• Published 23rd Oct 2012
  • 3,304 Views, 85 Comments

Princess Luna Picks Up Hitchhikers - horizon



And learns important life lessons, somewhere in between everything going wrong.

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Leafy Greens

"What's on your mind?"

Naturally, she asks me halfway through a large mouthful of spinach. I gesture to my muzzle and chew. Celestia watches quietly, a smile creeping across her lips.

The silence stretches out. I shrug helplessly and make exaggerated chewing motions. She suppresses a giggle. I barely manage to keep spinach from spraying out my nose. Then she snickers, and I am straining not to gag on my food, keeping it still in my mouth until I can bring the shakes of withheld laughter under control.

I swallow. "Tia," I say, in playful disapproval.

"It was an honest question." She takes a small bite of her own greens. "You've been rather quiet since Nightmare Night."

It is a fair observation, if an uncomfortable one. To give myself a moment to think, I float up a carnation and take a nibble, rolling the spicy petals around in my muzzle. I breathe in through my nose to savor the scent as I grind the colorful treat between my teeth. I swallow. She remains silent.

"No offense to thee, beloved sister," I say quietly, looking down at my plate, "but ... I am beginning to regret having returned to Canterlot."

She clears her throat. I look up. She is staring at me pointedly. My heart stops for a moment, until I remember.

I close my eyes. "No offense to you." When I look at her again, her face has returned to its typical mask of mild maternal amicability.

"None taken, of course." She lifts a second helping of the sautéed coriander eggplant to her plate. "Then go back."

The suggestion is so casual, so cheerful, that I am uncertain how to respond. "But … my duties! Night Court, and trade negotiations, and the upcoming soirees to which I have committed —"

"All the more reason to go. You hate all those things."

"I do," I say desperately, "but I am trying, Tia! How can I return to thy side as regent of the night if I cannot meet the obligations of nobility?"

"How," she asks calmly, a touch of a smile playing at her lips, "can you rule ponies who your every duty makes you resent?"

My mind knows it is not a rebuke, but my heart cannot accept that. My eyes fill with tears. I am about to whirl and flee the table when Tia brings a hoof to my withers.

"Luna." Her voice is gentle, loving. "Please … listen to me. I've seen all your hard work to fit in to the modern world. I trust with all my heart that the Nightmare has been banished from yours. Never think that I doubt you." She leans forward and brushes the side of her muzzle against mine in an old and intimate sororal gesture.

"But I have also seen how Canterlot tears you apart," she whispers. "I will not make the mistake again of ignoring your self-sacrifice while you are surrounded ceaselessly by ponies who haven't discovered the beauty and wonder within you."

"Tia …"

"Canterlot is an arrogant place, and slow to change. We must not forget that it is not the whole of Equestria, nor the most important of those who we serve. No matter what those who cling to titles and fancy themselves our equals may wish to think." She stares straight into my eyes and smiles. "Have you found joy in the world beyond the palace? Then by all means, take some time to visit your friends. Our most fundamental duty is to care about those we guide — without that, any bureaucracy or diplomacy or hierarchy is meaningless."

I do cry, then, but it is in catharsis, not pain. She holds me quietly until my shakes subside.

* * *

The prospect of returning to Ponyville so thrills me that I have packed within the hour. I commission two Night Guard and a chariot, throw my luggage into the carrier rack, and set off under the blazing sun.

But it is a long trip, and despite my excitement, sleep overtakes me.

"Princess?" A voice cuts through my dreams. "We are approaching Ponyville." The afternoon sun is in my eyes as I open them; I blink spots out of my vision and lunge to my hooves, staring over the side of the vehicle at the land hurtling by below.

There they are again! — The endless apple groves! The wild growth of the Everfree! In the distance, a small cluster of buildings crowds around the soaring pinnacle of Town Hall. My heartbeat quickens. And there — in the road far below us, straining against the corner of a cart of vegetables, wrestling to drag a wheel into place with her mouth, is a grey earth pony with brown hair topped by a dashing western hat.

"Ah!" I cry. I would recognize that hat anywhere; it is the Element of Honesty! "Polar Star! Fireball! Land there, at the cart!" We have not even reached town and I have already chanced upon one of the friends I came here to see!

We are hardly halfway to the ground before I realize: in my sleep-haze, I have made an egregious error. The Element of Honesty is a mare of orange coat and flaxen mane, and there is no reason that the cart of an apple orchard's owner would contain a late harvest of arugula. I squint and look closer. The grey pony is not even a mare!

To compound my embarrassment, at that moment he chances to look skyward, and spies our descent. His eyes widen, and he stares slack-jawed at our arrival. My desire to correct my error and fly onward vanishes like the last dew of moonset; he is clearly in need of aid, and to willfully reverse course would provide a poor impression which my shaky reputation cannot afford. I remain silent as my guards carry out our spiraling descent.

He has thrown himself to the ground, trembling, long before we land. I hop from the chariot. "Salutations, my little pony. Thou needst not demonstrate thy obeisance. We —" I catch myself, cursing inwardly. "I. I noticed th— your struggle and landed to assist." The lie would prick more at my conscience had it not become truth along the way.

"P-p-pr ..." He swallows, not meeting my gaze, not even daring to stand. "Princess! You're too kind! I, I, don't want to be a b-bother ..."

I give him my best soothing smile. "Arise, and be not gasted. What woe betides your cart?" (I remembered the correct pronoun! I am making progress.)

He stands at my command, trembling. "I-i-i, ah, it threw a w-wheel in a rut in the dried m-mud."

"Oh-ho! That is easily repaired."

It is not, as it turns out. The axle sits too low to remount the wheel. My magic — which will take another decade, or more, to fully recover from the flensing of the Elements of Harmony — is insufficient on its own to lift the fully laden cart. After some discussion, Fireball and the farmer step in, brace themselves, and lift; between my horn and their muscles, we barely manage to raise the affected corner.

Polar Star darts in with the wheel, grunts as he shoves ineffectually, and backs away again, frowning. He sets the wheel down, crouches, and peers under the cart. Fireball — who has begun to sweat with exertion; pegasi are not built for feats of strength — shifts his grip to keep his hooves from slipping.

"Well, that tears it," Polar Star mumbles, standing back up. "Axle end's cracked."

"Which means?" I query.

"It won't fit in the wheel hub, not as a field repair."

"Consarnit," the farmer says, releasing the cart. I sigh, and similarly quell my magic.

Fireball — feeling the weight shift, but too focused upon his lifting to see us give up — redoubles his efforts. Then his hoof slides out from underneath him. The cart drops back to level all at once, yanking his body down with it. He grunts. His eyes bulge.

Polar Star notices. "… Fireball?"

My other guard releases what I can only assume to be a colorful epithet, pressing a hoof to his back. The muzzles of the uninjured stallions flush. The farmer goes rigid, his eyes darting back and forth between myself and my fallen attendant.

I quickly conclude that my most important contribution to this sudden farce is to maintain my royal bearing, reassuring the earth pony that the situation remains under control. Calmly, I walk around to the rear of my chariot, extracting a portmanteau from the bottom of the stack of luggage. I open it, fish from it a leather-bound tome, and quickly scan through the pages, holding it in hornglow. Fireball bites back another curse, flopping down upon the earth, breathing in short, controlled gasps.

After double-checking the spellbook's contents, I snap it shut and return it to storage. "Fie! I did not think to bring a spell of mending."

The farmer swallows. "I-it's alright, Your Highness, th-there's a hospital in Ponyville."

"I was referring to thine axle."

Polar Star looks at me incredulously, opens his mouth, but reconsiders before speaking. I give him a quizzical glance. He straightens up into attention, eyes focusing into the middle distance.

"The Night Guard are ponies of consummate dedication and professionalism," I continue. "Worry thou not …" Agh! I am slipping again. "Worry you not about his health. We needs must resolve your quandary."

"Oh, n-no, I couldn't. I'll just g-go to town for a new one thank you goodbye."

"I insist." I restack the luggage and wingpoint him to the chariot. "Come. We shall provide you with transportation into Ponyville."

Polar Star glances at me, the farmer, at Fireball prone upon the ground, and at the lead of the chariot. He wilts.

Frantic words burst forth from the farmer as if a dam broke. "A-actually your highness I just remembered I shouldn't go if I leave the c-cart here all the vegetables will get eaten!" He points at the grass at the side of the road, where a small army of woodland foragers, nose to the air, are following the scent of fresh greens. Dozens of beady little eyes meet ours, and their stealthy forward motions freeze.

I brighten. This, at least, is a simple puzzle.

I step forward, horn shimmering, and Fireball's form lifts with a yelp of surprise. (I am careful not to aggravate his injury.) I set him on his hooves, then lean forward and touch his armor with my horn, activating the latent spell embedded within all Night Guards.

Of a sudden, the area darkens. Dark fog pours out from Fireball's body, which jerks as energy surges through it. There is a roll of phantom thunder. His wings snap outward to full extension, feathers melding into a smooth leathery surface, body hardening and taking on a gleaming cast matching the armor. His head spasms back, then whips forward, pupils elongated into slits, teeth lengthening into wicked points, air rushing out of his lungs in a draconic hiss.

Within an eye-blink, there is not a woodland creature within sight.

‹‹suɹnʇǝɹ ɹɐʇs ɹɐlod lıʇun ʇɹɐɔ ǝɥʇ ɥʇıʍ uıɐɯǝɹ,›› I command in the guttural growl of the First Tongue, ‹‹ʞɔɐq ǝƃuɐɥɔ uǝɥʇ.›› Except for a twitch of wing-tips in acknowledgement, the creature that was once Fireball does not move. It will not, save to follow my order. The ancient magics have metamorphosed him into a Lunar Knight — a magical chimæra with no volition nor independent thought. The rigid scales of its augmented form will brace Fireball's injury, and it will feel no pain — nor even awareness of the passage of time — until fulfillment of my order reverts the spell.

"Now then, good farmer —" I say, turning back to him cheerfully.

The earth pony has fainted dead away.

* * *

I touch his consciousness with the subtle brush of my magic when we are comfortably on our way to Ponyville. He groans and struggles to awareness, eyes opening to see the orchards and fields passing by alongside, the road rolling underneath. (It is a slower, rougher journey than I had hoped, but I did not wish to risk another injury by having Polar Star pull the weight of two ponies through the air.)

He sees me. He is instantly awake. I incline my head in acknowledgement, sitting regally opposite.

He bolts upright, avoiding my gaze.

I politely await his verbal acknowledgement.

He clears his throat and doffs his hat, but says nothing.

I look out at the scenery.

He looks out the other way.

I examine a solleret, blowing some trail dust off of it.

He rotates his hat in his forehooves.

"So —" I state, as he turns to me and says "Um —"

I stop and nod, graciously yielding to his speech. He gives me a look of terror, snapping his muzzle closed.

I smile reassuringly. He smiles back with false cheer and glances around the chariot.

I clear my throat. His entire attention is immediately upon me.

I smile again and incline my head at him. It is a cue to speak, but he does not seem to understand. He fiddles with his hat again. A bead of sweat trickles from his mane.

I give up. "Have —" I begin, just as he finally summons the courage to say "I —"

Silence.

"Have you —" I press on as he tries again: "If —"

I facehoof. "For all stars' love. Speak."

"Your Majesty! No! I couldn't interrupt." He eyes the door of the chariot, presumably calculating the benefits of a premature departure.

I mask a sigh with a smile. "Have you any destination in mind?"

"Th-the edge of town is f-fine."

"No. I insist. 'Tis no added effort to deliver you directly to your destination, and 'twill save you a trot."

"You're too k-kind, Your Majesty." He smiles unsteadily. "I can get what I need at Forge's shop on Meadow Street."

"Ah! Your city's cartwright?"

"No, just a new axle for mine."

I raise an eyebrow, certain I've misheard. He goes rigid again.

I change the subject. "Polar Star! To Meadow Street."

My guard glances back mid-gallop. "Don't know it!"

"S-second right off Larkspur?" the farmer adds. Polar Star shakes his head.

"Perhaps a nearby landmark?" I query.

"It's not far past Quills and Sofas."

Polar Star glances back again. I shrug. He shrugs.

"... The edge of town is f-fine."

"Just so."

We sit in silence.

This is — I am forced to conclude — awkward, even beyond my chariot-guest's obvious terror of Nightmare Moon. My mind asks, unbidden: How would Tia handle this? As much as it grates to follow in her hoofsteps, right now I could use her experience. Time and again I have seen her approach ponies intimidated by her royal presence and nevertheless elicit pleasant conversation. Indeed, I had watched my sister do so just a fortnight past with our new gardener — who had been so overwhelmed by Canterlot's profusion of nobility that at one point we caught her bowing to an ornamental vase.

I close my eyes and summon the memories. Tia sat down with her, smiled, asked her name, and asked about the progress of her duties — putting her on familiar ground, as it were. Then Tia coaxed out some of her opinions on the finer details of horticulture; then, discussion of her family; and from there of her hobbies … exactly the base trivialities that so numb me at the endless galas and dinner parties of the Canterlot elite.

Well, I think, I have endured such idle chatter enough. If it calms down this poor stallion, surely I may bear it once more.

I clear my throat again, and force my most calm and regal smile. "My little pony, I apologize for my poor manners. I have yet to inquire of thy name."

The question appears to catch him off guard. "Leafy Greens, your majesty."

'Tis a start! I nod encouragingly. "Thy talent, then, lies in thy agriculture?"

"Yes, your majesty."

"Thou needst — you need not call me that. My name is Luna."

"O-of course." I wait for a moment to see if he has more to add, but he turns and stares out at the scenery.

"I admit I am poorly versed in modern methods of farming," I say conversationally. "Have they changed greatly?"

"… What?"

"In the, er," and I realize as I say it how ludicrous a topic it must sound, "thousand years since my departure."

The terror is creeping back upon his face, but he responds. "We, uh, plant seeds. The pegasi bring rain. The princess raises the sun. So, pretty much the same, I guess?"

I let slide the sting of Celestia's singular title. "Once," I say brightly, "before the reign of Discord, 'twas the unicorns who controlled the heavens."

"Oh?" he says.

"Truly."

All of these pauses are giving me occasion to note a minor squeak in the chariot's axle. I shall have to mention it to Polar Star upon our arrival in town.

"I guess I always knew they were good for somethin'," he jests. His delivery is desperate, and his smile a rictus, but it clearly is an attempt at humor.

I giggle politely. He relaxes infinitesemally. Our idle chatter is serving its intended purpose!

"In truth, I am here to visit a unicorn."

His face blanches. Oh, feathers.

"Twilight Sparkle," I say hurriedly. "The bearer of the Element of Magic."

"Oh!" he says. "Yeah. The librarian."

"Yes!" I blurt out.

Squeak, squeak, go the wheels.

"… Do you share her fondness for books, then?"

He fidgets. "Ain't never been much for them."

Squeak. Squeak. It is wondrous how such a subtle sound can get so under one's coat.

Our topic is clearly insufficient to the task at hoof. I withdraw and start over: "How has your harvest been this season?"

"Uh … okay!" he says, voice slamming half an octave upward, pupils shrinking. Even to me — a thousand years out of practice at the subtleties of communication — the lie is obvious.

I attempt to coax the truth out via gentle redirection: "Rather late in the season for arugula, is it not? Greens spoil so easily in the deep autumn frosts."

He is thrown. His eyes dart around. "They … they do."

"I cannot imagine you would plan to raise it for the late harvest."

He rotates his hat in his hooves again. "Can't rightly say I did, your highn… Luna."

I smile. "Come now. Agriculture requires making the best of a thousand little factors outside of any one pony's control. There is no shame in a difficult year."

"Course not," he agrees readily, making his reticence all the more a mystery.

"Leafy Greens," I say, my gentleness slipping. "What happened to thy early autumn crop?"

"… Lost it."

The squeaking may drive me to madness before he does.

"Why?"

His look gets more frantic, and he edges toward the door. I pin him down with a questioning stare.

"No water," he says.

I frown. "Are the Ponyville pegasi not performing their duties?"

"They're fine!" he squeaks. He points at Ponyville in the far distance. "L-look, we're here, I'll just g-go get my axle —"

"Sit down," I thunder. He complies, looking much as the Element of Kindness did on Nightmare Night.

"Leafy Greens," I continue, less royally, "the foundation of Equestria's prosperity rests upon a reliable and abundant food source. We take seriously the agriculture of our subjects, and desire to rectify thy difficulties. Tell us why thy fields lie in drought."

"... .... ..... ..," he mouths.

"What?"

"Youtoldthemto I'mnotcomplaining pleasedon'tbanishme!" He cowers.

"… What?"

"Royal decree Everfree project waiver rejected!" he wails.

I stare, open-mouthed. The pieces fall into place.

The Everfree Reclamation Project had been one of the first programs instituted under my seal. It was an ambitious plan to change the weather patterns to choke back the overgrowth, and then begin bleeding off the excess magical contamination from the War, pushing back the boundaries of the wilds. Tia and I had spent months combing through the plan to stamp out any problems. I had been so proud.

"The Minister of Agriculture's final report confirmed that all affected farmers were given relocation assistance," I say numbly.

"I tried to buy new acreage with the resettlement scrip, but land prices soared after the Princess' visits brought thousands of tourists into Ponyville."

"But ... if thou couldst not relocate, why would they not grant thee an exemption for localized rainfall?"

"I'm right on the forest's edge."

"Irrigation?"

"I dug all the ditches, but a week later the Ponyville Reservoir was emptied for cloud production."

I feel a sharp sting of guilt. I had personally signed that order after the Element of Loyalty wrote me a heartfelt letter begging for a chance to break the wingpower record.

The squeak of the axle turns accusatory.

"We," I stammer in a most base and unprincesslike fashion, "we did not know."

He looks away. "It's alright," he says faintly.

"No. No, Leafy Greens, it is not." I can hear a fiery edge in my voice that surprises even myself. "Thou wilt tell Forge that the bill for thy replacement axle is to be sent to Canterlot under our name. Then we will personally direct our steward to investigate the loss of thy crops. There is a mitigation fund for such purposes; he will assist thee in lodging a claim. Finally, we will direct the Minister of Agriculture to reassess the relocation assistance budget in light of local economic disturbances, and if the purchase of land remains too costly, we will introduce a bill into the House of Lords to authorize use of thy scrip for the wells and pumps required for aquifer irrigation."

"I," he says. "I." He swallows. "Thank you, Your Highness."

"Are there any others similarly affected?"

"Er ... twenty-one farms, I think?"

I can feel my eyes bug out. "A full score?! Wherefore didst thou not bring thy grievances to Night Court?"

"We didn't think there was a point," he says. "I mean … who listens to ponies like us?"

* * *

Although it is good to see the Bearers of the Elements again, my mind remains restless. Late into the night, when Laughter's welcome party has wound down, I excuse myself into Twilight's darkened study, where the only noise to distract me is the snoring of her bound companion. I quietly borrow a quill and scroll, sit at her desk, and write.

Write and write. The entire tale of the encounter, six pages' worth.

The next morning, as I am preparing for slumber, Polar Star quietly enters my sleeping-room in the library's basement. He presents me a slightly damp scroll, wipes some green phlegm from the corners of his muzzle, and departs with all the dignity he can muster.

I break the seal, holding it in horn, and read:

Dearest Luna,

I am so proud of you. It is a rare and precious ruler who understands what her decisions mean to those without a voice.

Tia

My eyes fill with happy tears. My heart fills with purpose. I returned to Ponyville for friendship, but there was something more important here which I had never even thought to discover.

I know now what I must do.

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