The Apple Jamboree

by Coyote de La Mancha

Chapter Two: Departure

A few minutes later, Octavia took the stage with a rueful smile, Vinyl Scratch taking her own place at her keyboards.
“I would like to start out by thanking John for the opportunity to follow… that…”
There was laughter, and then she went on pleasantly, “So I thought we might take it down a notch for the next piece. It’s something Vinyl and I have been working on…”
The evening wore into night. There were instrumentals, poems, songs. Some were brand new, like Desolation, the new duet Octavia had spoken of; or like Big Mac’s The Crow. Then there were the old favorites: Blue Shadows, Tom Dooley’s Lament, Five Hundred Miles, Thunderstruck, They Call the Wind Maria, The Ballad of Stagger Lee, and countless others. Babs and John did a few duets, while John picked on his silver-stringed guitar, and so did Apple Bloom and Applejack. Skootaloo, Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle did some trios, including one they’d written for the occasion. The tapers and the cook fire burned bright, and ponies listened, sang, ate, and occasionally danced.
But after a time, the night outside the barn grew windy and cold, and the shadows more menacing. Granny Smith brought up a tune called The Murder Bull for John to sing, and it was late enough that he went on and picked his way through it, sending chills of pure horror through everypony there. After that, Zecora told a story about a creature called the Snake Mother and the zebra mage who tried to murder her and steal her magic. He failed, and as punishment she trapped him in stone for all time… but still alive, endlessly alive, and hating all that lived. Then, not to be outdone, Granny gave an a cappella of Nellie’s Golden Hair that just about convinced Applejack that she was done with sleeping from then on.
By this time it was well past midnight, and most folks had headed out or grabbed spare bedding and found sleep on the floor here and there. The microphone had been put away, and chairs brought out. The remaining ponies sat in a circle, taking turns, talking about music, songs, stories, and their history. Most of the songs were true stories, some of them centuries old, some older. Now, only the music was left to remember them by. Twilight had always left by this time before, and was quietly kicking herself for it now.
“I never dreamt Runaway Hardy was a real pony,” Babs declared. “That changes th’ whole song. An’ th’ mare in th’ song, th’ one that said she’d be true…”
Applejack nodded. “He was real alright. Killed another stallion over a mare they both liked, the one said them words to ‘im. Last verse is about him repentin’ and undergoin’ a purification for it. The dead pony’s kin forgave ‘im. Then the town hung ‘im.”
Apple Bloom stared, horrified. “But he was sorry—an’ they forgave ‘im!”
“Different time, sugar cube. Forgiveness means risk. What with war an’ monsters an’ whatnot, folks were scared then, all the time. When that happens, precious few want ta take the chance. Remember Tom Dooley an’ Stagger Lee. They weren’t sorry for the folks they’d killed. Not a bit.”
“Be too easy for those times to come back,” John added as he tuned his silver strings, bringing them from Scordatura back into a more modern setup. “They’re always waitin’, right ‘round the corner. That’s why ponies like your sister an’ her friends take the chances they do. Keep the fear at bay, an’ the reasons for it.”
“Um, so,” Twilight broke in, “I noticed your strings, and I was wondering…?”
“Nothin’ beats silver for a pure tone,” smiled John.
Twilight cocked an eyebrow. “Yes, but silver also has magical implications. Wizards used to use it against dark magic, and in protection and binding.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He frowned a little. That darn low E just didn’t want to tune. “That is a fact. Some magic even dissolves away from it, if it’s used right.”
“Shadow magic most of all,” Babs piped up. “That’s how come it used ta be called th’ luna’ metal. After Luna, an’ her protectin’ ponies from shadow long ago.”
He stopped, looking at her with new interest. “Not many folks recollect that these days.”
“More now’n there used t’be,” One of the Apple cousins drawled sleepily as she settled into her blankets. “Twilight’s been remindin’ people, every year. Right afore first day a’harvest, she has a story night, stories ‘bout Princess Luna afore she became Nightmare Moon.”
Zecora nodded where she sat. “Every year a larger crowd, hears the stories gathered ‘round. Tales of fun and tales of fright… some now call it Luna Night.”
“We’ll have hold it in the barn before much longer,” Cheerilee added.
“Um,” Twilight looked at the ceiling. “Zecora knows more stories than I do. And tells them better. And then there’s Applejack, Cheerilee, heck, even Discord… I just organize it.”
“But y’all started it,” John peered at her. “Princess Twilight, this Luna Night open to anypony?”
Twilight stared. “Of course! And I want to talk with you more anyway! I mean, there are so many things I never read about that seem to be recorded in your songs…”
The barn filled with his laughter, and a few of the foals smiled in their sleep.
“Oh, they’re not mine,” he said. “They’re everypony’s. Ah just carry ‘em around.”
“Could’ja sing us anotha one?” asked Babs.
“An’ can it be less scary?” pleaded Apple Bloom. “I’d like ta sleep agin someday.”
“Well, I’ve about got this old thing tuned up again,” John said. “But I’d sure like to hear somethin’ from one of the younger ponies again, if that’s alright.”
There was a moment of relative quiet, while the circle looked at one another. Then Shining Armor sang, looking tenderly at his wife,

“Vandy Vandy, won’t you come with me?
Vandy Vandy, I’ve silver and gold;
Vandy Vandy, I’ve come to love you,
You’re the one that I long to hold.
Vandy Vandy, see my blue diamond,
Vandy Vandy, I’ve treasure and pride;
Vandy Vandy, here’s endless power
If you only will be my bride.
Come with me into the night before the dawn.”

Cadence answered him in her own dulcet voice, holding Snowflurry’s sleeping form as the couple fell into each other’s eyes,

“Why should I care for pride and treasures?
Why would I want your diamond of blue?
What’s the use of your endless power?
All I want is a heart that’s true.
I love a stallion who’s gone to battle,
Seven years now, he’s suffered and fought;
And should he be gone seven lifetimes,
Still he’ll be the one holding my heart.
For I know it’s always darkest ‘fore the dawn.”

Then their voices came together, as they sang to one another,

“Wake up, wake up now, the sun is rising,
Everypony, come see the day;
Look out from all your divers windows,
See our stallions all marching away.
Every night must give its way before the dawn.”

After the applause died down, Twilight said, “I remember that one. You used to sing it to me as a lullaby.”
“Celestia used to sing it to me, when I was younger,” Cadence said.
“And then Cadence taught it to me,” Shining Armor smiled.
“But what’s it mean?” Babs asked. “It ends real abrupt. Why’s everypony lookin’ out their diverse winduhs? An’ at what? Where’s everypony goin’?”
“First off, it ain’t diverse winders, it’s divers winders,” Granny corrected her. “It’s a different kinda winder than we got here.”
John nodded. “That song comes from the Crystal Empire, in a sense. It figures Celestia woulda thought of it when she saw y’all as a foal.”
Cadence cocked her head. “Why?”
“The battle it speaks of. That’s the war ‘gainst King Sombra, way back when.”
Her eyes widened. “I never knew.”
John nodded. “It could‘ve taken less’n seven years, but the Princesses wanted to see as little blood shed as possible. That’s miles harder, an’ takes longer. The war ended with just the two sisters facin’ off against Sombra himself. Still: there was a Vandy. Pretty young filly, not too unlike Miss Applejack there.”
“Now, you hush,” said Applejack with a half-smile.
“But who was courtin’ her?” asked Apple Bloom. “If she was in love with a soldier…?”
John nodded. “She was. Her betrothed fought under Princesses Luna an’ Celestia. He came back, and the other fella scarpered off. After that, the song was written.”
“But who was the other stallion?” Rarity asked.
“A unicorn from someplace far off; nopony knows just where. Made a pact with the shadows for long life an’ power, so long as he could find a pure soul now an’ again to give over to ‘em. He’d had his sights set on Vandy. The first Vandy, that is. Over the years the family kept usin’ the name now an’ then, an’ every time they did, a unicorn stallion with a long shadow came a-courtin’ her. Every time, he had to be driven off. An’ every time, it got harder. That blue diamond held his power. The older he got, the stronger he got, an’ the darker it became. Towards the end, it was almost black.”
“Is there another song? About the family’s struggle against him?” asked Twilight.
“Not yet.”
“And what of that unicorn fella? He been taken care of, John?” asked Granny.
“Yes, ma’am,” said John quietly, his dark eyes meeting her own. “He most surely has.”

After a while, even the hard-core ponies had packed it in, crashing out on the barn floor in spare blankets or whatever they’d brought. Twilight had reluctantly gathered up Spike where he’d passed out hours before, taking him with her back to the main house. Granny had fallen asleep in her rocker a while back – it was a wonder she’d lasted as long as she had – and Apple Bloom was curled up in Applejack’s lap. Little filly’s about too big fer this, she thought as her legs fell more and more asleep. Next year you’re on your own, girl.
But somehow, through it all, Babs was still awake. More awake than Applejack felt, come to that.
“So, after the colt saved the stars, he jus’ flew off into ‘em?” Babs asked when John finished his latest tale.
He nodded. “That’s the story.”
“How many stars are there?”
“It’s been said there’s many as there are stories told, or songs to be sung. Whenever a new one is made, Princess Luna hangs a new star in the sky.”
Babs frowned. “Really?”
John smiled. “Ah very much doubt it. New stuff’s written all the time, an’ how could she know? But it’s a pretty story just the same.”
Granny snorted in her sleep. “Pies’re done…” she mumbled.
John nodded, still smiling. “An’ on that note, Ah reckon our time’s about up. Ah do thank all y’all for your hospitality. It’s been second to none, an’ meant more t’me than words can truly say.”
Applejack moved Apple Bloom to the floor, the filly shifting in her sleep as she did. “Oh, hold on now, y’all can’t just head out into the night. It’s almost winter. We’ve got plenty a’ room, an’ there’s breakfast tomorrow!”
But he was already packing his guitar. “An’ Ah do thank you most kindly. But Ah’m used to travelin’ at night. Me an’ the wind, we’re old friends. An’ when Ah sleep inside, Ah do miss the stars.”
She stood. “John, now, you’ve done us proud, bein’ part’a our Jamboree, an’ I ain’t gonna be the one t’tell Granny you’ve gone. There’s plenty a’room, an’ a place at our table. I do hope you’ll reconsider.”
“Not this year.” He shifted his guitar onto his back. “But next year Ah may, if Ah’m still welcome.”
With reluctance, she nodded. “You will be. I know Granny’ll be sorry she missed you goin’.”
They looked at one another for a few seconds, and then he stepped forward and hugged her. Surprised, she hesitated for a heartbeat, and then hugged back. When he turned to Babs, she bounced up into his embrace and hugged him fiercely.
John ruffled her mane as he hugged her back.
“It has been a proud time, singing with you tonight,” he said.
She squeezed harder. Then, finally, reluctantly, she let him go. He paused for a moment in the huge double doorway, glanced back with a smile and a nod. Then he was gone into the night, closing the door behind him.

A short while after that, just about everypony else had called it a night, too. Applejack looked around, sighed, and shook her head with a rueful smile. The barn was full up with sleeping folks and breakfast was only a nap away. Still, best to catch a few hours’ rest. For all that breakfast was mostly made, cleaning up would be an all-day affair. She made her quiet way to where her oldest kin slept, still in her rocker.
“Granny…” Applejack’s voice was gentle.
“Granny,” she repeated, “Jamboree’s done. Y’all ready ta go?”
The older mare mumbled a few incomprehensibles, and finally muttered, “Jest nap here a li’l longer.”
Applejack nodded. “Well, alright then. Wake you fer breakfast?”
“If’n ye can,” mumbled Granny. “Lookin’ forward t’them biscuits.”
“Sleep long as you want. I’ll save you some.”
Granny didn’t answer, but her chin dipped down to her chest and she snored gently. Applejack smiled, tucked her shawl around her a little tighter, and turned to Babs.
“You make it to the house alright, sugar cube?”
Babs nodded as she yawned. “Uh-huh.”
“Good girl. You go on, then. I’ll take care a’ the CMC.”
As Babs opened the door just a crack to slip out, she could hear Applejack saying, “Oof! Baby girl, you are gettin’ way too big fer this…”
Babs closed the door casually, walked towards the house so her hoofsteps could be heard among the leaves headed in the right direction.
Then she spun and ran in a full gallop, as fast as her legs could carry her, in the direction she’d seen John facing. He had a decent head start, and a longer stride. But he would be walking, and hopefully taking his time about it. Maybe he would even stop somewhere, to enjoy the full moon. Then again, she acknowledged, he might pick up his pace. He might have places to be, or just feel like a canter to keep warm.
Eyes narrowing, breath puffing in frozen streams, Babs ran faster.

She’d been running for a while, and no sign of John. The land was rolling hills, with just enough trees and narrow valleys to really break up the view. And it was harder to see any distance than she’d expected, even under the full moon. When she’d thought about giving up, her first idea – just turning around and going back – was an obvious fail before she even tried.
Oh, shoot, she thought, am I lost?
Looking around, Babs admitted to herself that she couldn’t even be sure that John had gone in a straight line, or gone this way at all.
She sighed. Stories always talked about following the sun or the moon like it was easy. Maybe if she climbed a tree, got some high ground, she could at least see the barn. If she was lucky, she’d be able to sneak into the house before Applejack knew she’d gone.
The tree was a massive oak, with the leaves around it up to her neck. Climbing it wasn’t easy, but her summers with the Apples had been well spent. She was making her way through the larger branches soon enough, rustling bunches of clinging leaves blocking her view. Shivering for the wind, she moved a branch and saw the barn. It wasn’t close, exactly. But it was a depressingly short distance away for as hard as she’d been running.
Guess I didn’t keep such a straight line after all, she thought. Applesauce. Well, I can keep climbing occasionally to keep my bearings, and move onward in-between… I’ll be exhausted by the time I get back, but I’ll get back. Before dawn, I hope.
She sighed. This hasta be the most featherbrained idea I’ve had in my---Granny??
The filly stared in disbelief, but there could be no doubt. As the figure grew closer in the moonlight, Granny Smith’s bun was unmistakable in the moonlight, her silhouette hunched over her walker, making her slow, determined way over the rise.
Babs felt her heart stab. Bad enough she’d snuck out, bad enough she’d almost gotten lost, but… she’d brought Granny out in this! Frantically, Babs glanced around beneath her. There were enough leaves to break the fall. If Granny got sick because of her, she’d never forgive herself.
She was about to drop when another figure stepped out from the shadows to meet the ancient mare. Babs’ eyes widened. The moonlight changed the color of everything it touched, and for a moment she couldn’t believe what she saw. But even if his cutie mark had been hidden somehow, there was no mistaking his guitar, his wind-tossed mane, or most especially his voice.
“Ah’d about thought you were done for the night.”
“Jest catchin’ my second wind is all. Told Applejack I’d rest fer a spell, an’ I did.” Granny looked around. “Seems this place gits further away every year.”
John blinked. “Y’all been comin’ here every year?”
She looked at the moon. “I reckon.”
The stallion stared at her, dismayed.
"Aw, hay an’ high water, Johnny! All this time, don’t yew got nuthin’ else ta say, ‘cept fer fool questions?”
Despite himself, John smiled. “Yes ma’am, I reckon I do.”
Setting down his guitar, he went over to her and held out a hoof. “Excuse me, miss, but Ah couldn’t help noticin’ ya’ll’re unaccompanied on this fine night. May I have this dance?”
Granny Smith smiled back. Then she cautiously, uncertainly, took his hoof. She used his strength to steady herself as she put the walker aside.
Gently, John drew her to him, and they began to dance.
The wind played the leaves like gentle maracas and crickets kept a slow beat as they waltzed together, carefully so she would not fall. As Babs stared in sheer disbelief, the ancient mare’s steps grew more certain, her back straighter, her head higher.
Then, without warning John twirled her, and she laughed as he caught her. Suddenly, the wind blew harder around them. The tempo grew faster, the waltz moving into a square dance. For several minutes Babs’ eyes got bigger and bigger as she watched Granny Smith move like a filly in her teens. The trees waved and the shadows played around the pair, casting shapes like partners in a square, and then lines for a contra dance, and then a quadrille.
As Granny’s footing got more and more certain, the tempo kept revving up. After a few minutes more, the two shifted into jazz. Now she looked at him with a challenge in her eye, and they matched one another, step for fantastic step, as though they’d been partners for years.
Night birds cried out on the off-beat and crickets kept time as the wind whipped into a fury, jazz breaking into swing, and then swing into a blazing staccato as the two of them broke into an impossible tap and soft shoe duet, faster, faster, fallen leaves flying and manes swirling madly around them, front hooves together as they spun, all but obscured by the night and the flying leaves as the wind spiraled around them.
Then, at last, they stopped, laughing like foals as they fell into one another’s forelegs and into the leaves. The wind stirred around them in one last rustling spiral, and then was still, raining autumn’s dry and ragged foliage around and onto them both.
Granny curled up suddenly, a fit of wet coughs racking her ancient frame. John put his foreleg around her, held her until the fit had passed. It took several minutes. Finally, she was breathing easy again.
“Feelin’ better?” he asked.
“Yew know I do,” she managed. Then gave him a sly look. “If I’d known an old song could bring ye, I’d a’ sung it meself, years ago.”
He chuckled, meeting her gaze with his own and propping himself up on his elbows. “Oh, Evadare… as if it would take a song to bring me here.”
A branch fell from the huge oak nearby, but neither of them paid it any mind.
Granny started to pick herself up. John rose easily, and offered her a hoof, which she accepted.
“How long’s it been, John?” It was a question, but an accusation as well.
“Ah don’t rightly know,” he admitted. “There was Vandy, an’ the fella chasin’ her, though that was a while back. There was a haunted train, an’ the filly it was chasin’. An’ sometime aroun’ then, a mine with a dragon in it, eatin’ folks up. An’ a bridge wraith, poor thing. An’ there were songs an’ stories everywhere I went…”
Her eyes narrowed as she finished getting to her hooves. “An’ yew got distracted.”
He hung his head. “An’ Ah got distracted,” he confirmed. “Yes, ma’am. Ah surely did.”
She sighed, shaking most of the leaves out from her coat and mane, brushing out the rest as best she could.
“Oh, John. What in tarnation am I a-gonna dew with yew?”
There was a long pause. Finally, head still down, he said, “Well… Ah could always stay here.”
As she started in on her tail she shook her head. “I won’t have it, Johnny. I said so before, an’ I’ll say it again. No. Not on my conscience. The world needs your songs, and you need the road.”
“Well, then, you could always choose somepony else. You know Ah’d never blame you—”
Her head whipped around to stare daggers into him. “An’ I tole ye what I thought a’that, too. Don’t make me say it agin. It ain’t ladylike.”
He raised his head and looked at her. “Then come with me.”
She sighed then, the hardness in her eyes melting away in an instant. “Oh, John…”
“Henrietta Evadare Apple-Songsmith,” he said with the greatest tenderness. “Come with me.”
He put his hooves on her shoulders.
“Come with me,” he said again. “For a day. For a year. For music, for stories. For the unknown.”
For a moment, the two of them just stood looking at one another in the silver light. Then she lowered her head and shook it, no.
“I can’t John,” she said at last. “I’m still needed here. Oh, I ain’t a-buckin’ like I was, it ain’t the farm, not no more, that’s Applejack’s business now… but there’s so much the young ‘uns still don’t know.”
She gave a sad sigh. “An’ what with their folks gone, there ain’t nopony else t’pass it on…”
He gently took her by the chin and raised her eyes to his. “Ah know,” he said. “They need your stories.”
They both smiled at each other then, and both their smiles were sad.
Then he kissed her, gentle and sweet, with the moon looking on from above. A moment later she stepped back and shook her head, her smile turning rueful.
“Rascal,” she said.
He laughed again, a joyous sound full of green leaves and silver. “Temptress,” he smiled back.
“Just yew try not to be gone so long this time,” she said, touching him on the cheek. “Yew never know what may change.”
“Next jamboree,” he promised. “Maybe sooner.”
“Heh. Maybe.” She turned away and started towards the walker. “I’ll look fer yew when the leaves change an’ the winds git crisp, an’ the zap apples are in fer pies.”
She looked back over her shoulder, shot him a teasing look. “Sooner’n that, I may not believe it’s you.”
Granny Smith picked up the walker, righted it, gave him one last, fond look. Then she started the long, slow walk back to the barn. With every step, her limbs gradually remembered their age, and she needed the walker a little more. But she also knew that her old bones would hurt a lot less the next day than they had for many years. The next day, and for many days to come.
Once the old mare was out of earshot, John said, “Ah guess y’all can come down now, ma’am.”
Startled, Babs fell out of her treetop perch and into the leaves with a shoof! Scrambling to her hooves, she stared up at him. “How’d ja know?”
He didn’t turn around to see her, still watching Granny Smith’s retreating form. “Y’let out a little gasp when Ah kissed your grand-mama. Ah knew your voice. Like honeysuckle, and rain on spring grass.”
Several moments went by, and he finally turned to her. “Somethin’ on your mind?”
“I wanna come with ya.”
He considered her for a moment with his dark, dark eyes. “Why?”
“For the music,” she said. “For songs, for stories, for the unknown.”
He cocked his head to one side and said, not unkindly, “Y’mind givin’ me your own answer, young lady, insteada mine?”
“I… I dunno,” she admitted, collapsing into a sitting position in the dry leaves. “But what we were doin’ tonight, that’s, like, all I wanna do, y’know? The resta the yea’, I look forward t’the jamboree. I mean, my cousins are cool an’ everything, but the jamboree’s the best. An’ tonight, you talked about goin’ around the world an’ trackin’ down stories an’ songs an’ the stories behind ‘em an’ I just kept thinkin’, ‘that’s gotta be the most beautiful way to live theh is.’ Y’know? An’ it ain’t about the cutie mark, though I dunno, I mean…”
Her voice trailed off, and she collapsed the rest of the way into a prone position, penitent eyes staring up at him from between the leaves.
“An’ I wasn’t tryin’ ta spy, y’know?” she went on. “I mean, I’m really sorry ‘bout that. I just wanted ta… yeah, well.”
She looked away. “Anyway. Dumb idea. I get it. We’re cool.”
She stood, took a deep breath, and said, “I’d better get back, anyway. See you next yea’. You were awesome. Hope we can sing togetha again.”
As Babs started to leave, she heard John moving through the leaves to her.
"Ah’d like nothing better,” he smiled.
For a second, she just stared. Then she jumped up, hugging him by the neck so hard she swung around and ended up on his back. “Ya mean it? F’real?”
He threw back his head and laughed again, and his laugh was full of silver and pine, of summer winds and autumn fires. The wind blew over them both, carrying the notes of his joy and returning it to them both again.
Babs hugged him harder. I wanna laugh like that, she thought.
The wind swirled and teased around them both, challenging them, and John took up the challenge. In a moment he was racing through the trees and the swirling leaves, the foal clinging to his back laughing along with him, the silver bells of her alto voice blending with the tenor of his own.

A while later, Granny Smith managed to finish her long trek back to the farm. She could have found it blindfolded, and not because she knew the farm like the back of her hoof. Sweet Apple Acres was in a state, and that was a fact. Seemed like half of Ponyville was galloping around the place, hooping and hollering. Pegasi were taking off, shouting out to each other as they starting flying spirals overhead. There was a violet flash by the barn as Twilight appeared with a few more friends. And right in the middle of it all was Applejack, sending folks out in all directions.
Granny paid the foo-faw-raw no mind. She just made her way inside, and collapsed gratefully into her favorite rocker. Whatever was going on, if it was that all-fired important they could just go ahead and come to her. She was tired.
“Granny!” Applejack burst into the room. “Where’s Babs?”
Granny raised her eyebrows. “She gone?”
“Oh, stars an’ clouds above, I hope not. She weren’t with you?”
“Hm. Not as I could tell.”
Then the old mare paused, remembering a branch falling from a tree without a wind to stir it.
“Then again…” she muttered.
“She ain’t been in her bed, ain’t nobody seen her since the party ended, we got everypony lookin’ fer—” then Applejack stopped, eyes wide.
“Oh,” she whispered. “That fella.”
Granny nodded to herself, her expression thoughtful. “Huh. Well, now, that… does make a certain sense.”
Applejack's eyes widened further. “She’s with him.”
“Looks that way.”
“He took her!”
“Eh, Applejack…”
“He took her,” Applejack stormed. “I shoulda known, I shoulda known, nopony calls up the Path no more! Oh, where’s Rainbow, her an’ the others’ll need to start circlin’ out wider to find ‘em, sakes alive, he might be a changelin’, or some crittur from the Everfree, or, or, anything…”
The young mare called out a window, “Big Mac!” She paced, more frantically now. “I swear, when I git my hooves on that dirty, no-account, no-good—”
“Will yew jes’ shut’cher pie hole fer one apple-pickin’ minute and let me say somethin’?”
With great effort, Applejack reigned herself in, and waited.
Very deliberately, Granny leaned forward and looked her in the eye. “She’s fine.”
Applejack relaxed. “Well, thank goodness! Y’all coulda said somethin’ sooner. Where is she?”
Granny Smith leaned back and closed her eyes, contented. “No idea.”
“Now, yew jus’ simmer down, alright? She’s fine. Couldn’t be in better hooves. In fact,” Granny opened her eyes and nodded towards her desk, “fetch me my writin’ kit. Need to send a letter. Her mama’ll need ta know.”
The younger pony, meanwhile, had been staring at her with growing horror.
“Granny,” Applejack whispered, “What in the hay is a’goin’ on? Yer talkin’ like everythin’s just hunkey-dorey, an’ Babs’ been took off to Celestia knows where—”
“Ain’t been nobody ‘been took off’ by nobody. Babs is fine, like I said. Better’n fine. Now if’n you’ll just be still—”
At the sound of her sister’s voice, Applejack turned to see Apple Bloom peeking in through the outside door.
“Any luck?” Applejack asked her.
The filly shook her red curls. “Nope. Big Mac sent me. Didn’t Granny know?”
“She ain’t sayin’. Get Twilight in here. Might be a spell.”
“No, it ain’t a-- well, that’s done it,” Granny observed as the young filly vanished. “You’ll have the whole dern posse in here insida five minutes… an’ I do declare,” she snapped, “fer somepony who’s saved as many ponies as many times as you have, you kin be about as thick as two short planks!”
“Well, maybe I wouldn’t be,” Applejack snapped back, “if you’d tell me why Babs ain’t a-needin’ ta be saved!
The two stared, their scowls perfectly mirroring one another. Then, Granny looked down.
“I reckon yer right,” she sighed.
The door opened, and Apple Bloom cautiously entered, the rest of the Mane Six filing in behind her. After them, an assortment of other friends and relations started crowding in, all of them ready for the worst. Even Discord was there, looking about, trying hard to be more concerned than delighted at the unexpected havoc these new developments had wrought.
“All right, that’s enough now” Granny said to the assembly. “Applejack, yer in, an’ Twilight, yew too, so’s yew kin tell ‘em I ain’t under some kinda spell. An’ Apple Bloom, you oughtta know. An’ Big Mac. Nopony else. Babs is fine, an’ y’all done right by us, an’ that’s a fact. An’ we do thank ye. But this is between us, an’ it goes no further. So go on, now. All y’all.”
As the ponies in front of her looked at one another uncertainly, she repeated, “Go on, now.”
There were murmurings and general misgivings, but ultimately the room emptied and the door closed again, leaving the four ladies and the huge stallion alone. Just outside the door, Fluttershy could be heard, her stern little voice lecturing everypony there that she would brook no interference in the family’s privacy.
“In hindsight, I guess we shoulda had this talk before,” Granny admitted. “But, all right then.”
She took in a deep breath, let it go.
At last, she said, “Applejack, Apple Bloom, Big Mac… let’s talk about John.”

Meanwhile, a bard and his apprentice were walking through a field of dry grass beneath a black velvet sky, Ponyville far behind them.
“Hey, John?”
“Yes, ma’am?”
“Is it okay if I call ya grampa?”
He smiled warmly at the filly walking next to him, moonlight painting his coat purest silver, his mane and tail black as a starless night. “Nothin’ would make me happier.”
The wind swirled around them, full of autumn’s promise. It drew up the leaves, making them dance around the pair, up and out of sight, towards the very moon.