Life is like patchwork. Tiny moments, barely connected...
It was a quote that Caramel had heard once. He couldn’t remember where he heard it, and he thought there might be more to it, but right now, as he readied himself for yet another verbal lashing, it seemed appropriate. Moment to moment, with no real connection.
“DAG-GUMMNIT CARAMEL, AGAIN?” Applejack shouted. Carmel simply looked down. Applejack fumed, starting and stopping to speak several times before she managed to calm down enough to continue. “Caramel, that’s the third time this month! This equipment is expensive, you can’t keep doing this!”
“I’m sorry...” Caramel mumbled, not looking up. Applejack sputtered again, very clearly trying not to explode at the young earth pony.
“Ah know you’re sorry,” she said pointedly, “But sorry ain’t gonna pay for a new plow, now is it? Y’gotta pay attention when yer working, boy!” Caramel shuffled his hooves. “Well?” Applejack demanded.
“Well, what?” Caramel asked sharply, looking up at her, “What do you want me to say? I already said I’m sorry, what else can I do?”
“You can do yer’ darn job, is what you can do!” Applejack shouted. She looked immediately regretful, as the colt hung his head in shame.
“Look,” she said patiently, “Ah get that you can’t always work as hard as Big Macintosh ‘n me. Ah kin’ handle yer wanderin’ off when y’finish yer chores. Ah can even forgive that thing in the barn - “
“I wish you’d stop bringing that up...” Caramel cut in. Applejack continued.
“But when Ah ask y’t’do something, Ah want y’t’do it. Y’gotta focus, okay?”
“I’m trying to!” Caramel insisted, “I am! I’m sorry, I just...” Applejack rubbed her eyes.
“Look... there ain’t much we can do right now, okay? Ah’m gonna head into town, see if there ain’t somepony who can fix a plow. You just rest up, be ready to work again, okay? Real work, no head in the clouds.”
“Yeah,” Caramel sighed, “Okay.” He turned away as Applejack stomped off, muttering to herself, and slunk to Sweet Apple Acres’ barn. He didn’t even really mean to, he just happened to wander there without thinking. Even when he was inside the barn he still didn’t pay much attention to where he was going - weaving in between the gossiping cows, and returning their greetings half-heartedly. He eventually found himself at a familiar place - a small stall, full of matted hay. There were comfortable memories there - even if some of them were a constant source of embarrassment. He lay down on the hay, folding his legs beneath him and staring off into space. After a while, he heard footsteps behind him.
“You’re back already, Applejack?” He asked, without turning around. It wasn’t Applejack who replied, but a deep, calm voice.
“‘Fraid not,” the voice said. Caramel turned to see Big Macintosh, who sat down beside him.
“You’ll have to deal with me, for a while,” the red stallion said. Caramel shrugged.
“That’s alright,” he said. “At least I’m not gonna screw that up, right?”
“I suppose not,” Big Mac nodded, “Odd thing t’say, though. It ain’t like you mess up that much.”
“Don’t I?” The yellow colt asked sullenly, “Then what am I doing in here, instead of plowing the field like I’m supposed to be? I busted up the plow - again. That sounds like a mess up to me.”
“Everypony makes mistakes - “
“Yeah, but they don’t make them three times in one month!” Caramel snorted. “I’m in here because I messed up. Heck, I’m in Ponyville because I messed up!” Big Mac sighed.
“That ain’t true, Caramel, an’ you know it,” he said. Caramel turned away and grumbled under his breath, drawing another sigh from Big Mac.
“Look,” the stallion said, “Yer’ folks didn’t send you here ‘cause you messed up. They sent you here ‘cause they were worried ‘bout you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Caramel grumbled, “‘Cause I never fit in back home. They thought maybe good ol’ Applejack could help me fit in... I’ve heard it all before, Big Mac.”
“Then you know that they wanted what was best fer you,” the big pony reasoned, but Caramel just snorted.
“They though she could teach me to farm better,” he said, “well, so much for that. I’m as much of a mess up here as I was there.” He flopped onto his side, facing away from Big Mac, and stewed silently. Big Mac stayed silent as well, for a while.
“Caramel,” he said finally, “you listen t’me. You might not be true kinfolk, but me, Applejack, Granny Smith and Apple Bloom - we all care for you just the same.” Caramel looked over his shoulder at the quiet pony, his sullen expression softening as Big Mac continued, “You’re apple clan, Caramel, and we want our clan t’be happy. And if y’can’t focus when yer workin’, then y’ain’t happy, y’ask me. What’s wrong, buddy?”
Caramel stared over his shoulder at the stallion for a moment, before rolling back onto his front. “I dunno,” he sighed, laying his head on his hooves. “I work fine after the harvest - I mean, candied apples, right? I like making those. But in the summer and spring I just... I dunno. I just start slacking off. I guess maybe the seasons just make me wanna goof off?”
“Ah don’t think that’s it,” Big Mac pressed, “Ah’ve seen y’work when y’wanna. Y’don’t slack off.”
“Well, what else could it be?”
“You tell me,” Big Mac shrugged, “you’d know better than Ah would.” Caramel frowned.
“I dunno,” he said, “I mean, maybe I just am a mess up? Maybe I’m just no good at farming?” He ruffled his mane, and moaned, “But I’m Apple Clan! How can I not be cut out for farming? It’s what we do!”
“Ah don’t know.” Big Mac said, “I really don’t. But listen, Caramel. It ain’t doin’ anyone any good for you t’keep goin’ on like this. You take a few days off, alright?”
“No buts,” the red stallion silenced him, “You get some time t’yerself, y’hear? Y’just need some time t’think. I’ll cover fer you. Okay?”
“Yeah...” Caramel said slowly, “Okay.”
“Good,” Big Mac declared, standing up, “Feel better, okay Caramel?”
“Yeah,” he said, giving a weak smile, “Thanks, Big Mac.” The big red pony smiled back.
“Eeyup,” he said, “Anytime.”
Big Mac left, leaving Caramel on his own. The yellow colt lay in the barn on his own for a while, listening idly to the chatty cows, who were talking about “Apple Bloom and her friends’ exploits with the pigs, the silly dears”. Eventually, though, he stood up and walked for the large double doors. He wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do, but it sure didn’t involve farms, not today.
The sky had begun to cloud over when he poked his head out into the late afternoon air. It was early springtime, and even the most diligent of weather teams could only hold back the storms for so long. This one would have to be let through, he had overheard Rainbow Dash telling Applejack, and it was going to be a doozy. Not the sort of night to be outside, but Caramel couldn’t handle being cooped up in the farmhouse tonight.
“I can probably find somewhere in town,” he said to himself, “to wait out the storm tonight, at least.” Setting the thought in his head, he headed for Ponyville. It was quiet in the small town; most ponies had already packed up and headed inside for the day, out of the threat of the storm. The shops and restaurants were closing, shutting their doors to ponies like Caramel, but he knew one place that would still be open. It wasn’t a place he went often; Caramel wasn’t much of a drinker, nor was he one for dancing and socializing. But, the club on the edge of town was still a good a place as any. He flashed his ID for the bouncer who stood at the door, and headed inside.
The club was almost dead. It was the middle of the week, after all; most ponies would have things to do the next morning, and didn’t have all night to while away at a club. Still, the DJ on the stage played away furiously. Caramel tried to ignore the head-crushing music, and made his way across the sparse club to the bar. As he sat down, the bartender came over to greet him, saying something that Caramel couldn’t make out over the din of the music.
“WHAT?” He tried to ask, but this too was drowned out by the music. The Bartender appeared to sigh, and mulled in front of Caramel until the song ended. When it finally did, the pounding beat replaced by something much softer, and he spoke up again.
“What can I get you?” He asked.
“Um... I don’t really drink much,” Caramel admitted, “Can you recommend something cheap, that tastes good?”
“Cheap and good?” The Bartender repeated, “I can do that.” He walked to the shelf behind him, selecting a bottle full of a crystal clear drink. He poured a glass of it for Carmel, and set the bottle down on the counter. “Give it a shot,” he said, “Tell me what you think.”
Caramel sipped at the drink carefully. The sting of alcohol was strong, but there was a fruity taste to it as well.
“... Raspberries?” Caramel asked. The bartender laughed, and nodded.
“That’s right,” he said, “It’s called Himbeergeist. How do you like it?”
“It’s good,” Caramel said, “Thanks.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the bartender waved a hoof at him, “It’s my job. Speaking of, I don’t think I’ve seen you around before - you new in town?”
“No... well, I mean I’ve been here for a few years. But I’ve never really come here. I’m not really one for... this sort of thing.”
“Oh no?” The bartender asked. He looked up and down the bar, and seeing that there were no more customers, took a seat across from the yellow colt. “So what brings you here tonight then, huh?”
“Eh...” Caramel shrugged, “I dunno. I just needed to get away from work. I mean, Big Mac told me to take some time off, and I guess here was open, so...”
“Big Macintosh? You work on Sweet Apple Acres?”
“Yeah. My family is sorta, honorary Apple Clan. From a little place, up north. They sent me out here ‘cause...” Caramel trailed off, and took a deep drink from his glass.
“‘Cause?” The bartender prompted. He nudged the bottle, offering another glass to Caramel, who nodded.
“Cause they thought I might ‘fit in’ better out here,” he said, as the bartender poured him another glass. “They just wanted me out from under hoof, though.”
“That doesn’t sound like something your folks ‘ought to be thinking. You sure that’s it?”
“Not much else it could be,” Caramel sulked, “I kept messing up when I tried to help out on the farm, so they sent me out here.” He drained the glass again, and added, “And now I keep messing up out here! Can I have another?”
“Go easy, mate, this is strong stuff.” The bartender said, pouring another glass. “Maybe they just wanted you to get out a bit, see the world? There’re worse things for a young colt to do.”
“Then why just send me to another farm?”
“Hey, I don’t know your folks.”
Caramel sighed, and sipped at his drink. “Not like it makes a difference,” he said, “I’m just doing the same filler work I always was.”
“What do you mean, filler work?” The bartender asked, giving him a puzzled expression.
“Everypony in the Apple Clan has a specialty, right?” Caramel explained, leaning to show the candied apples emblazoned on his flank, “And mine is caramel apples. I can only make them in the fall, though, and it’s not like I can just sit around doing nothing all year. So I work the farm, like everypony else.” He gulped his drink, and added, “Problem is, unlike everypony else, I can’t seem to do anything but mess up when I try and help out.”
“Well, maybe you’re just not cut out for farm work, then?”
“You aren’t the first one to say that,” Caramel snorted, “But how can an Apple Clan pony not be cut out for farming? I mean, what am I supposed to do if I can’t farm? It’s all we’ve ever done!” He downed the rest of his drink, and beckoned the bartender to pour him another.
“Slow down there, colt,” the bartender said, “You said you don’t drink much, I’m not sure you can handle much more of this.” Caramel rolled his eyes.
“It hasn’t done anything yet, has it? Don’t worry, I know my limit.” The bartender shook his head, but poured another glass anyways.
Alcohol is an interesting thing. It can lead to some pretty awful decisions, but a lot of things do that. The funny thing about alcohol is that, like a bad decision, it can take a while before it catches up to you. And it can be very, very unpleasant when it does.
Caramel moaned into his hooves at the bar. His head felt like someone had stuffed it full of cotton, and was trying to shove more and more in, until his brain threatened to explode. He took another drink, just because he couldn’t think of anything else to do. He groaned again, and the bartender came back.
“Okay, that was a mistake,” he said, retrieving the half-emptied bottle.
“I’ll say,” Caramel grumbled.
“Well, don’t blame me. I hope you’ve learned something from this.”
“Yeah,” Caramel said, “Yeah, I think I’ve learned something.” He fumbled around, looking for some bits to pay with, but the bartender just waved him off.
“I know how to get a hold of you,” he said, “You probably couldn’t pay right now, even if you did have enough bits on you. Which I doubt. Go home, get some sleep.” Caramel mumbled something resembling a thanks to the bartender, and shuffled his way out of the club. The storm that raged while Caramel was inside had abated by now, leaving behind only a miserably cloudy sky and a soaked earth that squelched and leaked with every hoofstep. Caramel made his way for home, plodding miserably along, shifting from left to right and muttering to himself.
“No work tomorrow. Ground’s too wet. Applejack’ll still probably get mad at me anyways.” He grumbled, “She’ll be mad I left early. I’ll bet she didn’t even listen to Big Mac. Like usual. I’ll bet she’ll still be mad about the plow, looking for ways to take it out on me.” He stumbled off the main path, stepping into a muddy ditch and sliding off to the side, face-planting into the muck. He spat out a mouthful of dirt, and swore at the earth.
“I’ll bet Applejack blames me for this too,” he grumbled, “It’ll be my fault we can’t work tomorrow. Oh, yeah, Caramel screwed up again, ground’s to muddy to work. All his fault.” He grimaced, mocking the orange mare’s drawl for nopony in particular. “Gal-durnit, Car’mel, y’done screwed up good this time. Yer supposed ter sow d’seeds, not d’water!” He blew a lock of dirty hair out of his eyes, and snorted. “Like I could even get that far,” he said, “I’d have to be able to work without screwing up for five seconds to do all this.” He stood up and continued to make his way back to the farm, muttering all the while to himself, and becoming more and more angry as he did so.
“I learned something. Yeah, I learned my lesson alright. I’m no farmer. I was stupid to think I ever could be. Big Mac was right, I didn’t get sent here to get me out from underhoof, I got sent here so I could embarrass somepony else’s family.” He scowled into the dark before him, picking up his pace. “Well buck that,” he said, “They want to get rid of me, well, fine. I’m not cut out for this crap anyways, no sense in me sticking around and just screwing everything up for everypony else. I’m done with this crap.”
He stormed his way back to Sweet Apple Acres, and made his way for the farmhouse. Despite everything, he was quiet as he slipped inside. The house was dark, and he didn’t want to wake Granny Smith or Apple Bloom - or worse, Applejack. He didn’t need to get another earful tonight. He’d pack his things and leave, without a fuss. They’d probably never even miss him, he thought. They’d just notice that things suddenly got a lot easier. He snuck into the small room that he had lived in for the past couple of years, and gathered what little possession he had - a picture of his family, a few books, and a couple of the sweets that he had made last fall. Putting his meager effects into his saddlebags, he snuck back out of the little house. He sat on the front porch for a few minutes, wondering what he would do. He wouldn’t go back to Ponyville; there was hardly any point to that. The Everfree forest was to the north, so he couldn’t go that way, unless he wanted to take the long, long road around it. Manehatten was to the south, and he had never been to a city before, so he didn’t want to go there. Then it occurred to him - there was a small trail leading out the back of Sweet Apple Acres, to the east. He had never seen anypony take it, but Granny Smith had told him that travelers and traders used to take it all the time. Making up his mind, he set off for the little road, pausing only to take one last look at the place he had called home for almost three years now. A brief tremor of nostalgia passed through him, but he fought it down, glaring at the house.
“Buck this,” he grumbled, turning away. “Buck this place. Buck apples. Buck farming. I’m done.” He set off, finding the tiny road easily, even in the dark. It lead him out of the farm quickly, and out into the countryside. It started to taper downwards, trailing out of Ponyville’s mountain plateau. The decline was shallow at first, but it started to get steep quickly. By the time he looked back, after an hour of walking, he couldn’t even see the apple trees anymore. “Good riddance,” he growled, and pressed on. The open road soon started to close in, as sheer cliffs rose on either side of the path. The road was leading him back into the mountains, winding its way down. Caramel guessed through a fuzzy head that they would eventually lead to the foothills of the world he called home. It might have been the drink, but he didn’t think he had ever seen a horizon without those familiar peaks. The idea scared him a little bit, but he didn’t turn back. The road was turning treacherous now, with loose pebbles that slipped underneath Caramel’s unsteady feet. He tried to take the path slowly, but he could barely walk straight as it was, and it was a challenge just to stay upright. He took a wrong step, his hoof sliding out beneath him and sending him crashing to the hard ground. He swore again, and picked himself up.
“This isn’t working,” he said to himself, “I need to stop for the night.” He had been walking for hours, and even if he could walk the night was catching up to him. He needed sleep, and some place to rest. He looked around, searching for any place that might offer him a place to rest for the night, but all that he saw were those same sheer cliffs that had been there all the while. He looked farther up, hoping that there might be a ledge, or a cave. But as his eyes drifted higher and higher, all that he saw was the sky - the dark, evil sky. The storm had followed him from Ponyville, and the clouds hung low and heavy, creaking from the water they carried.
A single raindrop fell onto Caramel’s nose.
Another fell after it.
“Oh, no,” Caramel moaned, “Oh, please, Celestia no...” But Celestia wasn’t listening. She, like any sensible pony, was tucked inside for the night. Caramel, silly, drunk Caramel, was not a sensible pony. He was out, in the open, as the rain came down.
Within moments, it was pouring. It was as if there were a hundred pegasi right above Caramel, pouring buckets and buckets of rain down on top of him. He searched desperately for somewhere to hide from the downpour, but to no avail. He ran down the mountain path, hoping that he might find a cave, or an overhang, or anything that could hide him from the storm. Nothing came, though, and as he ran the claustrophobic walls started to bend, and curve. He ran on, oblivious to the fact that they were beginning to widen out. He stumbled and tipped over the loosed rocks, falling into the ground more than once.
“Oh please, oh please,” he begged as the rain pelted down on him, stinging his skin, “Please, I’ll take anything...” Suddenly, the walls fell away on one side, revealing a drop into a forest below. The open air saw wind added to the storm, pushing and pulling the poor colt as he tried to run. He pressed himself against the wall that was left, trying to stay as far away from the ledge as he could. The road was winding dangerously now; even if it wasn’t storming he would have had to take it slowly. His hoof caught a loose piece of shale. It slid away from him, sending him to his knees. The wind caught him as he tried to stand, throwing him off balance. He stumbled away from the rock wall, dangerously close the edge.
“Oh Celestia, oh, oh Celestia, help me!” He wailed helplessly.
He missed his footing.
He lost his balance.
He tumbled over the cliff.
The next thing Caramel could understand were the lights swimming behind his eyes. And how much they hurt.
“Oooaw...” He moaned. He lifted a hoof to rub his head, but a sliver of pain rocketed through his side. His whole body was numb, but life was slowly returning to it, bringing with it a dull, throbbing ache all over. “Oh, Celestia,” he moaned again. He cracked an eye open, and shut it tight again as the light cut in straight to his throbbing brain. He just lay where he was, trying not to move and invite another wave of pain. Wherever he was. He could tell that he was in a bed, but not much else.
“Are you awake, or have you finally just decided to die?” An unfamiliar voice asked him. It was soft and sweet, and didn’t hurt too much to hear. Caramel tried to respond to it.
“Awake ponies usually have their eyes open,” the voice said.
“Can’t,” Caramel replied, “It’s too bright.”
“Should’ve guessed. Here, I’ll turn them down for you.” Caramel could see the lights dimming through his eyelids, and peeked one eye open again. It didn’t sting, so he opened the other as well. Everything was blurry, but his eyes slowly came into focus, and he saw a pale purple unicorn with a deep blue mane standing over him.
“Better?” She asked. Caramel nodded slowly. “Good,” she said, and shone a bright light into his right eye.
“Aaaauugh!” Caramel screamed. His hoof flew to his eye, sending another shot of pain through his body. His back arched, and he started to shake before the unicorn put both her front hooves on his chest and shoved him flat against the bed.
“Hold Still!” She shouted, “Don’t be such a baby!” Caramel felt her magic restrict him, and she pulled open his eyes with her hooves, shining the light in one first, and then the other. The lights bored into Caramels brain, but she held his mouth shut as well, only letting him whimper softly.
“There,” she said, letting him go, “Was that so bad?”
“Oh, Celestia, my eyes...” Caramel moaned. The mare sighed.
“I’m not sure whether to be surprised or not,” she said, as she walked over to a desk across for the bed where Caramel lay, “One one hoof, you’re hung over. Bad. On the other, for the amount of alcohol you had in you, you should almost still be drunk.” She levitated a quill and began to write something, and Caramel looked back into his memories of the previous night. He remembered drinking, that much was certain. Everything after that was blurry. The mare set her quill back down, and turned to face Caramel.
“You’re a very lucky pony, either way,” she said, “How do you feel? Aside from the eyes?”
“Not very lucky,” he admitted, “Everything hurts - especially my side.”
“Yeah, left side.”
“I can’t imagine you would feel lucky. You took quite a spill - do you even remember any of it?” Caramel shook his head.
“Only bits... I remember a road, I think. And a storm.” He concentrated, but nothing else came to him. “Sorry,” he said.
“It’s a wonder you can remember that much. Do you want to know how much alcohol I found in your system?”
“Um?” Caramel asked. The unicorn turned back to her desk, and picked up a sheet of paper.
“0.2,” she told him. He gave her a puzzled look from the bed, and she set the paper down. “Loss of motor controls, loss of reason, slurred speech - another drink and you probably wouldn’t have been able to stand up. Honestly, it probably worked to your benefit. The only road around here is the mountain path. As far as I can tell, you fell off a cliff - I found you curled into a little ball clutching this,” she pulled a small, broken branch out from under her desk. “You probably managed to stay awake long enough to try and save yourself. If you hadn't bounced off that tree, you’d be dead by now. As it is, you managed to get away with a few cracked ribs on your left side, and you tore your right shoulder muscle. No brain trauma, save for what all the alcohol did to you.”
“That’s... good?” Caramel said slowly. The unicorn mare walked over to him again, and bit the skin on his leg. “Ow!” He shouted, “What - “
“Sorry. I’m checking to see how hung over you are. You probably just need some water. I’ll go get you a glass.” She left the small room, and returned a short while later with a bucket full of water. She ladled it into a cup, and held it over Caramel. “Open up,” she said.
“I think I can drink on my own,” Caramel objected, but he was silenced by the mare.
“Every time you move, you shift the ribs and move the muscle. You could drink by yourself, but you aren’t going to. You’re going to open up.” Caramel gave up, and did as he was told. The mare poured the water into his mouth. It tasted clean and fresh, and it was wonderfully cool.
“There,” she said, “see? The less you fight, the sooner you’ll be up and about again.”
“Alright, alright,” Caramel said. “Who are you, anyways?”
“Powder,” she introduced herself, starting to write again, “How about you? What’s your name?”
“Caramel,” He answered. Silence fell over the room, save for the scratching of Powder’s quill on her papers. Caramel tried to look around the room, but shifting too much made his ribs object - not to mention the looks that Powder shot him if she ever heard him moving. After a while, he asked, “So... where is this?”
“This is my office,” Powder said sarcastically, “I’m the doctor.” She stopped, and rubbed her eyes. “Right. Sorry. You aren’t from here. We don’t really see a lot of visitors here. Welcome to Brumby.”
“Never heard of it,” Caramel said. Powder shrugged.
“Seems fair,” she said, “I’ve never heard of where you’re from.”
“How do you know where I’m from?”
“I don’t. But if it isn’t Brumby, I’ve never heard of it.”
“... Seriously?” Caramel asked, “what about Equestria?”
“Brumby’s in Equestria, so I’ve heard of that,” Powder rolled her eyes, “But I couldn’t tell you the capital, or any of the towns.”
“Don’t travelers ever come through?”
“You’re the first one I’ve ever seen.”
“Then how do you get supplies? Food, and books and stuff.”
“We make all our own food,” Powder told him, “And the books get handed down to the people who need them. Everybody here has a job to do, and we all do it. Like it or not.” Caramel thought he sensed a bit of bitterness in her voice. He looked over at her, and noticed something - her flank was blank.
“You don’t have a cutie mark,” he said.
“A what?” she asked, “Wait - hold that thought.” She walked out of the room and returned with a very, very old and worn looking book. She set it on the table and opened it with her magic, flipping through it and muttering to herself. “C... CS... CT... CU... Cutie Marks! I knew I’d heard it before. Small mark on both ones flanks, denoting... oh. That.” She closed the book, and pushed it away from her. She picked up her quill and began to write again.
“What is it?” Caramel asked.
“A small mark that appears on both flanks when a pony discovers what they want to do with their life, denoting their chosen purpose in life through personalized symbolism - two ponies can follow the same path, but develop completely separate cutie marks due to different thought on the subject. It seems to be magical in nature, rather than biological, as some foals have been documented to change cutie marks, though it’s nearly unheard of in older ponies. It - “
“I know what a cutie mark is,” Caramel interrupted her, “I mean, why don’t you have one? And why did you have to look it up?”
“I have a lot of medical books. I can’t know about everything, so I only look things up when I have to, and I’ve never had to look up cutie marks.”
“But... why didn’t you know about them to begin with? And that doesn’t explain why you don’t have one.” Powder sighed, and rubbed her eyes.
“I was the smallest, so I was the doctor. Those are the rules,” she said, “I don’t make the rules. You get a cutie mark when you decided what you want to do with your life. When you find your purpose.” She scowled, and turned back to her work. “We don’t get to decide what we want to do with our lives here. We get a job. And we do it. Like it or not.” Caramel just stared at her.
“You mean...nopony has a cutie mark here?” He asked. Powder sighed, and closed the book she had been writing in.
“I have to go,” she told him, “The blacksmith’s apprentice has burnt his hoof again, and I need to check up on the plough team, to make sure they aren’t getting fatigued. Try and go back to sleep - if you move as little as possible, you’ll be able to get out there and move in a couple of days.” She walked to the door, but stopped and turned back to him. “You’re lucky to be alive, Caramel. I know you’re hurt pretty bad, but if you try to be stubborn I’m going to put you in that bed for even longer. Got it?”
“Yeah...” Caramel said, intimidated by the small doctor’s intensity, “Got it.”
“Good,” Powder nodded, “I’ll be back to check on you tonight.”
Caramel had tried unsuccessfully to fall asleep as the day went by. The bed was stiff and uncomfortable, but whenever he tried to shift into a better position pain stabbed at his side. So he lay, completely still, an ache in his lower back slowly joining the pile. He had a vague idea of how much time had passed, but it didn’t help him to predict when Powder was coming back, because between the dimmed lights and lack of windows, he had no idea what time of day it was. He sighed to himself, and let his head flop onto its side towards the door. He heard a small squeak when he did so - it sounded like a filly. Puzzled, he spoke to the apparently empty room.
“Hello?” He asked, “Is there somepony there?” His answer came in the form of a little yellow head, with a white mane, that peeked its head around the door. It stared at him without speaking for a while, darting back whenever Caramel stirred, but always returning.
“Hey,” Caramel said to the head after a while, “Who are you?” The head peeked further out, far enough that Caramel could tell it was a filly, and it looked like she was about to speak when a clattering came from another room.The filly looked at the source of the noise behind the door, and darted away without a sound. The clattering, meanwhile, continued, and formed into the steady beat of stomping hooves, coming closer and closer to the room. The door swung open, revealing a none-too-pleased looking Powder.
“Caramel.” She demanded, causing the colt to flinch, “whatever you were drinking last night. Do you still have any?”
“Uh-um,” Caramel stammered, “N-no... it was from a bar. Sorry?”
“Urgh...” Powder grumbled, “Nevermind. I’ll just have to suffer through sobriety. I need to finish my notes anyways.”
“What’s the matter?”
“The Blacksmith’s apprentice,” Powder said, rubbing her eyes, “His hoof was barely singed - I swear, that oaf plays up every little thing just to try and see me. He makes passes at me every time I go near him.” She sighed again, but shook her head weakly. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Sore,” Caramel said, “Well, I guess that isn’t new...”
“Sore is still sore,” Powder said, “Is it the same sore? Ribs and shoulder? New sore?”
“Old sore, but my backs a bit stiff,” Caramel said shyly. Powder simply nodded.
“Figured as much. Not much we can do about that, though. That mattress is probably older than me. I’ll see if I can get a new one made, it was about time anyways.” She approached the bed, and Caramel felt her magic take hold of him once more. “Alright,” she told him, “I need to take a look at your back - we’re going to take this slow, okay?”
“Okay?” Caramel said. His upper body started to tilt, moving away from the hard mattress. He moved slow enough that his ribs weren’t disturbed, but as soon as pressure was taken off his shoulder a sharp pain rocked through it.
“Ah, Celestia!” He winced, “Stop, stop, stop!”
“Don’t be a baby,” Powder told him, “It’s going to hurt one way or another, and I need to check it.” She continued to push him up until he was in a sitting position. The pain in his back faded a bit. It still hurt, but it was tolerable. Powder lifted her hoof, and gave him another warning. “I’m going to check the muscle. It’s going to hurt, but it’ll help me see if you’ve strained it at all.” She gently touched his back - she hadn’t lied when she said it would hurt. Pain shot through him with every prod, but Caramel tried his best to stay still for her. She made a humming noise, marking that she was finished.
“You haven’t managed to make it any worse,” she noted, “Another couple of nights and you’ll be able to start putting pressure on it. I can probably get you walking with a sling tomorrow - this bed isn’t doing you any favours.” She put her hoof on Caramel’s back again, away from the injured shoulder this time.
“You’re a good patient,” she told him. “Where’s your back sore?”
“The, um, lower middle,” Caramel told her. “Why?” Powder started to rub his back gently, without answering. Caramel grunted as his spine popped once or twice, but the rubbing felt good.
“That’s nice,” he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a doctor do that...”
“I don’t know if it’s really medicine,” she answered, “I had to learn as much as I could, though. There isn’t anybody else in town who can.”
“So, what happens if you get sick then?”
“I don’t,” Powder said matter-of-factly, “I can’t afford to. How’s the back?”
“Much better, thanks.”
“Good,” she said, “You stay sitting here for a minute. I’m going to get some bandages and a splint. We’re going to get those ribs set tonight, so they don’t shift around while you sleep.” She left the room, leaving Caramel sitting on the bed. His eyes drifted down, to the three little apples on his flank, poking out from beneath the blanket. Those three little apples that had bothered him so much last night, and now, if Powder was right, they were the only ones in the whole village.
“Celestia,” he said to himself, “I feel like such a...”
“Such a what?” Powder asked, coming back into the room carrying a roll of bandages and a short plank.
“Nothing,” Caramel shook his head, “Never mind.”
“Suit yourself,” Powder said, “But it’s not like you’re going to get much of a chance to talk to anyone else for a while.”
“I thought you said I would be able to go out tomorrow?”
“You will,” she told him, pressing the plank against his side. Caramel winced, but Powder rolled her eyes, and proceeded to wrap the bandages around it, “For exercise. There won’t be anyone to talk to during the day, and you’ll be right back here at night. I still need to be able to keep an eye on you.”
“Why won’t I be able to talk to anyone during the day?” Caramel asked, letting Powder lift his front legs up as she worked.
“Because,” she said, “We...” She sighed, and tied off the bandages now wrapped about Caramel’s trunk. “Look, I had a long day, okay? I don’t really... like, making house calls. I’ll explain it tomorrow. Just get some sleep, it’s late. And try not to move too much during the night, if you can manage it.”
“Yeah,” Caramel said, “Okay.” The purple pony seemed to grow more and more weary as every second went by, and it was clear Caramel wasn’t going to get anything more out of her tonight. He decided it was for the best - he was still too sore and tired to really take in anything she could tell him anyways. He lay back with her help, and bid her goodnight as she put out the lantern on her desk.
The good news was Caramel wasn’t as sore the next day. The bad news was that was a bit like not being as wet as the ocean.
“Easy... easy,” Powder said, rolling him onto his side with her magic, “We’re taking this slow. I’ve been doing this for years, and you aren’t the worst I’ve ever had. It’s going to be fine, Caramel.”
“If it was going to be fine,” the colt grunted, “It wouldn’t hurt so much!” Despite his complaints, and with much support from Powder, both magically and physically, Caramel finally found himself standing on three hooves. Powder glared at his as he tried to put his injured hoof on the ground.
“Keep that thing up,” she told him, “If you put any weight on it now, you’ll be going back into that bed until it’s completely healed, you hear me?”
“R-right,” Caramel said, “Sorry.” Powder trotted into the next room, beckoning for Caramel to follow. It was tricky to walk on only three legs, and even harder to keep from putting his fourth down, but he managed to totter after her. She was waiting for him with a heavy piece of cloth, which she wrapped around his leg and neck, tying it off.
“Test that out,” she said, “How’s the knot?”
“It feels good,” Caramel said, pushing at the cloth, “Not that I could do much.”
“It’ll do well enough, at least,” Powder nodded, “Now, I’ll bet you want some fresh air, huh?”
“A bit, yeah,” Caramel laughed awkwardly. Powder smirked at him - it was probably the first time she had come close to smiling, he thought - and led him to her door. She swung it open, revealing the outside.
“That’s... all there is to your house?” Caramel asked. He withered under Powder’s glare, and tried to explain himself, “I-I mean, I just thought the only doctor in town would have a bigger office, you know?”
“We don’t have room for big houses,” Powder sighed, “We have to save all our room for farmland.”
“... Farmland?” Caramel asked.
“Farmland,” Powder repeated. Both ponies stepped through the portal to the outside, and Caramel saw the village for the first time. Powder hadn’t been lying when she said they didn’t have big houses. Every home that Caramel could see seemed to be little more than a hut, probably no more than two or three rooms at the most. He could see trees in the distance, but the village and the surrounding area had been completely cleared of any lumber, all for one reason - farming. As far as Caramel could see, every patch of land had been tilled, and converted for crops, save for a grid of pathways cutting through the whole thing. Both Caramel and Powder sighed wearily.
Powder led Caramel slowly through the grid of pathways, showing him around the village - what little there was to show. Mostly they were just doing it for exercise. Sitting in one place for too long was just going to hurt his other muscles, Powder explained to him, and it would do him good to work the shoulder muscle a bit as it healed anyways. As the two ponies walked, the other citizens of the village started to exit their meager homes. To Caramel’s surprise, not a single one gave him a second glance. They all went straight for the fields, suiting up into ploughs, or taking up sack of seeds to sow. Other ponies set about weeding the fields that had already been tilled, or watering the earth.
“Doesn’t this seem a bit... excessive?” Caramel asked quietly, “I mean, this isn’t a big place. How much food could you possibly need?” Powder sighed quietly.
“Caramel, how much do you know about farming?” She asked.
“I lived on farms my whole life,” Caramel answered, a bit insulted, “So I can tell you, you don’t need all this land just to feed a few dozen ponies!”
“Maybe not on one of your farms,” Powder said. She reached off of the path, scooping up a hoofful of dirt, and showing it to Caramel, “But we do on our farms.” She tilted her hoof, and the dirt drained off. It didn’t fall away in clumps, like the dirt on Sweet Apple Acre’s would have, but poured down, like sand. Caramel’s mouth hung open.
“Maybe a third of what we plant makes it through to harvest time,” Powder told him, “Maybe. Some old journals say that the soil here used to be good. But now? It’s dead. It’s a wonder we can grow anything.”
“Why don’t you move?” Caramel asked, still dumbfounded, “This soil’s had way too much planted on it, it needs years to get back to farm-able condition!”
“Right,” Powder said, rolling her eyes, “So we’ll all just pack up. Leave the place where we’ve lived for generations. All those ponies, who spent their lives fighting with this land, they’ll just admit defeat, and go ask Celestia for a nice new plot of land? Or maybe the kids will just run away from home, and start a new life somewhere away from their parents, leave them toiling away here with no future. Even if anypony thought about the world outside of here, they’d never leave.” Her tone was venomous. She only gave Caramel a brief look before turning away, but her eyes were worse than knives. They were much, much older eyes than Powder had any right to have.
“I,” Caramel said, leaning away from the livid unicorn, “I’m sorry... but... what about you? Why don’t you leave?”
“I was the smallest,” Powder said. Despite the early hour, she sounded even more tired than she had last night. “I was the smallest, so I had to be the doctor. Those are the rules. I can’t leave, Caramel.” She glanced back at him. Her eyes were no longer angry, just sad, and old. “They need me. I... need to check up on a few ponies. You keep on walking. But take a break if your side starts to hurt at all. And don’t put any weight on that hoof. Got it?”
“... Got it,” Caramel answered. Powder nodded, and headed off along the path. Caramel watched her as she made her way to one of the larger shacks, one that had a column of smoke beginning to form out of its chimney. She knocked once, and went inside. Caramel sat in the middle of the path for a while, looking around. More ponies had appeared now, all of them working in the fields. The chatted happily while they walked along the paths, calling out morning greetings to one another, but the moment they set hoof onto the fields silence fell among them. Caramel tried to strike up a conversation with a young stallion working close to the path, but all he could get out of the pony was a nod of recognition. Caramel lingered for a moment, waiting to see if anything more would come from it, but he finally shook his head, and tottered away.
He followed the paths through the village, finding his way to the edge of the woods, where he took a seat. He was tired from the effort of walking on only three legs, but he had no desire to go back through the bleak village. Instead, he turned away from it, staring through the gaps in the trees.
Celestia, I feel awful, he thought to himself, I can’t even focus for a few months, and these ponies... what do I have to complain about? He rubbed his muzzle with his good hoof, and thought about the farm in Ponyville. Nopony had ever forced him to work the farm, it was just what he thought he should be doing. At least he’d had a choice in the matter. And what did I do? He mused miserably, I ran away. I’ll bet Granny Smith is worried sick. Applejack is probably blaming herself, too... he shook his head.
“You screwed up again, Caramel,” he said to himself. He glanced over his shoulder at the town, and thought about his new situation. “I’m not going anywhere like this,” he said, “Not for a while. I have to be able to do something while I’m here...”
He turned back to the woods, just in time to see a flash of yellow between the trees. He tilted his head quizzically, and squinted into the woods. The yellow flash came again, coming closer. Before Caramel had a chance to react, a little yellow filly darted out of the trees, crashing headlong into the colt.
“Ah!” Caramel shouted, clutching at his ribs as he bounced off the ground, “Buck, me!” He looked around, and saw the filly bounding up to him again.
“Ohmigoshohmigoshohmigosh!” She squealed, “Are you okay!? I’m sorry, everypony is usually working now and I wasn’t watching where I was going and I’m soooooooo sorry!”
“What?” Caramel asked, clambering back onto three hooves, “I’m... fine, I guess.”
“Are you sure?” The filly asked, “You look hurt! Please don’t tell on me!”
“I was hurt before,” Caramel laughed weakly, “You didn’t hurt me any worse. Why would I tell on you, anyways?”
“Well,” the filly said shyly, pawing at the ground like she had been caught in the cookie jar, “‘Cause I’m supposed to be working right now too...”
“Working?” Caramel asked, “What could you have to do, you’re just a little filly.”
“Am not!” The filly objected, “I’m a big filly! Anyways, I’m Papa’s ‘prentice, so I gotta help him make shoes for all the farm ponies, so they don’t hurt their hooves!”
“But, you can’t be any more than ten years old,” Caramel said, a lurking suspicion starting to creep at his mind, “You shouldn’t be working already, should you?”
“Uh huh!” The filly nodded vigorously, “We all help out our Mamas and Papas, so we can get more work done! That way we learn how to do the job that we have to do when we’re Mamas and Papas, and we can teach our foals how to do it too! That’s what my Papa told me!”
“Oh,” Caramel said sadly, his fear confirmed. “What were you doing out here, then?”
“I was watchin’ the road!” She exclaimed excitedly, “‘Cause I was by the road a couple nights ago, and a colt fell down, and so I went and got miss Powder and she made him better and I thought, well, what if colts fall down off the road all the time, but nobody sees them, so I wanted to see if anypony else fell down so I could tell somepony!”
“Really?” Caramel laughed, trying his best to take all the information that the filly spewed at him. Something clicked, and he asked, “Wait, you said you saw a colt fall off the road two nights ago?”
“Well,” Caramel said, smiling at the excitable filly, “I guess I should be thanking you then - I think I was that colt.” The filly’s eyes widened enormously, and a look of pure awe overtook her face.
“Woooooooooaaaaaaaah!” She said, prancing forward and setting her front hooves on Caramel’s haunch, “Cool! You look different all bandaged up, and without leaves in your mane and stuff!”
“Yeah,” Caramel said, leaning away from the over eager pony, “I guess Powder cleaned me up a bit. I was... pretty much out.”
“You were kinda talking in your sleep,” she told Caramel, “But I didn’t hear what you said at all.” She blinked twice, as if some other thought had hip-checked her previous subject clear out of her brain, and dropped down, circling around to Caramel’s side. “Hey, what are those funny marks on your flanks?”
“My cutie mark?” Caramel asked automatically. He had to resist the urge to hoof himself in the face as the filly pressed on.
“What’s a cutie mark?” she asked.
“It’s... well,” Carmel fumbled, trying to find a way to answer the little filly without telling her about the chance she wouldn’t ever get, “Where I come from, ponies get them when we reach a certain age... they, um. We get them to show what our job is.”
“Neat!” She exclaimed, “But why do you wait to get them? Why don’t you just give them to your foals when they’re born?”
“Well... we don’t really know what we’re going to do when we’re born. We have to figure it out later...” The filly just stared at him quizzically.
“You choose what you wanna do?” She asked him. Caramel’s head sunk between his shoulders - as far as his muscle would allow him to, at least.
“But... what if too many ponies want to do one thing? Or if not enough ponies want to do something else?”
“I don’t know,” Caramel said apologetically, “It’s never really happened before. Ponies just choose what they want to do and... well, we get by somehow.”
“So,” she said, still clearly having trouble with the concept, “Is it like... having no chores, except all the time?”
“Wow,” she said thoughtfully. The two fell into silence as the filly digested the idea. Her head snapped to the side suddenly, and she shrunk back. Caramel followed her gaze and saw an exasperated looking white stallion making his way through the paths, looking all around.
“Oh...” The filly said sadly, “I gotta go.” She backed away from the searching stallion, pausing just long enough to say, “It was nice meeting you, mister. My name’s Tack!”
“My name’s Caramel,” he replied. Tack smiled shyly at him, and took off along the edge of the forest, circling around behind the houses. In mere moments all Caramel could make out was a little yellow blur amongst the trees. A smiled played on his lips as he watched her dart away, but it faded fast. Caramel felt that same dreariness that hung over the village, but now he felt it inside. His head hung low, and he stood up, slowly making his way back to Powder’s house.
“I have to be able to do something while I’m here...” He repeated to himself. When he made his way back to the village, he saw Powder coming out of another pony’s house. She spotted him, and made her way over.
“There you are,” she said, “Good. How are you feeling?”
“I dunno,” Caramel said quietly, “Tired, I guess? A bit sore?”
“Oh,” Powder said, “That doesn’t sound good.”
“Huh?” Caramel looked up, suddenly worried. Powder shook her head, and put a gentle hoof around her shoulder.
“Not the soreness, don’t you worry,” she told him, “You just come with me, back to my house. We’ll get you back in bed, and then I think I know what you need.” The two ponies moved slowly to Powder’s little hut, and she closed the door after them.
“You seem like you’re in a good mood,” Caramel commented. Powder chuckled humorlessly as she led him back to the bed.
“Keeping my spirits up helps keep everypony else’s spirits down here,” she said. She helped him sit on the bed, and swung him straight. “Don’t bother lying down,” she told him as she trotted into the other room. He heard rummaging, and the clinking of glass. Powder soon reappeared carrying two small glasses and a very, very dusty bottle, sealed with wax.
“Since we’re talking spirits anyways,” she said, setting the bottle down on her desk, “We may as well have some to talk about!”
“I though you didn’t have any alcohol?” Caramel asked her, “You were asking if I had any last night. Anyways, isn’t it too early to be drinking?”
“Any other day, yes,” she said, taking up a small knife, “But I’ve covered all my patients already, and I’m not going to be taking on any more. This isn’t the sort of alcohol you drink unless you know you aren’t going to be bothered.”
“And how do you know you aren’t going to get any more patients?” Caramel asked her, eyeing the bottle carefully. The two glasses made it clear she wanted him to drink as well, and he wasn’t feeling so eager to drink again after his last experience.
“Blacksmith is cold-forging, cobbler can’t cobble until the plough team wears out their shoes, and if anypony is stupid enough to trip and hurt themselves, they can wait a day. Who knows, maybe suffering through a boo-boo will make them all appreciate the fact that they actually have a doctor.” She sliced the top off the bottle, and a powerful scent filled the room. Powder smiled, pouring a tiny shot into each glass. She levitated one beneath Caramel’s nose, the powerful smell filling his lungs.
“Cheers?” He said, taking the glass in his teeth. Powder lifted the other glass to her lips.
“Cheers,” she said. Both ponies knocked back the liquid. It was almost painful to drink, and it seemed to hit Caramel all at once. His face was hot, and his belly felt full of magma.
“Bwah!” He exclaimed, dropping the glass. The liquor continued to make its way through him, causing him to shiver. Powder, for her part, shook her head violently.
“Oh, that’s great,” she said. “We’ll let that sit for a while, I think. You want to lay down, now?”
“Yeah,” Caramel said, “Yeah, I think so.” He let Powder help him lean back, settling into the groove he had made in the stiff mattress.
“Feeling any better now? I know it isn’t much fun being around town.”
“You noticed that?” Caramel asked her. Powder nodded sadly.
“It’s hard not to,” she told him, “This village does that to ponies... I see it happen a lot.”
“I thought you said you don’t get any travellers?”
“Not travellers,” she told him, “Colts and fillies. Much, much worse.”
“Oh,” Caramel said. His mind went immediately to Tack. He probably knew exactly what Powder was feeling. Now all he could think about was all that eagerness draining away from the filly, and watching her become dull and listless like all the other ponies. “How do you stand it here, Powder?” He asked suddenly. Powder looked at him, and poured herself another shot.
“It isn’t always as bleak as that,” she said, draining the shot, “They just do their work. Things actually get a lot livelier in the evenings; I’ll take you out there tonight. You want another drink?”
“No thanks,” Caramel turned her down “My gut is still boiling from the first one.”
“Yeah,” Powder smiled, “It’ll do that.” The two sat in silence for a while, before Caramel asked,
“So... how long are you going to keep me here, anyways?”
“Why? You wanna get out of here as fast as possible?”
“No, no,” Caramel said quickly, “It’s just... I dunno. I guess I just feel bad about not being able to do anything.”
“Well,” Powder said, “You’ll be able to walk normally again in about a week. I can hardly keep you here any longer than that. It’ll take about six for you to make a full recovery, though. I’d really appreciate it if you stuck around until you do. Just so I can keep an eye on it. I never feel right about not being able to see something fix right.”
“You haven’t before?” Caramel asked. Powder rolled her eyes.
“Well, they’ve never just up and walked out of town,” she told him, “But half the stallions here are too stupid to wait for something to heal all the way. The cobbler has bad hoof because he took a hammer to it, and didn’t wait for it to heal before taking a hammer to it again!” She drained another shot, and said, “You’re a really, really good patient Caramel. You listen to what I have to say, you do as you’re told, and you don’t complain - well, okay you complain. But you listen, so you’ve got that on everypony else here.” The two ponies chuckled.
“You ask too many questions,” Powder said suddenly, “I’ve been talking your ear off for two days, it’s your turn. Tell me about yourself.”
“Like what?” Caramel asked.
“No questions!” Powder insisted, obviously a bit drunk already, “Just tell me about something.”
“Um,” Caramel said, at a loss for where to start. “Okay,” he said after a while, “I come from northern Equestria. My family was a part of a much, much larger clan of farmers, the Apple Family. So I grew up working a farm, and I learned to make Caramel Apples from my Auntie. I moved to a new town a few years ago, though, it’s about a day’s walk west of here, I guess?”
“So how come you left there too?” Powder asked. Caramel looked down, and admitted,
“I guess I wasn’t really happy farming anymore.” He glanced shyly at Powder, who was nodding knowingly.
“So you ran away from a farm, and wound up on a farm,” she said wryly, “Nice.”
“Yeah,” Caramel sighed, “Pretty much a standard move, for me.”
“Wow,” Powder said, “Sit up. You need another shot.
“What?” Caramel asked, “I don’t want another shot, that stuff is awful!”
“All good medicine is awful,” Powder told him, “Now come on, sit up. Doctor’s Orders!”
“No way,” Caramel laughed, “Don’t wanna!” Powder took a hold of him with her magic and pulled him up. He winced as the shift pulled on his shoulder.
“Oh geeze!” Powder exclaimed, “I’m sorry! Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” Caramel grunted, “Yeah, I think so. I don’t think you need any more to drink, though.”
“Yeaaah,” Powder said, “You’re probably right. I’ve never been able to hold this stuff at all...”
“You drink much?” Caramel asked. Powder shook her head.
“Nah, I don’t have many days that I can afford to. Or that I really need to, I guess, when you really get down to it. You sure you don’t want another?”
“No, thanks,” Caramel said. Powder picked up the hunk of wax she had sliced off, and put it back over the opening of the bottle. Her horn glowed brighter, and there was a small, bright flash. When Caramel stopped blinking, he could see that the wax had resealed over the bottle. Powder left the room, putting the bottle back wherever it had come from, but soon returned.
“So,” she said, “You gonna keep talking, or what?”
“You were telling me about yourself, and stuff,” she said, “Tell me about something else now. Don’t ask me what, either, I don’t care. I just wanna hear about something that isn’t here, okay?”
“Alright,” Caramel said, thinking for a bit, “Do you wanna hear about... Travelling?
Caramel and Powder chatted idly for a few hours, passing the day away. Caramel told her about all the things that Brumby didn’t have, and she in turn explained some of the finer details of the village’s culture as she sobered up.
A few of the roles in the town were given to ponies based on individual merits. The smallest unicorn of working age would train to be the town doctor, while the biggest earth pony would be the head farmer when the old one was ready to retire, for example. Tradesponies would train their first child to take their place, and all their other children would work the farms. She got tired of talking about it quickly, though, and the two simply talked about whatever crossed their minds, as the sun started to dip below the horizon.
“So we just stared at her,” Caramel said, recounting a story for Powder, “And she doesn’t say a thing, she just backs out of the barn. Big Mac told me he found her walking backwards through the house, into her bedroom!” Both ponies laughed, and Powder wiped her eyes, looking out the door.
“Hey,” she said, “It’s right about sundown. We should head out now.”
“Why?” Caramel asked, “What happens at sundown?”
“Dinner, for a start,” Powder told him, “I haven’t put anything in you since I found you, so unless you snuck something by me last night, I imagine you could use it.”
‘Um,” Caramel replied. He hadn’t really given it any thought over his aching bones and muscles, but he was hungry. Very, very hungry. Now that Powder had pointed it out, what had been merely another ache was now a sharp pain. “That,” he said, “Sounds really good actually.” Powder helped him onto his feet once more. It was much easier this time, though it still hurt a fair bit. Steadying himself on three hooves, he allowed Powder to lead him out of the house. The sun had dipped below the horizon, and over its fading light Caramel could see the glow of torchlight behind the row of houses opposite them. Powder directed him along the paths and through a gap in the houses, leading to an open clearing, devoid of any farmland.
It seemed like most of the ponies in town had gathered there, if not all of them. Torches were set up on the edges of the clearing, illuminating the area. In the centre there was a large, long table, manned by mares and stallions all doling out food to a line of eager ponies.
“Wow,” Caramel said, looking on the scene with something resembling awe, “What’s the occasion?”
“No occasion,” Powder told him, “This happens every night. It’s how we get food here - the cooks cook meals during the day, and everypony eats at three set mealtimes. That way, ponies don’t have to stop working early to cook for themselves.”
“That’s, uh. Efficient,” Caramel commented. Powder shrugged, and edged him into the lineup.
He was handed a wooden bowl when he reached the table, and directed to move down. As he did so, several ponies ladled the contents of their cauldrons into his bowl - rice, carrots, oats, and a few steaming blobs of tofu. The line moved along quickly, and he soon found himself deposited at the end of the table, bowl clutched in his mouth and looking slightly bewildered. Powder appeared beside him shortly, and asked, “Do you think you can manage to eat without help?”
“Yeah,” Caramel said, coming to his senses, “Yeah, I think I can manage that much.” Powder nodded at him.
“Alright then,” she said, “I’m going to get eat with my parents. If you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind.”
“Alright then,” she said, “Just come get me if you get tired, or want to go back to bed. I’ll be over there.” She nodded her head at a pair of older looking ponies, then headed over, her bowl floating along behind. Caramel looked around and, seeing nopony who looked particularly eager to chat, made his way to the edge of the clearing.
He found a seat beneath one of the torches and set his bowl down, eating from it face first. It didn’t exactly taste good, but it certainly wasn’t bad, and hunger, as they say, is the best seasoning. He tried to eat slowly, but he ended up inhaling the simple meal. He looked up from the remnants of his meal for a moment, and saw a stallion approaching him - a dark chestnut-coloured unicorn with a cherry red mane and a bandage tied around his front left hoof. He sat down in front of Caramel, setting down his bowl, and introduced himself.
“Hey,” the pony said, “I’m Cherry.”
“Hi...” Caramel said carefully, “I’m Caramel.” He extended a hoof for Cherry to shake. The unicorn did so, and vigorously. Caramel’s side ached a bit afterwards, but he tried not to show it.
“So,” Cherry said, clearly oblivious to Caramel’s ache, “You’re the pony that Powder found in the forest, huh?”
“Well,” Caramel said, joking awkwardly, “I don’t think you do this to yourself farming, so I guess I must be, huh?” Cherry laughed, and gave him a firm pat on the shoulder. Caramel winced.
“Hah! I guess you must be! She’s had you locked up pretty tight since she dragged you in, what’s she been doing to you, huh? I bet she’s doing all sorts of weird stuff now that she’s got her hooves on somepony who’ll hold still for her!”
“No,” Caramel said, cocking an eyebrow at the boisterous unicorn, “I’ve been in bed, mostly - “
“Oh, wow, you lucky pony you!” Cherry roared, nudging Caramel violently.
“Resting,” Caramel corrected, “Would you please stop doing that?”
“Stop doing what?”
“Stop hitting, and prodding. I’m still sore, and you keep hitting my ribs.” Caramel said. Cherry snorted.
“Oh, please,” he said, “You just need to tough it out. Look at me, a little burn never stopped me from doing work!” He waved his hoof in front of Caramel’s face, showing off the bandage. Caramel realized that he must be the Blacksmith’s apprentice that Powder had been complaining about the previous day.
“Well,” he said, “A burnt hoof isn’t quite as bad as cracked ribs and a torn shoulder...” Cherry merely shrugged.
“That’s just Powder talking. She tries to baby every little injury. If she had her way, nothing’d ever get done around here.”
“I’m sure she’s just trying to make sure everypony is okay,” Caramel defended the purple mare. The more time he spent in Cherry’s company, the less he enjoyed it. Still, he could hardly tell the unicorn off - he doubted very much that anypony in the village would take his side in the ensuing conflict. If it came to fighting, Caramel wouldn’t have stood a chance against the powerful stallion if he weren’t broken in two places. So he kept his mouth shut, and hoped that Cherry might prove himself owner of a redeeming factor or two.
“If she wanted to make sure ponies healed right,” the chestnut pony said flippantly, “Then she wouldn’t be so mean about the whole thing.” He looked over his shoulder and leaned in close to Caramel, whispering, “Personally, I think she just likes to be in charge. Little ponies, you know? The old doctor was the same way.” He peeked down at Caramel’s bowl, and added, “Speaking of little ponies, are you going to eat that?” Caramel’s eyebrows very nearly met in the middle of his forehead.
“What.” He said flatly, peering sidelong at the unicorn, who levitated Caramel’s bowl.
“Were you going to finish this?” He asked again, pouring the contents of Caramel’s bowl into his own without waiting for a reply.
“Yes, actually,” Caramel objected. He pulled Cherry’s bowl away from him as the unicorn moved to eat from it, and asked, “Can I have it back, please?”
“Huh?” The big pony asked, stopping with his nose where the bowl used to be, “C’mon, aren’t we buddies now? Buddies share, right?”
“Right,” Caramel said “So how about sharing with the pony who hasn’t eaten in two days?”
“Oh,” Cherry said quickly, “Geeze, I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I though Powder must have brought you back something.” He tipped his bowl into Caramel’s, pouring back some of the contents.
“There was a bit more than that,” Caramel noted. Cherry nodded, and poured more back in. “Aaaand, one more tofu,” Caramel added, spurring Cherry to roll one in. Caramel grinned to himself, wondering if he could push it a little bit further, when suddenly a little yellow blur skidded in between them, nearly sending the bowls flying. It stopped before it hit them, if just, and Caramel was able to make out the blur’s true form: Tack, the filly from earlier that day.
“Cherry!” She said, hopping up against the stallion, “Cherry! Your papa wants to see you, he was looking for you!”
“Dad’s looking for me?” Cherry repeated, “I guess I’d better go find him, then.” Tack jumped down, allowing Cherry to stand up. “I’ll see you later, Caramel,” he said, turning away from the colt.
“Yeah,” Caramel said, “See you.” He turned his attentions to the beaming filly beside him, and asked, “How about you, Tack? Care to join me, or have you got somewhere else to dash off to?”
“Nuh-uh,” Tack told him, shaking her head, “Papa’s meeting with all the other boss ponies. That’s why Cherry’s Papa was looking for him - they’re supposed to have their ‘prentices with them, but Papa says I’m too young for the meetings. I tried to sneak into one once, but it was really boring anyways.”
“Is that so,” Caramel said, smiling at the eager filly, “Why don’t you take a seat then? It’d be nice to have somepony to talk to.”
“Really?” Tack asked, “Most ponies don’t listen to me! Papa says it’s just cause I talk all the time, so they don’t get a chance to talk back! I don’t see why, though, it’s fun to listen to ponies talk! You get to learn stuff!”
“I’ll bet,” Caramel said, getting a picture of where her father was coming from. “What sort of stuff do you learn?”
“Oh, lots of things! Like, I learned that Cherry’s Papa gets more metal from broken down tools, and that miss Powder knows better than the mayor sometimes, and that the head farmer likes to spend time with the stallion who works with the cows - “ Caramel blinked awkwardly, but Tack carried on, “And I learned that the cows don’t like it when your hooves are cold, and I learned that miss Powder has a special drink that makes you feel warm, but nopony’s allowed to drink it but her and - “
“Wow,” Caramel laughed, cutting her off, “Sounds like you learned a whole lot.” Tack nodded vigorously in response, and Caramel asked her, “But for someone who claims to like listening so much, you sure do like to talk, huh?”
“That’s just what Papa says!” Tack exclaimed, “But I mean, that’s not it! I mean I like to talk, but that’s because there’s so much neat stuff to tell ponies.”
“So,” Caramel said slowly. His heart was beginning to sink again, imagining this sweet little filly slowly slipping into one of the despondent ponies he’d seen that morning. True, they all seemed much happier this evening, but Tack raw enthusiasm still stood out like a sore hoof. Someday, he worried, all that enthusiasm would drain away, as she was forced into a life she hadn’t chosen. He felt a lot more empathetic than he ought to. “So,” he said again, “You like telling ponies the stuff you learn?”
“Uh-huh! Ponies listen to you when you tell them things!” She said, “It’s really nice! Plus, you get to know that they know something new!”
“Sounds nice...” Caramel said, trying not to sound too depressed. It clearly wasn’t working.
“What’s wrong, mister Caramel?” Tack asked him. He sighed in spite of himself, and told her,
“Oh it’s nothing. Just...” He said, but he stopped. Slowly, ever so slowly, an idea was beginning to form in him mind. Just a kernel of an idea, really, just a thought. Why couldn’t she choose? Who said that she had to be a cobbler like her father? There was nothing stopping her from getting her cutie mark but time. That’s all Caramel had needed. He knew he liked making candy long before his cutie mark, he just needed to do it for long enough that he realized it was what he wanted to do. She knew what she liked to do, so if she could do it, why couldn’t she get her cutie mark? A slow, eager grin spread across Caramel’s face. He could do something. He could help. Even if it was just a little bit, just one little filly, for once he would be able to do something good. Something great!
“Nothing,” he told her happily, “Nothing’s wrong at all.” He scooped the filly up in his good hoof and bounced her, causing her to whoop happily. “Hey,” he said, “I’ll bet Powder’s going to let me out tomorrow, how about you see if you can come meet me then, huh?”
“Sure!” Tack laughed happily. “I’ll come see you after I look at the road, like I did today, okay?”
“You bet,” Caramel said, “It’s a date!”
“Great!” Tack squealed, “Let me down! I gotta go talk to Papa now, the boss ponies are done talking!”
“How do you know?” Caramel asked the filly, setting her back down on the ground. She pointed, and Caramel followed her hoof, spotting Powder walking towards the pair.
“Miss Powder’s a boss pony too!” She told him, “So if she’s here, that means Papa’s done talking too!”
“Ah, I see,” Caramel said, “I guess you’d better get along then, huh?”
“Yup,” Tack said, starting to trot away from him, “But I’ll see you tomorrow!” With that, she dashed away, leaving a waving Caramel in her dust.
“Well, it looks like you made a friend,” Powder commented as she approached, “I think that was the cobbler’s daughter.”
“Yeah,” Caramel said, “Tack.”
“I wouldn’t have thought that you two would have much in common,” she said, taking a seat in front of the broken colt, “She’s so... energetic. And you, aren’t.”
“I’ve been broken in bed for the past two days,” Caramel chuckled, “I haven’t had much chance to be energetic.”
“Not, quite what I meant,” Powder rolled her eyes. “But I might be wrong. You’re in a much better mood that you have been lately.”
“Well,” Caramel said, smiling shyly, “I think I was kinda beating myself up over something. But I think I feel better now. I know what to do about it.”
“Is that so?” Powder asked. She eyed him for a moment, but shrugged. “Are you gonna finish your bowl, or are you ready to go?” Caramel looked down, seeing the bowl of food he had forgotten.
“Oh, right,” he said, “Hold on.” He devoured the paltry remnants of the bowl quickly, and smiled up at Powder. “There,” he said, “I’m ready.”
“Good,” Powder said, standing up and rubbing the bridge of her nose, “I wanna get back home before the Blacksmith’s apprentice comes looking for me again.”
“You mean Cherry?” Caramel asked. Powder stopped rubbing and stared at him.
“Yeah, how’d you know?”
“He came over and talked to me for a bit,” Caramel told her. She sighed, and rolled her eyes.
“Oh lord,” she said, “I can only imagine how that went.” Caramel laughed, and stood up as well.
“Well...” He said, beginning to recount the tale as the pair made their way back to Powder’s home.
“And how are we this morning?” Powder asked with a more sullen tone than normal. Caramel lifted himself up with some difficulty, and smiled at the mare.
“Good,” he said, “My ribs and shoulder still hurt, but the rest of me isn’t sore anymore. How about you?”
“I’m fine,” she replied, “aside from a headache, but even if I could get rid of it, it’d be coming right back. I have to check on Cherry’s hoof again today. How bad are the ribs and shoulder? Dull ache? Sharp pain when you move? Any trouble breathing at all?”
“The shoulder hurts when I move it too far, and I get a sharp pain in my side if I breathe too deep, but most of the time it’s just a dull ache.”
“Sounds like you’re coming along well,” Powder nodded, “Let me have a look at you ribs.” She lifted Caramels hoof, and pressed his side gently. It stung, but Caramel could handle it without flinching now.
“It’s alright,” she said, “everything is healing nicely. Now, let’s get you on your hooves.” She helped him crawl out of bed and through the house, but Caramel found he had an easier time walking today - if only just. They stopped for a moment as Caramel rummaged through the saddlebags he had brought with him from Ponyville, slipping what he retrieved into his sling. Then, they were out the door.
“Don’t go too far from the village,” Powder told him, sounding for all the world like a mother worrying over her foal, “I don’t want you getting too tired to come back home, especially if you’re too far away to find. Alright?”
“Don’t worry,” Caramel told her, “I won’t be going far.“
“Good,” Powder nodded, “Come back here as soon as you start to feel tired. I’ll probably be making my rounds until about midday, so I’ll see you then.” Caramel nodded, and Powder set off, her head hung low as she made her way towards what Caramel assumed to be the blacksmith’s home. Caramel himself headed towards the forest, where he found Tack waiting for him eagerly.
“Hiya mister Caramel!” She said happily, bounding over to him.
“Hey, Tack,” Caramel smiled at her, sitting down, “You’re here awful early, aren’t you?”
“Oh, I always get up early,” she told him, “so I can check on the road before Papa needs me for work!”
“Always? So, does that mean you went to look at the road before I fell down?”
“Uh-huh! I found it when I was little, and I wanted to find out what it was, so I always got up early to go there and try and find out! Then you fell down, and now I know what it is!”
“Well, looks like I got to teach you something new, then, “Caramel said to the grinning filly, “And I’ve got something new to teach you about today, too, I bet.”
“Really? What is it?”
“I’ll bet you haven’t ever had one of these, have you?” Caramel asked, pulling a few caramel chews out of his sling, “They’re candies.”
“Oooh,” Tack said, taking one that Caramel offered her, “what are they for?”
“You eat them,” Caramel told her, popping one into his mouth, “Like this!” Tack did the same, placing it carefully on her tongue. Her face lit up, and she grinned nearly ear to ear.
“Wow,” she exclaimed, “I’ve never had anything that tastes like that before! Where did you get them?”
“I made them,” Caramel told her, “That was my job, where I came from. Lots of ponies made candies.”
“Really? Did you all eat candies all the time?”
“Not all the time,” Caramel told her. “They aren’t good for you if you eat them all the time, so we just had them as treats.”
“So,” Tack said, her tiny forehead scrunching up as she thought, “Where you come from, ponies get to choose what they do, even if you don’t really need it?”
“That’s right,” Caramel told her, “In fact, a lot of ponies end up doing jobs that aren’t really necessary, like styling manes, or drawing pictures - there are some ponies whose entire job is to learn new things, or tell other ponies things.”
“Really?” Tack asked him. Her face was lit up like a Christmas tree, and Caramel couldn't help but return the smile. He felt a twinge of sadness for her, but he told himself that, if he was right, he wouldn’t have to.
“So, how about you, Tack,” he asked her, steering the conversation, “How do you like cobbling with you Papa?”
“Weeell,” she said, some of the light fading from her face, “It’s okay. But it takes a long time, and you have to sit in one place while you’re doing it, and it’s really hard. But I get to spend time with Papa while he teaches me to do it, so it’s not so bad.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Caramel said. In fact, it sounded a bit like how he first learned to make caramel, working with his favorite Aunt. “So you like it, then?”
“I guess. I wish I didn’t have to some days, but Mama and Papa both say I have to, so I have to, I guess.”
“Do you know what you would do if you didn’t have to?”
“I dunno,” Tack said, “I never really thought about it... ’cause Papa started teaching me when I was really, really little. I never really had any time.” She looked past Caramel, and stood up. “I gotta go, now. Papa’s gonna come out looking soon, and he was mad at me for being late yesterday... It was nice talking to you again mister Caramel!”
“Yeah, it was,” Caramel said. The filly bounced past him, parting through the pathways and those few ponies that were already out. Caramel stood up, and started to make his way back to Powder’s house, but stopped. If he wanted to help Tack, he would need to get better soon, and that meant exercising like Powder wanted. So, he decided to circle around the village and try to see more of it. Which, as it turned out, was a bad idea.
After a few hours of walking, Caramel managed to lurch his way back to Powder’s shack. He leaned against the door to open it, revealing Powder sitting at her table. She quickly left the table, however, leaping up to help Caramel. Despite moving fast, all she had to say was a weary sigh, and an “I told you not to push yourself.”
“I did what you said,” Caramel told her, grinning sheepishly as she helped him back into bed, “I came back as soon as I started to get tired. I was just... on the other side of the village when I started getting tired.”
“Well...” Powder said, looking for a way to stay upset about him, “You could have asked somepony for help, or to come get me, at least.”
“I didn’t know if you were busy?”
“Caramel, you are by far my most important patient right now. Nopony else has anything worse that a mild cold. I can make time for you.”
“... Thanks, Powder.” Caramel said. He settled into his trusty mattress groove, and stared at the ceiling as Powder began writing notes at her desk again. He began mulling over words in his head, practicing putting them together in different ways. Finally, he spoke.
“Powder?” He asked. The unicorn mare looked up from her work.
“What’s the matter,” she asked, “Do you need something?”
“No, no,” Caramel shook his head, “Well... Sort of. But it’s not really something you can do for me. Actually, it’s something I can do for you.” Powder gave him a puzzled, and perhaps somewhat suspicious look, but he continued, “You’ve done a lot for me, Powder, and I want to make it up to you.”
“Is that all?” Powder shook her head, “I’m a doctor, this is what I do.”
“You’re a doctor for your village,” Caramel pointed out, “You do this for them, but not for me. You didn’t have to drag me all the way here.”
“So what, I should have just left you out there to die?” She asked, smirking at him. Caramel shook his head.
“Well, no, but - look, that’s not the point. I want to do something for you, but not just for you, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“I want... I ran away from home because I didn’t like doing what I was doing.” Caramel told Powder. He saw her eyes narrow for just an instant, and he knew exactly what she was thinking: that he was selfish, and stupid. He carried on, “But at least I had a choice in what I was doing. I was stupid, and I know it. You, and everypony here, you never got that choice. I’m... well, I was a flank-hole. But I want to make it up to you.”
“And just how do you expect to do that,” Powder asked skeptically. Caramel swallowed hard, and asked her the question.
“How long until my hoof heals enough that I can apprentice under the cobbler?”
Powder stared at him for a long time. Her expression seemed to be always changing, starting confused, then moving on to worried, and passing quickly through realization on to incredulity and finally settling into anger. She turned away from him, and went back to furiously scribbling her notes.
“Powder,” Caramel said, but she cut him off.
“No.” She hissed, “I’m not helping you do this. I don’t know what you think is going to come out of this, but all that’s going to happen is you’re going to set some poor little filly up for disappointment.”
“But what if it worked?” Caramel insisted, what if Tack got her cutie mark?”
“Yes, Caramel, what if!?” Powder shouted, whipping around to face him, “What if she got her cutie mark? I’ll tell you what would happen, she’d find out what she was meant to do with her life, and she wouldn’t. Be. Able. To. Do. It. Ev-er. Because she’s going to be the cobbler. That’s how things work here, Caramel. We do the jobs that we’re given, whether we want to or not!”
“But what if you didn’t have to?” Caramel shouted back, “What if she could go somewhere else? Do what she wants there?”
“And just abandon her family?”
“I found my way here, didn’t I? She could come back!”
“That isn’t what I’m talking about! Somepony needs to be the cobbler! Tack has a responsibility to her family and to the village. Brumby isn’t like Ponyville, Caramel. We don’t get to be happy, here. We get to live. We get one, or the other. Not both.”
“You have plenty of farmers, why can’t you let go of one to be the cobbler!? Why can’t her parents make their next foal their apprentice? Why should Tack have to be miserable, just because the rest of you are?”
“Why should Tack get to be happy when the rest of us are miserable!?” Powder screamed. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she turned away from him. “Just... drop it,” she said quietly.
“Powder... her parents would listen to you. You’d make it a lot easier to convince them. But I’m going to do this, one way or the other.”
“Drop it,” Powder repeated, “Please, Caramel, Drop it.” She stood up, and walked into the next room, pausing only to tell Caramel, “Call if you need anything.”
Powder and Caramel hardly spoke over the following days. Every morning and evening, Powder would ask him how he felt, and test his side and shoulder. She was always gentle, even in the beginning when she seemed angriest at him. As the week wore on, though, her demeanor turned less angry, and more just... sad.
Every day, Caramel felt a bit better. He was able to walk around the village a bit longer, stretching into the town’s lunch and the afternoon. He only spoke with Tack once or twice in the mornings, but when he was finally able to make it to lunch, he would often eat with her. Finally, a full week and a half after he first came to the village, Powder woke him up and made her routine inspection of him. She rubbed his back, gently running her hooves over his shoulder.
“Tell me if this hurts,” she said. She pushed down on his muscle in a few different places.
“A bit,” Caramel said, “But it’s just an ache. Not really a sharp pain.” Powder nodded, and smiled faintly.
“Your ribs still have a ways to go,” she told him, “But you shoulder is much better. In fact - “ Caramel felt his sling lifted gently by her magic, and the knot that held his hoof in the air came undone. “You should be able to walk normally now,” she told him proudly, “Try it out.”
Caramel put his hoof down gingerly. He felt almost nothing beyond the normal ache in his should when he stood on all fours. Smiling, he put more weight on it, just to see how far he could go, before Powder chastised him.
“Stop that,” she said sharply, “you’re going to hurt it again.”
“Sorry,” Caramel said, hanging his head. Powder sighed, and prodded his should gently.
“You know,” she told him, “I can think of a much better way to see how good it is. Better for you, too.”
“What’s that?” Caramel asked. Powder gave him a faint smirk, one that he couldn’t really place.
“The best way to help a muscle injury is to heal is to work it,” she told him, “Just a little bit at a time, just enough to make sure it stays about the same size while it heals. Walking is good, but it puts pressure on the muscle. An easy activity is much better - something that requires you to move your arms, but not too much...” She flipped open a book, and tried to look like she was reading it. A hopeful smile formed on Caramel’s face as he realized what she was doing.
“In fact,” she told him, “I’ve heard that shoemaking is good for the shoulder.”
“Yes!” Caramel cried, throwing his hooves around Powder’s neck, “Thank you, Powder!” The purple unicorn coughed sheepishly, but chided Caramel.
“Alright, alright, that’s enough of that,” she told him, “I still think this is a dumb idea. But...” She shuffled her hooves, and said, “I guess if it works, it’ll be worth it. Anyways, just because I’m helping you doesn’t mean that it will work. We still need to convince the cobbler.”
“Right,” Caramel said setting his hooves back on the ground, “right. So, um. How do we do that, exactly?”
“You were ready to go ahead without me, but you didn’t have a plan?” Powder asked, cocking an eyebrow at him.
“I had a plan,” Caramel insisted, “just, I didn’t think you were helping me, so I had a different plan.” It probably seemed like a thin lie, but Caramel had in fact had a plan. It wasn’t a very good one, he would admit - It involved little more than persistence and lies - but it was still a plan.
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” Powder said, “I’ll just try telling him that I want you to work for him, to exercise your shoulder. Simple enough.”
“And if he doesn’t go for it?” Caramel asked. Powder shrugged, and said,
“Then we drop it. Got it?”
“... Got it,” Caramel said. He made a note to keep his plan for backup. Hopefully, though, it wouldn’t come to that.
Powder led Caramel through town in their now usual silence. Caramel was nervous, now that he was this close to his plan. It lay as much in the hooves of lady luck as it did in his, or Powder’s, and all he could do was hope that Tack’s father was open-minded. That was the worst part, for Caramel. Soon enough, they had crossed the fields, and Powder brought him to a small shack. She knocked on the door, and they waited.
The door was opened by a slim looking colt, with a white coat and mane. He looked between the two ponies for a moment, before directing his attention to Powder.
“Morning, Powder,” he said, “I’m afraid you’ve surprised me... much as I’d like to say it’s a pleasant one, I’m a bit worried.
“Nothing’s wrong, Jute,” she told the colt, “Though I may want to see how your wife is coming along, since I’m here. May we come in?”
“Alright,” The pony called Jute nodded, opening the door for the pair. They walked inside, and Caramel could see their home was much the same as Powder’s, one room to serve as a workplace, and one to act as a living area. Tack, as Caramel had predicted, was nowhere to be seem. There was a mare, however, by the counter. Her coat was a deep, muddy yellow colour, accented by a thick brown mane, and she was heavy with foal.
“Good morning, Powder,” the mare greeted, “How are you?”
“I’m good,” Powder smiled at the mare, “I’ve been better, but I’m good. How are you, Cocoa? Holding together alright?”
“Oh, you know me,” Cocoa laughed, “I’m getting by. The dear’s going to be just like her big sister, I think - she was kicking up a storm, last night. Here, why don’t I find you a seat?”
“No, no,” Powder waved off the suggestion, placing a hoof against Cocoa’s belly, “I may as well take a look at you anyways...”
Caramel watched the two mares chat from near the doorway. He got the impression that the two knew each other quite well - they may even have been whatever the rough purple mare counted as friends. Jute came over and sat beside him.
“I don’t think I’ll be finding out what Powder wanted for a while,” he joked, “You’re her favorite patient, right? The one who fell down from the road? Eh...” He scratched his neck, “I’m useless for names... what was it?”
“Caramel,” he introduced himself, offering his hoof. Jute shook it heartily, introducing himself as well.
“Jute,” he said, “The town cobbler.”
“Yes, I think I’ve met your daughter, Tack,” Caramel said. Jute laughed.
“I’ll bet,” he said, “The filly’s the one who found you out by the road, I wouldn’t doubt she’d want to see you again after all that. I hope she didn’t bother you too much.”
“Oh, no,” Caramel said, “I like foals. She’s nice, actually. Pretty, um, chatty, but nice.”
“That’s a good word for her, chatty,” Jute nodded, “Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. So, Caramel, how are you liking our village, so far?”
“It’s... different,” Caramel answered. This wasn’t the first time he’d been asked that question, and he had a well-practiced answer by now. “You do things much differently here than where I’m from. It’s much more organized.”
“Is that so?” Jute nodded solemnly, “Well, I don’t know about organized, really. We just do things the way they’ve always been done here. It works for us, I suppose.” Caramel nodded as well, when Powder turned away from the pregnant mare to address Jute.
“I need a favour, Jute.” She said bluntly. The white pony cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Can’t imagine what I could really do for you,” Jute said, “But I suppose I could give it a try. What do you need?” Powder trotted over to Caramel, and patted his injured shoulder gently.
“Caramel tore his shoulder when he fell off the road. It’s healed a bit, but it still has a long way to go. Working it a bit will help it heal faster... I was hoping you might let him work for you. It would work his shoulder just enough to be helpful, so he’d recover much faster.” Jute blinked at the purple pony a few times.
“You want him to work for me,” he asked incredulously. Caramel tensed up, fearing that he would reject the proposal.
“For a few weeks,” Powder told him.
“Why me,” Jute asked, “And not somepony else?”
“You have the finest job,” Powder answered, “Anything else would work the shoulder too hard, and damage it again.”
“Hm,” Jute said, scratching his chin. “Hmmm...” Caramel’s heart pounded in his chest as Jute mulled it over. Suddenly, the white pony turned to Caramel and asked,
“You have much experience, shoemaking?”
“N-not really,” Caramel admitted. Jute carried on,
“Well, my apprentice right now isn’t far away from no experience. It’s fine work. Very detailed. Think you have a head for that?”
“Yes,” Caramel answered, “I did fine work back in Ponyville - I mixed candy. You need to watch all the ingredients, make sure they blend and boil just right, or it’ll come out bad.” Jute nodded thoughtfully, and continued to scratch his chin.
“Well,” he said, finally, “I don’t know what candy is, so I can’t say I know if you’re telling the truth or not. Still, though, things have been slow lately. Having a bad apprentice won’t hurt too much, if it’s only for a few weeks.”
Caramel breathed a sigh of relief. The hard part of the plan was over, now. All he would have to do is work for long enough for Tack to realize what she wanted to do with her life. His heart froze up again when Jute spoke next, though.
“But what’s Tack supposed to do in the meantime?” He said, “There’s hardly enough work for one apprentice, let alone two.” Caramel looked over at Powder, who didn’t seem to have any answers either. It was Cocoa who came to the rescue, saying,
“I’m sure Tack can handle a little time off, dear,” she laughed at her husband, “It’s not as if everything you’ve taught her will dribble out her ears. Look at how well she remembers things she isn’t supposed to know!”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Jute smirked, “She’ll just run around, filling her little head full of everything she can shove in there, and knock out everything she’s learned.” Cocoa gave him the special sort of look that only a wife can give her husband, and he sighed.
“You’re right, you’re right,” he said, “It won’t hurt. Alright, Powder, I’ll take on your patient. But!” He added to Caramel, “Just because I’m taking on a patient, doesn’t mean I’ve got patience. I expect you to work hard and listen well, you hear me?”
“Yes, sir.” Caramel said from beneath Jute’s stern glare. The white pony broke his glare and laughed.
“Don’t you worry, Caramel, I’m sure you’ll do fine. You can just call me Jute, like everypony else.”
“Right,” Caramel said, “Thanks Jute.”
“No worries! Now,” he looked at Powder, “Unless you wanted him to get a bit more rest first, we should get started on today’s work!”
“No, no,” Powder replied, standing up, “You can have him. I need to get home and update my notes. Cocoa, you take it easy, alright? You’re pretty far along, I don’t want you getting to stressed out.”
“Oh, stop worrying about me,” Cocoa laughed, “Get on, you old nag you.” Powder shook her head and chuckled, and headed out the door.
“I’ll see you later tonight,” she told Caramel, and was off. Jute closed the door behind her, and led Caramel into the next room.
Most of the room was filled with shelves full of broken or half-finished shoes, but at the far end there was a large table cluttered with strange tools. Some of them Caramel could recognize, like a wooden model of a hoof, and a hammer and a pair of pliers, but many of them appeared alien to him. Jute sat down at the table, and beckoned for Caramel to sit on the stool beside him.
“Now,” Jute declared, “We’ve only got a few repairs to get through today, so don’t you worry about messing up at all. I can fix anything you mess up in only a little time, as long as you aren’t completely rubbish - and if it looks like you’re going to ruin the shoe, I’ll stop you anyways. So, let’s get started!” He pulled a shoe down from the shelf beside him. It was torn along the sole, and Jute passed it over to Caramel.
“This one’s a pretty easy fix,” he told the yellow pony, “See if you can guess which tool you’re supposed to use.” Caramel stared at the broad selection of tools before him. He could guess from the damage that it involved sewing, but there didn’t seem to be anything like a needle and thread there. He started looking through his options, mentally writing off the obviously wrong answers.
Hammer... no. Pliers... probably not... T shaped metal thing... His thoughts were interrupted, however, when Tack came crashing through the door.
“Sorry I’m late Papa!” She cried, skidding to a halt in the middle of the floor. Both Jute and Caramel turned around to look at her. “Caramel?” She asked, tilting her head quizzically, “What are you doing here?”
“Powder asked me to take him on,” Jute told her, “He’s going to be helping me out in the shop for the next few weeks.
“She said it would help my shoulder get better,” Caramel explained.
“So...” Tack said, tilting her head to the other side, “Caramel’s gonna be doing what I’m supposed to be doing?”
“That’s about right,” Jute nodded, “for a while, at least.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
Jute scratched his chin again. Caramel saw Cocoa poke her head in the doorway, and she and Jute shared a few meaningful glances - and one odd eyebrow waggle on Cocoa’s part. Finally, Jute shrugged.
“Whatever you want, I suppose,” he said. Tack put on possibly the widest grin that Caramel had ever seen, nearly splitting her face in half.
“Really!?” She asked, hopping excitedly in place. Her father nodded, and she shouted with glee. “I’m gonna go outside, okay?” she asked, barely waiting for her mother to say it was alright before she dashed out of the small hut. All three of the ponies left behind shared a laugh at her joy.
“You boys call if you need anything,” Cocoa said, shutting the door on them.
“Now,” Jute said, turning back to the table, “Where were we?”
“Um,” Caramel said, picking up something that seemed to be a spike with a bulbous handle, “Do I have to use this thing?”
“Close,” Jute said, “Close.” He reached past Caramel and picked up a nearly identical tool. “What you’re holding is a pegging awl,” he explained, “And this is a stitching awl. Now, let me show you how this works, then you can give it a try.”
“... And that’s that!” Jute declared, setting the finished shoe down on the table, “Good job!”
“Thanks,” Caramel said, looking at the shoe. He had helped Jute put it together, but in truth the white colt had done most of the work on it. Caramel inspected the set of shoes that he had repaired himself. They would probably hold together, at least for a while, but Next to Jute’s they looked flimsy and shoddy, and he said so.
“They don’t look like they’ll hold together long, though,” he said. Jute inspected them as well, and shrugged.
“Well, they wouldn’t, would they?” He said, “But you did pretty good for you first time. And hey, most ponies wouldn’t be able to spot that they won’t last long. I think you may have a knack for this, colt.”
“You think so?” Caramel asked. Aside from his shoulder objecting whenever he tried to move his arm too much, the work hadn’t been very hard. He’d sort of enjoyed it, too. It was a lot like making candy, in a way. He had to pay very close attention to what he was doing, and it all had to be done just right, otherwise the shoes would turn out... well, like the ones that he had made.
“Well, that’s it for the day,” Jute said, getting up from his stool and stretching. Caramel did the same, though his side kept him from enjoying the stretch too much. Just then, to door to the workshop opened, revealing Cocoa and a very tired, but very happy looking Tack.
“Hey, girls,” Jute said, “What’s up?”
“It’s time for dinner, dear,” Cocoa said. “Caramel, would you like to come and eat with us tonight?”
“Um,” Caramel said, a bit taken aback by the offer. Still, it wasn’t like he had anypony else to eat with. “Sure,” he said, “I’d love to!”
Caramel walked out of the family’s home with them, circling around behind the house to the clearing where the villagers came to eat. As they lined up to receive their food, Jute recounted the results of the day’s work to his wife.
“Sounds like Powder’s colt is a bit of a natural,” Cocoa said, jostling the young colt carefully. Caramel smiled shyly, and shuffled his hooves.
“Naw, my shoes weren’t that great,” Caramel said, scratching his neck humbly, “I’m sure Tack’s much better than I am.”
“A bit,” Jute admitted, “But she’s been learning for a while.”
“Ooh!” Tack chimed in, “Maybe if you get better than me, you can be Papa’s ‘prentice, and I can just do what I did today!”
“I don’t think so, kiddo,” Jute laughed, “Caramel’s only working until his shoulder gets better, ain’t that right?”
“Right,” Caramel agreed. Of course, if he was lucky the truth would lay somewhere between the two. “So, Tack, what did you do today, anyways?” He asked as they were served their meals. Tack tried to speak around her bowl, but couldn’t quite manage it. She dashed off suddenly, leaving the three ponies to exchange a glance, and follow after the filly. When they caught up with her she had set her bowl on the ground, and was ready to launch into the no doubt epic tale of what she had gotten up to that day.
“I went aaaall around the village today!” Tack proclaimed proudly, “But I didn’t bother anypony, don’t worry. I just listened to a lot of ponies talk to each other while they worked!”
“Is that so?” He mother asked, “So, did you learn anything interesting?”
“Uh-huh!” Tack nodded vigorously, “I learned that the corn’s doing well this year, but the wheat isn’t, and missus Bess the cow isn’t feeling so good lately because the milk stallion keeps sneaking off to be with the head farmer in the fields - “
“Uh, maybe you shouldn’t go talking to Bess anymore, sweetie,” Cocoa said, “Those sorts of things should stay between the farmer and the milk colt. Did you learn anything else today?”
“I learned that Cherry’s hoof doesn’t hurt anymore!” she said, “but he keeps asking Powder to look at it because he likes it when she talks to him! And then I went and played in the forest for a bit!”
“Is that so?” Caramel asked, “I’ll bet Powder will want to hear about that.”
“You think so?” Tack asked. Caramel nodded, and she stood up happily. “Wait here!” She cried, darting off across the clearing. She returned not long after, not looking terribly happy.
“I don’t think Miss Powder was too happy to hear that, Caramel,” she said, “she looked awful mad when I told her... What’s so funny?”
“Oh... don’t worry about it,” Caramel said. He, Jute and Cocoa were all trying very hard not to laugh.
“I’m sure Powder is happy you told her, dear,” Cocoa explained, “But I imagine she’s less than pleased with Cherry at the moment.”
The little family chatted away happily as they ate their meal. The longer the night stretched on, the less Tack seemed to be able to talk. After a while she began to yawn, and eventually she propped herself up against her father, and began to snore gently. Jute chuckled gently, and Cocoa stood up.
“I think that’s our cue to head home, dear,” she said. She gently lifted the sleepy filly onto Jute’s back, who stood as well.
“Do you need any help getting back to Powder’s house?” The white stallion asked Caramel, who shook his head.
“No, thank you,” he said, “I think I’ll be fine.” Jute nodded.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then - try and show up about the same time you did today, if you think you can managed it. I know how much Powder likes her patients to rest, though, so don’t worry too much about it.”
“Alright,” Caramel said, standing himself, “I’ll see you all again tomorrow.” The ponies went their separate way, Jute and Cocoa taking Tack back to their little home, and Caramel making his way through the pathways to Powder’s little hut. He could see a small light glowing inside, and opened the door to see Powder at her table.
“There you are,” she said, “I was beginning to worry I’d have to go over to Cocoa’s and carry you home.”
“No, no,” Caramel said, “I was just having dinner with them.”
“Making friendly, huh?” she asked absently. Caramel took a seat across from her.
“What’s the matter,” he asked, “Cherry getting to you, or something?”
“No, I -” Powder said, pausing. “How did you know about that?”
“Tack told you about Cherry, didn’t she? I don’t think Tack can really help herself but to tell ponies about things.”
“Hm,” Powder chuckled, “You’re probably right about that. No, I suppose I’m just sort of wondering if this is the right thing to do, still.”
“What, you mean Tack?” Caramel asked. Powder nodded. “Why wouldn’t it be?” Caramel asked.
“Caramel, do we really need to have this discussion again? There’s just... I have no idea what’s going to happen if it works. I’m just worried we’ll crush the poor girl.”
“Powder,” Caramel said quietly. He reached across the table and put his hoof on Powder’s, “It’ll be fine. I spent too much of my life doing things half-way. I’m not going to anymore. If Tack gets her cutie mark, then I promise, I’ll see it through. I’ll make sure she gets to be happy. Okay?”
“... You mean that?”
Powder stared across the table at Caramel. He couldn’t quite decipher her expression, but after a while, she sighed, and smiled.
“Alright,” she said, “Thank you.”
“No problem,” Caramel smiled back, “So... did you talk to Cherry, after all?” Powder’s expression fell.
“Thanks,” she said, “I had almost forgotten about that idiot. No, I didn’t say anything,” she grinned evilly, and added, “Yet. He never eats with his father... so I’m waiting until tomorrow to talk to him about it.”
“Careful,” Jute warned, “Careful...”
Caramel’s hooves moved slowly and steadily, carefully manipulating his tools. He weaved the thread through the shoe he was working on, pulling it through the last hole, and tying it off.
“Well done!” Jute said happily, “That’s a darn good shoe, if I do say so myself! How’s the shoulder holding up?”
“It’s good,” Caramel told him, “hardly aches at all, anymore.” In truth, it wasn’t even that bad. The only times that it was sore was at night, after a full day working on shoes with Jute. He had been working with the white stallion for a few weeks now, and his shoulder was almost completely healed. He would have been ecstatic - if it weren’t for the fact that Tack’s flank was still every bit as bare as the day she was born.
Caramel was beginning to worry that his plan wasn’t going to work. He knew that he couldn’t keep it up forever; his shoulder would be completely healed soon, and he doubted Powder would lie on his behalf. He had seen her talking to Jute some days while the town had dinner. He could guess that Jute was asking about his shoulder; as much as the stallion lauded Caramel’s knack for shoemaking, he was eager for his daughter to take up the tools again. Tack herself didn’t seem to be any closer to getting her cutie mark - that sort of thing was difficult to tell, but Caramel could see that she didn’t consider her time off to be anything lasting. She still thought she would have to back to cobbling and, unless she could get around that, Caramel feared she would never get it.
It might have been for the best. If Tack had gotten her cutie mark, she would have to leave her parents. Everything in Brumby was too regulated; there would be no room for somepony who wanted to do what she wanted. Still, Caramel couldn’t help his heart sinking a little. He had wanted so desperately to help the little filly, help anypony from the village... but in the end, it didn’t seem like there was anything he could do.
“Hey, what’s the matter?” Jute asked, giving him a gentle nudge, “you’re doing a darn good job here, Caramel! What’s got you so down?”
“Huh?” Caramel said, shaking himself away from his depressing thoughts. “Oh, it’s nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”
“My hoof nothings wrong,” Jute scoffed, “But, if you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to.”
“... Thanks,” Caramel sighed. He couldn’t tell if Jute was very good at reading him, or if he was just completely transparent. He looked at the shelf that usually held the work for the day, saying, “Should we get started on the next one?”
“Naw,” Jute told him, “Those are just practice shoes up there. We’re done for the day, unless you want to work on them - personally, I don’t think you need to. Besides, Powder’d skin me alive if I worked you too hard.”
“That’s it?” Caramel asked incredulously, “But it’s still so early!”
“Early’s a bit of a stretch, I think,” Jute laughed, “It’s probably... mid afternoon?”
“Well, there’s nothing left to do in here, why don’t we pop outside and check?” Jute suggested, “It’s getting pretty unbearable in here anyways. Maybe we can catch a bit of a breeze out there.”
“Good idea,” Caramel agreed. It wasn’t particularly hot inside the hut, but it was unbelievably muggy. It had been threatening to storm for days now, the air heavy with humidity, and as Caramel exited the little house with Jute he could see nature preparing to make good on that threat. Dark clouds had formed above and, with an ironic smile, Caramel remembered the night that he had arrived here. It must have been the longest month in history, Caramel thought. He and Jute took in the cool breeze that the oncoming storm whipped up, and Caramel asked,
“Are the pegasi going to try and move the storm?”
“... No,” Jute said, giving him an odd look, “Why would they? Crops need all the rain they can get.” Caramel shrugged.
“They did all the time where I’m from,” he said, “They’d push the clouds out over the country, where nopony lived, so they wouldn’t bother anypony.”
“You come from a strange place,” Jute said, shaking his head.
“I could say the same for you,” Caramel smiled, “So what happens when it storms here, then?”
“Pretty much nothing. The farmers can’t work when it’s raining, so everypony just stays inside. We all miss a meal, if it’s too bad.”
“Well, I guess there’s worse ways to spend a stormy night than with family,” Caramel commented, “Speaking of, where’s your wife?”
“Oh, she’ll be off cooking right now, I don’t doubt. I guess you never noticed, since you and I were hunkered down in the shop all day until now, but Cocoa’s one of our head chefs.
“Really?” Caramel started. He was about to make a joke when the rumble of thunder interrupted him. The two colts looked around, to see if they could spot the rainfall beginning anywhere. It wasn’t until Caramel saw a flash of lighting lance down in the distance, and another angry rumble, before it started to come down. It began very lightly, almost like mist was falling. Jute looked around, to see if his wife was coming at all, but soon the rain was coming down harder, and the two colts were forced to retreat inside. Those few moments that it took them to cross the threshold were enough to saturate the ponies, and they found a set of towels to dry off with as they spoke.
“I hope Cocoa doesn’t get caught out in this,” Caramel said.
“Don’t you worry about my Cocoa,” Jute laughed, “Powder might worry over her, but she’s a good, tough mare. She’ll be here soon enough. Probably carrying a bit of stew she snuck off, and insisting you stay with us for the night.” He shook his head, chuckling.
“Oh, I don’t think I could stay the night,” Caramel said, “Powder’ll probably worry about me... and I couldn’t impose on you, anyways.” There was a small lull in the conversation, when a mare’s voice came from outside the door.
“Did I hear,” It demanded, as the door swung open to reveal a soaked Cocoa, “someone denying our hospitality, Jute?”
“Hey,” Jute said, taking a defensive pose, “Take it up with Caramel, not me!”
“What?” Caramel asked, confused by Jute’s sudden change in demeanor - at least, until Cocoa swayed across the floor to him.
“Now Caramel, dear,” she said, “would you care to repeat what you told my husband?”
“W-well,” Caramel sputtered, strangely taken aback by the mare’s friendly tone, “Um, he thought you might ask me to stay, and, um, I just thought that Powder would probably worry, and I mean, I wouldn’t want to intrude on your family time anyways, so...”
“Oh, is that all?” Cocoa smiled an unnervingly calm smile at him. “Silly, Powder’s an old friend of mine. I’m sure she’ll understand when I tell her tomorrow. And, as for coming in on our family time...” She walked forward slowly, driving Caramel backwards until his haunches met a stool, and pushing him to sit upright, “Tack adores you, and you’ve spent so much time here lately, you practically are family, dear. And I won’t have my family running about in all this rain, okay?”
“Um,” Caramel gulped, “okay?”
“Good,” Cocoa said, smiling satisfactorily. Caramel looked over to Jute, and asked,
“How did she do that?” Jute merely shrugged.
“Got me. She’s been doing that to me since we were foals.”
“Actually,” Cocoa cut in again, “Speaking of being out in the rain... where’s Tack?”
The look that Caramel and Jute shared changed instantly, from a mild humor to fear. Caramel could practically see Jute’s heart freeze in his chest.
“I...” The white pony said slowly, “I thought she would have been with you?”
“No,” Cocoa said, “I haven’t seen her at all today.” A concerned look was exchanged between all three ponies.
“Well,” Jute spoke up, “She’s a smart little filly. I’m sure she’s knows well enough to get home as fast as she can. I’m sure we’ll see her back here in no time at all.” The three ponies all mumbled agreements, but it was clear that none of them were convinced. There was absolute silence in the little house, save for the patter of the rain on the roof. It grew steadily heavier and louder as time dragged on, the drumming, rumbling noise serving as a score to the oppressive atmosphere in the house. Jute sat at the table, his hooves together in front of his mouth, while Cocoa paced in the meager space their home allowed. Caramel’s heart thudded in his chest.
“Maybe,” he said, “Maybe... the rain got too bad, so she couldn’t come back here?” Jute and Cocoa both stared at him, their eyes screaming with dread. Caramel quickly tried to reassure them, explaining,
“I mean, what if she had to stop into one of the other houses? You know, until the storm let up? For shelter?” The older ponies relaxed visibly.
“That’s a good point,” Cocoa sighed with relief, “That’s probably all that it is.” Silence fell again, every bit as heavy as before, despite Caramel’s words. It was Jute who spoke up next.
“I’m going to go out - just to check. See if any of the houses on the edge of town have taken her in.”
“I’ll go with you,” Caramel said, standing up. The two ponies headed out the door, but not before Jute turned back to his bride.
“We’ll be back soon,” he promised, “And we’ll have Tack with us, safe and sound. Don’t you worry, Cocoa.”
“I know you will,” she smiled at him, “Be safe, both of you.” The colts nodded, and set out into the downpour.
“We should split up,” Caramel said over the dig of the rain, “You take one side of town, I’ll take the other!”
“Good idea,” Jute nodded, “Just check on the houses on the outskirts! If Tack was in town at all, she’d have come straight home!”
“Got it!” Caramel said, and set off. He moved as fast as his shoulder would allow, dashing from house to house along the outside ring. House after house, not one of them had seen the little yellow filly. Finally, the door closed on the final home, leaving Caramel in the rain, without any leads. He hurried back to Tack’s home, hoping that Jute had found her instead. The white stallion arrived at the same time as Caramel - alone.
“Nothing?” Jute asked, worry clear in his voice. Caramel shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “Nopony’s seen her.” The door opened, revealing Cocoa. Fear was written across her face, plain as day.
“Oh, Celestia,” she said, “You didn’t find her?” Jute embraced his wife.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be sorry!” Cocoa barked at him, “Do something about it! Our baby is out there, she could be lost, or hurt, or, or - “
“Calm down,” Jute insisted, “I’m going to go round up as many ponies as I can. We’ll all go looking for her, and I promise - I promise, we’ll find our little girl. She’ll be back home soon, you’ll see.”
“... Alright,” Cocoa said, calming down a bit, “alright.”
Caramel’s mind was racing. There were a lot of places that she could be - and in a storm like this, they could miss her by inches. There had to be something, some clue to where she might be. He wracked his brain, trying to think if there was somewhere she might have been when the storm hit. The barn? No, she had stopped going there lately. Powder’s house? The doctor would have brought her back by now... the forest? But there was so much of it, so much ground to cover...
So did inspiration.
“The road!” Caramel shouted, suddenly. Cocoa and Jute jumped, and stared at the sopping colt. “The road! That’s where the first lightning bolt struck, right when the storm started up! Tack told me she always watched the road, just in case somepony else came by!” Both ponies stared at him. Fear passed through their faces, but Jute’s expression solidified into one of determination.
“You’re right,” he said, “Last time there was a storm, she found you. She’d have gone back there for sure!”
“I’ll go ahead,” Caramel said, “Get Powder, and as many other ponies as you can, and come after me!” Jute nodded, and ran to the house next door. Caramel dashed off in the opposite direction, towards the mountain visible over the treeline.
His legs pumped furiously, propelling him along as fast as he had ever run. In spite of himself, a humourless smile passed across his face. A month ago, for just a moment, a storm and that road had played such an enormous role in his life. Now, they were doing the same. He hoped - he prayed, to whichever of the sisters would bother to listen to an idiot colt like him, that things would turn out better for Tack than they did for him. He ran even harder, ignoring the ache starting in his shoulder and the pain in his ribs.
“TAAAACK!” He shouted as he reached the cliff, “TAAACK! CAN YOU HERE ME?” He stopped to listen, but all he could hear was the rain. He ran back and forth, calling her name as loud as he could. He stopped, just for a moment, and heard a sound. It was a tiny, far away voice.
“TACK?” He called in the direction of the voice. The reply was too faint to make out, but Caramel knew where it was coming from now. He dashed off in the direction of the voice, calling out for the filly. “Tack! Tack, is that you? Can you hear me, Tack?”
“Caramel?” the voice replied, much closer now, “Caramel, help! I’m stuck!”
“Tack,” Caramel cried, darting around the trees. He finally found the filly. She was dry, sheltered by the leaves of a fallen oak tree. “Oh, thank Celestia! Are you hurt?”
“I don’t know,” Tack whimpered, “But I can’t move. I can’t feel my back leg, either! It just feels numb!”
“Don’t worry, Tack,” Caramel assured her, “Your Papa’s on the way, and he’s bringing plenty of ponies with him. You’re gonna be okay, alright?”
“... Alright,” Tack nodded. Caramel circled around her to check on her leg. It was trapped beneath the great Oak’s trunk. He wouldn’t be able to get her out alone. Fortunately, he heard another voice pierce through the rain.
“HEEEEEEEY!” He shouted at the top of his lungs, “I FOUND HERE! OVER HERE!” Before too long, several shapes appeared through the rain. It was Jute, flanked by Powder. Several other ponies were with them.
“I found Tack,” Caramel told them, “Her back leg is caught under a tree.” Jute nodded, and ran to his daughter.
“Daddy’s here, Tack,” he assured her, “we’re gonna get you outta there, okay sweetie?”
“Okay, Papa,” Tack whimpered. Jute beckoned for all the other ponies to come over to the tree. Powder took a hold of Tack’s front hooves, while all the others braced themselves against the oak’s trunk, Caramel included.
“HEAVE!” Jute shouted, and as one the ponies pushed against the fallen tree. It barely budged, but that didn’t stop anypony. “HEAVE!” Jute cried again. The ponies fell into a fast rhythm, pounding themselves up against the tree. Caramel strained desperately again it. His shoulder burned, and cried out in agony, but he ignored it. He pushed, along with all the other ponies, working as one.
“HEAVE! HEAVE! HEAVE!”
Finally, the tree began to move. It rolled, just slightly, but it was enough. Powder pulled Tack out from beneath the tree, and the ponies all let it fall back into place. Jute embraced his daughter, holding her tight.
“Jute!” Powder told him, “We need to get Tack back to my house! I need to look at her leg as soon as possible!” Jute nodded, and put Tack on his back. The party of ponies headed back into the village. Most of the ponies went back to their own homes, but Jute followed Powder into her home. Caramel ran to Jute’s house and told Cocoa, who demanded they go as well. The two ran across the fields, not bothering to stick to the paths. The barged in, to find Jute sitting at Powder’s table, alone.
“She’s looking at Tack now,” he told them, “She doesn’t know how long it’ll take.” Caramel and Cocoa nodded solemnly, and sat at the table. Cocoa sat beside her husband, leaning in close to him. Caramel sat across from them, in silence. His brain was screaming at him. This was a thousand times worse than any time he had broken a plow, or lost some seeds. Nopony would ever say it out loud, but they all knew it - this was Caramel’s fault. He berated himself internally, between hoping that it wouldn’t be too bad. Jute and Cocoa hardly looked at Caramel, staring down at the table, or squeezing their eyes shut to hide from what might happen. After what seemed like an eternity, Powder emerged from her office. All three ponies at the table looked to her expectantly. She sighed.
“She’ll pull through,” Powder said. Both Jute and Cocoa breathed a sigh of relief, relaxing visibly. “It doesn’t look like she suffered anything beyond the tree on her leg. It’ll bruise - a lot - but that’ll subside in a few weeks.” Despite the good news, Powder still had a look of apprehension. Caramel, Cocoa and Jute could all see it clearly.
“But...?” Cocoa asked.
“But,” Powder told her, “The fact is, that tree fell on her back hoof. Hard. Her leg is badly damaged. I’ll put a splint on it, so it at least heals stable, but...”She breathed deeply, and broke the news. “The impact crushed her leg. It’s never going to heal right.”
Caramel’s heart turned to ice. He didn’t look over to see Tack’s parents’ expression. He could guess what they were feeling, but actually seeing their faces would shatter his heart into a million pieces.
“She’ll be able to walk on it,” Powder continued, “But only barely. It’ll hurt, and running is right out of the question.”
“It’s...” Jute said slowly, “It’s good that it was her back leg. She won’t need that... working as a cobbler.” His voice was pained. Powder nodded.
“She got off lucky, I think.”
“Right,” Cocoa sniffed, “Lucky.”
“I’m sorry, Cocoa,” Powder told the mare.
“No... don’t be. It’s nopony’s fault.”
That isn’t true, Caramel thought. That isn’t true at all. This is my fault. My idiot mistake. My stupid hope that she could make it out. My fault. He put his face in his hooves, and sighed. He was vaguely aware of Powder talking to Cocoa and Jute again, but he didn’t listen to what they were saying. All he knew was, after a short while, they left with Tack still in Powder’s office. The purple mare sat across from Caramel.
“Well.” She said.
“I’m so sorry.” Caramel whispered. Powder didn’t say anything. He lifted his face from his hooves, and saw the doctor stare back at him. He didn’t understand the look she gave him. Maybe it was sadness. Maybe it was hate. Maybe it was pity. He didn’t care. Whatever it was, he deserved it. “I’m so sorry,” he said again.
“You said that already,” Powder said, “what are you sorry for?”
“This... This. I’m sorry for what I did to Tack. I’m sorry for what I did to Jute and Cocoa. I’m sorry for what I did to you.” Tears welled up in his eyes, and words in his mouth. “I’m sorry I ever tried,” he said, unable to stop himself, “I’m sorry I broke the plow. I’m sorry I got drunk. I’m sorry I ran away from home. I’m sorry that I made Applejack, and Big Macintosh, and Apple Bloom and Granny Smith worry. I’m sorry I fell off the cliff and got hurt. I’m sorry that I’ve been gone so long they probably think I’m dead. I’m sorry I ever tried to do something for anypony. I’m sorry I’m such a miserable screw up. This... all this. I’m sorry about this whole stupid thing. This is all my fault.”
“Yeah,” Powder said coldly, “Yeah, it is. Congratulation, Caramel.” She stood up, and walked into her office, closing the door behind her. The tears in Caramel’s eyes streamed down his face. He stared at the door until he couldn’t take it anymore. He ran out of the house. He ran out of the village. He ran into the forest, not paying any attention to where he was going. He ran away from the problems he caused, again.
Before too long, he found himself back at the fallen oak tree. He didn’t recognize it at first; his eyes were blurry and stung from the tears. He leaned up against it, up against the spot where he had been pushing. His hooves had dug into the seared bark, leaving grooves. He settled his hooves into these grooves gain, and sobbed. He hadn’t been crying before. This, this was crying. He sobbed, and choked, and screamed. He screamed at the sky, screamed until his throat was raw. He pounded against the tree, taking out all his frustrations on it.
“WHY?” He demanded of some unseen deity, “WHY? WHY CAN’T I DO ANYTHING RIGHT!? WHY AM I SUCH A FUCK UP!?” He wailed, spending all of his energy on the tree, until he collapsed. “Why?” He whimpered, “Why, couldn’t I do it? Just once... It wasn’t even for me. It was for her... I didn’t care what happened to me. I didn’t care if I’d be stuck here making shoes for farmers the rest of my life. I just... I just wanted to give somepony else a chance. Give them a chance to be something.” He looked up at the sky, tears staining and matting his fur. It had stopped raining now, leaving only the dark, evil clouds. He turned around, leaning against the tree, and sniffed miserably.
“Way to go, Caramel,” he said. “Looks like nothings changed after all. Farming wasn’t the problem, it was you. You just can’t do anything right.” He sat against the tree, wallowing in self-pity as the sun rose. It’s light danced around the trees, bouncing and glinting off the dew left by last night’s storm. A small ray of it snuck into his eye, stinging it. He tried to blink it away, but no matter how he turned his head, the light would always get in his eyes. Slowly, steadily, his self-pity was overcome by frustration, and finally anger. He stood up, drying his eyes, and stared at the tree where he had struck it. The bark had been torn away where he was hitting it now, but he had worn two hoofprints into the meat of the tree. They were almost perfectly shaped, and they gave Caramel an idea.
“I’m the problem,” he said, turning away from the tree and heading back for the village. “I wasn’t bad at farming. I was just bad. Well, if I’m the problem, then I’m going to fix it. No more running away. No more apologizing. This time, I fix the problem I caused.”
Caramel marched into the town as the sun came fully into view. Only a few ponies were out this early, and they paid him no heed. He made his way back to the cobbler’s house, and sat in front of the door. His heart thudded in his chest, but he knew what he had to do, and he knew he couldn’t back down now. He knocked on the door.
A very tired looking Jute answered it. “Caramel?” He asked, confused, “What’s the matter?”
“Jute... I need to use your workbench.” Caramel told him. Jute gave him a puzzled look, but let him in.
“Why do you need my workbench?” Jute asked quietly. Cocoa was asleep, and the two ponies tried not to wake her as they walked to the other room. Caramel wasn’t quite sure how to answer the question.
“I...” He started, “I need to make a shoe. A special one.”
“You’ll see when I’m done,” Caramel told him, “That is, if you’ll let me use it.” Jute looked skeptical, but shook his head.
“I’ll need it back sometimes, so I can do my work,” He told the yellow earth pony, “But you can use it the rest of the time. I’d suggest working during the night - you can use our bed while we’re up, if you need it.”
“Thank you, Jute,” Caramel smiled, “I promise, I’ll make this up to you.”
“Caramel,” Jute told him, “I just want you to know. Whatever you think, we don’t blame you for what happened. You couldn’t have seen it coming.”
“How did you...” Caramel asked. Jute smiled at him.
“I’m a father. You pick up a few things - and guilt is an easy feeling to pick up on. Don’t be too hard on yourself, Caramel. You’re better than you think.” Caramel nodded.
“I will be,” he said, “I will be soon.” Jute closed the door behind him, leaving to pony to work alone.
Hardly anypony saw Caramel for days, after he went to work. The only pieces of evidence that he was even still in town were the extra bowl missing during mealtimes, and the bizarre demands that the town’s craftsponies were given. Jute handed out the requests almost daily, and anypony who attempted to put them aside where met with fierce repercussions, from a pair of mares. The request varies from simple, if odd, construction tasks, like springs from the blacksmith, to odd designs scratched onto pieces of shoe leather. More than once the objects were sent back with notes, or more requests were made for the same things. Nopony had any idea what Caramel was working on in that shop - not even Jute himself, for whenever he shifted Caramel from the bench his machinations were always covered by tarps, and the stallion hadn’t the heart to spoil the surprise - but everypony imagined it must be something absolutely enormous, for everything that he was asking for. After a while Caramel began to make more public appearances - only mealtimes, at first, but slowly making the rounds and speaking with all the craftsponies personally. Even then, the artisans barely understood what was going on. He would only ask what he needed from them, never bothering to explain himself before zipping off to the next stallion or mare. At one point, he even went around to all the town’s colts and fillies, asking questions that none of them would repeat. It went on that way for days, maybe even weeks. Tack began a steady recovery, slowly walking around town, careful not to let her injured leg touch the ground - whenever it did, and small cry would escape her lips. Caramel would never leave the work room to speak with her, or see her. After a while, even his mealtime excursions ceased. Jute or Cocoa would carry him out of the room when the morning light came, depositing him in their bed, only to have him rise again in the evening. He had a glint in his eye, Jute would later tell the ponies of Brumby, a single-mindedness about him. Like the entire world existed only in that tiny little room, and everything else was just an obstacle to getting back there. Finally, one day, Cocoa entered the work room.
It was littered with strange devices, all almost completely identical save for a few features. This one would be slightly larger than that one, and that one would have thicker springs on it than the next, and so on. But there on the workbench, cradled in Caramel’s sleeping hooves, was another. It’s springs were hidden away behind a gold-coloured circle, the size of a hoof. Metal bars stretched up, supported by straps and hinging in the middle. Cocoa inspected the device, and gently woke the sleeping colt.
“Caramel,” she whispered in his ear, “Caramel, dear, wake up. It’s morning.” Caramel mumbled sleepily, and his eyes fluttered open.
“Cocoa...” He said slowly. Cocoa smiled at him.
“Yes dear,” she said, “Jute needs to work now. Let’s get you to bed, okay?”
“No,” Caramel said, smiling at the device in his hands, “No, Jute can’t work yet. He needs to see this.”
“What... what is it?”
“It’s done, Cocoa,” Caramel beamed up at the mare, “I fixed it!”
Caramel blinked in the morning light. Jute, Tack, Cocoa and Powder had all gathered around in front of their home. Most of the village had stopped what they were doing to watch, but Caramel ignored them.
“Tack,” he said, “Jute, Cocoa, Powder. I’m so, so sorry for what I did to all of you.”
“Oh, Caramel,” Cocoa insisted, “Nopony blames you for what happened - “
“I blame me, Cocoa,” Caramel cut her off, “Tack got hurt because of me. I spent my whole life messing up. But now, now I fixed it. Tack... I’m going to make you better. You’ll be able to run again, I promise!” He presented her with the device, and she stared at it in confusion.
“What... is it?” She asked.
“It’s a shoe,” Caramel told her. All present stared at the earth pony like he had just declared himself the first president of the moon.
“A shoe.” Powder said, “You think a shoe, is going to help Tack...”
“The shoes we make keep the farmers from getting injured, Caramel,” Jute said, “but they can’t help somepony who’s already hurt.”
“Those ones can’t!” Caramel said, “But this one can! It’s special! Here, Tack, I’ll show you.” He undid the straps on the shoe, and circled around Tack. The young filly watched him carefully, keeping her injured leg tucked tight against her body. Caramel looked pleadingly at her.
“Please, Tack,” he begged, “Let me make this up to you. Let me fix you!” Tack gulped, and slowly, ever so slowly, put out her leg. Caramel slipped the shoe around it carefully, tightening the straps around her flank. “Try it out,” he said, “Put your hoof down.”
The crowd was breathless, and silent. Tack’s tiny little face screwed up, expecting a sharp pain as she pressed her hoof against the ground. But there was no cry, just a small, metallic squeak as the springs bent under her weight. Peeking an eye open, she pressed down hard, bouncing her hoof off the ground. She started to grin, and she tried prancing. Soon, she was skipping in a circle around the four ponies, bouncing happily and squealing with glee.
“It doesn’t hurt!” She declared, “It doesn’t hurt at all!” She bounded around the fields, ecstatically proclaiming for anypony who could hear, “I can run! I can jump! It doesn't hurt even a little tiny bit!”
From the back of the crowd, a clapping was heard. It took Caramel off guard, at first, but then another pony joined in.
And then another
Soon, the whole village was applauding. Caramel didn’t know why, really. He was too tired to understand what he had done, but everypony else knew. He had made a miracle. For the first time in hundreds of years, a filly’s flank glowed brightly in Brumby. As Tack bounced around the crowd, the image of a letter appeared on her flank, declaring that she, Tack, daughter of Jute and Cocoa of Brumby, would dedicate her life to spreading the good news - whatever it happened to be.
Caramel sat in the middle of the applause, just watching Tack bounce. He would need to sleep soon, and only when he awoke would he really understand what had happened. But now, on some subconscious level perhaps, he knew. A tear streamed down his face, as Powder came and sat beside him.
“How did you make that thing?” She asked.
“Lot’sa tries.” He answered, “Lot’sa mistakes. But I fixed them.”
“Well,” She said. Caramel looked at her, and smiled. She smiled back. “Congratulations, Caramel.”
“Do you have everything packed?”
“You remembered your toothbrush?”
“And Mr. Manny?”
“... Yes, Mama.”
“That’s good,” Cocoa said. She wrapped her daughter in a tight hug, a tricky job around her swollen stomach.
Tack’s shoe shone in the early light. She, Caramel, Cocoa, Jute and Powder all stood at the edge of the village. Jute walked foreword, and offered his hoof to Caramel, who shook it graciously.
“Take care of my daughter, alright boy?” He said sternly. Caramel smiled back at him.
“Don’t worry, Jute. I’ll make sure we make it back to Ponyville safely.”
“Alright. I’ll hold you to that,” the white stallion replied. He was trying hard not to show it, but he was clearly having a hard time.
“You know,” Caramel said, “Nopony is saying she has to leave right now. I can come back in a few years.”
“No, no,” Jute shook his head, “If she waits until she grows up, she’ll just have a harder time adjusting. It’s better you take her with you now, just... you know, come back and visit.”
“Every weekend,” Caramel promised, “Just like we said.” Jute nodded, and turned to his daughter to say his last goodbyes. Caramel stepped back, giving them their privacy, and joined Powder. The two watched silently, for a while.
“So... sure was something, huh.” Caramel said.
“Yeah,” Powder agreed, “Something.”
“Listen, Powder. I’m sorry about everything.”
“What are you talking about?” She asked him, “You did a good thing, Caramel. It’s good that you came here.”
“Yeah, but... It’s obvious that you don’t want to be here. I’m sorry that I had to come by and throw that in your face.” Powder looked at him, and sighed.
“It’s alright,” she said, “Yeah, I guess I’m still stuck here. But I helped somepony get out, right? It’s like patchwork.” Caramel blinked.
“What?” He asked.
“Life,” Powder told him, “It’s like patchwork. Tiny moments, barely connected. If we look at them on their own, they aren’t worth anything. Tiny, fleeting moments. We have to look at them together. Then, no matter how bad the individual pieces are, somehow... somehow, in the end, it’s alright.”
“... Wow,” Caramel said. A slow smile came across his face. So that was it. Those words, from so long ago. That was what they meant.
They were right, he thought. His entire life, moment to moment? That was garbage. One long string of screw-ups. But all those screw-ups lead him here. They made him grow, and they helped him do something amazing. Mistake by mistake, step by step, he had finally done something right. All because he had done something wrong. He felt a small, familiar tingle on his flank, and he looked down. What he saw there wasn’t his candied apples staring back at him, but three blue horseshoes.
“Wha...?” He asked, completely baffled.
“Adult ponies have been documented to change their cutie marks in rare circumstances,” Powder commented, smiling faintly “Always in the event of a traumatic experience... or a life-changing epiphany.” The two looked up, and watched the sunrise. It was magnificent.
“I’m gonna miss you, Caramel,” Powder said, “Just... come back and visit, every now and then, okay?” She said. Caramel grinned at her.
“Every weekend,” he said, “Just like I promised. Powder smiled back at him, and Tack bounded up to the pair.”
“Ready to go, Caramel?” She asked.
“You bet,” he said happily. Powder handed him a map.
“I found this,” she said, “It’s old, but so’s the road, so it should work. The cliff path comes down about a half-days walk from here, you can get back from there.”
“Thanks,” Caramel said, taking the map.
“Try not to fall off it this time,” she added, “I don’t want to have to fix you up twice. And take care of your shoulder, while you’re at it. The ribs are doing fine, but you tore it again with that stunt on the tree.”
“Got it,” Caramel grinned. Jute shook his hoof, and Cocoa embraced him fondly. It all felt surreal, in a way. It felt almost the same as when Caramel had first left Ponyville, but... different. It felt like a lifetime ago. In a way, it probably was. Caramel had fallen off that road, and a new pony got back up, with a new mark to prove it. A better pony. Caramel smiled. With Tack bounding along beside him, he left the little village of Brumby. Just another moment. Just another patch.