• Published 22nd Apr 2013
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The Tale of Lord Barleycorn - Blue Cultist



The Harvest Family farm is on the brink of financial collapse. Can this 'Lord Barleycorn' really deliver on all his promises?

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2. And what do you call yourself?

The Tale of Lord Barleycorn
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Chapter 2: And what do you call yourself?
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Living so close to the Everfree forest had its ups and downs. Over seven generations, the Harvest family had become quite adept at reaping the rewards of its verdant proximity. Foraging was one of these advantages, as well as having all the wood they could ever need just a stone's throw away. Most ponies did not know this, but the Everfree held herbs, fruits, and vegetables that were as valuable and rare as gemstones. The Harvests had yet to discover any of these magical delicacies, but ever since tasting Zap apple jam, Mr. Harvest was sure there was something equally profitable for his family within the Everfree.

The disadvantages of living near a wild magic zone such as the Everfree dwarfed its advantages. The first of course was the danger of the creatures that dwelt under Everfree's canopy. Both the forest and the bog that rested to its south were the source of horror stories for foals and adults alike. Dangerous and poisonous plants were a secondary danger, but were only hazardous to ponies who entered the forest. For the Harvest family, the two absolute headaches were the weather and the animals.

The animals that lived in the forest were unreasonable and tore through their fields. They ran rampant through the crops, digging burrows and eating anything that was ripe. The rabbits and crows were the worst offenders. While the animals pestered other farmers, the crows and rabbits seemed to prefer terrorizing the Harvest's fields.

All of Equestria benefited from having controlled weather, but wild magic zones like the Everfree made life in Hollow Shades unpredictable. Storms would occasionally blow in, and usually the Hollow Shades weather team could disperse or divert the storm away from town. This was not always the case, however. No pony was ever sure when or where one storm would pop up, and without proper time and preparation an unexpected storm could rattle the town to its core.

Morning chores normally followed breakfast, but after an Everfree storm such as last night the whole family dissipated across their property to survey the damage. Shingles from the roof were laying in the field and back yard. Several of the shutters had been pulled off their hinges and were laying in the grass below the windows. The barn suffered no significant damage, and on first inspection the tool shed looked a complete wreck. Inside the shed the various farm implements were scattered about the gravel floor and the tin roof had been peeled back by the wind.

The worst had befallen the crops. The hailstones had nearly melted away, but the damage they had done was all too clear. The pumpkins were scarred with jagged cuts and bruises, and the tops of the carrots looked like they were diced with a knife. The corn had fared unusually well, not an ear or leaf was out of place. Both the beans and barley were fine, as were the silos much to the entire family's relief. For all its bluster and the damage it caused, the storm could have done worse.

Leadfoot trotted along the edge of the corn field. His scarecrows in the beans and barley were knocked down, and the rest were fine except for a few missing hats. The clothing could be easily replaced, ol' gramps had been an eccentric who collected clothing like how some foals collected bottle caps. The gray stallion easily righted the downed scarecrows, but as he cast his gaze across the corn, he only counted two of the straw-stuffed dummies. The third was nowhere to be seen.

With an annoyed huff, Leadfoot entered the rows. The mud made his travel slow, and the corn begrudgingly shushed him with motion of his bulky frame. The post was upright, right where he'd put it yesterday, but the scarecrow wasn't. Straw was strewn about the ground, which had been pushed into the dirt by animal tracks, big ones. Any farmer worth his salt could tell you what animal made what tracks, but Leadfoot was drawing a blank when he saw these. They were longer than they were wide, deeper at the back and front, with a mass of stubby digits at the very end.

Turning his head from the mystery tracks, Leadfoot looked about for the clothes. The neatly lined corn rows gave him a decent line of sight. The stallion traveled the whole length of the field, but didn't find a single article of clothing. Leadfoot knew he had stitched those clothes together tight, and the burlap he'd used to fill out the scarecrow's body was gone too. All Leadfoot found was windswept straw, and a huge splotch of burned earth. Whatever had been in the field, it had destroyed all the work he'd put into that scarecrow.

"Leadfoot!"

The voice of his father gave the young stallion pause to raise his head. Mr. Harvest was calling from the shed, the ladder resting against its outer wall.

"Come give me a hoof with this!" Mr. Harvest called.

"Coming!" Leadfoot answered, trotting to the path between the fields. He gave a backward glance to the corn before pushing his findings out of mind. Work came first, he'd ask his father about it later.

Leadfoot gave his sister a wave goodbye as he saw her heading toward the road with her lunch box. Leadfoot smiled, silently wishing his sister a good day at school as he suspected he was in for a far more arduous morning.

"You're going to need the crow bar to fold the roof back..." Mr. Harvest said, already having the tools set out beside the ladder.

"I figured." Leadfoot nodded, taking the heavy iron claw-tool in his mouth as he climbed up the top of the ladder.

With each jerk of the crowbar, the shed roof shook, moving up little by little until Leadfoot could get his hooves under it. The gray stallion spat the crowbar down next to his father, then got his feet firmly planted on the ladder. The tin roof groaned as the whole twenty square yards of sheet metal folded back. Once gravity was on his side, Leadfoot let go, allowing the roof to fall with a slam on the rafters. Leadfoot braced himself against the building, admiring his work.

With the roof back in its proper position, Leadfoot could see where his father had fallen through the night before. Judging from the bent, sharp edges, it wasn't hard to see how Leadfoot's father got that 'tiny cut.'

"You wait here," Said Mr. Harvest, "I'll get the other ladder and hold it down for you while you get the nails in."

From his perch, Leadfoot could see his mother in the fields picking weeds that they'd be having for lunch. Right now, she was the only pony tending the neglected crops. After fixing the roof on the shed, he'd be working on the house's roof, and maybe the shutters afterward.

"This is going to cost us the whole morning." Leadfoot sighed.

"You'd rather leave this for tomorrow?" Mr. Harvest snorted, setting up the other ladder.

"No, but I wish we could have some help. With the way things are, we aren't going to have anything worth showing off at the harvest festival." Leadfoot pointed out. "Can't we hire somepony?"

"And where is the money going to come from?" Mr. Harvest snapped, stomping down on the roof to hold in down. "We don't have two spare bits to rub together, and farmhands don't work for free."

Leadfoot rubbed his cheek, not ready to accept defeat just yet. "Well, what about the family? Can't we call some of them in?"

"Most of the family's moved on from farming. The only successful Harvest farm in miles is in..." Mr. Harvest grit his teeth, almost hissing the name. "Appleloosa."

Leadfoot rolled his eyes. He had to cut this off at the head now or else he'd get another tired story about the Apple family. "Alright, but maybe we can put in a call to some of our other relatives. Cousin Carrot Top's got plenty of farming experience and she's only a few hours away in Ponyville. Can't hurt to send her a letter, can it?"

Mr. Harvest mumbled something, then cast his eyes out to Harvest Moon. His wife's umber coat was like a star among the green and browns of the barley. Harvest Moon was struggling with a stubborn bit of ragweed, but it was one of hundreds still standing. Mr. Harvest knew Carrot Top; she managed a plot of land, but it wasn't what Mr. Harvest called a farm in any respect of the word. Carrot Top had her own life and asking her to come work on a farm this size was a huge request to make, even of family.

"Go ahead and get a letter ready before the mailmare shows up." Mr. Harvest said at last. "But what's one extra mare going to accomplish here?"

Leadfoot was already off the ladder, heading toward the house. His dad had a point, but maybe Cousin Carrot Top had some friends she could call on...

---

Corn Crib's usual path to school was quiet and scenic... at least in good weather. The road into town was nothing but fields and pasture, which left her with plenty of time to think or admire her neighbor's hard work. She almost never saw anyone else on this road, but today was a rare exception.

A cart was squatting in the middle of the road, sitting unattended. It was the kind used by traveling show mares and salesponies. It was only bigger than her parent's closet, and was meant to serve as both home and storage space. How any pony managed live inside one was a wonder in itself to the filly. This cart hadn't been there yesterday when Corn Crib was coming home from school. Corn Crib waited a moment, expecting some movement from the cart or an explanation for its existence on the road. When neither of these things came to light, the filly set her lunch box down.

"Hey! What's the big idea parking in the middle of the road!" Corn Crib yelled.

Something shuffled in the cart. Corn Crib rolled her eyes, the lazy cart owner must have stopped and taken a nap.

The door to the cart creaked as it moved on it hinges, and Corn Crib's mouth dropped open.

This was no pony, no pony needed to stoop through a door that tall. The creature looked like one of Leadfoot's scarecrows. Its ill-fitting clothes were moth-eaten, covered in straw and dry mud. Its gray slacks were patched, with another pair of pants having been sacrificed to artificially lengthen both pant legs. Its belt was a knotted length of rope, and the orange sweater covering its upper half was in a similar condition as the pants; with sleeves irregularly hanging from its arms. What lurked under those limp sleeves Corn Crib couldn't say, but her mind leapt to several conclusions: claws, hooves, tentacles, or maybe even those hand things minotaurs had.

A positively ancient straw hat sat on its head, which was completely encompassed in a burlap sack that was neatly tucked into the sweater's collar. There was no indication of a muzzle or snout, just a blank, balloon-shaped head. Two holes rested below the hat's wide brim, and for a moment Corn Crib could see two eyes looking down at her.

Suddenly it lifted its arms above its head, startling Corn Crib back a few steps.

"A thousand pardons upon you tiny queen!" The creature called out, its arms sweeping the air as it bowed to the farm girl.

Corn Crib cocked an eyebrow at the scarecrow, not knowing if she should be frightened or not.

"Forgive my lack of haste in vacating this unworthy cart from your road!" It closed the door with its sleeve, somehow manipulating the knob. "I had come out of the corn to ask the shoemaker who owns this cart a favor. While I tried for conversation, he fled shouting the strangest absurdities."

"I um..." Corn Crib didn't know how to react. Nopony had ever talked to her like this. Was this how the princesses were treated every day? "Just... don't let it happen again?"

"Of course not, tiny princess!" The scarecrow laughed, in one step of its long legs it was on the ground. "And what might the name of enchanting young creature be?

"My mom said its not polite to ask somepony's name before introducing yourself." Corn Crib stated cautiously.

"And a wise mother you have indeed!" The scarecrow flattered, giving a quick spin on his heels before going down on one knee before the filly. "I am at your service, young princess. I am Lord Barleycorn, King of Scarecrows, Ruler of Pumpkins, and Sovereign of all Autumn." He rose and flourished another bow to the filly, "Can I be forgiven for my poor manners?"

"Y-yeah..." Corn Crib looked at the creature again. On the cart it had looked big, but on the ground it stood as high as the corn at harvest time! On its feet were a pair of sturdy-looking boots, that looked far too new to belong to this shabby scarecrow.

"What were you doing in that shoemaker cart?" Corn Crib pointed an accusing hoof at the creature's feet. "If you're a king, don't you have subjects to make you stuff?"

Corn Crib's question excited a laugh from the scarecrow. "Have you ever seen a pumpkin stitch a shirt, or mend a shoe? They're pitiful at the task. No, no my dear. I came to ask about new pair of shoes, the very ones you see on my feet. But when I arrived I fear I gave the stallion a fright, coming out of the corn like I did. He ran away before I could properly explain myself."

"So you just helped yourself to his shoes?" Corn Crib snorted in a way she'd seen her brother do a thousand times.

"It does seem an unfair purchase." Lord Barleycorn nodded, looking down at his feet. "Still, he headed down this road, and you seem to be heading the same way. I could bring the cart to him, thus ensuring his wares are in his protection. You never know when brigands or vandals might be around."

"Bri-brigands?" Corn Crib blinked, suddenly whipping her head around.

"Oh my..." The scarecrow cooed, stooping down to be near eye level with her. "Never you mind, as long as I'm around, nothing bad can happen to you. I swear by every golden leaf I've touched." He held up an arm, looking ready to make one of those 'Pinkie promises' Corn Crib had heard about.

Lord Barleycorn rose, then motioned to the cart. "Since we travel the same direction, how about a ride? You can tell me all about yourself miss...?"

Silence hung between the pair, but Corn Crib quickly caught on. "Corn Crib. My name is Corn Crib."

The scarecrow cocked its head to the side, perplexed by something that Corn Crib had said. Its strange confusion was quickly brushed off, and it gave the cart a dramatic gesture. "Ah Miss Crib, your carriage awaits!"

Having lived all her life near the Everfree, Corn Crib had heard many stories about involving it. Monsters, wild weather, even magical plants and the ruins of forgotten structures were as familiar to her as her bedtime stories. A story about a scarecrow creature didn't seem that out of place... but was he dangerous? Corn Crib shook her head. This critter looked harmless, and it acted like a complete clown. If it was going to hurt her, why go through the trouble of acting nice when she was alone?

Before Corn Crib could even climb into the driver's seat, the scarecrow had the tongue of the cart grasped in its strange, prehensile sleeves. The harness to the cart was missing, presumably still on the shoemaker's person. Once Corn Crib was seated with her lunchbox, they started off at an easy pace. After he grew comfortable with the weight of the cart, Lord Barleycorn further lifted the tongue and went a little faster.

Jostled by a rock that shook the entire cart, Corn Crib grabbed her lunch box. "Whoa! Careful!"

"Oh the irony of this situation. A pony telling me 'whoa!'" Lord Barleycorn laughed, but slowed down as requested, "But if it'll make you more comfortable, so be it."

"You're weird." Corn Crib chuckled.

Lord Barleycorn laughed again, turning his head to look at the filly. "So where might you be heading? Work, school?"

"School. My family's farm is the other direction." Corn Crib's smile brightened as she mentioned her home. "Have you ever been there?"

The scarecrow let out a dramatic 'Hmmm...' "Perhaps, do you have a large cornfield with scarecrows?"

"Yeah we do!" Corn Crib grinned, "We also got carrots, pumpkins, and barley!"

"Then your fields are familiar to me. As are all others who grow my seasonal favorites!" Lord Barleycorn mentally added; "A little too familiar if you ask me."

Corn Crib's smile slowly diminished, and she looked away from her bipedal companion. "Yeah well... then you know we aren't doing so well..."

"Even in the dark, I could tell..." Lord Barleycorn's voice was more serious than before. Corn Crib could hear some of her own despair in his inflections. "What happened, do you not have enough help?"

"We don't know... its like the land is sick. We get enough rain but everything just withers or the animals get it." She looked up at him. "Can you help us, since you're the king of autumn you can surely work something out!"

The scarecrow faltered in his strides, jerking his head back to face the road as he hesitated at her question. He stopped the cart and set the tongue down, then walked to the side of the cart. Resting an elbow on the rail, Lord Barleycorn analyzed the filly with his eyes. Corn Crib on the other hoof was studying the scarecrow's face. The two holes in that burlap face did contain eyes, they were smaller than a pony's, but they were clear and blue like the sky.

"Miss Corn Crib," Lord Barleycorn gave a tired sigh, "Tell me how things got so bad."

Corn Crib stared up at those eyes, then looked away. "It all started years ago. Critters would come in from the Everfree forest before, but more and more would come in and eat the crops. Each year we lost more and more money. The weeds are all from the forest too, and they grow wild and fast. The more money we lost, the less we could do for the farm. Then... all the sudden the crops kept getting weaker and sicker. I don't know the reasons, and I don't think daddy knows either."

She looked up at the scarecrow again. "I mean, if he did, he would have fixed the farm, right?"

"And there's where the lie backfires. My only options are to try and most likely fail, or disappoint that cute face." The scarecrow shook his head, "I know I'm going to regret this, but maybe I can keep this up until I can find a way out of this crazy pony world. On with the show..."

The scarecrow rubbed the front of its face, as Corn Crib has seen some ponies do when they tried to look thoughtful. "Hm, I could use a little hospitality while I'm in your town. I'll need a place to rest during the day. Let me tell you, sleeping on top of a pole does nothing for one's back! Food and conversation would be appreciated, if you can offer both and a place to sleep. If I can get that, then I will gladly see what can be done for your land."

Corn Crib's smile did not return right away. "And if you can't do anything?"

"I'll say my thanks for your company, and call you a friend for life." He winked back at her. "Not many ponies can say their friend is a season, can they?"

Corn Crib giggled at the absurdity. A scarecrow who could wink! "No, I guess not."

That sleeve came up and ruffled the yellow filly's mane. "Now, I'm going to take you to school, but first... do you know any good jokes?"

The pair shared a few jokes before Lord Barleycorn returned to pulling the cart. He laughed at each of her jokes, even the ones that were older than dirt. Corn Crib had never known a pony who could be so disarming, so charming. For the whole trip, she completely forgot her worries. They arrived at Hallow Shades' schoolhouse all too quickly for Corn Crib. Lord Barleycorn had stopped the cart behind a pocket of trees by the road, resting against the cart as he caught his breath. Corn Crib hopped down, but did not rush to join her schoolmates just yet.

"How'd you like to meet my friends?" She asked, her hooves danced excitedly on the ground.

"Maybe later." Lord Barleycorn winked, "Until then, let's try and keep our little friendship secret. If everyone knew I was doing you a favor, they'd want one too."

"Everyone?" Corn Crib smiled, "You're still weird, but I gotcha. Secret friends then. See ya later!"

Waving good bye to the filly, Lord Barleycorn slipped behind the cart to put it between him and the schoolhouse. He watched the foals as they were called inside for the bell before heading back down the road toward the filly's farm.

"King of scarecrows, oh Jacky boy why did you say that!" The 'scarecrow' groaned, "Now I have to keep that promise..."

He shook his head, trying to put a positive spin on this. "This is probably safer than barging into town after I spooked the stallion.. and he's probably not going to be happy I ate most of what was in his little fridge and took a pair of shoes. 'Just have to keep up the act until I know how to get back home. The little gal's just lucky I got a green thumb."

He tugged at his burlap mask, trying to scratch through the thick hemp fabric. "First order of business, getting all the straw dust out of this damn thing! God I hope this thing doesn't have lice in it..."

---

To be continued...

Author's Note:

God. Damn. This chapter's been through 2 revisions, and when I couldn't find a beta reader I had to do it myself. I tend to nitpick over every little detail and drive myself crazy. But, yeah, story's really starting to move forward. Props to the people who pointed me toward the John Barleycorn songs. :3

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