• 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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4. I think I ate a worm!

The Tale of Lord Barleycorn
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Chapter 4: I think I ate a worm!

Being outside at night was something Corn Crib had done plenty of times. She and her brother would play a few games after hours, sometimes chores would take far longer than thought. However, those times she had always been with somepony else. Now it was just the scarecrow she was following, and somehow, the field she had grown up around felt emptier than ever before. All that could be heard was the sound of the scarecrow's weird boots on the dirt path.

The night air was devoid of wind, but thankfully it wasn't cold, and the full moon made following the scarecrow all too easy. The trouble was keeping up with the scarecrow without rustling the grass, or kicking a stone. The moon was giving Corn Crib plenty of light, but it was either that revealing, silvery light, or pitch black with no inbetween.

Hiding along the tall grass, Corn Crib followed the the scarecrow to his first stop, the cornfield. With head held high, Lord Barleycorn casually disappeared into the rows. Crows that were disturbed from their nightly feeding, burst up from the stalks. The black bird's hateful cawing shattered the calm of the fields. The birds circled the field, protesting their interrupted meal.

"Returned to the scene of the crime I bet..." Corn Crib thought, remembering Leadfoot's words. The filly then glanced up at the black birds that hovered above the corn, waiting for Lord Barleycorn to leave. "Stupid crows..."

The scarecrow didn't remain in the rows long. When he emerged, he was carrying an ear of corn in one of those sleeve-tendrils. Why would he go so deep into the corn just to acquire one ear, Corn Crib wasn't certain.

With his lone ear in hand, Lord Barleycorn began to travel across the farm, and Corn Crib stalked his every step. Sometimes he would travel into the heart of the field he was scrutinizing, other times the scarecrow would simply cast his gaze across it, but always he took a sampling from each field. That was, until he came to the pumpkins.

Peeking out from behind one of the larger gourds, Corn Crib watched as Lord Barleycorn sat down beside a pumpkin. The hoe was left abandoned on the ground as the scarecrow rubbed his sleeve across the pumpkin's scars, shaking his head.

Husking the corn was an easy task for whatever was under those sleeves. The corn was plump, and in the light of the moon the golden kernels appeared as lines of pearly teeth. A bemused snort rose up over the silence, and Corn Crib felt a new sense of pride well up inside her. Maybe there was some hope after all.

Corn Crib's jaw dropped as she saw Lord Barleycorn reach up to grasp the brim of his hat and set it in his lap, followed closely by the burlap sack that she thought was his face. Craning her neck out, Corn Crib tried and get a better look at whatever laid behind that mask.

Sadly, Lord Barleycorn was sitting with his back to the moon, unintentionally obscuring his face in the pitch black shadows. All Corn Crib could make out was a short, shabby mane atop his head, and the outline of his cheek. If silence hadn't been a necessity, Corn Crib would have screamed in frustration at the moon.

Almost as quickly as he'd taken it off, the hat returned to the not-scarecrow's head. From under the wide brim of the straw hat, Corn Crib could make out a bearded chin as he turned his short neck. She couldn't see a muzzle or snout, but it was clear this creature couldn't get less pony-like.

What came next perplexed the filly further. Lord Barleycorn pulled back his sleeves, revealing two dexterous hands. HANDS. Five digits each, four atop the appendage with a fifth resting lower. So astonished by his taxonomy, Corn Crib didn't even realize her knees were trembling. Lord Barleycorn took the burlap mask and with amazing strength for such thin digits, tore a new hole in the heavy fabric. The ripping sound was accompanied by a cloud of dust that was so small it was almost invisible.

With its now ripped mask resting in its lap, the... creature raised one of the green beans to its face. The hand was lowered and there was a grunt of disgust before Lord Barleycorn spat.

"Ugh, I think I ate a worm!" Lord Barleycorn whined, spitting again.

It was that tone that made Corn Crib sink back on her hooves. While this creature's species was a mystery, the voice was one she could easily have mistaken for a pony's. There was no malice in it, no shame or anger. His outburst sounded more appropriate coming from one of the younger foals at her school. Despite the discovery... he was still the weird thing from the road. That was reason enough for Corn Crib to smile.

And so on he went, tasting this and that and remarking on each one out loud. Most of what he inspected Barleycorn would finish with a disappointed shake of his head. When the scarecrow returned to the corn he loudly gnawed on it, cleaning the ear in under a minute.

After bringing his sleeve up to wipe what Corn Crib presumed was his mouth, Lord Barleycorn remarked; "I don't care if I'll be picking silk out of my teeth for a week, that was the best corn I've ever had!"

Corn Crib stifled a giggle, then clamped a hoof over her mouth. Lord Barleycorn made no reaction to her; he merely wrapped the corn back in its husk and set it aside. The scarecrow was about to stand, when he suddenly stopped.

"Hm, what's that?" He leaned closer to the pumpkin, placing a hand underneath the brim of his hat. "Why yes, it is a lovely night. "

"Is he really talking to that pumpkin?" Corn Crib wondered, wishing she could just get a little closer... see what that hat was hiding...

"I'm sorry to hear that. But as much as I might claim I can do nothing to hide your scars. But I can promise to see to it that you and your brothers and sisters all are plump and proud."

Lord Barleycorn then sat straight, as if he'd been told something awful. "Oh my, really? What's this about Carlos over there?"

Corn Crib slunk back behind her cover, trying to make herself smaller. She glanced at her pumpkin, silently whispering; "Please, don't be Carlos..."

"Well, if she wants to follow me along my journey around your blessed field then I don't see why I should stop her. It's her farm after all." Lord Barleycorn said offhandedly, lifting his hat to slip the burlap mask back on.

"Tattletale!" Corn Crib sneered at 'Carlos.'

Lord Barleycorn let out a chuckle as he adjusted the mask. "If the little princess will grace me with her company, maybe we can discuss my findings."

Rising to his feet, the scarecrow gathered his borrowed hoe and slung it on his shoulder. "I've yet to investigate that lovely stream flowing out of the forest."

The scarecrow turned and began moving at a leisurely pace in the direction of the Everfree. To travel so close to that wild place, which in this otherworldly lighting made Corn Crib's blood run cold. The upper most leaves moved with the slightest wind that blew across the forest, shifting between black and white, but everything below this layer was like a black wall. It was in that blackness that any manner of beast or monster could be lurking, just waiting for some unsuspecting soul to wander close. It had been Corn Crib and Leadfoot's bedtime stories since they were foals. Their father said it would keep them out of the forest. Corn Crib wanted to keep things that way.

The silence of the fields was shattered by an echoing voice that carried over the pumpkins:

"~Well, there's beer all in the barrel and brandy in the glass
But little old Sir John with his nut-brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last
John Barleycorn, throw him up, throw him up
Now the huntsman, he can't hunt the fox
Nor loudly blow his horn
And the tinker, he can't mend his pots
Without John Barleycorn~"

As she listened to the song, Corn Crib found the strength to move her hooves along the path the scarecrow had taken. The stream was flowing as it always had, quiet and clear in its winding bed. Lord Barleycorn was kneeling by the stream, washing his hands in the water. The fresh rip in his mask added the illusion of a mouth; the limp edges of the rip forming an irregular, 'bulldogish' pout that gently parted with each motion of his jaw as he sang.

"Is... that song about you?" Corn Crib asked, trotting to the side of the stream beside Lord Barleycorn.

"No, but I wish I could take credit for writing it." He chuckled, drying his hands on his hips. "Despite this ghastly hour, I'm glad to see you again, Ms. Harvest."

Corn Crib looked over at the nearby forest, then to her companion. Wasn't he even just a little bit scared of the Everfree?

"So... what do you think of the farm?" Corn Crib asked as she tried to put Lord Barleycorn between her and the forest.

"I think with a little work here and there it'd be marvelous." Lord Barleycorn said with a stretch of his arms. "But the crops puzzle me. The corn would be fine if the crows would keep away."

He leaned in close to whisper to whisper in Corn Crib's ear. "Don't tell the pumpkins, but they won't win any beauty pageants. But they don't have to look good to taste good in a pie. Am I right?"

The filly chuckled, "I guess not. But were you serious about that promise you made to that pumpkin?"

"And that's the second time this performance bit me on the ass..."

Lord Barleycorn folded his arms behind his back. "I suppose that's the case... I can't disappoint one of my subjects after a promise like that." Lord Barleycorn turned to look back at the fields. "You were right about a lot of things about your farm. But, why exactly are you up so late? A young lady like you should be asleep."

"I'm not a foal, I can stay up as late as I want to." Corn Crib frowned, "As for why I'm out here... I wanted to... um..."

"You wanted to ensure I was keeping my promise? Understandable. If I met a strange creature on the road who made a lot of tall promises I'd want to ensure he kept his word too. You also managed to sneak up on me. Not many ponies can do that, you know? " He chuckled, mentally adding; "More like I saw your ears poking up from behind that pumpkin. Hope she liked the show I put on..."

"As for my promise, I'll need to check out the surrounding farms. 'See if they're in similar shape and if they're doing something different." Lord Barleycorn yawned, halting on the dirt trail for a moment before resuming his leisurely pace. "That nap I took in the barn threw me off. Now, do you fertilize the field?"

Corn Crib nodded. "Yeah, before each planting."

"Not going to ask with what... they are horses..." Lord Barleycorn quickly pushed that thought aside. "Okay, do you use any pesticides?"

Corn Crib cocked her head. "What are those?"

"Organic farmer eh? That's fine." Lord Barleycorn reached up rub some spot under his mask. "Oh this is not going to be simple... it never is."

A rustle of the leaves caused Corn Crib to jump, backing a few steps away from the forest. Nothing could be seen in the deep shadows, and when the leaves stilled nothing else could be heard except the occasional hush of the forest canopy.

"Probably just a deer." Lord Barleycorn shrugged nonchalantly, unconcerned as he leaned on the hoe.

Corn Crib didn't retake her steps back toward the forest, for caution's sake. Fear was growing each moment that Corn Crib stared into the vast unknown that lurked behind the darkness. Realizing this, Corn Crib turned her attention to her tall companion. The scarecrow appeared tired, almost bored as he was leaning on that farm implement.

"How in the name of Celestia can he be so calm so close to the Everfree?" Corn Crib wondered, "Is he stupid or fearless?"

"Y-yeah." Corn Crib placed a hoof to her chest and took a breath to relax her quickened heart. "Thanks... for taking a look. Um... can... can we please move away from the forest?"

"Of course, if it scares you."

"Scared... no. I'm not scared! I just... think we should go back and um, see the corn again!"

"Oh, of course. The corn does love company." Lord Barleycorn chuckled as he lifted the hoe like a band leader's baton. "Step lively, onward and upward!"

Corn Crib followed close to Barleycorn's booted feet. Although she tried to appear calm, Corn Crib could not resist staring back at the forest, feeling as if looking away would somehow summon the worst of the horrors that lurked inside the Everfree to the field to devour her.

As if sensing her fear, Barleycorn cleared his throat, "You're terribly quiet Ms. Harvest, have I left you behind?"

Corn Crib looked up at him. With her eyes no longer focusing on the forest she could think again. The bean field next to them was thick, but nothing about it excited her imagination like the forest did. Ahead the farmhouse grew closer, but in this ghostly light it looked sinister, or perhaps this was just because of the mindset she was presently trapped in. She needed a distraction, something else to ponder on, and luckily her companion was just the enigma Corn Crib needed.

"No, I'm right here." Corn Crib tugged on his pant leg with her hoof, calling Lord Barleycorn to stop on the path. "Can I ask you a question?"

"I believe you just did, but you may ask another." He teased, resting the hoe on his shoulder.

"What... are you? You aren't just another scarecrow."

Lord Barleycorn bowed, "What a gracious compliment! You aren't just another pony."

"No, really. What are you-"

A speeding shape suddenly burst out of the thickness of the beans, causing the filly to scream and fly to Lord Barleycorn's side in search of protection. Corn Crib kept her eyes on the retreating animal, seeing it bounce as it fled in the direction of the forest. A huff of embarrassment rose up from Corn Crib's lungs, she was clinging to the scarecrow's leg because of a rabbit.

She did have the chance to observe that his pants were clearly not stuffed with straw, but hid a firm leg of taut, powerful muscle. Corn Crib felt a twinge of red in her own cheeks as she released her companion's leg. Confidant that the bleaching moonlight would hide her rosy cheeks, Corn Crib looked up to Lord Barleycorn, intending to finish her earlier question. That was, until one of those heavy hands fell on her side and began tickling her.

Corn Crib sank to her knees, trying to get away from that blasted hand! Soon the filly was on the side, her laughter interrupted by sharp intakes of air that sounded like snorts.

"You are so adorable!" Lord Barleycorn laughed, finally stopping his torture to let the corn-colored filly get to her hooves. "Your friend."

Corn Crib heaved, still trying to recover her wits. "What?"

"You asked me what I am, and I answered." The scarecrow chuckled, kneeling down beside her, "I'm your friend, and does it really matter beyond that fact?"

"No I guess not... " Corn Crib opened her mouth and let out another yawn.

"Come on, let me get you back to the house. I'll carry you" The tall scarecrow reached up and patted his shoulder for emphasis where to put her hooves.

"I can walk." Corn Crib professed.

"I know you can, but it's more fun this way." Even with that burlap mask, somehow Corn Crib could tell he was smiling for her. "Piggy back rides are a treasure of youth, get as many as you can."

Corn Crib wasn't sure what exactly that last statement meant, but she'd trusted the scarecrow before on the cart. Putting her forehooves over Barleycorn's shoulders, she seated herself on Barleycorn's back.

"Can you carry me and the hoe?" She asked.

Corn Crib felt him shrug. He reached down with one hand and took the farm tool, using it to help steady himself as he rose up on his two feet.

"Easy as pie. You aren't as heavy as that lumbering cart." Lord Barleycorn said, his free hand reaching behind him to push her further up on his back before setting off.

The scarecrow's height had been something that seemed intimidating at one point. Now there was a sense of envy as she felt him shift his weight from one foot to the other. Corn Crib was only able to see over the matured bean rows when she craned her neck and stood on her tips of her hooves. Now she could have batted the tassels of corn if she wanted.

Resting her head on her new friend's shoulder, Corn Crib watched as the farm's rows passed. All the beans seemed to blend into each other in gray-green rows. A sense of wonder and peace settled into the filly's heart, and if not for the shake each time Barleycorn's foot came down Corn Crib would have fallen asleep.

She spied the cornfield across the way, but they were clearly not walking in that direction. Lifting her head, Corn Crib saw the farm house looming over her.

"I thought we were headed to the corn." She said.

"I think it's best if you headed back to bed." Barleycorn nodded toward the house, to the light just inside the door. "And it seems you're sorely missed."

Corn Crib gulped and slunk against the scarecrow's shoulder, trying to hide behind his head. Her father would have her doing chores for a week when she saw she'd snuck out at this hour. When had he noticed? Had her dad been waiting all this time for her to come back in just to scold her?

The front door opened, but the figure that stood on the porch was obscured by the light of the lantern it carried. Corn Crib's night-blinded eyes quickly adjusted to the lantern, and she braced for the inevitable lecture from either of her parents.

"Okay you, I don't know what you are, but what's the big idea stealing from us?" Came the shaky, but angry voice of Leadfoot. "And what was all that screaming I heard?"

The young stallion was on the porch, lantern set aside as he lowered his head in an aggressive posture. His eyes softened suddenly, switching from angry to horrified.

"Corn Crib, what're you doing on that thing's back?" He sputtered, not sure if he should be rushing to attack or hold still on the porch for his sister's safety.

Corn Crib flashed her brother a sheepish grin. "Um... Hi Leadfoot. This is my friend, Lord Barleycorn."


To be continued...

Author's Note:


Okay, I really was tested with this chapter. I rewrote the plot 3 times to avoid typical tropes and to add some actual tension. One plot was actually faaar too close to the tired 'manticore attacks, I'll save you' thing that earns the pony's trust. The other just had no punch at all.

Yes, I knew I'd be using John Barleycorn sooner or later in this story. XD
Proofread by: Maverick Frond

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