Not even overnight in seconds? I saw her, and that was that, I had no qualms about suffering in her name. Was the moon magical? Did it cast a spell over everything that saw it, making them her thralls?
Ridiculous. She was benevolence and majesty and love all at once. The concept of my Lady of the Night brainwashing people was nothing short of insane. Yes, I saw how it might fit, how I had come to love her so instantly. But it just didn't make sense.
Arddun loved me too much to do that to me. Of this, I was absolutely certain.
And so my next dilemma was decided, as I breakfasted on an apple, picked up my stick and set forth into the world once more. I wouldn't find a way out of this world just yet. For now, I just wanted to see Arddun again, tonight. My family and friends could wait after all, they wouldn't believe me if I told them the truth, so what did it matter, a few extra days to concoct stories for?
The apples were enough to both nourish and hydrate. But my clothes began to stick to my skin and a day of sweat and grime had started to make my hair thick and greasy. I needed a source of water.
I'd started my cautious trek for only a few minutes before I stopped, blinking. I didn't care if my hair was thick and greasy, or if my clothes stuck to my skin. Not when there were more prominent matters, such as legendary beasts prowling the forest. Then why was I walking?
Alarm crept into my heart as I realised the truth: the truth was that I wanted to look my best for Arddun, when she sees me tonight.
This is really wrong. I've been completely brainwashed. I can't stop thinking about her!
Palm on a tree to anchor myself to quasi-reality, doubled over, the world around me offered little solace whilst my thoughts sped through my head.
Holy hell did I just think place the moon above my family and friends back there?
How can I fight this? And then, the most dangerous question: Do I even want to?
For all I know I was the only sentient, civilised being in the entire world. Maybe the brainwashing won't completely claim me. Maybe all she wanted was someone to love, and I was that someone. If divinity chooses to bestow it's adoration upon you, do you look up and say, 'No, for although you are a celestial deity, I am wary of you, and reject your affections, O Moon'?
It felt so right. Nothing in my life had felt more right, than to be devoted to her, in body, mind and spirit. And what alternative did I have? Live alone in this world? Would my resistance of her freely-given, flowing love warm me at night? Would it grant me serenity? Would it grant me the strength to get back home?
It was not within me to resist her; I was not capable. I found it hard to believe that any man would be capable.
She was my Arddun Lleuad, and I, her Chester Llewellyn.
Something in my chest or my being clicked into place. I felt
at ease. I felt fine. I felt more "fine" than ten seconds ago. I felt more "fine" than I had in a long time.
I set forth towards the apple tree I'd found earlier. As the sky reclined into a cheerful blue, I had the chance to notice the clouds had changed as well, to become proper clouds. I was walking from a darkly-lit hell into something resembling habitable lands again, away from where I'd fled from the Manticore; the feeling of the near-fatal chase still made my limbs feel numb.
Passing the apple tree I had found, a small thrill began to rise in my chest, slow and inevitable as the rising tide. Here I was, a true explorer, spreading his knowledge and mastery over an alien landscape. I may be the first to tread these lands in all of humanity, and that thought spread through my body with its magnificence, even with the danger that may lie all around.
I was almost upon a break in the trees. As I moved forward, I discovered just how habitable the land was.
Past the trees I looked out on some sort of a dream. The fields before me looked as if they'd been placed here by a fantasy movie crew - everything you could expect from a mythical land was right here: picturesque trees, a warm and gentle breeze, the greenest grass that swayed in the wind. Momentarily stunned, I walked forward in hushed awe, like a man entering a cathedral of legend...for as far as I could see, the world had suddenly become pristine, a paradise, a Garden of Eden. A perfect picture.
Before me, was nothing other than a road, smooth and yellow, set into the ground, stretching from left to right, winding lazily into the distance. I should have been overjoyed, whooping in overwhelming elation, hurtling down the road leaving only dust in my wake on my way to civilisation. I was not.
Instead I stood stock still, and just stared at it. It was set into the ground in the most perfect way; as if it was part of Nature's design that the road be there. Bending low, I ran a hand over it. Not only was the path smooth enough to have been laid there only seconds ago, but the grass beneath my other palm felt like each individual blade had been hand-crafted by an angel.
It's too perfect. Too much like one of those painted postcards that makes you stare at it with a distant smile for a few seconds before you go and buy it. The kind of smile that's always tinged with a "If only I could go there one day" feeling.
The hills across the road and over a field were utterly littered with apple trees. I had feared before that the solitary apple tree I'd found may have been the only one for miles. Glad as I was to see I'd never want for apples again, it was still far too perfect.
Approaching the trees, unsettling as it was to have waltzed straight into Paradise, it was hard not to be disarmed by the very feel of the air, and the colours, sweet Arddun, the colours instilled a sort of zest for life that I would be hard-placed to find anywhere else. The temptation to give in to the heavenly aura that surrounded me was nearly overwhelming; I wanted to cartwheel through the meadows, take off my shoes and socks and feel the grass on my feet, to lie down and sleep for a thousand years.
A wise man once said that events are like cowards: they wait until they can spring together, all at once. Such was the case with my frequent discoveries of the world of Arddun Lleuad, but this was the largest so far. On a small rise above me, barely twenty paces away, was a white picket fence.
I stared in awe, blinked for a few moments, and crept up to the fence. I reached out to it, before I could see beyond into its enclosing territory, and felt the rough wood. It was real. Then, I looked past the fence.
A farmstead. A massive farmhouse. Acres upon acres of apple trees that left no hill for all I could see. There, dragging an old plough was an alien horse. Orange mane, coat a shade of red. There was nobody around to control the beast of burden, yet it moved with purpose, driving the plough through the field alone. On its hindquarters was a large picture of a sliced, green apple. The mark must have been to help identify the beast's owner. A tattoo or a brand.
I watched it make its rounds. Nobody came to supervise it. As the beast came to a stop, I knew it would have to be set on the correct path. Its unseen attendant would make itself known, or it would display phenomenal training and intelligence by setting itself right and continuing its task unassisted.
A bright orange figure appeared out of the farmhouse with strangely-shaped brown-and-blond hair from this distance and began moving towards the field. From this distance it was difficult to tell what kind of being it was, but it was longer than it was taller, and walked on four legs. Another workhorse?
The first workhorse glanced in its direction, and then, for me, the entire world seemed to shatter in the next few seconds.
The workhorse tending to the fields shrugged off the plough's harness and walked towards a fence between it and its new company. As that company approached, I saw the differences between the two of them; the orange one's eyes were far larger, giving the thing a bizarrely sweet look of innocence, but also some sort of intelligent look about it. In its mouth, it balanced a tray of bottles, filled with a muddy liquid, and straws mounted on it, and when it neared the first workhorse, it reached up with one of its legs, grabbed the bottle with its hoof, and began to drink. And the orange horse's lips began to move in an incredible fashion as if it had suddenly become rabid.
It was talking. There was no denying it the thing was talking. And then it began to laugh, and then it gave a large, emphatic nod. The red one smiled an endearing, lazy smile.
By this point I was in a state that I am barely able to describe. Before me was nothing short of insanity and madness. But time wouldn't wait for me to collect myself. Instead, the entire scenario threw its coup de grâce at me.
For on that orange horse, was the most bizarre mane lumped on its head in the most incredible fashion. And upon realising that, its true countenance was revealed. I wasn't looking at a mane. I was looking at a hat.
A cowboy hat.
That horse was wearing a hat.
Backing up, back down the rise, I replayed what I had just seen in my head twice and found no room for doubt. To boldly go where no man had gone before, indeed.
Somewhere in the distance to my left was a sound of a small cry. I was completely out in the open in my current position watching the mind-bending events beyond the picket fence, and, checking in all directions, I scurried down the hill and crept as quickly and quietly as possible into a large bush, laying my stick down.
I waited for some time, and the squeals began to approach, closer and closer. I remained motionless, staring out at the approaching figures from what I prayed was a safe hiding spot, keeping it steady, and the tertiary matter of not having my psyche explode into thousands of tiny pieces while whatever-the-hell-it-was was approaching me along the road.
I heard voices. And footfalls. No, I heard clops. I heard hooves. More horses were coming down the road making unintelligible noises at each other in high, sweet tones which gave me the bizarre feeling of listening to honey and sugar. It wasn't until one made a distinct laughing sound that my fraying mind connected the dots. They were talking. In a bizarre language that I could barely even describe. It was like listening to gravel, falling down a mountainous xylophone.
I hid there and listened as they passed by the bush I was hiding in and continued down the road. The opportunity presented itself to make good my escape and dash back to the obscurity of my forest domain.
If only I would take it.
Logic and reason was rallying in my brain, making smart, safe courses of action. Go back to the woods, find your cave, don't come near the crazy equine civilisation again. Lay low, don't be found. And from the wellspring of plans of safety that swirled around my mind, a single thought shone with a brilliant lustre that drowned all others.
Go where no man has gone before, Chester.
Once the road was clear and no signs of watchful eyes were around me, I dashed back to the cover of the forest trees, and began to follow the road from where the two horses had come.
I stalked the path into the evening without seeing a soul. Soon enough the trees gave out and I had to risk the open plains. I told myself this, but the truth was that there was more than adequate cover to conceal myself; I had emerged to bask in the moonlight of Arddun as she begun to rise over her domain. As soon as I saw her, the full idiocy of my doubting her made me pall before her. But she forgave me. As I knew she would.
Under her benevolence, though I didn't question why, I felt different. Lighter on the ground, loftier, and most of all, her light illuminated much. I could nearly see as much as I could during the day.
One such detail was the light, glistening jewels of moonlight on running water. Skulking to the stream, running the cold, crisp feel of it through my fingers, I saw a single light dancing in the flow to my right. I looked down at it, and then up to its source.
What I had mistaken for a hill was in fact a house, that looked exactly like a hobbit-hole that had had its hill removed. A single light had come on at the topmost window, and shut off again under my gaze. I scurried away from it, down the stream, out of sight.
For the next half-hour or so, I learned a deep appreciation of the liquid necessity that just two days ago I had taken for granted, even if I had to do so alert for any noise or movement. My eyes never left the direction of the hill-house. Not a sound or sight came from its direction.
Washed, I made a low approach, and once I could see it, not ten meters away from the door, I realised I in fact had the intention of investigating this residence.
Was I really going to do this? Break into someone's house to satisfy my curiosity? Not to mention the alarming risk, this was the abode of what might very well be a person in this world.
I saw myself sat in my cave for days on end, ruminating without end over this very moment, imagination going haywire over what might lie inside those four walls, cursing myself for letting it pass. I'd never dared to dream that a chance like this might happen, to see how another race lived, how they built their homes!
And what if I found something I could use? A knife? A bucket? A cushion? A book? Oh, a book the very idea of alien literature set a fire within my brain. But I would be stealing. Even now, in my situation, I could not surmount my own principle against the theft of someone else's potentially-beloved personal property.
Lying there on the grasses, staring at the hill-house, I came to an internal compromise. I would sneak in, and anything mundane a cutting instrument, like a knife, I was thinking of most I would take. Easily replaceable, and though I could imagine how I would react if someone stole my favourite breadknife back at home, I knew I would quickly get over its loss. And although I did so with much internal conflict, though I permitted myself to look at a book, I would not take one with me.
As the path to the hill-house climbed, so too did my pulse and my excitement. I was terrified, exhilarated and tense all at once. I looked over a windowsill and peered inside.
It was too dark to make anything out...so Arddun provided. Whilst I focused hard to make out details in the blackness within, a single spear of moonlight filled the room with a pale glow.
It felt so good, not to be alone, with my eternal companion above me.
Looking at the door, I had to smile two half-doors, one on top of the other. It was like someone had designed this door as a sort of joke on the equine populace.
I gathered my courage, pushed open the top half of the door, and stepped over the lower half.
An animal paradise. Little stairs ran all over the room, which was spacious and welcoming. A fireplace, couches, colour-coordinated, comfortable. I felt invasive for walking into such a den, but already I had seen so much, I couldn't turn tail now.
Whoever lived here was not only an animal lover, but was intelligent enough to know how to care for them, how to make their pets happy and fulfilled. In fact, this horse...no, this person...must have lived for their pets; a spring of respect and affection sprung from me for the occupant and their lifestyle. He or she already displayed more intelligence than many I had met who walked on two legs.
The room was fascinating in the extreme, but before I set to examining every inch, first I needed to know if I was going to be interrupted. I crept up the stairs in the centre of the room odd place for stairs, I thought with all the grace and stealth of the world's most nervous burglar. Come to think of it, at this moment, I might be exactly that.
A light glowed over the walls as I moved up, but I heard only a soft, rhythmic snore in the silence; no second breaths, no pages being turned. I peered out from behind some furniture and lay eyes on the occupant.
There was a faint glow beside the bed; a night-light. Poor thing must be scared of the dark, I thought.
And if it's scared of the dark, it would be scarred by finding me in its room while it slept. I thought of turning back and leaving it well alone, until I caught sight of some odd texture on its side.
The horse was cream-coloured, adorable pink mane and tail falling all around it as it slept. What had caught my attention was on its sides...not a coat of fur, but feathers.
Sweet holy Arddun. A living Pegasus, before my very eyes, sleeping in complete serenity. Walking around it, I could see on her face for I could not imagine it to be a he - the most peaceful, faint smile, like she was dreaming blissful dreams.
She was utterly entrancing. For a while I stared at her, feeling intense revulsion at myself for staring at someone in their sleep even a horse but how many men had stood so close to a creature of legend? Had anyone?
I wanted so much to touch those feathers. In fact, I had the bizarre urge to brush that mane, that tail. To protect her. To respect her. I felt no bodily, carnal urges; simply
the drive to make her happy.
With a start I caught my own hand raised in the air, towards her a hand I quickly dropped. She, too, was having an effect on me, just like Arddun Lleuad! Time to go before I lose myself completely, I thought.
Then something stabbed my ankle.
Gasping, I stared down my leg to see the meanest-looking rabbit I have ever seen in my life with it's mouth firmly planted on my leg. For a moment I looked at it in dumb shock, and then I turned back to the slumbering Pegasus, which was, of course, no longer slumbering.
As she screamed, I had a single instant in which to burn the image of her face into my memory for the rest of my life.
I whirled around and lunged for the stairs, crashing to the floor, having tripped from the small bundle of infinite rage, still embedded in my leg. Scrambling up, diving for the stairs, I grabbed at the white rabbit-thing, wrenched it free and tossed it aside the room.
A horrified gasp and an exclamation from the Pegasus told me that I'd just made a large mistake.
I catapulted down the stairs; she was running behind me now. Halfway across the main room of the house, mid-way through bounding across the floor, something nudged me in the back. Two hooves had planted themselves on my midriff with barely enough force to make me recognise them.
Turning my head to see whatever had just poked me, I looked down at the Pegasus "pounding" me with its hooves with enough force to make a mouse feel cuddled. Eyes scrunched, face turned away, making tiny grunts of anger.
It sliced my heart into tiny pieces, how this creature was trying to defend her home, her beloved pets. With that heartache, I had a brilliant flash of inspiration.
As she struck her hoof against me, I bellowed out in terrible agony, launching myself forward, stumbling as I turned to give the Pegasus a look of fear. She was flying with a hoof held over her muzzle, eyes wide with surprise. I backed away from her out the door, making fearful whimpering sounds as I did so.
I tore from the house, running to the forest, making sounds of panic, casting terrified glances over my shoulder, making sure my eyes were wide enough to show their whites from this distance. She was standing just outside the door, watching me in wonder and amazement, leaning forward just a bit, as if ready to run after me but she stayed on her doorstep.
Perhaps my ploy had worked, and she would think that I wouldn't dare come near her again, in fear of her sky-shattering strength. Perhaps not. Either way, even now as I fled from her abode, the image of her face would not leave my mind.
On this day, I learned first-hand what it was like to strike raw, unrefined terror in a heart it should never have come near.
Safe in the boughs of a tree, hidden by leaf and night, the picture of that face never left me. I prayed that I had made her more secure with my theatrics. I would have given anything to go and hug her, tell her I was sorry, but I had done enough damage already; besides, I might walk straight into some equine police, called to investigate the break-in of the hideous, bunny-chucking monster.
Arddun caressed me with her light. It was cool and radiant; almost understanding. One by one, I unbuttoned my sweat-caked shirt and exposed my back to her, exhaling with the feel of cold night air.
I had seen how the alien horses live. In fact, I had seen enough to form a near-irrefutable conclusion of the world of Arddun Lleuad.
A magical land where ponies lived in harmony and love. The Manticore of legend, prowling the forests. A Pegasus. The skies that turned different colours, depending on where you were looking. The perfect, garden meadows that spread in all directions, right next to the forest facsimile I'd arrived in. The door to the horse's house. And the rich, vibrant colours of the world.
I stated it in my brain with all the finality I could muster, for by now it was beyond doubt, that I had landed...
...in a fairy-tale.
Sometimes, you just have to bow to the absurd.
Perhaps I was pulled here by some grand, cosmic design to play a part in this fairy tale. Perhaps I was here by an equally fantastic accident. Regardless of how I had arrived, I looked on my single option for the future with an immediate conviction; I knew my course from here on in.
I must follow the Prime Directive. I must not interfere, contaminate or interact with the world in any way, shape or form. I must keep myself at as much distance as possible.
The way the Pegasus had defended her home was evidence enough that the concept of having to defend their homes was alien to them; hell, the door had been unlocked at night. That would change for her, I thought, with a stab of guilt. She would lock up tight each and every night, from now on.
I had done enough damage to the world already. No more.
I watched Arddun soar through her starry sky, and as morning came, I dropped to the ground and slept.
Praetor awoke to more of a feeling than a sound. Someone was outside his tent.
Fluttershy had been standing just outside the personal sleeping tent of the Praetor of the Guard for five minutes, trying to muster the courage to wake the military pony up. Twice she'd tried to say something, but produced only a miniscule, infinitesimal squeak.
As Praetor rose, the sounds from within prompted Fluttershy to utter a "Uhm, excuse me?"
The pony that emerged from the flaps of the tent as a response made Fluttershy's heart skip a beat. He was big, yes, this she expected; but in the moonlight, he was glorious. First from the tent emerged his grey hair, and then to follow, the snow-white coat. Fluttershy knew that the Praetor was meant to be far and away from what you'd expect from a Guardpony, but not to this degree.
"What's wrong?" spoke Praetor. Fluttershy squeaked.
Praetor smiled. She seemed relaxed, if nervous. If it was a true emergency she would have woken him with more alarm and urgency.
"Wonderful squeaking voice, my lady."
Fluttershy blushed and seemed almost to shrink. Praetor laughed as he folded to the ground, to hold his head below hers.
"Take your time."
Hiding behind her mane, finally she spoke. "
'm sorry to wake you up, sir."
"I wasn't sleeping," he lied. "I have so much to think about I couldn't get any sleep! Actually, I'm glad for the company," he added quickly, before she receive the impression she was intruding on important thinking time.
you told all of us to
to tell you if we saw anything."
Praetor's smile lessened. "Yes?"
Fluttershy looked at him. "Well
something happened tonight."
After her story was over, Praetor insisted that he accompany her to her cottage and stand guard in case "the beast" returned, but Fluttershy insisted that she stay at the town library with a friend instead. The Princess's favourite student received Fluttershy with open arms even before hearing her tale. Praetor excused himself from their company with a respectful bow, and a promise to Fluttershy that he would not allow the beast to come near her again; news that Fluttershy received with an immense blush and barely-audible gratitude.
Once outside, Praetor allowed himself to scowl with suppressed anger. He walked to the edge of Ponyville and looked in the direction of the Everfree Forest. Tomorrow the search plans would be changed to cover more ground, the Guardsponies would be pushed harder to fit more into a single day.
Praetor swore to himself, that no beast that dare walk into a lady's own room as she sleeps would roam free while he drew breath.