• Published 4th Jun 2013
  • 4,249 Views, 172 Comments

The Stone - Martian

Hard lives breed hard ponies, whether by choice or by need.

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Chapter 2 - The Hills

Big Macintosh! Land sakes, it must have been nigh on ten years since I saw you last! Do you think you can get any bigger?”

The bombastic voice arrived with its own pressure wave, loud enough to set Mac’s ears to ringing. It shattered the surly mood that had been starting to creep up on him and left the big stallion grinning.

“I think I’m done growing, uncle.”

“HAH! So you say! You’ll be leaving here twice as wide, and don’t you think I’m kidding! Your aunt figured out a new sugar pie recipe, and I’ll bet bits to burrs that she’s gonna be stuffing you full of it. You’ll be rolling your way home!”

Great-Uncle Turnover didn’t have volume control; whether you were across a field or across the room, he was going to shout at you in his big, jolly voice. He was of a stature to match his personality- a big, brown-coated stallion with the kind of beard you could lose a rat in. His cream-coloured mane had settled on being snowy white now and his once-powerful muscles had run mostly to fat, but there was no denying his presence and certainly not when his great voice was booming orders over his Hills.

The big old pony marched down off the porch of the homestead as Mac drew his cart up alongside the half-dozen others that were parked before it. He barely had time to get unharnessed before Turnover reached him and wrapped a huge hoof around his great-nephew’s neck, dragging Macintosh into a playful headlock-slash-embrace, complete with noogie. Turnover was one of those ponies who might look to have gotten soft with age, but had in fact turned to teakwood, or possibly concrete. Macintosh might have been able to break the lock if he had really tried, but it would have been a close-run thing, even with Turnover being near four times Mac’s age.

“Hah! Great seeing you again, pup!” Turnover let Mac go, and both were grinning like anything. “Rolled in just in time to see your cousins!”

“Noticed,” said Mac, nodding towards the number of wagons as he did his best to straighten his mane, though it was never really a tidy thing to begin with. “Building a barn?”

“I never understood how the Ponyville Apples could go through barns like they were made of paper! No; our cherries got hit with some blasted woodrot over the winter. Half our sweet reds are only good for firewood now; I drummed up the families last week to help get to cuttin’ and clearin’.”

Mac winced; it was never good to hear of that kind of problem, even if Turnover Hills did have three different types of crop growing at any one time as a safety net. “Shame,” he said.

Turnover shrugged one great shoulder, “Not so bad, really! I was thinking of trying on something different for a hobby in my old age. Maybe hop vines or somesuch- would have needed some clearing anyway. Saves money on firewood this winter, too. Who’s your pretty friend?”

It took Big Mac a second to realise that Trixie had in fact followed him to the farm. The mare was glancing abount with a look that might have been a mix of something between disdain and wonder.

Well, the homestead at Turnover Hills was sat right in the very center of their fields, which meant there were things growing and blossoming and being tended to in every direction up and down the lazily rolling terrain. Even the most jaded and nature-fearing city slicker couldn’t help but feel a bit awed by the scenery, though Trixie was doing her best to try not to gawk.

Still, so taken was she by the sight that she nearly jumped out of her skin when Turnover greeted her, his world-shaking voice causing a few things in her cart to rattle and quite possibly fall off shelves.

Howdy missy! Welcome to my Hills!

She recovered magnificently, as genuine a smile as Mac had ever seen blooming across her face, her voice sweet as treacle. “And what lovely hills they are, sir! I’ve passed by on the road before, but never while the trees were in bloom.”

Delighted to have someone new to shout at, Turnover ambled towards Trixie, helping her disengage from the harness of her wagon. “You’re much too kind! I’d try and say something humble, but you’ve seen the place so I ain’t gonna deny it, hah! What’s all this, then?” He was nodding to the side of Trixie’s wagon, where in bold, curling letters she had spelled out her full title in blue paint. “The Great and Powerful, eh? You some kinda travelling performer?”

Trixie had long ago learned to see an opportunity when it presented itself, and this was just such an occasion. She was running low on smoke bombs as it was, but she had done some fast arithmetic when she had spied all the wagons, and the distant shapes of ponies working in the fields. Three dozen or more ponies all in one place... not the biggest audience she had ever had, but country bumpkins were easy to impress and could often be quite generous with their bits. It would mean likely having to stay overnight in their company and listen to them drawl in their silly way, but a hatful of bits was a hatful of bits.

Turnover edged backwards in surprise when the firework went off at Trixie’s hooves, filling the air with a sudden burst of grey smoke.

“No mere performer! You have the pleasure and privilege to behold The Great and Powerful Trixie!”

Yes, she could see she had timed it just right for once; the smoke had neatly concealed her leap to the top of her wagon, the perfect mimic of a teleportation spell, and a swift grab with her magic had deposited her hat atop her head and her cape about her shoulders. A timely gust of wind stirred it just so, giving Trixie the perfect profile of a wise and noble wizard about to perform ground-shaking sorcery.

As it happened, using magic to grab things out of line of sight is tricky, and she was in fact wearing her tablecloth about her shoulders rather than her cape. Still, Trixie was a fair bit clever, and after that had happened once a few months back, she had made sure that most all of the cape-like bits of cloth in her wagon were blue and most of them had some sequins sewn in to give a bit of flash. It wasn’t the star-bedecked glory of her actual cape, but she wasn’t about to admit to failure. Anyways, the old bumpkin looked suitably impressed regardless.

“Hah! Wonderful! Oh you have to stay on for the night; we’re gonna have everyone here for a grand’ol feast.”

Trixie tried on a bit of cunning, waggling one hoof a bit, “Tempting, but I’m not certain I can; I have a schedule that I absolutely must keep, and disappointed audiences really cut into my earnings...”

Turnover waved one soup-plate-sized hoof airily, “I’ll not hear a word against it, missy! We’ll stuff you full of food, loan you a room to sleep in and... we can work out some compensation for your talent, whatsay? I rightly think this will be a good apology for hauling them ponies off their farms to do my work for me, hah!”

Macintosh let out a breath and shook his his head a bit, peering into the back of his cart to make sure his load was still sitting properly. He counted off the saplings and checked them to the list in his head, adjusting one or two with a gentle hoof so they stood up a bit straighter in their wicker pots. They all looked like what one would expect; small trees, frail, just sprouting their first leaves to soak up the warm late-spring sunshine, but there were tiny details in each one that Mac’s practiced eye could spot. The differences in the Golden Delicious and the Braeburn, in the Gala and the Pink Lady, not to mention the subtleties between the Honeygold and Honeycrisp. They were all accounted for and looking healthy still, though their earth was starting to get a bit dry. Mac mentioned this much to Turnover.

“Ah, I’ll get some of the sprouts to see to them, nephew! We can look to the sapling exchange in the morning when everyone’s fresh... or as fresh as they can be after tonight, anyway! I have some apple-cherry hard cider I’ve been nursing since last autumn; should knock a few ponies off their hooves, hah!”

“Fair enough, uncle; I’ll head on out and help, then. Probably a few trees I could buck down for you.”

“No doubt. Try and leave some work for the rest of them though, hey? You’d never think the Apples could get so lazy, hah!”

“Yup.” Mac watched as Trixie carefully negotiated her way down from the roof of her wagon, then shook out his mane and started off towards the orchards, following the sound of axes and cheerful voices that bounced between the trunks and filtered through the trees.

“So what’s your story, missy?” Turnover held out a hoof for Trixie as she descended at last to solid ground. “Chasing after my nephew, are yah?”

To Trixie’s credit, she could read the playful grin through the old pony’s shaggy beard and managed to contain the potential explosion of outrage. “Ah haaa, thank you, no...” She took a moment to remove her hat and set it onto the little peg on the front of her wagon, using the time to diffuse any further chance to ruining a show before it had even started. “Chance met on the road this morning. I’m afraid my cooking pot was ruined and he suggested that his aunt might be able to fix it me for.”

“Ah, you want Rosethorn for that one,” he lowered his voice- well, tried to lower his voice. You might not have been able to hear it across a wide valley. “Tread carefully.”

“I heard that, grandad.”

Turnover straightened up quickly, “Ah, I mean, tread carefully because the paths out here are a bit rutted!”

“Riiiight.” There was a mare with a pale pink coat descending the stairs of the homestead’s porch. She had a plump look about her, though much was hidden beneath her baggy blue shirt and sturdy apron. Several tools were stuck through the pockets set in its front, and her mane was tied back in a tight braid. There was streaks of soot on her cheeks. If there ever was a look that said ‘blacksmith’, she was wearing it.

“Mention the banshee and she does appear,” Turnover muttered, but he was grinning when he said it. “Rosethorn there will be able to help you, missy! Now if you don’t mind, I need to go and make sure those whelps in my orchard are actually earning their seats at the table! If you are wanting for something to do, just ask about: always something worth doing around this place!”

“What he means is,” said Rosethorn as she strolled on by, “He is going to go and stand on the edge of the field and yell at ponies for a bit while they do all the work.”

“Same thing,” chortled Turnover as he ambled off, big hooves crunching on the dirt. He turned his great head and shouted something at the house, which produced a squadron of squealing foals that boiled out the door and ran after the old stallion. The noise was deafening, even at a distance.

“Rosethorn,” said Rosethorn, stopping and nodding towards Trixie’s wagon. “Need something repaired?”

Trixie considered the pony briefly and decided that she was not a pony that would be impressed by flash and dazzle or the regular fencing of words. ‘Blunt as an anvil’ drifted through her mind as she answered, “Trixie, and yes indeed. I was so busy with my arcane studies last night that I had forgotten one of my pots on the fire-”

“Well, bring it over,” said the other pony, starting towards an array of small, open-walled shacks opposite the yard. A pair of chimneys rose above their shared roof, smoke gently curling from them into the sky.

Trixie frowned, somewhat insulted by the curt interruption, but still pulled the destroyed pot from the back of her wagon and followed after the no-nonsense pony.

The prognosis was succinct.

“That’s scrap.”

Trixie sighed and nodded. “I thought so. Do you have any I could buy?”

Rosethorn shrugged a shoulder, doing a few blacksmith things around what Trixie assumed was the forge. It looked something like a round well made of brick, with a few strategically placed holes, metal grates, and hatches set along the bottom. Rather than water, it was filled with coals that glowed red and white in places, and here and there were lengths of metal stuck into the heat for whatever mysterious reason the blacksmith needed them for.

“Have plenty. Take one you like.”

Trixie looked to a bench that sported a number of odds and ends. There were indeed several cauldrons there, simple and rugged in design, and no doubt able to weather a night forgotten on the hottest fire without even noticing the heat. While Rosethorn raked at the coals with some odd tool, Trixie picked out a suitable-looking number with a sturdy iron handle.

“How much for this one?”

“Just take it, I don’t mind.”

Trixie frowned, just a little. “I insist.”

Rosethorn shrugged a shoulder again, and Trixie got the feeling that was her usual method of expression. She looked to be the kind of pony who preferred the company of metal and hammers and heat to other ponies.

“Friend of Mac’s. I don’t need the bits.”

Trixie grit her teeth through her smile, “Look, I have the coin and I am happy to pay.” She wasn’t sure if it was the heat from the forge or from her temper, but there was certainly an edge in her voice that the blacksmith noticed. Rosethorn leveled a look on Trixie. It was quite possibly the most intelligent and knowing look she had ever seen.

“Too proud, huh? Da’s that way. So mam. Most Apples are, really, but even the most stubborn Apple won’t say no to a kind offer.” Rosethorn nodded at the pot in Trixie’s hooves, “If you insist though, that one’s worth thirty bits at market.”

“Twenty,” said Trixie automatically, well versed in the art of market-talk. She was startled to run headlong into a force of will that may as well have been cast from the same metal as the pot.

Thirty. Ain’t bartering: thirty or you take it as a gift. Your choice.”

Trixie started to sputter, but what objections she would have brought to bear were drowned out by the piercing ring of a hammer smashing into red-hot metal. Sparks and scale chipped and danced on the anvil as Rosethorn beat it over and over again with a broad-faced hammer, paying Trixie no mind whatsoever.

She left.

After a short while, Rosethorn set the half-formed horseshoe back into the forge, raking some of the coals over the metal to get the heat good and even. She set her forming hammer back into its place on the rack, then, with the merest hint of a frown, picked up the pot from where it had been dropped and returned it to the bench.

“Big Macintosh!”

The familiar cheer rose from the busy ponies all decorated with wood chips and sawdust. Axes and saws were set down as an impromptu break was called to welcome in yet another family member. Mares and stallions both took turns to shake Mac by the hoof, sharing smiles, bits of news, and a few swallows of sweet cider to wash down the dusty work.

“What brings you all this way, cousin?”

“Might ask you the same, Apple Fritter. I’m running the sapling exchange this time around, so I got the month away.”

The familiar mare grinned, rubbing her nose with the back of one hoof. Her bright green pigtails were stuck through with branches and flower petals and more than a few wood chips. “Pa sprained an ankle last week trying to pull out a stump, the stubborn old coot. I came up to take care of things while he mended and ended up getting lassoed by Uncle.”

“No rest for the Apples, hey?”

“Darn right. Nice time to come, though.”


A few treats were passed around as well, and Mac found himself sporting a boot that happened to be in the shape of a tiny yellow filly with a sunny orange mane. She beamed at him with huge green eyes.

“Hi, Macintosh!”

He grinned back down at her then lifted his big hoof up, the filly clinging tightly to him and giggling the whole time. “You’re here too, Peachy Pie? Where’s your ma?”

A grey hoof wrapped around the filly’s middle and gently pulled her away. “Right here, trying unsuccessfully to keep her daughter from getting underhoof.” The voice was soft and kind, matching the subdued smile on the pretty mare it belonged to.

“Howdy, Inkie. Awfully far from home, aren’t you?”

Inkie Pie shrugged one shoulder and released her squirming daughter, who immediately latched onto Big Macintosh again, receiving a good mane-ruffling from him in return. Her laughter was bright as sunshine and bubbly as a brook.

“Well,” said Inkie, giving her daughter a look that was totally ignored, “Goldengrape wanted to show us where he grew up. Had I known that we were going to be put to hard labour, I might have reconsidered.” Inkie’s voice was soft as her eyes and lacking the inherited drawl of the Apple family, but she was grinning. She and Goldengrape had a vineyard of their own just on the other side of Ponyville from Sweet Apple Acres, and were starting to make a name for themselves in the wine business. Mac himself had helped them get the land ready for their first vines, and in doing so had become the beloved hero of their foal, who now took every chance she got to be around him.

“Aw, it can’t be that bad,” said Mac, then looked down to the filly on his hoof, “You’re gettin’ awfully big. Squeeze any harder and you’re like to snap off my leg.” Peachy stuck her tongue out to blow a raspberry at him, then tried all the more to squeeze the life from his leg.

“Well, it isn’t turning rocks, I will say that much,” said Inkie. The two adults shared a laugh and, after a bit of coaxing and a few solemn promises made, eventually managed to detach Barnacle Peachy from Mac.

The impromptu break concluded and ponies started to get back work. Most of the business of knocking down the damaged trees was done, save for a dozen or so still standing. The work now was clearing the branches and cutting up the logs into firewood, a task which was made simple by a kind of production line with everyone working together at certain tasks. Mac took up an axe and rested it across one big shoulder, ambling towards the last of the cherry trees that still stood upright. A number of them had white ribbons tied about their trunks, the long ends stirring and dancing in the blossom-scented breeze that flowed down from the apple orchard in the field over. It felt like the land itself was mourning the loss, and Mac couldn’t help but feel some sadness in knowing what had to be done, but such was the life of an orchard farmer- Trees were their livelihood and their love, but sometimes they had to be felled. So it goes.

The axe bit deep into the rotting wood beneath the white ribbon, chips of bark and punk falling to the grass. Two more swings cut through the weak timber, and a light kick sent the tree toppling down in a crash of snapping branches.

Mac whistled, “Haven’t seen rot this bad in a long while.”

“Yeah, some fungus or other,” said a big stallion Mac remembered as Albermarle. “We’re keeping an eye on the others, but we’re hoping its ran its course. Sparkling Delicious put out some medicine, but we won’t know if it’ll be any good for another few months.”

“Here’s hoping.”

“Yup,” said Albermarle, throwing a lanyard loop over a branch of Mac’s fallen tree and dragging it off to join the pile.

Mac discovered that his axe had wandered off during the exchange, though the search was a short one. Peachy Pie was trying to lift the heavy felling axe to attack the next ribboned tree, but given that the axe itself probably weighed near as much as she did, she wasn’t going to get it off the ground, much less buried in the target tree.

“Hey now, you should be careful with that, little lady,” he said, gently taking the axe from her. “It’s awful sharp; wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself.”

Peachy puffed up her little chest as best she could, “I can do it!”

Mac grinned, “No doubt you could, but if you go and knock down all the trees, your Grandpa Turnover will come around and yell at the rest of us for being lazy.” Peachy Pie considered this thoughtfully. Mac added, “But, if you stand back a bit while I soften it up, you can help me buck it over, how about?”

This idea was met with an eager nod. Mac gently nudged the filly back so she’d be well out of axe-swing before taking up the tool and giving the tree a few sharp thumps with the heavy head, cutting out a bite from the punky flesh. He set aside the axe and nodded for the filly to join him, planting one big hoof on the trembling tree. “Alright now,” he said when Peachy planted both her forehooves on the trunk, “Give it a big push. Hard as you can!”

The filly put on a brave face and heaved with all of her tiny might, her face bunched up with the effort of it all. Mac leaned a bit of his weight against the tree, just enough to make the trunk creak and crackle. “Bit more. Push, push! I can’t do it on my own!”

Peachy redoubled her effort, and with a mighty grunt the two ponies managed to knock down their foe, their cry of ‘Timber!’ shouted in unison. As the tree crashed down, Mac scooped up the breathless filly, “You sure you got the right cutie mark? Should have yourself some crossed axes!”

“But Dad says my peach trees are the best he’d ever seen!”

“Well, they must be; they’re afraid of you should you take it into your head to pick up the axe!”

It was Inkie Pie that tossed the lasso around this tree, and she was eyeing the team, “Don’t you be giving my girl ideas, now. Last thing I need is some filly with shears going at my vineyard.”

The two solemnly assured her that they had no such intentions, and Inkie, after letting them know that she wasn’t entirely convinced, marched off with the fallen tree in tow. She might have looked to be soft and quiet, but Inkie Pie had the kind of strength that you could only get from a life on a rock farm. The tree would have to be lashed to a boulder to resist the inexorable force, and even then it might have only slowed her down.

Mac and Peachy watched her march off, then he leaned down to the filly’s ear, “Just make sure to give your trees and your mum’s vineyard a good talking to when you get home. Let them know who’s boss.”

Peachy nodded firmly, her eyes shining with importance.

“Come on then; we got the rest of these to knock down before Turnover starts shouting again.”

Author's Note:

Martian's Fun Facts: Blacksmiths were not the muscle-bound, grunting oafs that popular culture has often painted them to be. Being a blacksmith required the kind of mind that could visualize how to solve almost any problem that was set before them; they had to build everything from nails to threshing machines and everything in between. More, they often had to build their own tools to actually be able to do such things, which required the kind of mental gymnastics the average human is simply not capable of.

A hundred years ago, almost every village had a blacksmith. A hundred and fifty years ago, there were no towns without a blacksmith. Every piece of technology or metalwork before the industrial revolution was done by a man standing in front of a fire with a hammer in hand.

Venerate the 'smith, for we would still be living in caves without them.