Cadance’s saddlebags didn’t fit. They never had, but it especially bothered her today. The strap had harsh edges which left marks on her back, and the bags themselves pinned her wings. Not that she could fly anyway, but it was still uncomfortable. And the fabric was so itchy. There were only so many materials given the remoteness of Woodwind Village, but had hemp really been the best option? Sometimes Cadance wondered whether it had been chosen specifically to irritate her.
Those thoughts weren’t frequent, and she quashed them every time. In truth, she knew she was lucky to have saddlebags at all. They had been a gift from Palm Heart four years ago, once Cadance had grown big enough to carry them. She had been thankful—she still was—but that did little to soothe the rashes. Mercifully, situations that called for saddlebags had been few and far between. Up until recently, at least.
Sighing, Cadance hefted the things over her head and winced as the strap found its groove. She hadn’t even bothered unpacking them since last time. Still, she took one last sweeping glance around the room for anything she might’ve forgotten.
The lone splash of colour came from the bright pink carnation on the bedside table—Cadance called her Belle. She was the only decoration Palm Heart allowed, in case an extra patient needed the space. Her room was otherwise identical to the one across the way. Same ashwood motif. Same clinically white bed. Same cabinet of assorted medical tools. It was every bit function over form—as any infirmary should be.
Cadance grimaced. It may have been a boring room, but it was her boring room. Missing it didn’t make sense—she’d be back in a week anyway. Even so, she knew she would miss it. She always did.
She trotted over and took Belle by the pot, cradling her in the crook of her foreleg. The flower bumped against her muzzle, overwhelming her with fresh spring fragrance. “Don’t worry,” Cadance said. “We aren’t going far.” Whipping her ponytail out of her face, she plodded out of the room and down the hall to the reception area.
Palm Heart sat hunched over her desk, her minty mane hiding half her face. Her spectacled eyes flitted across a gazillion scattered notes, somehow keeping track of everything. “All packed?” she said without looking up.
“I guess so,” Cadance replied. She shuffled her hooves and frowned. “Are you sure I can’t stay? Not even for the weekend? You don’t leave until Monday, right?”
The mare shook her head. “We already talked about this, Cadance. With all my studying, I’ll barely have time to feed myself this weekend, let alone you.”
“I can take care of myself. I’m almost eleven!”
“Not happening.” Palm Heart flipped a page in one of her books. That annoyed Cadance, for some reason. “Besides, I thought you liked staying with Elder.”
“I do,” Cadance said lamely. Any further argument she had got tangled in her throat and fell to her stomach in a cold knot. She scuffed a hoof against the hardwood. “Do you at least have time for breakfast?”
“Not really. I’m sure Elder can make you something.”
“Elder can’t cook.”
“Then go to The Grapevine—Euca always has extra.”
“But she hates me.”
Palm Heart bit the end of her quill. “That’s not true. It’ll do you good to socialize anyway.”
Cadance flattened her ears. “Alright.” Something tickled her chest, like more words were scrambling to escape, but she said nothing. The silence became awkward, so she made for the exit. She pushed aside the thick curtain that served as a door and glanced over her shoulder. “You’ll be there tomorrow though, right?”
“Of course! Wouldn’t miss it.”
Cadance allowed herself a smile. “Okay. See you then.” She took a step outside, but her hooves suddenly felt like stone.
“Oh, and, Cadance?”
“Yes?” she said, a bit too eagerly.
“If you’re playing with Stella this weekend, please keep her out of trouble. The last thing I need is a patient to deal with on top of”—she gestured to the desk at large—“all this.”
The spark in her chest winked out like a candle in a snowstorm. “Sure thing!” Cadance said. She turned to leave, but she stopped short again. With a strong, sharp inhale, she looked back one more time and said, “Um, Palm Heart?”
She bit her lip. “I love you.”
At that, Palm Heart finally looked up. The lines beneath her eyes were darker than Cadance had ever seen them. The mare smiled, peering over her glasses. “I love you too.”
The words touched her like the first sun of spring. Cadance smiled—a real smile. With a bit more bounce in her gait, she trotted out into the sunlit forest.
It was well past dawn, so most everypony would be out and about already. But even at its busiest, Woodwind rarely rose above a murmur, allowing the peculiar treesong for which the forest was named to whisper through. Cadance hummed along with it, carrying on at a lazy trot while she admired the fiery canopy overhead. Every breath brought the humid, earthy smell of fresh rain. She plucked a blackberry from its bush and popped it in her mouth, puckering at the tartness.
The village itself blended seamlessly into the surrounding woodland, making it hard to see and harder to navigate. Even calling it a village was generous; it was more like a collection of scattered campsites loosely connected by proximity. It had taken Cadance much of her life to get used to the various tracks and trails that wove the village together, but now she knew them like the stripes of her mane. And even if she didn’t, firefly lamps hanging from specific trees served as waypoints. Little use to anypony who didn’t know what they meant, but invaluable for getting around quickly—especially at night.
Not that Cadance would know. She and Stella had definitely never snuck out after curfew to watch the orblet frogs glow in the moonlight. Absolutely not.
Cold dew clung to her legs as she maneuvered the underbrush, and a crisp wind made her whole body shiver. She paused to put on her scarf—a tattered, sky blue thing that honestly didn’t do much. Probably because it wasn’t really a scarf at all; Palm Heart had called it a swaddling blanket. But it brought Cadance comfort all the same, and that was good enough.
It took her just a few minutes to arrive at Elder’s Grove. A horned bullfrog croaked as she entered, watching her with mopey eyes from where it squatted atop a lily pad. Elder stood on the far side of the clearing, busy layering an assortment of long, smooth leaves into a pile.
“Hi, Elder!” Cadance called. She set Belle delicately on one of the stones near the pond and splashed some water on her soil.
Slowly, Elder set down the leaves he’d been working with and turned to Cadance. She couldn’t see his smile through the beard, but the wrinkles around his eyes told her it was there. “Ah, you’re just in time,” he said, his voice like sand through an hourglass. “I was hoping you might assist me in preparing this bed. I never can get yours quite right.”
“Absolutely!” Cadance slid off her saddlebags and cantered over, careful not to stomp any of the flowers or mushrooms colouring the grove. She grabbed a few of the longer leaves from Elder’s collection and set about curling them into arches. “I’m sure the way you were doing it was fine, though.”
Elder chuckled. “Dear, if you are to rest here from twilight to dawn, we cannot settle for simply ‘fine.’” He took some leaves himself and followed Cadance’s lead. “Only the best will do for one so sweet.”
Warmth flooded Cadance’s cheeks, and she half-hid behind her mane. “Thank you.”
They worked in silence, weaving the leaves together into a tall circular formation that reminded Cadance of a bird’s nest. When they were done, it reached nearly as high as her chest. She jumped up, and the bed compressed like a downy pillow. She lay down and spread her wings, grinning. “Perfect.”
“Expertly done, my dear. Your keen eye is appreciated, as is your assistance.”
“Anytime,” Cadance said. “Anything else I can help with?”
“Alas, not at the moment.” Elder squinted up at the sky as if trying to read it. “I fear I have spent too long on this chore already. I have errands to run.” He trotted to a nearby bush and began rummaging through its leaves.
Cadance felt her smile slipping, so she forced it back. “Oh, okay! No problem.” She hopped off of the bed—it sprang back with startling force. “I, um, haven’t had breakfast yet, and I was going to ask if you wanted to come with me. But if you’re too busy…”
“Ordinarily I would be delighted.” Elder’s head popped back up, a few tiny leaves and twigs dotting his beard. He held a cloak in his mouth, decorated with the boldest colours of autumn. He draped it over himself and said, “But I’m afraid my duties must take precedence. I am sorry.”
This time, Cadance didn’t have the strength to hold her smile. “It’s fine. I know you’ve got important things to do. You lead the Council for a reason!” She coughed out a laugh.
The look Elder gave her felt like a hug. “Perhaps you could return with a few morsels for us to share later. I’m quite partial to the rose tarts myself.”
One corner of Cadance’s mouth lifted. “Sure. I can do that.”
“Splendid.” He stepped over and ruffled her mane. “I will return before sunset. Be well, young one. May you find comfort in Her shade.”
“Thanks, Elder. You too.” They shared a quick look, then Elder turned and trotted out of the grove. Once she couldn’t see him through the trees, Cadance sighed through her nostrils and deflated like a week-old balloon. She stepped over to the pond and lay down, gazing across the glassy surface.
Her attention flicked to Belle, standing bright and proud in her clay pot. “I don’t suppose you want to get breakfast with me?” Cadance asked.
Belle quivered in the breeze.
“Right. You’re stressed enough from the move. You should probably stay here.” With all the vigor of a mud puddle, Cadance rose to her hooves. “You be safe, okay?”
One of the leaves on Belle’s stem swayed dramatically.
Despite herself, Cadance smirked. “Oh, be quiet.” She gave the pot a gentle tap before strolling back towards the village center.
Cadance didn’t frequent The Grapevine, but she knew the way there by heart. It was difficult not to, given its size and the fact that most every path through Woodwind passed near it at some point. And even before the mess hall came into eyeshot, a honeysuckle-sweet aroma smothered the air, luring ponies in with promises of fresh herbs and warm pastries. As soon as the smell wafted Cadance’s way, her pace doubled—she realized that she actually was pretty hungry.
The clearing opened wide, dominated almost entirely by a mahogany cabin which stood nearly as tall as the surrounding trees. Something fluttered in Cadance’s chest at the sight, and she momentarily considered skipping breakfast altogether. Her stomach growled in protest, so she steeled her nerves and strode onward.
A young couple sat on the side patio in quiet conversation. Both ponies glanced Cadance’s way as she drew closer. She offered a smile and a wave. The older filly returned it—the colt didn’t. That was fine. Cadance didn’t know them all that well anyway.
Pausing in the open entryway, Cadance scanned the inside of the building. The only ponies she saw were two older stallions at the bar—one cleaning glasses, the other occupied with a salt lick. Neither seemed to notice her. Letting out a tense breath, Cadance quietly made for a table in the back corner, next to the in-wall aquarium.
She waited for a good ten minutes, nibbling away at the floral centerpiece and trying to count the guppies and minnows—ten and twelve, respectively. In the midst of counting the snails, her attention was yanked away by the squeal of the kitchen’s batwing doors. A colt a few years her junior beamed her way and galloped over, hopping up in one of the other chairs.
“Hiya, Cadance!” he chirped.
“Hey,” she said, offering her best shot at a grin. “Cocoa Bean, right?”
“Yuppers! Call me Beans though. Everypony else does!”
“Sure. ‘Beans’ it is.”
“Neato!” Beans said. He seemed almost incapable of sitting still, his head bobbing every which way like a windblown poppy. “Whatcha been up to? We haven’t talked in like forever!”
“Oh, you know… stuff.”
“I like stuff! What kinda stuff?”
“Uh, mainly school. Sometimes other stuff.”
“Cool! My mom homeschools me. Anyway are you here alone?”
Cadance stiffened and made some vaguely affirmative sound.
“Great!” Beans said, going a bit starry-eyed. “I mean, um, do you want some company? Mom and Oak can prob’ly handle stuff without me for a little while.”
“No thanks,” Cadance stammered. “It’s, um… Thanks for the offer, but I have somewhere to be soon, so I’ll just get you to take my order if that’s okay.”
“Sure! No problem!” The colt fixed his unblinking gaze on her.
Just as Cadance went to speak, the kitchen door flew open. A wiry mare stood there, her bloodshot eyes cutting through Cadance. The filly withered.
“Cocoa Bean!” said Miss Eucalyptus, her voice like thin parchment—mostly delicate, but sharp on the edges. She hurried over and ushered Beans out of his chair. “You know better.”
“No buts. Back in the kitchen, young colt.” Beans clamored to escape her grasp, but she managed to push him back through the doors and out of sight. She quickly made to follow.
Cadance swallowed hard. “Excuse me,” she squeaked.
Miss Eucalyptus paused. She gave the filly a glacial stare over her shoulder. “Yes?”
“Could I, um, maybe get some oatmeal? And some rose tarts to-go? Please?”
The mare whisked a notepad and charcoal from her apron pouch. She scribbled something down and turned away, vanishing into the kitchen.
Heat threatening to boil her eyes, Cadance nearly got up and left right then. Miss Eucalyptus wouldn’t care, and she could go find some wild berries or flowers for breakfast instead. But something kept her hooves from moving. Maybe she had already committed too far. Maybe she would feel like an idiot walking out after that. Maybe she was just really hungry. She didn’t quite know, but she felt compelled to stay. She hid partly beneath the table and tucked behind her scarf, flicking her focus back to the aquarium. She couldn’t see the snails from this low, so she started counting the guppies again.
Some time later, the kitchen doors creaked open. Oak Leaf—Beans’ older brother—came out balancing a tray of food on one hoof and clutching a paper bag in his teeth.
Cadance’s heart briefly forgot its rhythm. She sat up straight and ran a fidgety hoof through her mane. She caught herself staring into Oak’s eyes—they reminded her of hot chocolate—so she dropped her gaze to the table, intensely analyzing the wood grain.
A dry crinkle sounded as the bag hit the table. “Sorry for the wait. Had to cook up some fresh oats.” A pause. “Cadance?”
She looked up into his puzzled face. “Sorry! Just admiring the furniture, aha.” She ran a hoof across the table, clenching her teeth when a rogue splinter stabbed her. “Smooth! Did you make them yourself?”
The colt shook his head, his verdant bangs swaying hypnotically. “My dad.” He slid the oatmeal off the tray. “Hey, you okay?”
“Of course!” She smiled—probably too wide. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Oak scratched the back of his head. “My mom. She thinks… well, I dunno what she thinks, but I know she can be a little…” His mouth twisted like he was chewing on something. “Harsh. ‘Specially with you.”
Cadance’s wings got itchy. She shuffled them, but it didn’t help. “It’s fine. I understand.”
The colt chuckled. “Makes one of us. You sure you’re alright though? You seem kinda rattled.”
“Never better!” It felt like a taut rope had ensnared her chest. “Just, uh, hungry.”
The smile Oak gave sent sparks through Cadance’s everything. “Well, don’t let me keep you.” He plopped the empty tray on his back and trotted for the kitchen. “Enjoy the food!”
“You too!” she blurted, and it was all she could do not to curl up and die.
Once Oak was beyond view, Cadance shrank into her chair and let out an inaudible sigh. Her eyes followed the turbulent swirls of steam rising from the oatmeal. Dull ringing filled her ears, and everything else faded. The heat in her face didn’t cool for quite some time.
Eventually she worked up the nerve to start eating. In her mind she knew that the meal tasted fine, but she couldn’t remotely remember the flavour once she’d finished it. The food settled in her stomach like a heavy coal, and she absently picked at the little globs still clinging to the bowl. Once the dish was entirely empty, she grabbed the bag of tarts and left without a word.
The next few hours melted away in Elder’s Grove. She spent the majority of the time in idle conversation with Belle. Frankly, every conversation with Belle was pretty idle—her being a flower and all. But talking on its own made Cadance feel a bit lighter.
She lay on her bed for a while, too. The harmony of crickets and cicadas rolled in time with the treesong, lulling her into half-sleep. When her eyes opened again, she spent an inordinate amount of time watching a lone bumblebee lazily fly among the purple irises. A second bee joined eventually, and Cadance’s focus broke.
Looking skyward, the sun was nearing its high point. Cadance stretched her limbs and started back through the village towards Stella’s. The path she took was longer than it needed to be, but it steered well clear of The Grapevine. Woodwind was small anyway, so the detour didn’t add more than a few minutes to her trip.
She followed the lanterns dotting the trail and eventually arrived at a cozy cottage built mostly of birchwood and moss, tucked snugly against an oak tree. Cadance smiled as she trotted up the familiar steps to the door and knocked three times.
“One moment, please!” came a subdued voice—likely Miss Willow, Stella’s mom. A few muffled noises came from within before the door opened. At first Cadance couldn’t see Miss Willow’s face behind her long, wavy bangs. The mare looked down and swept her mane to the side. “Oh, good afternoon, dear.”
“Hi, Miss Willow!” Cadance said. “Is Stella home?”
Miss Willow’s mouth went a little crooked. “She is, but I’m afraid we weren’t expecting you just yet. She’s still busy with her homework, you see, and—”
“Izzat Cadance?” Stella called, followed by her signature gallop. She pushed past Miss Willow and leapt the threshold, her eyes brimming with energy. “Finally! I could feel my brain melting. So many words.” She shuddered. “You ready?”
“Now, Constellation,” Miss Willow said, a suggestion of authority in her voice. “We talked about this, remember? No playing until your homework is done.”
Stella rolled her eyes. “Come on, Willow! I’ve got all weekend to finish. I’ll just do it tomorrow.”
Miss Willow frowned. Her eyes had a way of making frowns look twice as sad. “I don’t know, Constellation. You’ve missed quite a few assignments already. I don’t think Olive will be too pleased if you miss another. And we already have plans tomorrow.” She turned a soft smile on Cadance, which the filly mirrored.
“Then I’ll do it the day after. ‘Sides, it’s more of a ‘marks-for-effort’ assignment anyway—it’s not even hard.” Stella whipped around and rammed her muzzle against Cadance’s, grinning with all her teeth. “And I found this super cool place the other day that I gotta show you guys. C’mon!” She tore off into the woods like a feral jackrabbit. Cadance nearly got swept away in her wake, but she glanced over her shoulder first.
Miss Willow had one of her hooves extended after Stella, and her jaw hung halfway open. Her leg went limp and her mouth creased in a thin line. She turned to Cadance and said, “Go on, dear. Just try to get her back before dinnertime, okay?”
Cadance went to reply, but she got cut off by a cry of, “Caaadaaance!” She settled for a smile and a nod before running to catch up.
Stella stood beneath the closest lantern tree, tapping her hoof idly. She met Cadance’s eyes and smirked before tearing off. “Thanks for getting me out of there. I’ve been dying to get back outside.”
“No problem!” Cadance called. She had to pound her hooves hard and fast to keep up with Stella. “But how are you not done the homework yet? Didn’t we get that assignment two days ago?”
Stella blew a raspberry. “Sorry if I’m not super passionate about the differences between the Maretonian and Equestrian water cycles.” She grabbed a tree and swung into a sharp left turn. “Now let’s pick up Asp so we can get going!”
Cadance’s hooves skidded through the wet dirt as she struggled to follow. Her chest burned with each breath. “Isn’t he training today? His dad probably won’t be happy if we interrupt.”
“Is his dad ever happy?”
Cadance grimaced. “Point taken. Still, I doubt he’ll let Aspen go just like that.”
“We just gotta phrase it right. Let me do the talking.”
“Always do,” Cadance said between heavy breaths. Sweat stung her eyes as she started to lose pace.
Stella shot a look over her shoulder and slowed to a canter. “Sorry. Sometimes I forget how slow you are.”
Smirking, Cadance replied, “Maybe you’re just too fast.”
“Why not both?” The fillies giggled.
Before long, they were careening past Aspen’s house towards his backyard. Aspen didn’t have a huge family, but their house loomed large—just barely smaller than The Grapevine. Cadance had never been inside. She wondered what they used all the extra space for, but she’d never asked.
A vast marshland hid behind the house. Tall grass and cattails obscured much of it, and rivulets of muddy water ran all throughout. The fillies pushed their way through, the stench of peat moss hanging all around them. Straw dummies of varying shapes and sizes poked out of the grass like creatures in ambush. The fillies navigated the brush until they broke through to a mildly clearer patch in the marsh’s center.
Aspen and his father, Mister Poplar, were crouched low near some bushes, facing away. A huge, spider-shaped dummy lurked on the far side.
“Remember, White,” Mister Poplar said, his voice like rolling thunder, “you must always be aware of your surroundings. Stay silent. Stay vigilant. Be in complete control.”
“Right. Vigilant. Control,” Aspen said. The intensity of his voice didn’t match his face.
“For instance, did you notice the two ponies approaching from behind?”
Cadance froze. Stella didn’t.
Aspen’s face went sour. “I, uh… no?” He stood up and turned around. Cadance offered a sheepish smile.
With a tired sigh, Mister Poplar rose and glared at the fillies—to be fair, Cadance had scarcely seen him do anything but glare. “I hope you two have a good reason for interrupting our regimen.”
“Sure do!” Stella said. “Cadance and I were just down at the Book Knoll getting in some extra study time, and Miss Olive Branch told us to come fetch Asp. Said something about an extra credit assignment.”
New light filled Aspen’s eyes. “Can I go, Dad? I-I promise I’ll come back and finish training right after!”
Mister Poplar’s hawkish eyes squinted at Stella, then burned into Cadance. For her part, Cadance gave a brittle smile and hoped her nervous sweat would go unnoticed in her actual sweat. “How long will this assignment take?” he asked.
“A couple hours,” Stella said. “Tops.”
His glare lingered on Cadance for a few moments before he turned to his son. “Be back in no less than three hours. If you aren’t, I’ll come get you myself. Understood?”
“Loud and clear,” Aspen said. “Thanks, Dad!” He cantered over to join the fillies, and the group started in the direction of the Book Knoll.
Cadance chanced a look over her shoulder and said, “Thank you, Mister Poplar!” The stallion answered with a look that made Cadance hope for the earth to open up and swallow her. She darted into the tall grass ahead.
Aspen fell into step beside her. “So how in the hay did you convince Stella to put in extra study time? Since I know it wasn’t her idea, heh.”
Cadance pulled a breath through her teeth. “Well…”
The glimmer in Aspen’s eyes waned. “There… is no extra credit assignment, is there?”
“Duh!” Stella pushed between the two of them and wrapped an arm around each. “I just needed an excuse to show my best friends something super-ultra amazing! Plus it has the side effect of getting you out of training. No need to thank me.”
Somehow, Aspen’s white face went even paler. “But… w-what if my dad comes looking for me and I’m not there? Can’t this wait?”
“Definitely not.” Stella released her hold on them and trotted a small ways ahead. “This is by far the coolest thing I’ve ever found.”
Cadance rolled her eyes. “You say that literally every time.”
“But this time I’m serious!”
“You say that every time too,” Aspen added.
“Well, this time I’m seriously serious.” The group emerged from the tall grass and Stella led them hard left, out towards the deep woods. “And it’s only like an hour trot. We’ll be there and back before anypony knows we’re gone.”
“An hour?” Cadance balked. “Won’t that take us past the boundary?”
“Elder says that it’s not safe past the boundary.” Cadance cantered to catch up. “Mother Elm can’t protect us there.”
“Ha!” Stella whirled around to face her, trotting backwards. One of her eyebrows arched, and a devilish smile played on her lips. “You don’t really believe all that Mother Elm stuff, do you? Next you’ll tell me the bandersnatch is gonna gobble us up.”
Aspen visibly tensed. “I hope not.”
Stella faced forward and nimbly hopped a root. “Those’re just old mare’s tales he uses to keep us from wandering too far. Ponies come and go from the village all the time and don’t get hurt. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Cadance frowned. “I guess so.”
“I know so! I’ve already been out there once by myself, and I’m still here, yeah?”
“What if Olive tells?” Aspen blurted. “Like, if my mom or dad asks about the assignment. What then?”
“Relax, Asp,” Stella said. She fell back to the middle of the group and nudged him with her shoulder. “Olive’s cool! We’ll fill her in later. ‘Sides, we might actually get extra credit for this! It’s, like, historically significant. Probably.”
Aspen narrowed his eyes. “Where exactly are you taking us?”
“You’ll have to wait and see!”
It wasn’t much longer before the trio stood at the edge of the three-hoof trench marking the village boundary. A tall wooden pole had been jammed in the earth just beyond the border, topped by a firefly lantern. Cadance gazed warily past it. Nothing about the deep forest looked any different, but her coat bristled all the same.
Stella didn’t even stop. “Come on! The sooner you guys follow, the sooner we’ll be back.”
“This feels wrong,” Aspen whispered, eyeing the ground.
“I know what you mean,” Cadance said. “But Stella did do this by herself, apparently.”
Bracing herself, Cadance made the leap. Aspen followed suit. They rushed to catch up with Stella. “What’s the worst that could happen?” Cadance said. She wasn’t sure if the question was rhetorical.