a love story
High noon in Appleloosa.
A crowd had gathered on both sides of the main street, whispering to each other in excited, hushed tones. Bits and apple slices changed hooves as several unscrupulous mares made wagers. As the small town’s clock tower chimed, a hush fell over the assembled ponies. From opposite ends of the road, two stallions broke away from the crowds and walked towards each other. Each balanced a single warm, steaming apple pie on his back.
When the pair were about twenty paces apart, the two ponies halted. The older of the two staggered slightly and weaved back and forth before coming to a complete stop. Green Grapes snorted in contempt. “This is your last chance, old-timer,” he barked down the road, a thin Appleloosan accent hanging on some of his words. “You stand down and take back what you said, and maybe you won’t be walking home with a face full of filling!”
“Never!” Old Salty yelled back, grinning cheerily. In truth, he’d completely forgotten what the argument was about; already drunk on salt and just a little cider, the events of that morning were slightly unclear to him. He was just happy to have ponies watching him and cheering him on.
Silence descended as the two stallions stared each other down. A tumbleweed passed between them, rolling on a faint but whistling wind. Green Grapes’ front right hoof twitched. The quick draw was a time-honoured tradition in the wild west, one that the farmer had practiced relentlessly just in case such a situation as this arose. The old drunk facing him down didn’t stand a chance. All he needed was no distractions.
Distractions, for instance, like the clip-clop of unshod hooves rushing down the dirt road towards them, growing louder with every passing second.
“Move!” A handsome tan stallion galloped down the middle of the road, dodging around Salty and brushing past Green Grapes, almost knocking him over. Green Grapes turned his head to follow him, preparing a blistering roar of outrage. As he did so, however, a large apple pie smacked wetly into the side of his head.
Ordinarily, the sounds of cheering and angry shouting would be enough to attract the apple farmer’s attention. But for Braeburn, interrupting an old-fashioned duel on the main street was only the second-most important thing to happen to him today.
Sheriff Silverstar dreamed about pastries.
An empty pie plate sat atop the countless piles of papers on the sheriff's desk. Leftover crumbs and juices lay about the bottom of the pan, sending light, buttery smells up towards the dozing stallion. Silverstar lay back contentedly in his chair, his hat lowered over his eyes, occasionally smacking his lips contentedly and mumbling about tarts.
The door slammed open, crashing loudly into the office wall. "Sheriff!" Braeburn yelled, panic in his voice.
"Huh? Aah!" Silverstar jolted awake and tried to leap to his hooves. Unfortunately, due to his position on the chair all he managed to do was pinwheel his front legs wildly, tipping himself further backwards. This in turn caused the chair to topple over, sending the sheriff tumbling head over hooves until, by pure chance, he landed squarely on all four legs.
Braeburn had stopped in the doorway, his mouth hanging open. Silverstar hid his own shocked expression behind his conveniently large moustache and picked up his hat from where it had fallen, trying to adopt an attitude of That's-how-I-always-get-out-of-chairs. "Braeburn," the stallion replied calmly, leaning against the wall with forced nonchalance. "What can I do you for?"
The apple pony managed to recover, internally resolving to never question or think again of what he'd just seen. "Sheriff,” he said in the calmest tone he could manage, “there's a great big rock out there in the apple orchard. I was hoping you might want to come out and have a look at it."
Silverstar took a second to think, wondering if he'd heard the young farmer correctly. "A rock?" he asked, a little annoyed. "You interrupted my nap, I-I mean my paperwork, to tell me about one little rock in your great big orchard?"
Braeburn shook his head grimly. "It ain't just any rock," he said grimly. "It's the same rock. The same big, ugly, dirt-dragging rock me and the boys have had to drag out of those fields twice a day, every day, for the past week and a half." He eyed the sheriff suspiciously. "Didn't you get all those memos I wrote you?"
The sheriff put on his hat and walked towards Braeburn, trying not to glance at the mountain of paper atop his desk. "Tell you what," he said. "Let's go have a look at this boulder of yours, and see if we can't find anything."
"All right! That’s what I like to hear." Braeburn nodded and led the way outside.
Green Grapes sat stiffly on the edge of the porch as the two ponies left the building, liquefied apple and crumbs of pastry still clinging to his face. He stood as he saw Sheriff Silverstar. "Sir, I wish to make a complaint," he barked.
"Not now, mister Grapes," the sheriff said calmly. "Braeburn here is taking me to look at a rock." The pair cantered away, leaving Green Grapes standing alone with a baffled expression for the second time that afternoon.
The orchard loomed ahead. Sheriff Silverstar took his time admiring the view; between dealing with the local ponies and putting off paperwork, he didn't often have the time to go out to see the trees. The last harvest had been just a few weeks ago so the orchard was mostly empty, the farmers preferring to give the trees plenty of peace and quiet to rest up before they bloomed again. "So, tell me about this rock, Braeburn," the sheriff finally said as they approached the treeline. "What's so great and terrible about it to make it worth dragging me all the way out here?"
The apple farmer frowned. "It ain't just any old boulder," he said. "It's just plain unnatural. It's bigger than a pony, bigger than two ponies even. And grey, not any kind of stone you're supposed to get round these parts.”
“Sounds mighty peculiar,” Silverstar admitted. “But I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why not just let it be?”
Braeburn snorted. “Nothing doing,” he said adamantly. “Rocks and trees just don’t belong together. They block growth, they damage roots, and they take up space where they don’t belong. That’s why we take the time to drag it off. But every day, without fail, some...one comes along and dumps it back in our orchard when nopony's looking."
Silverstar caught the shift in Braeburn's tone. "You suspect a buffalo?"
"Well it sure ain't a pony," Braeburn snapped back. "It takes three of us twenty minutes to carry that confounded thing off our property. But as soon as nopony's looking, it'll zip right back to where it was before. No pony could carry a thing that size so quickly, or without anypony seeing."
They were by this point about halfway down the central path through the orchard. Silverstar was keeping his eyes peeled, but he couldn't see anything out of the ordinary around him so far. "That is odd," he mumbled thoughtfully. "So it's always in the same place when you find it?"
"The same hill, or close to it. And that's the worst part." Braeburn's expression darkened. "That's the hill where we planted Bloomberg."
This Apple family custom of naming trees had always struck Silverstar as a little odd. "The who now?" he asked, trying to hide his bemusement.
"The tree my cousin Applejack gave us, right when we first first formed that treaty with the buffalo. Remember?" The farmer sighed. "They both mean a lot to me. Her and the tree, I mean. She'd be plum heartbroken if she found out anything had happened to him."
"I see." Family issues, now those the sheriff understood. He nodded sagely and squinted towards the hill at the end of the orchard. "Ain't there something over there right now?"
Braeburn stopped and followed the sheriff’s gaze. “Consarn it,” he swore, breaking into a gallop. Silverstar followed close behind.
The pair drew to a halt at the base of the hill. Sure enough, a large, grey rock sat firmly about halfway up the slope. It was as Braeburn had described; easily large enough to fit a pair of ponies inside, had it been hollow, and its cold grey colour stood out from the rust-red plains around them. The apple farmer paced around it angrily, a scowl now fixed to his face. "It wasn't this close this morning," he growled. "When I went to get you it was right down at the bottom of the hill. Someone's moved it since then." He looked up and glared across the orchard, but couldn't see a living soul anywhere nearby. "This ain't funny, you hear?" he yelled, just in case the guilty party happened to be hidden nearby.
"It's a strange thing, all right." Sheriff Silverstar walked up and tapped the rock. It seemed solid all the way through. "Things like this don't just come out of nowhere. Quite the mystery." He experimentally gave it a push, rocking it a little from side to side. It was heavy, but not as heavy as it looked. "How do you move this thing, then? Just roll it down the hill?"
"Absolutely not." Braeburn shook his head adamantly. "We tried that the first time, and poor little Jean-Luc down there got a nasty bruise." He pointed down towards the base of the hill. Sheriff Silverstar couldn't tell which of the many trees down below he was pointing at, but nodded anyway. "We carry this load on our backs, far away as we can manage. It's really starting to wear us down. Isn't there anything you can do, Sheriff?" Braeburn asked pleadingly. "Can't you use some of that fancy detective magic and work out what's going on here?"
Silverstar stroked his chin thoughtfully. Something about this situation just didn't add up, that was for certain. There was simply no way any pony could get this boulder anywhere in a hurry. Despite Braeburn's claim, he doubted that a buffalo could be responsible, either; no creature of that size would be able to move about the orchard without attracting the attention of the ever-watchful farmers. Magic was a possibility, but the only unicorn in town that he knew of, Crispy Crust, spent all of his time either at the bakery or the Salt Block.
More to the point, what was the motive? If the goal was to annoy the apple farmers, there were plenty of places further inside the orchard that would give them much more trouble, and wouldn't require the culprit to carry the rock up such a large slope each time. No, it was more likely that this had to do with this one particular hill... or, more likely, this one particular tree.
Silverstar looked up. Bloomberg towered overhead, branched fanning out majestically around him. Silverstar had never had much of a hoof for farming, but even he had to admit that that was one impressive-looking tree. After the initial shock of being transplanted Bloomberg had flourished, growing higher and grander than any of his neighbors. Given half the chance Braeburn would rave about Bloomberg's size and stature, and how each year he alone would produce twice as many apples as two lesser trees combined. The sheriff had never personally been able to rouse so much enthusiasm over a simple plant - his barn door certainly didn’t swing that way - but from a certain point of view, he could see how such a handsome specimen of apple tree might be seen as...
Silverstar turned away from the mysterious boulder with a thoughtful expression. “Braeburn,” he said slowly, “I think it’s been too long since I’ve had a nice, long walk around the orchard. Why don’t you introduce me to some of the new trees from this season?”
“Why, sure. Nothing I’d love more.” Braeburn looked puzzled. “What’s on your mind, Sheriff? Got some ideas?”
“Maybe. Might be too early to tell.” Silverstar momentarily raised himself onto his hind legs and looked around. They still appeared to be the only ones in the orchard. “Now Braeburn, when we’re walking around down there, there’s one thing I want you to do for me. That all right?” The apple farmer nodded cautiously. “Don’t look at this hill. Not even a glance, not even out of the corner of your eye. Just let it be.” He raised a hoof as Braeburn opened his mouth. “I know it sounds strange, but just bear with me a little while on this one. All right?”
“Well... all right.” Braeburn scratched his head and smiled uncertainly, then shrugged and led the way down the far side of the hill. The spring started to return to his step as the pair approached the saplings at the edge of the orchard. “Oh, I know a couple of these beauties have just been dying to meet you.”
What followed was the most mind-numbingly informative half-hour of Sheriff Silverstar’s life. With a voice that could charm the saddle off of every mare from here to Canterlot Braeburn meticulously described the names, special needs and expected crop yield of sapling after sapling in the far field. The sheriff struggled to keep up, barely able to tell one young tree from the next, but the farmer crooned over each one like it was his own foal.
Once he felt a sufficient amount of time had passed, the sheriff cut Braeburn off and gestured back towards the hill. Thanks to the apple farmer’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of affection for each tree they passed, they’d ended up no more than a minute’s walk away from where they’d started. “Why don’t we go see how Bloomberg’s doing?” Silverstar suggested. “I reckon we’ve given them enough time.”
Braeburn looked from the sheriff to the next sapling in line with disappointment. “Don’t worry, Little Mac,” he said softly, patting the young tree’s outstretched branch. “You’ll get your turn soon.” They turned away and the two ponies started back towards Bloomberg’s hill. “So who’s ‘they’, Sheriff?” Braeburn asked. “And what are we giving them time for?”
“You’ll see, Braeburn,” the sheriff replied. “If I’m right, you’ll see.”
The two ponies stopped as they crested the hill. Braeburn’s jaw dropped. The mysterious boulder was no longer on the side of the hill where they’d left it. Instead it sat by Bloomberg’s side, its smooth surface almost brushing against the apple tree’s trunk. “Buh... wah... huh?” Braeburn spluttered.
“Just as I thought.” Sheriff Silverstar nodded to himself as he circled around the rock and the tree. There was no sign that either had been touched in any way. “I’ve heard stories of things like these. Always thought they were just tall tales, though. Never suspected I’d run into one myself one day.”
“But... but how?” Braeburn choked out. “We were right at the bottom of the hill the whole time! There’s just no way anyone could have moved it!”
“No one had to.” Silverstar placed a hoof lightly on the rock’s surface. It gave no reaction to his touch. “Tell me, boy, have you ever heard the legends of the Wandering Stones?” He waited for a response, but none appeared to be forthcoming. "There’s an old, old story that travelers like to tell about the Wandering Stones of Equestria. No two tales are quite the same, but they all spring from the same idea: of large, travelling boulders that only move when nopony’s looking. They show up wherever they please, with no rhyme nor reason behind it, then vanish without a trace.”
“What?” Braeburn looked from the sheriff to the rock, then back again. “Horseapples. There ain’t no such thing.”
“A few hours ago, heck, maybe even a few minutes ago, I would have said the same thing,” Silverstar admitted. “But stranger things have happened. And after what we’ve just seen, who are we to say what’s real and what ain’t any more?”
Braeburn’s eyes narrowed. “You mean this thing is... it’s really...” The apple farmer took another look at the rock, then stepped back, repulsed. “Sheriff,” he hissed, “I want this giant rock out of my orchard. I don’t care how. Just get it away from Bloomberg.”
“Why?” The sheriff shrugged. “It isn’t hurting anypony.”
“Silverstar, are you even listening to yourself?” Braeburn shouted. “It ain’t natural! I don’t want that good-for-nothing piece of granite anywhere near Bloomberg, or any other of our trees!”
“A rock and a tree together just ain’t right! Not in this town, not in this orchard, and not on this hill!”
The sheriff stomped. “Braeburn, listen.”
The pair stared at each other for a moment in silence. “You aren’t saying anything,” Braeburn observed.
Silverstar facehoofed. “Not to me, boy. To them.” The tan pony’s look of outrage was replaced by one of confusion. “Look, just come over here and close your eyes a second.”
Braeburn glared suspiciously at the trespassing stone. Still, something in Silverstar’s calm tone made him step forward. He closed his eyes, a scowl fixed on his face. At first he couldn’t hear anything. There was only the wind, and his own breathing, and-
I too have been abandoned.
His eyes shot open. The strange rock had moved again; it was now pressed against Bloomberg’s side. But what Braeburn found even more heart-stopping was the voice; it passed like a spark from one inanimate object to the other, arriving in his head without the need to pass through his ears. “Buh... wuh...” Braeburn’s lips flapped, but he couldn’t seem to enunciate anything.
Silverstar nodded, a faint smile on his face. He patted the tan pony comfortingly on the shoulder. “Now, I’ll admit I don’t know too much about apple farming,” he said. “But I’ve lived a long time on this earth, and I’ve seen all sorts of strange and wonderful things on it. So I know that when two things want to be with each other, there's often no force in all Equestria strong enough to keep them apart."
Braeburn finally seemed to find his voice. "But... but the roots," he insisted, feeling the situation slipping away from him.
"The roots are fine. See? Bloomberg's a big tree. One little rock isn't gonna hurt him." Silverstar backed away from the two inanimate objects. "Just let them be. I think Bloomberg's old enough to decide for himself, don't you?"
"I... uh..." Braeburn scratched his head. He wasn't entirely sure what to think any more. "Well... I suppose that means we won't have to lug this thing off the hill any more," he tried. "And... I guess if Bloomberg's happy... maybe it's best if we just let nature take its course?"
"I think that'd be best." Silverstar motioned back towards the town. "Come on, now. Let's leave these two in peace. I'm sure the others will be wanting to hear the news."
"Yeah... I guess." Braeburn looked back before starting down the hill. He still wasn't sure what to make of the situation, but looking at the pair of them together, it seemed somehow... right. Natural. "I sure hope you know what you're doing, Sheriff," he muttered before leaving the rock and the tree alone together.
It would be several hours before anypony would check on the unlikely pair again. The next time Braeburn laid eyes on the tree, he made a discovery that nearly brought tears to his eyes; Bloomberg’s roots had visibly shifted, rising more than an inch out of the ground in places. They now wrapped around the rock, steadying it, almost like an embrace.
Daybreak in Appleloosa, three days later.
Patchy Joe, the town's resident rooster, stumbled wearily out of his hutch. He yawned, stretched, then made his way slowly down towards the town's main street. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon. Joe cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and prepared to crow in the new day.
He was cut off, however, by a hoof stomping to the ground inches from his face. Braeburn shot by at a speed that would make a Wonderbolt jealous, leaving the startled chicken spinning and gasping for breath. Patchy Joe clucked in annoyance and decided that the ponies could rouse themselves for once, heading back to his coop while muttering about farmers.
Sheriff Silverstar was startled out of sleep once again as Braeburn kicked open his door. He occupied the exact same position as before, having fallen asleep at his desk again, though he was now wearing a set of striped pyjamas and a nightcap. The apple farmer advanced, lips curled into a snarl. “This is your fault,” he barked.
“What’s that? Braeburn?” Seeing the anger in the stallion’s eyes, the sheriff kicked his deductive skills into overtime. “Is this about Bloomberg and that rock?” he asked. “Are they all right?”
“All right?” Braeburn fumed. “Oh, they’re better than all right. They’re just dandy. They’re absolutely fantastic.” The apple farmer put on his most furious glare. “Sheriff, they’ve eloped.”
AND SO THE LEGEND BEGINS