Through tears he worked, throwing clothes, his diaries, a favourite toy and supplies into the paniers. He hefted them onto his back and settled them carefully. With his muzzle, he left a short note on the pillow:
I’m going away for a while
I won’t be back, it’s better this way
I love you all,
Wintergreen - he hated his name - was running away from home. At this point in time, it didn’t matter so much the where to as the where from. He hated highschool. He’d hated school ever since ponygarten. There had always, always, been other ponies ready to make his life hell. He was supposed to be working on his MARE’s (Multiple Ability Readiness Exams) but due to his public shame had no idea what he was supposed to be studying. Everybody by now had their cutie mark. Everybody - but him. His flank was as blank as a newborn foal’s, a light pastel green in colour, his horn was white, his mane was white and his hooves were jet black. It was quite usual that everypony thought he was a filly rather than a colt, he didn’t have the masculine build of somebody like Big Macintosh and he was small for his age. Small and sleek. Without much power in his horns, he wasn’t a great conjurer, without wings he couldn’t fly. Without the build he couldn’t do the things that earth-ponies could.
“Haha, you’ve got girly-pony colours, and a girly-pony name. I bet you’re a girly pony really, aren’t you? Little Wintygreeny, ickle wickle little Wintergreenyweeny...” his arch-nemesis if ever he had one, Sunhoof Tallbuck, had laid into him almost from the moment he’d seen him. Wintergreen screwed up his eyes, fresh tears welling up as he sniffed and sniffled his way out of the house and down the street, not before closing ever so quietly the front door of his house behind him. Forever, he thought.
He wasn’t that much of a different pony, was he? He liked sports...as such. He enjoyed rude jokes and breaking wind. He roughed and tumbled with the rest of them...He sighed as he clip-clopped along the path in the rising sun. He used his magic to lift his diary from the bag and a piece of charcoal to accompany it. As he walked he sketched. He sketched many things; birds, trees, animals, and plants...he sketched as he trotted up and out of town and almost didn’t notice as he came upon the Everfree Forest. His ears splayed back and he turned once to look at Ponyville; the sun shone (the pegasus weather patrol having decided today would be such a day) and all seemed pleasant and warm...the Everfree Forest on the other hand looked dark and forboding. He’d made his choice, and clip-clopped in.
Further in, it got dark, even the sun hid it’s light from places like that - it was cold, Wintergreen swore he could see frost on the trunks of the stunted trees as he delved deeper into the wilderness.
“Stop you foal! Do not pass through, avoid those flowers of brightest blue!”
“Wha-?” said Wintergreen, his ears perking up as he blinked, looking around for the source of the voice: it was that crazy zebra-pony everypony had been talking about, what in tarnation was she..?
“Romp through such things? Once was enough! Next time their tricks may be more rough!”
“Woah, woah there! Wait, it’s perfectly..! Stop!” Wintergreen shouted, waving his hooves, but Zecora didn’t stop. She barelled right into him and sent him flying, landing herself in the blue flowers called ‘poison joke’. She groaned...and sneezed.
“Oh good grief, what did you go and do that for? I was perfectly safe!”
“What’s this? Not true, these flowers...blue...” Zecora started getting woozy - it had been such a huge dose of the pollen that it had already started taking effect. She’d be out like a light soon if he didn’t do something...at least he’d been clever enough to take precautions. Unlike, it seemed, had Zecora.
Just in case, he held his breath before getting a good hold of her shawl and pulling her clear of the patch, “fiff fay if foor foufe?” he asked
“that way, that way, but careful of the path - don’t stray!”
the journey wasn’t long, but dragging a zebra pony most of the way when she fell over - a full grown adult - made it much harder than it would have been. Wintergreen got the door open, helped Zecora through and then shut the door against the cold.
She was coming to, it took Zecora a while to remember quite what had happened. Then she sneezed and her stripes went magenta and green.
“Just wait there miss..uh..Zecora was it? I’ll have you fixed in no time...” he had to keep her awake or this could take much longer to sort out
“My gratitude you’ll have if you manage this feat, but sadly I think your endeavour is beat. The ingredients are gone, you’re out of luck. Until it wears off...green and purple I’m stuck.”
“Purple? Hmm...could be worse, could be orange, what would you say to that?” He allowed himself a small smile
“If I were orange I’d...I’d...” Zecora’s eyes momentarily grew brighter with mirth
“Yes?” asked Wintergreen, between pouring various herbs into a small bowl and crushing them together, all using his meagre magic, yet skillfully and quickly
“A nasty trick you play on old Zecora! You ruined my rhyming!”
“So you don’t always rhyme when you speak! Here...sniff.”
Zecora looked questioningly at the bowl, but did as she was bid, then she huffed three times as if she were going to sneeze...which she finally did - her hair poofed out and changed back to their normal hues at the same time. she looked up and down her forelegs in amazement, “what did you do? My stripes...like new!”
“I...I made you the antidote...”
“But I am missing a few key ingredients, I used them up recently, that is why Zecora was out looking for more! How did you do this?”
Wintergreen looked down at the floor, and said quietly, “Substitutions, I used a good binding agent - Frogwart and goat moss instead of hanging fingers. You can’t bathe in it, and inhaling it is unpleasant but it works...”
“But,” Zecora was momentarily speechless, “how did you - tell me...just who you are and what you be doing in the Everfree forest?” she got up and trotted unsteadily yet with returning grace all around the strange young mark-less pony in her hut with amazement, “how come you were not cursed?”
“I...” Wintergreen put his ears back and looked around embarassed, “I’m running away from home and...and...through the forest is the only place they’ll never find me! I don’t want to go home! I want to be alone! Why did you have to try to save me I want...I want...I want....”
Wintergreen started alternating between sniffling and shouting, tears were spewing from his eyes and snot from his nose and there was poor Zecora in the middle of it. He explained about his lack of a cutie mark - he was now the oldest in ponyville without one - and how he was supposed to be studying for his MARE’s but didn’t know what to do and how useless he was and that he’d never amount to anything and be a laughing stock for the rest of his life and might as well just rake leaves and empty chamber pots and he hated it so much and...
“Ponies,” she said dismissively under her breath, yet softly and without malice, “hush now young colt, do not despair, you’re safe now, there there...” she fetched a hoofkerchief and expertly wiped his eyes and nostrils before throwing it into a basket in the corner of the room, “tell Zecora all about it while she make you some tea.”
So Zecora pottered about making tea from various herbs and listened to Wintergreen as he first introduced himself, and then haltingly described his morning flight from home, and why, and how.
By the time he’d gotten to the part about leaving forever, she had poured tea into two cups through a strainer and set the pot back down on the table along with the muzzle-muff she’d used to stop herself from getting burnt. She replaced the tea cosy and slyly asked, “Zecora can take you through the forest, but where will you go? what will you do?”
“I..” *sniff* “I don’t know, I’ll...go somewhere...” Wintergreen made loud messy slurping noises as he sniffled his way through a cup of strange tea. He was so upset he could barely hold both cup and saucer in the air with his magic and they rattled as he drank.
“Zecora here, she be happy with her life alone, but she still needs friends occasionally. You know what keeps old Zecora happy?”
Wintergreen shook his head, and Zecora answered with a smile, “I have my plants, my works - I travel, I’m writing books. I mix herbs and make potions, paints and dyes. One day I will travel on from here, but not yet, I am not done cataloguing these herbs and spices quite yet.”
“You...you can do that? But...we don’t have...anypony like that in town. Just...just you, when you come,” the last part was added rather quietly, as Wintergreen until recently had been one of those shunning her for her outlandish looks and foreign ways.
“Maybe that be why old Zecora is staying, hmm? But yes, much, much can be learnt from plants! Magic and technology you ponies have in abundance, and wonderous it is, but medicine, art, horticulture - so much requires plants. You would be foolish to think them just...scenery. I would have thought this would have been obvious to such a talented colt as yourself! Whipping up a batch of antidote like that!”
“But...that’s nothing, it’s just...I followed the instructions, just substituted a little...”
“I tell you what, Wintergreen, Zecora will take you home - no complaining, your dam and sire must be missing you plenty - and we will attend to what ails you as you have attended to me. Drink up!”
Zecora led Wintergreen home, bypassing the poison joke, and as they walked she asked him about the plants and animals they saw. He had plenty of answers, but there was plenty to look at. In what seemed to be no time at all they were at the edge of town, and a very concerned stallion was rushing up towards them.
He stopped short in a cloud of dust, “Winter! Oh Winter we were so worried, we...Winter what in Celestia’s name did you think...oh and your mother is frantic! We thought you’d been eaten by an ursa, or turned to stone, or stolen away by trolls, or...”
“I’m sorry papa, I didn’t mean to, I was just...and then...it was...”
The two hugged and nuzzled, Zecora standing awkwardly at the back until they stopped, then she clopped forwards, “I have a favour to ask you, my good horse...”
Wintergreen was led through the school by his sire and Zecora, he drooped his neck so low he was almost brushing the ground with his nose. Everybody was looking and pointing and giggling, it was simply awful. He heard a few sniggers,
“Oh boy Winty are you in trouble now - they cancelled school because of you!”
“You’re gonna get expeelleeed!”
“Blank Flank went crying to mommy!”
Zecora said nothing, his father said nothing. He wished the ground would open up and swallow him whole. He idly wondered if he could find magic enough to make it happen...
“Here we are, follow me in now.” said Zecora, as she clopped a hoof on the door to the principals office, which opened at once. A very flustered schoolmare was inside, “Oh deary, I’m glad he’s safe, come in, come in, as soon as I got the message I’ve been trying to arrange things...”
That did it, Wintergreen started sniffling and crying again, “Hush now,” said Zecora, “you know what this means, don’t you? You’re going to have to leave school...”
His heart sank, he felt light-headed, he could hardly breathe - they were going to kick him out! Oh pony what had he done?
“Yes, I’m delighted to tell you that Zecora here has requested your services as her Apprentice.”
Wintergreen blinked, and then blinked again, then he sniffed and raised his head, “Ap-apprentice? You mean I’m not expelled?”
“Young colt, if what Zecora here says about you is true, and I find no reason to doubt her word, your services are sorely, sorely needed with her,” the schoolmare adjusted her spectacles with an idle hoof, “you show a natural aptitude with plants and herbs, herbology, you could be a master! Now, this isn’t quite a job, and you’re not let out of studying, why, if you take this position the studying will just have started...but I feel a small stipend, an allowance, is in order, as a gesture of goodwill for one of the first local apprenticeships in the last few years...”
The schoolmare went on, but Wintergreen barely heard her, his head was swimming - him, an apprentice? It meant...it meant everything would be different. No more MARE’s for starters, no more standard school...he’d be working for a living. No longer a colt, practically an adult...he’d have to work in the Everfree forest, daily! He’d get to sketch plants, and mix potions, and collect herbs and....
“So, Wintergreen, have you made your decision?” asked the Schoolmare
“Methinks his mind was made up for him, see there now what has taken shape...”
Wintergreen blinked again, he didn’t feel any different per se, but...when he looked at his hind quarters, there where had previously been nothing but green fur, was a pestle and mortar.