• Published 4th Jun 2013
  • 4,250 Views, 172 Comments

The Stone - Martian

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

  • ...

Chapter 3 - Sweet and Sour

Trixie blew out a breath, forcing her nerves and temper to simmer down as she strode stiffly away from the blacksmith shacks, focusing her eyes straight ahead to her wagon.

Thirty bits for a stupid cauldron! Trixie had less than forty bits left to her name until she could set up a show. With any luck she could glean a sizable fee from the unreasonably loud pony who seemed to own the land, but farmers were either poor or ferociously guarded about opening their wallets. Turnover seemed to be taken with her though, so just maybe she could wheedle a nice number out of him with a better show than she had originally planned.

It wasn’t hard to impress earth ponies- they were about as gullible as you could get, really, but an extra bit of flair would be in order, both to seeing to her fee and to establishing that the Great and Powerful Trixie was indeed far greater and powerfuller than they could ever dream of being.

Wait... was that a word?

Trixie let out an exasperated breath; she was starting to think in their language, like their hillbilly drawl was contagious or something. If she ever caught herself saying y’all, she’d die of acute embarrassment.

She noticed the squadron of foals running about the carts, most of which seeming focused on the one the hick had been pulling- ‘Mac’, that awful blacksmith had called him. They were shouting and chattering in the usual maddening way of children everywhere, and a few were carrying watering cans and only occasionally managing not to slosh water over themselves and one another. Two of the older foals were perched precariously on the back of the cart, trying their best to get some water into the various baskets that were arrayed within. Just how they’d reach the ones in the center was a mystery, but one the unicorn had little interest in solving- she had more pressing concerns.

Namely, just where her hat had gotten to.

Trixie blinked at the empty peg at the front of her wagon- the peg where she had always left her hat, and where she fully remembered leaving her hat after the little demonstration for Turnover. There was certainly no breeze strong enough to steal it away, and it hadn’t fallen to the ground...

An eruption of giggles from the playing foals caught her ear, and Trixie very slowly turned around, one brow raised. Half a dozen pairs of eyes were watching her, from beneath Mac’s cart, a few furtive whispers and hushes sounding from the shadowy retreat.

“Go on,” said one tiny voice.

“But she’s watching..”

“Well yeah, how else are you gonna ask the question, dummy?”

“Don’t call my brother that.”

“Well, he's being dumb...”

There was a thump and the sounds of a brief scuffle beneath the cart before Trixie’s hat walked out from beneath it, along with a few small fillies and colts aiming to get away from the fight that seemed to be escalating behind one of the cartwheels. Trixie exercised a bit of willpower and lifted up the brim of her hat, revealing a set of four pale yellow legs and a nervous pair of dark blue eyes, which widened when they saw her.

“Um...” the colt quavered, and squeaked faintly when the filly at his side nudged him forward an extra step.

It wasn’t often these days that Trixie had awed gazes fixed upon her, but if there was one group that truly appreciated a spectacle and a show, it was the younger generation. She lifted her chin and shifted her stance just a little, taking on her carefully practiced ‘Sorceress’ pose, guaranteed to inspire mystery in a crowd. Trixie was pleased to see it was a resounding success; when she took a step forward, one little filly squeaked and scuttled backwards to hide behind the protection of a cartwheel.

Trixie stood tall over the colt wearing her hat.

“You have a question for me?" she said, adding a little magical spin to her voice that caused her words to echo strangely in the air. A few more gasps and nervous noises sounded from the crowd.

“G-go on, Greensleeves!”

“A-ahh...” the colt looked ready to run, faint, widdle himself, or even all three at once. Trixie dialed back her Mysterious Sorceress look, her smile widening to a friendly one. She plucked the hat from the foal’s head with an effort of will and lifted it up into the air.

“Are you...” Greensleeves prodded a hoof at the ground a bit, glancing nervously to peers. They all egged him on with silent waves and expressive nods, secure in the knowledge that they had a head start at running away should Trixie turn into a manticore or something. He tried one more time. “Are you a wizard?”

Trixie let the question hang in the air a moment, using the breath of silence to set her hat down upon her head. The sequined stars glittered in the sunlight.

“I am,” she said, turning away and starting back towards her wagon. She counted three steps before she heard the dejected sounds from the group. She stopped, then looked to the foals over her shoulder, her smile broad and sly.

“Should The Great and Powerful Trixie prove it?”

The cheers lit up her world.

Years ago, had anyone asked Trixie to perform for foals, she would have laughed at the very idea. Bending her peerless talents and show-stopping abilities for ponies far too young to ever appreciate her gifts? She would have thought it a crime...

The past few months had taught her differently, though. While her good name was recovering from the Ursa Minor fiasco years ago, she still wrestled sometimes with halfwit hecklers who couldn’t forget such trivial happenings and would insist on bringing it up to poison the well. It made it tricky to get the high-paying audiences as she had been able to draw in before, but Trixie was nothing if not a quick learner, and a lucky break outside of Trottingham had her re-evaluate the whole idea of performing for fillies and colts.

It wasn’t to say she liked them overmuch, of course, and she certainly didn’t go out of her way to advertise that she would perform for a younger audience. What Trixie did do was perform little impromptu demonstrations near playgrounds, then drop the word that she would be performing at this park or another that evening. It was remarkable just how many parents would let themselves be dragged out by their kids to see Trixie perform.

Perhaps her shows weren’t quite as astounding or impressive as they had been before, when she had to focus on keeping her peers entertained, but Trixie found that the simpler tricks that so easily fooled younger minds didn’t take near so much energy, and working enough of her higher tier pieces in could earn some applause and cheers from the parents, which was as good as money in the sock under the mattress.

To put it simply, Trixie had discovered that the quickest way to a pony’s wallet was through their kids. It was a genius piece of tactical accounting prowess that Trixie was quite proud of.

She didn’t enjoy it of course. That would be silly; foals were so, well, childish... A puff of smoke, a few sparks, a rabbit produced from the cunning little pocket in her hat and they went absolutely mad. They were so simple to please, and always so eager for the next trick...

Every eye was on Trixie as she swirled her cape, raising one hoof and grinning as she cast a fine mixture of conjurer’s dust into the air before her with a sweep of a hoof. It made for an expanding crescent of glittering silver that drifted over the heads of the awe-struck foals. They shrieked with sudden panic and glee as Trixie sparked the dust to life with a tiny spark of magic, turning the pretty fog into a crescent of pink flame. She took hold of it, keeping the shape of the cold-burning fire and lifting it higher into the air, giving it an expert spin so the edges sparked and flashed.

It was one of her more impressive tricks, usually one saved for the evening hours when the effect would be far more impressive, but Trixie was feeling creative. While the dust still burned, she spun it into shapes above the heads of the wide-eyed foals, forming the shape of a crescent moon, then the circle of the sun, then, just before the powder burned away entirely, she drew open the sphere.

Burning wings spread wide, the majestic head of a phoenix rising and reaching towards the blue sky above before the dust gave up the ghost and went out, now just dust drifting on the faint breeze.

Bright cheers and clapping hooves filled Trixie’s world, but she wasn’t done just yet; at the heart of where the image of the phoenix had been, she cast an orb of light from her own magic, fat green and pink sparks falling from it with hisses and sizzles.

“The Great and Powerful Trixie needs an assistant! Hurry now; she can only hold the Gate of Akahto open for a few seconds!” She grit her teeth and gave her legs a quiver, for all the world looking like a pony fighting with the very nature of reality. Excited whispers and cries, scuttling hooves and nervous squeaks all came from the foals as they performed the rapid schoolyard arithmetic of ‘not me!’ until there was only one small pony remaining; the pale brown colt they had called Greensleeves.

Trixie nudge the light orb a bit until it hung over his head, a few harmless sparks falling about him. She managed to hold back her laughter at seeing the awestruck look on his face as he stared straight up at the ghostly light.

“Lift your hooves and catch what falls!” she cried, then simultaneously let the light flare out and blinked in the little box that she knew had been resting on her nightstand in the wagon.

Greensleeves yelped and lifted both hooves, eyes squeezing shut as whatever it was dropped from the very sky towards him. Having once experienced this when she first tried on the act with kids, Trixie deftly caught the little oblong box with her magic and safely settled it onto the colt’s hooves rather than letting a rather stiff wooden corner thump into his forehead.

She had to do a lot of apologizing that first time...

Trixie panted for breath where she stood, though she probably didn’t have to bother with that little bit of theatre given how every foal’s attention was on the still-cringing Greensleeves and the ornate little wooden box he now held. A few fillies and colts drifted towards him, one particularly brave one reaching out with a little hoof to prod at the box, but before she could touch it Trixie called out.

“Be careful! The only pony that can touch that box is the one who caught it. If anypony touches it without his permission...” she let the unspoken threat hang in the air, adding just that extra bit of mystery and wonder to their world.

Greensleeves seemed to realise that he had not been crushed under a falling mountain or hydra, or whatever else had come from the sparking ball of light. He cautiously opened one blue eye, then the other, then sat back and held the box before him, looking surprised. The box was old, the wood chipped and nicked and very nearly black with age (and carefully applied shoe-polish.) It was about the same size as a juice box, though perhaps a little longer and narrower, and for sure there was no juice box in the world that had strange carvings cut deeply into every surface. It felt strangely heavy for its small size, and it rattled faintly like there was something inside.

Trixie stepped closer to the group of fillies and colts that surrounded the stunned pony, doing her very best not to fall into a fit of giggles at the sight of their expressions. Luckily, long practice had given Trixie perfect control.

“Behold, my young apprentice; what you have in your hooves is the Mystery of Akahto! Only a few ponies have ever seen what is within... do you think you can open it?”

The little colt blinked up at Trixie, then looked down to the box. He turned it this way and that, searching, then holding it out for his cousins to examine as well, but all agree that the box was sealed up tight; there was no way to open it.

“Ahh... but this is no ordinary box, and that isn’t a lid like on your mum’s cookie jar. It takes magic to open the Mystery...”

An older filly with a long braid of pale hair frowned and piped up, “But we’re all earth ponies, miss wizard...”

Indeed you are, thought Trixie, though curiously enough without the usual sense of superiority that would have warmed her heart. “Everypony has magic, and the Mystery can feel it.” She waved a hoof over the gathered foals, now numbering an even dozen since she had started. “All of you together just might be able to open the box, if you just try hard enough!”

An excited murmur rippled through her audience, and Trixie had to grin. “Put your hooves on one another’s shoulders, and on the shoulders of my Apprentice!” She waited for them to sort one another out, until there was a semi-circle two ponies deep around the wide-eyed Greensleeves, himself sporting a dozen hooves across both shoulders.

“Now,” said Trixie, “Close your eyes and think hard, all of you. Think about your magic; think about what makes you you. What you care about the most, what things you like the best...”

She watched their faces screw up into the fierce and focused mask concentration that only foals can manage, letting them think hard as they possibly can. A brief glance upwards spied a few adult ponies watching the show curiously from the porch of the homestead, though others were busily shunting about what looked to be long trestle tables. Oh well; a good show for their foals might just guarantee a willing and eager audience in the evening.

“Do you have it in your minds?” she murmured now, lowering her voice to a whisper, leaning towards them. Head bobbed and nodded all around in the half-circle. “My Apprentice, can you feel them, can you feel their magic?”

Always a tricky question to ask a foal of six, given their habit of bouncing back and forth between willing suspension of disbelief and terrifyingly level-headed truthfulness. Happily, Greensleeves seemed to have settled in the former category, though his voice was just a quavery squeak.

“I-I can...”

“Good... hold the Mystery of Akahto in both your hooves, and now... push all that magic into the box. Make it flow through your hooves into the wood.” Trixie watch the colt’s eyes screw up tight as he tried with all his might to do just that. “Like water running down your forelegs,” she murmured, “Like raindrops falling-” and here, with the precision of a pony who had practised the trick for a number of nights to get it just right, she pushed a spark of magic into the trick latch inside the ‘sealed’ box, tripping the spring that held the sliding lid closed.

Greensleeves gasped and very nearly dropped the box when he felt the lid shift between his hooves. “It’s open!” he cried, “We opened it!”

There was a brief beat of total silence, then world went mad as fillies and colts in every colour started talking and yelling and shouting all at once, every single one of them trying to climb over the others to get a look at their success.

Trixie couldn’t help herself but to laugh a bit at the spectacle, and she could see a few of the adults at the homestead grinning and slapping one another on the shoulder before moving off to do whatever it was they needed to do, apparently satisfied that their foals were in capable hooves. Trixie wasn’t entirely sure if she should have been happy or angry about that, but the thought was fleeting and her attention was drawn back to the crowd of tumblings foals when they discovered just what was kept in the strange and wonderful Mystery of Akahto.


The cheers redoubled as the foals raided Trixie’s private cache of sugary treats. In more serious shows, she’d have put in a special deck of cards fashioned from copper plates and cited ancient and mysterious powers that let her read minds - essentially just a particularly flashy and up-jumped version of one of the simplest card tricks out there. When not planning performances though, the box was a good place to keep her sweets, as otherwise she’d eat them all within minutes...

Trixie’s strength of will was second to none, except when it came to the topic of toffees, in which case she crumbled like a tower made of dry biscuit.

She broke out the card tricks and games next, using nothing much more complicated than simple sleight-of-hoof to dazzle the foals, sprinkled with a bit of proper magic here and there for that extra bit of flash. By the time Trixie brought her little impromptu performance to a close, the cheering was quite a bit more subdued, though it wasn’t because Trixie’s skills were lacking- it was simply that she loved the rock-hard toffee that stuck teeth together. Seeing as the foals had taken a sizable piece each, most of them probably won’t even be able to talk until the evening. Some parents would be overjoyed for such an occurrence, though Trixie realized a bit too late that if they were going to have a hard time talking, they would also have a hard time telling everyone about just how amazing Trixie was.

Well, it was too late to try and lever their jaws open now, and Trixie decided that while the extra adoration and publicity would be good, she likely already had everyone on the farm for a captive audience come the evening.

A glance to the sky revealed a sun that had travelled nearly a full hoof-width up towards its noonday zenith, an occasion marked not a moment later by the clamouring racket of a triangle being vigorously rung on the opposite side of the homestead. The foals were up on their hoofs and dashing off, calling out as best they could through mouths stuck shut from the rock toffee. Just how they’d actually manage to eat something with their jaws welded shut would have been worth watching. Trixie turned back to her wagon, lifting her hat with an effort of will to set it back onto its peg.

Something tugged on her cloak. She looked down into the earnest eyes of Greensleeves.

“Miss Trixie, are you gonna come for lunch?”

“I... don’t think that would be polite,” said Trixie carefully. She could hear voices all around, gathering to the opposite side of the homestead. Shapes were moving on the vineyard hill, drifting down the lazy slope towards her, maybe a dozen there alone. She wondered just how big the family actually was.

A chill curled down her spine.

Standing before a cheering crowd, yes. The focus of a hundred pairs of eyes, all wide with awe? It was something Trixie loved more than anything else. To be the center of attention was the most energizing thing she had ever known, but the last time she had eaten a meal amongst other ponies had been...

She was drawing a blank. The last time she remembered actually sitting down at a proper table was the last supper she had shared with her family before taking to the road. She had been the focus of attention then, for certain... but it wasn’t awed stares and stunned expressions that had been seated around her; it had been hard eyes and pursed lips, disdain written plainly across each face.

“Aww, please miss?” The wheedling voice drew Trixie back to the present. “There’ll be a whole lot of food, but I don’t mind sharing if you’re worried...”

She should have said yes. Trixie had been perfectly capable of getting by on meagre rations, but even her unparalleled patience was wearing thin when it came to dry biscuit and tea... especially when it was tea made from the leaves she already used that morning. She could hear the cheerful racket of the farming families through the close walls of her wagon, even from the opposite side of the homestead. She started to wonder about just what kind of foods they would have carted out for a group of ponies that big, but a grumble from her stomach told her to find something else to brood on.

So, she had pulled out the crate that was beneath her bed. Well, her bunk. The plank of wood that folded down from the wall so she could sleep on something other than the floor. Trixie had made it almost comfortable with a thin sheet of foam and a number of heavy blankets, though it didn’t much detract from the fact that it was just a plank of wood on hinges, held up with a two slender lengths of rope. It would be rather pleasant to have a real bed to sleep in that night, even if it was one she was just being lent as part of her payment.

With a bit of effort, she levered the crate out and set it next to the larger crate that made up her table. She ferreted around a bit inside the jumble of parts and pieces, causing a few things to clatter and clang, and discovered more than a few things that went sproing in dishearteningly weak ways. She dug up the pair of sparkler wheels that had been giving her problems two weeks ago and set them on the table, followed by the most recent malfunction.

Trixie pulled out the small screwdriver from her kit and carefully worked out the screws from all three props, her movements deft and sure from practice. She pried off the spinning jamb and arm, followed by the painted faceplate that was supposed to depict stars and moons. The cheap paint was flaking off, she saw; she’d have to find some fresh supplies to get them back into proper shape for the stage before she could use them.

Two springs left out of nine, one of which being the laughable attempt Trixie herself had tried to produce once in a desperate moment between acts in Manehattan. It was her kind of luck that the rubbish, half-strength piece of bent wire that she had fashioned would actually last longer than pieces she had paid good bits for. Of course, this was a sign that Trixie herself was talented at every single thing she put her hoof to, but she was willing to admit that all she really knew about making springs was that they were wire bent around a central spindle and put to heat. Just how they were heated, what kind of metal they were supposed to be and just what she was supposed to do after they were hot was beyond her.

Certainly, the awful Rosethorn probably knew every detail about forging them...

Trixie bit her lower lip and peered at the contents of her scrap crate. The trick lid on a second, larger version of her Mystery of Akahto needed springs, a starshower flywheel needed to be beaten back into shape after an unfortunate mishap with labelling had caused Trixie to attach an exploding firework to it rather than a simple comet-tail. The locking hinge on her bit-eater box (a handy and entertaining tool for acquiring a bit of extra coin during performances she added a bit of comedy to), had not only locked itself shut, but had sheared off its hidden latch. That was a particularly irritating, seeing as there was at least a dozen bits just sitting in it that she couldn’t reach without smashing the thing open. A broken crank for her fog machine, a bent but technically still serviceable trick knife...

Trixie sighed and crossed her hooves on the table before setting her forehead down atop them. She could really use a blacksmith for an afternoon. No doubt she could get all of her springs done within an hour (Trixie had managed to knock that ugly one together in a matter of minutes, and it had worked... after a fashion), and the rest could probably be finished by the evening...

She lifted her head and peered uneasily at the crate of busted tools of her chosen trade. With all of them working, she could probably put on her best performance in months. Trixie just had to bite down on her sense of personal affront and talk to that wretched Rosethorn again. No doubt the nag would probably try and take Trixie for every bit she had, again, but with them all fixed, bits wouldn’t be near so hard to come by. If she could put on three or four top-end performances before the wear and tear started to make itself known again...

Well, she had dealt with unscrupulous and distasteful ponies before; Trixie could do it again to meet her own needs.

Author's Note:

For those wondering about some of the unusual pony names I may be using (Albermarle in the last chapter, Greensleeves in this one,) those are actual apple varieties. There is a wonderful selection of them to be found here, so if you find yourself struggling for Apple family names, well, now you have a source of good ones. :ajsmug: