The Mountain Elder stood on top of a large boulder and watched as his pack spread out in search of the two small creatures that had eluded them. The larger one, he didn’t particularly care about: it was the small one that he wanted.
His ears were still ringing from the horribly shrill cry of the fluffy, little puffball. It had hurt, and he intended to deal with it the same way he dealt with all things that had hurt him over the years: smash it, crush it, pound it into a squishy mass of wet pulp, and then smash it some more.
As he stood distracted in thoughts of pulverization, Sweetie Belle crept up to the top of a nearby hill, watching the trolls mill about. Soon as she was sure none was close by, she stood up and composed herself, inhaling deeply until her lungs were filled to bursting...
... and screamed.
Unlike her earlier cry, which had come at impulse, this was a well-planned and fully intentional shriek designed to infuriate in the way only little children can. Keening and twice as loud as before, every troll within the considerable range of earshot roared in pain as sharp soprano slivers pierced their tiny brains.
Sweetie Belle didn’t let up. Inhaling again, she continued the screech, bellowing at the top of her little lungs. Spent again, she breathed in and was just about to let loose a third when all hell broke loose.
Throwing reason to the wind, the Mountain Elder roared like a wild animal, flecks of foam flying from his mouth as he charged the hill. The trolls around him, equally enraged, followed their leader and stampeded up the slope, fully intent on squashing the pink and purple fluff ball into oblivion.
“Here they come!” Sweetie Belle cried out as she turned around and slid down the other side of the hill to where Graves stood waiting. With a quick hop, the little girl jumped onto the marshal’s back and he took off, racing through the woods with spell gun in hand and child in tow. The trolls crested the hill and were soon thundering after them with the furious Mountain Elder leading the charge. Sparing a moment to glance back over his shoulder, Graves almost smiled.
“You sure this is a good idea?” Sweetie Belle called out, the wind whipping her hair back and forth as she clung to the marshal’s back. “I mean, won’t it be kind of dangerous?”
“Probably,” the marshal replied as he leaped over a small creek. Then after a moment of thought, he amended his answer. “Actually, definitely.”
Graves just chuckled and kept on running.
With the little girl on his back instead of under one arm, the marshal now ran much more comfortably and his long, powerful strides propelled them forward at breakneck speeds. Leaping gullies and winding between ancient trees, Sweetie Belle hung on for dear life as they veritably flew through the forest. Of course, they didn't fly so fast as to lose their pursuer, and the bestial cries of the troll pack could clearly be heard along with the sound of cracking wood and tearing foliage.
It was all part of the plan: their crazy, risky, dangerous, and ingeniously simple plan. Sweetie Belle would annoy the trolls, and the trolls would chase after them. Graves would them lead them to the Everfree Forest gorge, the great chasm that served as a moat to the now abandoned castle of the princess sisters. Of course, this stage begged an obvious question: how were they going to lead the trolls in? If they turned, then the trolls would turn with them. They couldn’t fly, and the gorge was way too big to jump across. Obviously, that left only one solution: they would simply have to go in too.
“You ready, Miss Sweetie Belle?” Graves called as they broke the tree line and found themselves at the precipice of the canyon, a great gash of earth near thirty paces wide and thrice as deep. The little girl gulped.
“Not really,” she replied. “Actually, do you think maybe we could hide out again and come up with a different plan?” At that moment, the Mountain Elder burst forth amidst an explosion of splintered wood as the rest of the trolls formed a massive grey wall charging right behind him.
“Sorry, time’s up." Graves waited till the trolls were almost on top of them before rushing towards the chasm’s edge. With the trolls in hot pursuit, he dashed towards the canyon, Sweetie Belle’s eyes growing steadily wider and wider the closer they got. Putting on a final burst of speed, Graves ran straight for the precipice, planted his foot right on the edge of cliff and leaped out over the great abyss.
Sweetie Belle screamed again as the two of them sailed through the air with nothing beneath them save wind and roiling mists. With the fresh burst of pain that accompanied the little girl’s cry, the Mountain Elder roared and leaped after them, arms milling in midair and reaching out with a gigantic hand to crush the irritant once and for all.
It never reached.
Bringing up his glowing rifle forward and taking aim, Graves pulled the trigger and a translucent, silver spike burst forth from the barrel, followed by a similarly ephemeral silver chain. Flying across the canyon, the spike buried itself deep into the trunk of a nearby tree from which Graves and Sweetie Belle swung just out of reach.
And so, the Mountain Elder missed, his hand a mere foot or two shy as his prey eluded him, leaving the behemoth to plummet roaring into the misty depths below. Him, and his entire pack as well, as the entire group had loyally followed their leader and jumped straight off the cliff’s edge after him and into the gorge.
All according to plan.
Finally swinging to a halt, Graves pulled the trigger again, and the spell chain began slowly retracting back into the gun as it pulled him and his little ward up along with it. Reaching the lip of the canyon, Graves wearily pulled himself over as an equally exhausted Sweetie Belle fell off and lay out huffing and puffing in the grass beside him.
“That… went pretty well,” Graves panted, catching his breath after the intense footrace he’d just been through. “Good plan, Miss Sweetie Belle.”
“Well, my plan didn’t exactly involve trying to fly without wings,” she gasped. “But… yeah, I guess it did go pretty well.”
“So, you’re not still upset about things up earlier?” the marshal asked as an amused twinkle in his usually cloudy grey eyes. Sweetie Belle beamed.
“Nope. I did mess up, but I learned from them and got better afterwards.” Graves chuckled and ruffled her fluffy head.
“You sure did.”
“In fact,” Sweetie Belle continued, sitting up and turning to him with big, sparkling eyes, “I think I got so much better, that I could probably help you out on your next job too! We could be partners! What do you think, Mister Graves? Wouldn’t I make a really good marshal?”
Graves just stared at her for a moment, and then pulled his hat low over his face to hide his weary smile.
The oven dinged, and Rarity smiled as she pulled out the baked custard and let its rich, sweet aroma fill the house.
Despite her panic from earlier in the day, work on the expo display had gone exceedingly well, daresay even swimmingly. Not only had she finished the splendid dress she’d been planning all along, she’d even had time to design a matching handbag and headdress to go with it, all before afternoon tea.
“I do hope Sweetie Belle makes it back in time for dinner,” Rarity softly tutted as she sprinkled sugar over the custard. “I’d hate for her to miss out, especially today.”
The young beauty had felt quite guilty about asking her little sister for the day to work, especially when she hadn’t even needed the whole day to finish. So, in the extra time she had, Rarity had begun preparing a big welcome dinner with all of Sweetie Belle’s favorites: fresh cucumber salad, spaghetti with marinara and alfredo sauce, toasted garlic bread, and of course, crème brûlée for dessert.
Knocking at the door brought Rarity out from the kitchen, ready to welcome back her little sister. Once she opened the door however, her broad smile was quickly replaced by a cry of shock.
“My goodness, Sweetie Belle!” she gasped as a hand flew to her open mouth. “What happened to you?”
“Hiya, Rarity!” her little sister beamed from under a thick coating of dust, twigs and leaves sticking out from the messy tangles of her hair. “Guess what? I caught trolls today! Lots of 'em!”
“Hamasaywha?” Rarity babbled, still stunned by her sister’s appearance. Behind the little girl, Graves tipped his hat and the small gesture sent dust billowing from clothes so covered in dirt that it was hard to tell what brown was leather and what was earth.
“It’s true,” he nodded. “Miss Sweetie Belle here helped me capture a whole pack of mountain trolls. Not bad for a first timer.”
“Ah, I see,” Rarity replied, her smile returning and only a slight twitch betraying her usual discomfort at being around so much muck. “Well then, once you get cleaned up, you can tell me all about it over dinner. I made all your favorites.”
“Oh boy!” Sweetie Belle squealed in delight. “Can Mister Graves join us for dinner too?”
“I probably should be–” he began, but was quickly cut off.
“That’s a splendid idea!” Rarity agreed. “How about it marshal? Won’t you join us for dinner?”
Graves hesitated, but between the young beauty smiling at him and the little girl beaming up at him, what could he say?
“Much obliged,” he replied with another tip of his hat.
After Sweetie Belle bounded up the stairs to get changed – after she properly wiped her feet down, of course – Rarity ushered Graves into the boutique.
“Now, just hand me your garments once you’ve undressed,” the seamstress said as she directed him to the silk screen he was now growing familiar with, “and I’ll have them looking good as new.”
“Can’t you just do it now?” the marshal asked, still uncomfortable with the idea of getting naked in even a semi-public area.
“One would think, but I’ve found that a person can often cause magical interference with the spells.” Here, she added a wry smile. “You only need one customer to run screaming out of your store with bright blue skin to learn that lesson.
“… I’ll go get changed.”
As the marshal’s clothes went over, Rarity took them and replaced them with a warm, damp towel.
“I’m sorry it’s not a full shower,” Rarity apologized as she pulled out her wand, “but I only have one restroom, and Sweetie Belle looked absolutely dreadful.”
“No worries,” Graves called out, enjoying the soft touch of the quality terrycloth. “I’ve had worse, trust me.”
“Ah, I keep forgetting,” the young lady replied with a touch of musical laughter in her voice. “The big, strong marshal is used to roughing it like a manly man, isn't he?”
“So kind of you to notice,” Grave dryly answered while a small grin tugged at the corner of his mouth.
Once the marshal was dressed sans the coat and hat, which Rarity hung on a nearby rack, and Sweetie Belle came bounding down the stairs – clean but hair still damp from her hasty wash – the three settled down in the kitchen to a truly spectacular meal. Seamstress though she was, Rarity apparently applied her meticulous attention to detail to food as well, and Graves devoured the delicious cooking almost as fast as the cotton candy headed girl. Almost.
As they ate, the little lady regaled her big sister on their day’s adventure. Between every bite, she talked about their various daring escapades, embellishing and spicing things up in the way only children with active imaginations can. Rarity listened in fascination, gasped at all the appropriate times, and cheered her little sister’s successes just like a good big sister should.
Every now and then, though, Rarity would glance over at Graves, as if to confirm with him whether the story was true: after all, it was kind of hard to believe that they had lured “what must have been hundreds, maybe even thousands of trolls” into the gorge. But save for a few prompts when Sweetie Belle got her story all tangled, the marshal was content to let the little girl have her fun.
Time passed quickly amidst the laughter and chatter, and it wasn’t long before the stars began peeking out from under the veil of Luna’s night sky. As the hour grew late, the day’s excitement began to take its toll on Sweetie Belle; her head and eyes began to droop heavily, and by the time dessert came about, the little girl was almost asleep in the custard.
“Now Sweetie Belle,” Rarity chided gently, “I think it’s about time you headed off to bed.”
“But I’m not sleepy,” the little girl protested, stifling a yawn as she rubbed at her eyes.
“I know, but you have to get your beauty sleep,” her sister countered. “We’re going to have a big day tomorrow at the Canterlot Fashion Expo, remember?”
“Oh yeah,” Sweetie Belle smiled dreamily. She’d been having so much fun today, she’d completely forgotten about all the fun she would have the day after.
“Right. Now, let’s get you ready for bed, dear.”
Under her older sister’s watchful eye, Sweetie Belle got up from the table and began to trundle towards the stairs. However, just before she left, her head perked up. Turning around, the little girl went to the marshal where he sat at the table and stood on tiptoes to plant a quick kiss on his cheek.
“Thanks for playing with me today, Mister Graves,” she said as she hugged his neck with a tired, but happy smile. “I had a lot of fun.”
With that, the little girl wobbled off, climbing the stairs and leaving a surprised Rarity and an even more surprised Graves in the dining room below.
“… That was unexpected,” the young man said dumbly. Rarity simply laughed and put a kettle on the stove for tea.
“She certainly has taken to you, hasn’t she?” the young lady remarked as she retook her seat at the table. Hands folded under her chin, Rarity gazed across the table at Graves, smiling gently while appraising him with her eyes. Her big, beautiful, deep blue sapphire blue eyes.
“You think she’s pretty too, don’t you?”
Graves twitched as Sweetie Belle’s meddlesome question from earlier resurfaced with an unpleasant jolt.
“Something wrong?” Rarity asked, her gaze unwavering.
“Uh… no, nothing,” Graves replied lamely. The unfortunate memory made him painfully aware that yes, Rarity was in fact a very attractive young lady. This in turn made him fully cognizant that at that precise moment, it was just him and said very attractive young lady. Alone. At night. Not exactly the most welcome of realizations.
“So… what were you saying about Miss Sweetie Belle?” Graves asked, hoping to hide his sudden awkwardness with more conversation. He winced and prayed that his question hadn’t sounded as stiff as it had felt.
“I was just surprised how fond my little sister was of you,” Rarity replied as she stood up, the whistling tea kettle providing a merciful distraction for the uncomfortable marshal. “You might not realize it, but besides her close friends Scootaloo and Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle’s actually quite shy.”
“You don’t say?” Graves breathed in relief, but also in surprise. He would have never guessed the little girl to be anything but bubbly and upbeat at all times.
“Oh yes indeed,” Rarity nodded as she brought two mugs of steaming jasmine tea to the table and rejoined the marshal. “Why she has the most amazing singing voice I’ve ever heard, but hardly anyone even knows; terrible stage fright, wouldn’t you know?”
“Well I’ll be…”
“That’s Sweetie Belle for you,” the young beauty sighed with a sip of tea and a fond smile. “And I really do want to thank you for taking care of her today.”
“Wasn’t no trouble at all,” Graves replied offhandedly. Rarity shot him a knowing look.
“Marshal, please. I love Sweetie Belle to death, but if there’s one she knows, it’s how to make things… complicated.”
Graves couldn't help but chuckle, a rich, warm baritone that came deep from in his chest.
“Guess I could see that.”
“It’s not that I don’t like having her around, you understand,” the pretty seamstress added hastily, “I just wanted to make sure I could focus on my work. Just for today, you see.”
“No need to explain–” Graves began, but Rarity pressed on.
“I mean, I really do love my sister,” she elaborated, her pace picking up as she continued, “but I also love my work. I want everything I make to be perfect, to really be something that excites people and makes them feel special when they wear it, but in order to do that, I really have to give it my all in every piece I make." By this point, Rarity seemed to be on the verge of babbling, words racing to get out and struggling to form a coherent thought. "I suppose I could get away with doing less – not worry so much about the minute details and what not – but I don't think I'd be able to live with myself. Yes, I would be able to do more without having to drive myself crazy with deadlines and such, but everything would just feel so… incomplete. Do you understand?”"
“…Actually, I do,” Graves nodded, much to the young lady's surprise.
“I do,” he repeated, and for once, he actually did. Well, not really about the clothing part, but that was beside the point.
“Don’t know much about fashion,” he began, leaning slightly forward in his seat, “but it must mean something to you. Well, more than that; I’m guessing it is you, or at least a big part, anyways. For you, making clothes is less about a pretty dress and more about... doing what you were made to do. It's who you are, and giving anything less just feels like cheating who really are. Am I right?”
Rarity simply stared at him for moment in wide-eyed astonishment.
“Why, yes, that’s it,” she remarked in quiet disbelief. “That’s exactly what I was trying to say.”
“Told you I understood,” the marshal smirked, his usually somber grey eyes now twinkling like silver stars as he took a sip of his tea.
“But how did you know?” the young lady asked. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you are a man, and not one that I’d peg as very in touch with his more emotional side, so to speak.”
“Like I said, I don’t know fashion,” he shrugged. “But when people talk about something really important to them, eh... you can just tell.”
“And you could tell that about me when I was talking about my work?” she asked.
“Your sister, too,” Graves replied with another sip of tea. “Obvious you care about them both a lot.”
Rarity relaxed and tension seemed to visibly drain out of her body. It was as if a weight had been lifted from her slender shoulders and now she sat more easily than she had before.
“You really are a remarkable man, Graves,” she smiled warmly. The young man swallowed and instantly started feeling quite hot around the collar: she really was a very pretty girl and a smile like that only magnified the fact tenfold.
“Wasn’t nothing special,” he mumbled, wishing very much for his hat so he could hide his flush face behind it. Barring that, a quick glance at the clock gave him another convenient escape.
“But I should probably go,” he said, putting down his mug and standing up. “You have a busy day ahead of you tomorrow.”
“Yes, I suppose I do,” Rarity agreed. “We’ll be gone for a few days, but when we get back, I simply must find an appropriate way to thank you for all your help.”
“Miss Rarity, there’s no need–” He was cut off by an admonishing finger.
“Just Rarity. There’s no need for formality among friends, now is there?”
“… Rarity,” he corrected himself, the name feeling slightly foreign without the honorific attached. “Like I said, there’s no need. I just help out when I'm needed.”
“Well, in that case,” Rarity replied with a mischievous grin, “I just so happen to need a companion for lunch the day after I return from Canterlot. Would you be a dear and help me out with that too?” Here, the young beauty batted her long eyelashes at him with a much too innocent smile.
“Er… well, if you need a–”
“Really, now Graves,” she chided. “Declining a lady’s invitation? I would have expected that the marshals would be a little more well-mannered than that.”
“We are! I’ll go!” Graves hastily agreed, only realizing a moment too late that he’d done exactly as the pretty seamstress had wanted all along. She just chuckled, the sound like crystal chimes dancing in the breeze.
“There. That wasn't so hard was it?”
Escorting him to the door, Rarity helped him slip on his leather coat before placing the broad, flat-brimmed hat on his head. As she did, her big blue eyes locked onto his gunmetal greys, appraising him with that same twinkling look from earlier, only now from barely a foot away.
Graves quickly turned to pick up his rifle, breaking the connection as he felt his cheeks growing hot again. Eye contact with any sort of lady made him nervous, and Sweetie Belle’s confounded questions made it doubly so with Rarity.
“Thanks for dinner,” he nodded, stepping out into the cool evening air before turning back to his hostess in hopes that the darkness would hide his flush. “It was… really good.”
“You’re welcome any time,” Rarity smiled. Quickly though, a devilish tint came into that smile, a spark of mischief that had Graves seen it, would have worried him more than any ten packs of trolls.
“So, we’ll do lunch once I return, yes?” she asked, her face now an expression of pure, harmless inquiry.
“If that’s what you want,” the marshal shrugged. “Where and when?”
“Let’s say… noon in four days at the Sweetwater Café?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Excellent,” Rarity said, then let out a light yawn. “Well, I do have a long day ahead of me, so I really should turn in.”
“In that case, good night… Rarity,” he replied, tripping slightly over the name.
“Good night, Graves,” she replied as she smiled much, much too innocently. “I’ll be looking forward to our date.”
Graves nodded and turned to go, but suddenly froze as his brain processed the last statement. Sure he had misheard, the young man spun around with wide-eyed alarm and called out:
“Wait, what did you–”
That was all he got before the door gently closed in his face.
To Be Continued
The Journey of Graves will continue with the fourth story: Two Kinds of Complications