Much of what the unicorns did hurt: myself, Luna, their own kind. I understood why.
Excerpts from the Candid Sayings of Celestia as recorded by her friends
Do not enter the forest at night. Do not ever. Always return to the fields before Sun touches the ground to rest.
Whip Scar's grave, deep tone impressed upon Celestia the importance of the rule. The look on his face scared the young filly. Never would she be tempted to disobey. The more she learned, the more the temptation shrank, and turned terrifying.
Many prey, ponies included, used keen sight as their chief defense against predators. Night shifted the balance toward the predator's favor, especially those that favored stealth. They were built for darkness with strong noses, silent paws, and eyes that pierced the veil of black. Such creatures arose at dusk when the light changed and stalked the forests, on search for food caught where their senses were weak. One of the reasons the Earth pony having no ability in magic favored the fields was that Moon's light aided their vision and their enemies were less apt to hunt in the open, sticking instead to deep shadows. While the Everfree Forest was dangerous under the Sun, it was death under the Moon.
And here they were, far from home, the shadows growing long and the sky going dark.
"Celestia?" Luna's voice strained under a sense of helplessness, nearly to tears.
The pink-maned mare jerked her head to the young sister and stared in silence, heavy breathing shaking her frame. The mocking calls of the monkeys, still fighting over the figs, echoed from some distance away, laughing and cruel.
"What do we do?"
Regret, sullen and bitter, sunk down to her stomach. This trip had been ill thought out after all. Luna tried to give warning, but Celestia the elder and confident just short of ridiculed her for it. She should have listened. Should have thought this through. It had been nothing but problems from the start.
The younger sister lowered her head, eyes pinched shut.
Should have listened. My fault. Gone back home or to theUnicorns! Celestia gasped, pieces falling into place faster than she could think. "Luna!"
The excitement in her elder sister's voice steadied Luna and she rose with hope.
"How did the unicorns survive so long in the middle of the forest?"
Luna drew in a breath, her eyes alight. "By hiding in the trees!"
"Quick! We need to find a big trunk, or several close together."
In a gallop, Celestia shot off through the forest, Luna at her side. With the days of separation and imprisonment still fresh in their mind, they stayed together. Splitting up now was inherently dangerous, besides.
They raced against time, Sun ever lowering to her rest and the sky ever darkening to orange, then violet. The trees, uncultivated by the unicorns, stretched out their roots and drove other saplings to distance, or simply did not grow wide enough to make a safe shelter. Eventually, Celestia skidded to a stop, kicking up loose leaves. Too much time had passed already. Hunters were waking.
"We'll have to make do!" she shouted, eying three thick trees that stood marginally closer than the rest.
Stopping next to her sister, Luna looked up at the darkened sky. "How?"
Lower lip bit between teeth, Celestia concentrated on the first tree and called up her will. It warped and moved like a fresh, green stem, finding a new position along ground. "Follow my lead."
The darker horn glowed and the second tree moved very much like the first. Luna fell to her knees, teeth gritted with the effort.
"That's enough!" Celestia broke Luna's concentration and the blue glow vanished. "You're still drained." The spell that gave her strength enough to trip an Ursa Major, after all, came from Luna just earlier that day.
The third tree bent down and joined its near-cousins. Silently, she mouthed thanks to Arcane Pride for the lessons in the elements of harmony and summoned thoughts of loyalty. Luna sprang to mind, tired and in danger. Whip Scar and Lightning Kick, who had two lost little fillies. All the Earth ponies, still in the field, unknowing of the gift Celestia wanted to bring. All waited. All needed her. She lent those feelings to her gathered will.
The spell changed, a new kind of power imbued. The trees meshed together, bark merging with bark, wood with wood. Three trees, separate but entwined. They stood like a bulb at the base, wide and odd, thinning at the top and jutting upwards like a massive onion plant. Luna stared at it as if her sister had just summoned a foul-smelling weed.
"I know, I know. But this will still cover us."
Skepticism wrought on her features, Luna glanced at her sister. "I think it might attract attention."
"It just needs to pass for tonight. We're not living here. It'll still fool a coyote, or manticore. C'mon! Inside."
Quietly, Luna obeyed, squeezing in the hole on the front. Slipping in next, Celestia summoned her magic and closed it behind.
The orb-like dwelling encompassed all sides, except for a slender hole at the top that followed the shaft of the merged trees, opened for light and air. Already, stars flickered, showing through twilight, Sun nearly gone. Celestia called a faux-fairylamp with her horn and sent it to hang on the roof, washing the interior in a pale pink glow. Finally, she breathed out a sigh of relief, though it was only partial. The adrenaline still coursed through her veins.
A crunch, loud and sudden, of dead leaves startled Celestia and she whipped her head around to find Luna, frozen stiff at her sister's gaze. She shifted for balance and her hoof crumpled more underneath, the snap of dried plant reverberating off the wooden walls in a sound shattering silence.
"Shhh!" Celestia hushed out harsh and desperate. Luna flinched at the sound and her ears folded flat at the reproach. A flicker of pink magic brushed the leaves into a corner and left soft dirt underfoot. "We can't make a sound, not even leaves. If anything outside hears, there will be no point in hiding." Celestia shrugged her shoulders, trying to loosen her taut back. "C'mon." She breathed out at her most quiet whisper. "It's been a wild day. We'll just rest here until morning and move on."
The thought of the day spent in fleeing the unicorns sent a fresh awareness of the little aches and pains she'd collected. Bruises throbbed on her face, her chest reminded her of the buck she received on her ribs. As she folded her legs beneath her, she felt the little complaints of sore muscle and an eerie drained quality at all the magic she expended little by little.
Luna chose a spot of dirt close by her sister and folded her legs as well. She shifted her weight to one side and settled heavily, head lowered at the effort it took to hold it aloft. While Celestia felt the injuries of a fight, Luna sagged with an exhaustion far greater.
But as Celestia glanced up to extinguish the light, her eyes caught sight of the violet sky and all the aches and pains washed away under a surge of chilled fear. In the end, they were still trying to survive the night in the Everfree Forrest, alone, herdless.
Having built the shelter, she knew how slight a protected it offered. The wide spacing of the trees meant the wood stretched so thin that it offered only concealment and little else. She counted the creatures that would break it at a slight effort. Hydra, ursa, tiger, dragon, chimera, bear, manticore, even a swift buck would smash a hoof through, or perhaps a storm's wind would topple the whole thing.
In the darkness of the shelter, her eyes had no distraction and she kept them squeezed shut. Instead, her ears stood erect, keeping pointless sentry of the outside. The ice of her fear turned even colder in her veins with the thoughts of latent danger that lied just beyond the thin walls.
Time slowed to a crawl with nothing to tell its passing. Minutes could have been hours, or hours minutes. But sleep, peaceful and serene, was as far away from that place as they were from home. She yearned for her mind to slow the troubling thoughts and allow rest for the day that would come tomorrow. But the knowledge that they slept in Everfree could not be shaken.
A sound, rhythmic and lazy, sent her heart into her throat with a jolt. Feet, wide and padded for silence, stirred over the brush outside, each isolated beat coming closer to where they hid.
She sensed more than saw her sister start and raise her head, alert and listening. Reaching with one hoof, Celestia touched her on the shoulder, a reminder to keep quiet. Luna squirmed under the touch and turned, trying to maneuver close while taking great pains to remain silent. Lips and breath tickled Celestia's ear as Luna leaned up to whisper.
The sounds were unintelligible at first, Luna hardly giving them voice. But after a repetition, a pair of words came into startling clarity as a thought. The smell!
A gasp came dangerously close to leaving Celestia's lips before she bit them to keep silent. In setting up this shelter, she had not done a thing to hide their scent!
The padded feet circled the enclosure. A moan low, deep and rumbling in a huge throat called through the wooden walls.
Terror seized her body and mind. She wanted to scream right then. Cry out in her terror for no reason other than that she was afraid. Run, too. Run far and fast and without ceasing. It was what she always did, what ponies did. Flee from danger and harm. An antsy feeling filled her legs, nearly rising of their own volition to get up and bolt away from this place. The impulse grew in her mind out of something instinctual. All she had to do was let go of the control for an instant and she'd scream and run. She'd fly out of the tree . . .
. . . into the Everfree Forest at night, something huge and deadly on her heels as she condemned her sister to die in the broken cover.
Celestia locked herself down tight to stay put. Uncontrollably, she quaked with the suppressed need, the shudder encompassing her whole body. The halting only amplified her terror, the control over instinct so tenuous that it could slip at any moment and a choked whimper would reveal their presence.
The creature moaned again in agitation. Claws bit into the tree, wood cracking as the sharp nails pierced the outer bark.
The pink-maned unicorn threw her face into the soft dirt, wishing that the thing outside would just go away, wishing it over and over. Cool earth rubbed her forehead, that fearful whimper rising so close to being uttered. Any moment, the claws could bite too deep, the beast could press too hard, and once a small hole started, the beast would dig its way inside on just sheer curiosity. She threw her head back and watched the walls, afraid that she'd see a pinprick of moonlight that would mean the animal-of-prey found them.
Instead, the pale glow from the hole hidden at the top illuminated Luna. The midnight blue pony curled in on herself, a wing covering her face and her chest heaving as if she cried. Celestia crawled forward and reached a forelimb around her sister, drawing her into an embrace. Luna buried herself against her sibling's shoulder and Celestia pressed tight in hopes that any accidental sob would be muffled. Blue wings and forehooves enfolded the pale unicorn with a desperate cling. After only a moment, a wetness soaked through Celestia's coat where Luna's cheek lay.
Outside, whatever lurked circled, clawed, circled again, occasionally uttering a moan so low that it approached a growl. The instinct still remained inside Celestia, the urge for a terrified scream and frantic flight, but they no longer pressed. With Luna clutched in her arms and her chin resting comfortingly on her baby sister's neck, the impulses merely existing as objects in her mind, and nothing more.
After a time, the sounds of padded footfalls faded into the night. Silence enveloped them, only disturbed by a creak of wood or rustle of branches in the wind.
Three more times, they were visited that night, each a variation on the same encounter. One scratched with dull claws scraping over top the wood. Another made not a sound except for the touch of feet on the forest floor. But each one soon passed and disappeared into the night, silence again returning inside the trunk. After surviving the first, the next three could be endured.
Celestia realized she had fallen asleep only when light tickled her senses. Her eyes rolled open slowly, feeling as if they were set in sand. Daylight trickled in from the hole on top of their shelter and settled in a bright circle off the tip of her nose. Luna still laid in her arms, softly sighing in peaceful sleep. She had adjusted herself, sometime last night, resting her cheek in a more comfortable position along her elder sister's shoulder.
Carefully disentangling herself from Luna who, though now woken, nevertheless resisted the pull of day by curling in on herself and never opening her eyes Celestia began to stretch out her limbs. The sleep came with great relief. Pain had been downgraded to merely sore, tired muscles had become simply stiff. The time of separation, imprisonment, and betrayal of the unicorns was now just a memory, with Luna once again hers.
"Come on. Up, you sleepy-head." Celestia nudged her sister with a hoof, then peered up at the sky. "It's well into morning. We're late getting up. I'd rather not spend another night here if I can help it."
Though Luna did not rise that instant, what Celestia said had a definite effect. She stretched out every hoof at the mention of another night in the forest and slowly found the way to her feet, stretching out both broad wings with a groan.
"How are you feeling?"
"Mehh . . ." The blue pony exhaled, eyes still half closed and adjusting to the light. Celestia had opened up a peek-hole in the tree by the time Luna composed herself enough for an answer with actual words. "Better . . . I think I can do magic again."
Pressed up against the tiny hole, Celestia held off her remark until she got a clear view outside the tree,. Nothing lurked now that the day broke, just an empty forest with tall trees and barren floor. "Sleep has always been the best cure for that," she said absently while widening the hole to stick out her head. If something had yet been waiting at the edge of their scent and now heard them, she was prepared to use the thin walls as a shield against a lethal pounce. But glancing this way and that revealed still nothing but birds casually chirping their songs that filled the void in the trees. Finally, Celestia chanced a exit and slipped outside. Wordlessly, Luna followed. The birds continued thier cheerful noise unabated by their presence and not a thing stirred to meet them. The hunters had left with Moon.
The thought melted her tension and a deep sigh expelled it. Her rump fell to sit, finally feeling a measure of relaxation. Luna took the opportunity to sit as well, patiently observant and tucked her tail tidily close. Craning her neck, Celestia traded a glance with her younger sister, piecing together what came next. A shadow of a pang in her belly quickly guided the direction. "Well, breakfast it is."
Luna rose and stood with a perky posture at the word. A split second later, she huffed out a breath and pouted off to the side.
"What is it?" The white mare rose and a four-beat walk propelled her forward.
The pout melted away as she was addressed, blue eyes regaining their distant quality. "Oh, I forgot the figs when we were searching for shelter last night." The corners of her lips curved up in blissful memory. "They were so good."
A brief snerk left the elder and she shook out her mane, attention returned task. She called to mind the method of finding food she had used yesterday. The instinctual understanding of the Earth guided her, and the pale mare led her sister down paths that promised food. All the while, she kept one eye on the woods.
"Keep careful." She flipped back an ear to pay attention to Luna. "I think the safety of the unicorns made us forget how dangerous this place really is." A glance back confirmed that Luna gave a nod and she was keeping sentry to both sides and above. Celestia swallowed, her next thought voiced. "Not everything will have gone to bed with Moon."
"I know." Luna but whispered the words.
Standing straight, Celestia marched forward. "After breakfast, we'll press hard. I want to be at the mountains before nightfall."
The trot of her sister faltered a split second, then redoubled to catch up. "Before nightfall? Half the day is nearly gone already."
"We'll have to make it." Celestia's neck drooped in a feeling of dread. "We're simply not safe here at night. The trees here just are not good for protection. Our only hope is seeking shelter with the pegasi. So, we need to make the mountains."
"If the pegasi are even there," Luna said flatly
This time, Celestia's trot faltered. "It doesn't matter anyways. A makeshift cave in the mountain will still be better than any of these old trees." She resumed her trot.
"Until we have to come back."
The pony with the pink mane gritted her teeth and withheld a biting answer. After all, just yesterday, Luna had been right about her worries. With a sigh, she released the building annoyance and continued her walk without replying. "Ahh, here we are!"
The change in the forest had been subtle, unnoticeable to those who paid little attention to flora. Standing overhead, a slightly different tree had taken root, an outlier on territory its species would claim. What mattered to Celestia, though, was that the leaves were highly edible and contained no poison. Licking her lips, she plucked a bundle from the lower branches with a pink glow. Luna did the same and they both hoisted down a small pile which to eat.
The leaves quickly vanished into greedy mouths, each sister getting her fill with a sense of hurry. After breakfast, both went about the task of navigation with little pause, the pattern established from the day before.
"Up you go." Celestia parted the branches of the canopy above while Luna took to the air to find the mountain range and came down with a hoof outstretched in the direction.
With a short nod, Celestia set out, leading Luna as they weaved through the trees.If they were to have a chance of making their destination before sunset, the pace had to be brisk and Celestia set the gait at a clipped trot. Remnants of fear birthed from the night before remained ever present as a sense of urgency.
The haste gave little chance for idle conversation or to appreciate what they found in the depths of Everfree, where few ponies had tread. Wonders of colors passed, flowers, butterflies and poison frog. Of form, too, strange spider webs and vines. Life as well, with the small animals going about their business. This and yet more all passed by where little attention could be spared and absolutely no time. Ambient sounds of birds, insects, and occasional larger life were the only back drop. Deeper and deeper they plunged into the diverse landscape, eyes always watching for danger.
Sun completed her rising arc overhead and began the long travel to the western horizon. Celestia and Luna paused sparingly and only when opportunity arose. For a drink as they crossed over a river. Food as they spied a tree of nutritious leaf, or where a hole in the canopy allowed grass to grow. Every so often as she felt need, Celestia sent Luna up to view the sky and regain their bearings.
"Not that much farther!" Luna's voice beamed with excitement. "We're really getting close now."
By the shadows cast on her sister, Celestia saw that Sun slowed for no one. There'd still be a push over the last bit of ground. "Alright, let's hurry the last leg."
"W-wait!" Luna called down seemingly distracted, her gaze fixed far away. "I think I see something."
Apprehension at any pause bubbled with an equal share of curiosity. "What is it?"
"Justjust a minute!" Luna made a quick placating gesture with a hoof, her wings already prepping to race. "Let me go see."
Celestia parted her mouth to answer but before a word could be uttered, Luna darted away from the hole and out of sight. Taken off guard and too late to say anything else, Celestia yelled to the vacant hole. "Be careful!"
"Okay . . ." The answer already drifting from some distance away as Luna chased the object of her curiosity.
"Tssh!" Celestia huffed out a breath between clenched teeth as she let go of the magic that parted the canopy. Branches whipped back in place with a rustle and the sunlight closed with them, leaving Celestia alone in cool shade. Annoyance and frustration rose in her chest, contracting her brow and putting some tension in her shoulders. Later, she'd have a talk with Luna about that tendency to run off.
At the moment, however, there was nothing for it and nothing to do. After a deep breath inwards, she sighed and released a tension she held since from that morning unthinking. Shoulders and neck relaxed, drooped, and she lowered her hindquarters to sit. The muscles in her legs burned with a dull complaint, no restful walk today for them. Yet, the burn was faint and they had strength yet to spare as they closed the last miles.
The relative quiet and rest of the moment set her mind to thinking. It found little to consider in the trip itself, she was already doing all she could to keep them both safe and make it to the pegasi, and confident in that. Instead, her mind wandered around the forest and all its curiosities.
Tall, straight pines stretched high above the earth, branches fanning out above with thin, needle-like leaves. Cloves sprung forth all along the ground, as thick as grass but many times more vibrant, half burying the scattered fallen bows of trees from past generations. The thin leaves allowed sunlight to brighten the pines and the cloves until the whole world seemed to glow with green radiance. A delighted smile crept across her lips as she saw the beauty, luminescent greens rolling with earthy browns, surrounding all the eye could see above and below. Like all things of beauty for Earth ponies, she absorbed the feeling and committed it to a memory she could revisit or tell in a story.
Birds chirped their song, a pleasant and ambient noise that she realized she missed more than she thought. Among the unicorns, who used their call for warning, the forest was bereft their presence. The singing, then, reinforced the feeling that she escaped. Swept up and glad to be so, she listened to them sing and watched the forest's rolling colors. Though, as her attention turned to the birds, she found a strange absence of sound behind her. Curiously, she craned her neck around and
Yellow eyes met hers in a passionless gaze. A wolf black and trimmed with gray stood eerily still, just watching her, one paw lifted in stalking.
In that instance, a time so short as to be instantaneous, her mouth parted in shock and fear. Her heart leaped out of her chest and beyond even her throat while her stomach turned into weightless mush. Every part of her body coiled as taught as a scared snake, while thought and sensation melted into a slurry bathed in panic.
She bolted. Celestia was aware of the intention to run a few heartbeats after her hooves were already on the move, churning dirt and clover with a furious thunder. Somewhere inside, a part of her wordlessly knew exactly what such a creature would do to her with its jaws and teeth, the images of that being one of her strongest memories.
Rip her to pieces and eat her bit by bit.
It was written in those yellow eyes, how they regarded ponies so emotionlessly, that killing for food was as a part of them as eating grass was toward ponies. How could a pony feel mercy toward grass? How could a wolf feel mercy toward a pony? The utter unfeeling of their gaze was the part that gave Celestia her nightmares.
A chuffing breath followed close on her heels, the wolf giving chase with the same instinctual suddenness that Celestia fled. The instinct to scream half asserted itself, every quickened breath her lungs exhaled holding with it a sound of half girlish-squeak, half terrorized scream.
Seldom had she ran this fast, only times when extreme danger had gifted her legs with near magical speed. Her pink mane and tail whipped behind her as she plunged headlong into the forest, and she may have outrun the wolf then. She was a young mare in her physical prime, moving at full gallop and driven by fear for her life. On a field, escape was certain.
They weren't on a field. They were in the heart of the wolf's domain.
Celestia never had a clear line through the forest. Every few paces, she plowed through some low-hanging branches or shrubberies, leapt over logs strewn in her path, or weaved around the never ending obstacles of trees, her hooves kicking up clumps of dirt and cloves at each shift of her momentum.
While Celestia handled this well, the wolf simply handled it better. Its long-legged swiftness deftly navigated the forest without slowing, padded feet pushing off logs and dull claws digging into dirt with equal ease.
Together, they weaved the forest in a contest as old as Everfree itself. Unable to turn her attention away from directly ahead, lest she run deadly fast into the bough of a tree, Celestia tracked the wolf's chase with her ears. She weaved her trail always in response to his never thinking, simply doing placing a tree between them, or an out-thrust rock, or a rolling hill, or anything that would force the wolf to take a slightly longer path, winning a few inches of lead, a few more seconds of time, until the predator would have to give upthe prey too clever and troublesome. In turn, the wolf did the opposite, always looking to cut his path short and close on Celestia until she could be brought down by his jaws.
In the end, it was no contest.
Wolves never work alone.
More chuffing breaths entered her awareness, closing on her flanks. She chanced a quick glance and saw a wolf, a new one, running parallel to her and closing its way through the forest, waiting for its opportunity to sweep in and snare her. A scream ripped from her throat and she veered away. Her ears spied yet another's sound, cutting off that retreat and she had to correct her turn to keep from letting it close.
Her chest contracted, breath coming rapid with a fearful whine on each exhale. With each new wolf she sensed by eyes or ears, her terror grew, until now it was its own adversary that sapped her strength and snuffed rational thought.
The wolf on her flank made her move, darting in from the side. She heard it coming and the terror erupted like a geyser, freezing her breath in place.
She seized her magic. As it closed, Celestia rammed will into a raw intention.
The air at her side thumped with a sudden influx of power. Magic, raw and unfocused, cascaded out like a gale-force wind. Pines creaked loudly and popped, swaying back under the push. Branches snapped, twigs and leaves tore from their anchors and thrown like feathers. The she-wolf was lifted off her feet, eyes wide in surprise.
But the magic remained as unfocused as the intent. Without a thought-construct to give magic form, the power even as much as Celestia could call dispersed everywhere and what little hit the wolf washed around her like a strong wind. Sent ungracefully back to the ground only few lengths away, the wolf tumbled end over end, mostly uninjured. She found her feet again and resumed the chase undeterred.
Her unicorn magic had failed, some part of her realized in that flight. If she threw power out like that over and over at each wolf, she'd sap herself of strength before she'd scare any of them off. In the height of fear, she simply could not organize effective magic.
A despair came with the failure, a slow sinking feeling that made itself known even at that moment. Still, she ran, never stopped running and relying on her speed to stay ahead of the wolves.
Though, of course, the wolves knew that about a young and healthy pony. Their hunting tactics were too varied and clever for a simple solution.
That realization struck only as she saw yet two more close off her path. They had herded her, using their numbers to press her flanks and guide her retreat. They turned her around so their pack mates could head off her run and entrap her. She was surrounded.
Immediately, Celestia dug in her forehooves, reared back, and bucked with all her might. The first wolf, the one that chased her from the beginning, did not have time to react. Celestia struck out blindly, but one of her hooves sunk into something fleshy and giving. A pop of bone, wet and disturbing, coincided with a sharp, high pitched yelp.
The wolf hit so hard that Celestia was thrown off her forelimbs and stumbled forward, mouth coming up with the taste of dirt she planted into. When she was up, the wolves already enclosed her.
They circled her from all sides, all of them, taking a position to bare teeth and growl ferociously, only to take a new position at some other angle. Celestia threw her head around, trying to look all ways at once. The wolves assumed this tactic in perfect coordination, harassing every side with their presence, distracting her with noise, shuffling as to add more confusion and keep her within the circle of teeth.
When cornered, a wild Earth pony fights. Without magic, Celestia fought like a wild Earth pony. She raised back legs, intimidating the canines with a chambered kick. She reared and brayed in equal parts fury and fear, pressing the circle with the threat of a painful stomp. Each side she approached fell back just out of her range, still growling with sharp teeth on a long, snarling snout and shuffling so no single wolf ever faced her alone.
She never heard the quiet one that sprinted in from her flank. That might have been the point of the growling and noise. The wolf came from an angle behind, avoiding the chance of a kick from the rear legs, but only on the outskirts of peripheral vision and easily missed in the confusion. Teeth sunk into the back of Celestia's thigh. She screamed in pain. She had never experienced it like this before. The teeth had sunk deep and tissues that had never been touched, so deep beneath the skin, suddenly cried out in fresh agony.
Without thinking, Celestia tried to whirl around and gore the wolf from her leg with her unicorn's horn. The instant she did, the wolf peeled off and rushed back into his pack mate's circle, blood still on her lips. Her blood.
The instant Celestia's attention changed, another silent wolf swept in and bit down on her other rear leg. Startled again, she screamed. The teeth weren't the only pain. The strength of their jaw clamping down pinched her thighs, though "pinched" seemed hardly a word to describe just how much it hurt.
Her injured leg came down to save her balance. It stumbled. A third wolf came in for her forelimb and jerked it out from under her.
She fell. The motion seemed to last forever. Her body hung in the air for several terrifying moment as her legs were swept out. Then, she hit the ground. They rushed in. All she could see behind her eyes was Painted Hoof, that scene of him being torn to pieces as the wolves rushed her. Her mouth parted in wordless horror.
"Ha, ha, ha, heh, heh." Snort.
Bubbly, girlish laughter stopped all of it. The wolves froze, heads whipped around in surprise. Even though two still held her legs, their eyes darted nervously to the sound of the laugh.
"Hee, hee, hee, ha, ha, ha!" Snort.
Celestia held deadly still dead still, evenafraid that the slightest bit of movement would draw their attention once more and they remember their hunger.
Hoofbeats, casual and carefree as a stroll through a field, carried forward the figure of a pony, concealed in an earth-tone cloak. Only one such pony ever wore such a thing. The shaman! Celestia resisted sucking in a breath in surprise.
One of the wolves a male larger than the rest towering over the mare leapt out from the pack and interposed himself between the new pony and their won meal. The alpha bristled his fur into something huge, widened his stance, and growled low and intense. The rest of the pack followed his lead and began to close ranks just behind, leaving Celestia where she laid.
The shaman burst out giggling again as if the wolf just told her a really great joke. She raised a hoof to her chest and padded it to calm herself down, then stepped forward as if Alpha was an old friend, closing to a mere outstretched hoof away. Celestia's hope died at that instant, waiting for the shaman to be killed before her eyes by the pack of wolves.
But Alpha stepped back, his growl redoubled, ears pinned to his head nervously. Sensing his apprehension, the rest of the pack let out confused, anxious whines. Some of the smaller broke a few steps away, including one that badly limped.
The shaman didn't hesitate, moving as if oblivious to danger. She lifted a hoof and touched it to Alpha's nose, loudly declaring, "Honk!"
Celestia's jaw fell agape, and she wasn't even sure who was more shocked, herself or Alpha. The wolf stopped growling, ears shot straight up in complete surprise, his own jaw slackened like Celestia's. After blinking surprise several times, his ears pinned down nervously and he bolted backwards. The pack began to scatter, then stopped in front of the downed pony. Shaman resumed her walk forward, ignoring them. The pack broke before her, fanning out into the woods with their tails between their legs.
The mare with the pink mane, laying on the ground in utter confusion, searched desperately for words. "Wha- . . . how. . ."
"Hi, Celi! Good to see you again, and all growed up!" The shaman lifted a travel dirtied hoof and pulled back her hood. She was an old mare, though younger than the elders of the unicorns. Wrinkles lined her face, already deep with laugh lines. Her coat was predominantly brown, except for a grayed mane, and it held a subtle quality to it that made it unique; very much like the unicorns' richer colors, yet different. A tiny hint of strawberry underneath the brown, perhaps. But her eyes, those were the most unique of all. Pale blue irises like that of a little filly's, retaining all vibrance and wonder of childhood unmarred by years. Patiently, the shaman waited for Celestia to collect her thoughts, a smile on her the whole time.
"How--" Celestia didn't know whether to stare in awe or fear. "How did you do that?"
"You mean the wolfies?" The shaman giggled, a sound it seemed she made often. "Oh, old shaman trick. All the animals that eat other animals think everyone is scared of them. If you're scared, they know you're food! If you growl, they know you're scared and will fight. But if you don't growl or run, then they're scared because you're not. "
From all the exertion, Celestia's breath came hard, though she felt the tendency to hold it, staring confused. "What?"
"If you aren't scared of wolfies, then wolfies are scared of you," Shaman repeated with infinite, seemingly oblivious, patience.
"But . . . laughing?"
"When I laugh, I'm not scared. So, I laugh at them." She giggled again.
Celestia knitted her brow before flopping her head on the ground in defeat. "I still don't understand."
The old mare's face became almost motherly, like an expression an aunt wore for a cherished niece. "Oh, you will, after it sinks in. Go ahead, ask me another!"
Though she lay there, confused, ragged, aware of some small wounds still bleeding but not life-threatening, the shaman just played games! Stranger still, she found herself playing along. A question popped into Celestia's mind and she raised her head. "How did you find me?"
"I'm a shaman, of course!" Laughter came like punctuation with her. "I followed Shaman Sense!"
"'Shaman . . . Sense?'"
"The message in the ground! Earth talking to me. Little tickles, or itches, or twitches, or wiggles, or giggles, or acheys, or shakeys, that's how she talks. I was out looking for you when my nose began to itch. That was Earth telling me that some pony would be chased by wolves."
Celestia creased her brow in worry, rolling to a more comfortable position upright. The thought occurred that the shaman might, as another pony once put it, 'drink the wrong kind of water.' Mad, in other words. Though she had met the shaman once, twice counting birth, and heard plenty of rumors or stories, this was the longest conversation they'd ever had and she was witnessing firsthand where some of the rumors came from.
And yet . . . she showed up exactly when Celestia needed her and chased away a pack of wolves by laughing at them. Part of Celestia wanted to believe. After all, it was the shaman who had first said Celestia was special. "You were looking for me?"
"Uh-huh!" The shaman nodded. "My back is prickily. A message!" In a blur, the old mare was upon Celestia, holding the white pony's cheeks between her hooves. The sheer speed startled young pony, who found herself staring at those blue eyes, unable to turn away. Their youth was gone, replaced with a frightening intensity. "Know your limits."
Her heart pounding in her chest all over again, Celestia swallowed.
The intensity melted like a snowflake on a warm patch of grass. A smile grew on Shaman's features. "That's the message! 'Know your limits.'" She gently let go of the startled pony and took a step back to reach underneath her cloak.
"It was something I received from the stars, meant for you." The shaman spoke with her face buried underneath the earth-toned fabric, still searching it. "My prickily back meant it was super-important. Make sure to remember it!"
Celestia let out a sigh to calm herself down. Even if not of unsound mind, Shaman was still odd.
"C'mon!" The shaman came out with a weaved basket's handle in her mouth and spoke with it between her lips. The basket was not unlike that of unicorn make, except that it was still fresh and green rather than dried. "Now, show me the bites. They might get sick if we don't put on ooie-gooy."
Incredulous, with a hint of anxiety, Celestia repeated. "Ooie-gooy?"
"Ooie-gooy." She gestured with a bob of the basket. "It feels all icky, but it'll stop the sicky! It'll fix some of the oww as well, so you best let me do it, little Celi."
Celestia sheepishly outstretched her bitten forehoof, pure white of her coat streaked by blood that slowly ran down the length. Seeing the injury for the first time, Celestia's eyes welled with tears, her lips pouted, and she felt like a silly foal for that reaction.
"Oh, there, there." With surprising gentleness, the shaman applied some of the goo and smothered it with soft, furry leaves before binding it all tight with longer, flat ones. Where the shaman got her cloak, and her never ending supplies for healing or mischief remained a mystery to all. Some said it was of unicorn make, others that she traded with many non-ponies. But seeing the hooves tie off the plant securely about her forelimb, Celestia could believe she made it herself. "There we are, little Celi. Now, isn't that better? You remind me of my own daughter."
A jolt sent Celestia choking on swallowed saliva and threw her into a coughing fit. "Wait!" she managed between coughs, "Shaman take mates!?"
"Of course, silly!" She waved off the matter. "How else would us sha-mares have little sha-foals?" She leaned in to whisper covertly with Celestia, a just-between-us-girls tone. "Don't tell him we're mates. I don't think he knows it yet that I'm just a little bit crazy!"
"Oh," Celestia tried to hide her smile and did a poor job of it. "He doesn't, does he?"
"Nope." The shaman began work on Celestia's rear legs, smearing more goo. "So far, so good. All the way to grand-foals and he hasn't run away scared yet, so I think it's working."
It seemed to be the reaction the shaman was hoping for. "You can call me Granny Pie."
"Ever since my daughter had her foals, she calls me Granny Pie. It's a little more catchy and less weird than calling your momma 'The Shaman' or 'the Shamom.' If we meet again, you can call me that too." Granny Pie finished the binding on the last leg. That seemed the closest thing to an explanation Celestia would get. "Oh, one more thing before I go." Reaching under the cloak, she pulled out several pieces of white bark with her lips and set it in front of Celestia. "Chew on this before you begin your journey again. If you're going to make it, you'll need to."
"Shaman Sense tell you I'm on a journey, too?"
Granny Pie laughed. "No, silly. You wouldn't be in the Everfree Forest if you weren't trying to go somewhere else! Now, tell little Luna and her new friend that I said hi."
Celestia looked confused. "Luna's new friend?"
Granny Pie scratched her side like a dog. "Itchy flank. It means that someone just made a friend."